Dec 31, 2007

Record Data Breaches in 2007

The loss or theft of personal data such as credit card and Social Security numbers soared to unprecedented levels in 2007, and the trend isn't expected to turn around anytime soon as hackers stay a step ahead of security and laptops disappear with sensitive information.

And while companies, government agencies, schools and other institutions are spending more to protect ever-increasing volumes of data with more sophisticated firewalls and encryption, the investment often is too little too late.

"More of them are experiencing data breaches, and they're responding to them in a reactive way, rather than proactively looking at the company's security and seeing where the holes might be," said Linda Foley, who founded the San Diego-based Identity Theft Resource Center after becoming an identity theft victim herself.

Foley's group lists more than 79 million records reported compromised in the United States through Dec. 18. That's a nearly fourfold increase from the nearly 20 million records reported in all of 2006.

Another group, Attrition.org, estimates more than 162 million records compromised through Dec. 21 — both in the U.S. and overseas, unlike the other group's U.S.-only list. Attrition reported 49 million last year.

"It's just the nature of business, that moving forward, more companies are going to have more records, so there will be more records compromised each year," said Attrition's Brian Martin. "I imagine the total records compromised will steadily climb."

But the biggest difference between the groups' record-loss counts is Attrition.org's estimate that 94 million records were exposed in a theft of credit card data at TJX Cos., the owner of discount stores including T.J. Maxx and Marshalls. The TJX breach accounts for more than half the total records reported lost this year on both groups' lists.

The Identity Theft Resource Center counts about 46 million — the number of records TJX acknowledged in March were potentially compromised. Attrition's figure is based on estimates from Visa and MasterCard officials who were deposed in a lawsuit banks filed against TJX.

The breach is believed to have started when hackers intercepted wireless transfers of customer information at two Marshalls stores in Miami — an entry point that led the hackers to eventually break into TJX's central databases.

TJX has said that before the breach, which was revealed in January, it invested "millions of dollars on computer security, and believes our security was comparable to many major retailers."

With wireless data transmission more common, hackers increasingly are expected to target what many experts see as a major vulnerability. Eavesdroppers appear to be learning how to bypass security safeguards faster than ever, said Jay Tumas, the head of Harvard University's network operations, at a recent conference for information security professionals.

"Within a year or two, these folks are catching up," Tumas said.

Dec 27, 2007

Mark Henderson: Junk medicine: genetic screening

Genetic testing is coming to the masses. Until recently, DNA screening was available only for rare genetic variants, which always or usually cause disease. Women with a family history of breast cancer, for example, can check for mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes that confer an 80 per cent risk, and opt for preventive mastectomy if the result is positive. The larger number of women with normal copies of these genes, however, have had no way of assessing their inherited risk.

This year, dozens of common genes that affect everyday conditions such as heart disease and breast cancer have been found, and tests are being marketed to match. Last month two online services were launched, deCODEme and 23andMe, which offer £500 tests for variants linked to more than a dozen diseases, and an ITV programme examined celebrities’ DNA to predict their risk of cancer.

It is easy to understand why such tests might be popular. Much individual variation in health is inherited, and scientists are confident that it will soon be possible to assess genetic profiles for disease risk, with a view to reducing it through drugs, diet or lifestyle.

But as a report from the Government’s Human Genetics Commission (HGC) said this week, soon does not mean now. The current direct-to-consumer tests might throw up the odd interesting finding, but they make few meaningful health predictions. They are expensive and poorly regulated, and their results can be easily misinterpreted, with worrying consequences.

Many of these tests do look for genetic variants that have been reliably associated with health effects, such as a version of the FTO gene that can predispose to obesity.

The problem is that the known genes account for a tiny fraction of the whole story. Unlike BRCA genes, they raise or lower a person’s risk by small amounts, increasing an already low background risk by 10 to 20 per cent. Tens if not hundreds of others will also be involved, but these cannot be examined as they have not been discovered yet.

What this means is that customers will invariably get incomplete results. Paul Pharoah, a cancer geneticist at the University of Cambridge, makes a helpful analogy with a pack of 30 cards, each printed with the figure one, two or three. A person’s overall genetic risk of, say, breast cancer is calculated from the sum of the whole pack, yet these tests try to guess it by turning over one or two. The potential for error is enormous.

The more reputable testing services carry a disclaimer, pointing out that results are not intended for medical diagnosis. It is clear, though, that customers do not always see them this way. Clincial geneticists are already reporting visits from patients who have discovered that they have a gene linked to this disease or that, and have been needlessly worried sick. Some will take this in their stride, but others could become lifelong hypochondriacs, with a nagging if groundless fear that every cough is cancer.

It cuts the other way, too. Some people told that they have a low risk of heart disease on the back of superficial genetic data will treat the news as a licence to smoke freely and gorge on chips.

Another danger lies ahead. If today’s genetic tests do little more than to satisfy curiosity, the same will not be true once more is understood about the influence of genes on disease. Yet by then, proper scepticism of today’s money-spinning gimmicks might have bred cynicism about the whole notion, and turned the public away from genome scans that contain genuinely useful information.

That is why the HGC’s proposal that tests should be independently assessed before they are marketed is a valuable one. Buyer beware might be sensible advice, but it is not sufficient to protect either today’s customers or the future of a promising field.

Dec 23, 2007

FBI Prepares Vast Database Of Biometrics

The FBI is embarking on a $1 billion effort to build the world's largest computer database of peoples' physical characteristics, a project that would give the government unprecedented abilities to identify individuals in the United States and abroad.

Digital images of faces, fingerprints and palm patterns are already flowing into FBI systems in a climate-controlled, secure basement here. Next month, the FBI intends to award a 10-year contract that would significantly expand the amount and kinds of biometric information it receives. And in the coming years, law enforcement authorities around the world will be able to rely on iris patterns, face-shape data, scars and perhaps even the unique ways people walk and talk, to solve crimes and identify criminals and terrorists. The FBI will also retain, upon request by employers, the fingerprints of employees who have undergone criminal background checks so the employers can be notified if employees have brushes with the law.


Highly accurate face-scanning cameras are being developed.
Highly accurate face-scanning cameras are being developed. (Photos By Bob Shaw For The Washington Post)
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"Bigger. Faster. Better. That's the bottom line," said Thomas E. Bush III, assistant director of the FBI's Criminal Justice Information Services Division, which operates the database from its headquarters in the Appalachian foothills.

The increasing use of biometrics for identification is raising questions about the ability of Americans to avoid unwanted scrutiny. It is drawing criticism from those who worry that people's bodies will become de facto national identification cards. Critics say that such government initiatives should not proceed without proof that the technology really can pick a criminal out of a crowd.

The use of biometric data is increasing throughout the government. For the past two years, the Defense Department has been storing in a database images of fingerprints, irises and faces of more than 1.5 million Iraqi and Afghan detainees, Iraqi citizens and foreigners who need access to U.S. military bases. The Pentagon also collects DNA samples from some Iraqi detainees, which are stored separately.

The Department of Homeland Security has been using iris scans at some airports to verify the identity of travelers who have passed background checks and who want to move through lines quickly. The department is also looking to apply iris- and face-recognition techniques to other programs. The DHS already has a database of millions of sets of fingerprints, which includes records collected from U.S. and foreign travelers stopped at borders for criminal violations, from U.S. citizens adopting children overseas, and from visa applicants abroad. There could be multiple records of one person's prints.

Dec 21, 2007

16GB in a drop of water

With an eye firmly on the rapidly growing market for mobile devices, chip giant Intel has announced a new SSD device that can store up to 16GB in a space the size of a small coin.

The Z-P140 comes in 2, 4, 8 and 16GB models and weighs just 0.6 grams - about the same as a drop of water. Samples are in the maket already and full production is expected to begin early next year.

Z-P140: in a greatly magnified state!Z-P140: in a greatly magnified state!The new drives are part of Intel's Menlow chipset which has been designed from the ground up for use in mobile internet devices. Such devices have traditionally been limited by factors such as power consumption and storage capacities. Switching to SSDs addresses both these challenges.

The Z-P140 uses an industry-standard PATA interface and is significantly smaller than a hard drive with similar storage capacity. With no moving parts it is well suited to applications where devices can expect to receive their fair share of bumps and jolts during use.

Dec 20, 2007

Passive social networking -- where others harm you

The privacy of those who shun social networking is still at risk from such sites -- from family and friends who indulge in the popular information sharing pastime, according to advice issued by the Privacy Commissioner's Office.

When users post a friend's photo or information about them on a social networking site, they are inadvertently taking the risk that the friend may "lose control over their personal information" posted on the social network.

Although some may consider such information leakage trivial, there have been cases where people have been turned down for jobs due to posts on social networks, or their homes have been severely damaged after parties advertised on such sites were gate crashed, the Commissioner warned.

The Commissioner's Web site urges users to consider that "different people have different comfort zones when it comes to their privacy".

After information has gone up on social networking sites, it stays online for "a long time" according to the Commissioner's FAQ. "You can deactivate your Facebook or MySpace accounts, but this may not mean that the information just disappears. It can continue to exist in archived or old versions of Web sites or in comments you've made on other people's Facebook or MySpace pages."

Dec 19, 2007

Got the Blues? Try a Cold Shower

Treatments for depression range from medicines that can come with scary side effects to electric shock therapy, but a new paper suggests a simple cold shower might sometimes cure, and even prevent, the debilitating mood disorder.

Cleanliness may be a pleasant side effect, but the key lies in the water temperature.

