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Thursday, October 23, 2008

Charge Your Phone While You Dance


Clubbers, joggers and hikers, watch out for this: Gotwind’s Dance Charger that uses human movement to charge mobile phones.

Trialed at this year’s Glastonbury music festival, and sponsored by Orange, this clever gadget can be strapped to your arm while you dance the day and night away, and is plugged directly into your phone when it needs charging.


To get technical, the mechanical energy from arm movements is converted into electrical energy by a tiny generator. After converting the current to DC and boosting it, the Dance Charger can charge any portable electrical device you need. Efficiency is estimated at 85%, which is not bad at all when compared to other chargers.

The Dance Charger is still in the concept stage: an hour of vigorous activity registered two bars of battery life on a Nokia N95. However, Gotwind is continuing to develop the idea for greater conversion efficiency and broader uses.

We can’t wait for these to come out, imagine your parents doing a jig to generate some juice, or your boss bopping for battery power in the middle of a meeting. Hours of entertainment.

Source: Gotwind

Yellow Card on Blass for the idiotic "10 Things..." post

Seriously now - stereotypes exist for a reason and subscribing to any of those bullet points just ensures that you become one. No one wants to deal with a know-it-all stuck up "I'm better than you" computer geek. Those guys need to go work at CompUSA or whatever replaced that hell hole.

Vick to plead guilty to dogfighting charges

In this Aug. 27, 2007 file photo, former NFL quarterback Michael Vick makes a AP – In this Aug. 27, 2007 file photo, former NFL quarterback Michael Vick makes a statement after pleading …

SURRY, Va. – Former NFL quarterback Michael Vick plans to plead guilty to state dogfighting charges, a step that could allow him to qualify for an early release from federal prison and into a halfway house, court papers show.

In a motion filed Oct. 15 in Surry County Circuit Court, Vick's attorneys asked to have him enter his plea by video teleconference. A hearing on the motion is scheduled for Oct. 30, Surry County Circuit Court administrator Sally Neblett said Tuesday.

The court papers note that allowing Vick to appear on two-way video would save the government the considerable expense of transporting him from prison in Leavenworth, Kan., to Surry County. His guilty plea would also allow him to pursue a halfway house program.

Under federal rules, Vick is ineligible to be released to a Residential Re-entry Center in the federal system until any pending charges against him are resolved.

In a statement, Vick attorneys Billy Martin and Lawrence Woodward said their client "is committed to taking responsibility for his actions. He is hopeful that, through this motion, the trial court will allow him to finally resolve these matters and put the charges behind him so that he can begin to focus on his future and to prepare to be reunited with his family."

The plea deal, if approved, also would satisfy the county's need to hold him accountable for the grisly crimes he bankrolled and participated in at a rural house he owned there.

"I'm not trying to make him suffer," Commonwealth's Attorney Gerald Poindexter said in a telephone interview. "I'm just trying to make him account for what he's done."

Vick pleaded guilty to federal conspiracy charges tied to the dogfighting operation last summer and is serving a 23-month term. Three convicted co-defendants also face local charges. The U.S. Bureau of Prisons lists Vick's projected release date as July 20, 2009.

Vick will have three years of federal probation upon his release from prison, and the deal offered by Poindexter would tack on an unspecified jail sentence, which would be suspended, and an additional year of probation in the county, he said.

Poindexter said he's not sure how quickly the judge would rule on the motion.

If permitted by a judge, Vick's video participation in the plea hearing would not be the first time he has participated electronically. Prison officials in Kansas have allowed the former Atlanta Falcons star to listen via telephone line to each of his several bankruptcy hearings in recent months.


Associated Press sports writer Hank Kurz Jr. contributed to this report from Richmond, Va.

Sarah Palin's clothing + maintenace = $150,000 in 2 months

Since her selection as John McCain's running mate, the Republican National Committee spent more than $150,000 on clothing and make-up for Gov. Sarah Palin, her husband, and even her infant son, it was reported on Tuesday evening.

That entertaining scoop -- which came by way of Politico -- sent almost immediate reverberations through the presidential race. A statement from McCain headquarters released hours after the article bemoaned the triviality of the whole affair.

"With all of the important issues facing the country right now, it's remarkable that we're spending time talking about pantsuits and blouses," said spokesperson Tracey Schmitt. "It was always the intent that the clothing go to a charitable purpose after the campaign."

But even the most timid of Democrats are unlikely to heed this call for civility. For starters, the story has the potential to dampen enthusiasm among GOP activists and donors at a critical point in the presidential race. It also creates a huge PR headache for the McCain ticket as it seeks to make inroads among voters worried about the current economic crisis.

Mainly, however, Democrats (in this scenario) are not prone to forgiveness. After all, it was during this same campaign cycle that Republicans belittled the $400 haircut that former Sen. John Edwards had paid for with his own campaign money (the funds were later reimbursed). And yet, the comparison to that once-dominant news story is hardly close: if Edwards had gotten one of his legendary haircuts every singe week, it would still take him 7.2 years to spend what Palin has spent. Palin has received the equivalent of $2,500 in clothes per day from places such as Saks Fifth Avenue (where RNC expenditures totaled nearly $50,000) and Neiman Marcus (where the governor had a $75,000 spree).

Take a look at some of Palin's pricey outfits (Slideshow by Anya Strzemien):

Beyond the political tit-for-tat, however, the revelation of the clothing expenditures offers what some Democrats see as a chance not just to win several news cycles during the campaign's waning days but to severely damage Palin's image as a small-town, 'Joe Six-Pack' American.

"It shows that Palin ain't like the rest of us," Tom Matzzie, a Democratic strategist told the Huffington Post, when asked how the party would or could use the issue. "It can help deflate her cultural populism with the Republican base. The plumber's wife doesn't go to Nieman's or Saks."

Indeed, the story could not come at a more inopportune time for the McCain campaign. During a week in which the Republican ticket is trying to highlight its connection to the working class -- and, by extension, promoting its newest campaign tool, Joe the Plumber -- it was revealed that Palin's fashion budget for several weeks was more than four times the median salary of an American plumber ($37,514). To put it another way: Palin received more valuable clothes in one month than the average American household spends on clothes in 80 years. A Democrat put it in even blunter terms: her clothes were the cost of health care for 15 or so people.

There are, in these cases, legal questions surrounding campaign expenditures. Though, on this front, Palin and the RNC seem to be in the clear.

"I don't think it's taxed," said David Donnelly of Campaign Money Watch. "I don't think she can keep it. It's owned by the RNC. They had to use coordinated funds to pay for the clothes."

And certainly the possibility exists that this issue can be effectively swept under the rug. Palin is not known for taking impromptu questions from the press. Moreover, the media, at this juncture, has other major story lines (see: upcoming election) to grapple with, thus denying the piece the relative vacuum that accompanied the Edwards story. Finally, there is little desire among conservative writers or pundits to litigate the matter, even if they were more than happy to jump on board when a Democrat was in the spotlight.

Several hours after Politico posted its findings, the topic remained nearly untouched by the major right-wing outlets. Though as Marc Ambinder at the Atlantic opined:

"Republicans, RNC donors and at least one RNC staff member have e-mailed me tonight to share their utter (and not-for-attribution) disgust at the expenditures. ... The heat for this story will come from Republicans who cannot understand how their party would do something this stupid ... particularly (and, it must be said, viewed retroactively) during the collapse of the financial system and the probable beginning of a recession."

This vast vault of gold under the Bank of England should weather the credit crunch

By Mike Hanlon

You are looking at the room most likely to weather the credit crunch, a vast vault filled with the final word in financial security: gold.

