The NewsFuror

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Vantage Point tops US film chart

Vantage Point
Vantage Point stars Dennis Quaid, Matthew Fox and Forest Whitaker
Political thriller Vantage Point has topped the North American box office chart on its first week of release.

The movie, starring Dennis Quaid, shows the shooting of the US president from different perspectives.

Despite getting poor reviews, it took $24m (£12.2m) on its opening weekend, relegating sci-fi film Jumper into second place with $12.7m (£6.5m).

The Spiderwick Chronicles, based on the children's fantasy books took $12.6m (£6.4m) in its second weekend.

It has moved down a place to number three.

Hayden Christensen
1. Vantage Point ($24.0m)
2. Jumper, pictured ($12.7m)
3. The Spiderwick Chronicles ($12.6m)
4. Step Up 2 the Streets ($9.8m)
5. Fool's Gold ($6.3m)
Source: Media By Numbers
Dancing sequel Step Up 2 the Streets was fourth with $19.7m (£10.1m), while Fool's Gold was fifth with $6.3m (£3.2m).

Vantage Point has an ensemble cast including Matthew Fox, Forest Whitaker, Sigourney Weaver and William Hurt. It is Irish director Pete Travis' first feature film.

There was box office momentum for two films that went on to win Oscars on Sunday.

Best original screenplay winner Juno, about a teenage pregnancy, was joint-seventh with comedy Be Kind Rewind. Both took $4.1m (£2.1m).

There Will Be Blood, starring best actor Daniel Day-Lewis, jumped two places to re-enter the top 10 after taking $2.6m (£1.3m).

Europe funds internet TV standard

Screengrab of iPlayer homepage, BBC
Peer-to-peer technology underpins the BBC's iPlayer
The European Union is spending 14m euros (£10.5m) to create a standard way to send TV via the net.

An additional 5m euros (£3.7m) is being contributed to the project by 21 other partners including the BBC and the European Broadcasting Union.

The project will create a peer-to-peer system that can pipe programmes to set-top boxes and home TV sets.

It will be based on the BitTorrent technology many people already use to share movies and music.

Community work

Dubbed P2P Next, the four-year research project will try to build a system that can stand alongside the other ways that broadcasters currently get programmes to viewers.

"For the broadcasters the incentive is to take their distribution mechanism beyond terrestrial, satellite and cable," said project co-ordinator Jari Ahola, from the VTT technical research centre in Finland.

"They can use the internet as a distribution platform for very low cost," he said.

The finished system would be able to handle stored content for download and streamed content sent from live programmes such as football matches or other big ticket events.

Mr Ahola said peer-to-peer was crucial because, without it, broadcasters trying to serve large audiences would likely be overwhelmed as the numbers of those watching TV via the net grew.

Transmitter, BBC
More people are getting TV shows via the net rather than the air
Peer-to-peer systems have no central host that hands out content, such as TV shows, to viewers. Instead all the machines downloading a show make parts of it available to all the others that want it.

In this way, the load is distributed across the network.

However, he added, the finished system would also have to be able to handle broadcast-type events that can be restricted to particular audiences.

"There will be certain streams within an operator's network that will be sent only once and won't be for everyone," he said. "The geographic limitations will support the existing way of doing it."

Mr Ahola said the project aimed to have some parts of the system available by August 2008. A more complete test version should be finished within 16 months that can pipe programmes to set-top boxes so people can watch on their TV set rather than a PC.

The BBC already uses some peer-to-peer technology to underpin the iPlayer - its on-demand TV system.

P2P Next will build on the Tribler technology under development at the Delft University of Technology. Built in to this are tools that viewers can use to communicate with others that enjoy a particular programme or genre.

Xbox to stop making HD DVD add-on

Front of an Xbox 360
About 300,000 of the HD DVD add-ons have been sold
Microsoft has decided to stop making the HD DVD add-on for its Xbox 360 games console after Toshiba abandoned the high definition DVD format.

Toshiba estimated last week that about 300,000 of the add-ons had been sold.

Microsoft was one of the key backers for the HD DVD format, competing with Blu-ray, which was the format available in Sony's rival PlayStation 3 console.

Microsoft said it would continue to provide warranty support for the $130 (£115 in the UK) HD DVD add-on.

