Innovation and Technology Weekly – No. 30, 2003

This is the online version of UNU-MERIT’s I&T Weekly which is sent out by email every Friday. If you wish to subscribe to this free service, please submit your email address in the box to the right.

Issue 30, 2003

This week's headlines:

Ocean sponge could improve telecoms
August 20, 2003

Scientists from Bell Laboratories say they have identified an ocean sponge living in the darkness of the deep sea that grows thin glass fibres capable of transmitting light at least as well as industrial fibre optic cables used for telecommunication. The natural glass fibres also are much more flexible than manufactured fibre optic cable that can crack if bent too far.

The glassy sponge grows the fibres at low temperatures using natural materials, a process materials scientists hope to duplicate in order to avoid the problems created by current fibre optic manufacturing methods that require high temperatures and produce relatively brittle cable.

The sponge also is able to add traces of sodium to the fibres which increase their ability to conduct light, something that cannot be done to glass fibres at the high temperatures needed for commercial manufacturing.

Full story: Yahoo / AP / Nature Back to top

Download battle reaches Europe
August 14, 2003

Microsoft has launched a music download service in Europe after the success of a similar service run by rival Apple in the US. Microsoft's MSN Music Club allows fans in the UK, France and Germany to buy single songs from €0.99. It is being billed as the first pan-European pay-as-you-go online music shop.

Apple's iTunes music store, which offers songs for $0.99, was an instant hit when it launched in the US in May - but Microsoft has beaten it to the European market. Through Microsoft, fans can buy more than 200,000 songs from all five major record labels - roughly the same as the iTunes catalogue.

Full story: BBC News Back to top

Microsoft shelves Outlook Express
August 13, 2003

It might be the world's most widely distributed email client, but Microsoft has confirmed that it has no intention of developing Outlook Express further.

While Outlook Express has always been most popular with individual consumers, many business users have also utilised it, in part because it is part of its default Windows install. Microsoft executives are hoping those users will now switch to the full-blown Outlook client - and pay for an Office licence in the process.

In May, Microsoft revealed that it was no longer planning to release standalone versions of Internet Explorer, which includes the Outlook Express functionality. Future releases will only be made available as part of the Windows platform.

Full story: / ZDNet Australia Back to top

Linux 'easily' recompiled to dump SCO
August 18, 2003

Vendors and users could easily recompile their Linux software to temporarily remove modules that may contain SCO copyrighted software, according to tests conducted at IT Week. By doing so, users could avoid potential demands by SCO for royalty payments.

In the tests, removing binary emulation modules had no discernible effect on the most popular Linux applications, such as Apache, Sendmail and Linux firewall tools. IT Week selected these modules because SCO cited similar software in its complaint against IBM in March.

The IT Week labs findings come as US software company Aduva announced its intention to release a tool to root out SCO code and replace it. Aduva said that it will customise its OnStage 2.0 product so that it can conduct a complete system inventory to identify SCO code and automatically replace it.

Full story: VNUnet UK Back to top

First game-playing DNA computer revealed
August 18, 2003

The first game-playing DNA computer has been revealed - an enzyme-powered tic-tac-toe machine that cannot be beaten.

The human player makes his or her moves by dropping DNA into 3 by 3 square of wells that make up the board. The device then uses a complex mixture of DNA enzymes to determine where it should place its nought or cross, and signals its move with a green glow. The device, dubbed MAYA, was developed by researchers at Columbia University in New York and the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.

More complex computational tasks than noughts and crosses could be tackled with different arrangements of the enzymes. But the researchers acknowledge that the approach will never rival silicon computers, because human action is needed to operate the gates in system and it is not reusable. They are now focusing on developing simple decision-making solutions that can operate in vivo. Molecules could, for example, assess faults in a living cell and then either kill or repair it.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

Do-gooder worm fixes Blaster hole
August 19, 2003

A 'do-gooder' computer worm that fixes the Windows bug exploited by the damaging worm Blaster has begun spreading on the net. The new worm called Welchia spreads by exploiting the same vulnerability.

Blaster has caused widespread damage in the last week, despite failing in its principle aim - crashing the Microsoft website that serves the software patch for the vulnerability. Now Welchia, is spreading, downloading the patch and then rebooting machines to start afresh. It can also spread using an older vulnerability called WebDav, first announced by Microsoft in March.

Benign worms have been much discussed by technical experts, and some corporate networks have even used a similar technique to update their own machines. However, experts believe it is the first such worm seen widely 'in the wild', i.e. on the internet.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

Single slow user can throttle wi-fi network
August 04, 2003

A single user with a slow connection to a wireless network, perhaps because they are far from the access station, can significantly degrade the overall service to everyone using that wi-fi access station, according to researchers from the Institut d'Informatique et Mathématiques Appliquées de Grenoble in France who studied the performance of networks using the popular wi-fi standard 802.11b.

