March 2007

top_robot_warriors_ap.jpgDAYTON, Ohio (AP) — As it increases its use of robots in war zones, the military will begin using an explosive-sniffing version that will allow soldiers to better detect roadside bombs, which account for more than 70 percent of U.S. casualties in Iraq.

Fido is the first robot with an integrated explosives sensor. Burlington, Massachusetts-based iRobot Corp. is filling the military’s first order of 100 in this southwest Ohio city and will ship the robots over the next few months.

There are nearly 5,000 robots in Iraq and Afghanistan, up from about 150 in 2004. Soldiers use them to search caves and buildings for insurgents, detect mines and ferret out roadside and car bombs.

As the war in Iraq enters its fifth year, the federal government is spending more money on military robots and the two major U.S. robot makers have increased production.

Foster-Miller Inc., of Waltham, Mass., recently delivered 1,000 new robots to the military. IRobot cranked out 385 robots last year, up from 252 in 2005.

The government will spend about $1.7 billion on ground-based military robots between fiscal 2006 and 2012, said Bill Thomasmeyer, head of the National Center for Defense Robotics, a congressionally funded consortium of 160 companies, universities and government labs. That’s up from $100 million in fiscal 2004.

Fido, produced at a GEM City Manufacturing and Engineering plant, represents an improvement in bomb-detecting military robots, said Col. Terry Griffin, project manager of the Army/Marine Corps Robotic Systems Joint Project Office at Redstone Arsenal, Ala.

The bomb-sniffing sensor is part of the robot, with its readings displayed on the controller along with camera images. Otherwise, a soldier would have to approach the suspect object with a sensor or try to attach it to a robot. The new robot has a 7-foot manipulator arm so it can use the sensor to scan the inside and undercarriage of vehicles for bombs.

Officials would not release details of how the sensors work because of security concerns.

“The sniffer robot is a very good idea because we need some way of understanding ambiguous situations like abandoned cars or suspicious trash piles without putting soldiers’ lives on the line,” said Loren Thompson, defense analyst with the Washington-based Lexington Institute.

Philip Coyle, senior adviser to the Center for Defense Information in Washington, said the robots could be helpful if they are used in cases where soldiers already suspect a bomb. But he said explosive-sniffing sensors are susceptible to false positives triggered by explosive residues elsewhere in the area, smoke and other contaminants.

“The soldiers can begin to lose faith in them, and they become more trouble than they’re worth,” he said.

Thompson said all military robots have limitations. Their every move must be dictated by an operator, they can be stopped by barriers or steep grades, they are not highly agile and they can break down or be damaged, he said.

Robots range in size from tiny — 1.5-pound ones carrying cameras are tossed into buildings to search for insurgents — to brute — 110-pound versions move rubble and lift debris.

Fido is an upgrade of PackBot, a 52-pound robot with rubber treads, lights, video cameras that zoom and swivel, obstacle-hurdling flippers and jointed manipulator arms with hand-like grippers designed to disable or destroy bombs. Each costs $165,000.

Army Staff Sgt. Shawn Baker, 26, of Olean, New York, has helped detect and disable roadside bombs during two tours in Iraq. Before the robots were available, he and fellow soldiers would stand back as far as possible with a rope and drag hooks over the suspect devices in hopes of disarming or detonating them.

Two soldiers were killed that way, Baker said. No one in his unit has been hurt or killed while disarming bombs since the robots arrived.

“The science and technology of this has been way out in front of the production side,” Thomasmeyer said. “We’re going to start to see a payoff for all the science and technology advancements.”

IRobot posted $189 million in sales last year, up 33 percent from 2005. Its military business grew 60 percent to about $76 million.

Bob Quinn, general manager of Foster-Miller, said his company has contracts of $320 million for military robots and that its business has doubled every year for the past four years.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


t1_hicks.jpgGUANTANAMO BAY U.S. NAVAL BASE, Cuba (Reuters) — A U.S. military tribunal sentenced Australian al Qaeda trainee David Hicks on Friday to seven years in prison, but he will only have to serve nine months of the sentence.