The study's author, Nikolai Shevchuk, believes the biological explanation revolves around a part of the brainstem known, appropriately enough, as the locus ceruleus, or "blue spot."

Shevchuk, who formulated the theory while working in the Department of Radiation Oncology at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine, told Discovery News that short, cold showers may stimulate the blue spot, which is the brain's primary source of noradrenaline -- a chemical that could help mediate depression.

"The possible antidepressant effect may also have to do with the mild electroshock delivered to the brain by a cold shower, because of the unusually high density of cold receptors in the skin," he added, explaining that these nerve endings are 3-10 times higher in density than those registering warmth.

Shevchuk proposes that depression may be caused by two factors. The first is a genetic makeup that predisposes an individual to the disorder. Prior research has documented that depression can run in families, but since some sufferers report no prior family history and many people develop depression later in life, genes don't appear to explain all cases.

He suspects a lifestyle lacking sufficient physiological stress, such as brief changes in body tmeemperature, may also be a contributing factor.

How to get rid of pesky possums

A THREE-METRE pet python on the loose in the outer eastern Melbourne suburb of Endeavour Hills has been recaptured by a "snake buster". Carpet python George was not the reptile that went missing in the inner suburb of Clifton Hill last week, Victoria Police Sergeant John Blackburn told ABC Radio.

Sgt Blackburn said George, who has been missing for several months, was spotted by a neighbour's cleaning lady as it scaled a downpipe of the house next door and slithered its way into a tree. "It's obviously had a feed of something - whether it be a possum or a rat or even a bird," he said.

"It's satisfied its stomach, (then moved) up into the tree, got as high up as it could and the snake buster has come out and cut a fair portion of the tree out. "We pulled it onto the roof and we've got it down now."

Sgt Blackburn said he monitored the capture to protect the public's safety. "If you found it lying on the footpath or in your front yard it would be very frightening," he said. "It's in custody now, we've got it in custody."

Sgt Blackburn said police had identified the owner, an eight year-old boy, and he and George would be reunited as as soon as possible.

Trans-Tasman Kayakers fix rudder problem

Two kayakers paddling from Australia to New Zealand are back on course after removing a rope which wrapped around the rudder, causing them steering problems.

Sydneysiders James Castrission, 25, and Justin Jones, 24, are more than halfway through their 2,200km journey to Auckland.

They ran into problems at about 8pm (AEDT) on Tuesday when the back end of their nine-metre custom-made kayak lifted up on a wave and an anchor line wrapped around the rudder, which they feared might break under the strain.

They had to wait until Wednesday morning to try to fix the problem because conditions were too dangerous.

Tom Mitchell from the land-based support team said the kayakers reported they had fixed the problem.

"These guys are one, very tough; two, very, very smart - everything they've done has been designed with contingencies in mind," he told ABC Radio.

"So if there was a problem with the rudder - say if it got severely bent or damaged last night, we have a spare rudder on board."

The pair set off from the NSW mid-north coast on November 13.

Dec 18, 2007

Don Oldenburg: Love+Sex with Robots

I've seen the future of sex, and its name is Robot — as in humanoids designed and programmed to satisfy our every psychological and sexual need, want and desire. At least that's what artificial-intelligence expert David Levy contends in his controversial and troublingly arousing book about sexuality 50 years hence.

His prediction: Falling in love with and making love to artificial but remarkably human-like robots will become a socially accepted alternative.

Never thought of C-3PO as a sex slave? A roll in the hay with Arnold's ripped T-850 Terminator bot? Hints of Stepford-wife lusting are foreplay in an overly researched thesis that argues plausibly but way too enthusiastically for stranger-than-fiction bedfellows. And you thought Furby was just for fun? The London-based author of the robot-industry primer Robots Unlimited, Levy insists this isn't sci-fi. He started this book as an oh-wow academic conference paper, which explains why the first two-thirds reads like an academic conference paper. He builds his argument laboriously, citing endless psychological studies as evidence that future humans and robots will find genuine companionship leading to bliss between the sheets.

The book's smart look at the evolution of robotics over the past century, arriving at today's lovable robot toys and humanish servants, is fascinating, but Levy requires large leaps of logic as he progresses through each step of his attraction-desire-love-sex continuum.

Starting with the basic truth that people fall in love with people, he moves to why people fall in love online, to why people love their pets, to why people love inanimate objects, etc. Then, why not people falling in love with robots? And, logically for Levy, why not people having carnal knowledge of their robot — and vice versa?

Whether you think that idea is creepy, amoral or aesthetically icky, or you think it sounds like a rollicking good time, if you don't buy it as the inevitable future, Levy considers you a flat-Earther standing in the way of progress. After all, he suggests, wouldn't an emotion-enabled, lovemaking robot programmed with the sexual know-how of the Kama Sutra be the most sophisticated sex doll ever?

Think robo-ho. Levy does. His argument for robot sex goes way beyond the "dream girl" relationship Ryan Gosling's character has with a blow-up sex doll in Lars and the Real Girl. More like Jude Law's automaton gigolo in A.I., only better.

But look, some people are willing to boink anything. Is that a good thing? Levy predicts with tomorrow's sensual robots it will be.

Dec 16, 2007

Sex and the single robot

If you think relationships are complicated now, just wait 30 years. According to Levy, by 2035, advancements in artificial intelligence, robotics technology, and synthetic skin, hair and other features will converge to make robots that are nearly indistinguishable from humans. So what will we do with them? We'll fall in love and sleep with them, of course!

While this may sound far- fetched, Levy makes a strong case for the eventuality of human- robot intimacy. An expert on robotics and artificial intelligence, he takes us step-by-step through the technological and social changes he thinks will one day lead to humans loving and even marrying robots.

The first part of the book (Love with Robots) argues that love is simply a very strong emotional attachment with something else: another human, a pet, even an electronic object (think of your iPod). If robots are programmed to be emotionally responsive, Levy suggests, humans may indeed be able to truly fall in love with them.

The second part of the book (Sex with Robots) is much more, well, satisfying. Let's face it, humans have used technology to fulfill their physical desires for centuries. In fact, many sex toys today could be considered robotic, and the market for these items is increasing faster than most people realize. So when custom-made, human-like sexbots become available, Levy muses, why wouldn't people use them? Hey, it's one way to decrease prostitution and sexually transmitted disease.

Dec 11, 2007

Bobbie Johnson,: Flirty computer program raises ID theft fears

A computer program that poses as a flirtatious internet surfer is being used to steal people's identities from online chatrooms, experts claim. According to analysts at online security company PC Tools, the robot - known as CyberLover - is being used by criminals to gather information on internet chatters. Intended for use by lonely hearts with no time to talk, CyberLover takes on a series of different identities and fools chatters into believing they are talking with a real person. Users can direct the nature of the questions, and the program will then compile a report on the person it has been talking to and deliver it back to its owner.

Although the system is aimed at lovelorn Russians, experts at PC Tools claim criminals are using CyberLover to ask victims a series of targeted personal questions which can be used in identity theft. "The potential number of victims could be very substantial," said PC Tools analyst Sergei Shevchenko. "As a tool that can be used by hackers to conduct identity fraud, CyberLover demonstrates an unprecedented level of social engineering."

The ability to fool a person into believing they are talking with a human rather than a computer is held as one of the cornerstones of artificial intelligence. Although experts do not believe CyberLover would pass the Turing test - designed by mathematician Alan Turing as a measure of machine intelligence - it is one of the more sophisticated tools in circulation.

Dec 10, 2007

Hitachi puts a green spin on long-term data storag

Hitachi Data Systems and Data Íslandia have formed a global partnership to offer disc-based archival data management services located in Iceland, claimed to be powered totally by carbon-neutral electricity. They are offering organisations an environmentally friendly way of handling what is colourfully describes as 'digital toxic waste'.

Data Íslandia's facilities are powered completely by geothermal and hydroelectric energy, enabling Data Íslandia to claim that its services are the greenest in the world, and it is promoting the facility as a cost effective and environmentally responsible way for corporate data centres to outsource the ever-growing mountain of digital information they are required to retain.

Hitachi says an estimated 70 percent of data stored by organisations is more than six months old. "Much of this data must be retained for compliance purposes but it is generally stored inefficiently, offers very little business value stored on tape, and takes up a great proportion of the available power, space and management resources." It claims that, by removing archived data from the corporate network and cost-effectively storing it on disk, organisations benefit from reduced power consumption and cooling, increased space, better compliance with corporate regulations and far better use of resources."

Tim Anderson: Small is HUGE

In a world of people obsessed by turning the tiniest idea into something profitable, Dr Richard Hipp's best-known software stands out for two reasons - he actively disclaims copyright in it; and at a time when multi-megabyte installations are booming, he has a self-imposed limit on the size of his product: 250KB. And he's stuck to both aims. "I think we've got 15 kilobytes of spare space," he says of the headroom left in the code.

Thus his product - SQLite, a self-contained database engine and client - now forms part of Apple's Mac OS X operating system as well as part of its Aperture photo-handling application. It is also used by Google, Adobe, Sun and a number of other big names. But he receives no royalty for the millions of copies being used by commercial and non-commercial users alike. The reason? He has placed SQLite in the public domain. It contains the note: "The author disclaims copyright to this source code. In place of a legal notice, here is a blessing: may you do good and not evil. May you find forgiveness for yourself and forgive others. May you share freely, never taking more than you give."

