June 30, 2004

dynamic text replacement

This is an interesting approach:


Posted by thinkum at 04:22 PM

Librarians: Free CDs too much of a good thing

Settlement of music industry price-fixing case yields some odd lots

Public librarians aren't prone to looking gift horses in the mouth, but many have nevertheless been taken aback by the odd and in some cases overly generous allotments of free music CDs that have begun arriving in the last week as the result of the settlement of an antitrust lawsuit against major record companies.

The CD cornucopia -- consisting of approximately 5.6 million compact discs -- was billed as a windfall for libraries and schools when it was announced in September 2002 as part of a $144 million settlement of the lawsuit, which alleged that music distribution companies illegally inflated the price of CDs by requiring retailers to sell them at or above a set level in order to qualify for substantial advertising funding.

But when the first shipments began arriving last week, some librarians suspected that the companies -- the Bertelsmann Music Group, EMI Music Distribution, Warner-Elektra-Atlantic, Warner Music Group and Sony Music Entertainment -- were dumping CDs that had been gathering dust in warehouses when they received hundreds of copies of some titles for which there is little or no demand.

Computer programming glitch blamed

The good news is that the mystery has been solved and the source of the overabundance has been determined to be nothing more sinister than a computer-programming glitch that will soon be fixed, law enforcement officials say.

The bad news is that libraries that were among the first to receive their free CDs are now going to have to figure out what to do with all the duplicates.

Among them are the librarians at the Tacoma (Wash.) Public Library, who last week received a shipment of 1,325 CDs that included 57 copies of "Three Mo' Tenors," a 2001 recording featuring classically trained African American tenors Roderick Dixon, Thomas Young and Victor Trent Cook; 48 copies of country artist Mark Wills' 2001 album "Loving Every Minute," 47 copies of "Corridos de Primera Plana," a greatest hits compilation by Los Tuscanes de Tijuana (2000); 39 copies of "Yolanda Adams Christmas" (2000); 37 copies of Michael Crawford's "A Christmas Album" (1999) and 34 copies of the Bee Gees' "This Is Where I Came In" (2001).

"Not to disparage the artists represented, but I was pretty surprised by the numbers," said librarian Lara Weigand, noting that the library system normally would stock no more than two copies of the most-popular titles at each of its 10 branches. "I didn't know what the terms of the settlement were for schools and libraries, but I did not think that it was the intent that we would get more copies than we could use."

Other libraries reported similar anomalies in their part of the settlement, which earlier this year led to approximately 3.5 million consumers who signed up as complainants in the lawsuit receiving checks for $13.86 apiece.

'Tons ... of Christina Aguilera's Christmas album'

Eva Silverstone, communications director for the Spokane Public Library, said the library in eastern Washington received many copies of "Three Mo' Tenors" among its 1,325 CDs, along with "tons of copies of Christina Aguilera's Christmas album." All told, she said, 15 titles represented 36 percent of the shipment.

"We?ll be able to add approximately 283 titles to our collection," she said. "We?re obligated to either trade the others with other libraries or give them to our friends of the library group for sale, with any proceeds going to support the music program," she said. "It's a positive thing, but it's also a little bit disappointing."

The public library in Worcester, Mass., with a main library and two branches, received 150 copies of "Nastradamus," a 1999 album by the rapper Nas, and 148 copies of "Entertainment Weekly's Greatest Hits of 1971."

"It's an OK album with some decent songs on it, it's just that we don't need 148 of them," Penny Johnson, head librarian of the Worcester library, said of the latter. She said that other libraries in Massachusetts that received more individual titles than they can use are arranging to exchange their excess copies and will then try to sell the rest.

The Des Moines (Iowa) Public Library was on track to take the lead in redundancies, though the identification of the programming bug may come in time to avert what might have been a record overkill. Its crate of 2,647 CDs, due to arrive in the next couple weeks, was listed as containing 430 single-song discs -- 16 percent of the total -- of Whitney Houston singing "The Star Spangled Banner" at the 1991 Super Bowl, according to Steve Cox, of the Iowa State Library.

430 copies of 'Star Spangled Banner'

Carla Tibboel, collection development librarian in Des Moines, was astonished to hear that piles of the patriotic hymn were supposedly heading her way.

"Whoa! That?s a little more than we actually need," she said with a nervous laugh.

While some librarians said they immediately suspected the strange allotments were the result of the music companies involved in the settlement dumping unwanted product that had been gathering dust in their warehouses, state officials involved in the settlement say there is an innocent explanation for the mix-up.

"In trying to give everyone a variety of genres, the claims administrator wrote an allocation program that resulted in some entities getting large numbers of a certain title and others getting no copies," said Tina Kondo, senior assistant attorney general for Washington state, one of 43 states and territories that participated in the antitrust suit. "We checked with the claims administrator and they're in the process of reprogramming the allocation formula."

Amy Lake, a spokeswoman for the claims administrator, Rust Consulting of Minneapolis, Minn., did not return phone calls seeking comment on the snafu.

The adjustment in the program will come as great relief to librarians who have been hearing reports of the weird shipments in the last week and contemplating what surprises they might have in store.

?We?ve been wondering if we're going to get 12,000 Yanni CDs," said Wallace Hoffsis, director of collections development for the Sacramento (Calif.) Public Library.

Posted by thinkum at 01:05 PM

Pregnancy from frozen ovary is world first

A woman made infertile by cancer treatment six years ago has conceived after a pioneering transplant operation using her own frozen ovarian tissue.

The pregnancy, the first of its kind in the world, offers hope to thousands of young women with cancer who would otherwise be unable to have children.

It also raises the prospect that women could freeze their ovaries in their 20s then use them to have children in their 50s or 60s, in effect bypassing the menopause.

The 32-year-old woman, who has not been named, was given the ovary graft at the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium.

A university spokesman said: "The research team has managed to achieve what no other team in the world has been able to do - give a young woman who underwent cryo-preservation of ovarian tissue prior to cancer treatment the gift of pregnancy."

The baby girl is due in October.

The woman was suffering from Hodgkin's lymphoma and needed radiotherapy and chemotherapy in 1997. Because the treatment would have made her infertile, doctors agreed to remove one of her ovaries and freeze it in liquid nitrogen at minus 196 degrees.

In 2003, when she was given the all-clear, strips of the ovarian tissue were defrosted and implanted close to her remaining, but now useless, ovary. Within four months the graft was working.

The tissue began producing hormones and, after six years of enforced early menopause, her menstrual cycle began again. In January the woman found that she was pregnant. The foetus is 25 weeks old and healthy.

Details of the pregnancy were to be discussed at the European Society for Human Reproduction and Embryology conference in Berlin yesterday.

The first ovarian transplant was carried out in the late 1990s by Kutluk Oktay, of Cornell University in New York.

That failed after a few months. Since then, Dr Oktay has implanted ovarian tissue into several cancer patients and produced healthy embryos. Unlike the Belgian team, he implants the ovarian tissue under the skin, then extracts eggs to create test-tube babies.

Doctors said the surgery should be carried out only in extreme cases; it was not an option for women wanting to delay having children for career reasons.

Posted by thinkum at 12:58 PM

Man's arm extinguished

A Hong Kong demolition worker's arm was ripped off by a fire extinguisher that rocketed 12-storeys into the air after exploding.

Police said the accident happened when the 36-year-old worker checked on the fire extinguisher on the third floor of a building undergoing demolition.

Gas suddenly discharged from the unit, and the 96 kilogram extinguisher exploded.

It then shot 12 storeys in the air from the third floor and smashed a window on the 15th floor of an adjoining tower block, dislodging chunks of concrete before plummeting back to the demolition site below, according to the South China Morning Post.

The freak accident tore off the worker's left arm. Police and firemen searched in vain for the limb but could only find his palm.

"The cylinder was leaking gas and kept turning around and round on the floor. We could see it shoot to a unit on the 15th floor of the building, breaking the window and bouncing back to the original position," divisional fire commander Yung Kin-kwok was quoted as saying.

A 54-year-old passerby was also injured in the accident.

The demolition worker and passerby were both treated in a hospital on Monday night.

The demolition site was the remains of the Garley Building in which 40 people died in a fire eight years ago.

Posted by thinkum at 12:56 PM

Barbie's new man


It is official: Barbie has a new man in her life, a well-toned Australian surfer dude called Blaine, who is helping her get over her breakup with former beau Ken.

US toy maker Mattel announced today that the "hot Australian hunk" is giving the all-American girl "some tips and tricks from international waters."

Barbie split from her suitor of 43 years, Ken, in February, but Mattel had declined to confirm until today that there was a new man in her life.

"Blaine, the suave new Aussie surfer in the group, caught more than a few waves when he snagged Barbie doll's attention," Mattel revealed.

Over the past few weeks, over two million girls worldwide logged onto Barbie.com to advise Barbie on a new soul mate, Mattel said.

However, fans will have to hold their breaths for a little longer, as Blaine will not be hitting the shelves of toy stores until August.

Born in 1959, Californian Barbie is sold in 150 countries and raked in some $US3.6 million ($A5.15 million) for Mattel in 2003.

Posted by thinkum at 12:55 PM

Mother mouse's 'love' like a drug: study

WASHINGTON - Mice lacking morphine receptors in the brain were unable to bond properly with their mothers, scientists found, which may provide a clue to the roots of such diseases as autism.

Normally, baby mice will squeal frantically when separated from their mother. But Italian researchers genetically engineered a group of mice to lack a key opioid receptor in the brain that is best known for its role in pain, pleasure and addiction.

Francesca D'Amato of the CNR Institute of Neuroscience, Psychobiology, and Psychopharmacology in Rome and colleagues found the opioid-receptor deficient pups hardly cried compared to normal mice.

When the researchers gave the normal pups the opioid drug morphine, it reduced the distress. But when they gave it to the mutant mice, it didn't appear to have an effect.

The mutated mice did squeal, though, when they were placed in a cold beaker or smelled a threatening male, which shows they had a normal response to fear. Pups fear strange males who may see them as lunch.

The findings may support the theory the brain's opioid pathway is linked to attachment.

"Results from this study may indicate a molecular mechanism for diseases characterized by deficits in attachment behavior, such as autism or reactive attachment disorder," the researchers wrote in Friday's issue of the journal Science.

People with autism have difficulty interacting and communicating with others.

If people with autism are found to have opioid systems that don't work properly, then the mice could offer a model for studying the human disorder.

Posted by thinkum at 12:53 PM

Cactus offers help for hangovers

CHICAGO - An extract of prickly pear cactus may help prevent hangover symptoms such as dry mouth and nausea, scientists have found.

Unlike folk remedies like eating a greasy breakfast, the extract seems to help forestall symptoms rather than relieve them.

Dr. Jeff Wiese of Tulane University in New Orleans and his colleagues randomly assigned 55 young adults to either take the extract or a placebo.

All of the volunteers then ate a fast-food dinner. Four hours later, they started drinking either:

  • Vodka.
  • Gin.
  • Rum.
  • Bourbon.
  • Scotch.
  • Tequila.

The volunteers, aged 21 to 35, drank up to 1.75 grams of alcohol per kilogram of body mass, an amount that produced hangovers in previous studies.

Drunken study participants were driven home. The next morning, they ranked nine symptoms of hangover severity. A week later, the experiment was repeated with the two groups trading places.

The extract showed statistically significant improvements in nausea, lack of appetite, and dry mouth but Wiese's team did not measure if it helped the foggy-headed feeling common in hangover sufferers.

"In this randomized, placebo-controlled, crossover trial, we found hangover symptom severity to be moderately reduced by an extract of the prickly pear plant, Opuntia ficus indica," the researchers wrote in Monday's issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine.

The researchers also measured levels of C-reactive protein, which is thought to be involved in inflammation and hangovers.

They found those who took the extract had 40 per cent less C-reactive protein in their bloodstreams compared to those who took a placebo.

The research was funded by the U.S. government and a nutritional supplement company that markets a form of the extract.

Posted by thinkum at 12:52 PM

A dream of a 1,000-year camera

Sam Raimi wants to document a millennium

CULVER CITY, California (AP) -- Sam Raimi hopes to remain in film a long time after he's through making "Spider-Man" movies. For about 1,000 years.

Raimi wants to build the "Century Cam," a network of cameras that would document the United States' urban landscape for a millennium.

The proposal: Position cameras above all major American cities and shoot one frame -- a 24th of a second of film -- each day at noon. The frames would be strung together gradually to create a continuous chronicle of each city's development.

"It's the same idea of all time-lapse photography, but over an outrageous amount of time," Raimi told The Associated Press in an interview to promote "Spider-Man 2." "So you could watch the city of Los Angeles rise, and maybe an earthquake might come in 300 years or a tidal wave."

Along with natural disasters, the cameras would capture human rebuilding and demolition. Viewers could watch decades of change in minutes, much like the hero in George Pal's "The Time Machine," who saw landscapes radically altered as he shot forward in time.

At a frame a day, a year's worth of shots over a particular city would add up to 15 seconds of film, a decade would blow by in two and a half minutes and a century would run 25 minutes. A full 1,000 years of film would last just over four hours.

Posted by thinkum at 12:49 PM

For Apple's Tiger, the keyword is search

Apple Computer CEO Steve Jobs on Monday showed off Tiger, a new version of Mac OS X due next year that promises improved search capabilities.

At the company's Worldwide Developer Conference here, Jobs said the cat-themed operating system is being shown off fairly early in its development cycle, but said it will ship in the first half of 2005--more than a year before Microsoft's next major release of Windows is expected to arrive.

"We have leaped ahead of our competition and Apple is once again the innovator," Jobs said. "Everyone else is following our tail lights."

In particular, Jobs pointed to Spotlight--a new systemwide search engine that will allow Mac users to quickly search and find any file--whether it's an e-mail, an application file or a contact entry.

The technology borrows from the search engine used in iTunes, but is able to pore through the contents and hidden data of many types of files.

"It finds stuff that you would never be able to find by hand," he said.

Tiger will sell for $129 when it is released next year and will be officially known as Mac OS X version 10.4 Tiger.

Jobs also showed off several more of the 150 or so features Tiger will add, including a new "Dashboard" to manage small applications, a revamped scripting language called "Automator" and improvements to the iChat AV video conferencing and instant-messaging program.

The update to iChat will let Mac users have an audio conference with up to 10 participants and a video session with up to three other people.

The Dashboard feature is similar in some respects to a feature Microsoft has previewed in Longhorn and is also reminiscent of the desk accessory programs that were part of the early Mac OS. The feature brings up several small programs with a single click, including things like sticky notes, an iTunes remote or a Web camera. Like the Exposé feature that's part of Mac OS X 10.3 Panther, the Dashboard appears and disappears with a single keystroke.

Some Mac fans also immediately noticed the resemblance of Dashboard to a third-party program called Konfabulator.

Jobs also introduced improved 20-inch and 23-inch monitors, as well as a new 30-inch LCD, all with new aluminum cases. The 30-inch flat-panel monitor will set buyers back more than $3,000, plus the cost of a high-end graphics card.

"It's definitely something to drool over for a while," said Nick Uchida, a software quality assurance engineer for Symantec, who admits he probably won't be in the market for one at home, nor is he likely to be outfitted with the display at work.

The monitor, with a 2560-by-1600-pixel resolution and a $3,299 price tag, is slated to ship in August. It will require a GeForce 6800 Ultra, a high-end video card that retails for $599.

While the 30-inch model will work only with Macs, Jobs also showed off updates to Apple's 20- and 23-inch displays that can also be used on Windows-based PCs. Sporting aluminum cases with built-in Firewire and USB ports, the monitors will ship in July and be priced at $1,299 and $1,999, respectively.

Though Jobs didn't talk about it, Apple also announced some details about a server version of Tiger as well as a new version of the company's Xcode developer tools. The server version of Tiger will feature a Weblog server as well as the ability to act as an iChat server allowing companies to keep their instant messaging conversations private. Apple plans to charge $499 for a 10-client license of Mac OS X Server and $999 for an unlimited-client version.

The Tiger incarnation of Mac OS X Server will also include the 1.0 version of Xgrid, Apple's clustering software, and broader support for 64-bit applications.

Several attendees said they had no problem with the fact that Tiger won't be released until next year, especially since developers here will get a software development kit to start working with the code.

Conference attendee Will Barton said he is actually pleased Apple is slowing its release cycle a bit, saying a new version each year is more than many companies can handle.

"It's been difficult to keep up with," said Barton, who is part of the loose-knit OpenDarwin effort, which tries to work with and improve Darwin, the open-source kernel at the core of Mac OS X.

Apple previews next Mac OS X

Posted by thinkum at 09:48 AM

M$ Must Read

A funny (albeit unverified) piece on server change-overs.

----- Forwarded message from Michael Lueck -----

Dr. Frank Soltis, the IBM engineer who has been called "the AS/400's
Elvis," recently shared a success story during a keynote speech at a user
conference in Florida. This particular company was in the software
distribution business and at one point had 23 AS/400s located around the
world. The company was a very good customer, went from CISC to RISC, and
was always one of the first to upgrade to new technology, he said. Then
came the Year 2000 problem, and despite five years of dedicated service
during a period of great revenue growth, the company decided that it was
time to move off the AS/400. So in June of 1999, the company unplugged
its AS/400s and powered up 1200 NT servers it needed to replace them.

But things didn't quite go as planned. "They found they couldn't make it
work," Soltis told the crowd. "Today, one year after unplugging their
AS/400s, they're back on the AS/400." That company is Microsoft. "They
viewed that as a point of embarrassment," Soltis said. "We thought it was
kind of fun....Can you think of a company with greater incentive to move
to NT, and they couldn't do it?"

----- End forwarded message -----

Posted by thinkum at 09:43 AM

Freedom of Information - NOT

Justice Department Says It Can't Share Lobbying Data Because Computer System Will Crash

By Ted Bridis Associated Press Writer
Published: Jun 29, 2004

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Bush administration is offering a novel reason for denying a request seeking the Justice Department's database on foreign lobbyists: Copying the information would bring down the computer system.

"Implementing such a request risks a crash that cannot be fixed and could result in a major loss of data, which would be devastating," wrote Thomas J. McIntyre, chief in the Justice Department's office for information requests.

Advocates for open government said the government's assertion that it could not copy data from its computers was unprecedented but representative of generally negative responses to Freedom of Information Act requests.

"This was a new one on us. We weren't aware there were databases that could be destroyed just by copying them," Bob Williams of the Center for Public Integrity said Tuesday. The watchdog group in Washington made the request in January. He said the group expects to appeal the Justice Department's decision.

Many Justice Department computer systems, especially at the FBI, are considered outdated. The FBI is spending nearly $600 million to modernize its antiquated systems.

The Center for Public Integrity sought information about lobbying activities available under the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act, a 1938 law passed in response to German propaganda before World War II. Database records describe details of meetings among foreign lobbyists, the administration and Congress, and payments by foreign governments and some overseas groups for political advertisements and other campaigns.

"What they're asking for is a lot, and it's not something at this particular point in time we have the technical ability to do," Justice Department spokesman Bryan Sierra said Tuesday.

McIntyre explained in a May 24 letter that the computer system - operated in the counterespionage section of the Justice Department's criminal division - "was not designed for mass export of all stored images" and said the system experiences "substantial problems."

"It sounds like incredible negligence for an agency that is keeping public records to keep them in such a precarious condition," said Stephen Doig, interim director at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University. "I've never heard the excuse that making the equivalent of a backup copy would somehow cause steam to rise out of the computer."

The government said an overhaul of the system should be finished by December and copies should be available then.

Paper copies of records still are available for review four hours each day for people willing to travel to Washington, the Justice Department noted. Williams said the index available to researchers there is at least 12 months outdated, "which kind of renders it useless."

Attorney General John Ashcroft ordered federal agencies in October 2001 to review more closely which documents they release. Ashcroft's policy lets officials withhold information on any "sound legal basis." Under looser policies issued in 1993, agencies could hold back information to prevent "foreseeable harm."

"This is an administration and Justice is an agency that does not go out of its way to make information available to the public," said David Sobel, general counsel for the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center.


On the Net:

Justice Department: www.usdoj.gov/criminal/fara

Center for Public Integrity: www.cpi.org

AP-ES-06-29-04 1512EDT

Posted by thinkum at 09:40 AM

June 28, 2004

Bush re: transfer of power to Iraq


One wonders if he actually meant "reign", or was going for "ring" and simply continued his malapropian ways...

Posted by thinkum at 04:35 PM

Lincoln Park Zoo Apes Get to Take Revenge

Apes at Lincoln Park Zoo Can Shoot Harmless Bursts of Air at Unsuspecting Visitors

CHICAGO June 28, 2004 ? The apes at Lincoln Park Zoo are finally getting a chance to take their revenge on people who for years have been pounding their palms against the glass walls of the primates' old home.

At the zoo's new Regenstein Center for African Apes, chimpanzees can touch a panel hidden from public view that will shoot harmless bursts of air at unsuspecting visitors.

"You often hear about chimps spitting or throwing," said Steve Ross, a behaviorist at the zoo. "They do that to get a rise out of the public. This gives them that opportunity but in a safe way."

The feature is one of many in the 55,000-square-foot habitat meant to help people connect with their primate cousins.

Lincoln Park Zoo was already renowned for its primate breeding success, with 45 gorilla births since 1970. With its new facility, opening July 1, it joins a growing number of U.S. zoos striving to make exhibits more exciting for people and more natural for the animals.

Zoo officials hope the exhibit's realistic environments will give visitors new respect for apes and allow scientists to observe the apes acting as they would in the wild.

Its predecessor, the Lester E. Fisher Great Ape House, was dark and cavernous, but the $26 million Regenstein Center, the most expensive facility ever built at the 35-acre zoo, is spacious, airy and green. A downed tree forms a bridge that apes can use to cross a waterfall, and mulch-covered floors imitate a natural forest and are gentler on apes' joints.

