Archive for category Interesting Facts

Bad memories written with lasers

By Victoria Gill
Science reporter, BBC News

Fruit fly head (SPL)

This work in flies will help understand how the human brain makes memories

Laser-controlled flies may be the latest addition to the neuroscientist’s tool kit, thanks to a new technique.

Researchers have devised a way to write memories onto the brains of flies, revealing which brain cells are involved in making bad memories.

The researchers said that in flies just 12 brain cells were responsible for what is known as “associative learning”.

They describe their findings in the journal Cell.

Associative memories are made when an animal learns to link a cue to a particular outcome. It might for example learn that a certain odour is a sign that a predator is nearby.

“So the appearance of that odour predicts that something bad is going to happen,” explained Gero Miesenbock from the University of Oxford, UK, who led this study.

Previous research had already identified that the brain cells or neurons responsible for this type of learning are those that produce dopamine. This is a chemical which acts as a signal that can be transmitted from cell to cell in the brain.

Professor Miesenbock and his team “tapped into these gene regulatory mechanisms” of the neurons – programming them to respond to a laser.

Fly brain (Science)

A laser flash releases a chemical that activates the neurons

They modified the neurons by adding a sort of trigger, or receptor, to each one. This receptor was activated by a chemical called ATP.

“Since there’s no ATP floating around in the fly’s brain, the [modified] receptors remain closed and the flies behave just like normal flies that don’t have the receptor,” said Professor Miesenbock.

Now for the laser-activated trickery.

The scientists injected ATP into the flies’ brains, in a form that was locked inside a light-sensitive chemical cage.

“[Then] we turned on the laser light and the light sensitive cage fell apart,” Professor Miesenbock explained. “The ATP was released and acted only on the cells [with] the receptor.”

Memory circuit

The laser flash was paired with an odour, which allowed the scientists to find out if their memory-writing experiment had been successful.

They gave the flies a simple choice between two odours – one of which the flies had been exposed to just before the laser flash.

“[The flies] moved along a narrow chamber and at the midpoint they were presented with an odour on the left and an odour on the right,” said Professor Miesenbock.

He knew that the laser had successfully written a bad memory into the fly’s brain when the insect avoided the odour that had been paired with the laser flash.

This is a real breakthrough in our understanding of how memories are formed
David Shepherd, neuroscientist

The flies associated the smell with a bad experience, so the laser flash gave the fly a memory of a bad experience that it never actually had.

Simply by looking inside the flies’ brains with a microscope, the researchers were able to narrow this memory formation process down to just 12 neurons.

“We labelled the cells …. that were made responsive to light and which ones were not, so by elimination we could narrow it down.”

This finding, said Professor Miesenbock, has begun to unravel how animals and humans learn from mistakes and how “error signals” drive animals to adapt their behaviour.

“In the fly we have isolated and manipulated these error signals, so what we can now do is try to understand how these signals are calculated in the brain and how this works mechanistically.

“I have every expectation that the fundamental mechanisms that produce these error signals are the same in the brain of the fly as they are in the brain of the human.

David Shepherd, a neuroscientist from the University of Bangor in North Wales described the study as “a fantastic piece of work”.

Professor Shepherd, who was not involved in this study, told BBC News: “We have known for years that flies are capable of sophisticated behaviours such as learning and memory. We have also been able to manipulate gene and cell function in flies.

“This work combines these elements to make a real breakthrough in our understanding of how memories are formed.”

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Insight: Russia’s leading men (BBC)

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow (09 September 2009)

By Bridget Kendall
BBC diplomatic correspondent

It may be a while until the next Russian presidential election, but when Vladimir Putin announced he was not ruling out returning to power as president in 2012, it caused ripples through political Moscow.

It was this comment from his long meeting with the Valdai club of foreign experts last week which prompted the most debate in Russian newspapers, and in private conversations with Russian colleagues.

And no wonder. In a country where one man at the top can decide so much, any whiff of the political future is of huge significance.

But it is not just Mr Putin’s game plan that matters. After all, it is his erstwhile protege, Dmitry Medvedev, who is currently president. He would be consulted, said Mr Putin graciously.

So what does Mr Medvedev think?

