16th > June > 2006 Archive

Stem cell trigger pinpointed

Stem cell scientists have pinpointed a molecule that confers the cells with amazing powers of self-renewal and maintains their ability to develop into any other type of cell in the body. The discovery could help pave the way for stem cells derived from adult tissues, giving ethical debates over the use of embryos a side-swerve. A University of Edinburgh team, writing in Nature, reports that the protein Nanog acts as a switch, turning on a host of genes which are responsible for stem cell's much-touted special properties of renewal and repair. It's hoped they will provide treatments for currently incurable conditions such as Parkinson's and spinal cord injury. The stem cells in adult tissues do not have the same breadth of potential as those found in embryos. The researchers induced mouse cells to produce extra quantities of Nanog. They showed when the Nanog cells were joined with cells previously destined to become nerves they were pushed back in time, regaining the ability to become other tissues. Dr Jose Silva told Reuters: "The effect of Nanog is remarkable. All the hybrid cells became fully converted to embryonic stem cells." Although not the only controller of stem cells, the team say the work on Nanog - named after the Celtic mythical forever-young land of Tir Nan Og - is an important step to understanding the mysteries of what stops them becoming differentiated tissues. Harvard recently announced plans to use private cash to fund research into using human embryos as a source of stem cells. ®
Christopher Williams, 16 Jun 2006

Boulder boffins reveal secret of gas giants' moons

A computer model developed by scientists at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, sheds new light on the formation of many of the moons in the solar system. Up until now, according to the research team, it has been known that collectively, the moons of Jupiter, Saturn and Uranus amount to a similar proportion of their parent planet's mass - around 0.01 per cent. What has not been clear is why that should be, or why the moons are the sizes that they are, or distributed in the orbits that they inhabit. Existing models also fail to account for why some of the moons contain ice, as they suggest moons form too quickly (and therefore at too high a temperature) to acquire a watery component. According to New Scientist the model developed by Robin Canup and her colleague William Ward produces gas giants with moon sizes and distributions consistent with real-world examples. The model also explains the apparent upper limit on the mass of the moons. In the final stages of a gas planet's formation, it is thought to accrete both gases and solids from a disk of such debris orbiting the sun. This then forms a disc around the planet, in the equatorial plane, which in turn give rise to growing satellites. According to Canup and Ward, as these satellites grow, they induce spiral waves in the gas disk. The interactions between these waves and the proto-moons cause the orbits to contract. Heavier moons' orbits contract more quickly, and collapse into the planet itself, while smaller moons stabilise in their orbits. The researchers also suggest many cycles of moon formation and loss. The moons we see today are merely the last ones standing, according to Physorg.com. Uranus, however, remains something of a mystery. The researchers believe that the key to understanding its arrangement lies in working out how it came to be lying on its side. Only then will they know for sure whether this new model will apply. ®
Lucy Sherriff, 16 Jun 2006

Bring back Bichard

The prime minister has fended off a call to reconvene the Bichard inquiry team – at least for now. The issue was raised by Eric Illsley, Labour MP for Barnsley Central, in a parliamentary question to Tony Blair yesterday. Illsley pointed out that it is two years since the Bichard Inquiry into the failings in information sharing before the Soham murders, and that the central recommendation for a police national IT system will not be fulfilled until after 2010. He asked if the prime minister would consider recalling Sir Michael Bichard to assess the progress and make sure the plan is not subject to extreme delays. He referred to the plans for a National Firearms Licensing Management System, legislation for which was passed nearly 10 years ago but which is still at the piloting stage. Blair replied that the data sharing arrangements, including the sharing of intelligence, will come into force next year, and that the government would look at how it can speed up the recommendations. But he also emphasised the difficulties in delivering the programme, especially in changing police practice. "If we can possibly speed that up - if necessary, we are perfectly happy to reconvene the inquiry team if that helps, but at the moment we do not think that it would - then we will of course do so," Blair said. He also said 21 of the 31 Bichard recommendations have now been implemented. The Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill, which will put the new vetting and barring scheme into place, has completed its passage through the House of Lords and will have its second reading in the House of Commons on 19 June. Illsley told Government Computing News that the response had not allayed his concerns. He said the police are being very ambitious with the design and this is holding up the implementation. "They've designed this thing to be really top heavy," he said. "They want more out of the system than is feasible under the budget. "I want to see them bring Bichard back to see if he will stick to his original recommendation or amend it under the current circumstances." Illsley said Scottish police already have a more simple but effective system in operation, and that the government should consider the possibility of adopting it for England and Wales. The Bichard Inquiry was concluded in June 2004 and produced a number of recommendations to improve the national management of police information. These have led to measures such as the IMPACT programme for information management, a Code of Practice on the Management of Police Information and the Interim Police Local Exchange. This article was originally published at Kablenet. Kablenet's GC weekly is a free email newsletter covering the latest news and analysis of public sector technology. To register click here.
Kablenet, 16 Jun 2006

NetSuite seeks ISVs

Editors' BlogEditors' Blog So you've got this great piece of code, and you know it could make a great little product. It could even make your fortune if you get a business going around it. That last bit, however, is still the stumbling block; the grind of running the business is the part where most small companies stagger and fall, product ideas are dead easy by comparison.
Martin Banks, 16 Jun 2006
Mio C210 Sat Nav

Mio launches C210 Sat Nav in Brussels

Belgian company Mio Technology has launched the C210 Sat Nav package, with a very reasonable retail price of £199. This SiRFstarIII GPS receiver combines a 400 MHz processor, a 2.7 inch screen and an SD slot for the map. It weighs 110g and runs on four AA batteries to provide over 4.5 hours of navigation on foot with the backlight on and GPS function at full power. An in-car charger provides the C210 with power when the user is on the road.
Leo Waldock, 16 Jun 2006

Yahoo! worst in China

Yahoo! restricts access to more websites than any other search engine in China. Lobby group Reporters without Borders tested Yahoo!, Google, MSN and baidu.com. It found that Yahoo! censors its results even more strictly than local portal baidu.com. The research also found that Microsoft, which claims not to censor its results, returns very similar results to Google, which admits to filtering its content. A search using a subversive word returns 83 per cent pro-government websites on google.cn versus 78 per cent on msn.com. Perform the same search on google.com and only 28 per cent of the results will be pro-Beijing websites. Censorship on yahoo.cn is almost complete - 97 per cent of sites returned on subversive searches support the Chinese government. In fact, researchers found that searching for "Tibet independence" or "6-4" (4 June is the anniversary of Tiananmen Square) won't just give you shonky results but will get you barred from the site for an hour. The other search terms used were: Falungong, Tibet Independence, Democracy, Human rights, and press freedom. The full results are available here. ®
John Oates, 16 Jun 2006

