Monday, August 17, 2009

Mobile data show friend networks


Friendships can be inferred with 95% accuracy from call records and the proximity of users, says a new report.

Researchers fitted 94 mobiles in the US with logging software to gather data.

The results also showed that those with friends near work were happier, while those who called friends while at work were less satisfied.

The data, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, showed a marked contrast with answers reported by the users themselves.

"We gave out a set of phones that were installed with a piece of 'uber-spyware'," said the study's lead author Nathan Eagle, now at the Santa Fe Institute.

"It's invisible to the user but logs everything: communication, users' locations, people's proximity by doing continuous Bluetooth scans."

The researchers then compared the data with results from standard surveys given to the mobile users - and found, as the social sciences have found time and again, that people reported different behaviour than the mobile data revealed.

"What we found was that people's responses were wildly inaccurate," Dr Eagle told BBC News.

"For people who said that a given individual was a friend, they dramatically overestimated the amount of time they spent. But for people who were not friends, they dramatically underestimated that amount of time."

The researchers were able to guess from the mobile data alone, with 95% accuracy, if any given pair of users were friends.

An analysis of the overall proximity of a given user to his or her friends - maximised if they worked together - was correlated to people who reported a high level of satisfaction at work.

Conversely, those who made calls to their friends while working were found to report lower levels of satisfaction at work.

Wide application

One principal question of such a small sample size, made up exclusively of students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is how much the results really mean in a sociology context.

However, the group has gone on to carry out a larger study that just finished, comprising 1,000 people in Helsinki, Finland.

There is also an ongoing trial of the approach in Kenya, which Dr Eagle said includes participants ranging from computer science students to people who had never used a phone before.

"For people who said that a given individual was a friend, they dramatically overestimated the amount of time they spent. But for people who were not friends, they dramatically underestimated that amount of time."

The researchers were able to guess from the mobile data alone, with 95% accuracy, if any given pair of users were friends.

An analysis of the overall proximity of a given user to his or her friends - maximised if they worked together - was correlated to people who reported a high level of satisfaction at work.

Conversely, those who made calls to their friends while working were found to report lower levels of satisfaction at work.

Wide application

One principal question of such a small sample size, made up exclusively of students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is how much the results really mean in a sociology context.

However, the group has gone on to carry out a larger study that just finished, comprising 1,000 people in Helsinki, Finland.

There is also an ongoing trial of the approach in Kenya, which Dr Eagle said includes participants ranging from computer science students to people who had never used a phone before.

DNA 'organises itself' on silicon


Shapes of DNA have been used to enhance the production of circuits for next-generation computer chips.

Researchers reporting in Nature Nanotechnology have now shown how to get engineered "DNA origami" to self-organise on silicon.

The origami can be designed to serve as a scaffold for electronic components just six billionths of a metre apart.

Making chips with components closer together leads to smaller devices and faster computers.

The six nanometre mark is nearly eight times better than the current industry produces.

Several research groups have shown that DNA itself can be used to store or manipulate data, and the juggling of DNA in a test tube or within bacteria has been shown to solve simple computational tasks.

The current method, by contrast, leverages the ability to design DNA strands into regular shapes such as triangles.

Shapely

The computer industry would like to make use of next-generation materials with favourable electronic properties such as carbon nanotubes or nanowires.

Such structures are tiny and difficult to manipulate, but the chemical groups hanging off DNA helices could be used as anchor points for them.

Those anchor points can be as little as six nanometres (nm) apart, making these DNA-bound circuit components smaller and thus faster than can currently be produced.

The current industry standard for etching electronic components from larger structures - a so-called "top down" approach - has components at a distance of 45nm.
DNA molecular structure (SPL)
DNA offers many anchor points for tiny circuit components

But the new "bottom-up" technique promises distances nearly four times better than the planned industry move to 22nm.

What makes the technique particularly useful is that the regular shapes of the circuit-loaded DNA origami allows them to fit neatly into shaped pits the researchers bored into silicon or carbon using standard techniques.

This self-assembly occurs when a liquid filled with the origami is put in contact with the etched surfaces in what the authors call a case of "bottom-up keys" fitting into "top-down locks".

Because the eventual placement of the components puts them so much closer, the approach could lead to computers that are both smaller and faster.

However, the motivations are also economic - industry-wide shifts to smaller components are phenomenally expensive to the manufacturers.

"The combination of this directed self-assembly with today's fabrication technology eventually could lead to substantial savings in the most expensive and challenging part of the chip-making process," said Spike Narayan, a science and technology manager at IBM's Almaden research centre.

Fuller integration of the technique could take as much as 10 years, IBM said.

'Trees of life' are vital food source


A new study suggests that people from different cultures read facial expressions differently.

East Asian participants in the study focused mostly on the eyes, but those from the West scanned the whole face.

In the research carried out by a team from Glasgow University, East Asian observers found it more difficult to distinguish some facial expressions.

The work published in Current Biology journal challenges the idea facial expressions are universally understood.

In the study, East Asians were more likely than Westerners to read the expression for "fear" as "surprise", and "disgust" as "anger".

The researchers say the confusion arises because people from different cultural groups observe different parts of the face when interpreting expression.
Western fear

Western participants tended to scan the whole face

East Asians participants tended to focus on the eyes of the other person, while Western subjects took in the whole face, including the eyes and the mouth.

Co-author, Dr Rachael Jack, from the University of Glasgow, said: "Interestingly, although the eye region is ambiguous, subjects tended to bias their judgements towards less socially-threatening emotions - surprise rather than fear, for example.

"This perhaps highlights cultural differences when it comes to the social acceptability of emotions."

The team showed 13 Western Caucasians and 13 East Asians a set of standardised images depicting the seven main facial expressions: happy, sad, neutral, angry, disgusted, fearful and surprised.

They used eye movement trackers to monitor where the participants were looking when interpreting the expressions.

A computer program given the same information from the eyes as the East Asian observers was similarly unable to distinguish between the emotions of disgust and anger, and fear and surprise.

