Feb 29, 2008

Google’s mobile search gets more powerful in Australia

Claiming a faster and more intuitive search interface for mobile phones, Google clearly wants its mobile search tool to dominate on mobile phones just as it does on the desktop.

Although mobile Google search has been available on phones for some time, Google promises that ‘more relevant’ results that are ‘just a click or two away’, and that Australians “will get results that best fit what they're looking for”.

Just as we’ve seen from mobile search services like Yahoo Go or Windows Live, Google says they combine “search results from different bodies of information, so users don't need to sift through both mobile and regular web results, or specify their search type. Instead, Google searches through the whole web, mobile web, news articles, local business listings, and image index to get the information needed and then provides the most relevant results”.

As an example, Google notes that a search for “surfing” provides links to images of surfing as well as web pages.

This means that the search has become more intelligent, something that’s handy when you’re in such a rush to find something online it definitely won’t wait until you get home to your desktop. It also means Google can expect a growing number of users to start searching – or keep searching – on their mobile phones.

Additionally we can expect to see Google do even more work in the mobile advertising space, although its press release did not mention this.

Google are also further taking on Yellow Pages, True Local, Yahoo 7 and other providers of local search content, with Google specifically making note that its “new mobile search also improves the local search experience”.

Hooked on technology

SINCE she got her first mobile phone in 2003, 18-year old Michele Limpert has owned more than 100 handsets.

Chewing through mobile phones at a rate of about two a month, Ms Limpert readily admits to an obsessive relationship with personal technology. In the final two months of last year alone Ms Limpert sent 5910 SMS text messages.

Massive bills and a voracious appetite for new mobile phones are testament to her addictive use of technology. She hates being without her latest phone, a Sony Ericsson K800i. "I'm lost without it - literally," she says.

The so-called addictive nature of digital technology is open to debate and research on the topic is scarce, but mental health workers are starting to see more people experiencing obsessive relationships with digital technology, from the compulsive use of mobile phones to excessive hours spent online.

RMIT lecturer John Lenarcic specialises in computer addiction.

He believes a person's relationship with technology becomes an addiction when "it takes up most of your life". He says when people talk about technology addiction, "they probably get it confused with addiction of narcotic substances and things like that"."

I think of addiction with technology as more like being an obsession because of the fact that technology exists to make life easier for people but sometimes it actually fills up their time," he says.

Mr Lenarcic believes the excessive use of technology, such as hours spent downloading material from the internet or playing online games, can lead to other health-related side effects such as sleeplessness and weight gain."

Some people have said that could be what's contributing to the obesity epidemic people are talking about at the moment," he says. "In the past people weren't shackled to their machines."

Consultant psychiatrist Izzy Osowicki has found that an obsessive use of technology often leads to financial distress. "When is it addiction and when is it normal is not specifically about whether they use it too much, but actually it's a measure in terms of how much it costs," he says.

Ms Limpert freely acknowledges her obsessive attachment to mobile phones. Despite using the device perpetually throughout the day and night, she is often surprised when expensive bills arrive. "When I was on the $69 cap I went over it by an extra $2000; that was only about four months ago," she says. Her father, who pays her mobile bills, was understandably upset.

Adding animal fat to diesel fuel

ConocoPhillips, one of the largest US oil companies, and Tyson Foods, the world's largest meat produces, have recently announced that they plan to start adding animal fat to the diesel sold by ConocoPhillips at pumps by the end of 2007. The fat, which would come from pigs, cows, and chickens, would be indistinguishable from regular diesel, and chemically equivalent to diesel itself.

The companies say that animal fat diesel will be cleaner than regular diesel, as it has lower levels of carbon dioxide and zero sulfur. They hope to produce and sell about 175 million gallons of animal diesel a year, or about 3% of the total diesel output of ConocoPhillips.

At first, the merits of this idea sound suspicious. Didn't we recently hear about how eating a hamburger uses as much energy as driving your car 100 miles and leaving all the lights on back home? How meat processing plants produce more harmful emissions than all the cars and trucks in the world? If so, then how could producing animals as fuel be energy-efficient, cost-effective or--especially--environmentally friendly?

Also, on the minds of all those people at PETA, isn't killing all these animals especially cruel? 175 million gallons is a lot of animals.

However, Tyson Foods manager Geoffrey Webster emphasizes that they're only using the byproducts of animals that have already been killed for other purposes-most often, food. The fat taken for diesel is fat that is currently being used in soaps, cosmetics and pet food. Tyson will process the fat, and then distribute it to ConocoPhillips for transformation into fuel.

Also, unlike ethanol that is made from grain, palm oil and sugar cane, animal fat won't cut into the food supply since it is a non-edible waste. And as a biofuel, animal fat is supposedly still less harmful than burning fossil fuels.

