CommentComment My mother trained as a shorthand-typist back in the early 1940s. As a lad, I was always impressed by her typing. With one of those old fashioned Imperial typewriters, she could bash out around 60 or 70 words a minute, which wasn't bad considering the mechanical inertia built into something that weighed as much as a Chieftain tank.
Birmingham Council has handed the second raft of its 10 year transformation programme over to a public-private vehicle that is majority owned by Capita.
Members of Parliament and their staff have expressed massive dissatisfaction with their IT support. In a recently published report (pdf), cheesed-off politicos and admin types fulminated against the Parliamentary Information and Communications Technology Department (PICT). "My career has been spent in the national offices of a variety of charities of varying sizes and...in a private sector marketing agency," wrote one MP. "I have to say that although individuals are often friendly, helpful and professional, the PICT service overall seems to me one of the poorest I have received." "I have a very poor overall opinion of the services provided," grumbled another. "There have been a number of occasions when we have been let down when it comes to resolving technological problems...On occasions my Constituency Office has been brought to a standstill for weeks due to the failings of PICT." Ousted Home Secretary Charles Clarke said: "Very irritatingly, I cannot use my laptop in Parliament at all. The wireless connection simply does not function in Parliament (though I can use it in Schiphol Airport or the Conference Hotel in Manchester for example)." The ex-Cabinet minister, now relegated to the back benches, did have the grace to admit that "my own ICT expertise is limited and so I may well have missed solutions which will appear obvious to those more expert than I". James Arbuthnot, former Minister for Defence Procurement and now chairman of the Commons Defence Committee, also had harsh words for the hapless IT staffers of PICT. "PICT does not provide quick and competent support...It is not a good organisation. And it is a monopoly organisation. While there are shining individual exceptions to the string of whinges I set out below, they are exceptions." Arbuthnot's string of whinges was rather long. "It took [the Defence Committee media officer] a fortnight to be issued with a mobile, a ridiculous thing to happen in the media world," he says. It's possible that Mr Arbuthnot is being a bit hasty with the first stone here. After all, he was in charge as a minister - among other things - of the Bowman battefield comms project from 1995 to 1997, during which period it made approximately zero forward progress. Thus, British squaddies had to continue to use unencrypted, appallingly unreliable analogue radios for another two years; which you could describe as a ridiculous thing to happen in the defence world of the 1990s. Maybe two weeks for a mobile isn't actually that bad. And Arbuthnot went on: "The laptops are too heavy," he complained, in an uncanny echo of what British troops said about Bowman when it finally arrived. Though they may have had a tad more justification. But Mr Arbuthnot was a happy camper compared to Ann Widdecombe, a former minister for prisons and immigration. "I find it difficult to understand quite how the 158 staff in the PICT Service can fail to deliver a more helpful, efficient, and generally trustworthy service," the parliamentary heavyweight raged. "If Parliament were a company it would not have the technological finesse to compete with the Third World...whenever a member of my staff or I telephone the PICT Service we can expect to wait 15 to 20 minutes...after only a few weeks the fax facility was continually breaking...at other times the printer refuses to believe there is paper inside it." And so on. But the beleaguered Parliament IT department wasn't alone in the line of fire. Another target for MPs' spleen was econo-hardware heavyweight Dell, whose kit came in for dozens of slatings. A few MPs submitted positive comments, and a few more understood the security constraints that PICT must be facing, but mainly they seemed to feel that PICT should offer end-users much greater levels of service. The investigating MPs of the Administration Committee, unsurprisingly, said they had found "a significant undertone of dissatisfaction with the ICT services provided by Parliament". Just the ICT services? ®
Engineering giant Siemens has appointed Peter Loescher as its new chief executive in an attempt to kick start efforts to restore the German firm's image. Shares in Siemens rose as much as 2.7 per cent to a six-year high on Monday after its supervisory board surprised markets on Sunday by naming the Austrian born US healthcare industry executive as its next CEO.
UpdatedUpdated Virgin Media's website still says the firm has "no plans to introduce any usage limits", despite the nationwide rollout of bandwidth throttling at the beginning of May. Virgin now limits speeds between 4pm and midnight once users reach a MB limit, which is dependent on how much they pay per month. However, in the firm's FAQ, posted when NTL rebranded last, it says there were no plans to introduce such limits, even though it was already trialling the technology. Virgin Media: no limits? The oversight is an embarrassment for Virgin Media, which is struggling against Sky, while trying to turn around years of bad customer service in its NTL incarnation. Part of the play has been to be transparent about usage policies and generally communicate better with punters, so the garbled information is doubly off-message. Virgin doesn't apply monthly download limits, and has criticised others for doing so while claiming "unlimited" service. ® Update Virgin Media returned our call, and have promised to alter the offending text over the next few days to reflect reality.
Apple will update its iMac desktop family late next month, it has been claimed - and that the move that will see the 17in model dropped from the line up.
