Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Chancellor fails to boost confidence

The UK chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne gave his autumn statement Tuesday and painted a bleak picture concerning the state of the British economy [BBC - Key points / Full statement PDF]. His address before parliament did little to boost confidence in the country where austerity measures are already biting hard and the slowdown of the economy is costing families an average of £920 more per year. Sir Mervyn King, the Governor of the Bank of England, has already warned that growth has been heavily affected by domestic problems as well as the European debt crisis. And with public strikes planned over the coming weeks it looks like a bleak winter of discontent ahead. 

Small businesses squeezed

One main focus is the small business which has been severely affected by the current economic crisis. While many small businesses and sole traders are trying to pay off their current debts, those that are seeking financial help are finding it increasingly difficult to obtain loans from banks. "They don't want to lend money to small businesses," one frustrated owner of a struggling manufacturer told Sky News.

More austerity measures

Chief Economist at Standard Chartered, Gerard Lyons speaking on Sky News said that unemployment, particularly amongst the youth, need to be tackled. But the problems being experienced by Britain weren't all of the government's making. "He didn't have much room for manoeuvre" after "inheriting the debt crisis" from the previous administration, Lyons said.

Opposition leader Ed Miliband, avoided the issue of his party being to blame for the current crisis, and called on the coalition government to cut VAT, boost employment and get borrowing down over the medium term. "His plan has failed," Miliband insisted.

Sky News correspondent Adam Bolton speculated that austerity measures were likely to last at least two years. On the BBC there were some slightly upbeat reports with some success stories in Merseyside. But here too, business owners were asking for credit easing and help with getting credit.

Helping small businesses

Amongst plans to help boost the UK economy the chancellor spoke of helping smaller businesses. In order to make Britain more competitive George Osborne also announced plans to build the country's infrastructure, rolling out schemes for new roads, bridges and broadband Internet connections.

He committed to the capping of public transport fares at 1% above RPI and limiting fuel duty to 3 pence. But he failed to bring relief for thousand of owners of vans, 4x4s and lorries who face being pushed off the road this coming January when London implements the next phase of the Low Emission Zone.

Thousands affected by LEZ

There is little more than a month left until new Low Emission Zone [LEZ] is introduced, and new research by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders [SMMT] indicates that of the 3.57 million vans on UK roads at the end of 2010, some 31.1% were not eligible for London's new LEZ that comes into effect on 3 January 2012.

More surprising is the fact that London exceeded the national average with 37% of vans, almost 85,000, not meeting the emission standards.

Many of these vans belong to sole traders and small businesses who can ill afford to replace them, or even buy a diesel particulate filter which can cost in excess of £1,500, sometimes more than the value of the vehicle itself.

Advocates of the LEZ maintain that Londoners would see cleaner air and that those that upgrade to a new vehicle would see savings in fuel consumption. "It's not only emissions that improve when owners and operators upgrade, fuel efficiency also gets better, returning real-world benefits on top of the LEZ savings," Paul Everitt, SMMT Chief Executive, says [SMMT].

Economic cost

But a slight improvement in air quality will come at a cost to the economy as small business fold. In the current economic crisis many smaller businesses are already struggling. While some may already be facing difficulty paying off debts, the role out of the LEZ has thrown another financial burden to companies that are finding it difficult to obtain credit.

A struggling businesses will have great difficulty persuading banks to increase loans for a new vehicle, and sole traders may face even more problems in getting financial help.

Even taking the cheaper option of having a filter fitted will be costly. While the vehicle may pass a required emissions test, there is no guarantee. And a failure would be a death knell to those forking out for such modifications. Filters may make a vehicle compliant but it may also create further problems for vehicle owners.

Filter reduces efficiency

Diesel Particulate Filters [DPF] is an exhaust filter designed to reduce particle matter from the environment. The DPF is a system consisting of a filter and a complex monitoring and maintenance system, to keep the filter operating correctly. The filter itself is made of a special catalyst which, the exhaust from the engine is forced through, before leaving the tail pipe.

The filter collects the particle matter. As the matter accumulates exhaust pressure builds up behind the filter. The vehicle computer monitors the pressure, and when it determines the filter is clogged it injects raw diesel fuel into the exhaust system. Which ignites in the filter and re-gens or burns the particulate matter out. This re-gen cleaning cycle happens from every 160-500 km and lasts from 15-45 minutes. This re-gen cleaning cycle, only happens when vehicle is at speeds above 45 mph.

Using such a filter can reduce engine power because of the restriction in the exhaust caused by the filter. Furthermore in can reduce fuel economy, because of lower engine performance, and wasted fuel used in re-gen. Increased wear and tear can result, caused by soot backing up into the turbo and EGR [Exhaust Gas Recirculation] and diesel in the oil. During re-gen fuel is injected into the engine during the exhaust stroke and small amounts of this fuel leaks past the piston and into the engine oil, thus diluting the oil. This in turn reduces the oil's ability to lubricate the engine properly, causing extra wear and reducing engine life, though this might be prevented by replacing the oil after every 1600 km [StayMobile].

Carbon footprints

Aside the arguments concerning financial cost, the LEZ will do very little to improve the environment. The fitting of a filter which makes a vehicle less economical and reduces the life of the engine, is hardly an attractive offer, especially given the cost of having it fitted. And on the face of it, such a proposal is far from green.

There might be a small boost to manufacturers of filters, but the carbon footprint left behind by retro-fitted vehicles using more fuel is questionably higher than if they had not been adapted.

The carbon footprint of scrapping an otherwise perfectly good vehicle to be replaced by another new vehicle is also questionable.

London's air quality is exceedingly good, especially compared to other cities around the world. Even the LondonAir website which publishes hourly figures concerning air pollution in the capital, rarely measures above 'Low' levels of pollution. So for owners of small trucks and vans the new restrictions will seem all the more unfair.

In broad terms the chancellor's proposals at dealing with the economy weren't as bad as many had speculated. Although there is relief for some groups, the country is likely to feel significantly poorer in the coming months. But some individuals and companies will be harder hit than others. Of course it could be a lot worse with Mervyn King warning of a disaster should the Eurozone collapse. "What we have to do is to be ready and prepared with contingency plans and to make sure that as far as possible our banking system is as robust as possible to withstand whatever shocks that come from the Eurozone," King said Monday [Bloomberg]. Osborne, too warned of the shock to the economy if Europe failed [BBC]. European leaders Angela Merkel and Nicholas Sarkozy are resolved not to let that happen as they struggle to keep the member states together. But this week all eyes were on Britain.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Friday, November 25, 2011

Confusion over cyberattack on US water plant

Federal investigators have concluded that a burned out pump at an Illinois water treatment facility was not caused by foreign hacking, the Department of Homeland Security said Tuesday.

Illinois hit the headlines in America last Friday after it was suggested that the water plant may have been the subject of a cyberattack originating from Russia. But the denials have raised more questions than answers in the cyber security community.

Initial reports

CNN was just one of a number of broadcasters which ran with the story, and asked whether electricity, gas and telecommunications infrastructure was safe from hackers [CNN video].

Writing on his blog on Thursday 17th November, Joe Weiss, a noted cyber security expert, had disclosed the possible cyberattack claiming he had obtained an STIC [State Terrorism & Intelligence Center] report detailing a possible intrusion. The report, dated November 10th and titled "Public Water District Cyber Intrusion," gave details of the alleged cyberattack culminating in the "burnout of a water pump." [The Verge]

"No malicious traffic"

But one week on, the Department of Homeland Security [DHS] and the FBI said the failure was not due to a cyberattack. In an emailed statement to news organisations, DHS spokesman Chris Ortman said, "DHS and FBI have concluded that there was no malicious traffic from Russia or any foreign entities, as previously reported."