ConocoPhillips plans to spend around $100 million on the project, and are hoping to enjoy government tax breaks of $1 per gallon for providing an alternative renewable fuel. However, a US House bill approved last Saturday is trying to prevent the companies from getting this break by taking out the choice words "using a thermal depolymerization process" from the bill--making it difficult for the companies to claim their tax credit.

The companies say that, without the tax credit, the implementation of animal fat diesel would not be economical. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, explains that ConocoPhillips has plenty of tax credits already, and the government wants to "prevent green energy initiatives from being converted into boondoggles." Hopefully, greed on either side of the table won't stop a good idea--or what seems like a good idea--from coming into fruition.

More about the economics of pig diesel in this recent article at The Morning News.

Lisa Zyga
Science Blogger

Feb 27, 2008

Jersey home victims tell of abuse

RESIDENTS of a former children's home in Jersey where parts of a child's skeleton were uncovered have given the first harrowing accounts of institutionalised brutality and sexual abuse.

The stories emerged as it was revealed Australian police were working with two officers from the British Channel Islands sent to investigate local links to more than 40 years of systemic child abuse at the home.

The detectives have been interviewing former residents of Haut de la Garenne after a child's remains, including a skull, were found under a thick concrete floor inside the Victorian mansion last weekend.

It is understood the detectives arrived in Australia earlier this month to follow up leads in at least two states as details emerged of alleged systemic physical and sexual abuse at the home, including claims of rape, floggings and solitary confinement.

An Australian Federal Police spokeswoman said the AFP had helped British authorities to liaise with state and territory police to collect witness statements regarding historical child abuse in Jersey.

In an investigation that began in 2006, Jersey police have been examining missing persons records and following up claims of child abuse by more than 150 former residents of the home.

Haut de la Garenne opened in 1867 as an industrial school for young people of the lower classe

Python snacks on dog

A CAIRNS couple fear for their children after a 5m python devoured their dog in front of them - weeks after other snakes ate their cat and guinea pig.
Daniel Peric, of Kuranda, near Cairns, said he now would not leave his two children, aged five and seven, alone in any part of the house, after the "enormous" python ate his silky terrier-cross chihuahua about 9pm on Monday, the Cairns Post reports.

"Actually watching it unfold before your eyes was pretty gut-wrenching," he said.

Depression drugs 'little better than placebos' – study

A MELBOURNE psychologist fears patients will stop their medication after a UK study claimed best-selling anti-depressants were barely more effective than sugar pills.
Melbourne psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg fears mentally fragile patients could stop taking their medication as a result of the study that found anti-depressants like Prozac and Seroxat were barely more effective than placebos in treating most people with depression.

"That will potentially create a large number of people with depression who are untreated," he told 3AW today.

"We know most of the people who end their own life have a mental illness and about 70 per cent of those people have a depressive illness of some type. They are all at risk."

The research, led by a British university and which analysed 47 clinical trials, breaks new ground by incorporating data not previously released by drug companies which researchers obtained under US freedom of information laws.

Its findings prompted some academics and mental health campaigners to question whether people with mild and moderate depression should be prescribed drugs like Prozac, which has been taken by 40 million people worldwide.

"The difference in improvement between patients taking placebos and patients taking anti-depressants is not very great,'' s

Feb 26, 2008

Adam Cresswell,: Stroke drug a 'longer option'

STROKE patients could benefit from a clot-busting drug used to save dying areas of the brain much longer after the event than the three hours doctors currently consider the drug's useful limit.

Australian-led research has found that the drug alteplase - at present the only medication licensed for use in stroke patients - could still be helpful until six hours after the stroke.

Up to 48,000 Australians a year have strokes, which occur when a blood vessel becomes blocked or ruptures.

In the blockage variety, known as ischaemic stroke, areas of the brain along the blocked vessel can die or become damaged from lack of oxygen. While there is often a core of dead or dying tissue nearest to the blockage that is too damaged to survive, doctors have long known that in at least 80 per cent of cases, this is surrounded by a margin of brain matter that could be saved if blood flow was restored in time.

Alteplase breaks down the clot, allowing oxygenated blood to flow back to these areas.

An international study, led by experts from the Royal Melbourne Hospital and published in The Lancet Neurology, randomly assigned 101 stroke patients to receive alteplase or a placebo between three and six hours after their stroke.

At this point, they would normally have been considered too late for alteplase therapy. But the authors found the areas of brain affected by the stroke grew by one-third less in patients given alteplase compared with those given the placebo.

While the finding could only be described as a trend - the low patient numbers in the trial meant it could not be considered statistically significant - the alteplase recipients had better re-oxygenation and better outcomes. Independent expert Craig Anderson, professor of stroke medicine at Sydney University, said the findings, if confirmed in further trials, would have "a major impact on clinical practice".

