Archive | November, 2005

Bush’s Symbolic Exit Strategy Blocked

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He was visibly irked. A reporter dared to say the American president seemed “off [his] game.” He blamed it on jet lag and used his greatest weapon for dodging questions — exit from the stage. President Bush not only reached for the wrong door, but he also found the door locked. (Watch BBC’s footage.) Much like the symbolic on-stage gaffe, there was no breakthrough in any of the banner issues during his state visit.The Washington Post reports in this morning’s issue:

When President Bush was flying toward Asia a week ago, his national security adviser, Stephen J. Hadley, predicted to reporters in the back of the plane that the four-nation trip would yield no “headline breakthroughs.” He turned out to be right.

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At home, President Bush has always carried his Texan heritage proudly, donning cowboy shoes and hat like second skin. Photographers also catch him wearing tights after his bike rides. Yet it is unclear why his image consultants thought that the president of the United States, during a state visit, should wear tights and ride a mountain bike with professional Chinese cyclists who were clearly giving him the lead out of deference.

Imagine French President Jacques Chirac wearing shorts for a bike ride with Tour-de-France legend Lance Armstrong during a state visit to the United States. He wouldn’t unless he wants to commit political suicide.

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Can a US$100 Laptop Change the Future?

Scientists at M.I.T. believe it will. How? By blanketing schools in poor countries with these screaming green, do-it-all, wireless laptops. When more than 10 million children die each year from preventable conditions (PDF), this eye candy seems like it should be the last thing on anyone’s mind. But this laptop comes in handy in a Cambodian village without any electricity. It is a source of light. Will school children think the same?

A prototype of the “$100 Laptop” was introduced at the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunis this week. Developed by the M.I.T. Media Lab, the computer comes in one flavor: a 500 MHz processor, 1 GB flash memory, 1 megapixel screen, hand-cranked rechargable battery, WiFi, Linux operating system and other open-source software for word processing, Web browsing and e-mail.

Design Continuum came up with the bright green case lined with shock absorving material and an equally bright, neon-colored hand crank. It screams children and would look odd in the hands of would-be thieves especially when everyone in the world would recognize it.

Dr. Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the Lab and co-inventor of the $100 Laptop, wants tens of millions of these laptops to be given to governments in poor countries through “One Laptop per Child [OLPC],” a nonprofit group formed by Advanced Micro Devices, Brightstar, Google, News Corporation, and Red Hat.

The innovative minds at the Media Lab and its sponsors will solve technical hurdles, such as actually designing a low-cost screen and reducing the manufacturing cost. But what will school children in remote African villages that do not even have cell phone towers do with a wireless laptop?

Gateway to the World?

These laptops should help school children connect to the rest of the world. In Tunisia, for example, that gateway to the world is controlled by President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his family. Online writers critical of the government have been jailed and had their Web sites blocked. And when “One Laptop Per Child” gives these laptops to school children, the content and Internet access will be controlled by the government. These laptops may help the government spread its propaganda more effectively and help the officials reach a younger generation.

Ironically, Robert Ménard, secretary-general of media watchdog Reporters Sans Frontières [RSF], was detained on board an Air France jet from Paris after it landed in Tunis and denied entry into the country to attend the U.N. summit. Alongside hunger strikers and human rights activists, R.S.F. launched a campaign to identify “15 enemies of the Internet,” which included President Ben Ali. But the criminal complaint used by Tunisia to bar his entry dates back to June 2001 when 20 R.S.F. members occupied the Tunisian Tourism Office to protest the arrest and imprisonment of Tunisian journalist Sihem Bendrine.

Last week, in the evening of 11 November, Christophe Boltanski, a correspondent for the French daily Libération, suffered repeated blows to the head and was stabbed by who were believed to have been police in plainclothes, the paper said.

But in countries where speech is not controlled, increased communication can lead to positive results. Pakistani representative Masood Khan told the U.N. delegates:

“Information is not just an economic tool,” Kahn told delegates in the main hall. “We need its infinite power to combat the rising tide of prejudice and hatred.”

The O.S. War

The $100 Laptops could become the standard for tens of millions of schoolchildren in the developing world. Microsoft reportedly mocked the concept of the $100 laptop at first, The Wall Street Journal said. When the software giant apparently realized the stakes, it turned “antagonistic.” Apple, on the other hand, offered its OS X for free. The project leaders turned it down because it was not open source.

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[Dr. Negroponte, of the Media Lab, is the brother of Ambassador John. D. Negroponte, the Director of National Intelligence.]

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Everyone Should Have a MAV

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You’re stuck in traffic and can’t see ahead of you. You need a closer look at your boyfriend and the mystery woman at a restaurant and use thermal imaging at an apartment complex after dinner. Or you’re engaged in urban combat and need an eye in the sky to spot Zarqawi’s men with infrared sensors. Then, you need a MAV, a Micro Air Vehicle that flies at 58 miles per hour, stores and relays video, and can “hover and stare” from a safe distance. Wouldn’t you want one for Christmas?Honeywell is giving the U.S. military a buy-one-get-one-free deal. Each “backpackable” unit contains two Micro Air Vehicles and a ground station. The MAV, which uses a ducted fan for vertical takeoff and movement, can fly for an hour and reach 10,500 feet.