As stocks and shares tumble, house prices crash and previously unassailable institutions crumble into dust, the sight of several thousand 28lb bars of 24-carat gold stored in the Bank of England's massive underground vaults is hugely reassuring.

For as the world wakes up to the fact that securities and dodgy loans are turning out to be as solid as wet cardboard, good old-fashioned gold has come back into fashion as never before.

Enlarge Rock solid: Several thousand 28lb bars of 24-carat gold stored in the Bank of England's massive underground vault

Rock solid: Several thousand 28lb bars of 24-carat gold stored in the Bank of England's massive underground vault

Indeed, less than a decade ago, the noble metal was trading at a mere $275 an ounce. Today, an ounce of gold fetches $787.80 (£460), making each of these bars worth around £200,000, or as much as a top-of-the-range Ferrari (and, before long, more than the average London house).

In fact, there are around 15,000 bars in this picture alone - that's about 210 tonnes of pure gold, with a value of nearly £3 billion. And there's plenty more out of view.

In fact, what you see here is just one-twentieth of the gold stored under the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street, as the Bank of England's City of London headquarters is affectionately known.

In all, some £73billion of gold - that's 4,600 tonnes of the stuff - is stored in concrete-lined vaults beneath the busy streets of central London. It never oxidises or tarnishes (so it doesn't need to be covered), although it does need the odd dust - by a cleaner who has been carefully vetted, no doubt.

Sadly, not all the gold beneath the Bank of England is ours.

It is a long time since the British currency was pegged to the value of gold (Britain left the Gold Standard in 1931), but we have always kept some as a reserve of last resort. Sadly, we haven't always bought and sold it wisely.

In May 1999, for example, the then-Chancellor, Gordon Brown, decided to sell 415 tonnes, or 60 per cent of the UK's total reserves.

Unfortunately, this sale took place at a time when gold prices reached historic lows. Had we held on to this gold, critics say, the Exchequer would now be £2billion better off.

In fact, most of the gold stored here is held by the Bank of England on behalf of other depositors, notably the central banks of various foreign governments who might not have access to such a secure cellar. The bars themselves are not identical.

The quality of the actual metal doesn't vary, but the slightly different shapes and marks reveal that it comes from various sources.

Security for the world's second-largest gold store (the largest, by a whisker, is the Federal Reserve bank vault in New York) is, predictably, rather tight.

The vaults are huge and include three disused wells. In fact, the floorspace is actually larger than that of the City's tallest building, Tower 42. Keys three-feet long are needed to open the gigantic vault doors.

They look ceremonial, like something used for a state occasion, but these keys are in fact entirely functional.

As they are inserted into the locks, the person attempting entry also has to speak a password into a microphone before the vaults are opened.

The Bank is, understandably, rather secretive about the precise details of the vaults. But the walls must be literally bombproof as they were used by bank staff as air raid shelters during World War II. The posters on the wall, depicting sunny climes, luxury cruises and happier times, have been preserved from that era.

As the world loses its faith in most investments, gold provides a primeval sense of security.

Of course, beyond being pretty (and its uses in electronic circuitry) the intrinsic value of gold is mostly symbolic, too.

But what would you rather have in your hands right now: a fistful of share certificates, or one of those bars?

10 things your IT guy wants you to know

1. If you ask me technical questions please don’t argue with me because you don’t like my answer. If you think you know more about the topic, why ask? And if I’m arguing with you…it’s because I am positive that I am correct, otherwise I’d just say “I don’t know” or give you some tips on where to look it up, I don’t have the time to just argue for the sake of it.

2. Starting a conversation by insulting yourself (i.e. “I’m such an idiot”) will not make me laugh, or feel sorry for you; all it will do is remind me that yes, you are an idiot and that I am going to hate having to talk to you. Trust me; you don’t want to start a call that way.

3. I am ok with you making mistakes, fixing them is my job. I am not ok with you lying to me about a mistake you made. It makes it much harder to resolve and thus makes my job more difficult. Be honest and we can get the problem resolved and continue on with our business.

4. There is no magic “Fix it” button. Everything takes some amount of work to fix, and not everything is worth fixing or even possible to fix. If I say that you just need to re-do a document that you accidentally deleted 2 months ago, please don’t get mad at me. I’m not ignoring your problem, and it’s not that I don’t like you, I just can’t always fix everything.

5. Not everything you ask me to do is “urgent”. In fact, by marking things as “urgent” every time, you almost ensure that I treat none of it as a priority.

6. You are not the only one who needs help, and you usually don’t have the most urgent issue. Give me some time to get to your problem, it will get fixed.

7. Emailing me several times about the same issue in the same day is not only unnecessary, it’s highly annoying. Emails will stay until I delete them, I won’t delete them until I’m done with them. I will typically respond as soon as I have a useful update. If it is an urgent issue, let me know (see number 5).

8. Yes, I prefer email over telephone calls. It has nothing to do with being friendly, it’s about efficiency. It is much faster and easier for me to list out a set of questions that I need you to answer than it is for me to call and ask you them one by one. You can find the answers at your leisure and while I’m waiting I can work on other problems.

9. Yes, I seem blunt and rude. It’s not that I mean to, I just don’t have the time to sugar coat things for you. I assume we are both adults and can handle the reality of a problem. If you did something wrong, I will tell you. I don’t care that it was a mistake, because it really makes no difference to me. Don’t take it personal, I just don’t want it to happen again.

10. And finally, yes, I can read your email, I can see what web pages you look at while you are at work, yes, I can access every file on your work computer, and I can tell if you are chatting with people on an instant messenger or chat room (and can also read what you are typing). But no, I don’t do it. It’s unethical, I’m busy, and in all reality you aren’t all that interesting. So unless I am instructed to specifically monitor or investigate your actions, I don’t. There really are much more interesting things on the internet than you.

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The world's first WALKING house designed to beat the floods

By Daily Mail Reporter

Designers have unveiled the "ultimate property" that they say will provide a solution to beating the floods - a WALKING house.

The property has been built on six hydraulic legs and was designed by art collective N55 in Copenhagen, Denmark, who worked in conjunction with engineers in Massachusetts, U.S.

The 10ft high home is solar and wind powered and can stroll at walking pace across all terrains.

Designers say it provides a solution to the problem of rising water levels as the house can simply walk away from floods.

Enlarge Walking house

The first prototype of the walking house which offers a unique solution to future housing needs

Like normal homes, it comes equipped with a living room, kitchen, toilet, bed and wood stove.

However, the house can walk thanks to a mainframe computer which controls the legs.

Helen Robinson of the Wysing Arts Centre said; 'This is far more than a caravan. It's all about sustainable living - it can sustain a life for many years.

Enlarge Walking house

The computer controlled pod can move across all terrain at walking speed

'It may seem radical but it could be a solution to land use in the near future.'

The pod will take its maiden stroll around rural Cambridgeshire at the Wysing Arts Centre in Bourn later this week.

The prototype cost £30,000 to build, including materials and time, but the designers believe it could be constructed for a lot less.

Helen said: 'For this to be a plausible alternative it would have to come down in price.

'After all it is neither a mansion or a gimmick. It is a recognisable alternative for people on a low income.'

Archaeologists Uncover Ancient Governor's Palace In Turkey

ScienceDaily (Oct. 21, 2008) — Within the scope of an international rescue excavation project, a team of four archaeologists specialized in Middle Eastern affairs headed by Dr. Dirk Wicke (Institute of Egyptology and Ancient Near Eastern Studies) have unearthed parts of a Neo-Assyrian governor's palace dating back to the 9th to 7th century BCE in a two-month excavation program amongst the ruins on Ziyaret Tepe. The discoveries were extraordinary.

