Dec 31, 2006

Peter N. Spotts: Spam obselete

Meat counters and dairy cases are likely to become the latest battlegrounds for the use of biotechnology down on the farm. Thursday, the US government released a draft report concluding that food from cloned cattle, pigs, and other livestock is as safe to eat as food products from conventionally bred animals. The safety assessment paves the way for ranchers to use clones for their breeding stock, using cloning techniques similar to those that created Dolly the sheep in 1996.

he decision is not likely to create a flood of cloned livestock in the short term, several analysts say. The assessment, from the US Food and Drug Administration's Center for Veterinary Medicine, must still endure 60 days of public comment. And the FDA still must weigh issues, such as whether to label meat products from the offspring of cloned animals or track the clones themselves if they move into the food system after their usefulness as breeding stock ends. It may take a year or two after the comment period ends for breeders to start using clones.

Still, the assessment represents a significant step toward approving a technology that several specialists say will lead to more consistent, and higher quality meat and dairy products. And it is galvanizing opposition from consumer and food-safety groups. They hold that the health-risk studies fall short of what's needed to ensure that such products are safe.

Dec 29, 2006

£65m robot bomb disposal fleet plan

BRITISH troops are to get a fleet of 80 hi-tech bomb disposal robots under a £65 million contract announced by the Ministry of Defence yesterday.

Eydie Cubarrubia: Robotic potential increased

If they could, automatons would be so happy break they’d out into “the robot” dance moves to conclude 2006. No, it’s not because of some breakthrough that instantly changed robots from mechanical helpers to sentient companions. Instead, there were an awful lot of studies and discoveries—and even a few products—that showed robots are getting closer to the sci-fi ideal of aids to humans’ daily living.

Sure, some beloved ‘bots were put to pasture. And some so-called news was more silly than scintillating. Furthermore, the year 2006 began and ended on less-than-stellar reports.

But advances in toys, teaching aids, and military tech showed that the pursuit of artificial intelligence, and mechanical sensors that can put that intelligence to use, continues to advance.

What follows is a timeline of robots in this year’s news—the good, the bad, and the silly.

Robo Dog Takes Bullet For Sony, January: Japanese electronics maker admits it’ll kill the unprofitable and expensive Aibo line. (It must have been a dog...)

Making Computers Smarter (and Computers That Think, Really), May: IBM brings together neuroscientists and computer scientists to determine how best to create artificial minds that mimic a human’s. (move over artificial intelligence, here come's natural stupidity)

Microsoft Makes Robot Friends (or how Bill Gates makes Friends?), June: Redmond announces its own standards for robotic applications (then unveils them in December).

Tin Teachers Aid Tech Students, July: Microsoft, Georgia Tech, and Bryn Mawr College create the Institute for Personal Robots in Education, paving the way for automatons to teach science classes.

Dartmouth Marks AI’s Birthday, July: The 50th anniversary of the term “artificial intelligence,” coined by scientists at a Dartmouth conference five decades ago, brings the realization that all AI goals will take much longer than anticipated.

Lego Improves Its Robots, August: The fun building blocks can be made to come alive robotically, with better-than-ever robot kits (that you can program yourself!) from the Danish toymaker.

Robot Pet Maker Gets $8M, October: Startup Ugobe, maker of the Pleo baby dinosaur toy (see Jurassic Robot), raises a second round of funding, likely so as to make personal ‘bots that are even more appealing.

Battle Robots On Display, October: Improved robots commissioned for the U.S. military may bring automatons closer to reality, but warrior robots may also one day break author Isaac Asimov’s golden rule that no robot shall ever harm a person.

Musical iPod Robot Rolls Through, October: This gets a smile icon not in and of itself, but because it precludes the personal assistant (for example, a bot that looks for new music on the Internet while you’re busy) that Japanese company ZMP hopes to make robots into.

Robo Rights A Reality: Rather than spend money on practical research, the British government commissions what some say is a silly paper on how robots will someday evolve into beings that deserve the freedoms and rights of humans. (Give your a robot a big hug, right now!)

Would you like a carrot with that?

The early reviews are mostly positive at the Universal Studios theme park in Hollywood where the menu changed on Christmas Eve to cut unhealthy trans fats from many junk food favorites. Twelve-year-old Jack Xu noticed something different about his french fry.

"It tastes drier and not too salty," he said, then added: "I still like it." The self-described junk food addict, an exchange student from Beijing who's visited the park before, was on a field trip this week and enjoying a basket of chicken tenders and fries.

Universal Parks & Resorts, home to movie-inspired thrill rides, is the latest theme park operation to ban artery-clogging trans fats and offer healthier menus at its three domestic attractions in California and Florida. The action follows entertainment giant Walt Disney Co., which announced in October it will serve more nutritious kids' meals and phase out the artificial fats at its resorts.

Dec 28, 2006

Bicycle design eliminates chain, derailleur and sprocket

Most childhoods would be incomplete without an incident involving lost skin and a bicycle. Indeed, given that the bicycle is the world’s favourite means of transport (more than 100 million bicycles are sold each year – double the number of cars) and they all feature a highly-efficient but potentially dangerous chain drive, we’d suspect that most people will have had an unfortunate recollection of an incident involving a de-railed chain, lost skin, grease and perhaps a destroyed garment or two. So we like the idea of a bicycle without a chain. US-based Dynacraft has introduced just such a beastie - the Dekra-D Drive bike has an internal drive shaft which offers less maintenance, greater safety and a cleaner solution than a conventional chain-driven bike by replacing the parts of the bike that cause the most problems and require the most maintenance - the chain and derailleur.

Dual-mode train-tram-bus systems gain momentum

The concept of a dual-mode vehicle that will run on tram or train tracks and is also capable of driving on the road is gaining ground with the news that Japanese rail firm JR Hokkaido is poised to launch its dual-mode bus and rail vehicle we previewed two years ago. The company will begin conducting commercial tests in April 2007 and preliminary trials suggest the vehicle’s fuel cost is about a quarter of a diesel vehicle, and maintenance cost about one-eighth, while offering the flexibility to extend railed systems. Similarly, the European AutoTram concept is also gathering a following. The Autotram can be up to 36 meters long, can carry as many passengers as a streetcar while being as versatile as a bus. One of the key aspects of the Autotram is its flywheel energy storage system that facilitates a regenerative braking system and signficiantly cuts operating costs. The Bladerunner concept is another dual-mode transport system.

Eco-Friendly Australian Concept

Part of the Monash University Art Design Faculty "Forecast Motors" exhibit at the Melbourne International Motor Show and a winner at the Dyson national student awards, 'Skipee' is the eco-friendly brainchild of Australian design student Dimitrios Scoutas. Created to appeal to those who wouldn't normally use a motorcycle, the futuristic concept is constructed from predominantly recycled materials and powered an electric engine housed in the rear wheel. The three-wheel design promotes stability in cornering and each front wheel is fitted with a headlight to make the vehicle appear like a small car to other road users. Other design highlights from Forecast Motors include:- Shuttle Express public transport vehicle (Michael Buffington)- Tribe, an economical, practical, low-cost vehicle with flat floors and removeable or interchangeable seats designed for use in the Third World. (Joseph Rudolph)- Urban Assault Vehicle designed to carry leisure vehicles for extreme sports (Brendan Carroll)- Triad 2-seater sports car (Paul McLaggans)- Urban transport vehicle equipped with windscreen that converts into a huge video screen when the car is parked. (Kurt Ramholdt)

Brazil to have over 100 million wireless users soon

The country of Brazil should have over 100 million wireless handsets in operation by the end of this year, according to Anatel, which recorded growth of almost 17 million handsets in 2005 and already over 11 million handsets through the first 11 months of 2006.

At the end of November this year, Brazil had 97.3 million handsets in service -- and 80.64% were prepaid and 19.36% postpaid. That's what's interesting -- Brazil loves prepaid service I guess.

In the U.S., the ratio of prepaid to postpaid is probably the inverse of Brazil -- that's my guess, anyway.

Google Search Linked to Profit

Merrill Lynch analyst Justin Post said Tuesday that search queries on Google are growing between 30 percent and 50 percent, far exceeding the number of page view growth on Yahoo, eBay, or Amazon.