He said the study was "very promising in showing potential to identify appropriate people beyond the current licensed time window (for treatment)."

Leigh Dayton: Moody teens are wired for spleen

THE aggressive, moody, whiny, excessive behaviour that drives the parents of teenagers wild is all part of the lopsided way the adolescent brain matures.

That's especially true for boys, as Melbourne teenager Corey Worthington demonstrated when he hosted a wild party for about 500 young revellers last month.

The claim comes from Australian and US researchers who scanned the brains of 137 Melburnians -- aged 11 1/2 to nearly 14 years -- and videotaped parent-adolescent interactions designed to elicit conflict.

Team leader Nicholas Allen, a clinical psychologist with the University of Melbourne and the Orygen Research Centre, said: "The good news is that to a certain extent it's a phase. Parents do find it helpful to understand that some of the inexplicable behaviours teenagers come up with is part of a brain developmental phase."

Associate Professor Allen, himself the father of two teenaged boys, said the new work built on emerging evidence that the human brain was not fully mature until the early 20s. That's when the cerebral cortex, the "thinking" brain, is fully wired to and in control of the rest of the brain.

Writing in the US journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Professor Allen and his group reported that teenagers with a large amygdala are prone to prolonged, aggressive disputes with their parents.

The amygdala is found deep inside the cerebral cortex and is involved in memory, mood and emotional behaviour.

The team also found that obnoxious teenage behaviour was at its worse if a boy with a large amygdala still had a relatively small anterior cingulate cortex or orbitofrontal cortex. Both brain bits are involved in keeping the amygdala and its antisocial proclivities in check.

According to Professor Allen, Corey's brain had apparently not outgrown its adolescent anatomical asymmetry.

"One presumes he'll look back on that (incident) and he'll cringe," he said.

Feb 25, 2008

Defence jobs in doubt due to Unisys deal

The future of almost 400 public servants is in question after the Defence Department signed a $240 million deal for Unisys Australia to look after its computer support services.

Under the agreement, Unisys will take over the management, administration and support for more than 100,000 defence desktop computers at 460 bases and facilities across Australia.

The deal will affect almost 500 Australian Public Service jobs but only 388 of those are currently filled. An additional 238 Australian Defence Force positions are involved in the deal.

A Defence spokeswoman said Unisys had indicated it was willing to offer jobs to any Defence staff who were "performing functions that are in scope of the agreement".

The company has offered to match their salary and superannuation entitlements.

"Current indications are that approximately 60 per cent of staff may be interested in taking up employment with Unisys," the spokeswoman said.

ADF personnel would be redeployed within the military.

Feb 22, 2008

Diesel-powered Loremo promises to hit 150 miles per gallon

It's not the first time we've seen diesel touted as a solution for more efficient vehicles, but Loremo AG's new eponymously-titled vehicle may just have all of 'em beat -- if it can live up to its claims, that is. According to the vehicle's designers, in addition to diesel, they relied on engine efficiency, low weight, and minimal drag to boost the fuel-efficiency, which they say could top out at lofty 150 miles per gallon. With numbers like those, it should come as no surprise that Loremo's also entered the car in the Automotive X-Prize competition but, unlike most of the other entrants, this one will apparently actually be available to the general public relatively soon. That'll supposedly come sometime next year, with Europeans the first in line to get their hands on the vehicle for the relative bargain price of €15,000 (or $22,000) -- a redesigned North American version is then set to follow a year later. As if that wasn't enough Loremo's also promising a spiffier 3-cylinder GT version that'll run you $30,000, and both hybrid and fully electric versions, although those are only described as "in the works."

Born-again biometrics

With the change in government, it appears the federal smartcard has been killed by fears of cost overruns and privacy risks, but the biometrics field is pushing on.
HALF a decade before the twin towers fell in New York, Ted Dunstone completed his PhD exploring how computers and biometrics could be used to detect terrorists at airports.

Today he's still working out how biometrics can be harnessed to ensure the right people get access to sensitive locations, equipment and information.

Biometrics involves capturing information about something unique to an individual - their voice, face, iris, fingerprint or even the pattern of their veins. That information is stored on a database or token and when an individual wants to access a computer system, enter premises or cross a border, they speak, show their face, eye, finger or wrist. If it matches the information captured about that biometric, in they go.

This was supposed to be the year that biometrics hit its straps; the year Australia phased in a biometric access card, replacing 17 card or voucher systems. If you wanted to access government services you'd need one.

Privacy advocates were rehearsing their stump speeches, IT integrators were rubbing their hands in anticipation of a flood of consultancy and implementation dollars. The access card was the golden goose.