In a parallel meeting with the president – like last year, across from the Kremlin in the slightly incongruous setting of the banqueting hall of the GUM department store – the top issue that needed clarifying seemed to be this: just how closely aligned are these two leaders in their plans for Russia and ambitions for themselves?

I never worked in the committee of State Security, for 10 years I worked as a businessman. So I know what I am talking about
Dmitry Medvedev

President Medvedev was expecting the question about 2012 and grinned broadly.

“I do have a plan,” he said. “But I’m not making any predictions”.

“I didn’t want to run for president last time, but that was my fate. I don’t make any forecasts.”

But he pointedly did not endorse Mr Putin’s view that they would work it out between them.

In fact, what was most interesting about the Valdai group’s encounter with President Medvedev this year was the way he seemed to try to distance himself from his benefactor, as if to assert his right to hold an independent view.

It is true that in some sensitive policy areas, his responses were just as sharp as Mr Putin’s.

He did not regret one bit his scathing letter accusing President Viktor Yushchenko of Ukraine of stoking tensions with Russia. He could see no chance of Moscow improving relations with Georgia while President Mikheil Saakashvili was still there.

And, as for the direct elections of Russian governors in Russia – abolished in the wake of the Beslan crisis five years ago – he could see no prospect of restoring those in 100 years.

‘Personal views’

But Mr Medvedev and Mr Putin do not see eye to eye on everything, it seems.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and US President Barack Obama in Moscow (06 July 2009)

Mr Medvedev praised Mr Obama for not relying on his aides

They had disagreed over whether Russia should join the World Trade Organization, Mr Medvedev told us, though they were now united in blaming a reluctant United States for keeping Russia out.

He welcomed new talks with Iran but deliberately left open the possibility of fresh sanctions – whereas, only days before, Mr Putin had told us sanctions were unworkable and any threat to use force against Iran “unacceptable”.

He enthused over his eight hours of talks and lunch with Barack Obama in Moscow in July – Mr Putin was only invited to breakfast – and pointedly praised the US president for speaking up for himself.

“President Obama tries to be independent in his position, instead of relying on his aides,” said Dmitry Medvedev, “which is exactly what I try to do.”

And he slipped in a nod to Mr Putin’s KGB past, apparently to burnish his own credentials for fighting corruption.

“I never worked in the committee of State Security. For 10 years I worked as a businessman, so I know what I am talking about,” said Mr Medvedev.

“Corrupt officials run Russia. They have the true power in Russia… We should squeeze it out.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in Sochi (14 August 2009)

Mr Medvedev is possibly no match as yet for Mr Putin

Corruption was one theme in a bleak and far-reaching vision to modernise Russia which he kept returning to.

He had laid it out in a long internet article last week, which openly spoke of influential opponents who would try to put obstacles in his way. The assessment, he said, had been his and his alone.

“Did you notice how often I used the pronoun ‘I’ and ‘me’ in the article?” he asked. “It is very clear these were my personal views.”

So did the ambitious vision he had set himself mean that he hoped to remain Russian president for at least one more term, whatever Mr Putin said?, I asked him.

Again, the president grinned and shifted in his seat, and then dodged the question. There was no “collision” looming between himself and Mr Putin, he told us.

“We have quite a friendly relationship,” he said.

“We talk over issues, though not as often as some people think – once a week perhaps. He makes his statements, I make mine.”

Genial leader

Their views on where Russia was heading were not in contradiction, Mr Medvedev said.

Maybe we have our differences, but that’s what matters – the mindset. We speak the same language.
Dmitry Medvedev

As prime minister, Vladimir Putin defended positive indicators in the state of the economy at the moment, whereas he warned of the dire problems Russia could face in the long term if it did not adjust its strategy.

“Perhaps we should both take a blood test to check whether we are of ‘one blood’,” he joked, referring to Mr Putin’s characterisation of their partnership, which he agreed was close and strong.

“Don’t forget Putin doesn’t just have a KGB past. The two of us were educated at the same law department of the same university. We have the same mindsets.

“Maybe we have our differences, but that’s what matters – the mindset. We speak the same language.”

Does that sound like the beginnings of a split? A protege beginning to spread his wings? Hardly.

Maybe Dmitry Medvedev is sincere in wanting to make an impact. Maybe he can convince Russians that his criticism of Russia and desire to change it is more than fine words.