East West differences in Emoticons Emotion West East
'Happy' :-) (^_^)
'Sad' :-( (;_;) or (T_T)
'Surprise' :-o (o.o)

The paper states that the Eastern participants used a culturally specific decoding strategy that was inadequate to reliably distinguish the universal facial expressions of fear and disgust.

It concluded that information from the eyes is often ambiguous and confusing in these expressions, with consequences for cross-cultural communication and globalisation.

The researchers also point out that this difference in perception is reflected in the differences between Eastern and Western emoticons - the typographical characters used to convey emotions in e-mails.

The Eastern emoticons are not only the right way up but focus on the eyes, whilst in the West the mouth is important.

'Trees of life' are vital food source


Food insecurity is a defining characteristic of life for many of the world's poorest people, exacerbated now by climate change and the rise in food prices.

Emergency food aid has been the staple of international responses to crises, such as drought and famine for decades.

However, it is much better that the emergency is addressed before it happens.

Farmer Arzouma Thiombiano from eastern Burkina Faso recalls how trees saved lives in the mid 1980s.

"Over 20 years ago, a big famine came but people escaped starvation by eating baobabs leaves and fruit," he says.

Communities living in countries most affected by food shortages have long known about the key role that trees can play in reducing the need for conventional aid.

Recognition of this by the West, and practical support for a localised tree-based solution is urgently needed.

Food for through

Widespread droughts across Africa have devastated crops this year. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 30 countries around the world are in crisis and require help from overseas.

The effects of climate change are making droughts more of a norm than an exception. This is a pattern that places some of the most vulnerable communities in an increasingly precarious position when it comes to meeting basic food needs.

In Burkina Faso in West Africa, malnutrition affects nearly 40% of the rural poor. Climate change is further impacting on already fragile agricultural lands, and high food costs are affecting people's health.

By the time shortages and hunger in countries like Burkina Faso reach "emergency" levels and warrant aid; families, communities, agricultural practices and lands will have suffered greatly.

The G8 summit held in Italy at the beginning of July pledged $20 billion to support indigenous food production to alleviate the need for such emergency food aid.

What is missing from this pledge is any mention of the key role that trees can play.

"Conventional" crops are often not native and require expensive inputs, significant irrigation and land preparation in order to produce a successful harvest.

This means that they are more vulnerable to droughts. For smallholder farmers in Africa's drylands, a failed harvest can mean months of malnutrition and hardship.

Trees, on the other hand, often survive when other crops fail. Commonly seen by the West as "famine foods", tree foods already form a significant part of daily diets across rural Africa.

Trees provide fruits, nuts, seeds, leaves, flowers, sepals, even sap, which can all be used as food.

Take Moringa oleifera - its leaves have more beta-carotene than carrots, more protein than peas, more vitamin C than oranges, more calcium than milk, more potassium than bananas and more iron than spinach.

Data shows that nursing mothers produce more milk when they add Moringa leaves to their diet.

The leaves can be dried and eaten during the hungry period, and animal fodder from trees is also vital in producing milk and meat.

This existing localised "emergency relief", is what the G8 funding must seek to strengthen.

Self-help

The fight against hunger - especially in drought-hit times - must target those at the epicentre of world poverty - smallholder farmers in rural Africa.

They need support to adopt agro-forestry techniques, which boost soil fertility and provide tree food crops to supplement nutrition. They need the right environment to invest in their land, the ability to share information, and modest support at grass roots level.

Training and support can help villagers earn money from things that grow on trees.

This income can give them food-purchasing power when crops fail, and access to vital services, such as healthcare and education.

This approach can increase self sufficiency for both rural communities and national economies. It can increase environmental security, diversify livelihood options and reduce the vulnerability of poor households to climate change and external shocks.

It can bring real, sustainable long-term returns.

In Dongo, a village in Burkina Faso, Tree Aid's Village Tree Enterprise project aims to help villagers generate income from tree products. All the participants are women.

One of their husbands explained: "During the last drought period, when my granary was empty, my wife's income contributed more than 50% of the household's income."

Projects like these provide communities with the skills and support to manage their trees. They enable people like the group in Dongo to improve their own resilience to drought, crop failure, and higher food prices.

It is time for the value of trees to be recognised at all levels internationally.

Groups like the G8 must make a commitment to developing the enormous potential of agro-forestry. In so doing they present a joined up approach to resolving two of the key issues facing the world today.

They will simultaneously alleviate poverty and food insecurity for people who need it most, while tackling the impact of climate change by encouraging the protection and planting of trees.

Minister warned over 'UK Roswell'


A former head of the armed forces told the defence secretary a UFO claim known as Britain's Roswell could be a "banana skin", newly released files show.

In 1985 Lord Hill-Norton wrote to Michael Heseltine about the "Rendlesham incident" in 1980, when US airmen in Suffolk said they saw strange lights.

He said an unauthorised aircraft may have entered and left UK airspace.

In 2003, an ex-US security policeman said he and another airman had shone patrol car lights as a prank.

The case is among the latest MoD files on UFOs released by the National Archives.

'Puzzling and disquieting'

The "Rendlesham incident" involved American airmen from RAF Woodbridge who reported seeing mysterious lights.

Witnesses said a UFO was transmitting blue pulsating lights and sending nearby farm animals into a "frenzy".

Lord Hill-Norton's letter said either a craft had entered UK airspace with impunity or US airmen were capable of a "serious misperception".

But in 2003, ex-US security policeman Kevin Conde admitted that he and another airman had shone patrol car lights through the trees and made noises on the loudspeaker as a prank.

Dr David Clarke of Sheffield Hallam University talks about some of the UFO sightings reported to the authorities

But in 1985, Lord Hill-Norton - a former chief of the defence staff and First Sea Lord - wrote to Mr Heseltine, the then-defence secretary, to express his feelings about the event.

In his letter, Lord Hill-Norton said he rejected the official MoD line that the case was of "no defence interest", adding that it displayed "puzzling and disquieting features which have never been satisfactorily explained by your department".

He said it was either the case that a piloted craft had entered and left UK airspace with "complete impunity" or "a sizeable number of USAF personnel at an important base in British territory are capable of serious misperception".

