Innovation and Technology Weekly – No. 6, 2004

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 6, 2004

This week's headlines:



Breakthrough sees brain cells talk to microchip
February 19, 2004

Researchers of the University of Calgary, Canada and the Max Planck Institute for Biochemistry in Munich, Germany, have grown a network of snail brain cells and reconnected them on a specially designed silicon chip. Not only did the neurons survive, they actually grew and incorporated the chip as it if were a brain cell, too.

Using a micro capacitor on the chip to fire a charge, the scientists stimulated one nerve cell to communicate with a second cell. The second cell transmitted the signal to other cells within the network. More importantly, when the chip was fired, the neurons responded. A transistor on the chip recorded the cells' communication.

The researchers call the discovery a giant leap in answering fundamental questions of biology and neuro-electronics, paving the way to harness the power of nanotechnology. The next step is research on mice and other mammals, focusing on interfacing silicon chips with the brain to control artificial limbs.

Full story: CBC News / Globe and Mail Back to top


Paris eyes open-source switch
February 12, 2004

Following Munich's decision to equip 14,000 workstations with SuSE Linux-based systems, the French capital of Paris is studying a similar move. Systems integrator Unilog is set to carry out a feasibility study on the installation of open-source software systems for the city of Paris. The three-month study will review the 17,000 Windows-based PCs used by the city's administration, including 400 servers and 600 applications.

Other government bodies of varying sizes, in Europe and elsewhere, have begun examining or implementing open-source installations as a way of finding an alternative to Microsoft's monopoly. Schwabisch Hall was the first German city to abandon Windows in favour of open source. It was soon followed by Munich, and last Tuesday the German Federal Finance Office signed up with Linux - a deal thought to be one the largest Linux-based mainframe deployments in Europe.

The French government is also considering installing open-source software on between 5 per cent and 15 per cent of desktop computers.

Full story: ZDNet Back to top


Yahoo bids farewell to Google while Google expands
February 18, 2004

Google unveiled an even more powerful version of its leading search engine with the addition of 1 billion additional pages to its web index, increasing its breadth by about one-third. Google's engine now spans 4.28 billion web pages, up from 3.3 billion pages earlier this week.

By rolling out its expanded search engine early Tuesday, Google stole some thunder from Yahoo, which announced Wednesday that it is ready to run its search engine without Google's help. Yahoo has been licensing results from Google's search engine since June 2000, helping to establish Google as the king of online search.

But Yahoo has long viewed Google as a competitive threat and last year spent more than $2 billion on acquisitions to acquire more of the technology that it needed to run on its own search engine.

Full story: CNN / AP Back to top


Lindows makes a dash for Microsoft escape
February 18, 2004

Open-source reseller and thorn in the side of Microsoft, Lindows, has launched newly named software in an attempt to bypass the legal blocks barring it from selling in the Netherlands.

A recent trademark infringement case brought by Microsoft in the Netherlands resulted in Lindows being forced to temporarily cease selling its products to Dutch users, on the grounds the similarity in name between the Linux seller and Microsoft's operating systems violated branding law and might cause confusion for unsuspecting users.

To get round the naming issue, Lindows has launched Lin---s - pronounced Lindash, which will see the desktop Linux product available over the internet at www.lin---s.com and via participating resellers.

Full story: Silicon.com Back to top


MSN bans pop-ups on global sites
February 16, 2004

Microsoft is to phase out pop-up and pop-under web adverts on most of its global MSN websites by the summer. Results of research showed the company what most web users knew already - that they do not like them.

The ads will not be allowed on MSN's UK, Nordic and Belgian sites, with the ban extending to other countries soon. MSN, which has about 350 million global visitors to its sites, is the latest to ban pop-up ads after AOL started to block them from its US sites last year. MSN started to block pop-ups on its US sites at the end of 2003.

Microsoft has recently been working with online ad developers, Unicast, to come up with a new kind of adverts for the web. They have been trialling 30 second-long TV-style ads that appear at random when users click on certain websites. The new video ads are being tested on 15 sites over the next five weeks, including MSN, ABCNews, Pepsi and Honda.