He says he wrote his article to seek out public opinion ahead of the annual address he will give to the Russian Duma in November.

His own economic adviser, Arkady Dvorkovich, was adamant when he spoke to us that the president and his team had no more than two and a half years – until the next election – to show they meant business by enacting the first steps of a viable plan of reform.

But at the same time, Mr Medvedev told us that any change in Russia must come slowly or it would be resisted.

There may be hardliners in the Russian government, he says, but that is a good thing because all points of view must be taken into account.

It does not really sound like a recipe to galvanize the support of the young internet-savvy Russians whom he hopes will lead his modernisation plans.

He is an accommodating president, not a revolutionary – genial, even likeable, but so far still no match for the steely Mr Putin, one suspects.

He is the junior partner in a dance where his mentor calls the tune.

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Saturn Lightning Storm Breaks Records (Discovery News)

Sept. 15, 2009 — A tempest that erupted on Saturn in January has become the Solar System’s longest continuously observed lightning storm, astronomers reported on Tuesday.

The storm broke out in “Storm Alley,” a region 35 degrees south of the ringed giant’s equator, researchers told the European Planetary Science Congress in Potsdam, near Berlin.

Thunderstorms there can be as big as 3,000 kilometers (nearly 2,000 miles) across.

The powerful event was spotted by the U.S. space probe Cassini, using an instrument that can detect radiowaves emitted by lightning discharge.

“The reason why we see lightning in this peculiar location is not completely clear,” said Georg Fischer of the Austrian Academy of Sciences in a press release.
WATCH VIDEO: Using the other planets as weather labs, meterologists are getting a better feel for how things work on Earth.

“It could be that this latitude is one of the few places in Saturn’s atmosphere that allow large-scale vertical convection of water clouds, which is necessary for thunderstorms to develop.”

But another possibility for the southerly location of “Storm Alley” could be seasonal, said Fischer.

In 1980 and 1981, the Voyager spacecraft flew by Saturn and observed lightning storms near the equator.

It could be that the mega-storms will now shift back to equatorial latitudes as Saturn continues its crawl around the Sun. A “year” in Saturn is equivalent to more than 29 Earth years.

The previous record-breaker for a Solar System thunderstorm was an event that lasted seven and a half months, running from November 2007 to July 2008, also spotted by Cassini.

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Japan’s space truck ready to fly (BBC)

By Jonathan Amos
Science reporter, BBC News

Advertisement

Animation of the HTV’s launch and payload delivery

Japan is ready to launch its new space freighter from the Tanegashima base in the south of the country.

The 16.5-tonne unmanned H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV) will haul cargo to the International Space station (ISS).

Its success is vitally important to the station project, which is set to lose the servicing capability of the US shuttle fleet next year.

When the orbiters retire, re-supply will be in the hands of a number of robotic vessels – the HTV included.

The logistics demands of a fully crewed, fully functional ISS will require all of the freighters to play their part.

Rocket diagram (Jaxa)

Lift-off for the HTV is timed for 0201 local time on Friday (1701 GMT, Thursday).

The rocket carrying the cargo ship into orbit – the H-IIB is also new. Japan, though, has high confidence the launcher will work first time.

It is essentially a beefed up version of the existing H-11A vehicle.

The attachment of two additional solid rocket boosters and a second main engine on the core stage will give the IIB the significant extra thrust it needs to hurl the HTV into low Earth orbit.

The mission will be directed by engineers in Tsukuba, Japan, and at the US space agency’s (Nasa) mission control in Houston.

The HTV will be directed to conduct a number of tests of its navigation and rendezvous systems before making a close approach to the ISS.

Docking is not expected to take place until at least day eight of the mission.

Unlike the European freighter (the Automated Transfer Vehicle – ATV), which made its maiden flight to the ISS last year, the HTV cannot drive itself all the way into the station.

Instead, the Japanese ship will simply park itself under the bow of the ISS to allow platform’s robotic arm to grab it.

The vessel will then be locked into an Earth-facing docking port on the Harmony (Node 2) connecting module.

The HTV will remain attached to the ISS for about six weeks while its 4.5 tonnes of supplies are unloaded.

