Jun 30, 2010

Near miss after plane sent to wrong runway

A PLANE accidentally turned onto an active runway after being given ambiguous clearance instructions from air traffic control in one of thousands of aviation incidents reported in Australia in the past year.

In another, two flight attendants had to be taken to hospital after being overcome by fumes on a plane, while another was hurt when she fell through a door after ground staff moved portable stairs as she was helping close it.

The incidents are outlined in a new summary report released by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau yesterday.

The ATSB receives around 15,000 notifications of aviation occurrences each year, 8,000 of which are accidents, serious incidents and incidents.

In February, a Boeing 727 with 119 passengers on board was arriving from Denpasar, Bali when it turned onto an active runway after being given ambiguous clearance instructions.

The report said it was a good reminder that all radio communication phrases should be clear, concise and unambiguous and should reflect international standards where possible.

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    * 'Chemical' smell sparks illness on flight Herald Sun, 11 Mar 2010

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In another incident last June, two flight attendants on a Boeing 737 from Melbourne to Coolangatta suffered symptoms including nausea, headaches, a rash and stinging red eyes after a strong smell was detected at the rear of the cabin.

One flight attendant was momentarily debilitated and both were given oxygen by another attendant before recovering enough to continue working.

The source and nature of the fumes, which was reported as coming from the airconditioning, was never identified.

While some passengers also noticed the smell, which was described as similar to acetone, butan or gas, none were injured.

The incident in which the flight attendant fell occurred at Ayers Rock airport in the Northern Territory in March when she went to help another attendant who was having trouble unlatching the door.

She had one foot outside the plane on the portable stairs as she helped close the door when ground personnel began to move them and she fell through the door, fracturing one arm and spraining an ankle.

Researchers found four similar incidents had occurred when stairs were removed prematurely in the past two years.

Last August, an Airbus A320 travelling from Melbourne to Mackay had to be diverted to Canberra after a mechanical systems failure.

The report said multiple engine warnings displayed minutes after an electrical burning smell was detected in the cabin of the plane, which had 139 passengers on board.

While later examination found the smell came from a fluorescent light ballast resistor in the cabin, the lack of physical evidence of aircraft or engine system faults showed that the multiple warnings were incorrect.

Jun 28, 2010

Facebook blamed for rise in British teenagers self-harming

A SHOCKING rise in the number of British teenagers mutilating themselves with knives was blamed on cyber bullying.

Experts claimed youngsters were left feeling "lonely and isolated" despite having hundreds of friends on Facebook,  The Sun reported.

Figures obtained by the paper revealed that the number of youngsters aged from 10 to 19 admitted to the hospital after "cutting" soared 50 percent, from 830 in 2005 to 1244 last year.

Sarah Brennan, chief executive of YoungMinds, which campaigns over kids' mental health issues, said: "The rise of the internet means they face new pressures from cyber bullying, and looking good on social networks such as Facebook.

"It seems strange that young people who have hundreds of friends on Facebook can be lonely and isolated.

Jun 21, 2010

The unforeseen dangers of complexity!

IN AUGUST 2003, north-eastern America experienced an exasperating failure of its electricity grid stemming from a ''power fluctuation'' in New York; it affected 45 million people in eight states and another 10 million in Ontario, Canada.

Last month's 9 per cent plunge in the Dow originated with an ''inexplicable sell order'' on the lowly Chicago Board Options Exchange, which is now interconnected with other trading floors as part of ''multiple buy-sell platforms''.

The common thread is complexity.

If your eyes have ever swum as you pored over different phone plans or mortgage products - which are common garden varieties of complexity - spare a thought for those financial managers in 2008 who had to grapple with things such as market value CDOs (collateralised debt obligations), cash flow CDOs, synthetic CDOs, hybrid CDOs, single tranche CDOs, credit default swaps and so forth.

The situation got so messy in the end that no one had the faintest idea of the true risks involved; banks did not have a clear-cut view of the state of their investments or the interconnectedness of networks.

Overnight, complexity had become a source of instability. A glitch in one system could spill over into failure in another, triggering a disruptive avalanche of cascading and escalating failures.

