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Posts Tagged ‘news’

Japan’s Secret Hanging Chamber

August 27th, 2010 3 comments

Japan's Execution Chamber Image Mainichi Daily News

Image: Mainichi Shimbun.

Japan is one of the few industrialized nations that still uses the death penalty, and they still execute prisoners by hanging. Mainichi Shimbun (or “The Mainichi Daily News,” one of Japan’s largest newspapers) says that reporters were allowed to view Tokyo’s execution chamber, one of the seven such facilities in the country, for the first time today.

The sterile-looking chamber has a trap door in the floor, with a room below into which the hanging condemned fall so they are not visible to observers as they die. Reporters did not see that chamber.

Keiko Chiba, Japan’s Justice Minister, decided to show the room to reporters after witnessing the execution of two prisoners. She said she wanted to spur a nationwide debate on whether the death penalty should exist in Japan and how executions should be performed.

Hanging is specified in the Japanese Penal Code as the method by which executions shall be performed, a practice that dates to the Meiji period (1868-1912).

The Ultimate Vaporware: Power From Air

August 27th, 2010 No comments

Lightning Over Singapore

Lightning strike in Singapore. Creative Commons photo by Joost Rooijmans.

Devices much like solar panels on the top of every building could not only discharge lightning before it forms, but collect energy from the air — the ultimate renewable resource. That’s the scenario suggested by Brazilian researcher Fernando Galembeck, PhD, in a presentation at this year’s 240th Annual American Chemical Society meeting.

According to Science Daily, Galembeck’s research focuses on the recently confirmed fact that moisture in the air typically generates opposing electrical charges in silica and aluminum phosphate, both common substances found in air. They’re calling it “hygroelectricity,” meaning electricity from humidity.

Galembeck’s team suggests it would be possible to use collector to harness this electrical energy, and also to prevent lightning strikes. The theoretical procedure would work better in humid regions like the Eastern North America and the tropics.

You can read the press release at the American Chemical Society website, or the article at Science Daily. For what it’s worth, I got there through Above Top Secret, a forum for online lunatics that just happens to be so fantastically unnavigable that its super-secret information about the Bilderberg conspiracy is just about guaranteed to stay that way. They’re not the only ones screaming “Tesla! Tesla! Tesla!” about this one, but they might be screaming it loudest. Since invoking Tesla in an online conspiracy forum seems to be the equivalent of having your 103 IQ branded on your forehead, I’m going to suggest you read the Science Daily article instead, or similar articles at CNET or The American Ceramic Society. Dr. Galembeck’s page at the University of Campesino is in Portugese — so if you speak that, have at.

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This Is Your Brain on Technophobia. Any Questions?

August 26th, 2010 1 comment

Creative Commons photo by Dylan Parker, now with added terror.

Having listened to Terry Gross and Fresh Air since Lucy was in short pants — or, at least, sometimes it seems that way — I can count on the fingers of both hands the number of times I’ve found the show vapid, idiotic, or just off-base. Not a bad average, sure. But yesterday’s show had me unlacing my shoes.

The guest was Matt Richtel, whose series Your Brain on Computers graces the pages of the New York Times. In this series, which is well-written, well-researched and basically reasonable, Matt Richtel enlists an army of scientists and people walking on treadmills to promulgate the idea that “a little technology is good, but too much technology is bad.”

The talented and persuasive Richtel pushed the same broke-ass idea throughout yesterday’s Fresh Air, with Ms. Gross putting on that ultra-credulous Amazing Discoveries propeller beanie she sometimes wears — I strongly suspect to cover up the “I-don’t-really-give-a-damn” sleepiness in her voice.

If that’s true, I don’t blame her. Because, honestly, we’re still having this discussion? Because, you know, back in the day we had it about comic books.

I’m pretty sure the media has no idea what a “digital device” is — the definition seems to change with the needs of the accusation being made or the research being performed. Generally, as rendered by the media, the term seems to mean smartphones if you’re texting but not cell phones if you’re talking; it means netbooks if you’re on Facebook but not laptops if you’re crunching numbers in a spreadsheet. Text about your work and you’re workaholic but use an ap to manage your household budget and you’re frugal. Text about friends and you’re obsessive or superficial; stare blankly at a redwood tree and suddenly you become some kind of superior being.

