Monday, December 31, 2007

Pakistan polls set for delay

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - Parliamentary elections seen as key to restoring democracy are set to be postponed for weeks in the wake of Benazir Bhutto's assassination, Pakistani officials said Monday.

A senior government official said that he expected a six-week delay in the elections now slated for Jan. 8, despite calls from Bhutto's party, other opposition politicians and world leaders for the polls to be held on time. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to disclose the information.

Election Commission Secretary Kanwar Dilashad told reporters that a decision on the timing would be announced on Tuesday, but a recommendation

"has been sent to the government for a delay."

The opposition has accused the commission of favoring President Pervez Musharraf's backers.

Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the country's most prominent opposition leader, threatened street protests if the vote was delayed.

"We will agitate,"

he told The Associated Press in an interview.

"We will not accept this postponement."

With newly released video footage of Bhutto's killing raising fresh questions about the government's version of how the former prime minister died, accusations of official complicity in the assassination could lead to major electoral gains for her backers and Sharif's. The government has rejected charges of involvement in Bhutto's death.

Western governments are also urging the government not to delay the polls, which they see as a key step in U.S.-backed plans to restore democracy to the nation as it battles Taliban and al-Qaida militants.

Foreign election monitors cautioned, however, that a full observation mission would be impossible if the polls went ahead next week because the unrest had caused them to delay preparations.

"We cannot follow our standard methods if the date stays Jan. 8,"
said Mathias Eick, a spokesman for the European Union-led mission, saying the best it could manage was a limited assessment.

Sharif urged Musharraf to step down immediately and be replaced by a national unity government.

"He is a one-man calamity,"

Sharif told reporters.

"The United States should see that Musharraf has not limited or curbed terrorism. In fact terrorism is now stronger than ever before with more sinister aspects."

Bhutto was killed in a suicide bomb and gun attack on Thursday, but disagreements between her supporters and the government over the precise cause of death are undermining confidence in Musharraf and adding to calls for international investigators to probe the killing.

The new video footage, obtained by Britain's Channel 4, shows a man firing a handgun at Bhutto from close range as she stands up in an open-topped vehicle. Her hair and shawl then move upward, suggesting she may have been shot. She then falls into the vehicle just before an explosion rocks the car.

The government has insisted Bhutto was not hit by any of the bullets and died after the force of the blast slammed her head against the sunroof. Bhutto's family and supporters say she died from gunshot wounds to her head and neck.

Bhutto's husband said late Sunday he refused permission for doctors to perform an autopsy, meaning that short of exhuming her body — something her supporters have already ruled out — the cause of her death will be difficult to establish.

After days of rioting that left at least 44 dead, life in many Pakistani cities began returning to normal, though soldiers and police patrolled many areas. The streets were still quiet in the southern city of Karachi, the scene of some of the worst violence, witnesses said.

The political uncertainty caused the stock markets to tumble on the first day of trading since the killing. The benchmark Karachi Stock Exchange's 100-share index plunged 694.92 points, or 4.7 percent, to 14,077.16 in its biggest single-day loss in points and percentage.

On Sunday, Bhutto's political party named her 19-year-old son, Bilawal Zardari, as its symbolic leader and left day-to-day control to her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, extending Pakistan's most enduring political dynasty. It also appealed to the party of former Prime Minister Sharif to reverse an earlier decision to boycott the polls. Sharif's party later agreed.

The two parties share a common cause now about restoring democracy in Pakistan, but while Sharif is demanding Musharraf's resignation, Zardari left open the possibility of working with the retired general if his party formed the next government.

"We will come to that position when we win the election,"
he told reporters.

The appointment of Zardari as effective leader was not without complications. A former Cabinet minister who spent eight years in prison on corruption accusations, he is known as "Mr. 10 Percent" for allegedly taking kickbacks and is viewed with suspicion by many Pakistanis.

Zardari said the opposition party had no confidence in the government's ability to bring his wife's killers to justice and urged the United Nations to establish a committee like the one investigating the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Several leading U.S. politicians have made similar calls.

The British and U.S. governments had been pushing Bhutto, a moderate Muslim seen as friendly to the West, to form a power-sharing agreement with Musharraf after the election — a combination seen as the most effective in the fight against al-Qaida, which is believed to be regrouping in the country's lawless tribal areas.

Clock running on Bush presidency

CRAWFORD, Texas - President Bush's final-year agenda is a stripped down list of what he can realistically hope to get done, since the clout he once touted is fading away.

Bush will venture to four other continents, get more involved than ever in trying to forge Middle East peace, and continue to command two wars that assure his relevancy to the end. As Iraq improves, he must now deal with renewed violence in Afghanistan and upheaval in Pakistan.

At home, Bush will try to extend two domestic achievements that are dear to his legacy — the No Child Left Behind education law, and tax cuts that otherwise expire in 2010.

Long gone are the big ideas of Social Security and immigration reform, which collapsed on Capitol Hill. His final State of the Union speech in late January is expected to reflect today's policy reality, eschewing new initiatives in favor of unfinished proposals.

As at any time, Bush has forces pushing against him. But the ones in 2008 are stronger.

A hostile Congress awaits the president as he returns from fishing, cutting brush and clearing trails at his secluded Texas ranch. Bush and the Democratic Congress clashed all year on the war, spending, health care and tactics for interrogating terror suspects.

"It's going to be a year of angst and struggle — more of '07,"

said James Thurber, an American University political scientist who researches relations between the two branches.

In political terms, Bush's last year in office is really less than 12 months.

The attention of the nation and much of the world has shifted to those who want his seat in the Oval Office. The Republican nominee for president could be settled by the multistate primaries on Feb. 5, meaning someone else will be unofficial head of the party.