Discovery of a rare treasure trove of more than 20 bronze vessels under the paving stones in the courtyard. (Credit: Ziyaret Tepe Archaeological Project)

The site in the south-east of Turkey (Diyarbakir province) is at risk from the construction of the Ilisu Dam. For several years now it has been investigated by teams from the universities of Akron (Ohio), Cambridge, Munich and Istanbul (Marmara University) in a joint excavation project. Sponsorship by the research funds of the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz in 2007 and 2008 gave its archaeologists the opportunity to become involved in this international and multi-disciplinary project. There are plans to continue the project for another three years.

The Upper Tigris region came under the sway of the Assyrians in the middle of the second millennium BCE. They established their provincial capital in Tushan which is identified today as Ziyaret Tepe. According to historical inscriptions by the Assyrian ruler Assurnasirpal II it is certain that the construction of an administrative palace in Tushan dates back to the year 882 BCE. The excavation area of the Mainz team comprises the topmost parts of the acropolis, which must have been subsumed by the governor's palace. Parts of the private residential area and a courtyard have already been uncovered. The main rooms were well equipped - amongst the findings were colorful wall paintings and a facility for an oven on wheels.

But the most unusual discovery was the excavation of cremations in pits within the extensive courtyard area. Five installations have been found to date, two of which were undisturbed and contained opulent burial goods. In the rectangular graves of approximately 1.50 m x 2.00 m in size, for example, a considerable layer of ash and burned bones as well as numerous bronze vessels, sumptuous stone and ivory receptacles, carved ivory objects, seals, and beads were found. These items indicate the high status of the people buried here. They are believed to have been residents of the palace. These objects are very similar to those found in the Assyrian capitals of Assur and Kalhu/Nimrud in modern day Iraq.

In addition to the cremation remains found this year, a rare treasure trove of more than 20 bronze vessels was discovered under the paving stones in the courtyard. These include a jug, a wine ladle, a sieve, several bowls and cups, mostly made from embossed bronze, which are now waiting to be restored. This will reveal their elaborate ornamentation which can already be made out under the corrosion layer.

The archaeological research project at Ziyaret Tepe (Turkey) undertaken by the Institute of Ancient Near Eastern Studies of Mainz University, which was set up 10 years ago, adds a new field archaeological portfolio alongside the excavations in Haft Tappeh and Tchogha Zanbil (Iran). It enables its students to work in the region in which they specialize and makes them part of an international research project.

Police officers given talking petrol caps to stop ruining engines

Police patrol cars are to be fitted with talking petrol caps after officers from one force caused £42,000 of damage by filling vehicles with the wrong type of fuel.

By Chris Irvine

In the past five years, Essex police have had to pay out 222 times for repairs caused by its drivers putting petrol in diesel engines or vice versa.

To combat the problem, the force has fitted large yellow flaps over the filling point, reminding the drivers which fuel to use.

The vehicles have also been fitted with voice reminders telling drivers "this is a diesel vehicle" when the fuel cap is opened, while they have begun fitting devices which fit into the filler neck making it almost impossible to get a petrol nozzle into a diesel tank.

A police spokeswoman said: "Essex Police, like many other organisations, have previously suffered from wrong fuels being put into tanks.

"Part of the problem is that modern diesels are so good and quiet that drivers can be easily fooled into thinking that they run on petrol.

"Police officers and staff often drive a variety of vehicles during the course of the week and they may be either petrol or diesel fuelled."

John Franklin, spokesman for the RAC said using the wrong fuel was a common problem.

He added however: "You would think the police should be properly trained to know what fuel a car needs.

"If you are going to be using numerous types of cars, then it needs to be clear, but I don't know whether talking petrol caps are really necessary."

Foreclosure Filings Spike 71%

NEW YORK ( -- The housing crisis still has a choke hold on America: In September, 81,312 homes were lost to foreclosure, according to a report released Thursday.

RealtyTrac, an online marketer of foreclosed properties, said that 851,000 homes have been repossessed by lenders since August 2007.

In September, 265,968 troubled borrowers received foreclosure filings - such as default notices, auction sale notices and bank repossessions. That's a decline of 12% from the record high number of filings in August, but 21% more than in September 2007.

All told 765,558 foreclosure filings were made on U.S. properties in the third quarter of this year - up 3% from the second quarter and 71% from the same period last year.

"We have never seen a foreclosure cycle like this one before," said Rick Sharga, Realty Trac senior vice president. Other periods of elevated foreclosure rates have been preceded by signs of economic weakness. However, "in this cycle, we have foreclosure problems that have caused an economic downturn."
States step up

The most recent monthly dip in foreclosure filings was caused largely by decisions by several states to relax housing laws.

"Much of the 12% decrease in September can be attributed to changes in state laws that have at least temporarily slowed down the pace at which lenders are moving forward with foreclosures," Realty Trac CEO James Saccacio said in a statement.

For instance, California - one of the states hardest-hit states in the housing crisis - has a new law that requires banks to contact struggling homeowners at least 30 days before delivering a notice of default. That's helped to drastically slow the number of foreclosure filings in the state.

"In September, we saw California [defaults] drop 51% from the previous month," said Saccacio. "That had a big impact on the national numbers since California accounts for a third of the nation's foreclosure activity."

North Carolina passed a similar law, and notices of default there fell by 66% in September.

Unfortunately, even these extensions aren't saving most troubled borrowers. "The intention is very worthwhile, but I think the net result in most cases is simply delaying the inevitable," said Sharga.

"If a few homeowners are able to stay in their homes as a result of the legislation, then it had a positive effect," said Sharga. However, "the longer you are in foreclosure, the harder it becomes to pay the debt you owe to get out of foreclosure," he added.

Circumstances in Massachusetts illustrate his point. That state enacted a law back in May requiring lenders to give troubled homeowners 90 days notice before initiating foreclosure, which pushed the number of foreclosure filings it reported way down for several months. But in September, when the law expired, filings spiked.

"Initial foreclosure filings in Massachusetts jumped 465% from August to September after being much lower than normal in June, July and August," said Saccacio.

Nevada once again had the nation's highest foreclosure rate, with one out of ever 82 homes in foreclosure. Florida had the second highest rate in September, with one in every 178 homes in default. California came in third, with one in every 189 homes there receiving foreclosure filling last month.
Waiting to see what's next

As foreclosures continue to wreck havoc across the nation's housing market, the U.S. government has announced unprecedented efforts to absorb toxic debt and shore up investor confidence. The "Hope for Homeowners" rescue bill went into effect Oct. 1 and will allow some troubled borrowers to refinance into mortgages backed by the Federal Housing Authority. And more recently, a massive financial rescue plan calls for Treasury to buy up troubled assets, mostly backed by bad loans, to stabilize the financial system.

However, as home buyers and lenders wait to see the effects of the plans, "there is a lot of uncertainty in the market right now," said Sharga.

Still, he thinks that the market could be nearing a bottom, even as uncertainty remains high.

"If everything goes right, we will be done with almost all the subprime loans by sometime in the first quarter of 2009," said Sharga. "The market could start to stabilize at that point."

The bad news: The housing market will be flooded with bank-owned homes. "We are estimating that by the end of this year, between one quarter and one third of all homes for sale will be bank owned properties," he said.