A Royal Marine recently returned from combat in Afghanistan has uploaded some astonishing Doom-style helmet-cam footage, taken during a massive gun battle with the Taliban. Viewers be warned: unlike the Iraq headquarters PR channel videos, it contains extensive profanity. Also, the cameraman gets hit in a mildly embarrassing location, to the hilarity of his comrades. There isn't any blood and guts to speak of. Here it is (could be NSFW, depending on how much swearing and gunfire is allowed in your office): It takes a lot to get the Royal Marines down, clearly. It seems that El Reg's analysis of warzone reportage may have been right. There is nowadays no way to prevent soldiers from uploading video or other content from the war zones, and nobody is seriously trying to. Recent media lamentations about muzzling of the troops, restriction on free speech etc, were a tad exaggerated. ®
ColumnColumn Well done, Sir William Stewart.
Educational technology specialist RM Group has acquired DACTA, and with it a mainland European presence, for just shy of £4m. DACTA, which recorded an operating profit of £570k on revenues of £6.5m in its last financial year, manages a pan-European network of resellers of branded educational resources. It is also the exclusive distributor for LEGO Education in the UK, and 16 other European countries.
CommentComment IBM has announced it is redirecting $1bn per year across its businesses to increase the energy efficiency of IT operations. Called Project Big Green, IBM's initiative targets corporate data centres where energy constraints and costs can limit their ability to grow.
Casio will bring the first 12-megapixel compact digital camera to the UK later this month, the company best known for its calculators and digital watches said today.
Argentinian reseachers have rather unaccountably discovered that Viagra helps ameliorate the effects of "jet lag" in hamsters, and might do the same for humans. According to New Scientist, hamsters who were favoured with small doses of sildenafil, punted as Viagra, coped better with a simulated six-hour time-zone shift than their non-chemical-hardened chums - adapting to the jet lag up to 50 per cent faster. Specifically, Diego Golombek and colleagues from the Quilmes National University in Buenos Aires took a bunch of hamsters and disrupted their normal cycle of 14 hours' daylight followed by 10 hours' night. They injected some of the subjects with 70 micrograms of Viagra, then shortly after switched off the cage lights early to simulate the effects of travelling between Paris and New York - a six-hour time shift - continuing this body-clock bashing for several weeks. As a result, the hamsters became "disoriented" and, when the lights went out, eschewed their favoured nocturnal activity of hitting the running wheel. It took the control group 12 days to get back to their normal selves, "at which point they showed normal running activity soon after the lights went out", while the Viagra-boosted guinea pigs were up and running in eight days. In humans, the NS notes, "each hour in time difference between the origin and destination of a flight causes an extra day of jet lag", so it'd take you or I around six days to properly recover from a Paris-New York jaunt. Small doses of Viagra might help because, as Golombek explained, it "raises levels of a small molecule called cyclic guanosine monophosphate (cGMP) in the body" which temporarily accelerates the brain's internal body clock. Golombek noted that the human equivalent of the 70 micrograms administered to the hamsters would be a tiny fraction of a full-fat dose contained in a blue pill, so it wouldn't cause a "massive surge in cGMP" and the need to cross the Atlantic with a newspaper on your lap. He said: "It's true that some people will be worried about the - let's call them side effects. But if we eliminate the erectile effects, I don't see why people wouldn't consider taking it." All well and good, but the Viagra treatment would only work on westbound travel. The drug failed to deliver faster adjustment for hamsters subjected to an eastbound simulation - "when their period of light exposure is adjusted to begin after the normal time" - because "changes in cGMP levels do not slow down the body clock". Indeed, a 2006 study on rodents discovered that "severe time advances hastened death much more than time delays". Quilmes National University team member Patricia Agostino said the body "adapts better when you travel west", while admitting the reason is unknown. She speculated that "there are probably different molecular pathways that account for time advances and delays". The researchers' findings are published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. ®
Popfly, Microsoft's first Silverlight application, is a visual development tool for creating mashups without writing any code. Dan Fernandez, lead product manager in Microsoft's developer division, wants Popfly to reach what he calls "the MySpace generation" who want cutting edge web gadgets without cutting edge coding.
Keele University has ordered its students to watch their mouths on Facebook, and asked them not to express dissatisfaction with the institution on social networking sites. The administration was provoked by a Facebook group called "James Knowles is a Twat". Professor James Knowles is an English literature academic at the Staffordshire university. Members of the group were warned that the group was unacceptable and would be dealt with "very severely" if it continued. A more general warning against criticising the university on social networking sites was sent to all students in the wake of the rumpus. It said: Derogatory and offensive comments about Keele staff will be taken very seriously by the university and could lead to disciplinary action against the student(s) concerned. Students may also face legal action from the members of staff concerned for defamation and harassment. Please note that there are legitimate ways to express dissatisfaction with the student experience without resorting to such communications. The full text of the email is here. Some students have reacted by creating protest groups on Facebook, including "Freedom of Thought at Keele", and "Freedom of Speech in Keele Psychology" (registration required). One student told The Reg: "We can all understand people being warned personally, but a global email to all students telling us to be quiet is a bit rich." A group entitled "Janet Finch - Something must be done", which has more than 500 members from Keele, has also seen debate over the administration's response. It was begun as a protest against a 31.7 per cent pay hike awarded to the university's vice chancellor. Figures show Keele is struggling to attract new undergraduates, leading staff and students there to question the huge payday. Keele had no response after several phone calls. It has told students a new policy on using social networking will be published shortly. Meanwhile, at Durham University the IT services department has taken action to reduce the amount of bandwidth swallowed by social networking. Our correspondent reports that action to deprioritise Facebook between 8.30am and 5.30pm "has lead to a rather remarkable drop off in the number of students in any of the university libraries". ®
The elephant in the room was one of the presenters at Salesforce.com's one day developer conference in Silicon Valley yesterday. With rumours of an upcoming Google partnership sparking financial news, the company's CEO Marc Benioff joked that he wasn't going to talk about the rumours – though he did proceed to hint that there may be some truth in them. Certainly, Google's presence could be felt throughout the event, with keynote demonstrations showing Salesforce.com's platform working with Google's APIs.
