Nov 30, 2007

Salty saga of sea sores and sinking spirits

Two young Sydneysiders who've been paddling on the high seas for 18 days have taken "a huge hit" to their morale.

As the "sea constantly gnaws" at their spirits, James Castrission, 25, and Justin Jones, 24, have lost a crucial source of fresh water as they reach the halfway mark of their 2200-kilometre endurance voyage.

They hope to be the first to row to New Zealand from Australia - and be there for Christmas day.

But after the comparative elation of passing the halfway point, the pair struck trouble.

"Unfortunately not all is good out here on Lot 41 [the pair's custom-built kayak]," Castrission said last night.

"Our electric [desalination machine] has been playing up for the last week or so and now it looks as though it's kicked the bucket.

Australians unleash true selves online

Australians are facing an online identity crisis, using the web and social networking sites to unleash their alter egos, new research suggests.

Symantec's Identity Survey, conducted by Woolcott Research, found Australians typically had more than 10 virtual identities. They included profiles on sites like MySpace and YouTube, email accounts, game avatars and characters in virtual worlds.

"This is what we used to call multiple personality disorder," said Andrew Fuller, a clinical psychologist and fellow of the University of Melbourne's Department of Psychiatry.

Of the 596 respondents, one in five felt their online identities were closer to their "true self" than their real-world identity. When narrowing the results down to "power users" of social networking sites, dating sites, virtual worlds or gaming sites, the figure jumps to 40 per cent.

Fuller said online interaction had given rise to a generation of Australians who were more comfortable with their online personas then their true self. In fact, many are defining themselves through their virtual identities.

"Basically people are saying that this online identity that I've carved out for myself may be more expressive and reflective of who I am as a person than the person I show to people face-to-face," Fuller said in an interview.

"That's not necessarily a bad thing - people often have an unlived life they don't often express ... perhaps what's happening is an unleashing of that hidden self."

But in the process of experimenting with different types of identities online, people are exposing themselves to privacy and personal security risks.

The survey also found two-thirds of Australians were more likely to share personal information with other people on the internet than they would in person. Just over half of Australians published three or more types of personal information on blogs, social networking sites or online shopping sites, while a third published their home address and two thirds revealed their real name.

Symantec says criminals could use information found in online profiles to commit fraud in the real-world ("identity theft"), or for social engineering.

Weird behaviours linked to Stilnox

The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) in Australia has updated warnings on a popular sleeping drug.

The sleeping drug Stilnox, also called Stildem or Zolpidem, will in future be sold in packs of no greater than 14 tablets - down from 21.

The updated warning comes as a result of numerous reports of strange and potentially dangerous side-effects which include changes in behaviour and mental state, sleep walking, and undertaking strange and potentially dangerous behaviours while apparently asleep.

The TGA says Stilnox packs will include significantly changed Consumer Medicine Information (CMI) information about the side effects of Zolpidem which now include the less common adverse effects of rage reactions, worsened insomnia, confusion, agitation, hallucinations and other forms of unwanted behaviour.

Sleep walking, driving motor vehicles and other unusual and on some occasions dangerous behaviours whilst apparently asleep have been reported along with preparing and eating food, making phone calls and having sexual intercourse.

"Love and Sex With Robots"

On his résumé, David Levy may be a chess master and an expert in artificial intelligence, but somewhere deeper -- in his heart, or what I suspect he might call his CPU -- the man is a professional dreamer of robot love.

We've let machines trespass into nearly every corner of our lives, Levy points out. Robots are making our cars and our computer chips, they're fighting our wars, they're cleaning our floors and our rain gutters and our pools. So why can't we let them into our hearts? Do not scoff, reader: One day you too will cuddle up with a bot, you'll whisper sweet nothings into its voice-recognition module, and you'll crank up its pleasure unit -- and it will crank yours.

In a new book, "Love and Sex With Robots: The Evolution of Human-Robot Relationships," Levy argues that as machines advance, our consideration for them will grow inevitably more tender. Today, you watch your Roomba scurrying around your filthy floor, digging its nose into your grime, and you hardly pause to consider its soul; the robot vacuum is a slave, and you are its master.

Nov 27, 2007

Tech professionals need to evolve

In an age of cost containment, a looming economic slowdown, outsourcing, offshoring, the impending retirement of a bulk of the IT professional population, and declining enrollments in math, technology, engineering and science classes, it comes as little surprise that IT professionals are an insecure bunch. Many are questioning what can be done to ensure their career survival.

For numerous IT professionals, keeping their skills fresh and proving their continued importance to their organizations is a significant source of stress. This was the topic of a study released Aug. 29 by the Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario, in London.

"Simply possessing information technology is an insufficient condition for achieving the tangible outcomes in which shareholders are interested, such as improving the bottom line," wrote authors Hsing-Yi Tsai, Deborah Compeau and Nicole Haggerty in "Of Races to Run and Battles to be Won: Technical Skill Updating, Stress and Coping of IT Professionals." "The ability to learn and adapt to changes quickly is thus critical for the career of an IT professional."

But a focus on career survival might actually be the wrong approach, according to one recruiter. "I think that if you're looking at career survival, you have the wrong perspective," Jim Lanzalotto, vice president of strategy and marketing for Yoh, a recruiting and outsourcing company based in Philadelphia, told eWeek. "You should be thinking about career growth."

Lanzalotto pointed to the health of the current IT job market, arguing that "these are the good old days," as the next few decades are expected to be great for technology workers, whether they are building, implementing, structuring or managing IT systems.Other observers have said that IT is still suffering from a case of bad public relations.

"In recent research, we've interviewed CIOs and experts about the current state of the IT job market, and what we found was that the demand for IT skills is back to the prebust level, yet there are a lot of misconceptions about the viability of an IT career," Liz Brady, senior analyst for Forrester Leadership Boards, told eWeek.

Nov 26, 2007

Hostworks warns new Government to invest in broadband backbone

Hostworks managing director, Marty Gauvin has warned the incoming Federal Government that Australia’s broadband infrastructure hinders the nation's ability to compete internationally in the online economy.

Gauvin, whose company manages the availability, performance and running costs of its customers’ critical business applications, said the election-driven political debate about broadband had overlooked a bigger problem -- the backbone capacity to handle the nation’s demand.

“If Australia wants to succeed internationally as the online economy evolves, we need to start thinking much more innovatively. As well as building the infrastructure to support the online population we want, we need strategies to aggregate our online content to make it much more accessible and compelling.

“The critical issue is not how fast it goes into people’s houses; it is how fast it runs across the country and the speed of backbone data links for commercial service providers like Hostworks," he said.

Gauvin added that “choke points” created by broadband infrastructure represented a failure of market forces to deliver the best outcome for the country.

Robot Autonomy

Ever since Karel Capek, a Czech playwright, used the term in the early 1920s to describe artificial people, robots have usually appeared in popular culture with human characteristics.

There was the Model B-9 Environmental Control Robot in Lost in Space; Rosie, the robot maid in The Jetsons; C-3PO in Star Wars; and the future Governor Schwarzenegger as The Terminator.

In the real world, however, things took a different turn. The number of robots has grown rapidly, but they are not humanoid. After the first Unimate robot-arm began work on a General Motors assembly line in 1961, industrial robots of all shapes and sizes invaded the factory floor: There are now about one million of them worldwide.

There are also hordes of service robots, vacuuming floors, trimming the grass on golf courses and soon (with luck) doing the ironing. Specialist robots can creep inside a patient's chest cavity to attach electrodes to a pacemaker or along sewer pipes looking for cracks.

Robots have also joined the armed forces: Some 4,000 are said to be in action in Iraq and Afghanistan doing things such as clearing mines or, acting as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and flying reconnaissance and even combat missions.

Many of today's robots still have a human controller somewhere, but they are gaining more and more autonomy. By 2015, the U.S. armed forces want about half their armed vehicles to be robotized.

So cheap and so easily available has the technology become that even hobbyists are making UAVs. The culture of hacking is spreading from software to ever more elaborate and capable hardware.

With luck there will be many more robotic devices to do not just dirty and dangerous jobs, but also tiresome but necessary ones, such as fetching and carrying for bedridden people. Robots can do some of these jobs better and more cheaply than humans can.

Nov 25, 2007

To be perfectly Frank

Dweezil Zappa is on an Olympian crusade to keep his father's nearly impossible music alive, writes Michael Dwyer.

TO BEGIN to understand Frank Zappa's gravity in the rock'n'roll universe, a substantive distinction needs to be made. As always, it sounds best with the maestro's own pithy turn of phrase.

"Composers may write songs, but it is very seldom that a songwriter will do a composition," Zappa told interviewer Paul Zollo 20 years ago. "If you compare it to architecture, it's the difference between building a cathedral and building a Taco Bell."

In this fast-food era, it's sadly inevitable that the Church of Frank has found few converts since his death, at 52, in 1993. His musician son, Dweezil, is painfully aware that a mind-boggling 80-album catalogue is going the way of Igor Stravinsky in a Coldplay world.

For the last year, he's been touring Zappa Plays Zappa, a live, full-band recital of Frank's compositions ranging from obscure orchestral works to his better-known jazz-rock-weirdo material.

His motivation was fuelled, he says, by the birth last year of his daughter, Zola Frank Zappa. With only a handful of her grandfather's zaniest rock tunes audible on American radio, Dweezil realised that a phenomenal musical legacy was becoming unavailable to new generations.

