News & Current Affairs

September 17, 2008

Chinese to tighten dairy testing

Chinese to tighten dairy testing

Baby treated at hospital in Xian

Babies affected developed urinary problems, including kidney stones

China says it will launch nationwide testing of all dairy products following the deaths of three babies from contaminated milk formula.

More than 6,200 babies have fallen ill after drinking milk tainted with the toxic chemical melamine, officials say.

Tests have shown that 69 batches of formula from 22 companies contained the banned substance.

The Chinese government has described the dairy market as “chaotic” and said its supervision is flawed.

Two of the companies involved have exported their products to Bangladesh, Yemen, Gabon, Burundi, and Burma, although it is not clear if contaminated batches are involved.

Kidney failure

The third fatality occurred in the eastern province of Zhejiang, Health Minister Chen Zhu said. The two earlier deaths had been reported in Gansu province.

More than 1,000 children were still in hospital, Mr Chen said, of whom more than 150 were suffering acute kidney failure.

He said all affected infants would receive free medical care.

In response, Li Changjiang, head of China’s quality control watchdog, said 5,000 inspectors would be dispatched nationwide to monitor companies and begin testing for melamine in all dairy products, he said.

It is believed that the melamine, which is used in the production of plastics, was added to the fresh milk to make it appear to have a higher protein content.

In a statement, the Chinese cabinet said the incident reflected “chaotic industry conditions and loopholes in the supervision and management of the industry”, state-run Xinhua news agency reported.

“It is necessary to learn lessons, properly deal with the incident, improve the inspection and supervision system and strengthen the management of the dairy industry,” it said.

Companies caught up in the scandal include the giant milk company Mengniu Dairy.

It says it is recalling three batches of formula made in January, after government tests found melamine in its product.

The dairy has also suspended trading of its shares on the Hong Kong stock exchange.

Bosses fired

The company at the heart of the scandal, the Sanlu Group, has fired its chairwoman and its general manager, the Xinhua agency said.

Chinese Health Minister Chen Zhu said all the seriously ill children had become ill after drinking Sanlu powered milk.

Correspondents say that melamine appears to have been added at milk collection stations, before being passed on to Sanlu.

Four officials linked to agriculture and quality control in Hebei province, where the Sanlu group is based, have been sacked, Xinhua reported.

Hospital in Shenyang, northeast China

Parent’s anger over milk scandal

The agency also said six people had been arrested in connection with the scandal and 22 were still being questioned.

Those arrested include two villagers charged with selling melamine and adding it to milk sold to the Sanlu Group.

An owner of a private food additive shop who allegedly sold the chemical to milk dealers was also arrested, as well as two milk sellers who admitted selling the tainted product, Xinhua said. Details of the sixth arrest were not given.

Sanlu made the information about the contamination of its products public last week after its New Zealand stakeholder, Fonterra – a global supplier of dairy ingredients – informed the New Zealand government, which then told the Chinese government.

Mr Li, head of the quality control watchdog, said two companies – Yashili and Suncare – exported milk powder and they were recalling their products.

On Wednesday, Bangladesh said food and commerce officials would meet this weekend to determine whether tainted products had entered the country.

Mr Li also said that melamine had also been found in a yogurt ice bar made by Yili, one of China’s biggest dairy producers, and sold in Hong Kong.

The brand has now been recalled by the Hong Kong supermarket chain Wellcome.

Confidence undermined

Mr Li said tests for melamine had not been made before, because it was banned from food products.

China is keen to try to reassure parents that it is in control of what is happening.

This scandal has undermined confidence in food safety in China and many parents are worried about what they will feed their babies, he adds.

Analysts say the incident is an embarrassing failure for China’s product safety system, which was revamped after a spate of international recalls and warnings last year over a range of goods.


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September 14, 2008

Taxi drivers ‘have brain sat-nav’

Taxi drivers ‘have brain sat-nav’

Sid James in a London cab (BBC)

The knowledge: London cabbies are famous for knowing their way around

Scientists have uncovered evidence for an inbuilt “sat-nav” system in the brains of London taxi drivers.

They used magnetic scanners to explore the brain activity of taxi drivers as they navigated their way through a virtual simulation of London’s streets.

Different brain regions were activated as they considered route options, spotted familiar landmarks or thought about their customers.

The research was presented at this week’s BA Science Festival.

