The University of California, Berkeley, is looking for eagled-eyed space buffs to search for minute particles which may or may not be, right now, on their way to Earth aboard interstellar dust catcher "Stardust" (seen right). The Stardust mission spent seven years collecting dust from both the tail of comet Wild 2 and, subsequently, from interstellar space. Its Stardust Interstellar Dust Collector hopefully trapped particles - travelling at 12 miles (20km) per second - in a silicon-based sponge called "aerogel", arranged in a disk-shaped mosaic of tiles about 16 inches in diameter and half-an-inch thick. The vehicle's payload is due to parachute gently to Earth in Utah's Salt Lake desert on 15 January. It will be flown to Houston where "teams will open it so as to minimize contamination from other dust", as the press release explains. Andrew Westphal, a UC Berkeley senior fellow and associate director of the campus' Space Sciences Laboratory, said: "These will be the very first contemporary interstellar dust grains ever brought back to Earth for study. Stardust is not only the first mission to return samples from a comet, it is the first sample-return mission from the galaxy." According to Earth-based tests on the aerogel, the dust will have made carrot-shaped trails in the material, and Westphal reckons that while there will be "thousands of cometary dust grains embedded in the front of the detector, finding the 45 or so grains of interstellar dust stuck in the back of the detector won't be so easy". Accordingly, he has "developed an automated microscope to digitally photograph the entire area of the aerogel in patches that can be viewed later in search of dust particles". Which is where you lot come in. Westphal and his colleagues have "created a 'virtual microscope' that will allow anyone with an internet connection to scan some of the 1.5 million pictures of the aerogel for tracks left by speeding dust. Each picture will cover an area smaller than a grain of salt." The project, dubbed Stardust@home, is due to kick off in March. Westphal estimates some 30,000 person hours to scan all of the images at least four times. Sounds pretty straightforward, but the scientists warn: "Searching each picture should take just a few seconds, but the close attention required as the viewer repeatedly focuses up and down through image after image will probably limit the number a person can scan in one sitting." What's more, "volunteer scanners must pass a test where he or she is asked to find the track in a few test samples", after which the volunteer's reliability will be tested as the team "throws in some ringers with and without tracks", or, as Westphal more scientifically explained it: "We will throw in some calibration images that allow us to measure the volunteer's efficiency." The checks continue thus: If at least two of the four volunteers viewing each image report a track, that image will be fed to 100 more volunteers for verification. If at least 20 of these report a track, UC Berkeley undergraduates who are expert at spotting dust grain tracks will confirm the identification. Eventually, the grain will be extracted* for analysis. The reward for a hit after all this positive vetting and double-checking? The discoverers will be able to name their grains, which is nice. The point of all this gel-probing is that Westphal hopes the information will "tell about the internal processes of distant stars - such as supernovas, flaring red giants or neutron stars - that produce interstellar dust and also generate the heavy elements - such as carbon, nitrogen and oxygen - necessary for life". There's more general info on the Stardust@home website. Happy hunting. ® Bootnote You've got to admire the nerve, but NASA sent Stardust on its way in 1999 without having the faintest idea how to get the dust out of the aerogel. Apparently, though, it's all sorted now with Westphal and a chap called Chris Keller having developed "microtweezers" and "micro-pickle forks" to gently tease the stuff from the collector. Good show.
Sun Microsystems tried to acquire Apple once and then almost merged with Apple on two other occasions, according to Sun co-founder Bill Joy. Beyond these deals, the two companies almost teamed on three other projects including sharing a user interface and the SPARC architecture. The moves were cheered by Apple fan Joy, while Sun's CEO Scott McNealy appeared less impressed with some of the proposals. All of this we learned tonight at a Computer History Museum event where Sun's four co-founders held the stage for close to two hours. At one point during the discussion, questioner John Gage, a longtime Sun staffer, asked McNealy about Sun's "three attempts" to buy Apple. McNealy dodged the question. Moments later, Joy – a Unix god and venture capitalist on the side – dragged the conversation back to Apple, seeming to want to make a confession. Joy voiced an affinity for Apple's CEO Steve Jobs and said it was a "personal disappointment" that the two companies were never closer. "There were six very close encounters," Joy said. The first came when Sun, Apple and Microsoft were set to agree on a common filing protocol. "We had an agreement, but it fell through," Joy said, noting that Sun ended up going with NFS – a Joy invention. "Then we tried to get Apple and Sun to share an interface" for their software. "We went over to Steve's house, and he was sitting under a tree with no shoes on reading How to make a Nuclear Bomb," McNealy said. Another deal almost happened when Sun tried to move Apple onto SPARC. "As far as I know we also almost bought Apple once," Joy said. "We almost merged with Apple two other times." Many Silicon Valley observers have long seen links between Sun and Apple. Both companies make slick, pricey hardware and are counter-punchers in their respective markets. They also have charismatic CEO figures and strong anti-Microsoft streaks. Snapple, however, would have needed to work hard to convince McNealy of the iPod's long-term merits. McNealy has an iPod today but never uses it. In addition, he thinks the device is quickly going the way of the Audrey. "There's a pendulum thing where stuff is on the client side and then goes back into the network where it belongs," McNealy said. "The answering machine put voicemail by the desk, and then it went back into the network." "Your iPod is like your home answering machine," McNealy said. "I guarantee you it will be hard to sell an iPod five or seven years from now when every cell phone can access your entire music library wherever you are." Well, sure. Unless your iPod is your cell phone. ®
European technology integrator SCC has bought itself a larger Italian presence in the shape of IBM Italia subsidiary MVS Srl. Sir Peter Rigby, chairman and chief executive of SCC, said in a statement: "This is the third-largest deal we have announced in the past nine months... as part of our drive to increase the depth and range of our service capabilities on a pan-European basis." Vincent Bonnet, general manager SCC Italy, said: "MVS is a leader in its field, working with some of Italy's most prestigious companies in the transportation, automotive and media industries." More details on SCC's website here. ®
