Aug 25, 2008

Workouts and music magically align

We've stated it before, but this time you really have ran out of excuses to run. Thanks to Yamaha's BODiBEAT, you can expect your tunes to automatically sync with your steps, giving you new reason to get out of the house and get to steppin'. Granted, the $299.99 price tag is pretty steep for just 512MB of space and 12-hours of battery life (marathon, what?), but we're sure there are a few of you out there willing to pay the premium to keep your head nodding perfectly in line with your pace. Oh, and if you completely skipped over the headline, it's shipping now. Right now.

Aug 24, 2008

A pillow that can clear wrinkles

Researchers have developed a copper oxide pillow case, with tests showing those who used it for four weeks had fewer lines and wrinkles than those using conventional bedding.

Clinical trials, supervised by a dermatologist, were carried out on 57 volunteers for four weeks, with the volunteers either given an anti-wrinkle pillow, which feels no different for normal fabric, or a similar conventional pillow.

By the end of the trial, those sleeping on the copper pillows were statistically more likely to have less wrinkles.

Jeffrey Gabbay, the owner of the Cupron company, which used its expertise in making copper medical dressings to develop the pillow case, said: "The surgeon doing our wound-healing trial remarked how an increase in collagen was helping to heal wounds. We wondered if it might work on fixing wrinkles and lines on the face. So we had some copper woven pillows made up and noticed that over a few days of lying on a cooper pillow lines on the face started to soften."

He added: "It has been the most fantastic discover. The fabric has an impact on all lines but is best at ironing out the finer lines."

The researchers believe moisture from the skin releases copper ions from the pillow cases which stimulate the production of collagen below the surface of the skin.

The company has so far sold about 10,000 pillow cases online in the US for around £17 each, and hopes to launch its products in the UK.

Simon Davies: We have the technology, but no security

There is something deeply disquieting about the loss of the confidential records of tens of thousands of Britain's most prolific criminals, taken from the Police National Computer and put on to a memory stick.

Not only are the people to blame for this latest episode of mishandling of personal information those who are responsible for advising the Government on security, but the incident also shows how much still needs to be done to guarantee the security of personal information.

Ever since Revenue & Customs lost the records of 25 million people who claim child benefits last year, there has been a frantic rush of reviews, departmental audits, inquiries, an endless stream of new procedures and sombre ministerial statements promising root-and-branch reform.

But almost everyone in government knows that there is no easy solution. Most departments are still struggling to work out what the security challenges facing them are - let alone how to resolve them. Ministers claim the problem can be fixed simply by sorting out a few gaps in an already robust system. But in fact, security systems are in as much chaos now as they were at the time of the child benefits fiasco.

Aug 23, 2008

Wireless power 'eliminates chargers'

Intel showed off a wireless electric power system that analysts say could revolutionise modern life by freeing devices from transformers and wall outlets.

Intel chief technology officer Justin Rattner demonstrated a Wireless Energy Resonant Link as he spoke at the California firm's annual developers forum in San Francisco.

Electricity was sent wirelessly to a lamp on stage, lighting a 60 watt bulb that uses more power than a typical laptop computer.

Most importantly, the electricity was transmitted without zapping anything or anyone that got between the sending and receiving units.

"The trick with wireless power is not can you do it; it's can you do it safely and efficiently," Intel researcher Josh Smith said in an online video explaining the breakthrough.

"It turns out the human body is not affected by magnetic fields; it is affected by elective fields. So what we are doing is transmitting energy using the magnetic field not the electric field."

Examples of potential applications include airports, offices or other buildings that could be rigged to supply power to laptops, mobile telephones or other devices toted into them.

Aug 21, 2008

Chinese Quack gives lead poisoning to patient

Health authorities fear that unlicensed Chinese medicines will prove fatal, after a recent immigrant fell sick with severe lead poisoning. It is thought to be New Zealand's first case of lead poisoning from Chinese remedies, although several cases have been reported involving Indian alternative medicines. The Auckland Regional Public Health Service was notified two months ago of a Chinese man who had been suffering stomach pain, constipation, insomnia and dizziness.

A butchery shop worker, he had been taking a powder supplied by a customer, allegedly a Chinese medical practitioner, the service said in a report on the case. He had been taking the powder for oral ulcers, but more developed on his mouth and tongue. "He was told that the powder was toxic, but would present no problems when taken in small amounts, short term. The supplier instructed him to apply the powder to the affected area for a brief time and then to spit it out." "Further analysis of the remaining medicine confirmed that the powder consisted of 46 per cent to 74 per cent lead."

Privacy laws out of date

PEOPLE'S willingness to talk loudly on mobile phones and reveal personal information about themselves online indicates that the privacy laws may require a rethink, says the country's top judge, Murray Gleeson. In his final public address as Chief Justice of the High Court, Justice Gleeson said yesterday that he had begun to change his view that "certain things … were self-evidently private". "The ground seems to me to be shifting," he said.

"I used to think that having a telephone conversation was normally private. But you can't walk down the street without hearing a number of telephone conversations, some of them with people speaking loudly because of the noise of the surrounding traffic …

"When you look at the kind of information that people publish about themselves, it makes you wonder." Justice Gleeson said.

In only the second address to the National Press Club by the nation's top judge - Garfield Barwick gave one in 1966 - Justice Gleeson said the courts and the Government would increasingly have to consider the scope of privacy and confidentiality laws. "This is a very interesting area," he said.

"I wrote a judgment a few years ago in which I said there seemed to me to be certain things which were self-evidently private. I am not sure about that any more …

"The very changes that are taking place in the concept of privacy will be a matter that parliaments have to address - and courts."

The Australian Law Reform Commission said earlier this month that the "information age" required new rules and recommended that the Government allow people to sue for gross invasions of privacy.

But the Special Minister of State, John Faulkner, gave a lukewarm response to the proposal, saying a right to sue was "not a priority".

Graham Greenleaf, an expert on privacy and information technology law at the University of NSW, said that legal definitions of privacy were "not static" and new technologies had enabled people to be increasingly willing to disclose information that would once have been considered private.

"The widespread availability of communications technologies that allow individuals to publish information about themselves that can be accessed by others is unprecedented in our society," Professor Greenleaf said.

"People are only now beginning to understand the privacy implications of social-networking sites and user-generated content … It may be that the pendulum will swing away somewhat from the great enthusiasm for disclosure that we are seeing now."

Justice Gleeson, who has been Chief Justice since 1998 and will be replaced by Robert French at the end of the month, used his address to praise an increasing emphasis on the education of judges. He said further education should focus on encouraging more succinct judgments and accommodating the cultural backgrounds of witnesses in court.

Aug 20, 2008

Scammers defraud Aussies of $36m a year: police

Australians lose at least $36 million a year to so-called Nigerian scammers who continue to fleece naive internet users because victims fail to report incidents. Detective Superintendent Brian Hay, part of the Queensland Police fraud squad, said Australians sent about $3 million a month to Nigeria, at least 80 per cent of which was fraud related. But he said the problem was "far more extensive" than that because police were "well aware" that millions of dollars were going to other countries as part of the same fraud process. Detective Superintendent Hay said NSW was the biggest victim group "by a mile". He said police struggled to get a handle on the issue because many incidents went unreported.

Government's social networking warning

Before posting the latest photos of yourself chugging down beers or cutting up the dance floor on Facebook or MySpace, think again - your next employer could be watching.

That's the message from the Victorian government, which today released a list of security tips to assist people to protect their privacy on online social networking sites.

Victorian Deputy Premier and Attorney-General Rob Hulls said in light of new research showing employers were using social networking sites to research candidates, people needed to step up their privacy settings.

"Social networking sites such as Facebook are a fast-growing phenomenon," Mr Hulls said in a statement.

"Social network users need to realise that the information and photos they put into cyberspace in some cases can be seen by others and can leave a digital tattoo that can be difficult to erase.

"The latest research from the US suggests 44 per cent of employers are now using sites like MySpace and Facebook to research job candidates."

Mr Hulls said anyone thinking of using a social networking site should plan ahead to help prevent privacy breaches.

He suggested asking someone who uses the site about their experience first and thinking about what information to include in your profile.

"As a general rule, it's best not to publish information you would not want the world to know," he said.