Earlier studies had shown that taxi drivers have a larger hippocampus – a region of the brain that plays an important role in navigation.

Their brains even “grow on the job” as they build up detailed information needed to find their way around London’s labyrinth of streets – information famously referred to as “The Knowledge”.

“We were keen to go beyond brain structure – and see what activity is going on inside the brains of taxi drivers while they are doing their job,” said Dr Hugo Spiers from University College London.

Taxi driver's brain

The scientists used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to obtain “minute by minute” brain images from 20 taxi drivers as they delivered customers to destinations on “virtual jobs”.

The scientists adapted the Playstation2 game “Getaway” to bring the streets of London into the scanner.

After the scan – and without prior warning – the drivers watched a replay of their performance and reported what they had been thinking at each stage.

“We tried to peel out the common thoughts that taxi drivers tend to have as they drive through the city, and then tie them down to a particular time and place,” said Dr Spiers.

The series of scans revealed a complex choreography of brain activity as the taxi drivers responded to different scenarios.

The hippocampus was only active when the taxi drivers initially planned their route, or if they had to completely change their destination during the course of the journey.

The scientists saw activity in a different brain region when the drivers came across an unexpected situation – for example, a blocked-off junction.

Another part of the brain helped taxi drivers to track how close they were to the endpoint of their journey; like a metal detector, its activity increased when they were closer to their goal.

Changes also occurred in brain regions that are important in social behaviour.

Taxi driving is not just about navigation: “Drivers do obsess occasionally about what their customers are thinking,” said Dr Spiers.

Animals use a number of different mechanisms to navigate – the Sun’s polarized light rays, the Earth’s magnetic fields and the position of the stars.

This research provides new information about the specific roles of areas within the brains of expert human navigators.

August 21, 2008

Capello defends England tactics

Capello defends England tactics

Fabio Capello

Capello said he played Gerrard in a supporting role behind the striker

Coach Fabio Capello gave England’s performance in the 2-2 draw with the Czech Republic a mixed review and defended his use of Steven Gerrard.

The Italian was criticized for playing the midfielder on the left wing.

Capello explained he was using Gerrard in a 4-3-2-1 system, with the Liverpool captain and Wayne Rooney supporting Jermain Defoe as a main striker.

“The position he had to play was in the line of the full-backs and midfield,” he said. “He never played on the left.”

Capello sought to get the best out of Liverpool’s influential captain and Chelsea’s Frank Lampard in the same line-up, a conundrum that has dogged his predecessors in the England job.

On this occasion he opted to partner Lampard with Gareth Barry in the middle with David Beckham to the right of the trio.

Capello added: “We played 4-3-2-1. We played Defoe, Gerrard and Rooney and three midfielders behind them. He [Gerrard] went to the left and to the middle.”

Gerrard was replaced by Joe Cole after an hour and the Chelsea midfielder admitted he was played out of position.

“I’m a winger, but the manager wanted me to play off the front man,” said the 26-year-old. “New manager, new ideas. We’ve got to try things.”

Only a last-minute goal from Cole saved England from defeat at Wembley, but Capello drew some positives from the salvaged draw, saying the performance was another step forward for his side ahead of World Cup qualifying campaign which begins in Andorra on 6 September.

He was also concerned by the ease in which England were exposed by a fast counter-attacking Czech side and admitted it is something they will need to work on.

“I think in the first half we played well, we had a lot of chances.

“After the second goal from the Czechs, the direction was not so strong.”

The problem is not with the style we played, but the difficulty we have when the other team play the counter-attack
England manager Fabio Capello

“The problem is not with the style we played, but the difficulty we have when the other team play the counter-attack,” added the 62-year-old.

“It is always dangerous and we have to study this problem.

“At this moment the players are not 100% physically, and important players like Rooney and Gerrard have played just one game.

“I think this result is important. We played against a very strong team and we’ll have more confidence for the next game.”

England’s uncomfortable night was compounded by the announcement that the Football Association’s chief executive Brian Barwick would leave his post by the end of the year.

Barwick was instrumental in the appointment of Capello, but differences with chairman Lord Triesman have led to their relationship becoming unworkable.

When asked about his departure the Italian said: “I am a friend of Brian, but it’s not my job [to comment] – it’s a board decision.”

Meanwhile, captain John Terry conceded that there had been “some plusses, but also some negatives” from their final warm-up game before the World Cup qualification campaign begins.

