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Babylon & Beyond

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Category: Technology

ISRAEL: iPhone's two-city solution disturbs the Mideast peace

Right-leaning Israeli politicians like to refer to Jerusalem as their "undivided capital." But iPhone users here and around the world found recently that the storied, disputed city had been split in two.

In the smart phone's weather application, the listing for "Jerusalem" disappeared earlier this month and was replaced by "West Jerusalem" and "East Jerusalem."

Both Israelis, who dominate the west part of the city, and Palestinians, the majority in the east, claim Jerusalem as their capital. Israel annexed East Jerusalem after the 1967 Middle East War, though Palestinians (and most of the international community) never accepted it.

The debate over how, or whether, to divide Jerusalem is still one of the thorniest issues in Mideast peace talks.

Perhaps frustrated with the lack of progress in the peace process, iPhone engineers apparently decided to impose their own mini-version of a two-state solution by partitioning the city and, in essence, forcing users to pick sides.

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EGYPT: Arabic Web addresses expected to draw millions of new users to Internet


Arabic, spoken by about 280-million people worldwide, will finally appear in domain names and Web addresses, a development that "represents a milestone in Internet history," said Tarek Kamel, Egypt's minister of communications.

Internet users so far only have been able to use Latin suffixes in their Web addresses, a format that has been an obstacle worldwide for millions of people unfamiliar with Latin letters. Introducing Arabic to domain languages in coming weeks is expected to spur Internet use among those in Egypt and the Middle East, who will have a variety of addresses in Arabic characters from which to choose.

Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates will be the first to take advantage of the International Domain Names after the Internet Corp. for Assigned Names and Numbers approved their proposals for IDN country-code top level domains (IDN ccTLD) late in 2009.

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WEST BANK: Young Palestinian inventors head to California science fair


Aseel Shaar, Nor Arda and Aseel Abu Leil are 14-year-old ninth-graders at the United Nations-run Askar Girls School in Nablus, a West Bank city. The trio is headed to California to exhibit their invention, an electronic cane for the blind, at a science fair.

The wooden cane, which has sensors that produce different sounds when the person using it approaches foreign objects on a road, will be shown in May at Intel's Science and Engineering Fair in San Jose.

"We wanted to do something to help blind people avoid obstacles in their way," Shaar said. "We came up with the idea in October to present it at the Palestinian Science and Technology Exhibition."

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ISRAEL: Commenters react to move to block Hitler parodies [Updated]

[Updated at 8:47 a.m.: An earlier version of this post's headline said YouTube commenters were reacting. The comments were made on Hebrew news sites in response to reports about the blocking of the YouTube videos.]

Noah Flug will no doubt be glad to see Adolf Hitler parodies gone from YouTube. A year ago, the chairman of the Center Organization of Holocaust Survivors in Israelsent a letter to YouTube, demanding a clip be removed. The offense in question, actually, was an Israeli addition to the growing collection of spoof-clips based on that one scene from the 2004 film "Der Untergang" ("The Downfall"), depicting Hitler's last days in the bunker.

The Hebrew subtitles show the Fuhrer fuming about parking in Tel Aviv, a sentiment widely shared by residents. The parking rant was one of a series of Israeli-made parodies that had Hitler blowing his stack at a whole range of standing gripes in Israel, from having to shell out for too many weddings to soldiers enjoying cushy desk jobs, Jerusalem hangouts closing too early and the infamous traffic jams leading to Israel's only ski-site.

And of course there's one responding to the Holocaust survivors' complaint too. Really, fumes Hitler, that was 70 years ago already. "I thought the Jewish people had a sense of humor, that this is how they survived for 5,000 years."

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SYRIA: Damascus denies Israeli allegations it transferred Scuds to Hezbollah


Syria has gone on the offensive since Israeli allegations that Damascus smuggled long-range Scud missiles to the militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon surfaced last week, but it hasn't helped stem speculation about what it could mean for the prospects of regional war or Syria's newly patched-up relationship with the United States.

If the claims are true, Scud missiles would represent a significant upgrade from the Katyushas and other short-range rockets Hezbollah has used in the past, posing a threat to all major Israeli cities.

The Syrian Embassy in Washington released a statement Thursday accusing Israel of waging a "disinformation campaign" in order to sour Syrian-American relations, justify a possible Israeli offensive and distract world attention from its own weapons stockpiling.

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LEBANON: Online serial 'Shankaboot' brings Arabic drama into the new millenium

A beautiful girl with a checkered past and the poor delivery boy who loves her – it could be any soap opera on one of hundreds of Arabic channels, but it's not. "Shankaboot" is a digital experiment in storytelling made for the Web, and its success could usher in a new genre of serial drama in the Arab world.

"In the first 10 episodes, we are introducing lovely, interesting characters that young people can identify with," producer Katia Saleh told The Times. "Down the line, [we'll] introduce other topics that would appeal to Arab youth and are not brought up in the mainstream media, something appropriate for the Web."

"Shankaboot," which was shot in Beirut and produced by Saleh's Batoota Films in association with the BBC World Service and with the support of local organizations, bills itself as the first online Arabic drama in the tradition of lonelygirl15 and KateModern, but with a distinctively local flavor.

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MIDDLE EAST: Iran and Arab countries "enemies of the Internet," says report

Internet_liberte_violet2  As of last week, the advocacy organization Reporters Without Borders counted nearly 120 bloggers, journalists and others behind bars for their online activities — more than any other time since the creation of the Internet.

On Saturday, that number went up by 30 when Iranian authorities announced the arrest of an alleged U.S.-backed "cyber network."

Members of the network were accused of bypassing government filters, waging "psychological warfare" against the Islamic Republic, fomenting unrest, and spying.