Lord Hill-Norton added: "There seems to be a head of steam building up on this matter, and I can see a potential 'banana skin' [a political embarrassment] looming."

The "Roswell incident" refers to the belief among UFO watchers that in 1947 a flying saucer with aliens on board landed outside the New Mexico town of Roswell and that an elaborate cover-up by the authorities followed.

The National Archives release is part of a three-year project by the MoD and the National Archives to release files related to UFOs on the National Archives website.

Other incidents recorded in the latest batch of documents, which cover the years 1981 to 1996, include:

• Two men from Staffordshire who told police that, as they returned home from an evening out in 1995, an alien appeared under a hovering UFO hoping to take them away

• More than 30 sightings of bright lights over central England during a six-hour period in 1993, which led to the assistant chief of defence staff being briefed - and turned out to be caused by a Russian rocket re-entering the atmosphere

• Several sightings in Bonnybridge, central Scotland, which became the UK's UFO hotspot during the 1990s

• A UFO which was seen over the jazz stage at the Glastonbury Festival in June 1994. The two female witnesses reported that they turned to the people next to them to verify what they had seen but "they didn't look hard enough or take it seriously"

It is also revealed that UFO sightings leapt from 117 in 1995 to 609 in 1996 - the year that Will Smith's alien invader blockbuster Independence Day was released and alien conspiracy series The X Files was at the height of its popularity with UK audiences.

Dr David Clarke, a UFO expert and journalism lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University, said it was significant that one of the biggest years for reports previously had been 1978, which saw 750 - at the same time that Steven Spielberg's blockbuster Close Encounters of the Third Kind was released.

He added: "Obviously, films and TV programmes raise awareness of UFOs and it's fascinating to see how that appears to lead more people to report what they see.

"In the 1950s you have UFOs with flashing dials like in the b-movies of the time, and the aliens tend to come from Venus and Mars - that stops from the late '60s when we find out how inhospitable these places are.

"From the mid-1980s you start to see triangular-shaped objects - this is the era of US stealth aircraft. I think it's clear that people see what they expect to see."

The popcorn route to recovery


Who would have thought cinema popcorn sales could tell us much about the economy? Yet sales of the snack could be just one unlikely indicator of economic fortune, says Michael Blastland.

How do you measure a green shoot? From the tub, if you are Norman Lamont, a former Chancellor of the Exchequer, who famously coined the phrase "green shoots", while detecting recovery from the last recession (accurately, as it turned out, despite media ridicule) and also gave us "singing in the bath" as a measure of his own equanimity under pressure.

But first, you have to know what constitutes a green shoot. What small, seemingly insignificant sign now reveals our destination in the near future?

No, not the horoscope. If you want anything passably rigorous, it requires measurement. So take up your ruler, go forth and measure.

"What exactly am I supposed to measure?" you ask. Good question.

Sometimes it seems as if half of economics is little more than a quest for a better index. This continues despite decades of failure.

Part of the difficulty is that different green shoots indicate different kinds of improvement. Some are suggestive of all the things we make and sell, some of trade, others of recovery in the housing market. Any can occur without the others.

If I were to reveal, for example, that the height of Alistair Darling's eyebrows changes in precise proportion to GDP growth six months later, it would be an economic breakthrough of cosmic proportions.

If there really were such a simple and reliable indicator of future economic conditions, predicting the recession would have been easy, betting on the economy via the stock market would wither and we'd probably see an eyebrow derivatives market. My Nobel prize would be in the bag.

It isn't. But that's not to discredit out of hand unconventional ways of spotting green shoots. There's fun to be had in identifying unlikely bell-wethers of recovery - which is why we want you to suggest your own - the best of which, we will measure.

Here to set you thinking are some less-than-standard measures of green shoots and turning points suggested in recent weeks, and a few that are more orthodox.

* The crane index. How many cranes are visible from a given point. Really a measure of optimism about the prospects for commercial property.
* The number of people signing up to dating agencies offering extra-marital affairs, on the basis that demand goes up either in times of excessive confidence - "I won't get caught"; or depression - "I don't care". (Sex had to figure somewhere.)
* The Dry Baltic Index. A measure of demand for shipping. Since it takes two years to build a container ship, freight capacity is inflexible, so small changes in demand can cause marked changes in price.
* The Popcorn Index. Sales of popcorn at the cinema are, it was suggested in a newspaper recently, a sensitive barometer of consumer behaviour.

* The baked bean index - my colleague Anthony Reuben noted in the spring how the value of sales of baked beans - a classic recession food - had risen 21.6% in April compared with the same month last year. Could a reverse signal the start of a recovery?

And here are a few others, the result of our own in-depth - two minute - musing over a cup of tea.

* The junk-mail index. How many items per week hit the mat?
* The number-of-property-shows-on-telly index.
* On the basis that there's a link between confidence and risk-taking, a speeding index, also because people are in a greater hurry when there's business to be done.
* A niceness index. When things are going well, are people friendlier? But how would you measure it?

Over to you. Send your suggestions for useful, and, crucially, measurable, indexes of recovery using the form at the bottom of this story.

Finally for the curious, some leading indicators - to use the techie term - do seem to perform reasonably well, though less usefully than might first appear. This one, for example, from the OECD, shows how a composite of leading indicators - the red line - often move about six months before another measure of real economic activity.

Not perfect, but not bad. Incidentally, the latest OECD CLI for the UK only has been going up for a few months now. One problem is that there are sometimes false-start turning-points in the leading indicators which turn out to go nowhere. We can see them afterwards, but at the time how do we know if the latest turning point is really a turning point or if it will, as sometimes happens, wobble a bit then go back the other way? We often need time to confirm that a trend is real, and time, of course, is what a leading indicator is supposed to beat.

The leading indicators the OECD uses for the UK include new car registrations, the Confederation of British Industry's business climate survey, a measure of the stocks of finished goods and a measure of consumer confidence, all weighted, added together and compared to an estimation of the trend. You can find out how it's done, in all its bulky complexity, here

This is your chance to become amateur economic forecaster. Suggest something that is observable in every day life which might conceivably be an indication of green shoots. The Magazine will discuss some of the best this week and keep tabs on them.

