Jan 21, 2011

Lion's Den: Tunisia's uncertain impact

The sudden yet unexplained exit of Tunisia’s strongman, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, 74, after 23 years in power has potential implications for the Middle East and for Muslims worldwide. As an Egyptian commentator noted: “Every Arab leader is watching Tunisia in fear. Every Arab citizen is watching Tunisia in hope and solidarity.”

I watch with both emotions.

During the first era of independence, until about 1970, governments in Arabic speaking countries were frequently overthrown as troops under the control of discontented colonels streamed into the capitals, seized the presidential quarters and the radio station, then announced a new regime. Syrians endured three such coups d’├ętat in 1949 alone.

Over time, regimes learned to protect themselves via overlapping intelligence services, reliance on family and tribal members, repression and other mechanisms. Four decades of sclerotic, sterile stability followed. With only rare exceptions (Iraq in 2003, Gaza in 2007) did regimes get ousted; even more rarely (Sudan in 1985) did civilian dissent play a significant role.

ENTER FIRST Al-Jazeera, which focuses Arab-wide attention on topics of its choosing, and then the Internet. Beyond its inexpensive, detailed and timely information, the Internet also provides unprecedented secrets (e.g., the recent WikiLeaks dump of US diplomatic cables), even as it connects the like-minded (via Facebook and Twitter). These new forces converged i

Aged care cash crisis may force home sales

OLDER Australians may be forced to sell the family home to get into quality nursing homes. The Government has been urged to extend controversial accommodation bonds to all forms of residential aged care. A major report to be released today recommends the Gillard Government introduce the option of bonds for high-level care to help meet the soaring costs of building new centres.

The 500-page Productivity Commission report calls for a drastic financing overhaul of an industry plagued by long waiting times, limits on bed numbers and costly over-regulation. The sector is estimated to face a $17 billion construction bill in the next 10 years, but with low profit margins, it struggles to raise the capital needed. Today's report embraces calls for greater contributions from people able to afford it - while protecting those who can't. Experts believe the industry needs billions of dollars more government money to cope with forecasts that the number of Australians relying on some form of aged care will grow from today's million to 3.6 million in 2050.

But the Finance Department has warned that handing the bill to taxpayers risks blowing the Budget. Accommodation bonds - essentially interest-free loans to aged care providers that are eventually returned to the family - are among several options aimed at encouraging older people to contribute more to the cost of their own care. Other options to avoid the emotionally confronting decision of whether to sell the home include allowing residents to draw on equity in their homes.

Another is to encourage aged pensioners who sell their homes to use the proceeds to buy a new Australian Pensioners Bond. The bond would be exempt from age pension assets and incomes tests - crucially, allowing them to keep receiving the pension. Free of entry, exit and management fees, the bond would enable pensioners to draw the money needed to meet their living and aged care costs. Accommodation bonds are currently paid for low-level residential care but not high-level care for, say, dementia sufferers.

Average bonds paid by new low-care residents were about $230,000 in 2009-10.

Assets-test reform for aged care | The Australian

THE elderly will be compelled to pay more for their nursing home care under a revolutionary funding plan that resurrects the politically unpalatable option of older Australians selling their homes to buy government-issued accommodation bonds.

Under recommendations put forward in a Productivity Commission draft report, to be released today, the economic advisory body warns that taxes will have to increase to meet the care demands of ageing baby boomers unless Australians begin to contribute more towards their nursing home care.

The already overburdened sector faces a demographic time-bomb, with the number of people expected to rely on the system more than trebling to more than 3.6 million by 2050.

The commission wants people to have more flexibility and choice in meeting their needs, and suggests greying Australians pay for their accommodation via a lump-sum bond, or choose to make daily, weekly or monthly payments. They could combine both options.

They could also rely on a third avenue of drawing down on the equity in their home through a type of "reverse mortgage".

The government will consider the recommendations, which now go out for public comment, but the Minister for Ageing, Mark Butler, yesterday told The Australian the government was committed to reforming the sector to deliver better quality and to develop a system that could withstand the onslaught of the ageing population

Jan 20, 2011

Welcoming the real refugees

Chris Bowen is starting to talk tough on asylum-seekers arriving by boat. "People who are not genuine refugees will be returned to Afghanistan with dignity and humanity, but they will be returned," the Immigration Minister said on Monday, announcing a long overdue agreement with Kabul. This will upset the asylum-seekers lobby, which believes that by risking all at sea people demonstrate how bad things are at home, making their case to be refugees. Mr Bowen should ignore the activists. The number of people turning up on our shores will continue to increase unless aspiring immigrants understand they will be sent home if they cannot demonstrate a well-founded fear of persecution there. Hard times at home or hope for a better life here do not qualify. And the new arrangement is not as devious as the government's previous panicky ploy, to suspend visa applications from Afghanistan.

This agreement will go some small way to undo the damage done to Australia's immigration system by Labor's relaxation of the Howard government's tough processing policy. Like it or not, using Nauru as a processing centre, beyond the writ of Australian law, stopped the boats. About 200 people arrived here by boat between 2002 and 2006. Since Labor signalled an easier approach, the numbers have increased each year. There are now more than 6000 people in immigration detention. And the more who come by sea the more who are at danger of drowning. The only way to stop a repeat of the December disaster at Christmas Island is to get the number of smuggling craft back to the 2002 level, when there were just two.

Editorial, The Australian, 19 Jan 2010

Op-shop Salvation : trash and treasure | Adelaide Now

THE Salvation Army has embraced the online world and given the op shop a whole new market.

Unlike the bricks-and-mortar community shops, the e-store -- which opens at 9am today -- offers savvy shoppers the chance to snap up a pre-loved fashion bargain from the comfort of wherever their computer is.

Salvos Stores general manager Neville Barrett yesterday said the great Australian op shop had been a part of the community for decades and the shift online was a natural step.

"What we are doing is keeping the Salvos Store relevant," he said at the Salvos' Glebe shop.

"The Salvation Army wants to open up to the market who shops online."

It wouldn't be Salvos if there weren't bargains to be had. While modelling some of the Salvos online bargains yesterday, Lena Sachs decided to buy the Zimmermann top she was wearing for just $5. Also among the bargains was a $765 Marc Cain dress for $195.

Mr Barrett said the organisation was leveraging the power of social media.

Engineer warned of danger from Wivenhoe dam | The Australian

BRISBANE City Council's top flood engineer recommended a decade ago that Wivenhoe Dam be operated differently to ensure a much larger buffer against flooding, documents obtained under Freedom of Information show.