Unrestricted approach

It is an unusual approach, even in the open source world. Most open source code is licensed under an agreement such as the GNU GPL (general public licence), which includes terms to ensure that the software remains free. "I looked at all of the licences," Hipp says, "and I thought, why not just put it in the public domain? Why have these restrictions on it? I never expected to make one penny. I just wanted to make it available to other people to solve their problem."

SQLite is an entire SQL relational database management system, wrapped up in a single file. SQL, or structured query language, is the industry standard programming language for storing and retrieving data. Well-known SQL database managers include Oracle, IBM's DB2, Microsoft's SQL Server and Access, and the open source MySQL and PostgreSQL.

"We're not trying to compete with those other engines," says Hipp. "Our goal is not add all sorts of bells and whistles, but rather to keep SQLite small and fast. We've set an arbitrary limit to keep the footprint of the library below 250KB."

However, the application can support databases running to terabytes, including gigabyte-sized elements. Being written in C, it can be compiled to run on pretty much any operating system.

Samuel Neff is senior software engineer at B-Line Medical in Maryland, USA. He likes SQLite because it has zero configuration and installation. The code is freely available, so he can easily extend it with customisations, and its performance is excellent. In his tests SQLite was four times faster than Microsoft's SQL Server. The comparison is unfair, though, since SQL Server is designed to serve entire networks and to support huge databases with thousands of users, whereas SQLite is mainly intended for a single user on a single machine. Even so, Neff's experience shows the benefits of using tightly coded software that does no more than is necessary.

Dr Hipp knows exactly when SQLite began. "I started on May 29 2000. It's just over seven years old," he says. He was working on a project which used a database server, but from time to time the database went offline. "Then my program would give an error message saying that the database isn't working, and I got the blame for this. So I said, this is not a demanding application for the database, why don't I just talk directly to the disk, and build an SQL database engine that way? That was how it started."

In the past couple of years SQLite has increasingly been attracting attention. Apple used it in OS X 10.4, released in April 2005, as part of Apple Mail (for its message index) and to support its Core Data services. SQLite is also built into PHP 5.0, the hugely popular open source scripting language for web applications. It is in Symbian 9.5, an embedded operating system for smartphones. The tiny database engine is also part of the new Google Gears, which enables web applications to work offline. Most recently, Adobe has announced the inclusion of SQLite in Adobe Integrated Runtime for desktop applications based on its Flash multimedia engine. "Performance is great," says Ben Forsaith, business development manager at Adobe UK. "It's open source. It's lightweight, really small and widely adopted."

So how many SQLite databases are in use? "We don't have a good way of counting it," he says, "but we're guessing it's the most widely deployed SQL database in the world."

Psychiatrists want changes to mental health laws

A group of Australian psychiatrists, along with a lawyer, are calling for changes to mental health legislation in Australia to make the community safer.

Psychiatrist Dr Olav Nielssen is one of the authors of a new study which found that the states' mental health acts are diagnosing mental illnesses too late.

The current legislation requires an assessment that the person with the mental illness is a danger to themselves or the community before they receive involuntary treatment.

But Dr Nielssen says that in countries and states where the requirement for involuntary care is "a need for treatment", the rates of psychotic-related homicides and assaults are much lower.

"It condemns a lot of people who may never have been dangerous to involuntary care," he said.

"Because for every dangerous incident that you prevent, you must detain many patients who may not have been dangerous.

"The prediction of risk is a very weak science. Really, a much fairer system would be one based on the need for treatment."

David Leppard: Police get little ray of sunshine

HOW do you cheer up a depressed copper? Stick his head in a “light box” and flick the switch, according to Scotland Yard.

The Metropolitan police has installed two such boxes at its headquarters in a pilot study to see if stressed officers can improve their “wellbeing” and alleviate the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

The boxes, which are installed in the canteen, emit a light which is the same intensity and quality as bright sunshine. The Met says that 30 minutes’ exposure to a light box can boost officers’ moods, energy and alertness.

However, a single session is unlikely to transform a grumpy individual, like the hard-bitten DCI Gene Hunt from the hit TV series Life on Mars, into a genial community support officer.

Dec 9, 2007

Slip, slop, crack: the vitamin D crisis

MILLIONS of Australians are living with dangerously low levels of vitamin D, putting them at risk of developing fractures, bone disease and deadly illnesses.

A quarter of a century after the Slip, Slop, Slap skin-cancer campaign was launched, several prominent endocrinologists, orthopedic specialists and other experts say the message to cover up has led to vitamin D deficiencies in between 30% and 70% of the population.

While no one disputes the potentially fatal consequences of too much sun exposure, health experts say some safe time in the sun each day is essential for maintaining healthy levels of vitamin D, a crucial bone-strengthening nutrient produced when skin is exposed to sunlight.

Endocrinologist Professor Peter Ebeling, head of Osteoporosis Australia, has linked the low levels of vitamin D to a massive increase in the number of people being treated in hospitals with osteoporosis-related broken bones — up from a daily average of 177 to 262 — in the past six years. It costs the health system $1.9 billion a year to treat them.

Professor Ebeling said a study earlier this year showed more than three-quarters of general patients presenting at the Royal Melbourne Hospital had lower than recommended levels. "It's very serious," he said.

"A lot of us have been worried about if for a long time but have just realised how widespread it is over the last five to 10 years."

Recent research in Geelong, south-east Queensland and Tasmania found about 40% of residents had insufficient vitamin D levels. During winter, the number of women in Geelong with low levels rose to 54%.

Emerging evidence has also linked deficiencies in vitamin D to colon, breast and prostate cancer, diabetes, multiple sclerosis and other diseases.

Most unusual data disaster horror stories for 2007

An ant-infested hard drive and a failing parachute top a list of data disaster horror stories for 2007.

The list, provided by Kroll Inc.'s Ontrack Data Recovery unit, illustrates some of the strangest and wackiest things that people put electronic storage devices through on a regular basis.

Putting drives in the washing machine. Using oil to stop them from squeaking. These are just two examples of the user bloopers the company's engineers nominated for inclusion on the list. Remarkably, Kroll data recovery specialists were able to recover the data in both instances.

This year, Kroll's engineers said the company has seen more damaged portable devices than ever before.

One woman called to complain that she had "washed all her data away." Her USB stick had been through a cycle in her washing machine and -- surprise! -- she couldn't retrieve any data from it.

A British scientist was fed up with the way his hard drive was squeaking, so he drilled a hole through the casing and poured oil into the mechanics. The squeaking stopped, and so did the hard drive.

A wedding photographer faced the potential wrath of a new bride when he discovered he had overwritten her photos with ones from another event, the photos were recovered before the couple learned of the mistake.

In an effort to test a parachute, a camera (acting as the chute's cargo) was dropped from a plane. Unfortunately, the parachute failed its test and its fragile cargo shattered into several pieces. Ontrack's engineers had to reassemble the camera's memory stick and the video of the parachute's demise was recovered.

But the best recovery of all has to be the ant invasion.

Discovering ants had taken up residence in his external hard drive, a photographer in Thailand took the cover off his computer and sprayed the interior with insect repellent.

The ants didn't make it, and neither did the drive.

Dec 7, 2007

Toyota Shows Violin-Playing Robot

Compared to a virtuoso, its rendition was a trifle stilted and, well, robotic. But Toyota's new robot plays a pretty solid "Pomp and Circumstance" on the violin. The 5-foot-tall all-white robot, shown Thursday, used its mechanical fingers to press the strings correctly and bowed with its other arm, coordinating the movements well. Toyota Motor Corp. has already shown robots that roll around to work as guides and have fingers dexterous enough to play the trumpet.

Toyota President Katsuaki Watanabe said robotics will be a core business for the company in coming years. Toyota will test out its robots at hospitals, Toyota-related facilities and other places starting next year, he said. And the company hopes to put what it calls "partner robots" to real use by 2010, he said. "We want to create robots that are useful for people in everyday life," he told reporters at a Toyota showroom in Tokyo.

Watanabe and other company officials said robotics was a natural extension of the automaker's use of robots in manufacturing, as well the development of technology for autos related to artificial intelligence, such as sensors and pre-crash safety systems. Watanabe presented a vision of the future in which wheelchair-like "mobility robots" — also displayed Thursday — would offer "bed-to-bed" services to people, including the elderly and the sick, just like cars take people "door-to-door."

In a demonstration, a man got on the mobility robot, a motorized two-wheeled chair, then scooted around. Toyota showed how the moving machine could go up and down slopes and go over bumps without upsetting the person sitting on the chair because the wheels could adjust to such changes. The Japanese government has been recently pushing companies and researchers to make robotics a pillar of this nation's business. Toyota, maker of the Prius hybrid and best-selling Camry sedan, has been a relative latecomer in robots compared to its domestic rival Honda Motor Co., as well as other companies, including Hitachi Ltd., Fujitsu Ltd. and NEC Corp.

Honda has been working on robots since 1986, recognizing the technology as critical for its future in delivering mobility for the future. It is showing the latest technology in its own robot — the Asimo humanoid — next week.

Newbies Build Killer Robot; Fortune Fawns

Killer robots might have just had their dot-com bubble moment, in this fawning Fortune article. The stars: "a 25-year-old self-taught engineer named Adam Gettings" and his "toy-like but gun-wielding robot designed to replace human soldiers on the battlefield." Adam_gettings03The 'bot -- the Robotex AH, it's called -- went "from idea to product" in six months. It costs a little more than a Prius. "It's two feet tall, travels ten miles an hour, and... it'll blow a ten-inch hole through a steel door with deadly accuracy from 400 meters."