The opportunity for legislation in the election-year will be short, too, as little is expected to get done after Congress adjourns for a summer break. Democrats are gunning for the White House and the bigger majorities they need to govern Congress as they want.

Bush's year begins with a nine-day trip to the Middle East, a hands-on peacemaking venture that could shape his legacy — a word that Bush and his senior aides don't use.

Starting Jan. 8, the president is scheduled to travel to Israel, the West Bank, Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

The trip is exactly the kind of process-driving diplomacy that Bush has avoided in the past, said Jon Alterman, a Mideast expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. It reflects how his presidency has gone, Alterman said, as Bush once talked of bold transformation but now tries to shepherd more incremental progress on site.

The latter approach is favored in the Middle East, but Bush's waning power will follow him, Alterman said. Some leaders don't want to give concessions to a short-term president.

"Friends and foes in the Middle East at a senior level have almost no curiosity about what the last year of this presidency holds,"

Alterman said.

The Mideast trip sets the tone for a busy year of foreign travel.

In February, Bush is expected to visit Africa to promote the global fight against AIDS, and highlight the United States' role in that effort.

He will also go to Romania in April for a NATO summit; to Japan's Lake Toya in July to meet with leaders of industrialized countries; to China in August for the Summer Olympics; and to Peru in November for the annual summit of leaders of Pacific Rim nations.

It is common for presidents to head abroad in their final year as the domestic consumption of their message diminishes. But Bush's aides say most of his trips would have happened in any year, and the narrative that Bush is escaping overseas is overstated.

Bush's State of the Union will be one of his final times in command of a prime-time audience. He is expected to use it to rally support for unfinished items, such as expanding the domestic energy supply and health care options, as opposed to last-minute policy ideas.

"We understood after immigration reform failed that this is not a Congress that's likely to pass big things,"

said Ed Gillespie, the president's counselor.

"Once they adjourn for the Fourth of July, it's hard to imagine they'll do much beyond appropriations bills. That's a realistic assessment, and the State of the Union will likely reflect that."

Bush invoked his veto power like never before in 2007, with effectiveness. But it may have erased what little chance was left of broad, meaningful compromise with lawmakers.

Lots of key items remain to be done, including terrorist surveillance legislation.

The president is also likely to stick to economic themes in 2008. He is aware that the public is frustrated and restless, which could sink Republicans in the next election. Bush's message is, the underlying economy is sound but the government must help people deal with mortgage crises, energy bills and education concerns.

Still looming, as always, is the fate of the war in Iraq.

Another key milestone comes in March with an update to Congress by Gen. David Petraeus, the top military commander in Iraq, and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador there.

Bush remains the decider on when, and whether, U.S. troops will return home.

"It may be the tone for the entire year is set by events he cannot control,"

Thurber said.

"The biggest unknown, of course, is what's going to happen politically in Iraq, and he can't control that, even though they have pushed and cajoled. It is a tricky situation."

North Korea slams U.S. ahead of nuclear deadline

SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea, facing a looming deadline in a nuclear disarmament deal, blamed the United States on Monday for hurting the prospects for peace on the Korean peninsula with plans to attack the reclusive state.

North Korea is almost certain to miss an end-of-year deadline to give a full accounting of its nuclear arms programs under a disarmament-for-aid deal it struck earlier this year with regional powers, including the United States.

"The reality testifies once again that there is no change in the U.S. intention to invade us with force and occupy the whole of Korea, although the U.S. is uttering 'peace' and 'dialogue',"

the North's communist party newspaper said in a commentary.

"Dialogue and war attempts can't stand together."

The U.S. government has said Washington has no plans to attack North Korea.

In Washington, U.S. officials on Sunday said North Korea has not yet fully accounted for its nuclear activities.

"It is unfortunate that North Korea has not yet met its commitments by providing a complete and correct declaration of its nuclear programs and slowing down the process of disablement,"

State Department spokesman Tom Casey said in a statement.

In Tokyo on Monday, a Japanese Foreign Ministry official urged Pyongyang

"to provide a complete and correct declaration of all its nuclear programs as quickly as possible."

"It is unfortunate that this declaration has not been provided yet,"

the official said.

U.S. officials estimate North Korea has produced about 50 kg (110 lb) of plutonium, enough for about eight nuclear weapons, and launched a secret program to enrich uranium for weapons.

In early November, North Korea began disabling its ageing Yongbyon nuclear complex, which is also required under the nuclear deal. A U.S. official who has been on hand at the site north of Pyongyang said the North has been cooperating.

The process is the first tangible action North Korea has made to take apart its nuclear arms program since it began its quest for atomic weapons in earnest in the 1980s.

Analysts said the nuclear deal North Korea struck with China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States would not be jeopardized for now if the secretive state misses the deadline.

North Korea, which conducted its first nuclear test in October 2006, missed a separate deadline without retributions earlier this year to freeze its nuclear plant at Yongbyon because of a dispute over its international finances.

It lived up to its obligations once the row was settled.

If the North meets the conditions of the six-nation deal, the destitute state will receive 1 million tons of heavy fuel oil or equivalent aid and Washington would take it off its terrorism black list, which could help it tap into international finance.

A leading Chinese academic said on Monday it was important for all parties to the nuclear disarmament talks to continue influencing North Korea, and that was why they had taken a calm attitude over the deadline.

"There has been no strong evidence between February 13 and October 1 that North Korea has truly made up its mind to denuclearize,"

said Zhu Feng, director of Peking University's International Security Program.

"None of the parties involved are convinced yet that North Korea is really ready to denuclearize. Everyone was a bit disappointed but agreed the situation was not too bad,"

Zhu told Reuters.

"For now, the parties will try to find out if North Korea wants to add any new condition (for scrapping its nuclear programs)"

he added.

Zhu said the key for China, which hosts the six-party talks, was to coordinate with the United States, South Korea and Japan to discuss how to carry out the next steps.