"Every day that we're playing this stuff," the 36-year-old guitarist says, "it amazes me that one person wrote all this different music, that one person had that much creative drive to cover so much ground.

"But what amazes me most is that, when all is said and done, it's unique. You can't say that there's anything that really sounds like Frank Zappa. In the world of music, that's damn near impossible."

Nov 23, 2007

New mums short on sleep pile on the pounds

A new study has found that mothers who only manage to get five hours or less sleep each night are three times more likely to hang on to that extra weight gained in pregnancy, while women who slept seven hours a night or more lost more weight.

The researchers from Kaiser Permanente and Harvard Medical School believe their study is the first to examine the impact of sleep deprivation on weight retention in mothers after their baby is born.

While other studies have looked at the effect of sleep deprivation on mothers' cognitive and emotional health, associated weight gain has not been considered.

Dr. Erica P. Gunderson, a researcher with Kaiser Permanente and the lead author of the study, says it is well known that sleep deprivation is associated with weight gain and obesity in the general population.

Dr. Gunderson says the study shows that getting enough sleep, even two hours more, may be as important as a healthy diet and exercise for new mothers to return to their pre-pregnancy weight.

The study also found that mothers who slept fewer hours one year after the birth of their baby had twice the risk of substantial weight retention.

Other research has demonstrated that persistent sleep deprivation causes hormonal changes that may stimulate appetite; too little sleep has not only been linked to obesity in women, but also coronary artery disease and diabetes.

Nov 22, 2007

Globalisation and the Australian ICT industry

Will globalisation erode Australia's information and communication technology (ICT) capability?

The operative word here is 'will'. Yes, Australia is holding its own now according to one of the debaters from Gartner's round table on globalisation but will it continue to do so? The pros and cons of the issue were argued in a debate held at the Gartner Symposium/ITxpo in Sydney this week.

With the end of the federal election campaign in sight, and ICT issues such as Australia's broadband infrastructure, industry development and the skills shortage on the political agenda, the impact of globalisation on Australia's ICT capability is increasingly under scrutiny, according to Gartner.

In election campaign style, an electronic 'worm' tracked the views of the audience during the debate and an interactive polling system polled the audience before and after the debate.

Gartner's definition of globalisation is: Unhindered trade in goods and services among countries. And its definition of ICT is: all information and communication technology products and services that enable customers to access and use ICT.

Arguing the affirmative position that globalisation is eroding Australia's ICT capability, Gartner research vice president and distinguished analyst Partha Iyengar highlighted Australia's struggle to compete with its neighbours. With fewer science and technology graduates emerging from universities, Australia risks becoming an innovation backwater, he said.

Tell ASIMO robots can't break dance

NOTHING says techno-cool better than a humanoid robot puttin' on the moves on the dance floor. Honda's ASIMO (Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility) has hit 21 and is celebrating with a national tour of Australia to highlight its latest technology. At just 130cm tall and 54kg, ASIMO has been under development since 1986, emerging as the world's first humanoid robot in 1996.

Refinements since then have lifted ASIMO to star status with audiences, with royalty and an invitation to ring the bell at the New York Stock Exchange.

Video Take a look at some of ASIMO's moves

ASIMO is a walking, talking, dancing symbol of Honda's desire to push the technical boundaries. The future for ASIMO, and the target goal for the program since its inception, is in human service as an independent operating assistant for the disabled. But if you want someone just to answer the door and greet visitors, you can lease an ASIMO from Honda.

Honda uses one at its Japanese headquarters. Twenty ASIMOs have been built.
The tour continues from tomorrow until Sunday at Darling Harbour before moving on to Prince Alfred Park at Parramatta.

Second-class and lost in the post

Idiots. Utter, unbelievable, jaw-dropping, unpardonable idiots. It is beyond farce, past comprehension, criminally irresponsible and beneath contempt.

All those lectures from government and authorities about keeping our personal data safe; every statement ever made about the security of the proposed NHS database of everybody's personal medical records; each claim that the Children's Database containing all their personal details will somehow make our kids safer; and of course each and every promise about the safety of the national identity register — exposed as quite, quite worthless. Because as soon as you put it on a computer, a bloke in an office can download it and stick it in an envelope and send your most personal details and mine and our children's across the country with a dodgy courier.

It is shocking, it is risible, it is hilarious. Someone gave a disc containing confidential data about 25 million people to a bloke on a bike? And he lost it? Of course, a case of mass identity or financial fraud would never happen in this way. It is too chaotic. Fraud will happen through a far more organised infiltration of the official systems; but what yesterday's revelation does is underscore the insecurity of those systems. And allows us to giggle at the po-faced pretence of those in authority that they are any better at protecting us than we are ourselves.

This is the pretence at the heart of every state attempt to tighten up national security — through searches and ID cards and barricades and banning water in airports and making us take our shoes off. All these measures put the public to ever-greater inconvenience while it knows that terrorism happens through random and unimaginable acts that no amount of searching and barricading can block.

* Chancellor admits HMRC lost data on 25m people

* Briefing: why was sensitive data sent on CD?

* Paul Gray's resignation letter

* Q&A: what to do now

Likewise, it is the very randomness of the loss of data that shocks. Someone just did something you couldn't have predicted: he stuck a load of incredibly sensitive stuff about us in the post. And it was (almost certainly) randomly lost. It's probably in a rubbish dump somewhere by now.

It might have been random, but it betrays a total and arrogant carelessness about the privacy of the individual. And it wasn't just one guy; it happens often. It was clear from Alistair Darling's statement to the Commons yesterday that there is systemic security failure at Her Majesty's Revenue & Customs.

It isn't the first time recently that the organisation has lost personal data. Turns out HMRC routinely sends sensitive information around the country on discs. Earlier this month the details of more than 15,000 Standard Life customers, including pensions, were put on a disc and lost by a courier en route from HMRC in Newcastle to the Standard Life HQ in Edinburgh. Last month a laptop with data about 400 people with high-value Isas was stolen from the boot of a car belonging to someone at HMRC. Personal and financial details have been misdirected to wrong addresses or found in the street.

Nov 21, 2007

Robocop's Beijing Gig

A less than two metre tall robot police officer with a blue and white jacket begins to work in Changping District of Beijing on Tuesday, November 20, 2007. less than two metre tall robot police officer with a blue and white jacket begins to work in Changping District of Beijing on Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2007.

A robot police officer has recently begun working in Changping District of Beijing, facilitating citizens who want to call the police. The newspaper Beijing Times reported on Tuesday that four video cameras have been installed in the robot, three in the head and one pinhole camera on the chest, with which he can inspect his surroundings.

When needing to call the police, citizens need only press a red button on the robot's stomach and the robot will automatically connect with police headquarters. Speaking through a microphone installed on the robot's chest, citizens can speak directly with an officer.

According to Changping police, the robot officer will be mainly used in areas where cameras can't be installed and where incidents happen frequently, thus benefiting citizens and frightening criminals.

Tell the Robot to clean up the mess

A woman speaks to Lady Bird, an insect-shaped talking robot created for cleaning up bathroom floors at highway rest areas, at a media presentation in Osaka on Nov. 21, 2007. The sensor-equipped robot, which can vacuum and scrub floors, is being development to have simple conversations with bathroom users and provide them with driving directions and tourism information. It will be put into practical use next year.

Beer's the way to stay ale 'n' hearty

Beer drinkers from all over Europe met recently in Brussels to discuss the medical advantages of drinking beer, a beverage praised over the years by artists and writers but rarely by scientists. As a result, those who enjoy a pint at the Adam and Eve from time to time are not always aware that beer, taken in moderation, has the same advantages as other drinks plus one or two of its own.

Beer contains antioxidants, so the beneficial effects of drinking on the cardiovascular system are not confined to wine.

Chaucer, Housman, Shakespeare, Dickens, Brendan Behan and Dylan Thomas have all praised beer in their writings, and Samuel Johnson even ran a brewery for a time, but their high regard for beer was not so much for its good effect on the physique as for its influence on their psyche and on the community in which they lived.

Unlike those literary figures, the scientists who met in Brussels under the chairmanship of Professor Jonathan Powell, of the Medical Research Council human nutrition unit in Cambridge, were largely concerned with the influence of beer on human health.

Professor Powell said that the media and the public had tended to focus on the advantages of wine drinking in moderation. In his opinion there is increasing evidence that the benefits of moderate drinking are more related to the alcohol, whatever the nature of the drink, than to a particular beverage. Beer also contains nutrients and other properties that encourage good health.

In a controlled study in Germany, it was found that people who drank beer in moderation were less likely to develop coronary heart disease than those who drank other drinks.

Not only did the beer drinkers have better protection from heart attacks, but there was supporting evidence for beer’s cardio-protective effect and for its help in altering the ratio of beneficial high-density lipoprotein cholesterol to the pernicious low-density cholesterol.

There were also beneficial changes to the platelets — particles in the blood involved in clotting — and in the amount of fibrinogen, another factor in clotting, present in the blood.

As the average beer is only a third of the strength of the average wine, the ease with which people can drink too much is less. There may be other characteristics in the lifestyle of the beer-drinking fraternity that are difficult to measure but may contribute to the apparent benefits of beer drinking.

Earlier work among beer drinkers in the Czech Republic found that those men with the lowest risk of having a heart attack drank between seven and 15 pints a week. Another study, from Australia, investigated the drinking habits of 3,000 people in their seventies over the previous ten years and found that those who drank one or two beers a day had a 20 per cent lower risk of dying of heart disease than those who were teetotal or drank to excess.