Because cheap and made-in-a-hurry is exactly what you want in a rolling laptop with a gun. Talk about the blue screen of death. Gettings' company doesn't have much of an online signature -- not even a website. But he does have some interesting partners, including former Disney imagineer Terry Izumi (who cooked up this video for the 'bot) and shotgun maker Jerry Barber (who provided the firepower). Blackwater has also endorsed the product, allegedly. According to Fortune, "It's a classic Silicon Valley tale of a few engineers who do what they're best at, team up with some kindred spirits, and together build a product to take on the establishment."

Dec 6, 2007

Conroy sets ABC collision course

THE ABC's board is set for a shake-up, with the federal Government promising to honour its commitment to reintroduce a staff-elected director and create an arm's-length system of appointment for directors. But the national broadcaster will have to wait until the May federal budget to learn if it still gets the $82 million promised by the Coalition for its new digital children's channel, ABC Kids.

As part of its media platform, the Rudd Government will also set in stone the end of 2013 as the conclusion of the analog era of Australian television and unwind the newly created body Digital Australia. The move to appoint a staff-elected director is likely to cause ructions with ABC chairman Maurice Newman, who returned to head the broadcaster earlier this year.

Mr Newman resigned from the board in 2004 after blaming then staff director Romana Koval for a "gross breach" in confidentiality, which she denied. In an exclusive print interview, Australia's new Broadband, Communications and Digital Economy Minister Stephen Conroy told Media the Government's "election promises are unchanged". The ABC director whose term expires first is deputy chairman John Gallagher, but it is highly unlikely the Government will have finalised the new process for appointing directors by that time.

Mike Steketee: We're all lefties now

WHAT do left-wing ministers do in a government led by an economic conservative? Simple: they take some of the key jobs and join the club.

In the first Rudd cabinet, nine of the 20 ministers come from the Left: Julia Gillard, Chris Evans, John Faulkner, Jenny Macklin, Lindsay Tanner, Anthony Albanese, Kim Carr, Penny Wong and Martin Ferguson. That compares with one left-winger in the first Hawke cabinet in 1983, Stewart West.

Left-wing MPs in the early days of the Hawke government were dissidents and campaigned publicly against the government on issues such as budget cuts and financial deregulation. West lasted less than a year in cabinet because he could not accept government policy on uranium.

The relationship changed from the time that Hawke brought the Left's Brian Howe into the economic policy engine room by appointing him to cabinet's expenditure review committee. The first Rudd cabinet is the end point of that evolution. They are all economic conservatives now. It is a transition made easier by budget- making these days being more about distributing the dividends of the economic boom than wielding the axe. But, beyond that, the Left has become about as pragmatic as the Right. To the extent that its members still believe in left-wing causes, such as more support for the disadvantaged, they are looking to the ends rather than the means.

Rudd chose his ministry as he said he would, on merit. Well, largely.

Dec 5, 2007

International cyber spying rated as number one threat for 2008

A study was released yesterday warning of a rise in international cyber spying, labelling it the single biggest threat to the enterprise in 2008. The annual McAfee Virtual Criminology Report examines emerging global cyber security trends, with imput from NATO, the FBI, SOCA and experts from leading industry groups and universities.

It claims governments across the globe are using the Internet for cyber spying and cyber attacks. This claim comes as a surprise as many security vendors have been shy about admitting to the prevalence of cyber spying by governments. Despite all the hype about the need to protect critical infrastructure which was dominating headlines about six years ago, the issue has subsided in recent years with malware and phishing attacks creating havoc for the financial services industry.

The report said cyber targets include critical national infrastructure network systems such as electricity, air traffic control, financial markets and government computer networks McAfee estimates 120 countries are now using the Internet for Web espionage operations. McAfee senior vice president of product development, Jeff Green, said many cyber attacks originate from China.

Josh Quittner: The death spiral of Facebook

A lot of people say that Facebook has jumped the shark. That’s flat out wrong. In fact, Facebook is now being devoured by the shark. There’s so much blood in the water, it’s attracting other sharks. And if Facebook’s not careful, one of them is bound to come along and finish it off. I’ve never seen anything like it in the annals of fast-rising tech companies that fail.

The really weird part of this story is that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with Facebook. It works as well as it ever has, and many of the people who use it (my kids for instance) are unaware of the worsening situation about its privacy-invading Beacon social ads scheme that tracks people’s web-surfing habits even when they’re not on the site. That’s bound to change. The market is fickle, something better is in the wings, and as soon as it arrives, the alienated and angry mob will race to it. Delphi’s errors begat Prodigy and its errors begat AOL, which was crushed by the Web.

What’s surprising here is the speed with which this thing is coming undone — and the ease with which it could have been avoided. What’s harming Facebook - perhaps to a terminal degree - is enormously bad PR. For a social media company, these folks don’t understand the first thing about communication; they have alienated the press by being arrogant, aloof and dishonest. Their idea of press relations is sending a stupid message to a What’s New at Facebook Group that directs you to another website for a canned statement.

And it is killing them. That bad press extends from the blogosphere to mainstream media. No one who writes about Facebook likes it anymore. And while that might seem insidery — who cares what the press thinks? — it’s having dire repercussions. For one thing, advertisers care what the press thinks. Bad press is causing advertisers to jump ship. And that’s begetting even more bad press. It’s the opposite of a virtuous circle; it’s an economy being undone.

It could have all been avoided with a smart adult running things. Facebook has no old hands in its corner, no advisers to tell the kids how to behave. Netscape had its Jim Barksdale, Google (GOOG) its Eric Schmidt. This company has no one babysitting it. And watching it now is like watching an unattended child play with a pack of matches in a wooden house.

Jeffrey M. O'Brien: Killer robots could replace soldiers

t's 1900 hours on Veterans Day in Fayetteville, N.C., a pistol shot from the Fort Bragg military base. Ten minutes ago a 25-year-old self-taught engineer named Adam Gettings pulled into the Waffle House parking lot, lifted the hatch of his black SUV, and unveiled what could very well be the future of urban warfare: a toy-like but gun-wielding robot designed to replace human soldiers on the battlefield.

It's two feet tall, travels ten miles an hour, and spins on a dime. Remote-controlled over an encrypted frequency that jams nearby radios and cellphones, it'll blow a ten-inch hole through a steel door with deadly accuracy from 400 meters.

Now Gettings is sitting calmly on the other side of a plate of fried eggs and sliced tomatoes, talking about how his company, Robotex, has teamed up with a wild-eyed Tennessee shotgun designer to rethink the development strategy for military technology. "

The idea that you can use investor money rather than [government] research money - that's a new thing," says Gettings, who's in town for SpecOps, a war-fighter technology conference.

Military contractors typically get the funding to build, test, and sell new weapons systems from federal agencies. It can take forever.

Robotex, based in Palo Alto, is financed by angel investors and went from idea to product in six months. "This is the new defense, Silicon Valley-style," says Gettings. "You build only what's necessary, iterate quickly, and keep the price low."

How low? Try $30,000 to $50,000. A similar bot, the Talon, which was developed by defense contractor Foster-Miller and is being tested in Iraq, costs six times that amount. "Our system does all the same things as the Talon, weighs half as much, and costs a fraction," says Gettings.
An endorsement from Blackwater

Robotex is the brainchild of Terry Izumi, a reclusive filmmaker who comes from a long line of samurai warriors, has trained Secret Service agents, and worked both at DreamWorks (Charts) and in Disney's (Charts, Fortune 500) Imagineering division.

When Izumi decided to build a better war robot in 2005, he recruited Nathan Gettings, a former PayPal software engineer and founder of Palantir Technologies, who brought in his brother Adam as well as a fourth (silent) partner who hails from both PayPal and YouTube. They had a prototype in no time. But they needed a weapon, and that's how Jerry Baber, his revolutionary shotgun, and a pilotless mini-helicopter come into the picture.

Baber is the fast-talking, white-haired founder of Military Police Systems, an arms manufacturer and ammunition distributor based in the hills of eastern Tennessee. When his chums at Blackwater, the security contractor, told him that the Robotex guys were the real deal, he invited them for a visit.

"I called Nathan and Adam on a Monday, and on Thursday they were here," says Baber.

With that meeting, he turned a promising little robot into something both multifunctional and truly scary. His company's $8,000 Atchisson Assault-12 shotgun was fresh off the assembly line after a dozen years in development. It's made of aircraft-grade stainless steel, never needs lubrication or cleaning, and won't rust. Pour sand through it and it won't clog. It doesn't recoil, so it's accurate even when it's firing in automatic mode, which it does at a rate of 300 rounds per minute.

"It delivers the lead equivalent of 132 M16s," says Baber. "When they start firing from every direction, it's all over."
Is the military really ready to deploy robot soldiers?

And the AA-12 is versatile. Along with firing ridiculously powerful FRAG-12 ammo - a straight-out-of-Terminator shell that contains a whirling miniature grenade - the AA-12 can handle non-lethal Tasers and even bullets that are deadly up to 120 feet but fall harmlessly by 800 feet.

Limited-range bullets are important in urban combat situations, Baber explains, because once an insurgent gets between the robot and a soldier operating it on the ground, the bot is rendered useless - unless the soldier wants to shoot at himself.

Baber has paired the AH and its smaller sibling, the MH, with a remote-control mini-helicopter called the AutoCopter, which holds two AA-12s and can carry the bots into battle. His plan is to buy the robots from Robotex and the helicopter from Neural Robotics in Huntsville, Ala. Then he's going to arm them, resell the systems, and split the profits.