The zoo's 24 apes can climb trees and see the John Hancock Center to the right and Lake Michigan to the left.

The primates also can control fans hidden in boulders, helping them moderate the effects of Chicago's muggy summers and icy winters, and touch panels in fake tree trunks that will catapult snacks toward them through grates in the walls.

Many zoos are striving to make their ape exhibits more natural and interactive to serve an increasingly sophisticated public, said Diana DeVaughn, spokeswoman for the Louisville Zoo in Kentucky, which won a top American Zoo and Aquarium Association award last year for its gorilla exhibit.

The Los Angeles Zoo, for instance, made its ape exhibit interactive by letting the animals pull ropes to ring bells near visitors or spray water at people, said Jennie McNary, curator of mammals at the Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens.

"The chimps were smart enough to figure out they could startle people with it," she said.

Ross said he's not yet sure how people or apes will react to the air blasters at Lincoln Park.

Zoo officials hope the habitats will help visitors feel physically and emotionally closer to the apes, zoo president Kevin Bell said. Connecting with the animals could inspire people to care more about helping apes in zoos and in the wild, he said.

Only 375 gorillas now live in U.S. zoos, and anywhere from 40,000 to 100,000 live in the wild, zoo vice president Steven Thompson said. Experts suspect that the wild gorilla population has declined 30 to 50 percent in the past 15 years because of hunting and damage to their natural habitats.

"They're so close to humans," Bell said. "Yet there's very few of these animals left in the wild."

Posted by thinkum at 04:25 PM

June 25, 2004

Congo word 'most untranslatable'

The world's most difficult word to translate has been identified as "ilunga" from the Tshiluba language spoken in south-eastern DR Congo.

It came top of a list drawn up in consultation with 1,000 linguists.

Ilunga means "a person who is ready to forgive any abuse for the first time, to tolerate it a second time, but never a third time".

It seems straightforward enough, but the 1,000 language experts identified it as the hardest word to translate.

In second place was shlimazl which is Yiddish for "a chronically unlucky person".

Third was Naa, used in the Kansai area of Japan to emphasise statements or agree with someone.

Although the definitions seem fairly precise, the problem is trying to convey the local references associated with such words, says Jurga Zilinskiene, head of Today Translations, which carried out the survey.

"Probably you can have a look at the dictionary and... find the meaning," she said. "But most importantly it's about cultural experiences and... cultural emphasis on words."

The speed at which simultaneous interpreters work only adds to the difficulty of trying to explain words with complex meanings.

And technical jargon, often found in politics, business or sport, has difficulties of its own.

Miss Zilinskiene's own bete noir is "googly", a cricketing term for "an off-breaking ball disguised by the bowler with an apparent leg-break action".

But then many people find cricket incomprehensible anyway. Naa.

Posted by thinkum at 03:33 PM

June 23, 2004

World War I veteran dies at 106

Ted Smout, the oldest Australian veteran of World War I, has died at 106. He had put his age up to enlist in 1915 and had said on turning 105: "I hope to be the last survivor."

Warmth ... Ted Smout on Anzac Day last year. "I don't think there is any place for war." Photo: Heath Missen

His death leaves five Australian World War I veterans. He also leaves a large family and admirers who will remember him as much for the richness of his life as for his contribution in war.

Mr Smout enlisted at 17, trying for the artillery and ending up in the medical corps.

He served at Armentieres, Messines, Ypres, on the Amiens front and during the advance on the Hindenburg Line.

His worst memory was of Passchendaele, where his unit was bombed. It left him with shell shock that recurred even towards the end of his life. "Passchendaele was a shocking place," he said later, "mud and big rats, and lice, never free of them."

After the war he largely overcame the shell shock by learning to sing and dance and by marrying. Ted and Ella's marriage lasted 69 years until her death in 1992, aged 91. Mr Smout, who had described his marriage as "the most successful operation" of his life, died on Tuesday - their wedding anniversary.

He became a leader of the Australian insurance industry and was honoured by the Order of Australia for his community work. France awarded him the Legion of Honour in 1998.

He said in 1997: "I don't think there is any place for war. I wouldn't do it again."

The Queensland Premier, Peter Beattie, said: "He was one of the first Queensland greats. He is one of those people who, through his personality, won and warmed everybody."

The Prime Minister, John Howard, said: "He had a tremendous personality and just made everybody so proud of the way in which he was an exemplar of that magnificent generation."

The Opposition Leader, Mark Latham, said: "Mr Smout reminded Australians of the sacrifice and courage of all service personnel."

A state funeral will be held next week.

The surviving World War I veterans are Marcel Caux, 105, and Gilbert Bennion, 105, of NSW; John Ross, 105, and William Allan, 104, of Victoria; and Peter Casserly, 106, of Western Australia.

Posted by thinkum at 04:16 PM

Stem cell triumph opens door for cures

Human stem cells have for the first time been obtained from an Australian embryo.

The controversial achievement has been made by scientists at a Sydney fertility clinic, Sydney IVF, using a surplus embryo donated by a Sydney couple who had undergone IVF treatment.

Human embryonic stem cells can turn into any type of body tissue and doctors hope they will eventually revolutionise treatments for spinal cord injuries and diseases such as juvenile diabetes and Parkinson's.

However, moral concerns have been raised because their extraction involves the destruction of embryos that are just days old.

The medical director of Sydney IVF, Robert Jansen, said yesterday that the team's development of a human embryonic stem cell line, or colony, on its first attempt was world class and reflected the use of a very high quality embryo. "This is a terrific moment for us."

The clinic's research could not only help in development of new therapies for incurable diseases, but lead to improved IVF rates through better understanding of embryo development, Professor Jansen said. "The potential of stem cell research is boundless."

The embryonic stem cell research had cost the clinic $500,000 so far, and it had no government grants, he said. These costs would eventually be recouped by the clinic charging a commercial fee for other researchers to use its cell lines.

After a long and heated debate on stem cells in 2002, federal MPs decided in a conscience vote to pass legislation allowing destructive research on IVF embryos created before April 5, 2002.

It took 16 months, until April this year, for a new National Health and Medical Research Council committee to issue licences for such research, a move described at the time by Senator Brian Harradine as issuing "licences to kill". Sydney IVF was awarded four licences, including the first one in the country to extract human embryo stem cells.

The Sydney couple, who had completed their family, donated three frozen embryos to be used for stem cell extraction. One did not survive thawing, and the third did not yield a cell line.

Professor Jansen said that teams from overseas had often used between 20 to 100 embryos to grow one embryonic stem cell line.

Sydney IVF had an advantage because it was the first clinic in the world to routinely grow IVF embryos for five days, rather than the usual three, before genetically testing them and then freezing them.

This meant that the embryos were already at the stage, called the blastocyst stage, which had to be reached before stem cells could be successfully extracted.

US researchers were the first in the world to obtain human embryonic stem cells, in 1998, followed by an Australian team led by Professor Alan Trounson of Monash University in 1999, using IVF embryos donated in Singapore.

A second licence to extract stem cells from surplus IVF embryos was issued earlier this month to Melbourne IVF and the Melbourne company Stem Cell Sciences.

Posted by thinkum at 04:12 PM

Clinton claims raises eyebrows in NZ

Bill Clinton's autobiography - My Life - has been raising eyebrows in New Zealand amid rumblings the former US president has been less than truthful about the mountainous origins of his wife's name.

Clinton's claim that Hillary was named in honour of Sir Edmund Hillary, the New Zealander who conquered Mount Everest, has created more New Zealand interest than the former president's relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

On several visits to New Zealand during his time in office, the president referred to Sir Edmund as "the second favourite Hillary in our household", while Hillary herself has attributed her moniker to the mountaineer.

There is even an after dinner joke that goes: "What do Bill Clinton and New Zealand have in common? They both owe their reputations to Hillary."

But the story has a fundamental problem: Edmund Hillary reached Everest's peak on May 29, 1953, nearly seven years after the infant Hillary arrived in the world.

Edmund Hillary's autobiography - Nothing Venture, Nothing Win - noted that at the time of Hillary's birth, he was earning a modest income from bee-keeping.

Posted by thinkum at 04:11 PM

Some dogs have natural ability to predict epileptic seizures: study

EDMONTON - Dogs could potentially save a life by helping to predict seizures in people with epilepsy, according to Canadian researchers.

As many as 15 per cent of dogs may have a natural ability to forecast seizures before they happen, researchers at the University of Calgary report in the June 22 issue of the journal Neurology.

Shane Downton, 12, of Victoria has lived with a severe form of epilepsy most of his life. His seizures are frequent, often violent and, until he got Sandy the dog, were unpredictable.

"Sandy will usually alert us to a seizure one to two hours before he has one," said Shane's mother, Debra Downton. She said the warning time allows them to get prepared, such as making sure Shane is wearing a helmet if he is outside.

Before Shane feels a seizure coming on, Sandy gets agitated, barks and won't leave his side. Sandy is a service dog, trained to protect Shane during a seizure.

Dr. Adam Kirton and his team looked at 62 dogs living in families with children with epilepsy. None of these pets had special training; the researchers wanted to see if the dog could spontaneously develop the ability.

Sue Hoffman of Bolton, Ont. had a dog, Seiko, that anticipated her seizures. She now has her second dog, Cherokee, and has started training the animals for others with epilepsy.

"You can't train a dog to be able to alert somebody to seizures," said Hoffman, who said dogs can learn to protect their owners during an attack.

Scientists don't know what the dogs pick up on, although some speculate it's subtle changes in behaviour. The warning method varies from barking to physically holding a person down to sitting and staring.

Kirton said his study found in dogs that can anticipate, the animals will react before about 80 per cent of seizures. He cautions more research needs to be done.

"We think it's something worth looking into and we're going to pursue that," said Kirton. "In the meantime, people with epilepsy should not be running out buying a dog and expecting it to help them with their seizures."

Posted by thinkum at 04:01 PM

Saudis offer terrorists month to surrender

Saudi Arabia promised Wednesday that terrorists in the kingdom will be safe if they surrender within a month -- but after that they will face forceful consequences.

"We are announcing for the last time that we are opening the door to repentance and for those to return to righteousness," said Crown Prince Abdullah in a televised address.

"To everyone who has gone out of the righteous way and has committed a crime in the name of religion and to everyone who belongs to that group that has done itself a disservice, everyone who has been captured in terror acts is given the chance to come back to God if they want to save their lives, their souls," Abdullah said.

"If they give themselves up without force within one month maximum from the date of this speech, we can promise them that they are going to be safe."

Abdullah said all such people would be dealt with fairly, in accordance with Islamic law.

"If they are wise and they accept it, then they are saved. And if they snub it, then God is not going to forbid us from hitting them with our force, which we get from our dependence on God."

Posted by thinkum at 04:00 PM

Experts slam low-carb trend as rip-off

Popular low-carbohydrate diets are leading Americans to poor health and spawning a rip-off industry of "carb-friendly" products, health experts and consumer advocates have said.

They announced a new group, called the Partnership for Essential Nutrition, to help educate Americans about the need for healthy carbohydrates such as vegetables, fruits, beans and whole grains.

"When unproven science becomes a sales pitch, some people get rich and the rest of us get ripped off," Jeffrey Prince of the American Institute for Cancer Research told a news conference.

"Eating vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans, which are all predominantly carbohydrate, is linked to a reduced risk of cancer, heart disease, stroke, diabetes and a range of other chronic diseases."

Prince said low-carb diets that advocate piling on the animal protein and fat are "increasing the risk of developing cancer, heart disease, stroke, type-2 diabetes and other chronic diseases".

The new group includes such organizations as the Alliance for Aging Research, the American Association of Diabetes Educators, the AICR and the American Obesity Association.

Its Web site at http://www.essentialnutrition.org/ is especially critical of programs, such as the Atkins diet, that advocate throwing the body into a condition called ketosis. During this phase the body sheds water as it tries to get rid of excess protein and fat-breakdown products.

"Losing weight on these extreme low-carb diets can lead to such serious health problems as kidney stress, liver disorders and gout," the group advises.

Atkins rebuttal

Dr. Stuart Trager, Medical Director for Atkins Nutritionals, Inc., said the Atkins diet is healthy.

"In fact, the Atkins Nutritional Approach includes spinach, eggplant, broccoli, asparagus and leafy greens, in addition to other high-fiber vegetables and fruits," Trager said in a statement. "Even during induction, Atkins requires five servings of vegetables and/or fruits a day."

The new group published a survey of 1,017 adults, done by Opinion Research Corporation, that showed 19 percent of dieters are trying to cut carbs.

The survey found that 47 percent them believed that low-carb diets can help them lose weight without cutting calories.

"They are confused. They lack an understanding of the basic science," Barbara Moore, president of Shape Up America, told the news conference.

She said a "trickle-down effect" meant other Americans were now eating fewer fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy products.

The U.S. government, American Heart Association, American Cancer Society, National Cancer Institute and American Diabetes Association all recommend getting at least five servings a day of fruits and vegetables. They also recommend eating plenty of whole grains.

The National Consumers League said it found dieters were spending an average of $85 a month on so-called low-carbohydrate products, although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not evaluate or regulate low-carb claims.

"Consumers are paying a premium price for a carb-friendly lifestyle," said Alison Rein of the National Consumers League.

She called for the FDA, U.S, Department of Agriculture and other agencies to issue immediate guidelines on such claims.

Studies show that a low-carbohydrate approach can cause people to lose weight more quickly than a low-fat diet for the first six months, but the low-fat approach catches up after a year.

Posted by thinkum at 02:22 PM

Mattie J.T. Stepanek (1991-2004)


We need to stop.
Just stop.
Stop for a moment...
Before anybody
Says or does anything
That may hurt anyone else.
We need to be silent.
Just silent.
Silent for a moment...
Before we forever lose
The blessing of songs
That grow in our hearts.
We need to notice.
Just notice.
Notice for a moment...
Before the future slips away
Into ashes and dust of humility.
Stop, be silent, and notice...
In so many ways, we are the same.
Our differences are unique treasures.
We have, we are, a mosaic of gifts
To nurture, to offer, to accept.
We need to be.
Just be.
Be for a moment...
Kind and gentle, innocent and trusting,
Like children and lambs,
Never judging or vengeful
Like the judging and vengeful.
And now, let us pray,
Differently, yet together,
Before there is no earth, no life,
No chance for peace.

September 12, 2001
Matthew Joseph Thaddeus Stepanek
"Hope Through Heartsongs"

US child poet dies after illness

A US child poet and advocate for muscular dystrophy patients has died of a rare form of the disease.

Mattie Stepanek, 13, died in Washington on Tuesday, a hospital statement said.

Stepanek, of Rockville, Maryland, began writing poetry at three to cope with a sibling's death - and produced five volumes that sold millions of copies.

Since 2002 he had served as the goodwill ambassador for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, which described him as "something very special".

"His example made people want to reach for the best within themselves," said the association's chairman, the entertainer Jerry Lewis.

'Life mission'

Stepanek had dysautonomic mitochondrial myopathy, a genetic disease that had affected him since birth.

His mother has a form of the condition, and his three older siblings died of it in early childhood.

In 2001, a small publisher issued a volume of his poems, called "Heartsongs".

Three of his volumes reached the New York Times newspaper's best-seller list, the Associated Press reported.

As the Muscular Dystrophy Association's goodwill ambassador, he spoke at events across the US and on TV talk shows with hosts Oprah Winfrey and Larry King

Despite his illness, Stepanek was said to have been upbeat.

"It's our inner beauty, our message, the songs in our hearts," he said in an interview in 2001.

"My life mission is to spread peace to the world."

Mattie's Homepage

Mattie J.T. Stepanek is a 13-year-old young man who was born with a rare neuromuscular disease called dysautonomic mitochondrial myopathy. His disease is one of the 43 types of diseases being researched by the Muscular Dystrophy Association.

Mattie has a sister, Katie, and two brothers, Stevie and Jamie, who each died during early childhood from this same infant onset disease that affects Mattie. Mattie's mother, Jeni, has the adult onset form of this disease. She did not know that she would ever have the disease, or that she would pass such a disease on to her children until after she gave birth to them. Mattie lives with his mom and his service dog, Micah, in Maryland.

Even though Mattie's form of this neuromuscular disease is a mutation and very, very rare and difficult to understand, his doctors have learned a lot about what it does to Mattie's body and some of the ways to help Mattie stay as healthy as possible. Mattie uses a wheelchair to get around, like his mom, Jeni. But he also needs a trach (a breathing tube in his neck/trachea), a ventilator (machine that breathes for him), lots of extra oxygen, a Broviac (tube into his heart for medicines and blood products), foot braces, and lots of other equipment. It may sound like a lot of stuff for a kid, but Mattie really knows how to "celebrate life" and "play after every storm."

One of the things Mattie has done to help him cope with loss and continue celebrating life is to write. Since the age of three, Mattie has been dictating, recording, and writing poetry, short stories, and essays about many topics, such as grief, nature, love, disability, hope, life, and peace. He put together his first collection of poetry at age five for a school contest. At age 11, he became a New York Times bestselling author when his volumes of poetry were published. Now, he has had five books of "Heartsongs" poetry collections reach the New York Times bestseller lists. His second book, Journey Through Heartsongs, reached all the way to number one!

In addition to writing, Mattie loves public speaking. In his role as the National Goodwill Ambassador for the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA), Mattie does a lot of speaking about how the MDA helps kids and adults with neuromuscular diseases.

He also likes to speak about peace efforts and global tolerance. Mattie has spoken to school children and business leaders, medical personnel and church groups, fire fighters and Harley Davidson riders, all across America. Mattie loves talking to anyone who loves to listen, and then ask questions! One of his favorite speeches was when he got to introduce his hero, Former President Jimmy Carter, at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC.

Mattie has also shared his messages of hope and peace on many television programs. He has been on the Oprah Winfrey Show, Larry King Live, Good Morning America, Primetime, The Today Show, and many other programs many times. Every year, he also helps with the Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon. In 2002, he drove cross country with his mom, and friends, Sandy and Chris, to be in Los Angeles for the Telethon.

He loved getting to see his country coast to coast from the van. In 2003, he was unable to travel because of a decline in his health, so he enjoyed co-hosting all 21 hours of the local Baltimore, MD station telethon.

Mattie feels very lucky to have met many wonderful people during his journey through life. He has become close friends with lots of great people, including Jimmy Carter, Oprah Winfrey, Larry King, Christopher Cross, Lance Bass, and Billy Gilman. During 2003, Mattie and Billy Gilman collaborated on a CD project, Music Through Heartsongs. On the CD, Billy sings 12 of Mattie's poems that have been put to various styles of music, including Celtic, soft rock, Hawaiian, country, jazz, and pop-Christian style. One of his favorite tracks, I AM/Shades of Life, was made into a music video, where Mattie has a cameo.

Mattie also feels very blessed just to be alive at age 13. Children born with his disease do not usually live very long. Mattie knows that each day is a gift, and he makes the most of it. He says he gets his strength from God and his mom, and also from the people that become part of his circle of life. "People tell me I inspire them. And that inspires me. It's a beautiful circle, and we all go around together, with and for each other. What a gift," says Mattie.

Posted by thinkum at 01:25 PM

Miniature madams grace gallery

They are so small that if you blink, you might miss them.

miniature1.jpg miniature2.jpg

Miniature masterpieces in ivory, enamel, porcelain and papier-mache are going on display at the Smithsonian institution in Washington.

Portraits embellished with pin-head sized pearls and gold paint and glossy with egg tempura are among the tiny treasures on show.

Ranging in size from a few millimetres to the length of a finger, most have to be viewed with a magnifying glass.

On display is an image of Her Imperial Highness the Grand Duchess Anastasia Nicholaevna Romanoff.

Swathed in white fur and studded with diamonds she is a mere a 2.5in (6.35cm) by 3in (7.62cm) high.

Anastasia is one of more than 1,000 tiny artworks on view at the Smithsonian's Third Exhibition of Fine Arts in Miniature at the Ripley Center International Gallery in Washington.

The smallest work in the exhibition is a filigreed silver box topped with a magnifying glass.

Inside are three drop-sized ivory discs decorated with watercolours of India.

The tradition of painting miniature dates back to medieval era when artists illuminated religious texts that they transcribed.

The bright, gem-like colours and immense detail of miniatures make all the squinting on the part of the viewer worthwhile.

Before the invention of photography, miniature depictions of significant others were worn in lockets or kept in pockets.

All the pieces in the exhibition are for sale, and the prices range from $100 to $5,000.

Posted by thinkum at 01:17 PM

US 'losing fight against terror'

US policy in the "war on terror" is harshly criticised in a new book by an intelligence official who says the battle against al-Qaeda is being lost.

The author, identified as Anonymous, claims the invasion of Iraq has played into the hands of Osama Bin Laden and has not made America any safer.

He also predicts a new al-Qaeda strike within the US which will be far more damaging than the 11 September attacks. There has been no White House comment yet on the book due out on 4 July.

The 309-page Imperial Hubris is the latest book to attack the Bush administration in an election year - many written by former officials with an axe to grind.

But correspondents say this book is unprecedented as it is the work of an official with long years of counter-terrorism experience, who is still active in the US intelligence community.

The fact that the authorities allowed the book's publication could reflect the increasing frustration of senior intelligence officials at the course the administration has taken, comments Britain's Guardian newspaper, which says it has spoken to the author.

Iraq's alleged links with al-Qaeda were among reasons advanced by the Bush administration for its invasion of Iraq - an operation the book brands as an "avaricious, premeditated, unprovoked war against a foe who posed no immediate threat".

'Failed half-wars'

The New York Times, which has obtained a copy of the book, says the author is a senior Central Intelligence Agency officer, who led a special unit to track Osama Bin Laden and his associates.

"US leaders refuse to accept the obvious," the book says.