Engineer Ken Morris warned in an internal report, Brisbane River Flooding, that the existing and longstanding Queensland government policy of operating the dam at full supply level meant its capacity to mitigate floods was significantly compromised.

Mr Morris, the council's principal engineer for flood management, also warned a decade ago that the council's development controls meant thousands of residents were unaware they would be severely hit by floods during rainfall events that were much smaller than those predicted to occur once in 100 years, despite assurances that their properties would not be affected.

Premier Anna Bligh pledged yesterday that the operations and requirements of the Queensland government-owned Wivenhoe Dam would be the subject of early and forensic scrutiny by the commission of inquiry that has been set up.

Engineers and hydrology experts who have been examining data on river height, dam flow rates and weather systems have told The Australian the dam stored far too much water in its flood compartment over the weekend of January 8-9.

They said the Brisbane flood was largely attributable to the dam's operators releasing unprecedented and unnecessarily vast volumes of water on January 11 after they lost their flood buffer because the dam had not been drawn down significantly over the weekend before the huge rainfall dump.

The performance of the dam's operators has been described as first-class by SEQWater Grid managers, who said Wivenhoe had done a remarkable job in mitigating the flood.

Water Grid managers said they had at all times operated according to the manual and rigid rules.

The flooding and deaths in Toowoomba and the Lockyer Valley were unrelated because that catchment is separate to Wivenhoe's 7000 square kilometre catchment.

The commission of inquiry's dam expert, Phil Cummins, has pledged that the inquiry will examine the public policy settings that required the dam to be operated at 100 per cent of its capacity for urban supply.

The dam's operation at 100 per cent continues today despite the extreme rainfall and flooding in Queensland in recent months, the Bureau of Meteorology's warnings last year of intense rain with a confirmed new La Nina weather phase after years of drought-causing El Nino, and the completion of the state's multi-billion-dollar drought-proofing Water Grid.

Mr Morris, who did not return calls yesterday while directing flood recovery operations in the devastated suburbs of Brisbane, has noted in official reports before the Water Grid was established that Wivenhoe Dam could be comfortably operated below its full supply level.

Mr Morris suggested that operating Wivenhoe at 75 per cent and using the balance as additional flood storage would make a significant difference to the level in the Brisbane River during any flooding.

"The potential exists to either reduce the water storage capacity of the dam to provide additional flood storage or increase the flood storage capacity of the dam by raising the wall of the dam," Mr Morris wrote.

"Such work could increase the effectiveness of the dam considerably.

"In Brisbane, big events on the Brisbane River are associated with big wet periods.

"It only takes 40mm of rainfall runoff to fill 25 per cent of the storage, so even if the dam was drawn down it would soon recover and most likely recover before the beginning of a one-in-100-year event."

The six largest floods recorded in Brisbane's history since white settlement were in either January or February in the years 1841, 1844, 1893 (twice), 1974 and this year.

Pressure on Wivenhoe Dam to run at 100 per cent was reinforced six weeks ago, despite the onset of the wet season, when the Queensland government announced new cost-saving policies, including putting the new Tugun desalination plant on standby, saving $10 million a year.

The policies meant that Wivenhoe Dam continued to run at 100 per cent full supply (about 1.15 million megalitres), leaving its flood storage compartment of about 1.45 million megalitres to handle any extreme rainfall events.

Weeks after cabinet and disaster management groups were briefed by the Bureau of Meteorology to expect highly unusual rainfall in the 2011 wet season, Queensland Treasurer Andrew Fraser and Natural Resources Minister Stephen Robertson announced "major reforms to the southeast Queensland water supply grid to help reduce rising household water bills".


Jan 19, 2011

Cold Fusion getting hot with 10kw heater prepping for market

Last Friday, January 14, we reported about a press conference held in Bologna, Italy in which Professor Sergio Focardi and Eng. Andrea A. Rossi, both of the University of Bologna, announced to the world that they have a cold fusion device capable of producing more than 10 kilowatts of heat power, while only consuming a fraction of that. This is the first public demonstration of a nickel-hydrogen fusion reactor capable of producing a few kilowatts of thermal energy. At its peak, it is capable of generating 15,000 watts with just 400 watts input required. On Saturday, a forum was opened allowing for questions online from around the world.

This recent public demonstration alone is is a huge development, but what's more, they also claim to be going into production, expecting to have these available for purchase commercially within a year. This would become the world's first commercially-ready "cold fusion" device. The first units are supposed to ship in three months, with mass production commencing by the end of 2011.

Licensees are mentioned, with contracts in the USA and in Europe. Mass production should escalate in 2-3 years. Presently Rossi says they are manufacturing a 1 megawatt plant composed of 125 modules.

In his forum, Rossi wrote:

We have passed already the phase to convince somebody. We are arrived to a product that is ready for the market. Our judge is the market. In this field the phase of the competition in the field of theories, hypothesis, conjectures etc etc is over. The competition is in the market. If somebody has a valid technology, he has not to convince people by chattering, he has to make a reactor that work and go to sell it, as we are doing.

Inquiries about purchasing are to be directed to info@leonardocorp1996.com

Rossi estimates that the cost of energy made with this system will be below 1 cent/kWh, in case of electric power made by means of a Carnot cycle, and below 1 cent/4,000 M J in case of thermal power production for heating purposes. That is several times cheaper than energy from fossil fuel sources such as coal or natural gas.

According to Rossi, the demonstrated device shown last Friday is their industrial product that is claimed to be reliable and safe. In normal operation it would produce 8 units of output for every unit of input. Higher levels of output are possible, but can be dangerous. They will soon start serial production of their modules. Combining the modules in series and parallel arrays it is possible to reach every limit of power. The modules are designed to be connected in series and parallels.

In describing the batch processing operation of the device, he said: "To start up the reactor you have just to turn on a switch. The reactor works with enormous margins of safety, so there is no need of a particular skill. Just follow the instructions. The refueling is every 6 months and will be made by our dealers."

Rossi also says that they have had one reactor that has run continually for two years, providing heat for a factory. Also, the reactors can self sustain by turning off the input, but they prefer to have an input. The device will be scheduled for maintenance every six months. You control it "just as you turn on and off your television set."

Here's a video excerpt of the demonstration in Italy last Friday. They allowed six people at a time to go into a smaller room where the equipment was located. The tac, tac, tac sound is made by the water pump, which is a precision dosator. You can see all three videos (in Italian) on the efagroup2010 YouTube channel.

Tony Abbott calls for NBN to be dropped in favour of rebuilding after floods |

TONY Abbott has ramped up his call for the National Broadband Network to be abandoned as an expensive white elephant in the wake of the devastating Queensland floods.