Mr Hulls said privacy settings should be adjusted and other people's privacy respected by asking their permission before posting something relating to them.

Aug 18, 2008

Torvalds: Fed up with 'security circus'

Few aspects of computer security have achieved the notoriety of malicious software that preys on unsuspecting computer users. Viruses, worms, Trojan horses, logic bombs, zombies, password grabbers - the list gets longer and longer. The different types of malicious software work by a variety of methods, and they have different potentials for causing damage.

The Chernobyl and Melissa viruses and the Worm.Explore.Zip program caused extensive PC damage after spreading themselves around the world through e-mail last year. The denial-of-service attacks that brought major e-commerce Web sites to their knees earlier this year were launched by malicious software hidden on hundreds of Internet-connected computers without their owners' knowledge.

A mini-industry of organizations, professionals and volunteers has sprung up to categorize malicious software, issue warnings and market software designed to detect, locate and eradicate such programs. New malicious code appears monthly, generated by an underground community of programmers apparently motivated by the desire to cause damage, steal information or sometimes just prove their technical prowess.

Viruses, Worms, Trojan Horses and Zombies

Few aspects of computer security have achieved the notoriety of malicious software that preys on unsuspecting computer users. Viruses, worms, Trojan horses, logic bombs, zombies, password grabbers - the list gets longer and longer. The different types of malicious software work by a variety of methods, and they have different potentials for causing damage.

The Chernobyl and Melissa viruses and the Worm.Explore.Zip program caused extensive PC damage after spreading themselves around the world through e-mail last year. The denial-of-service attacks that brought major e-commerce Web sites to their knees earlier this year were launched by malicious software hidden on hundreds of Internet-connected computers without their owners' knowledge.

A mini-industry of organizations, professionals and volunteers has sprung up to categorize malicious software, issue warnings and market software designed to detect, locate and eradicate such programs. New malicious code appears monthly, generated by an underground community of programmers apparently motivated by the desire to cause damage, steal information or sometimes just prove their technical prowess.

Anti-Georgia spammers building new botnet

Hackers targeting Georgia in the midst of its conflict with Russia have started sending out a new batch of malicious spam messages, apparently with the aim of building a new botnet network of remote-controlled computers.

The poorly worded messages started going out early Friday morning, and now make up close to five percent of the spam traffic measured by the University of Alabama at Birmingham's Spam Data Mine, according to Gary Warner, a director of computer research and forensics at the university. That's about a third of the volume of the CNN- and MSNBC-related spam that has been flooding inboxes this week, but it's still significant, he said.

With headlines like "Mikheil Saakashvili gay scandal! New of this week!" the stories try to trick victims into clicking on a fake BBC story about the president of Georgia. When the victim clicks on the link, however, he is taken to a malicious Web server that then tries to infect his computer.

Disturbingly, the attack code used by this Web server is not blocked by most antivirus products, Warner said. In tests, his team found that only four out of the 36 antivirus products featured in the Virus Total malware testing service spotted the code.

So far, Warner's team has tracked the messages back to 44 spam-sending computers, none of which has previously been associated with junk e-mail. Interestingly, six of these computers are located in Russia, which is rarely a direct source of spam, and one of them lies within the Russian Ministry of Education.

Parenting -

Teenage children are bashing and bullying their parents at an increasing rate, in a largely hidden form of abuse that can arise from violent role models or overindulgent parenting.

Studies in NSW and Victoria show an increasing number of parents are the victims of physical and psychological violence perpetrated by their children, usually adolescent sons directing their attacks on their mothers.

A new Victorian report reveals a 23 per cent increase in domestic violence involving a person aged under 19 between 2002 and 2006. One in 10 of the state's police family violence call-outs involves an adolescent perpetrator, and about 3500 cases happen each year.

While NSW police do not have readily available statistics, a recent study by University of Western Sydney researchers found 51 per cent of women experience some form of violence at the hands of their children. And the researchers say the figures could be even higher, because the shame and secrecy associated with child-parent violence prevents many mothers from reporting the abuse to authorities.

Depressed? We can tell by your voice, academics say

A MELBOURNE engineer is working on a computer program that can diagnose depressed teenagers simply by analysing their voice.

The world-first research, by RMIT senior lecturer Margaret Lech, could transform psychiatry, which lacks an objective test for this illness. It could even be used as a screening test in high schools or when someone phones a health provider.

"We want to develop an objective system that could be applied by people with no clinical knowledge about depression," Dr Lech said.

"The latest research shows that depression starts at an early age, so if it's detected it will help a teenager understand their behaviour and learn how to deal with it."

Dr Lech said her research was inspired by a Stephen Fry documentary about his manic depression and a TV interview with former premier and beyondblue chairman Jeff Kennett. She asked herself how she could help with the growing problem of youth depression, and realised her work in speech analysis at RMIT's School of Electrical and Computer Engineering might provide insights.

Aug 17, 2008

Hackers get hacked at Defcon

In the end, it was hackers at DefCon that got hacked.

After three days of software cracking duels and hacking seminars, self-described computer ninjas at the infamous gathering in Las Vegas found out Sunday that their online activities were hijacked without them catching on.

A standing-room crowd cheered admiringly as Tony Kapela and Alex Pilosov showed them how they were "pwned" by a simple technique that could be used to "steal the Internet."

"Pwned" is popular computer and video game culture slang playing off the word "owned" and is used to describe someone being totally dominated or humiliated online or in-game.

"It's a nearly invisible exploitation," Kapela said while revealing a hack that exploits fundamental Internet routing procedure to hijack online traffic unnoticed. "A level of invisibility that is unparalleled."

The beauty of the technique presented by Alex Pilosov and Kapela is that hackers don't need to break into websites or plant malicious computer code to control and tamper with data travelling the Internet, the presentation showed.

Instead, the Internet is duped into sending people's data to hackers.

"Someone can passively intercept traffic," Kapela explained. "We can store, drop, filter, mutilate, grope, or modify data heading to you."

Tim Anderson: First Look: Asus Eee PC 901

For the last couple of weeks I've been testing the Asus Eee PC 901, complete with Atom processor and 20GB total solid-state disk. I was a big fan of the Eee 701 when it came out last year, and to a large extent the 901 is more of the same but better, aside from the hefty price increase.

The 800 x 480 7" screen on the earlier model was the most annoying feature, and on the 901 it is replaced by a 8.9", 1024 x 600 display that is far more convenient for tasks like web browsing and word processing. Another plus is the long-life battery, a substantial 6600 mAh on the review unit, giving what Asus claim is up to 8 hours of use.

The Eee was originally launched as a Linux portable, and although I'm no Windows-hater I consider Linux to be particularly well suited to this kind of machine. It boots quickly, it is configured to be lean and efficient, and the IceWM window manager presents a simple tabbed interface so that anyone can be up and running quickly. It is as much an appliance as a computer; the bundled applications are more than enough to do real work, and there should be no need to understand Linux in order to use the Eee.

The snag with Linux however is that when things do go wrong, fixing it can be an intricate and complex business. Unfortunately I have had more problems with the 901 than I ever had with the 701. Out of the box I had problems connecting to Wi-Fi, and problems getting system updates. There seems to be a problem with the Asus repositories.

There is not enough room on the system disk to do a full update, and there are annoying dependency issues that raise errors and warnings. In addition, the Wi-Fi connection would drop out for no reason, and would not work at all with WPA encryption enabled on my particular router. It seems that the drivers for the Ralink wireless card are not quite done. Ralink support sent me some updated source code, which I compiled and installed, giving some improvement but still not entirely solving the problem. Compiling a new driver on the Eee, I should add, is not for the faint-hearted; many of the Eee's target users would run a mile before doing such a thing.

I am not alone. Most Eee 901 Linux users on a popular forum report problems, the most common being update issues and failure to shut down cleanly.

The obvious conclusion is that Asus is more interested in promoting Windows XP on the Eee, even though it is less suitable. Admittedly XP has advantages in areas like device compatibility, and it is of course familiar to everyone. It still strikes me as a missed opportunity. Linux on the Eee is a delight, when it is working properly. As it is, the 901 is going to confirm suspicions that Linux is mainly for geeks.

