Google: Caffeine search is ready to go

Google’s Caffeine initiative to perk up search results is leaving the sandbox.

First revealed as a “secret project” in early August, Caffeine is intended to speed up search results and improve their accuracy. Google’s Webmaster Central blog at the time described Caffeine as “the first step in a process that will let us push the envelope on size, indexing speed, accuracy, comprehensiveness and other dimensions.”

A Caffeine Web page had been set up as a developer preview test site asking people to try out the new feature and offer their feedback. But as spotted by Mashable.com, the developer information has been taken down and replaced with a note from Google, pegging Caffeine a success and briefly describing the next phase.

Based on the success we’ve seen, we believe Caffeine is ready for a larger audience. Soon we will activate Caffeine more widely, beginning with one data center. This sandbox is no longer necessary and has been retired, but we appreciate the testing and positive input that webmasters and publishers have given.

Caffeine won’t change the look or feel of Google’s popular search engine but will work under the hood to improve its performance, reportedly delivering faster, better, and more flexible results. Though Google continually tweaks its search engine, Caffeine represents the first major enhancement to its search indexing since 2006.

No word or response yet from Google on when Caffeine might actually go live.

In a late August interview with WebProNews, Google engineer Matt Cutts said that the feedback on Caffeine had been very positive.

And in a forecast of Google’s latest move, Cutts also said he wouldn’t be surprised if Caffeine were gradually opened up one data center at a time. Then once Google is satisfied with the new search indexing, Caffeine should spill out into more and more data centers.

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‘Road trains’ get ready to roll

Road trains that link vehicles together using wireless sensors could soon be on European roads.

An EU-financed research project is looking at inexpensive ways of getting vehicles to travel in a ‘platoon’ on Europe’s motorways.

Each road train could include up to eight separate vehicles – cars, buses and trucks will be mixed in each one.

The EU hopes to cut fuel consumption, journey times and congestion by linking vehicles together.

Early work on the idea suggests that fuel consumption could be cut by 20% among those cars and trucks travelling behind the lead vehicle.

Spanish trials

The lead vehicle would be handled by a professional driver who would monitor the status of the road train. Those in following vehicles could take their hands off the wheel, read a book or watch TV, while they travel along the motorway. Their vehicle would be controlled by the lead vehicle.

Funded under the European Commission’s Framework 7 research plan, Sartre (Safe Road Trains for the Environment) is aimed at commuters in cars who travel long distances to work every day but will also look at ways to involve commercial vehicles.

Tom Robinson, project co-ordinator at engineering firm Ricardo, said the idea was to use off-the-shelf components to make it possible for cars, buses and trucks to join the road train.

A driverless car
Many researchers are developing cars that drive themselves

“The goal is to try and introduce a step change in transport methods,” he said.

“We’re looking at what it would take to get platooning on public highways without making big changes to the public highways themselves,” said Mr Robinson.

A system that involved wiring up motorways with sensors to help control the road trains would be prohibitively expensive, he said.

“Each of the vehicles will have their own control and software monitoring system,” said Mr Robinson. “There may well be a platoon sensor envelope that collates information and presents it to the lead vehicle so it can understand what is happening around all the vehicles.”

The idea is to make platoons active so vehicles can join and leave as they need. Mr Robinson speculated that those joining a platoon or road train may one day pay for the privilege of someone else effectively driving them closer to their destination.

Sartre will run for three years. The project partners are currently doing preliminary research to find out all the elements needed for a working system and the situations in which it might be used.

There were also behavioural elements to consider, said Mr Robinson, such as whether all the vehicles will need to have their hazard lights on while in a platoon.

Also, he said, there had to be a way to ensure the vehicles in a platoon are organised to make drivers feel safe.

“Car drivers do not want to be between trucks,” he said.

Towards the end of the research project trials will be held on test tracks in the UK, Spain and Sweden. There are also plans for public road trials in Spain. The first platoon will involve two trucks and three cars.