Mr. Post said Google would benefit the most from online sales. The Mountain View, Calif., company will see benefits without margin pressure from competitive pricing that is affecting the business at rivals, he said. “Our price objective of $530 represents 40 times our fiscal year 2007 EPS estimate of $13.35, excluding stock comp,” he wrote. “We believe a 40 times multiple is reasonable based on our 50 percent CAGR revenue growth assumption over the next three years.”

The number of search queries conducted in the United States dropped to 31 percent in November from 33 percent in October, according to comScore Media Metrix. But Google gained market share in November, while Yahoo remained flat, and MSN, Time Warner, and declined, Post notes.

Overall, searches in October for consumer goods, software, and travel served up the highest number of advertisements to people searching on the web, compared with the prior month. Automotive, entertainment, financial services, and hardware and electronics declined sequentially.

Nielsen Ratings said consumer goods saw the highest increase, 71 percent, in October, while financial services declined the most, down 14 percent.

”Near term we continue to view Google as well positioned to benefit from additional online activity, with less margin risk from pricing or marketing competition,” Post wrote.

Dec 27, 2006

Thomas Lifson: Jet lag and death

In my younger years, I endured periods of coast-to-coast and even intercontinental frequent travel. For about half a year I actually commuted between the East Coast and Japan every three weeks, managing somehow to survive the ordeal. All those frequent flier credits put me in first class for most of it, which did seem to help. A lot.

Now comes news from the Washington Post that is giving me pause about ever resuming such a hectic travel regimen.

A study at the University of Virginia released during the height of Thanksgiving and Christmas travel seasons showed that a majority of elderly mice died while being subjected to the equivalent of a Washington-to-Paris flight once a week for eight weeks. More intense forms of jet lag sped up the death rate in the elderly rodents, the study found.

I wonder if the mice were in simulated first class, business, or coach?

Evidently, in fact, the study adjusted the hours of light and darkness to simulate the effects of travel, rather than actually shipping the rodents overseas and back. In fact, the researchers were able to study separately the effects of westbound and eastbound travel:

It is more difficult to adjust to time zone changes when flying east. The researchers found that 53 percent of elderly mice died when they were subjected to a simulated weekly flight from Washington to Paris over the eight-week study. The death rate dropped to 32 percent of elderly mice on a simulated Paris-to-Washington route, according to the study, which was published last month in the journal Current Biology. Seventeen percent of the mice in a control group died in the eight-week study.

The odd thing for me is that I have grown older I have developed the ability to fall asleep almost anytime. In fact, what little intercontinental travel I have done in the past few years has been far less painful than it was when I was younger.

On the other hand, I think that as mice and people age, we do become more vulnerable to stress. There are just fewer reserves of health and energy on which to fall back.

Dec 26, 2006

Dawn Kawamoto,: launches AppExchange on Tuesday announced the launch of AppExchange, an online marketplace for hosted business software applications.

AppExchange marks an effort by to expand its footprint in the growing arena of hosted business applications.

As previously reported, the new offering is designed to allow developers and customers and partners the ability to distribute their applications via Salesforce's hosted-computing platform.

Adobe Systems, IP telephony company Skype Technologies and news archive company Factiva are among the various AppExchange partners, which are offering up to 150 business applications for the marketplace. The on-demand applications include finance, electronic signatures, document management, data cleansing and human resources.

A fee will typically be charged for applications sold by AppExchange partners, while those developed by will currently be free, according to the company. There is no charge to customers who engage in a trial test of the applications distributed via AppExchange.

Dec 25, 2006

Eric Butterfield: The Future of Robots

Need something done? Soon you may be turning to various "service and personal" robots. These machines perform domestic chores or tasks such as milking cows or handling toxic waste, or serving in fields like emergency medical support. The timeline below summarizes experts' opinions on how soon every home will have a little mechanical helper.
  1. 2006 Roomba sales top 2 million. [This already happened in May 2006.]
  2. 2007 Sales of pool-cleaning and window-washing robots rise significantly. A new, bipedal Honda Asimo unit that can run (at 4 miles per hour) debuts in United States.
  3. 2009 In just three years, 4.5 million domestic robots have been sold.
  4. 2010 Service and personal robotics sales exceed $17 billion.
  5. 2025 Sales of service and personal robots near $52 billion.
  6. 2040 Most households now own a robot or are considering buying one.

Dec 24, 2006

Open-Source Database Technologies picking up momentum

Microsoft can snipe all it wants at the TCO and security of open source, but a flood of database-, BI- and data-center-related news coming out of LinuxWorld means one thing: Linux has drilled so far down into overall IT frameworks that it's simply another option on the short list. Commercialization of open source is one trend evident at LinuxWorld Conference & Expo, and it's being reflected big-time in database-centric offerings.

"We're seeing the notion that open-source products have a very, very viable business model and have established themselves as credible players," said Steve O'Grady, an analyst at RedMonk. "While they don't play in exactly the same markets and don't compete feature-to-feature with proprietary [solutions], there's a sizable market that's not interested in all the bells and whistles included with proprietary vendors."

Acceptance of the commercial open-source model is more evident than ever. The database is, and will always be, a critical component of the application stack, O'Grady said. And as LinuxWorld shows, options for that stack are viable and vibrant. MySQL AB had two whoppers this week. First, Dell Inc.'s announcement on Monday that it would resell MySQL's open-source database, along with the other components of the LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP/Python/Perl) stack, is both an indication of the widening spread of the stack and of this enormously popular database.

Dec 22, 2006

Teenagers use medicines to get high

Teens increasingly are getting high with legal drugs like painkillers and mood stimulants, and they're turning to cough syrup as well, says a government survey released Thursday. The annual study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, conducted by the University of Michigan, showed mixed results in the nation's longtime campaign against teen drug abuse. It found that while fewer teens overall drank alcohol or used illegal drugs in the last year, a small but growing number were popping prescription painkillers like OxyContin and Vicodin and stimulants like Ritalin. As many as one in every 14 high school seniors said they used cold medicine "fairly recently" to get high, the study found.

Fat-Burning Milk - The New Energy Drink

The Italians have long been famed for their luxurious foods and fine wines and they can now claim a new area of expertise – fat-burning milk.

Though the concept of yogurts and milk drinks used as an aide to slimming has been around for a while, the new fermented milk drink from Exquisa Italia claims to be much more than aide to weight-loss. In fact, with its specially formulated Fisique Active Principle; a bland of green tea, calcium, and milk proteins it claims it will help you burn fat naturally.

The Fisique Fermented Milk Drink is itself low in fat and drinking just one a day is said to have visible results. The claims do not stop there either, as the fat-burning milk will also help consumers feel better and healthier.

The multi-functional health and wellness foods and drinks products are set to rapidly expand in 2007 as consumers seek more convenient ways to get rid of excess fat. The stage is set for new ranges of fortified foods and drinks with ingredients which have been shown to activate metabolism such as caffeine, guarana, green tea, ginseng, and the kola nut.

Spaghetti and milk anyone?

Dec 21, 2006

Warnings Proposed for Over-the-Counter Drugs

The dangers of over-the-counter painkillers will be prominently highlighted on the labels of hundreds of common remedies under a proposal announced yesterday by the Food and Drug Administration.

The proposed warnings — about possible liver failure from acetaminophen and gastrointestinal bleeding from other medicines like aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen and ketoprofen — follow alarms about overusing such medications.

"These drugs are used by tens of millions of people every week, and they are quite safe," Dr. Charles Ganley, director of the F.D.A. office of nonprescription drugs, said in a news conference.

But Dr. Ganley said that when the drugs are used by so many people rare problems could add up.

Doctors have raised concerns about overdoses from drugs containing acetaminophen, a leading cause of acute liver failure.

More than 200 million Americans a year take products like Tylenol with acetaminophen, and overdoses cause up to 450 deaths a year from acute liver failure.

Dec 20, 2006

Soaring eco-cost of the gadget habit

TONY Povoas wakes up each morning and brushes his teeth with an electric toothbrush before shaving with a battery- powered razor. He stumbles downstairs to flick on his coffee machine, sometimes using his electric juicer while he waits.