How the HTV docks at the station (JAXA)

In addition to the cargo carried in its pressurised compartment – accessed from inside the ISS – the ship has important cargo mounted on a pallet in an unpressurised compartment.

These exterior supplies include two new Earth-observation experiments for the exposed “terrace” of instruments that sits outside Japan’s Kibo science module.

Again, astronauts will use the station arm to remove the pallet before handing it across to the Kibo arm, which will then position the new experiments.

As the freighter’s supplies are used up, the ship will be filled with station rubbish. Ultimately, it will undock from the ISS and take itself into a destructive dive into the atmosphere somewhere over the south Pacific.

When the US shuttles retire at the end of next year or the beginning of 2011, the ISS project will become dependent on five robotic freighters for its logistics.

• The Russian Progress and European ATV have already demonstrated their flight capability. Four more ATVs have been booked to fly to the station, one a year starting in 2010.

• After the first HTV mission, Japan plans a further six flights through to 2015.

• Two commercial US suppliers, SpaceX and Orbital Sciences, are in the process of developing their Dragon and Cygnus supply ships. The first of these is scheduled to deliver supplies to the ISS no earlier than late 2010.

HTV impression (Jaxa)
Length: 9.8m; Diameter: 4.4m; Vehicle Mass: 10.5t; Max cargo: 6t

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Robots ‘to revolutionise surgery’ (BBC)

By Jane Elliott
BBC News health reporter

Within ten years some doctors and scientists are predicting that all surgery could be scarless.

They say by using the natural orifices of the body and the body’s own natural scar the belly-button (or umbilicus), it will be possible to insert robots into the body which can help perform every surgical procedure.

It sounds fantastical, but prototypes are already in existence that can crawl and swim inside the body taking pictures of difficult to access areas.

There are particularly big hopes for Ares (Assembling Reconfigurable Endoluminal Surgical System), developed by Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna, Italy, with the support of the European Commission.

This is a robot that will self assemble inside the body, after the patient has swallowed up to 15 separate parts, and then aid the surgeon to carry out procedures.

It is almost inconceivable as surgeons that in 10 years time we will be putting our hands in patients
Mr Justin Vale
Urological surgeon

By operating from inside the body, surgeons could avoid external incisions, minimising pain and shortening recovery time for the patient.

In many areas surgeons are already using robots for their daily surgical work.

Head movements

Robots such as ‘FreeHand’, a robotic camera controller for minimally invasive surgery.

Traditionally the laparoscopic (keyhole) camera was been moved by an assistant, but the ‘FreeHand’ allows the surgeon to control the camera themselves using head movements and a foot pedal.

Da Vinci robot

The Da Vinci robot offers surgeons great precision

Another example is the ‘Da Vinci Robot’ which is mainly used to carry out prostatectomies (removal of all or part of the prostate), tumour removals, gastro and neurological operations.

Its robotic arms rotate 360 degrees allowing surgeons more precision than they would have using their own hands.

Mr Justin Vale, a urological surgeon from Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust said robots already feature heavily in his daily work.

He uses the Da Vinci robot for all his prostatectomies and half his kidney tumour removals.

“I say to all my trainees and NHS managers that it is almost inconceivable as surgeons that in 10 years time we will be putting our hands in patients,” he said.

“As long as they can bring the price down and make them smaller it is almost inevitable they will take off.”

But he said there were training issues and that learning to use the computers required a new approach.

Sense of touch

“It does have limitations. One that surgeons will talk about is that there is no sense of touch.

“When you use your hands or standard keyhole instruments you do get a feeling of tension and pressure and whether something is soft or hard, but you can’t do that to the same degree with a robot.

Many mini and micro-robots have biologically inspired designs which emulate the crawling and wriggling motion of worms and insects
Dr Arianna Menciassi
Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna

“It is difficult when you are learning as you have lost one of your senses, but when you are a skilled robotic surgeon you develop to overcome that minor loss.”

The growth of interest in this area has led the Royal College of Surgeons (RCS) to hold a special exhibition to mark the work of robots.

‘Sci-Fi Surgery: Medical Robots’ at the Hunterian Museum, London, will run from 8 September to 23 December.

Dr Arianna Menciassi, is one of the experts in biomedical robotics leading work at Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna.

She said nature had been their inspiration for much of their work.