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Brit blog names iPhone ‘world’s worst’

In June, Apple’s smartphone was the editors’ choice at CNET UK. How times have changed.iphone
CNET UK’s award

“The iPhone may be the greatest handheld surfing device ever to rock the mobile Web, and a fabulous media player to boot,” writes CNET UK’s Flora Graham in a mock award citation posted Tuesday. “It may be the highest-rated mobile phone on CNET UK, rocking the pockets of half of our crack editorial team. It’s certainly the touchscreen face that launched a thousand apps. But as an actual call-making phone, it’s rubbish, and we aim to prove it.”

What follows is a litany of complaints no iPhone owner hasn’t heard — or expressed — before. But to read them in a publication that four months earlier named Apple’s (AAPL) device the “world’s best touchscreen phone” is unexpected. And in Ms. Graham’s voice, sort of fun.

To quote a few of her sharper lines:

* Say what? Call quality on the iPhone is pathetic, and it’s mostly because of the tiny speaker. It has to be aligned with your ear canal with the accuracy of a laser-guided ninja doing cataract surgery, or else the volume cuts down to nothing as the sound waves bounce uselessly around your ear shells.
* Dropped calls and data gaps. If, like Will Smith in Enemy of the State, you’re trying to avoid the eagle eye of Big Brother, the iPhone could be for you. It drops calls, fails to connect and doesn’t even ring sometimes — not for everyone, but more often than any other phone we’re currently using.
* You can’t answer if it doesn’t ring. Perhaps the worst of the iPhone’s problems is its ability to sit there stealthily and ignore incoming calls. With no ring or vibrate to clue you in, your friends and family are redirected to voicemail… or just treated to silence. If you’re in a two-iPhone family, it can be a case of the deaf leading the mute.
* The iPhone might burn your face off. According to our ultra-sciencey test, it is extremely unlikely that the iPhone will burn your face off… Nevertheless, pressing a large, flat surface to your cheek is always going to be sweaty… Thus the current trend for people to walk down the street with their phones on hands-free, yelling into the mike at the bottom while they hold the rest of the phone away from their faces.
* iPhone battery life. A couple of hours of Google Maps over 3G and you’ll be lost in the woods without even the possibility of phoning for help. Compare that to the good old days when your phone would last a week without charging, and you’ll wonder why you ever bothered to switch.
* The iPhone sucks — so what? If the iPhone is inaudible, unconnected, on fire and out of battery, why is the thing so popular? The fact is, although the iPhone is the worst phone in the world, it’s the best handheld computer there is.

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Microsoft’s Mundie: IT needed to solve global woesMicrosoft’s Mundie: IT needed to solve global woes

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.–Scientists need the same sort of computer breakthrough that the spreadsheet brought to business users decades ago, says Craig Mundie, Microsoft’s chief research and strategy officer.

Mundie gave a speech at Harvard University here on Tuesday to discuss coming “disruptions” in computing and to argue that computer science is fundamental to solving daunting global problems, including energy, environment, health care, and education.

Without taking advantage of advances in computing, adjacent fields of nanotechnology and biotechnology will not move as fast as they could, he said. At the same time, he lamented how computer science is seen as “so yesterday.”

“It’s stunning how much people want to fund the fads and they don’t put any emphasis on how core computing is,” Mundie said during questions. “I hope we can come together and realize that we have to invest in the future of computing if we want a future in all these other areas.”

The Harvard talk was one of four Mundie is giving this week in an effort to stir excitement in the study of computing, with both computer science students and people in other fields, such as medicine or material science. Less than 100 students and faculty came to the Harvard talk on Tuesday where he demonstrated some of how Microsoft’s research can be applied to energy and the environment.

Computing is becoming increasingly embedded in everyday devices, in everything from phones to cars. But even though people are increasingly familiar with digital technologies, there are still disruptive changes on the near horizon, Mundie said.

“We think we understand it but in fact it’s at a time that the flux in computing overall is as great as it’s ever been,” he said.

