Archive for September, 2011

A Toe Becomes A Thumb

What do you do when someone manages to cut off his thumb? Just chop off his big toe and sew in onto his hand!
That’s exactly what happened to 29 year old James Byrne from Bristol after he severed the thumb on his left hand while sawing through a piece of wood.

Attempts to save Byrne’s thumb failed and so plastic surgeon Umraz Khan came up with the novel solution. After discussion, it was agreed that the loss of a big toe would be less problematic than being without a thumb and so the operation went ahead.

Frenchay hospital in Bristol is a regional micro-surgery centre and has an international reputation for patients needing this sort of complex surgery. Khan led two teams of surgeons and anaesthetists: one working on Byrne’s toe while the other worked on his hand at the same time.

Khan said: “It is quite a rare thing to do and is a very complex micro-surgical procedure which involves re-attaching the bone, nerves, arteries, tendons, ligaments and skin of the toe to the hand.”

And what does Mr Byrne think of it all? Well, he is delighted.

“The aesthetics of it don’t bother me. I am just happy that it works. My work as a paver would have been destroyed without the use of my hand because I couldn’t pick up a brick without a thumb but now I hope I can be back at work in a few months,” he said.

Thumbs up then!

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A New Lie Detector?

Scientists at Bradford University have developed a sophisticated new camera system that can detect lies just by watching facial changes.

Like a poker player the system picks up on tells, such as dilated pupils, biting or pressing together of the lips, wrinkling of the nose, breathing heavily, swallowing or blinking. And a thermal sensor can pick also up on non visible signs such as the swelling of blood vessels around the eyes.

The computerised system uses a simple video camera, a high-resolution thermal imaging sensor and a suite of algorithms. It successfully discriminates between truth and lies in about two-thirds of cases. Lead researcher Professor Hassan Ugail from Bradford University believes that he will eventually be able to reach a 90% accuracy level.

So far, the new system has only tested on volunteers. Researchers say the system could be a powerful aid to security services. Later this year, though, they plan to deploy it in a UK airport, probably running alongside experienced immigration officers as they conduct security interviews. The algorithms can then be tested against the verdicts of these officers.

This new system does have advantages over the polygraph. It is unobtrusive and quicker to use. And secondly the subject need not know that he or she is being tested. This, in theory, gives a more honest response.

But the researchers acknowledge, though, that these tests can never be 100% accurate. And so any use that is made must be done carefully, especially if it is to be used in security situations.

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Leading Roman Catholic churchmen in Scotland have lined up to condemn the Scottish Government’s consultation paper on marriage equality.

Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon launched a paper seeking views on the issue of same-sex marriages and religious ceremonies for civil partnerships. The government has said that its initial view is that same-sex marriage should be introduced, but that faith groups who did not want to solemnise gay marriages should not be made to do so.

In a letter to the Herald newspaper last week, Mario Conti, the Archbishop of Glasgow, claimed that marriage would become meaningless as a concept if it was defined in any other way than as a relationship that has the “capacity to create a natural family”.

He was answered in the Letters page by Tim Hopkins, Director of the Equality Network, who asked whether Conti wished, “to ban marriage between men and women who are unable to conceive a child.” David French from Edinburgh also suggested, tongue firmly in cheek, that the Archbishop back his call for mandatory fertility tests before marriage.

Philip Tartaglia, the Bishop of Paisley, said at the weekend that a Scottish government which backed same-sex marriage did not deserve the support of the Catholic community.

And, writing in an article for the Mail On Sunday, Cardinal Keith O’Brien claimed that a change in the law would mean that the government, “will have forfeited the trust which the nation, including many in the Catholic community, have placed in them and their intolerance will shame Scotland in the eyes of the world.”

Perhaps the strangest claim made by the Church is that allowing gay marriage would breach Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that, “Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.”

Quite how allowing gay couples to marry would breach this provision in not clear. Indeed, it could be argued that the Article can be read in such a way that every man or every woman has the right to marry – and that a ban on gay marriage is what breaches some individuals’ rights.

Clearly this is an issue where feelings are running high. The Catholic Church takes the view that marriage can only take place between a man and a woman. Indeed Cardinal O’Brien argues that no government has the right to legislate on the issue.