“Many mini and micro-robots have biologically inspired designs which emulate the crawling and wriggling motion of worms and insects, or the swimming motion of bacteria,” she said.

“We turned to biological inspiration because worms have locomotion systems suited to unstructured, slippery environments and are ideally suited for use in the human body.

“The dream for us is that in the future no more incisions will be necessary for operations because we can exploit the natural orifices of the human body.

“We are also working on the real possibility of building a robot inside the person (Ares), inside their abdomen or stomach and there would be several module which are very small like pills and that can combine together inside and the idea is to introduce these robots from the mouth or anus or the umbilical

“This is the dream, but at the moment it is not so advanced to satisfy the dream but this is the direction.”

The idea of the exhibition is to put before the public the idea that surgeons can be assisted by robots – they are not competition to the profession
Mike Larvin
Royal College of Surgeons

The London exhibition will also feature some famous medical robots from the world of science fiction, including the Pyschophonic Nurse, dreamed up in the 1920s.

As a 10-year-old Mike Larvin, Director of Education at the RCS said he had been inspired by the film ‘Fantastic Voyage’ in which a miniaturised medical team is injected into the bloodstream of an ailing diplomat to try to make him better.

That might remain a far-fetched fantasy, but Mike said medical robotics was a branch of science that was advancing at phenomenal speed.

“The idea of the exhibition is to put before the public the idea that surgeons can be assisted by robots – they are not competition to the profession,” he said.

“They are something that helps make operations safer and better.”

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Japan looks to robots to fill jobs (BBC)

By Robin Lustig
BBC News, Tokyo

Robots

Robots may help elderly people in need of company

One of the biggest questions hanging over the newly elected Japanese government is what it intends to do about its rapidly diminishing workforce.

Japan’s population is both ageing and shrinking at a dangerous rate. It will have halved by the end of the century, according to one estimate.

So who is going to do the work as the country gets steadily older?

The first thing the government plans to do is increase the child allowance to 25,000 yen ($270, £166) per child per month – the hope is that will encourage couples to have more babies.

But if that does not work, there are two other options – build more robots to do the work there are not enough people to do, or allow in millions more workers from overseas.

I met a couple of robots in Arai Sadahiro’s robot shop in Tokyo.

They talked and sang to him just as they would to a lonely elderly person in need of company.

Mr Sadahiro insists that, although of course it would be better if a real friend or relative were available, the robots are not a bad second best.

Jagmohan Chandrani

Indians have IT skills needed by Japan, says Mr Chandrani

For social and medical care, robots are already in use. There are robots that can lift patients out of bed, carry them if necessary, even act as receptionists in a hospital or doctor’s surgery.

But would it not be even better to import more workers from abroad?

After all, Japan has the lowest rate of foreign workers among the world’s major developed economies – making up less than 2% of the workforce, compared with close to 15% in the US, or 10% in Britain.

Centenarians

The biggest number of migrants come from Korea and China, many on government-sponsored three-year training programmes meant to equip them with new skills to take back home.

But some migrant workers say the training schemes can sometimes be little more than a way of exploiting low-paid migrants.

One Chinese worker, who chose to remain anonymous, said he felt “tricked” when he found he was expected to pick strawberries all day with no training on offer.

Other foreign workers have a much better experience – such as Indian businessman Jagmohan Chandrani, who has lived in Japan for more than 30 years.

He runs a tea-importing business and a restaurant, and says the big advantage that Indians have here is that many possess valuable Information Technology skills that Japan needs.

So what will it be? More robots, or more foreign workers? My guess is that it will be both.

Something certainly needs to be done. The United Nations estimates that by the middle of the century there will be more than a million Japanese who are over 100 years old.

And someone will have to look after them.

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The decline of Russia’s oligarchs (BBC)

By James Rodgers
Analysis, BBC News

Oleg Deripaska with Prime Minister Putin, Sochi , Sept 2008

PM Putin forced Mr Deripaska to reopen an aluminium plant in June

If you look up the word “oligarch” in the dictionary, you will find it means a member of a small group holding power in a state.

Today, though, it usually refers to the super-rich Russians who made their fortunes in the sometimes barbaric business world of their country in the 1990s.

In some cases, they sought to convert their new financial clout into political influence.