Number of packed lunches in the office fridge. It's certainly gone up in recent months, however it appears to probably drag behind rather than being an early indicator.
Colin, Glasgow

How about the 'chugger' index? Measuring the amount of people who give money to those annoying people with vests in town centres asking for money for charity. Surely there's a link between economic growth, disposable income and donating to charity.
Ian, Bournemouth

Try the "Peak Shoulder" index. This is based on the number of people travelling on trains AFTER the peak hour (arriving London 09:00-10:00) and BEFORE the cheap day returns are available (arriving London usually after 10:30, depending on origin). These Peak Shoulder trains are used by people who don't have to be at their desk by 09:00 every day, so they are coming into town to attend meetings etc 10:00 where ideas (hopefully) will be generated. The more of these there are travelling, the more things are moving.
Simon Jeffs, Eastbourne

Number of free items given away as part of marketing promotions outside London train stations in the mornings. This has noticably decreased over the last year; it woul dbe interesting to see if more free stuff is given away as confidence and consumer spending increases.
Neil Marshall, Sutton, UK

My wife and I have noticed something that certainly (while not scientific) indicates people's view on their own financial situation - loose change on pavements! Until last September you would always find coins on the pavement, typically 1p and 5p coins but sometimes as much £2 - no matter what the season. Once the headlines were full of the credit crunch, we never saw any change on the pavement. However, starting in late April, lost coins again starting to appear on London's streets and in the last month it appears we are back to pre-credit crunch levels. Either people were afraid of their financial situation and more careful with their change or they spent less and so had fewer opportunities to lose any coins!
Michael, London

How about reconditioned bricks? Not sure if that's the right name but sales of bricks that have came from demolished buildings, this could be used to measure the supply (showing how many buildings are being torn down to make way for new developments) and the sale (showing how many people are putting extensions on houses, possibly indicating the ability to gain credit, increased value of houses etc...). You would probably expect the ratio of supply:demand to be around 1:1 if this indicator does work.
Richard, London, England

The ratio of sun tan lotion to fake tan - sunshine getaway, staycation, or no holiday at all?
Lyn Jarvis, Milton Keynes

New adverts on telly and not all the re-runs tend to indicate the money is available there to produce the ads and encourage more spending .
Andi, Stoke

Maybe count people eating ice cream on a Saturday afternoon? Ice cream for a family can be expensive, and is one fo the things that gets cut down upon in a recession. By the by. no good just counting cranes, you need to count how many of them are actually moving and doing work!!
Rosemarie Tomes, Mansfield

Number of skips on any given road - more skips = more people spending thier savings on housework.
Hiral Patel, Leyton

My indicator is whether there are seats available on the bus in the morning. Before the recession, the bus was always full, sometimes not even standing room. But now there are seats available. I'll know there's green shoots when all seats are taken by the time it gets to my stop.
Helen S, London

Gym memberships taken and gym use. In time of downturn people are more likely to cancel unwanted memberships. Meanwhile those that actually have a membership probably use it less when they are busy, in a time of economic upturn for example.
Kate, London

A 'number of empty advertisment spaces in bus stops' index
hugh, Aberdeen

Car Wash Index - When people feel flush they go to the car wash. When there are money worries they was their own car.
Craig Campbell, Leeds

The number of job ads in professional journals. My made-redundant-in-February husband has been scanning the jobs in his weekly professional journal. From a grand total of zero jobs for many weeks now, the past few weeks have seen at least one job a week for the whole country. At this rate he may be re-employed by the next decade
Aqua Suliser, Aqua Sulis

The White Goods Delivery Index based on the lead time in ordering and having delivered any large electrical item. The theory is based on a twofold principle, That if the goods are in stock the demand for purchase is low and so it follows that if a store can deliver in 2 days then there delivery system is in surplus again indicating low demand. When you have a 5 day wait for Delivery to the store and a further 5 days for physical delivery this will be the turning point in the recovery, as firms such as warehouses and delivery van companys will start to employ to cover increased business.
London Banker,

The sick on the street index? More people going out the night before spending more money on drink, means more sick on the street the morning after...
Joe, Slough

Carrier bags photographed in a given area within Shopping Mall.
Susie,

I reckon a useful way of judging the economys return is by charting the column inches of positive news stories versus the column inches of negative news stories. That is, speculation causes negative stories which cause worsening public feeling, deepening the recession. Positive news stories create happiness, stimulating public opinion and increasing economic growth... Just keep talking about the nice things and people will feel better which will in turn make contribute to the economy without even knowing it...!
Paulo, Wetherby - UK

On the way to work Count the number of full taxis in central london...
Dan, beckenham

Easing of credit - I've had 3 offers of credit cards/personal loans this week. (I turned them down - no going back to the old days!)
Tony, Manchester

A prime economic indicator are the number of skips being used for housing /building work in affluent areas of london
Andrew Drummond, London

How about 'length of hair'? Getting your hair cut (mens and womens) can be expensive, could be considered a 'luxury' and so may have been cut back on (ahem!), yielding, on average, longer hair. Might need to be 'seasonally adjusted' and might be influenced by people, like me in fact, swapping a trip to the barber for a set of clippers and trust in your wife to do it!

Monkeys booze because of genes


A study has shown that having a particular gene variant causes some macaque monkeys to drink more alcohol in experiments.

The gene, known as the corticotrophin releasing factor (CRF) gene, is an important part of how we respond to everyday stress.

Sometimes it can become overactive and lead to stress-related problems such as anxiety, depression and alcoholism.

The findings may eventually lead to new treatments for alcoholism.

Writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the scientists found that some monkeys with the gene variant drank more alcohol, possibly to relieve their anxiety.

In particular the "T" form of the gene was associated with increased voluntary consumption of alcohol in drinks equivalent to the strength of strong beer.

Some were drinking "well over the limit, maybe up to four or five drinks in one hour. They're not drinking it because it's tasty, it smelt like rubbing alcohol".