Boy George tries to squeeze into US patent shoes

OpinionOpinion European ministers have pinned their hopes on more targets to solve the riddle posed so sycophantically by shadow chancellor George Osborne this week in a speech to IT bigwigs in California: How come you Yanks are so big, bold and beautiful, while us Europeans are such wet and weedy sucklers of the great American teat? It is a question that has been posed many times before, most notably by those European ministers who drew up the Lisbon Agenda, the pipe dream that committed European ministers in 2000 to becoming the "most dynamic and competitive knowledge-based economy in the world by 2010". True to the great tradition of highfalutin' European declarations, another batch of 34 European ministers have agreed another set of 2010 targets which they say are in the Lisbon mould. But, instead of being a plan Osborne would want to show off to his new California chums, it showed just how different Europe remains to the US. One thing Lisbon saw from its economic perspective was that in order for Europe to become as "dynamic" as the US, its citizens need be clued up on technology. Osborne had something of Lisbon in him when he said to an audience of Silicon Valley go-getters, you're better than anyone else, and you have more to show for it, and you know why? "It's about the entrepreneurial ethos of Californian universities." If only European universities could foster the "growth of dynamic new companies" like the Yanks do with the help of their easy capital and "cheap and effective" patent system, he said. Patents offer an interesting perspective on Osborne's question. Most European experts agree that the US system is cheap, but they also think it is lax and of poor quality. The European system may not be perfect, frayed by national differences as it is, but it is steeped in proud tradition and its officers are meticulous about quality. It is also fettered by heritage enshrined in different national constitutions. The European patent office expects it could take 10 years before current reform of the European system will deliver the first ever Community patent. The last set of reforms, the 2000 revision of the European Patent Convention, is still to be ratified. Oh, for a blank sheet of paper and a decent draughtsman. The US system, like much of everything else they have, was drawn on a blank sheet (the competence of the draughtsman is _). The EC thinks the blank sheet afforded East European countries like Estonia by the wholesale rejection of their Communist heritage has given them the opportunity to leapfrog much of Western Europe in the official league of dynamic digital societies. This means something for Lisbon, but from a fettered European perspective. The new e-Inclusion targets commit Europeans to ensuring 90 per cent of citizens have broadband access by 2010 because there is evidence that closing the digital divide is good for the economy. That means helping the poor and needy, or recognising that Lisbon does not have a blank sheet to work on, it has social heritage, an aspiration of equality. Patent reform and other attempts at improving the European single market that came out of Lisbon, meanwhile, chug along nicely and offer a useful perspective Osborne might consider when his feet are back on firm ground in London Heathrow. Why indeed are there so many great US technology firms? And why did all those great British computer firms like Apricot, Psion, even Amstrad, not bear up under competition from their mighty opponents across the Atlantic? Why did Elonex, once such an arrogant little PC manufacturer, fall into administration this week and not become a Dell? A better defined single market might have helped them. Yet Osborne thinks there's something amiss with the European character and has called for a "cultural revolution" that might instil in it something of the frontier spirit. If they could get excited about multinational world domination, about being number one, maybe then they would be great like Dell. Before he gets too carried away with this idea, there is one more question he might ask of those Europeans fond of slow food and shopkeeping: Could they be bothered? ®
Mark Ballard, 16 Jun 2006

France first in MS IPTV rollout

CommentComment Right on schedule, T-Online France, trading as Club Internet, an ISP subsidiary of Deutsche Telekom operating in France, will deliver the first live Microsoft IPTV service in Europe later this month. The service not only offers full multicasting, but also comes as a hybrid including Digital Terrestrial TV, and a VoD library of 1,000 films. It is also a full triple play, offering VoIP, video conferencing and broadband lines as well, on Lucent hardware. Eventually Club Internet will be deployed within reach of 10m French homes, but must go up against France Telecom's MaLigne TV and unbundled IPTV systems such as Free, as well as a virtually identically structured services from AliceBox, a subsidiary of Telecom Italia, based on Alcatel OMP middleware. The Lucent hardware is based on its Stinger FS+ DSL Concentrators with the IP 2100 Control Module and Gigabit Ethernet enhancements. The service will offer a high definition ready set top, picture in picture capability so two channels can be viewed at once, and has the new server based fast channel change that Microsoft has pushed so hard as a differentiating feature of the service. A DVR is supplied with Wi-Fi capability offering 50 hours of recording time and will come integrated into the HD and DTT-ready set top boxes. The Electronic Program Guide shows a two week look ahead view similar to most pay TV systems in Europe, and the entire VoD library, which also includes some 150 TV series as well as movies, can be searched by program or even actor name while viewers continue to watch a current program. The VoD service will be a combination of subscription VoD and pay as you go. It will become obvious over the next few months whether the naysayers are right and Microsoft has bitten off more than it can chew, or whether or not the long anticipated system will perform the way it has in demonstrations around the world for the past year. Most of Microsoft's partners have suffered some form of setback, most of which have been attributed to the long wait for set top chips, a wait that is now deemed to be over. T-Online was in fact the eighth contract that Microsoft signed, but it is virtually the first service to be delivered. Certainly the AT&T service that has been launched in the US has not yet seen a wide roll-out, while other services have failed to materialise at all, with British Telecom and Swisscom putting off launches, Telstra dropping the product entirely and Telecom Italia going, initially at least, with the earlier Alcatel OMP middleware. Club Internet claims to be the first broadband portal that put TV over ADSL and offered the first bundled Wi-Fi option and its new access network is fully VDSL2 ready. Club Internet claims to have over 13m registered subscribers. Copyright © 2006, Faultline Faultline is published by Rethink Research, a London-based publishing and consulting firm. This weekly newsletter is an assessment of the impact of the week's events in the world of digital media. Faultline is where media meets technology. Subscription details here.
Faultline, 16 Jun 2006

Nortel weakened by failure of Huawei venture

CommentComment Four months after announcing an important joint venture with China's Huawei, Nortel quietly announced in an SEC filing that the plan had been cancelled. This makes it more likely than ever that the struggling Canadian company will look for a partner – and perhaps an acquirer – to shore up its wireless infrastructure business, since the end of the venture looks like a major blow to its chances of getting back into the converged broadband access market. Although Huawei loses what could have been a valuable entry point to the US market, which is proving hard for it to storm, the failure of the plan is more negative for Nortel, which is in danger of missing the boat in several key growth sectors, including multi-network broadband access and IPTV. Nortel reported a wider first quarter loss, while still promising accelerated growth for the rest of the year, and at least is finally up to date with its accounting filings after years of scandals and restatements. It posted a loss of $167m, or four cents a share, compared with a loss of $104m, or two cents a share, a year earlier. Revenue slipped to $2.38bn from $2.39bn. Analysts were disappointed, having expected a loss of one cent on revenue of $2.54bn. The main factor was excessive costs, said the company, and new CEO Mike Zafirovski has undertaken a complete review of the company's operations and is now implementing a series of changes, including drastic cost cutting and identification of key markets in which to expand. One of these seemed to be broadband access, a $9bn sector that Nortel virtually abandoned a few years ago – a move it is widely thought soon to have regretted - and was looking to re-enter by offering Huawei's products. This is a sector where Huawei flourishes, and it was one of the DSL and multi-service access suppliers named for BT’s $19bn 21st Century Network project. The joint venture, majority owned by Nortel and based in Ottawa, Canada, was to have developed "ultra broadband access solutions" for the global service provider market, with the aim of kickstarting Nortel's broadband business again, and helping Huawei in its ambitions to gain significant presence in the Americas and other western markets. Apart from joint marketing of a converged product range, the key R&D aspect planned to create a next generation multi-service access platform designed specifically to enable carriers to converge their voice, data, video, fixed wireless (such as WiMAX), and, in future, mobile network traffic on a single IP network. The resulting products would have built on Nortel's voice and optical networking strengths and Huawei's broadband technology and manufacturing efficiencies, and provided a platform for selling other key products such as Nortel's IMS (IP Multimedia Subsystem). Analysts fear that backing away from access will exclude Nortel from the related IPTV market, where Alcatel-Lucent look set to dominate. In a research note, analyst Chris Umiastowski of TD Newscrest wrote: "Has the ship sailed already? Our sense is that Mike Z feels that Alcatel and Microsoft will be a powerful force on the IPTV front; so we are definitely left with questions on how Nortel can best participate in this market." It seems that the venture was announced at an early stage because Nortel hoped to influence some large potential customers who were going through their decision process on access – but which have subsequently picked other suppliers. If Nortel believes it is too late now to make a major impact on broadband access and IPTV, it will need to rely more heavily on its wireless infrastructure and IMS ranges, and with this market consolidating in the wake of the Alcatel-Lucent merger plan, it seems more probable than ever that the Canadian company will look for its own buyer or joint venture partner. Rumors persist that Nortel will make an acquisition of its own to boost its wireless operations, especially as Siemens', and possibly Nokia's, infrastructure units could be up for sale. But it is hard to see how Nortel could stretch to such a purchase, and it is more likely that it will be snapped up itself – by Cisco, Ericsson or even Huawei itself. Copyright © 2006, Faultline Faultline is published by Rethink Research, a London-based publishing and consulting firm. This weekly newsletter is an assessment of the impact of the week's events in the world of digital media. Faultline is where media meets technology. Subscription details here.
Faultline, 16 Jun 2006

Tiscali unveils VoIP service

Tiscali, which recently clocked up one million broadband lines in the UK, has unveiled details of a new VoIP service. Netphone, as it's called, is free to download and lets broadband users make free PC to PC phone calls. It can also be used to send and receive faxes, text messages and make calls to landlines. Calls to UK landlines cost 1p a minute while international calls start from 3p a minute. Texts cost 6p a throw. According to Tiscali UK exec Steve Horley, the number of people looking to hook up to an internet telephony is "set to go through the roof in the next 12 months" as more and more people look to use their broadband connection for more than just web access and email. ®
Team Register, 16 Jun 2006

Oracle busts through own forecasts for Q4

Oracle was full of itself yesterday after announcing it would exceed financial targets for its fourth quarter. The software giant said revenues were set to come in at $4.85bn, up 25 per cent. It had previously forecast 13 per cent to 17 per cent growth. This will deliver net income of $1.3bn, up 27 per cent, or $1.5bn non-GAAP, up 13 per cent. This means earnings per share of $0.29, compared to previous guidance of $0.26 to $0.28. New software licences delivered a big kick to the numbers, up 32 per cent to $2.12bn, compared to earlier guidance of 8 per cent to 18 per cent growth. Oracle’s acquisition spree has helped boost revenues. Database revenues were up 18 per cent, while total app revenues were up 83 per cent. Even when the big buys of Siebel and Retek were stripped out, apps were up 56 per cent®.
Joe Fay, 16 Jun 2006

What is a Chinese restaurant headache?