Aug 14, 2008

Stephen Withers : Rotten hardware core in Apple's iPhone 3G

The news that the iPhone 3G could be suffering from 3G reception issues due to faulty hardware, which apparently can't be fixed by a firmware update, has flashed across the web. The debate now rages: who is right?

Related stories

* FINALLY: Movies come to iTunes in Australia and NZ!
* Sound out your environment with SoundMeter for the iPhone
* Will BigPond MP3 music deal hurt iTunes Store?
* Bugs squashed, vulnerabilities patched and info updated in Office for Mac
* Best Buy to take on iPhone

The world's most desirable smartphone may be experiencing the world's most undesirable problem: poor 3G reception. Complaints are being so widely reported that some are demanding Apple should instigate a worldwide recall!

Various users and tech journalists are reporting their own issues with very patchy 3G reception in the US, Australia and other iPhone 3G countries, while enjoying excellent 2G reception. My own limited experience with an iPhone 3G on the Optus network was that even when the display showed weak 3G reception, voice calls were perfectly clear with no dropouts.

Richard Windsor, an analyst with Nomura Securities, is widely quoted as advising clients "We believe that these issues are typical of an immature chipset and radio protocol stack where we are almost certain Infineon is the 3G supplier."

Windsor reportedly went on to suggest that the issue probably could not be fixed in firmware, but several commentators have rubbished that idea.

Perhaps the most illuminating report comes from Swedish publication My Teknik (New Technology), which reports that the nominal sensitivity measured for an iPhone 3G is well below the figure specified by the 3G standard. Since prototypes must have been tested for conformance with the standard, it follows that the problem was introduced in production.

Grace Wu and D. Grayson Yeargin: Are E-mail Messages Protected by the Fourth Amendment?

New technology inevitably throws a wrinkle into the legal industry. The advent of electronic written communication is revolutionizing several areas of the law. The ease of quick and efficient interaction with others that is inherent with electronic mail has caused the amount of potential evidence in legal matters to skyrocket. As a result, access to these potential treasure troves during Government investigations has become an important issue. It is common knowledge that the Fourth Amendment provides protection against certain searches and seizures. What protections, however, apply to electronic mail?

Prosecutors have relied on the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (“ECPA”) since its enactment in 1986 to answer this question. The Sixth Circuit, however, recently issued a decision limiting the Government’s power under a narrow, but important, section of this statute by finding in Warshak v. United States, 2007 U.S. App. LEXIS 14297 (6th Cir. June 18, 2007), that e-mail account holders can possess a reasonable expectation of privacy in the content of their personal e-mail messages.

The issue in Warshak implicated Title II of the ECPA, known as the Stored Communications Act (“SCA”). The SCA establishes particular procedures that must be followed before a governmental entity may compel an internet service provider (“ISP”) to produce contents of electronic communications that have been “stored.” If electronic communications have been unopened for 180 days or less, then the SCA requires that the governmental entity obtain a search warrant. 18 U.S.C. S2703(a). If electronic communications have been unopened for more than 180 days or have been opened, then a more complex, but less onerous, set of rules apply. In those situations, the Government must use a search warrant, issue an administrative subpoena, or obtain a court order. 18 U.S.C. S2703(b). The Government must meet the familiar standard of probable cause for search warrants. In contrast, the Government needs only to meet a general reasonableness standard to pursue a court order under the SCA. 18 U.S.C. S2703(d).

Aug 13, 2008

More help given to victims of identity fraud

Victims of identity fraud will now only have to inform one credit reference agency, instead of all three, to correct their credit record.

The UK’s three agencies – CallCredit, Equifax and Experian – have agreed to notify each other when restoring the record of someone whose personal details have been stolen and used by fraudsters.

The announcement comes after the National Consumer Council (NCC) said victims can spend months amending their credit record with the three agencies, whilst being hassled by debt collectors or being blacklisted for credit.

Anna Fielder at the NCC explained: “All three agencies will now work simultaneously to case-manage the restoration of the individual's credit file. This will involve each providing the victim with their credit report, contacting financial service providers where there has been fraudulent activity, and providing an on-going update of progress on the case.”

Fraudsters often run up large debts in their victim’s name by stealing their details and applying for credit, often on store cards, credit cards and mobile phone accounts. Until the victim settles the matter with their bank, their credit record will remain blacklisted, making it difficult for the victim to obtain credit cards, loans or mortgages.

Identity theft is one of the UK’s fastest growing crimes, affecting more than 100,000 people every year. The Home Office estimates identity fraudsters steal £1.7 billion annually.

Experts recommend checking your credit record every few months to see if any fraudulent credit applications have been made in your name. A copy of your record can be obtained from any of the three agencies for £2.

Be on your guard on the Net

If you find your monthly credit card statement riddled with purchases you didn't make, you may find that your personal details have been stolen by a computer hacker. This is the dark side of Internet shopping and the banking revolution, where with a few mouse clicks you can pay bills or buys goods, but where you also face potential fraud. You don't even need to be one of the 5 per cent of Australians who transact online to experience this: merely owning a credit card makes you vulnerable, as hackers are more likely to target corporate databases which store customer names, addresses, purchasing preferences, account details and credit card numbers.

The issue of customer security, or its lack, was highlighted again last month when the Commonwealth Bank revealed that its NetBank had suffered from fraud. There were other recent incidents involving City Link and Optus Internet. This is no surprise to Internet security analysts who agree that companies entrusted with customers' financial details often don't do enough to protect them from prying eyes.

There are incentives in the system to protect consumers though, says the ACA's Catherine Wolzhuizen, with one being the "charge-back" mechanism. If your card has been used without your permission, and if you haven't been negligent, the bank or retailer will bear the cost of a disputed transaction; the most you'll pay is $50.

There are 10 ways you can protect your card if you transact online:

  1. keep your computer secure;
  2. don't send card details by e-mail;
  3. deal only with reputable online merchants;
  4. read a company's privacy policy;
  5. if using a new site, do business first in a small way;
  6. don't go to sites that may embarrass you - hackers love porn sites;
  7. check your accounts and report discrepancies immediately;
  8. ignore the "remember my password option" on banking and shopping sites
  9. change your password regularly;
  10. cancel any card that has been used fraudulently;
  11. be just as cautious with your cards in the real world.

Don't let ID fraud happen to you

More than 25 per cent of all fraud reported to the Australian Federal Police involves false identities, and a 2001 Attorney-General's report revealed that identity-related fraud costs Australians more than $4 billion a year.

The simplest form of ID fraud is when individuals create one or more false identities using fake documentation. More sinister is the "true name fraud" or identity takeover: a criminal steps into the shoes of a real person, then runs up debts, bleeds accounts dry and sometimes commits other crimes in the victim's name.

The criminal puts together a patchwork of personal information about his target and uses these details to manipulate the financial affairs of his victim. The victim often doesn't realise that an impostor has been tampering with his finances until he's lost money, been denied a loan or had debt collectors arrive on his doorstep.

While the general rule is that the customer is protected by the bank in account fraud - you may have to wait months to get your money back while the bank investigates.

The Australian Consumers' Association's Catherine Wolzhuizen says that there are three main issues: the amount of time banks take to investigate, the amount of time it takes to rectify accounts, and the time and effort involved in restoring credit ratings.

What you can do to avoid ID fraud:

  1. Keep a close eye on your mail. Be suspicious if your account or credit card statements are more than a fortnight late.
  2. Contact Veda Advantage to get a copy of your credit file or subscribe to My Credit Alert.
  3. Don't share your personal information with telephone marketers, salespeople or even friendly strangers.
  4. ID fraudsters are not always strangers: it could be a friend, family member, neighbour or colleague.
  5. Review your bank account and credit card statements carefully. Check the balance when you withdraw cash from an ATM.
  6. Be paranoid about disposing of credit card receipts and other documents linking your name to specific account information. Shred or tear these up, as ID thieves commonly go through rubbish.
  7. If you believe your personal information has been used to commit fraud, act quickly. Report it to the police, and contact your financial institution and card issuer immediately to halt unauthorised access to your accounts.

New centre to ask hard questions

Paediatrician Dr Hugo Gold, who will chair the new centre, said it was the result of two major trends: technological advances that have created new treatments, and a move to give patients more choice.