"We are fighting a worldwide Islamic insurgency - not criminality or terrorism - and our policy and procedures have failed to make more than a modest dent in enemy forces."

"In the period since 11 September, the United States has dealt lethal blows to al-Qaeda's leadership and - if official claims are true - have captured 3,000 al-Qaeda foot soldiers.

"At the same time, we have waged two failed half-wars and, in doing so, left Afghanistan and Iraq seething with anti-US sentiment, fertile grounds for the expansion of al-Qaeda and kindred groups."

"There is nothing that Bin Laden could have hoped for more than the American invasion and occupation of Iraq".

'Bush is best'

According to the Guardian, Anonymous thinks it possible that another devastating strike against the US could be staged during the election campaign. But, unlike with the Madrid train bombings, the aim would be to retain the administration rather than change it.

The paper says Anonymous believes Mr Bush is taking the US in exactly the direction Bin Laden wants, towards all-out confrontation with Islam under the banner of spreading democracy.

"I'm very sure they can't have a better administration for them than the one they have now", Anonymous is quoted as saying.

"One way to keep the Republicans in power is to mount an attack that would rally the country around the president."

The 11 September 2001 attacks killed nearly 3,000 people after members of Osama Bin Laden's al-Qaeda network flew three hijacked planes into New York's World Trade Center and the Pentagon, with a fourth crashing in Pennsylvania.

Posted by thinkum at 01:15 PM

June 22, 2004

Smithsonian boasts mini art

1,122 tiny art works, some as small as a shirt button

Mimi Hegler's 3-by-4-inch painting "Hydrangeas"

WASHINGTON (AP) -- It's not unusual to see art aficionados squint to see the details of a painting, but at this exhibit they have to squint just see some of the paintings.

With a magnifying glass, a viewer can make out individual blossoms on Mimi Hegler's "Hydrangeas," a 3-by-4-inch painting that is among 1,122 tiny artworks on view at the Smithsonian Institution's Ripley Center International Gallery.

A filigreed silver box, topped with a magnifying glass, contains the smallest works in the Third Exhibition of Fine Arts in Miniature: three ivory discs the size of shirt buttons, painted in watercolor. One depicts the Taj Mahal in Agra, India. Another portrays the Emperor Shah Jahan who ordered it built, and the third depicts his wife, Mumtaz Mahal, for whom it was built.

There are 516 artists from 16 countries represented at the show, which has pieces varying from landscapes, portraits, still life, watercolor, oil painting and prints to sculpture, enamels, porcelain and scrimshaw.

All are for sale at prices ranging from $100 to nearly $5,000.

Miniatures go back at least to Medieval times, when artists painted pictures on the initial letters of sections in Bibles and other religious manuscripts. Before photography, miniature portraits were the way to keep the image of a significant other in a locket or pouch, or on a desk or dressing table.

John A. Thompson is president of the Miniature Painters, Sculptors and Gravers Society of Washington, which organized the show. He said it takes imagination, vision and knowledge to create miniature art works.

"Only surgery comes close to the virtuosity required of the miniature artist," he wrote in an introduction to the show.

Thompson, a retired Agriculture Department technician, has a piece in the show titled "On the C & O Canal, 1890." It's a miniature oil painting of how the Washington end of the Chesapeake and Ohio canal looked more than a century ago.

Miniature artists like to work on ivory. It's sometimes synthetic ivory since international rules to protect elephants now make the genuine article harder to find. One of the artists in the show used a piece from the tusk of a prehistoric mastodon.

A single judge, history artist Peter Waddell, took them all in during a single morning before the exhibit opened to the public. He awarded the grand prize to Peter Kanis Jr., a Pennsylvania artist, for a picture called "Father." It's a 3-by-4-inch oil painting of an elderly man sitting on a bench and gazing into a crystal ball that he holds in his hand.

The show is on view until July 12. Admission is free.

Posted by thinkum at 03:10 PM

My Life retains Clinton's flaws

The former US President Bill Clinton has published his memoirs, My Life. BBC News Online world affairs correspondent Paul Reynolds, who was based in Washington during the last two years of the Clinton presidency, reviews the book.

Bill Clinton never quite achieved greatness as a president. And nor does his autobiography as a book.

It is as his presidency was - at times fascinating, often rambling - and always overshadowed by the demons which formed the character of the boy and the flaws of the man.

One has to turn first to the Lewinsky affair. It is sadly what he will be remembered for in this generation, whatever history might eventually say.

His account is a classic Clinton mixture of confession and accusation.

Anger against his accusers

He burns with hatred towards those who impeached him and would have seen him out of the White House.

In particular, his target is the special prosecutor Kenneth Starr. "It was clear," he says, "that Starr was trying to create a firestorm to force me from office."

He accuses Mr Starr and his interrogators, who interviewed him on camera for the Grand Jury, of doing their best "to turn the videotape into a pornographic home movie".

He quotes with approval Cheryl Mills, the young black lawyer who defended him in the Senate trial: "Black people all over America knew that the drive to impeach me was being led by right-wing white southerners who had never lifted a finger for civil rights."

Mandela's advice

He movingly quotes Nelson Mandela recounting how he had refused to hate those who had imprisoned him.

"I realised that they had already taken everything from me except my mind and my heart. Those they could not take without my permission. I decided not to give them away. And neither should you," Mr Mandela told him.

It is, though, as if Mr Clinton is entirely the wronged party, as Nelson Mandela was.

Partly blaming himself

Yet, he knows that he cannot throw all the blame onto others and he takes a good deal of it on himself, though with Bill Clinton, you did not know at the time and you do not find out from this book, how much is genuine and how much is calculated.

After all, in the revealing account he gives of his early life with a stepfather who abused his mother, he tells of how he learned to love secrets. "The allure of our secrets can be too strong, strong enough to make us feel we can't live without them, that we wouldn't even be who we are without them."

Maybe, therefore, he enjoyed the moments with Monica not just because they were pleasurable but because they were secret. He doesn't really say.

What he does offer is a fairly standard mea culpa: "I was disgusted with myself for doing it, and in the spring when I saw her again, I told her that it was wrong her me, wrong for my family and wrong for her and I couldn't do it anymore."

"What I had done with Monica Lewinsky was immoral and foolish. I was deeply ashamed of it and I didn't want it to come out."


And yet his confessions somehow lack total credibility. He sticks by his bizarre and legalistic definition of "sexual relations" and rather unconvincingly describes a period of post-Lewinsky self-investigation as he tries to "understand why I had made my own mistakes," as if it happened to someone else.

He stays up at night in the White House "two or three hours alone in my office" reading the Bible and "rereading" The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis and other improving books. All this sounds somewhat self-serving.

Sleeping on the couch

What does come over very strongly is the terrible time which followed his admission to his wife Hilary and daughter Chelsea that he had lied to them.

Hillary "looked at me as if I had punched her in the gut".

"When there were no cameras around, my wife and daughter were barely speaking to me," he admits.

He "slept on the couch" downstairs in Martha's Vineyard where they had gone on vacation, an arrangement which continued at the White House in a next-door room "for two months or more".

He talks of the three pastors who came to see him and about "the power of God's love" and, more practically, of how he and Hillary went into a once-weekly, year-long "serious counselling programme".

"I came to understand that when I was exhausted, angry or feeling isolated and alone. I was more vulnerable to making selfish and self decretive personal mistakes about which I would later be ashamed."

Eventually, Hillary came round and was "laughing again".

Accounts of the presidency

Interweaved with all this are the accounts of his presidency and here one longed for a good editor to cut out the tedious accounts of the routine meetings and travels so that he could concentrate on the significant ones.

But one feels that Mr Clinton insisted that everything be left in as his record of success (and economically he was a very successful president), alongside his account of failure.

Bill Clinton did not believe in solving problems by war. He refused for a long time to allow the bombing of the Bosnian Serbs. He preferred to talk to North Korea not confront it. He kept Saddam Hussein at bay but did not go to war with him.

He tried to kill Osama bin Laden but did not declare a "war on terror" as his successor did, though he says he warned Mr Bush that Bin Laden would be his biggest security problem. Iraq was only sixth on his list.

This book shows that he was really fired up when he intervened diplomatically, occasionally in Northern Ireland and above all, in the Middle East.

Details of diplomacy

I found his accounts of trying to reach a Middle East agreement the most interesting. But there are tantalising glimpses into other crises and events:

  • How the British Prime Minister John Major refused to take his calls for days after he had granted the Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams an American visa
  • How the Chinese President Jiang Zemin also refused his initial call about the bombing of the Chinese embassy during the war over Kosovo
  • How the Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern told him that, after the Omagh bombing (the worst outrage of the troubles) "the IRA had warned the Real IRA that if they ever did anything like that again, the British police would be the least of their worries"
  • How Tony Blair and his wife Cherie were a "sight for sore eyes" when they turned up in Washington during the Lewinsky revelations. "They made us laugh and Tony gave me strong support in public, emphasising our common approach to economic and social problems, and to foreign policy"

A hint of Mr Blair's greater readiness to use force comes when he speaks of Mr Blair pressing for the use of ground troops in Kosovo.

Camp David talks

His description of trying to get Yasser Arafat to sign up to an agreement at Camp David and later with the Israelis is perhaps the most useful part of the book historically.

He just cannot believe that the Palestinian leader turned down the offer of a state in almost all the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. He calls this refusal " a colossal mistake".

"At times, Arafat seemed confused, not wholly in command of the facts," he comments.

He reveals that the Israeli leader Ehud Barak choked on a peanut in Camp David and "stopped breathing for 40 seconds" until given the Heimlich manoeuvre by an aide.

Of such are memoirs made. There should have been more of them in this book of nearly 1,000 pages.

In the last line, Mr Clinton refers to "the failure of my life." It is a sad conclusion but one supported by his account of what he told Mr Arafat.

"Right before I left office, Arafat thanked me for all my efforts and told me what a great man I was. 'Mr Chairman,' I replied, 'I am not a great man. I am a failure, and you have made me a failure.'"

That's Bill Clinton. Blaming himself but blaming others, too.

Posted by thinkum at 03:08 PM

Vietnam man hopes for hair record

A Vietnamese man who has not had a hair cut in 31 years hopes to get into the Guinness Book of World Records for having the longest hair in the world.


Tran Van Hay, 67, has hair which is now 6.2 meters (20 feet) long, according to Vietnam's state-controlled press.

A local official said Mr Tran stopped having haircuts after one made him ill.

"He can't work anymore as a farmer because of the volume of hair so he's just collecting herbs for traditional medicine as charity work," he said.

According to the Thanh Nien (Young People) newspaper, Mr Tran last washed his hair six years ago, and now usually ties it up and covers it with a scarf.

The paper said he had not yet approached the Guinness World Records to get his claim authenticated.

According to the organisation's web site, the current record holder is Hoo Sateow, a man from northern Thailand.

His hair was measured in 1997 at 5.15 m (16 ft 11 in).

Posted by thinkum at 03:01 PM

Outsourcing gets religion in India

Is nothing sacred? The hard-nosed commercialism that has spawned a boom in international business outsourcing is catching on in the religious world.

In the West, there is a growing shortage of holy men of all religions, and the costs of spiritual services are on the rise.

An opportunity, then, for India, where high-quality, low-cost "religious outsourcing" is becoming big business.

Catholics have led the way, but Sikhs and Hindus are catching on fast.

Blessed are the dealmakers

The main centre so far for religious outsourcing has been the southern state of Kerala, the stronghold of the Catholic Church in India.

A recruitment crisis in the Catholic Church in the West has led to an increasing flow of requests for intercessory prayers and special masses to be directed to Kerala, according to the region's authorities.

Father Babu Joseph Karakombil, a spokesman for the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India, told BBC News Online that, while paid-for mass intentions have always been a tradition of the church, easier communications have led to a boom in demand.

"For some priests, foreign mass intentions have become a valuable source of income," he said.

But despite the material rewards of selling their services to foreign clients, "99.5% of our priests are still performing masses for Indian worshippers," Father Babu insisted.

Read all about it

Far more potentially valuable is the growth of religious outsourcing among India's bigger religions.

In the Sikh community, the practice of Akhand Path, a marathon reading of the holy scripture of Guru Granth Sahib to bring luck or overcome a problem, has been a boom area.

This is gruelling and highly specialised work.

A 48-hour reading in a Western temple can cost $1,000; in India, the cost is as little as 5,000 rupees ($108).

Hindu pujas, a form of prayer that varies from simple home worship to a full temple ritual, is also increasingly being outsourced.

Dot.com devotions

This year, a group of Hindus set up a website, puja.by-choice.com, to channel puja requests from the internet to Indian temples.

Pujas performed by high-caste "Pundit" priests, a rarity outside India, are seen as especially valuable.

The site has handled requests from 26 countries, only 10% of which come from non-resident Indians.

Fees charged are relatively competitive. A temple in India will charge up to 3,000 rupees for a full-dress puja of the finest quality; puja.by-choice.com packages start at $45, and range as high as $350 for the eradication of black magic, or the blessings of wealth.

Posted by thinkum at 03:00 PM

Baseball size hail pounds Texas


AMARILLO, Texas (AP) -- Wind gusting to 70 mph and hail the size of baseballs pounded the Texas Panhandle

Posted by thinkum at 02:54 PM

June 21, 2004

Spaceship 1 Graphics

Stray images from here and there...

spaceship1_aloft.jpg spaceship1_withwhiteknight.gif

spaceship1_diagram.gif spaceship1_flightpath.gif


Posted by thinkum at 03:03 PM

On the Tip of the Tongue

A burning feeling on the tongue or roof of the mouth can usually be traced to a steaming cappuccino, or maybe to hot mozzarella dripping from a slice of fresh pizza. But in some people, particularly postmenopausal women, a debilitating burning sensation in the mouth can develop out of the blue. And then it never leaves.

Burning mouth syndrome was once considered one of the many symptoms "nervous" older women invented for themselves. But new research now suggests that it is linked to taste changes in mouth.

Below, Dr. Miriam Grushka, an associate professor of oral medicine at University of Illinois in Chicago, discusses common causes and treatments for burning mouth syndrome.

What is burning mouth syndrome?
It's defined as a constant burning sensation in the mouth that's usually present in the tongue and often on the palate, but it can be anywhere. It often starts suddenly and then it can continue for months or years. People complain that their mouth feels as though they had been burnt with hot coffee, except it just doesn't go away.

The burning sensation usually gets worse over the day. So it's not too bad in the morning, then it gets worse after the first meal of the day and then it peaks in the late afternoon or by early evening. Once people go to sleep, the pain usually disappears. And then when they wake up in the morning, they feel fine. And the cycle keeps repeating itself.

Are there any other symptoms associated with burning mouth syndrome?
Very commonly, it's associated with a metallic or bitter taste in the mouth that also gets worse over the day. A lot of people complain about dry mouth. But when you look in the mouth and check the flow of saliva it's normal.

These symptoms are often very severe. There have been a lot of studies looking at the psychological impact and if burning mouth syndrome is severe and ongoing, it can cause a lot of depression and anxiety. The pattern of changes is very similar to what's seen in other people who have chronic pain.

How is burning mouth syndrome usually diagnosed?
Until recently, the diagnosis was typically based on the clinical symptoms. It has been a diagnosis of exclusion, so that people were tested to see if they had an oral yeast infection or a vitamin deficiency or diabetes. And if they had none of those changes and their mouth looked normal and they had the typical pattern of burning, they ended up with a diagnosis of burning mouth.

More recent research shows the association between burning mouth and taste changes. Dr. Linda Bartoshuk at Yale has found is that there is almost a footprint of the disorder ? a loss of bitter taste at the tip of the tongue. We can check the ability to taste sweet, sour, salt and bitter flavors at the front and then at the back of the tongue using a spatial taste-test. So someone with burning mouth syndrome may have normal tastes or somewhat reduced tastes for sour, sweet and salty flavors but the ability to taste bitter flavors, which is located at the tip of the tongue, is often gone.

The theory is that taste inhibits pain and, if there's a problem with taste (like loss of bitter taste at the tip of the tongue), there's a loss of inhibition of the pain fibers, so someone spontaneously begins to produce pain. And the pain is interpreted as burning mouth pain.

Another test is performed using a local anesthetic. When a local anesthetic is applied to the tip of their tongue where they have the burning, the pain often gets worse instead of getting better.

Who gets burning mouth syndrome?
It's most common in women after menopause. One of the reasons that this problem is found in older women relates to the loss of estrogen that occurs in the menopausal period and that causes a loss of bitter taste buds. We do see men with burning mouth, but it's less common. Sometimes I see younger people with it, but it is usually associated with a benign condition called geographic tongue. Geographic tongue causes inflammation on the surface of the tongue causing red patches that come and go and move around. That might affect the taste buds which then leads to the loss of pain inhibition and burning mouth.

What can increase the risk?
When the bitter taste is lost within the taste bud, the pain fibers surrounding that bud are the ones that experience a loss of inhibition and start becoming painful. An infection, a nutritional deficiency of B12, folate or iron can also damage taste buds.

And just to make it a little bit more complex, the people who are most at risk of developing burning mouth are called super-tasters ? people who have the greatest number of taste buds on the tip of the tongue. This is a genetic difference: some people are non-tasters, some are medium-tasters and some are super-tasters. Flavors are much more intense for super-tasters, and they have different taste preferences than non-tasters and medium-tasters. Women are much more likely to be super-tasters than men. So most people with burning mouth syndrome are super-tasters who have had a taste loss for some reason.

People who do a lot of clenching are at increased risk. They keep their tongue pressed tightly against their teeth at night and they end up with their tongue scalloped. When the clenching is controlled, through medication or the use of mouth guards, they often feel better.

Are underlying medical conditions associated with burning mouth syndrome?
Certain conditions such as Sjögren's syndrome, diabetes, thyroid disease and liver dysfunction have been associated with burning mouth syndrome, but it just doesn't occur very often in these people. For example, most people with Sjögren's syndrome have very dry mouth and almost all of them have a yeast infection as a result. When the majority of Sjögren's patients are treated with antifungal medication, they no longer have burning mouth.

Can anxiety and depression cause burning mouth syndrome?
There have been many studies looking at the psychological profiles of burning mouth people, and almost all of them have found that there are psychological changes in this group of people. Twenty years ago, it was thought that anxiety and depression were what caused the changes. But with the more recent literature, it's assumed that the change in psychological profile is the result of the chronic pain rather than the cause of the chronic pain.

The thrust of the research now is looking at the organic changes rather than looking at a psychological profile and saying that these people are depressed and anxious.

Do any medications cause burning mouth syndrome?
ACE (angiotensin-converting enzyme) inhibitors, which are taken for high blood pressure, can cause burning mouth. Even when people go off the ACE inhibitors, the pain doesn't usually go away without treatment.

What can ease symptoms of burning mouth syndrome?
People often will chew ice chips. And I'm not sure if it's the cold or the fact that there's something in the mouth that helps to reduce the pain. Most typically people say they chew gum all day because that's seems to be the greatest help.

Are there any medications for burning mouth syndrome?
There is nothing specifically approved for burning mouth syndrome but some drugs approved for other conditions have been helpful. The drug of choice right now is Klonopin (clonazepam), which is a benzodiazepine. We think it works in the taste system and it inhibits spontaneous pain. Once people respond to medication, they often get better quickly and can start decreasing their medications. We often combine the clonazepam with Neurontin (gabapentin). And we sometimes use a third medication, Lamictal (lamotrigine), which is an anticonvulsant used to treat epilepsy.

Tricyclic antidepressants were used a lot in the '80s, because that's all there was. I think they're used much less now because there are a lot of side effects for a very small benefit.

Can people ever recover without medication?
Yes, we have early data from when we had much poorer medication to control it and we found two-thirds of people have spontaneous remission even with no medication. People usually had pain for three to five years before it remitted spontaneously. We think it's because of regeneration of the taste buds.

Posted by thinkum at 02:48 PM

Bahrain hot for cool phone number

A mobile phone number in Bahrain has been put on sale for $13,200, because it has an unusual number sequence.

Abdullah al-Hammadi, who specialises in mobiles and car licence plates, told AFP news agency the number 9111119 was coveted by Bahrain's "in-crowd".

His previous record on a mobile phone sale was a relatively measly $7,000.

There is a huge market in the wealthy Gulf state for unusual mobile phone numbers and car license plates because of their value as status symbols.

Fashion statement

Mr Hammadi says he has sold more than 5,000 highly prized phone numbers since 1988 when he opened his shop. And license plates are also popular.

"One man once bought his son a licence plate for 6,000 dinars [$16,000]," he told AFP.

"Another bought one for his son just to encourage him to work hard."

Mr Hammadi said that the money can also prove useful for people who need cash quickly - even for medical treatment.

Amira al-Hussaini from Bahrain's Gulf Daily News newspaper told BBC News Online the selling of unusual mobile numbers is common in the Gulf.

"People want to show off and it's a fashion statement," she said.

"If your phone has a sequence, it shows you're wealthy and well connected with the 'in-crowd'.

"It's silly because it's just a number. But if you have the money and means and want to waste it, why not?

Posted by thinkum at 02:43 PM

Q&A: EU - myths and realities

The new European Union constitution was agreed in Brussels on Friday 18 June. It now has to be ratified by all 25 member states.

BBC News Online looks at some of the myths and realities of the constitution.

Will this lead to a United States of Europe like the USA?

No. The EU constitution is a balance between the demands of those who want more integration and those who want to preserve the rights of the nation states. In some areas, the constitution widens the areas of joint action to be decided by majority voting, into immigration and asylum policy for example. But in other areas, member states can still go their own way (in defence and foreign policy and tax, for example).

The EU will now have a president and a foreign minister in addition to its parliament, supreme court, civil service, flag and anthem. Is it not therefore a state?