“Maybe we should have won the game with the players we had out,” the re-appointed skipper said

Of the crowd booing the players off, he said: “The crowd were frustrated as they’d paid a lot of money for their tickets, and we’ve got to put on a better show than that.

“It’s going to be a slow process, but hopefully we can get off to a good start against Andorra and go from there.

“We’ve got players playing in the biggest competition in the world [the Champions League], but sometimes we don’t click on the international stage.

“But I don’t think we should be worried. We have to stand up and be counted, raise our game, match teams with the commitment they show and hopefully our quality can overcome them.”

August 7, 2008

Net address bug worse than feared

Net address bug worse than feared

Courtesy BBC

Computer keyboard, BBC

Attackers could use the loophole to redirect web users to fake sites

A recently found flaw in the internet’s addressing system is worse than first feared, says the man who found it.

Dan Kaminsky made his comments when speaking publicly for the first time about his discovery at the Black Hat conference in Las Vegas.

He said fixes for the flaw in the net’s Domain Name System (DNS) had focused on web browsers but it could be abused by hackers in many other ways.

“Every network is at risk,” he said. “That’s what this flaw has shown.”

The DNS acts as the internet’s address books and helps computers translate the website names people prefer (such as bbc.co.uk) into the numbers computers use (212.58.224.131).

Mr Kaminsky discovered a way for malicious hackers to hijack DNS and re-direct people to fake pages even if they typed in the correct address for a website.

In his talk Mr Kaminsky detailed 15 other ways for the flaw to be exploited.

Via the flaw hi-tech criminals or pranksters could target FTP services, mail servers, spam filters, Telnet and the Secure Socket Layer (SSL) that helps to make web-based transactions more secure.

“There are a ton of different paths that lead to doom,” he said.

‘Hype’

But the DNS threat was played down by net giant VeriSign which issues many of the security certificates used in SSL. It told BBC News its system was “not vulnerable”.

The Silicon Valley company looks after two of the net’s 13 DNS root servers. It also controls the computers that contain the master list of domain name suffixes such as .com and .net

Ken Silva, CTO VeriSign

“If there is a silver lining in all of this, it’s that users will become more aware and more consious of who they do business with.”

Ken Silva, chief technology officer at Verisign, said: “We have anticipated these flaws in DNS for many years and we have basically engineered around them.”

He believed there had been “some hype” around how the DNS flaw will affect consumers. He added that while it was an interesting way to exploit DNS on weak servers, there were other ways to misdirect people that remained.

Mr Silva said he was concerned that people would read too much into the doom and gloom headlines that have surrounded the discovery of the DNS flaw.

“It’s been overplayed in a sense. I think it has served to confuse the consumer into believing there is somehow now a way to misdirect them to a wrong site.

“The fact of the matter is that there have been many ways like phishing attacks to misdirect them for a long time and this is just yet another of those ways that will be surgically exploited.”

Security gap

Mr Kaminsky kept news of the flaw out of the public domain for months after its discovery to give companies time to patch servers.

Mr Kaminsky said that 75% of Fortune 500 companies have fixed the problem while around 15% have done nothing.

Major vendors like Microsoft, Cisco, Sun Microsystems and others have issued patches to close the security hole.

“The industry has rallied like we’ve never seen the industry rally before,” said Mr Kaminsky.

Student using laptop, BBC

Computer users need to be educated to surf the superhighway more safely

DNS attacks are not new but Mr Kaminsky is credited with discovering a way to link some widely known weaknesses in the system so that the attack now takes seconds instead of days or hours.

“Quite frankly, all the pieces of this have been staring us in the face for decades,” said Paul Vixie, president of the Internet Systems Consortium, a non-profit that makes the software run by many of the world’s DNS servers.

Mr Silva at VeriSign said even though patches have been put in place, this doesn’t mean users can sit back and relax.

“The biggest gap in security rests between the keyboard and the back of the chair,” he said.

“The look and feel of a website is not what a consumer should trust. They should trust the security behind that website and do simple things like use more secure passwords and change their password regularly.”

Mr Silva said education is fundamental in making the net a safer place.

“We have been trained since we were young to lock the door to our house, our car. We take these sensible security measures in the environment we are functioning in.

“Yet when it comes to computer safety we forget to look both ways before crossing the internet highway.”

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