Before leaving for work, he checks for messages on his two mobile phones, e-mail on one of his three personal computers and appointments on his electronic PDA. In everything he does and everywhere he goes, Mr Povoas is surrounded by the persistent, modern-day hum of the wired life. He's not alone.

If current trends continue, the amount of electricity people such as Mr Povoas use to power gadgets will double in the next five years, according to a report released yesterday by the Energy Saving Trust. In the next six months alone, British consumers will buy more than 30 million electrical and electronic items, raising concerns over energy wastage and the environmental cost of a nation that remains constantly plugged in.

"I used to think of myself as being pretty techy and wired," said Mr Povoas, 37, a consultant at Edinburgh-based IT security firm Commissum. "But now I'm pretty much a typical professional. All my friends and colleagues have the same amount of electrical equipment." Research by the trust shows attitudes have changed, with many Britons now regarding items such as cordless phones and electric toothbrushes as "essential". It also suggests many are unaware of the amount of electricity being consumed all around them, and the damage such energy use can have on the environment.

The trust has estimated that Britain unnecessarily emits up to 50 million tonnes of each year - as much as a third of its total output - by failing to take simple energy-efficient measures in the home, such as turning appliances off standby and ensuring adequate insulation. The trust is calling for gadgets to carry labels warning shoppers how much they cost to run. It believes labelling might persuade shoppers to buy fewer products or choose more energy-efficient models.

Anne Broache: IT worker indicted in hacking scheme at health firm

A systems administrator who apparently feared imminent layoffs was arrested Tuesday in connection with installing "destructive computer code" on servers at his company, a major manager of prescription benefit plans.

FBI agents arrested Yung-Hsun "Andy" Lin, 50, at his Montville, N.J., home on Tuesday morning, one day after a grand jury returned a two-count indictment (PDF) against him.

The indictment accuses Lin of planting a "logic bomb" sometime around October 2003 that, if activated successfully, would have deleted "virtually all information" on more than 70 HP-Unix servers at Medco Health Solutions and wreaked havoc on the business and its users.

The servers contained numerous applications and databases that managed bills, rebates, new prescription call-ins from doctors, insurance coverage, and clinical assessments of patients. One database that received special attention in the indictment, known as the Drug Utilization Review, was designed to allow pharmacists to see what drugs patients were already taking so that they could determine whether taking different medicines simultaneously was safe.

"The potential damage to Medco and the patients and physicians served by the company cannot be understated," Christopher Christie, U.S. attorney for the New Jersey district, said in a statement.

According to the indictment, the alleged criminal activity started just after Medco, once a wholly owned subsidiary of Merck & Co., became a publicly traded company in August 2003. During the month that followed, Lin and others exchanged e-mails in which they voiced concerns about possible layoffs in their department. While Lin ultimately kept his job, four fellow systems administrators lost theirs.

Lin allegedly programmed the so-called bomb to do its work on April 23, 2004--his birthday--but because of a coding error, it failed to detonate. He later modified the coding so that it would deploy on April 23, 2005, but another computer administrator happened to stumble upon the program in January 2005 and "neutralized" it, the indictment said.

Mary Crane: Making Green From Garbage

Savvy entrepreneurs can smell business opportunities that others don't--even ones that lurk under a pile of trash.

Take Patrick Fitzgerald. When New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg tried to save a few pennies back in 2002 by doing away with plastic and glass recycling, Fitzgerald--then a law student at Fordham University--started sniffing. On its face, Bloomberg's decision was understandable: While people claimed to be recycling, the trucks that hauled the garbage were coming back only a quarter full; meanwhile, the city had to cover the costs to keep them running.

It's little surprise, then, that recycling has traditionally been the domain of governments and nonprofit institutions, as well as large, diversified companies such as Waste Management (market cap: $19 billion), Republic Services ($5.3 billion) and Allied Waste Industries ($4 billion) that boast enough scale to make the economics work.

How to get more people to recycle? Fitzgerald's answer: Pay them.

"There are a lot of companies out there, like Starbucks (nasdaq: SBUX - news - people ) and Home Depot (nyse: HD - news - people ), that are spending a lot of money on environmental programs, but [most] people don't know about them," says Fitzgerald. "If I could get those companies to reward households that are recycling, I could increase recycling rates."

Dec 19, 2006

Mac users finally waking up to security

Following a number of attacks against OS X in 2006, Mac users are finally getting the message that they are not immune, according to an IT security manager responsible for over 5,000 Apple systems.

Just over a year ago, Mark Borrie from the University of Otago in New Zealand, said that Apple users were their own worst enemy when it came to security, because they considered themselves immune from attack.

However, since that time Apple has been the subject of much debate as researchers found the first Mac-targeting malware samples and discovered weaknesses in the platforms' AirPort wireless network system.

Borrie claimed that this new focus on OS X has already increased the level of awareness amongst Apple users.

"That was part of the issue I had last year … with Mac OS you can get hacked and you can get taken over -- that message is slowly getting through to the key people," Borrie told ZDNet Australia in a telephone interview on Monday.

Borrie explained that he does not expect to see OS X plagued by spyware and replicating viruses that infest Windows systems, but he believes there will be more Mac-related malware.

Philip Johnston: System vs Privacy

Labour promised yesterday that confidential health information would not be freely available when it is uploaded by GPs onto a national database. Yet this is the party that a few years ago leaked the records of an elderly lady in an attempt to discredit her family's complaints about the way she was being treated on the NHS... Critics of the new health database are fearful that people's most private personal details will become widely accessible despite the Government's assertions that they will be protected.

Until a ''task force" reported yesterday with recommendations on how the new system could be made more secure, the Government was approaching this task with a cavalier attitude that brooked little opposition. Now, Lord Warner, the NHS Minister - who is about to retire in any case - says he now accepts the need for more caution. Patients will apparently be allowed a veto on information being passed on - but it has yet to be worked out how.

But would the Government have offered these concessions to privacy had campaigners against excessive intrusion not made a huge fuss about the proposal? People's health records often contain their most intimate details that they would not wish to share with anyone else, not even their closest relatives. Yet, they do not belong to us. In law, the GP is the ''data controller" of personal clinical records and the hospitals of data from in-patient care.

One reason why many GPs are so concerned by the database is that it places them in the invidious position of uploading information that someone may not want to go any further than the surgery. But the wider concerns of privacy campaigners is how the records could eventually be linked up to other databases, notably the ID card system. Phil Booth, spokesman for the NO2ID group said: ''The Government says there will be no health details on the ID database. But how long before someone says it would make sense to link ID with the health database for everyone's benefit? The problem is that often the wrong information is loaded on."...

A campaign called The Big Opt Out has been set up to offer advice to people who do not want their records passed on, with a pro forma letter that can be copied and sent to a GP. It also asks that the GP should keep the request itself to be kept a secret.

The Life of Python

Back in the day, a generation of schoolboys learned French verbs and poetry by rote, then spent their spare time committing Monty Python sketches to memory in similar dead-parrot fashion, using the tie-in albums and books for homework. Meanwhile in America, where the shows were virtually unknown, the records (on the ‘progressive’ Charisma label) became an integral part of the post-Sixties ‘stoner’ culture. FM djs gave them airplay, and rock stars championed them at every opportunity. They were known as ‘The Pythons’, which sounded like a rock group, and before long they were de facto rock stars themselves, with sell-out live tours and screaming fans. There was even a live album, replete with extra swearing. (The albums were quite risqué, in marked contrast to the strict censorship of the BBC at the time.)

Before singing their praises, it should be acknowledged that the Python albums did have a downside. Firstly, and most shamefully, there was the deathly tradition of ‘doing’ the sketches. Anyone who has stood glassy-eyed during these ritualistic re-enactments will have good reason to curse Charisma Records. And any masochist who hasn’t suffered in this way can experience it vicariously through the ‘romantic comedy’ Sliding Doors, in which the male lead inexplicably wins the girl by reciting Python at length in a restaurant, to the implausible delight of the assembled company. (Python Fact: Elvis Presley was prone to this sort of thing, and could recite Monty Python and the Holy Grail in its entirety. He was also in the habit of calling members of his Memphis Mafia ‘squire’. And look what happened to him.)