What is more, the advantages of moderate beer drinking are not confined to the heart. Danish research has revealed that beer drinkers suffer less frequently from kidney stones, and it is now becoming accepted that drinking beer in moderation reduces the incidence of diabetes and osteoporosis, although drinking to excess may increase the risk of both.

Beer drinkers are convinced that their tipple’s wholesome ingredients, including malted barley, hops and yeast, contribute to a healthy balanced diet. Beer is rich in many vitamins of the B group and in such trace elements as magnesium but is low in both iron and calcium.

Beer drinking in moderation is not even responsible for a large belly: glass for glass, beer is less fattening than apple juice, milk or yoghurt.

Ethical rights and wrongs

Only a few mavericks question the widespread belief that cloning human beings is wrong. While scientists and religious conservatives differ profoundly on the morality of human cloning for medical research, its use for reproduction – creating an individual from another’s DNA – has inspired remarkable ethical agreement.

In animals, cloning for reproduction has been inefficient and hazardous, with high rates of miscarriage and birth defects. Even supporters of cloning in pursuit of therapies for conditions such as diabetes largely share the view of church groups that reproductive applications challenge basic human dignity.

That is why a United Nations report called this week for renewed efforts to ban reproductive cloning worldwide. The consensus has created an opportunity to do this before it is too late, the panel of ethicists said. Otherwise, it is probably a question of when and not if the first human clone will be born.

For safety reasons alone, it is clear that reproductive cloning is not ethical. Even were such experiments to succeed, the cost of getting there, in lost pregnancies and deformed and dead children, would be too great to justify. Yet that does not necessarily mean that the practice will forever be immoral.
Related Links

* Taken for a ride

It is possible that reproductive cloning may be proved safe and efficient in primates. A breakthrough in monkey cloning that could eventually lead this way, indeed, was announced on Wednesday. If that were to happen, the ethical debate would come alive again. Some people – especially infertile men – may be keen to use cloning to have offspring that carry their genes. And it is not clear they would be wrong to do so.

As John Harris, of the University of Manchester, says in his new book Enhancing Evolution (Princeton University Press), many of the arguments against reproductive cloning that are not based on safety do not stack up. To share your DNA with another individual need not necessarily compromise dignity at all: millions of identical twins do it already.

Clones, of course, would be different from twins as they would have the DNA of a person from another generation, who is already alive. The idea that this condemns them to a life in the parent’s shadow, however, is also misconceived. All they would share is their nuclear DNA, and that contributes only parts of individuals’ identities.

Each would be born to a different woman, at a different time, from a different uterine environment. Education, family and peer group circumstances would be different, too. “Since we know that all these experiences affect the structure of the brain, there is no significant sense in which any clone could be determined to be like its genome donor,” Harris points out.

Perhaps the most serious nonsafety concern about reproductive cloning is that children born this way would almost certainly face stigma and discrimination. Once again, though, this is in no way decisive. The same was once true of children born out of wedlock, by IVF, or from donated eggs or sperm: social attitudes can and do change. The possibility that clones would face prejudice does not automatically mean that it would be wrong to create them. As the UN report recognised, it means that education and legislation are required to protect their human rights, so that they are respected as the individuals they would be.

Human reproductive cloning may not be possible. Even if it is, it will appeal only to a tiny minority. It cannot meaningfully replicate a lost child, and familiar ways of breeding will invariably be more efficient and fun. Its development is not a priority or something that reputable scientists are considering right now. But if it is plausible, there is a good chance that it will happen one day. We should think hard about how to protect cloned children before the first one is born.

Gartner to CIOs: Prepare for a fall

Analyst firm Gartner has warned Australian CIOs to ignore recent growth in local economies and prepare to deal with financial challenges in 2008, including escalating personnel costs and skills shortages.

At the Gartner Symposium in Sydney, senior vice-president Peter Sondergaard explained that recent troubles in global credit markets as well as recent local pressures mean that executives should create contingency plans for the coming year.

"Your IT budget for 2008 must reflect a continued focus on supporting business growth," Sondergaard said.

"However, it should build in cost contingencies for dealing with escalating personnel costs due to a rising skills shortage and declining quality in IT projects."

The company's analysts advised IT executives at the conference on how to drive growth for their businesses over the new year:

1) Attract and retain customers

CIOs need to take advantage of an efficient, secure, always available communications environment in order to attract and retain customers. User control is critical, analysts said, and communications in context, at the right time and place, make a significant difference.

2) Maximise profitability and effectiveness

IT must also deliver an efficient, lean and green infrastructure to maximise profitability and competitive capabilities.

3) Improve business processes

IT has addressed the majority of simple and straightforward processes - those that are predictable, repeatable and neatly controlled. Advanced organisations, the company says, will harness the most complex, most volatile, most dynamic and multi-party processes.

4) Stop deleting opportunities

People want only the right information all the time. Companies want the same thing, at the million document and billion transaction level.

"The problem is not just too much information, it's too much bad information. The information is delivered unpredictably. It comes from every direction in unimagined forms," said research director Brian Prentice. "Focus on the opportunities grasping for air in the information flood."

5) Build innovative and agile organisations

It is not enough to be merely efficient. Business needs innovation, and that means moving beyond the activities that IT people have obsessed about. IT has been asked to reduce costs, tighten compliance and reduce or even eliminate risk, all while reducing costs.

Research vice president Jeffrey Mann said, "How can IT leaders create an innovative and agile organisation if they believe that the most innovative and exciting technologies and services have no business value? To embrace opportunity, IT needs to loosen up to allow good things to happen, safely."

6) Managed risk

IT leaders need to understand the risk related to the use of IT, and these people communicate that risk, so the business can make an educated and informed decision whether or not that risk is acceptable. It is not IT's job to say no.

"Information security doesn't mean zero risk, it means managed risk," said Jay Heiser, research vice-president, Gartner. "Talk about what all these new technologies can enable, but in a context of a new approach to IT risk management. Help your business colleagues make educated decisions. It is not IT's job to assume all IT-related risk."

Nov 20, 2007

New tool to help track terrorists online

The quivering images and militant writings are frightening: an exploding Humvee blankets passing cars with dust; a lab technician makes explosives, step by step; hatred oozes from A guide to kill Americans in Saudi Arabia.

Tens of thousands of web pages are now devoted to terrorist propaganda designed to attract followers. On the surface, the messages and videos reveal little about their creators. But programmers and writers leave digital clues: the greetings and other words they choose, their punctuation and syntax, and the way they code multimedia attachments and web links.

Researchers at the University of Arizona are developing a tool that uses these clues to automate the analysis of online jihadism. The Dark Web project aims to scour web sites, forums and chat rooms to find the internet's most prolific and influential jihadists and learn how they reel in adherents.

Lab director Hsinchun Chen hopes Dark Web will crimp what he calls "al-Qaeda University on the web," the mass of web sites where potential terrorists learn their trade, from making explosives to planning attacks. Experts said they are not aware of any comparable effort, though some said the project may have only limited applications.

The project in the university's Artificial Intelligence Lab will not identify people outside cyberspace "because that involves civil liberties," Chen said, preferring to let law enforcement and intelligence analysts take over from there. Instead, it will help identify messages with the same author and reveal links that aren't obvious.


Nov 19, 2007

Your Outboard Brain Knows All

I don't mean computer memory. That stuff's half-price at Costco these days. No, I'm talking about human memory, stored by the gray matter inside our heads. According to recent research, we're remembering fewer and fewer basic facts these days.

This summer, neuroscientist Ian Robertson polled 3,000 people and found that the younger ones were less able than their elders to recall standard personal info. When Robertson asked his subjects to tell them a relative's birth date, 87 percent of respondents over age 50 could recite it, while less than 40 percent of those under 30 could do so. And when he asked them their own phone number, fully one-third of the youngsters drew a blank. They had to whip out their handsets to look it up.

That reflexive gesture — reaching into your pocket for the answer — tells the story in a nutshell. Mobile phones can store 500 numbers in their memory, so why would you bother trying to cram the same info into your own memory? Younger Americans today are the first generation to grow up with go-everywhere gadgets and services that exist specifically to remember things so that we don't have to: BlackBerrys, phones, thumb drives, Gmail.

I've long noticed this phenomenon in my own life. I can't remember a single friend's email address. Hell, sometimes I have to search my inbox to remember an associate's last name. Friends of mine space out on lunch dates unless Outlook pings them. And when it comes to cultural trivia — celebrity names, song lyrics — I've almost given up making an effort to remember anything, because I can instantly retrieve the information online.

In fact, the line between where my memory leaves off and Google picks up is getting blurrier by the second. Often when I'm talking on the phone, I hit Wikipedia and search engines to explore the subject at hand, harnessing the results to buttress my arguments.

My point is that the cyborg future is here. Almost without noticing it, we've outsourced important peripheral brain functions to the silicon around us.

And frankly, I kind of like it. I feel much smarter when I'm using the Internet as a mental plug-in during my daily chitchat. Say you mention the movie Once: I've never seen it, but in 10 seconds I'll have reviewed a summary of the plot, the actors, and its cultural impact. Machine memory even changes the way I communicate, because I continually stud my IMs with links, essentially impregnating my very words with extra intelligence.