The amount of computation that’s available will continue to increase with multicore processors, which will enable new applications. That includes what Microsoft calls “natural language processing,” where people can interact with computers in more intuitive ways than the familiar mouse and graphical user interface. An example is Microsoft’s Project Natal, motion-sensing technology where people can use arms and legs to play games.

Two other big technology changes, he said, are three-dimensional displays and cloud computing, where people can tap banks of servers over the Internet for data-intensive jobs.

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Spooky tech tales to make your computer crawl

Floppy disksA real cutup
Back in the day when I owned a computer storefront, a client came in and bought a brand new desktop from me. I offered to install it for free (how things change) but she informed me that she knew how to do it and had owned a computer for years. She paid in full and was on her way.

About three days passed and I get a phone call from her. Her old system used 5.25-inch floppy disks and her new system only had 1.44MB 3.5-inch disks. She told me she had a book she had been working on for 25 years backed up on floppy and that the reason she got a new computer is that her hard drive had died. I told her it was not a problem, that I had an old 5.25 floppy drive I could install and would even be happy to transfer the data to the 3.5-inch disk free of charge (again, how things change). She thanked me and stated that she would be at my office shortly.

Taking scissors to floppy disks…probably not a good idea.

About 30 minutes later she walks in carrying a large box. My first thought was, “Oh man…what the heck did I just get myself into? That’s going to take me days to read if that box is full of disks.”

She sits the box on my desk and thanks me once again for my help, explaining that it was her life’s work and that she was almost finished with it. I opened the box to find a huge pile of cut-up floppies. In horror, I asked her what happened. She stated that she figured she could just trim the edges of the disks off so they would fit into the smaller drive and it would work fine. I asked her if she still had the old computer but she had trashed it more than a week before.

About two hours later I was able to get her husband on the phone to come pick her up from my office. She was so shaken she was not able to drive herself home and so stunned she could not even tell me how to get to her house (now we have GPS…more evidence of how things change).

Oh, rats!
I got a call from a friend asking if I could come take a look at their computer, as it wasn’t powering up. They said they had a bur
ning smell and all of a sudden the machine turned off and wouldn’t power back up. I assumed it was a power supply issue and headed over. Once I got there, I pulled out the tower to find a fried/dead rat that had chewed through the power cord running to the power supply. An easy fix, but definitely gross!

Curse of the black cat
Our vehicle has automatic safety door locks that engage at about 20 mph. As I was driving home, a black cat crossed my path about four car lengths ahead of me…I got a good look at it, all black. I heard the automatic door locks engage at that very instant that I saw the cat. The rear passenger door has not opened since. It refuses to unlock.

I’ve tried everything, hip-checking the door, disassembling the handle mechanism etc., all to no avail. The dealership wants over $400 to repair it. This would not have happened if that black cat had not crossed my path. It worked perfectly for years until that very moment.

The Devil at Best Buy
My friend and her mother were walking through Best Buy, peering at the new modem models and trying to figure out those passwords only the employees know for the computers just for fun (we’ve all done it). Of course, she walked right by the printers, paying them no mind; because, really, does anyone just randomly look at printers unless they’re in the market for one?

She was facing a flat-screen monitor when she heard a noise from behind. One of the printers seemed to be spitting something out, though no one was at any of the other computers and she hadn’t even started guessing the password on her current endeavor. So what was it printing? Her mother reached into the tray and pulled out a two-page article on exorcisms. A Wikipedia article on the movie “The Exorcist” came out a few minutes later.

 

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Digital ‘ants’ take on computer worms

Digital ants could soon be crawling through your computer’s hard drive, but don’t worry, they are there to help.

Scientists from Wake Forest University and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have created an army of digital ants and their superior officers, digital sergeants and sentinels, to search out viruses, worms and other malware.

The new antivirus software could provide better protection while freeing up valuable hardware.
“We are using the ants to sense something very basic, like a connection rate,” said Errin Fulp, a professor of computer science at Wake Forest University who helped develop the digital ants. “Then we collect that evidence which points us to a particular infection or security threat,” said Fulp.