That could push down prices even more, perpetuating a vicious cycle, but it might also start to attract bargain hunters who may absorb some of the massive housing inventory. To top of page

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Secret London tunnels up for sale

London Underground

A network of tunnels beneath the streets of London is being put on the market by British telecom operator BT. The potential uses for the tunnels--from concept-hotel, to office space, to a museum--are many, but the price remains unknown.

Secret London tunnels
The Kingsway Tunnels were built in 1940 as deep air-raid shelters and have since been used as a 'reserve war room', public record library and the telephone exchange which connected the Cold War hotline between the presidents of the US and USSR. Foto: AP

For sale: A labyrinth of bombproof tunnels hidden about 100 feet (30 meters) beneath central London. Great location, mysterious past. And the price tag? Well, that's a secret.

The Kingsway Tunnels, originally built in 1942 to protect Londoners from German air raids, are being put up for sale by their current owner, telecommunications company BT Group PLC.

"We're looking for a purchaser with the imagination and stature to return the tunnels to productive use,“ said Elaine Hewitt, who heads BT's property division."The site has a fantastic history and, now that we have no requirement for it for telecommunications use, it is right that we should offer it to the market. Here's hoping it has a fantastic future as well.“

The tunnels, which are about a mile (more than a kilometer) long, were taken over by Britain's foreign intelligence agency MI6 in 1944. The Guardian newspaper said a section of the spy agency known as the Inter Services Research Bureau used the tunnels until May 8, 1945, when it stripped them clean, leaving a question mark over the exact nature of its underground activities.

Foto: AP

An undated photo shows the Kingsway Tunnel telephone exchange. The Kingsway Tunnels in central London are to be put up for sale by their owners.

BT said the tunnels were then used by the government's Public Record Office to store some 400 tons (363 metric tons) of "highly sensitive documents“ before the tunnels became the property of Britain's Post Office – which at the time ran Britain's telephone network and used the site as a telephone exchange to connect long distance calls.

It was through this reinforced warren that the 1960s hot line connecting the leaders of the U.S. and the Soviet Union was routed. By the 1980s, when it became the property of BT, it housed secure data backup services and served closed circuit television cameras.

BT spokeswoman Gemma Thomas said Saturday that the company no longer needed the tunnel because the Internet was cutting down on the need for telephone exchanges. She said restrictions on the tunnels' use meant they could not be converted into a cool new concept hotel, an underground office or a subterranean home. BT suggested they might be suitable for government use or for a major corporation.

Thomas refused to reveal was BT was hoping to get from the tunnels' sale.

UFO files reveal attempt to shoot down UFO

United Kingdom

The British National Archives has opened its UFO files to the public. The online document, consisting of thousands of pages, is full of UFO data and information collected by the British military and includes several first-hand accounts, including those of two pilots who claim they were ordered to open fire at a UFO.

UK National Archives releases UFO files
Foto: DPA

A screenshot from October 19, 2008 shows the British National Archive homepage. Thousands of pages worth of military information about UFO sightings were opened to the public.

An American fighter pilot flying from an English air base at the height of the Cold War was ordered to open fire on a massive UFO that lit up his radar, according to an account published by Britain’s National Archives on Monday.

The fighter pilot said he was ordered to fire a full salvo of rockets at the UFO moving erratically over the North Sea – but that at the last minute the object picked up enormous speed and disappeared. The account, first published in Britain’s Daily Star newspaper more than 17 years ago and to this day unverified by military authorities, was one of many carried in the 1,500 pages the archives made available online.

The unnamed pilot said he and another airman were scrambled on the night of May 20, 1957 to intercept an unusual "bogey“ on radars at a Royal Air Force Station Manston, an airfield at the southeastern tip of England about 75 miles (120 kilometers) from central London.

"This was a flying object with very unusual flight patterns,“ the pilot said, according to a typed manuscript of his account mailed to Britain’s Ministry of Defense by a UFO enthusiast in 1988. "In the initial briefing it was suggested to us that the bogey actually was motionless for long intervals.“

Ordered to fly at full throttle in cloudy weather, the pilot said he was given the order to fire a volley of 24 rockets at the mysterious object.

"To be quite candid I almost (expletive) my pants!“ the pilot said, saying he asked for confirmation – which he received.

Retired U.S. airman Milton Torres told Britain’s Sky News on Monday that he was the pilot and has spent 50 frustrating years attempting to uncover the truth of his mid-air encounter.

Speaking from his home in Miami, Florida, Torres said he never saw the UFO with his naked eye, but watched in awe as it appeared on his jet’s radar and sped off before he had chance to fire.

"All of a sudden as it was coming in, it decided to take off and leave me behind ... The next thing I know it was gone,“ Torres told Sky News. "It was some kind of space alien craft. It was so fast, it was so incredible ... it was absolutely death defying.“

In the newly published government file, the U.S. airman said the UFO appeared impossible to miss.


In this undated handout photo from the National Archives, a sketch is seen, released of a UFO sketched by someone who claimed to have seen it. Britain's National Archives have posted 19 files of reported UFO sightings. The new material covers UFO sightings between 1986 and 1992.

"The blip was burning a hole in the radar with its incredible intensity,“ the pilot said. "It was similar to a blip I had received from B-52’s and seemed to be a magnet of light. ... I had a lock on that had the proportions of a flying aircraft carrier.“

As he closed in on the object to prepare for combat, however, the object began to move wildly before fading off his radar. The target gone, the mission was called off, and he returned to base to an odd reception.

"I had not the foggiest idea what had actually occurred, nor would anyone explain anything to me,“ the pilot said. He said he was led to a man in civilian clothes, who "advised me that this would be considered highly classified and that I should not discuss it with anybody not even my commander.“

"He disappeared without so much as a goodbye and that was that, as far as I was concerned,“ the pilot said, according to the account.

Britain’s military said it had no record of the incident, according to the files. Neither did the U.S. military. The second pilot’s account, also included in the files, paints a somewhat different picture of events, saying there were not one but several "unknowns“ and that he did not remember being contacted by anyone about staying quiet. He did not mention the targets’ size.

"I know this is not a very exciting narrative but it is all I can recall,“ the second pilot said.

His name, like his colleague’s, was redacted from the files.

David Clarke, a UFO expert who has worked with the National Archives on the document release, said it was one of the most intriguing stories he had culled from the batch of files released Monday.

He said that the CIA once had a program intended to create phantom signals on radar – and that this may have been an exercise in electronic warfare. Whatever the case, Clarke argued that "there’s no doubt something very unusual happened.“

Clarke said the batch of files released Monday – which include witness accounts, investigations, and sketches – was part of a three to four year program intended to make a total of 160 UFO-related files available to the public.

Should Michigan legalize medical marijuana?

Proposal 1 offers relief, compassion, safeguards for the sickest patients

Dr. George F. Wagoner

Michigan voters will have the opportunity to protect seriously ill patients from the threat of arrest and jail for using their doctor-recommended medicine. Voting "yes" on Proposal 1 is about compassion, common sense and providing a measure of relief for some of our sickest friends, neighbors and loved ones.

Study after study has shown that medical marijuana can be remarkably effective at treating the symptoms of certain debilitating diseases and conditions, including cancer, multiple sclerosis and HIV/AIDS, as well as countering the side effects of certain treatment regimens themselves. Indeed, medical marijuana often works for patients where conventional drugs fail.

Medical marijuana laws are on the books in 12 other states, and the sky hasn't fallen. These compassionate programs protect patients who use medical marijuana under the recommendation of a licensed physician and are largely operating without the range of unintended consequences opponents of Proposal 1 like to invoke. What's more, Michigan has learned from these other states' experiences and has safeguards that are included under Proposal 1.