23AndMe Will Decode Your DNA for $1,000

At the age of 65, my grandfather the manager of a leather tannery in Fond Du Lac, Wisconsin, suffered a severe heart attack. He had chest pains and was rushed to the hospital. But that was in 1945, before open heart surgery, and he died a few hours later. By the time my father reached 65, he was watching his diet and exercising regularly. That regimen seemed fine until a couple of years later, when he developed chest pains during exercise, a symptom of severe arteriolosclerosis. A checkup revealed that his blood vessels were clogged with arterial plaque. Within two days he had a triple bypass. Fifteen years later (15 years that he considers a gift), he's had no heart trouble to speak of.

I won't reach 65 till 2033, but I have long assumed that, as regards heart disease, my time will come. My genes have predetermined it. To avoid my father's surgery, or my grandfather's fate, I try to eat healthier than most, exercise more than most, and never even consider smoking. This, I figure, is what it will take for me to live past 65.

Turns out that my odds are better than I thought. My DNA isn't pushing me toward heart disease — it's pulling me away. There are established genetic variations that researchers associate with a higher risk for a heart attack, and my genome doesn't have any of those negative mutations; it has positive mutations that actually reduce my risk. Like any American, I still have a good chance of eventually developing heart disease. But when it comes to an inherited risk, I take after my mother, not my father.

Reading your genomic profile — learning your predispositions for various diseases, odd traits, and a talent or two — is something like going to a phantasmagorical family reunion. First you're introduced to the grandfather who died 23 years before you were born, then you move along for a chat with your parents, who are uncharacteristically willing to talk about their health — Dad's prostate, Mom's digestive tract. Next, you have the odd experience of getting acquainted with future versions of yourself, 10, 20, and 30 years down the road. Finally, you face the prospect of telling your children — in my case, my 8-month-old son — that he, like me, may face an increased genetic risk for glaucoma.

The experience is simultaneously unsettling, illuminating, and empowering. And now it's something anyone can have for about $1,000. This winter marks the birth of a new industry: Companies will take a sample of your DNA, scan it, and tell you about your genetic future, as well as your ancestral past. A much-anticipated Silicon Valley startup called 23andMe offers a thorough tour of your genealogy, tracing your DNA back through the eons. Sign up members of your family and you can track generations of inheritance for traits like athletic endurance or bitter-taste blindness. The company will also tell you which diseases and conditions are associated with your genes — from colorectal cancer to lactose intolerance — giving you the ability to take preventive action. A second company, called Navigenics, focuses on matching your genes to current medical research, calculating your genetic risk for a range of diseases.

Daft Punk: Behind the robot masks

Meeting the French dance duo Daft Punk, one of the most original and elusive pop acts of the past decade, is a slightly unnerving experience. They never perform, or allow themselves to be photographed, without their crash-helmet-like robot masks, so you start to worry: what on earth are they hiding beneath them?

Daft Punk in their trademark masks
Which is which?: Daft Punk in their trademark masks

The answer, I discover during an interview in Paris, is that Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo look disappointingly normal. They both have average thirty-something faces and dress in similar skinny black T-shirts and jeans with big, shiny trainers. But, 10 years after they burst on to the scene, they are not ready to hang up their flashy alter-egos just yet. "The robot masks are a statement of freedom," says Bangalter. "It was about defining the aesthetic of what we do."

After a false start as an indie guitar band, Daft Punk came up with the potent cocktail of electro, funk, acid house and techno music, matched with a striking visual identity and cutting-edge videos, that made their first album, 1997's Homework, a landmark in dance music.

On subsequent albums they mixed up the formula even more, throwing in slick synth-pop and house refrains that attracted and repelled fans in equal measure. For their last album, Human After All, they embarked on an even more unexpected excursion into heavy metal territory. And this year they have diversified further still, making their first film, Electroma - a futuristic, 2001-like dream of two robots driving across the desert trying to create human faces - and completing their second live album, recorded during an extensive and dazzling world tour.

What has at times felt like a rather disorienting musical journey across the individual records suddenly comes together compellingly in the live album, Alive 2007. "We wanted to show the connections between all our work and validate the music," says Bangalter, the taller, more talkative of the two.

Nov 18, 2007

Alexis Madrigal: Genetic Nondiscrimination Bill Stalled in Senate

With several private companies launching businesses to provide customers with unprecedented access to their genomes' secrets, legislation protecting people from genetic discrimination is more timely than ever. But Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Oklahama) is single-handedly stalling federal legislation to do just that.

The Senate passed earlier versions of the bill twice before, but they were blocked from coming up for House floor votes. This year, the House passed it by a bipartisan landslide, but Coburn has held up the legislation in the Senate, saying it could place too much strain on businesses.

"We're not really clear on what Coburn wants, because his excuses don't make sense," said the bill's original sponsor, Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-New York). "But if this bill got to a floor vote in the Senate, I think it'd pass almost unanimously."

Coburn spokesman John Hart said his boss supports the intent of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, known as GINA. Coburn voted for a nearly identical bill in 2005, but now says the bill's language exposes employers to too much liability. Supporters of the bill see Coburn's new beef as another in a string of inconsequential objections to the legislation.

23andMe, Navigenics and Decode Genetics have recently launched programs to scan individual's genomes and provide access to the information online. Customers will have to spend a for 23andMe's service.

In the absence of federal legislation, most states provide some degree of protection against discrimination. Many have gone further, explicitly providing genetic-privacy protections. Alaskan law (.pdf), for example, says DNA samples are an individual's private property. Still, companies offering personal genome scans, as well as biotechs offering genetic diagnostic tests, worry that their businesses will not gain traction without a federal law.

Slaughter introduced GINA in the House 12 years ago, but Republican leadership repeatedly blocked a vote, even as it passed the Senate twice. Under this year's new Democratic majority, the House passed GINA, 420-3 (H.R. 493), and it appeared ready to sail through the Senate (S. 358). But Coburn, exercising a prerogative available to all senators, placed it on hold, which requires a supermajority of 60 senators just to bring the bill up for a relatively rare floor debate.

An internal memo obtained Thursday from Coburn's office said the senator's make-or-break objection was the possibility that an employer who provides health insurance for its workers could be sued both as an insurer and as an employer. That means employers could be hit for much higher damages than insurers.

Robot Roach

A robotic cockroach can act as a 'pied piper' to its flesh-and-blood counterparts, persuading the real insects to hide in unusual places. European scientists introduced tiny autonomous robots into an "arena" where cockroaches were allowed to run free. They wanted to see whether the robots would be accepted by the insects and whether they could influence their collective decision-making process.

The results were reported in the academic journal Science. The robots - built by Jose Halloy, from the Free University in Brussels, Belgium, and colleagues - do not look at all like cockroaches. But by covering the robots in filter paper infused with cockroach pheromones, the researchers were able to fool the animals into thinking the automatons were genuine members of their group.

Nov 16, 2007

Don't Forget to Back Up Your Brain

As any Baby Boomer will tell you, Americans have more information to cram into their memories than ever. Yet, as we age, our capacity for recall grows weaker.

But what if you could capture every waking moment of your entire life, store it on your computer and then recall digital snapshots of everything you've seen and heard with just a quick search?

Renowned computer scientist Gordon Bell, head of Microsoft's Media Presence Research Group and founder of the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley, thinks he might be able to do just that.

He calls it a "surrogate memory," and what he considers an early version of it even has an official name — MyLifeBits.

"The goal is to live as much of life as possible versus spending time maintaining our memory system," Bell explains.

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Perfect surrogate memory would be supplemental to, but ultimately as good as, your original memory.

It could let you listen to every conversation you had when you were 21 or find that photograph of the obscure date you had on summer vacation.

As Bell says, it would "supplement (and sometimes supplant) other information-processing systems, including people."

MyLifeBits isn't quite there yet, but Bell's nevertheless "gone paperless" for the past decade as part of the project, keeping a detailed, digitized diary that documents his life with photographs, letters and voice recordings.

So that he doesn't miss out on important daily events, Bell wears a SenseCam, developed by Microsoft Research, that takes pictures whenever it detects he may want a photograph.

The camera's infrared sensor picks up on body heat and takes snapshots of anyone else in the room, adjusting itself as available light changes.

Not only does MyLifeBits record your life's digital information, but the software, developed by Bell's researchers Jim Gemmell and Roger Lueder, also can help you retrieve it.

"MyLifeBits is a system aimed at capturing cyber-content in the course of daily life with the goal of being able to utilize it in various ways at work, in our personal life — e.g. finances, family, health and for our future memory," Bell says.

Simply enter a keyword such as "pet," for example, and the search engine will find all available information on your childhood puppy.

It also can run more intricate searches, allowing you to cross-reference all associations linked to certain people or places.

If you're having difficulty remembering where you were and who you were with on a certain day, MyLifeBits would remind you.

And just how much data is needed on a day-to-day basis?

"All the bits that we can that will likely have value for our memory in the near and long-term future, a few bits just for the hell of it," Bell says. "We end up with more bits because we need them for relationships."

Still, is recalling every single detail of an entire lifetime too much? How can anyone guess what's going to be important 20 years from now?

"It is impossible to know what will be required in the future," says Bell. "Furthermore, recording everything allows one item to be used to find another item that may have been created at the same time."

Bell says MyLifeBits could have another important benefit: It may actually improve your real memory.

According to Bell, being reminded of someone in a photograph or screensaver strengthens our recollections.