Alactel Mobile Phones' latest - the 1970s-sounding GlamPhone - is sponsored by womens' fashion mag Elle, so guess what, Reg Hardware told yours truly to go and watch this "glamorous icon of the season" strut its stuff.
Over-achieving Mars rover Spirit has literally uncovered new evidence that Mars used to have a much wetter climate, thanks to a dodgy wheel. Spirit has been on Mars for much longer than mission planners had ever hoped, and is beginning to show its age: one of its six wheels no longer rotates, instead dragging a deep furrow behind the rover as it limps across the Martian surface. But this has meant researchers have had unexpected access to below surface samples of Martian soil. And it is from one of these samples that this discovery has come. The rover analysed a patch of the soil it had ploughed up. It turned out to be 90 per cent pure silica. According to NASA, the processes that could have created such a high concentration of silica all "require" water. According to the rover team, possible mechanisms for the creation of the silica include the soil interacting with the kinds of acid vapour that would be produced by volcanic activity in the presence of water, or water in a hot spring environment. The rover team made the announcement on a teleconference to discuss the results of the alpha particle x-ray spectrometer. According to Steve Squyres of Cornell University, principal investigator for the Mars rovers' science instruments, "you could hear people gasp in astonishment". "This is a remarkable discovery. And the fact that we found something this new and different after nearly 1,200 days on Mars makes it even more remarkable. It makes you wonder what else is still out there," he said. This is not the first evidence of a wet Martian history that Spirit has found, but it is the most compelling, and suggestive that an earlier Mars might well have been hospitable to life. Earlier discoveries have included patches of water-bearing, sulphur rich soil, alteration of minerals, and evidence of explosive vulcanism. ®
Greek cops have come up with a colourful way to deal with rampaging ne'er-do-wells at tomorrow's Champions League final in Athens - paintball the blighters into submission. The authorities expect around 50,000 Liverpool and AC Milan fans to descend on the capital for the epic struggle for European supremacy, The Scotsman reports. Some may choose to give this a miss and go to the match instead, in which case they'll be spared the deployment of the hoolie-busting paintball gun. Police spokesman Panagiotis Stathis explained that the guns would only be used outside the Olympic stadium "in large open spaces, such as city squares and major roads". He elaborated: "The paintball guns will be one of the weapons the riot police will use in case of fan clashes. They have the double aim of stopping trouble because they are quite painful, as well as marking violent fans." Any rampaging miscreant hit by a pellet and not cuffed on the spot will be suitably marked for later detention, although supporters' clubs have cried foul at the plan. The treasurer of the West of Scotland Liverpool Supporters' Club, John Brown, came off the bench with: "I'm totally against this tactic. If they put enough police on duty there would be no need to even consider something like this. I've been paintballing and being hit by one of those pellets is like being punched and leaves a big bruise on your skin. It would be a lot worse for people getting hit on their bare skin." Human rights lawyer John Scott, meanwhile, said "CCTV cameras should be used to identify troublemakers". ®
OpinionOpinion Nokia's recent announcement heralding the arrival of "widgets" is further proof that the entire mobile industry is a rudderless ship furiously innovating in circles.
An open source services firm is looking for European partners to sell a version of the Postgres database it has souped-up for enterprise customers. EnterpriseDB, a contributor to the open source version of PostgreSQL, launched its commercial version in Europe in January, which it said would save customers 80 per cent over the cost of an Oracle database. It has since signed three partners: Conduct in Norway, First Telecom in Greece, and Redpill in Sweden.