As Julia Gillard warned tough budget choices lay ahead, the Opposition Leader said the $36 billion network was an “expensive luxury that Australia cannot afford”.

“The one thing you don't do is re-do your bathroom when the roof has just been blown off and that's the situation that we find ourselves in right now,” he said.

“This really is a project that doesn't stack up and it shouldn't go ahead. It particularly shouldn't be going ahead at a time like this.”

Mr Abbott's call follows a warning by Infrastructure Australia chief Rod Eddington that Australia will need to reassess major infrastructure projects in favour of rebuilding road, rail and water utilities damaged by flooding.

His attack on the NBN also follows confirmation today that the taxpayer-funded NBN Co will be exempt from freedom of information laws.

Mr Abbott said unspent funds under the government's stimulus package, and the money devoted to initiatives such as the “cash for clunkers” election promise, should also be diverted to the flood recovery.

Queenslanders should not be taxed to fund the rebuilding effort, he said.

NBN must face a flood of razors

The Federal Government should not rule out stalling the National Broadband Network (NBN) to fund the multibillion-dollar rebuilding efforts for flood-affected Queensland and Victoria, according to the Business Council of Australia.
Straight razor

(8803 image by Avery, CC BY-ND 2.0)

The government plans to invest $27.5 billion in the NBN, which will deliver high-speed fibre internet access to 93 per cent of Australian homes and had already commenced the roll-out.

But council chief Graham Bradley told ABC Radio that the network is a large public spend that should not be exempt from government razor gangs.

"The NBN is just one of the infrastructure projects that will have a demand on public funding over the next three, four, five years," Bradley said.

"Everything should be considered."

Economists have warned that the flood repair bill will add to inflation.

Bradley's comments follow suggestions from Opposition Leader Tony Abbott that the government should scrap the NBN to fund the flood rebuild.

"It is time for the government to stop spending on unnecessary projects so that it can start spending on unavoidable projects such as the reconstruction that will be needed in Queensland," Abbott told reporters in Sydney.

"The National Broadband Network is a luxury that Australia cannot now afford. The one thing you don't do is redo your bathroom when your roof has just been blown off."

Jan 17, 2011

Next shock will be high food prices

You will pay for all this water. Unless you are insulated from the normal costs of living, you can expect sticker shock at some point this year, or next, when paying for the weekly food shopping. We've had oil shocks. Prepare for food shocks.

Ten years ago, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation's composite world food price index stood at 92. For the month of December it was 215.

The most expensive year on record was 2008, when 60 million people slid into poverty because of higher food costs. There were food riots. Over the past three months, the trend in the FAO's food price index was worse than 2008.

The pressure in 2011 won't just be on food prices. The inundation of Queensland sent cotton futures to a record high. Cotton is basically twice as expensive as it was 10 years ago because of fundamentals: supply and demand.

Then there are energy prices. Australia is the world's biggest coal exporter and Queensland is a big part of that. The armada of empty coal ships sitting off the Queensland coast is already flowing into higher coal prices in Europe.

This is in addition to the pressure on the price of oil coming from increased demand from China and India. Oil is again flirting with the $US100 per barrel threshold; bad news, given that almost everything in the modern economy is dependent on oil, directly or indirectly, especially the cost of fertiliser and transport - and thus food.

Jan 15, 2011

Debt trap in Europe

UROPEAN politicians and central bankers attempting to distance themselves from the rolling debt crises engulfing their neighbours have provided useful geographical clarifications.

Before succumbing to last year's inevitable bailout by the European Union and International Monetary Fund, the Irish government assured the world that Ireland was not Greece.

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Portugal is now telling everyone it is neither Greece nor Ireland. Spain insists it is not Greece, Ireland or Portugal. Italy insists it is none of the above, as does Belgium, which also wants the world to know that it should not be confused with Italy.

Russian writer Leo Tolstoy wrote: ''All happy families resemble one another, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.'' The same applies to beleaguered European countries.

Greece had a bloated public sector and an uncompetitive economy sustained by low euro interest rates.

Ireland suffered from excessive dependence on the financial sector, poor lending, a property bubble and an increasingly generous welfare state.

Portugal, which over recent weeks has been experiencing its own moment of vertigo, has slow growth, anaemic productivity, large budget deficits and poor domestic savings.

Jan 14, 2011

Watson the supercomputer battles Jeopardy! geniuses

The clue: It's the size of 10 refrigerators, has access to the equivalent of 200 million pages of information and knows how to answer in the form of a question.

The correct response: "What is the computer IBM developed to become a 'Jeopardy!' whiz?"

Watson, which IBM claims as a profound advance in artificial intelligence, edged out game-show champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter this week in its first public test, a short practice round ahead of a million-dollar tournament that will be televised in the US next month.

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Later, the human contestants made jokes about the "Terminator" movies and robots from the future. Indeed, four questions into the round you had to wonder if the rise of the machines was already upon us — in a trivial sense at least.

Watson tore through a category about female archaeologists, repeatedly activating a mechanical button before either Ken Jennings or Brad Rutter could buzz in, then nailing the questions: "What is Jericho?" "What is Crete?"

Its gentle male voice even scored a laugh when it said, "Let's finish 'Chicks Dig Me'".

Jennings, who won a record 74 consecutive "Jeopardy!" games in 2004-05, then salvaged the category, winning $US1000 by identifying the prehistoric human skeleton Dorothy Garrod found in Israel: "What is Neanderthal?"

He and Rutter, who won a record of nearly $US3.3 million in prize money, had more success on questions about children's books and the initials "M.C.", though Watson knew about "Harold and the Purple Crayon" and that it was Maurice Chevalier who sang "Thank Heaven for Little Girls" in the film "Gigi". The computer pulled in $US4400 in the practice round, compared with $US3400 for Jennings and $US1200 for Rutter.

Watson is powered by 10 racks of IBM servers running the Linux operating system. It's not connected to the internet but has digested encyclopedias, dictionaries, books, news, movie scripts and more.

Boycott of Israel is beyond the pale

AS part of Leonard Cohen's successful world comeback tour in 2009 he included a concert at Ramat Gan stadium near Tel Aviv in his itinerary.

For that he was condemned by some activists for promoting a cultural exchange in Israel. Never mind the fact that proceeds from this concert were directed to the Fund for Reconciliation, Tolerance and Peace. Groups which directly benefited included the Parents Circle, made up of both Palestinian and Israeli parents who have lost children in the Middle East conflict with the aim of promoting peace and reconciliation. Cohen described the concert as "representing a triumph over the inclination of the heart to despair, revenge and hatred".