Nov 15, 2007

Generating changes

NUCLEAR power is increasingly popular, much to the consternation of many environmental groups. In 2005, 15.2% of the world's electricity was produced by nuclear plants, compared with 3.3% in 1973, according to the International Energy Agency. Many countries, especially rich ones, now cite climate change when trying to persuade their electorates to switch to nuclear, which has negligible greenhouse-gas emissions. Despite a push in renewables such as wind and wave power, they account for only 2.2% of generation. Coal is still the biggest fuel source, being cheap and readily available.

Nov 14, 2007

Intel release eco-friendly, high-performance 45nm processors

Intel has unveiled sixteen new chips incorporating 45nm Hafnium-based high-k metal gate transistors that are smaller, faster and more eco-friendly than previous generations. Gordon E. Moore, co-founder of Intel, has labeled the breakthrough as the biggest transistor advancement in 40 years with the improvement expected to further extend Moore’s Law, which he originally described in 1965.

Moore’s Law stated that the number of transistors on an integrated circuit would double every year, for at least ten years. Although he modified it in the 1970s to make it more modest, his original scribbled graph charted the course of technology remarkably accurately for the following five decades, and continues to (approximately) do so today.

The new processors incorporate 420 million transistors for each dual core chip and 840 million transistors for each quad core chip - nearly double the transistor density of previous models. The Intel Core 2 Extreme and Xeon processors are also the first to be manufactured on the 45 nanometer scale, further boosting performance and lowering power consumption.

The company expects to produce billion-transistor processors by 2010.

One factor that threatened to severely curtail the increase of processing power was the electricity leakage that plagued smaller transistors. Intel’s new transistor formula not only alleviates this concern, but also eliminates ecologically harmful lead and, by 2008, halogen materials.

These breakthroughs clear the path for Intel to design products that are 25 percent smaller than previous models, as well as the ability to pursue new ultra mobile and consumer electronics “system on chip” opportunities in 2008.

Self-Tuning Robot Guitar

The somewhat aptly-named Gibson Robot Guitar went on sale today, after 10 years of development. A second set of pickups monitors the pitch of each string, and actually transmits information up the strings themselves to the tuning pegs, which then automatically rotate to correct the pitch (video on Gadget Lab).

The guitar comes calibrated for concert pitch (A=440). For playing with people who are already in another weird tuning, you can set any string to any note within its range, and the other strings will automatically tune to that. The system also lets guitarists switch between alternate tunings quickly and easily.

The Gibson Robot Guitar will be available on December 7th at 400 locations throughout the world. If you already have a favorite guitar, you'll be able to pick up a $900 accessory to add Powertune. Each store will only stock 10 units of this limited edition "blue starburst" model, but if it's a hot seller, you can bet Gibson will double down and add "PowerTune" to more guitars next year.

Regular fasting = lower risk of cardiovascular disease,?

Dr Benjamin Horne (Intermountain Medical Center, Murray, UT) presented the results of the study during the American Heart Association 2007 Scientific Sessions last week. In an interview with heartwire, Horne explained that studies dating back three decades have indicated that the LDS population lives longer than non-LDS Americans, a finding attributed partly to the fact that the religion forbids smoking. "But smoking isn't the only risk factor for CVD, and because the lower risk is so substantial, we felt there could be other factors," he said.

For the first part of the study, Horne and colleagues looked at more than 4600 participants in the Intermountain Heart Collaborative Study registry and stratified coronary heart disease risk according to religious preference. Compared with 1467 people who identified themselves as being non-LDS, people who identified themselves as LDS Mormons had a significantly reduced incidence of coronary artery disease (CAD; 66% vs 61%, OR=0.81, p=0.009).

In a second analysis, Horne et al surveyed 515 patients scheduled to undergo coronary angiography about religious practices and other behaviors relating to religion that might affect CAD risk. They found that those who said they fasted regularly—regardless of religious beliefs—were significantly less likely to have CAD identified on coronary angiogram. For the purposes of the study, fasting was defined as no food or drink for at least two consecutive meals.

According to Horne, 70% of the population of Utah is LDS, making this a "sizable" group in whom to study the effects of fasting: LDS Mormons fast once a month for 24 hours. While the study does not conclusively link fasting to cardioprotection, there are a number of possible hypotheses that might explain the effect.

Nov 12, 2007

Random-Access Warehouses

Squat orange robots and a set of adaptive algorithms are making it possible to deliver online orders faster. The system, so far installed in two giant Staples warehouses, allows workers to fill two to three times as many orders as they could with conventional methods. The startup that developed the robots and software, Kiva Systems, based in Woburn, MA, announced yesterday that it is rolling out a third system, for the pharmacy giant Walgreens.

Kiva Systems' CEO and founder, Mick Mountz, likens the system to random-access memory chips. The warehouse is arranged in a memory-chip-like grid composed of rows and columns of freestanding shelves. The grid gives robots access to any product in the warehouse at any time. The robots serve two basic functions. First, they deliver empty warehouse shelving units to workers who stock them. The workers might stock one unit with a mix of paper, various types of pens, and computer software, all compiled from large pallets that had been delivered to the warehouse. Then, when a consumer submits an order, robots deliver the relevant shelving units to workers who pack the requested items in a box and ship them off. "We turn the whole building into a random-access, dynamic storage and retrieval system," Mountz says.

Privacy is not synonymous with anonymity

Donald Kerr, a top intelligence official with the US government, says that citizens need to change their definition of privacy to match the government's definition, the AP reports. Appointed Director of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) in 2005, Kerr is now the principal deputy director of national intelligence. Kerr is one of many in the intelligence community who finds Americans' views on privacy to be antiquated and unreasonable.

Kerr echoes the view that privacy is not synonymous with anonymity. Americans who want to see anonymity at the center of privacy policies need to give up this notion, he says. "Too often, privacy has beenequated with anonymity; and it's an idea that is deeply rooted in American culture... but in our interconnected andwireless world, anonymity - or the appearance of anonymity - is quickly becoming a thing of the past," Kerr said according to a PDF transcript of his comments.

Americans need to shift their definition of privacy to center instead on the proper maintenance and protection of personal data by government and business entities. Kerr said that "privacy, I would offer, is a system of laws, rules, and customs with an infrastructure of Inspectors General, oversight committees, and privacy boards on which our intelligence community commitment is based and measured. And it is that framework that we need to grow and nourish and adjust as our cultures change."

Nov 11, 2007

Security Pro Admits to Hijacking PCs for Profit

A Los Angeles security professional has admitted to infecting more than a quarter million computers with malicious software and installing spyware that was used to steal personal data and serve victims with online advertisements. John Kenneth Schiefer, 26, variously known online as "acid" and "acidstorm," agreed to plead guilty to at least four felony charges of fraud and wiretapping, charges punishable by $1.75 million in fines and nearly 60 years in prison. Investigators say Schiefer and two minors -- identified in the complaint only by their online screen names "pr1me" and "dynamic" -- broke into about 250,000 PCs.

On at least 137,000 of those infected systems, Schiefer and his cohorts installed programs that allowed them to control the machines remotely. The malicious "bot" programs also allowed the attackers to steal any user names and passwords that victims had saved in Internet Explorer. Schiefer is thought to be the first in the United States to be accused of violating federal wiretapping laws by operating a "botnet" -- the term for a large grouping of hacked, remotely controlled computers -- according to Mark Krause, an assistant U.S. attorney in Los Angeles.

Michael Fitzpatrick: Automatic for the people

Fulfilling the dreams of bosses everywhere, Wakamaru San is never late, doesn't gossip or throw sickies, and somewhat unnervingly never stops smirking. That's because one-metre tall Wakamaru is an android, whose idea of a tea break is to find the nearest power socket and recharge itself when its battery runs low. This Mitsubishi-made winsome bot is part of the vanguard of so-called "second generation" robots, autonomous machines designed to help around the home and workplace - permanently.

In the first serious attempt to commercialise a robot that can work in the office, 10 little Wakamarus touting "strong receptionist skills" were recently taken on by an employment agency in Japan, where they are now for hire for £12,000 a year.

Other bots are muscling in on Japan's increasingly mechanised construction industry, though those look far from the "humanoid" type robot, such as Wakamaru, that we have been led to expect by science fiction.

In fact, really clever, human-like robots may still be decades away (see below) but gradually robot manufacturers are moving from creating machines that work mostly in the automotive sector to other industries, such as the food business, while many robots are becoming consumer products.

According to Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, the robot industry is "developing in much the same way that the computer business did 30 years ago". Just as that industry has overcome many obstacles to become utterly central to our lives so, says Gates, robot-makers are meeting the challenges of building truly useful androids. South Korea, meanwhile, plans to have a robot for every home in only 12 years' time. The robot revolution, it seems, has begun in earnest.

Koala Robot Role Model

South Korean researchers seeking a role model for their new robotic pet have chosen Australia's iconic koala because of its laziness.

Lazy or not, Kobie -- a fluffy robot made by the Electronics and Telecommunications Research Institute -- can react to touches and voice and can even recognise human faces, Friday's Korea Times newspaper reported.

Makers say Kobie is by far the most advanced robotic pet made in Korea and will pave the way for smarter, friendlier and more affordable robotic companions for humans.

"When you slap Kobie once, he acts as if he is surprised. But when you keep hitting him, be begins to show that he is scared," senior researcher Sohn Joo-Chan was quoted as saying.

"He can calculate whether you like him or not."

Sensors to detect touch, light, sounds and posture are hidden in Kobie's furry frame and transmit signals wirelessly to a nearby server such as a personal computer.