Aquaflow Bion Biodiesel Made from Algae in Sewerage Ponds

Aquaflow Bionomic Corporation has produced its first sample of homegrown biodiesel fuel using algae sourced from sewerage ponds in its region of New Zealand. In what could be the first such sample of biodiesel in the world, the breakthrough came after Aquaflow undertook a pilot project to extract algae from its excess pond discharge.

By taking the waste product, Aquaflow can create biodiesel and remove a problem for councils by producing useful clean water, a process known as bioremediation. Dairy farmers, and many food processors too, could benefit from recycling their waste streams that algae thrive in. The exact biodiesel manufacturing technology is secret, stated the release, but the process involves processing the algae pulp before extracting lipid oil, which is then turned into biodiesel.

Blended with conventional mineral diesel, biodiesel could run vehicles without the need for vehicle modifications. It would also help to meet the New Zealand Government B5 (5% blended) fuel targets by 2008 moving up to B20 as biofuel production increases. Biodiesel could eventually become a sustainable, low cost, cleaner burning fuel alternative for New Zealand, powering family cars, trucks, buses, and boats and for use in heating or distributed electricity generation.

Dec 18, 2006

Mags see writing on the wall

FOR the magazine industry, 2006 was the year publishers at last cracked their eyes at the dawning digital future.

In early August, Pacific Magazines became the first of the leading companies to experiment with an exclusively online magazine with the launch of, a fashion title aimed at teens and women in their 20s.

FPC Magazines also proved it was taking cyberspace seriously by increasing its online team from precisely no people to 30 during the past 12 months.

Among the initiatives of interactive group general manager Michael Gethen was the November launch of online portal, which consolidated the content of all FPC's print food publications. "There is quite a bit of experimentation with magazine publishers coming on to the web now," Mr Gethen told Media. "Finally."

At the American Magazine Conference in October Jeffrey Cole, of the Centre for the Digital Future, galvanised the industry when he predicted that information-based magazines would not survive in print form and must move online.

Dec 17, 2006

Penny Crosman: Stealth Layoffs and Reputation Monitoring

What does this phenomenon have to do with enterprise software, you may ask? An emerging category of software serves this culture of fear and paranoia by scanning news articles, online communities and blogs for clues to a company's reputation on the Web.

IBM's Public Image Monitoring Solution reads blogs, news feeds, consumer review sites, newsgroups and articles in an attempt to analyze tone, facts, opinions, and indirect alliances.

Insight Reputation Intelligence can provide line graphs that track press comments against stock price movements.

Room 214's RSSready Reputation Management System is a custom pre-populated RSS reader that tracks and organizes blog postings, syndicated news, and search engine results to monitor a company's brand, industry happenings, covering publications and journalists, and competition, offering instant notification when an online conversation about the company begins.

Biz360's Market 360 Point-of-View Sentiment strives to identify and capture positive, neutral, or negative tone ratings in a single article, for each company and product mentioned and across all articles in a market space.

Umbria's Brand Tracker searches the blogosphere for posts that may affect a company's brand, providing a helpful demographic analysis of the bloggers' age and gender.

Nielsen BuzzMetrics offers a combination of text mining and consulting to help manage a company's reputation, particularly in times of crisis.

Cymfony sells audits and reports that summarize the reputation in the media of a company and its competitors, based on financial performance, customer service, social responsibility, innovation, and industry leadership.

Marilynn Marchione: Hormone fears rise with cancer news

This week's news that a big drop in breast cancer cases might be due to millions of women going off menopause hormones may lead even more of them to abandon the pills.

But doctors worry that women with severe menopausal symptoms will overreact to the risks and deny themselves the benefits of hormones.

"There are some women who really require treatment. ... I worry that they will be talked out of it," said Dr. JoAnn Manson, a women's health expert at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.

Hormone use plummeted after a 2002 study found that it raised the risk of breast cancer, heart disease and other problems. Before that, the pills were thought to prevent many of those conditions, and doctors prescribed them as little fountains of youth.

On Thursday, researchers reported that the rate of breast cancer in the United States dropped more than 7 percent in 2003, the year after that landmark study. The backlash against hormones is considered the leading explanation for the decline.

Some women are still using hormone therapy "because their doctors genuinely believe that it prevents some diseases," said Dr. Isaac Schiff of Massachusetts General Hospital, who headed a panel for the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists that recommended in 2004 that doctors not withhold the treatment from women who truly need it.

But that's not as many women as you might think, Manson said.

About 2 million women start menopause each year in the United States, but only about one-fourth have moderate to severe symptoms lasting longer than four years, said Manson, whose new book, "Hot Flashes, Hormones & Your Health," includes a flowchart to help women decide whether to use hormones, which type and for how long.

Announcing Tesseract OCR

We wanted to let you all know that a few months ago we quietly released - or actually re-released - an Optical Character Recognition (OCR) engine into open source. You might wonder why Google is interested in OCR? In a nutshell, we are all about making information available to users, and when this information is in a paper document, OCR is the process by which we can convert the pages of this document into text that can then be used for indexing.

This particular OCR engine, called Tesseract, was in fact not originally developed at Google! It was developed at Hewlett Packard Laboratories between 1985 and 1995. In 1995 it was one of the top 3 performers at the OCR accuracy contest organized by University of Nevada in Las Vegas. However, shortly thereafter, HP decided to get out of the OCR business and Tesseract has been collecting dust in an HP warehouse ever since. Fortunately some of our esteemed HP colleagues realized a year or two ago that rather than sit on this engine, it would be better for the world if they brought it back to life by open sourcing it, with the help of the Information Science Research Institute at UNLV. UNLV was happy to oblige, but they in turn asked for our help in fixing a few bugs that had crept in since 1995 (ever heard of bit rot?)... We tracked down the most obvious ones and decided a couple of months ago that Tesseract OCR was stable enough to be re-released as open source.

A few things to know about Tesseract OCR: for now it only supports the English language, and does not include a page layout analysis module (yet), so it will perform poorly on multi-column material. It also doesn't do well on grayscale and color documents, and it's not nearly as accurate as some of the best commercial OCR packages out there. Yet, as far as we know, despite its shortcomings, Tesseract is far more accurate than any other Open Source OCR package out there. If you know of one that is more accurate, please do tell us!

Dec 16, 2006

Jennifer Kho: Poop-Grown Algae to Fuel Cars?

A crowd in New Zealand on Friday watched closely as the country’s energy and climate change minister, David Parker, did something seemingly ordinary. He filled a diesel-powered Land Rover and drove off, cruising around the court in front of Central Wellington’s Parliament buildings with Green Party co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons in the passenger seat.

The reason for all the eyes? Mr. Parker filled the vehicle with a 5-percent blend of biodiesel made from “wild micro-algae” from sewage ponds. Aquaflow Bionomic, a startup based in Malborough, said earlier this year that it produced the world’s first sample of biodiesel from sewage ponds, and the test drive proves the “wild algae” biodiesel can power a car. Many consider algae to be an attractive alternative to current biofuel materials—such as corn, soybeans, and palm—because the slime has a high lipid density (read: it’s oily) and could theoretically produce far more oil per acre, reducing the cost of biofuels.

Dec 15, 2006

Manchester Unity reaps VoIP savings

Health insurer Manchester Unity has reaped "enormous" savings through insourcing its call centre and moving the entire organisation to a Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) telephony system.

The group's new Alcatel-based telephony system went live some 18 months ago, as part of a move to a new head office in the Sydney tech hub of St Leonards. Manchester Unity brought a 60-seat call centre in-house at the time and moved those agents and several hundred more other staff to VoIP from legacy TDM solutions.

"The savings for us as an organisation have been enormous," the group's acting chief information officer, Mark Mathieson, told a VoIP forum held yesterday in Sydney by industry self-regulatory body the Communications Alliance.

"We were paying an awful lot of money for the contact centre as a service, outsourced."

Mathieson declined to reveal the dollar savings but said they were "significant". "It's hard to pin down exactly what proportion of that is because of VoIP, and what proportion is just because of bringing the call centres back in-house and managing it properly," he said.