"In the good old days it was 'doctor knows best, no questions asked'," he said. "The world has changed a lot. Medicine is now much more inclusive."

This year the hospital encountered one of its hardest ethical questions, in the case of Bangladeshi conjoined twins Trishna and Krishna.

Their Hindu parents believed it was best to let nature take its course, and their souls would be reincarnated after an early death. But when Western medicine offered an alternative, two guardians were appointed — Catholic and Muslim — who approved a series of rare and complicated operations at the Royal Children's Hospital to separate the pair.

Four years ago the hospital board created an internal clinical ethics service to deal with such issues. Now with $900,000 from the Children's Hospital Foundation, it is adding education and research programs, in partnership with the Murdoch Children's Research Institute and the University of Melbourne.

Mendelson Tiu: "$999 Quad Core Beast Sold By Aldi"

Aldi is probably the last place you will go to if you are looking for a new workstation. Which is fair enough I suppose, as a lot of users only visit this supermarket to do their groceries. But Aldi’s latest offering, the Akoya MD8390 from Medion, is by far one of the best desktop PCs you can find for its price.

For $999, you get a well-specced PC with an abundance of connectivity ports that is ready for just about any home or office task. Although one may argue that a similar box with the same specifications can be built at a cheaper price, you would have to resort to purchasing the parts separately and building it yourself. And for some people, that is just not going to happen.

This box comes with an Intel Core 2 Quad processor, 2GB of RAM, an Nvidia graphics card, a 500GB drive, and comes with just about any computer port you can think of.

Pressing the Connect.XL button up front reveals two USB ports, a headphone and microphone jack, Firewire, and three slots for all current flash memory cards (SD/MMC/MS, CF, SM/XD). The back of the unit hosts PS/2 ports for the mouse and keyboard, six USB ports, Firewire, Ethernet port, Line-in, Front line-out, back surround line-out, side surround line-out, centre/subwoofer line-out, S/PDIF out COAX and Optical, as well as an HDMI, DVI-I, and S-Video out. Medion has even included a wireless mouse and keyboard to the mix, allowing users to type freely.

Lenovo's P960 handset packs a fingerprint scanner

Samsung's P960 handset has a built-in DVR, while Lenovo's P960 includes a fingerprint scanner. Pointless trivia aside, the latter is also Lenovo's first commercial mobile phone to incorporate fingerprint biometrics. Atrua Technologies has provided a fingerprint scanner that resides on the handset's edge in order to provide additional security for folks (read: cheaters, FBI agents and Segway users) who simply cannot afford to let their contact list be known. Even dodgier, the phone has a VIP recording feature which "automatically records calls from designated numbers" -- something that's sure to provide hours upon hours of merriment. We'd bemoan the fact that pricing information isn't readily available, but we just can't get over that whole automatic recording thing.

Aug 12, 2008

Georgian websites forced offline in 'cyber war'

Georgia and security experts have accused Russian state-sponsored hackers of breaking into Georgian government and commercial websites as part of a cyber war to supplement Russia's military operations in South Ossetia.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's official website, as well as the websites of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Defence, the central government site and various commercial sites, have all been forced offline over the past week.

The Georgian Parliament website,, has been defaced by the "South Ossetia Hack Crew". The site's content has been replaced with images comparing Saakashvili to Adolf Hitler.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs was forced to set up a blog on Google's Blogger service as a temporary site while it battled to resurrect its official homepage. News site followed its lead, claiming its servers were under permanent attack.

Jart Armin, a researcher who publishes a blog tracking the movements of the Russian Business Network (RBN) - a group of state-sponsored hackers - called the flare-up a "full cyber siege of Georgia's cyber space" by the RBN.

Armin said Georgian internet servers were controlled by foreign attackers and internet traffic to them was being redirected to servers in Moscow.

Holden keen on bringing Volt plug-in electric car

"General Motors is keeping its options open on bringing the Volt plug-in electric car to Australia, a senior company strategist says. Larry Burns, vice president of research and development and strategic planning, said at present the company was focused on bringing the new car to the US market by 2010. 'We're keeping our options open with what we do with the Volt on a worldwide basis,'' he said.

'Our immediate focus is to get this car developed and get it in the market in the United States. 'We're not getting preoccupied with other possibilities.''

But GM Holden chairman and managing director Mark Reuss signalled his company's interest in the new car, pointing to the development of the architecture for both right-hand and left-hand drive markets. He said there were also no obvious impediments to bringing the Volt to Australia with an advantage being the willingness of local consumers to accept and adopt new technology. 'It would be something that would be readily accepted by a lot of people here,'' Mr Reuss said. 'There's a really nice, open-minded culture here.''

GM describes the Volt as an extended-range electric vehicle. It features a 45 kilowatt motor that can power the car to a top speed of 160km/h."

Strong dollar whacks SingTel

Singapore Telecommunications, Southeast Asia's largest phone company, posted flat underlying quarterly net profit, as strength in the Singapore dollar crimped contributions from regional mobile associates. State-controlled SingTel - Singapore's largest listed firm - made underlying net profit before goodwill and exceptionals of S$865 million ($694 million) in the April-June quarter, compared with S$868 million in the year-ago period. This was below an average net profit forecast of S$930.3 million from 3 analysts polled by Reuters.

First-quarter attributable net profit was S$878 million, down 5.3% from S$927 million last year. Facing a domestic market of just 4.6 million people where virtually everyone has a mobile phone, SingTel has spent S$18 billion in recent years buying stakes in mobile operators in high-growth Asian countries such as India and in the bigger Australian market. SingTel derives about three quarters of its sales and two-thirds of pretax earnings from operations outside Singapore.

Aug 11, 2008

Spam alert after Ticketek email blunder

Ticketek has exposed tens of thousands of customer email addresses, which will now be rich pickings for spammers. In the body of an email sent to customers advertising an internet pre-sale offer for The Dandy Warhols, Ticketek accidentally included a dump of its email database. The exact number of addresses exposed is unknown but the email prints out to more than 110 pages, or tens of thousands of names.

The Australian Privacy Commissioner, Karen Curtis, said her office had launched an investigation into the matter and established contact with Ticketek. However, under privacy laws she does not have powers to penalise or compel an organisation to do something unless her office receives a direct complaint from an individual. A Ticketek spokesman said the privacy breach was the result of "human error" and only "0.01 per cent" of its database was exposed. Ticketek was in the process of contacting customers to apologise.

Roger Clarke, chair of the Australian Privacy Foundation, said: "This kind of thing is ludicrous - that such errors could be permitted to occur and not have controls in place to prevent them occurring. "While we don't want to go off the deep end about a single error the fact is corporations aren't being careful enough with consumer data and are not being held to account."

Stilnox warnings upgraded

Insomniacs have once again been warned about safe use of the controversial sleeping pill Stilnox in a new report released today.

Australia's drug prescribing experts have issued a position statement on hypnotic drugs in the wake of reports last year of hundreds of Australians driving, binge-eating and displaying other bizarre behaviour after popping a Stilnox tablet.

The Therapeutic Goods Administration upgraded warnings on Stilnox packs alerting patients to "potentially dangerous sleep-related behaviours" and recommending it not be taken with alcohol and use cautiously with antidepressants.

The drug regulator also recommended the drug not be taken for any longer than four weeks.

But the National Prescribing Service (NPS), which gives advice on safe use of medicines, today said treatment should be limited to two weeks.

"For all hypnotics, use the lowest dose for the shortest time possible, ideally for less than two weeks, and re-evaluate within seven to fourteen days of starting therapy," NPS deputy chief executive Karen Kaye said.

Mahesh Sharma: Privacy laws to face 21st century makeover

THE Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) has recommended a raft of changes to privacy laws that have struggled to keep pace with the rapidly changing nature of technology.

The ALRC published the findings of its two year review in the report, For Your Information: Australian Privacy Law and Practice, this morning, recommending 295 changes to privacy laws and practices.

Key recommendations include regulating cross border data flows, drafting new regulation for health information, managing electronic health records, and educating children of ownership issues around personal information posted on social networking sites.

It also recommended introducing data breach notifications for government agencies and business organisations.

The Government will review the ALRC’s recommendations in two phases over the next 12 to 18 months, Special Minister of State John Faulkner said, and will legislate on each of these as necessary.