The server analyses the signals and sends back appropriate orders to Kobie's body. But why choose a koala, a marsupial that looks like a small bear and lives in trees, in preference to other animals?

"Koalas are known as lazy and slow animals that sleep a lot," Sohn said.

"If you choose a dog robot, people will expect it to act like a dog. But the motors are not good enough for that."

Nov 10, 2007

Babies Driving Their Own Robots

Babies driving robots. It sounds like the theme of a cartoon series but it is actually the focus of important and innovative research being conducted at the University of Delaware that could have significant repercussions for the cognitive development of infants with special needs.

Two UD researchers – James C. (Cole) Galloway, associate professor of physical therapy, and Sunil Agrawal, professor of mechanical engineering – have outfitted kid-size robots to provide mobility to children who are unable to fully explore the world on their own.

The work is important because much of infant development, both of the brain and behavior, emerges from the thousands of experiences each day that arise as babies independently move and explore their world. This is the concept of “embodied development,” Galloway said.

Infants with Down Syndrome, cerebral palsy, autism and other disorders can have mobility limitations that disconnect them from the ongoing exploration that their peers enjoy.

Nov 9, 2007

XQuery Your Office Documents

Over the past year we have seen office documents -- spreadsheets, wordprocessing documents, and the like -- taking a more prominent role in business processes, workflows, and vertical applications. While office documents have always been common place, their proprietary binary formats have made them all but unusable to businesses which have sought to integrate office documents in their processes. New office document standards like the OpenDocument Format(ODF) and Office Open XML (OOXML), however, are making office document integration in business processes a reality.

A key benefit of ODF and OOXML for developers is the reuse of existing standards -- in essence, your office documents are XML documents, which makes available a complete palette of tools for manipulating these documents and the information they contain. Using tools and technologies available today, you can transform office documents to HTML or PDF, store them in an XML database, shred their information and store it in a relation databases, embed SOAP messages, enrich them with external information, and so on.

How? XQuery, That's How!

XQuery is a query language for XML. A W3C recommendation since January 2007, XQuery is already widely supported, with over 50 open source and commercial implementations. So why not query your office documents using XQuery?

If you look close at ODF or OOXML documents, you notice that they are in fact not XML documents, but rather a number of XML documents packaged in a ZIP file. Figure 1 is an example of an Office Open XML document opened with WinZip.

Nov 8, 2007

MacVista and MacWindows95

MAC OS X Leopard, the long-awaited new version of Apple's operating system for the Macintosh, lasted just one day on Doubleclick's MacBook portable PC. It won't be going on to our big dual-G5 chip Power Mac desktop machine at all for at least some weeks. Please don't get us wrong. Leopard is a stunning new OS that's easy to install, looks gorgeous, boots briskly, appears very secure and introduces some very useful features. We think it's a country mile ahead of Microsoft's Windows Vista in many ways.

But some things that used to work well under the older Tiger version of Mac OS X just don't run at all under Leopard. One is Telstra's Next G broadband internet access service, which worked beautifully under Tiger. With one of Telstra's latest Turbo cards plugged into a MacBook USB port, we could connect instantly at up to 3Mbps, even in many bush locations and from moving vehicles.

Alas, once we upgraded the MacBook to Leopard, a pretty simple process that took just over an hour, the service just disappeared. "Unable to detect your Next G device," read a plaintive message. Nothing would bring it back. This is a software problem and it's Telstra's problem, not Apple's. It should be fixed in the near future, we have been assured.

In the meantime we need to stay connected when out of the office. One day we may do it with WiMAX, but for now Next G is the best solution. Reluctantly, we have put Leopard back in its cage and reinstalled Tiger on the MacBook. The big desktop, or rather desk-side, Power Mac is another matter.

Robot Consumers, Grow Up!

Someday the robots will rise up and kill us all. They'll record our lives, obliterate our privacy, set off nuclear war, and eventually turn on us and eat our brains. If any of this ever did happen, it would serve us right. We, at least American consumers, don't deserve the future that robots really have to offer.

Recent evidence abounds. What's more appalling—a television commercial depicting an industrial automotive robot committing suicide or the public outcry that followed? We have a robot psychiatrist (more on her later) and an entire country—South Korea, not the U.S. (for now)—committed to the "ethical treatment" of robots. Talk about putting the cart before the horse.

It isn't all the fault of U.S. consumers. Our robotics expectations buckle under the massive burden of fantasy robotics. Our conception of consumer robotics is steered, almost entirely, by science fiction. We confer personalities and cognitive thought on robots before we even see them. We assume that they'll have human emotions and foibles.

Look at the best-selling book How to Survive a Robot Uprising. With tongue firmly in cheek, Daniel H. Wilson warns that a robot uprising is inevitable. "How can all those Hollywood scripts be wrong?" he asks. He goes on to offer tips for spotting a robot that's about to turn on you. A servant robot could be moments away from attack if it shows, he says, a "sudden lack of interest in menial labor," or if it engages in "constant talk of human killing." It's funny stuff. The problem is that, especially for Americans, this is about the only way to make robots palatable: Americans see them as jokes, or fantastical beings that should do everything for us but never be fully trusted.

Nov 7, 2007

Children treat nursery robot as a human

The key step for robots to help teachers is for the automatons to be accepted by toddlers as social peers who are worth paying attention to - and bonding with - a hurdle that is crossed today in a study published by a team from the University of California, San Diego, UCSD.

Image from the study of children playing with the robot
The children play with the robot during the study

Robots are capable of impressive mechanical feats, but the study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences now shows that researchers are close to solving more difficult challenge: being accepted as being a peer, at least by the smaller members of our species.

The problem is that most robots do not hold a toddler's attention. The most successful so far have been storytellers, but even these can only hold interest for approximately 10 hours.

Now Dr Fumihide Tanaka of UCSD and colleagues has done much better by introducing a prototype "social robot" into a classroom of toddlers for five months.

A human controller sent very occasional instructions for the robot to turn its head or perform an action like giggling or dancing. The robot was programmed to lie down when its batteries were running out. Often children would put a blanket on him, saying "night-night". Early in the study, some children even cried when he keeled over.

Turning a Glycerin Glut Into Ethanol Helps Biofuel Industry

A Texas biotech firm plans "within a matter of months" to begin producing ethanol from glycerin using technology that significantly cuts production costs and could solve one of the biggest problems facing the biodiesel industry.

The process uses a non-pathogenic strain of E. coli to convert glycerin into ethanol, a method its developers say is easier and cheaper than using corn or sugarcane and more viable than using grass and other plants.

But the discovery's greatest impact could be on the biodiesel industry by creating demand for what has become its Achilles' heel -- the millions of gallons of glycerin produced each year as a by-product of biodiesel.

"There is a big glut of glycerin, and if they keep producing biodiesel, they will keep producing glycerin," said Ramon Gonzalez, one of the two Rice University professors behind the process.

The worldwide overabundance of glycerin poses one of the biggest challenges to expanding biodiesel production. Refiners operate on narrow profit margins and often sell glycerin to subsidize production. Last year, they produced 250 million gallons of biodiesel and 25 million gallons of glycerin, according to the National Biodiesel Board. (That's a huge increase from 1999 when refiners made just 500,000 gallons of biodiesel and 50,000 gallons of glycerin.)

Glycol Biotechnologies, a firm founded by the Rice researchers and funded by DFJ Mercury, plans to begin producing ethanol at a pilot plant in Houston by the middle of next year.

"We have unsolicited requests from 60 percent of the (biodiesel) producers to work together with them," Gonzalez said.

Glycerin is a clear, odorless, viscous liquid found in animal fats and vegetable oils. It's used, in a refined form, in hundreds of products, including soap, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals.

The supply has skyrocketed with growing biodiesel production in the United States and Europe. Asia's chemical industry has compounded the situation by making more glycerin for domestic use. As a result, prices have dropped 80 percent in the past two years to about 5 cents a pound.

The trend hasn't curbed biodiesel production. But with U.S. refiners expected to produce 1.4 billion pounds of glycerin between now and 2015, the industry is eager to find a use for it all. Domestic consumption of glycerin has ranged from 400 to 450 million pounds annually in recent years.

Ruling stops Pentagon robot order in its tracks

IRobot Corp., maker of the Roomba vacuum cleaner, won a court order that may block Robotic FX from fulfilling a $280-million (U.S.) contract to supply the U.S. military with bomb-detecting robots in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Shares of iRobot rose almost 16 per cent.

U.S. District Judge Nancy Gertner in Boston granted most of the company's request for an order temporarily blocking Robotic FX from using technology iRobot claimed was stolen by an ex-employee. The Nov. 2 ruling may result in the Pentagon contract for 3,000 robots being awarded to iRobot, which came in second in the bidding.

The temporary order, which will remain in effect until a trial can be held, "is unlikely to satisfy either party," Judge Gertner wrote in a 31-page opinion. She said a trial will be scheduled to begin no later than April 7. Robots with scaled-down tracks like those on tanks are being used with increased frequency to detect and detonate improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, the top killer of U.S. troops in Iraq.

In August, a month before the Pentagon awarded its $280-million contract for up to 3,000 robots to Robotic FX, iRobot sued the closely held company and chief executive officer Jameel Ahed. IRobot claimed Mr. Ahed, a former iRobot engineer, took private data to create Robotic FX's Negotiator robot. Mr. Ahed has denied the accusations.