Dec 3, 2007

America's Vainest Cities

Pride is supposed to be a deadly sin. When it comes to their looks, however, fewer Americans are seeing it that way. That's because the advent of safe and affordable plastic surgery has persuaded even the most fearful and cash-strapped patients to go under the knife. Add to the equation celebrities who are candid about their nips and tucks and reality-TV shows that feature ugly ducklings transformed into swans, and it's clear why more and more Americans are seeking to perfect their bodies with the aid of liposuction, implants and injectable fillers.

In 2006, Americans had 11 million cosmetic surgical and noninvasive procedures, a 48% increase from 2000, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons. Unsurprisingly, Botox injections skyrocketed by 420% during that time, while breast augmentations and hyaluronic acid injectables, like the lip plumper Restylane, grew by only 55% and 59%, respectively.
Complete List: America's Vainest Cities

As the number of cosmetic procedures nationwide continues to surge, we looked at which cities have most embraced market demand for taut faces, lush lips and flat abs. There were predictable entries like New York, Miami and Los Angeles, but also surprising ones like Louisville, Ky., and Nashville, Tenn. Most shocking of all was the town that ranked first: Salt Lake City.

To rank the cities, we collected the number of plastic surgeons in the country's 50 most populated cities. We excluded residents under the age of 18, leaving out a small number of children and adolescents who undergo reconstructive or cosmetic plastic surgery. While it was impossible to determine the number of reconstructive procedures as opposed to cosmetic surgeries in each city, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, reconstructive procedures account for about one-third of all plastic surgery procedures.


We obtained the number of plastic surgeons in each city from the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, a membership organization that represents about 90% of all plastic surgeons certified by the American Board of Plastic Surgery. While plastic surgeons often practice without certification from the ABPS--and therefore were excluded from our data--it is recommended that patients seek out physicians with this credential. Next we calculated the number of surgeons per 100,000 people. Though there are at least 591 plastic surgeons in New York City, there were four per 100,000 people. Salt Lake City had only 45 surgeons but a total of six per 100,000 people. Unexpected entries like Salt Lake City, Nashville and Louisville might rise to the top, given smaller populations and medical or university programs and centers that focus on plastic surgery. An influx of younger, more affluent residents into the smaller cities may also account for the rising number of plastic surgeons.

Dec 2, 2007

Safe sex passport for online dating

A US company is poised to launch the world's first safe sex passport, aimed at giving users of dating and social networking websites extra "information protection," according to the man who conceived the project. "Some years ago I met an individual who had intercourse with someone they met online, who didn't disclose that they had an STD" or sexually transmitted disease, Gonzalo Paternoster of Florida-based SSP BioAnalytics said ahead of the launch of the Safe Sex Passport on December 1, World AIDS Day.

"The idea popped into my head that people know but don't tell the truth, and we needed an independent way to verify someone's health status," he said. The Safe Sex Passport will be available — at a cost — to anyone over the age of 18 who goes online and orders the credit-card-sized article. "As soon as you order your card, you are referred to an affiliated laboratory where you can get tested for five major STDs," Mr Paternoster said.

Card holders are tested for HIV, genital herpes, chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis. "When you go to the test facility, you will have to show your official ID to make sure you are the person who owns the safe sex passport," Mr Paternoster said. "The test results are tied to the card. So let's say now you meet someone: they can call a phone number and get the test results and test date for you, plus identification information so that they know for sure that you are really the person who was tested," he said.

"In the old days, you had to take someone's word for it when they said they had been tested and were in the clear. Now you can ask for proof." Subscribers will also be provided with virtual health certificates, which can be posted on their online dating or MySpace profile page.

Beat real boredom with virtual reality


IMAGINE cycling through the countryside without leaving the confines of your loungeroom.

Welcome to virtual exercise.

Researchers from the Queensland University of Technology have designed a gaming program which coupled with a stationary exercise bike takes the boredom out of getting fit.

The specially designed system uses two Nintendo Wii remote controls - one attached to the rider's leg, and another receiving a signal from an infra-red light on the rider's helmet.

The signal controls the "virtual setting", providing users with the feeling of cycling through the backdrop of their choice.

Researcher Gavin Jones said while we know we should be exercising, many of us aren't doing it because it isn't fun.

"We all do it, well at least we all should be doing it, but spending 30 minutes on the bike at the gym or in your own home is not really that fun," Mr Jones said.

"What we have done is develop a system that takes you on a new and exciting journey in virtual exercise.

"We have also incorporated sound effects, making this a totally immersive and engaging experience."

Mr Jones, who worked on the system with fellow IT students, believes the prototype fitness system could easily find itself in gyms around the country.

America's Most Obese Cities

We are heavier than ever. Once considered an affliction of the lazy and indulgent, obesity now affects about one-third of Americans. The epidemic has swept up the wealthy, middle class and the poor; city dwellers, suburbanites and those in rural areas; and people of all races and ethnicities.

The causes, researchers say, are numerous. These include a diet of calorie-dense but nutrient-deficient food found in grocery and convenience stores, public planning strategies that favor motorists over walkers and cyclists, and simply bad habits.

And while the causes are many, the costs are enormous. Obesity's associated costs add $93 billion to the nation's medical bill annually. Each year, 112,000 people die from obesity-related causes, and the condition is responsible for an increased risk of chronic diseases like Type 2 diabetes, cancer and heart disease.

To better understand the local and state implications of the obesity epidemic, we ranked the nation's heaviest cities. In doing so, we discovered states with multiple offenders, metropolitan areas with expanding waistlines and a high representation of Southern cities. Worse yet, after claiming the title of the most sedentary city, Memphis, Tenn., has also ranked first as the country's most obese.

Dec 1, 2007

Therapists caught with their pants down

One in every ten male therapists will have sex or develop an intimate link with a female client, according to Australian research. Leading psychiatrist Professor Carolyn Quadrio will present findings at a mental health conference on how those in her profession blur the line with their patients. She said her research had found between seven and ten per cent of male therapists had had some sort of sexual contact with a female client. Just one to three per cent of women therapists had done the same.

"It's clear that patients often idealise their therapists, that's kind of part of the process and that's what the therapist has to manage very carefully," said Prof Quadrio, from the school of psychiatry at the University of NSW. "What I've done is identify the groups of therapists who take on, foster and enjoy this idealisation and let the whole thing go too too far." She said professionals most likely to let this happen fitted into three groups - depressed men who were going through difficult times and were more likely respond to an adoring client, the bad eggs who "prey" on vulnerable clients and the "ego maniacs".

"The bad eggs we can't do much about because they're psychopathic. Every profession has them, they just need to be expelled," said Prof Quadrio, who is well known for her research into sexual abuse in fiduciary relationships. Those who are depressed are often easy to identify because they are troubled and not coping, the researcher said. The narcissistic types were the hardest to weed out because these therapists were often highly talented and admired by colleagues and patients alike.

Honda's FCX starts Fuel-cell car generation


In general, auto shows had been rendezvous for cars with environmental-friendly concepts and alternative fuel ideas; the recently opened Los Angeles Auto was indeed a venue. As the Los Angeles Autos Show started this week, Honda’s booth highlights the new hydrogen fuel cell powered FCX Clarity. Its platform was taken from the 2005 concept vehicle of Honda. The sleek, low-slung alternative fueled sedan will be the first fuel-cell car to be offered to the public in March of next year.


As Honda introduced the FCX Clarity, the automaker do not just offer the public a vehicle powered by alternative fuel, but it also makes that dream come true.

Last Wednesday, General Motors confirmed that they will also put on the road their hydrogen fuel cell powered Chevrolet Equinox next year. GM will distribute the 100 Chevy Equinox to hand-picked consumers in California, New York and Washington D.C. However, GM also announced that their hydrogen fuel cell powered cars will be in production some time in 2011 or 2012 and the automaker is also targeting to produce more than 1 million vehicles globally a year after 2012.

“Consider that just a few years ago every fuel-cell vehicle was a multimillion-dollar prospect and each one was hand-built,” said Voelcker. “Now, all of a sudden you’re seeing automakers talk about higher numbers. In its last round, GM had a dozen or so; now they’re putting out about 100. Honda will probably put out that number too, and within a few years you could see up to a million on the road.”

On fuel cell powered vehicles, it seems like Ford Motor Co. is left behind and its Chief Executive Officer Allan Mullaly admitted it. The CEO said that they are at least ten years from producing fuel-cell cars as they are concerned with the lithium-ion batteries which are highly flammable. Lithium-ion batteries are also the one installed in electronic gadgets such as cellular phones and lap tops.

“We’re not there yet,” Mulally said Wednesday at the Los Angeles show, adding that the prospect of a vehicle that emits nothing but water is “one compelling vision.”

The Los Angeles Auto Show offered the automakers the venue for their best vehicles to be seen by the Californians. Not just alternative fuel cars are the highlights but also cars with exotic themes and superb style and performance from automakers around the world but American, German and Japanese brands are the fierce contenders. Several vehicles are set to debut from General Motors, Chrysler, Daimler AG, BMW, Volkswagen, Ford Motor Co., Toyota, Honda, Subaru, Nissan and others.

Honda unveils zero-emission car


Honda unveiled its zero-emission FCX Clarity fuel cell vehicle at the Los Angeles Motor Show and the first deliveries are expected in the United States next year. Based on the Honda V Flow fuel cell platform, the manufacturer said that the FCX marked significant progress of the hydrogen concept with improvements to driving range, power, weight and efficiency.