Like their biological counterparts, each individual ant is not very bright. A connection rate, CPU utilization or one of about 60 other technical details is all they can sense. When an ant detects something unusual, it leaves a digital pheromone, a tiny digital sense that says something unusual is going on here, and that other ants should check it out.

The digital ants report any suspicious activity to a digital sentinel, a program designed to watch over a set of computers in a network. The sentinel sorts through all the information the ants gather, and if its suspicious, passes the information on to a digital sergeant. The sergeant then alerts the human supervisor, who can the deal with the problem.

The sentinels and sergeants reward the ants for finding problems. If an ant doesn’t find enough problems it “dies” off, although a minimum number is always maintained.

If a particular kind of ant finds lots of problems then more of them are created to monitor the problem. The entire system is modeled off of a normal ant colony and uses “swarm intelligence” to find and diagnose problems.

The beauty of using digital ants, instead of a traditional anti-virus program, is their flexibility. Traditional anti-virus software usually scans constantly or on a set time schedule. Constantly scanning for threats is effective, but uses a lot of computer resources, resources that could be better spent doing something else.

Scanning at certain times, usually at night, optimizes computer usage, but it leaves a computer more vulnerable. Since the number of ants rises and falls with number of problems being detected, it can free up computer hardware to perform calculations when an attack isn’t happening. If at attack is happening, more ants can quickly be created to help deal with it.

The researchers created four digital ants of the 64 types then eventually want. To test their effectiveness, they set up a bank of computers and released three worms into the ant-infested Linux-based computers. The four digital ants in the computers had never seen the viruses before, yet identified the virus by only monitoring four very specific aspects of the computers.

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Lost Northwest Pilots Were Trying Out New Software

“The NY Times reports that two Northwest Airlines pilots who flew about 110 miles past their destination to the skies over Wisconsin as more than a dozen air-traffic controllers in three locations tried to get the plane’s attention had taken out their personal laptops in the cockpit, a violation of airline policy, so the first officer could tutor the captain in a new scheduling system put in place by Delta Air Lines, which acquired Northwest last fall. ‘Both said they lost track of time,’ said an interim report from the National Transportation Safety Board countering theories in aviation circles that the two pilots might have fallen asleep or were arguing in the cockpit. ‘Using laptops or engaging in activity unrelated to the pilots’ command of the aircraft during flight,’ said a statement from Delta Airlines, ‘is strictly against the airline’s flight deck policies and violations of that policy will result in termination.’ Industry executives and analysts said the pilots’ behavior was a striking lapse for such veteran airmen who have a total of 31,000 flying hours of experience between them. In the case of Flight 188, ‘Neither pilot was aware of the airplane’s position until a flight attendant called about five minutes before they were scheduled to land and asked what was their estimated time of arrival,’ the interim report said.”

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Net neutrality still faces political, legal hurdles

Net neutrality supporters may be celebrating the Federal Communications Commission’s unanimous vote Thursday to begin developing open Internet regulation, but the battle is far from over as the yet-to-be-written regulation is already facing Congressional opposition and will also likely be challenged in court.

Votes at the FCC for the proposal to get the ball rolling on new rules to protect an open Internet hadn’t even been cast when Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) introduced legislation on Thursday morning that would block the agency from regulating the Internet. McCain said that Net neutrality rules would stifle innovation and hurt the job market.

“Today I’m pleased to introduce the Internet Freedom Act of 2009 that will keep the Internet free from government control and regulation,” McCain said in a statement. “It will allow for continued innovation that will in turn create more high-paying jobs for the millions of Americans who are out of work or seeking new employment. Keeping businesses free from oppressive regulations is the best stimulus for the current economy.”

The FCC voted unanimously Thursday on a proposal that would start the process for creating regulation that will keep the Internet open. The proposal itself uses the FCC’s open Internet principles as a foundation and would forbid network operators from restricting access to lawful Internet content, applications, and services. It would also require network providers to allow customers to attach nonharmful devices to the network.

Two additional principles were added, which would prevent network providers from discriminating against particular Internet content or applications, while at the same time allowing for reasonable network management. Internet access providers would also have to be transparent about the network management practices they implement.