Full story: BBC News Back to top


New chips to end buffer overflow threat
February 18, 2004

Chip makers are planning a new generation of microprocessors that should prevent 'buffer overflow' attacks, which enable hackers to extract private information from a PCs.

A buffer is a section of computer memory that can store a set amount of data. Sometimes, usually because of a software bug, the processor sends more data to the buffer than it can hold, causing it to overflow into the next chunk of buffer memory. This makes computers vulnerable to hackers, because by deliberately making a buffer overflow they can force the computer to execute their malicious code.

The problem is hard to detect, as popular programming languages, like C and C++ do not make it easy to track when programs are vulnerable to overflow. But now chip makers Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) and Intel are developing processor chips that will deal with the problem. AMD's Athlon-64 (for PCs) and Opteron (for servers) will protect against buffer overflows when used with a new version of Windows XP. Intel plans similar features on next generation Pentium chips.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top


New advances towards next-generation batteries
February 17, 2004

A method for growing forests of miniature carbon pillars could lead to a new generation of lithium batteries, which could power everything from mobile phones to laptop computers. The method, developed by researchers at the University of California, Irvine, effectively crams hundreds of batteries into the space usually taken up by a single battery cell.

Normal mobile-phone batteries generate current when lithium ions flow between two terminals. The new technique boosts the power they generate by creating an array of multiple terminals out of carbon rods, and floating a sea of lithium ions between them.

The new battery could have big advantages over existing lithium cells. Because they combine many positive and negative terminals, the batteries can generate larger bursts of current than today's cells provide. The batteries might also allow the levels of current to be changed by adjusting the number of rows that are connected together. This could be useful in devices such as laptop computers, which need more power to start up than when running normally.

Full story: Nature Back to top


Magnets tune photonic crystal
February 18, 2004

Researchers from Fudan University in China have found that it is possible to use a magnetic field to quickly shift or block certain frequencies of electromagnetic signals passing through photonic crystals made from semiconductor material.

Photonic crystals could be used to make chips that control the flow of electromagnetic radiation similar to the way that today's computer chips control the flow of electricity. The researchers' method could be used to make devices that switch and filter different wavelengths in the gigahertz and terahertz ranges used in high-speed radio communications. The method does not work for the visible or infrared light used in optical communications.

Applying a magnetic field to the researchers' crystal changes its dielectric constant, which determines the strength and frequency of electromagnetic waves that can pass through the material. The method changes the crystal's properties more quickly than methods that use temperature or electricity, according to the researchers.

Full story: Technology Review / TRN Back to top


Workplace data theft runs rampant
February 15, 2004

Office technology makes it much easier for workers to steal important information from their employers, a study by data forensics firm Ibas has shown. Research into intellectual property theft found that in the UK almost 70 per cent of people have stolen key information from work.

The most pilfered items include e-mail address books, customer databases as well as proposals and presentations. Many of those questioned said they used office e-mail to get the stolen information off company premises. Most of those stealing important information said they did so when they were leaving a firm to take up a new job. The majority of those questioned, 72 per cent, had no ethical problems stealing information to help them in a new post.

The survey found that 30 per cent of people had stolen a contact database when they left an employer. Many of those stealing from companies send the purloined data to their personal e-mail account held at home or on the web. A small number, 21 per cent, burned the information onto CDs.

Full story: BBC News Back to top


Web users revisit in steps
February 12, 2004

Half the battle of finding information on the web is getting back to a page you have already seen. The web has long spurred researchers to study how people initially find information, but the tactics people use to get back to previously discovered information remain less understood.

Now US researchers at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University are examining how people relocate information. Their study showed that people tend to use a two-stage process to find information they have seen before, that they use domain information and context to move closer to a goal, and that annotations make things easier. The researchers observed the ways subjects who had previously carried out a set of website-finding tasks used a telephone to direct a second set of subjects to carry out similar tasks.

The findings could lead to tools that would help users re-access web pages more quickly and easily using devices from desktop computers to mobile phones. The researchers are planning to build a prototype web browser add-on aimed at helping users re-find information.

Full story: Technology Review / TRN Back to top


UNU-MERIT