The concept was born at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, better known as Darpa, to allow mobile units to carry their own unmanned aerial vehicle [UAV] on their missions.

The photo in Honeywell’s brochure (PDF file) shows four little MAVs flying all over an open terrain in a scene reminiscent of futuristic sci-fi movies. But these insect-looking creatures are not pretty and have no glowing eyes.

It apparently comes in black, as seen in the recent U.S. Army photo. After more than 200 flight tests, soldiers from the 2nd Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment used a Honeywell MAV in a training exercise in Hawaii. The components look hard to put together — especially when taking enemy fire.

All this is part of the U.S. Army’s Future Combat Systems, a program to modernize the military with unmanned, high-tech gadgets that are linked by a single network. It will eventually include armed robotic vehicles and unmanned helicopters. Graphics in the white paper look like combat elements from a gaming software.

Pentagon speak:
Boeing Integrated Defense Systems, DoD’s LSI for FCS, expects MAV to become the Class I UAV for FCS.

Signs that the Pentagon has been using untrained robots to write press releases:

Honeywell International, Defense and Space Electronics Systems, Albuquerque, N.M., is being awarded an undefinitized modification to a previously awarded other transaction for prototypes agreement to add the Micro Air Vehicle Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration effort to the on-going Organic Air Vehicle program.

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How Fujimori Eluded Interpol and Surprised Others

In this photo released by Alberto Fujimori’s press service, the former Pervuian president reviews a map of Peru before landing in Santiago, Chile. He flew as a stowaway from Tokyo.

He escaped Peru in 2000 under the guise of a state visit to Japan and sought refuge in his ancestral homeland. The stealthy return last week of the fugitive authoritarian to South America has roiled the region and jolted officials from bureaucratic slumber. The austere man of 67 traveled incognito, eluding the Interpol and thumbing his nose at Mexico and Chile.Mr. Fujimori bought his way into South America, chartering a Bombardier Global Express series executive jet for US$450 million, according to Peruvian daily La Republica.

Citing Chilean aviation officials, La Republica said the plane, which has a range of 11,390 km (7,120 mi), flew 8,948 km (5,593 mi) over 9 hours and 45 minutes from Tokyo to Tijuana and another 8,779 km (5,487 mi) over 9 hours and 42 minutes to Santiago. The jet then went on to the South Pacific, according to its flight plan.

The jet’s tail number, N949GP, shows the plane is registered to Wilmington Trust Co., a financial services firm based in Delaware, which leased it to Leading Edge Aviation Services in Texas. But the jet’s passenger manifest, when it arrived in Tijuana, Mexico, reportedly did not list Mr. Fujimori, who stayed inside during the 55-minute stopover in the border town. Other reports have said the local Mexican officials knew he was on board but let him go because he was transiting. That seems unlikely, however, since the Interpol warrant would have required them to detain him regardless.

Even Japanese officials appeared uncertain which airport Mr. Fujimori used to leave Tokyo, suggesting his name was not on the list either when he left Japan. The only three passengers on the manifest were Jorge Béjar, Arturo Makino and Katsutaka Nagato, according to El Mercurio.

Chilean officials were also caught off guard, according to police spokesman Jaime Méndez. The plane landed in Santiago on Sunday, 6 November. The Chilean government had no prior knowledge of his arrival, he told Santiago daily El Mercurio. An inexperienced immigration officer, apparently baffled by the unannounced arrival of a former head of state, mistakenly stamped him without notifying his superiors, Mr. Méndez said. That officer, who has been suspended, looked at a database 15 minutes later only to learn that Interpol had red-flagged Mr. Fujimori.

He was detained Monday at the Marriott Hotel in downtown Santiago on Peru’s request for extradition. His first request for a probationary release has been denied.

Chile and Mexico became victims of Mr. Fujimori’s carefully executed plan to rob them of their right to refuse entry to South America’s notorious fugitive. To Mexican President Vicente Fox, the revelation is an embarrassment. Either the authorities at the airport were slackers and did not check the plane or they were paid off. When Mr. Fujimori was indicted on nearly two dozen counts of human rights abuses, embezzlement, political assassination and other charges, Mexico was among the first to promise his extradition.

As for Chile, Mr. Fujimori picked the perfect country to launch his re-election campaign. Chile’s judicial reform includes streamlining the extradition process, which used to require a separate investigation by a judge and a higher standard of proof. Plus, Chile has been kind to former heads of states, including ailing ex-dictator Augusto Pinochet and the late Erich Honecker, the former leader of East Germany.