No. These institutions are for specifically European Union functions, and some sound grander than they are. The EU in fact already has three "presidents" - of the Council of Ministers, the Commission and the European Parliament. What is new is that the Council Presidency, a post currently held by one member state for six months, will become a permanent position. But the powers of the president will be limited. He or she will not be comparable to the US or French presidents.

Does a Foreign Minister mean a common foreign policy?

Not in the EU. There is already a "high representative" for foreign policy and although the new post will be a bit grander, the foreign minister will be able to speak for the EU only when there is an agreed policy - over the Middle East peace process for example. If there is a disagreement, as over Iraq, he or she will be powerless.

Does the constitution confirm that this is a Europe of nation states?

No. It confirms that the European Union is a compromise. The nation states have given up some of their rights - over the internal market, foreign trade, agriculture, fisheries and the environment for example. So they are not entirely sovereign, by choice. If they want to be entirely sovereign, they can leave the Union.

How much does the constitution change things?

It will lead to more qualified majority voting, but the basic institutions will remain. Opponents say that the constitution will lead to further unnecessary integration and that it opens the way to more; supporters argue that such integration is limited and necessary for the common good.

The constitution says that its law is supreme. Will the EU impose its law?

The procedures by which laws are passed have not fundamentally changed. Laws will still be proposed by the executive body, the Commission, and agreed jointly by member states and the European parliament. EU law is supreme in those areas where it has the right to legislate, but that has always been the case.

Will the Charter of Fundamental Rights interfere with national laws?

The Charter sets out a list of rights from the right to life to the right to strike. The UK government was worried that it might affect national industrial relations laws and says that it will not do so, but the Charter has yet to be tested in the courts.

This won't be the end of EU arguments, though?

No it won't. There will always be tension between those who want to go further and those who want to hold back. Some supporters of a federal Europe might forge ahead in some new areas like tax harmonisation and social security, as they have done with the single currency, the euro. The show goes on.

Posted by thinkum at 02:42 PM

Private craft makes space history

SpaceShipOne has rocketed into the history books to become the first private manned spacecraft to fly to the edge of space and back.


The craft, built by aviation pioneer Burt Rutan, went over space's 100km (62 mile) boundary, said mission control.

It was carried to 46,000ft (13.8km) by its launcher White Knight at which point it was unleashed. It fired its rockets to continue its trip.

Mr Rutan was on the runway to embrace pilot Mike Melvill on his return.

They paid an emotional tribute to each other after the flight.

"It was a mind-blowing experience, it really was. Absolutely an awesome thing," said Mr Melvill.

"Burt thought of everything to make it work and it all worked exactly as he told us," he added.

Mr Melvill said the view from space was "spectacular", and he was only sad that Mr Rutan, who he described as his "best friend in the whole world", could not have been there too.

A delighted Mr Rutan said it had been an emotional journey.

"The way you guys felt when you saw it touch down, we felt that several times in mission control during the flight," he said.

Cheers and applause

Applause and cheering broke out when the first confirmation of its attitude was announced.

"Beautiful sight, Mike," mission control said to pilot Mr Melvill as the gliding spaceship made its way to touch down at California's Mojave Airport.

It finally came back to Earth at 0815 PDT, after its 90-minute flight.

About 3,000 people, including over 500 media crews, descended on the desert to watch the historic flight.

The pilot, 62-year-old Scaled Composites vice-president Mr Melvill, stamped his name in the record books as the first non-government-funded pilot to fly a spaceship out of Earth's atmosphere.

He piloted the test flight in May, when it reached 64km (40 miles) to double its previous best. After Monday's flight he told the crowd: "I think I'll back off a little bit now and ride my bike."

Mr Melvill said he had heard a loud bang during the record-breaking mission.

On the ground, he pointed out a section at the back of the craft where a part covering the nozzle had buckled, suggesting it may have caused the odd noise.

Mr Rutan confirmed in a press conference that it was not a "perfect flight", and that his team would be assessing data and addressing some "anomalies" that had occurred.

Next stop X-prize

SpaceShipOne glided very briefly after its launch from White Knight before firing up its rocket for about 80 seconds.

It then blasted off to reach its target height in a vertical climb at more than three times the speed of sound.

The vehicle then altered its wing configuration to allow for high drag, and fell back towards Earth during which the pilot was weightless.

At this point, Mr Melvill admitted he opened up a packet of chocolates to see them float.

At re-entry, the ship's special wing configuration allowed it to glide back down to Earth in about 20 minutes.

Mr Rutan said that, in the next few days, the team would make a decision about their attempt to claim the Ansari X-prize.

They will then inform the X-prize organisation effectively giving them, and the world, 60-days' notice of their attempt.

The $10m (£5.7m) prize will be awarded to the first non-government, manned flight into space.

To beat 25 other teams in this race, SpaceShipOne must reach 100km twice in two weeks.

On each occasion it will have to fly with a pilot and at least the ballast equivalent of two other people.

Mr Rutan told the press conference that the team would "probably" attempt the two flights within one week.

When the X-prize is won, it could open up the skies to future tourist trips to the edge of space for those bored of the usual beach holiday.

Safe craft

The craft escaped Earth's atmosphere, but was unable to orbit the planet because of the speed it was going.

Going sub-orbital is cheaper and far less risky, but it still means the pilot has a stunning view of Earth.

Burt Rutan has been widely acclaimed for his pioneering achievements in the field of aviation.

White Knight and SpaceShipOne are thought to be revolutionary in many ways. SpaceShipOne's hybrid engine needs special fuel that is safer, and both White Knight and the ship can be reused.

SpaceShipOne's rocket motor, which was custom-built by SpaceDev of San Diego, burns a solid rubber propellant with liquid nitrous oxide - a liquid version of "laughing gas".

It is not volatile and it is more eco-friendly than other space rocket fuels.

Posted by thinkum at 02:38 PM

Bradbury: Change 'Fahrenheit' title

Author wants apology from Moore, movie renamed

Ray Bradbury is demanding an apology from filmmaker Michael Moore for lifting the title from his classic science-fiction novel "Fahrenheit 451" without permission and wants the new documentary "Fahrenheit 9/11" to be renamed.

"He didn't ask my permission," Bradbury, 83, told The Associated Press on Friday. "That's not his novel, that's not his title, so he shouldn't have done it."

The 1953 novel, widely considered Bradbury's masterpiece, portrays an ugly futuristic society in which firemen burn homes and libraries in order to destroy the books inside and keep people from thinking independently.

"Fahrenheit 451" takes its title from the temperature at which books burn. Moore has called "Fahrenheit 9/11" the "temperature at which freedom burns."

His film, which won top honors in May at the Cannes Film Festival, charges that the Bush administration acted ineptly before the September 11 terrorist attacks, then played on the public's fear of future terrorism to gain support for the war against Iraq. It opens nationwide Friday.

Bradbury, who hadn't seen the movie, said he called Moore's company six months ago to protest and was promised Moore would call back.

He finally got that call last Saturday, Bradbury said, adding Moore told him he was "embarrassed."

"He suddenly realized he's let too much time go by," the author said by phone from his home in Los Angeles' Cheviot Hills section.

Joanne Doroshow, a spokeswoman for "Fahrenheit 9/11," said the film's makers have "the utmost respect for Ray Bradbury."

"Mr. Bradbury's work has been an inspiration to all of us involved in this film, but when you watch this film you will see the fact that the title reflects the facts that the movie explores, the very real life events before, around and after 9-11," she said.

Bradbury, who is a registered political independent, said he would rather avoid litigation and is "hoping to settle this as two gentlemen, if he'll shake hands with me and give me back my book and title."

Moore's film needed new distributors after Disney refused to let its Miramax subsidiary release it, claiming it was too politically charged. The documentary was later bought by Miramax bosses Harvey and Bob Weinstein, who lined up Lions Gate and IFC Films to help distribute it.

The movie's distributors are appealing to lower its R rating to PG-13 and a screening has been set for Tuesday by the Motion Picture Association of America's appeals board.

Bradbury's book was made into a 1966 movie directed by Francois Truffaut. A new edition of the book is scheduled for release in eight weeks, Bradbury said, and plans are in the works for a new film version, to be directed by Frank Darabont.

Posted by thinkum at 11:37 AM

June 16, 2004

All hail to the bards of cyberspace

Here's my "Reply All" to email spammers: I surrender. No, I haven't broken down and paid money in the hopes of obtaining "amaz.ing price:s on pop.ular soft,war.e" or even "a bu'lky p0l-e". Nor have I forged a financial relationship with a down-on-her-luck Nigerian princess.

Rather, I have given in to the mysterious wisdom of it all. I've become mesmerised by the unintentional elegance of the language of spam. It's as if some marketing matrix has been disseminating pure but encoded poetry, and suddenly, like Keanu Reeves's Neo, I can see it all so clearly. I realise I can't do anything about the hundreds of breathless - and, in most cases, shameless - come-ons cramming my inbox every morning. But I no longer want to. Powerless against the barrage, I've decided to treat it as the art I now understand it to be.

Many mailings seem to follow a pattern: a strange, randomly generated name in the "from" line ("Clarissa Cortes", "Damien Foote," "Debbie Butts") followed by something innocuous in the "subject" line ("your account", "re: approved", "he is your brother in the video inequitable").

Then comes a message that starts with a few words of gibberish to throw off filters looking for spam keywords. And the sales pitch, hawking those all-too-familiar, totally unwanted products: diplomas, discount pharmaceuticals, physical enhancements of every conceivable (and occasionally inconceivable) type, home mortgages, etc - often all from the same vendor.

The sales pitches are expendable, but everything else in these messages fascinates me. I am hooked on the accoutrements, the anti-spam countermeasures. They are not only creative, they are erudite. More than one has sent me scurrying to the reference shelf (or at least AskJeeves.com).

One mailing begins: "They are eloquent who can speak low things acutely, and of great things with dignity, and of moderate things with temper. The little trouble in the world that is not due to love is due to friendship." Yes, the first part is a quote from Cicero, but after searching, I've decided the second - despite the patina of philosophical authority - is the matrix's creation.

Quotations, always unattributed, are in these messages. When the French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss said that "Language is a form of human reason, which has its internal logic of which man knows nothing", little did he know that his words would be used to pitch "cheep vigr".

As for the randomly generated names, I'm captivated. Sometimes they're believable, with a certain ring. "Concepcion Quinones", for example, sounds like an MSNBC anchorperson. At other times, though, the marketing matrix outwits itself. How else to explain "Mohammad McLaughlin"?

The names almost always have a middle initial, like the wonderfully named Ameslan G. Oversaw.

In one message, the word generator seemed to have spiralled out of control, producing a DeLillo-esque cascade of consonants: "cheeky flaxen cowboy guano fuchs gallery durance assumption apothegm commission clove gave chromium haney burlington pagoda halite denny rowdy itinerary saccade significant eastland corrigible emerald." It gets better every time I read it.

Oops, my Microsoft Outlook tells me that I have incoming spam. This just might be the most eloquent of all. It says: "wrinkle disappearance. yo." Cicero couldn't have said it better.

Posted by thinkum at 04:38 PM

Inventor plans 'invisible walls'

The inventor of an "invisibility" cloak has said that his next project will be to develop the technology to allow people to see through walls.

[see also prior entry on this topic]

Susumu Tachi, who showed off the cloak at an exhibition in San Francisco earlier this month, said he was hopeful of providing a way to provide a view of the outside in windowless rooms.

"This technology can be used in all kinds of ways, but I wanted to create a vision of invisibility," he told BBC World Service's Outlook programme.

"My short-term goal would be, for example, to make a room that has no outside windows appear to have a view to the outside, then the wall would appear to be invisible."

Use and misuse

Professor Tachi's cloak works by projecting an image onto itself of what is behind the wearer.

A computer generates the image that is projected, so the viewer effectively sees "through" the cloak.

The key development of the cloak, however, was the development of a new material called retro-reflectum.

"This material allows you to see a three-dimensional image," Professor Tachi said.

"This material is the key to our technology."

There are many potential uses of the cloak, ranging from espionage and military purposes to helping pilots see through the floor of the cockpit to the runway below.

However there are massive questions of potential misuse too, particularly surrounding the huge crime implications.

It would become incredibly difficult to spot a thief, for example, if the items they were taking were simply disappearing under the cloak.

Professor Tachi said that he had first had the idea of developing something to make objects invisible in 1977.

But he said it was "hard to make it into reality," as the image looked flat and unrealistic.

"It didn't work at all when we just projected the image onto a normal screen," he added.

"We tried hard, but it took a while before we came up with this retro-reflective material."

Posted by thinkum at 04:16 PM

Caterpillars envelop St Petersburg

Not quite so amusing as fruit bats attacking Memphis, but...

(original story)

Swarms of hungry caterpillars have defoliated trees in Russia's second city, St Petersburg, covering them with cobwebs and transforming public parks into scenes likened by Russia TV to sets from a horror film.

"The situation is critical," Tatyana Dorofeyeva, an insects specialist at the parks' protection department said. She said that the authorities' countermeasures taken to date were thought to be no more than 50% effective.

The bird-cherry ermine moth caterpillars (Yponomeuta evonymella) strip the trees of leaves and then cover what's left with a cobweb-like substance from the roots up.

"Right now the caterpillars are multiplying at an incredible rate and producing their cobwebs on an industrial scale," the TV reported.

Parks' department staff are said to be working flat-out to contain the outbreak.

"The caterpillars are not poisonous but in these quantities they could aggravate allergic reactions, biologists say. Trees are inspected after being sprayed. The results are not reassuring. They're still multiplying," a correspondent said.

"The city had no idea that it was under threat from such an invasion," Galina Tyullina, head of the parks' protection department, said. "If the situation had been monitored in good time and arrangements made for treatment to be carried out, we could have gone out spraying in early May and headed this off in advance."

The city's inhabitants are already bracing themselves, first for the airborne invasion of bird-cherry ermine moths when the pupae hatch in four weeks' time: and then for next year's expected sequel - dubbed by the TV "Invasion of the Caterpillars 2".

Posted by thinkum at 01:39 PM

June 15, 2004

Castro asked US president for $10

In 1940, 12-year-old Cuban boy Fidel Castro wrote to US President Franklin Roosevelt to request a $10 note.

The hand-written letter, embellished with an elaborate signature, has been unearthed by the US National Archives and Records Administration.


It was one of the thousands of letters sent to the White House by children taking their demands to the very top.

In an impeccable hand, young Fidel signs the letter to President Roosevelt : "Your friend".

Dear Mr President

He asks Roosevelt, President of the US between 1933 and 1945, to fulfil one desire - to send him a green $10 note.

"Never I have not seen a ten dollars bill green American and I would like to have one of them," the future Cuban leader wrote.

He included a return address at the Colegio de Dolores in Santiago, Cuba, where he was studying at the time.

The White House had an office to deal with all the president's correspondence and sure enough Fidel Castro received a reply, but disappointingly, no bill.

About 19 years later, his guerrilla campaign toppled the seven-year military rule of Cuban President Fulgeneio Batista and, at 32, Mr Castro became the country's new leader.

The letter was lost for two or three decades and only found by accident by a researcher.

Forgotten gems
Other letters to go on display at the National Archives and Records Administration include that of a boy called Andy Smith who wrote to Ronald Reagan in 1984 to ask for federal funds to help him clean up his room.

Another is from three girls begging President Eisenhower to spare singer Elvis Presley from conscription and, more importantly, to save his sideburns.

"My girlfriend's [sic] and I are writting [sic] all the way from Montana. We think its [sic] bad enough to send Elvis Presley in the Army, but if you cut his sideburns off we will just die!" they wrote.

Nowadays children can still put pen to paper and write to the US president at his Pennsylvania Avenue address but they are more likely to send an e-mail to president@whitehouse.gov.

Posted by thinkum at 01:40 PM

'Blasphemy' trial held in Moscow

A prominent human rights activist has gone on trial in Moscow accused of inciting religious hatred by exhibiting allegedly blasphemous artworks.

The head of the Andrei Sakharov Museum, Yuri Samodurov, organised an exhibition last year featuring a depiction of Christ on a Coca-Cola advert.

There was also a sculpture of a church made from vodka bottles.

Vandals defaced the exhibits just days after they went on display, but charges against them were later dropped.

Mr Samodurov could face up to five years in prison if found guilty.

Two others who helped organise the January 2003 exhibition "Caution! Religion" are also on trial.

Mr Samodurov insists he had no intention of causing insult to believers, saying the case against him is absurd and a direct challenge to such fundamental principles as freedom of conscience and expression.

His supporters say it also highlights the growing power and influence of the Orthodox Church in what remains, constitutionally, a secular state.

Defence lawyers told the Taganka district court that the accusations failed to specify which artworks incited religious hatred and against whom and why.

"If what the church believes to be blasphemy is seen as a crime in a secular state, it means that this is a political trial," said Mr Samodurov.

The Sakharov Museum was founded to promote democracy and human rights, as championed by the late Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov.

Posted by thinkum at 01:38 PM

The Beijing chippy

A stroke of inspiration from two Chinese friends with British wives has resulted in an unlikely import of UK cuisine.

When my bosses posted me to Beijing, little did they realise their decision would strike a blow for British cuisine on the other side of the world.

And nor for that matter did I, as, on the face of it, opening an English restaurant in China would seem to be a losing proposition.

When it comes to food, people here are chauvinistic, generally believing they have the best culinary tradition in the world. Their attitude towards British food can be summed up as disdain, combined with some pity, for the poor Brits who live off such bland mush.

Chinese people who have spent any time in the UK love to describe the horrors of the food - dwelling in shocked tones on descriptions of Marmite and rhubarb, much as British visitors to China talk of chicken's feet and entrails.

My husband, Feng, is from southern China and - to put it mildly - is no great fan of British food.

When we found out we'd be moving here, he was ecstatic. At last, he cried joyfully, I won't be hungry any more.

Eureka moment

He'd always wanted to open a restaurant in Beijing and it was while chatting to Leng Jie, another local with a British wife, that inspiration struck.

Leng Jie happened to say that, after 12 years of marriage, the only English food he could bear to eat was fish and chips.

And this, suddenly, became their Eureka moment - when it dawned on them that what Beijing was missing, in culinary terms, was a fish and chip shop.

The pair brought in a third, more numerate partner to do the sums and he declared the whole idea a goer.

Their first major challenge was finding the perfect spot for a Beijing chippy - not so simple when it seems the entire city is being pulled down and rebuilt.

After weeks of searching, they found an ideal site but, as always, there was a snag - the electricity supply couldn't support the deep-fat fryers they needed.

Don't worry they were told, you can just buy your own electricity pole. But, at $10,000 a pole, that was out of the question. Spot number two seemed even better. But again there were hidden problems - the entire building, though just finished, turned out to be illegal and slated for destruction.

In can-do China, this wasn't necessarily a deal-breaker. They even started negotiations over the contract, but these ground to a halt when the landlord wouldn't agree to refund their rent if the shop was knocked down.

In desperation, they stumbled on the third site almost by mistake. A former bar, it had never been successful.

But, placed beside a popular nightclub and youth hostel, it was the perfect place to catch late-night drinkers tottering by on a quest for greasy comfort food.

Contract signed, the renovations began, and they started advertising for staff. There is no shortage of people looking for work in Beijing, so the potential bosses could afford to be picky.

Just how picky came as a bit of a shock.

Too stupid, too ugly, too short seemed to be common reasons for turning down staff.

A certain cachet

I tried pointing out that working in a fish and chip shop isn't necessarily a step up the social ladder - but the thing is, in Beijing, maybe it is.

Foreign restaurants still have a certain cachet, and some of those vying for jobs even had a college education.

And the three partners - as they say - had a vision, and that was fish and chips served up by the hottest talent in town.

With model staff in hand, the next step was the menu. Here I have to admit defeat.

I lobbied long and hard for mushy peas and curry sauce. But somehow the whole concept of mushy peas isn't too easy to convey in a way that makes it sounds like an attractive foodstuff.

But on the whole Feng and his colleagues did well.

The chips are proper English chips - fat and slightly greasy - served with cod in beer batter, along with a few local additions, like tempura vegetables, shrimp and deep-fried pineapple.

And then, the final frontier: dealing with the press. Here the boys' natural honesty was a definite drawback.

The first sign of this was when one reporter asked them about their experiences eating fish and chips.

Leng Jie smiled sweetly and replied, "When I was in England, I ate them every day. At first I loved it, but after a while, just thinking about fish and chips made me want to vomit."

At this point, I took the partners aside and gave them a pep talk about the importance of public relations - something which goes against all my journalistic instincts.

But the hard graft has been worth it. Fish Nation - that is its name - is finally open for business.

Its first few days haven't been too bad, with a steady stream of trendy locals and homesick Brits. And who knows? Maybe good old fish and chips might be Beijing's hit snack this summer.

And at any rate, if I ever get tired of journalism, I guess I can always fall back on a career behind the deep-fat fryer.

By Louisa Lim
BBC correspondent in Beijing

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 12 June, 2004 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4.

Posted by thinkum at 01:37 PM

Muslim comedians laugh at racism

With his bushy black beard and skullcap, Azhar Usman strides on to the stage with a raucous "Assalam Aleikum."

"For those who don't know what that means, I'll explain it to you," he declares. "It means: 'I'm gonna kill you.'" The audience bursts into laughter.

But his accent reveals that as well as being a Muslim, Azhar Usman is also an American.

The "Allah Made Me Funny" comedy show is an attempt by a group of American Muslim comics to counter the negative stereotypes and attitudes about Muslims and Arabs by poking fun at themselves, their communities and the prejudices they face.

Skewering stereotypes

Like their Jewish or African American counterparts, the Muslim comedians in "Allah Made Me Funny" aren't afraid to poke fun at themselves.

There are jokes about Muslims being late and about faulty sound systems in mosques.

The show made its US debut at a club in Washington earlier this month.