Kenya death toll rises to 103

NAIROBI, Kenya - Kenyan police battled thousands of opposition supporters enraged over President Mwai Kibaki's allegedly fraudulent re-election, firing tear gas and live ammunition as the death toll from the violence rose to 103, officers and witnesses said.

Several officers said they had orders to shoot to kill, while opposition supporters said they would risk death to protest what they called a stolen election. Demonstrators were beaten back with tear gas and water cannons, and police fired live rounds over their heads in Nairobi's burning slums.

"We have been rigged out, we are not going to accept defeat,"

said 24-year-old James Onyango, who lives in Nairobi's Kibera slum.

"We are ready to die and we're ready for serious killings."

Raila Odinga, the fiery opposition leader who came in second according to the official results, compared Kibaki to a military dictator who

"seized power through the barrel of the gun,"

and called on 1 million people to gather Thursday in Nairobi's Uhuru Park — where protesters gathered to demand multiparty democracy in the early 1990s.

"We are calling for mass action,"

said Odinga, who had been leading early results and public opinion polls.

"We will inform police of the march. We will march wearing black arm bands because we are mourning."

An Associated Press reporter saw a man who had been shot in the head being carried in a blanket. Men around him said he had been shot by police. Police were not immediately available for comment.

Teams of riot police fired shots into the air and tear gas into homes and businesses; in one home, a woman and her four young children ran out, retching.

"We were just hiding from the shots,"

said Dorothy Nyangasi, frantically pouring water over the eyes of her 6-month-old old son Daniel.

Opposition supporters blocked a road into Nairobi's city center with burning refuse. Police with batons and riot shields hit and detained opposition supporters in Kibera.

There, 14-year-old Selina Angeyo said police had shot her brother and another man in the stomach. Shortly after she spoke to reporters she was arrested and taken away crying in a marked police vehicle.

The violence has killed at least 103 people since Saturday across the country, police and witnesses said, although the tally was likely far higher. Three police officers told The Associated Press independently that they had been ordered to shoot to kill to stop the rioters.

A government spokesman denied such an order was given.

Odinga postponed a rally planned for Uhuru Park Monday after police warned the opposition not to hold it.

The United States said it was concerned over "serious problems" during the counting of votes.

"Those alleging vote tampering may pursue legal remedies and should be able, consistent with respect for freedom of speech, to make their case publicly. We call on the judiciary to play its role expeditiously,"

the U.S. embassy in Kenya said.

Kibaki, 76, was sworn in almost immediately after the results were announced. Within minutes, the slums exploded into fresh violence.

Suspicions over rigging were fueled by the fact that the opposition took most of the parliamentary seats in Thursday's vote, but Kibaki still won the election.

Kenya is one of the most developed countries in Africa, with a booming tourism industry and one of the continent's highest growth rates. Many observers saw the campaign as the greatest test of this young, multiparty democracy and expressed great disappointment as the process descended into chaos.

Some Kibera residents said that they had not been able to find food since shops closed for elections on Thursday and trouble began over the delayed vote-counting. A woman shouted "hungry! hungry!" at passing journalists.

Kibaki's supporters say he has turned Kenya's economy into an east African powerhouse, with an average annual growth rate of 5 percent. He won by a landslide in 2002, ending 24 years in power by the notoriously corrupt Daniel arap Moi. But Kibaki's anti-graft campaign has largely been seen as a failure, and the country still struggles with tribalism and poverty.

The election violence had a disturbing tribal undertone in the slums, where youths shouted ethnic slurs. Kibaki, from the Kikuyu tribe, has been accused of maintaining the tribal patronage system of the Moi years. Odinga is a Luo, another major tribe.

Record data breaches in 2007

BOSTON - The loss or theft of personal data such as credit card and Social Security numbers soared to unprecedented levels in 2007, and the trend isn't expected to turn around anytime soon as hackers stay a step ahead of security and laptops disappear with sensitive information.

And while companies, government agencies, schools and other institutions are spending more to protect ever-increasing volumes of data with more sophisticated firewalls and encryption, the investment often is too little too late.

"More of them are experiencing data breaches, and they're responding to them in a reactive way, rather than proactively looking at the company's security and seeing where the holes might be,"

said Linda Foley, who founded the San Diego-based Identity Theft Resource Center after becoming an identity theft victim herself.

Foley's group lists more than 79 million records reported compromised in the United States through Dec. 18. That's a nearly fourfold increase from the nearly 20 million records reported in all of 2006.

Another group,, estimates more than 162 million records compromised through Dec. 21 — both in the U.S. and overseas, unlike the other group's U.S.-only list. Attrition reported 49 million last year.

"It's just the nature of business, that moving forward, more companies are going to have more records, so there will be more records compromised each year,"

said Attrition's Brian Martin.

"I imagine the total records compromised will steadily climb."

But the biggest difference between the groups' record-loss counts is's estimate that 94 million records were exposed in a theft of credit card data at TJX Cos., the owner of discount stores including T.J. Maxx and Marshalls. The TJX breach accounts for more than half the total records reported lost this year on both groups' lists.

The Identity Theft Resource Center counts about 46 million — the number of records TJX acknowledged in March were potentially compromised. Attrition's figure is based on estimates from Visa and MasterCard officials who were deposed in a lawsuit banks filed against TJX.

The breach is believed to have started when hackers intercepted wireless transfers of customer information at two Marshalls stores in Miami — an entry point that led the hackers to eventually break into TJX's central databases.

TJX has said that before the breach, which was revealed in January, it invested

"millions of dollars on computer security, and believes our security was comparable to many major retailers."

With wireless data transmission more common, hackers increasingly are expected to target what many experts see as a major vulnerability. Eavesdroppers appear to be learning how to bypass security safeguards faster than ever, said Jay Tumas, the head of Harvard University's network operations, at a recent conference for information security professionals.