They grew even richer as oil prices and the Moscow stock markets soared in the boom years which followed.

Then, 12 months ago, as the global financial crisis reached Russia, the oligarchs got a shock.

“They have taken the biggest hit because they had the most to lose,” says Chris Weafer, chief strategist at Uralsib, a banking and investment company based in Moscow.

“The stock market in the second half of last year fell almost 75%, and we’ve seen that reflected in the Forbes list of billionaires et cetera,” Mr Weafer says.

“Just looking at the wealth of these individuals, they’ve taken a huge hit – hundreds of billions of dollars have been wiped from the value they had in the middle of 2008.”

There is no formal oligarchs’ club or association – and the way individuals have fared has varied depending on where their money was invested.

But any list of wealthy Russian businessmen would be likely to include Roman Abramovich – most famous outside Russia as owner of Chelsea football club – aluminium magnate Oleg Deripaska and Boris Berezovsky, who has become an implacable opponent of the current Russian leadership. He now lives in Britain.

Public humiliation

As the crisis hit home, some of Russia’s richest ran into difficulties.

Today it’s very, very clear who’s calling the shots, and it’s not the oligarchs
Chris Weafer
Chief strategist, Uralsib

In June, Mr Deripaska found himself in a piece of political theatre on Russia’s biggest stage: the national television news.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin arrived in the northern Russian town of Pikalyevo to deliver a public reprimand to Mr Deripaska and others with a stake in the town’s main factory. Workers had not been getting their wages.

Viewers saw Mr Putin call Mr Deripaska forward. He ordered him to sign an agreement to solve the problem.

It looked like a teacher telling off a pupil – especially when Mr Putin asked for his pen back.

“It’s a very Russian approach. Nobody in Russia was surprised,” says Zoya Trunova, an editor at the BBC’s Russian Service.

“Everyone thought, ‘Well, that’s a fair thing to do. What else would the prime minister be doing?’ And then Deripaska looked very intimidated by that, but then he would do what he was told, but obviously the state feels that oligarchs are almost their own team of people so they can tell them what to do.”

This shift in power did not just come with the economic crisis. Vladimir Putin seems to have decided, as soon as he first rose to political prominence ten years ago, to rein in the oligarchs.

“He’s made it very clear that he expects the oligarchs to look after the workers, to help the government in terms of the stimulus package,” says Chris Weafer. “And today I think it’s very, very clear who’s calling the shots, and it’s not the oligarchs.”

Staging a comeback

The oligarchs’ global fame – or notoriety – has been built on tales of extravagance.

Boris Berezovsky in London 2007

Dissident billionaire Boris Berezovsky lives in London

Stewart Lansley – a co-author of the book, Londongrad, about their lives in the British capital – says their reduced spending actually fuelled the downturn in the luxury goods market in Britain. Now, he says, they’re returning.

“What’s happened in the last couple of months is that the Russians have been creeping back. There’s evidence already that they’ve started looking for bargains in a number of areas, they’ve been reappearing in jewellery shops, they’ve been reappearing buying Rolls Royces and top end cars.”

The oligarchs have usually excelled at reading the Russian political situation. Jonathan Eyal, from the Royal United Services Institute in London, agrees that the government currently has a political advantage – but, he argues, that does not mean that the oligarchs are finished.

“The oligarchs have many opportunities of influencing Russian political life, partly because Russian political life is itself now quite brittle,” Mr Eyal says.

“We have a double-headed leadership – on the one hand, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, on the other hand President Medvedev – and in that kind of a structure the oligarchs will always find a weak point, or will always be able to divide and rule.”

The dictionary definition of oligarch doesn’t refer to wealth. Russia’s oligarchs have definitely lost part of theirs, and, as a result, they may also lose some of the “power they hold in the state”.

Given their proven ability to survive and prosper in the toughest of times, they are not about to disappear.

You can hear James Rodgers’ piece on the BBC World Service Analysis programme on Monday 31 August.

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Putin condemns Nazi-Soviet pact (BBC)

Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov signs the Nazi-Soviet pact as his German counterpart Joachim Von Ribbentrop (left), and Stalin look on, Moscow, 23 August 1939

The pact led to the carving-up of Poland and eastern Europe

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has condemned the Nazi-Soviet pact signed a week before Germany’s 1939 invasion of Poland as “immoral”.