Another DHS cybersecurity official, who spoke privately because he was not authorized to give interviews, said that while the company had some "pretty good logs" [of traffic in its system] there were likely to be "many reasons for a motor or pump to burn out." [MSNBC / CNET]

Texas plant also investigated

However the Illinois plant was not the only facility being investigated. US investigators said they were looking into claims that a hacker broke into computers at a Texas water system. The investigation was prompted after a hacker who goes by the handle "pr0f" had published schematic diagrams that appeared to be of facilities from the South Houston water system on a website known as sometime on Friday [18th November]. Shauna Dunlap, a special agent with the FBI's Houston Division, said on Tuesday that the DHS was also assisting with the investigation.

Security concerns

Cybersecurity experts have warned for years that parts of the US critical infrastructure, particularly water and electrical plants, have only rudimentary defences against hackers. The important Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition [SCADA] systems which operate the plants is the focus of investigators. And cyber experts are advising companies to boost their security.

Stewart Baker, a cyber expert and DHS veteran, says that many companies often left default user names and passwords in place when they bought software, leaving their systems wide open to hackers.

While the FBI and DHS have said hackers were not involved in the Illinois incident, utility companies should not be complacent, Weiss and others warn. In his 17th of November blogpost, Weiss outlines a number of key concerns. Even following the denial by the FBI and DHS concerning hacking claims, Weiss maintains that a number of issues still need to be addressed. In a blogpost published 22nd November, Weiss says information needs to be disseminated in a more timely manner and that security still needs to be tightened.

Contradictory reports

Weiss also raises the question concerning contradictory reports being disseminated by authorities. The "DHS statement released recently appears to conflict with the STIC report and its positive statements that an event had occurred," Weiss says. "This begs the question why two government agencies disagree over whether a cyber event that damaged equipment had occurred at a water utility."

There will be some skepticism and confusion in the cyber security community due to the contradictory reports. Some may not even be aware of the dismissal by authorities concerning the case. Reports of the alleged hacking gained far more attention than the denial. While CNN reported on the apparent cyberattack, there was no prominent follow up report. The BBC, AFP and a number of other websites did publish the story, but many may well have missed it. As such there may be many who still believe Russian hackers attacked a US water plant. True or not, cyberattacks need to be taken seriously, and individuals and companies need to bolster their security to counter the very real threat.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Safety concerns after wind rips through Beijing airport

Beijing International Airport is open for business again after high winds ripped a hole in the roof of the iconic building. But the incident has once again raised concerns over health and safety in China's infrastructure.

The incident occurred at around 20:30 local time on Tuesday as winds tore a hole in the roof and sent debris over a wide area. Passengers said they saw white and yellow foam flying through the air outside Terminal 3.

"Though I stood pretty far away, I could see a part of the roof was torn open," one passenger told the China Daily. "The white foam composite was everywhere, even on the runway."

Designed by British architect Norman Foster and Beijing Architectural Design and Research Institute, T3 was opened in 2008. And there are concerns that design floors might exist. Foster was also behind the design of the Millennium Bridge in London which itself had to undergo modifications after it was found to oscillate wildly when opened to pedestrians.

Authorities said the damage occurred during gusts of wind in excess of 85 km/h, but was repaired quickly and flights on Wednesday were not disrupted.

It is the second such incident to strike the terminal. Last December gusts of around 87 km/h were responsible for tearing holes in two parts of the roof. About 200 square metres of the 320,000 square metre roof was damaged.

According to reports, more than 200 delayed and 28 flights were cancelled following Tuesday's incident, though authorities said heavy snow in other parts of the country contributed to the delays.

Ding Jiangang, deputy head of the capital airport's expansion project command, is on record as saying the roof at Beijing's main airport was well able to withstand wind speeds far in excess of those seen in Tuesday's or last December's incidents. And others involved in the design insist that the structural design is not flawed.

Shao Weiping, executive chief architect of Beijing Architectural Design and Research Institute, said, "While architects designed the general look of T3, suppliers made special designs to make sure the metal panels used on the roof could resist strong winds." Weiping who had a role in designing T3, said, "The metal roof technology used to build T3 was a mature one that has stood tests for more than 20 years." 

However he raised concerns that a quality-related issue may be to blame. Some Chinese media has also suggested the rush to complete the airport for the 2008 Olympics may also have compromised safety.

While the damage was relatively minor, it will once again raise some difficult questions for authorities following a spate of incidents this year blamed on poor maintenance or shoddy construction.

In July this year an 11 year old boy died and several others were injured after an escalator on a Beijing subway suddenly went into reverse [tvnewswatch]. And only days later 40 people were killed in a high speed train crash [tvnewswatch / Wikipedia].

Further reports: WSJ / China Daily / Southcn [Chinese] / Nanyang [Chinese]

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Google Wave to join list of retired products

This morning Google Wave users received an email informing them that the service will be shut down soon and that any 'Waves' in their account should be downloaded.

Google Wave which started life in 2009 was hung out to dry within 3 months of its public release in May 2010 with the search giant ending support for the site, though there was no official statement as to whether the service would be closed altogether. But today Google has finally announced it will pull the plug on the platform which was billed as email reinvented [BBC].

Long list of dead products

It is not the only service that is being retired however. Earlier this year Google Power Meter was closed and Google Health is set to be closed in January 2012. Knol, Google Gears and Google Friends Connect will also join an ever growing list of failed Google projects. Google Bookmarks List, a service which allowed users to share bookmarks with friends, will also be dumped because they did not have the "impact" the company had hoped for.

Google said in a blogpost that its aim is "to build a simpler, more intuitive, truly beautiful Google user experience", however there are concerns amongst some observers that the strategy might discourage users from signing up to new services.

"cooking spaghetti"

The company has come under criticism from some of its major rivals recently with Microsoft accusing the company of failing to properly support its customers. In a blogpost entitled "Google Graveyard Spooks Customers," Tom Rizzo, director of Microsoft Office 365, said, "Google's product management process is like cooking spaghetti… Its products are like spaghetti, Google throws them up against the wall to see if they stick."

"In attempting to speed products to market, Google has rolled out poorly planned products and racked up a long list of failures," Rizzo said,  who doubts Google's commitment to its new baby Google+.

No clear vision

With Wave, Buzz and Aardvark all retired, Rizzo suggests the future of Google+ is shaky at best. "In cancelling this group of social media-like services, it is clear that Google is not in tune with the market needs and does not have a product roadmap and clear vision for productivity for their business customers," he says.

"Given the lack of proper IT safeguards, I just can't see how a business can take the risk of using Google tools…The burials of de-supported products are more examples of what is convenient for Google and not good for business…If I were running a business using web-based productivity tools from Google, learning about their discontinuation of support for older browsers would make my hair stand on end." [Telegraph / Technet /]


There have already been concerns from some who use Picasa Web to store photos online after Google tied the service into Google+. Google has changed the way folders or pictures may be shared with others if people have adopted Google+, and name tagging automatically posts the picture to Google+, making other photos in the same folder accessible to the person tagged.

Some Google Health users are equally annoyed that they will no longer be able to use the online service. While some never signed up due to privacy concerns, the site enabled people to track their medical history and share with doctors if necessary. Ironically Google suggests Microsoft's Health Vault as an alternative for users who wish to store their medical data online.

Google Video users were forced to transfer their content to YouTube, or download their videos, after the company decided to shut down that part of its empire last year.

While users of Gmail and Google Docs might feel secure, for now, the latest series of retirements do raise some worries over what Google will dump next.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Muddy Waters website hacked in likely revenge attack

The website of Muddy Waters LLC, a research firm headed by short-seller Carson Block has been brought down by hackers a day after Block accused Chinese advertising firm Media Focus Holding Ltd. of overstating the number of LCD advertising screens it had [Financial Post].

Muddy Waters has criticised several Chinese companies this year, accusing them of cooking their books and misleading investors. One of the firms targeted is Sino-Forest, a Chinese-Canadian forestry firm which is continuing to deal with the fallout after being accused of overstating its forestry holdings earlier this year. In June, the company released highly critical report on Sino-Forest, which resulted in the company's stock value nosediving [Financial Post].

