Innovation and Technology Weekly – No. 40, 2005

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 40, 2005

This week's headlines:

Europe threatens Microsoft with daily fines
December 22, 2005

The European Commission threatened software giant Microsoft on Thursday with daily fines for failing to comply with antitrust sanctions a year after a top European Union court rejected the company's appeal.

The European Union's executive arm said it may fine Microsoft up to EUR 2m a day unless it complies with an order to provide interface documentation to allow rivals' group servers to work with the company's ubiquitous Windows operating system.

Microsoft has five weeks to reply to the Commission's statement of objections, and it has the right to an oral hearing. The order was part of a landmark March 2004 ruling that the company had abused its global market dominance to squelch rivals.

Full story: CNET News / Reuters Back to top

US 'winning war' on e-mail spam
December 20, 2005

The number of spam emails received in the US appears to be falling thanks to new laws and better technology, a government report says.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) said internet users still disliked spam - but most got less than two years ago. Spam filters and a 2003 US law allowing people to opt out of future mailings were helping cut the problem, it said. However, the report warned spammers were improving their technology and the number of e-mail scams had risen.

The FTC said a survey by e-mail filtering firm MX Logic found spam accounted for 67 per cent of traffic through its system for the first eight months of 2005 - a 9 per cent drop from a year earlier. Time Warner's internet unit AOL reported a 75 per cent fall in spam received by its members from 2003 to 2004, the report added.

The FTC said studies from other countries, including Canada and Finland, similarly report a decrease in the amount of spam received.

Full story: BBC News Back to top

Perfect day for weather satellite
December 21, 2005

Europe has launched the latest spacecraft in its next-generation series of meteorological satellites. The two-tonne, cylinder-shaped MSG-2 will observe the changing weather over Europe, Africa and the Middle East.

The new spacecraft was sent to a geostationary orbit at an altitude of 35,800km above the Gulf of Guinea off the west coast of equatorial Africa. MSG-2 will beam back detailed images to Europe's national weather services - one every 15 minutes. Many of these will be infrared images that tell the forecasters about the temperatures of clouds, land and sea surfaces.

Using channels that absorb ozone, water vapour and carbon dioxide, the imager will also allow meteorologists to analyse the characteristics of air masses, making it possible to reconstruct a three-dimensional view of the atmosphere.

MSG-2 also carries a Geostationary Earth Radiation Budget (Gerb) instrument, which measures with high accuracy the total solar energy absorbed by the Earth and the total energy emitted by the planet. The instrument's data will be vital to test theories about global warming.

Full story: BBC News Back to top

Gyroscope sets course to fight cancer
December 23, 2005

Miniaturised gyroscopes more commonly found in missile guidance systems can make sensitive biosensors for fast cancer diagnosis. Micro- gyroscopes comprise a chip with a vibrating disc the size of a sand grain mounted at its centre. The vibrations are highly sensitive to acceleration, so the chips can be used to detect motion in rockets, aircraft and anti-lock braking systems in cars.

But now researchers at the University of Newcastle in the UK have created a gyroscopic disc less than 0.1 millimetres across that can be used to 'weigh' proteins, which allows it to identify particular proteins produced by cancer cells. The disc targets the kind of protein that binds to a DNA coating on a cross on the disc's surface.

The disc is electronically made to vibrate both up and down and side to side. Initially it vibrates with the same frequency in both directions. But when a protein in a fluid sample binds to the DNA, it knocks it off balance, causing it to vibrate at a slightly different frequency in each direction. By measuring this change the device can work out the mass of the protein and identify the captured particle, while ignoring normal proteins accidentally caught on the surface.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

Info theory boosts clustering
December 20, 2005

The emerging field of clustering aims to help scientists analyse mountains of data like genome sequencing, astronomical observations and market behaviour by automatically grouping like pieces of data.