The decision of the Greens Party-controlled Marrickville Council to "boycott all goods made in Israel and any sporting, academic, government or cultural exchanges", is unfortunate and misguided at best.

The council goes even further and suggests that any organisation or company with links to Israel should be boycotted also. It is not clear how much of ratepayer funds will be expended on this research. It is doubtful how fair dinkum the Greens Party councillors are, given that the resolution carried a month ago included a third point, that they would write to local parliamentary representatives "seeking their support at the state and federal level" and Greens mayor Fiona Byrne has not actually sent the correspondence.

Alarming report on Brisbane River risks covered up | The Australian

SECRET report by scientific and engineering experts warned of significantly greater risks of vast destruction from Brisbane River flooding - and raised grave concerns with the Queensland government and the city's council a decade ago.

But the recommendations in the report for radical changes in planning strategy, emergency plans and transparency about the true flood levels for Brisbane were rejected and the report was covered up.

The comprehensive 1999 Brisbane River Flood Study made alarming findings about predicted devastation to tens of thousands of flood-prone properties, which were given the green light for residential development since the 1974 flood. The engineers and hydrologists involved in the study warned that the next major flood in Brisbane would be between 1m and 2m higher than anticipated by the Brisbane town plan.

The study highlighted how the council had permitted the development of thousands of properties whose owners were led to believe they would be out of harm's way in a flood on the scale of 1974.

The study was leaked to this reporter in June 2003 by a high-level public servant, who revealed that the local and state government at the time were less concerned with flood risks and more interested in seeing property development in low-lying areas.

"The flood immunity of properties is less than previously assessed. The average flood damages associated with flooding will be significantly higher. There are potential legal implications for council by allowing development to occur in higher-risk areas. As a minimum, developers and residents may need to be advised of the actual flood risk on their property," the study says. "All elements of the study have been subjected to independent peer review because the key findings have significant implications for council.

"The major finding of this study is that the calculated one-in-100-year design flood flow . . . is about 1m to 2m higher than the current development control in the Brisbane River corridor. The simple option of saying that the current development control level represents the one-in-100-year flood level is not valid."....

Hedley Thomas,

Rio scolds Canberra over indigenous jobs | The Australian

MINING giant Rio Tinto has urged the Gillard government to overhaul its Aboriginal policies.

It wants to create more economic opportunities for indigenous Australians.

In a submission responding to the government's proposed economic development strategy, Rio Tinto warned governments were dropping the ball, while mining companies were picking up the key role of education and training, and that reliance on mining was "not sustainable".

"Governments at all levels need to play a more significant role, in partnership with industry and the local community, in supporting indigenous communities," it said.

The submission warned that while mining companies had been increasing employment opportunities for indigenous people, these initiatives could not translate into social and economic prosperity for indigenous Australians "until a more co-ordinated, systemic approach is developed that will address the basic needs of indigenous people living in remote indigenous communities".

Jan 13, 2011

North Korea, Marrickville: Going rogue | The Daily Telegraph

WHAT does the desert theocracy of Saudi Arabia have in common with Marrickville Council in Sydney's Inner West?

Ever since a Marrickville Council meeting late last year, both are sworn enemies of Israel. In a 10-2 vote, the council decided it would "boycott all goods made in Israel and any sporting, academic institutions, government or institutional cultural exchanges".

Trendy councils supporting trendy causes is nothing new. Greens-dominated Marrickville is a nuclear-free zone that abhors Australia's treatment of refugees while taking a "BANANA" approach to development: Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone.

But by boycotting Israel, Marrickville Council is taking its UN routine a step too far. The first problem is what the boycott would mean in practice.

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Related Coverage

* Gallery: Bar Rafaeli

* Council boycott 'self-indulgent' The Australian, 15 hours ago
* UN resolution a first step towards independence The Australian, 30 Dec 2010
* Fatah 'asked Israel to attack Hamas' The Daily Telegraph, 20 Dec 2010
* Hardliners block the path to peace Courier Mail, 14 Dec 2010
* US urged to recognise Palestine The Australian, 9 Dec 2010

End of sidebar. Return to start of sidebar.

Israel is one of the most innovative and entrepreneurial countries in the world. Its products and inventions find their way into computers, mobile phones, and medicines. A ban means a lot more than just making sure the hummus at council meetings is non-kosher. The second problem is that the move cuts against the proper business of a council and demonstrates that the supposed progressivism of the district only goes so far.

Keep in mind that this is a council that already enjoys a "sister city" relationship with Bethlehem, the West Bank town run by Fatah, successor to the PLO.

Fatah, and indeed most of that part of the world with the exception of Israel, is not exactly committed to those values Greens share with normal people, including the right of women to dress how they choose and of homosexuals not to be executed.

And, unlike Marrickville, which just wants to boycott Israel, Fatah is committed to its elimination.

This isn't the first time Marrickville has taken such a stance. Last year when a local shopkeeper painted an anti-burqa mural on his own wall, Marrickville Council finally found a piece of "street art" it didn't like.

Councillor Sam Iskandar, thought to be the driving force behind the Israel boycott, said the mural "goes against the values" of the Marrickville community and tried to get it removed.

Presumably those with strong opinions on any issue of the day are encouraged to cross Parramatta Rd to Leichhardt and hash it out in a cafe where they won't offend anyone.

Better yet, Marrickville councillors and frustrated local foreign ministers everywhere should realise what the values of serving in local government are all about. Improving amenities. Picking up the trash. Scrubbing graffiti.

And leaving the diplomacy to Canberra.