While there is no immediate word on who hacked Muddy Waters' website there will be strong suspicions that it is a revenge attack after Focus Media's stock fell 39% yesterday following the critical report released by the research firm [Business Insider].

As for Muddy Waters themselves they have only acknowledged the hack via message on their website which reads: "MW regrets that our site has been hacked. We will bring it up as soon as possible. FMCN [Focus Media Holding Limited] is still a Strong Sell" [CNBC / WSJ].

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Balancing economy while tackling city pollution

No major city in the world is free of pollution of some kind. Even cities like Amsterdam which are reliant on trams, buses and bicycles have the feint smells of exhaust fumes wafting through the air. However some cities are more heavily shrouded in a chemical cloud than others and what my be acceptable in one location is considered unacceptable elsewhere. But tackling pollution can come at a bigger cost to the economy, pricing motorists off the road and taxing businesses into the ground.

Tightening regulations

In many European cities local authorities have tightened regulations over the past few years in an attempt to reduce particle and chemical emissions. In London, for instance, the so-called congestion charge was implemented in order to dissuade motorists from entering the city, thus cutting pollution. While some have argued that the congestion charge is little more than an extra tax on motorists, environmental campaigners maintain the policy has helped reduce pollution levels.

And further restrictions are on their way. In January 2012 many older diesel vehicles will be forced off the road unless their owners fit special filters costing up to £2,500. The Low Emission Zone extends beyond central London to all the surrounding boroughs and is an attempt to reduce pollution further still. While applauded by environmentalists, the new law is seen as overkill especially given London's low pollution levels.

Differing standards

The London Air website publishes hourly readings of pollution levels across the metropolis. The site, run by King's College, uses data picked up fro monitoring stations all over London. Levels rarely exceed what is considered 'Low', the effects of which it says "are unlikely to be noticed even by individuals who know they are sensitive to air pollutants". There have been occasional 'Moderate' readings however. In November this year PM10 particulate levels reached a level considered to have "mild effects" on some individuals but was "unlikely to require action".

Such readings might raise some anxiety in a city where pollution is relatively low. But London's pollution levels are nothing compared to some cities in the world.

Smog or fog?

London has been shrouded in fog in recent days, disrupting flights and making driving difficult. Beijing too has been covered in an opaque blanket of mist in the past few days. But Beijing is not experiencing wintry weather conditions. This is not fog, as some might think looking across the city landscape. This is a smog of chemical pollution which environmentalists in the west would only have nightmares about.

The local government also measures the pollution levels which it publishes daily on its website. Just as in London it uses a PM10 scale. In the past 30 days the Ministry of Environment measured readings ranging between 27, which it rates as 'Excellent', and 147 described as 'Minor Contamination'. However the latter conditions do not tally with reading posted by the US Embassy via its @BeijingAir Twitter feed. Using monitoring equipment installed on the roof of the US Embassy in Beijing, there is a marked difference between data published by the  Beijing Municipal Environmental Monitoring Center (BMEMC) and @BeijingAir. In the past month the US monitoring system has measured pollution levels way above what ever be acceptable in Europe of the US. Despite using a slightly different system where it measures smaller particles, the discrepancy between official data and the US data is more than a little concerning [CNN].

Hazardous Air

The BMEMC measured recent levels of pollution at 147 and described the air quality as 'Minor Contamination'. However, the USA Embassy saw levels exceeding its cut-off point of 500 and describing the air as 'Hazardous'.

In fact over the past two months the number of Hazardous air days has increased dramatically. And even on days where pollution levels drop to a mere 'Unhealthy', it is more than noticeable. In fact some Foreign doctors suggest that breathing Beijing's air is as damaging to the lungs as smoking one packet of cigarettes every day. An exaggeration perhaps? Maybe, but when you find yourself gagging on some days in the heavy smog that hangs over the city, you wonder if they have a point.

Most industrial countries and the World Health Organization believe PM2.5 is a more accurate standard of measuring air quality than PM10 used by China. Britain also uses the PM10 system while the US employ the PM2.5 scale. And there are also differences in how thew readings are interpreted and scaled. As such it makes it difficult to make exact comparisons.

While it may be easy to compare the readings from the US monitoring station in Beijing to one in the United States, it is not so easy to make a comparison with reading taken in London or elsewhere. In Britain only a simple rating is published ranging from 1 to 10. There is associated PM data, though it is not published along with the posted readings. Nevertheless, even on a superficial level it is clear that pollution levels are much worse in Beijing than those seen in European cities.

But poor air quality is not confined to Beijing. Many other towns and cities across China are often saturated in heavy smog, and other Asian cities are also becoming heavily polluted.

New Delhi on par with Beijing

India's capital, New Delhi, is now considered to be more polluted that even Beijing according to recent reports. A blog published in the New York Times this week says that pollution levels have reached 'Hazardous' levels at times, though locally they are described as 'Very Poor' by India's own Ministry of Earth Sciences.

The cause of the pollution is attributed to vehicles in the most part. But industry and coal burning power stations also contribute significantly to the levels of particulates which hang in the air. China has made attempts to reduce its pollution levels by closing power stations near to the capital and of applying restrictions on vehicles. Local climatic conditions are also a factor.

Green initiatives affect economy

Tackling rising pollution levels is not easy, especially for developing economies. Placing restrictions on transportation, public or private, can impact dramatically on the local economy. As motorists are priced off the road with so-called green taxes placed on fuel pollution levels may well fall. However, businesses can also go bust as deliveries and transportation becomes more expensive, competitiveness decreases and even the customer base dries up.

Even in London where pollution levels are relatively low, restrictions placed on vehicles have had a marked impact on business across the capital. The cost of parking, the creation of 'red routes' where parking is prohibited, the congestion charge and the rising cost of fuel has dissuaded many from entering London to shop.

Low Emission Zone

The onset of the Low Emission Zone is likely to have an effect too as many small business fold. Owners of vans, 4x4s and small lorries may be forced out of business unless they either purchase new vehicles or have expensive filters fitted. The road haulers association has been particularly vocal in their opposition to the LEZ which it says will force the closure of some businesses [ / Daily Mail].

For some there are few choices. Replacing an old vehicle is cost prohibitive. Selling the vehicle would raise very little capital towards the purchase of an LEZ compliant vehicle, and even the fitting of a filter may be too expensive to consider. For firms and individuals with a small turnover the LEZ could be the death knell. With much of Europe and Britain already on the cusp of another recession, businesses are already struggling. Further taxes on the motorist will only make things worse for many families and businesses.

While attempts to cut pollution levels is laudable, it comes at a price to the economy. It is unlikely to get any better as environmentalists push for further restrictions. And with the price of public transport rising too, retail businesses will face an even harder time attracting customers from afar.

Consensus required

Governments and environmental bodies need to strike a balance over what is acceptable. There also needs to be agreement on how pollution is measured and what levels pose a risk. The different systems employed around the world makes the understanding of the true pollution risk difficult to determine. As such a standard needs to be set, such as a PM2.5 for everyone, with agreed definitions as to what levels pose a risk to health. On this basis, just goals and restrictions might be set, as opposed to apparent arbitrary ones.

While no-one is comfortable with the pollution levels in China's capital, if the stringent rules applied to London were suddenly imposed there, Beijing's economy would likely grind to a halt. Of course London should not return to the days when it was shrouded in pea-soupers. But a middle ground needs to be struck. Pricing the motorist off the road may make the air a little cleaner, but it will do nothing for the ailing economy.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Google Music still US only despite revamp

Google this week revamped its online music portal allowing users to buy and even share music online. Online music access is one area where Google faces significant challenges from already well established players.


Apple and Amazon both provide the facility to buy and download music as well as store it in the cloud. There are also several online portals which provide streaming music such as Pandora, Jango and Spotify.

At present Apple and Amazon may not yet be quaking in their boots. Google has only managed to acquire the blessing from three of the four top record labels, Universal Music Group, EMI, and Sony Music Entertainment, as well as a number of independent bands. It has failed thus far to make a deal with Warner. But Google Music is a serious challenge to both the top two players in a number of respects.