The founder of the show, Preacher Moss, says the intention is to bridge the gap between different communities, which he believes has widened since the 11 September attacks of 2001.

"Post-9/11, we wanted to do something to bring the Islamic community into the mainstream," says Mr Moss, an African-American Muslim. "It's an opportunity to have some dialogue and to make people, Muslims and non-Muslims, feel enlightened and entertained."

The audience at the show is unusually diverse for Washington.

Trendy young professionals sit alongside women in Islamic headscarves, African robes and Asian shawal kameezes.

This is where mainstream America meets Islam, not with conflict but with laughter.

"You have a fair amount of people here who aren't Muslim," says Mr Moss. "They're just interested in dialogue and having that fellowship that's been lacking. And you have Muslims out here who are trying to come out and express themselves as well."

Unifying humour

The response from the audience is overwhelmingly positive.

"Humour brings us all together," says one young woman. "It doesn't matter whether you're black, white, Muslim, Chinese, Indian. Humour is humour."

A Muslim man at the show says: "I think anything for the Muslims in the public eye is good right now especially if it is funny and it's showing people that we also have a sense of humour.

"In the jokes the comedians highlight things like stereotypes. This performs an educational function, so it's very positive," he added.

The comedian Azhar Usman says that as well as showing Americans that most Muslims are not fanatics, he also wants to take the show to Muslim countries to help the Islamic world gain a better understanding of America.

They have had requests to tour around the world including Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar.

"Now I think that this tour without a doubt is ready to really explode into the Muslim world, no pun intended," Mr Usman said.

"I think what's important to recognise is that just as Muslims feel that Islam is greatly misunderstood in America so too America is greatly misunderstood in the Muslim world," he added.


America's moral credibility among Muslims has been badly damaged by the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by US soldiers. American leaders insist only a handful of soldiers are to blame.

What this show is aiming to do is demonstrate that the actions of a handful of extremists acting in the name of Islam have nothing to do with most Muslims.

But since the 11 September attacks, many Muslims now believe American justice is biased against them.

That's a theme Azhar Usman tackles in his stand-up routine.

"We've made a lot of progress towards ending racism in America," he tells the audience. "But we've been hearing about it for decades. A black man says he can never get a fair trial in America."

He pauses. "But Arabs and Muslims say they can't even get a trial."

The audience roars appreciatively.

Posted by thinkum at 01:35 PM

Eurosceptics storm the citadel

Anti-EU parties had their best results in the latest European Parliament elections.

They aim to be the Trojan Horse that brings down the fortress of a federal Europe from inside.

They are now within the gates, though heavily outnumbered.

They comprise a mixed band of political warriors - the Eurosceptics, the nation-state sovereignists and the anti-corruption fighters.

They are about to claim their seats in the European Parliament, an institution which they deride.

Will it end in a rout, like in A Bridge Too Far?

Or in a triumph against the odds, as in The Guns of Navarone? The next five years will tell.

Polish pressure

The Euro-critics have become famous in the past few days, thanks to media publicity and a strong message.

In London, there was dismay among the mainstream, Euro-critical Conservatives, as the UK Independence Party (UKIP) raided their political heartland.

UKIP demands Britain's outright withdrawal from the EU. It took 12 seats in the Strasbourg parliament, against 27 for the Conservatives.

In Poland, the Catholic, anti-EU League of Polish Families won second place among the parties and 10 seats.

Maciej Giertych, one of their leaders, says Poland must quit the EU to enjoy real independence.

His group is sworn to stop the birth of a "Federal Republic of Europe".

Another band of seven Poles from the Self-Defence of Poland party also oppose Poland's terms of EU accession and the "Brussels system".

Small victories

Even in France, the leader of the French "Souverainistes", Philippe de Villiers, held on to three seats for his Movement for France, which rejects both the euro and France's EU membership.

Eurosceptics of various colours won small victories elsewhere, too.

In the Netherlands, Paul van Buitenen, the "whistle-blower" against EU corruption, won two seats for Transparent Europe.

In Austria, ex-journalist Hans Peter Martin won a surprise two seats for his personal list, after he exposed the expense-fiddling of MEPs (Members of the European Parliament).

And in Sweden, another new-born Eurosceptic group, the June Movement, captured 3 seats.

Extremist backing

A Dane, Jens-Peter Bonde, leads the main Eurosceptic group in the parliament, called "Europe of Democracies and Diversities".

He expects his group to roughly double in size from just 18 to around 40.

That would include the Poles, Swedes, the de Villiers' group from France and UKIP.

They have more potential allies for their cause among other right-of-centre groups, including the British Conservatives and 9 Czech Civic Democrats, who are likely to sit, officially, with the integrationist Christian Democrats from Germany in the main centre-right grouping.

Loud anti-EU talk also comes from the political extremes, both the far-left communists and the far-right National Front of France, which has won eight seats.

More battles ahead

But overall, the Euro-critics still face a solid block of about two-thirds of MEPs in the 732-seat parliament, who believe in the motto of the integrationists - an "ever-closer union" for Europe.

The EU's political calendar now bristles with dates for the political battle to be engaged.

On 17 June, EU leaders will try once more to agree the text of a legally-binding EU constitution.

On 20 July, the new European Parliament meets for the first time.

Ahead lies the prospect of popular referendums in up to half the EU's 25 member-states, on the constitution and the future of Europe.

The outcome will decide the fate of nations, and of many of Europe's politicians on both sides of the great debate.

Posted by thinkum at 01:33 PM

Menacing Mussolini memorabilia

Tourists in Italy are flocking to a most unlikely attraction. It is the town of Predappio, home to the country's late fascist leader Benito Mussolini.

They eat in fascist-themed restaurants and spend their money on Mussolini memorabilia.

If they had a league table of weird European towns, Predappio would surely be in the top ten.

It is an overgrown village really, set in a green valley in northern Italy, with serpentine roads and steep-sloping vineyards.

There are a few picturesque old cottages, but also a great number of buildings constructed, as signboards proclaim: Anno IV (1926) Year Four of the Fascist Era.

There are buildings that strut and swell with progressive pride. Buildings with rusty bolt-holes where they tore off the embarrassing bronze "fasces" and axe-heads after World War II.

Welcome to Predappio, an ideal spot for a short stay in the leafy Appennines. Welcome to Predappio, birthplace and shrine of Benito Mussolini.

Paying homage

Theoretically you could stumble on the place by accident, getting lost trying to find the miniature republic of San Marino. Or winding down the mountains from neighbouring Tuscany, you might stop for an ice cream.

Taking a stroll, you would find the atmosphere a little artificial, a bit like a seaside resort.

However, the shops that would be selling seaside buckets and spades, are bizarrely stuffed with busts of Benito Mussolini, key chains with fascist insignia.

Even bottles of local wine have the dictator's face on the labels.

There are postcards printed, not with beach scenes, but anti-Semitic propaganda.

And the coach-loads of tourists who arrive in Predappio, from as far afield as northern Germany, are not coming to improve their sun-tans.

They are here to pay homage to the man who invented fascism.

Town planning

Mussolini became Italy's prime minister in 1922, aged just 39.

Two years later he imposed a dictatorship that would last for 22 years and architects were quickly given the task of transforming the humble, largely medieval hamlet where he had been born.

First came an imposing new main street, the Corso Benito Mussolini.

Along this artery were strung, in muscular "realist" style, a town hall, a huge fascist headquarters, and model homes in neat red brick.

At a central crossroads, the architects raised a colonnade, with a central gap that lovingly framed the Duce's birthplace.

It is a modest but pretty little stone house. On a summer morning I joined tourists wandering in and out.

That is one of the things that is so weird about Predappio. Would we stroll round the garden of Hitler's birthplace in Braunau-am-Inn licking an ice cream?

But as early as the 1950s, fascist enthusiasts - or "nostalgics" as they are forgivingly known in today's Italy - were visiting Predappio just as they had done in the heyday of fascism, albeit in smaller numbers.

Only, now there was a new reason: the Duce had come home.

T-shirts and truncheons

In 1957 Mussolini's remains were interred in his family vault on the edge of town.

It was ironic that he ended up in a rural backwater. He would have expected a monumental sepulchre, like Alexander or Napoleon, in his imperial capital of Rome.

Returning to Predappio - even as a corpse - was without doubt a personal come-down.

Today, anyone can visit Mussolini's tomb.

The fat visitor books gets so stuffed with signatures they have to be changed every few months. There is a permanent honour guard.

In one of the souvenir shops, I overheard a conversation between the proprietor and a bunch of skinhead visitors from southern Italy, who were admiring some vicious-looking wooden truncheons decorated with a fascist slogan.

The proprietor told them he would like to use one of the truncheons on Bertinotti - a prominent contemporary communist politician. The visitors laughed.

I ran my eyes over T-shirts with slogans of white supremacism and anti-Semitism, and suddenly I began to find Predappio not just a weird curiosity, but very sinister.

At a local café, I asked the barman how locals felt about this fascist heritage industry.

He flicked his eyes around the bar to see who was standing close by, then chose his words carefully: "Most young people don't give a damn about any of it", he told me.

"But there's a segment of the older generation who don't think Mussolini was altogether a bad thing. And let's face it, thousands of tourists come here and use the shops and restaurants. Mussolini is good for business."

By an irony of history, Predappio lies in Reggio Emilia, an industrial and agricultural region of great prosperity, which is the heart of Italian socialism.

At the local cemetery I met an old man leaning against a sunny wall. He remembered Mussolini well. He had often seen him in the village, and had been an altar boy when the dictator took mass.

I asked him if he thought the hordes of hero-worshippers who flock to Mussolini's shrine today were dangerous in any way.

"No, I think they are pathetic", he said. "In Predappio we vote for the left", he went on. "We have done for most of the century, except for when he was running things", and he jerked his head towards where, 20ft away, the body of Benito Mussolini lies.

By Martin Buckley
BBC correspondent, Italy

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 12 June, 2004 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4.

Posted by thinkum at 01:31 PM

Charges in 'dumped foetus' case

Here's a horrifying statistic:

About 700 women die each week in Kenya as a result of problems arising from abortions, while 60% of complications during pregnancy result from either previous abortions or miscarriages, according to medical reports.

Full article:

Charges in 'dumped foetus' case

A Kenyan doctor and two nurses have been charged with murder after 15 foetuses were found in a plastic bag.

In a case which has shocked Kenya, the foetuses were discovered by commuters in a plastic bag dumped on a bridge.

A lawyer said the two murder charges presume that two of the foetuses were old enough to be children.

Abortion is illegal in Kenya and lawyers say the three may face lesser charges in the 13 other cases. The three denied all charges.

Dr John Nyamu, an expert in reproductive health based in the capital, Nairobi, was arrested after some of his patients' documents were found near the dumped foetuses.

The case has ignited a fierce debate in Kenya.

The Catholic Church has been arguing that all abortion is murder, while women's rights groups say that legalisation would lead to abortions being safer for women.

About 700 women die each week in Kenya as a result of problems arising from abortions, while 60% of complications during pregnancy result from either previous abortions or miscarriages, according to medical reports.

Thousands of people attended a special mass for the foetuses earlier this month.

Posted by thinkum at 01:28 PM

June 11, 2004

Coke's C2 carves out the carbs

Exec calls mid-calorie cola "the biggest thing since Diet Coke," but some analysts aren't so sure.


NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - Coca-Cola's ad for the new C2 cola may be set to the Rolling Stones' classic "You Can't Always Get What You Want." But Coke's North American president doesn't seem to be buying that message when it comes to expectations for the low-carb, mid-calorie cola.

"C2 will be the biggest thing to arrive since Diet Coke's debut over 20 years ago," Don Knauss said in an interview with CNN/Money.

Coca-Cola (KO: Research, Estimates) will unleash C2 in stores nationwide June 7, and Knauss says he's already certain of its success.

But whether C2 will actually give Coke a leg up in the infamous cola wars remains to be seen -- especially since archrival PepsiCo Inc. (PEP: Research, Estimates) is also gearing up to release its own low-carb soda called "PepsiEdge" in mid-June.

With C2, Coke appears to be capitalizing on the popularity of diets such as Atkins and South Beach, since the new cola is billed as having half the carbs, half the calories and half the sugar of regular Coke.

"We think C2 really has the power to become a global trend," said Knauss. "This is a new product for people who want an active and healthy lifestyle but who don't want to compromise on taste."

But some industry watchers are cautious.

Morningstar analyst Debbie Wang said she has doubts about the likelihood of success for the mid-calorie colas. She said that both Coke and Pepsi could end up cannibalizing other brands in their portfolio, especially if consumers start to defect from either the full-calorie or the diet category brands.

That could also hurt overall sales volumes, Wang said.

Coca-Cola last year saw its overall share of the $63 billion U.S. soft-drink market decline by 0.3 percentage point to 44 percent, according to Beverage Digest, while Pepsi's market share inched up 0.4 percentage point to 31.8 percent.

Vanilla Coke slips

Among the brands that lost ground last year were Vanilla Coke, which the company introduced in 2002, and Diet Coke with Lemon, introduced in 2001. The volume for Vanilla Coke decreased 21 percent in 2003 and fell 56 percent for Diet Coke with Lemon.

Said Wang, "Both these brands were introduced with a big splash and then began to struggle."

Knauss, however, dismissed those concerns.

"C2 will pose little risk to the other categories," he said. "Diet Coke consumers are very loyal to it. Diet Coke has a base of about 100 million consumers. And those who haven't migrated into the diet category already love the taste of regular Coke."

So who is the market for C2?

"We've found that as people age, their taste shifts," Knauss said. "That's our sweet spot. These are consumers who don't go for the diet colas because of the taste and they want to avoid the sugar in the regular cola."

John Sicher, editor of Beverage Digest, thinks mid-calorie sodas are "potentially a very good idea" that could help revitalize carbonated drink sales, which grew just 0.6 percent last year compared to a strong 25 percent growth for the bottled water category.

"Innovation is absolutely essential to this industry," said Sicher.

Wang isn't convinced.

"I'm a little suspicious about this 'new market' that Don is talking about," she said. "Is there really this big category of consumers out there who are so dissatisfied with any of the cola options that they're not drinking any sodas and that they'll actually crawl out of the woodwork when C2 hits the stores? I'm not sure about that."

Posted by thinkum at 01:10 PM

June 10, 2004

Who you gonna call? Ad-busters

There's been a quiet revolution in Peter Vogel's living room. Whenever ads appear on his television the volume drops, the screen goes blank or the set switches channels.

It's not a technical fault. He has developed a way to dull, mute or delete noisy ads.

"It's had a dramatic effect on our household dynamic," said the 49-year-old Blue Mountains inventor who already uses his Intelligent Content Engine (ICE) system when watching television with his daughters.

"Previously the kids would sit glued to the screen from beginning to end. Now when the commercials come on the volume drops and they talk to each other. The ads don't dominate."

As well, if children are barred from watching anything above PG, for example, it will detect and blank out MA-rated shows.

"There's even the potential to develop specialist ratings. A Christian rating, in theory, would stop kids watching programs deemed blasphemous, and a quality rating would filter programs according to their quality as assessed by a panel of experts."

Mr Vogel is confident ICE technology will soon be added to many of the inexpensive set-top boxes that allow analog television sets to receive digital signals. His company would charge about $2 a week for the service.

Ad-free viewing sounds like the industry's worst nightmare. Commercial Television Australia said its spokeswoman was unavailable yesterday and executives at all three commercial networks did not return calls.

Steve Allen, head of the media planning company Fusion Strategy, said the system could have serious repercussions. "If this technology is efficient, effective and economical it would be a major setback for advertisers and television networks."

ICE is based around a central computer that analyses broadcasts in real time and sends data on all programs to ICE-equipped televisions through a private digital radio network.

Mr Vogel said it cannot be sabotaged and he has legal advice that it does not break any laws. "Basically we're just automating what people are already doing. I think the networks . . . know this is inevitable."

Posted by thinkum at 02:30 PM

June 04, 2004

British ducks have 'accents'

To the untutored ear it might just sound like a load of quacking, but British researchers have discovered that the country's ducks, much like its people, have distinct regional accents.

Ducks from London make a rougher sound which resembles shouting so that fellow birds can hear them above the hubbub of city life, whereas their country cousins make a softer sound, the study found.

The differences were uncovered after academics at London's Middlesex University recorded the calls of ducks at a city farm in the capital and at a tranquil location in Cornwall, southwest England, the Guardian newspaper said.

There was a clear difference in sound, English language lecturer Victoria de Rijke told the paper, with the London ducks "much louder and (more) vocally excitable".

"The Cornish ducks made longer and more relaxed sounds, much more chilled out. The cockney [London] quack is like a shout and a laugh, whereas the Cornish ducks sound more like they are giggling," she said.

"London ducks have the stress of city life and a lot of noise to compete with, like sirens, horns, planes and trains."

The result was that the ducks' "accents" mimicked those of the humans in their home region, de Rijke added, noting that the London accent tends to use short, more gutteral vowel sounds whereas those in Cornwall are open and drawn-out.

Posted by thinkum at 10:20 AM

June 03, 2004

Whose Data Is It, Anyway?

WHEN Tomm Purnell's uncle, Keith Cochran, died last year, Mr. Purnell's mother received two of Mr. Cochran's computers. One of them, a laptop, is password-protected, and even though Mr. Purnell considers himself somewhat of a computer geek, "the really obvious passwords," he said, like the names of Mr. Cochran's cats and combinations of his Social Security number, have failed.

"I guess he assumed that whoever came in would figure it out," said Mr. Purnell, a physics student at Colorado State University. "I have no clue what's on there, but I'd like to find out."

While terminally ill, Mr. Cochran, a programmer, left a full list of passwords for his work files with his employer, Mr. Purnell said. But he failed to do the same thing with the personal files, so they are now inaccessible.

With home computers largely replacing filing cabinets as the secure storage place for financial records, tax returns and even sentimental pictures, the problem confronting Mr. Purnell may become more common. Since most people do not leave a list of passwords before they die, their relatives and lawyers must often figure out how to break into the computer themselves or hire someone to do it.

Mr. Purnell said he intended to keep trying to unlock his uncle's laptop. But for some survivors, the effort of gaining access to a loved one's data is not worth the time. In many cases, they simply erase the hard drive and get rid of the computer without ever knowing what was on it.

"We're probably wiping away a lot of memories," said George Ehrlich, manager of Machaven, a computer-repair service near Washington, who is asked every few months to erase a hard drive of someone who has died. "Most people want to give the computer away without worrying about someone else getting access to personal information. When they bring it in, they don't know what's on it and they don't seem to care."

Sometimes, too, relatives realize that there may be things left on the hard drive - embarrassing e-mail messages in particular - that they would rather not see.

Gaining access to a person's data if the person is no longer living raises legal issues as well. Small mom-and-pop computer services may break into a machine without asking for any proof of death. But large companies like America Online require at least a death certificate before sharing e-mail messages or data stored on their servers with survivors.

Once survivors gain access to the data, questions may also arise about who actually owns it. If a person saved a book manuscript on a hard drive and left the machine to a friend, for instance, the friend might try to claim ownership of the manuscript as well.

While no case law exists in this area, several lawyers who are experts on estate planning and probate matters generally agreed that anything stored on a computer is considered "intangible" property, meaning that like a stock certificate or a rare baseball card, it is probably worth more than the piece of tangible property it occupies, in this case, disk space on a computer. As a result, they say, the manuscript would not automatically become the property of the friend who received the computer. The manuscript itself would have had to have been bequeathed to the friend.

To avoid such a predicament, executors should go though the computer files of the deceased, print out important documents and then delete everything else, said Dennis I. Belcher, a lawyer with McGuireWoods, a firm in Richmond, Va. "In the end, the executor needs to make sure the computer is completely clean before giving it up."

One worry for Mr. Belcher is the growing trend of keeping work-related documents on home computers. If those files remained on a machine that was given away after the owner died and ended up in the wrong hands, the executor of the estate could be held responsible. "Even if the executor disseminated that proprietary information unknowingly, they could still be held liable," Mr. Belcher said.

For Mr. Belcher and other lawyers, the issue of what happens to data on a computer when its owner dies remains largely uncharted territory. After all, they say, many people who die now are not routine computer users. But as the baby-boom generation ages, "lawyers will probably deal with these questions all the time," said Edward F. Koren, a lawyer at Holland & Knight in Tampa, Fla., and an expert on estate planning and probate matters.


"The entire lives of some people are on their computers," he said, "and they forget all about that when planning for death."

Mr. Purnell said that some of his uncle's files are gone forever. Mr. Cochran stored digital photos on two computers that used the Linux operating system. The machines were given to his brothers, "who are Windows guys, so they erased and reformatted them," Mr. Purnell said.

"Work is important," he added. "But people shouldn't forget that some of us left behind would like to be able to get those nice photos of you or save your Web site from being lost. The moral of the story is make sure you give your passwords to someone you trust. I already gave mine to my wife."

While personal information like digital photos and e-mail messages is often what survivors want to keep, access to financial information can be critically important so that bills can be paid after someone dies. These days, much of that information is kept on a computer through electronic-bill paying, online banking and the use of personal-finance programs like Quicken or Microsoft Money.

Bob Weiss, owner and president of Password Crackers, a Maryland-based company that mostly cracks passwords for computer users who have forgotten them or for companies where employees departed without leaving them, said he receives a handful of frantic calls every year from people seeking to break into computers and software of deceased people. Last month a business owner asked him to break into QuickBooks, a business-accounting program, after his accountant, who was also his fiancée, died suddenly.

"Not having a simple password causes a lot of needless stress at exactly the wrong time," Mr. Weiss said. "Here was a guy trying to make funeral arrangements and he couldn't keep his business running without that password."

