Chinese court tosses 11 in jail for pirating software

A court in southern China has convicted 11 people of violating national copyright laws and participating in a sophisticated counterfeiting ring that for years manufactured and distributed pirated Microsoft software throughout the world.

The men were sentenced by a court in the city of Shenzhen to between one and one-half and six and one-half years in prison, according to court papers released late Wednesday.

Microsoft applauded the sentences in a statement, saying they were the stiffest ever handed down in this type of copyright infringement case in China.

Microsoft has called the group part of “the biggest software counterfeiting organization we have ever seen, by far” and estimated its global sales at more than $2 billion.

The case is considered by some legal specialists to be a landmark because it involved a joint anti-piracy effort by the FBI and the Chinese Ministry of Public Security. Law enforcement officials said it was also notable because the group operated like a multinational corporation, producing and distributing high-quality counterfeit software that was created and packaged almost identically to the real products, despite Microsoft’s anti-piracy measures.

Nice to see. All the liberal folk on the vegetarian Left will stand back – realizing they will now have to switch over from “China will never do a thing to stop piracy” to “how do we help those poor hackers in Chinese jails”.

Fact is – as China develops indigenous talent in all the arenas of science and technology, they have to modernize their attitudes towards intellectual property. If all is well – and there is no guarantee – there’s a good chance they’ll run right past the foolishness perpetuated by the U.S. Patent Office, the FCC, the RIAA and MPAA and the rest of the corrupt alphabet governing IP in the United States.

Detroit Auto Show: 5 Automakers to Watch

BYD’s all-electric e6

The North American International Auto Show will go light on the glitz and gas guzzlers this year, as exhibitors (two of them fresh from a bailout) seek to demonstrate efficiency, innovation and frugality. Even SUVs — most notably the 30-mpg-highway 2010 Chevy Equinox — are sporting improved fuel economy. With at least seven manufacturers, including Nissan Motor Co. and Mitsubishi Motors Corp., opting out of corporate representation at the Detroit event, smaller startups and new green concepts from established automakers just might steal the show. We’ll be watching to see how these five electric and hybrid vehicle exhibitors perform in the spotlight:

BYD Auto: Chinese battery company BYD made its North American debut at the 2008 Detroit show with its H6 DM hybrid. Over the last year, BYD has entered the green auto race in earnest, thanks in part to a $230 million investment from Warren Buffett, the launch of a plug-in hybrid (the F3DM) earlier this month, and plans to roll out an all-electric car, the e6 in 2009.

The article rolls through four additional marques to watch: Fisker [gorgeous and meaningless], Honda’s Insight, Tesla [almost as irrelevant as Fisker – and they’re busy suing each other] and, of course, Toyota – a revamped Prius and more.

Republicans have become the party of whiners


As the new Democratic majority prepares to take power here in the U.S., Republicans have become, as Phil Gramm might put it, a party of whiners.

Some of the whining almost defies belief. Did Alberto Gonzales, the former attorney general, really say, “I consider myself a casualty, one of the many casualties of the war on terror”? Did Rush Limbaugh really suggest that the financial crisis was the result of a conspiracy, masterminded by that evil genius Chuck Schumer?

The fault, however, lies not in Republicans’ stars but in themselves. Forty years ago the Republican Party decided, in effect, to make itself the party of racial backlash. And everything that has happened in recent years, from the choice of Bush as the party’s champion, to the Bush administration’s pervasive incompetence, to the party’s shrinking base, is a consequence of that decision.

If the Bush administration became a byword for policy bungles, for government by the unqualified, well, it was just following the advice of leading conservative think tanks: After the 2000 election the Heritage Foundation specifically urged the new team to “make appointments based on loyalty first and expertise second.”

Contempt for expertise, in turn, rested on contempt for government in general. “Government is not the solution to our problem,” declared Ronald Reagan. “Government is the problem.” So why worry about governing well?

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How the city hurts your brain

The city has always been an engine of intellectual life, from the 18th-century coffeehouses of London, where citizens gathered to discuss chemistry and radical politics, to the Left Bank bars of modern Paris, where Pablo Picasso held forth on modern art. Without the metropolis, we might not have had the great art of Shakespeare or James Joyce; even Einstein was inspired by commuter trains.