"And they act much like humans do: some sleep, some are friendly, others are aggressive," said Christina Barr, from the US National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, one of the authors of the study.

It is thought that a similar variant of the gene exists in humans but may be rare. There are also other genes that have been associated with alcoholism.

This may eventually lead to treatments that reduce the activity of these genes and the risk of alcoholism in those that carry them.

China villagers storm lead plant


Hundreds of Chinese villagers have broken into a factory that poisoned more than 600 children, reports say.

Villagers tore down fencing and smashed coal trucks at the lead smelting factory in Shaanxi Province.

Local authorities have admitted that the plant is responsible for poisoning the children. More than 150 were in hospital.

Air, soil and water pollution is common in China, which has seen rapid economic growth over the past few decades.

Toxic metal

The villagers broke into the Dongling Lead and Zinc Smelting Company, near the city of Baoji in western Shaanxi on Monday, according to the state-run Xinhua news agency.

About 100 police officers were sent to the plant to restore order.

The villagers are angry because medical tests revealed that at least 600 children under 14 from two villages near the plant have excessive amounts of lead in their blood.

About a quarter of them were taken to hospital for treatment.

Environmental officials from Baoji city government admitted on Sunday that the plant was "mainly to blame" for the children's lead poisoning, according to Xinhua.

Checks found that water, soil and waste from the factory - a major local employer - all met national environmental standards.

But the lead content in the air around the factory was more than six times the level found a few hundred metres away.

The smelting plant has now been closed down.

Local officials had promised to relocate all residents living within a 500m ( 550 yard ) radius of the factory within three years of its opening, but that plan stalled.

Xinhua said only 156 families had been moved; three times that number are still waiting.

Villages are also worried that the new homes are still not far enough away from the plant to prevent their children from getting sick.

Lead is a toxic metal that can get into the air and water supplies.

It can cause a range of health problems, from learning disabilities to seizures. Children under six are most at risk.

Strong demand builds Lego sales


Toy maker Lego reported a 60% rise in net profit in the first six months of 2009 as it said parents were turning to its classic products in the recession.

The Danish firm, famed for brightly-coloured building blocks, made 684m, kroner ($129m; £79.3m). Sales rose 23%.

Chief executive Jorgen Vig Knudstorp said the results were "very satisfactory" but warned Christmas trading would be the main test.

Its traditional lined had remained the most popular, he added.

Meanwhile its new theme, Lego Power Miners, had also got off to a good start, the firm said.

UK sales rose 20% in the first half of the year. The managing director of Lego UK, Marko Ilincic, said the continued strong growth in its traditional lines "was particularly encouraging and suggests a demand among consumers for trusted quality, particularly in the current economic climate".

Lego said it was the only one of the UK's top five toy manufacturers to enjoy sales growth in the first half of the year.

The firm began in a carpenter's workshop in 1932 and founder Ole Kirk Christiansen chose the name for his creation by combining the first two letters of the Danish words "leg godt", meaning "play well".

Lego claims that children across the globe spend five billion hours a year playing with its bricks.

Japan's economy leaves recession


Japan has come out of recession after its economy grew by 0.9% in the April-to-June quarter.

The growth comes after four consecutive quarters of contraction.

Correspondents say the rise is due to a huge government stimulus package and it is unclear whether the momentum will be sustained when this is concluded.

Recent figures show other economies coming out of recession, including Germany, France and Hong Kong, a sign the global slowdown is easing.

Despite Japan exiting recession, the country's main share index, the Nikkei, fell back as the rate of growth was not as large as analysts had hoped.

If Japan's latest quarterly rate were maintained for a full year, the economy would grow 3.7%, but this was less than market expectations of 3.9%.

The Nikkei ended down 329 points or 3.1% to 10,269.

'Positive contribution'

Japan officially fell into recession last year and there was a dramatic fall in growth in the January-March period as the world economic slowdown hit Japanese exports hard.

Government stimulus measures totalling $260bn (£159bn) helped to boost the economy, including cash handouts and subsidies to buy energy-efficient cars and home appliances, the BBC's Roland Buerk in Tokyo says.

Manufacturers also benefited from recovering demand in China and other markets, with overall exports up 6.3% during the quarter.

But Japan could still face a long road to sustainable recovery, our correspondent says, with domestic private consumption rising only 0.8% despite the stimulus measures.

Seijiro Takeshita, director of Mizuho Financial, Japan's second largest banking group, told the BBC that the Japanese economy was now staging a "true comeback".

"We are definitely getting out of the excessive pessimism that we have been seeing... however, a lot of big questions remain, namely private consumption," he said.

"We know this time it was good, but that was due to a lot of government stimulus spending."


European recovery

Japan is heavily reliant on its exports.

The slowdown in the US has hit it hard as American consumers have limited their spending.

In a recent Bank of Japan report, the central bank underlined its cautious view of the economy.

While it said conditions in the Japanese economy had stopped worsening, it warned that unemployment would stay high and consumer spending low.

Last month, the bank forecast that Japan's economy would shrink by 3.4% in the 12 months to 31 March 2010.

The French and German economies both grew by 0.3% between April and June, bringing to an end recessions in Europe's largest economies that have lasted a year.

Analysts had not expected the data, suggesting recovery could be faster than previously expected.

And Hong Kong recorded growth of 3.3% in the three months from April to June.

That data was also better than had been expected, with the government subsequently increasing its forecast for growth in the whole year.

Didn’t human rights matter before Shah Rukh?


Shah Rukh Khan was detained at a New Jersey airport and interrogated for two hours before the US authorities let him make a phone call.

The movie celebrity, fondly called “King” Khan by millions of Indian fans in the subcontinent and around the world, was naturally upset. He said he felt humiliated. The incident created uproar in India: it became the top story nationwide. Khan was en route to Chicago to lead an Indian independence day parade.

The Indian government was unhappy too. Information minister Ambika Soni told media that “while she could not say if Khan had been detained on religious grounds, there have been too many instances like these in the US concerning Indians.”