Yet system designers remain hooked on building yet bigger and more intertwined systems, even though this makes their creations prime candidates for instability. They want scale to spread computer-processing load, power trading or financial risk, but overlook the fact that once everything is connected, problems can spread as readily as solutions, sometimes more so - witness that cascading blackout in America.

A similar event in Italy during September 2003 lent impetus to an emerging view that the most dangerous vulnerability is lurking in the many interdependencies across different infrastructures: the shutdown of Italian power stations directly led to the failure of internet nodes, which in turn caused a further breakdown of power stations.

Think of Victoria's increasingly lock-stepped water and electricity networks - exacerbated by a carbon intensive north-south pipeline and a reverse osmosis plant. Failure in electricity supply could affect the ability to process effluent, raise a head of potable water, pump discharge water, etc. Or, alternatively, to deliver water to power stations.

Customised strategies are needed to isolate networks so that they can continue to function when there are failure points in related networks, or to isolate parts of a single network when there are failure points elsewhere in the same network.

As Earth's climatic system edges towards uncertain tipping points, the incidence of tinder-dry fire contagions, violent storms and devastating floods is set to rise. Earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, terrorist attacks and oil spills are further hazards. Detailed disaster recovery management plans for restoring affected communities offer scope to design out dangerous interdependencies between water, power and telecommunications. Having exacting requirements, hospitals - pivotal to rescue and recovery phases - are especially susceptible to tripping of the electricity networks.

Unfortunately, complexity continues to mushroom - consider the explosive growth of the personal networking sites Facebook and Twitter - while our understanding of the flow-on effects remains wafer thin.

It doesn't imbue policymakers with confidence when, according to the science journal Nature, researchers in the many institutes and programs formed to study ''complexity'' can't agree on the right way to describe their discipline. Others studying ecosystems have discovered that things aren't as straightforward as imagined. It used to be thought that being big and intricate like a rainforest was the recipe for stability; it's now known that simple environments can be just as stable provided there are strong interactions between a handful of predator and predated species.

Love it or leave it, complexity is critically linked to governance and development. This is highlighted by the remarks of Kenneth Rogoff, Harvard professor of public policy, in referring to energy policy, regulation and guarding against oil spills: ''The balance of technology, complexity and regulation is without doubt one of the greatest challenges that the world must face in the 21st century. We can ill afford to keep getting it wrong.''

Acknowledging that big may not always be better, nor intricacy smarter than simplicity, is a first step. Time to revisit those phone plans!

Dr Peter Fisher is a climate change adaptation specialist who is contributing an infrastructure chapter to a forthcoming book, Managing Disaster Recovery: An International Perspective.

Jun 16, 2010

The use of digital media comes at a price


As a writer, I spend a lot of my time glued to my computer screen: researching and pitching ideas, dealing with emails, keeping abreast of breaking news and, occasionally, even writing. While recently trying to launch an online magazine, my screen time increased still further and, unable to resist the temptation any longer, I also answered the call of Twitter. Setting aside BlackBerry time at evenings and weekends, I was devoting eight hours a day to digital media.

After a month, strange things started to happen. I found it difficult to concentrate on any given task for more than a few minutes. My mind felt scattered and my focus wandered from email to web page to tweet to email and back again. Despite working ever more furiously, I would reach the end of a 10-hour day and feel I had achieved almost nothing. What had I learnt? Which of those hundreds of bite-size pieces of information had actually lodged in my brain? What had I created - which is, after all, my primary working function? The answer, frustratingly, was usually very little. But while distractedly surfing, I discovered what was ailing me. It was spelt out in a piece of research published in March by Lila Davachi, a New York University neuroscientist: my gluttony for digital media came at a price: a severe impact on cognitive function, in particular memory.