And yet, city life isn’t easy. The same London cafes that stimulated Ben Franklin also helped spread cholera; Picasso eventually bought an estate in quiet Provence. While the modern city might be a haven for playwrights, poets, and physicists, it’s also a deeply unnatural and overwhelming place.

Now scientists have begun to examine how the city affects the brain, and the results are chastening. Just being in an urban environment, they have found, impairs our basic mental processes. After spending a few minutes on a crowded city street, the brain is less able to hold things in memory, and suffers from reduced self-control. While it’s long been recognized that city life is exhausting — that’s why Picasso left Paris — this new research suggests that cities actually dull our thinking, sometimes dramatically so…

This research arrives just as humans cross an important milestone: For the first time in history, the majority of people reside in cities. For a species that evolved to live in small, primate tribes on the African savannah, such a migration marks a dramatic shift. Instead of inhabiting wide-open spaces, we’re crowded into concrete jungles, surrounded by taxis, traffic, and millions of strangers. In recent years, it’s become clear that such unnatural surroundings have important implications for our mental and physical health, and can powerfully alter how we think.

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NASA’s Mars rovers exceed their warranty

It is a common complaint these days: things are just not made to last any more.

But it is one gripe that does not hold water on the red planet. The warranty on NASA’s two, six-wheeled Martian rovers – Spirit and Opportunity – guaranteed their survival for only 90 days on the planet’s dusty surface, and promised that they would drive a mere 600 metres.

But this weekend Spirit celebrates its fifth birthday on Mars. Its identical twin, Opportunity, reaches the same milestone on January 24.

Since its landing Spirit has motored more than 7.5 kilometres, while Opportunity has clocked more than 13.6 kilometres. Together the rovers, which set down on opposite sides of Mars, have snapped about 250,000 pictures…

The rovers have found Mars was awash with salty water 4 billion years ago but was drained bone dry by some environmental catastrophe. They have sent back movies of willy willies dancing across the Martian plains and pictures of eerie sunsets…

Both rovers have been hampered by a build-up of red dust blanketing their solar panels. Spirit drags one wheel that failed long ago.

Engineers can only guess how much longer they will last.

I have the same problem.

Still, the spirit of exploration that characterizes the best of our species creates a bond between humans and machines – properly founded in science and forethought – that serve us for generations to come. Or so I hope.

Corruption in Afghanistan? Everything is for sale.

Daylife/Reuters Pictures

When it comes to governing this violent, fractious land, everything, it seems, has its price.

Want to be a provincial police chief? It will cost you $100,000.

Want to drive a convoy of trucks loaded with fuel across the country? Be prepared to pay $6,000 per truck, so the police will not tip off the Taliban.

Need to settle a lawsuit over the ownership of your house? About $25,000, depending on the judge.

Kept afloat by billions of dollars in American and other foreign aid, the government of Afghanistan is shot through with corruption and graft. From the lowliest traffic policeman to the family of President Hamid Karzai himself, the state built on the ruins of the Taliban government seven years ago now often seems to exist for little more than the enrichment of those who run it…

“All the politicians in this country have acquired everything – money, lots of money,” Karzai said in a speech at a rural development conference here in November. “God knows, it is beyond the limit. The banks of the world are full of the money of our statesmen.”

The decay of the Afghan government presents Barack Obama with perhaps his most under-appreciated challenge as he tries to reverse the course of the war here. The president-elect may be required to save the Afghan government, not only from the Taliban insurgency – committing thousands of additional American soldiers to do so – but also from itself.

Every ideologue in the world, from Kipling to Karl Rove has frittered away opportunity and lives in this part of the world. It’s a wonder there is anything left to steal.

I return to the topic hoping that maybe – just maybe – we have another chance to right some wrongs.

Will stupid people and their junk science cost more lives this year?