Also in this week's column: Do lie detector tests really work? Is long life related to where you live? What cultures don't share Western economic values? What is a Chinese restaurant headache? This is the unfortunate name for one of the symptoms of the allergic reaction to monosodium glutamate (MSG). MSG can induce a headache in people who are allergic to it. The association with Chinese restaurants comes from the fact that MSG is often an ingredient in Chinese food. According to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, such a headache typically begins within 30 minutes of consuming MSG and consists of dull and constant pain that may be at the front of both sides of the head. The clinic adds: "The headache typically goes away within 72 hours after eating a food containing MSG." What is a brain freeze? Asked by Michael Friesen of Singapore The "brain freeze" is another name for "the ice cream headache". The causes of this condition are eating ice cream quickly or gulping a cold drink too quickly. Inhaling very cold air can cause a "brain freeze" too. This particular form of headache is intensely painful. The pain is in the form of sharp, stabbing pain in the forehead, temples, and around the eyes. The pain peaks at about 30 seconds or less after it begins. It is almost always gone in less than two minutes. Cold material moving across your palate and the back of the throat is what brings on this type of headache. One possible mechanism is that this temporarily alters blood flow in the brain, causing the brief headache. According to the Mayo Clinic, one of the few good things about an ice cream headache is that it's often gone in the time it would take you to say its medical name - "headache attributed to ingestion or inhalation of a cold stimulus". The clinic adds: "You may be more susceptible to these if you're prone to migraines." Stephen Juan, Ph.D. is an anthropologist at the University of Sydney. Email your Odd Body questions to s.juan@edfac.usyd.edu.au
Stephen Juan, 16 Jun 2006

Is long life related to where you live?

Also in this week's column: Do lie detector tests really work? What is a Chinese restaurant headache? What cultures don't share Western economic values? Is long life related to where you live? It is a myth that it is common to live to be 120 or more in some parts of the world. The facts do not support stories of communities of legendary centenarians. The three principal candidates for such long-lived status are the Abkasians of Georgia, the Hunzas of Pakistan, and the Vilcambans of Ecuador. But other peoples from Tibet, India, China, and elsewhere are sometimes suggested as extremely long-lived. Recipes for their longevity usually include being members of a small population from an isolated region, living an outdoor existence, following a simple subsistence diet (usually high in vegetables and fruit but low in meat), having a lean body mass, holding a cultural disapproval of excess body fat, being physically active (especially by walking), working in a job that is not too strenuous, following a stress-free life, not smoking tobacco (but alcohol consumption is OK), and having a strong cultural respect for old age. Yet certain curious factors are evident in these reports of longevity. There is usually an absence in these groups of a proportionate number of elders between the ages of seventy and ninety, there are no birth records, the people are illiterate, age is often exaggerated in accounts of folk history, and there is a poor regard for the accuracy of time generally. In the case of the Abkasians, years have likely been added to their ages in the past in order to avoid military service. No person with a verifiable record has ever exceeded 110 years by more than a few years, let alone most or even many of a whole community surpassing it by 10 to 40 years. An Abkhasian story holds that one man who insisted he was "only 95" wanted to marry again. He became angry when it was pointed out to his bride-to-be that he must be older than 95 since he had a daughter who was 81. It was claimed by others that he was really 108. Some cell biologists now believe that there is a definite biological limit to human cell reproduction making the maximum age possible for human life to be about 110 to 120 years. However, others maintain that humans could theoretically live to be 400 or 500 years old once genetically engineered drugs are developed to counteract the aging process itself on the cellular level. Stephen Juan, Ph.D. is an anthropologist at the University of Sydney. Email your Odd Body questions to s.juan@edfac.usyd.edu.au
Stephen Juan, 16 Jun 2006

What cultures don't share Western economic values?

Also in this week's column: Do lie detector tests really work? What is a Chinese restaurant headache? Is long life related to where you live? What cultures don't share Western economic values? Asked by Kelly O'Connor of Hartford, Connecticut There are many traditional cultures where people do not share the Western economic values that we often take for granted. In one such example, George Foster, the late anthropologist at the University of California at Berkeley, wrote of the "image of limited good" among villagers he studied in Mexico. In his A Primitive Mexican Economy (1942) and in later works such as Empire's Children: The People of Tzintzuntzan (1973), Foster wrote of Mexican villagers who believed that, quite the opposite of how we are led to think, all things that are good (wealth, health, good fortune, luck, and happiness) are fixed and finite within the community. "Good" is limited in quantity, hence the "image of limited good". Given this belief, all individuals are entitled to their fair share. If one individual has far more than their fair share, for whatever reason, this is viewed as immoral. Such a person would be regarded as selfish, an improper citizen, and more or less a community vandal or thief. With the belief of the "image of limited good", these Mexican villagers would therefore condemn as immoral many of our Western economic and business practices and social behaviors. Among these would be our allowance of the amassing of great fortunes whilst others are poor, the driving of business rivals into bankruptcy, the unwillingness of many to be charitable in heart as well as mind. The list goes on. Of course, modern Mexico and the impact of the global economy has swallowed up and transformed the traditional villagers since the time of Foster's research. But the example of a different economic value system is a real one and stands to this day. Stephen Juan, Ph.D. is an anthropologist at the University of Sydney. Email your Odd Body questions to s.juan@edfac.usyd.edu.au
Stephen Juan, 16 Jun 2006

Do lie detector tests really work?

Also in this week's column: What is a Chinese restaurant headache? Is long life related to where you live? What cultures don't share Western economic values? Do lie detector tests really work? Asked by Lisa Burnham of East London A lie-detector test or machine is a popular, but inaccurate term for the instrument that records various bodily changes that may provide the basis for a reliable diagnosis of truth or falsehood. The correct term for the instrument is a polygraph. There is no such thing as a lie-detector, lie-detector test, or lie-detector machine if the terms are taken to mean a mechanical test or device that will produce a clear indication of lying when verbal statements are made. The polygraph technique, as it is more properly called, measures respiration, blood pressure, and pulse. A supplemental unit that records the galvanic skin response (GSR) is also part of the procedure. The most valuable indicators are respiration and blood pressure and not, as is commonly believed, the sweating palms measured by the GSR. The polygraph technique is actually more of a diagnostic procedure than a mechanical operation. The competence of the examiner and skillfully controlled questions produce the most meaningful data. Polygraphs do not simply indicate whether a specific statement is true or false. A pattern of response compared to various control questions is evaluated by the examiner to determine the truthfulness of the answers. Results of the polygraph technique are almost never admissible in court as evidence unless both sides agree in advance to its use. However, it is still used in other places, such as in the workplace, to assess the honesty of employees. Whether the employees can make the boss take one is another matter. Bootnote According to Paul Marks writing in the 7 January 2006 New Scientist, the US Department of Defense plans to develop a lie detector that can be used without the subject knowing they are being assessed. The Remote Personnel Assessment (RPA) device will also be used to pinpoint fighters hiding in a combat zone, or even to spot signs of personal stress that might mark someone out as a terrorist or suicide bomber. The RPA will use microwaves or laser beams reflected off a subject's skin to assess various physiological signs without the need for wires or skin contact. The RPA will focus a beam on a moving or non-moving subject and use the reflected signal to calculate pulse, respiration, or galvanic skin response. Stephen Juan, Ph.D. is an anthropologist at the University of Sydney. Email your Odd Body questions to s.juan@edfac.usyd.edu.au
Stephen Juan, 16 Jun 2006