And it's dead. Or is it? Citing concerns about privacy and a mismatch between the cost of the project compared with the savings it might deliver, Senator Joe Ludwig, Minister for Human Services, has canned the $1.3 billion four-year program and confirmed "there are no plans to revisit the access card in the future. Spending over $1 billion on a magic card is not the solution."

However, he has carefully left the door open for possible future projects. "We will examine the role that smartcards can play to reduce fraud," he says. "But any proposals that I bring forward will not rest their hopes on a magic card to solve all the Government's problems."

Self-Healing Rubber Keeps on Stretching, Rip after Rip

Talk about bouncing back from adversity. A new stretchy material can be cut and rejoined at the same spot just by pressing the broken ends together for a few minutes. The self-healing rubber stays stretchy even after being severed five or six times, or cut and left on the countertop overnight, French researchers say. A chemical manufacturer is already working to create large batches of the material for still hypothetical applications such as sealants and self-healing rubber duckies.

The material's secret is its molecular structure, which resembles a plate of spaghetti, says physicist Ludwik Leibler of the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) in Paris, who led the research team. The strands straighten out when pulled, but they relax back to their tangled shape when the tension is released. The result is a rubber that can stretch to six times its resting length, the group reports in the journal Nature.

The self-mending occurs because each strand consists of numerous small molecules of vegetable fat linked to each other and to far-flung neighbors via relatively weak hydrogen bonds, the same chemical bonds that give water molecules their cohesiveness. When the material was cut or ripped, the severed bonds remained chemically sticky for each other.

Feb 20, 2008

Ban Filesharers

In what could be described as a filesharer's worst nightmare and the RIAA's sweetest dream, Great Britain and now Australia are debating legislation that seeks to force internet service providers (ISPs) to drop customers whom are found to be downloading copyrighted material.

The International Federation for the Phonographic Industry (IFPI), a media watchdog and parent of the RIAA, championed the efforts. It says that over one billion songs in Australia alone were downloaded illegally, yearly, costing the music industry an untold fortune in revenue.

The new Aussie and British legislation calls for a three strikes policy. A first offense, which the government categorizes as accessing music, TV shows and movies illegally, would result in a warning letter from your ISP. A second offense would result in a temporary suspension of your ISP account. A third strike and you're out -- the ISP would terminate your account.

Australian Communications Minister Stephen Conroy said the Government was aware of the music industry's stance that ISPs should be legally forced to adopt a music industry sanctioned code of conduct. It also is aware of the similar pending British legislation. Conroy states, "We will also examine any UK legislation on this issue [including any three-strikes policy] with particular interest."

Music Industry Piracy Investigations general manager Sabiene Heindl put in over a year of lobbying to try to get the effort through. She says 2.8 million Australians downloaded music illegally last year, and not enough is being done to stop them. She argues, "Because P2P file sharing involves these music files sitting on individual people's computers, there is very little that MIPI can do to remove those files or stop them being shared. That's why we have been pushing a proposal to internet service providers for a commonsense system of warning notices which, if unheeded, would ultimately result in a user having their account suspended or disconnected."

ISPs are unhappy with the move. National Internet Industry Association chief executive Peter Corones plans on airing his constituents’ complaints to Mr. Conroy later this week. Mr. Corones argues that current penalties are "stiff enough". In Australia downloading music can land you injunctions, damages and costs, fines of up to $60,500 for individuals and up to $302,500 for corporations per infringement and up to five years' jail -- nothing to sneeze at. Corones argues, "Internet service providers are not the enforcers of copyright."

The statement is a sharp juxtaposition to ISP policies in the U.S. and abroad. In recent months, it has been revealed that Comcast and other ISPs indeed "police their connections" by throttling P2P traffic, a policy which may be illegal.

The new legislation will likely anger Australia's youth. In a survey of Australians between the ages of 10 and 17, 63 percent felt there was no point paying for music and it should be freely available, mirroring the music industry's worst fears. Unfortunately for these young people, the days of carefree downloading may soon be at an end.

Feb 18, 2008

The World's Happiest Countries

Feeling blue? Perhaps you live in the wrong country. A recent study from Britain's University of Leicester examined a range of statistical data to devise a ranking of the world's happiest nations. Heading up the list: Denmark, which rose to the top thanks to its wealth, natural beauty, small size, quality education, and good health care. At the bottom were Zimbabwe and Burundi. But there were a few surprises along the way, too. Asian countries scored worse than researcher Adrian White expected. Capitalism — sometimes criticized for its heartlessness — was far from a source of discontent, though the top-scoring capitalist countries also tended to have strong social services. And the U.S. ranked only 23rd, due to nagging poverty and spotty health care. Read on to learn about the world's 12 happiest countries — by the numbers, at least.

Building the Perfect Laptop

"Phyllis! Get me one of those interoffice mail envelopes!"