The acting CIO acknowledged there were some initial hiccups in the deployment, which was rolled out with the help of communications integrator Integ. But the overall benefits were substantial.

Manchester Unity's new solution was extremely scalable, he said, had a central console for looking at its (separate) voice and data networks, had simplified administration and was integrated with staff desktops and customer relationship management systems.

Additionally, Manchester Unity's regional offices could now take calls (delivered over the group's wide area network) during times of peak load in the St Leonards headquarters.

Mathieson acknowledged the trend within the contact centre industry to move to the VoIP platform, with integrators and hardware vendors such as Alcatel pushing the technology strongly.

He estimated there were probably 10 or 20 VoIP deployments in contact centres Down Under.

But he warned fellow CIOs it might not be easy getting a VoIP deployment past higher management.

"When you talk to a CEO, or to a chairman of a board, don't use terms like ISO or VoIP or Internet Protocol," he said.

"Speak to them in language they understand … The first thing we realised was that the moment you say VoIP, your CEO's eyes roll backwards and your board goes to sleep. So I started calling it 'the telephone network that saves money'. And all of a sudden people started to listen."

Nick Heil: The Pain Cave

LAST SUMMER, a few months before my 40th birthday, I did what many men do, and many more consider doing. Chest wax? Nyet! I went on a pilgrimage.

My journey didn't take me up some dangerous mountain or to an even riskier beach bar filled with coeds. Instead, I drove from my New Mexico home to the world's biggest health club: Boulder, Colorado. I had an appointment with Neal Henderson, sports-science manager at the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine. BCSM works with a small platoon of pros looking for an edge, but they also help hundreds of schmoes like me—recreational athletes interested less in a podium finish than in pushing personal limits.

As a former health-and-fitness editor for Outside, I'd long been a student of exercise physiology. But despite my accumulating knowledge, my own habits teeter on a platform of spontaneity, improvisation, and laziness. Now that I had signed on to write this monthly column, in which I will personally try out, and report back on, the latest in training techniques, products, and nutrition, I knew winging it was out.
The Lab Rat Obeys
Tell Nick Heil, Outside's Lab Rat, what you want him to test next—from diets to workout routines to performance-enhancing pharmaceuticals—by emailing

First step: a full baseline analysis. Henderson had cued up a gantlet of tests—lactate threshold, VO2 max, body-composition analysis—to determine what I had "under the hood." How fit was I? What was my potential? This was what I hoped to find out as I chugged away on a treadmill, huffing through an air hose plugged into a bank of computer monitors and getting my finger jabbed every four minutes to track my escalating blood-lactate levels. (Sound enticing? These tests are now widely available for upwards of $500 and offer a useful, even revealing, tool, as we shall see.)

What I had under the hood was, well, a Toyota Camry—dependable but nothing special in terms of power or performance. My LT (labspeak for lactate threshold) kicked in at a 7:42-per-mile pace. Lactate-threshold training is the denominator common to almost every endurance sport, and the entire concept of periodization—manipulating the volume and intensity of your workouts to achieve a targeted goal—is built around this figure. Once you cross this threshold—the point where you're producing lactic acid faster than you can clear it—muscle fatigue is quick to follow. "The good news," Henderson told me, "is that your LT is eminently malleable. With proper conditioning, it's possible to improve it by 20 percent or more."

VO2 max, by comparison, measures the amount of oxygen your muscles can process at maximal effort. The test is intended to gauge your genetic potential to, in technical terms, kick some righteous ass. I'd redlined it up to 50.9 milliliters of oxygen per kilogram of body weight per minute. Elite athletes of my age and gender tip into the seventies. At peak form, Lance Armstrong's VO2 max was 85.

Afterwards, Henderson and I sat down to review the data. "See this line?" he said, pointing to the graph of my VO2 max test attached to his clipboard. "If you reached your full effort, it would plateau at the top. But it's still rising." He looked a little let down. "You kind of went up to the pain cave, peeked in, then walked away. I'd call this a VO2 peak, but I'm pretty sure it's not your max."

I mulled this over during my six-hour drive home, my legs aching. It dawned on me that the point of all the measurements was, in the end, to be able to transcend the data. The numbers had been a little depressing, but they told only part of the story. Who really knows what I'm capable of? My best effort still awaits somewhere inside the dark recesses of the pain cave, where lurks the ineffable mystery at the limits of human performance.

I'd be back in a few months, after following Henderson's new training plan, and I resolved to enter the pain cave, build a little fire, and hang out.

Dec 14, 2006 Goes Retail and Opens New Reporting Possibilities (Hopefully) now has a retail operation, in the form of its new AppStore offering. Of course, there are no bargains in Benioff-land, and income-starved AppExchange partners will have to fork over a serious percent of their AppExchance revenue stream in order to pay the piper. Such is life in the big city.

What will be interesting is to see what will now be able to say, or not say, about what the actual scope of the AppExchange egosystem really is. When I last checked in with Benioff about the total revenues his partners were earning from AppExchange, I got a major stiff-arm response. (Which meant I knew I had asked the right question: when Benioff got a little upset and personal in the process of not answering, it was obvious to me that this was the question he really didn't want to answer.)

So maybe now we'll be able to judge how well AppExchange is doing by getting some numbers on how well AppStore is generating revenues for Salesforce. Though that will probably be up to Benioff again: I don't think he is required to break out AppStore numbers unless he really wants to. But if he really wants to be taken seriously as a ecosystem player — and not just be another egosystem wannabe — this would be his golden opportunity. I for one am ready to hear some real data about how well AppExchange is doing.

Until then, AppExchange, and its little brother AppStore, are more good ideas in search of some good proof points. has recently raised its revenue estimates for the current year, with Benioff obliquely claiming that "the continued momentum of our AppExchange ecosystem is creating expanded business opportunities for" Of course, that is a lot different than saying: "…. because our AppExchange ecosystem is bringing new revenues to the company." The devil is always in the details. We shall see what Marc is willing to reveal — but I promise, a little data on AppExchange will go a long way. Give it a try, Marc.

Fuel miser on trial

LOCAL firms are to trial a new hydrogen-based technology designed to cut fuel consumption and vehicle emissions. Vision Energy boss Garry Rovin of Queenstown has organised the Hydrogen Challenge to prove the system works. Queenstown organisations involved in the trial include Shotover Jet, The Shopper Bus, Drivetek International, Queenstown Limousine Ser­­vices, Super Shuttle, Queens­town Taxis, Queenstown Lakes District Council, HireQuip, Steve Rout Contracting and Wilson Equipment. Vehicles range from private cars and RVs through to buses, a digger, a loader, a diesel generator – even a tractor.

Vision has invested in United States-developed technology, based on a unit that produces hydrogen, and will launch it internationally from Queens­­town next week. Rovin says the patented “hydro-charger” unit can be “retro-fitted to any internal combustion engine to save fuel and reduce carbon emissions”. If the hydro-charger gets the green light, the price tag will be “affordable”, Rovin believes. Motorists might even recoup the cost in savings in their first year, he adds.

Developed by two US companies, the “breakthrough” onboard unit works by converting water into hydrogen and oxygen by electrolysis. Rovin hopes the trial – the results of which will be “independently analysed” – will convince “sceptics” that the system works.

Rodney Gedda : Qld uni YAWLs in open source BPM

Ironing out business process management (BPM) ambiguity with a well-defined, open source workflow language is the goal of the YAWL project, founded by Queensland University of Technology researchers.

YAWL, or Yet Another Workflow Language, will be attractive to IT managers as it provides a BPM solution over which they have full control, according to the project's manager Associate Professor Arthur ter Hofstede.

"For the cost-conscious IT manager, the absence of licensing fees may also be important and the risks typically associated with vendor lock-in can be avoided," said ter Hofstede. "YAWL's service-oriented architecture provides unique flexibility when it comes to enabling interoperability with external systems and extending current functionality."

YAWL aims to provide a support environment to specify, analyze and execute business processes, and to simplify the specification of executable business processes without the distraction of "unnecessary" technical considerations.