This is the Tarzan myth writ large, the Edwardian-era howdah pistol replaced by the Blackberry. The “natural man” doesn’t need any of that shit; he just grabs the most fearsome lion in Africa by the nutsac and bitchslaps him, right?

Yeah…maybe.

While I don’t disagree with any single given point in Richtel’s NYT series or the Fresh Air interview, I think the whole debate about whether mobile communications are changing our brain stinks of moral panic. As far as I can tell, it’s gaining critical mass. I might not have gotten so cranky about it if another NPR show I greatly admire, Marketplace, hadn’t sullied my ears yesterday with the promo for today’s piece on the congestion of mobile networks by data as opposed to voice. Good as the story was, the promo leaned heavily on the idea that it’s somehow messed up that more mobile traffic is text, chat, social networking, etc. than voice. The strong implication in the promotion was that people who use mobile networks for data are screwing it up for the “normal” people who “just want to talk on the phone.”

Read more…

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Sudden Drop in Cable TV Subscribers — Film At Eleven!

August 24th, 2010 No comments

1950s television set

Creative Commons photo by John Atherton.

Jacqui Cheng over at Ars Technica comments briefly on the report by market research firm SNL Kagan that the growth in cable TV subscribers reversed itself in the second quarter of 2010, “with six out of eight cable providers reporting their worst quarterly subscriber losses to date.” As in, ever.

Cheng and SNL Kagan analyst Mariam Rondeli cited a number of reasons for the drop; first and foremost, second-quarter subscriber growth (or in this case, loss) can’t be taken as gospel, “thanks to housing turnover in college towns.” While this makes sense, it sort of disturbs me that college students are that large a share of the market. But there’s more to it; Rondeli suggests “economic factors such as low housing formation and a high unemployment rate contributed to subscriber declines in the second quarter.”

Not that anyone cares, but those “economic factors,” as I see it, might have to do with the insultingly high rates that cable TV providers charge.

Some of you may not be old enough to remember the glorious days when it wasn’t HBO, it was TV — but they were glorious. TV used to be free and of fantastically high quality — four channels only, with two of them showing nothing but MASH reruns from midnight to four a.m., plus some fuzzy thing from the next county over featuring Belarussian programming on Tuesdays and Fridays, Spanish and Chinese programming on the other days based on an alternating-week schedule, plus strip club ads after midnight.

Now, consumers can watch all the Law and Order they goddamn well please, plus enough cooking shows to stuff every American yuppie’s mouth with Seven-esque quantities of seared salmon-gorgonzola bruschetta. We get to watch what we want, when we want it, provided what we want is exactly the shit our cable company decides to provide us, and when we want it is when the hell they want to give it to us — unless, of course, we’d like them to charge us extra for Tivo.

And how much do these highwaymen charge us for the privilege of rotting our brains? Zillions! Zillions, I tell you! Zillions!

Cable prices are so high for a good reason — cable companies are de facto regional monopolies. What the industry really fears is a la carte cable, which would demolish cable companies’ exploitative pricing structures. Lucky for them the government is too namby-pamby to require that option; it keeps being mentioned as an option, but never goes anywhere. After regulating the airwaves for years with an effective — if, at times, troubling — iron hand, my guess is the Feds are just tired of working so hard.

Cheng asserts: “As someone who canceled cable four years ago, I can attest that even when you spend money on whole seasons of your favorite shows from iTunes and pay for a Netflix subscription, you can still save money.”

I’ll agree with her, and stop there — because Netflix has its own problems, from the way it handles new releases to the way it pays small-scale indie producers.

And iTunes? As far as I’m concerned, iTunes should pour itself a nice hot steaming tasty mug of I-will-kill-you-while-you-sleep.