But the definition of marriage has, of course, changed many times. Marriages between those of different races were once outlawed in many places, and it is not too long since there could be no such thing as rape within marriage. If a society is to progress then it must continue to change and evolve.

It seems that the proposed opt out for faith groups would not be sufficient for Catholic Church leaders. They are entitled to their views like anyone else, but cannot seek to force those views on a country where the majority would appear to be in favour of change.

If 60% of Scots are in favour of marriage equality then our politicians should reflect that and legislate accordingly.

The consultation period runs until 9 December. And, if the end result is a proposal to change the law then the arguments could go on a great deal longer.

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The photograph above is of a model of New York City that used to sit 102 floors above the city in the Observation Deck of the World Trade Centre. It was taken on 12 March 2001.

At the time I took that picture the phrase ‘nine eleven’ would have meant nothing. Just six months later it was to enter the lexicon after the terrible events of September 11 2001 in New York City and Washington DC.

There were a total of 2,996 deaths on that day. The victims included 246 on the four planes (from which there were no survivors), 2,606 in New York City in the towers and on the ground, and 125 at the Pentagon in DC.

I was in New York City on the fifth anniversary of the tragedy and witnessed the memorial ceremony at Ground Zero. I stood beside New Yorkers and others from many cities, many countries. I heard the names of the dead read out one by one. I watched the grief and the tears.

So much has been written about the events of 9/11 that little more needs to be said. It’s a day I will never forget.

Those who were killed, the survivors and their friends and families are in my thoughts today, ten years on.

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UK Homelessness Rises By 17%

New figures released by the Department for Communities and Local Government show a 17% rise in the number of people applying to local authorities as homeless in the UK.

But according to the Minister of State for Housing and Planning, Tory MP Grant Shapps, homelessness is at a “historic” low level.

Shapps also said the figures underlined how the effects of, “the worst recession for a generation continue to deliver difficult times for households up and down the country”.

Nice of him to notice.

In response, Crisis, the national charity for single homeless people, cited new research showing that cuts in local government funding would only exacerbate the problem.

Its Chief Executive, Leslie Morphy, said: “Today’s official figures prove once again we now face a sustained increase in homelessness but, worryingly, this research predicts the worst is yet to come.”

The research was carried out by Heriot-Watt University and the University of York. It showed that after years of stable or falling homelessness, 2010 marked a turning point and that homelessness had now started to rise again.

Professor Suzanne Fitzpatrick, who led the research, said: “The government’s reforms in combination with the pressures of the economic downturn seem certain to increase all forms of homelessness, from rough sleepers on our streets to homeless people hidden out of sight.”

It’s not exactly rocket science to realise that the current economic position, with increasing unemployment and job losses all across the country, combined with rising debt levels and growing numbers of repossessions, will lead to increased homelessness.

And this will cause greater strain on services provided by local authorities and charities – which are also facing cuts in funding. We will have more homeless people and reduced services to help them.

Still I doubt too many members of the millionaire cabinet, few of whom have to struggle by with just the one home, will lose any sleep.

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The first sites with the new .XXX web domain name, denoting pornography, are now being allocated to companies.

Dot Triple-X, was approved by the international Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann), which administers millions of internet addresses. It had been pending since 2003 and was resisted by the Bush government but progressed without opposition from the Obama administration.

Use of the domain name is voluntary and is designed to shut out child porn and incorporate heightened security barriers, making it harder for children to stumble on sexual content online.

Around 1,500 .xxx domains have already been allocated to 35 porn companies, and many could go live ahead of the official general launch on 6 December. A preregistration period found nearly 900,000 “expressions of interest” for 650,000 names.

But there are many names that will not be allowed.

ICM Registry, the firm managing the new domain, has reserved 15,000 Dot Triple-X domain names on the request of international governments and child protection agencies.

These include commonly used underage sex terms and the names of cities and well-known politicians, such as the US president, the British prime minister and former prime ministers.

But Stuart Lawley, the chief executive of ICM Registry, could not say whether all British prime ministers would have their names permanently reserved on the register. Nor was he able to confirm which celebrities were covered by the ban, or what the criteria for their inclusion was. But he said there would be a rapid take-down process for anyone targeted by .xxx cybersquatters.