In her study, the brains of 16 men and women, aged 22 to 34, were scanned by a functional magnetic imagining machine (fMRI) while they looked at three different pictures: an object, a face and a mountain scene. After viewing the photos, and while their brains were still being scanned, the participants were asked to lie still, rest and let their minds wander. When they were shown the pictures again, they were better able to remember the details than they were before they took a rest - the daydreaming had improved their recall.
"Our data suggests that if you are not giving yourself a break, you are hindering your brain's ability to consolidate memories and experiences," said Davachi.
My constant cyber-hopping meant that I had never really stopped, taken a deep breath and let my poor, overcooked brain rest. Hardly rocket science, then, that my thoughts were so fragmented.
These findings follow the warnings last year by Baroness Susan Greenfield, leading neuroscientist and former director of the Royal Institution, that social networking sites such as Facebook, which has 350 million users worldwide, and Twitter, which generates 50 million tweets a day, risk "infantilising" the 21st-century mind. Our social-media-saturated brains are, she said, characterised by a short attention span, sensationalism, inability to empathise and a shaky sense of identity. Although her remarks received a mixed reception from the medical and scientific communities, they certainly strike a chord with fellow extreme digital media users.
But, is there any solid evidence to suggest that Twittering can really affect our brain function? "Nobody has studied this question directly," says Dr Gary Small, professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles, and author of iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind. "Although a causal relationship has not been confirmed, many studies have found an association between more time with technology and a lower attention span."
While the speed with which technology has become a crucial part of our lives means that medical research into the phenomenon is still catching up, some doctors believe that our love of the latest technology could be turning into a 21st century addiction.
"I am convinced that we can become addicted to technology, because it involves the same dopamine neural circuits that control rewards in the brain with other forms of addiction," says Dr Small. "In parts of Asia, rehab centres are helping teens kick their video-game addiction."
The Capio Nightingale Hospital in London is now also running a course for "addicts". In February, the hospital reported an increase in social media and technology addiction among those suffering from mental health disorders and burnout. It has dubbed the phenomenon "E-ddiction". We are, it says, turning into a "tired but wired" society, unable to relax or unwind.
"Technology can cause addiction, burnout and sleep problems, and people need to reflect on how they use it to ensure it doesn't become a problem," says Dr Nerina Ramlakhan, a sleep and energy-management specialist at the hospital.
His recommendations for combating E-ddiction include - you guessed it - spending some smartphone-free time each day; leaving laptops and BlackBerries behind when taking a holiday; prising yourself from the office for a lunch-break stroll; limiting the amount of time spent online and on screen; and eschewing cyber-chats for conversations on the phone or face to face. Imagine.
As for me? I rarely use Facebook now and I've dumped Twitter. I've unsubscribed from dozens of
e-newsletters and allotted fixed times each day to check emails. The long hours I used to spend surfing news sites are now spent pleasurably reading books and newspapers. And my brain seems deeply grateful. I feel less stressed and distracted, I can focus on a single task and retain a great deal more information. For those who are similarly afflicted, I thoroughly recommend a digital detox, and fast.

Housing market a 'time bomb', says investment legend

THE Australian and British housing markets are the last two bubbles left in the wake of the financial crisis, and it is only a matter of time before they crash, warns legendary US investor and co-founder of global investment management firm GMO, Jeremy Grantham. Mr Grantham famously reported a year before the global financial crisis: "In five years, I expect that at least one major bank (broadly defined) will have failed and that up to half the hedge funds and a substantial percentage of the private equity firms in existence today will have simply ceased to exist. He said yesterday that Australia had an unmistakable housing bubble and that prices would need to come down by 42 per cent to return to the long-term trend.

"You cannot possibly miss it," he said.  "The price of housing typically trades about 3.5 times of family income and in bubble it goes to 6 or . . . 7.5 (times).  "Australia is having one now. You are at near 7.5 times family income . . . which suggests you are twice the size that you should be." GMO is one of the biggest investment management firms in the world, with about $106 billion in funds under management, and is considered to be an authority on asset bubbles.

Mr Grantham, who is in Australia to meet with GMO clients in Sydney and Melbourne this week, said any bubble could be an exception to the rule.  "Bubbles have quite a few things in common but housing bubbles have a spectacular thing in common, and that is every one of them is considered unique and different," he said.  As an example, he cited the British housing market bubble of 1989. At the time, he said people dismissed the bubble because there was no more rezoning, creating a land shortage and as such, they believed prices would rise forever.

"Seven years later, in 1997, they hit the lowest multiple of family income since the record books started in 1945. It's always the same old argument, they are not making any more land."  In Australia's case, Mr Grantham described the housing market as a "time bomb" just waiting for interest rates to increase and become impossible to support.  Since last October, the Reserve Bank of Australia has raised the official cash rate six times. The rate is now 4.5 per cent.