BOFH: Dr Bastard's lab challenge

Episode 20Episode 20 So it's time for the annual challenge between the PFY and I to create the ultimate item for Doctor Bastard's lab. I've been looking forward to this for some time as I have a couple of items that I've been perfecting that are bound to be of use to my fellow bastards in years to come. "Are we ready?" the PFY asks, cheerfully. "Go for it" I say, waiting to see what he has for me. "Item the first!" he cries, pulling out a small plate with a few wires coming out of it "an automatic toilet door opener!" "For opening toilet doors?" I ask. "Yes." "Any toilet door?" "No - for opening the toilet doors of those 'smart' pay public toilets." "Uh...don't they open automatically by themselves already?" "Yes, but there's one small difference..." "Yes?" "This one makes the door open when it hears an UUUURRRRGGGGGHHHH noise." "...catching the user in an awkward moment," I finish. "Yes" "It's a bit...uh...untargeted isn't it?" "But still a lot of fun!" the PFY says. "Well, what've you got?" "I present," I cry, waving my hand at my PC. "Interactive focusing!" "Huh?" the PFY says, looking at my machine. "Sit down, look at the screen." "...Nothing" the PFY says, after following my instructions. "Give it time..." "Hey, it's going blurry!" "Now move your eyes." "It's sharp again!" "Indeed. I have some software which polls your eye movement and tweaks the display driver when you've stared at the same spot for too long. If you look away or blink more than twice it returns focus to normal." "What's the point?" "Well, there's a lot of configurables which can be used to good effect. I can tweak the amount of time you need to wait till focus drifts, the amount of drift, the amount of time till it comes back, etc - which would lead someone to the false assumption that they might need eyeglasses, eye drops, or just a new expensive monitor..." "Hmmm." the PFY says doubtfully. "Okay, what else have you got?" "A business card scanner which translates job titles into what they really do," the PFY replies, pointing to a USB device attached to his machine. "So you put in the business card of a personnel consultant in and..." "...it magically changes their job title to slave trader." "And a sales rep?" "Crap peddler." "A middle manager?" I ask, as the Boss enters. "GIT! And it's got dip switches on the bottom to set the offensiveness of the lookup table. At the moment it's only on level one, too, but you can set it right up til..." "Is that a business card scanner?" the Boss interrupts, blundering into Mission Control. "The head of IT has been looking for one for some time, but I haven't been able to located one for him." "Well, what the hell, he can have this one," the PFY says magnanimously. "I hardly ever use it. I'll just set all the...uh...high density scanning options. The boss wanders off happily, while I unveil my next invention. "Self correcting keyboard," I say "It's got a dictionary built into the ROM." "What's cool about that?" the PFY asks. "The cool bit is that you can configure it to the user's IQ. All switches down for a MENSA candidate..." "And for someone like the boss?" "Break the switch!" "It's pretty crap," the PFY says. "My remote control mouse driver is better." "The one which uses an IR mouse to override the wired one?" I ask. "No, nothing flash there. HOWEVER, when you put it together with my SUITE of tools you've got a goer!!" "Suite?" "Indeed, your remote control mouse (with mods) and my self correcting keyboard." "What mods?" the PFY asks, ignoring my prize creation completely. "Well, your mouse driver requires someone to be there - my mods don't." "How do they work then?" the PFY asks sulkily. "And how did you know about my mouse?" "I see all. As for the mods, there's two basic mods, triggered by a menu activation. When a menu bar comes down the driver, upon getting a mouse click, moves the pointer up or down a random amount, then clicks - selecting a different option." "Right," the PFY says thoughtfully. "THEN, if a dialogue box appears, it waits for a mouse click and then moves the pointer a random amount sideways and clicks. It keeps trying till the dialogue box disappears. I call it the mickey mouse driver, although for obvious marketing reasons I'd call it something else." "And the other mod?" "When you're typing in a field the driver moves the pointer to another field and activates that - you know, like crap web forms do all the bloody time." "And that's it - that's your suite?" "Ok, I was holding this back - my tourettes spell checker. When you spell check your document it replaces personal pronouns with...uh...other words." "You mean like my business card scanner does? You took my ideas?" "The focusing thing is all my own work!" "And you stole all the rest?" "What can I say, all property is theft!" I say kindly. "Who said that, Lenin?!" "Nah, it was probably one of the other Beatles." BOFH: The whole shebang The Compleat BOFH Archives 95-99
Simon Travaglia, 16 Jun 2006

Hacking your vacuum cleaner

What's the difference between a dishwasher and a robot that washes dishes? Pay enough for your dishwasher and it will use fuzzy logic to decide how much water to use given the number of plates you put in. iRobot CEO Colin Angle agrees that's robotic technology, but he wants more. "The right thing to happen with my dishes is that a robot takes them from the table, cleans them and puts them away. That's not something a robotic dishwasher could do - although it might use a robotic dishwasher." His definition of a robot is a machine with sensors to perceive its environment, that thinks about what it perceives and performs some kind of physical action in response to that decision making. Getting the job done - for Roomba and Scooba, iRobot's vaccuming and floor-scrubbing robots, and the Packbots the US army uses to defuse bombs in Iraq - usually involves moving around. Angle calls his robots "inherently interactive". You can make a Roomba even more interactive: iRobot has released the documentation for the Roomba SCI serial protocol, which lets you control the motors, LEDs and speakers, or get data from the various sensors. You can add to the existing behaviours (vacuuming, finding the dirtiest spots on the floor, not falling down stairs, backing away from obstructions and calling for help if it gets stuck) or tell it to do something completely different. The hackers at Make magazine dressed a Roomba in green and played Frogger with it in traffic. We've already seen the first Roomba cockfights. Hopefully, there will be some more productive uses as well; you could get a report on whether the dirtiest spot on the floor is always in the same place, experiment with new algorithms for how the Roomba gets round the room, or fit it with a webcam and use it as a security system that cleans the floor at the same time. You'll need a serial port connector for the Mini DIN port; RoombaDevTools (has the Bluetooth-connecting RooTooth as well as USB and RS232 connectors. And you'll need software to connect to the serial port and send and receive binary data; RoombaDevTools has the simple SCI Tester software and there's a C# and VB.Net class library called RoombaFX under development. Other robotics systems may have better programming environments. Visual Studio Express can control LEGO MINDSTORMS and there will be open source firmware plus an SDK, a hardware development kit and a Bluetooth development kit for the new LEGO MINDSTORMS microprocessor, the NXT brick due in August. If you're after something much simpler and you have £195 spare, the Indium Smart is a torch you can program via USB; cycle through strobe patterns and brightness levels, or have it flash out messages in Morse code. But with the Roomba you've got a ready-built robot with built-in sensors and behaviours to work with. Plus, if you get fed up with hacking, it will still get the floor clean. ®
Mary Branscombe, 16 Jun 2006

JVC Alneo XA-F57 'basic' MP3 player

ReviewReview JVC isn't the first company that springs to mind when shopping for an MP3 player, although I'd happily consider many of its other products. The Alneo range of players consists of two models, the XA-F57 at 512Mb and the XA-F107 at 1GB. It's seems strange to launch such low capacity players when the company's competitors are starting at 1GB...
Lars-Göran Nilsson, 16 Jun 2006

A lesson in spyware

I use a computer of course, but only for fun. I'm certainly not a guru. So when people started talking about "spyware" I was a little confused. It sounded like a virus, but it clearly wasn't. No problem, I visited a site that I trust (Microsoft.com) and found a very nice lady there (in a video, of course) who told me all about it.
Mark Whitehorn, 16 Jun 2006
graph up