Both dead…

Nothing has changed, people continue to have stupid ideas, newspapers continue to laud them, and lives will be lost. Here is just one: What if everything you thought you knew about Aids was wrong? That was the title of a book by Christine Maggiore, an HIV/Aids-denialist lauded in the American media. She is now dead.

Maggiore decided that HIV does not cause Aids, and that antiretroviral drugs do not treat it. She was HIV positive, which the media loved. She declined to take ARV drugs and specifically decided not to take HIV drugs during her pregnancy, despite the strong evidence that they massively lower the risk of maternal transmission. She insisted on breastfeeding her children, even though it has been shown that this increases the risk of maternal transmission. She also refused to have her children tested for HIV. Her daughter, Eliza Jane Scovill, died three years ago. The coroner attributed the death to Aids and Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia. She was three years old.

Last Saturday, two days after Christmas, Maggiore died of pneumonia, aged 52. She was an extremely effective advocate. She set up successful campaigning organisations and counselled HIV-positive pregnant women on how to avoid pressure from medics to use azidothymidine (AZT) during pregnancy to prevent maternal transmission of the virus. She appeared on the cover of Mothering magazine, with a “No AZT” sign painted on her pregnant tummy.

Hundreds of thousands of lives, perhaps millions, have been lost because of a stupid idea, promoted by stupid people. To the best of my knowledge, not one has either apologised or clarified their stance. Just don’t let anyone tell you pseudoscience is harmless.

Um, a few more topics come to mind. Skeptics who claim they’re not anti-science, anti-intellectual – but, muster every agitprop trick in the books to keep people from reviewing and understanding traditional conservative scientific studies.

Sometimes, just because they don’t like someone who is a spokesman for that science. As simple as that.

Siblings separated by 40 years – and 300 yards

A brother and sister who have been reunited after nearly 40 years discovered they had been living only 300 yards from each other.

Ken Whitty, 64, had even walked past his younger sister Yvonne’s house and had seen her in her garden, never knowing they were related.

Mr Whitty and his sister grew up together, but their parents died when they were young and they were placed into the care of a family friend.

They stayed in touch after Mr Whitty left home at 21. But they lost contact when he went to visit her house and found it had been demolished in a slum clearance programme. Both then went their separate ways…

After several failed attempts to contact his sister down the years, Mr Whitty wrote to the Manchester Evening News before Christmas asking for help.

When Mr Whitty’s letter was published he received a telephone call from an old school friend and five minutes later the telephone rang again and the voice said: “Hello, this is Yvonne”.

“It happened just like that”, said Mr Whitty. “I could not believe it.” But he was even more astonished to discover his sister had been living so close to his home in Stockport, Greater Manchester.

Nice tale. Hollywood could figure out how to screw it up; but, they seem to be sorting it out themselves.

Brazilian taskforce frees more than 4,500 slaves in 2008

The Brazilian government said its anti-slavery taskforce, a roaming unit designed to crack down on modern-day slavery, had freed 4,634 workers from slave-like conditions in 2008. The taskforce, which often works with armed members of the federal police, said it had undertaken 133 missions and visited 255 different farms in 2008. The ministry said former slaves had been paid £2.4m in compensation.

It is a very sad situation that leaves you feeling impotent. The federal government has acted – but having slave labour in a country where the wealth is so evident is a very painful contradiction,” said Leonardo Sakamoto, who is a member of Brazil’s National Commission for the Eradication of Slave Labour and runs the NGO Repórter Brasil.

Many of Brazil’s slave workers come from the impoverished backlands of north-eastern Brazil, where unemployment is high. Rounded up by middlemen who promise them employment, the workers are packed on to coaches and taken to remote farms, often in the Amazon or Brazil’s midwest.

Once there, the slaves are put to work producing charcoal, cutting sugar cane or clearing tracts of Amazon rainforest for cattle ranchers. Housed in isolated and often squalid jungle camps, they are forced to work until they have paid off debts for food, medicine and housing. Many lose contact with their families.

Activists claim that ranchers in the Amazon often employ small armies of gunmen to stop workers fleeing.

Like any major crime in any country, you don’t get away with slavery without the collusion of politicians. Elected, appointed, I don’t care what. They must be removed from power.