If the Australian housing market did not return to the normal multiple of family income, he said "it will be the first time in history."  "Sooner or later, the rates will go up and the game is over."

Jun 15, 2010

Crisis puts nails back in Keynesian coffin

LAST year's global financial crisis heralded the stunning return of Keynesian fiscal policy as governments pumped up their budgets to stave off a feared global depression. This year's European sovereign-debt crisis signals its spectacular fall as governments are suddenly forced to cut their budgets even when their economies are weak.

The discrediting of activist fiscal policy also dashes Kevin Rudd's wild talk that the GFC marked the end of unregulated extreme capitalism and its overthrow by a new epoch of "social democracy". As the PM's essay in The Monthly approvingly quoted French President Nicolas Sarkozy: "Le laissez-faire, c'est fini."

Of course, the neo-liberal minimalist state doesn't exist, particularly in Europe. Yet the Europeans continued to blame unregulated financial markets as their sovereign-debt crisis spread from Greece across the world in April and May. The Swedish Finance Minister likened the markets to "a pack of wolves".

Only after the EU's emergency $US1 trillion ($1.17 trillion) financial stabilisation fund failed to stabilise the situation did the euro finally drop. The recession and the huge budget stimulus and bank bailout packages had pushed Europe's budgets over the brink. Investors demanded much higher risk premiums before they would be prepared to buy bonds issued by the most profligate governments, such as Greece, Portugal and Spain. This threatened to club their economies even harder, make their budget positions worse and risk feeding back through sovereign defaults into a new European banking crisis.


After championing last year's huge budget stimulus packages, the International Monetary Fund now says the euro area crisis primarily results from "fiscally unsustainable policies". Advanced economies will have to contract their budgets nearly nine percentage points of gross domestic product to reduce their gross government debt from post-war highs of over 100 per cent to 60 per cent of GDP by 2030. The World Bank says a severe loss of confidence in the budget positions of high-income economies is now the biggest risk to the global economy. "Demand stimulus in high-income countries is increasingly part of the problem instead of the solution," it says.

One of the world's leading macro-economists, Columbia University's Jeffrey Sachs, argues that Europe's enforced switch from budget stimulus to fiscal austerity reveals the folly of last year's Keynesian revival.

"Keynesian stimulus was premised on four dubious propositions," Sachs wrote last week in the Financial Times. "That it was needed to prevent a global depression; that a short-run fiscal boost would jump-start the economy; that 'shovel-ready projects' could combine short-term cyclical and long-term structural agendas; and, last, that the rapid rise of public debt occasioned by stimulus need not be a concern. That these ideas were so widely accepted was a testament to the perennial political attractiveness of tax cuts and spending increases."

Sachs dismisses last year's ubiquitous references to another Depression as glib. Politicians panicked when they should have left the financial crisis to central bankers. Many of the budget stimulus programs were "dispiriting wastes of scarce time and money". And they ignored a key rationalist insight of modern macro-economics: that the effectiveness of such stimulus packages depends not only on current taxes and spending but also on their likely future trajectories.

The irony is striking. Rudd claimed that the GFC revealed the neo-liberal fallacy that financial markets naturally self-corrected. But it has taken the markets to finally discipline the political tendency for the modern welfare state to repeatedly ratchet up spending and taxes as a share of national income. EU president Herman Van Rompuy now even blames financial markets for being too "soft" on European fiscal irresponsibility for too long after the euro was born in 1999.

And the battle to save the euro will not be waged through Rudd's seismic social-democratic overthrow of neo-liberalism. Along with austerity, it will require more pro-market reforms - particular to Europe's over-regulated labour markets - to provide the internal economic flexibility required by a single-currency area.

The fall of Keynesian stimulus policy has not been so stark in Australia because, unlike Europe, we are a growth economy that has been showered by tax revenue from our China boom. That meant government debt was low headed into the GFC which, in turn, gave the budget stimulus more punch.

But, in line with Sachs's complaints, Labor's attempts to combine short-term stimulus with longer-term structural aims - such as the home insulation and primary school building schemes - have been farcical and wasteful.

So Labor's fiscal policy now correctly vows to return the budget to substantial surplus as soon as possible so as to save, rather than spend, the resumed surge in tax revenue from the renewed China boom. And that's where Ken Henry's 40 per cent resource super-profits tax comes in. The macro-economics of the RSPT is based first on the idea that this boom needs to be partly quarantined into a string of substantial budget surpluses.