Jan 12, 2011

Arm celebrates its 20th birthday- The Inquirer

TWENTY YEARS AGO Britain's computer industry looked like a has-been. The global IT industry, desperate for a standard platform for its software, had gravitated to the IBM PC architecture and most UK companies that had built computers to their own designs during the 1980s had either disappeared or were on their way out.
It seemed that the only way to survive, unless you were Apple with a large home market and an eye for design and marketing, was to build PC clones.
The Cambridge company Acorn, often called the British Apple because of a tendency to go its own way, had been in trouble as early as 1984 and would be gone before the turn of the century.
Yet out of this mess was born one of the most successful UK start-ups of the computer age. ARM, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this weekend on 27 November, first set up shop in a converted barn outside Cambridge to exploit Acorn's single greatest asset, the intellectual property bound up in its home-grown Acorn - now Advanced - Risc Machine processors.
The early signs were not good. The launch came at the start of a recession and ARM's funding, just $250,000 from VLSI and $1.5 million from Apple, was small change by the standards of the semiconductor industry. The company's first task was to tailor a processor chip for Apple's ground-breaking pen-driven Newton handheld, which promptly flopped.
Moreover ARM seemed superficially to epitomise the contempt for marketing that had bedevilled British engineering for decades. The original team consisted of 12 engineers with no commercial experience led by a former engineer who none of them knew.
Robin Saxby, who got his electronics degree at Liverpool University, was something of an outsider in elitist Cambridge, which was probably not a bad thing. He had done the rounds of the industry, working for Plessey, Pye, and Rank Bush Murphy, and getting his hands dirty, as some in Cambridge would say, as a salesman for Motorola.
It was Saxby who gave the company its global vision and the innovative licensing model under which it sold not physical silicon but designs for other companies to manufacture. This enabled ARM to compete in an industry in which company revenues - and capital requirements - could exceed the GDP of a small country.
Very early, and very cheekily, Saxby declared an ambition for the ARM architecture to become a global standard.
Hiring Saxby was ARM's second stroke of luck. Its first had come way back in the 1980s when Acorn, designing a cheap processor for the home computer market, used a RISC architecture because it needed the fewest transistors. The fact that this also meant that it drew less power than CISC architectures like Intel's x86 chips was not seen as important at the time - power consumption did not become a serious issue on desktops and servers until the turn of the millennium.
But it was already a very big issue in embedded microcontrollers and portable devices. Remarkably, an ARM analysis of market opportunities, dated three weeks after the founding of the company, does not mention the mobile phone, though it does refer to "portables". Back in 1990 only around 12 million people globally owned a mobile handset.
Two crucial events came in 1998, when ARM still had a smaller market share than its direct rivals MIPs and Hitachi. First Nokia launched its 6110 mobile phone, which used a Texas Instruments chip that married an ARM core to a digital signal processor, creating a breakthrough single chip baseband processor. ARM's chief technology officer Mike Muller recalled later that the 6110 produced a flood of inquiries from chipmakers that had never talked to ARM before.
Then ARM went public, freeing itself of the differing agendas of its backers and allowing it to present its products as a neutral platform for licensees who were competing among themselves. It encouraged manufacturers to use its cores in system-on-a-chip (SoC) designs by tailoring licences for the purpose and freely disclosing the architecture of the AMBA bus used to connect peripheral modules. It also kept a tight control over its instruction set, preventing the kind of fragmentation that hampered some rivals.
The industry began to converge on ARM chips as computing went mobile for much the same reasons that it had plumped for Intel x86 chips for personal computers when computing hit the desktop a decade earlier: nobody wanted a multiplicity of hardware platforms. ARM was becoming a de facto standard. Saxby, almost incredibly, had achieved his ambition.
ARM's success does not rest entirely on mobile phones. Intel likes to boast that it can offer an x86 chip to suit every class of computer from a netbook to a server. ARM offers a similar diversity of smaller devices, ranging up from microcontrollers the size of a pinhead. Licensees can maximise power efficiency by choosing a design that precisely fits the needs of an application.
ARM was bound sooner or later to go into direct competition with Intel as laptops got smaller and phones became more like portable computers, and the ARM-based SoCs in Apple's Ipads have helped raise its credibility in larger formats. Not that anyone should have been surprised. ARM chips were running graphical interfaces on Acorn's Archimedes desktops when Intel PCs were still tootling with text screens. Now multicore ARM chips are being touted as server processors and Intel is fine-tuning its x86 processors for traditional ARM markets.
ARM is still a minnow by comparison with Intel, which will spend more on R&D alone this year than its rival's $6 billion market capitalisation.
But ARM licensees - including giants like Samsung, Toshiba, TI, Freescale and Qualcomm - are collectively more than big enough to act as a counterweight to Intel and have bolstered AMD as its principal rival. The little company from Cambridge has helped shift computing's centre of gravity from Silicon Valley.
ARM has spread itself across the world and is a UK company only in that it retains strong roots here. But it shows what can be done by a small company from a relatively small country in a recession.

Jan 11, 2011

We all want to be housewives now

Doing what comes naturally . . . do women want to 'marry up' to stay at home and have babies?
A new report suggests women would rather marry for money than love and swap their career for the kitchen, writes Judith Woods from London.

Your husband sweeps through the door this evening, Mad Men-style, just as you've settled at the kitchen table, slumped over some reports.

He strides over, encircles your waist and tells you he's had such a whopping pay rise that his pretty liddle lady Need Never Work Again.

Do you a) feel insulted by his inherently unegalitarian, outdated patrimony; b) demur politely; after all, you've spent years effortfully hauling yourself up the career ladder, one broken nail extension at a time, or; c) rip up your spreadsheets in a joyful frenzy and actually volunteer to have conjugal relations, after you've quickly logged on and ordered the Aga?

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When I heard the news that these days modern women crave a wealthy breadwinner rather than a high-flying career, I had to pause and think about it.

For a nanosecond! Of course we do!

Since when did the obvious qualify as news?

Past the age of 35, where two or more of us are gathered together in a room, the talk invariably turns to wistful longings of "getting some chickens", which as we all know is code for "a property-porn house in a shire with Cath Kidston tea towels, Emma Bridgewater crockery and a City husband who is so preposterously well remunerated he can almost afford the outrageous commuter rail fare rises".

According to a report researched at the London School of Economics and published by the Centre for Policy Studies, women are more determined than ever to bag a partner who will improve their financial prospects, think Jane Austen, but with Dragon's Den venture capitalist Deborah Meaden as Mrs Bennett.

"Women's aspirations to marry up, if they can, to a man who is better-educated and higher earning persists in most European countries," says the report's author, Catherine Hakim, a senior research fellow in sociology who is no stranger to controversy, having last year coined the neologisms "erotic capital" and "beauty premium "to describe the key professional attribute of our times.

Presumably this is why, to quote the old joke, smart girls get minks the way minks get minks. "Women continue to use marriage as an alternative or supplement to their employment careers," she concludes.

Cue howls of outrage from the sisterhood.

At the risk of being clubbed to death with a copy of The Female Eunuch, what's so wrong with that? By logical extension, it would appear men are keen to "marry down" , although nobody seems to query, much less gather statistics on, their matrimonial motives.

In the 1940s, apparently, 20 per cent of British women "married up". By the 1990s that had climbed to 38 per cent, with a similar pattern in Europe, the US and Australia.

I would bet that this reveals more about social mobility in general than gold-diggers in particular. But even if women are becoming shrewder in their criteria for choosing a mate, surely that makes them sensible rather than cynical?