Google Music began life in beta, which was by invite only. Users could upload up to 20,000 songs and listen to them online via any web connected device. Now the company are offering more than 13 million songs ranging from 69 cents up to $1.29 which can be bought through the Android Market.

For emerging artists, Google Music offer some advantages over the services offered by Apple and Amazon. Google Music will feature an Artists Hub, where musicians can upload and sell their material. Artists keep 70% of the revenue and there are no annual upload fees. As part of YouTube's recently announced merchandise store, artists will also be able to sell against their music videos on the Google-owned site.

Google vs Apple

Apple may not be too concerned at this time. Google does not have the entire music catalogue available to offer its potential customers. However, Google does have some advantages over Apple. All purchased songs are DRM free, and currently the storage for Google Music users is free. Apple offers only songs with DRM but it is on storage that Google's rival loses.

Apple have recently launched iTunes Match where users may 'store' music in the cloud and stream it on their computer or phone. The Apple's iCloud service costs $24.99 per year, though there are advantages and disadvantages over Google Music.

With iTunes installed users need not upload anything to the cloud. Instead iTunes determines which songs are available in the iTunes Store and a match is automatically added to iCloud. Since there are more than 20 million songs in the iTunes Store, Apple claims to be able to match most people's music collection. Users may however upload music which iTunes can't match.

Storage space

Such a system is good in itself, and certainly less time consuming than waiting nearly a week for one's entire music collection to upload to Google Music, though it does it in the background and is not a major inconvenience. The price of $25 may not break the bank, but it is one more thing which may dissuade some of taking up the service.

Amazon also offer online music storage in the form of it Amazon Cloud Player. However Amazon only offer 5 Gb for free and around 20 Gb for $20 per year. While Google does not state the actual amount of free storage available, 20,000 files at 5 Mb per song would equate to around 100 Gb.

Advantages Google has over Apple is that artists and companies may set their own prices for music. Google Music users may only play music back from one device at a time, however there is no limit to the number of devices which can access each account. Apple limit the number of devices to 10 for some services.

Purchased music may be shared with others via Google+, an option not available to iTunes' users. Although a shared album or song may only be played once, it is a likely attempt to help promote and market songs to create incentive for others to buy.


For audiophiles there is little difference between the two. Apple offers all music at 256 kbps AAC format, seen by some to be slightly better than MP3 formatting. Google Music purchases are 320 kbps MP3 format, but of course uploaded content is at the same quality of the original.

You can upload MP3, AAC files, ogg, and FLAC encoded songs into your Google Music library. You can't, however, load Digital Rights Management (DRM), AFLAC (Apple Lossless), wac, aiff, or ra files. You can also load Microsoft's WMA files, but only with the Windows version of the Music Manager. FLAC, ogg, and aac files are transcoded into Google Music's default 320Kbps MP3 format. Uploaded content may not be downloaded, though songs may be 'cached' for offline playback.

Songs matched by Apple's cloud service may not be physically downloaded, only streamed, so despite the advantages of all the cloud based services, it is not advisable to ditch your physical copy on the hard drive.

Regional restrictions

The biggest advantage Apple has over Google is on availability. Google Music is currently only available to those in the US, and the company has yet to make clear when others will be allowed to join the party. Amazon too restricts its service to those in the US. While those with an account can upload songs individually to the Amazon Cloud storage service, users cannot stream the file. Clicking on the said file returns the message, "It appears that you are attempting to use Amazon Cloud Player from outside the US. This service is intended for US customers only."

Even those who have successfully circumvented regional restrictions to open a Google Music account, with help of a US based VPN, can only upload and listen to music, which is at least a little better than Amazon. Purchasing music and even getting free songs is, however, virtually impossible outside the US.

Apple still have the monopoly in terms of international accessibility. But it is only a matter of time before Google roles out its service to everyone. [BBCBBC video / CNN / Mashable / CNET / PC Mag]

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Hong Kong's economy 'dynamic' but will slow

Coming only days after the IMF published a report outlining vulnerabilities in China's financial system, the intergovernmental organization has released its assessment of Hong Kong's economy.

Hong Kong's rebound from the damage wreaked by the global financial crisis has been dynamic and compelling, the IMF maintains. Growth has continued, aided by concerted policy efforts, Hong Kong's flexible economic system, and strong up-drafts from Mainland China.

Unemployment has fallen and incomes have increased while living standards have generally improved. However, even Hong Kong is not immune to the new wave of economic turmoil sweeping the globe.

The IMF says external demand is weakening the momentum in Hong Kong's economy. As a result, growth is likely to ease to 5.75% this year, the IMF says, slowing further to 4% in 2012.

Even as Hong Kong's economy experienced robust  growth and rising living standards, this has brought with it inflationary pressures. And while property markets appear calmer future fiscal support should be focused on lower income groups, the IMF report says.

Government measures in the Special Administrative Region [SAR] have helped tackle soaring house prices but it would be premature to assume that the prospects for a property bubble have dissipated. Housing costs remain at a premium in Hong Kong, placing a huge social
burden on those renting out accommodation renters and for new households that do not yet own a property.

But the risks stretch beyond Hong Kong's borders. The key risk ahead is from an external shock emanating from Europe, the IMF says in its report compiled in October. A slowdown in the Mainland economy may also sharply affect the economic outlook for the SAR.

The IMF says that policymakers have a formidable arsenal of policies at their disposal to tackle any potential crisis, but a Linked Exchange Rate System remains the best option for Hong Kong.

Hong Kong has established itself as the premier offshore renminbi center. However the channels for "financial spillovers between the Mainland and Hong Kong" are widening, the IMF states.

Going forward, the offshore market will need to be supported by a progressive opening to renminbi capital flows and an improvement in the provision of information, the IMF insists.

Indeed, Hong Kong has a relatively bright future, despite contagion risks. As the renminbi market develops further there will be greater avenues for spillovers between Hong Kong and Mainland as their financial markets become ever more interconnected. However the IMF concedes that this is dependent on "liberalization and reform of the Mainland's financial system".

There also needs to be a greater flow of information to help investors better understand the workings of the fast-developing offshore renminbi market, the IMF says. As the offshore renminbi market expands, more information could help facilitate further market development. This could include regular reporting on the direction of renminbi settlement in goods and services, on renminbi capital flows, and on the renminbi assets and liabilities of Hong Kong's financial institutions.

Mainland China is the fly in the ointment here, however. The Beijing government is often less than transparent in its economic policy, and its dithering on whether to float the renminbi on global markets creates its own problems for outside investors and markets [More reports: Bloomberg / WSJ].

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

New Stephen Lawrence murder trial begins

The trial of two men accused of murdering black teenager Stephen Lawrence 18 years ago has begun at the Old Bailey. Gary Dobson, 36, and David Norris, 35, [pictured in 2000 above left to right] both of south London, deny murdering the teenager. The case has been a long time coming for the parents of Stephen Lawrence who have waited years to see justice.

Stephen Lawrence was stabbed to death by a gang of white youths in Eltham, south-east London, on 22 April 1993. A murder trial against two suspects, Neil Acourt, then 17, and Luke Knight, who was 16, was dropped by the Crown Prosecution Service in July 1993, citing insufficient evidence. A private prosecution was also brought the following year against Acourt, Knight and three others, Jamie Acourt, David Norris and Gary Dobson, but this failed to bring a successful conclusion. Charges against the original two suspects were dropped before the trial due to lack of evidence, and the three remaining suspects were acquitted at the trial when the judge ruled that the identification evidence given by Lawrence's friend and witness Duwayne Brooks was inadmissible.

However earlier this year new scientific evidence was submitted and in May the Crown Prosecution Service gave the go ahead for a new trial [BBC].

In opening the proceedings Judge Mr Justice Treacy warned jurors not to discuss the case with "curious friends and family" and banned them from consulting the Internet, so as not to jeopardise a fair trial.

