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Virtual healing for the real world

OTTAWAFor more than a decade, a handful of therapists have been using virtual environments to help people to work through phobias, like a fear of heights or of public spaces. But now advances in artificial intelligence and computer modeling are allowing them to take on a wider array of complex social challenges and to gain insight into how people are affected by interactions with virtual humans — or by inhabiting avatars of themselves.

Researchers are populating digital worlds with autonomous, virtual humans that can evoke the same tensions as in real-life encounters. People with social anxiety are struck dumb when asked questions by a virtual stranger. Heavy drinkers feel strong urges to order something from a virtual bartender, while gamblers are drawn to sit down and join a group playing on virtual slot machines. And therapists can advise patients at the very moment those sensations are felt.

In a series of experiments, researchers have shown that people internalize these virtual experiences and their responses to them — with effects that carry over into real life.

The emerging field, called cybertherapy, now has annual conferences and a growing international following of therapists, researchers and others interested improving behavior through the use of simulations. The Canadian military has invested heavily in virtual-reality research; so has the U.S. Army, which has been spending about $4 million annually on programs with computer-generated agents, for training officers and treating post-traumatic stress reactions.

Interacting with a virtual human programmed to be socially sensitive is oddly liberating. The figures are clearly not human; some are balky with language, others mute. Many have a 2-D graphic-arts quality.

Irish debt crisis forces collapse of government

DUBLIN — The Irish government faced imminent collapse Monday, only a day after it signed off on a $100 billion bailout, setting the stage for a new election early next year and injecting the threat of political instability into a European financial crisis that already has markets on edge.

Confronted with high-level defections from his governing coalition, Prime Minister Brian Cowen said he would dissolve the government after passage of the country’s crucial 2011 budget early in December.

His announcement capped a grim day for Ireland, as protesters tried to storm the parliament building in Dublin, and Moody’s Investors Service, the ratings agency, lowered the rating on Irish debt by several notches.

In agreeing to new elections, Cowen seemed sure to become the first political casualty of the debt crisis in the 16-member euro zone.

The developments sent a chill through financial markets and political circles in the euro zone, where the severe austerity measures imposed to keep the currency union from fracturing have yet to be tested in general elections.

Defenders of earmarks point to needs that would not be met

ST. LOUIS —With their vote last week to support a moratorium on earmarks, House and Senate Republicans are taking aim at a popular target: the much-criticized system for distributing federal money that reflects politicians’ clout as much as the merits of projects in their districts.

In doing so, Republicans are hoping to tap into growing public concern about federal spending and stand up to the kind of projects that have become reliable late-night punch lines, like bridges to nowhere, teapot museums and studies of pig odor.

But at a local level, there remain many supporters of earmarks, who argue that they play an important role — solving basic and urgent infrastructure needs in communities — that is often lost in their cartoonish portrayals.

“I don’t really care what it’s called. — I’m mostly concerned about what the money is going to be used for,” said Francis G. Slay, the mayor of St. Louis, whose deteriorating flood-control system along the banks of the Mississippi went unaddressed for years until Sen. Christopher S. Bond, a Republican, accelerated the slow-moving project with help from an earmark.

Agent’s loans to poor baseball prospects pose concerns

The company of Scott Boras, baseball’s pre-eminent agent, provided tens of thousands of dollars in loans and payments to the families of poor Dominican teenage prospects, according to people with ties to Boras, raising questions about whether the company exploited the prospects and violated the rules of the Major League Baseball Players Association.

The union, which oversees agents and restricts many such transactions because they create a financial tether that can lead to the players becoming indentured, can levy penalties ranging from a fine to revoking an agent’s right to represent players, sports law experts said.

“The money obligates them to the agent, gives the agent leverage, and coerces the athlete to do what the agent wants because of fear of foreclosure or other adverse consequences for the athlete or the athlete’s family,” said Mark S. Levinstein, a prominent sports lawyer who is a partner at the Washington law firm Williams & Connolly.

According to the union’s regulations governing agents, loans of more than $500 a year to players and their families are prohibited unless the purpose of the loan is disclosed to the union.