Michigan's Proposal 1 would allow the limited growing of cannabis in a locked facility. Marijuana then could be prescribed for registered patients with debilitating medical conditions. (Leon Neal / Agence France-Presse)

For instance, unlike some of the earliest medical marijuana laws like California's, Proposal 1 requires a statewide registry of patients and ID cards so law enforcement can easily tell who is a legitimate patient. It also provides for steep penalties for fraudulent cards and false statements so that the law does exactly what it's intended to do: provide legal protection for the seriously ill while guarding against abuse.

Also, unlike California, Proposal 1 does not allow for dispensaries, so the opposition's overheated rhetoric about "pot shops" is without basis.

In addition, the existing medical marijuana states have not shown increases in teen use -- in fact, use has declined in many of them since the passage of their laws. Proposal 1 in no way affects existing regulations against public use, restrictions on employees or laws against driving under the influence.

These objections are scare tactics meant to distract voters from the central issue: compassion for the sick and dying.

More than 1,200 medical professionals in Michigan, as well as prominent groups like the Michigan Nurses Association, have publicly endorsed Proposal 1. The American College of Physicians, the largest specialty physician group in the country, has acknowledged and supported the efficacy and medical applications of marijuana, as have the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, the American Public Health Association and many others.

It's time we listened to these expert voices and exhibited real compassion for the seriously ill. If a physician feels medical marijuana is appropriate for a patient, the law shouldn't stand in the way. And for a limited number of suffering Michiganders, medical marijuana will provide safe and effective relief to the symptoms of hideous illnesses.

We owe it to these most vulnerable members of our communities to vote "yes" to Proposal 1 on Nov. 4.

Dr. George F. Wagoner is a retired obstetrician-gynecologist in Manistee.

Walking iPhone Robot

Kazu Terasaki, a Japanese software engineer working in the Silicon Valley area, turned his iPhone into a robot. He showed it off for the first time at a BBQ party held here.

Kazu is a "moonlight inventor" and his inventions that have been commercialized in the past include ThumbType (a tiny keyboard that you can paste on your PDA) and Weird7 (a biped robot kit).

He was also involved in a product called PuchiRobo which is another robot kit that enables you to turn anything from a beer can to a tissue box into a walking robot. That technique is used in making his iPhone walk too. Right now you need a PC to move the robot, but in the future he'd like to come up with a chip too, so that you can just paste everything on your beer and it will come walking to you. The cute moving eye balls are also an application he created for the iPhone.

Kazu's expertise and motto is "to surprise people by creating new stuff using just ordinary technhology." His ideas and perspective have brought in a breath of fresh air to the robotics community in Japan where engineers generally want to use the most advanced and expensive techonologies.

Here is another video of the walking iPhone made by Kazu himself (although it's not quite my taste).

Six Must See Movies in 2009

by Larson Hill

Now that 2008 is winding down to a close with just over two months of movie goodness left to go at the box-office, we can look ahead to see a new crop of theatrical releases on the 2009 horizon. In fact, from what we can tell, 2009 is looking like an awesome year at the movies. If all goes well, moviegoers will see the holy grail of comic books come to life on the big screen, the return of James Cameron, a healthy balance of fantasy and sci-fi, and another Terminator movie this time without Arnold even though he said he’ll be back.

Although there are a slew of movies we’re looking forward to in 2009, and we will see, there are six that we’ve narrowed down to fit into the "must see" category.

Movies everyone will see in 2009 unless a meteor hits the planet:

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince
Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen
Star Trek
X-Men Origins: Wolverine
G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra

Movies we wish or hope to see in 2009:

Killing Pablo
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

Movies you should see in 2009:

Shutter Island
State of Play

Movies we’re still mulling over:


Six must see movies in 2009

Taken - January 23, 2009 (Directed by Peter Morel, written by Luc Besson)

Have you seen the trailer for Taken? If not, go here. Originally scheduled to hit theaters in 2008, Taken got pushed back to January 2009 and it’s going to be an awesome way to kick off the New Year. When a group of sex traffickers kidnap two young girls vacationing in Paris, they have no clue one of them is the daughter of a former CIA agent. Starring Liam Neeson, Famke Jansen, Maggie Grace, Xander Berkely, and Katie Cassidy, Taken will fill whatever void that you’re still left with after the last Bourne movie. With the cinematographer of The Transporter movies behind the camera and a story co-written by Luc Besson, Taken is cut from a similar action mold with non-stop intensity. The movie that originally sold me on Liam Neeson was the 1986 action drama A Prayer for the Dying in which Neeson played a member of the IRA. Now, with over 20 years of big screen success behind him, playing an ex-CIA hell bent on rescuing his daughter from sex traffickers is going to (sort of) take Neeson back to where he started from an opposite angle. Expect a ton of action and ass-kicking at a breakneck pace.

Why you should see it: It’s going to feel like The Bourne Identity meets The Transporter meets Commando. Happy New Year!

Inglorious Bastards - June 2009 (Directed by Quentin Tarantino)

We know it’s Quentin Tarantino and his movies always make for unusual retro rides, but Inglorious Bastards has a really weird curiosity factor going for it in the cast department. Tarantino’s known for assembling odd and unexpected actors for his movies, but this one might be the strangest of all. What started out as a remake of The Dirty Dozen only to be turned into a World War II epic inspired from an Italian movie about a group of Nazi killers known as "The Bastards" fighting inside the front lines of France, Inglorious Bastards boasts a cast that includes Brad Pitt, Mike Myers, Eli Roth, Diane Kruger, B.J. Novak, and Cloris Leachman, among a slew of others. Can you close your eyes and try to picture a scene with Brad Pitt, Mike Myers, and Eli Roth? That’s what I’m talking about. I’m willing to bet that back in 1967 with The Dirty Dozen, no one could picture Lee Marvin, ex-NFL great Jim Brown, Mexican singer/dancer Trini Lopez, and Telly Savalas together in one film.

Why you should see it: Aside from seeing what type of lunacy Tarantino can get out of Pitt, Myers, and Roth, some words used to describe the script and story have been "over-the-top", "insane", and "bat-shit".

Where the Wild Things Are - October 16, 2009 (Directed by Spike Jonze)

If you’re not familiar with Maurice Sendak’s best selling fantasy pictorial book of the same name, check it out before 2008 comes to a close. Trust me, it won’t take you long but you’ll be glad you did. If you ever got sent to your room for not eating your supper when you were a kid, you’ll be able to relate to the fantasy world the young lead character Max creates for himself behind closed doors. It’s a weird and wonderful world where Max presides over a forest filled with fantastically bizarre creatures. Now that the Jackass guys have cashed in on their extreme fifteen minutes and are finally giving their bodies a rest, Spike Jonze at last makes his return to the feature film director’s chair for the first time since helming Adaptation. This time he’s tackling a live action adaptation of the classic fantasy tale with a cast that includes Forest Whitaker, James Gandolfini, Catherine Keener, Paul Dano, Catherine O’Hara, and newcomer Max Records. Although the film was supposed to hit theaters in 2008, and Jonze had to deal with several reshoot issues that almost derailed the project, Where the Wild Things Are got back on track in mid-2008... and we’re glad it did.

Why you should see it: It’ll make up for lost time and the dollars spent on The Spiderwick Chronicles.