In a piece for the Polish paper Gazeta Wyborcza, he also expressed sorrow over the massacre of Polish army officers by Soviet forces at Katyn in 1940.

His words are seen as a bid to ease tensions with Poland over World War II.

But he also argued the Munich agreement signed by France and Britain wrecked efforts to build an anti-Nazi alliance.

A year earlier France and England signed a well-known agreement with Hitler in Munich, destroying all hope for the creation of a joint front for the fight against fascism
Vladimir Putin
Russian prime minister

Mr Putin is among several statesmen attending a service in the Polish port city of Gdansk on Tuesday to mark the 70th anniversary of Poland’s invasion.

“Our duty is to remove the burden of distrust and prejudice left from the past in Polish-Russian relations,” said Mr Putin in the article, which was also published on the Russian government website.

“Our duty… is to turn the page and start to write a new one.”

Katyn regret

Memories of the 1939 pact – in which the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany essentially agreed to carve up Poland and the Baltic States between them – have long soured Moscow’s relations with Poland and other east European states.

Joachim von Ribbentrop signing the ratification of the Nazi-Soviet pact in Berlin, 28 September 1939

Within a month of the pact being signed, Soviet troops had invaded and occupied parts of eastern Poland.

“It is possible to condemn – and with good reason – the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact concluded in August 1939,” wrote Mr Putin, referring to the two foreign ministers who signed the pact at the Kremlin.

It was clear today, he said, that any form of agreement with the Nazi regime was “unacceptable from the moral point of view and had no chance of being realised”.

“But after all,” he added, “a year earlier France and England signed a well-known agreement with Hitler in Munich, destroying all hope for the creation of a joint front for the fight against fascism.”

The Munich Agreement of September 1938, widely seen as the low point of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement, allowed Germany to annex Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland region.

Mr Putin added that Russian people understood “all too well the acute emotions of Poles in connection with Katyn”.

In 1940 Soviet secret police massacred more than 21,000 army officers and intellectuals on Stalin’s direct orders in the Katyn forest near the city of Smolensk.

Moscow only took responsibility for the killings in 1990, having previously blamed the massacre on the Nazis.

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Code-cracking and computers (BBC)

By Mark Ward
Technology correspondent, BBC News

Colossus, BBC

By the end of WWII, 11 Colossus machines were in use

Bletchley Park is best known for the work done on cracking the German codes and helping to bring World War II to a close far sooner than might have happened without those code breakers.

But many believe Bletchley should be celebrated not just for what it ended but also for what it started – namely the computer age.

The pioneering machines at Bletchley were created to help codebreakers cope with the enormous volume of enciphered material the Allies managed to intercept.

The machine that arguably had the greatest influence in those early days of computing was Colossus – a re-built version of which now resides in the National Museum of Computing which is also on the Bletchley site.

Men and machine

The Enigma machines were used by the field units of the German Army, Navy and Airforce. But the communications between Hitler and his generals were protected by different machines: The Lorenz SZ40 and SZ42.

The German High Command used the Lorenz machine because it was so much faster than the Enigma, making it much easier to send large amounts of text.

“For about 500 words Enigma was reasonable but for a whole report it was hopeless,” said Jack Copeland, professor of philosophy at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, director of the Turing Archive and a man with a passionate interest in the Bletchley Park computers.

Hut 6 during wartime, Bletchley Park Trust

Bletchley employed thousands of code breakers during wartime

The Allies first picked up the stream of enciphered traffic, dubbed Tunny, in 1940. The importance of the material it contained soon became apparent.

Like Enigma, the Lorenz machines enciphered text by mixing it with characters generated by a series of pinwheels.

“We broke wheel patterns for a whole year before Colossus came in,” said Captain Jerry Roberts, one of the codebreakers who deciphered Tunny traffic at Bletchley.

“Because of the rapid expansion in the use of Tunny, our efforts were no longer enough and we had to have the machines in to do a better job.”

The man who made Colossus was Post Office engineer Tommy Flowers, who had instantly impressed Alan Turing when asked by the maverick mathematician to design a machine to help him in his war work.

But, said Capt Roberts, Flowers could not have built his machine without the astonishing work of Cambridge mathematician Bill Tutte.