Although China still holds the dubious distinction of being the most repressive country when it comes to Internet use, the Middle East is not far behind.

Iran, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Syria and Egypt in particular have been singled out as "Enemies of the Internet" according to an annual report issued by Reporters Without Borders. Turkey was listed as "under surveillance."

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MIDDLE EAST: New website lets Muslims and Arabs put best face forward online

Picture 43

Ever wished your avatar was as stylish, devout or politically conscious as you are? Now it can be, with the new online service Wajhy, which allows users to customize their online persona with traditional Arab dress and accessories like a virtual keffiyeh.

Wajhy, which means "my face" in Arabic, offers a diverse selection of features, hair and skin colors as well as more culturally specific options including different styles of hijab (headscarves), niqab (face veils) and the shmagh, a traditional headdress worn by many Arab men.

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IRAN: Internet access, text-messaging service down as 22 Bahman protests approach

In the last week, Internet connections across Iran have slowed to a crawl, with sources in Tehran reporting that, when service is available at all, it is so slow that checking e-mail is nearly impossible. 

After connections worsened, Iran's communications minister, Reza Taghipour, told a state broadcaster (via Agence France-Presse): "The cause of the reduced service in recent days is that part of the fiber-optic network is damaged." The minister asserted that the damage to an undersea cable was due to shipping traffic and anchoring. As for the concurrent slowing of text-messaging service, Taghipour attributed the disruption to "changing software."

Given the Tehran government's recent history of Internet censorship and the vital role of social media and texting to the opposition movement, the disruption seems less than coincidental as Thursday's 22 Bahman holiday is expected to be an occasion of massive anti-regime protests. Taghipour did little to dismiss such suspicions by stating that "the breakage will be repaired by next week and the Internet speed will be back to normal," conveniently right after the planned protests. 

-- Daniel Siegal for LATimesWorld


A complete rundown of the upcoming 22 Bahman protests

Photo: In this June 11, 2009, photo, an Iranian woman who declined to give her name uses a computer at an Internet cafe in northern Tehran. Credit: Ben Curtis / Associated Press

LEBANON: Alien robot invades Beirut for groundbreaking Arab animation fest

A new invader has descended on Beirut: He is Grendizer. 

Beirut animated The iconic Grendizer of 1970s anime fame is the official poster boy (bot?) of the Beirut Animated film festival, which opens today as a collaboration between  Beirut-based Samandal Comics and the Metropolis art cinema.

Grendizer is a unifying figure for an entire generation of Lebanese who grew up during the country's bitter 15-year civil war. When Beirut was being torn to pieces by local warlords and their foreign-funded militias, the Grendizer cartoons were a welcome distraction for children who were more likely to miss school because of shelling than chicken pox.

Although Grendizer has been a great marketing tool, Metropolis' Rabih Khoury said he and the other organizers tried to emphasize the artistic range of animation, which is often dismissed as kid's stuff. To this end, Beirut Animated will feature 40 animated films and shorts, with a special emphasis on Arab productions.

The festival already has generated buzz with a number of clever mixed-media Internet shorts reimagining Beirut under siege by aliens, monsters and robots, both benign and menacing. The clip below features a somewhat awkward encounter between the cameraman and the robot guarding the entrance to the Candlelight Bar, an infamous prostitution den known locally as a "super nightclub," in West Beirut.

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UNITED ARAB EMIRATES: Named after famed scientist, robot readied for life of mall drudgery


He has facial expressions, speaks classical Arabic and wears elegant traditional robes. 

Perfect, scientists say, for directing hungry shoppers to the food court.

Students and faculty at United Arab Emirates University in Al-Ain have created what a team at the university's lab says is the world's first Arabic-speaking socially interactive robot.

Nicholas Mavrides, a professor of computer science, said the human-like Ibn Sina, named after the Islamic philosopher and scientist commonly known in English as Avicenna, said the robot could be used as a receptionist, salesman or shopping assistant at one of the Persian Gulf's many shopping malls.

"We're very close to being able to get him to work as a receptionist or a helper in a mall," he told Agence France Presse. "If we work on it in a group of five people, we will be able to develop those skills in six months to make him ready for full operations."

-- Los Angeles Times

Photo: Karim Sahib / AFP/Getty Images

UAE: Government to create DNA database of all residents, starting with children

DNA_orbit_animated_static_thumb.gif Within a year, the United Arab Emirates will become the first country to begin building a national DNA database of all residents, the Abu Dhabi-based National newspaper reported today.

Authorities say the program will help solve and prevent crimes, but critics see the database as a potentially dangerous violation of civil liberties, especially because the program is expected to be initiated as a security directive, thus bypassing the legislative process entirely.

Dr. Ahmed Marzooqi, the program's director, said lab technicians will begin swabbing cheeks of the general public as soon as the infrastructure is in place, starting with priority groups like minors.

“Most criminals start when they are young," Marzooqi said. "If we can identify them at that age, then we can help in their rehabilitation before the level of their crimes increase."

But Sir Alec Jeffreys, the British geneticist who invented the technology, questioned the ethics of the UAE's planned database, calling for a “full transparent justification of why a universal database is needed compared with a criminal DNA database." 

The National points out that although the UAE is home to a large and transient expatriate population, the DNA profiles would be stored in the database indefinitely, and that some information could be shared with other governments or Interpol, depending on specific treaties or cooperation agreements.

Marzooqi maintained the government is taking privacy concerns very seriously, and will implement "strict usage rules and will take secondary tests in court cases to verify the identity matches.”

-- Meris Lutz in Beirut

Image: DNA detail. Credit: Wikimedia Commons


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