Terminator Salvation: The Future Begins - May 29, 2009 (Directed by McG)

Sure we all got pumped when it was announced that another Terminator movie was coming down the pike, but it wasn’t until Christian Bale hopped onboard the project that everyone began to take it seriously. Although Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines was the last in the franchise to feature the Arnie "The Governator" Schwarzenegger, The Sarah Connor Chronicles proved that the Terminator franchise was alive and well in the post-Arnold era. With Bale in the role of John Connor and McG with a budget in the vicinity of a James Cameron-like $200 million, Terminator Salvation also features a powerful army of acting machines such as Anton Yelchin, Bryce Dallas Howard, Helena Bonham Carter, Sam Worthington, Moon Bloodgood, Common, and Michael Ironside. As far as talent in the Terminator movies is concerned, the Salvation cast looks to be the strongest of the entire franchise. Also, in case you don’t know, both the visual effects and action are in the hands of Charles Gibson, the same guy who did both on all three Pirates of the Caribbean movies.

Why you should see it: To see Christian Bale as John Connor lead the human resistance. And, if all happens to go south, to be able to say fifty years in the future that you remember where you were when the Terminator franchise died.

Avatar - December 18, 2009 (Directed by James Cameron)

After two decades in development hell, James Cameron is finally bringing the deeply complex futuristic epic Avatar to the big screen. When you think back to what it took for him to make Titanic, the highest grossing movie of all time, it’s easy to understand why Cameron stepped away from feature films to direct, produce, and explore a number of real life mysteries like Expedition Bismark, Ghost of the Abyss, Aliens of the Deep, and The Exodus Decoded. If you’re not familiar with Avatar, it might be a good idea to avoid as much info as possible. Starring Sam Worthington, Sigourney Weaver, Zoe Saldana, Michelle Rodriguez, Giovanni Ribisi, Stephen Lang, Matt Gerland, and Wes Studi, Avatar is about a wounded ex-marine who’s sent to another planet to plunder its richly diverse ecosystem but finds himself at a crucial moral crossroads with his objective and the inhabitants of the planet. That’s really all you need to know. It’s a story on the scale of the famous Edgar Rice Burroughs novel John Carter of Mars. Now that James Cameron is back to directing huge Hollywood blockbusters after a ten-year hiatus, Avatar could possibly set the stage for a new era of amazing sci-fi cinema.

Why you should see it: Hello! James Cameron gave us The Terminator and Terminator 2, Aliens, The Abyss, and Titanic. Since sci-fi is Cameron’s specialty and with a $200 million budget, do really think this is going to suck? For now it's safe to say, "Uhh... no!"

Watchmen - March 6, 2009 (Directed by Zack Snyder)

Like comic book geeks really need a reason to see Watchmen. You know you’re going anyway. For the virgins who aren’t familiar with long awaited big screen adaptation of Alan Moore’s revered graphic novel, you’ll be going to see it anyway. You just don’t know it yet. It’s funny that the film’s tagline "Who watches the Watchmen?" has a strange real life echo to it since by the time 2009 rolls around the answer could be no one at all. If Warner Bros. and Fox don’t settle up their legal war over the ownership of rights to Watchmen, it could be delayed indefinitely. Still, we’re sticking to schedule along with director Zack Snyder who’s pushing forward with the film despite the current legal battle. It’s taken years for Watchmen to find its way to the big screen and I don’t know one comic book geek who isn’t dying to see it. Although creator Alan Moore isn’t dying to see it at all, there’s no denying the fact that fans are counting down the days until the holy grail of geekdom hits theaters.

Why you should see it: A - I shouldn’t have to tell you. B - To give Zack Snyder the respect he deserves for putting his head on the comic chopping block.

-- Larson Hill

Cairo Activists Use Facebook to Rattle Regime

July 23, 2008. Under the scorching sun on a beach in Alexandria, Egypt, a few dozen political activists snap digital pictures and chatter nervously. Many of them wear matchingwhite T-shirts emblazoned with the image of a fist raised in solidarity and the words "April 6 Youth" splashed across the back. A few of them get to work constructing a giant kite out of bamboo poles and a sheet of plastic painted to look like the Egyptian flag. Most are in their twenties, some younger; one teenage girl wears a teddy bear backpack.

Before the group can get the kite aloft, and well before they have a chance to distribute their pro-democracy leaflets, state security agents swarm across the sand. The cops shout threats to break up what is, by Western standards, a tiny demonstration.

The activists disperse from the beach, feeling hot and frustrated; they didn't even get a chance to fly their kite. Joining up with other friends, they walk together toward the neighborhood of Loran, singing patriotic songs.

Then, as they turn down another street, a group of security agents jump out of nowhere. It's a coordinated assault that explodes into a frenzy of punches and shoves. There are screams and grunts as about a dozen kids fall or are knocked to the ground. The other 30 or so scatter, sprinting for blocks in all directions before slowing enough to send each other hurried text messages: Where are you? What happened?

Those who didn't get away are hustled into a van and two cars. The security men are shouting at them: "Where is Ahmed Maher?"

Three hours before the scuffle and arrests, Ahmed Maher walks briskly toward a dilapidated office building on Alexandria's Abu-Qir Street. Messenger bag draped over a shoulder of his white short-sleeved, collared shirt, he tosses a cigarette into the street before climbing the marble steps.

He speaks softly to fellow activists standing outside an office doorway, but his arrival has an electrifying effect: He's here. Back in March, Maher and a friend launched a Facebook group to promote a protest planned for April 6. It became an Internet phenomenon, quickly attracting more than 70,000 members. The April 6 youth movement — amorphous, lacking a clear mission, and yet a bull's-eye to the zeitgeist — blossomed within days into something influential enough to arouse the ire of Egypt's internal security forces. Maher is part of a new generation in the Middle East that, through blogs, YouTube, Flickr, Twitter, and now Facebook, is using virtual reality to combat corrupt and oppressive governments. Their nascent, tech-fired rebellion has triggered a government backlash and captured the world's attention.

Two ceiling fans do little to relieve the stifling summer heat. Forty people are squeezed into the offices of the El-Ghad Party, one of Egypt's more established opposition groups. Three years ago, El-Ghad's leader, Ayman Nour, won 7 percent of the vote in the presidential election. Soon after, he was slapped with forgery charges that are widely viewed as trumped up. Today, despite deteriorating health and a plea for his release from President Bush, Nour remains imprisoned.

But this afternoon, the El-Ghad office is on loan to another upstart political group, the April 6 youth movement. Many of the attendees are connecting for the first time — in the real world, that is. Most know each other only through Facebook, and they're finally matching names and aliases to actual faces. Taped to the wall at the front of the room is a yellow piece of construction paper. The makeshift sign, written in Arabic lettering, reads: welcome to the first dialog meeting of the april 6 youth movement. Young women, some with head scarves and some without, sit in green plastic chairs, while guys in their twenties stand in silence.

Outside, two uniformed cops and a plainclothes officer lean against a shiny sedan with their arms folded, waiting. Another agent is planted in the corner store across the street, eyes fixed on the meeting-place windows. In Egypt today, a gathering of five people or more without a permit is illegal and can result in arrests, beatings, or both. Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarak, has been in power for nearly three decades and has governed under emergency rule since 1981. The regime is occasionally rebuked by the US and Europe for its abysmal human-rights record. But because Mubarak is considered a valuable US ally on matters concerning Israel and terrorism, Egypt receives nearly $2 billion in US aid every year, second only to Israel.