"We do not think that a business analyst [BA] needs to know Java," explained ter Hofstede, noting that YAWL provides comprehensive support for the workflow patterns and a repository for workflow modeling patterns.

"Business scenarios can be complex and a modelling language should be able to deal with this complexity," he said. "Business analysts should not need to continuously have to find workarounds to specify complicated aspects of business scenarios, which tend to occur naturally in practice, as this may lead to process models which are hard to understand and maintain."

BAs supported by automated analysis can identify potentially costly mistakes early in the process life-cycle, according to ter Hofstede, and they can rest assured their models have an unambiguous meaning as YAWL is rigorously defined.

"There should be no surprises during execution," he said. "Nor should there be a need to have lengthy debates about the meaning of the concepts used!"

YAWL now consists of an open source engine and GUI editor, both written in Java and released under the LGPL. YAWL uses XML Schema, XPath, XQuery and XForms natively, and is compatible with SOAP and WSDL. Development is done in conjunction with the Eindhoven University of Technology in The Netherlands.

Another motivation behind YAWL was to make BPM vendors 'lift their game' and to increase opportunities for the more widespread use of BPM solutions.

"YAWL's open source model in addition provides a compelling argument for small to medium enterprises to explore the benefits of business process execution," ter Hofstede said. "Process execution environments are frequently criticized for their static approach to changing a process definition at runtime. YAWL offers a unique solution to dynamic workflow, widening the application of BPM technology into businesses with processes evolving so rapidly that they are literally changing as they are being executed."

YAWL developer Lachlan Aldred said through the selective use of open source software, YAWL offers a lot of support to business analysts and managers, and without it the project would be "years behind" where it is today.

"YAWL provides a conceptually strong, flexible, enterprise-grade workflow-BPM platform that managers and business analysts can exploit to gain efficiency improvements for their business activities, and provide better quality of service to their customers," Aldred said. "YAWL also provides strong opportunities for monitoring processes, integrating with remote processes, corporate governance and conformance with best practices."

The YAWL project is now seeking industry partners interested in contributing to the initiative.

Lisa Richwine: Antidepressants need suicide warning

Angry and grieving family members pleaded with U.S. advisers on Wednesday to back strong new warnings on antidepressant drugs, saying the risks of suicidal behavior seen in children also apply to adults. Psychiatrists, however, cautioned against tough language that could scare patients from effective treatment for depression, a mental illness that can lead to suicide. Millions of patients now take the drugs.

A Food and Drug Administration analysis found short-term therapy with the newest antidepressants seemed to increase the chances of suicidal thoughts and actions in adults up to age 25. The drugs appeared to reduce suicidal behavior in older adults, particularly after age 65. Officials said they were considering adding that information to a current warning that states use of the drugs may trigger suicidal thoughts and attempts in some children and teens.

Relatives of patients who killed themselves urged an FDA panel of outside advisers to add a strong warning for adults of all ages. Some said the agency should have acted years ago when the debate about suicidal behavior first emerged.

Suzanne Gonzalez testified that her 40-year-old husband shot himself in the head shortly after he started taking GlaxoSmithKline Plc's Paxil. "I hold you all responsible for his death, and I always will," Gonzalez shouted to FDA officials and outside experts seated around tables in a hotel meeting room.

Michael Cohn: Microsoft Unleashes Its Robots

Microsoft released its Robotics Studio development software Wednesday, upping the ante in the coming robot wars, at least among inventors and manufacturers.

The Redmond software giant is aiming to create a common development environment that will allow developers to create robotic applications for different types of hardware more easily.

The software can be used by a variety of robot types, including surveillance robots that can defuse roadside bombs as well as robotic arms that can perform surgery (and maybe sign health insurance forms too).

The software is not just aimed at mad scientists. Among the companies that will use the technology are iRobot, creators of the Roomba vacuum cleaner.

“Microsoft will help us extend the reach of the iRobot Roomba Open Interface to a broader community of developers,” iRobot Chairperson Helen Greiner said in a statement.

Dec 13, 2006

Do Epidurals Affect Breastfeeding?

Mothers –to- be who may be considering having epidurals in order to relieve labor pains may decide to rethink their choices after reading the report published in the International Breastfeeding Journal.

It details the findings of a recent study by researchers in Sydney. They studied 1280 women who had children between March and October in 1997. Of these women 416 had epidurals and 172 of those having the pain-killing medication also had Caesarean sections.

The team found that mothers who decide to have an epidural in order to relieve labor pains have a greater chance of problems in the first week after birth and may be more likely to stop breastfeeding earlier than usual.

They are also now of the opinion that the chemicals, bupivacaine and fentanyl, which is an opioid, present in epidurals may have an adverse affect on the unborn babies. They suggest that some of the drugs used enter the bloodstream and cross into the placenta to reach the fetus. They can affect the unborn infants' brains and make them over sleepy and less disposed towards breast-feeding.

Dr Siranda Torvaldsen, leader of the research team, remarked that there was a growing body of evidence to show that “the fentanyl component of epidurals may be associated with sleepy infants and difficulty in establishing breastfeeding.”

Criticism mounts over Birmingham's Linux project

Birmingham City Council pulled the plug on its 535,000 pounds open-source pilot after its analysis concluded that it was cheaper to upgrade to a Microsoft-based platform than proceed with open source.

The council planned to roll out Linux software and applications on 1,500 desktops in libraries across the city, but in the end went no further than a 200-desktop project. Several industry watchers have voiced their concerns about the project, particularly around the number of PCs rolled out. Birmingham's expenditure averaged over 2,500 pounds per PC.

"That's ridiculous," said Eddie Bleasdale, the owner of open-source consultancy NetProject and an early participant in the project. "It's an unbelievable cock-up... They decided to do it all themselves, without expertise in the area," he added, saying that a lack of skills in open source and secure desktops would undoubtedly have raised costs.

Birmingham pulled the plug on the Linux trial after it found that an upgrade to Windows XP would have been 100,000 pounds cheaper than deploying a Linux desktop.

Mark Taylor, whose Open Source Consortium also exited the project in the early stages, said: "I have no idea how anyone could spend half a million pounds on 200 desktops, running free software".

Depression seen with chronic cough

AMONG people suffering from chronic cough, more than half have symptoms of depression, new research shows.

The good news is that the depression seems to lift as the cough improves.

Cough is the most common reason people in the US seek medical attention, and several reports have shown that chronic cough can have a significant impact on quality of life, said Dr Peter V Dicpinigaitis, from the Montefiore Medical Centre in the Bronx, New York.

The team used a standard depression scale called CES-D, in which scores of 16 or greater indicate significant depressive symptoms, to evaluate 100 patients who were seen at an academic medical centre because of chronic cough.

Reporting in the medical journal Chest, the researchers found that 53 per cent of the subjects had significant depressive symptoms and the average CES-D score was 18.3.

The CES-D was administered again after three months, and results showed that the average score had dropped to 7.4, which coincided with a significant improvement in the average subjective cough score. Further analysis confirmed a significant correlation between the cough and depression scores.

Matthew Hill : Ukraine babies in stem cell probe

Healthy new-born babies may have been killed in Ukraine to feed a flourishing international trade in stem cells, evidence obtained by the BBC suggests. Disturbing video footage of post-mortem examinations on dismembered tiny bodies raises serious questions about what happened to them. Ukraine has become the self-styled stem cell capital of the world. There is a trade in stem cells from aborted foetuses, amid unproven claims they can help fight many diseases. But now there are claims that stem cells are also being harvested from live babies. The BBC has spoken to mothers from the city of Kharkiv who say they gave birth to healthy babies, only to have them taken by maternity staff. In 2003 the authorities agreed to exhume around 30 bodies of foetuses and full-term babies from a cemetery used by maternity hospital number six.

Newborns Killed for Stem Cells?

Newborn babies may have been stolen from mothers in Russian maternity clinics only to be harvested for their stem cells. The BBC has spoken to mothers from the city of Kharkiv who say they gave birth to healthy babies, only to have them taken by maternity staff. In 2003 the authorities agreed to exhume around 30 bodies of foetuses and full-term babies from a cemetery used by maternity hospital number six. One campaigner was allowed into the autopsy to gather video evidence. She has given that footage to the BBC and Council of Europe. Disturbing doesn't begin to describe the thought that these allegations might pan out. Several offshore stem cell clinics say they use fetal stem cells for myriad therapies.