The EU's much debated roaming agreement is set to take a step forward if a modified proposal is accepted by the majority in a vote tomorrow. If approved, it will be voted on by the member states on 7 June. While there is broad approval for a capped "Euro tariff", a fixed-rate tariff which all operators in Europe will be required to offer, how high that tariff should be has been fiercely debated. The other area of dispute has been if customers should automatically be moved to the tariff when it comes into force (opt out), or should be required to call their network operator to select the tariff (opt in). As ever, the compromise is complex. The current proposal is that wholesale roaming rates (the amount operators charge each other) should be set at €0.30 per minute, but should then decrease by €0.02 every year for the three years of the agreement. Outgoing calls, when roaming, will be set at €0.49 a minute, incoming at €0.24, with both dropping by €0.03 a year except for the first year when incoming calls will drop by only €0.02. To put that in perspective, the GSMA has said the industry can't survive without charging at least €0.65 for outgoing calls, while the German EU presidency wanted the rate set at €0.60. The original proposal called for the rate to be €0.40. So this compromise should annoy everyone with equal measure. Customers will be able to move in and out of the Euro tariff without charge, but three months after it's introduced any customers who haven't actively requested a different tariff will be automatically migrated into the Euro option, giving network operators a real incentive to promote their alternatives. Assuming the vote passes tomorrow, the proposal goes before the member states on 7 June, and should pass into law a couple of weeks after that. It might seem that the roaming debate has been dragging on for far too long, but considering the original proposal was only drafted in February, this is almost a land-speed record for the EU. ®
The missing seven grams of "Scotty" actor James Doohan have been found safe and, er, well, in the New Mexico mountains where his near-space capsule crash landed three weeks ago. Doohan's ashes were sent into suborbital space as part of a memorial package. The plan was the ashes would visit almost space, crash land in the New Mexico desert and be returned to grieving families with a nice plaque commemorating the event. But things went awry when the capsule containing the ashes of 200 people, including Doohan and NASA astronaut Gordon Cooper, crashed into mountainous terrain. In spite of the tracker beacon sending out a location signal, the capsule was lost. The firm behind the venture explained that although the search area was reasonably small, the terrain was so chaotic it was difficult to search, and interferred with the tracker signal. But now, after three weeks of scrambling around in rocks and hunting in crevices, ably assisted by a team of trained search and rescue types from the manufacturer of the transmitter, the capsule has been found. "Now we can all say 'mission accomplished'," said Rick Homans, executive director of New Mexico's Spaceport Authority. ®
Amnesty International and the Observer newspaper have called a conference against internet censorship and repression. The interactive global event will be held on 6 June at 18:30 (UK), 19:30 (Europe), 13:30 (EST), 10:30 (PST). Go here for the webcast. Topping the the list of speakers, perhaps curiously, is Martha Lane Fox the internet entrepreneur. The list also includes Morton Sklar, who filed a lawsuit against Yahoo! last year to stop it helping the Chinese government identify dissidents. Amnesty's campaign on internet repression has recently catalogued a chain of repressive practices, including the four year sentence handed down to Egyptian blogger Karim Amer for criticising the government, the collaboration of Microsoft and Google with the Chinese government in more repression, and a "climate of fear" caused by the imprisonment of internet dissidents in Vietnam.®
ReviewReview Sharp is perhaps the keenest supporter of LCD TV technology. It was the first really big name to switch to producing only LCD TVs and thus has had more practice than most. This longevity of experience has allowed Sharp to filter down some of its top-line technologies to its smaller sets and this unit is a good example of that process.
Two brands of Chinese-made toothpastes were last week pulled from shelves in Panama after authorities discovered they contained potentially-fatal diethylene glycol, AP reports. Diethylene glycol is commonly used as a cheap substitute for glycerine, and in this case apparently to prevent the offending toothpastes from drying out. In large doses it can be fatal, as attested by the deaths of around 50 people in Panama last year who drank a cough medicine which, instead of pharmaceutical grade glycerine, used diethylene glycol as the suspension agent. In this case, however, the diethylene glycol was apparently clearly labelled on the "Excel" and "Mr Cool" toothpastes, supplied by the Hengxiang-based Danyang Chengshi Household Chemical Co. After a sharp-eyed customer spotted the offending ingredient, University of Panama experts confirmed it comprised around 2.5 per cent of the toothpastes - not considered enough to pose a health risk, but sufficient to provoke the powers that be to warn consumers off the products. Danyang Chengshi Household Chemical Co's general manager Chen Yaozu confirmed to AP that his firm had exported toothpaste containing diethylene glycol to Panama, but said the chemical was "permitted under Chinese rules and was safe in small amounts". He added: "I can say I am very confident about our product's quality." If Chen's confidence is justified, then he has nothing to fear from a Chinese probe aimed at cleaning up the image of the country's related export markets - valued at $30bn. An unnamed official at the Danyang branch of China's food and drug inspection agency "confirmed the investigation into the toothpaste suppliers, but gave no details". The Panamanian toothpaste scare is just the latest in a long line of diethylene glycol-based health alerts. Back in 1937, the Elixir Sulfanilamide Incident claimed more than 100 lives in 15 US states, prompting the rapid introduction of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. In 1990 diethylene glycol killed 339 Bangladeshi children who took a paracetamol syrup containing contaminated glycerine, while a similar product did for 85 Haitian kids in 1995-6. In case you were wondering just how nasty diethylene glycol can be, the Haitian cases were mostly characterised by "nonspecific febrile prodromal illness followed within two weeks by anuric renal failure, pancreatitis, hepatitis, and neurologic dysfunction progressing to coma". ®
Malware miscreants have crafted a cross-platform worm targeted at OpenOffice users that's capable of infecting Windows, Mac, and Linux computers. The OpenOffice/StarBasic macro worm, dubbed BadBunny, is a proof-of-concept worm that's not been seen outside the lab. Most anti-virus firms describe it as a low-risk threat.