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Tamiflu® Economics

Worldwide, about 122 people have caught avian influenza (A/H5N1); and 62 of them died). They came in direct, intimate contact with infected birds or with someone who was in intimate contact with poultry. As migrating birds brought the potentially deadly strain to the West, a sense of panic enveloped governments. They were pressed to jumpstart preparations for a pandemic and buy the only promising weapon against avian flu. And despite the money being poured into securing stockpiles of Tamiflu®, there is little flexibility in shortening the time it takes to make the drug from shikimic acid, which is extracted from Chinese star anise. Yet investors in Tamiflu®, like U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, are making out like a bandit.tamiflu.jpgWorldwide, about 122 people have caught avian influenza (A/H5N1); and 62 of them died). They came in direct, intimate contact with infected birds or with someone who was in intimate contact with poultry. As migrating birds brought the potentially deadly strain to the West, a sense of panic enveloped governments. They were pressed to jumpstart preparations for a pandemic and buy the only promising weapon against avian flu. And despite the money being poured into securing stockpiles of Tamiflu®, there is little flexibility in shortening the time it takes to make the drug from shikimic acid, which is extracted from Chinese star anise. Yet investors in Tamiflu®, like U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, are making out like a bandit.

[Update: The Washington Post reports this morning on the rising demand for Chinese star anise. Most ordinary famers, however, have benefited little from the price hike. (18.11.2005)]Oseltamivir phosphate, sold under the brand name Tamiflu®, has shown to be effective against the H5N1 avian influenza virus circulating in Asia, according to C.D.C. Director Dr. Julie Gerberding. But it is neither a cure-all drug nor a vaccine. It falls in the class of antiviral drugs known as neuraminidase inhibitors, which attempt to stop or disrupt the spreading of the influenza virus. (The “N” in H5N1 represents the neuraminidase glycoprotein; the “H” represents hemagglutinin [HA] glycoprotein responsible for attaching the virus to cells.) More peer-reviewed research on anecdotal reports of oseltamivir resistance is expected to be published in the coming months.

Gilead Sciences, Inc., a California-based pharmaceutical firm, developed oseltamivir and licensed manufacturing and marketing rights in 1996 to F. Hoffman-La Roche, headquartered in Basel, Switzerland. The patent on oseltamivir runs out in 2016. In June, when avian influenza was becoming a growing concern and governments and companies began stockpiling the drug, Gilead told Roche that it was terminating the 1996 licensing agreement.

In a statement, Gilead said Roche breached the agreement because it failed to adequately “commercialize” and promote Tamiflu®, suffered from repeated manufacturing problems that led to supply shortages, and did not pay the full royalty. The dispute has now entered a binding arbitration process that could last a year. The squabble would not affect production, a Roche spokesman said.

Before avian flu became a concern, few had heard of oseltamivir. And as Gilead alleged in the press release, Roche had taken few steps to market the drug in the United States and other major markets. The drug’s fortune has changed since then. U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld owns at least US$5 million worth of Gilead shares and continues to profit from the growing demand for Tamiflu® and has decided, on advice of a private securities lawyer, not to sell the stocks. Mr. Rumsfeld, whose department has ordered US$58 million worth of Tamiflu® for the troops, has recused himself from decisions related to the drug. His ties to Gilead dates back to 1988 when he became a board member. He was chairman of the board from 1997 to 2001.

Other famous members on the board include former Secretary of State George Shultz and Gayle Wilson, wife of former California Governor Pete Wilson.

Tamiflu® is a weapon against not only avian influenza but also a wide range of Types A and B influenza. Yet in the third quarter of last year, Gilead received only US$1.7 million in royalty from Roche, compared to US$12.1 million it got in the same period this year. Analysts estimate that the royalty amounts to 10 percent of what Roche makes on the drug. Gilead’s total revenue in the third quarter was US$493.5 million, a 51 percent increase from last year.

Profits from Tamiflu® are expected to skyrocket for both Gilead and Roche, as governments and companies place billions of dollars’ worth of orders for it. But can Roche meet the demand quickly? Probably not.

It takes about 12 months to make Tamiflu® capsules from raw ingredients. Shikimic acid, the chief ingredient, is extracted from Chinese star anise (Illicium verum) — unrelated to anise (Pimpinella anisum). China meets the bulk of world’s industrial demand for shikimic acid, but Roche has found an alternate, steady source in a modified strain of E. Coli, according to Chemical & Engineering News. Dr. John W. Frost and his research group specialize in genetically engineering microbes and have created an E. Coli strain, which, when fed glucose, produces a lot more shikimic acid than normal strains do.

The demand for Tamiflu® has nearly doubled the wholesale price of the star anise in Guangdong, Yunnan and Fujian provinces, China Daily reported today. There have been conflicting reports about whether there is a shortage of star anise. Chinese news agencies have denied this. But turning star anise into shikimic acid and then to the flu drug is not as easy as buying star anise off the market. The 10-step chemical process is long and tedious and involves explosive azide chemistry.

Amid fears of Tamiflu® shortage, India and Taiwan have said they would go ahead and produce generic versions of the drug without Roche’s permission. India admits there are technical challenges and difficulties in obtaining raw material. Taiwan claims to have already produced a version that is almost, but not quite, like oseltamivir.

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