“I remember seeing him staring into the middle distance and twiddling his pencil and I wondered if he was earning his corn,” said Capt Roberts.

But it soon became apparent that he was.

“He figured out how the Lorenz machine worked without ever having seen one and he worked out the algorithm that broke the traffic on a day-to-day basis,” said Capt Roberts.

“If there had not been Bill Tutte, there would not have been any need for Tommy Flowers,” he said. “The computer would have happened later. Much later.”

Valve trouble

Prof Copeland said Tommy Flowers faced scepticism from Bletchley Park staff and others that his idea for a high-speed computer employing thousands of valves would ever work.

Valves on Colossus, BBC

Colossus kept valves lit to ensure they kept on working

“Flowers was very much swimming against the current as valves were only being used in small units,” he said. “But the idea of using large numbers of valves reliably was Tommy Flowers’ big thing. He’d experimented and knew how to control the parameters.”

And work it did.

The close co-operation between the human translators and the machines meant that the Allies got a close look at the intimate thoughts of the German High Command.

Information gleaned from Tunny was passed to the Russians and was instrumental in helping it defeat the Germans at Kursk – widely seen as one of the turning points of WWII.

The greater legacy is the influence of Colossus on the origins of the computer age.

“Tommy Flowers was the key figure for everything that happened subsequently in British computers,” said Prof Copeland.

After the war Bletchley veterans Alan Turing and Max Newman separately did more work on computers using the basic designs and plans seen in Colossus.

Turing worked on the Automatic Computing Engine for the British government and Newman helped to bring to life the Manchester Small Scale Experimental Machine – widely acknowledged as the first stored program computer.

The work that went into Colossus also shaped the thinking of others such as Maurice Wilkes, Freddie Williams, Tom Kilburn and many others – essentially the whole cast of characters from whom early British computing arose.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

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Autonomous tech ‘requires debate’ (BBC)

By Jason Palmer
Science and technology reporter, BBC News

Autonomous vehicle at Heathrow (PA)

Fully autonomous rapid transit systems already exist at Heathrow Airport

The coming age of lorries that drive themselves or robots that perform surgery is fraught with legal and ethical issues, says a new report.

The Royal Academy of Engineering says that automated freight transport could be on the roads in as few as 10 years.

Also, it says, robotic surgery will begin to need less human intervention.

But it suggests that much debate is needed to address the ethical and legal issues raised by putting responsibility in the hands of machines.

“We’re all used to automatic systems – lifts, washing machines. We’re talking about levels above that,” said Lambert Dopping-Heppenstal of the Academy’s engineering ethics working group.

“It’s about systems that have some level of self-determination.”

Coming era

Issues surrounding autonomous systems and robots with such self-determination have been discussed for a number years, particularly with regard to the autonomous machines of warfare .

However, the era of autonomous road vehicles and surgeons is slowly becoming reality, making the issues more urgent, the report says.

The removal of direct control from a car’s driver is already happening, with anti-lock braking systems and even automatic parking systems becoming commonplace.

But the next step is moving toward completely driverless road vehicles, which already exist in a number of contexts, including London’s Heathrow Airport.

Robotic surgery console (PA)

The time may come that robotic surgeons operate without human help

The Darpa Grand Challenge, a contest sponsored by the US defence department’s research arm, has driverless cars negotiating traffic and obstacles and obeying traffic rules over courses nearly 100km long.

“Those machines would have passed the California driving test, more than I would have,” said Professor Will Stewart, a fellow of the Academy.

“Autonomous vehicles will be safer. One of the compelling arguments for them is that the machine cannot have an argument with its wife; it can run 24 hours a day without getting tired. But it is making decisions on its own.”

Professor Stewart and report co-author Chris Elliott remain convinced that autonomous systems will prove, on average, to be better surgeons and better lorry drivers than humans are.

But when they are not, it could lead to a legal morass, they said.

“If a robot surgeon is actually better than a human one, most times you’re going to be better off with a robot surgeon,” Dr Elliott said. “But occasionally it might do something that a human being would never be so stupid as to do.”

Professor Stewart concluded: “It is fundamentally a big issue that we think the public ought to think through before we start trying to imprison a truck.”

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