Oh for the life of a sub editor. It must be the most thankless task: people only notice you when you don't do your job perfectly. And when it comes to spelling and grammar, someone can always be relied upon to notice. But it is also a position of incredible power, which must occasionally be wielded. Take, for instance, the BBC's report that the Home Office has issued video iPods to its 20 most senior officials, to "improve their leadership skills". The idea is that the civil servants will get to watch 50, three-to-five minute long training videos which are preloaded onto the iPods, thus improving their skills on the daily commute. Total cost to the taxpayer? Including content, somewhere in the region of £8,800, the Home Office says. Clearly, the sub editor at the BBC was struck but the utterly obvious nonsensical nature of this idea, and so struck a blow for the forces of good by removing the word "not" from a Home Office spokesperson quote: A Home Office spokeswoman said bosses would be able to hone their skills by watching the iPods on the way to work. The machines, which have to be returned after use, would be "monitored closely" to ensure staff did watch feature films or listen to music, she added. Or perhaps the secret good-doer was actually at the Home Office itself, and tweaked the spokeswoman's statement before it was sent out, and the BBC is happily reporting it verbatim. Either way, we would like to extend a hearty congratulations to this unidentified hero. Well done, Sir or Madam. We salute you. It is also possible, of course, that the Home Office would like to make sure that its top bosses are watching enough prime time TV and checking in on the charts from time to time. If that is the case, then we recant this entire article, and apologise profusely to any and all sub editors we may have offended. ®
VXers have developed a strain of malware capable of logging keystrokes as well as snooping on encrypted SSL streams originating from compromised PCs. The hybrid variant of the Gozi Trojan was discovered by Don Jackson, a researcher with SecureWorks who discovered the original Gozi malware earlier this year. In its original form, Gozi spread using IE exploits. It used advanced Winsock2 functionality to snoop on traffic.
The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is to fund a new, high-tech power grid for New York's financial centres which will use advanced superconductor technology. DHS feds have named the new system "Project Hydra". The allusion is to the Lernaean Hydra, the terrible nine-headed monster of Greek legend which was hard to kill because whenever a head was cut off it would grow two new ones.
VIA has begun allowing system builders the chance to get their hands on its ridiculously small Pico ITX motherboard, the EPIA PX, ahead of the product's wider availability later this month.
Serial entrepreneur Michael Robertson has learned a thing or two from competing with Microsoft. Life is much easier if you can get the dominant hardware vendors to bundle your software. After founding MP3.com, and paying around a quarter of a billion dollars in damages to the record labels, Robertson went on to create the Lindows Linux distribution. Shortly after that, he was one of the first entrants in the SIP phone business with Project Gizmo. We caught up with Robertson in Brighton on Friday, where he was being interviewed by Jim Griffin at MusicAlly's Digital Day contribution to The Great Escape festival. Gizmo is basically a proprietary wrapper around SIP. It began life on Windows, Mac and Linux, migrated to smartphones, and since February, even runs embedded in a web page. It might not grab as many headlines as his music ventures - orbiting around MP3 tunes - but it appears to have stolen a march on its rivals. In particular, Gizmo's close alliance with Nokia is finally paying off. After 18 months of graft, the Gizmo client now integrates tightly with Nokia's S60 handsets. Robertson told us that Nokia plans to bundle Gizmo with all of its WLAN-equipped N-series and E-series handsets. "You can't succeed if you're not bundled," is how he bluntly explained Gizmo's strategy. When we mentioned the new wave of SIP start-ups in the UK, such as Truphone and AQL, Robertson was dimissive of their chances of success. "What's the cost of acquiring new customers?" he asked. "You can put up a billboard, but even that's expensive." Gizmo, like Truphone and AQL, now integrates tightly with the handset's native address book and call log, an advantage of third party SIP add-ins such as Skype and Fring. Then again, even if a SIP service is bundled, it still has to run the gauntlet of being kneecapped by the network operator en route to market. Nokia made a beta of the S60 client available from its Beta Labs website last week [here]. Unfortunately, only versions for the N95 and N80 are so far available. Which is a bit pointless. If you have an N95 which has survived carrier sabotage, then you can download it from the catalogs application right from the handset. And if you have an N80, you really, really don't want to be doing VoIP unless you're a masochist. Here's hoping versions for a wider range of models will be along soon... ®
House of CardsHouse of Cards Ever since the DARPA "Terror Casino" went down in flames a couple of years ago in the face of Congressional scorn, the idea that prediction markets can evaluate risk better than pundits or policymakers has been pushed nearly out of the public imagination. The idea still has adherents among economists, however, and companies like Intrade and Betfair continue to carry the torch across the pond, offering virtual trading floors with contracts covering any event imaginable. A rare gambling conference relatively close to home, with the leading academics in the field in attendance - a no-brainer. But really, what to make of a conference with titles like: "An Examination of the Determinants of Biased Behavior in a Market for State Contingent Claims"? Or this: "Non-Expected Utility Models and Heterogeneity in Risk Attitudes: Towards an Explanation of Gambling Outcomes for Individuals and Markets"? Better yet, this page turner: "Inferring Risk Preferences Using Synthetic Win Bets in Horse Betting 'Exotic' Markets"? Got that? We didn't either, but, in the interests of demystifying the cult-like status prediction markets have in certain quarters, we decided to take the plunge. Steven Levitt, of Freakonomics fame, got the party started with a keynote address that gave his general opinion of the importance of gambling and prediction markets - namely, that in the grand scheme of things, they really aren't all that important. A bit of a dribbler for a kickoff speech, true, but the point that prediction markets will remain on the fringe of policy analysis - more intellectual curiosity than serious policy formation tool - seems accurate. Levitt showed more interest in using limited prediction markets within organizations as a way to uncover information that members or employees are unwilling to disclose face to face. Companies such as BestBuy have started to utilize in-house prediction markets - where employees can win prizes by gambling on the