I recently received an update from Trillium Software on its latest release (5.0) of Discovery, the data profiling and analysis product it acquired from Avellino. Even though the product is all about profiling and analysis there are actually no new profiling and analysis capabilities (apart from ease of use and similar things – including selective profiling, which allows you to profile only what you want) in the product. Why is this? Simply that there is only so much profiling that you can do, and Discovery does it all. This, of course, raises the point that sooner or later (probably sooner) other products will be in the same position. So how can Trillium keep ahead of the trailing pack? Trillium started to answer this question in its previous release with support for user-defined business rules and it has extended this capability further in its latest version, so that you can now apply business rules to do things such as create calculated columns or concatenate fields. Now, if you think about it, these are transformations in the same way that ETL (extract, transform and load) applies transformations. And since Discovery can read data from source systems and output it again to a target this means that Discovery could actually be used for ETL purposes. Of course, there is no job stream definition or scheduling (though the latter could be implemented externally via the command line capability that has been introduced in this release), and Discovery is more aimed at business users than the developers that do the bulk of the work with conventional ETL tools but, for simple jobs, it is certainly capable of being used in that way. Note, however, that this is not a target market for Trillium: it would not want to upset its partners in the data integration space. Business rules have also been upgraded with the ability to apply them, dynamically, to external data. That is, you can apply business rules without having to pull the (external)data into the Discovery Metabase (see below). In fact this, in a rather different way highlights the general thrust of release 5.0, which is very much focused on the external environment. Also, there are enhanced abilities to embed profiling in third party environments, extended integration with Trillium’s data cleansing and matching software, and an email notification capability, amongst others. Finally, and this is not part of the new release per se, Trillium told me that it still gets grief over its metabase (where it stores all its data and metadata), because it does not run on top of SQL Server or Oracle or some other popular relational database. Let me state my opinion here firmly: this is a very good thing. The point about the information in the Discovery metabase is that it does not change: you may enter new data and you may purge old data but there is very little, if any, updating of data. In other words a database designed for transactional processing is not appropriate. In fact, Trillium uses BerkeleyDB from Sleepycat Software for its metabase, which is entirely appropriate—it should provide better performance with less overhead and reduced administration—which is as good a set of arguments as it gets for not using a relational database. Copyright © 2006, IT-Analysis.com
So the delegates have gone home, the halls are emptying and, yes, Gates (and Elvis) have left the building. The gadget fest that was the Consumer Electronics Show 2006 is now history. Yet before we bury it for good, here's our list of the ten best gadgets to emerge at the show (in no particular order)...
Microsoft's Windows maintenance program is in the spotlight as the company has admitted to bending its support rules over security while cutting support to users of Windows XP Home Edition early. The company has said it will, in future, release security updates for products that would normally not receive updates as they'd exceed Microsoft's stated support lifecycle. Microsoft said it is now matching the date that a product support cycle ends with its regular monthly security update release cycle, known as "Black Tuesday". The first products to benefit from the change are the increasingly dated Exchange Server 5.0 and Exchange Server 5.5, which this week received updates contained in Microsoft's January 2006 patch. The patch fixes a problem judged "critical", which would have allowed malicious code to run in Exchange and Outlook. The change comes four years after Microsoft standardized its Windows support policy, introducing three phases called "mainstream", "extended" and "self help" that last five, five and up to eight years after a product's introduction. Mainstream support delivers free security and hot fixes, while extended support maintains security fixes but ends hot fixes and free support. After that, users are on their own and must search Microsoft's knowledge base and web casts for answers. The change follows a storm of controversy over Microsoft's tardy response to the recent Windows Meta File (WMF) vulnerability. Additionally, a large number of Microsoft's corporate email users are believed to still be running Exchange Server 5.0 and 5.5, launched in 1997 and 1998 respectively, meaning Microsoft has a vested interest in continuing to provide support for the latest vulnerabilities. Microsoft said the change provided "greater consistency and predictability for customers". Meanwhile, millions of consumers running Windows XP Home Edition will see an end to all support three-years ahead of those running Windows XP Professional despite both operating systems becoming generally available at the same time. While Microsoft is pushing out mainstream support for Windows XP Home Edition to two years after the shipment of successor Windows Vista, due in the second half of 2006, Windows XP Home Edition will not receive extended support. That potentially means an end to all support for Window XP Home Edition at the end of 2008, while Windows XP Professional edition should continue until the end of 2013. It is Microsoft policy not to move consumer products into extended support, although the additional two years have been granted because of the delay to Windows Vista and in recognition of the fact Windows XP Home Edition is "a bit different" to other consumer products from Microsoft, a Microsoft spokesperson said. It's not like consumers can do without the support. Twenty-four security holes still remain unfixed in Windows XP Home Edition, according to vulnerability monitor Secunia. A total of 109 holes have been found since 5 September, 2005. The premature end to support means Windows XP Home Edition users will be forced to trawl Microsoft's free online knowledge base and web casts for home fixes.®
The battle over the future of the next generation of the Wi-Fi standard appears to be over. The group formed by the original three contending specifications has agreed to adopt the fourth, later specification. The upshot? A final 802.11n proposal will now be submitted to the IEEE standards-setting organisation, possibly as early as next week. There's a caveat, of course. The so-called Joint Proposal (JP) team will spend today and tomorrow meeting to finalise the IEEE submission. There's still a chance that one or more participants may cause the process to stumble, but there certainly appears to be a willingness to drive it forward quickly. The JP team was formed in the summer of 2005 by the groups behind the three main alternatives for the IEEE 802.11n Task Group's final standard proposal: TGnSync, WWise and MITMOT. The decision to work together to combine their various specifications ended some aggressive rivalry between the three camps, and TGnSync and WWise in particular. Last October, however, Intel and a number of other companies drawn from all three groups, launched a fourth group - the Intel-backed Enhanced Wireless Consortium (EWC) - to make the 802.11n proposal more suitable for consumer electronics and mobile applications. By December 2005, negotiations between the JP and the EWC had ended in an "85 per cent alignment" between the two specifications. Now, it seems, they're all the way there. Last night, JP members voted almost unanimously to adopt the EWC's specification. Some 40 companies voted in favour, and there were two abstentions. No one voted against the move. 802.11n is predicated on MIMO (Multiple Input, Multiple Output) techniques to boost bandwidth by an order of magnitude above the standard of today's Wi-Fi networks. The technique makes use of "multi-path" interference that might once have been minimised to drive up the network's range. With a final proposal submitted by the IEEE Task Group, the specification should become a draft standard under the auspices of an IEEE Working Group before being finally ratified as a standard by the organisation. ®