Welsh email filterer can use 'spam' in trademark

Swansea email filter firm NetBop Technologies has become the first to register a text trademark containing the word "spam". It has settled an 18-month dispute with US foodstuffer Hormel over the right to use the popular term for unsolicited email in naming its product Bopspam. Hormel lawyers discovered they were not as likely to stop NetBop registering the name as they had thought, when Patent Office officials indicated NetBop were likely to win at a preliminary hearing in February. The settlement reached by the two firms means NetBop can use "spam" to name its product, as long as it keeps it lowercase and does not emphasise it in any other way. NetBop MD Andrew Downie said: "We would never have dreamed there would be such an issue with securing a created name which contains a word used in peoples' every day lives." "This shows that even a business based in Swansea can triumph against a large US Corporation who has previously won objections against many trade marks over the past few years, including those proposed by AOL and Cloudmark." Hormel has not made any comment. The Minnesota-based company has tried to maintain a tight grip on SPAM®, going after firms that deploy the word in its email context. Their website says: "We do not object to use of this slang term to describe UCE [unsolicited commercial email], although we do object to the use of our product image in association with that term." Hormel recently lost another trademark case which it took to the High Court against Antilles Landscapes Investments' use of the word 'spam' in the logo for Spambuster.®
Christopher Williams, 16 Jun 2006
arrow pointing up

NHS IT cost doubled to £12.4bn

The £6.2bn National Programme for IT will henceforward be known as the £12.4bn National Programme for IT, after a long-awaited National Audit Office report into the ambitious NHS IT scheme revealed the full extent of its costs to date. But the Department of Health always knew it was going to cost as much as £12.5bn, it said today, even in those days when it said the programme was going to cost half as much. Moreover, it insisted today, that the doubled price tag did not mean that the Programme has gone over-budget. Speaking at the launch of the NAO report this morning, Chris Shapcott, director of health value for money studies, said there were "appraisals" done by the Department of Health "prior to the contracts being let" to the major suppliers in 2003. These were documented and accounted for the £12.4bn cost of the programme that the Department's IT body, Connecting for Health, has now been forced to admit by the publication of the NAO report. "They always recognised there would be more spending," he said. Health minister Lord Warner said that the Programme, "despite what some people say, is on budget." "The NAO has confirmed the cost has not overrun," he said. And anyway, the costs were not important. "We need to talk more about the benefits. In the long term this project will pay for itself," he added. The vastly inadequate cost estimates touted by Connecting for Health since the inception of the programme (once £2.3bn) have been ridiculed by independent scrutiny before. It had forced the Programme to admit that its £6.2bn cost estimate did not include the cost of implementing the systems, only developing them. The same story was given again today by Richard Granger, boss of Connecting for Health, with some elaboration. It is normal in the IT industry, he claimed, for people to disregard the cost of implementing a system when estimating its price. It must be a little like budgeting for the cost of a new house, but only accounting for the land and materials - the cost of the builders is irrelevant, apparently.®
Mark Ballard, 16 Jun 2006
Acer MP 500 small

Acer MP-500 breaks cover in Germany

We've been waiting for Acer's MP-500 PMP for some time now and, if a product page on Acer's German website is anything to go by, it seems that the launch day may be very close.
Leo Waldock, 16 Jun 2006

Consumers to flock to VoIP

The traditional home phone number could become a thing of the past as more and more people opt for fixed-mobile services and VoIP. That's according to analysts at Jupiter Research, who say location will cease to be important for either making or receiving telephone calls. Indeed, its research has found that three in ten consumers are interested in using their mobile phone in place of their home telephone. "VoIP will convert the home telephone from analogue to digital, and once digital, the home telephone number will become unfixed," Jupiter's Ian Fogg said. "It will no longer only be available just at home, but also in the office, in internet cafes, and even on mobile phones. VoIP telephony is attractive to consumers because services are digital, cheap, and flexible." Earlier this week, IDC published its latest outlook for VoIP predicting that internet telephony will be the "next generation of technology to change the telecommunications landscape". Although the market for consumer VoIP is still in its infancy, IDC predicts that the number of residential VoIP users in the US will mushroom from around 10m today to 44m in 2010 IDC reckons that "mobility, simplicity, and on-demand telephony" are top of the list of trends that will drive growth in consumer VoIP services. "The opportunity for an alternative phone service combined with simple setup and hardware requirements is what will make VoIP a practical addition to homes," said the research outfit. "The potential for VoIP to combine with mobility will provide alternative service choices and devices that give users the experience of being able to communicate anytime, anyplace, anywhere." Tiscali has become the latest outfit to join the world of VoIP following the launch of its NetPhone internet telephony service. ®
Tim Richardson, 16 Jun 2006

Sky viewers show Motty the red button

Tech DigestTech Digest There's much excitement in Geek TV's plush suite over a Sky press release that fails to mention the World Cup. We can't even find any puns about "kicking off" or "two halves" in the missive, which alerts us to the upcoming high-def live broadcast of a Robbie Williams concert. September's HD airing will also feature some interactive options, though rumours that ladies of a certain age can press red for virtual hot lovin' with the singing stallion of Stoke-on-Trent are unconfirmed. Robbie, speaking via the medium of the Sky press office, says: "I've seen high-definition television. It looks great." Rob's forensic insights have yet to be added to the BBC's interactive World Cup commentary menu. If and when they are, you can bet he'd attract more viewers than soporific sheep-wearer John Motson. Nearly 2m viewers pressed red to silence Motty in the tournament's first three days - and that's just the Sky subscribers. Viewers preferred to accompany their pictures with the sound of BBC Radio Five Live, crowd noise or foreign broadcasters. Quite right, too. Why settle for "My, that was some strike by the England number 10" when you can have "GOOOOOOOOOOOOOAL! GOAL GOAL GOAL GOAL GOOOOOOAL!"? Similar hoopla is expected to mark the inevitable ejection of Grace from the Big Brother house tonight. Grace, a woman whose name fits her character about as well as John Prescott fits in the front seat of a Tonka, has managed to become the most reviled TV personality of the year. See, Motty? It's not just you. Clip of the week: Motty-free, Grace-free, Robbie Williams-free, non-HD Stingray on YouTube Top five to watch this week: 1. Doctor Who, Saturday 17 June, BBC1, 7pm Tonight's ep is "Love and Monsters", aka An Audience With Doctor Who, with celebrity guests Marc Warren and Peter Kay sucking up all the attention and trying to distract viewers from the nigglesome suspicion that this series just isn't as good as the Eccleston one. Followed at 7.45 on BBC3 by Doctor Who Confidential. 2. The Gunther Von Hagens Body Appeal, Monday 19 June, More4, 9pm The Deutsche cadaver-carver we're contractually obliged to call "controversial" is back, and this time he wants your organs. Followed by a week-long re-run of his series Autopsy: Life and Death, just so you know what you're letting your insides in for. 3. Veronica Mars, Thursday 22 June, LivingTV, 8pm The fantasy teen "tec drama is back - and this time it's got Steve Guttenburg in it. 4. Lost, Tuesday 20 June, E4, Midnight "The 23rd Psalm", in which Claire finds out what's in the Virgin Mary statue and gets cross with Merry. Kate gives Sawyer a haircut. It's Neighbours Goes to Hawaii, isn't it? 5. Voices in My Head, Sunday 18 June, C4, 7.30pm Scientists reveal radical new theories on why some people hear voices inside their heads. No tapes available at the time of writing, so we don't know whether the programme features anyone whose head-voice is an over-stimulated Argentinian screaming "GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOAL!" ®
Jane Hoskyn, 16 Jun 2006