But even if Netflix, iTunes and DVD and download purchases are the only outlets you use to get your media consumer groove on, you’ll be doing a hell of a lot better than subscribing to cable. Technology only empowers the individual when the individual beats technology with a tire iron from time to time — and the cable companies have been getting a free ride.

Hopefully, American consumers are finally realizing that.

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The Long Psilocybin Goodbye

August 24th, 2010 No comments

Dried Cubensis

Public Domain photo by Eric Fenderson.

I’ve got PTSD and depression both after reading today’s Health.com/CNN article on ecstasy, psilocybin (psychedelic mushrooms) and ketamine for depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. The author, Ann Harding, quotes retired FDA medical officer Bruce Stadel, M.D., as saying, “These drugs in the 60s were just let loose without any proper study. [Now] they’re going through the FDA, through the process of clinical trials.”


What’s traumatizing is reading the description of the hoops the researchers have to jump through to generate a reasonable placebo environment. These measures are not without their necessity, I’ll admit — after all, a placebo control for magic mushrooms is not like one for statins in a cholesterol study. Assuming the drug has any effect at all and was given at an effective dose, what kind of a pinhead wouldn’t notice they’d eaten mushrooms? It kind of nullifies the placebo control when the psychotherapist’s face starts melting, right? Kinda hard to miss that.

So here’s what they do in an NYU study led by Stephen Ross, an addiction expert.

Patients are given a silver chalice containing either a psilocybin pill or a placebo.The patient then lies down on a brown sofa surrounded by artwork, sculptures of Buddha, and, on a nearby bookshelf, a little glass mushroom with a red cap. For the next six hours, the patient listens, with eyes shaded, to a combination of classical, Eastern, and tribal music.

A pair of therapists — who don’t know whether the patient has taken an active drug or placebo — stay in the room for support, though they encourage the patient to remain in a meditative state.

I’ll concede that this sort of thing may be a reasonable accommodation for a study on psychedelic drugs, but…tribal Music? Buddha? Really? Read more…

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Facebook Places Fuckup Roundup

August 21st, 2010 No comments

No doubt about it, the guys at Stalqer must love the news this week: Facebook just made their jobs easier and much more interesting. This week the Wal-Mart of social media (Facebook) launched their “Places” feature in a gambit to enter the location-based “check-in” craze (combining it with a couple of other lifestyle social media tools they’ve weakly imitated into their corporate cover for data collection and resale). It was hailed by tech blogs who love special personal invitations and will blow polar bears for press access — but it may be the first time a social networking feature has been introduced and been immediately received with a combination of blogger blowjobs and a serious reaction of outrage and disbelief from the ACLU (link: ACLU’s Places statement, aclunc.org). Immediately, helpfully (but only for those who know about it), Read Write Web published this step-by-step walkthrough to at least help users of the social media site to find the multiple places in their accounts where you can disable some (but not all) of Places ability to reveal, or to fake, your location at any time.

Ars Technica’s Jacqui Cheng writes,

(…) Several privacy advocates say that the settings are unnecessarily complex and that users could have certain personal info exposed without their consent.

“There is no single opt-out to avoid location tracking; users must change several different privacy settings to restore their privacy status quo,” the Electronic Privacy Information Center said in a statement on its website. The organization also notes that it and many other consumer privacy organizations still have complaints pending with the FTC over Facebook’s “unfair and deceptive trade practices, which are frequently associated with new product announcements.”

Indeed, there are multiple settings (that are not all grouped together) in which a user must specify his or her preferences when it comes to Places, making it slightly more confusing than necessary. However, there’s one Places-related situation that is not even controllable via settings, and could expose people’s addresses to the world. (…read more, arstechnica.com)

Not all bloggers swallowed the problems with Facebook Places wholesale — at the press announcement some bloggers decided to take Facebook to task out of the starting gate for overlooking glaring privacy issues. These issues (which could prove dangerous for, say, women coping with domestic violence and/or stalkers) were already present for users with the services Facebook proudly partnered with, namely FourSquare and Gowalla. The first question for Zuckerberg, his lead engineer, and the FS/G heads was from indie blogger, podcaster and Slide employee Rod Begbie, who simply wanted to know how to get his home address off the service if someone else put it online on Facebook. Not only was he passed off, the engineer lamely told him he could try to get people to “flag” it for review and deletion, and in the video, we can audibly hear one of the guys from either FourSquare or Gowalla expressing annoyance at the question.