The Carphone Warehouse continues to press ahead with plans to invest £45m in broadband over the next three years as part of ambitious plans to unbundle the local loop (LLU) and provide telecoms services direct to end users. The mobile phone retailer - which has expanded into telecoms services over recent years - plans to unveil further details about its broadband strategy in March. Its investment in LLU follows the addition of 1.3m more punters to is service following its acquisition in December of OneTel and the UK and Ireland businesses of Tele2. With some 2.4m punters and one in ten of all the UK's residential lines, Carphone has set its sights on becoming the "number one alternative residential telecoms provider in the UK market". Speaking today Carphone chief exec Charles Dunstone said: "The acquisitions of Onetel and Tele2's UK operations have cemented TalkTalk's position as the number one challenger in the UK residential telecoms market, and we have a substantial, profitable platform from which to launch our drive into broadband this year." Publishing a trading update today for the 13 weeks to the end of December Carphone reported that total fixed line revenues rose 41 per cent to £140.5m. It's TalkTalk UK telco service added a further 88,000 customers in the quarter, taking total number to 1.15m, with revenues up 60 per cent £51.3m. The firm added that it expects full year results to be "at the top end of current market expectations". ®
Nvidia's 90nm G71 graphics chip, possibly planned to ship as the GeForce 7900 GTX, will not launch until March. So claims website Hexus.net, at any rate, citing whispers heard during the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last week. According to the report, the chip will contain 32 pixel-processing pipelines in a core clocked at 700-750MHz. The GDDR 3 memory will run at 800-900MHz (1.6-1.8GHz, effective).
Microsoft has committed itself to supporting Office on the Mac for at least the next five years, the head of the software giant's Macintosh Business Unit said this week. Speaking during Apple CEO Steve Jobs' Macworld Expo keynote, MBU General Manager Roz Ho said the company had entered into an "official agreement" with Apple to "continue shipping new versions of Office for Mac for a minimum of five years".
The fact that SAP and Oracle, normally the deadliest of enemies with rarely a kind word to say about each other, are prepared to sit down at the same table and be party to setting up the same set of software standards demonstrates well one of the fundamental issues underpinning the importance of standards to every aspect of the business/IT relationship. For businesses to exploit IT to its full potential, they have to be clear about what the technology can achieve and how it can be achieved. This is particularly so if businesses are trying to develop and improve their agility so they can respond more quickly to market changes. In this context, it is the "how" that is the important question, for if the IT department of a business spends months arguing the toss about which technical solution is more appropriate, market opportunities will have come and gone before any action is taken. Standard issue So having as many software standards in place as possible – especially standards that manage the interoperability between different tools, utilities and applications - makes good sense for business as it answers one whole raft of technical questions. It also makes good sense for the technology vendors. They are at last coming to realise that if they all work to common standards wherever possible, there is a much bigger business "pie" from which they can share. In short, they have learned that a 10 per cent share of a very large market is normally worth a good deal more than 100 per cent of a small (usually proprietary) one. With standards in place, accepted and actually adhered to (even now there are some software vendors that favour producing their own "implementations" of standards in the hope of gaining extra leverage amongst users) new opportunities start opening up for business users as well. They can start combining together the capabilities provided by technical standards to form a specific function of some type – a component part of a business process perhaps, or standards "sets" intended to facilitate a specific application area. This is exactly the type of table at which SAP and Oracle have sat together, on the same side. They have joined with IBM, BEA Systems, IONA Technologies, Siebel Systems, Sybase, and Zend Technologies to develop a standard set of SOA Programming Model specifications. These are designed to allow business users to either create new IT assets or ways to re-use existing assets to build unified services - regardless of the programming languages or deployment platforms - that can be rapidly adapted to meet changing business requirements. One of the key elements of these standard specifications is the development of a Service Component Architecture (SCA) which is aimed exactly at the trend towards defining services in terms of business functions rather than technological capabilities. This should make some of the powerful but complex middleware functions more accessible to developers and architects so that business functions can be readily built from individual services, applications and tools. Another key element is the Service Data Object (SDO), which is designed to free up the utilisation of the mass of APIs associated with applications and tools. It should mean that developers will not need to directly code to individual APIs, which can be an error-prone task. Instead they will use the SDOs to manage the APIs. Using such technologies, many developers will gently move away from being coal-face code-cutters towards becoming builders of business services, a capability that could put them on the front line of making agile businesses actually happen. Built to code What it also tells us, if nothing else, is that some of the most successful IT companies around see a big pot of gold in providing service-based infrastructures and tools to meet the needs of businesses trying to become ever-more agile. It is indeed big enough to make it worthwhile them working together to achieve it. That is the potential of software standards into the future. It is a trend that most of the software industry now recognises as being more important than their views of their own self-importance. Every major vendor offering any Web-based technology is now a member of at least one of the major technical standards organisations, such as W3C, and most areas of technology where having a standard makes sense now has an industry consortium at least pursuing its development. And as with this latest announcement of the SOA Programming Model Specifications, vendors are coming together in consortia and organisations – such as OASIS and RosettaNet – with a view to developing and adhering to standards with an increasing strong business focus.®
Symantec has updated its popular Norton SystemWorks security suite this week following the discovery of a security bug that creates a possible means for hackers to hide computer viruses on infected systems. A design error in SystemWorks means files within the NProtect directory of the Norton Protected Recycle Bin are hidden from Windows APIs. Because of this client-based virus scanning software might be unable to spot malicious or virus-infected files placed in the directory. This rootkit-style vulnerability is only exploitable locally and has not been actively exploited, according to Symantec. Nonetheless the security vendor has rushed out an update which corrects the flaw by ensuring the previously hidden NProtect directory is displayed in the Windows interface. Users of Norton SystemWorks 2005/2006 and Norton SystemWorks Premier 2005/2006 are urged to apply the patch by running LiveUpdate. Symantec credits Mark Russinovich of Sysinternals and the F-Secure Blacklight team for discovering the vulnerability, explained in greater depth here. ®
Griffin Technology will soon ship a dock that converts any compatible iPod into a home media centre system. TuneCenter connects the iPod to a hi-fi and to a TV. Nothing new there - plenty of dock products do that already - but Griffin's baby beams a full iPod control interface into the bigger screen. The dock also incorporates an Internet radio receiver - you need a WLAN adaptor connected to your broadband modem, of course, or a wire running between the two devices - allowing you to stream and play music without a PC or Mac.