Hicks, who became the first war crimes convict among the hundreds of foreign captives held for years at the Guantanamo prison camp, had pleaded guilty to supporting terrorism in an agreement with U.S. military prosecutors.

The deal allowed all but nine months of the sentence to be be suspended. He will serve it in Australia, and the United States must send him home by May 29. (Watch as a legal expert suggests Hicks may have opted for a “pragmatic course of action”)

The tribunal judge accepted Hicks’ guilty plea as part of an agreement that limited his sentence to seven years in prison, in addition to the five years he has been held at the Guantanamo base in Cuba.

The former kangaroo skinner from Adelaide acknowledged that he trained with al Qaeda, fought against U.S. allies in Afghanistan in late 2001 for two hours, and then sold his gun to raise cab fare to flee by taxi to Pakistan.

Hicks, 31, denied having advance knowledge of the September 11 attacks. His attorney, Marine Maj. Michael Mori, portrayed him as a now-apologetic soldier wannabe who never shot at anyone and ran away when he got a taste of battle.

The prosecutor, Marine Lt. Col. Kevin Chenail, said Hicks freely joined a band of killers who slaughtered innocents. “We are face to face with the enemy,” Chenail said.

Hicks was captured in Afghanistan in December 2001 and was among the first prisoners the United States sent to Guantanamo a month later. Washington considers them dangerous and unlawful “enemy combatants” who must be detained in the war against terrorism.

Rights groups and foreign governments have condemned the prison at the U.S. naval base on the eastern tip of Cuba for what they say is abuse of prisoners’ rights.

But Washington has argued the camp is necessary to hold detainees in the war on terrorism it declared after the 9/11 attacks.

Hicks is not accused of shooting anyone.

To finalize his plea, Hicks had to convince the judge that his plea was genuine and not just a maneuver to escape Guantanamo and return home, as his father describes it.

Hicks was in the first group of prisoners brought to Guantanamo in January 2002 and has said he was abused by his captors, which the U.S. military denies.

The chief prosecutor, Air Force Col. Moe Davis, on Thursday said he was not claiming that “David Hicks is on par with Osama bin Laden.”

Copyright 2007 Reuters. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

top_computer_social_sites.jpgBy Katie Hawkins

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(CNN) — For some, it’s chocolate. For others, it’s coffee or cigarettes. But as this Easter approaches, some young and devout Christians are anxious to return to what they gave up for Lent: Internet sites Facebook and MySpace.

Many users describe the popular social networking sites as addictive, which is why they say giving up these 21st-century temptations is a sincere sacrifice. Members on both sites create profiles and add each other as friends. They can also share messages, photos, videos and personal blogs.

“It’s been hard, especially in the beginning,” said Kerry Graham, who says she gave up Facebook for Lent. Her boyfriend challenged her to do so, describing her as a “Facebook fiend.”

During the first days of Lent, the 23-year-old graduate student admits she had to stop herself from typing the site’s Web address nearly every time she checked her e-mail.

Graham, who was raised Catholic, is studying theology at the University of Nottingham in England. She’s far from her hometown of Baltimore, Maryland, and said the distance has made the sacrifice more difficult.

“If I’m missing someone, there’s no real way to let them know,” she said.

Catholics and others who observe Lent typically make sacrifices as a way to show religious devotion. Lent lasts from Ash Wednesday to Easter and correlates with the 40 days and 40 nights that the Bible says Jesus spent in the wilderness, fasting and resisting temptation.

“Some of my friends think it’s silly, since people usually give up food,” said 16-year-old Emily Montgomery, who says she’s given up her access to MySpace. “I wanted to give up something that’s really hard for me.”

MySpace and Facebook are the largest social networking sites on the web. According to comScore Networks, an online measurement firm, MySpace attracted 64.4 million unique visitors in February. Facebook was the Internet’s second-most visited site, with 23.6 average visits per visitor during February.

Montgomery says she spent an average of two hours a day on MySpace, logging onto the site at least four times a day. She’s using Facebook as a substitute during the 40-day period.

