Wednesday, May 9, 2007

What People Read

The Koran, a guide to tropical flowers, a robot-building manual and a text on interest rates have topped an eclectic list of the most popular English titles found using Google Inc.'s growing book search tool.

The list, announced on Thursday and which also includes Noam Chomsky's critique of U.S. foreign policy, is the first time the Web search leader has disclosed a weekly snapshot of what users are viewing since it launched a controversial plan to digitally scan all the world's books two years ago.

Timed to coincide with the largest gathering of publishing executives at the Frankfurt Book Fair, the Google list reveals an interest in lesser-known backlist titles, a stark contrast to those featured in the closely watched New York Times bestseller lists and's sales rankings.

The compilation could provide fresh regular insights into what the world is reading online, though Google said it has no plans to launch such a service.

"We thought this would be an interesting experiment to try for the Frankfurt Book Fair," a Google spokeswoman said.

Since the start of the year, the thesaurus has been the most viewed book in English, while a compilation of exotic baby names was the leading Spanish volume. A human resources guide has been the most popular for French readers and the Kama Sutra (an ancient Indian book on human sexual behavior) led the German-language list.

Google is using the weekly and year-to-date popularity lists to spotlight its book search program, which has drawn the ire of many large publishers, a group of whom have united to file a lawsuit alleging a violation of copyright law.


Some of the same publishers that oppose Google scanning books from libraries, and many others, voluntarily supply their books to be included in a separate Google partnership program.

Google Book Search allows users to see only sample pages from millions of books that have been scanned in their entirety with the permission of publishers, alongside links to where the titles can be bought.

Many publishers and book trade groups are also building their own digital repositories rather than entrust the task to Google, fearing their copyrighted material could one day be exploited as happened in the music industry.

For the week ended September 17, "Diversity and Evolutionary Biology of Tropical Flowers," "Merriam Webster's Dictionary of Synonyms" and "Measuring and Controlling Interest Rate and Credit Risk" were among the top 10 English books, along with "Build Your Own All-Terrain Robot" and Chomsky's "Hegemony or Survival: America's Quest for Global Dominance."

Math and anatomy texts were among the most popular volumes for French readers, while the top German language books were on the subjects of computing and U.S. counterintelligence.

An English dictionary and "Administracion moderna" reigned in Spanish while "Tre metri sopra il cielo" (an Italian best seller whose title means three meters above the sky) and the civil code topped the Italian list.

"While classics like the Divine Comedy are represented on the list, the most notable characteristic of the top 10 in each country is the fact that the lists bear little resemblance to national bestseller lists, including as it does both current and backlist titles," Google said.

By comparison, recent books by journalists Thomas Friedman, John Grogan and Frank Rich feature in the most recent New York Times hardcover non-fiction bestseller list.'s top sellers also include Chomsky's book -- which got a boost when it was endorsed by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez on the floor of the United Nations General Assembly -- as well as other Amazon top-sellers "Billion Dollar Smile" and "The God Delusion."

Copyright © 2006 Reuters Limited.

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Tuesday, May 8, 2007

The Non-Hijackable Plane

By 2008, European researchers aim to bring that vision closer to reality through an ambitious security program to combat on-board threats in an industry left reeling this week by a security scare that raised the specter of September 11.

On Thursday, British police said they had foiled a plot to blow up aircraft mid-flight between Britain and the United States in what Washington said might have been an attempted al Qaeda operation.

Since September 11, the idea that civilian planes can be used as weapons has taken hold globally, spawning increased security measures in airports around the world.

The researchers aim to create a "last barrier to attacks" on planes in flight.

Among the non-hijackable plane's features: computer systems designed to spot suspicious passenger behavior, and a collision avoidance system that will correct the plane's trajectory to prevent it from being steered into a building or mountain.

The researchers are also investigating the possibility -- although they say it is probably some 15 years away -- of developing an on-board computer that could guide the plane automatically to the nearest airport, in the event of a hijack.