Prosecutor Mark Ellison QC is expected to begin outlining the case against the accused later on Tuesday. The trial is likely to last until at least the end of December [BBC / Sky News].

tvnewswatch, London, UK

China too at risk of financial turmoil

The International Monetary Fund [IMF] has warned that China's financial system is at risk from bad loans, booming private lending and sharp falls in property prices which could lead to "capital misallocation and the formation of bubbles".

State media reaction

In general China's financial sector was described as "robust overall", a line that made it into headlines of Chinese State run news outlets such as Xinhua. Running with the headline "China's financial system robust overall, further reforms needed: IMF", the propaganda mouthpiece of the Communist Party focused primarily on the positive points in the report.

Grabbing on key phrases such as the "remarkable progress" and "improvements" being made in various sectors, the article barely touched on the dire warnings set out in the IMF report [PDF].

The Xinhua piece referred to challenges and acknowledged that vulnerabilities "should be addressed by the authorities." But there was a general avoidance in mentioning the more worrisome predictions.

Concerning vulnerabilities

Western media, was more forthcoming, if a little sensationalist. The BBC, FT, Guardian, Telegraph and the Wall Street Journal all opened with the line concerning vulnerabilities in the financial sector.

Jonathan Fiechter, deputy director of the IMF Monetary and Capital Markets Department, says that while China's financial sector was "robust overall", inefficient credit allocation and other weaknesses needed to be addressed. "While the existing structure fosters high savings and high levels of liquidity, it also creates the risk of capital misallocation and the formation of bubbles, especially in real estate," he said. "The cost of such distortions will only rise over time, so the sooner these distortions are addressed the better."

According to the Financial Sector Assessment Program [FSAP] report, China's financial sector is confronting several near-term risks. There is a deterioration in loan quality due to rapid credit expansion and growing disintermediation by shadow banks and off-balance sheet exposures. In addition the FSAP report points to a downturn in real estate prices and the uncertainties of the global economic scenario.

Suggested reforms

The report, the first IMF review of China, was carried out jointly with the World Bank and puts forward several suggestions where reform is needed.

They include steps to broaden financial markets and services, and developing diversified modalities of financial intermediation that would foster healthy competition among banks.

A reorientation of the role of government away from using the banking system to carry out broad government policy goals is also required, the reports says, as well as allowing lending decisions to be based on commercial goals.

It also stressed the importance of upgrading the financial infrastructure and legal frameworks, including strengthening the payments and settlement systems, as well as consumer protection and expansion of financial literacy.

While Chinese authorities have begun to move on many of its recommendations, much of the criticism in the report has been broadly dismissed by China's financial institutions.

"not objective"

Aspects of the IMF reports were "not sufficiently comprehensive or objective," the People's Bank of China said in a reaction to the publication of the IMF's assessment.

The People's Bank of China [PBC] said the country had already moved away from administrative quotas on credit and towards an interest-rate based monetary policy. "We believe that, after years of reform, China's financial system has made considerable progress towards commercialization," a statement on the PBC website said.

While the PBC says they "are willing to further strengthen the collaboration and exchanges with relevant international organisations," the IMF report will nonetheless be unsettling in a global market which faces many obstacles.

As Japan yesterday officially came out of recession [Business Times], much of Europe is in financial turmoil and Britain is in danger of falling back into recession. The United States is also continuing to face difficult economic challenges.

The last thing the world wants to see is China falling down the same financial ladder. It can only be hoped that China takes on the advice of the IMF and other leading think tanks as opposed to following the usual belligerent line seen in other sectors.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Britain in danger of joining the PIGS

While news reports have been focused on the failing Greek economy and more recently that of Italy, there are many other countries which are far from stable. Even beyond the so-called PIGS there are other European economies which are not out of the woods as far as their deficits are concerned.

British media in particular has almost gloated at the state of some European countries. Euro-scepticism is is strong in Britain and some are seeing the current turmoil in Europe as a strength to the argument over why the UK should not join the Euro and even withdraw from the Eurozone altogether.

However Britain's economy is far from stable, and in some comparisons could be likened to some of the more unstable Eurozone economies. In fact some have even suggested the acronym PIIGGS, to include not only Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain, but also Great Britain [MPRA / Hindu Business Online].

Unemployment levels

Spain has seen highest rise in unemployment in the Eurozone with nearly 20% out of work, a dramatic increase since 2008 when around 9% were unemployed. Greece, which has been the focus in recent months, also has a high unemployment rate standing at 16.7% up from 7.6% over same period. Italy has levelled of at 8% up from 6% in 2008, but a massive reduction from the 11.1% unemployment rate seen in 1999.

However Britain which sees itself outside the Eurozone, and is trying to distance itself from the crisis, is on a par with many of the beleaguered countries. Britain's unemployment has also been rising in recent years and now stands at 7.9%, only marginally less than Italy [BBC].


But the comparison of economies is even more stark when looking at other factors. Italy, Greece and Spain all have massive debts something which has been the focus of politicians and financiers in recent weeks. But Britain is also straddled with a huge mountain of debt.

Greece and Italy have debts of 142% and 119% proportional to their respective GDPs. However Britain is also approaching danger levels with its debt accounting for 80% of GDP. Spain in comparison is sitting at a relatively comfortable 60%. Most of the European countries have considerable debt issues, even the relatively stable countries such as Germany and France. In fact the countries with the lowest debt proportional to their GDP are Luxembourg and Estonia, standing at 18% and 6.6% respectively [BBC].

GDP Growth

All countries have struggled to pick themselves up following the 2008 downturn. Comparison charts show a massive slump in GDP in 2008 compared to the previous year. Estonia fell the lowest with negative growth. But there was a similar picture in other economies. Not one Eurozone country failed to drop into negative growth, though all but three - Spain, Greece and Ireland - have managed to pull themselves into positive territory [BBC].

Surplus or deficit

Of all the Eurozone countries only Estonia is raising more in taxes than it is spending and has an annual surplus. Finland and Luxembourg are above deficit levels, and all other Eurozone countries including Britain are in deficit.

Ireland is by far the worst with its deficit some -32% as seen as a proportion of GDP. In comparison Greece is at -10.5% while Britain is at -10.4%. Spain and Portugal are slightly better at around -9% and France is -7%. Even Germany stands at -3.3%, only marginally above Italy's -4.6% [BBC]. 

Fears over Italy

However it is fears over the future of Italy which is affecting stock markets. As Italy increased its rate of borrowing [BBC] markets became jittery. In the US the Dow Jones fell -3.20% with the FTSE dropping some 0.5% [BBC]. However, there was some confidence in European markets with both the Dax and Cac 40 gaining. Even as the markets opened on Thursday only the Dax and Cac 40 remained in positive territory.

With the country's rates surging above a dangerous 7.0%, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has pledged to step down after parliament passes key reforms.

Calls for unity

Meanwhile the president of the European Commission has pleaded for the countries that make up the Eurozone to pull closer together to solve the economic crisis. Jose Manuel Barroso issued the call for the EU to "unite or face irrelevance" adding that the crisis "will jeopardise the future prosperity of the next generation."

"That is the threat that hangs over us. And it is that threat that guides our commitment to resolving the situation in Greece and elsewhere - provided that those countries play their part as well." [Sky News

It is of course important for Europe to maintain its commitment and resolve the crisis in Greece. But it is equally important to keep a close eye on all the other countries that make up the Eurozone, not only the PIIGS.

Britain needs to re-evaluate 

Britain too needs to evaluate its own place in Europe, as well as its economy. Opposition leader Ed Miliband has accused Prime Minister David Cameron of merely "shouting from the sidelines" and called for Britain to take a larger role in solving the debt crisis. Miliband insisted it was "massively in our interests to work with the countries in the Eurozone". However Britain is being increasingly sidelined, partly due to its not becoming a full member and joining the Euro.