outcome of certain company problems - to enhance the possibility that undiscovered employee knowledge will appear on the in-house market. Fair enough, but whether the information in the contracts is specific enough to be valuable was a question I tried without success to ask of Mr Levitt - BestBuy CEO's favorite contract on its internal market was one that bet whether or not a particular store would open on time. The answer was no - useful to know perhaps, but not exactly the kind of information that will solve the problem of the store not opening on time. There was a healthy dose of Kool Aid going around among some of the others, however. Since the conference was sponsored by Intrade, that didn't really come as a surprise. Assertions about the accuracy of prediction markets got tossed around without always being backed up by the statistics themselves. That doesn't mean that stats necessarily do not exist, but it would have been nice to hear fewer bald assertions about the accuracy of the models used. In the afternoon session, Bob Erikson of Columbia University did one of the better presentations I saw, which compared the Iowa Election Market (IEM) with the predictions of pollsters for presidential elections going back to 1988. The comparison between prediction markets and polls was clever because it really cut to the heart of the argument for the accuracy of prediction markets - namely, that people will be more honest when they have to put their money where their mouth is. The results were mixed, however; markets did somewhat better in some measurements, but in the most important question of a basic win/lose call, the pollsters have so far outperformed the market. Bill Eadington of the University of Nevada, Reno - the world's leading expert on the gaming industry - gave a great overview during lunch of the gaming industry as a whole and where it is poised to go in the next few years. It cut a swath all the way from the explosive growth of gaming in emerging markets to problems in neuro and behavioral economics and addictive behavior. The break from the prediction markets was as informative as it was refreshing. Vasiliki Makropoulou of Athens University followed Professor Erikson with an interesting paper on price-setting in fixed-odds betting and the favorite-long shot bias; though I admit, my math wasn't strong enough to follow everything she said. Still, the insights into odds making were worthwhile. The day wrapped up with a quirky and interesting presentation about bookmaker William Hill and the weight-loss bets it sometimes offers. Surprisingly, only 20 per cent of those who bet William Hill they can lose a certain amount of weight in a certain amount of time actually win, even though they have complete control of the outcome. The study demonstrates nicely how people tend to overestimate their ability to change their future behaviors, underestimating their own sloth. It has important repercussions in health care, for one - instead of penalizing smokers by raising their insurance rates over the long term, why not make them pay an enormous license up front to make them better understand the long term implications of their behavior? Singapore does something like this with their gaming industry by forcing gamblers to pay hefty fees to enter casinos, or pay for an expensive yearly license. It's a worthy idea, and reason enough for economists to keep studying a market that gets little respect. ® Burke Hansen, attorney at large, heads a San Francisco law office
Bosses at reselling monster Logicalis may be on the look out for a UK managed services acquisition, after revenues crept towards $1bn for the last year.
A 45-year-old man who "blurred the line between reality and make believe" and adopted the character of magical elf Buho from Shadowrun to rob a Belfast lingerie store at knifepoint, has been brought down to Earth with a two-year jail sentence, The Times reports.
Sony has unwrapped its latest business-centric Centrino, the Vaio BX40 series. The entire line-up's based on Intel's recently released 'Santa Rosa' platform.
The European Union has officially got a space policy, an essential item for any aspiring superpower. The document talks a lot about the importance of space as an inspirational tool to get youngsters into science and engineering, and it mentions the need for pan-European coordination of space efforts to maximise research gains. But, as with the equivalent document produced by the US, it is far more about military advantage than moon rocks (albeit it a little less overtly territorial). According to the official announcement from the European Space Agency (ESA), the policy has been designed to provide a stronger Europe in space "better equipped and better coordinated to face the future needs of its citizens". It promises "a wider strategic scope to address new challenges, including the areas of security and defence space programmes, and space as an added dimension to the EU's external relations". What this really boils down to is, "we have to have a space policy, because space technology is inextricably linked with a military edge". That is, intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs. The technology behind these rockets, which allow the owner to send nukes pretty much anywhere they like, is the foundation of the technology that allows a nation, or coalition of nations, to send satellites and so forth into space. If you can do space, you can by definition nuke your neighbour - provided you have some nukes anyway. So when a space policy talks about strategic advantage, or "increased synergy between civil and defence space programmes", it means the writers want a place in the international nuclear power club. The European Council has passed a resolution on the policy in an almost inpenetrable document, which you can try reading here (pdf). This makes several references to the importance of emerging satellite navigation and communications technologies, and the importance of Europe having a network capable of providing GPS-type coverage that is independent of the US GPS system, although it does stress that this must be under civil control. As for access to space, the Council of Ministers says it is vitally important that Europe "maintain an independent, reliable and cost-effective access to space". In terms of space technology, the council stresses the importance of "a targeted approach for the development of strategic components, for which the dependency of European Industry on international suppliers should be avoided". These things are all useful for exploring the solar system, sure, but they are even more important if you want to be able to disagree with NATO anytime soon. Of course, it is about exploration too, and it would be doing the Euro-boffins a disservice if this were not mentioned. The policy emphasises the importance of "proactive" ESA involvement in the international space station, and gives ESA a pat on the back for the work it has done over the last 30 years. ®
The website of UK broadsheet the Daily Telegraph is returning to normal after a sustained denial of service attack left the site intermittently unavailable over the last two days.