Look at any executive returning to work after maternity leave, and once the thrill of wearing proper shoes and being asked her opinion has worn off, a single glass of wine will often see her tearfully confess she's desperate to get pregnant again so she can give up work, go part-time or set up a kitchen table industry involving local, organic, Fairtrade, biodegradable children's eco-muffins.

"I was dying to give up work after Number One, but nobody else did, so I felt obliged to stay in my job," says my friend Elaine, 38, who has two children aged six and two. "There's an unwritten rule that Number Two means you get to go part-time or give up altogether if your husband earns enough.

If you want to make absolutely certain, you brace yourself and have a third, which means you definitely don't go back to work but it's murderously hard when they're all little.

"It's not, then, that women of my generation are lazy (although maybe a little work-weary), just Ready to Reprioritise."

Remember you read it here first and doesn't it sound intelligently wholesome rather than shockingly retrograde?

For my Girl Power generation, it's been a bit of a toughie to admit that Having It All really isn't the same as Having a Ball.

As I shoulder-padded my way through the late eighties, I would never have contemplated marrying for money.

Then again, I wouldn't even let any of my suitors pay for dinner.

More fool me. But does that mean I envy iPhone widows whose high-net-worth husbands are so immersed in derivatives or mergers they rarely see daylight and forget their children's names?

Yes, but only occasionally, I swear. Before you judge, let me say I know for a fact I'm not alone in feeling that I've done the whole career thing and now I'd like to try the whole flapjacks and hand-stencilling the nursery thing.

If my husband could please just sell a little bit more of his soul. "I see a lot of previously ambitious women who are very confused by a sudden urge to bake cakes and sew curtains, which totally flies in the face of everything they strived for,'' says clinical psychologist Kathleen Cox."

"They begin to wonder 'who am I?' because they don't recognise themselves any more. I see it as a positive thing, because society allows women to question their role, whereas men are expected to knuckle down and keep on doing jobs they may hate. "Does that mean women are hardwired to stay at home and look after the nest? The longer I live the more I think perhaps, yes."

Seditious talk maybe, but perhaps it's time we tackled the ultimate taboo and rehabilitated the "H" word. After all, if you look deep into your social circle, you may discover some of your best friends are housewives in all but name.

"I never refer to myself as a housewife," says Kate Brown, 37, who gave up her job in the retail industry last year to care for her twin girls, aged 18 months. "If anyone asks me what I do, I simply say I'm micro-managing twins, which is pretty self-explanatory. My husband doesn't earn a huge amount, but it was more than I did, so it made the decision easier.''

Oliver James, author of the parenting book How Not To F*** Them Up, applauds any couple where mother or father takes childrearing seriously enough to take time out.

He has written at length about how the first six years of a child's life are crucial in safeguarding their future mental health and economic independence.

"I want to see a world where women or men want to care for their children, and if that means 'marrying up' to ensure they are bringing their children up in a solvent household, where one of them can stay at home and do the most important job of all, then that's fine by me," he says.

Arguably, there's nothing surprising in these findings.

A study by the National Centre for Social Research, commissioned in 2009 by the Department for Children, Schools and Families, revealed that a third of all mothers would prefer to give up their jobs if they could afford to, and three fifths said they would want to work fewer hours.

Life coach Fiona Harrold insists that women are only doing what comes naturally, and have been hardwired for millennia to "marry up". It's only relatively recently that they have had any other realistic chance of improving their lot in life.

"My mother's generation couldn't even open a bank account or enter into a hire purchase agreement to buy a sofa without a husband's signature," she says. "These days we can choose to work or choose to concentrate on being at home with our children, that's the essence of feminism and we should all just calm down, stop being judgmental and get comfortable with the choices we, and other women, make."

If all things were equal - looks, charm, humour, a decent head of hair - any sensible girl unencumbered by professional ambition would probably choose a prince over a pauper.

Just ask Kate Middleton. And if I'm honest, if I were still 28 and with the benefit of hindsight, I'd do exactly the same.

Yes, I once wanted to smash through the glass ceiling. But now, truth be told, I'd much rather polish it.

Pass the Windowlene on your way out to work, darling.

Jan 8, 2011

Alzheimer's diagnosis before onset a dilemma - The Times of India

Marjie Popkin thought she had chemo brain, that fuzzy-headed forgetful state that she figured was a result of her treatment for ovarian cancer. She was not thinking clearly — having trouble with numbers, forgetting things she had just heard.

One doctor after another dismissed her complaints. Until recently, since she was, at age 62, functioning well and having no trouble taking care of herself, that might have been the end of her quest for an explanation.

Last year, though, Ms Popkin, still troubled by what was happening to her mind, went to Dr Michael Rafii, a neurologist at the University of California, San Diego, who not only gave her a thorough neurological examination but administered new tests, like an MRI that assesses the volume of key brain areas and a spinal tap.

Then he told her there was something wrong. And it was not chemo brain. It most likely was Alzheimer's disease. Although she seemed to be in the very early stages, all the indicators pointed in that direction.

Until recently, the image of Alzheimer's was the clearly demented person with the sometimes vacant stare, unable to follow a conversation or remember a promise to meet a friend for lunch. Ms Popkin is nothing like that. To a casual observer, the articulate and groomed Ms Popkin seems perfectly fine. She is in the vanguard of a new generation of Alzheimer's patients, given a diagnosis after tests found signs of the disease years before actual dementia sets in.
But the new diagnostic tests are leading to a moral dilemma. Since there is no treatment for Alzheimer's, is it a good thing to tell people, years earlier, that they have this progressive degenerative brain disease or have a good chance of getting it? "I am grappling with that issue," Dr Rafii said. "I give them the diagnosis — we are getting pretty good at diagnosis now. But it's challenging because what do we do then?"

It is a quandary that is emblematic of major changes in the practice of medicine, affecting not just Alzheimer's patients. Modern medicine has produced new diagnostic tools, from scanners to genetic tests, that can find diseases or predict disease risk decades before people would notice any symptoms.

At the same time, many of those diseases have no effective treatments. Does it help to know you are likely to get a disease if there is nothing you can do? "This is the price we pay" for the new knowledge, said Dr. Jonathan D Moreno, a professor of medical ethics and the history and sociology of science at the University of Pennsylvania. "I think we are going to go through a really tough time," he added. "We have so much information now, and we have to try to learn as a culture what information we do not want to have." Some doctors, like Dr John C Morris of Washington University in St. Louis, say they will not offer the new diagnostic tests for Alzheimer's — like MRI's and spinal taps — to patients because it is not yet clear how to interpret them. He uses them in research studies but does not tell subjects the results. "We don't know for certain what these results mean," Dr Morris said. "If you have amyloid in your brain, we don't know for certain that you will become demented, and we don't have anything we can do about it."