Dec 10, 2006

Giussani: Open source automobile

One of the key difficulties encountered by the project so far has to do with tools. A decision was made early on to use only open-source software, but "computer-assisted design (CAD) tools are still the biggest weakness in open-source," says Merz.

On the other hand, bringing together the right people has also been a challenge. "This is not supposed to be a race car or a tech monster, but that's what some people, particularly car enthusiasts, tend to think. They're more into designing an über-car than a smart car". Currently, about 110 people from all over the world are involved with the OScar project, around the core team of three (and surrounded by another 1,000 or so who registered on the site but aren't playing an active role—yet, at least). They are all volunteers with other rent-paying jobs. "This is a hobby, and we intend to keep it that way," Merz says. "I spend an average of 16 hours a week on OScar— the equivalent of two days—but I could easily spend 200 if I had them."

The profile of those involved varies, but Merz says that while building a car today "is mainly software, until a certain point anyway," the people working on a hardware project tend to be more "real-life, hands-on technical" than engineers developing OS software. They know how to code, but they're also familiar with the smell of axle grease.

Six years after the first seed, the group's Web site says the OScar is currently "in release 0.2," which Merz translates as "early conceptual stage." "We aren't trying to speed it up anymore, we will let it grow based on the amount of time we can all contribute," he says. One lesson he has learned: The process of doing things, particularly pathbreaking things like imagining an open-source car, "is more important than the deadline.

Penny Crosman: Why The Wait For Electronic Medical Records ?

I spoke this week to the articulate and knowledgeable Dr. Lynn Harold Vogel, CIO of the University of Texas' MD Anderson Cancer Center, about all the reasons why Americans don't have electronic medical records today, what the best e-health record initiatives out there today are, and how his hospital is building its own electronic records system and working to improve the way it treats cancer.

Intelligent Enterprise: What do you think are the most notable efforts toward an electronic medical record and how close is it to reality?

Vogel: There's a lot of hype and political mileage around having an accessible health record for every American. The first question is, what kind of electronic medical record do you want? There are two basic models. One is based on the Veterans Administration, in which no matter where you go in the country, any physician in any veterans hospital can call up your complete medical record. After Katrina went through New Orleans, the question was, what happened to the medical records of all the New Orleans evacuees? If you were a veteran and you ended up in a veterans' hospital, your medical record was already there because they have a national system that's consistent across the country, that's based on standards.

IE: What is the Veterans Administrations' electronic medical record like?

Vogel: It's built on the old MUMPS language. Some would argue that it doesn't have all the functionality of some of the current product offerings, but it works and if you need to go to a veterans hospital and have your blood pressure taken and then you go 200 miles away to another veterans hospital and someone wants to know what your blood pressure was at the last place, it will be there. It's not the slickest or the most graphically enhanced environment but it works. The second model contains a smaller subset of data. If I end up in a Kansas City emergency room with a broken leg, what specific things should the doctor know about me that would be helpful in his diagnosis or treatment plan? It might be basic demographic and insurance information, so if you show up but you're unconscious, they can figure out who you are and get some additional information electronically. It might include access to your last hospital stay or information about your last physician visit, maybe it's the last set of clinical labs, or the last set of X-rays, but it's not the full, complete medical history. The veterans' e-record is very complete, it is in many ways the gold standard for completeness. They've been working on it for about 40 years and they were quite free to focus on the clinical system and build an electronic medical record that had no implications for billing. That's changed; now veterans have to pay a copay for each visit. But the system has not been driven by billing requirements, which is the real challenge that every other hospital in the country faces in terms of building an electronic medical record. At some point somebody's got to send out a bill in the right format, in the right place, to the right insurance company or consistent with the right contractual agreements about how bills should be sent. So that adds a level of complexity, and since it's the clinical experience that drives the bill, that's a very close relationship between clinical activity and billing.

IE: So most healthcare providers have a much more complicated patient record scenario.

Vogel: Exactly. When Katrina went through and everybody started to complain about who had access to medical records and how miserable the health industry was that it didn't have electronic records, one idea was, let's create a bunch of regional groups that will share medical information within a region.

IE: Because it was too hard to do it nationally?

Vogel: Yes. So the government set up regional health information organizations, or RHIOs. There are several hundred around the country. The problem is, many of these RHIOS were set up in the hope that at some point the government would come in and pay for maintaining them, because that's always been the long-term question. You can start something, but who's going to pay for the second month of operation, or the tenth month of the second year?

IE: Are the RHIOS like clearinghouses for medical information?

Vogel: It depends. Some of them are clearinghouses, some of them are efforts to give physicians in one hospital access to data in another hospital. There are two RHIOs that have been so far relatively successful. One is in Santa Barbara, CA, which is where the concepts got started and Dr. Brailer [the National Health Information Technology Coordinator] got some of his experience before he went to Washington; the second one is in Indianapolis. Both of these have long histories of institutional cooperation, so they hit the deck running, as opposed to a lot of other places where hospitals are in such intense competition with one another that they don't want to share much data.

IE: If you had electronic records that were transferable, accessible and readable anywhere, would you really need a third party?

Vogel: No. The federal government's role has increasingly been in establishing standards. The buzzword is, "standards of interoperability." If systems all write to the same standard, they should be relatively compatible. HL7 is one example of that. That's an application-level standard of data that you're then able to transfer data from one system to another, even though the hardware, operating system, etc. may not be compatible. The problem, even with something like HL7, is that it's a lot like Unix. One would like to say that Unix is Unix is Unix, but in fact my version of Unix may be slightly different than your version, so it's always a problem to get everybody to do exactly the same thing.

Dec 7, 2006

Danish sleep research (post Hamlet)

Trying to sleep in a military camp for months at a time can be rough. Danish researchers are testing a pillow that chirps like a bird to lull soldiers deployed in Kosovo to sleep. The soft, white MusiCure pillow plays nature sounds and acoustic instrument melodies through tiny speakers inside to help soldiers nod off to sleep amidst the anxieties of living in a dangerous situation. The pillow, created nearly 10 years ago, was originally intended for use in psychiatric wards and to help patients recover from surgery. Maj. Helmer T. Hansen, the battalion surgeon at the Danish military clinic in the Kosovo province where the cushions are being tested, says music therapy is just as handy at a military camp, where soldiers can't use sleeping pills because they have to be ready to go into action at any moment. "It's the first time we're using it," he said. "But my advice will be that we have it for a long time."

Free firewalls outclass paid-for ones, test reveals

Free firewalls are better than their paid-for cousins. That is the surprising conclusion of a test of desktop firewalls by security researchers.

Researchers at David Matousec's carried out tests on 21 leading products using 26 assessment programs known as "leak" testers. These simulated a total of 77 test attacks on firewalls, configured using both out-of-the-box and optimal security settings. Each firewall was then awarded points based on its ability to pass each leak test in both modes.

The only two products to achieve a rating of "excellent" turned out to be free-to-use software, the Comodo Personal Firewall v2.3, and the Jetico Personal Firewall v2.0 beta. They scored, respectively, 9,350 and 9,125 points out of a possible total of 9,625, leaving the nearest rivals some way behind.

Surprisingly, paying for a product did not seem to make any difference to its ability to stop attacks -- the rest of the results spread the two categories fairly evenly about the scoring. Some paid-for products turned in awful scores.

In third and fourth place were ZoneAlarm Pro 6.5, Trend Micro PC-cillin Internet Security 2007, and both of which are charged for and achieved a "very good" rating. Moving down the scoring, only three other products emerged as "good", with the remaining 14 scoring as "poor", "very poor" or as having no ability to resist the tests whatsoever. This included prominent products from Kaspersky, Symantec, McAfee, and CA.

At the very bottom of the list in 21st place scoring a resounding zero, came Microsoft's own firewall which has been part of PC protection since the company shipped its SP2 security update.