Crypto-busting boffins have broken a new record in their quest to find the prime factors in large numbers, and may soon threaten part of the encryption system used to secure retail websites. Professor Arjen Lenstra of the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) yesterday broke the news that computing clusters run by the EPFL, the University of Bonn, and NTT in Japan had managed to rip out the prime factors in a "whopping" 307-digit number.
From next month, ads selling essay writing services will join those punting prostitution or tobacco on Google's list of proscribed activities across its global network, the BBC reports. The search monolith has responded to "claims that plagiarism is threatening the integrity of university degrees" and "complaints from universities about students being sold customised essays on the internet" by pulling the plug, and has written to companies flogging essays and dissertations to declare the new policy. A spokesman for Universities UK admitted to "difficulties" with essays bought by students for up to £5,000 from companies offering tailor-made answers, with an estimated 12,000 a year being passed off as original scribblings, according to the organisation. Since these essays and assignments may be penned by freelance academics or other students, it's "less easy for plagiarism software used by universities to detect such work". Universities UK's president Professor Drummond Bone said: "Plagiarism devalues the efforts of students who work hard to achieve their degrees. It also damages the student who commits plagiarism, as they will not benefit from the research and learning experience." Unsurprisingly, essay writing companies are a little hacked off. The managing director of Essaywriter.co.uk, Matthew Wilson, is described as "angry" at the threat to his business, 80 per cent of which comes via Google. He claimed the clampdown will "punish the legitimate, transparent companies, which sell essays, but which warn students that they must not be used dishonestly". He insisted that his site "makes clear that essays should not be passed off as being written by the student" and that the "tailor-made essays" can be used "as a guide for students wanting extra assistance". Universities UK classified as "absurd" this claim that students would stump up "hundreds of pounds for model answers" and subsequently not "submit them as their own work". Wilson concluded by noting the ban would not prevent Google from generating links to "rogue essay selling companies, which have been accused of scamming customers by providing poor quality material". ®
Intel has followed AMD's lead by creating a separate flash memory business with a partner. Intel and STMicroelectronics have signed an agreement to create an independent flash memory company based in Geneva. The new venture could have annual revenue of up to $3.6bn and will create products for mobile devices such as MP3 players and digital cameras. Rival AMD made a similar move in 2005 with the IPO (initial public offering) of Spansion - previously a joint venture with Fujitsu. The move to create a separate flash business follows years of struggles at Intel to turn consistent memory profits. "Previously, our objective was for the flash business to become profitable or to look for an alternative," said Intel spokesman Tom Beermann. "We haven't achieved that goal of profitability, and this is seen as the best path to follow." STMicroelectronics will ship its flash assets, including NAND and NOR technology, to the new company, while Intel will ship its NOR assets. Intel will take a 45.1 per cent stake in the venture, while STMicroelectronics will take 48.6 per cent. Francisco Partners, a Silicon Valley-based private equity group, will invest $150m for a 6.3 per cent stake. The three parties expect the new venture to start in the second half of this year, as long it meets regulatory approvals. Close to 4,000 Intel workers would join the venture, which will employ 8,000 people. In its most recent quarter, Intel reported flash memory revenue of $469m and a net loss of $283m from the unit. Intel lost $638m from the flash memory business during fiscal 2006 on revenue of $2.2bn. AMD formed Spansion, in part, to offset pricing pressure from Intel. Some analysts saw Intel pricing its flash products very aggressively to undercut AMD's memory and processor gains. Unable to beat up on AMD directly, Intel now appears willing to bet on the partnering approach with memory. The combined Intel/STMicroelectronics business would have more volume and sales muscle than Intel on its own. Intel will still sell NAND memory through IM Flash - a joint venture with Micron. Intel famously quit the memory business in 1985 due to increasing pressure from Asian suppliers and decided to concentrate on selling processors. That difficult move has been hailed as one of the greatest business decisions - made by Andy Grove and Gordon Moore - of all time. ®
The seventh company to be assimilated into the Cisco collective this year is IP-based video surveillance company, BroadWare Technologies. BroadWare makes software for web-based monitoring, management, recording and storage of audio and video on the internet.