Here’s the video; this is a link to the transcript where Rod Begbie comments, explaining exactly how the Facebook engineer lied to him in the video.

The “venues” (addresses/locations added and created by users) are not only visible to friends, they are in fact, publicly visible… Oh, if only Facebook was as fast and efficient as an online stalker.

Saudi Arabia: Paralysis as Punishment?

August 21st, 2010 No comments

vertebral column

Public Domain image from Gray's Anatomy.

Amnesty International put out a press release yesterday urging Saudi Arabia not to paralyze a man as punishment for a crime.

The Saudi newspaper had Okaz reported that the judge in the man’s case asked several hospitals in letters whether they would be able to perform a procedure to sever the accused’s spinal cord. While one of the nation’s leading hospitals said it wouldn’t be possible “from a medical perspective” — which leaves it unclear whether they mean medical science or medical ethics –at least one other Saudi hospital said it would be possible. The court in the case continued to debate the matter.

The assault case, in the extreme north of the country, involves a 22-year-old whom the accused allegedly stabbed in the back, paralyzing him. The accused confessed in front of the police and was sentenced to 7 months in prison. But under Sharia law, which governs Saudia Arabia, the victim has a right to request other punishments that, in the court’s estimation, fit the crime. However, at least one Islamic scholar, Akbar Ahmed of Washington’s American University, implied that a harsh sentence like this might really derive more from a tribal philosophy of “an eye for an eye,” similar to the judicial cutting off of hands or feet in Iran, Afghanistan, and parts of Pakistan.

Despite the government’s well-deserved reputation for violently crushing dissent, Saudi Arabia actually has a vibrant blogging culture, and many of its bloggers reportedly expressed the same kind of outrage as Amnesty.

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Conspiracy Watch: Is BP Connected to the Lockerbie Bombing?

August 20th, 2010 No comments

Creative Commons Photo by Russavia.

There’s an interesting item buried near the end of CNN’s article on the upcoming anniversary of the release of Abdelbeset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi, the former Libyan intelligence officer convicted of the bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland, of Pan Am Flight 103. It’s this little gem of a paranoid conspiracy theory:

U.S. senators have also repeatedly voiced suspicions that Scotland released al Megrahi as part of a deal allowing oil giant BP to drill off the Libyan coast. Salmond has already shot down such concerns, saying “there is no evidence whatsoever” for any link.

While this sounds like crazed tinfoil hat nonsense, there’s almost nothing Americans would put past British Petroleum nowadays, which I think is ultimately a good thing. Given how completely BP has betrayed public trust, and how thoroughly unlikely it is they’ll ever be held accountable even for a significant fraction of the damage they’ve done, I’d like to advance the theory that BP has Hitler’s brain in a jar and are going to turn the entire human race into mutant half-lizard slaves to Liberia’s Charles Taylor, who secretly owns the company. Did I say theory? Well…it’s more of a hypothesis, really.

For what it’s worth, though, the Lockerbie bombing is packed with conspiracy — by definition. Prominent Swiss businessman Edwin Bollier was interrogated and narrowly avoided being charged as a co-conspirator, based on evidence that he had rented office space to the convicted bomber, a Libyan spy — and the fact that his electronics firm may have supplied the device used as a timer in the bomb.

Bollier responded to his potential indictment by threatening, if indicted, to call Oliver North and George H.W. Bush as witnesses in his trial. He later claimed to have been offered $4 million to falsely identify a component of the bomb in court.

By “U.S. Senators,” the article implies they’re talking about Bob Menendez and Frank Lautenberg (both Democrats from New Jersey — Pan Am Flight 103 was en route to New York’s JFK when it crashed), who are holding a press conference with the families of Lockerbie victims. But the article doesn’t bother to specify which Senators are speculating. As it turns out, it’s them and two more.