US wiretapping laws, FISA and Presidential powers given to the NSA to intercept communications make for interesting times when coupled with technology. What are the issues surrounding privacy, search, seizure and surveillance?
A team of scientists has rather alarmingly discovered that the "surprisingly high rate" of hermaphroditism in polar bears can be directly linked to pollution, the Independent reports. The researchers - who examined 139 bears across the Arctic region - noted that around one in 50 female bears on Norway's Svalbard islands has both male and female sex organs. The toxic compounds currently giving the greatest cause for concern are polybrominated diphenyls (PBDEs) - flame retardants used to treat furniture and carpets. The team, with members from Alaska, Canada, Denmark and Norway, says that "significant deposits" have turned up in polar bears' fatty tissue, notably in eastern Greenland and the aforementioned Svalbard islands. Studies on mice suggest PBDEs attack "sex and thyroid glands, motor skills and brain function". The compounds travel northwards from the US and Europe - especially on southerly winds. The moist air carrying the toxins then condenses when it hits the cold arctic air, thereby allowing the deposited chemicals to get into the food chain. Colin Butfield of the Worldwide Fund for Nature said: "The Arctic is now a chemical sink. Chemicals from products that we use in our homes every day are contaminating Arctic wildlife." The use of such chemicals, combined with the risk of global warming, means many Arctic polar bear populations could disappear by the end of the century. The problem is simple: levels of toxic waste increase the further you travel up the food chain. The polar bear study, published in December in Environmental Science and Technology, explains how one chemical compound was "71 times more concentrated in polar bears than in the seals they normally feed upon". PBDEs are not, however, the only risk. Derek Muir, of Canada's Environmental Department, said that there is evidence that another retardant - Hexabromocyclododecane (HBCD)- has made its way into the Arctic food chain. He warned: "It's a chemical that needs to be watched, because it does biomagnify in the aquatic food webs and appears to be a widespread pollutant." Humans, meanwhile, are also being warned about the possible toxic effects of flame retardants. The Detroit Free Press reports that a study carried out by the US-based Ecology Center, released yesterday, demonstrated levels of PBDEs and plastic-softeners called phthalates in cars at around five-times higher than those normally found in houses. The chemicals - detected in "randomly selected 2000-2005 model year cars and trucks made by 11 manufacturers" - were deposited as dust "on floors and windows of cars and trucks, especially in hot weather". Although scientists are unsure of the implications of these findings, due to "uncertainty over safe levels of the chemicals", they noted the news "adds to a growing sense of worry that the widely used chemicals may be accumulating at dangerous levels in humans - damaging developing fetuses and children in ways that are only starting to be understood". Related links 2003 Defra statement on HBCD Some background info on PBDEs
Microsoft has said it may ship a Blu-ray Disc drive for its Xbox 360 games console should consumers prefer that next-generation optical disc format over HD DVD.