CMDB standards wrangle

CMDB? That's Configuration Management Database in long-hand, and it is the tool through which IT managements can keep a handle on the increasing complex melange of applications, tools, utilities and the rest that go to make up the operational IT infrastructure of a business or organisation. Service Oriented Architecture (SOA) in particular will be pretty hard to manage, especially when it comes to building the essential composite applications, without a repository of some sort that knows where every tool, utility and application component can be found, how it interacts with everything else, and what it needs to work. Now the big names of IT infrastructures are circling around the growing CMDB sector. IBM recently announced the upcoming arrival of Tivoli Change and Configuration Management, while Computer Associates has MDB, and BMC offers Atrium. HP is currently lagging behind in this area, with a roadmap pointing to 2008 for a CMDB offering to appear. These are now being joined by companies like Managed Objects which are, according to its CEO Siki Giunta, approaching the CMDB requirement from the top down rather than bottom up. "There has been talk of standardisation in this area," she said, "but the 'Big Six' companies only want to talk about standardising the data model and the database. We say the more important element is the data built on top of the database - the processes and what you do with them." Meetings to explore data model standardisation have been held, but Managed Objects has not been party to them. "We called them all, and they didn't want us there." Managed Objects' implementation of the idea is called CMDB 360o and has over 60 points of integration that allows it to generate a fully federated CMDB from existing IT configuration data held in other databases. "We've always been open and we welcome any type of standardisation," Giunta said. The company claims that the analytic tools incorporated into the system are capable of providing users with a full understanding of their IT infrastructure and the services that are affected by it. This points to the system offering advantages not only to users looking towards implementing SOA environments, but also those facing up to the problems of compliance management - both in terms of asset management issues relating to Sarbanes-Oxley and risk management in terms of Basel II. Not surprisingly, large financial institutions form the majority of beta testers, and one factor here may be the claim that, though a typical installation will cost some $250,000, the return on the investment can be had in weeks rather than years. ®
Martin Banks, 16 Jun 2006

Powergen pulls plug on Indian call centres

Powergen is pulling the plug on its Indian call centres following complaints from customers. The energy giant announced yesterday that it plans to withdraw all inbound call handling from India and create 1,000 new jobs in the UK instead. "Offshore call centres may have their place for certain industries," Powergen managing director Nick Horler said. "However, we believe that we can best achieve industry-leading customer service by operating solely in the UK. "When customers contact us they need to be confident that their query will be fully resolved quickly. Although the cost of overseas outsourcing can be low, we're simply not prepared to achieve savings at the risk or expense of customer satisfaction," he said. Earlier this week, an Indian outsourcing company confirmed plans to create 1,000 jobs in Northern Ireland over the next two years. ICICI OneSource, one of India's largest business process outsourcing (BPO) companies, said its decision to expand in Europe comes as a number of companies want to outsource their call centre operations but don't want that work migrated to India. ®
Tim Richardson, 16 Jun 2006

VIA socket-479 CPU appears in Japan

VIA has been very quiet recently, especially in the UK. Although it had a stand at Computex this year, there was really very little in terms of new products on display. Then, out of nowhere, this socket-479 processor appears on a Japanese website, without any mention of it from VIA.
Lars-Göran Nilsson, 16 Jun 2006

Developing world malware writers throw a sickie

LettersLetters Does sending PCs to the developing world fuel malware? That's what Eugene Kaspersky said recently. We reckoned the potential benefits outweighed the dangers, but here are your thoughts: PCs to developing world 'fuel malware'. Perhaps, but Software Industry's dirty secret is that many top people learnt their trade in secret hacker gangs, creating malware, ripping games and defacing websites. Today's precocious village malware author is tommorow's Third World Fortune 500 entrepreneur. Eric Cheap PCs for underpriveleged cause virus criminality: This, in the original too, is a bad case of equating correlation with causality. Virus distribution (not writing) is not the same in all areas, see https://app.it.okstate.edu/mca/worldmap.php It is also highest in the US, but I wouldn't conclude that China should impose an export ban. More logical conclusions might be that - PCs should be better separated from communication. A PC off the net can only get infected when data or programs are downloaded, printing of data is virus-free. Each class of equipment should have its own operating system, then infection is confined to species. Britt PCs to developing world 'fuel malware' - so does literacy. Eric Blast. That's our main potential benefit blown out of the water. Back in the "developed" world, meanwhile, UK small biz has got itself into a bit of a state over union Unison's apparent advice on how to throw a sickie: Has anyone bothered to read this article? It just states the bleeding obvious - if you want to watch the football then ask your bosses if there's a flexible working policy. If you choose to take a sickie then it says what the employer might reasonably think and do if it just happens to be at the same time as a match. It *doesn't* advocate taking a sickie to watch the football. It reminds people that they should follow the correct procedure for reporting sick. That applies whenever you phone in sick. Only a halfwit would interpret it any other way. The article also says "Taking time off work without permission can lead to dismissal for ‘gross misconduct’ ". Any half decent business will have something in place to deal with people who take sickies when they aren't sick anyway. Mr Alambriitis should have said something along the lines of "I don't believe in 24 hour 'flu" rather than gone and made like a stroppy teenager claiming the article is irresponsible. The article puts the Amicus spin on an issue which I daresay has been discussed and joked about in the vast majority of workplaces. People do get ill from time to time. It happens. Live with it and deal with it. Jamie "Mercifully, everyone expects to be fit and well by tomorrow morning, which is a testament to the power of modern medicine." Oh now that's just flagrant bullshit - modern medicine has yet to come up with a reliable five-minute hangover cure, aside maybe from anaesthesia. Richard Indeed, it works for us. New toys now, specifically Google Earth Version 4 - higher res and now available for Linux. Good show: Google Earth comes to Linux is great news for everyone, not just the Linux people. Speaking as a Mac user, Linux is immensely important in keeping Microsoft in check. Support from the likes of Google is good news. Hopefully they'll make a Linux version of SketchUp soon too. Hywel Just a small comment: It is funny how Google Earth has rendered at least one (possibly more) GIS/GIS-like applications essentially obsolete. I had to listen to a sales pitch from some people explaining to me how this brand new connection of 10 Gbps was so much more cooler for everything and how new things were possible. Then they showed this pretty computer with three monitors and some earth rendering. They show how they can rotate, navigate, zoom in, zoom out, and zoom in into a volcano in some part in Asia. I didn't made the obvious comment, but just waiting a few extra seconds and w/o all the special purpose hardware, I can do the same in google earth. Actually I can probably do better since it has the roadmaps labelled nicely :). Granted, it doesn't look as cool in my PC, but it probably costs 200 K$ less :) Have a nice day, b It works acceptable even on an XTerm using X over network. In fact it is considerably less fussy regarding hardware than the Winhoze version. A. Google Earth (v4 beta) for Linux is great. Works like a charm. Shame it doesn't know where "castle combe" is... It keeps bring up some company in Bracknell... Hamish Much impressed with Google Earth for Linux. I know how much you like plane spotting. If you head on over to... 51°28'39.05"N, 0°28'56.81"W ...you'll find Heathrow. More specifically you'll find one plane captured 4 times as it comes into land. (Either that or NATS is in worse shape than I thought.) Anyhow, it brings to mind a potential propaganda weapon. Tired of your tiny tin-pot country not being taken seriously on the international stage? Want to scare your neighbours into a quick surrender? Simply move your planes and tanks around their staging areas. When GoogleSat (TM) goes over, your force will be recorded for posterity*... only every vehicle will be captured half a dozen times. Enjoy, Matt * And intelligence purposes. Hi Found this area on the new Google Earth. Mick Oh no, it's only been out five minutes and v.4 has already scrambled the black helicopters... ...and for further conspiracy theories, try the case of the devil cat which apparently predicts when its owner is about to have an epileptic fit by staring at him. On the other hand, the cat could be causing the fits, we offered. Hi Lucy, Perhaps it is Mr Edmonds who is possesed and the kitty is merely trying to exorcise him. Cats rule. Peter Cats are not demonic. They're just differently deified. Maybe you need this cat to go with the article on The Reg. about clearing drain with sardines. Put the sardines in the drain and trick the evil cat to use it's amazing powers to suck the sardines and other obstructions from the drain. An evil cat, hair balls, and oily sardines could turn out to be a pretty nasty combination (sure hope there is a warning label on those sardines, lol). Shane On the other hand, the combination of coffee and booze might well carry a health recommendation, since the former seemingly protects the liver against damage by the latter: Coffee and Booze. What could be better??!! Yes, I will have an Irish Coffee please. As was noted on a web site I perused, it contains ALL FOUR of the gastrointestinal sins: Caffeine, Alcohol, Sugar, and Butterfat. You can't improve on that, and now it is "healthy!". Tom And just before we run screaming to the pub for a few pints of caffeine-laced ale, here's our now traditional "a grammatical pedant writes" offering. Mercifully, it's the authors of the booze and coffee story who are taking the flak this week: The researchers don’t have the best grasp on English do they? "The data do suggest that coffee intake may partly explain the variability of cirrhosis risk in alcohol consumers." The relationship is buttressed by findings from blood samples, which showed the amount of damage-indicating enzymes released by the liver is less if the patient is a coffee drinker. Try this, "The data suggests that coffee intake may partly explain the variability of cirrhosis risk in alcohol consumers" The relationship is buttressed by findings from blood samples, which show the amount of damage-indicating enzymes released by the liver is lower if the patient is a coffee drinker. Yours sincerely, Board Grammar Nazi Hmmmm. Have a great weekend and try not to overdo the caffeine and alcohol. ®
Lester Haines, 16 Jun 2006
Think Outside Boomtube