The researchers also hit the products with a "fake protection revealer" (FPR) designed to catch out software that had been optimized to pass some security tests without necessarily offering real-world protection. Only one product fell seriously foul of this test, Outpost Firewall Pro 4.0, which otherwise scored well. A number of the products that come with anti-virus engines incorrectly identified the leak tests themselves as malware.

The obvious conclusion is that many desktop firewalls aren't very good, at least if the tests are taken to be indicative of their ability. Furthermore, even the good ones don't always offer good protection settings by default, and require tweaking to improve security to meaningful levels.

"Nine of the tested firewalls were marked with 'very poor' or 'no' anti-leak protection. This result is quite worrying because it shows that even today, when the malware programs are very sophisticated, still a lot of vendors simply do not care about the outbound connection control seriously," the test commentary suggests.

Most of the leak tests used are widely available, but the team also created a number specially for the assessment. The testers also published responses (scroll down) from a number of the vendors on their good or bad showing.

Sensibly configured, a desktop firewall can be an worthwhile layer of defense. Many vendors who don't choose to charge for them see them as brand marketing tools for other security products, so the latest test is likely to attract a degree of hostility from vendors who scored poorly.

A separate test of desktop firewalls from earlier this year, based on a similar leak test methodology, is available for comparison.

Dec 6, 2006

Adam Bosworth: Health care information matters

At Google, we often get questions about what we're doing in the area of health. I have been interested in the issues of health care and health information for a while. It is now one of my main focuses here, and I've decided to start posting about it. I've been motivated in this field in part by my personal experiences helping to care for my mother, who recently died from cancer after a four-year battle. While the quality of the medical care my mother received was extraordinary, I saw firsthand how challenged the health care system was in supporting caregivers and communicating between different medical organizations. The system didn't fail completely, but struggled with these phases:
  • What was wrong -- it took her doctors nine months to correctly identify an illness which had classic symptoms
  • Who should treat her -- there was no easy way to figure out who were the best local physicians and caregivers, which ones were covered by her insurance, and how we could get them to agree to treat her
  • Once she was treated, she had a chronic illness, and needed ongoing care and coordinated nursing and monitoring, particularly once her illness recurred
Once she had a correct diagnosis and we'd found the right doctor, her treatment was excellent. But before and after treatment, most people with serious illnesses have to live through these other phases and suffer similar problems. She was trying to get help from her caregivers in the family and it was incredibly challenging to get the right information and help her make the right decisions. Often the health care system isn't well set up to address these issues. I believe our industry can help resolve some of these problems and ameliorate others.

In the end, one key part of the solution to these problems is a better educated patient. If patients understand their diseases better -- the symptoms, the treatments, the drugs, and the side effects, they are likely to get better and quicker care -- before, during, and after treatment. We have already launched some improvements to web search that help patients more easily find the health information they are looking for. Using the Google Co-op platform, Google and the health community have labeled sites and pages across the web making it easier for users to refine their health queries and locate the medical information they need. Do a search on Google about a medical issue or treatment like diabetes or Lipitor and you'll see some choices for refining your query, such as "symptoms," "treatments," and so on. If you click on "treatment," your search results are refined and reordered so that sites that have been labeled as being about treatment by trusted health community contributors are boosted in the rankings. Note that how trusted a contributor is -– and thus how much they affect your search results -– is dependent both on Google's algorithms and on who the user decides they trust. For example, if my doctor is a Google Co-op contributor and I indicate to Google that I trust her, then when I search, the sites she has labeled as relevant will show up higher in my search results.

This is just the beginning of what our industry can do. People need the medical information that is out there and available to be organized and made accessible to all. Which happens to be our mission. Health information should be easier to access and organize, especially in ways that make it as simple as possible to find the information that is most relevant to a specific patient's needs.

Dec 5, 2006

Test 486: Object-Oriented Analysis and Design with UML Test

Section 1 - Development Process (13%)

1. Apply iterative and incremental processes.
2. Schedule project activities based on use cases.
3. Exhibit the ability to trace requirements both forward and backward through OOAD artifacts.
4. Utilize use cases to drive other project activities.
5. Apply the appropriate OOAD activities for a given situation, based on their strengths and weaknesses.
6. Control and coordinate the interfaces between packages.
7. Organize the project team responsibilities based on OOAD artifacts.

Section 2 - Requirements Modeling (18%)

1. Identify skills and resources needed to write use cases.
2. Identify actors for the system.
3. Identify use cases from a requirement document and/or domain expert and extract business rules for the domain.
4. Develop and interpret a use case model using the UML notation.
5. Write use cases that focus on the problem domain.
6. Write use cases using the terminology of the target audience.
7. Derive subsequent OOAD artifacts from use cases.
8. Use a prototype of the user interface for customer feedback when appropriate.

Section 3 - Architecture (13%)

1. Develop layered architectures and understand how the layers should interact.
2. Use package diagrams when appropriate, creating and interpreting contractual interfaces and dependencies between packages.
3. Use cohesion and coupling effectively when grouping classes into packages.
4. Use deployment diagrams effectively.
5. Apply brokering to build flexible systems.
6. Consider issues related to scalability, performance, transactions and concurrency.

Section 4 - Static Modeling (21%)

1. Identify domain objects, services, attributes, and their relationships using different techniques, including "parts of speech".
2. Determine when a new class is needed.
3. Choose good names for classes and methods.
4. Describe the business concept and role that each class represents in the domain model.
5. Develop and interpret UML class diagrams, including the effective use of aggregation, generalization and delegation.
6. Effectively interpret and develop associations in class diagrams, including stereotypes, qualified associations, cardinality of associations, and association classes.
7. Maintain encapsulation of attributes and visibility of operations effectively.
8. Recognize and exploit polymorphism.
9. Create, interpret and exploit interfaces.
10. Interpret class diagrams from analysis and design perspectives, recognizing proper use of subclassing and subtyping.

Section 5 - Dynamic Modeling (22%)

1. Focus on behavior while modeling the domain.
2. Include an appropriate level of detail in diagrams.
3. Effectively assign responsibilities to appropriate classes.
4. Develop UML interaction diagrams (sequence and collaboration) to satisfy requirements.
5. Interpret interaction diagrams, including the use of iterations, conditionals and concurrency.
6. Recognize complexities early in the project and resolve them in an iterative and incremental fashion.
7. Determine when to use state diagrams.
8. Develop and interpret UML state diagrams, including the use of events, guards, actions, and super state.
9. Determine when to use activity diagrams.
10. Develop and interpret UML activity diagrams, including concurrency, iterations, and conditionals.

Section 6 - Design & Implementation Techniques (13%)

1. Design for reuse.
2. Given its definition, apply a pattern.
3. Refactor classes to distribute responsibilities and behavior.
4. Carry OOAD artifacts forward into implementation.
5. Resolve implementation issues and update OOAD artifacts.

Dec 1, 2006

My shoes are spying on me?

If you enhance your workout with the new Nike+ iPod Sport Kit, you may be making yourself a surveillance target.

A report from four University of Washington researchers to be released Thursday reveals that security flaws in the new RFID-powered device from Nike and Apple make it easy for tech-savvy stalkers, thieves and corporations to track your movements. With just a few hundred dollars and a little know-how, someone could even plot your running routes on a Google map without your knowledge.

The Nike+ iPod gives runners real-time updates about the speed and length of their workouts via a small RFID device that fits into the soles of Nike shoes, and broadcasts workout data to a small receiver plugged into an iPod Nano.

While this setup sounds convenient and cool, it didn't sit well with Scott Saponas, a computer science graduate student at the University of Washington in Seattle. After enjoying his Nike+ iPod for a few months, Saponas began to suspect there might be other, more nefarious uses for the gear.

He brought his concerns to University of Washington computer science professor Yoshi Kohno and fellow graduate students Carl Hartung and Jonathan Lester. After just a few weeks of tinkering, the four researchers discovered that the Nike+ iPod is, as Kohno put it, "an easy surveillance device."

The first problem is that the RFID in the shoe sensor contains its own on-board power source, essentially turning your running shoe into a small radio station capable of being received from up to 60 feet away, with a signal powerful enough to be picked up from a passing car.