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,, 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'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.