It was just after lunchtime on Jan. 15, and Peter Hortensius was storming through the cubicles at Lenovo Group's offices in Morrisville, N.C., shouting for his secretary. Hortensius, senior vice-president in charge of laptops, had just heard that Apple (AAPL) CEO Steve Jobs had unveiled the supersvelte, aluminum-clad MacBook Air by declaring it the "world's thinnest notebook" and dramatically pulling it out of an interoffice envelope. Lenovo's ThinkPad X300 notebook was due out in February, after a year and a half in development, and Hortensius was alarmed that it could be upstaged before it even made its debut.

His secretary, Phyllis Arrington-McGee, ransacked filing cabinets until she found one of the envelopes. She handed it to Hortensius, who gingerly slipped the X300 inside. "It fits! It fits!" he shouted.

Perhaps no one was more relieved than David Hill, Lenovo's chief designer, who stopped by Hortensius' office right after the envelope experiment. It had been his idea to create the superthin X300, which was originally code-named Kodachi. Hill shared a laugh about the test with Hortensius and later couldn't resist a poke at Jobs' latest creation. "I'm a bit tired of looking at silver computers," said Hill. "I'd never wear a silver business suit."

Such is life in one of the most competitive markets on earth: the portable computer business. The best engineers and designers at the most powerful technology companies slug it out with top-secret plans and ulcer-inducing deadlines. From Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) and Dell (DELL) to Acer, Lenovo (LNVGY), and Toshiba, design and production teams race to carve out their share of the fast-growing market. They fight over ounces and millimeters, but their victories are measured in billions of dollars.

For David Hill, Steve Jobs, and others in the fraternity, the questions are: What is the perfect combination of weight, price, and features? And what new technologies should be included? It's a sign of the intense competition that the revered Jobs received decidedly mixed reviews for Apple's Air, despite its eye-catching looks.

At Lenovo, Hill and his colleagues have a lot riding on the X300, part of its ThinkPad line of computers. The Chinese company bought IBM's (IBM) money-losing, $10 billion PC business in 2005 with hopes of using it to build a prominent global brand. IBM's ThinkPad had long been a favorite of executives and business travelers, but it lost cachet over the years. The goal now with the X300 is to deliver a machine that will burnish Lenovo's reputation worldwide. "We want to send the message that if there's a company in the industry that can continuously develop the most inventive and best-quality products with efficiency, it will be Lenovo," says Chairman Yang Yuanqing.

The X300 isn't perfect. Perhaps no computer can be. But its development over the past 20 months shows the journey of one team striving for perfection, while at the same time being forced to make hard compromises. Lenovo doesn't expect the X300, with prices ranging from $2,700 to $3,000, to be a huge seller. They believe it will be a "halo" product, leading to positive reinforcement for the corporate brand and for the more affordable ThinkPads. The X300 will be prominently featured at the Beijing Olympics, where Lenovo is to be one of the major sponsors.

Lenovo needs a hit, perhaps more than one, to win recognition as one of technology's premier brands. It trails behind leaders HP and Dell in the notebook market, and some competitors are dismissive of its prospects. "We have bigger rivals to worry about, except in China," says Michael S. Dell, chief executive of Dell in an interview.

Feb 17, 2008

Linux role in botnets studied

A six-year old Linux virus is still in circulation, and Sophos suspects the high uptime exhibited by servers (compared with the typical home or office Windows PC that spends much of the day switched off or asleep) makes them valuable to bot-herders as central control points.

Over two-thirds of the malware infections suffered by Sophos's Linux honeypots involve Rst-B, which attempts to infect ELF (Executable and Linkable Format) binaries in the current working directory and in /bin, and to create a backdoor to the system.

Sophos has created a detection tool specifically for this virus, and encourages administrators to use it and then forward any infected files to SophosLabs for analysis.

"If you don't find Linux/Rst-B on your system, it's good news but obviously doesn't mean that you are not infected with something else, said Billy McCourt, SophosLabs UK.

"I'd encourage you to at least do regular on-demand scans on your Linux box but ideally run an on-access scanner."

A previous analysis by McCourt suggested that Rst-B infections are not being used by intruders to gain access to systems, rather they occur as a side-effect of already-infected hacking tools being downloaded onto servers once a foothold has been gained.

I, Love Robot

Do androids dream of human lovers? Or only electric sheep? Do humans dream of sex with robots? While we don’t know the answer to the first two questions, author and artificial intelligence expert David Levy was clearly thinking about the third question when he wrote his new book, ‘Love and Sex with Robots’.

Available through Harper Collins, Levy predicts that by the end of the century, love and sex with robots will be commonplace, in a book that explores a new level of human intimacy and relationships with machines.

Far from machines taking over the world Terminator style, it sounds like some robots’ only conquests will be in the bedroom, where 21st century battles with technology may simply be over who gets to be on top.