What's Boomtube? Yup, speakers in a tube

Think Outside's Boomtube portable speakers are housed in an aluminium tube with ends that twist off that reveal stereo satellite speakers. The central section accommodates a pair of 56mm/2 inch drivers, so that's four drivers, with a total rating of 40Watts RMS. It also accommodates a rechargeable Li-Ion battery that is claimed to last for five hours. Hi-Fi fans will know that if you stick a small speaker in a tube, it makes an enormous thumping bass noise.
Leo Waldock, 16 Jun 2006

ATI denies 80nm problems

When Windows Vista hits the shops at the turn of the New Year it will include DirectX 10 which supports Shader Model with unified Shaders, as opposed to dedicated Pixel, Vertex and Geometry Shaders. This is a significant change for ATI and Nvidia and it means that the next chips will be taking a much greater step than a relatively simple speed bump from Radeon X1900 and GeForce 7900GTX.
Leo Waldock, 16 Jun 2006

Register Weekly

Gates bolts The big news of this week was the departure of Bill Gates from Microsoft. Like all the best news stories, you might have heard this one before. Gates stepped down from day-to-day management of Microsoft in 2000 when Steve Ballmer took over as chief executive. But now he wants to work full-time on his foundation and part-time for Microsoft. He gives up the title of chief software architect immediately to Ray Ozzie. Over the next year, Gates will reduce his role at Microsoft - becoming part-time by 2008. He will remain chairman and a major shareholder. Gates insisted that Ballmer remains the best man for the CEO role. He described their partnership as "the greatest business partnership ever". But have the last six years really been so good? Certainly, the last six years have seen a big drop in Microsoft's share price. They have also been marked by fairly regular anti-trust court cases - Europe and South Korea are still marching towards a conclusion. And they've been marked by what some observers see as a lack of the spark and innovation that once made Microsoft shine. But this is not entirely true. Microsoft has never really been an innovator, it rarely arrives first in any market - look at browsers. But when it does enter a new market that market is quickly turned on its head. Microsoft today looks more vulnerable, not less. And continuing set backs and problems with Vista, its oft-delayed operating system, are making things worse. Ballmer joined Microsoft in 1980, so to credit Gates with full responsibility for its corporate culture is a little unfair. In his press conference, Gates complained that the world pays him too much attention. Who'd have guessed being the world's richest man would attract such attention? Microsoft is just a great big layer cake We got an interesting glimpse into the world of Microsoft this week from a blogger who posted a lengthy and thoughtful piece on why Vista is delayed. And he should know - Philip Su spent five years running development teams at Microsoft. The piece was removed shortly after it went up prompting an orgy of speculation from the usual conspiracy theorists. The fact that it went back up, in order to lessen attention paid to it, also tells us something about the company. Su says: "Deep in the bowels of Windows, there remains the whiff of a bygone culture of belittlement and aggression. Windows can be a scary place to tell the truth." He describes VPs unwilling to hear bad news and unwilling to pass it on. Fear of getting a face full of chair means teams are hiding problems from their managers. Su also complained about the layers of management: "There are too many cooks in the kitchen. Too many vice presidents in reporting structures too narrow. When I was in Windows, I reported to Alec, who reported to Peter, to Bill, Rick, Will, Jim, Steve, and Bill. Remember that there were two layers of people under me as well, making a total path depth of 11 people from Bill Gates down to any developer on my team." Su also says micromanagement is still a feature of some managers - not good when you're trying to get 50m lines of code out the door. Read Ashlee Vance's view of the Gates announcement here. And the musings of Mr Su are here. Apologies for the random bold sections of text. Beeb broadcasts a cup full of trouble... Apart from Bill, the week was filled with beer and football. Which was nice. The BBC took the unusual step of advising companies how to block access to large sections of the BBC website. The Beeb wasn't doing a Yahoo! and removing anything the Chinese government didn't like. It was offering to help companies stop staff accessing the streamed coverage of World Cup matches. Aunty Beeb was reacting to the flurry of fears of global network meltdown as people tune in for England matches. Given the time of most games, and the crowds down at Register Towers' nearest hostelry, most people are choosing to watch games in traditional discomfort rather than peering at a wobbly square online. More on blocking the Beeb here. And to find out how Yahoo! is the best Chinese censor click here. ...and the cup that cheers your liver From football to beer - or rather what you consume when you're not watching football - coffee. It emerged this week that the two are more closely connected than you may have imagined. Research from the US reveals that coffee can dramatically reduce cirrhosis of the liver. A survey of 125,000 people between 1978 and 1985 showed a daily cup of coffee can reduce your chances of getting the disease by 22 per cent. Tea does not have the same effect. More from our coffee correspondent here. Powergen goes cold on outsourcing Last week, we looked at the difficulties of dealing with offshored business processes, and how board members argue over responsibility and how to manage projects based in different time zones. This week, Powergen decided the game wasn't worth the candle and closed its Indian call centres. The utility is bringing all its phone farms back to the UK. With spooky timing, or not, we also heard this week that one of the leading Indian outsourcing providers, ICICI OneSource, is opening a 1,000 seat call centre in Northern Ireland. Let's hope ICICI's board of directors can agree who will be looking after this offshored project. And the Windows Genuine Advantage is? The row over Windows Genuine Advantage continued this week with readers complaining that the nastyware was unfairly labelling them pirates. Or worse, it was telling their customers they'd bought hooky software - not a good thing, especially when you've gone to the trouble and expense of sending Microsoft a reasonable pile of cash for a genuine license. WGA checks your software is legit and then reports back to Microsoft. Fine, but it was making the call every day. It's now been tweaked, and only phones home every two weeks. However, readers point out that it is still assuming guilt rather than innocence, and it is slowing start-up times on some machines. Simple changes, like a new video card, can send WGA into a bit of tizzy. Which would be irritating enough on your own machine - you need to get in touch with Redmond and get "reactivated" - but doing the same thing for a corporate network is really no fun at all. More here. Roam all you want, but pay up The European Commission has had a bee in its bonnet about international roaming charges for ages. But this week it backed away from forcing mobile providers to cut the cost of roaming across the continent. Originally, the commission was proposing price caps on consumer prices and tying them more closely to domestic charges, but it has decided to go after wholesale prices instead. This should be easier to do - some analysts were suggesting the EC proposals would be all but impossible to implement. And most observers reckon we'll still see consumer prices falling. The mobile companies wanted action taken on wholesale prices too, so for once regulator and industry are in warm accord. More on this here. Very quickly... A couple of shorties: Oracle results are in and the firm beat expectations by a comfortable margin - more here. And finally, CA made another move into storage this week with the purchase of records management company MDY Group - have a look here for more details. How to cure over-spending - NHS style Earlier in the week we reported on the problems already besetting the NpfIT and in response we got a "newspeak" missive questioning our use of "fines" to describe money the NHS must pay to suppliers. An NHS spin king, appropriately called Mr Herbert, said: "It has to pay for not meeting its contractual obligations." - which sounds like a fine to us. Mr Herbert also questioned our claim that the project was over budget. We thought he was wrong. But then on Friday the National Audit Office published its review of the NHS programme. We were told the programme wasn't over budget because the budget had been doubled to £12.4bn. It gets better - the Department of Health always knew it would cost £12.4bn, rather than the £6.2bn they told us originally. We were also told the price covers only developing new systems, not putting them in place and making them run. Brilliant. "We're not over-budget because we've torn the budget up and thrown it out the window." More on the sickly NHS here and here. That's it for now. See you same time, next week.®
Reg Digest, 16 Jun 2006