"Within a year or two, these folks are catching up,"

Tumas said.

The two nonprofit groups' 2007 data also show rising numbers of incidents in which employees lose sensitive data, as opposed to cases of hacking.

Besides TJX's problem, major 2007 breaches include lost data disks with bank account numbers in Britain, a hacker attack of a U.S.-based online broker's database and a con that spilled resume contact information from a U.S. online jobs site.

"A lot of breaches are due to inadequate information handling, such as laptop computers with Social Security numbers on them that are lost,"

Foley said.

"This is human error, and something that's completely avoidable, as opposed to a hacker breaking into your computer system." and the Identity Theft Resource Center are the only groups, government included, maintaining databases on breaches and trends each year. They've been keeping track for only a handful of years, with varied and still-evolving methods of learning about breaches and estimating how many people were affected.

Despite those challenges, the two nonprofits say it's clear 2007 will end up a record year for the amount of information compromised, because of greater data loss and increased reporting of breaches.

Both groups acknowledge many breaches may be missing from their lists, because they largely count incidents reported in news media that they consider credible. Media coverage has risen in part because of the growing number of states requiring businesses and institutions to publicly disclose data losses. Thirty-seven states, plus Washington D.C., now have such requirements.

Because of proliferation of such laws,

"it may take a year or two before things stabilize and we can see what's really happening,"

Foley said.

"If that's the case, then we'll know whether businesses are practicing better information-handling techniques."

Free swap network makes trash treasure

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - When Laura Gernell heard about a place where people gave away perfectly good things to strangers — no money changing hands, no questions asked — she figured it was too good to be true.

But husband Ronald had lost his job as a truck driver and she was temporarily unemployed, at home in a rented, unfurnished apartment with her infant son. With nothing to lose, she joined The Freecycle Network, a Web-based community swap program, and asked if anyone had a sofa to spare.

"I wasn't looking to furnish my whole apartment,"

says the 32-year-old mom from Marmet, just south of Charleston.

"I was just looking for the basics, just something to sit on."

Three people e-mailed with offers, and Gernell used the sofa from that day in 2004 until last summer, when the springs broke. Today she runs West Virginia's largest Freecycle group, 2,100 members strong and part of a far-flung forum where people can find homes for things they no longer want.

"It just has completely floored me, the generosity of people,"

says Gernell.

"Especially in West Virginia because West Virginia is considered one of the poorest states in the nation. But people are very generous. It's amazing."

Freecycle is a global recycling phenomenon. Since it started in Arizona in May 2003, it has grown to more than 4 million members in more than 4,100 cities, from Istanbul to Inwood. It boasts of keeping more than 300 million tons of trash out of landfills every day and has inspired imitators.

There are, says founder and executive director Deron Beal, as many heartwarming stories as there are groups: the American Indian tribe that collected used prom dresses for girls in need; the Hurricane Katrina evacuee who furnished a new home; the 98-year-old man who collects and assembles bicycle parts, then gives what he's built to children; and the woman in Austin, Texas, who collected items for an orphanage in Haiti, then got FedEx to deliver the shipping container for free.

"It's just all sorts of countless acts of random kindness,"

says Beal, 40, of Tucson, Ariz.

"Whatever they want to make out of it, they really can."

Call them corny. Call them cliche. But Freecycle is built on principles that work: One person can make a difference. Giving is better than receiving. One person's trash is another's treasure. Commit an act of kindness and it will be returned.

"It's not like a get-rich-quick scheme. You're not going to get everything you want every time you want it,"

Gernell says.

"The more offers you post, the better outcomes you're going to have."

Beal began his experiment with an e-mail to 30 or 40 friends, inspired by his Dumpster-diving adventures on behalf of homeless men trying to get back on their feet. When his nonprofit group's warehouse was full, he realized he needed a new way to unload.

His network grew to 800 members almost overnight, after a newspaper story started spreading the word.

"From the get-go, it absolutely snowballed, and we're basically doubling in size every year,"

Beal says. About 30,000 people join weekly, with the single largest group in London, some 40,000-strong.

Though Freecycle caught on first in progressive cities like Portland, Ore., San Francisco and Madison, Wis., Beal says Chicago, St. Louis and New York followed quickly. Then word of mouth took over, with people in the cities telling people in small towns.

"It's very much a viral sort of growth and randomly beautiful,"

he says.

It's also self-policing, patrolled by 10,000 volunteer moderators who ensure that items are being swapped legally, and that all are G-rated. Playboy collections and porn tapes are a no-no.

"West Virginia was probably one of the slowest states overall for it to really pick up,"

Beal says, citing lack of Internet access as a likely reason.

Earlier this year, the Public Service Commission estimated that less than 35 percent of West Virginia households had broadband service. A June survey by the Communications Workers of America measured the state's median download speed at 1.12 megabits, one of the slowest rates in the country.

However, West Virginia has more than two dozen Freecycle groups, with thousands of members offering a service Gernell says many people need.

"Even at Salvation Army and Goodwill, you still have to pay for things,"

she says

"With the cost of living the way it is and gas prices the way they are, the prices there are still way more than some people can afford."

Heather Edwards, a moderator of the Martinsburg-Berkeley County group in West Virginia's Eastern Panhandle, finds great deals for her four children, who range from 9 months to 15 years old.

"I got a humongous plastic playhouse for the kids,"

she says.

"It costs about $400 new."

Edwards, 35, often drives to Hagerstown, Md., to gather her Freecycle finds.

"They have everything from Sunday coupons to refrigerators,"

she says.

"Yesterday it was a whole dining suite — a table and six chairs."

She urges novices to post more offers than requests, to avoid being greedy and to use common sense in arranging pickups to ensure personal safety.