Lawley said: “The reason we banned the celebrities’ names was because it’s very difficult for them to trademark their names. We didn’t want to have the embarrassment of AngelinaJolie.xxx coming up at the launch of the new domain.”

The idea of prime ministers and porn going together may not be an obvious one. But one thing about this juxtaposition is quite disturbing. You see, Lawley confirmed that there will not be a .XXX site named after Margaret Thatcher.

Now who would possibly want to visit a Thatcher porn site? There are some bizarre, disgusting and downright obscene sites on the web, but that’s just taking things way too far.

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For many years painting the Forth Bridge has been synonymous with a never ending task. The reason was that as soon as a team finished painting the bridge it was time to start the mammoth task all over again.

But come December the use of a new type of paint that lasts for 25 years will mean that there will be no painters on the bridge and no immediate need to restart painting.

A 200-strong team has been applying a triple layer of new glass flake epoxy paint, which is similar to that used in the offshore oil industry. It creates a chemical bond to provide a virtually impenetrable layer that protects the bridge’s steel work from the weather. The new paint has been applied in three protective coats after the old layers were removed using an abrasive blasting technique.

The refurbishment of the famous crossing between North and South Queensferry has taken 10 years and an investment of around £130m.

David Simpson, Network Rail Scotland’s route managing director, said: “Over the last decade the bridge has been restored to its original condition and its new paint will preserve the steelworks for decades to come.

“Now, with scaffolding being removed and the final sections of painting being completed, we’re confident that job will be finished before Christmas.”

The bridge, which was nominated as a Unesco world heritage site earlier this year, carries the east coast main line across the Forth Estuary and sees up to 200 train journeys a day. It was built between 1883 and 1890, and is 1.5 miles long.

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Scotland without a Conservative party? That’s a bit like cutting a piece of gristle off the end of your steak – a small incision but it would make things so much more palatable.

But the interesting thing about the proposal to abolish the Scottish Conservative Party is that it comes from its current deputy leader, and now leadership candidate, Murdo Fraser.

Fraser, who is the favourite to win the race for the vacancy caused by Annabel Goldie’s resignation, plans to do away with his party if he wins and replace it with a new right wing grouping. The Scottish Unionist Party perhaps? Or, like it did in the past, will the right call itself the Progressives?

Fraser’s logic is that the current brand is so tainted by its links to the party of Thatcher and Cameron that it cannot be rehabilitated. And there’s a lot of truth in that. He believes that a new party might be able to offer a fresh right wing alternative that could be more popular.

OK, more popular that the Scottish Conservative party is hardly aiming high, is it? After all the party currently has only one MP (out of 59) and 15 MSPs (out of 129). It doesn’t control a single local authority.

At his leadership campaign launch, Fraser said: “If I am elected as leader of the party, I will turn it into a new and stronger party for Scotland. A new party. A winning party with new supporters from all walks of life.

“A new belief in devolution. A new approach to policy-making. A new name. But most importantly, a new positive message about the benefits of staying in and strengthening our United Kingdom. A new party. A new unionism. A new dawn.”

Does this novel approach to politics have any chance of success? Or to put it another way, can Scottish voters be persuaded to forget the many reasons they have for hating the Conservative party and vote for it under a new name?

I hope that we, as a nation, are far more intelligent than that.

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HMRC v RFC: Only One Winner

There is something ironic about the club that prides itself on being quintessentially British falling foul of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. But events over the last few months have put the two on collision course, and there will be more to come.

The key fact is quite simple: Rangers owe money for tax they failed to pay some years back and HMRC want their money.

The total sum involved is £4.2 million. That’s £1.9 million for the original bill, £0.9 million in interest and an additional £1.4 million in penalties. Rangers do not dispute that they owe the first two sums, totalling £2.8 million, but are challenging the additional statutory penalty.

Discussions between the two parties have been going on for some time without resolution, and HMRC eventually lost patience, taking the matter to court. This first resulted in the much publicised visit to Ibrox by Sherriff Officers. They delivered a statutory notice giving Rangers 21 days to pay the amount due.

Three weeks went by and it appears that no progress was made. It now appears that HMRC went back to court and got an order to arrest a sum from Rangers’ bank account. It is not clear whether the amount is the total sum due of £4.2 million or just the uncontested amount of £2.8 million.