When Cameron attended recent talks in Brussels he was effectively shut out of discussions. And some member states were not afraid of making airing their opinion. French president Nicholas Sarkozy was particularly outspoken saying, "We're sick of you criticising us and telling us what to do. You say you hate the euro, you didn't want to join and now you want to interfere in our meetings." ["Nous en avons assez de vous entendre nous critiquer et nous dire ce que nous avons à faire. Vous dites détester l'euro, vous n'avez pas voulu le rejoindre et maintenant vous voulez vous ingérer dans nos réunions"] [Telegraph / Guardian / Daily Mail / Le Figaro].

China's role 

China is seen as a possible savour by some, with the growing superpower stepping in to buy up some of its debt. Just as with the US, Europe is an important trading block for China. A collapse of the European economy would seriously affect China's export trade. As such it is in China's interest to help Europe achieve financial stability. Britain is small fry in comparison. While Britain has strong business ties to China, it is inconsequential compared to the Eurozone and the United States. Should Britain flounder it is far less likely to receive any financial bailout, either from Europe, China or its close cross-Atlantic ally. As some have commented, Britain may well be screaming to be let into the Euro-club in the coming years [Telegraph / Guardian]. By then it may be too late.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Google+ concerns over privacy & usability

While many people have been excited by the advent of Google+ some are becoming angry and concerned over changes Google has made to the accessibility to some of its other products and issues of privacy.

In particular there is a rising tide of concern over how Picasa is integrated into Google's fledgling social networking service.

Millions of people around the world use Google products for a number of different cloud-based tasks. Users create and store documents and files in Google Docs. Calendar provides a useful way of keeping track of events which may be shared with others. Millions use its blogging service daily. And photos are archived and shared safely online by others.

But Google has decided that some products are to be incorporated into Google+ leading to problems for some users.

Google+ allows users to share posts, links, pictures and video with others signed up to the service and be selective with whom they are sharing that data with. However, the way in which Picasa is tied into the service has annoyed some users to the point of distraction.

Before Google+ was rolled out Google account holders could upload photo albums to PicasaWeb and share those pictures with others by adding their email address. The recipient need not have created a Google account and would receive an email alerting them to the availability of pictures. In addition they were able to download the files individually or, if they had the Picasa program installed, the whole album. However since Google+ was launched there have been some dramatic changes to the way the online photo-storage system works.

New albums of pictures are now posted to a user's Google+ stream though they will remain private unless shared. But sharing has become trickier. Adding an email address to those the album is shared with via the PicasaWeb interface has been found not to work with some users. Recipients may not receive an email informing them of the upload and while Google+ users may receive a notification there are other issues which make the service less user friendly than before.

By pressing the share button in Picasa one is presented with a dialogue asking the user to enter a Google+ circle or email address. In doing so the pictures are posted to the Google+ stream, and visible to the owner and to those with whom it is shared. The people with whom it is shared should also receive an email informing them. The drawback is that pictures may only be downloaded individually. There is however an option at the bottom which says 'share by email only'. By entering an email here the recipient should receive a link to the old style Picasa interface, which should work whether or not one has a Google account. As such one can download the whole folder as necessary.  It should be noted that unless the link is regenerated by the owner on the side bar, removing the shared names does not rescind access. And of course regenerating the link would block access for all other the album is shared.

Confused? So are many other Picasa and Google users. And it gets worse. Tagging names in Picasa was seen by some as a useful way of finding pictures of friends and people. And uploaded pictures could also be tagged and even kept in sync to those stored locally on the owners PC. However by tagging a picture on PicasaWeb results in them receiving an email saying that they have been tagged in a picture.

Tagging dozens of not more pictures of someone thus might result in much unwanted email ending up in someones mailbox.

Rather unhelpfully Google only sates the following: "When you add a name tag to a photo, you're letting viewers know who's in that photo. You're also informing people who you've name tagged that a photo of them has been posted. Name tagging a person also lets them access the photo and the related album."

It is this has some Picasa users screaming. After all who wants to send dozens or even hundreds of emails to their friends informing them of a tagged photo. Even more concerning is that the recipient will also gain access to the rest of the album contents.

Some Picasa users have paid a considerable sum to Google to store full resolution pictures online, and for these users in particular the conjoining of Google+ and Picasa is a particular grievance.

Forums have been inundated with complaints over Google's recent changes. But the concerns go beyond issues of face tagging and sharing pictures.

There is a crucial difference between Google+ and other company services like Gmail, whose users have long been able to use pseudonyms to protect their privacy, if they want. Google+ currently requires all members to use their real names and there may be some blurring of line which might raise some red flags for some users.

There is a real risk that people who use their real name in Google+ but use pseudonyms in other Google services may inadvertently expose their real identity by linking Google+ with those services.

Users have to agree to integrate their existing PicasaWeb account with Google+ in order to join Google+. If they do so, the displayed user name on PicasaWeb accounts becomes the real name used in Google+, replacing the one being used before if different.

Recently Google unveiled an initial integration option between Google+ and Blogger that allows publishers to swap out their existing Blogger user profile and replace it with their Google+ profile.

While doing so is optional, Google hailed the benefits tied to such an integration. "In addition to giving your readers a more robust and familiar sense of who you are, your social connections will see your posts in their Google search results with an annotation that you've shared the post. Plus, bloggers who switch will automatically get access to the Google+ integrations we'll be rolling out in the future," the announcement reads.

Of course there is a big drawback too. While Google does alert publishers that they could lose their anonymity, such warnings could be missed. For those who "blog under a pseudonym" linking Google+ to blogger "may not work for you," the company says. But it may not be enough, especially for those that are less tech savvy or fail to read the small print.

Pam Dixon, founder and executive director of the World Privacy Forum, says that, when announcing integration options for Google+, the search giant should not encourage users one way or another. "The descriptions need to be clear and neutral," she said in an interview with Computer World.

Google should also be very specific in explaining what the Google+ integrations will entail, says John Simpson, a consumer advocate at Consumer Watchdog.

"Google needs to be crystal clear about what it means by integration," Simpson says. "It must be simple and intuitive for users to control what information from pseudonymous accounts is shared on Google+."

And if they don't it could prove very tricky for Google in the future. John Verdi, senior counsel with the Electronic Privacy Information Center, says it is important to raise such concerns. As well as users unwittingly revealing their real identity to the world, Google too could become embroiled in a nightmare scenario whereby a huge number of users inadvertently accept Google+ integrations only to later complain that they did not know their pseudonyms in certain services would be replaced by their Google+ real name.

Google might once again find itself in a privacy controversy that it can ill afford. There was a virtual firestorm after the mistakes Google made with its Google Buzz service. If the company fails its users with Google+ it could be the death knell not only for Google+ but may even threaten the company as a whole. The US government is already looking into Google's practices and its competitors are just looking for any weak spot to gain advantage.

It has to be said that Google is not the only company which has entered the dangerous territory of social networking. Facebook too has battled with users, governments and privacy campaigners over its sometimes atrocious failure to protect its users' privacy.

Whether Google will listen to its users and critics, or face the wrath that may yet come, is not yet clear. The company does seem to have a tendency of ignoring, or at least appearing to ignore the swathes of criticism and complaints found in forums [GoogleSystem blog].

Faults found in Google products are not rare, and a Google search reveals that there are many with the same issues. Some problems date back years and are still unfixed. For many users Google Earth will not update via the 'check for updates' option in the program, returning an error stating there is no network connection. Auto-fill on the GMail subject line has not worked since late 2010. While older subject lines are still remembered new ones are not. Uploading pictures to Google Docs is problematic for many. While never previously an issue, Google now limits the size to 2 Mb. In addition errors are often returned claiming the picture is in the wrong format. It can be remedied by opening the said file in Adobe Photoshop and use the option 'save for web'. The picture remains in the same file type, eg: jpeg, so it is unclear why it is subsequently accepted. However it appears to be an issue for a great many people.

Over and over again are comments asking whether Google employees even read these forums. Indeed there are many who are becoming increasing frustrated at not being listened to they are going elsewhere. Of course that in itself is not always practical.

There were several bugs in Picasa before the recent issues concerning Google+. Face tagging and sync has been an issue for many users with many questioning whether Google had dropped support for the site.