Andi Bassett, a Morgantown mom with five children ages 20 months to 10 years, says she'll soon be donating a batch of baby clothes.

"The most appealing thing to me is finding someone who wants my 'junk,' that it's useful to them and they are thankful for my unwanted stuff,"

she wrote in an e-mail to The Associated Press.

"And the same is true of other people's 'junk' that is useful to me: I am thankful for it. Freecycle just puts people together."

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Convert Firefox into a text-only browser

Last week I described how to use a simple Javascript to determine the age of a Web page. The only problem: if the page has any dynamic elements that update automatically when the page loads (and these days most Web pages do), the script shows the current time and date.

For pages without auto-update content, type javascript:alert(document.lastModified) into the address bar and press Enter to see a window pop-up with the date and time of the page's last update. I'm still looking for a way to find out how recently specific content on a Web page was updated.

As I was looking for such a method, I stumbled upon a great Firefox add-in from Chris Pedericks called the Web Developer Toolbar (download). As the name implies, the free toolbar is intended to help Web designers test their pages, but it can also be used to show only the text of Web pages, which often makes them easier to read--and to print out.

After you download the toolbar, click Options and check Persist Features. Next, click CSS*Disable Styles*All Styles. Now click Images*Disable Image*All Images. Lastly, click Disable*Disable JavaScript*All JavaScript. You'll see only the page's text, and perhaps a couple of broken-image place markers. Be warned, however, that the results are rarely pretty.

In addition to making the pages easier to print, the text-only versions are also much easier to scan for specific information. (Note that you can retain much of the page's original formatting--minus images--by keeping CSS enabled.)

Tomorrow: Put Microsoft Word's styles to good use.

Boost your productivity in Firefox, IE

I can live without Microsoft Word, and I'm confident I could manage well enough if you removed Excel from my PC. Even my favorite e-mail app is a nonessential.

But take away my browser, and I might as well not even start up my PC.

Mozilla Firefox is the first program I open and the last one I close each workday (or worknight, as the case may be). I found some great time-savers for the program. And since many of you prefer Internet Explorer, I've got some productivity-enhancing keyboard shortcuts for both browsers.

Reset Firefox's Javascript options
Many of the Web's best features are powered by Javascript, but like every technology, it can be a real troublemaker in the wrong hands. Firefox gives you some control over how much power Javascripts have when you activate them. Click Tools*Options*Content, and choose the Advanced button next to Enable JavaScript. If you're using Firefox 1.5, the options checked by default are "Move or resize existing windows," "Raise or lower windows," and "Disable or replace context menus." The first allows Javascripts to change the size or position of the current window. The second lets a script place a window above or below the current window. The third makes it possible for a script to disable or change your right-click (context) menus.

In Firefox 2.0, only the first and third of these options is checked by default. The last two options in this dialog box let Javascripts hide the status bar at the bottom of the browser window, or change its text to allow scrolling-text messages. I leave options 1 and 3 checked, but you may want to give Javascripts more or less control.

Change how much control Javascripts have in the Firefox browser.

Get more control Over Javascripts
You can disable other Javascript window features by using Firefox's about:config settings. To access them, type about:config in the address field and press Enter. To ensure that all pop-up windows are resizable, scroll to dom.disable_window_open_feature.resizable and double-click it to set it to "true." To allow all pop-ups to be minimized, double-click dom.disable_window_open_feature.minimizable. Do the same to dom.disable_window_open_feature.menubar to keep menus visible in pop-ups. To keep the navigation toolbar showing, double-click dom.disable_window_open_feature.location. And to retain scrollbars on pop-ups, double-click dom.disable_window_open_feature.scrollbars to reset this option to true.

Get more control over Javascripts in Firefox by changing these options in about:config.

Time-saving keyboard shortcuts for Internet Explorer, Firefox
Bookmark the current page by pressing Ctrl-D and then Enter.
Open your bookmarks in Firefox by pressing Ctrl-B; open IE's Favorites by pressing Ctrl-I.

Open a new tab by pressing Ctrl-T. Move to the next tab by pressing Ctrl-Tab. If you have lots of tabs open, move between them quickly by pressing Ctrl and the numbers 1 through 9, based on their order in the toolbar.

To close a tab, press Ctrl-W. To close a window, press Ctrl-Shift-W.
Increase the size of the page's font by pressing Ctrl-+; decrease it by pressing Ctrl-- (the hyphen or minus sign).
View the page without the browser border by pressing F11. Press it again to revert to the standard browser view.
Press F5 (or Ctrl-R) to reload the current page, and Ctrl-F5 (or Ctrl-Shift-R) to reload it ignoring the cache.
Press the Backspace key to reload the previous page, or Shift-Backspace to go forward one page.
Press Alt-D to highlight the text in the address box.
Finally, press Ctrl-K in Firefox, or Ctrl-E in IE, to move the cursor to the search box.

iRobot rival succumbs in court battles

Established defense contractor iRobot has prevailed in courtroom battles against Robotic FX, effectively gaining an unconditional surrender from the upstart military-industrial wannabe.

Late on Friday, Burlington, Mass.-based iRobot said that two federal courts had ruled in its favor. The U.S. District Court in Massachusetts determined that Robotic FX and founder Jameel Ahed--a former iRobot employee--had misused trade secrets belonging to iRobot, while the U.S. District Court in Northern Alabama determined that Robotic FX had deliberately infringed on patents.

As if that weren't enough, a related settlement requires the disbanding of Robotic FX, with certain assets to be retained by iRobot, and the banning of Ahed from competitive activities in the robotics industry for five years, according to iRobot. As of Sunday morning, the Robotic FX Web site was pointing to an iRobot page.