It is based second on the idea that the RSPT would amplify the budget's "automatic stabilisers" by gearing it more closely to mining company profits. That is, the budget would become more of a natural swing instrument to cushion the volatility of the China boom without resort to "discretionary" stimulus measures such as Keynesian make-work spending schemes. The budget automatically would plunge deeper into deficit if mining boom revenue receipts fell. At the same time the previous budget surpluses would have pre-financed a steady stream of state government infrastructure spending.

But this has produced the great irony of the RSPT's promise to provide a 40 per cent tax credit for mining losses in return for taking 40 per cent of so-called super profits. When the budget slumps into deep deficit, would politicians bail out Chinese mining investors over spending on local hospitals?

For the miners, the budget's volatility becomes a political risk rather than an automatic stabiliser. They and their bankers don't value the promise of a 40 per cent tax credit for losses.

Rightly or wrongly, the RSPT's alternative to activist budget policy lacks market credibility.

Jun 13, 2010

A Decade Later, Human Gene Map Yields Few New Cures

Ten years after President Bill Clinton  announced that the first draft of the human genome was complete, medicine has yet to see any large part of the promised benefits.

For biologists, the genome has yielded one insightful surprise after another. But the primary goal of the $3 billion Human Genome Project — to ferret out the genetic roots of common diseases like cancer and Alzheimer’s and then generate treatments — remains largely elusive. Indeed, after 10 years of effort, geneticists are almost back to square one in knowing where to look for the roots of common disease.

One sign of the genome’s limited use for medicine so far was a recent test of genetic predictions for heart disease. A medical team led by Nina P. Paynter of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston collected 101 genetic variants that had been statistically linked to heart disease in various genome-scanning studies. But the variants turned out to have no value in forecasting disease among 19,000 women who had been followed for 12 years.

The old-fashioned method of taking a family history was a better guide, Dr. Paynter reported this February in The Journal of the American Medical Association.

In announcing on June 26, 2000, that the first draft of the human genome had been achieved, Mr. Clinton said it would “revolutionize the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of most, if not all, human diseases.”

At a news conference, Francis Collins, then the director of the genome agency at the National Institutes of Health, said that genetic diagnosis of diseases would be accomplished in 10 years and that treatments would start to roll out perhaps five years after that.

“Over the longer term, perhaps in another 15 or 20 years,” he added, “you will see a complete transformation in therapeutic medicine.”

The pharmaceutical industry has spent billions of dollars to reap genomic secrets and is starting to bring several genome-guided drugs to market. While drug companies continue to pour huge amounts of money into genome research, it has become clear that the genetics of most diseases are more complex than anticipated and that it will take many more years before new treatments may be able to transform medicine.

“Genomics is a way to do science, not medicine,” said Harold Varmus, president of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, who in July will become the director of the National Cancer Institute.

The last decade has brought a flood of discoveries of disease-causing mutations in the human genome. But with most diseases, the findings have explained only a small part of the risk of getting the disease. And many of the genetic variants linked to diseases, some scientists have begun to fear, could be statistical illusions.

The Human Genome Project was started in 1989 with the goal of sequencing, or identifying, all three billion chemical units in the human genetic instruction set, finding the genetic roots of disease and then developing treatments. With the sequence in hand, the next step was to identify the genetic variants that increase the risk for common diseases like cancer and diabetes.

It was far too expensive at that time to think of sequencing patients’ whole genomes. So the National Institutes of Health embraced the idea for a clever shortcut, that of looking just at sites on the genome where many people have a variant DNA unit. But that shortcut appears to have been less than successful.

The theory behind the shortcut was that since the major diseases are common, so too would be the genetic variants that caused them. Natural selection keeps the human genome free of variants that damage health before children are grown, the theory held, but fails against variants that strike later in life, allowing them to become quite common. In 2002 the National Institutes of Health started a $138 million project called the HapMap to catalog the common variants in European, East Asian and African genomes.

With the catalog in hand, the second stage was to see if any of the variants were more common in the patients with a given disease than in healthy people. These studies required large numbers of patients and cost several million dollars apiece. Nearly 400 of them had been completed by 2009. The upshot is that hundreds of common genetic variants have now been statistically linked with various diseases.