After discovering more and more issues with Google products of late it seems Brin, Page and Schmidt could be likened to being the three monkeys. They don't or can't see the problems and bugs in their products. They don't or won't listen to complaints, criticism or advice. And whenever asked for a response on anything, by the media or in fact anybody they either refuse to comment or issue one line remarks of little or no consequence. There are in fact 13,600 search results for "Google refused to comment" !!

There is a little irony in the three monkeys analogy. Originally the three wise monkeys embody the proverbial principle to "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil". The three monkeys are Mizaru, covering his eyes, who sees no evil; Kikazaru, covering his ears, who hears no evil; and Iwazaru, covering his mouth, who speaks no evil. Sometimes there is a fourth monkey depicted with the three others; the last one, Shizaru, symbolizes the principle of "do no evil", and as many may also know the mantra of Google.

In the past the meaning is seen as a Golden Rule and adherence to ethical codes. However, the three monkeys have often been used to describe those who do not want to become involved in a situation, or who are willfully turning a blind eye. In fact Shizaru may often be depicted crossing his arms, something Google appears to be doing in the eyes of once loyal users.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Saturday, November 05, 2011

'Several dead' in M5 crash

At least 43 people have been injured and several people killed in Britain's worst motorway accident in 20 years.

The crash occurred on the northbound carriageway of the M5 near Taunton, Somerset in the west of England at around 20:30 on Friday [05/11/2011]. While the cause of the crash was not immediately clear many eyewitnesses spoke of heavy rain and fog in the area at the time of the incident.

Drivers passing the accident on the opposite carriageway spoke of their shock in seeing the twisted wreckage. Twenty light vehicles and 6 lorries were involved in the crash and some of the vehicles burst into flames.

Devon and Somerset Fire and Rescue Service sent 20 appliances to the scene from Taunton, Glastonbury, Bridgwater, Wiveliscombe, Wellington, Burnham on Sea, and Yeovil. Fires burned ferociously for some time.

Motorists passing the accident said the heat was intense. Amateur footage showed several balls of flames and police spoke of a "massive fireball" enveloping the wrecked vehicles.

Assistant Chief Constable Anthony Bangham, of Avon and Somerset Police, said "several people" had died but he could not yet be specific about numbers. The nature of the accident made it very difficult to clarify how many perished in the accident. "Most vehicles were well alight and most continued to burn for a considerable time," he said. "This made it very difficult to search the vehicles. Some of them have been burned to the ground."

One man who had tried to get close to the accident to help the victims told the BBC he had been unable to get near and was beaten back by the heat. One passing motorist Steven Swift described the scene as "horrific" with victims lying on the carriageway and several vehicles in flames.

Bev Davis, who had been in a field near the motorway looking after her horses, described a disturbing atmosphere. "There was this horrific sound of a horn. The horn was just permanent," she said. "You knew something had gone on and then the flames were just so high so quickly and the noise was horrific. And then there were explosions, I think probably of tyres going."

Last night police said that 10 people had "life changing" injuries, and indication to the seriousness of the injuries sustained by those who survived. In all some 43 people were inured and up to twenty were still being treated in hospital as dawn broke.

Musgrove Park Hospital said they were treating 16 people with "a range of trauma injuries" who were involved in the accident. Two others were at Yeovil District Hospital with other hospitals adding logistical support. A spokesman said most of the walking wounded were treated at Yeovil while Musgrove Park Hospital were treating the more seriously injured. Victims had sustained a range of injuries including fractures of the fibula and tibia, abdominal injuries, chest injuries and collapsed lungs.

The motorway is not expected to open for some time as the police investigate the cause of the accident. The Highways Agency said the stretch of motorway was not expected to reopen until 21:00 on Saturday evening. Parts of the motorway may even have to be re-tarmaced as the fires may have severely damaged the road surface.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Cyber talks fail to reach consensus

While ground breaking in many respects, the London Cyber event, which was held this week, failed to establish anything concrete. If anything it only served to highlight the rift that exists between totalitarian governments which seek to control the Internet and the more liberal democratic societies which aim to promote a free and less restricted network.


The event was groundbreaking in as much as it was effectively transparent and open. Though there were backroom conversations and debates, a significant part of the event was broadcast live over the Internet via the FCO website.

However some did complain the conference was not open enough. In a press conference held on Wednesday afternoon one freelance journalist asked the British Foreign Secretary how he squared the statements of a more open and free Internet with the fact that "the press were kept kettled in another part of the building". William Hague dismissed the criticism say that the event was as open, given it had been streamed over the Internet and explained that due to the high number of delegates and other participants it was down to an issue of space.

Indeed previous discussions between foreign countries concerning the Internet, cybercrime, cyber attacks and security issues have often been held behind closed doors. Hague for his part is a strong advocate and user of social media platforms including Twitter and Facebook. And he had encouraged debate via Twitter using the hashtag #LondonCyber.

Lively discussions

In fact, some of the most lively discussion were in cyberspace and particularly on Twitter. By following the designated hashtag a constant stream of comments were aired by Twitter users. And for technophiles, security experts and others interested in the conference, Twitter was by far one of the more interesting conduits of information.

As regards the conference itself, William Hague had said he hoped the event would bring governments together in order to establish "acceptable norms of behaviour in cyberspace" [BBC].

Talking to the BBC prior to the event he conceded that it would be impossible to get to some sort of treaty or Geneva style convention in one short conference. However William Hague suggested that a treaty was not necessarily an answer given the parties involved, be they governments, criminal entities, security companies and others. The discussions were, he said, to "establish a general understanding between countries who will then work together in many different ways in order to protect privacy and protect freedom on the Internet but also to try and stop things that are unacceptable and illegal offline and stop those happening online."

Of course there were other absences besides the partial exclusion of the press. Hackers and representatives from Iran were not at conference. "There is a limit to what we can do," Hague admitted, adding that while governments need to have appropriate laws, solving the issues of cyber security has to be built through cooperation, and that businesses and academia needed to be involved.

As well protecting online privacy and issues concerning intellectual property right and copyright there was also a need to balance this with freedom on the Internet, Hague maintained.

Internet freedom

It was the discussion over Internet freedom which created the biggest obstacle between delegates from different countries.

"Too many states around the world are seeking to go beyond legitimate interference or disagree with us about what constitutes 'legitimate' behaviour," William Hague told the London Conference on Cyberspace. But he was not just pointing a finger at China, often cited as having some of the strongest censorship rules and regulations.

"We saw in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya that cutting off the Internet, blocking Facebook, jamming Al Jazeera, intimidating journalists and imprisoning bloggers does not create stability or make grievances go away ... The idea of freedom cannot be contained behind bars, no matter how strong the lock." [Globe & Mail]

But his calls for greater Internet freedom and transparency was lambasted by Russia and China who accused both the UK and the United States of hypocrisy.

In September, China, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan had proposed to the United Nations a global code of conduct including the principle that "policy authority for Internet-related public issues is the sovereign right of states".

But calls for such a "cyber treaty" was rejected by western countries with the United States in particular being direct and forthright.

"What citizens do online should not, as some have suggested, be decreed solely by groups of governments making decisions for them somewhere on high," US Vice President Joe Biden said. "No citizen of any country should be subject to a repressive global code when they send an email or post a comment to a news article. They should not be prevented from sharing their innovations with global consumers simply because they live across a national frontier. That is not how the Internet should ever work in our view."

As many have stated prior to the conference such controls on the Internet stifles innovation, Biden said. If countries wanted the economic benefits of connectivity, they needed openness the US Vice President asserted.

While Britain has faced some criticism following Prime Minister David Cameron's suggestion this August after England's riots that government might impose controls on some social media platforms, such proposals have been shelved either as being too impractical or because it is seen by some ministers as going too far.

While not referring directly to his riots comments earlier this year, Cameron said future prosperity and peace depended on managing cyberspace properly.

"Governments must not use cyber security as an excuse for censorship, or to deny people the opportunities that the Internet represents," Cameron said. "The balance we've got to strike is between freedom and a free-for-all."