She is right. Last month, US-based Continental Airlines sought apology to former Indian president A.P.J. Abdul Kalam for mistreating him at New Delhi airport.

Strange! An Indian president frisked in India, by US authorities!

***

The Shah Rukh Khan episode is telling for its irony. Khan just finished shooting in the U.S. for his upcoming film “My Name is Khan,” a story about a Muslim’s experience with racial profiling. Obviously, people in the U.S. who detained him did not keep in touch with Khan’s filmic endeavours.

Indian-Americans, we keep telling unconvinced compatriots, don’t particularly enjoy any special respect in this “dreamland.” To mainstream America and its corporate media, India is still largely the land of jungles and snakes and beggars and brutes.

At hearing the Khan news, I was bemused. I wasn’t quite sure how to react.

On the one hand, I felt angry that the authorities were so unwelcoming to someone like Khan at his port of entry into the US, let alone detaining and questioning him. There was absolutely no justification. The Indian Independence Day parades all across America were tarnished by this one incident.

On the other hand, activists like us who’ve been screaming against grotesque human rights violations in the U.S. on thousands of Indian immigrants, especially since the tragedies of September 11, never got a serious hearing by either the traveling celebrities who put on big-money shows every year across America, or the Indian government, in spite of the fact that numerous stories of poor peoples’ harrowing, nightmarish experiences have been reported especially in ethnic media.

For that matter, Indian immigrants have never been treated any differently from Pakistani, Bangladeshi or Middle Eastern immigrants. As long as they carried a Muslim name or “looked or behaved like potential terrorists,” according to U.S. definitions or databases, they would sure be enforcement agencies’ targets for mistreatment, interrogation, detention and possible deportation. They’d also be targets for possible hate crimes; we worked with hundreds of hate crime victims—almost all poor immigrants from South Asia and Arab countries—since the wake of 9/11. Media reported many of these stories too.

And it’s not just Muslims that have been targets. We’ve worked with many Sikh immigrants—ordinary, innocent men, women and children—who bore the brunt of post-9/11 hatred and government repression in America. Indian government should’ve noticed long ago what was happening, and protested against it to the U.S. government. That is, if they really wanted these crimes and oppressive measures to stop once and for all.

***

In a way, it’s unfortunate that an Indian matinee idol had to go through such a terrible ordeal in America. In another way, it was good that Khan got a taste of today’s real America, where human rights are a matter of the past.

Hatred used to be along colour lines in America, and Black Americans fought hard for generations to get their dignity and civil rights. Now it’s the turn of new immigrants from India, Pakistan, China, Mexico or Latin America who’re the new bogies of American racism, and scapegoats for economic crises.

Affluent or middle-class Indian immigrants, however, still don’t think it’s a problem; in fact, a large majority of Indian-Americans still carry their own racial prejudice against blacks and also immigrants from other countries, particularly Muslim countries.

During the post-9/11 days of intense racial violence, we never got a good hearing even from within our own Indian-American community; in fact, in way, they always wanted to justify the meaningless violence and hatred against Muslim and Sikh brothers and sisters. Our repeated attempts to draw their attention to countless midnight arrests, arbitrary detentions and random deportations of immigrant workers made little impression on them.

I don’t recall a single major statement by any Indian celebrity or member of the Indian government denouncing such rampant abuse of human rights.

Now that someone like Shah Rukh Khan has tasted a little of today’s real America, and that too, on the eve of the Independence Day, emotions will fly high, and Indian students, fans and actors would post angry comments on the Internet and all; of course, most anger would be shown from a safe, virtual place, and not too many grassroots protests would take place on the streets of America.

Ceremonial speeches and press releasess by affluent Indians at ivory-tower gatherings would feature Indian-American media. Television channels and newspapers in India, of course, would go berserk for the next few days, and in all likelihood, Shah Rukh Khan would be tendered a soft apology by the U.S. authorities for this “rare aberration” of the “mighty, judicious and welcoming” U.S. system.

Life will go on as usual for celebrities and people in power.

At the same time, poor Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Chinese, African and Mexican workers and their families would keep suffering massive injustice, repression and human rights violation at the hands of U.S. immigration authorities. Many will keep spending months and years in jail, even without any show of support from governments, embassies and consulates.

Club v country takes new twist


The big kick-off to a new season is always exhilarating, fuelled by the energy of fans flocking back to their spiritual home after more than three months of absence.

The regularity and depth of this contact between fans, stadium and team means that the club game will always be football's central experience.

But maybe a tilt is taking place in the direction of national teams. It could just be that this is World Cup season. Or perhaps because I'm briefly back in England at a moment when there is a mini buzz of expectation around Fabio Capello and his men.

But it might be something deeper.

"Increasingly," wrote Brian Viner in Thursday's 'Independent', "international football is a refreshing antidote to the game in Europe's top leagues, its teams determined by accidents of birth rather than the flourishing of a chequebook."

His complaint is aimed at an inevitable consequence of the dynamic of the times. Globalisation leads to concentration. Fewer, bigger banks, and fewer, bigger football clubs competing for the major honours and hoovering up the best players from all over the planet.

What makes international football so interesting in this context is that it is where the opposite dynamic is taking place.

If the logic of money means that fewer clubs are in contention to win the domestic title or the Champions League, a by-product of the same process is that more countries can realistically dream of doing well in the World Cup.

Take the then-Zaire team, who played in West Germany in 1974. Some of the technique of their play was not bad. But they looked as if they had never defended against a cross before (hence the 9-0 defeat to Yugoslavia) and they were unclear on some of the rules.

There is a famous incident when, as Brazil shape up to take a free-kick, a member of the Zaire defensive wall breaks out and boots the ball into the distance. What appeared to have rattled the Zaire team is that Brazil were placing men in their wall - a ruse they had never encountered and considered illegal.

Their ignorance was unsurprising. The Zairian players were out of the loop of global football.

The same is emphatically not true of the African teams today. Three years ago in Germany the African World Cup debutants were full of battle hardened professionals who had picked up experience in the major European leagues.

The global market in footballers concentrates the best players in a handful of clubs - and then scatters them around when they pull on the shirt of their national team.