Honda lists the top speed at 160km/h with a range of about 430 kilometres. The FCX Clarity's only emission is water. The FCX Clarity utilises Honda's V Flow stack in combination with a new compact and efficient lithium ion battery pack and a single hydrogen storage tank driving the electric motor, according to the car maker. The battery pack is 40 per cent lighter and 50 per cent smaller than the current generation.

Hydrogen combines with atmospheric oxygen in the fuel cell stack, where energy from the reaction is converted into electric power used to propel the vehicle.

Nov 30, 2007

Salty saga of sea sores and sinking spirits


Two young Sydneysiders who've been paddling on the high seas for 18 days have taken "a huge hit" to their morale.

As the "sea constantly gnaws" at their spirits, James Castrission, 25, and Justin Jones, 24, have lost a crucial source of fresh water as they reach the halfway mark of their 2200-kilometre endurance voyage.

They hope to be the first to row to New Zealand from Australia - and be there for Christmas day.

But after the comparative elation of passing the halfway point, the pair struck trouble.

"Unfortunately not all is good out here on Lot 41 [the pair's custom-built kayak]," Castrission said last night.

"Our electric [desalination machine] has been playing up for the last week or so and now it looks as though it's kicked the bucket.

Australians unleash true selves online


Australians are facing an online identity crisis, using the web and social networking sites to unleash their alter egos, new research suggests.

Symantec's Identity Survey, conducted by Woolcott Research, found Australians typically had more than 10 virtual identities. They included profiles on sites like MySpace and YouTube, email accounts, game avatars and characters in virtual worlds.

"This is what we used to call multiple personality disorder," said Andrew Fuller, a clinical psychologist and fellow of the University of Melbourne's Department of Psychiatry.

Of the 596 respondents, one in five felt their online identities were closer to their "true self" than their real-world identity. When narrowing the results down to "power users" of social networking sites, dating sites, virtual worlds or gaming sites, the figure jumps to 40 per cent.

Fuller said online interaction had given rise to a generation of Australians who were more comfortable with their online personas then their true self. In fact, many are defining themselves through their virtual identities.

"Basically people are saying that this online identity that I've carved out for myself may be more expressive and reflective of who I am as a person than the person I show to people face-to-face," Fuller said in an interview.

"That's not necessarily a bad thing - people often have an unlived life they don't often express ... perhaps what's happening is an unleashing of that hidden self."

But in the process of experimenting with different types of identities online, people are exposing themselves to privacy and personal security risks.

The survey also found two-thirds of Australians were more likely to share personal information with other people on the internet than they would in person. Just over half of Australians published three or more types of personal information on blogs, social networking sites or online shopping sites, while a third published their home address and two thirds revealed their real name.

Symantec says criminals could use information found in online profiles to commit fraud in the real-world ("identity theft"), or for social engineering.

Weird behaviours linked to Stilnox

The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) in Australia has updated warnings on a popular sleeping drug.

The sleeping drug Stilnox, also called Stildem or Zolpidem, will in future be sold in packs of no greater than 14 tablets - down from 21.

The updated warning comes as a result of numerous reports of strange and potentially dangerous side-effects which include changes in behaviour and mental state, sleep walking, and undertaking strange and potentially dangerous behaviours while apparently asleep.

The TGA says Stilnox packs will include significantly changed Consumer Medicine Information (CMI) information about the side effects of Zolpidem which now include the less common adverse effects of rage reactions, worsened insomnia, confusion, agitation, hallucinations and other forms of unwanted behaviour.

Sleep walking, driving motor vehicles and other unusual and on some occasions dangerous behaviours whilst apparently asleep have been reported along with preparing and eating food, making phone calls and having sexual intercourse.

"Love and Sex With Robots"

On his résumé, David Levy may be a chess master and an expert in artificial intelligence, but somewhere deeper -- in his heart, or what I suspect he might call his CPU -- the man is a professional dreamer of robot love.

We've let machines trespass into nearly every corner of our lives, Levy points out. Robots are making our cars and our computer chips, they're fighting our wars, they're cleaning our floors and our rain gutters and our pools. So why can't we let them into our hearts? Do not scoff, reader: One day you too will cuddle up with a bot, you'll whisper sweet nothings into its voice-recognition module, and you'll crank up its pleasure unit -- and it will crank yours.

In a new book, "Love and Sex With Robots: The Evolution of Human-Robot Relationships," Levy argues that as machines advance, our consideration for them will grow inevitably more tender. Today, you watch your Roomba scurrying around your filthy floor, digging its nose into your grime, and you hardly pause to consider its soul; the robot vacuum is a slave, and you are its master.

Nov 27, 2007

Tech professionals need to evolve

In an age of cost containment, a looming economic slowdown, outsourcing, offshoring, the impending retirement of a bulk of the IT professional population, and declining enrollments in math, technology, engineering and science classes, it comes as little surprise that IT professionals are an insecure bunch. Many are questioning what can be done to ensure their career survival.

For numerous IT professionals, keeping their skills fresh and proving their continued importance to their organizations is a significant source of stress. This was the topic of a study released Aug. 29 by the Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario, in London.

"Simply possessing information technology is an insufficient condition for achieving the tangible outcomes in which shareholders are interested, such as improving the bottom line," wrote authors Hsing-Yi Tsai, Deborah Compeau and Nicole Haggerty in "Of Races to Run and Battles to be Won: Technical Skill Updating, Stress and Coping of IT Professionals." "The ability to learn and adapt to changes quickly is thus critical for the career of an IT professional."

But a focus on career survival might actually be the wrong approach, according to one recruiter. "I think that if you're looking at career survival, you have the wrong perspective," Jim Lanzalotto, vice president of strategy and marketing for Yoh, a recruiting and outsourcing company based in Philadelphia, told eWeek. "You should be thinking about career growth."

Lanzalotto pointed to the health of the current IT job market, arguing that "these are the good old days," as the next few decades are expected to be great for technology workers, whether they are building, implementing, structuring or managing IT systems.Other observers have said that IT is still suffering from a case of bad public relations.

"In recent research, we've interviewed CIOs and experts about the current state of the IT job market, and what we found was that the demand for IT skills is back to the prebust level, yet there are a lot of misconceptions about the viability of an IT career," Liz Brady, senior analyst for Forrester Leadership Boards, told eWeek.

Nov 26, 2007

Hostworks warns new Government to invest in broadband backbone

Hostworks managing director, Marty Gauvin has warned the incoming Federal Government that Australia’s broadband infrastructure hinders the nation's ability to compete internationally in the online economy.

Gauvin, whose company manages the availability, performance and running costs of its customers’ critical business applications, said the election-driven political debate about broadband had overlooked a bigger problem -- the backbone capacity to handle the nation’s demand.

“If Australia wants to succeed internationally as the online economy evolves, we need to start thinking much more innovatively. As well as building the infrastructure to support the online population we want, we need strategies to aggregate our online content to make it much more accessible and compelling.

“The critical issue is not how fast it goes into people’s houses; it is how fast it runs across the country and the speed of backbone data links for commercial service providers like Hostworks," he said.

Gauvin added that “choke points” created by broadband infrastructure represented a failure of market forces to deliver the best outcome for the country.

Robot Autonomy

Ever since Karel Capek, a Czech playwright, used the term in the early 1920s to describe artificial people, robots have usually appeared in popular culture with human characteristics.

There was the Model B-9 Environmental Control Robot in Lost in Space; Rosie, the robot maid in The Jetsons; C-3PO in Star Wars; and the future Governor Schwarzenegger as The Terminator.

In the real world, however, things took a different turn. The number of robots has grown rapidly, but they are not humanoid. After the first Unimate robot-arm began work on a General Motors assembly line in 1961, industrial robots of all shapes and sizes invaded the factory floor: There are now about one million of them worldwide.

There are also hordes of service robots, vacuuming floors, trimming the grass on golf courses and soon (with luck) doing the ironing. Specialist robots can creep inside a patient's chest cavity to attach electrodes to a pacemaker or along sewer pipes looking for cracks.

Robots have also joined the armed forces: Some 4,000 are said to be in action in Iraq and Afghanistan doing things such as clearing mines or, acting as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and flying reconnaissance and even combat missions.

Many of today's robots still have a human controller somewhere, but they are gaining more and more autonomy. By 2015, the U.S. armed forces want about half their armed vehicles to be robotized.

So cheap and so easily available has the technology become that even hobbyists are making UAVs. The culture of hacking is spreading from software to ever more elaborate and capable hardware.

With luck there will be many more robotic devices to do not just dirty and dangerous jobs, but also tiresome but necessary ones, such as fetching and carrying for bedridden people. Robots can do some of these jobs better and more cheaply than humans can.

Nov 25, 2007

To be perfectly Frank


Dweezil Zappa is on an Olympian crusade to keep his father's nearly impossible music alive, writes Michael Dwyer.

TO BEGIN to understand Frank Zappa's gravity in the rock'n'roll universe, a substantive distinction needs to be made. As always, it sounds best with the maestro's own pithy turn of phrase.

"Composers may write songs, but it is very seldom that a songwriter will do a composition," Zappa told interviewer Paul Zollo 20 years ago. "If you compare it to architecture, it's the difference between building a cathedral and building a Taco Bell."

In this fast-food era, it's sadly inevitable that the Church of Frank has found few converts since his death, at 52, in 1993. His musician son, Dweezil, is painfully aware that a mind-boggling 80-album catalogue is going the way of Igor Stravinsky in a Coldplay world.

For the last year, he's been touring Zappa Plays Zappa, a live, full-band recital of Frank's compositions ranging from obscure orchestral works to his better-known jazz-rock-weirdo material.