Mr. Weiss charges $40 to crack open most files. Almost anything stored on a local hard drive is accessible to him, including Microsoft Office documents, but he cannot break into files when passwords are stored on an external server, like Yahoo or AOL e-mail.

A spokesman for AOL, Nicholas Graham, said the company had an employee dedicated to handling requests from survivors seeking to transfer an account or close it out. "Accessing e-mail is usually not on the top of the list of priorities when someone passes away, but time is of the essence," Mr. Graham said. Any AOL e-mail that has not been downloaded to a computer's hard drive is deleted from the company's server in 28 days. "There's no way of getting it back," he said.

Sometimes extraordinary measures are required to gain access to data after a death. When a man who maintained a database of 15,000 historical books at the Ivar Aasen Center of Language and Culture in Norway died suddenly a few years ago, other employees discovered that they could not gain access to the book list, which was on a computer disk. It seemed that the dead man had been the only person who knew the password to unlock the file. A team of computer technicians tried but failed to crack the password.

"I was frustrated and confused," the center's director, Ottar Grepstad, said in a telephone interview. "How could all this work be done with such bad security routines?"

So in a national radio broadcast, Mr. Grepstad appealed to hackers. Some 25,000 people worldwide responded, and one of them suggested the password in less than an hour: the deceased man's last name, only reversed. Employees now write their passwords on papers that are stored in the center's safe.

Cracking open the computer files of a deceased person is usually not that difficult, said Eric Thompson, founder of the AccessData Corporation, a computer forensics and cryptography software company based in Salt Lake City. Most people choose passwords related to their life. When AccessData performed an analysis of security at a Dallas company recently, for instance, it found that more than half of the employees had chosen as their password a variation of "cowboys" in homage to the city's professional football team.

One program developed by the company scans the hard drive and creates a word list of everything typed by the user. Through that list, the software can detect the most often typed words or combinations of letters and words to figure out passwords.

Of course, sometimes it might be best to let some secrets go to the grave with the deceased. Mr. Thompson said he once helped a man break into encrypted Microsoft Word documents belonging to his father that turned out to be love letters from an extramarital affair.

"When you break into computer files," Mr. Thompson said, "you're reconstructing a person's life, both the good and the bad."

Posted by thinkum at 01:36 PM

Microsoft's Sacred Cash Cow

A former Microsoftie says addiction to Windows revenue, mediocre products, and missed opportunities could doom Seattle's most successful company.

Why are Microsoft products so endlessly frustrating to use? Even techno-geeks like me get annoyed by Windows. I'm tired of spending the first 10 minutes of my day rebooting just so I can get to work. Microsoft Outlook 2003, the latest version of the company's e-mail and calendar software, hangs for me about once a day, requiring me to restart my PC. I also have a problem with Word 2003: Whenever I bullet a line of text, every line in the document gets a bullet. Asking Windows to shut down is more of a request than a command -- it might, it might not. And recently, Internet Explorer stopped opening for me.

I know I'm not alone. If you're like me, you've invested in technology to become more efficient and productive but mutter about the many frustrations of the digital lifestyle. Technology is my hobby as well as my job, so I regularly ponder why software giant Microsoft Corp., which has more than $56 billion in cash, hasn't solved more of these problems.

I began using Microsoft products 23 years ago, at age 11, and I worked for Microsoft from 1991 to 1999 as a technology manager. For many years, I was a Microsoft loyalist. While aware of Microsoft's shortcomings, I always believed that the Soft did its best to improve products over time, as it did with Windows XP. But recently, I've had a crisis of faith. Perhaps I've rebooted Windows one too many times.

Over the past year, my frustration with Windows grew, as did my envy of Apple's cool new products. Finally, last month I went out and bought an Apple Macintosh G5 and began using the new Mac operating system, OS X. It had been years since I'd used a Macintosh. Until recently, I dismissed those who did as impractical, elitist hipsters, and I mocked the Mac 'switch' ads on TV.

But in the first five minutes on my new Mac, I was surfing the Internet, sending e-mail, and ripping a CD. OS X has been a breath of badly needed fresh air after Windows.

This made me wonder about Microsoft's willingness to innovate and compete. Why are Microsoft products still so difficult to use and so unreliable? Why is the company improving them so slowly? Is Microsoft losing its competitive edge' Has the company seen its best days?

The Web's phenomenal growth has driven a number of fundamental changes. And from my vantage, at least, Microsoft seems to have overlooked the most important of those trends. It made a series of missteps, and it's not clear if it has learned from them. In protecting Windows and Office revenues, Microsoft has innovated less quickly than it could have. The company relies on the same strategy that helped it years ago come to dominate the personal-computer market with the Windows operating system, despite mounting evidence that its customers are looking for a new approach. Competitors such as Linux and Google are gaining, and Microsoft seems unprepared for the road ahead.

My Time at Microsoft

I arrived at Microsoft the week I turned 21. I was fortunate to spend the next eight years growing up on the Redmond campus. I learned nearly everything I know about project management there. I became a more critical thinker. And, like many others, I was very fortunate financially. In time, my stock options allowed me to pursue a for-profit dot-com startup, as well as a series of socially responsible nonprofit ventures.

I spent my first four years at the company working to build Windows into fax machines and other office devices. When the growth of e-mail made our work irrelevant, the group was disbanded. In 1995, I helped launch a news site for the fledgling MSN. Less than a year later, NBC joined us to launch MSNBC.com.

In 1997 and 1998, while still at Microsoft, I started two not-for-profit coffeehouses on Capitol Hill, Habitat Espresso and the Four Angels Cafe. Microsoft allowed me to moonlight, and the company's PR folks promoted my efforts as an example of a community-minded Microsoftie.

In 1998, I worked on a team developing prototypes for future versions of Windows, but I became frustrated with the group's lack of focus. I spent my last year working in e-commerce on Shop.Microsoft.com, Microsoft's online retail store. In 1999, I left Microsoft to found GiftSpot.com, a startup that was later acquired by GiftCertificates.com.

In 2001, I started a nonprofit organization called ActionStudio, which builds Web tools for nonprofit organizations. We've since merged with another nonprofit called Groundspring.org, which is where I currently work. I find socially responsible technology work most fulfilling but still enjoy keeping up on the overall industry.

A Victim of Its Own Success

Microsoft had $32 billion in revenue last year. The Windows franchise is an impressively consistent revenue stream. 'Financially, there's nothing wrong with the way Microsoft is doing right now,' says Paul Andrews, a Seattle Times columnist, author of How the Web Was Won, a book about Microsoft, and co-author of the biography Gates. 'It has an incredible record through the economic downturn.' By any measure, Microsoft is one of the most successful companies in history.

But Microsoft's attempts to diversify into consumer businesses have yet to pay off: 68 percent of its revenue still comes from Windows and Office sales--more than 80 percent if you include the Windows server software used by so many businesses. The company must protect these core products. 'The prime directive at Microsoft is to protect Windows and get customers to buy Windows and upgrades to Windows,' says Matt Rosoff, lead analyst at Directions on Microsoft, a Kirkland-based newsletter.

Microsoft clings to this strategy because it has to. Its stock price relies largely on the continued strength of Windows and the Office suite of applications (Word, Excel, Outlook, PowerPoint, etc.). But Microsoft's dominance is an aberration in an otherwise competitive technology industry. Windows, Office, and the Internet Explorer Web browser all have greater than 90 percent share of their respective markets. To protect the cash cows, Microsoft must do things that no other software company would be doing right now. It's a victim of its own success.

Microsoft hasn't solved many of the software problems I described earlier in part because of the lack of competition. 'One of the most frustrating things about Windows is how it steals time from us,' says Andrews, who has followed the company for years. Andrews hasn't upgraded his PC from Windows 98 or Office 2000. 'I'd just as soon have a stable operating system--my time is more important.'

Andrews was surprised to learn recently that Jim Allchin, Microsoft group vice president of platforms, didn't realize that many users don't buy new computers because of how hard it is to move all their data and applications. 'He was totally oblivious to this,' Andrews says. 'It's a couple-day process. His head was in the clouds.'

Apple, on the other hand, has built a friendly and reliable operating system, OS X (as in the Roman numeral), in part by building on free components from the open-source software community. With open-source software, individuals and companies can build on each other's work and redistribute enhanced products for profit as long as they make their new source code available to the developer community. There is a special energy associated with products that are built by communities of people and companies working together. It's optimization of global resources. Open source is where the software industry's momentum is right now.

I just rid myself of my Windows computer, switching my work to the Mac and OS X because of the reliability it has shown as I've added peripherals and other software. I know I won't waste as much time making the technology simply work. In most ways, OS X is superior to Windows XP.

While OS X is not completely an open-source product, Apple clearly benefited from using some open-source technologies. The open-source software components that Apple used, from a widely used computer operating system called Unix, have been tested and improved in universities and corporate settings for more than 20 years. Companies using such open-source systems are finding they don't have to reinvent the wheel every three years--and they get their products to market faster.

Microsoft is resisting the trend to open-source software development, in part because its entire Windows revenue stream could dwindle to a trickle if it did so. If Microsoft began building Windows with open-source software, competitors like IBM and Novell might be able to sell Windows to their customers without having to pay royalties to Microsoft. 'The open-source business model is the one trend Microsoft can't follow,' says Edward Jung, co-founder of Intellectual Ventures and a former senior software architect at Microsoft. Microsoft's need to preserve its enormous on-going Windows revenue is a burden that other companies don't have.

Instead, Microsoft seems to have chosen the most logical alternative--stay the course, compete aggressively, and innovate as quickly as possible to keep up with the competition. If Microsoft provides a superior product, users will continue to choose Windows over products such as Linux (another Unix-based operating system) and OS X--or so the company thinks.

Recently, though, Microsoft announced that its next major Windows release, code-named 'Longhorn,' might be delayed beyond 2006 unless it is significantly pared down. It's already been three years since the release of Windows XP, and customers still have quality and security problems with it. Microsoft is so concerned about Windows XP security that it will likely give away its next upgrade to fix vulnerabilities and make it easier to deliver future fixes automatically.

To comprehensively address security issues, Microsoft has said it is building Longhorn from the ground up. Any time you start building an operating system from scratch, you create all sorts of unanticipated problems. If you are waiting for Microsoft to improve the consumer experience, you'll have to be patient.

The Longhorn slip might be Microsoft's biggest failure ever. It is beyond comprehension how the company could let five years lapse between major upgrades of its flagship product. Microsoft's missteps have opened a gaping window of opportunity for competitors.

An Open-Source Future

Microsoft's position on software licensing dates back to the beginning of personal computing. At a time when many hobbyists thought software should be free, Bill Gates challenged this notion in an open letter, igniting the first software piracy controversy. Ever since, Gates has made billions on software, while the free software movement has grown more slowly.

But open-source development is inevitable. Open-source products will soon offer features comparable to Windows and Office for the core needs of users. When this happens, Microsoft will need to have reinvented itself--and to have created completely new revenue streams to make up for the erosion of Windows and Office shares of their respective markets. If you want a sense of how soon this might happen, download OpenOffice from www.openoffice.org and give it a try. There's no e-mail program, and it definitely lacks the sophisticated features of Office 2003, but it's free. If you want to try a free, open-source e-mail program, visit www.mozilla.org and download Thunderbird.

Microsoft admits that one of its biggest challenges is getting users of its products to upgrade to new releases. Fewer than 3 percent of Microsoft Office users have upgraded to the latest version. Microsoft says that it is its own biggest competitor, but in the absence of significant innovation, the real threat is customers defecting to less expensive alternatives like OpenOffice.

How real is the open-source threat for Microsoft? Open-source technologies have always dominated Web-server software, the applications that deliver Web pages. According to NetCraft, a well-known Web site that tracks technology on the Internet, the open-source Apache Web server leads Microsoft's Internet Information Server by 67 percent to 21 percent market share. Meanwhile, open source's foray to the desktop has only begun.

Even when customers don't defect, they use open-source alternatives to demand better pricing from Microsoft. Governments and large corporations-- huge purchasers of software--are starting to embrace open software development. These trends threaten Microsoft's long-term earnings potential. I've learned through my work with ActionStudio that large, nonprofit foundations, as well, are predisposed to support the use of open-source tools. At Groundspring, we've made a commitment to move all of our new development to open-source systems.

And as a result of concessions that Microsoft made prior to the 2000 U.S. antitrust trial, many PC manufacturers now offer a choice of Linux or Windows on new computers. If you are technologically savvy, you can download Linux for free, or you can buy a more polished version from a company like RedHat. Recently, Wal-Mart began selling a $298 PC with Sun's flavor of the Linux operating system and its Star Office software (a derivative of OpenOffice). Price erosion in the high-volume, low-end PC market is clearly going to draw some blood.

Microsoft isn't blind to the open-source threat. It has appointed an experienced executive, Martin Taylor, to work more closely with open-source developers and to get corporate customers to analyze the total cost of ownership of software purchases. Some studies show that free software might be just as expensive by the time you support it and customize it. Others strongly discount such claims, saying they are based on incorrect assumptions and old releases of Linux, which were more difficult to use. In any event, large customers are starting to see the potential to save money, and major site installations with Linux have begun to appear. Even Third World countries are adopting open source because the traditional cost-of-ownership calculus doesn't apply to them. Software licensing fees are much higher than the cost of technical support in those countries.

While open source is beginning to appeal to businesses, many consumers are happy just using a Web browser to surf and manage e-mail. With the growing availability of Internet access and portable devices like the Blackberry, owning a PC isn't as important anymore.

Now that open-source products are starting to cut into Microsoft's market share, the questions are just how much will they take and how soon will they take it? To remain attractive to investors, Microsoft must demonstrate that it can replace and augment lost revenue by diversifying into new businesses, but only billion-dollar product segments matter to such a big company. Even the Xbox game platform and MSN can't bring in that kind of money.

Microsoft declined to comment on the open-source challenge, but CEO Steve Ballmer wrote in a recent strategy memo to employees that was leaked on the Internet: 'Noncommercial software products in general, and Linux in particular, present a competitive challenge for us and for our entire industry, and they require our concentrated focus and attention. 'In this environment of lean budgets and concerns about Microsoft's attention to customers, noncommercial software such as Linux and OpenOffice is seen as an interesting, 'good enough' or 'free' alternative.'

For now, Microsoft's success creates problems that most software companies can only dream about. 'Microsoft was asking me for $50 million business ideas in 1990, but by 2000 they were looking for billion-dollar businesses,' says Jung, who co-founded several teams while at Microsoft. 'Billion-dollar businesses are really hard.' For the sake of comparison, look at Apple's wildly successful iPod digital music player. Apple recently reported a 909 percent increase in sales of the iPod, for a quarterly net profit of $46 million. This is chump change to Microsoft--nowhere near enough to make up for erosion in sales of Windows or Office.

Missed Opportunities

One multibillion-dollar opportunity has come along, however, and Microsoft has missed it. It's the Internet services business. Microsoft could have created a huge new revenue stream by delivering a suite of add-on services for Windows customers:

  • The ability to log in to all our favorite Web sites with one password.
  • Spam blocking for our e-mail accounts.
  • Calendar sharing with colleagues and friends to schedule meetings.
  • Automatic address book updates for all our contacts.
  • A virtual hard drive on the Internet for sharing files, photos, and music with our friends and access to these files via the Internet while traveling anywhere in the world.
  • Synchronization of our Internet bookmarks across all our computers.
  • Online profiles of personal information that we could choose to share with Web sites and social networks.
  • Regular backup of files to a storage site on the Internet.
  • Regular application and system- security updates.
  • One-step migration of files and programs to a new computer.

Apple provides a service similar to what I've described, called .Mac, for $99.95 annually. Signing up 20 million Windows users (a fraction of the worldwide installed base) to services that cost, say, $19.95 per month would generate more than $4.7 billion in revenue annually. MSN should have offered these kinds of services long ago. But it hasn't, and as a result, there are some funny disconnects within the Microsoft product line. Users of Microsoft's free Hotmail e-mail have better spam protection than small business users who buy Microsoft's Exchange Server. MSN Premium customers, who pay $9.95 per month, can share calendar information and schedule meetings with other MSN customers on the Web, but Exchange customers can't.

Microsoft's lack of a service strategy is a stunning oversight. More amazing, Microsoft came close to pursuing one. If Microsoft had made its Passport service available for free, we would not have to remember different account names and passwords for each of our favorite Web sites. If you've used Hotmail, you've already registered for Microsoft Passport. The Passport technology can let you log in with a single password and then authenticate you to other Microsoft services or even external Web sites.

From a business perspective, Passport could have been an extremely effective way for Microsoft to connect with more Internet users. But instead of recognizing the value of offering this as a free Internet service, Microsoft decided that it wanted to charge companies for using Passport. At GiftSpot.com, we considered licensing Passport to make it easier for our customers to buy online gift certificates, but Microsoft's fees were too high. Other Internet sites like ours just didn't see a benefit in licensing Passport from Microsoft. So Passport never expanded beyond providing access to other Microsoft sites.

Microsoft originally did have plans to provide services for Windows as part of a poorly named product called Hailstorm. In the midst of its antitrust troubles, Microsoft announced that Hailstorm would work with Windows to store all of our data and files in an expanded Passport database, allowing us to share information with our favorite Web sites as we wished. Privacy advocates complained loudly, fearing a world in which Microsoft held all of our personal and private information on its servers. Microsoft abandoned the product. But it could have avoided these concerns, and made the service more lucrative, by offering it as a separate server product that allowed other companies to host their own data warehouses, using the Hailstorm technology. This is something Microsoft's done successfully in the past with its mail, work-group, and commerce-server technologies. Instead, Microsoft built Windows primarily as a desktop solution without closely linked Internet services. As the world wired itself to the Internet, Microsoft left Windows unplugged.

Google Fills A Void

When I first read, on April 1, that Google's Gmail service would offer 1 gigabyte of e-mail storage (1,000 times the amount offered by competitors such as Hotmail), I thought it was an April Fool's Day joke. But it was no joke. Google actually discourages users from deleting e-mail they've read, because Gmail uses keywords in your e-mail to send you advertisements based on your interests. One of my friends calculated that he could send and receive e-mail until 2007 before he would need more storage space. For the record, he also said that every ad he'd received as a beta tester of Gmail had interested him.

The likely next step for Google is to offer its customers remote storage space, a virtual hard drive on which to store all of your files, share them with friends and colleagues, and access them from anywhere. Microsoft should be very concerned about this. With the rise of the Internet and e-mail, many computer users just don't need the full power of Windows; they can get by with a Web browser, a search engine like Google, and Gmail. The $298 Wal-Mart non-Windows PC from Sun makes a great platform for accessing these services. This is very bad for Microsoft because it creates downward pricing pressure on Windows and Office.

The other reason Microsoft should be concerned is that competing with Google on this scale is a huge technical task. After it launched MSN, Microsoft went through the painful process of learning that managing and supporting service-based businesses was entirely different from developing and shipping software on CDs. Microsoft still occasionally has outages with Microsoft Passport, Messenger, Hotmail, and MSN that upset customers. In contrast, managing complex services well is something that Google has built its entire business on. I don't remember ever seeing Google's Web site not respond, or even respond slowly.

Google has quietly put together a talented group of computer scientists who know how to solve the complex challenges of maintaining what is known as scalable, distributed computing that links many small computers to act as a big one. The New York Times recently reported that Google has built a network of more than 100,000 servers (all running the open-source Linux operating system, by the way). One employee recently compared working at Google to having access to the world's most powerful supercomputer. Its primary product now is search, but Google is building the capability to host everyone's files, e-mails, photos, and music on the Internet as well. If Microsoft waits too long to embrace services like these, it might not be able to catch Google, and the task would probably be more difficult than the effort Microsoft launched in the 1990s to catch Netscape in the browser wars.

Microsoft spokesperson Jim Desler declined to comment on rumors of Google's move into the services business. More immediately, he says, 'Search is both a technology and a marketing challenge. What you see now is just a snapshot in time that will change a year from now and two years from now.' So far, though, Google has outdone Microsoft in technology and marketing.

Matching Google's brand development might be a greater challenge than matching the technology. Microsoft's always been an uneven marketer, while Google's already established itself in our consciousness. Google is a verb now. Admittedly, though, creating search engines to serve millions of users is an easier task than offering other remote services, such as e-mail and file sharing. Jung, the former Microsoft senior architect, is more reflective when discussing Google's prospects: 'At the end of the day, Silicon Valley companies fall prey to their own PR. One thing I give credit to Microsoft for is it's always paranoid of the invisible threat. I'd like to see more of that in Google.'

And with Google's public stock offering, many of its employees are becoming rich. This kind of success can weaken a company, as Microsoft learned during the 1990s, when many of its employees retired to enjoy their newfound wealth.

Microsoft now faces a different kind of sloth. University of Baltimore law professor Robert Lande says, 'Microsoft, like almost all monopolies, has become fat and lazy. Monopolies do not engage in innovation with the same urgency because they don't have to innovate to stay in business.'

Meanwhile, Microsoft continues to promise solutions for tomorrow that customers need today. A good example is the company's plan to improve its own search engine. For many, the holy grail of search is a unified approach that will allow users to search their e-mail, files, and the Web from their desktop. Since 2000, Google has offered a free, downloadable toolbar that is a handy add-on for Internet Explorer. It makes it easy to search the Web without going to the Google Web site. It will not be hard for Google to add the capability to search your PC and your e-mail. The New York Times recently reported that Google plans to offer such a tool 'soon.' This is the type of innovation that I would have expected from Microsoft long ago. MSN recently released its own toolbar to access the MSN Web-search engine, but it doesn't have the ability to also search the user's PC. In response to Google, Microsoft announced last week that it would move up the timeline for unified search, providing the capability in stages over the next year. It had originally planned to implement it in Longhorn--sometime by 2006--by redesigning the entire PC file system.