Photograph: Joerg Klaus

Maher, 27, is a civil engineer who works for a construction firm, hammering away on software programs like AutoCAD and Primavera. A steady job, however, doesn't exactly mesh with full-time political activism. He has failed to show up for work on a number of occasions, and some days he is nearly asleep on his feet after yet another all-nighter at a cybercafe. "Some guys at work saw me in the newspaper, and they were supportive," he says. "Others were not — one guy moved his desk far from mine." Maher doesn't seem to mind offending his coworkers, but he does worry about being fired. How would he support his wife and newborn baby?

During the meeting, Maher holds a mobile phone in one hand, constantly reading messages or texting. With his closely cropped hair and trim goatee, he resembles a compact Vin Diesel. When it's his turn to speak, the others listen intently as he lays out the day's plan. The spot they have picked for their protest this afternoon is already crawling with agents, he tells them, suggesting that the plan is no secret to state security. "We have people out there now, trying to find a new place," he says.

A few hours later, a taxi carrying Maher and his friends is zooming north along the coast, heading toward the rally location. The car stops suddenly at a beach called Sidi Bishr. The activists are hoping to draw attention to their cause among poor and working class Egyptians enjoying a summer afternoon lounging beneath rented umbrellas while children splash in the Mediterranean. The plan is to sing songs and fly a kite, with the simple goal of meeting and speaking freely with people. "We don't want conflict," one activist tells me. "We want peace and freedom."

Facebook is the third-most visited Web site in Egypt, after Google and Yahoo. Wael Nawara, cofounder of the El-Ghad Party, has closely observed the site's rapid ascent. (When I caught up with Nawara at his home in Heliopolis, his laptop had six browser tabs open, all of them Facebook pages.) "The big bang was really this past January, with the Africa Cup," he says. Egypt's national soccer team had reached the final of the continental championships, and a Facebook group launched by fans suddenly swelled to 45,000 members. During the soccer frenzy, Nawara noticed that the number of Facebookers in Egypt jumped dramatically. Today, close to 1 million Egyptians are on the site, about 11 percent of the total online population.

Maher created the April 6 youth movement with a woman named Israa Abdel-Fattah. They had become friendly two years earlier as volunteers for the El-Ghad Party. Maher had already been politically active; he was arrested in 2006 during a sit-in alongside judges protesting state interference with the judiciary. Abdel-Fattah, 27, had never taken part in a demonstration. She worked in the human resources department of a Cairo company and had only recently begun volunteering at El-Ghad. They were both Facebook users, of course, busy posting in various political forums. But to Maher Facebook was an echo chamber, not a movement.

In March, he learned that workers in the industrial city of El-Mahalla el-Kobra were planning a strike on April 6 to protest paltry wages and soaring food prices. Maher and Abdel-Fattah were sympathetic to the cause and wondered whether Facebook might be a way to spread the word about the strike, arrange more demonstrations in Cairo, and enlist support for a nationwide shopping boycott.

The duo launched the April 6 group on March 23. They used their real names for their Facebook profiles, and they were both listed as administrators for the group. That night, they sent out 300 invitations urging people to join. By the next morning, 3,000 people had signed up. Invitees weren't just joining — they were recruiting everyone they knew. It was the kind of viral growth Silicon Valley executives fantasize about, and the chain reaction was just beginning.

Maher was as stunned as he was delighted. This could be something, he thought. He set about encouraging new members to launch whole new subgroups, while also contacting bloggers and other politically oriented online forums — 800 people here, 2,600 people there — asking them to support the workers by joining the April 6 group.

On more than one occasion, Maher's Facebook account was disabled — not by Egyptian officials but by the site itself. To combat spammers, Facebook automatically shuts down accounts that have large volumes of outgoing messages. But in this case, the messaging deluge was just Maher corresponding like crazy. By the end of March, the group was pushing 40,000 members. Participants began changing their profile pictures to the April 6 logo, which meant the logo kept popping up in the News Feed of anyone on Facebook who was connected to someone in the April 6 group. Adding to this barrage, the activists kept loading a link to the group into their Status Update fields, further flooding Egypt's Facebook universe with connections to the group and its message.

To get their ideas to people who weren't online, the activists scribbled details about the strike on currency notes and bought TV ads in the form of notices running along the bottom of the screen like a news ticker — a common method in the Arab world for making short community announcements.

Israa Abdel-Fattah cofounded the April 6 Facebook group. After her arrest, she renounced it.
Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

The group's message was inclusive and earnest, factors that proved essential for amplifying interest and participation in the boycott and scattered demonstrations. Like minority opposition groups everywhere, Egypt's are rife with infighting. The April 6 group, in contrast, benefited from a constituency of young people — many of whom had little or no political experience — and a broad message of solidarity for workers and the poor that made it easy for people to say, "Yeah, I'm into that." Click.

Yet the ease of participation cuts both ways. At first glance, this form of online activism might seem ineffectual, even frivolous — a brand of sacrifice-free protest sometimes derided as "slactivism." After all, the Facebook group Bring Back Arrested Development has, at last count, 15,889 members, the group FREE TIBET! has 120,126, and Maher's group has 70,000. Big deal. But in places like Egypt, these virtual gatherings are a big deal. Although freedom of speech and freedom of religion may be democracy's headliners, it's the less sexy-sounding freedom of assembly that, when prohibited, can effectively asphyxiate political organization. Uniting 70,000 people is no easy feat in a country where collective action is so risky. Social networking has changed that. In turn, it is changing the dynamics of political dissent.

On the night of April 5, the streets of Cairo were full of police. Maher got a call from Abdel-Fattah. "She said she was scared," Maher says. "I told her not to be. 'You're a woman. I'm a man. I'm the one who would get arrested.'"

As dawn broke on April 6, residents of El-Mahalla el-Kobra — a city of some 400,000 about 75 miles north of Cairo — finished their morning prayers. Maher, Abdel-Fattah, and other Facebookers fired off last-minute emails and texts about their demonstration plans, still unsure as to whether anyone outside their network had heard or cared about the call to support the workers and boycott stores.

In El-Mahalla el-Kobra, where the strike was slated to occur, thousands of workers took to the streets. The scene turned ugly, with widespread rioting, scores of arrests, and at least three deaths. At one point, a group of agitators managed to trash a billboard displaying a picture of Mubarak. Censors suppressed video and photographic records of the incident in the mainstream media. But bloggers and members of the Facebook group quickly posted the images.

State security was aware of online dissidents but was completely caught off guard by the popularity of the Facebook group. In recent years, agents had concentrated intimidation efforts on individuals, especially bloggers with a significant readership. In 2006, for instance, a blogger named Mohammed el-Sharqawi was detained and sodomized for repeatedly participating in street protests. Another blogger, Abdel-Kareem Soliman, is serving a four-year prison term for insulting the president and Islam. But social networking was something new. Security officials, perhaps believing that Facebook was no more than a mechanism for kids to vent angst, paid little attention to the crescendo leading up to April 6, underestimating the network's ability to galvanize opposition.

The April 6 demonstrations in Cairo were not well attended; the real fireworks of the day were the riots in El-Mahalla el-Kobra. And that could have been the end of it — just another isolated, barely reported episode of social unrest in an overlooked corner of the Middle East. But Egyptian security made a major miscalculation. That morning, they found Abdel-Fattah sitting with friends at a Cairo cafè9 popular with activists and intellectuals. As an administrator of the high-profile Facebook group, she was a valuable catch, and her arrest would send an unequivocal message to other aspiring cyberactivists.