And if international football is becoming less predictable than the club game, it is also clearer on a crucial aspect of the sport's appeal - representation.

The big clubs have outgrown their core communities - hardly surprising since so much of their income now comes from abroad.

In 'My Manchester United Years,' an excellent account of his club career, Sir Bobby Charlton stresses how he and manager Matt Busby were well aware of how they were representing the world's first industrial city, and of the need to demonstrate the work ethic of the club's surroundings and also supply some much needed colour.

It would be almost impossible for today's multinational Manchester United squad to feel the same bond with the city.

But when the players are on international duty, it is clear who they are representing. As the national anthem plays, their thoughts are for those they grew up with, perhaps a neighbour who gave early encouragement, maybe even a girl who snubbed them as a youngster or a teacher who said they would amount to nothing.

This idea of representation is especially strong for the South Americans, where the shirt of the national team is such an important symbol of the country.

Back in Brazil and Argentina, the European-based stars are always liable to be branded as mercenaries who are out of contact with the game in the land of their birth - when in fact the players make sacrifices to play for their national team that many Europeans would not be willing to undergo, especially in terms of travelling time.

Having almost the entire squad based on the other side of the Atlantic does create problems for the national teams of Brazil and Argentina, especially with the lack of time that the coach has to work with his players.

Diego Maradona is the latest in a line of Argentina bosses to complain that time restrictions mean that he is not a coach, but a selector.

But some would argue that the negatives are outweighed by the plus points. European experience often makes the players more professional, and constant exposure to top level competition surely has a beneficial effect on their development.

But there is a storm cloud gathering.

Bureaucratic restrictions like the 'six plus five' proposal can often have undesired effects.

They are already pushing the European clubs to plunder South American players at an ever-younger age.

Then, with less grounding in their native culture they are more vulnerable to pressure to play their international football on a flag of convenience basis.

At Manchester United, for example, there has been talk of the Brazilian full-back twins Fabio and Rafael representing Portugal, and their colleague and compatriot Rodrigo Possebon has been courted by Italy.

This is a worrying trend, the empire striking back - because if playing for an international team can indirectly be determined more by the flourish of a chequebook than an accident of birth then the soul of the game is in trouble.

Comment on today's piece in the space provided. Other questions on South American football to vickerycolumn@hotmail.com and I'll pick out a couple for next week.

From last week's postbag:


Q) My hopes of Colombia qualifying are all but dashed. Why do you think it's so hard for them to score goals? Is there is any hope for the future?

Jarrad Venegas

A) It is depressing to see them like this - they're not totally out of the race for 2010, but seven goals in 14 World Cup qualifiers tells its own story, and this has been a problem for years.

It's not only the lack of goals - for me it's also a lack of quality in their play, a lack of joy, a lack of expression - a lack of many things they had in great quantities in the late 80s, early 90s.

I think the trauma of USA 94 goes deep - the whole thing exposed so many of the ills of Colombian society to the world, and the passing style of that team was scorned. Personally I think they've gone too far the other way, and need to go back to recapture some of the exhuberant inter-passing of that side in order to go forwards. It's a country with so much football potential.

Q) I am a keen follower of Italian football and one player that has certainly caught my eye in recent seasons is Ezequiel Lavezzi. I have seen him play magically at times for Napoli, and I know he has been linked with both Liverpool and Chelsea in recent years. Do you think he will move to England in this window and what do you think his chances are of securing a place in the Argentina squad?

Druve Shah

A) He's in the squad - came off the bench in midweek in the 3-2 win away to Russia. There's so much competition for squat, nippy strikers in the Argentina line-up, so getting in to the team will not be easy.

He is, though, an excellent player - strong on the ball, excellent change of pace, can work the flanks and combine through the middle. Perhaps there are still some wild child excesses to overcome if potential is going to be transformed into promise on a weekly basis. Liverpool were supposed to have been interested in him at one time - a good season with Napoli, a few more international caps and a move to a big club in England could be his for the taking.

The sailors were "alive, healthy and are not under armed guard", the agency quoted him as saying. Malta's Maritime Security Committee confirmed that


Russia says it has found a missing cargo vessel near the Cape Verde islands and retrieved its Russian crew.

Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov said that the 15-member crew had been taken on board a Russian navy vessel. They were in good condition, he said.

The Finnish-owned Arctic Sea went off radar after passing through the English Channel with its cargo of timber.

Speculation over the cause of its disappearance had ranged from pirates to a mafia dispute to a commercial row.

The Arctic Sea was found at 0100 Monday (2100 GMT Sunday) 300 miles (480 km) off Cape Verde in the Atlantic Ocean, Tass news agency quoted Mr Serdyukov as telling Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
Click here for a map charting reported sightings of the Arctic Sea

"The crew have been transferred to another ship. They are being interrogated now in order to find out what happened," Mr Serdyukov said.

The sailors were "alive, healthy and are not under armed guard", the agency quoted him as saying.

Malta's Maritime Security Committee confirmed that the vessel was in the hands of the Russian military. Further clarification in the case was being sought, it said in a statement.

Carrying timber reportedly worth $1.8m (£1.1m), the 4,000-tonne Maltese-flagged vessel sailed from Finland and had been scheduled to dock in the Algerian port of Bejaia on 4 August.

The crew reported having been boarded by up to 10 armed men as the ship sailed through the Baltic Sea on 24 July, but the intruders were reported to have left the vessel on an inflatable boat after 12 hours.

The last known contact with the crew was when the Arctic Sea reported to British maritime authorities in Dover as it passed through the English Channel.

It was then sighted in the Bay of Biscay on 30 July.

On Saturday, police in Finland said a ransom demand had been made, but emphasised that they could not confirm its authenticity.

US banknotes show cocaine traces


The largest study of banknotes has found that 95% of dollar bills in Washington DC bear traces of the illegal drug cocaine.

The figure for the US capital is up 20% over two years.

Researchers at the University of Massachusetts in Dartmouth tested notes from more than 30 cities worldwide.