Betting on Longhorn and .NET

One Microsoft innovation is .NET, a development platform for building and managing applications for Windows that work more closely with the Internet. The growing popularity of Sun's competing Java-based programming platform pressured Microsoft to improve its own. Everyone I spoke to had positive things to say about .NET. Even some Java developers are now excited about developing on Windows.

Yet Microsoft seems to be pursuing the same old platform-centric strategy, hoping that it will help continue Windows' dominance. Microsoft has always had success by luring application developers to the Windows platform. In turn, customers would buy Windows because it ran all of their favorite programs. Microsoft hopes to repeat this with .NET. But the Internet browser has made it easy for application developers, as software programmers are known, to build products that can be used with any operating system. Many of today's most compelling products are Web-based applications that run just as well on Linux with the FireFox browser or OS X with Apple's Safari browser as they do on Windows.

In part due to open-source products, developers now have many choices in building Internet software and services. With .NET, Microsoft hopes again to lock developers into Windows, as it could before so many tools and resources migrated from the PC desktop to the platform- neutral World Wide Web. But much of what Microsoft has promised programmers has been delayed by the lengthy timeline of Longhorn. And a new open-source project called Mono will make it possible for .NET applications to run on Linux or OS X. So the notion that the proprietary .NET programming tool will be a successful answer to open-source development efforts on the Web is mistaken--akin to thinking that winning the browser war with Internet Explorer would achieve control of the Web. Similarly, Microsoft's dominance on the PC desktop, with Windows and Office, could be neutralized as the value of sophisticated networks of Internet-based servers, like Google's, increases. The shift of importance, from control of the desktop to networks of services, levels the playing field and makes Microsoft vulnerable.

Banking on Windows

My most memorable moment at Microsoft came during a technical review with Bill Gates. I will never forget the moment when I made an apparently obvious point to him. He responded, 'What? Do you think I'm stupid?' Everyone was staring at me, and I felt it best not to answer. Like Gates, there were always people at Microsoft who were much smarter than me and more technically skilled. But he's created a corporate culture that sometimes struggles to see the forest for the trees--and I think this is what has led to some of the challenges that it faces today.

My biggest complaint about Microsoft is how hesitant they are to update Windows in a more modular fashion over time, instead saving innovation for large updates every several years. Apple, in contrast, is updating OS X monthly and sometimes weekly.

While the monolithic development process helps Microsoft plan and deliver long-term innovations like Longhorn, it's harder to test and release these products in a timely manner. The open-source community updates products continually, so customers don't have to wait as long for new features. MSN Messenger, the instant-messaging application, and Windows Media Player, which plays audio and video, have benefited from frequent updates, but Microsoft hasn't updated Internet Explorer since 2001. I'd like to see Microsoft add unified search to Windows XP or support for Internet file sharing, but it won't happen until Longhorn ships.

Keith Rowe, my former manager at MSNBC.com, used to say that the most important skill of a manager is to know when to kill your own project. I don't think new, better ideas that would take business away from Windows or Office really have a chance at Microsoft. The company is addicted to the revenue from these flagship products and is afraid to go in new directions that might initially hurt the bottom line.

Microsoft is flush with $56 billion in cash and short-term investments. Income of $16 billion is expected in fiscal year 2005. It dominates the most profitable segments of the software industry-- operating systems and productivity applications. It attracts talented, creative people and gives them the time to innovate. I have no doubt that Microsoft will lead the industry with some incredible advances in the coming years.

But Microsoft's market share in desktop operating systems, servers, and productivity software can go no higher. Its core businesses face gradual erosion to competitive operating systems such as Linux and OS X. It faces challenges from new approaches like services offered by Google and the growth of dedicated consumer devices that make owning a traditional personal computer less necessary.

Meanwhile, Microsoft doesn't evoke passion in me anymore. Its products don't excite me anymore. I remember eagerly looking forward to Outlook 2003, only to be disappointed by how complex, buggy, and unimproved it was. 'There's kind of an angst,' says Andrews, the Seattle Times columnist and author. 'Microsoft ought to matter to us. There ought to be more of an intellectual and emotional connection. There just isn't.'

In an age when retailers hire consultants to analyze what hip kids do, you'd think Microsoft would care more about what the hip kids are doing. They're running around with iPods, using Linux and OS X. A Groundspring intern e-mailed me recently about his new Apple PowerBook: 'I think I may be smitten by a computer.' That's the kind of passion I'm talking about. In its search for market share, dominance, and profits, Microsoft lost the ultimate battle for our hearts and minds. For now, though, it's still laughing all the way to the bank.



Jeff Reifman builds Internet tools for nonprofit organizations as director of technology at Groundspring.org. In his spare time, he writes the progressive political journal IDEAlog.us.

I've had a crisis of faith. Last month I went out and bought a Macintosh G5 and began using the new Mac operating system, OS X. It has been a breath of badly needed fresh air after Windows.

Many PC makers now offer a choice of Linux or Windows. Recently, Wal-Mart began selling a $298 PC with Sun's flavor of the Linux operating system. Price erosion is clearly going to draw some blood from Windows.

To remain attractive to investors, Microsoft must demonstrate that it can replace lost revenue by diversifying into new businesses. But only billion-dollar product segments matter to such a big company.

With the rise of the Internet and e-mail, many computer users just don't need the full power of Windows. They can get by with a Web browser, a search engine like Google, and Gmail.

Posted by thinkum at 01:31 PM

Making An Operating System Faster

(10 Things Apple Did To Make Mac OS X Faster)


The performance of computer hardware typically increases monotonically with time. Even if the same could be said of software, the rate at which software performance improves is usually very slow compared to that of hardware. In fact, many might opine that there is plenty of software whose performance has deteriorated consistently with time. Moreover, it is rather difficult to establish an objective performance metric for software as complex as an operating system: a "faster OS" is a very subjective, context dependent phrase.

An operating system's architecture has a much greater longevity than that of common hardware. Operating system researchers do not come up with new, much faster algorithms as consistently or frequently as hardware updates happen. Nevertheless, those involved in "producing" operating systems -- researchers, designers, implementers, and even marketeers -- have the arduous task of ensuring that the associated performance curves keep going up. There are not many viable players in the OS market (some might argue, even if rhetorically, that essentially there's only one). Still, it is a very tough market, and OS vendors must "improve" their systems incessantly.

Now, given that you are not likely to run into earth-shattering algorithmic breakthroughs in every OS release cycle, how do you make your system faster? The problem has a multi-pronged solution:

  • Rather than looking for generalized optimizations pedantically, you could look into making the system faster for one (or more, but a few) "common" usage scenario.
  • You could consider numerous minor and mundane performance improvements, even if they are technically unimpressive/uninteresting, or ugly/kludgy to implement. Together, such improvements could lead to a perceptible performance gain from the users' point of view.
  • You could vary the granularity at which you would usually make improvements. For example, in addition to improving typical OS algorithms, you could look into improving more meta operations, such as the entire boot process.
  • The most important kind of performance is the one perceived by the eventual users of a system. Thus, in any usage scenario, a "faster workflow" would be tantamount to "higher performance". It might be possible to make the workflow faster without making fundamental changes in the design and implementation of the components involved. With apriori knowledge of how the system would be typically used, you could rearrange the order in which things happen (even if the resulting order is unnatural or unclean), if doing so makes the user believe that things are happening faster.

Example: Mac OS X

This document discusses ten things that Apple did (beyond initial/fundamental OS design and implementation) to improve Mac OS X's performance. Some of these are simply good ideas and obvious candidates for implementation; some are guidelines or tools for developers to help them create high-performance applications, while some are proactive attempts at extracting performance from strategically chosen quarters. Consider the following a sampling of such optimizations, in no particular order:


1. BootCache

Mac OS X uses a boot-time optimization (effectively a smart read-ahead) that monitors the pattern of incoming read requests to a block device (the boot disk), and sorts the pattern into a "playlist", which is used to cluster reads into a private cache. This "boot cache" is then used for satisfying incoming read requests, if possible. The scheme also measures the cache hit rate, and stores the request pattern into a "history list" for being adaptive in future. If the hit rate is too low, the caching is disabled.

The loadable (sorted) read pattern is stored in /var/db/BootCache.playlist. Once this pattern is loaded, the cache comes into effect. The entire process is invisible from users.

This feature is only supported on the root device. Further, it requires at least 128 MB of physical RAM before it is enabled (automatically).

/System/Library/Extensions/BootCache.kext is the location of the kernel extension implementing the cache while Contents/Resources/BootCacheControl within that directory is the user-level control utility (it lets you load the playlist, among other things).

The effectiveness of BootCache can be gauged from the following: in a particular update to "Panther", a reference to BootCacheControl was broken. BootCache is started (via BootCacheControl, the control utility) in /etc/rc, and a prefetch tag is inserted (unless the system is booting in safe mode). /etc/rc looks for BootCacheControl in the Resources directory of the BootCache.kext bundle, as well as in /usr/sbin, and finds it in the former (it doesn't exist in the latter). However, another program (loginwindow.app) accesses /usr/sbin/BootCacheControl directly, and does not find it. For what it's worth, making BootCacheControl available in /usr/sbin, say via a symbolic link, reduces the boot time (measured from clicking on the "Restart" confirmation button to the point where absolutely everything has shown up on the system menu) from 135 seconds to 60 seconds on one of my machines.

2. Kernel Extensions Cache

There may be close to a hundred kernel extensions that are loaded on a typical Mac OS X system, and perhaps twice as many residing in the system's "Extensions" folder(s). Kernel extensions may have dependencies on other extensions. Rather than scan all these every time the system boots (or worse, every time an extension is to be loaded), Mac OS X uses caching for kernel extensions, and the kernel itself.

There are three types of kernel/kext caches used in this context:

  • The kernel cache contains the kernel code, linked kernel extensions, and info dictionaries of any number of kernel extensions. The default cache directory for this type of cache is /System/Library/Caches/com.apple.kernelcaches. The cache files in this directory are named kernelcache.XXXXXXXX, where the suffix is a 32-bit adler checksum (the same algorithm as used by Gzip).

  • The multi-extension, or mkext cache, contains multiple kernel extensions and their info directories. Such caches are used during early system startup. BootX, the bootloader, tries to load a previously cached list of device drivers (created/updated by /usr/sbin/kextcache). If the mkext cache is corrupt or missing, BootX would look in /System/Library/Extensions for extensions that are needed in the current scenario (as determined by the value of the OSBundleRequired property in the Info.plist file of the extension's bundle. The mkext cache exists by default as /System/Library/Extensions.mkext. You can use /usr/sbin/mkextunpack to extract the contents of a mkext archive.

  • The kext repository cache contains the info dictionaries for all kernel extensions in a single repository directory, including their plugins. This cache exists by default as /System/Library/Extensions.kextcache. Note that this file is simply a large property list (XML) file that is Gzip compressed.

3. Hot File Clustering

Hot File Clustering (HFC) aims to improve the performance of small, frequently accessed files on HFS Plus volumes. This optimization is currently used only on boot volumes. HFC is a multi-staged clustering scheme that records "hot" files (except journal files, and ideally quota files) on a volume, and moves them to the "hot space" on the volume (0.5% of the total filesystem size located at the end of the default metadata zone, which itself is at the start of the volume). The files are also defragmented. The various stages in this scheme are DISABLED, IDLE, BUSY, RECORDING, EVALUATION, EVICTION, and ADOPTION. At most 5000 files, and only files less than 10 MB in size are "adopted" under this scheme.

The "metadata zone" referred to in the above description is an area on disk that may be used by HFS Plus for storing volume metadata: the Allocation Bitmap File, the Extents Overflow File, the Journal File, the Catalog File, Quota Files, and Hot Files. Mac OS X 10.3.x places the metadata zone near the beginning of the volume, immediately after the volume header.

HFC (and the metadata zone policy) are used only on journaled HFS Plus volumes that are at least 10 GB in size.

Note that what constitutes the set of hot files on your system will depend on your usage pattern over a few days. If you are doing extensive C programming for a few days, say, then it is likely that many of your hot files will be C headers. You can use hfsdebug to explore the working of Hot File Clustering.

% sudo hfsdebug -H -t 10
# Top 10 Hottest Files on the Volume
rank temperature cnid path
1 537 7453 Macintosh HD:/usr/share/zoneinfo/US/Pacific
2 291 7485 Macintosh HD:/private/var/db/netinfo/local.nidb/Store.128
3 264 7486 Macintosh HD:/private/var/db/netinfo/local.nidb/Store.160
4 204 7495 Macintosh HD:/private/var/db/netinfo/local.nidb/Store.96
5 204 2299247 Macintosh HD:/Library/Receipts/iTunes4.pkg/Contents\
6 192 102106 Macintosh HD:/usr/include/mach/boolean.h
7 192 102156 Macintosh HD:/usr/include/mach/machine/boolean.h
8 192 102179 Macintosh HD:/usr/include/mach/ppc/boolean.h
9 188 98711 Macintosh HD:/usr/include/string.h
10 178 28725 Macintosh HD:/%00%00%00%00HFS+ Private Data/iNode1038632980

3365 active Hot Files.

4. Working Set Detection

The Mach kernel uses physical memory as a cache for virtual memory. When new pages are to be brought in as a result of page faults, the kernel would need to decide which pages to reclaim from amongst those that are currently in memory. For an application, the kernel should ideally keep those pages in memory that would be needed very soon.

In the Utopian OS, one would know ahead of time the pages an application references as it runs. There have been several algorithms that approximate such optimal page replacement. Another approach is to make use of the locality of reference of processes. According to the Principle of Locality, a process refers to a small, slowly changing subset of its set of pages. This subset is the Working Set. Studies have shown that the working set of a process needs to be resident (in-memory) in order for it to run with acceptable performance (that is, without causing an unacceptable number of page faults).

The Mac OS X kernel incorporates a subsystem (let us call it TWS, for Task Working Set) for detecting and maintaining the working sets of tasks. This subsystem is integrated with the kernel's page fault handling mechanism. TWS builds and maintains a profile of each task's fault behavior. The profiles are per-user, and are stored on-disk, under /var/vm/app_profile/. This information is then used during fault handling to determine which nearby pages should be brought in.

Several aspects of this scheme contribute to performance:

  • Bringing a number of pages in (that would hopefully be needed in the near future) results in a single large request to the pager.
  • TWS captures, and stores on disk, an application's (initial) working set the first time it is started (by a particular user). This file is used for seeding (sometimes called pre-heating) the application's working set, as its profile is built over time.
  • The locality of reference of memory is usually captured on disk (because files on disk usually have good locality on HFS Plus volumes). Thus, there should not be too much seeking involved in reading the working set from disk.

For a user with uid U, the application profiles are stored as two page cache files: #U_names and #U_data under /var/vm/app_profile/ (#U is the hexadecimal representation of U).

The "names" file, essentially a simple database, contains a header followed by profile elements:

typedef unsigned int natural_t; typedef natural_t vm_size_t;

struct profile_names_header {
unsigned int number_of_profiles;
unsigned int user_id;
unsigned int version;
off_t element_array;
unsigned int spare1;
unsigned int spare2;
unsigned int spare3;

struct profile_element {
off_t addr;
vm_size_t size;
unsigned int mod_date;
unsigned int inode;
char name[12];

The "data" file contains the actual working sets.

5. On-the-fly Defragmentation

When a file is opened on an HFS Plus volume, the following conditions are tested:

  • If the file is less than 20 MB in size
  • If the file is not already busy
  • If the file is not read-only
  • If the file has more than eight extents
  • If the system has been up for at least three minutes

If all of the above conditions are satisfied, the file is relocated -- it is defragmented on-the-fly.

File contiguity (regardless of file size) is promoted in general as a consequence of the extent-based allocation policy in HFS Plus, which also delays actual allocation. Refer to Fragmentation In HFS Plus Volumes for more details.

6. Prebinding

Mac OS X uses a concept called "prebinding" to optimize Mach-O (the default executable format) applications to launch faster (by reducing the work of the runtime linker).

The dynamic link editor resolves undefined symbols in an executable (and dynamic libraries) at run time. This activity involves mapping the dynamic code to free address ranges and computing the resultant symbol addresses. If a dynamic library is compiled with prebinding support, it can be predefined at a given (preferred) address range. This way, dyld can use predefined addresses to reference symbols in such a library. For this to work, libraries cannot have preferred addresses that overlap. Apple marks several address ranges as either "reserved" or "preferred" for its own software, and specifies allowable ranges for 3rd party (including the end users') libraries to use to support prebinding.

update_prebinding is run to (attempt to) synchronize prebinding information when new files are added to a system. This can be a time consuming process even if you add or change a single file, say, because all libraries and executables that might dynamically load the new file must be found (package information is used to help in this, and the process is further optimized by building a dependency graph), and eventually redo_prebinding is run to prebind files appropriately.

Prebinding is the reason you see the "Optimizing ..." message when you update the system, or install certain software.

/usr/bin/otool can be used to determine if a binary is prebound:

# otool -hv /usr/lib/libc.dylib
Mach header
magic cputype cpusubtype filetype ncmds sizeofcmds flags

7. Helping Developers Create Code Faster

Mac OS X includes a few optimizations that benefit developers by making development workflow -- the edit-compile-debug cycle -- faster. Some of these were introduced with Mac OS X Panther.

  • Precompiled Headers: Xcode (gcc, specifically) supports precompiled headers. Xcode uses this functionality to precompile prefix headers.

% cat foo.h #define FOO 10 % cat foo.c #include "foo.h" #include <stdio.h> int main() { printf("%d\n", FOO); } % ls foo.* foo.c foo.h % gcc -x c-header -c foo.h % ls foo.* foo.c foo.h foo.gch % gcc -o foo foo.c % ./foo 10 % rm foo.h % gcc -o foo foo.c % ./foo 10

  • Distributed Builds: Xcode (through distcc) supports distributed builds, wherein it is possible to distribute builds across several machines on the network.
  • Predictive compilation runs the compiler in the background (as soon as it can, even as you edit the source). Once you are ready to build, the hope is that much of the building would have been done already.
  • Zero Link, a feature useful for development builds, links at runtime instead of compile time, whereby only code needed to run the application is linked in and loaded (that is, as an application runs within Xcode, each object file is linked as needed). A related feature is "Fix and Continue", courtesy which you can (with caveats) make a change to your code and have the code compiled and inserted into a running program.

8. Helping Developers Create Faster Code

Apple provides a variety of performance measurement/debugging tools for Mac OS X. Some of these are part of Mac OS X, while many others are available if you install the Apple Developer Tools. Quite expectedly, Apple encourages its own developers, as well as 3rd party developers, to create code in conformance with performance guidelines.

As mentioned earlier, perceived performance is quite important. For example, it is desirable for an application to display its menu bar and to start accepting user input as soon as possible. Reducing this initial response time might involve deferring certain initializations or reordering the "natural" sequence of events, etc.

Mac OS X Tools

Mac OS X includes several common GNU/Unix profiling/monitoring/dissecting tools, such as gprof, lsof, nm, top, vm_stat, and many more, such as:

Refer to Apple's documentation for these tools for more details.

  • fs_usage Report system calls and page faults related to filesystem activity.
  • heap List all malloc-allocated buffers in a process's heap.
  • ktrace/kdump Enable/view (from a trace) kernel process tracing.
  • leaks Search a process's for unreferenced malloc buffers.
  • malloc_history Show a process's malloc allocations.
  • otool Display various parts of an object file.
  • pagestuff Display information on specified pages of a Mach-O file.
  • sample Profile a process during a time interval.
  • sc_usage Show system call usage statistics.
  • vmmap Display virtual memory regions allocated in a process.

Performance Measurement Tools

  • MallocDebug Tracks and analyzes allocated memory.

  • ObjectAlloc Tracks Objective-C and Core Foundation object allocations and deallocations.

  • OpenGL Profiler Tool for profiling OpenGL applications.

  • PEFViewer Viewer for the contents of a PEF binary.

  • QuartzDebug Visualizer for an application's screen drawing behavior -- the areas being redrawn are flashed briefly.

  • Sampler Viewer for execution behavior of a program.

  • Spin Control Samples applications that cause the spinning cursor to appear.

  • Thread Viewer Viewer for threads and their activity.

CHUD Tools

The Computer Hardware Understanding Development (CHUD) Tools package, an optional installation, provides tools such as the following:

  • BigTop A graphical equivalent to top, vm_stat, etc. Displays system statistics.
  • CacheBasher Measures cache performance.
  • MONster Tool for collecting and visualizing hardware level performance data.
  • PMC Index Tool for searching Performance Monitoring Counter (PMC) events.
  • Reggie SE A viewer (and editor) for CPU and PCI configuration registers.
  • Saturn Tool for profiling applications at the function-call level, and visualizing the profile data.
  • Shark Performs system-wide sampling/profiling to create a profile of the execution behavior of a program, so as to help you understand where time is being spent as your code runs.
  • Skidmarks GT Processor performance benchmark (integer, floating-point, and vector benchmarks).
  • SpindownHD Utility for displaying the sleep/active status of attached drives.
  • acid Analyzes traces generated by amber (only the TT6E format).
  • amber Traces all threads of execution in a process, recording every instruction and data access to a trace file.
  • simg4 A cycle-accurate core simulator of the Motorola PowerPC G4 processor.
  • simg5 A cycle-accurate core simulator of the IBM PowerPC 970 (G5) processor.

9. Journaling in HFS Plus

While modern filesystems are often journaled by design, journaling came to HFS Plus rather late. Apple retrofitted journaling into HFS Plus as a supplementary mechanism to the erstwhile working of the filesystem, with Panther being the first version to have journaling turned on by default.

On a journaled HFS Plus volume, file object metadata and volume structures are journaled, but not file object data (fork contents, that is). The primary purpose of the journal is to make recovery faster and more reliable, in case a volume is unmounted uncleanly, but it may improve the performance of metadata operations.