“Not because Facebook is special — I think it’s boring,” she said, explaining that the site helps her to still “feel connected.”

“People try to be clever with Lent,” said the Rev. Michael J. Dolan, college chaplain at Trinity College and the University of Hartford in Connecticut. “It makes sense that students are giving up these things. By giving up something, you hope to gain something.”

Dolan himself has a Facebook account. He says he’s friends with more than 130 other members at Trinity and 80 in the Hartford network, and has spoken with many students who have given up social networking sites or online messaging for the Lenten season.

“It’s a form of spiritual awareness that allows you to reconnect with God,” said Jocelyn Chiu, an Emory University sophomore and active member of her Presbyterian church. “By giving up something that used up so much of my time, I realized that I had been leaving my spiritual life behind.”

Chiu gave up Facebook for Lent in 2006 and went one step further this year — vowing to avoid the Internet altogether. She has only allowed herself to check Emory’s internal e-mail for school-related messages.

“I realized how much time I was spending on the Internet,” said Chiu. “I needed to make myself focus on schoolwork more.”

Too much time online?

Limiting the amount of time spent on social networking sites can be beneficial, according to clinical psychologist Dr. Maressa Hecht Orzack, director and founder of the Computer Addiction Study Center at Harvard’s McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts.

She said students who demonstrate compulsive Internet or computer use often neglect schoolwork. In some cases, this behavior results in a lack of sleep, missed meals, poor hygiene and, in some extreme situations, seizures.

Graham said giving up Facebook has helped her distinguish between her real friends and those of “convenience.” Montgomery says she now plays tennis and focuses on schoolwork more often, and Chiu has been studying, reading the Bible and spending time with friends.

“It’s a nice change,” said Chiu. “The human interaction is so much more personal than anything you could have on the Internet.”

As Dolan observed, “People are realizing that reality involves people, not pixels.”

story_cnet_ms_mouse.jpg(CNET.comexternal link) — In 2004, 3M came out with a product called the Ergonomic Mouse. More like an upright handgrip with a tracking pad attached to the bottom, the 3M mouse was notable because it kept the palm of your hand perpendicular to your work space.

That design supposedly relieves the pressure on your wrist’s median nerve, the focal point of carpal tunnel syndrome. Microsoft’s new Natural Wireless Laser Mouse 6000 is more of a happy medium between 3M’s unique design and that of a typical mouse.

Serious sufferers of repetitive stress-related injuries should definitely consult a doctor before using this or any other nonqualified review for medical advice.

We will say that as an alternative input device, we found Microsoft’s new mouse comfortable and easy to use, but a few design miscues make us wish Microsoft had given this mouse more thought.

The most obvious feature of the Natural Wireless 6000 is that, unlike standard mouse designs, this model’s buttons, wheel, and palm rest upward to the right.

It lends the mouse a unique shape, but it also has the effect of rolling your wrist up off your desk.

Your reviewer will refrain from commenting on any therapeutic benefits this mouse might have, but I’ll simply rely on my credentials as a longtime mouse user and say that this design feels less stressful on my wrist.

I also found it easy to adjust to the nonstandard hand position. Once I tweaked the cursor sensitivity in the included software, using the Natural Wireless 6000 became, well, natural.

The only problematic feature about the mouse itself is the location of the thumb buttons. Rather than leaving them next to your thumb, where you’ll find them on the standard mice that have them, Microsoft instead elevated them with the plane of the main buttons.

This puts them in the dead zone between your thumb and forefinger, which means you have to move either your thumb or your main finger to get to them. Making such a move interrupts smooth mouseflow, and takes some getting used to to feel which of the two buttons you’re actually going to press. Placing the buttons on the thumbrest would have been much more logical.

If the thumb buttons are irritating, the scroll wheel is actually one of the best we’ve encountered outside of Logitech’s superior MX Revolution mouse (Read reviewexternal link) and its flywheel design.