At a press conference organised by the Russian delegation, Igor Shchegolev denied the "code of conduct" was part of a plan to censor the Internet, saying it was simply about refreshing now outdated telecommunications treaties.

"We in Russia are convinced that it is impossible to block or censor the Internet," he said. "Some countries in Europe declare that some social disturbance takes place they will close access to Twitter and Facebook. Russia doesn't even consider this possibility."

However there are countries which have a stranglehold on the Internet. While some Arab states and countries in the Middle East have tight controls on what may be accessed, it is China which imposes the most draconian rules.

No-one in China would have been able to follow the London Cyber debate online via Twitter nor Facebook unless they were using sophisticated software to circumvent the blocks imposed by the Chinese government.

And while there are homegrown microblogging sites such as Sina Weibo, these are strictly controlled and vetted both by the government and the companies themselves.

However, William Hague maintained that such controls were not entirely effective. "The idea of freedom cannot be contained behind bars, no matter how strong the lock," he said [Reuters].

There were some issues on which most delegates agreed, and that was better international co-operation to tackle online crime, child pornography and other threats.

But while few would argue against a clamp down on sites disseminating child pornography, there is some disagreement concerning adult sites which would be seen as legitimate in some countries whilst illegal in others. Many Islamic countries frown upon such material and China often legitimises its online censorship claiming that it is to stop the flow of sexual content.

In fact just prior to the start of the London conference, China said it had shut down some 50 microblogs which were disseminating "vulgar content". According to Xinhua, "The microblogs were shut down for violations that include carrying pornographic images and videos, information for prostitution, as well as illegal advertising for sex-related drugs and productions."

"Members of the public reported the microblogs, which were then investigated and closed by authorities," it added, citing an unidentified official at one of the country's Internet regulators, the State Internet Information Office [Reuters].

Cyber attacks

One of the hot topics of discussion was the issue concerning hacking and cyber attacks. On the eve of the conference, the head of Britain's communications spy agency said UK government and industry computer systems faced a "disturbing" number of such attacks, including a serious assault on the Foreign Office's network [Sky News / Daily Mail].

In his speech to the conference, Prime Minister Cameron described such attacks as "unacceptable".

"We are here because international cyber security is a real and pressing concern. Let us be frank. Every day we see attempts on an industrial scale to steal government secrets – information of interest to nation states, not just commercial organisations."

But David Cameron was far from frank, and failed to point a specific finger at the nation states involved. It was a subject that was raised later when Foreign Secretary William Hague attended a press conference on Wednesday.

Cyber security experts are quite clear that a disproportionate amount of the world's cybercrime appears to emanate from China and a few countries of the former Soviet Union. In the closing press conference a reporter from Sky News asked the Foreign Secretary why the British government had been so coy in naming names.

It was clear the question made him uncomfortable and he looked awkward on stage as he tried to maintain some vestige of diplomatic veneer.

He referred to the question as a belligerent one and said, "We are holding a conference that is not belligerent…" he said. "We are trying to draw countries together in a constructive way… We have not been having a judgmental conference… We are going about this in a diplomatic way…" [WSJ]

It was certainly embarrassing for the Foreign Secretary, who has to balance maintain strong business ties with China while playing a difficult diplomatic wrangle concerning allegations that China is behind cyber attacks.

And there was no shortage of news concerning such attacks this week either. China hit back over US claims that of satellite hacking that emerged last week. "This report is untrue and has ulterior motives. It's not worth a comment," commented Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei at a Monday press briefing. The draft of an annual report by the US-China economic and security review commission, published by Bloomberg last week, included the claim that in October 2007 and July 2008 hackers used a ground station to interfere with the operation of two US government satellites used for earth observation. The commission did not explicitly accuse the Chinese government of orchestrating the attacks, but said they were consistent with Chinese military protocol, according to Bloomberg. [Guardian / Register]

More recently an attack on Japan's parliament was also blamed on China. A report last week said that computers in the lower chamber had been hit by a virus, with passwords and other information possibly compromised. Local media reported last month that politicians' computers and a lower house server had contracted a "Trojan horse" virus containing a program that allowed a China-based server to steal passwords and other information. While it was not immediately clear who was behind the attack, the reports said it was possible the China-based server could have been controlled from a third country.

In June, Internet giant Google said a cyber-spying campaign originating in China had targeted the Gmail accounts of senior US officials, military personnel, journalists and Chinese political activists [AFP].

This week Britain's GCHQ said attacks on industry and government were at "disturbing levels". And while William Hague was less willing to point the finger some of his counterparts pulled no punches. Baroness Pauline Neville Jones, the Prime Minister's special representative to business on cybersecurity, said Russia and China were some of the worst culprits involved in cyber attacks. But she also qualified her accusations, saying such attacks could also damage China.

"It's damaging in the end to try and play both sides," she said. "If you are a company that comes from a country like China you can suffer if in the end people believe it's threatening to employ your products." [BBC]

Huawei, the Chinese technology manufacturer, has suffered after concerns that its believed military ties might pose a security risk [WSJ]. There are allegations that some companies are manufacturing products using stolen IP, which could in the long term result in trade embargoes and other difficulties for Chinese firms.

Repercussions could be far worse, of course with some talking of a possible cyber war [Sky News]. The reports of hacking into Foreign Office computers, attributed to Chinese 'super spies' certainly gave the impression of a brewing cold war if nothing else [Guardian].

Meanwhile a report released by Symantec raised other concerns. It inferred the Chinese were behind a concerted attack of Fortune 100 companies involved in research and development of chemical compounds and advanced materials and others involved in military technology.

The report [PDF] said the attack had all the hallmarks of a Chinese hacker and said the source of the attack was possible a server in the Hebei region of China [BBC].

China has long been accused of perpetrating such attacks. This year also several high-profile series of attacks have been blamed on the Chinese. They include the so-called Operation Shady Rat which McAfee said targeted more than 72 victims in a hacking campaign including the governments of the United States, Taiwan, India, South Korea, Vietnam and Canada [BBC / Reuters]. Other targets were the United Nations, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the International Olympic Committee; and an array of companies, from defence contractors to high-tech enterprises.

For its part China continually refutes such allegations either through editorials in state controlled papers, propaganda pieces suggesting China itself is the victim of hacking, and through strongly worded statements released from the Foreign Ministry.

After details emerged about Operation Shady Rat editorials were published in the People's Daily dismissing the allegations adding that the accusation was "irresponsible" [Reuters].

News concerning this weeks London Cyber conference was somewhat mute on Chinese state media. Xinhua published a piece before it began but failed to follow up with any analysis or debate following the event. Meanwhile it attempted show it too was a victim of cybercrime in another article saying that virus attacks were on the rise.

Vision, Hope & Fears

William Hague had spoken of visions, hopes and fears prior to the London Cyber conference [BBC]. But the event has highlighted more fears than hopes, and prejudice and insularity rather than vision.

Amongst paranoid bloggers there were fears that governments were coming together to shutdown the freedoms of the Internet. It could be argued that politicians have difficulty sorting out the economic malaise that is sweeping the planet, and as such gathering to control the Internet in anything more than a superficial way is unlikely.

On Tuesday William Hague said, "We are all linked by the innumerable connections of the networked world" [BBC]. But by the end of the two day event it appeared the world was more divided than connected.

As well as differences of opinion as to how the Internet might be controlled or restricted there are also physical divisions.

China may have a restrictive Internet, but in many parts of the world penetration of the web is extremely small. African countries in particular are far behind the rest of the world. In Liberia only 0.1% of the population has access to the Internet while in some developed countries access can be as high as 95%.

The world may be more connected than it's ever been but there are still connections to be made. William Hague tried to remain upbeat as the conference ended, highlighting the important issues discussed [transcript - FCO]. There were some things that both individuals and businesses could do themselves especially in terms of security, Hague said [Computer Weekly]. But even he admitted this was only the beginning and that more talks were needed.

tvnewswatch, London, UK