EMI's board has been trying to sell the music group almost from the day it was liberated from Thorn EMI a decade ago - and it's let it be known privately for some months that it favours a private equity buy-out. This weekend a concrete offer landed in their laps. Private equity firm Terra Firma, run by financier Guy Hands, has offered £2.4bn (or 265p per share) for the British music group, and EMI has recommended the deal to its shareholders. The record label part of EMI saw revenue fall by 15 per cent, as overall losses increased. EMI reported a loss of £263.6m in the first three months of 2007, compared to a profit of £118.7m a year ago. That includes a large one-off restructuring charge. Pre-tax profits excluding charges weren't much better, however, down 61 per cent to £62.7m. The advantage of private capital for EMI is that it sidesteps regulatory concerns. A Terra Firma-owned EMI would see the the Big 4 remain the Big 4. It's also reported that the private equity group would want to keep hold of the record label - rather than keep the publishing and sell off the ailing recording business. But no one expects that Warner Music Group, which cleared regulatory issues with the indie sector, only to see its second attempt to takeover rejected by EMI, is out of the picture just yet. Warner had a bid for EMI accepted in 1999, before abandoning the deal after feisty opposition from the independent labels. It tried again last year, but this time the price wasn't right - and it still wasn't right a few weeks ago, when another, lower offer was rejected by the board. Meanwhile the European Commission today approved Universal's takeover of BMG Music Publishing, requiring UMG to divest some of its own publishing catalogs in the EU before it could approve the $2bn deal. That's not the end of the story. Indie trade group Impala, which scuppered the Sony-BMG tie-up last year, said it would mull over the acceptability of the concessions. "Impala reserves the right to seek a reversal and stay of the decision on both procedural and substantive grounds if, after consultation with its members, it concludes the remedies are insufficient," the group said in a statement. This is no empty threat. The Commission had originally nodded through the Sony-BMG merger, but after Impala appealed to the European Court, the Commission found itself not only on the losing side, but having to pay the bulk of the legal costs of the case. ®
OSBCOSBC Red Hat chief executive Matthew Szulik today told startups to forget the "romance" of open source and build businesses that compete with proprietary vendors on services and value.
Sun Microsystems will vend Hitachi's latest high-end "virtual" storage system as the Sun StorageTek 9990V. The StorageTek 9990V supports a wide range of operating systems including Solaris and features thin provisioning software, which Sun has decided to dub "Dynamic Provisioning," — with capitals. The new unit joins Sun's StorageTek 9900 line as its highest-end storage gear.
Sun Microsystems looks set to dish out its new UltraSPARC T1- and Xeon-based blades on June 6 at an event in Washington D.C. Our invite and plane ticket seem to have been lost in the mail, but Sun customers have been told to show up for the unveiling of "an open design and featuring SPARC and x64 processors." None of this comes as a shock since Sun has spent years hinting at a single chassis that can hold SPARC and x86 blades.
CommentComment Those of you afraid of Robert Cringely's claim that IBM will layoff 150,000 workers might want to read his latest column. The PBS scribe has blown it again. At the bottom of a piece on Google, Cringely returns to the IBM layoff topic and makes the following statement: "Last week IBM also posted more than 15,000 new positions on Yahoo HotJobs. If these jobs are real and IBM foresees stable employment numbers, won't 15,000 existing IBM employees have to leave?"
CommentComment IBM has introduced an open beta version of the IBM System p Application Virtual Environment (System p AVE), a virtual Linux environment that enables x86-based Linux applications to run without modification on POWER processor-based IBM servers. This announcement follows the company's recent launch of three System p Web-tier servers that target the consolidation of x86 Linux workloads.
Controversial plans by the UK government to introduce road pricing are to go ahead, despite fierce opposition The government has published a draft Bill laying the ground for local authorities to develop local pay-as-you-drive road charging across England and Wales. Pilot road charging projects are already under way in 10 local authority areas, including Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol, Cambridgeshire and Tyne and Wear, backed by the government's Transport Innovation Fund (Tif). So far £14m has been awarded by Tif. A transport department spokesperson said the Bill, published today, did not mean that the government intended to press ahead with national road charging, however. He told GC News: "We have made no decision about whether we want a national scheme. What we are doing is working with 10 local authorities who have come to us to express an interest in local schemes. And now we want to see what they come up with." Last year a UK government-commissioned report by former British Airways chief Rod Eddington found that charging motorists to use roads was the only viable option, against a background of relentlessly rising congestion. But there is widespread opposition to road charging among large sections of the public, as well as politicians and businesses. Conservative transport spokesperson Chris Grayling said that despite the government's public denials, the Bill is a "Trojan horse" for national road pricing. "It's now clear that Gordon Brown is as committed to the government's road pricing plans as Tony Blair has been, despite the petition signed by 1.8m people and official forecasts that such as scheme could cost up to £60bn. "To make matters worse, they are blackmailing local authorities into being guinea pigs for road pricing so they don't have to take the flack themselves. "Local road pricing schemes are fine, but only if they are originated locally and agreed locally. It is just plain wrong for ministers to interfere in the way they are doing." The Federation of Small Businesses said the Government needs to re-think its plans before it does irreversible damage to British businesses. It called for a referendum in areas where schemes are proposed. One of the world's largest road pricing projects is the central London's congestion charge. The scheme has cut congestion and pollution across the capital, as well as turning out to be a public sector IT success story. Capita, which works with Transport for London on the scheme, supplies the technology under a managed services contract. 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.
Microsoft has released a tool designed to protect Office 2003 users from malicious payloads surreptitiously dropped into innocent-looking office files - an attack tactic that has grown in popularity over the past year. Called MOICE - short for Microsoft Office Isolated Conversion Environment - the enhancement converts Word, Excel and PowerPoint files to their counterparts in the OpenXML format. In the process, which takes place in a quarantined, sandbox environment, elements that could have been used to compromise a machine are effectively stripped out, Microsoft says.
OSBCOSBC Open source is increasingly driving enterprise development projects and installations, but big customers still rely on start-up software providers for support. A panel of customers at the Open Source Business Conference (OSBC) in San Francisco today agreed unanimously that open source enable them to kick-start projects they could otherwise not afford.