The scroll wheel on the Natural Wireless 6000 feels sturdier than the wheel on Microsoft’s Intellimouse 3.0, and its thick, rubberized coating makes the wheel feel satisfying to move. It also has responsive side-to-side tilt-based scrolling, which you’ll appreciate if you spend time with wide spreadsheets or other large files.

The Natural Wireless 6000 takes two included AA batteries. We prefer rechargeable wireless mice, and since Microsoft’s suggested price for this mouse is $80, it’s a little cheap that it uses only standard alkalines.

Fortunately, you can find the mouse for less money from the retailers that sell it. We’re also amused by the USB RF receiver, which is almost as big as the mouse itself. We’ve seen full-sized mouse and keyboard sets that only require a thumb drive-sized USB receiver, so we’re not sure why the receiver in this model needs to be so big.

It’s certainly not a major issue, and we found set up easy and the connection strength generally reliable, but the design feels like a clunky throwback.

Copyright ©1995-2007 CNET Networks, Inc. All rights reserved.

t1_sailors_afp_gi.jpg(CNN) — Iran has said it could delay the release of a British woman captured last week along with 14 other military personnel if the UK takes the issue to the U.N. Security Council or freezes relations.

In video footage aired Wednesday, Faye Turney, the only woman captive, said her group had “trespassed” in Iranian waters; other images showed the group eating together.

Iranian negotiator Ali Larijani made his comments on Iranian state radio on Thursday, the day after Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said Turney would be released “as soon as possible” but did not say when.

“We even said that the grounds were ready for the release of a woman among the British sailors but if we are faced with a fuss and wrong behavior then this would be suspended and it would not take place,” Reuters quoted Larijani as saying.

Thursday also marked the sixth day Iran has defiantly refused Britain consular access to their service members or disclosed their location

Britain has urged the Security Council to support a call for the immediate release of its service members. It said in a statement the 15 Royal Navy sailors and Royal Marines were operating in Iraqi waters under a mandate from the Security Council and at the request of Iraq. The issue was expected to be debated Thursday.

On Wednesday the British government also announced it was freezing ties with Tehran over the crisis.

UK Prime Minister Tony Blair has denied though that Britain wants confrontation with Iran over the detention of the sailors.

“We want this resolved. We do not want a confrontation over this. We want this resolved as quickly as possible,” the PM’s official spokesman told reporters on Thursday.

Iran’s foreign minister has said British officials can meet the detained sailors and marines, but must first acknowledge that they entered Iranian waters.

“Admitting the mistake will facilitate a solution to the problem,” Manouchehr Mottaki told The Associated Press late Wednesday night in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where he was attending an Arab summit.

The British Ministry of Defence has given what it said was proof the British ship HMS Cornwall, which was carrying the sailors and marines, never strayed into Iranian waters.

The global positioning system on the ship proves the vessel was “clearly” 1.7 nautical miles inside Iraqi waters and that the boat was “ambushed” by the Iranian forces, British Vice Adm. Charles Style said.

A map with coordinates that Iran provided on Saturday “turned out to confirm [the sailors] were in Iraqi waters,” and Iraq has supported that position, Style said.

Iran later provided a second set of coordinates on Monday that placed the vessel inside Iranian waters, Style said. Those coordinates placed the ship “over two nautical miles” from the position shown by the HMS Cornwall and confirmed by the merchant vessel the British personnel had boarded when captured.

The “change of coordinates,” Style said “is hard to legitimate.”

On Wednesday, the Iranian Embassy in London said in a statement that British personnel had made an incursion of 0.5 kilometers (0.3 miles) into Iranian territorial waters.

Detainees appear on Iranian TV

The row over the location of the British personnel when captured on March 23 intensified Wednesday when images of them in detention appeared on Iranian television.

“Obviously we trespassed into their waters,” Faye Turney said in video broadcast by Alalam, an Iranian Arabic-language network.

“They were very friendly, very hospitable, very thoughtful, nice people. They explained to us why we’d been arrested. There was no aggression, no hurt, no harm. They were very, very compassionate,” Turney said. (Watch Turney identify herself and describe what happened Video)

It was not known when the videotape was shot, or whether Turney, 26, was able to speak freely.