Last week, Toshiba said it would stop production of HD DVD players and recorders after major film studios decided to back Sony's Blu-ray format instead.

Toshiba said the tipping point came last month when Warner Brothers decided to release its movies only in Blu-ray.

The Xbox add-ons sold represented 30% of the one million HD DVD devices that were sold worldwide.

That compares unfavourably with the 10.5 million PS3s sold by Sony, which come with a built-in Blu-ray drive.

Adobe fuses on and offline worlds

Shopping offline
Air was code-named "apollo" during its development
Adobe has launched software designed to make it easier for computer users to use online applications offline.

Adobe Air allows developers to build tools that still have some functionality even when a computer is no longer connected to the net.

A free download will allow users of Macs, PCs and, later this year, Linux machines to run any Air applications.

The first programs that use the technology, developed by web sites such as eBay, have already been released.

"Air is going to allow applications that run on the web today - that run in the browser - to be brought down to the desktop," Andrew Shorten, platform evangelist at Adobe told.

"It's about taking existing web applications and adding extra functionality whether you want to work offline or whether you want to access data on your disk."

Seamless vision

Mr Shorten said that the technology is not about replacing the web browser.

Many firms have already developed Air applications

"It's about delivering the best experience depending on where you are and what you need to get from the application, " he said.

"If I'm on the road with my laptop maybe I want to use the desktop version of my application. If I pop into an internet cafe I can still access it through the browser."

The software is part of a growing number of technologies that aim to make the transition between the on and offline worlds seamless.

In 2006, Microsoft unveiled its Silverlight technology. And last year Google launched Gears.

The tool does not allow the creation of new content but does allow web applications to be used offline.

For example, the developers of the free online office package Zoho use Gears to give users similar functionality to normal desktop office programs.

The nice thing about it is that it works on all the different platforms

Similarly, Adobe is looking into provide Air versions of many of its popular programs such as Photoshop.

A host of other companies and web services have already built Air applications.

For example, Ebay has built a program that allows users to do much of the legwork required in setting up auctions offline. The next time the user connects to the internet the listing would be posted to the website.

The application also allows users to keep up to date with auctions and bids without the need to have a browser open at the eBay page.

Blurred boundary

The BBC is also building prototype applications with AIR.

"The nice thing about it is that it works on all the different platforms - Mac, PC and eventually Linux," said John O'Donovan, chief architect in the BBC's Future Media and Technology Journalism division.

The corporation is currently building prototype versions of several applications such as the news ticker, which displays headlines on a desktop, and mini Motty, which provides desktop football commentary.

The current versions of the programs only work on PCs.

Other programs exploit Air's ability to access both web content and files on a computer's disk.

For example, the web-version of Finetunes allows users to stream music over the internet

"If you install the Air version on your desktop it can also look at what you have in your iTunes library and then suggest music based on what it finds," explained Mr Shorten.

"So it's really taking the essence of what works on the web, brining it to the desktop and then making it more personal to you."

Some commentators have pointed out that the ability for an application to delve between the web and a computer's hard drive raises security implications.

"Our advice would be to only install applications from sources that you trust," said Mr Shorten.

India set up final with Australia

Sachin Tendulkar and Gautam Gambhir.
Tendulkar (left) and Gambhir provided the platform for India's win
India are through to the final of the Commonwealth Bank Series after a seven-wicket victory over Sri Lanka.

A 102-run partnership between Sachin Tendulkar and an unbeaten Gautam Gambhir secured the win in Hobart.

India were set 180 to win after Ishant Sharma and Praveen Kumar claimed four wickets each to dismiss Sri Lanka.

Tendulkar (63) and Gambhir (64) guided India home with more than 17 overs to spare, and they now face Australia in a best-of-three-matches finale.

After losing the wicket of opener Perera in the third over, Sanath Jayasuriya and Kumar Sangakkara shared a 50-run partnership before Sri Lanka lost six wickets for 21 runs in just over 10 overs.

But after slumping to 93 for seven, Chamara Kapugedera's 57 helped Mahela Jayawardene's side at least give the bowlers a total to defend.

They began brightly by taking the wicket of Robin Uthappa in the second over.