The first phase will address recommendations around unified privacy provisions, the protection of health information and reform of credit reporting, and improving the level of education about the impact of new technologies on privacy.

The second phase will focus on recommendations across the board including exemptions to the Privacy Act and data breach notifications.

'Cloud computing' heightens privacy risks

A US military computer science professor has warned that a trend to push software into the "clouds" exacerbates privacy risks as people trust information to the Internet.
Websites routinely capture data that can reveal pictures of users' lives, US military academy professor Greg Conti told an audience at the annual DefCon hackers gathering in Las Vegas.

The danger is being heightened by a growing Internet trend toward "cloud computing," software being offered online with applications hosted on outside computers instead of programs being installed on people's machines.

A common example of the practice is Web-based email services such as those offered by Google and Yahoo.

The world of cloud computing is expanding to include software for documents, accounting, spread sheets, photo editing and more.

"With cloud computer looming on the horizon it is important for us all to think of the privacy threats there as well," Conti said.

"The tool resides with someone else and the data is stored somewhere else. Generally, that is a bad idea."

Internet users are already giving away copious amounts of information using online search and mapping software.

Prime examples are social networking websites where people post personal videos, pictures, and thoughts that supposedly can only be viewed by selected friends.

The potentially revealing data in people's profiles is stored on computers maintained by the social networking firms.

If someone does an Internet search of their own name and then maps a route from their home, who they are and where they live is on record indefinitely in data bases of the firms that provided the services.

With cloud computing, copies of documents, spreadsheets or other files created using outside applications could be stored by companies providing the services.

Even security pros tricked in Facebook scam

Computer security professionals tend to be a highly paranoid bunch, seeing potential threats everywhere. It turns out that some aren't cautious enough, though.

Two researchers demonstrated at the Black Hat hacking conference how they had gotten computer security experts to let their guard down online the same way they advise the average internet user not to, especially on social networking websites.

A relatively simple ruse persuaded dozens of prominent security analysts to connect on their social networking web pages with people who weren't friends at all. They were fake profiles, purportedly of other well-known security pros. The scam was designed to expose the trust that even some of the most skeptical internet users display on some of the most insecure sites on the web.

Some social networking sites can be dangerous because they allow people to post programming code - used for good or evil - on other people's pages. Even networking sites that don't allow that step carry their own security risks, because it's relatively easy for someone to masquerade as a "friend" who isn't actually friendly - and recommend malicious websites to click on.

The ruse concocted by Shawn Moyer, chief information security officer for Agura Digital Security, and Nathan Hamiel, senior consultant for Idea Information Security, worked like this:

They found prominent security figures who didn't have profiles on particular social networking websites.

They built up fake profiles by using information from press releases and news articles. Then they built up the profiles' authenticity by sending them around to people who indiscriminately add friends on those sites.

Finally, once the profiles looked legitimate, they identified groups of security professionals on those sites and sent their friend requests to them.

Moyer and Hamiel said they did it three times, each time impersonating a different person. Each time they lured in more than 50 new friends within 24 hours. Some of those people were chief security officers for major corporations and defense industry workers, they said. They declined to identify any of those people.

Aug 10, 2008

Asher Moses: Hack into a Windows PC - no password needed

A security consultant based in New Zealand has released a tool that can unlock Windows computers in seconds without the need for a password. Adam Boileau first demonstrated the hack, which affects Windows XP computers but has not yet been tested with Windows Vista, at a security conference in Sydney in 2006, but Microsoft has yet to develop a fix.

Interviewed in ITRadio's Risky Business podcast, Boileau said the tool, released to the public today, could "unlock locked Windows machines or login without a password ... merely by plugging in your Firewire cable and running a command". Boileau, a consultant with Immunity Inc., said he did not release the tool publicly in 2006 because "Microsoft was a little cagey about exactly whether Firewire memory access was a real security issue or not and we didn't want to cause any real trouble".

But now that a couple of years have passed and the issue has not resolved, Boileau decided to release the tool on his website.

To use the tool, hackers must connect a Linux-based computer to a Firewire port on the target machine. The machine is then tricked into allowing the attacking computer to have read and write access to its memory. With full access to the memory, the tool can then modify Windows' password protection code, which is stored there, and render it ineffective.

Subway Officials Sue to Stop Talk on Fare Card Hacks

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority filed a suit in federal court on Friday seeking a temporary restraining order to prevent three undergraduate students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from presenting a talk at the DefCon hacker conference this weekend about security vulnerabilities in payment systems used in the Massachusetts mass transit system.

The transit authority, known as the MBTA, is seeking to prevent the students from "publicly stating or indicating" that electronic passenger tickets used on the transit system have been compromised until the MBTA can fix security flaws in the system. It further seeks to bar the students from releasing any tools or providing any information that would allow someone to hack the transit system and obtain free rides.

The MBTA says in its complaint that disclosure of the flaws, before it has a chance to fix them, will cause irreparable harm to the transit system.

The three student researchers, Zack Anderson, R.J. Ryan and Alessandro Chiesa, are scheduled to give a talk Sunday afternoon entitled "The Anatomy of a Subway Hack: Breaking Crypto RFIDs & Magstripes of Ticketing Systems."

According to a description of the talk posted on the conference website, the students plan to discuss vulnerabilities in the fare collection system of Boston's T subway system and to demonstrate how they reverse engineered the mag stripe on paper passenger tickets known as the CharlieTicket as well as how they cracked smartcard tickets known as the CharlieCard. They also plan to release several open source tools that they created in the course of their transit card research.

The MBTA, which oversees the T subway, operates the fifth largest transit system in the United States, servicing 175 towns and cities. It uses both the CharlieTicket and the CharlieCard in its passenger payment system. The CharlieCard, which was first used in January 2007, provides the MBTA with nearly $500,000 in revenue per weekday, according to the court documents. More than 68 percent of passengers use it to pay their fare.

The CharlieCard is a MiFare Classic card, which was the subject of much controversy earlier this year after Dutch researchers showed how they were able to hack the cards. But the MBTA says in the court papers that it has substantially enhanced the security of its MiFare cards with proprietary encryption, making previously reported flaws with the MiFare Classic card irrelevant to the CharlieCard.

The MBTA filed its suit in the U.S. District Court in Massachusetts against the three students and their university, stating that the students violated the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act in accessing protected MBTA computers without authorization, for which the MBTA seeks unspecified damages. The MBTA also asserts that MIT and the student's supervisor, computer science professor Ron Rivest, failed to properly supervise the students to prevent them from attacking and harming the transit system.

The MBTA first became aware of the researchers' talk on July 30 when one of its vendors pointed it to the DefCon website where the talk was listed on the conference schedule. A description of the talk began with the provocative line, "Want free subway rides for life?" and discussed how the researchers social engineered transit employees to accomplish their hack of the transit cards.

On August 5th, the court documents reveal, a detective with the transit police and an FBI agent met with the MIT students, Rivest, and an MIT lawyer to discuss their concerns and inquire about what the students would disclose in their talk. But the students would not provide the MBTA with a copy of the materials they planned to present in their talk or information about the security flaws they found in the transit system.

Gmail & Google Apps knocked Out

Google Gmail and Google Apps messaging and collaboration services in the cloud suffered an outage of nearly 15 hours. Google Gmail and Google Apps users spent their time away from the messaging and collaboration platforms flogging the company on the Google Apps discussion group. Can Microsoft and other SAAS newcomers take advantage of these Google Gmail and Google Apps outages?

Several Google users, some of them paying customers, found themselves knocked out of Google Apps and Gmail after an "access issue" knocked out the company's software as a service suite for 15 hours.

The snafu, spanning from 2 p.m. EDT Wednesday afternoon to nearly 5 a.m. EDT Thursday morning, came as an unwelcome shock to users who are not accustomed to outages on Google's Web services.

The search company spends billions of dollars on servers that can support the services its millions of Gmail and Apps users require; when the services go down, users are quick to express shock, awe and not a little anger.

Signs of the issue popped up on the Google Apps Discussion Group forum at 2:04 EDT Wednesday, when a user complained of a 502 server error.

Another three complaints popped up by the time a Google Apps adviser joined the thread to tell them: "A small subset of our users are experiencing this issue, and our technical team is currently working to resolve this issue."