What does this mean to Rangers? Quite simply they cannot use the money arrested. It has to sit in their bank account until the matter is concluded, one way or another. The point of the action is to avoid a debtor simply spending its money and then claiming to be penniless.

So is there a way out of this for Rangers?

Well, the club could simply pay the total sum HMRC and the courts say it owes.

But from piecing together information that is in the public domain it seems that this may not be an option for the cash strapped club. Or, if the money is there to pay the bill, it could be that it would leave the club unable to pay the usual monthly outgoings that it must face.

Did new owner Craig Whyte gamble on European qualification to generate short term income? If he did, defeats to Malmo and Maribor blew that out of the water.

It was revealed on Friday that Rangers had sold off future profits from catering at Ibrox. Now this is the act of a business with cash flow difficulties; one which needs cash right now rather than later. There can be no other purpose to this move than to raise cash in a hurry.

If things really are as bad as they seem, then matters are likely to come to a head very soon. In addition to the money owed to HMRC, the club is being sued by its former legal advisers over an unpaid bill and its recently dismissed CEO is also seeking a large compensation payment. Are there other bills outstanding? You wouldn’t bet against it, would you?

It is looking extremely likely that some form of relief through administration will be sought sooner rather than later for Rangers. There is no other solution that appears likely – unless Craig Whyte has a plan up his sleeve.

Mind you, this is the man who promised a £15 million summer spend on transfers and failed spectacularly to deliver.

And this isn’t just a short term cash flow problem. Later this year the result of a tax tribunal into a much larger tax liability will be announced. And that could mean a bill of anywhere between £40 million and £70 million. The club would, quite simply, have no way to pay such a sum.

Not a good time to be a Rangers supporter, is it?

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The Scottish Government has launched a consultation paper on marriage equality. Views will be sought on the issue of same-sex marriages and religious ceremonies for civil partnerships.

The government has said that its initial is that same-sex marriage should be introduced. This would put Scotland ahead of the rest of the UK, where a separate consultation is expected to take place at a later date.

However, Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said faith groups who did not want to solemnise gay marriages should not be made to do so.

Ms Sturgeon said that a recent Scottish Social Attitudes survey found that more than 60% of people in Scotland felt that same-sex couples should have the right to marry, compared to 19% who disagreed.

She added: “The Scottish government is committed to equality and diversity for all and that is why we pledged to come forward with a consultation on same-sex marriage and religious ceremonies for civil partnerships.”

Currently, same-sex couples can obtain legal recognition of their relationship through entering into civil partnerships, which were established across the UK by the Civil Partnership Act 2004. Civil partnerships may not currently take place in religious premises and can only be registered by civil registrars.

The response to the consultation launch has, as expected, been mixed.

Tim Hopkins of the Equality Network said, “We welcome the start of the consultation, and we very much welcome the Scottish government’s stated initial position in favour of same sex marriage. It’s an excellent consultation paper covering all the issues.

“Now it will be really important for all supporters of equality and fairness to respond to the consultation, so that our voices are heard, and so that the Scottish government knows how important it is to legislate for equal marriage as soon as practicable.”

But Mike Judge from the Christian Institute was not so enthusiastic, stating that, “This is not about rights, this is about redefining marriage for the whole of society at the behest of a small minority of activists.

“If marriage is redefined for homosexual marriage, that new definition will be the one that the state promotes as the standard. It will have huge implications for what is taught in schools and for wider society.”

My position on marriage is simple: I don’t believe in it and think the whole medieval notion should be abolished. Why should two people who want to commit to each other be required to apply for a license from the state to do so? Why not just commit in a private way? Of course those who believe in such things should be free to seek a blessing from their own particular priest, guru or shaman.

But if there is to be such a legal device as marriage then it should be open to all, whatever their sex. As a society we should practice equality and a same-sex marriage should be equivalent in legal terms to any other kind of partnership.

Interested groups and individuals can make their views known to the Government over the next 14 weeks, with the closing date set at 9 December. If a decision is taken to change the law once the consultation process is over, a bill could be introduced to the Scottish Parliament in 2013.

The consultation paper can be downloaded from the following link: http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Topics/Justice/law/17867/samesex/samesexconsultation

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