Companies unwittingly ensnared in VAT fraud schemes can reclaim frozen VAT refunds thanks to a judgement by the European Court of Justice. The court today issued its judgement on Bond House Systems’ appeal, along with two other firms, against HM Revenue & Customs' rulings, under which their VAT rebates were frozen when they became unwitting victims of carousel frauds. In such frauds, scammers import VAT-free goods from another EC country, sell them on with VAT added and then disappear before paying Customs the VAT. In some schemes – dubbed carousel frauds – goods are circulated repeatedly round a number of scammers The court ruled that a company's deduction of VAT, “cannot be affected by the fact that in the chain of supply of which those transactions form part, without that taxable person knowing or having any means of knowing, another prior or subsequent transaction is vitiated by VAT fraud.” Bond House was effectively forced to cease trading after losing a 2003 appeal against a tribunal decision on HMRC’s decision to withheld £13m of rebates. Many other companies – many in electronics distribution – were hit by such frauds, with customs withholding £210m in rebates in 2003-2004 alone.®
Shares in France Telecom (FT) were on the slide today after the giant telco warned that it was unlikely to generate as much cash this year as it had predicted. In a statement issued yesterday evening, FT blamed "accelerated technological changes, competitive pressure and the regulatory environment" for its decision to confirm that growth continues to slow. Which means that, like other traditional telcos, FT is being hit by the growth in broadband telephony services (VoIP), increased competition from rivals and cuts in call termination rates imposed by regulators. Last year, FT predicted that revenues would grow by around three to five per cent but has now downgraded that figure to between two to three per cent. Analysts at Morgan Stanley have already crunched the numbers and reckon this lack of growth will cost the telco around €1bn in EBITDA (earnings before interest etc) revenue. To combat the decline FT has announced it plans to accelerate plans to speed up its massive restructuring exercise announced last summer. Key to this shake-up are ambitious plans to ditch its Wanadoo ISP brand and plug all its services (telco and interent) under the Orange logo to provide punters with a "whole new world of services in the areas of communication, infotainment and everyday life". Execs claim that the company's New Experience in Telecom (NExT) initiative would "give customers access to a universe of services that are both high value and simple". "France Telecom has decided to accelerate its transformation, notably rolling out programs to simplify its brand portfolio as of 2006, setting up an integrated network and customer relations structure in each country," said the telco in a statement. By lunch shares in FT were down 8.5 per cent (€1.84) at €19.83 on the Paris stock exchange ®
A new sitcom - set among IT workers in the dingy basement of a glamorous company - is due to arrive on the UK's Channel 4 next month. The IT Crowd, written by Graham Linehan (the scribe behind Father Ted, Black Books), will debut on the internet on 27 January, a week before its terrestrial broadcast on Friday, 3 February at 9.30pm. Channel 4 describes the show's premise thus: "The high-rise towers of Renham Industries are full of go-getters, success stories, and winners... apart from in the basement. While their beautiful colleagues work upstairs in fantastic surroundings, the I.T. department - Jen, Roy and Moss - lurk below ground, scorned by their co-workers as geeky losers." The six episode first series was filmed in front of a live studio audience and stars Chris O´Dowd, Richard Ayoade and Katherine Parkinson. Chris Morris, the well-known satirist, makes a rare acting appearance as the trio's dour Scottish boss, a character more akin to 70s corporate fantasist Reggie Perrin than The Office's David Brent, according to Linehan. The series is produced by Ash Atalla, whose previous credits include The Office. ®
Former King Crimson guitar worrier Robert Fripp has made it quite clear where he stands on the Linux/Mac/Windows issue by popping down to Microsoft Corporation's campus and recording some sounds for Windows Vista. And before you all start shouting "No, Robert, how could you?" - be warned that there is a video of the session on MS's Channel 9 site, so there's no point in pretending that it's all just a nightmare and you'll wake up in a minute and all will be well. Of course, Fripp is an old mate of Brian Eno - the man responsible for the Windows 95 "startup sound". Eno was reportedly paid $35k for his contribution to the advancement of computing, so we can hazard a guess as to how much Fripp will have trousered for his efforts. ®
Passengers boarding London's Heathrow Express at Paddington are advised to allow a little more time for their journey since they may find themselves on the receiving end of a four-week, £500k trial of a US-built body scanner. According to the BBC, passengers will be selected at random to enter a booth, raise their arms above their head and get scanned. Their luggage is probed separately by conventional X-ray machine. The body scanner is a millimeter wave machine - aka a "see through clothes scanner" - made by Santa Clara, California-based Safeview Inc and operated by Surrey-based Airlock Aviation Ltd. There will reportedly be further tests at other locations, but the government has already ruled out blanket airport-style security on London's transport system on the perfectly reasonable grounds that it is completely impractical. The idea is deterrence, as Blair spokesman Tom Kelly put it: "We have to do everything we can to ensure that people know that there are security operations in place. If people believe that there is a chance they will be searched, that enhances security." In reality, the Paddington test is purely to try out the technology, and is not intended as a real security screening exercise. ®
The first steps toward the new Internet Governance Forum, which will take a lead role in how the internet will be run now and in the future, have been taken. A website for the IGF has popped up on the net, and the first official convening meeting has been scheduled for 16-17 February at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva. Invitations to interested parties were sent out yesterday. The establishment of the IGF was decided on at the World Summit in November, where UN secretary general Kofi Annan was asked to "to convene a meeting of the new forum for multi-stakeholder policy dialogue". As was widely expected, Mr Annan asked the man behind a highly commended report on internet governance last year, Nitin Desai, to head discussions on the IGF. The other key figure in the earlier report, Markus Kummer, will also be pivotal in discussions. Under the terms agreed in Tunis, Greece is due to hold the first official meeting of the IGF sometime this year. That meeting will most likely take place in autumn, as there are a huge range of issues to be sorted out beforehand including the nature of the forum and what its priorities are. The IGF is charged with discussing all public policy issues surrounding the internet and will be multi-stakeholder in that everyone and not just governments will be given equal billing in its processes. It will be expected to come up with solutions and best practices to accepted problems such as security and availability of the internet. While its conclusions will not be binding, they will carry enormous weight. Its formation and remit is likely to prove controversial however. Some governments, and in particular the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), are hoping to use the IGF as a backroute for taking power away from the US government and US private company ICANN, which currently act as internet authorities. There also remains tension between governments and civil society, with both sides continuing to suffer mutual culture shock.® Related link IGF website
Although the threat of a bird flu pandemic continues to grow, quick action by governments and health organisations can prevent a widescale outbreak among humans, Reuters reports. Speaking at a two-day bird flu conference in Tokyo, Shigeru Omi, the World Health Organisation's regional director for the Western Pacific, said: "As the new cases of human infection with the H5N1 virus in Turkey show, the situation is worsening with each passing month and the threat of an influenza pandemic is continuing to grow every day. "We must try to ensure that we will be ready to respond instantly with all the weapons at our disposal should the early signs of an influenza pandemic appear. If we can achieve this rapid response, we may have a good chance of halting the spread of the virus before the situation becomes uncontrollable, or at least of slowing it down. But if we fail, the consequences for societies, economies and global public health could be immeasurable." WHO has fingered the casue of the recent Turkey outbreak as "weak surveillance". WHO consultant Doctor Hitoshi Oshitani noted that it had taken local authorities more than 16 days to report a bird flu outbreak to the organisation. He said: "The way we are doing this now is too late. We must shorten the duration between detection and reporting so we can contain the virus." Oshitani added less than two weeks should be the goal. Regarding practical measures to combat the H5N1, Omi concluded by warning against over-reliance on drugs such as Tamiflu. "Vaccines and anti-viral drugs are very effective. But they are not panaceas," he said. The current official bird flu death toll stands at 78. ®
35mm film has come to the end of the roll, Nikon has said. The camera maker this week revealed it is focusing its efforts solely on digital photography products. Nikon said its traditional film-based cameras now account for less than five per cent of its UK division's sales. It claimed the shift will also better equip the company to operate in an "increasingly competitive market place".