Princeton University researchers have taken a fresh approach to the clustering problem using information theory to generalise the process, which removes the need to define ahead of time what makes pieces of data similar to each other.

The method determines how much information each piece of data has in common regardless of the nature of the information, and it boils down to finding the best trade-off between maximising the apparent relatedness of pieces of data while minimising the number of bits needed to describe the data. The method can be used with any kind of data and performs better than previous clustering algorithms, the researchers say.

Full story: Technology Research Magazine Back to top

Photographs make icons meaningful
December 19, 2005

Staring at a screenful of identical icons is not the most efficient way to find the file you are looking for. Researchers from Northwestern University are looking to remedy the problem with a system that automatically generates semanticons - image-based file icons that are easier to find and remember than ordinary icons.

The system analyses file names and the contents of files to generate keywords that are then used to query a database of stock photographs. It identifies appropriate photographs, uses the photograph as a template to create simplified cartoon images, and places one or two of the images on an icon template based on file type.

Users recognised semanticons an average of 1.96 seconds faster than ordinary icons and performed a memory game more than 20 per cent faster using semanticons than ordinary icons, according to studies by the researchers. Semanticons could make it easier for users to find and organise files.

Full story: Technology Research News Back to top

Invention: The inkjet-printer pen
December 20, 2005

The pen of the future will use inkjet technology to deliver a multitude of colours from its tip, according to recent filings from prolific patenter Silverbrook Research in Balmain, Australia.

Inkjet printer heads are now cheaply mass-produced and small enough to fit into the stem of a pen in place of a nib or ballpoint. Silverbrook's pen body has a battery-powered microelectromechanical print head near the tip that pumps out fine jets of ink from a replaceable cartridge.

A smooth roller point at the tip of the pen holds the jet at a fixed distance from the paper and pressing the point onto the paper switches the jet on and off. Varying the pressure varies the thickness of the line by controlling the number of jets that pump ink - a hard push makes a thick line and vice versa.

The roller point can also sense the direction of movement over the page and make the jet change shape to mimic the behaviour of a pen nib. And if the cartridge has separate chambers of cyan, magenta, yellow and black ink, writing and drawing can be done in a rainbow of colours.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

Business cards obsolete with high-tech handshake
December 22, 2005

The ritual of exchanging business cards could become a thing of the past after Japanese researchers devised a way to swap data just through a handshake. If two people each wear a 50-gram device the size of a matchbox, they could receive each other's details into their cellphones or other mobile gadgets simply through body contact.

The 'RedTacton' technology, under development by Microsystems Integration Laboratories of NTT, can transmit data of a person's choosing, such as the information on a business card. The device uses optical electric field sensors that look for similar electric fields on other bodies. When contact is made, the data goes through the body with a small amount of voltage, winding up in a portable terminal such as a cellphone or personal data assistant (PDA).

The technology, could have many uses, such as being embedded into medicine bottles that send messages to mobile terminals such as a cellphone. Other uses of the technology include allowing people to unlock a door by touching the door knob.

Full story: PhysOrg / AFP Back to top

Scientists study Christie success
December 18, 2005

Novelist Agatha Christie used words that invoked a chemical response in readers and made her books 'literally unputdownable', scientists have said. A neurolinguistic study of more than 80 of her novels concluded that her phrases triggered a pleasure response.

The Agatha Project study was carried out by scientists from universities in London, Birmingham and Warwick. It involved loading Christie's novels onto a computer and analysing her words, sentences and phrases. It aimed to explain the enduring popularity of the work of the late author.

The team found that common phrases used by Christie acted as a trigger to raise levels of serotonin and endorphins, the chemical messengers in the brain that induce pleasure and satisfaction. These phrases included 'can you keep an eye on this', 'more or less' and 'a day or two'.

Christie was also found to have used a very limited vocabulary, which allows readers to concentrate more on the clues and the plots. Christie also frequently used dashes to create a faster-paced, unreflective narrative.

Full story: BBC News Back to top