Mealy-mouthed NAO pampers NHS IT

The £12.4bn National Programme for IT might not be delivering value for money, according to the National Audit Office report into the ambitious NHS IT scheme. But the auditors cannot be too sure because no proper cost/benefit analysis has been done. The NAO report was meant to tell us. It's brief included deciding whether contracts were "likely to deliver good value for money", but it has failed to draw a clear conclusion. Chris Shapcott, director of health value for money studies at the NAO, and the lead on the auditing team, was able to report that "quantifiable benefits are currently less than the cost of the programme." He said the NAO would not be able to assess fully whether the Programme had been value for money until it was completed in 2014. Even the question of whether it is "likely" the Programme will deliver value for money has been put off until Connecting for Health, the Department of Health unit that is running the Programme, can carry out a recommendation of the NAO report that it do a proper cost/benefit analysis. Strangely, Connecting for Health was able able to shower the NAO with figures to defend its position against mounting criticism. Tough negotiations with generic software vendors like Microsoft and Oracle, for example, saved £860m. Contracting centrally for the whole of the NHS saved £4.5bn. Screwing suppliers contractually saved another £6.8bn. An estimate of the value of a system that gives more timely and accurate medical information is £2.5bn, and so on. Yet when it comes to surmising value for money more broadly, CfH is at a loss. It reckons much of its value can't be quantified. How do you measure the value of improved patient safety or services, CfH asked the auditors. The assumption appears to be that the chippy determination of the Programme's director, Richard Granger, will eventually force something of value out of the Programme; and that gives the Programme an inherent value. But the NAO's mealy-mouthed report avoids the more fundamental question it had promised to answer: whether the controversial manner in which the project was set up and managed has delivered value for money. The report did note the Programme's failure to consult with users, a sure sign of badness in an IT project. The Programme was "imposed by diktat from above", as remarked in a statement today by Edward Leigh MP, chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, and for whom the NAO had written its report. An aversion to dictatorial project management is not a wisdom we have accrued only from the repeated failures of dictatorial project managers. Force does not make something right, Jean Jacques Rousseau said two hundred and fifty years ago, but it does make it happen, for better or for worse. In this respect, even the basic premise of the Programme is open to question. There might have been any number of alternatives, managed wisely, implemented carefully. But as Shapcott told journalists today of the NHS' approach to IT development in the years before the Programme's inception in 2002: "At the time it was decided that strategy wasn't working. It wasn't delivering the pace of change that ministers wanted." A political timetable demanded a hurried procurement for the Programme and not just secrecy, but dropping any but cursory consultation. There is evidence that the NAO did consider its brief to asses the value for money of the procurement. But it has kept its deliberations to itself. And the result was a list of lessons that consisted mostly of apparently credulous support for the programme's rush tactics and bad cop negotiations with suppliers. For example, a "swift" procurement gets a better price out of suppliers, said the report, presumably because it gives them less of an opportunity to scope the system out properly and cost it effectively. So the Programme got a good price, but how likely is a complex project to deliver a good computer system if it is planned and specified in a hurry? Another NAO lesson was that the tough contractual terms like the ones the Programme imposed on its suppliers reduce the likelihood of wasted public money. But they also put enormous financial strain on suppliers that might ultimately hinder the delivery and quality of the system. The continuing crisis at NPfIT supplier iSoft this year might be a case in point. (iSoft might not have been a contracted directly by CfH, but the same tough terms where passed down to subcontractors by the primary suppliers). Who now can tell us whether the Programme's approach was desirable, delivered the best possible system for the best possible price in the shortest possible time; that it delivered value for money? The NAO will not even make an interim judgement on this. Yet it has still managed to give the Programme a pampering in its report.®
Mark Ballard, 16 Jun 2006

The US soccer team will always stink

And ninthlyAnd ninthly One might also say: Surely the owner of the visual room would have to be the same kind of thing as it is; but he is not to be found in it, and there is no outside - Ludwig Wittgenstein If Thomas Friedman's mustache understands so damned much, then why is America's soccer program such an embarrassment? This question has plagued me ever since the World Cup started, and it should plague you too. On one hand, the US deserves congratulations for fielding a squad that has crept into the top ten of world soccer team rankings. Our soccer team is composed of seventh-tier athletes - those that couldn't make football, baseball, basketball, hockey, tennis, golf and track teams - and manages to compete well against the best athletes churned out by other countries. But, dear god, have our immigrants ever let us down on the soccer front. Look back to the Winter Olympics where the US finished second in the medal count to Germany. Our snow-themed athletes fall around the eleventh-tier of US sporting talent, somewhere behind bowlers and professional poker players. And yet with little more than yuppie parentage behind them, these athletes were able to make a mockery of countries such as Norway, Sweden and Switzerland. On the soccer pitch, the score is much different. The US team fell miserably to the tiny Czech Republic. There's simply no excuse for such a disgrace. Under Friedman's program, this disgrace should never happen. We live in a well-greased world where talent defies borders and empowered countries that embrace globalization reap rewards. The sharing of knowledge through majestic processes such as open source development, outsourcing and sweatshops will create a more level playing field among the embracers and cripple the embracer nots. Huge congratulations go to Friedman for profiting off such an obvious notion. The journalist codified a process that has been taking place since the wheel was invented and wrapped it in buzzwords to keep squishy minds happy. But how then can Friedman explain away our dismal soccer team without sacrificing his mustache of understanding? The US has spent the last 300 years hoarding foreign talent with a particular emphasis in the last 50 years on securing aid from Mexicans, Guatemalans, Brazilians and the list goes on. It's these people that should have turned the US into the ultimate soccer powerhouse. They, however, failed us. The main reason for our soccer woes is that the status quo is more powerful than all of Friedman's touchy-feely gobbledygook. And, I actually think Friedman understands this more than he lets on. Friedman's entire "the world is flat" pitch is nothing more than a confirmation that those who are in power will remain in power. He gives the illusion that hard work and "progressive" policies can make a winner out of a loser, but that's crap. The line tossed out by Friedman and friends really serves as more of a distraction for the underprivileged. They're encouraged to think that a globalized version of the American Dream is theirs for the taking. But the American Dream never really existed in the first place. More recently, Friedman has worked to extend his illusions to touch the global warming front. We caught him this week making an appearance on the Daily Show where a caricature of Jon Stewart grabbed Friedman by the midsection and went in with mouth gaping. "We are close to breakthroughs on solar," Friedman said with a twinkle of the mustache. "I am actually most excited about solar from looking at China, Jon." "I think the richest man in China is actually a solar entrepreneur. They are not waiting for us." Here we go. "I think the quickest, scalable solution - because most of our oil consumption is from cars and trucks - is if we had a $1 a gallon gasoline tax. It would, I think, explode innovation around hybrid technology and alternative energy." "Imagine if we had a dollar per gallon gasoline tax. We called it the 'Patriot Tax.'" "It's as though you manipulated my emotions. Well done," Stewart guffawed with his mouth still half-full. While hiding behind a veil of inanity, Friedman managed to push forward a more subtle agenda. His "concern" for global warming and energy consumption is nothing more than another ruse. After all, the only reason we want to prevent global warming is to maintain the status quo. Serious weather change in the US, Australia and Europe would ruin the God given gifts we've enjoyed for centuries. Nothing has backed the success of these nations more than their natural bounties and comfortable climes. Would Africa really turn into a desert should temperatures rise or is there an outside chance that it would actually become a continent full of lush, productive landscapes and rich people? Friedman cheers China and champions the idea of innovation coming from around the globe to thwart global warming. In reality, however, he cares only about the status quo and maintaining it. Here are three guarantees. The US soccer team will forever stink. Western nations will not let global warming happen. And Thomas Friedman will go down as the most anti-globalization, pro-status quo pundit in the last decade. ® Otto Z. Stern is a director at The Institute of Technological Values - a think tank dedicated to a more moral digital age. He has closely monitored the IT industry's intersection with America's role as a world leader for thirty years. You can find Stern locked and loaded, corralling wounded iLemmings, developing strong Mexican engineers, masticating beta culture, booing our soccer team, following Jimmy Wales, nursing an opal-plated prostate, spanking open source fly boys, wearing a smashing suit, watching Dead Man, dropping a SkyCar on the Googleplex, spitting on Frenchmen, and vomiting in fear with a life-sized cutout of Hilary Rosen at his solar-powered compound somewhere in the Great American Southwest.
Otto Z. Stern, 16 Jun 2006