Gameela Ismail is a political activist who is married to the jailed president of El-Ghad, one of Egypt's leading opposition parties.
Photograph: Joerg Klaus

Gameela Ismail, the 42-year-old wife of the imprisoned opposition leader, had worked with Abdel-Fattah at the El-Ghad Party headquarters and had watched the Facebook group take shape. When she learned that Abdel-Fattah and others had been picked up, she figured the police would follow the usual routine of low-grade intimidation: drive the offenders around for a while and eventually drop them on the outskirts of Cairo.

Ismail decided to go look for Abdel-Fattah. She drove to Giza Square, Tahrir Square, and Amr Ibn el-Aass mosque. At each place she found only riot police, security trucks, and clean-shaven men speaking into walkie-talkies. Then Ismail got a text from Abdel-Fattah herself, saying that she'd been arrested and that she would likely face prosecution. Based on the country's emergency law, Egyptian authorities can hold citizens without any charge under what's known as a detention decree. According to Ismail, it was the first such decree levied against a woman in recent memory.

At a hearing the next day, Ismail was able to briefly meet Abdel- Fattah in the ladies' room at the courthouse. According to Ismail, the younger woman barely spoke and appeared to be in shock. Ismail slipped her some anxiety medication, tissues, money, and cigarettes for bartering in jail.

Foreign media and the few Egyptian newspapers that dare to resist state censors latched on to the story of Facebook Girl. It had an irresistible combination of ingredients: hip technology, government oppressors, an Arab woman speaking out. Instead of scaring other Facebookers away from activism, the arrest and publicity turned this meek Cairo clerk into a heroine. Members of the April 6 group began changing their profile picture to show the face of Abdel-Fattah, and (of course) launched another Facebook group calling for her release. Within days, that group had thousands of members. Abdel-Fattah became the symbol of a movement.

And then she was gone. After about two weeks in prison, she was released — and immediately made a brief public statement renouncing political activism. Sources say she was then married off and has since largely disappeared from the political scene. But what precisely happened to her — and to what degree her repentant statement represents her true beliefs — may never be known.

In the wake of the April 6 crackdowns, Maher watched as thousands of Facebook-using Egyptians left the group, and by extension the upstart movement. State security operatives had infiltrated the open network, sometimes brazenly so, using the golden eagle that appears on the Egyptian flag for their profile pictures. At other times, agents assumed aliases of fictional activists, trying to glean personal information about group members. A few times they even created accounts under the name Ahmed Maher. "They are easy enough to identify," Maher says. "When you look at their friends, it's practically an empty profile."

Ahmed Maher is a reluctant leader. He's hardly an orator. He's not very calculating, tending to trust people and blurt whatever is on his mind. He can be sloppy with the cloak-and-dagger stuff, like mentioning his location when talking on a mobile phone. And he doesn't bother with disguises. "He should grow something," a friend says. "Shave sometimes. Change the way he dresses."

But he has at least two things going for him: sincerity and bravery. "Maher is an example of a person who can make things happen on the Web," says Gamal Eid, executive director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information. "He's a regular guy who became fed up with corruption and gained the courage to act against it."

Even before the smoke of April 6 cleared, Maher was planning another demonstration — target date May 4, Mubarak's 80th birthday. He and his friends tried to replicate what had happened in April, urging people to stay home from work, hang black flags outside their windows, boycott state-owned newspapers — do something.

But as public protests go, May 4 was a flop. Egyptians in the capital went on about their lives largely ignoring the call for a strike. Telcos were ordered to block services for all anonymous subscribers, which meant disabling the phones of most activists. And just before the planned event, Mubarak announced a salary increase for workers. (Days later, the government levied yet another price hike, canceling out any gains from the short-lived wage increase, but by then May 4 had passed.) The authorities had prevailed, and all that was left to do was take down the Facebook network.

Maher knew that security personnel would be looking for him and by May 7, he hadn't been home for days. In April, he'd sent his wife and baby to live with his in-laws. Since then, he had holed up in cybercafes and slept on friends' couches.

That morning he needed to go back to work. When he was almost there, he spotted a speeding Peugeot in his rearview mirror. A moment later, a minibus pulled up in front of him, filled with bald guys wearing sunglasses. They jumped out and quickly surrounded Maher's car. They pulled him out and took turns punching him. Then they shoved him into the van, blindfolded him, and tied his hands behind his back.

On April 6, demonstrators marched in Cairo.
Photograph: Getty Images: AP Photo

It was a rough night in custody. According to Maher, the agents stripped him, beat him, and dragged him on the floor. "So, you're the one acting like a leader and saying you don't care about state security," he remembers one of them telling him. Then they threatened him with "electricity" and rape. They wanted his Facebook password (but not, strangely, the accompanying email address required to log in). Early that morning, Maher finally gave the authorities a password, and they released him. This time, the officers said, they were letting him off easy.

In a twisted way, though, even the quashed demonstration of May 4 was a success, maybe more so because of Maher's arrest. For one thing, it illustrated how just a little digital organizing can trigger a resource-sucking counteroffensive from state security. After the non-news of May 4 and the ongoing manhunt for Maher, there has been talk of new censorship legislation. Rights groups say that the bill, if passed, will give a supreme monitoring authority power to arrest anyone involved in the dissemination of information — like starting a Facebook group. (Authorities in Syria have taken a far more direct approach by simply blocking access to Facebook.)

Government retaliation against the youth movement has also embarrassed the regime. Many Egyptian citizens are rooting for the idealistic Facebook kids, and the international media look favorably on their cause, or at least tend to portray the activists as David to the regime's Goliath: "fledgling rebellion on facebook is struck down by force in egypt" (The Washington Post), "crackdown on facebook activists" (Los Angeles Times blog), "egypt detains facebook activists — again" (The Christian Science Monitor), "egypt faces new media censorship" (Al Jazeera). Not exactly flattering headlines for one of America's best friends in the Middle East.

The April 6 demonstration in El-Mahalla El-Kobra turned into a violent clash with police.
Photograph: Joerg Klaus

July 24, 2008

Maher is on the run again in Alexandria, after the failed protest on the beach. He tries to mix things up, hopping into a store and switching between taxis and the city's rundown tramway. Believing he has finally ditched the agents, he texts a couple of activist friends for a meetup at an outdoor juice cart.

Within minutes state security officers descend on the group. Everyone scatters, and the cops let them flee — except Maher. They throw him facedown onto the pavement. They pinned Maher's arms and started kicking and hitting him.

Maher thinks back to his arrest in May. Agents let him go after he gave up the password — a fake one. Payback seems inevitable. In any case, he has a better plan in place this time: He has given one of his friends his password, with instructions to change it immediately if Maher is arrested. That way, even if Maher is broken by torture, he won't be able to give the authorities the information they need to take control of the April 6 network.

At a nearby police station, an officer makes a call to Cairo: "We have Ahmed Maher, sir." Soon Maher meets with prosecutors who lay out the charges: using Facebook to establish an illegal organization aiming to overthrow the regime and annul the constitution, funding and printing T-shirts that call for disruption of public peace, spreading rumors and tension to incite hatred of the government, gathering illegally, defaming the president and police, and disrupting traffic.

But Maher isn't tortured. No one can say why his treatment in custody is more lenient this time around. One possibility is that, lacking specific orders to beat or harm him, his captors in Alexandria just went easy.

There is another hypothesis, though, one that many people familiar with Egyptian politics have suggested: Maher's star has risen. His real-world profile is now high enough that torturing him could backfire, inspiring countless networked young people to take action. The last thing Hosni Mubarak needs is to turn this Facebooking regular guy into a full-fledged hero.