Burlington, Mass.-based iRobot is seeking a court order permanently blocking Worth, Ill.-based Robotic FX from selling its Negotiator robot.

Robotic FX chief operating officer Kim Hill declined to comment.

IRobot makes home products including the Roomba, the Scuba mopping robot, the Dirt Dog workshop vacuum and the Verro pool cleaner. Home robots accounted for 60 per cent of the company's 2006 revenue of $189-million. Government and industrial products made up the rest.

major step backward with Leopard aka MacVISTA

Opinion: Apple's latest operating system release may be the most troublesome since Apple switched from its System operating system to the BSD Unix and Mach-based Mac OS X. I have never heard so many complaints about a Mac OS upgrade. Back in 2000/2001 when Apple users were switching from its older System operating system to the BSD Unix-based Mac OS X, I also heard many a die-hard Mac user cursing at the changes. Then, however, everyone knew that there was going to be real trouble. After all, this wasn't just an upgrade—both the software and hardware were moving from one operating system to another.

Leopard's (Mac OS X 10.5's) problems have shocked the Mac user community. Most Mac users would have agreed with me that Leopard wasn't supposed to be a major step forward. Instead, it was going to be many small steps forward for the Mac. Well, that was the idea. It's turned out to be a major step backward. For example, the firewall is more of a picket fence with an unlocked gate than a true security barrier. The firewall turns itself off by default on installation. Whose bright idea was that? More vexing still, if you had the firewall turned on before upgrading, this "upgrade" still turns it off.

Security researchers are also chagrined that Leopard only allows a choice between "allow all," "deny all" or "pick by application." I can deal with that, except the security experts say that "block all" actually doesn't block all. If you want fine control of your firewall, you'll need to manually configure the ipfw firewall program. That's no problem for me, but then I'm Mr. Linux/Unix. Is this really how a Mac user wants to control security? I think not.

Leopard also introduces at least one fundamental problem to basic file work. If you attempt to move, instead of copy, a file from one network volume to another, or just from one volume to another on your hard drive, and the transfer is interrupted for any reason, both the original and new file will be destroyed.

Now, this problem isn't likely to happen often, but then it only takes one file or directory being blown to bits to ruin your entire day. More importantly, it's the kind of fundamentally stupid problem that you'd never expect to see in any mature operating system, much less the usually great Mac operating systems.

Google's Android has long road ahead

On Monday, Google announced Android, a new software platform designed to provide open access to mobile phones for application developers. The company also announced the Open Handset Alliance, a multinational alliance of 34 companies, including several chipmakers, handset manufacturers, and mobile operators that will be working together to develop handsets and services that leverage the new software.

A software development kit will be introduced next week, and consumers can expect to see the first Android handsets out on the market in the second half of 2008, Google CEO Eric Schmidt said during a press conference Monday.

Rumors had been flying for months about Google's plans for the mobile market. And now that it's here, it's clear that Google has greater ambitions than simply building a new phone. Instead, the company is looking to transform the mobile industry by making it easy to develop new applications that can be pushed out to hundreds of handset models on dozens of carrier networks using free, open-source technology.

In essence, Google hopes to do to the mobile market what it has helped do for the traditional Internet, which is bring people closer to content on the Web in a easy and organized way. At the most basic level this means making Web surfing on a cell phone look and feel a lot like it does on a PC at home.

But despite its lofty ambitions, Android faces many obstacles. For one, mobile operators must be willing to allow the new, open devices on their networks. Android also must compete with a long list of mobile operating systems already entrenched in the market.

Nov 6, 2007

Chrysler 300C CRD

While most Australian new car buyers are moving away from big V6 and V8 sedans, there is one product that is making them buck the trend. Indeed, after years in the automotive wilderness, Chrysler has hit the spot with its 300C and Aussies seemingly can't get enough of the full-sized four-door sedan.

Much of the success has been off the back of the car's distinctive styling and for the first time in a long time, comparable quality to its competitors. However, there’s no doubt that in these times of ever increasing fuel prices there are still more potential 300C buyers who are scared of the car’s thirst.

Enter Chrysler’s turbodiesel alternative – a 300C for those who still want the style, the space and grunt without the weighty fuel consumption.

Sitting between the V6 and V8 petrol models, the new 300C CRD is priced at $57,990 -- $4000 more than the V6 petrol and $2000 less than the Hemi V8. Under the bonnet is a latest generation DaimlerChrysler 160kW/510Nm 3.0-litre compression ignition V6.

Sound familiar – it should be… The 24-valve OHC common rail turbodiesel can also be found powering a range of Mercedes-Benz models including the new R320 CDI as well as the 300C offroad cousins, Jeep’s Commander (click here for more) and Grand Cherokee.

Being a diesel, the engine obviously doesn't match the petrol engines for power with the 3.5-litre V6 producing 183kW and the V8 generating 250kW. On the torque front (which in day-to-day driving is what matters most) things are different, however -- it more than outguns the 3.5's 340Nm and is just shy of the V8's 525Nm.

According to the figures, the diesel's maximum torque is on tap between 1600-2800rpm and on the road there is no denying that the car has a strong bottom end.

Turn the key and from the inside, there are no audible cues as to the engine's fuel type with the diesel being very quiet and refined. Prod the accelerator and the surge off the line is strong and although it is quicker to 100kmh than the petrol V6 (Chrysler figures claim 8.6sec for the CRD vs 9.9 for the 3.5) you do feel the car's weight.

At 1901kg, it is a match for the V8 and about 100kg heavier than the V6 petrol, which results in an ever so slight reluctance to really step off the line. Not exactly sluggish, just weighty but by the time you have hit about 2500rpm, it really gets going.

The drive to the rear through the standard five-speed auto is smooth but on the winding hilly roads of the press launch through the sub-alpine areas in north-eastern Victoria the transmission showed a slight reluctance to kick down to make the most of the engine's relatively narrow peak torque band.

In contrast, the Mercedes R320 (click here for more) that uses the same engine is a lot more responsive courtesy of its seven-speed auto’s extra cogs. That said, judicious use of the 300C's efficient tiptronic function (Chrysler calls it AutoStick ) means that when you want to push on, you can manually hold gears.

And the 300C is a car that you can push -- within limits. The suspension is definitely set up for comfort and apart from the overstuffed seats that are of the sit-on rather than sit-in variety, the car makes for a very comfortable cruising machine.

Hard drive encrypter all-clear

Silicon Data Vault, developed by Perth-based Secure Systems, has been rated by the national authority for signals intelligence and information security, the Defence Signals Directorate (DSD), as one of the few encryption products suitable for storing and protecting top-secret data on laptops.

"If the government wants to transport data somebody must have a laptop with them," Secure Systems chief executive Peter James said. "Now, you can move data around the world with the confidence that it's protected."

The SDV is a hard drive that can be retrofitted to a laptop to provide absolute control over the hard drive, making it unusable until the user is authenticated.

All data written to the drive is encrypted by a hardware chip built into the drive.

DSD director Ian McKenzie said demand from government departments and agencies to securely carry classified information on portable electronic documents, along with changing technology threats, had prompted an investigation of products.

"The evaluation is an important step in not only the protection of classified electronic information, but also government's ability to transport this type of information securely," Mr McKenzie said. With minor enhancements, SDV could be used in systems to higher classification levels, the DSD said.

Mr James said the patented product was used by a range of Australian government departments and agencies, including defence, customs and foreign affairs. "The customers are very happy with it and, where they have relationships with other allied countries, they are recommending it," Mr James said.

Vital gene unlocks IQ benefit of mother’s milk

Children who are breast-fed go on to have slightly higher IQs than those who are not, but only if they carry a particular genetic variant, a British-based research team has found.

The findings, from a group at King’s College London, also provide new evidence that breast milk’s nutritional content has a positive effect on infants’ intellectual development, if only in those whose DNA lets them benefit.

While previous studies have linked higher IQ to being breast-fed as a baby, questions have been raised as to whether breast-feeding itself is responsible for the increase. Mothers who themselves have higher IQs are more likely to breast-feed in the first place, creating the possibility that genes that directly influence intelligence explain the link.

The new research, led by Professors Terrie Moffitt and Avshalom Caspi, makes it more likely that the nutritional content of breast milk has an active role, as it reveals a physiological mechanism that could account for the effect. The genetic variant carried by children whose IQ is improved when they are breast-fed is known to improve the way in which the body processes fatty acids that are critical to early brain development.
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The findings suggest that a combination of the variant and breast-feeding increases the supply of these key acids to the brain, leading on average to greater intelligence. Without breast-feeding, or without the beneficial genetic variant, there is no effect.

“Our findings support the idea that the nutritional content of breast milk accounts for the differences seen in human IQ,” Professor Moffitt said. “But it’s not a simple all-or-none connection: it depends to some extent on the genetic make-up of each infant.

“There has been some criticism of earlier studies about breast-feeding and IQ, that they didn’t control for socioeconomic status, or the mother’s IQ or other factors. But our findings take an end-run around those arguments by showing the physiological mechanism that accounts for the difference.”

Putting a price on privacy

Online privacy, or the lack thereof, has always prompted a lot of hand wringing among the cognoscenti, but very little in the way of concrete action. For most of us, it appears, keeping information about ourselves, our habits and our preferences private is ultimately less important than the convenience and services we can get by not doing so. It's a pretty simple matter to turn off the ‘cookies’ that track your web-surfing, but how many people do you know who have done that?