ReviewReview Over the past couple of years Acer has made quite a name for itself in the notebook market, producing high spec machines at amazing price points. The company has also built a reputation for being first out of the gate with the latest notebook technology and that's never been more true than right now. The TravelMate 8204WLMi is the first notebook I've seen based on Intel's new dual-core mobile processor, 'Yonah'. For me, dual-core processors mark the most important leap in notebook technology since the colour screen. If you managed to get yourself a dual-core desktop chip during 2005 you'll have a good idea of where I'm coming from...
The Conservative Party claims the Labour Government's ID scheme will turn local election officers into data police. "Town halls to snoop on homeowners for ID card evasion" is the headline of a press release issued by Tory Central Office this week, suggesting that "Big Brother" methods would be deployed against ID card evaders, backed by £2,500 fines for evaders. A scary prospect, yes - but not quite true. Context is everything. Hark back to our 16 December coverage of proposals for a new, national election register called CORE (Co-ordinated Online Record of Elector). The proposal discusses verifying the local electoral roll, and suggests officers check the register against another, hypothetical database: "With a CORE consolidated dataset, it should be possible to check elector records against a dataset requiring much higher levels of verification. The other dataset might also make notification of changes to personal details or addresses a requirement and discrepancies could be referred back to an electoral registration officer for investigation." [132 p49] Not surprisingly, you can guess what that "other dataset" might be: "... The anticipated high level of security checking and intended requirement for citizens to notify changes may make the ID card register dataset a particularly useful comparator." The consultation paper then invites comments, although the question is framed in such a way as to invite a particular kind of answer. We're asked to suggest which "datasets may be more suitable for CORE to link to if there were to be such linkage in the future". So it's a proposal, not a mandate; there's no new responsibility on local electoral roll officers that they don't already have; and the penalty floated by Central Office is the standard penalty under the ID Card Bill for not having an ID card, but this won't be operative until the ID card is made compulsory. But credit to the Tories for raising the issue at this stage. We suggest a more careful approach could pay dividends. The value of the ID scheme's "dataset" depends on the quality of information it contains - and if no one's on it, it's of no use to anyone, not least local election officers. To date, the Government has had great difficulty getting the ID scheme off the ground - not suprisingly, as it offers little value to the public in return for a fairly considerable expense. So while the card is still, officially, a "voluntary"' one, Ministers are seeking to add compulsory enrollment wherever they can make the case for it. Tory and Lib Dem peers have vowed to sink the proposal to only issue new passports to ID card holders - a move which would effectively deny ID refuseniks the right to travel. The CORE proposal doesn't quite disenfranchise refuseniks, but it wouldn't be crazy to infer that in the not-too-distant future. More practically, however, electoral officers already are data police - so from a strictly utilitarian point of view, the question of linkage boils down to one of cost and value. Cross-checking one database against another still costs time and money. So is a dataset that doesn't contain a lot of data going to be a help or a hindrance to local election officials trying to combat fraud? ID cards, like so many technology wheezes, remain a solution desperately looking for a problem. ®
Stem cell scientist Hwang Woo-suk apologised today for the "wrongdoing" which has seen the once-hailed scientist reduced to a state of total disgrace, Reuters reports. Hwang told a press conference: "I take full responsibility for the papers and offer you my apology. My life will be spent undoing my wrongdoing. I can't ever repay the debt fully until I die. We've gone crazy, crazy about work and I've been blinded." Hwang's wrongdoing includes fabricating data regarding the production of tailored stem cells and "coercing" female colleagues into providing eggs for stem cell research. He resigned his post at Seoul National University last December after it was revealed that key findings in a stem call paper published in Science could not be proven. Hwang is now under investigation for misuse of state funds. Local media reports that police today raided his home and offices as part of the execution of 26 search warrants for "places related to the research led by Hwang's team". Hwang is, though, still convinced he has a future in science. He told the press conference he had "submitted a paper on a new breakthrough, using a pig to develop human stem cells", claiming this was an even greater achievement than producing Snuppy, the world's first cloned dog. But while the investigation panel confirmed that Snuppy was indeed cloned, Hwang's assertion that he could produce tailored stem cells - given human eggs and six more months - seems likely to remain just that. As the Catholic University in Seoul's medical school professor, Oh Il-hwan, put it: "Up until now, nothing has been scientifically proven of his work in his stem cell studies. I do not think there are any more reasons to trust him." ®
BT is set to launch a TV service for mobile-phone operators later this year following the successful completion of trials in the London area. Last summer, BT Wholesale hooked up with Virgin Mobile to beam TV programmes direct to handsets using the Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB) network, enabling about a thousand people to access TV and music content on the move. According to BT, the results from the trial have been "extremely positive" and demonstrate there is "clear consumer demand for broadcast digital TV and radio to mobile phones". The telecoms giant is now talking with other mobile operators to see if they want to buy into BT's wholesale "Movio" service. The service was originally called "LiveTime". According to BT, the pilot has revealed that punters are prepared to splash out up to £8 a month for the service - something that might prove tempting for mobile operators looking to increase revenue. It also found that three-quarters of triallists would be prepared to pay for the service on their current network if it wasn't too pricey, while four in 10 would be prepared to switch networks to receive the service. Emma Lloyd, head of BT Movio, said: "It is clear from the very positive feedback we have had from the pilot that BT Movio will be in high demand from mobile users and operators alike. "We are in commercial discussions with mobile operators about launching a consumer service after the launch of the wholesale service later this year." Yesterday, giant media outfit Sky announced it was giving punters access to Sky entertainment, sports, news and weather on the move. The launch of its Sky-by-mobile service comes in response to growing evidence of "consumers' desire to take control of their TV viewing and to access media content in different ways", it said. ®