Turney — who holds the rank of leading seaman, roughly equivalent to a petty officer first class in the U.S. Navy — appeared to be in good physical condition and wore a black scarf to cover her hair. (Read Turney’s profile)

In other scenes, she was shown smoking a cigarette as she spoke with someone off camera.

Alalam also broadcast video showing some of the other British detainees eating with Turney. All appeared healthy and unharmed. It was not known when that video was taken either.

The video broadcasts met outrage by the British government. (Watch the captured British sailors and Turney’s letter Video)

A spokesman for Britain’s Foreign Office said it was “completely unacceptable for these pictures to be shown on television, given the potential distress to their [the sailors’] families.”

British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett said she was “very concerned about these pictures and any indication of pressure on or coercion of our personnel.” They “were carrying out a routine operation in accordance with international law and under a United Nations resolution in support of the Iraqi government,” she added.

Britain would cut off all bilateral diplomatic business with Tehran — excluding discussions about the detainees — until they were released, she announced earlier Wednesday.

Letter also released

Iran also released a letter it said was written by Turney to her parents. The letter was handed to the British ambassador to Iran in Tehran on Wednesday, the state-run news agency reported.

“We were out in the boats when we were arrested by Iranian forces as we had apparently gone into Iranian waters. I wish we hadn’t because then I’d be home with you all right now. I am so sorry we did, because I know we wouldn’t be here now if we hadn’t,” the letter said. (Read letter)

CNN cannot confirm that Turney wrote the letter or, if she did, whether she did so under duress.

The television station broadcast video of what appeared to be a handwritten letter, signed “Faye.” (Watch CNN’s Aneesh Raman’s analysis of what’s striking about this video Video)

“I want you all to know that I am well and safe. I am being well looked after. I am fed 3 meals a day and have a constant supply of fluids,” the letter said.

Meanwhile the U.S. navy was wrapping up its largest exercise in Gulf waters since 2003. (Full story)

Copyright 2007 CNN. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Associated Press contributed to this report.

Thai share prices closed 1.40 per cent lower on Wednesday, faring worse than the regional average, as the junta leader called for imposing emergency rule in Bangkok, brokers said.

Despite investors’ fears, businessmen are rather positive with the call, saying that if this is to install political stability, it should benefit the general mood in the business sector.

The Stock Exchange of Thailand (SET) composite index lost 9.53 points to 669.04 while the blue-chip SET 50 index dropped 7.66 points to 467.67.

A source from a foreign brokerage house said that the emergency rule would exacerbate confidence among foreign investors, who have been wary of the Bank of Thailand’s unclear measures.

“Foreign investors’ confidence in this government is terribly low. Thus, if the government is to enforce the emergency rule, this would worsen the situation as it would indicate the government’s instability,” he said.

However, Suchart Chantaranakaracha, chairman of Thai National Shippers’ Council, said that the emergency rule would raise political confidence among foreign and local business operators.

“Thailand has suffered from instability and this leads to low confidence. If this is to improve the security stability, this should benefit the entire business community,” he said. 

Business Reporters

The Nation

top_apple_iphone.jpgORLANDO, Florida (AP) — It says something about the state of the cell phone industry that the product looming largest over the annual wireless show doesn’t even exist yet. Never mind that it’s coming from a company that’s never even made a cell phone.

Indeed, the “preverberations” from Apple Inc.’s plan to bring its addictive design simplicity and elegance to wireless with the iPhone is palpable across a good many announcements slated for CTIA Wireless 2007, which opened on Tuesday.

While the prototype that Apple unveiled back in January instantly drew drools with its slender, sleek looks, the real test will be whether the iPhone’s large touch-screen interface rewrites the rules for ease of use when it becomes available in June. As Motorola Inc.’s boom-and-bust fortunes with the Razr show, style isn’t everything.

There’s sure to be plenty of hyperventilation about mobile video and music at the show. So a core theme emerging among this week’s planned product launches is how to make these devices less confusing as they get crammed and cramped with multimedia capabilities.