All five commissioners voted in favor of advancing the rule-making process with the two Republicans, Meredith Attwell Baker and Robert McDowell, dissenting in part.

Ongoing debate
The so-called Net neutrality debate has pitted Internet application companies, such as Google, Facebook and Skype, against big broadband providers, such as AT&T, Verizon Communications, and Comcast. The network operators argue regulation will stifle innovation, while the Internet companies say an unfettered network is necessary to encourage innovation.

Congress has been interested off and on in this issue for about three years. But it has never gained much support, and at least five bills that would enact Net neutrality regulation have failed.

The issue seemed to die out completely after the FCC publicly admonished Comcast for violating its open Internet principles, which were adopted in 2005. The official slap on the wrist and the public outcry resulted in Comcast changing its practices. For many in the industry, it seemed the FCC’s handling of the situation was sufficient.

The issue was revived last year during the U.S. presidential campaign when then-candidate Barack Obama said he’d support Net neutrality regulation and laws. Now that he is president, his supporters are holding him to his promise.
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Will your privacy be compromised online?

girlThe 2010 Census is nearly under way, but don’t expect an e-mail from the U.S. Census Bureau asking you personal questions in its head count of America.

If you do get one, it’s a scam.

“Like most large organizations, we have seen e-mail scams and phishing attacks that cite the U.S. Census Bureau,” agency spokesman Neil Tillman wrote in an e-mail.

The Census Bureau stresses that it will not request personal information from you via e-mail, such as PIN codes, passwords, Social Security numbers, credit-card numbers or other financial account information.

A news-based phishing scheme like this one is one of several risks you face online. Cybercriminals have gotten craftier, often looking toward popular trends and events — such as tax season, the mortgage meltdown and the growth of social media — to scam people into giving them sensitive information.

To protect their privacy online, computer users need to stay informed about the criminals’ methods and to learn basic principles of caution.

Online attackers have information on millions of consumers, said Ravi Sandhu, a professor of cyber security at the University of Texas at San Antonio. However, he added, the rate at which they can use that information is considerably lower.

“It’s a bit like a lottery. To have identity theft actually occur against you, you need to have a little bad luck. There is some comfort in numbers,” Sandhu said.

In addition to criminal scams, corporate data breaches can leave your privacy compromised.

As of September 22, there have been 379 data breaches reported by the Identity Theft Resource Center in 2009, affecting more than 13 million records. Companies with data breaches included financial institutions, travel companies, health care operations and schools.

“It’s not one or two companies that are acting irresponsibly with consumer data,” said Andrea Matwyshyn, a law professor who teaches technology regulation at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. “It’s a large-scale problem where industry norms of care are arguably not adequate to address the challenges of data security optimally.”

Safeguard your Social Security number

Exercising caution before you submit sensitive information can save you a lot of aggravation down the line.

For instance, most businesses really won’t need your Social Security number, the key number for identity theft, so think twice before you provide it online.

Social Security numbers are used “to establish new lines of credit or for tax purposes. How many things are you doing online that have to do with taxes?” said Linda Foley, co-founder of the Identity Theft Resource Center.

So before you share the information, be certain that you are on that Web site of a real company — as opposed to an imposter conducting a phishing scheme. Also, ask yourself why a Web site would need your Social Security number, said Michael Kaiser, executive director of the National Cyber Security Alliance.

“I always encourage consumers to supply the minimum amount of information possible. A lot of times, you get these long forms and you get the little star that’s required, but people are collecting other [data about you],” Kaiser said. “Don’t fill it out if you don’t want to.”

Still, even visiting a legitimate Web site has its share of risks, because online attackers may inject malicious content onto them by hacking them or placing advertisements that deliver malware, Sandhu said.

If a criminal does obtain your Social Security number and creates a fraudulent identity, it can be a much bigger hassle than if he or she uses your credit card number.

Credit card companies often pick up the tab for fraudulent charges, and they send you a new card with a different number. It’s more difficult to get a new Social Security number, and a stolen identity could affect your credit rating.

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