Taiwanese boffins have successfully bred three fluorescent pigs who, they claim, far outshine previous efforts at producing glow-in-the-dark porkers, which resulted in a disappointing partial fluorescence. We kid you not. The BBC is reporting that National Taiwan University's Department of Animal Science and Technology has pulled off a fluorescent pig coup in breeding the green-to-the-core "transgenic" pigs using jellyfish DNA. The DNA was injected into about 260 embryos which were then implanted into eight sows. Four became pregnant, leading to the birth of three male piglets three months ago. The scientists apparently insist "the three pigs they have produced are better" than those concocted by rival fluorescent pig breeders. In fact, they are green through-and-through since their internal organs are green and their skin has a green tinge in daylight. There is, mercifully, some method to the madness. The boffins reckon the pigs' genetic material can be used to study human disease because it's "easy to spot". For example, if some of the pigs' stem cells are "injected into another animal, scientists can track how the stem cells develop without the need for a biopsy or invasive test". Naturally, scientists need more fluorescent pigs before such tests can begin, and the team hopes the three little pigs will mate and produce glow-in-the-dark offspring. And, of course, they will have a nice fundraising sideline in knocking out fluorescent bangers for the kids' novelty food market. ® Bootnote Think we've lost our marbles? The BBC has photographic evidence of the transgenic glow-in-the-dark pig right here.
MPs have called for new wireless internet technology to be installed in the House of Commons in a critical report from the cross-party administration committee. The report looked at facilities provided for new MPs entering Parliament following last year’s General Election. It found that "IT-literate" members who were not immediately provided with an office in the Commons were unable to access ICT services because of a lack of suitable technology. The committee report noted that, although all new MPs are provided with a laptop computer set up to access the Common’s central network, the lack of wireless or Bluetooth technology meant members without an office found accessing the central network difficult. One new MP, Adam Afriyie, complained to the committee that, although he uses wireless technology all around the country, he is unable to do so in the Commons and has to rely on the services provided by a nearby café. He told the inquiry: "I can work anywhere in the country - in coffee shops, in any building, most Conservative associations - if there is a coffee shop next door with a wireless LAN. The only place I was unable to work is here [House of Commons]... I used to spend afternoons sitting on the steps outside Portcullis House so that I could get a signal from what I think is Caffé Nero next door." Another MP, Grant Shapps, said of Westminster’s IT system: "I struggle with it to this day. I do not want to use the House of Commons system because I find it restrictive. I do not like being straitjacketed into its email system, which, until this week, had a ridiculously small storage space." The committee concluded: "The IT infrastructure and equipment currently provided on the Parliamentary Estate are simply not suited to a mobile member without an office. For many members, adequate wireless internet access would have made working without an office much more manageable." It recommended that the administration of the Commons should install wireless internet access in those parts of the Commons most used by members without an office – the atrium of Portcullis House, the library and the new members’ temporary accommodation area. View the report from the House of Commons' administration committee here (PDF: 1.53MB) Copyright © eGov monitor Weekly eGov monitor Weekly is a free e-newsletter covering developments in UK eGovernment and public sector IT over the last seven days. To register go here.
Mozilla unwrapped its latest version of Thunderbird - the popular email client - on Thursday. Thunderbird 1.5 boasts improved spam filters to block fraudulent phishing emails, customisable views and enhanced support for RSS (a feature which allows users to receive feed updates as email messages) and podcasting. The latest version of the alternative email client, which comes free of charge, also makes it easier for users to get the latest security and feature updates to Thunderbird via a new, automatic update mechanism. Thunderbird 1.5 also checks users' email as they type along with other features designed to make email easier to use. Thunderbird 1.5 is available immediately from Get Thunderbird here. Thunderbird has been downloaded more than 18m times since its launch in December 2004, according to Mozilla. It comes as a standalone client or a companion to Firefox - Mozilla's open-source-based web browser software. ®
AnalysisAnalysis What an ungrateful bunch you are. This week Apple began its transition to Intel processors six months ahead of schedule, and all you can do is carp. Don't you know you're supposed to swoon over every shiny new piece of kit? It's an odd moment. After years of lagging behind in the speed race, Apple will next month ship a PowerBook that overnight offers a dramatic doubling of performance for ordinary tasks, such as loading pages in Safari. The SPEC benchmarks Apple quotes are 4.5x faster for integer performance and 5.2x faster on floating point tests. Out goes the bottleneck bus, pegged at 167Mhz for so long, replaced by a 667Mhz bus - that's 4x faster. And the Radeon X1600 brings Apple right up to date. So why, as the barman said to the horse, the long face?