According to the Harper Collins site, David Levy has “used examples drawn from around the world, David Levy shows how automata have evolved from the mechanical marvels of centuries past to the electronic androids of the modern age, and how human interactions with technology have changed over the years”.

In his book, Levy “explores many aspects of human relationships—the reasons we fall in love, why we form emotional attachments to animals and to virtual pets such as the Tamagotchi, and why these same attachments could extend to love for robots”.

So, who would want to use the services of a sex robot?

Feb 12, 2008

Aussies reminded to play it safe online

Australians are being reminded to make their internet experience safe and not become a victim of online crime.

The Internet Industry Association (IIA) is using Tuesday's Safer Internet Day (SID) to remind internet users how to protect themselves online.

"Many people who wouldn't dream of leaving their doors or windows unlocked at home can be careless online," IIA chief executive Peter Coroneos said.

He added young people were most likely to be victims of online crime or abuse, because they are more open and trusting.

"Young people often talk about losing their inhibitions when communicating on internet or by mobile phone SMS messaging," Mr Coroneos said.

The IIA suggests internet users follow three simple rules.

Never give away any private information, don't reveal anything that could help identify or locate you, and install technical filters, anti-spyware or use the recommended default safety settings on mobile and Wi-Fi devices.

The IIA also cautions would-be online bullies and fraudsters against irresponsible online behaviour, with all actions on the internet being traceable.

Mr Coroneos said the internet should be a place everyone felt comfortable in using.

"We want to build community confidence in using the internet by promoting in all users a 'culture of security'," Coroneos said.

Internet users wanting more information on online security should visit www.security.iia.net.au and www.netalert.gov.au.

Feb 10, 2008

New chips give pocket PCs more grunt

A tiny new low power chip from Intel is paving the way for a slew of pocket-sized "mobile internet devices" that are as powerful as some desktop PCs.

Computers small enough to fit in your pocket have to date been held back by battery constraints, a lack of processing power and a clunky user experience.

And while the internet has evolved to include social networking, video sharing and billions of bloggers spending billions of minutes a day on their web journals, porting these activities to mobile devices has proven difficult.

"Everybody would love to take that same internet with them on the go, and unfortunately ... today's mobile devices don't really give you that - it's like a dumbed-down version, some of them text-only, some of them with a horrendous [user] experience," said Uday Keshavdas, Intel's US-based consumer marketing manager for its ultra mobility group.

That's why Intel has been busy designing from the ground up a new chip called Silverthorne, which is five times smaller than past designs, consumes 10 times less power and has as much processing grunt as a two-year-old Intel-based desktop PC, according to Keshavdas.

The chip will enable a new range of smaller, more battery-efficient mobile internet devices that are capable of displaying 99 per cent of web pages almost exactly how you'd see them on a PC.

Intel joins Apple with its iPhone and Google's Android platform in the push for handheld gadgets capable of delivering a natural, seamless web experience on a device that's marginally bigger than a standard mobile phone.

With the PC and laptop market maturing, mobiles have emerged as the new battleground for technology companies looking to expand their influence. This year, the number of mobile phone users globally is expected to overtake the number of non-users for the first time, according to the UN's International Telecommunication Union.

Keshavdas said Intel was working with popular sites like MySpace, Facebook and YouTube to optimise their display on smaller screens.

"If you pick up one of these devices when they come to the market you'll be able to click on an icon that says MySpace ... only instead of seeing the entire MySpace page it'll be neatly organised [to suit a small screen]," said Keshavdas.

Major hardware vendors including Lenovo, LG, Asus and BenQ have shown off prototypes with a similar form factor to the Sony PSP. They include touch screens measuring around 4.5 inches (11.4 cm) and most run highly customised versions of the Linux operating system, which is more versatile than Windows and more power efficient.

Feb 8, 2008

Warning: what happened to Heath Ledger could happen to you

A cocktail of prescription drugs killed actor Heath Ledger and an expert has warned the same could happen to any Australian who is not careful with medications. Unfortunately people do believe that if they get the drug from a doctor that it's safe and it does not matter how they use it or in what combination," said Paul Dillon from Drug and Alcohol Research and Training Australia. Ledger died as the result of acute intoxication from the combined effects of oxycodone, hydrocodone, diazepam, temazepam, alprazolam, and doxylamine, the New York medical examiner found.

"The reality is that prescription drugs, when used inappropriately, and that is when you take more than you are prescribed or you combine them, is incredibly dangerous," Mr Dillon said. "We see many people die through this. "No matter what medication, it is potentially dangerous when used inappropriately."

He said many of these drugs such as diazepam, more commonly known as valium, and temazepam, a type of sleeping pill, can be fatal when combined. "All of those drugs are depressants that slow your nervous system down," Mr Dillon said. "When you take one it slows your system down, when you take another on top it slows your system down, sometimes, unfortunately altogether. "That's a very dangerous combination."