But with most diseases, the common variants have turned out to explain just a fraction of the genetic risk. It now seems more likely that each common disease is mostly caused by large numbers of rare variants, ones too rare to have been cataloged by the HapMap.

Defenders of the HapMap and genome-wide association studies say that the approach made sense because it is only now becoming cheap enough to look for rare variants, and that many common variants do have roles in diseases.

At this point, some 850 sites on the genome, most of them near genes, have been implicated in common diseases, said Eric S. Lander, director of the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Mass., and a leader of the HapMap project. “So I feel strongly that the hypothesis has been vindicated,” he said.

But most of the sites linked with diseases are not in genes — the stretches of DNA that tell the cell to make proteins — and have no known biological function, leading some geneticists to suspect that the associations are spurious.

Many of them may “stem from factors other than a true association with disease risk,” wrote Jon McClellan and Mary-Claire King, geneticists at the University of Washington, Seattle, in the April 16 issue of the journal Cell. The new switch among geneticists to seeing rare variants as the major cause of common disease is “a major paradigm shift in human genetics,” they wrote.

Jun 10, 2010

Expert says Chinese government likely behind massive cyberattacks

The Chinese government is likely behind recent cyberattacks on U.S. government Web sites and on U.S. companies in an apparent effort to quash criticism of the government there, an expert on U.S. and Chinese relations said Wednesday.

There's no conclusive proof that recent attacks on Google and dozens of other U.S. companies are directed by the Chinese government, but logic would point to official Chinese involvement, said Larry Wortzel, a member of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission and a former U.S. Army counterintelligence officer.

[ InfoWorld's Roger Grimes explains how to stop data leaks in an enlightening 30-minute Webcast, Data Loss Prevention, which covers the tools and techniques used by experienced security pros. ]

Google complained in January that it and several other U.S. companies were victims of recent cyberattacks coming from inside China. It is "not clear" who ordered the attacks, but it appears the Chinese government was involved, said Wortzel, who has served in the U.S. embassy in China.

There is a group of skilled hackers in China that routinely attacks systems to spy on political dissidents, said Wortzel, speaking during a U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee hearing. Chinese government agencies and Communist Party organizations would be the likely recipients of information obtained by hackers, he said.

"I concede that I cannot prove this beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law," Wortzel added. "There may be a group of patriotic hackers in China who just hate criticism of the Communist Party and would take such action. But I believe such persistent, systematic and sophisticated attacks, some of which have taken place in the United States, in China, in Germany and in the United Kingdom, most likely are state-directed."

Multiple efforts to reach the Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C., for comment by telephone Wednesday were met with busy signals. Information on the "contact us" page on the embassy's Web site has been deleted.

In addition to attacks on Google and other U.S. companies, attacks from inside China are targeting U.S. military, technical and scientific information, Wortzel said.

"Not all of this cyber-espionage may be government-controlled," he said. "There may be plenty of cyber-espionage entrepreneurs in China who operate outside government control that could be working on behalf of Chinese companies or the 54 state-run science and technology parks around the country."

But the U.S. Department of Justice is prosecuting several espionage cases involving defense and other U.S. technology being turned over to unidentified Chinese officials, Wortzel said. "Let us be candid," he said. "A logical person would conclude that some of this activity is directed by the Chinese government."

Several members of the House committee used the hearing to criticize the Chinese government's filtering of Web content or its tracking of online dissidents. Wednesday's hearing was the second in Congress this month on other countries' efforts to censor the Internet.

More than 70 people are in prison in China for posting information online, said Representative Chris Smith, a New Jersey Republican. Other countries have put bloggers and Web journalists in prison as well, he said.

Representative Brad Sherman, a California Democrat, suggested the U.S. should suspend imports of Chinese goods in protest of widespread copyright violations and theft of intellectual property. U.S. businesses should tell Congress to "get tough" with the Chinese government, he said.

Chinese internet addicts stage mutiny at boot camp

 Fourteen young detainees overcame their guard and fled a boot camp regime of physical training and psychological treatment designed to cure their addiction — to the internet.  The group, aged 15 to 22, staged their mass breakout by grabbing a duty supervisor when he was in bed and immobilising him in his quilt. 
He shouted for help and they apologised before tying him up. They then made their way in groups of three to the home town of the leader of the group.