"You never reach zero level of threat, no risk," said program coordinator Daniel Gaultier of French technology group SAGEM Defense Securite, a unit of Safran (SAF.PA).

"But if you equip planes with on-board electronics, it will make them very, very difficult to hijack."


The 4-year, 35.8 million euro ($45.7 million) project, called SAFEE or Security of Aircraft in the Future European Environment, was launched in February 2004.

Among those taking part are aircraft maker Airbus, its parents EADS (EAD.PA) and BAE Systems (BA.L), as well as Thales (TCFP.PA) and Siemens AG (SIEGn.DE). The European Commission is contributing 19.5 million euros ($25 million).

Omer Laviv of Athena GS3, an Israeli company taking part in the project, said the system might be commercially available around 2010 to 2012.

SAFEE goes beyond the limited on-board improvements made since September 11 -- like reinforced cockpit doors and the deployment of sky marshals.

Proposed enhancements include:

-- A chip-based system to allocate matching tags to passengers and their luggage, ensuring both are on board and removing the need for stewards to count passengers manually.

-- Cameras at check-in desks and at the entrance to the plane, in order to verify with biometric imaging that the person getting on board is the same as the one who checked in.

-- An "electronic nose" to check passengers for traces of explosives at the final ground check before boarding.

-- An Onboard Threat Detection System (OTDS) to process information from video and audio sensors throughout the cabin and detect any erratic passenger behavior.

-- A Threat Assessment and Response Management System (TARMS) to assemble all information and propose an appropriate response to the pilot via a computer screen located at his side.

-- A Data Protection System to secure all communications, including conversations between the cockpit and ground control.

-- A secure cockpit door with a biometric system that recognizes authorized crew by their fingerprints, together with a camera to check they are not opening it under duress.

-- An automatic collision avoidance system to correct the plane's course if it strays from a permitted trajectory.


In a September 11-style hijack scenario, for example, the TARMS system would detect that the plane was on course to plow into buildings and use biometric fingerprint sensors to check whether the pilot or an intruder was at the controls.

"If there is a terrorist in control or the pilot is not aware of this (false) trajectory, the TARMS decides to avoid the obstacle so there is an automatic control of the plane," Gaultier said.

The avoidance system would also kick in if the pilot, despite verifying his identity, persisted in the false course.

Given its complexity, the SAFEE project raises legal and ethical issues which are themselves a key part of the research.

They include whether people will find it acceptable to be minutely observed by sensors throughout their flight, recording everything from their conversations to their toilet visits.

With help from sources including security agencies and behavioral psychologists, researchers are building a database of potentially suspicious traits for computers to detect.

"It could be someone who's using their mobile phone when they shouldn't be, or trying to light up a cigarette. But it could also be something much more extreme, it could be a potential terrorist," said James Ferryman, a scientist at Britain's Reading University who is working on SAFEE.

The sensitivity of the system could be adjusted depending on factors like the general threat level, he said.

Program coordinator Gaultier conceded the system could generate false alarms, but said the crew and pilot would remain in ultimate control, deciding if the threat was real.


The improved passenger surveillance, researchers say, will be an important advantage on larger planes such as the Airbus A380, capable of carrying 550 people.

They believe passengers will be ready to accept the trade-off of less privacy for the sake of greater safety.

"We have to show it's not Big Brother watching you, it's Big Brother looking after you," Ferryman said.

Researchers say it is too early to judge the price of kitting out a plane with SAFEE, but they are working closely with a user group including airlines like Air France-KLM

The issue is part of a wider debate within the industry, with airlines calling on governments to underwrite security costs.

"Suicide terrorism is not an issue for the airlines, it shouldn't be their responsibility," said Philip Baum, editor of Aviation Security International magazine.

"It is an attack, actually, against the state and it's part of a national defense, and therefore we need to fund this accordingly."

Copyright © 2006 Reuters Limited

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Monday, May 7, 2007

Wikipedia VS China

Shi Zhao slides the computer mouse, making rapid-fire clicks and in the space of a minute or so finds about a dozen minor errors to be tweaked on Wikipedia, the popular online encyclopedia that anyone can edit.