Abdelbeset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi, a Libyan intelligence officer and the former head of security for Libyan airlines, was the only person convicted in the 1988 terrorist bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which killed 270 people. Harbored by Libya, he was finally extradited with one accused co-conspirator (who was found not guility). He received a life sentence, but was released a year ago to return to Libya when Scottish doctors said he was dying of cancer and had only a few months to live. He’s still alive.

As the first anniverary al Megrahi’s release approaches, Britain has warned Libya not to hold celebrations; al Megrahi was greeted as a hero upon his post-release arrival in Libya.

Hysterical Technophobic Screaming May Cause Hearing Loss

August 19th, 2010 No comments

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Creative Commons image by Dabdiputs.

An article in the San Francisco Chronicle references a study from Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital that points to a significant increase in hearing loss among adolescents aged 12-19, compared to a 1988-1992 study.

The type of loss seen was significant enough in about 1 in 20 subjects that it may affect their ability to learn in the classroom.

The new study, published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association (only the abstract is viewable to non-members), is a textbook case of what I love about science, because it actually covered a significant number of subjects (more than 4,000), and the researchers admit that while MP3 players might be the cause, they aren’t necessarily. In fact, the type of damage seen usually isn’t associated with loud noises.

Other possible causes mentioned in the Chronicle article are better survival rates for premature babies (who have a greater prevalence of hearing problems) and unspecified genetic disorders. Nonetheless, the Chron feels obligated to point out “..anecdotally speaking, who hasn’t seen a teenager blasting his iPod on BART?”

That’s okay, though; San Francisco gets to hold up the “not flipping out” side of the mainstream-media spectrum. Eight hours ahead and apparently drunk on cheap vodka at the tail end of a speed orgy, the Telegraph waves its hands in the air and sobs hysterically about the evils of technology, headlining its article on the same study “iPods and MP3 players ‘linked to teenage deafness’” and adding a cherry subtitle “iPods, MP3 players and increased exposure to live music has led to a surge in hearing loss in teens, research suggests.”

And when journalists tell us that “research suggests” something? Class? What do we do? Anyone? Anyone?

That’s right. We slap them! Get ahold of yourself, Telegraph. Technology isn’t evil; neither are teens. They’re just drawn that way.

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Will Refine Uranium Hexafluoride For Food

August 19th, 2010 No comments

"Did you get the license plate number on that proton beam?"

Without international assistance, will Russian nuclear scientists AGAIN be reduced to sticking their heads in particle accelerators for the amusement of passers-by?

David Hoffman at ForeignPolicy.com reports that last month month, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev signed a decree for the Russian government to withdraw from the International Science and Technology Center, a Moscow-based center to help Soviet cold war engineers and scientists transition from a weapons economy to civilian projects.

With the involvement of the EU, Japan, Russian and the US, and later Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyszstan, Norway, South Korea, Tajikistan and Canada, the ISTC has been one of the most successful post-Cold War programs to have helped prevent the proliferation of WMD expertise. While Medvedev gave no reason for pulling out, Hoffman observes that:

Russia may argue that nearly two decades later, it can afford to pay its own scientists without western grants, and there is some truth to this…

At the same time, I worry that Medvedev’s decree could disrupt what has been an important bridge between Russia and the other countries. Many of the laboratories and design bureaus which had developed Cold War weaponry were left adrift and vulnerable when the Soviet Union collapsed. The scientists had accumulated valuable knowledge that could not easily be converted into civilian work. The ISTC made grants to redirect them to other projects, including cooperation with Western scientists and organizations. It was a bulwark against proliferation of weapons know-how and technology.

Meanwhile, the CIA is establishing a “center” to deal with intelligence on the spread of weapons of mass destruction, separate from the National Counterproliferation Center managed by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. The details are so unbelievably vague as to make me wonder if they even know what they’re looking for. But then…I just keep telling myself “They’re the government, right? They know what they’re doing.”

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