LHC Shut Down Again — By Baguette-Dropping Bird

LHC“Is Douglas Adams scripting the saga of sorrows facing the LHC? These time-traveling Higgs-Boson particles certainly exhibit the sign of his absurd sense of humor! Perhaps it is the Universe itself, conspiring against the revelations intimated by the operation of CERN’s Large Hadron Collider? This time, it is not falling cranes, cracked magnets, liquid helium leaks or even links to Al Qaeda, that have halted man’s efforts to understand the meaning of life, the universe and everything. It now appears that the collider is hindered from an initial firing by a baguette, dropped by a passing bird: ‘The bird dropped some bread on a section of outdoor machinery, eventually leading to significant overheating in parts of the accelerator. The LHC was not operational at the time of the incident, but the spike produced so much heat that had the beam been on, automatic failsafes would have shut down the machine.'”


Hackers create tools for disaster relief

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif.–Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo may be tough competitors when it comes to Internet software and services, but they are putting their differences aside to build a developer community to tackle bigger picture problems like saving lives in emergencies.

The companies have joined with NASA, the World Bank, and PR agency SecondMuse to organize the first-ever Random Hacks of Kindness event, which was held at a warehouse space-cum community center called Hacker Dojo this weekend. For two days, coders worked on ways to use technology to help solve real-world problems, such as how people can get information and find each other during disasters.

 The event came about after representatives from Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo attended a Crisis Camp conference for emergency and disaster relief groups in Washington, D.C. in May. The technologists decided that they would join forces to create a community of developers to build tools to help emergency workers.

Developers worked on a dozen or so tools that could help disaster and emergency workers in times of crisis. Several tools took advantage of social media sites, like Twitter, and SMS for information sharing. One project envisioned using laptops, routers, mobile devices, USB keys and Wi-Fi to create a mesh network for times when normal networks are down.

Several projects explored the use of maps, including one group that built a widget that allows a user to click on a point in a map to have the coordinates automatically inserted into a message that can then be posted to multiple social networks at once via the HelloTXT service.

The first-place prize went to a group primarily from NASA that worked on a mobile notification app that can be used when regular cellular networks are so bogged down people can’t make phone calls. Using the “I’m OK” app, people can easily notify friends and family members that they are safe via SMS by clicking one button. The “I’m OK” message is then instantly distributed to everyone a user has designated on a pre-set contact list.

Separately, NASA coders have created a GeoCam tool that was used by people fighting California fires earlier this year to place photos of burn areas that were taken by GPS-enabled cell phones on maps so workers can see what damage is like in specific locations.

In addition to training AMES Research Center employees to be first responders in disasters, NASA wants to offer developers use of the satellite and other earth science data collected by its space crafts, which comes to about four terabytes per day, said Robert Schingler, a project manager in the office of center director at NASA Ames research center at nearby Moffett Field. NASA also has tools to analyze the data, which provide information about things like sea surface temperatures, ice sheet activity, and aerosols in the upper atmosphere, he said.

“We’ve got 40 years of data,” Schingler said. But, NASA needs a good application programming interface (API) so developers can make better use of it, he said. Meanwhile, the tools developed at Random Hacks of Kindness events could be used by workers at the World Bank and other agencies.

“It’s a perfect opportunity to mobilize the technology community to work on issues such as sustainable development and disaster relief,” said Emma Phillips, a consultant in disaster risk management and sustainable development at the World Bank. “This is a first step in building community, and bringing together the public and private sectors for a common goal.”

The next Random Hacks of Kindness event will be early next year in Washington, D.C.


Google Chrome OS To Launch Within A Week

Google’s Chrome OS project, first announced in July, will become available for download within a week, we’ve heard from a reliable source. Google previously said to expect an early version of the OS in the fall.

What can we expect? Driver support will likely be a weak point. We’ve heard at various times that Google has a legion of engineers working on the not so glamorous task of building hardware drivers. And we’ve also heard conflicting rumors that Google is mostly relying on hardware manufacturers to create those drivers. Whatever the truth, and it’s likely in between, having a robust set of functioning drivers is extremely important to Chrome OS’s success. People will want to download this to whatever computer they use and have it just work.

We expect Google will be careful with messaging around the launch, and endorse a small set of devices for installation. EEE PC netbooks, for example, may be one set of devices that Google will say are ready to use Chrome OS. There will likely be others as well, but don’t expect to be able to install it on whatever laptop or desktop machine you have from day one. Google has previously said they are working with Acer, Adobe, ASUS, Freescale, Hewlett-Packard, Lenovo, Qualcomm, Texas Instruments, and Toshiba on the project.

We’ve seen convincing and not so convincing screenshots of Chrome OS over the last several months. The good news is the speculation is about to end, and you can try it out yourself. If you have one of the supported devices, that is.


Some types of technology are about to bite the dust, says study

As technology advances at a phenomenal speed, there are bound to be some casualties as new devices supersede the old ones, even though the old ones are not really so old.

DVD players, satnavs, smartphone chargers and dongles could all end up obsolete and dumped by the wayside as soon as next year, according to the latest research from Pixmania, the largest electronics retailer in Europe.

Pixmania have made up a list of the top 10 technologies they say are “endangered” and aren’t likely to make it as far as 2012 — and some on the list might surprise you.

Top of the list is DVD players. They will be superseded by Blu-Ray, movie streaming and game consoles.

Next in line for the chop are fax machines, which will not survive due to other technologies taking on their role. Basically, they’re no longer required.

Satnavs are likely to be replaced as smartphones and location-based software rise up and take on the task of guiding us where we want to go. I mean why would we buy another gadget when the ones we have are perfectly capable of doing the same job for us, and just as well?

Wii-motes will be blasted into oblivion as soon as Microsoft’s Project Natal takes off, which is expected before the end of next year, and of course the landline phone is at risk as we rely more and more on our mobiles to communicate.

“We’re always talking about the fast pace of technology but 2009 has truly seen us take huge leaps forward and even greater developments are expected in 2010.

“Things that have been making life easier for a generation are about to be replaced. It’s a shame to see an old classic like the DVD face the threat of extinction; it will be gone, but not forgotten,” says Kieran Alger, the editor of the T3.com gadgets website.

Other gadgets on their way to finding a place in the history books include the dongle, the computer mouse, chip and pin credit cards, the mobile phone charger and analog TV.

Are we sad? Well, some people might be but there’s no time for nostalgia, we’ve got a future to build — a future where new technology is king.

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.


‘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.

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.


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.



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.



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.