His motivation was fuelled, he says, by the birth last year of his daughter, Zola Frank Zappa. With only a handful of her grandfather's zaniest rock tunes audible on American radio, Dweezil realised that a phenomenal musical legacy was becoming unavailable to new generations.

"Every day that we're playing this stuff," the 36-year-old guitarist says, "it amazes me that one person wrote all this different music, that one person had that much creative drive to cover so much ground.

"But what amazes me most is that, when all is said and done, it's unique. You can't say that there's anything that really sounds like Frank Zappa. In the world of music, that's damn near impossible."

Nov 23, 2007

New mums short on sleep pile on the pounds

A new study has found that mothers who only manage to get five hours or less sleep each night are three times more likely to hang on to that extra weight gained in pregnancy, while women who slept seven hours a night or more lost more weight.

The researchers from Kaiser Permanente and Harvard Medical School believe their study is the first to examine the impact of sleep deprivation on weight retention in mothers after their baby is born.

While other studies have looked at the effect of sleep deprivation on mothers' cognitive and emotional health, associated weight gain has not been considered.

Dr. Erica P. Gunderson, a researcher with Kaiser Permanente and the lead author of the study, says it is well known that sleep deprivation is associated with weight gain and obesity in the general population.

Dr. Gunderson says the study shows that getting enough sleep, even two hours more, may be as important as a healthy diet and exercise for new mothers to return to their pre-pregnancy weight.

The study also found that mothers who slept fewer hours one year after the birth of their baby had twice the risk of substantial weight retention.

Other research has demonstrated that persistent sleep deprivation causes hormonal changes that may stimulate appetite; too little sleep has not only been linked to obesity in women, but also coronary artery disease and diabetes.

Nov 22, 2007

Globalisation and the Australian ICT industry

Will globalisation erode Australia's information and communication technology (ICT) capability?

The operative word here is 'will'. Yes, Australia is holding its own now according to one of the debaters from Gartner's round table on globalisation but will it continue to do so? The pros and cons of the issue were argued in a debate held at the Gartner Symposium/ITxpo in Sydney this week.

With the end of the federal election campaign in sight, and ICT issues such as Australia's broadband infrastructure, industry development and the skills shortage on the political agenda, the impact of globalisation on Australia's ICT capability is increasingly under scrutiny, according to Gartner.

In election campaign style, an electronic 'worm' tracked the views of the audience during the debate and an interactive polling system polled the audience before and after the debate.

Gartner's definition of globalisation is: Unhindered trade in goods and services among countries. And its definition of ICT is: all information and communication technology products and services that enable customers to access and use ICT.

Arguing the affirmative position that globalisation is eroding Australia's ICT capability, Gartner research vice president and distinguished analyst Partha Iyengar highlighted Australia's struggle to compete with its neighbours. With fewer science and technology graduates emerging from universities, Australia risks becoming an innovation backwater, he said.

Tell ASIMO robots can't break dance

NOTHING says techno-cool better than a humanoid robot puttin' on the moves on the dance floor. Honda's ASIMO (Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility) has hit 21 and is celebrating with a national tour of Australia to highlight its latest technology. At just 130cm tall and 54kg, ASIMO has been under development since 1986, emerging as the world's first humanoid robot in 1996.

Refinements since then have lifted ASIMO to star status with audiences, with royalty and an invitation to ring the bell at the New York Stock Exchange.

Video Take a look at some of ASIMO's moves

ASIMO is a walking, talking, dancing symbol of Honda's desire to push the technical boundaries. The future for ASIMO, and the target goal for the program since its inception, is in human service as an independent operating assistant for the disabled. But if you want someone just to answer the door and greet visitors, you can lease an ASIMO from Honda.

Honda uses one at its Japanese headquarters. Twenty ASIMOs have been built.
The tour continues from tomorrow until Sunday at Darling Harbour before moving on to Prince Alfred Park at Parramatta.

Second-class and lost in the post

Idiots. Utter, unbelievable, jaw-dropping, unpardonable idiots. It is beyond farce, past comprehension, criminally irresponsible and beneath contempt.

All those lectures from government and authorities about keeping our personal data safe; every statement ever made about the security of the proposed NHS database of everybody's personal medical records; each claim that the Children's Database containing all their personal details will somehow make our kids safer; and of course each and every promise about the safety of the national identity register — exposed as quite, quite worthless. Because as soon as you put it on a computer, a bloke in an office can download it and stick it in an envelope and send your most personal details and mine and our children's across the country with a dodgy courier.

It is shocking, it is risible, it is hilarious. Someone gave a disc containing confidential data about 25 million people to a bloke on a bike? And he lost it? Of course, a case of mass identity or financial fraud would never happen in this way. It is too chaotic. Fraud will happen through a far more organised infiltration of the official systems; but what yesterday's revelation does is underscore the insecurity of those systems. And allows us to giggle at the po-faced pretence of those in authority that they are any better at protecting us than we are ourselves.

This is the pretence at the heart of every state attempt to tighten up national security — through searches and ID cards and barricades and banning water in airports and making us take our shoes off. All these measures put the public to ever-greater inconvenience while it knows that terrorism happens through random and unimaginable acts that no amount of searching and barricading can block.
Background

* Chancellor admits HMRC lost data on 25m people

* Briefing: why was sensitive data sent on CD?

* Paul Gray's resignation letter

* Q&A: what to do now

Likewise, it is the very randomness of the loss of data that shocks. Someone just did something you couldn't have predicted: he stuck a load of incredibly sensitive stuff about us in the post. And it was (almost certainly) randomly lost. It's probably in a rubbish dump somewhere by now.

It might have been random, but it betrays a total and arrogant carelessness about the privacy of the individual. And it wasn't just one guy; it happens often. It was clear from Alistair Darling's statement to the Commons yesterday that there is systemic security failure at Her Majesty's Revenue & Customs.

It isn't the first time recently that the organisation has lost personal data. Turns out HMRC routinely sends sensitive information around the country on discs. Earlier this month the details of more than 15,000 Standard Life customers, including pensions, were put on a disc and lost by a courier en route from HMRC in Newcastle to the Standard Life HQ in Edinburgh. Last month a laptop with data about 400 people with high-value Isas was stolen from the boot of a car belonging to someone at HMRC. Personal and financial details have been misdirected to wrong addresses or found in the street.

Nov 21, 2007

Robocop's Beijing Gig

A less than two metre tall robot police officer with a blue and white jacket begins to work in Changping District of Beijing on Tuesday, November 20, 2007. less than two metre tall robot police officer with a blue and white jacket begins to work in Changping District of Beijing on Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2007.

A robot police officer has recently begun working in Changping District of Beijing, facilitating citizens who want to call the police. The newspaper Beijing Times reported on Tuesday that four video cameras have been installed in the robot, three in the head and one pinhole camera on the chest, with which he can inspect his surroundings.

When needing to call the police, citizens need only press a red button on the robot's stomach and the robot will automatically connect with police headquarters. Speaking through a microphone installed on the robot's chest, citizens can speak directly with an officer.

According to Changping police, the robot officer will be mainly used in areas where cameras can't be installed and where incidents happen frequently, thus benefiting citizens and frightening criminals.

Tell the Robot to clean up the mess


A woman speaks to Lady Bird, an insect-shaped talking robot created for cleaning up bathroom floors at highway rest areas, at a media presentation in Osaka on Nov. 21, 2007. The sensor-equipped robot, which can vacuum and scrub floors, is being development to have simple conversations with bathroom users and provide them with driving directions and tourism information. It will be put into practical use next year.

Beer's the way to stay ale 'n' hearty

Beer drinkers from all over Europe met recently in Brussels to discuss the medical advantages of drinking beer, a beverage praised over the years by artists and writers but rarely by scientists. As a result, those who enjoy a pint at the Adam and Eve from time to time are not always aware that beer, taken in moderation, has the same advantages as other drinks plus one or two of its own.

Beer contains antioxidants, so the beneficial effects of drinking on the cardiovascular system are not confined to wine.

Chaucer, Housman, Shakespeare, Dickens, Brendan Behan and Dylan Thomas have all praised beer in their writings, and Samuel Johnson even ran a brewery for a time, but their high regard for beer was not so much for its good effect on the physique as for its influence on their psyche and on the community in which they lived.

Unlike those literary figures, the scientists who met in Brussels under the chairmanship of Professor Jonathan Powell, of the Medical Research Council human nutrition unit in Cambridge, were largely concerned with the influence of beer on human health.

Professor Powell said that the media and the public had tended to focus on the advantages of wine drinking in moderation. In his opinion there is increasing evidence that the benefits of moderate drinking are more related to the alcohol, whatever the nature of the drink, than to a particular beverage. Beer also contains nutrients and other properties that encourage good health.

In a controlled study in Germany, it was found that people who drank beer in moderation were less likely to develop coronary heart disease than those who drank other drinks.

Not only did the beer drinkers have better protection from heart attacks, but there was supporting evidence for beer’s cardio-protective effect and for its help in altering the ratio of beneficial high-density lipoprotein cholesterol to the pernicious low-density cholesterol.

There were also beneficial changes to the platelets — particles in the blood involved in clotting — and in the amount of fibrinogen, another factor in clotting, present in the blood.

As the average beer is only a third of the strength of the average wine, the ease with which people can drink too much is less. There may be other characteristics in the lifestyle of the beer-drinking fraternity that are difficult to measure but may contribute to the apparent benefits of beer drinking.