For a number of years, iRobot has been supplying the Pentagon with its Packbot technology--small, tracked robots that have been instrumental in locating and neutralizing explosive devices in Iraq. The company--best known for its Roomba, Scooba, and Looj gadgets for consumers--is also working on a related system known as SUGV (for small unmanned ground vehicle) as part of the Army's Future Combat Systems initiative.

A few months back, Allsip, Ill.-based Robotic FX had won a major contract with the U.S. Army to supply just those sorts of robots. But in a harbinger of the court rulings, the Army just days ago turned that contract--a $286 million, five-year deal to crank out up to 3,000 robots--over to iRobot. It plans to deliver the first 101 of those new robots "for urgent deployment."

In total, iRobot says it will have spent about $2.9 million on the dispute.

Apple's Piping Hot Innovation

Apple (nasdaq: AAPL - news - people ) Chief Executive Steve Jobs wants to patent a process that will save customers the hassle of waiting to order a cup of coffee at a local Starbucks (nasdaq: SBUX - news - people ) or a fresh burger at the nearest fast food restaurant. Even better: The technology would let you jump the line of those ordering in person.

In an application with the U.S. Patent Office published on Dec. 20, the Cupertino, Calif.-based computer and gadget company described a wireless system that would allow customers to place an order at a store using a wireless device such as a media player, a wireless personal digital assistant or a cellphone.

The system could go far beyond the program that Apple announced with Starbucks in September, which allows iPhone users to press a button and wirelessly download the song playing in the background as they sip their soy lattes.

Apple's application with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office describes a process for placing an order and then notifying customers when an order is ready to grab at a pick-up station. One goal, the patent application notes, is to avoid an

"annoying wait in a long queue if the purchaser arrives before completion of the order."

U.S. Patent Application #20070291710 describes a device that also would keep tabs on where a user shops and what he or she likes to buy. Computers at participating stores would keep track of regular customers and their favorite orders.

Customers might tap a button to order their favorite drink, say a double-shot mocha, as they stroll up to the nearest coffee shop. When the drink is ready go to, the device--such as an iPhone--would chime or blink to let the thirsty one know it's time to scoop up the order at the counter.

The patent puts Apple's partnership with Starbucks in a new light. The technology promises to morph Apple from the business of simply selling gadgets and music and movies that can be played on those devices into an intermediary in all kinds of exchanges.

Apple is notoriously tight-lipped about its future products. But head honcho Jobs has also said that he believes the innovative insights at the core of the iPhone all start in the software built into the device, not its sleek form factor.

Apple granted eight patents in December, and the patent office published applications for 12 others, giving investors and Apple fans an idea of where the secretive company could be headed next.

Most cover relatively mundane technologies. Others, however, have stirred interest. Patent application #20070288886, unhelpfully titled

"Run-Time Code Injection To Perform Checks,"

describes a system that would restrict the use of some software to

"specific hardware platforms."

The application, published Dec. 13, suggests Apple could adopt something similar to Microsoft's (nasdaq: MSFT - news - people ) widely criticized Windows Genuine Advantage copy protection program, which checks a user's machine to confirm that it is not running a pirated version of Microsoft's software in exchange for access to certain software updates.

Apple working on auto-volume control for iPods

Apple is developing a volume control device for its iPods that would automatically calculate how long a person has been listening and at what volume, before gradually reducing the sound level, all in an effort to protect users' hearing, according to the London-based Daily Mail.

Citing a new patent application, the report--to which Apple declined to comment--says the

"device will also calculate the amount of 'quiet time' between when the iPod is turned off and when it is restarted, allowing the volume to be increased again to a safe level."

In February 2006, a Louisiana man filed a class action suit against Apple, saying the computer maker failed to take adequate steps to prevent hearing loss among iPod users. That was followed by warnings from politicians and researchers on hearing-loss hazards related to MP3 player use.

Apple responded by releasing a free software update for some iPods that lets listeners set a maximum volume limit. But we haven't heard much on the matter since.

Let's turn to rocker Pete Townshend for his foreshadowing quote:

"I have unwittingly helped to invent and refine a type of music that makes its principal components deaf,"

he said on his Web site two years ago.

"Hearing loss is a terrible thing because it cannot be repaired. If you use an iPod or anything like it, or your child uses one, you MAY be OK...But my intuition tells me there is terrible trouble ahead."

Australia v India, 1st Test, Melbourne, 4th day

Australia 343 and 7 for 351 dec beat India 196 and 161 (Laxman 42, Johnson 3-21) by 337 runs

India needed a record score to win but instead Australia edged closer to a milestone of their own, posting their 15th consecutive Test victory as they wrapped up the Boxing Day Test within four days. Australia will now head into the Sydney Test that starts on Wednesday aiming to equal their own record of 16 straight Test wins and they will no doubt fancy their chances after India folded for 161 and crashed to a 337-run defeat at the MCG.

An extra day's rest will also be much appreciated by Australia's fast bowlers, who toiled hard in searing heat against a stonewalling India. Not only did India forget how to fight, they were outplayed in subcontinent-like conditions as Melbourne's temperature nudged 40 degrees. Ricky Ponting rotated his attack and they showed few signs of exhaustion with Mitchell Johnson picking up 3 for 21 and Brett Lee and Brad Hogg each grabbing two.

India, on the other hand, struggled in the conditions. Sourav Ganguly, who was the second-last man out when he departed for 40, had been at the crease for just over an hour when he slumped on the ground after running a two. He needed attention from the team physio and batted on in the sweltering conditions, but his team-mates kept falling around him.

The end came quickly for India, who had five wickets in hand at tea but survived barely an hour after the break. MS Dhoni attempted a lavish cover-drive against Johnson and edged behind to Adam Gilchrist, who finished with eight dismissals for the match and not only passed Ian Healy's Australian Test wicketkeeping record of 395 victims but also earned $144,000 for Glenn McGrath's cancer charity - he wore pink gloves and his sponsors offered $18,000 per dismissal.