He survived a dropped catch by Sri Lanka captain Mahela Jayawardene off the third ball of the innings from Chaminda Vaas, but departed seven balls later after being caught by Ishara Amerasinghe at mid-on off Lasith Malinga for 11.

Tendulkar and Gambhir brought up India's 50 off 60 balls before Tendulkar dominated a 50-run second-wicket partnership off 63 balls.

He was the first to bring up his half-century from 44 balls, which included nine fours, and after the pair brought up India's 100 in the 17th over and their 100 partnership in 108 balls, Gambhir brought up his 50 off 72 balls.

The partnership was finally broken as Tendulkar was caught at long-off by Chamara Silva off Muttiah Muralitharan at the start of the 21st over to leave India 120-2.

Yuvraj Singh contributed a quickfire 36 off 35 balls before being caught in the covers by Tillakaratne Dilshan off Dilruwan Perera in the 30th over with India at 171-3.

But Rohit Sharma (3no) and Gambhir rounded off the empathic victory. The first match of the final takes place in Sydney on Sunday.

Anti-depressants 'of little use'

Anti-depressant tablets
Anti-depressant prescription rates have soared
New generation anti-depressants have little clinical benefit for most patients, research suggests.

A University of Hull team concluded that the drugs helped only a small group of the most severely depressed.

Marjorie Wallace, head of the mental health charity Sane, said that if these results were confirmed they could be "very disturbing".

But the makers of Prozac and Seroxat, two of the commonest anti-depressants, said they disagreed with the findings.

A spokesman for GlaxoSmithKline, which makes Seroxat, said the study only looked at a "small subset of the total data available".

Reviewed data

And Eli Lilly, which makes Prozac, said that "extensive scientific and medical experience has demonstrated it is an effective anti-depressant".

Patients are advised not to stop taking their medication without first consulting a doctor.

In total, the Hull team, who published their findings in the journal PLoS Medicine, reviewed data on 47 clinical trials.

They reviewed published clinical trial data, and unpublished data secured under Freedom of Information legislation.

They focused on drugs in the class known as Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs), which work by increasing levels of the mood controlling chemical serotonin in the brain.

These included fluoxetine (Prozac), venlafaxine (Efexor) and paroxetine (Seroxat) - all commonly prescribed in the UK.

There seems little reason to prescribe anti-depressant medication to any but the most severely depressed patients
Professor Irving Kirsch
University of Hull

The number of prescriptions for anti-depressants hit a record high in England in 2006 - even though official guidance stresses they should not be a first line treatment for mild depression.

The researchers found that even the positive effects seen on severely depressed patients were relatively small, and open to interpretation.

The seemingly good result came from the fact that these patients responded less to dummy pills (placebos) which they were given during trials, rather than any notable response to anti-depressants.

Lead researcher Professor Irving Kirsch said: "The difference in improvement between patients taking placebos and patients taking anti-depressants is not very great.

"This means that depressed people can improve without chemical treatments.

"Given these results, there seems little reason to prescribe anti-depressant medication to any but the most severely depressed patients, unless alternative treatments have failed to provide a benefit."

Professor Kirsch said the findings called into question the current system of reporting drug trials.

Revieweing guidance

Dr Tim Kendall, deputy director of the Royal College of Psychiatrists Research Unit, has published research concluding that drug companies tend only to publish research which shows their products in a good light.

He said the Hull findings undermined confidence in the ability to draw meaningful conclusions about the merit of drugs based on published data alone.

He called for drug companies to be forced to publish all their data.

The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) is currently reviewing its guidance on the use of antidepressants.

Marjorie Wallace of Sane commented: "If these results were upheld in further studies, they would be very disturbing.

"The newer anti-depressants were the great hope for the future.... These findings could remove what has been seen as a vital choice for thousands in treating what can be a life-threatening condition."

Iran weapons project 'continued'

Iran's Ambassador to the IAEA Ali Asghar Soltanieh, 12 September 2007
Ali Asghar Soltanieh angrily rejected the documents as "forgeries"
The UN's nuclear watchdog has been told Iran may have continued secret work on nuclear weapons after 2003, the date US intelligence suggested the work ceased.