He said people should go to the same doctor so the medication they are taking can be monitored. "One of the things we try to tell people is to go to the same doctor and one of the reasons is that the doctor can keep track of what medications you are on," Mr Dillon said. "These are simple messages that unfortunately are not regarded as being particularly important by many Australians.

"When we talk about dangerous drugs that can cause harm, people tend to thing it's the illegal drugs. "It doesn't matter if it is legal. "All of them have a certain degree of risk and when misused can cause problems."

Feb 7, 2008

Gas-pumping robot: what could go wrong?

Motorists nostalgic for the time they could sit tight while attendants braved windswept garage forecourts to fill their tanks may yet see those heady days return -- compliments of a Dutch robot.

Dutch inventors unveiled Monday a 75,000 euro ($111,100) car-fuelling robot they say is the first of its kind, working by registering the car on arrival at the filling station and matching it to a database of fuel cap designs and fuel types.

A robotic arm fitted with multiple sensors extends from a regular petrol pump, carefully opens the car's flap, unscrews the cap, picks up the fuel nozzle and directs it toward the tank opening, much as a human arm would, and as efficiently.

"I was on a farm and I saw a robotic arm milking a cow. If a robot can do that then why can't it fill a car tank, I thought," said developer and petrol station operator Nico van Staveren. "Drivers needn't get dirty hands or smell of petrol again."

He hopes to introduce the "Tankpitstop" robot in a handful of Dutch stations by the end of the year. It works for any car whose tank can be opened without a key, and whose contours and dimensions have been recorded to avoid scratching.

Asked whether he would trust his car to a robotic garage attendant, Jelger De Kroon, filling his black Alfa Romeo at a nearby petrol station, said: "Why not? I guess I could keep my hands free and clean, but I'd hope they have good insurance."

Feb 6, 2008

IT workers getting screwed

A few years ago, Vishal Goel had high hopes of moving from his native India to the U.S. to work as a computer programmer. He approached Patni Computer Systems, a Mumbai company that provides tech services to many American businesses, and Patni agreed to apply for a U.S. work visa on his behalf. By 2004, Goel was in Bloomington, Ill., working for Patni at State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance, the largest car insurer in the country.

But this was no dream job come true. Goel's base salary was $23,310, about half the $44,000 that Patni had said it would pay on the visa application, according to a lawsuit he has filed against the company. When Goel complained, one official said that Patni would brand him a "troublemaker" and that his parents in India would be harassed unless he stopped, the suit alleges. Goel, who left Patni in 2005, filed suit in November, 2007, in federal court in Illinois. He's suing along with a former colleague, Peeush Goyal, who alleges he was subjected to similar treatment. Patni declined to comment, though in court documents it denies the charges.

Goel's is not an isolated case. A number of the most active users of the work-visa program, for what are known as H-1B visas, have been accused of underpaying or otherwise mistreating workers. Last year, Patni paid $2.4 million to 607 H-1B visa workers after a Labor Dept. investigation uncovered systematic underpayment of wages. "I highly suspect that these employment practices are widespread among the tech-outsourcing firms," says Ron Hira, assistant professor of public policy at Rochester Institute of Technology, who will testify as an expert witness in the Goel case.

The Goel lawsuit is one of the first filed in U.S. courts by a visa worker against his employer, perhaps because of the murky legal status of such workers. The estimated 500,000 people in the U.S. on H-1Bs are by definition citizens of other nations, and they're usually beholden to employers that can transfer them home at will. The Goel case provides rare insight into how one outfit allegedly has treated workers it brings into the U.S.

In their case, Goel and Goyal say that Patni regularly underpays employees in the U.S. "This forces the same financially strapped individuals ... to incur the expense of retaining an attorney to try and obtain the money to which they are entitled," the suit charges. If workers complain, the plaintiffs say, Patni threatens to sue them. They charge that Patni's motivation is simple greed. "The more H-1B employees that Patni is underpaying, the more total profit that is made by Patni," the suit alleges.

Goel, Goyal, and their lawyer, Thomas J. Arkell, declined to comment for this article because the litigation is ongoing. Patni says in court papers it didn't promise Goel $44,000 and says he has no "right to action" because he has no claim under the laws cited in the case.

The Goel lawsuit raises questions for U.S. workers, too. The H-1B program requires companies that bring employees into the U.S. to pay the prevailing wage in that job, so as not to depress the salaries of Americans in similar occupations. Documents filed in the suit appear to show that Patni told the Labor Dept. it would pay Goel a base salary of $44,000, which it said was more than the $43,867 prevailing wage it determined for a midlevel programmer and analyst. Yet even after working the equivalent of 23 days of overtime at $11.72 an hour, Goel earned a total of $35,305 in 2004. "Patni's underpayment of wages not only harms its H-1B employees but also harms the wages of U.S. employees," the lawsuit charges.