They say the rise observed in the US may be due to increased drug use caused by higher stress levels linked to the global economic downturn.

Bank notes can pick up traces of cocaine directly from users snorting it through rolled up bills or when cash is stacked together.

Stress factor?

Besides Washington, other big US cities such as Baltimore, Boston and Detroit had the highest average cocaine levels on their dollar bills.

Dr Yuegang Zuo, who led the research, said: "To my surprise, we're finding more and more cocaine in banknotes.

"I'm not sure why we've seen this apparent increase, but it could be related to the economic downturn, with stressed people turning to cocaine."

Other countries where notes were tested were Canada, Brazil, China and Japan.

China had the lowest rates, with only 12% of its bills contaminated.

In the US the cleanest bills were collected from Salt Lake City, home of the religious group, the Mormons.

Iranian ex-MPs challenge Khamenei


The call was made to the Assembly of Experts, which under Iranian law has the power to remove the supreme leader.

In a letter, the group denounces the crackdown on protests after June's disputed poll and the resulting trials.

Meanwhile a senior cleric has said a reformist leader should be prosecuted for alleging protesters had been raped.

Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami said defeated election candidate Mehdi Karroubi's remarks boosted Iran's enemies, particularly the US and Israel.

Mr Karroubi has alleged that some protesters - male and female - were raped while detained in prison. He has also said that some were tortured to death.

Officials have denied the rape allegations, but have admitted that abuses have taken place.

During his sermon at Friday prayers in Tehran, Ayatollah Khatami said Mr Karroubi's claims were "full of libel, a total slander against the Islamic system" and he demanded he be prosecuted.

"We expect the Islamic system to show an appropriate response to this," Ayatollah Khatami said.

In earlier remarks reported by the Iranian ILNA news agency, he said: "If someone libels the system by saying that rape takes place in prisons, then he must either prove it or, if he cannot, then the system must press charges and the public prosecutor must act."

Former MPs' letter

The content of the letter from the group of former MPs appeared on several opposition websites. The reports did not name any of the group, nor say how many had signed the letter.

Addressed to former Iranian President Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, who heads the Assembly of Experts, it demands "a legal probe on the basis of Article 111 of the constitution, which is a responsibility of the Assembly of Experts".

The article says that if the supreme leader "becomes incapable of fulfilling his constitutional duties" he will be dismissed.

The letter denounced the recent trials of protesters held in Tehran as a "Stalinesque court".

It also said Kahrizak prison near Tehran, where much of the alleged abuse of detainees took place, was worse than the US facilities at Abu Ghraib, Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

There has so far been no response from the assembly to the letter.

However, correspondents say that even if the call is ignored, it is the most direct challenge to Ayatollah Khamenei so far.

The letter breaks a taboo among Iran's political classes against openly challenging the supreme leader, whose position has long been unquestioned, analysts say.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won June's poll, but opposition leaders and their supporters claimed the election had been rigged. Security forces crushed the mass protests that followed.

Hundreds were arrested and opposition leaders say 69 protesters died - more than double the official figure of about 30 fatalities.

Hamas crackdown on Gaza challengers


There were reports coming from Gaza this week that Hamas was losing patience with the Jund Ansar Allah - or Soldiers of the Followers of God.

An unsuccessful attempt was apparently made to detain the military commander of the group, a man going by the nickname of Abu Adbullah al-Muhajir.

Hamas security men approached him as he was leaving a mosque in Rafah. According to a source close to Hamas, Muhajir and his bodyguards threatened to detonate explosive belts they were wearing, and escaped.

The group let it be known that this Friday its spiritual leader, Abdul Latif Moussa, would declare an "Islamic emirate".

Hamas told the group to cancel the prayers, something it refused to do. Attempts at negotiation failed and Hamas decided to end the rise of Jund Ansar Allah.

Militants on horseback

The group came to prominence in June, when Jund Ansar Allah claimed responsibility for an attack on Nahal Oz, one of the crossing points from Gaza into Israel.

It was the most serious attack on an Israeli military position since the end of the Gaza offensive in January. The group used weapons, vehicles with explosives, and unusually, militants on horseback.

The mounted attack was a failure. The Israeli army responded with machine guns, tanks and attack helicopters.

The material posted by the group on the internet is certainly inspired by al-Qaeda. It shares much of the iconography, language, music and discourse of other Jihadi groups.

In a recent declaration purportedly issued by the Jund Ansar Allah, Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman Zawahiri, are mentioned by name.

The group maintains that a return to a purer form of Islam is needed and that Sharia law must be implemented, and rejects democracy as un-Islamic.

But although it is easy to draw the ideological and linguistic connection, it is much harder to establish whether the group receives direction, money or resources from elsewhere.

Given that Gaza remains largely closed off from the rest of the world, that would be difficult - although not impossible.

The smuggling of weapons into Gaza is almost entirely controlled by Hamas. The fact that the group appears to have been relatively well-armed would point to at least some of its members being former militants from other groups, including Hamas.

In terms of numbers, one source estimates about 300 men, based in Khan Younis and Rafah, at the southern end of the Gaza Strip, but it is difficult to know for sure.

Uncompromising message

The Jund Ansar Islam is one of a handful of radical al-Qaeda-inspired groups to have appeared in the Gaza Strip in recent years.

The most prominent of these until now was Jaish al-Islam, who participated in the raid which captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in 2006 and claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of BBC's Gaza correspondent Alan Johnston in 2007.

The groups may have been used as proxies by other militant groups or powerful clans, but all have managed to attract young Gazans with a more radical interpretation of Islam, and with an uncompromising message of how to fight Israel and its "Crusader" allies.

For those young men who have become increasingly radicalised in Gaza, the established parties and militant groups are seen to have failed.

Since Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip two years ago, these groups have been seen as a challenge to its authority, and Hamas has stamped on them hard.

But dealing with them has presented Hamas with a real problem. Hamas's full title is the Islamic Resistance Movement, and it faces opposition from within its own membership and support base if it cracks down too hard on groups for either engaging in acts of resistance against Israel or activities presented as Islamic.

This week Hamas decided that it had had enough.