To date, there has been no word on what the problem was, or exactly how many users were affected.

Just exactly how stupid are dogs?

My parents have a dog. He's a cocker spaniel. A rather sullen brute, in my view, but maybe that's just with me. There may be some confusion over status. Frankly, I'm not sure he realises he's a dog. Certainly, other dogs hold no interest. “So?” he seems to say, should one sniff his backside. “It's a dog. And? What of it?”

One memorable exception was when he met my friend Alex's dog, who is one of those sex-pest dogs. You know the ones? The pair of them, both male, spent a happy afternoon rubbing and shunting in the garden. Afterwards, our spaniel sat under the kitchen table and appeared to be having a long think.

Or so I chose to believe. Honestly, has there ever been a greater, more wilful delusion than the one that Man has indulged in over Dog? I know there will be letters and, God help me, photographs, but this must be said. Dogs are stupid, and they want our food. This may be manifest in a variety of diverse and charming ways, but it is also all that is going on between their ears. Only a person can have a personality. Your dog just has an appetite and an easy life.

You will have read about Bernann McKinney, the woman who may or may not be a 1970s Mormon-snatching glamour model, but definitely has had five clones of her dead pit bull terrier (Booger) made for £25,000 in South Korea. It is a lot of money to pay, just to be lied to in a particular, stupid way. I've been trying to figure out why it makes me so angry.

My second favourite dog story this August (and hurrah, for we are only a week in) is the one about Hector, the Great Dane who swallowed a 2ft stick. That is to say, three foot of dog, two foot of stick. It prompted me to look up another similar story, from a few years ago. That one was about Jake, a 12in puppy who swallowed a 7in knife. His owner took him to the vet because the dog couldn't bend. Dogs are morons. If they weren't Man's best friend, they'd be extinct.

So I am angry, I think, because I am ashamed. If dogs weren't morons, they'd be laughing at us. I think of the wise words of Homer Simpson, campaigning for political office in Springfield. “Animals are crapping in our houses! And we're picking it up! Did we lose a war?”

Heart Robot: red hot date at the Science Museum

Hurrying towards my assignation with a robot that could understand human emotions, I was quite excited. My ex-girlfriends say that I am incapable of understanding human emotion and it was hard not to think of the incredible impact this meeting might have on my personal life.

Equally, it was hard not to see the earth-shattering importance of my date with Heart Robot in the broader context of mankind’s developing relationship with machines. I had put on a clean suit and my lucky tie. I had purchased a red rose. I had prepared an arsenal of robot chat-up lines: “I think our systems are compatible”; “I’m like a machine in the bedroom”, and so on.

Would I need to confess my terrible history with technology? I am no longer on speaking terms with my home computer and relations with my DVD player have reached a state of irretrievable breakdown. It doesn’t work any more, no matter how loudly I shout at it. Nevertheless, as I headed to meet Heart Robot, I couldn’t help thinking that this time it would be different.

We met in the Antenna Room of the Science Museum, where it quickly became clear that all my preparations had been somewhat misguided. Heart Robot is small and white, with sunken holes for eyes and little sign of a mouth. He has pointed ears and a plastic torso padded with white cloth. He resembles the love child of a monkey and an iMac. I shake his hand — for some reason Heart Robot feels like a he — and knobbly plastic fingers grip mine. His heart is signified by a red light beneath a translucent plastic diaphragm; it beats a little faster as I grip his shoulder.

The robot, main attraction of the Emotibots exhibition, which runs at the museum until tomorrow, is covered in sensors that respond to movement and touch. Treat him rough and he tenses, his hands clench, he blinks with alarm. He can also register volume: he knows when you are shouting at him, but irony passes him by.

As he becomes accustomed to me his limbs relax and his heartbeat slows. His eyelids flutter languidly, disarmingly. He cannot stand alone, however, so his maker, David McGoran, a puppeteer turned robotics engineer, holds him upright. It feels as if there are three people in this relationship.

Mr McGoran believes that Heart Robot’s emotional literacy will be the pattern for future machines, be they toys, home computers, or technology monitoring hospital patients.

Science close to unveiling invisible man

INVISIBILITY devices, long the realm of science fiction and fantasy, have moved closer after scientists engineered a material that can bend visible light around objects.

The breakthrough could lead to systems for rendering anything from people to large objects, such as tanks and ships, invisible to the eye – although this is still years off.

Researchers at the University of California at Berkeley, whose work is funded by the American military, have engineered materials that can control light’s direction of travel. The world’s two leading scientific journals, Science and Nature, are expected to report the results this week.

It follows earlier work at Imperial College London that achieved similar results with microwaves. Like light, these are a form of electromagnetic radiation but their longer wave-length makes them far easier to manipulate. Achieving the same effect with visible light is a big advance.

Underlying the work is the idea that bending visible light around an object will hide it.

Xiang Zhang, the leader of the researchers, said: “In the case of invisibility cloaks or shields, the material would need to curve light waves completely around the object like a river flowing around a rock.” An observer looking at the cloaked object would then see light from behind it – making it seem to disappear.

Substances capable of achieving such feats are known as “meta-materials” and have the power to “grab” electromagnetic radiation and deflect it smoothly. No such material occurs naturally and it is only in the past few years that nano-scale engineering, manipulating matter at the level of atoms and molecules, has advanced sufficiently to give scientists the chance to create them.

The tiny scale at which such researchers must operate is astonishing in itself. Zhang’s researchers had to construct a material whose elements were engineered to within about 0.00000066 of a metre.

The military funding that Zhang has won for his research shows what kind of applications it might be used for, ushering in a new age of stealth technology.

Aug 7, 2008

Google takes a risky road with privacy

A day after its launch, Google's Street View has already uncovered a lying neighbour, sprung a cheating spouse and snapped a man sleeping on the job, as armchair explorers pick apart the invasive new mapping tool.

And while Google had vowed to instruct its camera-equipped cars not to drive down private roads and to blur faces and number plates, those promises were inadvertently broken.

Various unblurred images of faces and number plates have been removed from Street View following complaints from users.

Some private roads - including Tiki Road, Moonee Beach, The Mountain Way, Korora, and Beachfront Close, Sapphire Beach, all in Coffs Harbour - have also been removed from Street View, as have images taken inside Wesley College in Glen Waverley, Victoria.

These are some of the many discoveries made by Street View users in the first day. More can be found in the photo gallery attached to the right.

'Wardriving' credit card scam busted

Eleven people have been indicted for stealing and selling some 40 million credit and debit card numbers they obtained by hacking into the computers of nine major US retailers, the US Justice Department said.

In what the department believes is the largest hacking and identity theft case it has ever prosecuted, the stolen numbers were sold via the internet to other criminals in the US and Eastern Europe and used to withdraw tens of thousands of dollars at a time from ATMs.

The 11 defendants, indicted in Boston, include three US citizens, three from Ukraine, two from China, one from Belarus, one from Estonia and one whose place of origin is unknown, the department said in a statement.

The indictment alleges that the conspirators obtained the credit and debit card numbers by "wardriving" and hacking into the wireless computer networks of major retailers, including TJX Companies, BJ's Wholesale Club, OfficeMax, Boston Market, Barnes & Noble, Sports Authority, Forever 21 and DSW.

Once inside the networks, they installed "sniffer" programs that captured card numbers, as well as password and account information.

The indictment alleges that after they collected the data, the conspirators concealed the data in encrypted computer servers that the defendants controlled in Eastern Europe and the United States.

From there, the stolen numbers were "cashed out" by encoding card numbers on the magnetic strips of blank cards, and then used to extract cash from ATMs, the Justice Department said.

The defendants were allegedly able to conceal and launder their fraud proceeds by using anonymous internet-based currencies both within the United States and abroad, and by channeling funds through bank accounts in Eastern Europe, it added.

"So far as we know, this is the single largest and most complex identity theft case ever charged in this country," said US Attorney General Michael Mukasey.

"While technology has made our lives much easier it has also created new vulnerabilities," said US Attorney for the District of Massachusetts Michael Sullivan.