Many prominent U.S. companies use outsourcers, especially for tech services and support. Patni's largest client is General Electric (GE). Others include MetLife (MET) and St. Jude Medical. GE and MetLife declined to comment on Patni and whether they monitor how it manages its workers. St. Jude says it advocates for contract workers who file complaints, although no Patni workers have done so.

Courts in online revolution

COURT cases will be conducted live on the internet in NSW from next week.

JusticeLink, a $48 million cutting-edge computer system, will be introduced into the District Court, allowing lawyers, prosecutors, judges and magistrates to conduct procedural hearings online.

Cutting out court appearances for preliminary procedural arguments and directions would make the system more efficient, saving time and money, Attorney-General John Hatzistergos said. While trials and committal hearings would continue to be held in courtrooms, simple procedural matters to be decided online would cut the need for parties to attend court.

"Traditionally, quite a few court appearances could be required to decide procedural matters before the hearing or trial could begin," Mr Hatzistergos. "JusticeLink will allow prosecutors and defence lawyers to log into a bulletin board, where they will type their arguments.

"The judge will be alerted to their posts by email and be able to log in and make determinations in real time. While the time-honoured traditions of our legal system will remain intact, JusticeLink will streamline the process, saving an enormous amount of time and money."

JusticeLink has been successfully trialled in the NSW Supreme Court - where it saved 167 court appearances - and will be rolled out to the District Court on February 11.

Within 12 months, the computer system is expected to be operating in every criminal and civil court in NSW, including 160 local courts. Mr Hatzistergos said JusticeLink was the first multi-jurisdictional court computer system in the world, and was already being used by nine law firms to file documents in court.

"Filing motions and evidence online means all the parties to proceedings can pull up information at the touch of a button," Mr Hatzistergos said.

Razer Mako Advanced Envy System

We want a set of desktop speakers to do two things: look hotter than an Icelandic supermodel and rupture eardrums like a low altitude sonic boom. Trouble is, most 2.1 systems score big in the aesthetics department but cough up a fumble when it comes to serious sound. That was until we got a hold of a set of THX Razer Mako speakers. This 2.1 desktop system is one of the finest we've ever laid eyes or ears on. First off, the giant mushroom black matte speakers are gorgeous — they’re striking enough to amp up even the most grayscale office drone cubicle. Plus this unusual design serves an actual purpose. The rounded 100-watt satellites produce what’s called omni directional sound. Unlike traditional speakers that spew audio in one narrow direction, the Mako’s shoot sound waves downwards and outwards in 360 degrees. Result? Audio from your movies, music, and games can be heard from virtually any direction. Especially clear and resonant are high and mid ranges. But it's at low fidelity where the system runs into a bit of trouble. Bass response is a tad disappointing, especially when considering the sub's specs: 100 watts with a 120Hz crossover frequency. In an effort to improve low-end thump, we tried moving the woofer onto different surfaces (concrete floor, carpet, hardwood) but it didn’t make much of a difference. Four hundred bills may be a lot to ask for speakers designed to sit atop a desk, but if you’ve got the scratch, there’s nary another 2.1 system that can match the Mako's performance. Trust us, your ears will thank you — your cube-farm neighbors just might not

Fears of real cancer risks allayed

Breast implants, deodorant and coffee are extremely unlikely to cause cancer, according to a new risk report designed to allay panic that everything can be carcinogenic.

The new risk assessment developed by an Australian cancer specialist puts in perspective the risks of getting the disease from a range of agents, including dental fillings, marijuana and cured meats.

Cigarette smoking, alcohol drinking, deliberate exposure to sunlight and some relatively rare cancer drugs sit in the highest risk bracket for proven carcinogens, said Professor Bernard Stewart, from the University of NSW and South Eastern Sydney and Illawarra Health.

Among the "likely" risks were dope smoking, solarium use, eating large quantities of processed meats and living near a waste dump.

Considered less risky were hair dye use and living near power lines, while there was inadequate evidence for mobile phones, cosmetics and food additives.

Prof Stewart all but ruled out risk for a range of other rumoured carcinogens including artificial sweeteners, coffee, deodorant, dental fillings, breast implants and fluoridated water.

"No one should seriously lose sleep or change their behaviour in respect of these very, very unlikely things," said Prof Stewart.

Feb 5, 2008

A call for open source values in health care

A call for open source values in health care by ZDNet's Dana Blankenhorn -- The Committee for Economic Development, a 65-year old advocacy group which claims to represent "the best in business thinking," has issued a clarion call for open source values in medicine