Once the established batsmen were gone and Australia could sniff a day off it all became rather a procession. Anil Kumble edged a Johnson leg-cutter behind to Gilchrist, Harbhajan Singh was run out without facing a ball and Ganguly prodded Hogg to silly mid-off. By that stage the result was no longer in doubt and perhaps India were not upset to also enjoy a free Sunday, as Johnson finished the carnage by bowling RP Singh for 2.

The finale was flatter than last season's new-year champagne after India promised so much fizz with their bowling efforts on the first day. Back then it looked like Australia might be seriously challenged for the first time in a home Test since India last visited, in 2003-04. But that spark was gradually extinguished over the next three days and India's batsmen must find some way to reverse their fortunes before the Sydney Test.

Theirs is a batting line-up full of stars but none of them shone as they chased a whopping 499 for victory. Ganguly was at least willing to attack, as was Sachin Tendulkar, but no batsman reached a half-century in their second innings. Yuvraj Singh's place might not be certain after India rejigged their batting order to retain him at No. 6. He departed for 5 shortly before tea, missing a straighter ball from Hogg that would have crashed into his stumps. Yuvraj was cleared of showing dissent at an umpire's decision in the first innings and again he waited a few moments before trudging off after Mark Benson's lbw decision.

He did not score in the first innings and should India ditch him for Sydney it might allow Virender Sehwag to open and Rahul Draid to drop down from the unfamiliar opening position. Dravid was painfully slow in the first innings and in the second he had 16 from 114 balls when he fell lbw just before lunch, playing back to Andrew Symonds, who had just reverted from medium pace to offspin.

That defensive mindset was also present in his partner Wasim Jaffer, who was on 15 when he edged behind off Lee to give Gilchrist his record-breaking 396th dismissal. The breakthrough was a relief for Lee, who three balls earlier had experienced the same sinking feeling that Johnson and Zaheer Khan had suffered earlier in the match when he thought he had a wicket only to see Billy Bowden's no-ball signal. Lee dug in a short one that Jaffer appeared to glove through to Gilchrist but Bowden's decision, which again was correct, stifled the appeal.

After Jaffer and Dravid departed India were ticking along nicely as VVS Laxman, Tendulkar and Ganguly played some impressive strokes but none could build a match-saving partnership. Tendulkar looked terrific when he went down on one knee to square-drive Lee through point for four but he was then out-thought by Lee, who followed a quick bouncer with a good ball outside off stump that was too full to cut, luring Tendulkar into the shot which he edged behind.

Laxman had calmly worked his way to 42 when he succumbed to the frustration of Stuart Clark's tight bowling. Clark was following the team plan of suffocating India's scoring and had 0 for 15 in his 12th over when Laxman drove on the up straight to Michael Clarke at cover and Laxman was clearly annoyed by his lapse in concentration. He had been watchful in his 112-ball innings but was quickly onto any bad balls from Hogg, who dropped short more often than he would like. Laxman pulled a pair of Hogg deliveries through midwicket for boundaries and was also impressive with his straight drives.

While there were moments of satisfaction for India their overall experience, after the first day, was disheartening. When Steve Waugh's Australians set their record 16-match winning streak it was India who ended the successful run. They have three days before the Sydney Test to work out how they can prevent Ponting's men from equalling that record.

Indonesia landslides bury dozens

At least 80 people have been killed or are reported missing after floods triggered landslides in the central Java region of Indonesia.

Local officials say they fear the death toll could rise. Thousands have been forced to seek shelter after their homes were buried or washed away.

Landslides and floods are regular in Indonesia and many blame deforestation.

The latest flood came on the third anniversary of the tsunami that left 220,000 Indonesians dead or missing.

Celebration dinner

Floods rose up across Java island on Wednesday following seasonal rains and high tides.

Television pictures showed people wading through chest-high water, clutching their belongings above their heads.

Landslides struck several areas, including the Tawangmangu area of Central Java, in Karanganyar district, and further south in Wonogiri.

The worst incident was reportedly in Karanganyar, where people were at a dinner celebrating the clean-up of a mud-covered home.

Rescue chief Eko Prayitno told Associated Press news agency:

"They were having dinner together when they were hit by another landslide. At least 61 people were buried."

Rescuers have been struggling to reach many of the affected areas as roads have been cut off.

A provincial official said the landslides were the worst to hit the region in quarter of a century.

"The landslides took us by surprise. This is the first time in the last 25 years anything of this scale occurred here in Central Java,"

the official, Julianto, was quoted by Reuters as saying.

"It is difficult for any help to reach the area, so the local teams are left on their own,"

he said.

Heru, head of the local disaster coordination agency, told Reuters deforestation was probably not to blame in this incident.

"The forest in the area is thick,"

he said.

Oscar voters pick their nominees

The countdown to February's Oscars has begun after ballot papers were posted to the Academy Awards' 5,829 voters.

The first round of voting, which ends on 12 January, will decide which films and actors will be nominated.

Another round of voting will then take place to determine who will pick up the prestigious golden statuettes at the ceremony in Los Angeles on 24 February.

The award field is thought to be wide open, with Atonement and Into the Wild among the possible contenders.

Joel and Ethan Coen's No Country for Old Men is also one of the early favourites - but there is no clear frontrunner.

There is also uncertainty over what form the ceremony will take if the current Hollywood writers' strike carries on.

There could be no script for host Jon Stewart and the star presenters, and the strike could also affect the event's big-name turnout.

If writers picket the event, few A-list actors would want to be seen crossing the picket line.

Members of the Writers Guild of America have been on strike for seven weeks, but there are another two months until the Academy Awards take place at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood.

The nominees and winners are decided by members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which includes actors, directors and the cream of professionals from across the movie industry.