Aug 6, 2008

Something Is Missing: Evolution Meets Reality with ALIFE

Here's some exciting news from the UK, where 300 biologists, computer scientists, physicists, mathematicians, philosophers and social scientists from around the world have gathered "to address one of the greatest challenges in modern science: how to create a genuine artificial life form." ("Can we make software that comes to life?" Telegraph)

Despite the image of Wall-E (with the amusing caption "self-aware computers such as Pixar's Wall-E are surprisingly tricky to put together" — no, really? Every nerdy kid who ever tried to make a robot in 6th grade science camp could tell you that), the focus of the story is on evolution and — wait for it — the failure of Darwin's theory to explain complex creatures.

Using computer programs to test evolution, researchers are learning that natural selection lacks the creative power to evolve complex life — and so they're looking for answers.

Researchers thought that with more computer power, they could create more complex creatures - the richer the computer's environment, the richer the ALife that could go forth and multiply.

But these virtual landscapes have turned out to be surprisingly barren. Prof Mark Bedau of Reed College in Portland, Oregon, will argue at this week's meeting - the 11th International Conference on Artificial Life - that despite the promise that organisms could one day breed in a computer, such systems quickly run out of steam, as genetic possibilities are not open-ended but predefined. Unlike the real world, the outcome of computer evolution is built into its programming.

They might do well to learn from Biologic's Stylus program. But I digress.

His conclusion? Although natural selection is necessary for life, something is missing in our understanding of how evolution produced complex creatures. By this, he doesn't mean intelligent design - the claim that only God can light the blue touch paper of life - but some other concept. "I don't know what it is, nor do I think anyone else does, contrary to the claims you hear asserted," he says. But he believes ALife will be crucial in discovering the missing mechanism.

Dr Richard Watson of Southampton University, the co-organiser of the conference, echoes his concerns. "Although Darwin gave us an essential component for the evolution of complexity, it is not a sufficient theory," he says. "There are other essential components that are missing."

One of these may be "self-organisation", which occurs when simpler units - molecules, microbes or creatures - work together using simple rules to create complex patterns and behaviour. [Emphasis added]

Of course, no one would dare consider the possibility of design (especially not with that straw-man description), but it looks like a few brave souls may be willing to admit, in the face of the evidence, that Darwin's theory really is not sufficient to explain life.

"Evolution on its own doesn't look like it can make the creative leaps that have occurred in the history of life," says Dr Seth Bullock, another of the conference's organisers. "It's a great process for refining, tinkering, and so on. But self-organisation is the process that is needed alongside natural selection before you get the kind of creative power that we see around us.

"Understanding how those two processes combine is the biggest challenge in biology."

I should say so.

Drugs are 'cheap as chips and a middle class problem'

Jonathon McGrath, 32, collapsed after a group of young professionals sniffed the drug speed through a rolled-up £5 note, an inquest heard.

His friend Paul Davidson, who was with him when he died, has since spiralled into depression and asked to leave his job as a solicitor while two others suffered "life-changing trauma".

Nigel Meadows, the Manchester coroner, said: "This touches all of society. You have a group of very middle class people in their 30s who thought they were having a good time. They ended up having an extremely traumatic experience."

Recording a verdict that Mr McGrath, of Whalley Grange, Manchester, died from non-dependant use of drugs, he said low prices of recreational drugs were linked to an increasing number of deaths.

He said: "I know how cheap drugs are. You can get a bag of speed for £10 to £15. It's as cheap as chips. You can buy Ecstasy tablets for a few quid.

"If you can get drugs for the price of a round of drinks people, particularly younger people, will want to try them while ignorant of the dangers."

Aug 5, 2008

Motorists could be paid £1,000 to scrap gas guzzlers

Ministers believe that the scheme may be useful in helping reduce global warming by subsidising drivers who switch to greener vehicles. The Treasury is considering the incentive payments and is studying a similar scheme introduced in France earlier this year They are studying schemes launched in other countries which either pay motorists cash for scrapping gas guzzlers or offer them generous discounts for more fuel efficient vehicles.

Some countries also offer free or subsidised public transport to those surrendering older vehicles, which tend to be far less fuel efficient than newer models. The Government is currently facing a backlash over plans to sharply increase vehicle excise duty for people owning cars bought between 2001 and 2006. More than one million people will see their road tax double and offering people money to switch vehicles may help to quell growing anger among motorists.

Videoconferences cutting travel costs

MEDICARE will introduce Tandberg videoconferencing technology across its state and territory offices, as the federal Government tries to curb agencies' growing flight budgets.

The department is building videoconferencing rooms across its eight offices, using Tandberg's Kodiak equipment, and is working with Optus, Alphawest and Service point to carry out the installation.

'The main drivers were the financial aspects of reducing air travel, and the environmental aspects of reducing carbon emissions, which are important,' Medicare IT projects director Stan Thompson said.

'Also there's the improvement in staff time when you take out the extra costs of hanging around airports and going to and from there. It's the usual videoconferencing drivers.'

Mr Thompson said Medicare's installation could connect with other agencies.

The department has used the experience and contracts of Centrelink's videoconferencing project, which has been taking place gradually over the past year.

'The Department of Human Services has three lead portfolio agencies, which are Centrelink, Medicare and the Child Support agency.

Optus overhaul misses deadline

IT has been a torrid three weeks for the nation's second-largest telecommunications provider, Optus, and there's worse in store.

Following a series of network bungles, Optus has failed to meet a landmark deadline in its $160 million technology transformation overhaul.

The final leg of Project Reitz, the telco's ambitious program to consolidate its billing and customer relationship management systems, has stalled, as it has yet to finalise selection of software and systems integration suppliers to complete the project.

Optus had a self-imposed target of mid-July for the selection. The last stage of the project covers its business, wholesale and hybrid fibre coaxial residential networks. An Optus spokesperson could not nominate a new date.

"This is a complex project with many elements, therefore we are taking our time to make sure we get it right," the spokesperson said.

Accenture is currently the telco's main systems integrator and software from Oracle and its subsidiary Siebel are widely used throughout the company.

In the mix is software from Optus parent company Singapore Telecommunications.

Project Reitz is aimed at reducing myriad legacy systems as the telco moves towards a self-service model so customers can manage their subscriptions themselves.

"Like all the large IT operations companies we are looking to reduce the number of systems and we will try quite hard to use what we have.

"We are certainly looking for systems integration partners, as that has worked well for us," said Lawrie Turner, Optus's chief information officer in an interview with The Australian in mid-June.

Aug 4, 2008

Games spam attack alert

"Internet security company Symantec has warned computer users and businesses about an increase in spam and phishing attacks in the lead-up to the Beijing Olympics.

The warning comes as Australian victims of an online scam today reported losses of tens of thousands of dollars after hundreds of people said they had been duped by the website into buying tickets which never arrived.

Symantec said there also had been a big spike in Games-related spam containing scams.

'The message scams pretended to originate from the Beijing Olympic Committee, declared the recipient a winner of the Olympic lottery and requested that they respond by return email to claim their fraudulent prize,' a company statement said.

Suspected terror attack kills 16 in China

Sixteen policemen in China's Muslim-majority north-west were killed today in a suspected terrorist attack, raising security fears four days before the Beijing Olympics. In one of the deadliest reported attacks in China in years, two men drove a truck up to the police station in Kashgar city aiming for a group of officers carrying out morning fitness exercises, Xinhua news agency said. The two got off the vehicle and threw two grenades at the station, moving in to hack at police officers with knives, it said.

Fourteen officers died on the spot, and two others lost their lives on the way to hospital, it said. Both attackers were arrested, one of them with a leg injury sustained during the raid, according to Xinhua. 'The raid ... was suspected as a terrorist attack,'' the agency said, citing local police.

'Cyber Defamation'

Justice Minister Kim Kyung-han's plan to introduce a ``Cyber Defamation Law'' has sparked controversy over how to guarantee freedom of expression on the Internet. The plan is part of a series of government measures to crack down on distributors of fraudulent and slanderous information in cyberspace. The Korean Communications Commission (KCC), the country's telecommunications and broadcasting regulator, announced the measures on Tuesday to better protect privacy and prevent the illegal use of personal information.

No one can overestimate the importance of online privacy as well as free and safe flow of information through cyberspace. It is urgent for Web site operators and Internet portals to firmly establish safeguards against cyber crimes, including the hacking of online networks and leaking of confidential personal information. It is a shame that South Korea, one of the top global leaders in the Internet and information and communication technology, is vulnerable to hacking and data leaks.