Intel has asked the US Supreme Court to agree to hear Research in Motion's plea that the Court of Appeal's August 2005 ruling in favour of "non-practicing patentee" NTP be dismissed. Stating its interest in the case - it supplies RIM with processors, and once invested in the company - the chip giant said the Supreme Court must use this opportunity to clarify the degree to which US patent law must take into account international factors. "The scope of US patent liability for activities crossing national borders is an issue of great and growing importance," Intel said in testimony filed with the court on 4 January. It is an issue, it added, which "cries out for clarification". The Supreme Court meets on 20 January to discuss whether it should hear RIM's appeal. The last time it did so, in October 2005, it rejected the Canadian company's request. In December 2005, RIM tried again, this time arguing that the US Patent Act, under which NTP successfully sued the company in the District Court - a ruling validated in August 2005 by the US Court of Appeal - only covers infringement within the US. RIM says crucial components of its push email system operate outside the nation, and so can't fall within the territorial limits of the Act's jurisdiction. Handheld devices which access the system can be legally purchased outside the US but used within the country's borders. It wants the Supreme Court to issue an edict specifying how the Act's territoriality applies in the internet era, and hopefully, in the process, ensure it's safe from NTP. "Of course NTP and RIM disagree over which construction of the statute is correct," said Intel in its filing. "But everyone should agree that the extent to which US patent laws cover international activities is an extremely important issue that merits review by this court." ®
South Korea has become the latest non-EU country to sign up to the Galileo satellite navigation project, the European Commission announced today. The country joins Israel, China and Ukraine aboard the 30-satellite programme, with India having initialed an agreement and Saudi Arabia likely to join the club soon. According to Reuters, these partner countries are "expected to cooperate with the European Union in the areas of scientific research and training, trade and market development". The EC hopes that, by 2020, Galileo will boast three-billion receivers "generating revenues of €275bn ($333.8bn) a year and creating more than 150,000 jobs in Europe alone". EC Transport Commissioner, Jacques Barrot, said in a statement: "After the successful launch of the first Galileo Giove-A satellite, this new agreement underlines, once again, the ever-growing worldwide interest for the program." Giove-A's launch was indeed a success, blasting off from Baikonur in Kazakhstan on 28 December. The purpose of this "demonstrator" is to "trial technologies for future Galileo satellites", "transmit sat-nav signals to claim frequencies for Galileo" and test in-orbit performance of two rubidium atomic clocks. ®
Cell processor partners IBM, Sony and Toshiba have agreed to take their technology R&D alliance into the 32nm era. The trio first announced its plan to cooperate on the development of Cell and its underlying 90nm and 65nm fabrication technology back in 2001. Back then, they described the project as a five-year programme costing $400m.
Alex Tew, the student from Wiltshire who came up with the crazy idea of flogging one-million pixels for a dollar a throw, has done it: four months after launching his million-dollar homepage to try to fund his university education, Tew has sold the lot. Every single last little pixel. Tew decided to flog the last remaining 1,000 pixels on eBay. And, when the auction closed yesterday evening, the bidding for the last available space on this giant pixel billboard stood at $38,100 - around £21,600. It means Tew's site has succeeded in generating just over a million dollars - or almost £600,000 - since its launch in September. Details of who snapped up the last remaining dots has yet to be confirmed, but no doubt there will be a big song and dance made of it. Apart from Tew's own personal success, the most interesting part of the "million-dollar pixel" phenomenon has been the number of copycat sites looking to cash-in on the craze. One of the latest comes from a young woman not long out of uni, whose pinkmilliondollars.com site is aimed at women. "Pinkmilliondollars is a place where women from all over the world can come together in a safe and supportive environment to discuss topics, share experiences, give advice or simply enjoy the company of like-minded individuals with complete anonymity, if desired," said 22-year-old Rupa Kanabar in a statement. The site has so far signed up five advertisers - including a singer/songwriter and a bikini retailer - and has a heck of a long way to go before it emulates the success of Tew's original site. ®
Apple has denied that it retains any of the information that the latest update to its hugely popular jukebox software, iTunes, creates as it monitor users' listening selections. iTunes 6.0.2 was released earlier this week. Among the tweaks is MiniStore, an iTunes Music Store panel that appears below library track lists. Many users immediately found and used a button located among those in the bottom right-hand corner of the window and turned MiniStore off. However, a number of others, cited by a range of websites, spotted sudden increases in network activity when the feature is enabled. The reason: the MiniStore uses what you're listening to to display a series of related albums and songs you may like to buy. You could argue it's no more spyware than Amazon.com's purchasing suggestions - a technique used by numerous e-commerce sites - but it's got some folk in a tizzy.
Siebel said it beat all expectations during the fourth quarter, just as Oracle prepares to close its acquisition of the customer relationship management (CRM) vendor. With Oracle's chief executive Larry Ellison due to deliver an Oracle "state of the nation" speech next week in San Francisco, Siebel said its fourth quarter exceeded both its own estimates and consensus Wall St. predictions. Siebel recorded a 20 per cent jump in total revenue to $469m for the three months to December 31. Siebel said it had anticipated $340-$360m, while analysts predicted $362m. Revenue from licensing grew 33 per cent to $214m, maintenance increased seven percent to $131m and services were up by 13.7 per cent to $124m. It's the first, and last, huzzah for a company that endured losses and declining revenues in 2005, and dumped chief executive Mike Laurie after less than a year for ex-Webvan boss George Shaheen. Oracle is expected to close its purchase at a meeting of Siebel stock holders on January 31.®
Into the ValleyInto the Valley Put Scott McNealy and Bill Joy on stage together, and you're already in trouble. Add Andy Bechtolsheim and Vinod Khosla, and you move from trouble to pure information overload.
IBM has announced its 13th successive year as patents king while cheering a community and government backed program to "improve" the quality of US patents. IBM, which has repeated its award for most patents received with the predictability of a politburo leader being again "voted" as leader, timed the news to hit as it supported the measures to "help accelerate innovation in the US." The measures, supported by the US Patent and Trademarks Office (USPTO) and the Open Source Development Labs (OSDL), introduce a review of patents, the establishment of open source as "prior art", and a patent quality index. IBM notched up 2,941 patents in 2005 with Cannon Kabushiki Kaisha coming in second with 1,828. While IBM last January announced 500 IBM of its patents would be released to the open source community, some have expressed unease over IBM's apparently insatiable desire to register patents. Microsoft's chief software architect Bill Gates, meanwhile, has made it his company's goal to emulate IBM.®