But the issue is now coming around again in a big way, and the stakes are very high. Last week the US Federal Trade Commission held a two-day workshop on internet privacy, and a coalition of privacy advocates took the opportunity to call for the creation of a "do-not-track" list modelled on the highly popular "do-not-call" by which people can opt out of telemarketing calls.

The notion of "do not track" is a scary one for anyone involved in the burgeoning online advertising business, for the simple reason that making online ads more effective depends on ever-more-careful targeting – which in turn depends on tracking. So-called "behavioural targeting," by which the interests of web surfers are divined according to where they go and what they do online and adverts are served up accordingly, underlies more web advertising every day.

A lot of much-anticipated innovation, moreover, is based on pushing these techniques even further. Google and others want to serve ads on mobile computers and telephones according to your physical location. And Facebook, the wildly popular social networking site, is about to roll out a new advertising system, which targets according to personal profile information on the site. While the proof is still in the pudding, some expect this to be the biggest money-spinner since Google itself.

Press F4 to Bypass Windows With Fast-Boot Technology

There's absolutely no reason you should be waiting the three-plus minutes it takes your computer to boot up Windows, says Woody Hobbs, CEO of Phoenix Technologies. And indeed, if Hobbs has his way, you may not have to endure those waits much longer.

Phoenix says its new technology, HyperSpace, will offer mobile PC users the ability to instantly fire up their most used apps -- things like e-mail, web browsers and various media players -- without using Windows, simply by pressing the F4 button.

"As Windows gets more and more complex, we've seen startup times get longer and longer," says Hobbs. "If I go to the airport and try to connect to a Wi-Fi network, I'm waiting for five minutes just to connect. That's ridiculous -- people usually just give up and use their cell phones or PDAs."

Phoenix Technologies is the company responsible for many computers' basic input/output system, or BIOS, the firmware code that runs when your PC starts up. Usually, the BIOS identifies the hardware on your PC and initializes components, then lets the operating system handle everything else, from storing files to connecting with networks to running applications. In essence, HyperSpace is a simple operating environment, a layer on top of the BIOS, that runs side-by-side with Windows and can efficiently implement some of the most commonly used apps on a PC.

Chipmakers and PC manufacturers have been trying to liberate themselves from lengthy startup times for a while, according to Hobbs, but the experience has been "controlled up in Seattle." Indeed, Hobbs says Microsoft regards HyperSpace as "outside their sphere of influence," and is not too happy with Phoenix's offering, which adds yet another voice to the already loud chorus of voices complaining about operating-system bloat.

Nov 5, 2007

Israeli technology guards your mobile phone identity

The nature of identity was once a question left exclusively to philosophers and psychologists. Now, with the advent of cutting-edge digital technology, identity has taken on more concrete characteristics which include your passwords, credit card numbers, and secret identification numbers. Technology has its price, and the price of a concrete identity is simple: it can be stolen.

To target the threat of identity theft, biometric solutions like voice and fingerprint authentication technologies are gradually being implemented worldwide. Unlike a password, one's fingerprints can neither be changed nor feigned by another person, and are therefore far more secure.

The drawback, however, is that biometric solutions are often expensive and complicated to implement, requiring sophisticated hardware. Enter the new fingerprint authentication technology developed by Israeli company ClassifEye, which can be used with nearly any mobile phone that has a camera, and eliminates the need for any additional hardware - like fingerprint sensors, USB keys and code generators - substantially reducing costs and accelerating mass market deployment.

How does it work? For the user, the technology couldn't be easier to obtain - it can be downloaded as software directly to a mobile phone. No special hardware is necessary: all the technology needed is encapsulated within the software.

Instead of using costly sensors to read the user's fingerprint, ClassifEye's technology works with the existing mobile phone camera: the user just takes a picture of his finger. The software then authenticates the user's fingerprint and authorizes immediate access. It's a process that takes less than a minute, and is significantly more secure than a password.

Since an advanced mobile phone usually has Internet access, this technology will make mobile phones ideally suited for sensitive financial transactions, especially bank transactions where large sums of money are involved.

Nov 4, 2007

Everex Readies Sub-$300 Linux Notebooks

After introducing a $198 Linux desktop this week, PC vendor Everex said it will bring Linux laptops under $300 to users next year. The laptops will come with 12.1-inch to 17-inch screens and run the GOS version of the OS, built on Ubuntu Linux 7.10. It will include icons providing one-click access to Web sites like Facebook and multiple Google Web applications.

The company also plans to introduce other mobile devices like ultramobile PCs, said Paul Kim, director of marketing for Everex, a U.S. subsidiary of Taiwanese firm First International Computer. The notebooks will be introduced in the first half of next year, Kim said. The company provided no additional details, other than saying the mobile devices will be competitively priced.

The energy-efficient $198 Linux desktop from Everex, TC2502 Green gPC, was introduced in Wal-Mart retail stores Wednesday. It runs on a 1.5GHz Via C7-D processor and comes with 512M bytes of RAM, an 80G byte hard drive, a DVD player and an Ethernet port. It does not include a monitor. "The intent of GOS is to take [Linux] to the consumer and do what Steve Jobs did with Mac OS X -- to take an alternative OS and package it for the consumer," said David Liu, founder of GOS.

Elephants on acid - the 10 wackiest experiments of all time

When Warren Thomas, the director of Lincoln Park Zoo in Oklahoma City, approached Tusko the elephant with a syringe full of LSD in 1962, he thought that he was about to make a major contribution to science.

Within a few moments of being injected, Tusko began trumpeting furiously, before keeling over as if he had been shot. An hour later, he was dead. “It appears that the elephant is highly sensitive to the effects of LSD,” Thomas and his colleagues concluded.

Some 35 years after his demise, Tusko’s role in the history of science has been recognised with first place in a list of the ten wackiest experiments of all time, compiled for New Scientist magazine.

He has also inspired the list’s author, Alex Boase, to assemble many more strange studies in a newly-published book, Elephants on Acid and Other Bizarre Experiments.

“I started collecting examples of bizarre experiments years ago while in graduate school studying the history of science,” Mr Boase said. “I confess I had no profound intellectual motive; I simply found them fascinating.

“They filled me with disbelief, astonishment, disgust and — best of all – laughter. With hindsight, perhaps there is a deeper message. These experiments are not the work of cranks. All were performed by honest, hardworking scientists who were not prepared to accept common-sense explanations of how the world works.

“Sometimes such single-mindedness leads to brilliant discoveries. At other times it can end up closer to madness. Unfortunately, there’s no way of knowing in advance where the journey will lead.”

Graffiti as password: secure and memorable

One of the largest security challenges many organizations face come from the most basic aspect of security: user passwords. Humans simply have a limited capacity to remember otherwise insignificant streams of letters and digits; as a result, they often choose passwords that are easier to remember. Those memorable passwords, however, can fail in the face of dictionary attacks or guesses based on information such as birth dates or the names of family members. This week's meeting of the Computer and Communications Security interest group of the Association for Computing Machinery saw the description of the latest attempt to balance security and obscurity: an improved form of the "Draw a Secret" method.

The basic concept behind Draw a Secret (DAS) is that humans excel at image recognition and memory, so "passwords" should be designed to leverage that ability. Initial implementations simply tracked the ability of people to use a stylus to draw a free-form shape on a touch-sensitive screen. But the people behind the new work have previously refined the technique by parsing the shapes with a flexible grid, which allowed them to more accurately recognize key features such as changes in the stroke's direction. The primary limitation of this DAS system is the user's ability to accurately redraw a complex shape from memory.

The improvement discussed this week involved a simple idea that improves essentially all aspects of DAS: drawing accuracy, complexity of the drawings, and memorability. The authors suggest that simply providing a background image to draw on—essentially making password entry an act akin to graffiti—handles all three of these concerns. The use of an image as part of the password process is something that many companies are turning to in an attempt to limit the effect of phishing attacks. Here, it additionally prompts users to recall their password via associative memory.

Do you take this sexbot...?

As a recognised expert in artificial intelligence and president of the International Computer Games Association, David Levy deserves to be taken seriously. However some of you may find this statement from his new book Love and Sex with Robots (Harper Collins, US / Duckworth, UK) a bit of a challenge:

"I expect marriage with robots to be legalized in some countries by the middle of this century."

He says that in a few decades, artificial intelligence will be so sophisticated that physical and emotional intimacy between robots and humans will become the norm. And he's convinced they'll make great lovers. More importantly, he predicts couples will be able to improve their relationships by honing their love-making skills on robots. Seriously.

Call me old-fashioned, but surely a robot sophisticated enough to make a great lover is more likely to wreck any relationship you have with a human. A robot Lothario is no longer just a robot: it has responsibilities!

All this begs several tantalising questions, among them this: would it change anything if you discovered that your partner, while looking and behaving just like a human, was in fact running on silicon rather than oxygen? Would you still be able to empathise with them if you discovered they were not the "person" you thought they were?

Remember that (just like the replicants in Ridley Scott's film Blade Runner) nothing about their behaviour would betray the truth – he/she/it could still be the caring, intelligent, one-in-a-million love of your life. They'd just be, well, different. Would it matter, if you knew? You'll be able to read a full review of Levy's book in the 10 November edition of New Scientist. In the meantime, you can also ask him some questions about his controversial ideas, as he's agreed to do a Q&A for us.

We have a few questions of our own, but would love to hear yours. Send suggestions to We'll post Levy's replies next week.