One such offering comes from a small, youth-oriented cellular service named Helio, a joint venture between Earthlink Inc. and Korea’s SK Telecom Co. that on Monday unveiled a $295 handset called Ocean.

Billed as the first “dual-slider,” the Ocean marks one of the more radical attempts to help clean the messy intersection between phone calls, text communications, portable media players and mobile Web access.

For making calls, the screen-side of the device can slide vertically to expose a number pad. For typing e-mail, text messages and instant messages, the Ocean can be turned horizontal and slide up along a different track to expose a full typewriter keyboard.

The handset, designed by Helio and made by Pantech, sports some other notable innovations intended to improve the user experience and combat the clunky factor. There’s a separate microprocessor to run the media player, an efficiency Helio claims will allow 15 hours of music listening on a single battery charge.

There’s also an integrated inbox to display all forms of written communication, combining e-mail, text messaging and instant messaging from the major portals in one place, instead of forcing users to toggle between applications. And while the full keyboard makes for easier text input, the Ocean also features an automatic search function triggered whenever you start typing.

“If you want to search, you want to search. The idea that you have to bring up a search box I think is counterintuitive,” said Sky Dayton, Helio’s chief executive.

He recalled that at a recent celebrity poker tournament, the people next to him were looking at actress Morgan Fairchild, who was seated at a nearby table. They wondered aloud how old she was, and Dayton got the answer for them within seconds. Without opening any applications, “I just typed into my device, ‘How old is Morgan Fairchild?”‘ he said.

Also trying their hands at cobbling an easier-to-use combination phone and music player are Samsung Electronics Co. and Sony Ericsson.

Samsung’s lightweight “UpStage,” offered in the United States by Sprint Nextel Corp., is a “flip” phone, though not in the normal sense. The device is actually a two-sided candy bar that looks like a phone on one side and an MP3 music player on the other. A “flip” button on the phone’s edge is pressed to switch between the two sides.

The phone side has a number pad and small screen for dialing calls and typing text messages, while the reverse features a large screen and touch-sensitive controls to navigate through song lists and view digital photos, video and Web pages.

The $299 UpStage, available for $149 with a two-year Sprint contract, also attempts to address the battery life issue that arises whenever handset makers try to balance size with power capacity. In this case, the price includes a “battery wallet” to slip the device into, providing up to 16 hours of music listening, the companies claim.

Without the wallet, the UpStage weighs just 2.6 ounces and is less than 0.4 inch thick.

Sony Ericsson, owned jointly by Japan’s Sony Corp. and Sweden’s LM Ericsson, introduced the latest addition to its Walkman phone lineup.

The W580, the first slider Walkman phone, is 0.55 inch thick and weighs 3.3 ounces. Sony Ericsson says the W580 offers up to 30 hours of music play time.

The company didn’t announce a price or say which service provider will offer the phone, though it’s based on a wireless technology that’s only used by AT&T Inc.’s Cingular Wireless and T-Mobile USA among the major U.S. carriers.

Like the vast majority of new devices, all three of these handsets come with Bluetooth wireless to connect with a cordless headset.

Thankfully, the industry group that oversees the Bluetooth standard is using the CTIA show to announce a long-needed simplification in the often frustrating process of “pairing” two Bluetooth-enabled devices to communicate with one another.

Though sometimes it goes smoothly, the initial setup for Bluetooth pairing varies from device to device, with inconsistent menus and security code inputs often tripping up users.

The new specification reduces the number of steps in the pairing process while making the process more intuitive, improving security to prevent wireless intruders and also reducing power consumption, according to the Bluetooth Special Interest Group.

Under the new procedure, for example, when pairing a headset and phone both configured for the updated standard, all a user would need to do is turn on the headset, select “Add Headset” from the phone menu, and then watch the phone confirm it has found and connected with the headset through an encrypted link.

The improvement, however, won’t begin to arrive in products until later this year.

In Apple time, that means after the iPhone.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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