"There's really nothing to it," the 33-year-old Beijinger said with a grin after fellow 'Wikipedians' at a conference in Hong Kong goaded him into an impromptu demonstration of how he became king of edits on the Chinese-language edition.

Since he discovered Wikipedia ( four years ago, Shi has become something of a celebrity in the community, having made some 70,000 edits, averaging nearly 50 a day.

Shi's feat is even greater given that technically, he should not have access to the site. Last October, the Chinese government blocked access to Wikipedia, which has more than 5 million articles in 229 languages.

In a sense, the fate of the massively popular Web site is nothing new. The ruling Communist Party routinely denies access to sites it deems subversive and filters Internet pages for sensitive words.

But experts believe the block highlights a head-on clash between what Wikipedia stands for -- free knowledge created by the people -- and the Party's obsessive control over the production and flow of information.

The site's founder, Jimmy Wales, is outwardly hopeful that this is all just one big misunderstanding.

"Even if you agree that some blogs should be blocked or some kinds of propaganda should be blocked -- which I don't agree with -- but even if you do agree with that, it still strikes me that blocking all of Wikipedia is a huge mistake. It's a simple error, or a failure to understand what we're doing," he said.

"Ninety-nine point nine-nine percent of what's in Wikipedia has absolutely nothing to do with politics at all."


Of course, Wikipedia has entries on subjects like Tibet and Taiwan independence, the banned Falun Gong spiritual group and the bloodily suppressed pro-democracy protests of 1989.

But China experts, Internet analysts and, deep down, Wales himself, think the block probably runs deeper than an effort to censor a handful of sensitive articles on a largely innocuous online encyclopedia that is the world's 16th most visited Web site, according to Alexa Internet, which monitors traffic.

"The censor is threatened by the way Wikipedia works, not just some specific pages on the Wikipedia site," said Xiao Qiang, director of the China Internet Project at the University of California, Berkeley.

Based on Internet software that allows any registered visitor to add, remove or edit content, Wikipedia's editorial process is transparent and often described as democratic.

Anyone can post something, and anyone else can edit it, so biased and inaccurate articles tend to get deleted or corrected, and all sides of contentious issues generally get a fair hearing.

In China, the Party seeks to assert its authority over all publishing and to ensure that its version of events prevails.

"At a deeper level, at a philosophical level, I think any authoritarian regime has to worry about these new technologies allowing people to have the tools to interact and think," Wales told Reuters on the sidelines of the conference.

The community-building effect of Wikipedia sets it apart in the eyes of the Chinese authorities, too, said Andrew Lih, a new media researcher who is writing a book about Wikipedia.

"It's a bunch of grassroots folks who can mobilize very quickly to create content, and that's something, for an environment where they believe in control of the media, that's a pretty scary prospect," Lih said.


When access to Wikipedia was blocked without notice in October, Shi Zhao thought it would be short-lived like previous outages in June and September 2004. Almost one year on, he says, the effects are felt.

"Before the block there were some people in the mainland who wrote some things quite well," he said. "But after it was blocked they stopped."

Still, the outage hasn't stopped him or the small community of Wikipedians around him who use proxy servers and other tricks to gain access to the site.

Meanwhile, Wales is working quietly to try to get the block lifted. At the Chinese Wikimedia conference in Hong Kong last month, he hoped to get a better sense of where to go for help.

"One of the problems we have is that it is a black box for us. We don't know who to contact or how to contact them," Wales said. He plans to visit Beijing early next year to talk at a local university and, he hopes, meet government officials.

To him, the greatest tragedy of the block is that information about China, and the mainland Chinese point of view, is not getting on to Wikipedia.

"Our strategy is patience," he said. "And repeating over and over and over that we feel that it's a simple mistake, and that the vast majority of Wikipedia is not controversial so we should be unblocked. I don't know if this strategy will work."

Copyright © 2006 Reuters Limited.

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