The ballots were sent on 26 December by auditing firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, who will also count the returned papers under strict security.

The initial votes must be returned by 1700 Los Angeles time on 12 January, with the nominations made public 10 days later.

Singer Joe Dolan dies in hospital

The Irish singer and entertainer Joe Dolan has died at the Mater private hospital in Dublin.

The 64-year-old took ill at his home in Foxrock on Christmas night and died just after 3pm on Boxing Day from a suspected brain haemorrhage.

A former showband singer, Mr Dolan enjoyed musical success for over 40 years in Ireland and around the world.

From Mullingar in Westmeath, he was best known for hits such as Good Looking Woman and Make Me an Island.

Online games battle for top spot

Challenges to the dominance of World of Warcraft over online games and gamers look set to emerge in 2008.

So say industry watchers looking back on a year in which the field as a whole matured and signs emerged which show how the industry sector is developing.

During the year Blizzard's flagship title consolidated its hold on gamers as its subscriber base kept growing.

But debuts by Age of Conan, Warhammer Online and many others may mean that hold begins to weaken.

Numbers game

"We expected, like all the analysts, to see a dip in subscriptions in 2007,"

said Paul Younger, an editor at the Inc Gamers network.

"As it turns out we've seen the rise and rise of WoW."

At the start of 2007, the number of active subscribers playing World of Warcraft was eight million but by the end of summer the number had passed 9.3 million.

According to statistics gathered by Nielsen the average WoW player racks up 17 hours of play per week - 12 hours more than its nearest competitor The Sims. As such it was the most played PC game between April and November 2007.

In online games such as World of Warcraft players create an avatar or character, give them a profession and venture out into the game world to battle monsters, find treasure and turn their novice into a powerful hero or heroine.

Mr Younger said online games such as Lord of the Rings Online, Tabula Rasa and Hellgate: London were widely tipped to poach significant numbers of players from Blizzard but, he said, it was not clear that had happened.

"There seems to be an inability by other massively multi-player game makers to capture what Blizzard managed to capture,"

said Mr Younger.

Rob Fahey, industry veteran and columnist for, said the new launches and continued success of WoW showed how strong the industry had become.

"There's plenty of choice out there for players now,"

he said

"You can even play massively multiplayer dancing games, if killing monsters isn't your thing."

Another sign of the growing maturity of online gaming was the notable failure of titles such as Vanguard.

Although released in February it was error prone and has taken months to become reliable enough.

"It's clear that it's no longer acceptable to release buggy games, and players aren't prepared to pay a monthly fee to test an unfinished product,"

he said.

Fantasy figures

The importance of the final polish is also thought to be behind the delayed arrival of Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures and Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning. Both were originally due in 2007 but now are expected before next summer.

Many see these as serious contenders to WoW because like that game they trade on a long history of earlier works.

Conan is familiar to many from Robert E Howard's original stories, the films starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and the many contemporary novels that explored the world of the iconic barbarian.

Warhammer is the creation of UK firm Games Workshop and has many fans who played the tabletop game, the role-playing system, the earlier games and has read the books set in its world.

Perhaps more importantly the titles are attempting to move online gaming on from the mechanics established by Blizzard.

In Warhammer many areas of the game are contested and factions will battle to regain control of these areas. Solo players as well as those who prefer pitched battles will contribute to this back and forth that will see a lot of the game world's territory change hands many times.

By contrast Age of Conan is explicitly aiming at a mature audience - in particular combat will be bloody and realistic. The game will also allow player teams, or guilds, to set up and run their own cities or lay siege to each other's strongholds.

But, said Philip Wride, boss of consultancy firm Elysium Gaming, it could be something entirely outside the field that has a big impact on online gamine in 2008.

In the UK the Byron Review is scrutinising video games with a view to drawing up new regulations and guidelines governing them.

"It's about educating parents more than anything and perhaps making changes in terms of rating systems,"

he said.

This was likely to mean best practice guidelines for parents but may eventually involve new legislation.

"That would alter how online games are both portrayed and played,"
said Mr Wride.

Liver damage 'could be reversed'

Some liver damage caused by heavy drinking or hepatitis could be halted or even reversed, claim researchers.

US researchers say that the growth of scarring around the organ might be stopped by blocking a vital protein which helps it to form.

The research, in the journal PLoS Online, could also eventually help patients with lung problems and burns.

The British Liver Trust said that any treatment which lessened scarring would help patients.

Heavy alcohol use and hepatitis can lead to a process called fibrosis in the liver, which involves the formation of excessive scar tissue.

Cirrhosis happens when this scarring becomes too severe, interfering with the way the liver works.

Currently doctors can do little more than try to prevent more damage by changing the patient's lifestyle or treating the virus which caused it.

Damage reversal?

The researchers at the University of California at San Diego School of Medicine have halted the formation of the scar tissue by blocking a protein called RSK, which is released naturally by the body as part of the healing process.

The scientists used mice with severe liver fibrosis, some of which were given a chemical which countered RSK.

Those mice had no further liver fibrosis, while those who didn't receive the chemical showed signs of more damage.

Dr Martina Buck, who led the study, said she felt that the treatment might be able to go further, and actually repair damage already caused.

"Our latest finding proves that we can actually reverse the damage,"

she said.

The researchers said that other conditions involving fibrosis, such as pulmonary fibrosis and scarring around burn injuries, could also potentially benefit.

A spokesman for the British Liver Trust said that the research was promising:

"This is clearly in very early stages and the real test will be when a treatment is developed to safely block progression of damage in the livers of patients with liver disease and reverse their fibrosis.

"Irrespective of whether cirrhosis is fully reversible there is clearly a lot of benefit to be derived from reducing the amount of liver fibrosis as this allows the liver cells to resume normal function."