This is because of the way bandwidth is allocated to each user by the wi-fi standard's access protocol, called Carrier Sense Multiple Access/Collision Avoidance (CSMA/CA). If just one person is unable to connect at the optimal speed, the CSMA/CA protocol throttles back the maximum connection speed for all. This guarantees that any user, no matter what their access speed, can get stable access to the network.

If the faster users were not limited and the network approached its maximum bandwidth, the slower user's service would be the first to degrade to the point of uselessness. However, the best connected users could see their transfer speeds cut from 11 Mb/s to about 1 Mb/s.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

Email updates 'six degrees' theory
August 18, 2003

The world has known about the small-world phenomenon since Stanley Milgram's 1967 study found that it took, on average, six exchanges among acquaintances to get a letter from a random correspondent in Omaha, Nebraska, to a Boston recipient identified only by a brief description. But the experiment has been criticised for not being thorough.

Columbia University researchers have carried out a larger, more detailed experiment over the internet. The study prompted 24,163 email volunteers to attempt to reach one of 18 target persons in 13 countries by forwarding messages to acquaintances, and resulted in 384 messages reaching their target. The experiment confirmed that a message initiated by a random person reaches its destination in five to seven steps.

But it showed that the primary avenues were not necessarily the highly connected social hubs that Milgram's experiments pointed to. The main reasons for choosing the next person in a message chain were geography and work related, and those people tended to be acquaintances rather than friends. The results could improve knowledge bases and peer-to-peer network design, according to the researchers.

Full story: Technology Review / Science Back to top

New microphone detects whispers
August 18, 2003

People who bellow into their cell phones on trains and buses could soon have no excuse. Engineers at Pohang University of Science and Technology in Kyungbuk, South Korea have designed a tiny microphone that picks up whispers even in a noisy environment.

Whispering into a cell phone is easily drowned out by other sounds, and tends to exaggerate sibilant and plosive consonants - such as 's', 't', 'p' and 'b' - that can interfere with a microphone's performance. The new setup maximises speech reception but uses a filter to cut the air-blow effects of sibilants and plosives. The filter has a perforated central panel that lets air through, so that pressure spikes from air puffs do not register in the microphones.

The researchers reduced blowing further by pointing the four microphones away from the speaker. They also devised a new signal-processing method that combines the outputs from all four microphones into signal that is mostly due to a sound source just above the middle of the mouthpiece plate.

Full story: Nature Back to top

Robot insect walks on water
August 06, 2003

Scientists from MIT have developed a robotic insect which walks on water. The team were testing out a theory about how water striders (Gerridae) perform the same trick. The robotic version of the water strider is bigger than its real-life counterpart and its motion less graceful, but it does seem to show that the MIT team has managed to capture the essence of a natural phenomenon.

Previous theories put forward to explain how water striders manage to propel themselves across the surface of ponds and lakes had one major problem. They predicted that young water striders should be too weak to move, while nature shows clearly that they are not.

Surface tension explains why water striders do not sink below the surface as they stand on water. But a careful experimental study was needed to explain how they propel themselves forward. The researchers discovered that the secret to the water strider's locomotion is that it rows across the water without penetrating the surface. The rowing motion leaves a telltale vortex behind each foot, clearly visible on camera.

Full story: BBC News / Nature Back to top

The machine with fashion sense
August 17, 2003

British firm QinetiQ has invented a 'smart' changing room that uses digital camera images to tell shoppers what clothes look good on them. QinetiQ - formerly the Defence Evaluation Research Agency - developed the system as a spin off from work on weapon range finders.

Around six 3D cameras would be installed in each changing cubicle, to take pictures and record precise measurements from more than 1,000 points on their 'subject'. After the data is fed into a computer, special software can match particular clothing styles to individual body shapes.

If mass produced, the company said the cameras could cost as little as £30 (€43) each. QinetiQ is already in talks with clothing retailers. One other possible application could be security and access control. The system could look for minute details that, for example, distinguish a person's facial features. It could even tell the difference between a pair of 'identical' twins.

Full story: BBC News Back to top

Do you speak cyber-slang?
August 21, 2003

The latest in computer jargon and slang terms have made it into the new edition of the Oxford Dictionary of English. 'Cyberslackers' (workers who spend all day on the web), 'data smog' (the wealth of often-contradictory facts and figures online) and 'egosurfing' (looking for references to yourself online) are all included in the latest dictionary, along with more than 3,000 other words.

The dictionary has also attempted to sort out some punctuation details. Hence 'E-mails' has become 'emails' and internet users are 'online', not 'on-line'. Americanisms such as 'geek' and 'nerd' are also included.

The term 'grooming' has been added to describe the activities of paedophiles in chatrooms. 'Hacktivists' (IT savvy protestors) and 'shovelware' (bundling old software together) make an appearance too.

New words for the dictionary have been compiled by monitoring TV, radio and printed materials as well as academic journals and spoken English.

Full story: VNUnet UK Back to top