The addicts made their break from the Huai’an Internet Addiction Treatment Centre in eastern Jiangsu province last Wednesday, complaining that they could no longer endure its “monotonous work and intensive training”. It is the latest incident to highlight the sometimes brutal techniques employed at camps across China to wean young people off the internet. A 15-year-old boy was beaten to death last year days after he was admitted to a camp. Last month a court sentenced two instructors to up to ten years in jail for the incident.

The China Youth Association for Network Development estimates that about 24 million Chinese adolescents are addicted to the internet, many to gaming sites. For the recent escapees freedom proved short lived. A taxi driver alerted police after the young men were unable to pay the fare. There was little sympathy from their exasperated parents either, who had paid 18,000 yuan (£1,830) for their children to receive six months’ treatment at the camp.  Most insisted that their children should go back to the camp at once and since the breakout all but one have been returned.

One mother wept at the police station when she described how her son once spent 28 consecutive hours playing online games. A camp official justified the methods used to cure the addiction, saying: “We have to use military style methods such as total immersion and physical training on these young people. We need to teach them some discipline and help them to establish a regular lifestyle.”

The camp requires its “inmates” to be up at 5am and in bed at 9.30pm. During the day they must undergo two hours of physical drills, as well as courses in calligraphy, traditional Chinese philosophy and receive counselling.  Yang Guihua, the mother of the youth who orchestrated the escape, said that her son must return and defended the treatment. She said: “I don’t think there is any problem with the training methods at the centre. They are for my child’s own good.”

• China underscored its commitment to keeping a tight grip on the internet yesterday, vowing in a new White Paper to block anything deemed subversive or a threat to national unity.  It said that it wanted to boost internet usage to 45 per cent of the population in the next five years but gave no indication that it would ease the Great Firewall, which blocks websites such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.

Jun 9, 2010

Facebook addicts 'can't relate', Professor of Pharmacology at Oxford University says

YOUTHS hooked on social networking sites are struggling to relate, a leading neuroscientist says.

Baroness Susan Greenfield says more research is needed to establish a possible link between Facebook and a lack of empathy among the young.

"If you are not rehearsing looking someone in the eye in three dimensions, but instead you have 900 friends on Facebook ... one does question what kind of relationship they might be having,'' she told the National Press Club in Canberra.

"We are being complacent in the extreme if you just dismiss me as a whingeing, middle-aged Luddite.''

The Professor of Pharmacology at Oxford University in the UK was more positive about the virtues of an ageing brain.

Finding a way to delay the onset of dementia by five years could also save Australian taxpayers $67.5 billion over the next three decades, she said.

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When it came to the young, Baroness Greenfield said, more research was needed to see if internet usage was linked to attention deficit disorder (ADD).

"Perhaps it's mandating a shorter attention span. I'm not saying it is but I'm saying: 'Wouldn't it be worth exploring?','' she said.

The three-fold increase in Ritalin prescriptions - medication for ADD and ADHD - during the past decade in Britain could be a possible sign of a changing environment.

More research should be dedicated towards exploring what made computer software programs so addictive, she suggested.

But when it came to older people, she urged society to show them more respect.

"Of course, the body does get baggy and saggy and wrinkly but your brain does not get like that,'' the 59-year-old scientist said.

"It's more like a fine wine. As it gets older, it becomes special, it becomes more individual which is why in other societies, quite understandably and correctly, older people have a reverence.

"I would love to see a revival of the culture in this and other societies, which is a reverence for people who have lived their lives and have actually learnt things from it.''

The House of Lords member said Australia could save $67.5 billion by 2040 if it spent more on dementia research.

She also suggested that eventually finding a cure for dementia could see more people live to 100.

"No one has actually written the question: 'What do we do with that time?','' she said.

"Do we just play computer games? That is a really important issue to address.''

Baroness Greenfield is touring Australia on behalf of the Australian Society for Medical Research.

Westpac accounts closed after attack by fraud scammers

SOME Westpac bank customers have had their internet accounts suspended after a mass fraud attack flooded thousands of computers.

Federal police and security experts are working to remove a fake website designed to steal account numbers and passwords.