But many people want to know anyway and say they can handle the uncertainty. That issue is facing investigators.
The researchers have been testing and following hundreds of people aged 55 to 90, some with normal memories, some with memory problems.

So far, only investigators know the results. Now, the question is, should those who want to learn what their tests show be told?

Jan 7, 2011

Hamas leader denies Nazi Holocaust - Israel News, Ynetnews

The Press Association: Technique may test for Alzheimer's

A breakthrough advance that turns conventional wisdom on its head could lead to a simple blood test for Alzheimer's, research has shown.
The same technology, successfully tested on human patients, could make it easier to spot hard-to-detect cancers and other diseases.
It involves using synthetic molecules called peptoids to "fish" for disease-specific antibodies in the blood.
The approach turns the usual way of conducting blood tests on its head. Traditionally, the tests work by detecting immune system antibodies that target natural proteins linked to diseases.
These proteins, known as "antigens", may be attached to viruses, bacteria and cancer cells, or be associated with brain diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.
The new technique substitutes artificial peptoids for antigens. Peptoids that attract antibodies associated with certain diseases can act as biomarkers for those conditions.
The US team pioneering the technology first tested the concept on mice with a condition resembling multiple sclerosis. From a few thousand peptoids, the scientists found a handful that distinguished blood samples taken from healthy and sick mice.
The researchers used the same approach on human patients with Alzheimer's disease. They applied the screening technique to six Alzheimer's patients, six Parkinson's disease patients and six healthy "control" individuals.
Three peptoids were identified that captured antibodies specific to Alzheimer's. In these patients they were present in at least three-fold higher levels than in either the Parkinson's or control groups.

Windows 8 on ARM Expands Microsoft's Mobile Horizons - PCWorld Business Center

Microsoft took advantage of the spotlight at CES to show off some of the capabilities of the next-generation Windows 8 operating system, and reveal that the flagship OS will break the x86 shackles and run on ARM architecture platforms--like tablets--as well. There is still a long and winding road ahead, though, before you will have Windows 8 running on a tablet.

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The line between traditional PCs and mobile computing platforms continues to blur and converge. Smartphones and tablets are now getting dual-core processors and other performance and capability enhancements that enable them to fulfill many of the roles and functions expected of a PC.

Microsoft and Intel are both guilty of some degree of arrogance when it comes to mobile platforms. Their virtual monopoly of the PC hardware and operating system markets gave them a sense of invulnerability and blinded them to the mobile revolution that is taking place all around them. Now that smartphones and tablets have demonstrated they are more than a niche fad, the two tech giants are playing catch up.

While Intel scrambles to build chips and architectures for mobile devices in an attempt to challenge ARM's dominance in that arena, Microsoft is hedging its bets by expanding the hardware platforms the Windows 8 operating system can run on to include ARM-based architectures.

What does it mean for you? Well, nothing in the immediate future. Windows 8 is probably at least 12 months--possibly 18 or more--away. Showing off concepts at CES is good for capturing attention and creating interest, but you still have a long wait ahead before Windows 8 will be on the market at all--much less running on a touchscreen tablet.

Once Windows 8 is available, what will it mean for you? The answer to that question is a little less predictable. Compared with other operating systems such as the various flavors of Linux, or even Mac OS X, Windows is somewhat of a resource hog. An operating system that is used to having the massive processing power, RAM, and storage capacity of desktop and laptop PCs may feel a tad constrained on an ARM device.

However, Windows manages to perform adequately--if not admirably--on a variety of seemingly underpowered netbooks, so there is some hope. There is also the fact that ARM processors and architecture are designed with smaller mobile devices and low power consumption in mind, so if any of the resources issues of Windows are actually a function of the x86 architecture, perhaps they can be overcome.

That said, I still feel like there is a culture shift from desktop PC to mobile computing that Microsoft may not yet grasp. There is a reason that iPads don't run Mac OS X, or that Android smartphones don't just run full-blown versions of Linux. Porting Windows 8 to be compatible with ARM opens up new horizons for the flagship OS, but Microsoft's future on mobile platforms would be better served by expanding the capabilities of Windows Phone 7, and rebranding it to remove the word "phone" so it can be Microsoft's mobile platform for tablets, as well as smartphones.

Jan 6, 2011

Genocide remembered in Cambodia

Wakefield study that linked autism with MMR vaccine was fraud: British Medical Journal | The Australian

A 1998 STUDY that unleashed a major health scare by linking childhood autism to a triple vaccine was "an elaborate fraud", the British Medical Journal has charged.
Blamed for a disastrous boycott of the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine in Britain, the study was retracted by The Lancet last year and its senior author disgraced, after the country's longest-running hearing, for conflict of interest and unethical treatment of patients.

But the BMJ, taking the affair further, has today branded the paper a crafted attempt to deceive, among the gravest of charges in medical research. "The paper was in fact an elaborate fraud," the BMJ said in an editorial, adding: "There are hard lessons for many in this highly damaging saga."

It pointed the finger at lead author Andrew Wakefield, then a consultant in experimental gastroenterology at London's Royal Free Hospital. Wakefield and his team suggested they had found a "new syndrome" of autism and bowel disease among 12 children.

They linked it to the MMR vaccine, which they said had been administered to eight of the youngsters shortly before the symptoms emerged. Other scientists swiftly cautioned the study was only among a tiny group, without a comparative "control" sample, and the dating of when symptoms surfaced was based on parental recall, which is notoriously unreliable. Its results have never been replicated.

But the controversy unleashed a widespread parental boycott of the jab in Britain, and unease reverberated also in the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Hundreds of thousands of children in Britain are now unshielded against these three diseases, said the BMJ. In 2008, measles was declared endemic, or present in the wider population much like chicken pox, in England and Wales.

Wakefield was barred from medical practice last year on the ground of conflict of financial interest and unethical treatment of some children involved in the research. The BMJ, delving into the accuracy of the study as opposed to its ethics, said Sunday Times investigative journalist Brian Deer had "unearthed clear evidence of falsification".

Not one of the 12 cases, as reported in the study, tallied fully with the children's official medical records, it charged. Some diagnoses had been misrepresented and dates faked in order to draw a convenient link with the MMR jab, it said. Of nine children described by Wakefield as having "regressive autism," only one clearly had this condition and three were not even diagnosed with autism at all, it said.

The findings had been skewed in advance, as the patients had been recruited via campaigners opposed to the MMR vaccine, the journal added. And, said the BMJ, Wakefield had been confidentially paid hundreds of thousands of pounds through a law firm under plans to launch "class action" litigation against the vaccine.