Earlier work among beer drinkers in the Czech Republic found that those men with the lowest risk of having a heart attack drank between seven and 15 pints a week. Another study, from Australia, investigated the drinking habits of 3,000 people in their seventies over the previous ten years and found that those who drank one or two beers a day had a 20 per cent lower risk of dying of heart disease than those who were teetotal or drank to excess.

What is more, the advantages of moderate beer drinking are not confined to the heart. Danish research has revealed that beer drinkers suffer less frequently from kidney stones, and it is now becoming accepted that drinking beer in moderation reduces the incidence of diabetes and osteoporosis, although drinking to excess may increase the risk of both.

Beer drinkers are convinced that their tipple’s wholesome ingredients, including malted barley, hops and yeast, contribute to a healthy balanced diet. Beer is rich in many vitamins of the B group and in such trace elements as magnesium but is low in both iron and calcium.

Beer drinking in moderation is not even responsible for a large belly: glass for glass, beer is less fattening than apple juice, milk or yoghurt.

Ethical rights and wrongs

Only a few mavericks question the widespread belief that cloning human beings is wrong. While scientists and religious conservatives differ profoundly on the morality of human cloning for medical research, its use for reproduction – creating an individual from another’s DNA – has inspired remarkable ethical agreement.

In animals, cloning for reproduction has been inefficient and hazardous, with high rates of miscarriage and birth defects. Even supporters of cloning in pursuit of therapies for conditions such as diabetes largely share the view of church groups that reproductive applications challenge basic human dignity.

That is why a United Nations report called this week for renewed efforts to ban reproductive cloning worldwide. The consensus has created an opportunity to do this before it is too late, the panel of ethicists said. Otherwise, it is probably a question of when and not if the first human clone will be born.

For safety reasons alone, it is clear that reproductive cloning is not ethical. Even were such experiments to succeed, the cost of getting there, in lost pregnancies and deformed and dead children, would be too great to justify. Yet that does not necessarily mean that the practice will forever be immoral.
Related Links

* Taken for a ride

It is possible that reproductive cloning may be proved safe and efficient in primates. A breakthrough in monkey cloning that could eventually lead this way, indeed, was announced on Wednesday. If that were to happen, the ethical debate would come alive again. Some people – especially infertile men – may be keen to use cloning to have offspring that carry their genes. And it is not clear they would be wrong to do so.

As John Harris, of the University of Manchester, says in his new book Enhancing Evolution (Princeton University Press), many of the arguments against reproductive cloning that are not based on safety do not stack up. To share your DNA with another individual need not necessarily compromise dignity at all: millions of identical twins do it already.

Clones, of course, would be different from twins as they would have the DNA of a person from another generation, who is already alive. The idea that this condemns them to a life in the parent’s shadow, however, is also misconceived. All they would share is their nuclear DNA, and that contributes only parts of individuals’ identities.

Each would be born to a different woman, at a different time, from a different uterine environment. Education, family and peer group circumstances would be different, too. “Since we know that all these experiences affect the structure of the brain, there is no significant sense in which any clone could be determined to be like its genome donor,” Harris points out.

Perhaps the most serious nonsafety concern about reproductive cloning is that children born this way would almost certainly face stigma and discrimination. Once again, though, this is in no way decisive. The same was once true of children born out of wedlock, by IVF, or from donated eggs or sperm: social attitudes can and do change. The possibility that clones would face prejudice does not automatically mean that it would be wrong to create them. As the UN report recognised, it means that education and legislation are required to protect their human rights, so that they are respected as the individuals they would be.

Human reproductive cloning may not be possible. Even if it is, it will appeal only to a tiny minority. It cannot meaningfully replicate a lost child, and familiar ways of breeding will invariably be more efficient and fun. Its development is not a priority or something that reputable scientists are considering right now. But if it is plausible, there is a good chance that it will happen one day. We should think hard about how to protect cloned children before the first one is born.

Gartner to CIOs: Prepare for a fall

Analyst firm Gartner has warned Australian CIOs to ignore recent growth in local economies and prepare to deal with financial challenges in 2008, including escalating personnel costs and skills shortages.

At the Gartner Symposium in Sydney, senior vice-president Peter Sondergaard explained that recent troubles in global credit markets as well as recent local pressures mean that executives should create contingency plans for the coming year.

"Your IT budget for 2008 must reflect a continued focus on supporting business growth," Sondergaard said.

"However, it should build in cost contingencies for dealing with escalating personnel costs due to a rising skills shortage and declining quality in IT projects."

The company's analysts advised IT executives at the conference on how to drive growth for their businesses over the new year:

1) Attract and retain customers

CIOs need to take advantage of an efficient, secure, always available communications environment in order to attract and retain customers. User control is critical, analysts said, and communications in context, at the right time and place, make a significant difference.

2) Maximise profitability and effectiveness

IT must also deliver an efficient, lean and green infrastructure to maximise profitability and competitive capabilities.

3) Improve business processes

IT has addressed the majority of simple and straightforward processes - those that are predictable, repeatable and neatly controlled. Advanced organisations, the company says, will harness the most complex, most volatile, most dynamic and multi-party processes.

4) Stop deleting opportunities

People want only the right information all the time. Companies want the same thing, at the million document and billion transaction level.

"The problem is not just too much information, it's too much bad information. The information is delivered unpredictably. It comes from every direction in unimagined forms," said research director Brian Prentice. "Focus on the opportunities grasping for air in the information flood."

5) Build innovative and agile organisations

It is not enough to be merely efficient. Business needs innovation, and that means moving beyond the activities that IT people have obsessed about. IT has been asked to reduce costs, tighten compliance and reduce or even eliminate risk, all while reducing costs.

Research vice president Jeffrey Mann said, "How can IT leaders create an innovative and agile organisation if they believe that the most innovative and exciting technologies and services have no business value? To embrace opportunity, IT needs to loosen up to allow good things to happen, safely."

6) Managed risk

IT leaders need to understand the risk related to the use of IT, and these people communicate that risk, so the business can make an educated and informed decision whether or not that risk is acceptable. It is not IT's job to say no.

"Information security doesn't mean zero risk, it means managed risk," said Jay Heiser, research vice-president, Gartner. "Talk about what all these new technologies can enable, but in a context of a new approach to IT risk management. Help your business colleagues make educated decisions. It is not IT's job to assume all IT-related risk."

Nov 20, 2007

New tool to help track terrorists online

The quivering images and militant writings are frightening: an exploding Humvee blankets passing cars with dust; a lab technician makes explosives, step by step; hatred oozes from A guide to kill Americans in Saudi Arabia.

Tens of thousands of web pages are now devoted to terrorist propaganda designed to attract followers. On the surface, the messages and videos reveal little about their creators. But programmers and writers leave digital clues: the greetings and other words they choose, their punctuation and syntax, and the way they code multimedia attachments and web links.

Researchers at the University of Arizona are developing a tool that uses these clues to automate the analysis of online jihadism. The Dark Web project aims to scour web sites, forums and chat rooms to find the internet's most prolific and influential jihadists and learn how they reel in adherents.

Lab director Hsinchun Chen hopes Dark Web will crimp what he calls "al-Qaeda University on the web," the mass of web sites where potential terrorists learn their trade, from making explosives to planning attacks. Experts said they are not aware of any comparable effort, though some said the project may have only limited applications.

The project in the university's Artificial Intelligence Lab will not identify people outside cyberspace "because that involves civil liberties," Chen said, preferring to let law enforcement and intelligence analysts take over from there. Instead, it will help identify messages with the same author and reveal links that aren't obvious.

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Nov 19, 2007

Your Outboard Brain Knows All


I don't mean computer memory. That stuff's half-price at Costco these days. No, I'm talking about human memory, stored by the gray matter inside our heads. According to recent research, we're remembering fewer and fewer basic facts these days.

This summer, neuroscientist Ian Robertson polled 3,000 people and found that the younger ones were less able than their elders to recall standard personal info. When Robertson asked his subjects to tell them a relative's birth date, 87 percent of respondents over age 50 could recite it, while less than 40 percent of those under 30 could do so. And when he asked them their own phone number, fully one-third of the youngsters drew a blank. They had to whip out their handsets to look it up.

That reflexive gesture — reaching into your pocket for the answer — tells the story in a nutshell. Mobile phones can store 500 numbers in their memory, so why would you bother trying to cram the same info into your own memory? Younger Americans today are the first generation to grow up with go-everywhere gadgets and services that exist specifically to remember things so that we don't have to: BlackBerrys, phones, thumb drives, Gmail.

I've long noticed this phenomenon in my own life. I can't remember a single friend's email address. Hell, sometimes I have to search my inbox to remember an associate's last name. Friends of mine space out on lunch dates unless Outlook pings them. And when it comes to cultural trivia — celebrity names, song lyrics — I've almost given up making an effort to remember anything, because I can instantly retrieve the information online.

In fact, the line between where my memory leaves off and Google picks up is getting blurrier by the second. Often when I'm talking on the phone, I hit Wikipedia and search engines to explore the subject at hand, harnessing the results to buttress my arguments.

My point is that the cyborg future is here. Almost without noticing it, we've outsourced important peripheral brain functions to the silicon around us.

And frankly, I kind of like it. I feel much smarter when I'm using the Internet as a mental plug-in during my daily chitchat. Say you mention the movie Once: I've never seen it, but in 10 seconds I'll have reviewed a summary of the plot, the actors, and its cultural impact. Machine memory even changes the way I communicate, because I continually stud my IMs with links, essentially impregnating my very words with extra intelligence.