International criminals are believed to be behind the bogus email, which has a Westpac symbol entitled "monthly security check''.

The email clicks through to a phony website link that asks account holders to supply their banking details.

Westpac spokesman David Lording said the bank's security specialists detected the scam this morning.

"Our team has initiated 'take down' procedures,'' Mr Lording said.

Fewer than 50 customers hoodwinked into supplying details had their internet accounts temporarily closed and will be issued with new passwords. It is unclear whether any money was stolen.

Authorities are investigating a possible connection between yesterday's email blitz and a similar 'phishing' attempt last month that was linked to a Moscow crime group.

The latest bogus message reads: "Your access to Westpac online has been temporarily disabled due to multiple login errors. Protecting the privacy of our banking network is our primary concern.

"Therefore, as a preventive measure, we have suspended your online banking account. Please verify your identity and restore your access.''

Mr Lording said fraudsters used mass mailouts in a "hit or miss'' approach.

Many computer users sent the email were not even Westpac customers.

Organised criminals often obtain staff email addresses listed on company websites.

Mr Lording said the bank never asked for security details, such as passwords, in emails.

"Any messages of this type purportedly from banks should be immediately deleted,'' Mr Lording said.

Jun 8, 2010

Zombie PCs to be quarantined under new ISP cod

The Internet Industry Association (IIA) has urged ISPs to better secure their networks by adopting recommendations in a new voluntary code of practice on cyber security.

According to the IIA, the new guidelines will provide a consistent approach for Australian ISPs to help inform, educate and protect their customers in relation to cyber security risks.

“Through following the Code, it is believed ISPs will contribute to reducing the number of compromised computers in Australia and thereby contribute to the overall security of the Australian and international internet,” the code’s preamble reads.

In arguing for the Code’s adoption, the IIA said implementing the measures contained in the code will also benefit individual ISPs by improving awareness of suspicious activity on their networks, reducing service calls from customers related to security issues, and offering customers a greater level of confidence in the security of their Internet connections.

The Code calls on ISPs to undertake at least one of four activities: greater education of their customers, increasing network detection activity, taking action to address a compromised PC on their network, or greater reporting of malicious activity.

While beneficial to an ISP’s wider customer base, taking action to address a compromised PC, commonly known as a “zombie”, is likely to be controversial as the action would allow providers to apply an “abuse plan” where the customer’s Internet speed is throttled.

It also sees the option of temporarily quarantining the customer’s service -- holding the customer within a ‘walled garden’, and restricting outbound email if a customer’s PC has been taken over and is being used to issue spam emails.

Network detection activity would see IPS undertake network management practices to help identify abnormal traffic patterns from an IP address that may indicate that a customer’s computer has compromised.

The new code of practice coincides with the launch of cyber security awareness week which aims to inform Australians about cyber security and provide steps to help protect personal and financial information online.

Jun 4, 2010

Many Aussies are victims of fraud: ABS

Nearly one million Australians were victims of personal fraud, the latest annual survey shows, with a combined financial loss of almost one billion dollars.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) has published the results of a 2007 personal fraud survey of Australians aged 15 and over in its 2009 Yearbook, released on Friday.

The survey found just over 800,000 Australians were victims of personal fraud in the year prior to the survey and half of those - 453,100 - suffered financial harm, with a combined loss of $977 million.
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Nearly half a million Australians were victims of identity fraud, mostly bank and credit card fraud, in the year prior to the survey.

Over five million Australians had fallen victims to scams, including pyramid schemes, phishing scams and chain letters, the survey found.

"Personal fraud has been recognised as a crime that is a growing threat to the community, as a result of the rapid expansion and availability of internet technology and the increase in electronic storage, transmission and sharing of data," the ABS said in its report.

Other crime statistics showed the number of victims of attempted murder and robbery had decreased from 2007 to 2008, while kidnapping and murder rates rose.

The number of robbery victims, as recorded by state and territory police, showed the largest decline - eight per cent, or 1488 victims.

Attempted murder rates were down six per cent from 2007 figures, while the number of car theft victims decreased by four per cent.

But murder rates rose by two per cent in 2008, while the number of victims of kidnappings rose by seven per cent, or 49 victims.

The national rate of car theft was at its lowest since national reporting began in 1993, the data showed.