Deer, in a separate piece published by the BMJ, compared the scandal with the "Piltdown Man" hoax of 1953, when a supposed fossil of a creature half-man, half-ape turned out to be a fake. The Wakefield study "was a fraud, moreover, of more than academic vanity. It unleashed fear, parental guilt, costly government intervention and outbreaks of infectious disease," he said.

Wakefield, who still retains a vocal band of supporters, has reportedly left Britain to work in the US. Wakefield and his publishing agent did not respond to calls and emails from AFP requesting comment. Wakefield has previously accused Britain's General Medical Council of seeking to "discredit and silence" him and shield the British government from responsibility in what he calls a "scandal".

The Lancet told AFP it would not comment on the BMJ accusations. Autism is the term for an array of conditions ranging from poor social interaction to repetitive behaviours and entrenched silence. The condition is rare, predominantly affecting boys, although its causes are fiercely debated.

Is Brandenburg Safe for Jews?: Rabbi Fears Anti-Semitism in Eastern German State - SPIEGEL ONLINE - News - International

The leading rabbi in the eastern German state of Brandenburg says Jews in the community there are warned not to wear yarmulkes or other visible symbols of Judaism. He says the state has a problem with anti-Semitism, but Brandenburg officials claim they are doing all they can to make Jewish culture part of everyday life.

Some 65 years after the end of World War II, is it safe yet for a Jew to walk through the streets of Germany wearing a yarmulke? Not in Brandenburg, home to Potsdam and its famous UNESCO-listed palaces near Berlin -- at least according to the eastern German state's new chief rabbi, Shaul Nekrich.

A former resident of Berlin, Nekrich said in an interview with the Berliner Zeitung newspaper published Wednesday that he had been perfectly comfortable walking around the capital city, wearing a yarmulke and traditional Jewish hat. Not so, however, in Brandenburg, where he now leads the state's six Jewish communities. Nekrich said he now eschews wearing the kippah or hat head coverings when walking the streets of towns and cities in the state.
Asked by the newspaper whether he believed the state has a problem with anti-Semitism, 31-year-old Nekrich, who emigrated to Germany from Russia after studying in Israel, said: "I think so, even if I haven't been here for very long. I hear the stories from the communities. They are wary of being recognized as Jews on the streets. The only way we announce events now is by e-mail. In (the town of) Bernau, the synagogue has been defaced with swastikas several times." Der Spiegel, 5 Jan 2010

Media Watch: Most Ignored Story Of 2010? Israel | The Jewish Week

Only a handful of mainstream newspapers covered the Palestinian claims to the Western Wall and Rachel’s Tomb; or that Palestinian rockets were still landing in Israel; or the 1930s level of anti-Semitism in the official Palestinian media; or the Palestinian claims that Haifa and Sderot are occupied territory; let alone not covering the transcendent beauty of daily religious life and Jewish culture in Israel.
Yes, the general media covered the settlements incessantly, almost always with the settlements depicted as the singular obstacle to peace, as well as covering the claims of Orthodox coercion in Israel.

But despite the conventional wisdom that the media is obsessed with Israel, the latest data, primarily from the Pew Research Center, shows that Israel was not even one of the five biggest stories in 49 of the 52 weeks in 2010.
The most covered Israel story of 2010 was the flotilla crisis that began May 31, in which Israel intercepted a Turkish ship attempting to run the Israeli blockade of Gaza, resulting in the deaths of nine people (none from Israel). And yet, even that story received less than half the coverage given that week to the month-old spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Friction between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu? It was the fourth most covered story March 15-21, when Israel announced the construction of new apartments in Jerusalem during a visit by Vice President Joe Biden, and the third most covered story the following week, but let’s put it in perspective: The media gave more coverage that week to a recall by Toyota.
In every major poll since 1967, American popular support for Israel has dwarfed support for the Palestinians. That didn’t translate, however, to American interest in the media’s coverage of Israel, perhaps because that coverage seems, well, so repetitive, so settlement-centric, so focused on a Sisyphean peace process that is now more than 30 years old. At no point in 2010, reports Pew, was anything about Israel either the most, or second most, followed story by the public; Israel was not one of the 15 most followed news stories in 2010.
It’s not that Americans are not interested in Israel. They’re just not interested in the mainstream media’s version of it. Americans are very interested in the alternative media’s version, not only Arab or Jewish newspapers and websites, but also the blogs and e-mailed videos. Jonathan Mark, Jewish Week, 4 Jan 2010

Deadly cat-flea disease hits Australia

DOCTORS are urging people to keep their pets clean after discovering Australia's first case of a potentially fatal disease transmitted by cat fleas to humans.

A team of doctors reported the discovery of cat-flea typhus in the Medical Journal of Australia this week after they carried out a lengthy investigation similar to those featured in the hit television series House.

Dr Julian Kelly, a paediatrician at the Royal Children's Hospital in Melbourne, said the journey began when a nine-year-old girl was admitted to the hospital in April 2009 with a fever and rash that could not be easily diagnosed.

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She was admitted to the intensive care unit three days later when the infection caused her lungs to fill with fluid.

During her stay, three other members of her family fell sick with the mysterious illness, which was later diagnosed as cat-flea typhus, also known as Rickettsia felis.

While blood tests pointed to the uncommon disease group for the patients while they were in hospital, it took about four months for researchers from a specialist laboratory to track down where the disease came from.

''The family had about 10 different types of animals at their home, they had pigs, rats, mice, cats, ducks, and they lived next door to a swamp, so it was very difficult to work out where it would be,'' Dr Kelly said.

However, when doctors realised all of the patients had been in contact with flea-infested kittens, they followed the lead and discovered the kittens' family, which was living on another property, carried fleas with the disease.

''It was quite an entertaining case … It's taken about 18 months to get to the point of publishing it in the medical journal,'' Dr Kelly said.

He said all of the patients recovered from the illness, which kills about 2 per cent of those infected. Although the bug was rare, its presence in Australia should encourage people to keep their animals clean, he said.

''Make sure you de-flea your cat when you get one. I think that's the take-home message.''

Australian Rickettsial Reference Laboratory director Dr Stephen Graves said that although the disease had been found in cat and dog fleas in Western Australia, it had never been found in humans in Australia. He said people could get the disease if an infected flea bit them, because when fleas bite they defecate the disease from their intestines.

''If the person scratches after being bitten, the flea's faeces get inoculated into the bite site,'' he said. Dr Graves said the disease could cause people to experience symptoms including a fever and rash and could be treated with antibiotics.