There is no denying that the Internet has become an indispensable part of our daily life as well as business and commerce. Cyberspace has great potential in information-oriented society as it allows people to have easy and unrestricted access to a treasure trove of information. The Internet also serves as an open forum for users to exchange their opinions and distribute useful information and news.

On the other hand, the Internet has become a channel to spread groundless rumors, incorrect information, and slanderous and offensive content, which could inflict a great damage to individuals, businesses and the government. This is the dark side of cyberspace that can easily turn into a lawless world and chaos. In this regard, it is imperative to restore the rule of law in cyberspace. Therefore, the government cannot delay implementing its online safeguard measures any longer.

However, the Lee administration is under criticism for trying to tighten its control on the Internet after netizens played a leading role in organizing candlelit rallies against a controversial April 18 beef import deal with the U.S. President Lee and his policymakers have often accused online networks and Internet portals of propagating groundless and misleading information to amplify the mad cow scare.

Lee warned of ``infodemics'' in his speech to the opening session of the National Assembly on July 11, in an apparent bid to express his strong dissatisfaction with Web activism in relation to the beef row. He also said in a meeting of ministers from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in June that the Internet without trust could serve as poison. In this context, the move to introduce the Internet libel law might be seen as intended to stifle voices against the government and its policies. Without such a law, authorities can crack down on those who distribute slanderous and libelous content.

The telecommunication regulator also invited criticism for enforcing censorship on the Internet by seeking to suspend the posting of articles, photos and audiovisual contents for at least 30 days when complaints are filed over the veracity of the information. This could lead to a serious violation of the freedom of expression. Thus, we call on the government to be more cautious in translating its measures into actions. The Lee administration should refrain from trying to attain control over the Internet by sacrificing constitutional rights.

Bruised S.Korean government takes on "infodemics"

The mass access to the Internet, which helped ex-CEO Lee Myung-bak to his resounding presidential election victory, went on to become the instrument helping shatter that popularity in just five months in office. Now the government is working on new rules to rein in the excesses of its netizens and bring some control to the information -- and disinformation -- that bombards the nation's computer screens. "We have to guard against 'infodemics,' in which inaccurate, false information is disseminated, prompting social unrest that spreads like an epidemic," Lee told parliament early in July.

Lee has every reason to take it personally. Barely had he taken office in February than he was accused of putting the nation's health at risk by agreeing to import U.S. beef, long banned because of concerns over mad cow disease. Much of the fear, at times hysteria, was fanned by blogs and discussion boards that crammed into South Korea's Internet space.

It helped trigger mass protests that daily clogged central Seoul in late spring and early summer as tens of thousands took to the streets to demand U.S. beef be kept from South Korean tables. An early hot topic was a scientific study, heavily distorted in the retelling but widely believed judging by Internet postings, that Koreans had a genetic predisposition to catching the disease.

Another was that a beef by-product used in the manufacture of diapers put the nation's babies at risk of succumbing to bovine spongiform encephalopathy. But the government argues its concern goes beyond attacks on its policies, and rules are needed to bring a largely uncontrolled media into line with its traditional counterpart.

Stories abound of people being cruelly and very publicly hounded on the Internet, sometimes to the point of suicide. Personal information too has become increasingly vulnerable. Earlier this year, the country's biggest online market place was hacked and enough information to identify some 13 million people released to anyone with an Internet connection -- which includes most of South Korea's population.

Aug 3, 2008

A volt from the green in Essendon

"SOARING petrol prices will not be a problem for this Essendon driver - he's spent $49,000 on one of Melbourne's first fully electric cars.

It only goes 85km, it is a Hyundai Getz and it takes eight hours to recharge.

But IT engineer Richard Keech says it's a small price to pay to save fuel and the environment.

'It's never going to be a family's only car but as an urban run-about it's ideal,' he said.

'You're not going to take the family on a ski trip in it.'

Climate change and high petrol costs motivated the Moonee Valley climate action group co-founder to part with $32,000 to convert his $17,000 hatchback to electric."

Tesla Roadster

HOLLYWOOD stars anxious to prove their green credentials are paying more than $100,000 for a sexy electric sports car now rolling out in the US. The sleek Tesla Roadster, pictured, is modelled on the Lotus Elise, and goes from 0-100 kmh in 3.9 seconds. With a top speed of 200 kmh, the two-seater has a range of 370 kilometres between recharges of its lithium ion batteries.

Actors George Clooney, Matt Damon and Jenny McCarthy, boxer George Foreman and singer from the Black Eyed Peas are among those on the year-long waiting list. Australian-born Michael 'Flea' Balzary, bass player for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, said on his blog he decided to go electric after watching the documentary Who Killed The Electric Car? A dozen Teslas are already on Californian roads. The company founded by PayPal billionaire Elon Musk, plans to produce 10,000 Tesla sedans next year at a plant in New Mexico.

In Australia, Ross Blade is converting Hyundai Getz hatchbacks into his electric Blade Runner in Victoria. They sell for $40,000, have a range of 120 kilometres per recharge with a top speed of 120 kmh. Melbourne City Council and the Victorian Government have bought one....

First British steam locomotive for half a century chugs into action

Peppercorn Class A1 Pacific 60163 Tornado, a replica of the last passenger steam locomotives, was built by the A1 Steam Locomotive Trust in Darlington, Co Durham. In an 18-year project, the A1 Trust has built Tornado to be fully equipped for use on Britain's main line railways.

Designed by Arthur Peppercorn for the London and North Eastern Railway, the A1s worked from the late 1940s to 1966 when, following the decision to end steam traction on Britain's railways, the last of their class were scrapped.

The project to build a new Peppercorn class A1 was launched in 1990.

So far the project has cost £2.9 million, raised through deeds of covenant, commercial sponsorship and a bonds issue. Organisers estimate they need a further £66,000 to get Tornado on the main line as quickly as possible and are appealing for donations from the nation's railway enthusiasts to help the cause.

Darlington was at the forefront of the railway age, which began when a line was opened to Stockton in 1825 to carry coal and passengers.

The route included one of the first railway bridges, Skerne Bridge in Darlington, which is the oldest railway bridge in use today.

Aug 2, 2008

George Jonas: Israel shows signs of metal fatigue

Israelis are a fractious people; maybe not quite as fractious as Arabs, but close. When Israel’s major political parties agree on something, as Labour, Likud and Kadima agreed this week that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made the right decision to resign in the fall, it’s not a sign of harmony but trouble.

The Olmert-period’s dismal record is a symptom rather than the cause of Israel’s 60th anniversary turning into a crisis-year. What is the cause? It may be the political equivalent of metal fatigue. Few nations have been stressed for as long as Israel. Or perhaps a structural flaw is revealing itself after five generations.

That’s what some Israeli commentators think. “The greatest destabilizing factor has been the proportional representational system inflicted upon us by our Zionist founding fathers,” writes Isi Leibler in the Jerusalem Post. “This inherent weakness of the system was concealed during the early years of the state because the leaders then … would never contemplate promoting their personal agendas above the welfare of the nation …”

Société Générale was unaware of rogue trades

Jérôme Kerviel, the former trader whom Société Générale blames for losing nearly €5 billion, took advantage of his managers' negligence to camouflage billions of euros in unauthorized bets, according to a report from France's financial police.

The document contradicts the trader's stance that his superiors knew what he was doing.

The report is a synthesis of all the evidence gleaned by the police in their investigation that began in January after the scandal broke and Société Générale filed its criminal complaint against Kerviel.

The 29-page document, seen by the International Herald Tribune, suggests that several other traders may have been aware of Kerviel's activities and helped to him conceal some of the profits from his trades in 2007. But it concluded that when it came to his superiors, Kerviel, 31, knew how to be "convincing" and "pertinent" to "fool his entourage."

"Looking at the entirety of the evidence gathered," the financial police wrote, "one could legitimately conclude that the extent of financial damage to the bank can be explained by the fraudulent activity of a trader who, in the context of unfavorable market conditions, abused the trust of his superiors by taking advantage" of the bank's failings "and the weakness of its internal control services."