A US National Intelligence Estimate released last December said Tehran had frozen its atomic programme in 2003.

But documents presented to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) suggest the work continued.

Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran's ambassador to the IAEA, angrily dismissed the documentats as "forgeries".

Simon Smith, Britain's ambassador to the IAEA, said material presented to the IAEA in Vienna came from multiple sources and included designs for a nuclear warhead, plus information on how it would perform and how it would fit onto a missile.

"Certainly some of the dates that we were talking about... went beyond 2003," he said.

No credible assurances

The material was presented to the agency's 35-nation board by the IAEA's head of safeguards, Olli Heinonen, in a closed-door meeting on Monday.

Map of Iran nuclear sites

The permanent members of the UN Security Council - the US, UK, China, France and Russia - are meeting in Washington to discuss the possibility of imposing further sanctions on Iran over its disputed atomic programme.

The IAEA released a report on Friday which said Iran was being more transparent, but had not given "credible assurances" that it was not building a bomb.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that report bolstered a "very strong case" for a third round of sanctions over the disputed nuclear programme.

But Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad retorted that no amount of UN sanctions would deter Tehran from its nuclear path.

"If they want to continue with that path of sanctions, we will not be harmed. They can issue resolutions for 100 years," he said in a televised interview on Saturday.

Tehran insists its programme is aimed purely at generating electricity.

Concert to ease US, N Korea ties

Music Director Lorin Maazel conducts the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in a rehearsal at East Pyongyang Grand Theatre, North Korea (26/02/2008)
North Korea has made great efforts to accommodate the orchestra
One of the most eminent US cultural institutions, the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, is preparing to play a groundbreaking concert in North Korea.

The concert has been called a remarkable show of cultural diplomacy.

It is the largest US presence in the reclusive state since the Korean war ended more than half a century ago.

The concert comes as US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visits neighbouring China to exert pressure over North Korea's nuclear programme.

Ms Rice has welcomed the orchestra's visit - which came about after an invitation from North Korea - but said it would probably not lead to dramatic change.

"I don't think we should get carried away with what listening to Dvorak is going to do in North Korea," said Ms Rice, herself a classical pianist.

The concert, which will be broadcast live on North Korea's state media, will begin with both countries' national anthems.

The US State Department has authorised the trip, despite deadlock on the issue of North Korea's nuclear programme.

If there are extra-musical values attached to this event ... well so much the better
Lorin Maazel, conductor

Conductor Lorin Maazel told reporters in Pyongyang that the music was the most important element to the visit.

"If there are extra-musical values attached to this event, which would be eventually of a positive nature, well so much the better. But we are concerned only with making music, interacting with Korean musicians," he said.

'The power of music'

According to the BBC's John Sudworth, who is ravelling with the musicians, the concert will be the most prominent cultural exchange between the US and North Korea in the isolated country's history.

Violinists with the New York Philharmonic

Pyongyang has made unprecedented attempts to accommodate the orchestra, allowing a delegation of nearly 300 people to fly to Pyongyang for a 48-hour period.

Even the anti-American posters that usually line the streets of Pyongyang have been taken down, the Philharmonic's executive director, Zarin Mehta, told the Associated Press.

The concert will feature Antonin Dvorak's Symphony Number 9, An American in Paris by George Gershwin and the Korean folk song Arirang.

Propaganda coup?

The concert comes amid the ongoing diplomatic push to persuade Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons.

The visit has been compared to US orchestral visits to the Soviet Union in the 1950s, and the so-called "ping pong" diplomacy with China in the 1970s.

But in an interview, the orchestra's conductor said "there are no parallels in history, there are similarities".

The US government has given its blessing to the trip, and analysts have pointed out that, if nothing else, the event will allow North Koreans to listen to something from the outside world - a rarity in a country where all events are carefully choreographed in praise of leader Kim Jong-il.

But others argue that a visit by such a distinguished institution as the New York Philharmonic gives the North Korean state an air of respectability it does not deserve.

One New York tabloid has called the venture a "disgrace" that has handed Kim "a propaganda coup".

Before accepting the invitation, the orchestra said it insisted the concert should begin with the United States national anthem.

It is not yet known whether the North Korean leader Kim Jong-il will be in the audience to hear it.