10. Instant-on

Apple computers do not hibernate. Rather, when they "sleep", enough devices (in particular, the dynamic RAM) are kept alive (at the cost of some battery life, if the computer is running on battery power). Consequently, upon wakeup, the user perceives instant-on behavior: a very desirable effect.

Similarly, by default the system tries to keep network connections alive even if the machine sleeps. For example, if you login (via SSH, say) from one PowerBook to another, and both of them go to sleep, your login should stay alive within the constraints of the protocols.


Using Mac OS X as an example, we looked at a few kinds of optimizations that "OS people" (particularly those involved in creating an end-user system) adopt to improve performance. The integration of all such optimizations is perhaps even more important than the optimizations themselves. The end result should be a perceptible improvement in performance. A desirable manifestation of such improvment would be a faster workflow for the end-user.

It must be noted that most, if not all, of the optimizations listed here are not specific to Mac OS X. Microsoft uses similar techniques to make Windows faster. In particular, techniques similar or equivalent to (but not limited to) BootCache, Hot File Clustering, and Working Set Detection/Maintenance are also used in Windows.

Posted by thinkum at 01:01 PM

For Mac security, communication is key

When it comes to security, Apple Computer's report card reads like that of a gifted child: high marks for achievement, but needs to communicate better with others.

In general, the Mac operating system has seen far fewer bugs than its Windows counterpart. But some say a recent vulnerability demonstrates that the notoriously tight-lipped company must communicate more openly on security issues and move more quickly when it comes to plugging holes.

"I think there's room for improvement with their response speed on problems with their own code," said Chris Adams, a Mac user and system administrator for San Diego's Salk Institute for Biological Studies, a research center that's played a part in training five Nobel Prize-winning scientists. "The general pattern is complete silence for months and then a terse announcement when the update is released."

Adams said Apple has done a pretty good job of updating the operating system to fill holes found in various Unix components. But what is needed, Adams and others contend, is more dialogue about what the company is doing with regard to security.

"At the very least, they need to communicate with the people who report these problems, so it's obvious that work is happening," Adams said in an e-mail interview. "Depending on the problem, it may also be a good idea to announce a workaround if a fix won't be available quickly."

The issue of Apple's communication with the security industry came to the forefront last month. Researchers went public with a combination of vulnerabilities that, if exploited, could allow a Mac to be taken over by hackers. One of the researchers involved, a coder known as "lixlpixel," said he privately notified Apple of a problem in February but went public with his findings in May after not hearing back from the company.

Apple Senior Vice President Phil Schiller said the Mac's security is good and noted that the company is under more scrutiny now that the Mac is facing what he described as the first critical vulnerability since the release of Mac OS X three years ago.

According to Schiller, there was more to the critical issue Apple wound up addressing in May than just the flaw reported to the company several months earlier.

"What was learned in February was only a small piece of the picture and didn't present as great a threat," Schiller said. "The complete picture of this current threat has actually been very recent."

Beat of a different drum
Although the tech industry has guidelines that call for researchers to notify vendors of threats and then wait at least 30 days before going public, Schiller said Apple uses its own process to decide when to issue a patch, a process that takes into account Apple's assessment of the threat posed by the vulnerability.

Apple has released a partial patch, but security researchers say the OS remains vulnerable to attack.

Some of the other knocks on Apple's response to security issues also center on the company's communications. For example, critics have called on Apple to offer more detailed information on its Web site, as well as to offer a dedicated e-mail address for reporting bugs. But Schiller said Apple does both those things--security concerns can be sent to product-security@apple.com, and the company posts information on its Web site. But he conceded that many people don't know about those programs and that the company could be doing a better job.

"We're actually doing a lot of the right things people want," Schiller said. "They're just not aware of it."

There are, however, additional areas where Apple differs from other OS vendors. Unlike Microsoft and Red Hat, Apple does not have a life-cycle policy that guarantees which versions of the operating system will receive patches. Schiller said Apple makes those decisions on a case-by-case basis, rating the severity of the risks and balancing that with how hard it is to update older versions.

The company has offered updates to older versions in some cases but has not always been clear about those decisions. Last October, Apple waited several days before confirming it would offer a security patch for older systems. The initial silence by the company fueled speculation that Apple was going to leave older users unprotected.

While Microsoft has set up a separate security business unit to deal with such issues, Apple has decided not to. The responsibility falls broadly to the Mac OS X crew and other software product groups to ensure the security of their products, Schiller said. "It's everyone's job," he said. "We don't have to create a special team to solve these things...Everyone who works on software also works on security at some level or another."

Worse than it sounds?
Another critique, leveled by digital-security company @Stake, is that Apple has downplayed the threat of potential vulnerabilities in its descriptions of flaws.

In one example, Apple last month patched a series of holes including a buffer overflow in the Apple file-sharing system that could allow a remote attacker to take control of the system. Apple, though, described it as a correction "to improve the handling of long passwords."

"They are not characterizing the issue so that people can make a security decision about it," Chris Wysopal, @Stake's vice president of research and development, said last month. Apple "seems to think that everyone will update their computers all the time, and that is not the way the world works."

In another case, a security company called eEye said Apple rated as minor a QuickTime flaw eEye had found. Apple said the flaw in the QuickTime movie player for Mac OS X could cause the player to crash, while eEye said the real problem was that it could allow malicious code to be executed.

Schiller said Apple will look into how it communicates the details of potential threats.

"Certainly that is criticism we will take," Schiller said. "If people think we can do a better job of communicating some of this to everybody, than we will do a better job."

But some Mac users say that as long as Apple keeps potential problems from becoming real headaches, they don't need more detail from the company.

"I haven't been burned yet," said Lauren Connolly, a system administrator at the California Institute of Technology who has used Macs for 20 years. Connolly said she has never had a system infected because of something Apple didn't patch, nor has she had problems with any of the patches Apple has put out.

"They haven't given me any reason not to trust what they've been releasing," she said.

Indeed, the Mac's strongest selling point is its track record. Schiller and others point out that the Mac has proved to be a much lower security risk in recent years, with most of the vulnerabilities being caught at the potential stage--or before customers have actually been affected. Schiller said Apple has fixed 138 issues in 43 security updates since the debut of Mac OS X, with only one of those considered critical. "Windows XP has had 77 updates in that time," Schiller said. "Two-thirds of those updates have been critical."

Analysts agree that Mac OS X has so far proved to be more secure than Windows.

"They've had less patches," said Ray Wagner, a research director at Gartner. "We're not talking an order of magnitude (less). We're talking maybe half as many."

The bigger they are...
However, the question is whether that will continue to be the case. The Mac has attracted somewhat less attention from hackers because of its niche position in the PC market--it holds less than 5 percent market share worldwide. Because Macs are fewer in number, it would be tough for a Mac-centered mass-mailing worm to find enough targets to allow it to propagate effectively.

On the flip side, the company is gaining cachet in the Unix world that some say could make Apple a juicier target in the future. Additionally, security companies may devote more time to finding Mac OS holes, which could lead to more discoveries.

Others say the current challenges add up to adolescent growing pains as the company and Mac OS X mature.

"Apple is coming to terms with dealing with these types of issues," said independent security researcher Richard Forno, who also noted that Apple has offered a much more stable and secure option than Windows.

Most of the vulnerabilities that have been found have been in the Mac's Unix underpinnings, rather than in the Mac OS shell. And the code base itself--a version of BSD Unix--is pretty well tried and true because it's been in use for more than a decade.

Despite its relative stability, one challenge is that the average Mac user may not even be aware that the OS contains all this Unix code that could potentially have holes.

"It's kind of new for all Mac users, unless they had a good Unix background to begin with," said Michael Junkroski, who, along with his brother Patrick, runs VSM.net, a Florida-based IT consultancy that is an all-Mac shop. "I think we were all probably a little lax because we thought the OS was impenetrable."

Junkroski said there are 55,000 viruses in the wild that affect Windows machines, compared with zero for Mac OS X. "In theory, a few (vulnerabilities) have been found. In practice, nothing has happened."

For its part, Schiller said, Apple has learned some lessons and is working on a complete fix for the latest bug.

"We fixed one part of what is a complex problem. We're working on fixes to the other parts, and there will be more coming," Schiller said. "We were more interested in getting out the first part of the fix as fast as we can...It can help people right now. Now we'll follow up with more things as we finish the rest of this complex problem."

Posted by thinkum at 12:55 PM

June 02, 2004

Private spacecraft blast offs June 21

(SPACE.com) -- A privately-developed rocket plane will launch into history on June 21 on a mission to become the world's first commercial manned space vehicle.

The pilot of the craft, still to be announced, will become the first person to earn astronaut wings in a non-government sponsored vehicle, and the first private civilian to fly a spaceship out of the atmosphere.

That's the word on Wednesday from Scaled Composites in the Mojave, California desert -- designer and builder of SpaceShipOne. The announcement is the first time the group has pre-announced a high-altitude run of its piloted rocketship.

Investor and philanthropist Paul Allen and aviation technologist Burt Rutan have teamed to create the program, which will attempt the first non-governmental flight to leave the Earth's atmosphere.

Private flight

SpaceShipOne will rocket to 62 miles (100 kilometers) into sub-orbital space above the Mojave Civilian Aerospace Test Center, a commercial airport in the California desert. If successful, "it will signal that the space frontier is finally open to private enterprise," explained a Scaled Composites release.

Allen, founder and chairman of Vulcan Inc, is financing the project. Along with Allen, Vulcan's technology research and development team -- which takes the lead in developing high impact science and technology projects for Allen -- has been active in the project's development and management.

Today's announcement follows SpaceShipOne's successful May 13 test flight. That flight had pilot Mike Melvill hitting the engine-start button to reach a height of 211,400 feet (approximately 40 miles). That's the highest altitude ever reached by a non-government aerospace program.

Making spaceflight affordable

Sub-orbital space flight refers to a mission that flies out of the atmosphere but does not reach the speeds needed to sustain continuous orbiting of the earth. The view from a sub-orbital flight is similar to being in orbit, but the cost and risks are far less.

"Since Yuri Gagarin and Al Shepard's epoch flights in 1961, all space missions have been flown only under large, expensive government efforts. By contrast, our program involves a few, dedicated individuals who are focused entirely on making spaceflight affordable," said Burt Rutan in a press statement today.

"Without the entrepreneur approach, space access would continue to be out of reach for ordinary citizens. The SpaceShipOne flights will change all that and encourage others to usher in a new, low-cost era in space travel," Rutan added.

Spectator viewing

"Every time SpaceShipOne flies, we demonstrate that modest amounts of private funds can significantly increase the boundaries of commercial space technology," Allen also said in the statement.

Unlike any previous manned space mission, the June flight will allow the public to view, up close, the takeoff and landing as well as the overhead rocket boost to space. This will be an historic and unique spectator opportunity.

Information for the general public on attending the event is available at www.scaled.com.

The launch is set for June 21, with plans calling for taxi out to the runway of SpaceShipOne's carrier plane, the White Knight, at 6:30 a.m. local time.

Private resources

Last December, Allen confirmed that he is the behind-the-scene sponsor of the SpaceShipOne project. Allen has funded the effort since he and Rutan joined forces in March of 2001.

SpaceShipOne and its White Knight turbojet carrier/launch aircraft represent the first private non-government effort to demonstrate a low-cost piloted space effort. Since it was unveiled in April 2003, SpaceShipOne has undergone 14 airborne flights: capture flights hooked to the White Knight, freefall glides, and three powered high-altitude hops.

The suborbital rocket plane is a leading contender among a worldwide cadre of groups vying for the Ansari X Prize.

For anybody to claim the $10 million cash award, they must fly a privately financed and built three-person spaceship that rockets up to 62.5 miles (100 kilometers) altitude, returns safely to Earth, and then repeats that trip within a two week period.

In a press statement last December, Allen said: "SpaceShipOne is a tangible example of continuing humankind's efforts to travel into space, effectively demonstrating that private resources can make a big difference in this field of discovery and invention."

Allen co-founded Microsoft Corporation with Bill Gates in 1975 and served as the company's executive vice president of research and new product development, the company's senior technology post, until 1983.

Today, Allen owns and invests in a suite of companies, with a portfolio focus on digital communications, new media, biotechnology, and entertainment. His primary companies include Vulcan Inc. of Seattle, Washington.
Risks of space

Peter Diamandis, Chairman of the X Prize, said Allen and his team stepped up to sponsoring a private-sector space endeavor at a time when few others were willing to take the risk.

"In my role as chairman of the X Prize, I had approached well over one hundred corporate chief executive officers regarding sponsorship. Few were able to grasp the importance of this new market...and those who were had great difficulty accepting the risks involved," Diamandis said.

Vulcan's financial support has clearly allowed the Scaled Composites team to take a methodical, step by step approach, Diamandis said. "The flight test program has been expanding the envelope in an incremental process. I hope that Allen's leadership will allow other wealthy industrialists to follow in his footsteps to sponsor spaceship development like they currently do with sail boats and race cars," he said

Posted by thinkum at 02:37 PM

Apple eMac With SuperDrive

The First Choice for Mac Shoppers on a Budget

Review By Joel Santo Domingo, PC Magazine

June 2, 2004? Students, general home users and those who don't want to shell out more than $1,000 retail for a full-function desktop (or use a Windows PC) will flock to the new Apple eMac.

The current 1.25-GHz eMac is a vast improvement over the model we reviewed just 6 months ago. The $999 eMac finally comes with a DVD burner (SuperDrive), and the hard drive, system memory, and CPU are at usable levels.

We'd still like to see 512MB of system memory, but 256MB is fine for basic use such as word processing, e-mail, and spreadsheets. And the 80GB hard drive is a welcome upgrade from the 60GB unit in the last version.

The newest eMac, like other new Macintosh computers, comes with Mac OS X Panther v.10.3, which is an improvement over older versions of Mac OS X. The fast user-switching feature lets multiple users connect without having to log out or reboot the system (although we suggest a memory upgrade to 512MB for best concurrent-user performance). The spinning cube animation when users switch is exactly the sort of discreet ostentation we expect from Apple.

Also installed are QuickTime 6 and the excellent iLife suite, which includes Apple's iPhoto (digital photo album), iMovie (digital video editing), iDVD (DVD burning), iTunes (music playback and music downloads), and GarageBand (music editing and recording).

Multimedia-Friendly Mac

The eMac works well as a base station for your iPod. With its 80GB drive, the eMac can hold plenty of MP3 or AAC-encoded music files ? a good thing, considering how popular iTunes has become. Of course, the SuperDrive can also burn MP3 and AAC files to audio CD, so you can take your tunes with you.

With iPhoto, the eMac is a great digital shoebox for keeping your photos organized in one place. The 80GB drive is of sufficient capacity for this purpose, given that the compressed digital photos from most consumer cameras are about 1-2MB each. Though we would like to see a digital card reader in consumer-oriented PCs, iPhoto's ability to interface with many major digital cameras directly is a plus.

The performance of the 1.25-GHz G4-equipped eMac is adequate for general day-to-day operations (word processing, e-mail, Web surfing, for example). And with its Radeon 9200 graphics card, it's capable of playing basic to intermediate 3D games and 2D educational games.

While it won't find itself in any Hollywood special-effects studios, the new eMac is certainly multimedia-friendly. And with an equally friendly price, we imagine schools and budget-conscious buyers will snatch up these attractive boxes.

Product at a Glance

Pros: DVD burning for under $1,000 in a Mac. Space-saving all-in-one unit. Two FireWire ports for simultaneous DV camera and iPod hookups.
Cons: Limited expansion. Modest RAM. SuperDrive can burn DVD-R, but not DVD+R/RW or even DVD-RW.
Bottom Line: While there is a less expensive eMac with a combo drive, we think the SuperDrive-equipped eMac is the first Mac you should look at in the value space.

Editor Rating: 4 stars out of 5

Sub-ratings: Music: 68 Photo: 63 Video: 38 Gaming: 33

Company: Apple Computer, Inc., www.apple.com
Price: $999 direct
Spec Data: 1.25-GHz G4 processor; 256MB DDR333 SDRAM; 80GB hard drive; ATI Radeon 9200 graphics card; 8X DVD-R/CD-RW Superdrive; three USB 2.0, two FireWire ports; Apple integrated sound card; built-in stereo speakers; Mac OS X Panther v.10.3

Posted by thinkum at 02:33 PM

James Tiptree, Jr.

"James Tiptree, Jr." was born Alice Bradley in Chicago in 1915.

Her mother was the writer Mary Hastings Bradley; her father, Herbert, was a lawyer and explorer. Throughout her childhood she travelled with her parents, mostly to Africa, but also to India and Southeast Asia. Her early work was as an artist and art critic. During World War II she enlisted in the Army and became the first American female photointelligence officer. In Germany after the war, she met and married her commanding officer, Huntington D. Sheldon. In the early 1950s, both Sheldons joined the then-new CIA; he made it his career, but she resigned in 1955, went back to college, and earned a Ph.D. in experimental psychology.

At about this same time, Alli Sheldon started writing science fiction. She wrote four stories and sent them off to four different science fiction magazines. She did not want to publish under her real name, because of her CIA and academic ties, and she intended to use a new pseudonym for each group of stories until some sold. They started selling immediately, and only the first pseudonym?"Tiptree" from a jar of jelly, "James" because she felt editors would be more receptive to a male writer, and "Jr." for fun?was needed. (A second pseudonym, "Raccoona Sheldon," came along later, so she could have a female persona.)

Tiptree quickly became one of the most-respected writers in the field, winning the Hugo Award for "The Girl Who was Plugged In" and "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?," and the Nebula Award for "Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death" and "Houston, Houston." Raccoona won the Nebula for "The Screwfly Solution," and Tiptree won the World Fantasy Award for the collection Tales from the Qunitana Roo.

The Tiptree fiction reflects Alli Sheldon's interests and concerns throughout her life: the alien among us (a role she portrayed in her childhood travels), the health of the planet, the quality of perception, the role of women, love, death, and humanity's place in a vast, cold universe. An award in Tiptree's name has celebrated science fiction that "expands and explores gender roles" for ten years now.

Alice Sheldon died in 1987 by her own hand. Writing in her first book about the suicide of Hart Crane, she said succinctly: "Poets extrapolate."


Posted by thinkum at 12:44 PM

Low receptor levels and low mood

Brain's serotonin receptors at abnormally low levels in depressed people

By Jim Dryden

PET images are on top. MRI images showing matching anatomy are on bottom. Areas of red and yellow show increased uptake of the altanserin tracer due to binding to the serotonin receptors. The MRI is used to determine precisely where the hippocampus is located.

May 10, 2004 -- Depression is the most common psychiatric illness in the world, affecting about 15 percent of all people at some point in their lives. Although about 70 percent of depressed patients respond to treatment, three-fourths will experience a recurrence of their illness within 10 years. In addition, an estimated 60 percent of depressed people remain undiagnosed and untreated.

Little is understood about how depression makes people feel sad, but neuroscientists do know that the brain chemical serotonin is involved. Today's most-prescribed antidepressant drugs ? such as Prozac (fluoxetine) and Zoloft (sertraline) ? are the so-called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which work by increasing serotonin levels in the brain.

"The bad news is that beyond that first step of increasing serotonin, we understand very little about how these drugs relieve symptoms of depression," says Mark A. Mintun, M.D., professor of radiology and of psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine. "By pushing on the serotonin system, we seem to start a chain reaction that helps many people, but it doesn't help everyone. And to learn why, we need to find out more about what's happening in the brain during depressive episodes."

To get a look at how the brain works differently in depressed patients, Mintun and colleagues studied 46 people with active depression and compared positron emission tomography (PET) scans of their brains to scans from 29 people who were not depressed. The team was measuring levels of a particular type of serotonin receptor called the 5-HT2A serotonin receptor.

Mintun has been on the trail of serotonin receptors for years. "The 5-HT2A receptor in this study is the most common of several types of serotonin receptors, so we thought this would be a good place to start," he says.

Almost a decade ago at the University of Pittsburgh, Mintun and radiochemist Chester Mathis, Ph.D., developed a method of labeling the 5-HT2A serotonin receptor with a chemical called altanserin. The altanserin sticks to the serotonin receptors and allows the PET scanner to take pictures of them.

Because most people with depression get better when their serotonin levels increase after treatment with SSRIs, Mintun initially believed the PET scans would reveal high levels of serotonin receptors in brain structures linked to depression. The hypothesis was that because less serotonin was available, the brain would try to compensate by making more receptors.

But that's not what they found. In the February issue of the journal Biological Psychiatry, Mintun and colleagues report that the depressed people actually had fewer serotonin receptors throughout the brain and significantly fewer receptors in a key structure called the hippocampus, an area that acts as a gateway between memory and mood, among other processes.

"The hippocampus often is the key to interpreting things such as whether an experience is good or bad, whether a person is looking at me with a happy face or a sad face, whether that person is angry with me, those sorts of things," Mintun says. "So I think the fact that there's this big drop in the number of serotonin receptors in this part of the brain is telling us something very important."

Meanwhile, in a parallel series of depression studies, co-author Yvette I. Sheline, M.D., associate professor of psychiatry, radiology and neurology, was learning from magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans of depressed patients that the hippocampus is smaller in patients with depression. Sheline also has found that antidepressant drugs seem to have a protective effect and prevent some of the volume loss she has observed.

Putting it all together, Sheline says the volume loss in the hippocampus might be to blame for the low number of serotonin receptors, rather than the other way around.

"Although it's clear that serotonin is involved in depression, it may be that the volume loss we have observed is due to damage in cells in the hippocampus, which then cannot process serotonin effectively," Sheline says. "Perhaps the low number of serotonin receptors is related to cell damage in the hippocampus rather than the damage and volume loss being caused by problems in the serotonin system."

Mintun and Sheline say it's still very possible that the low number of receptors is related to an underlying abnormality in the serotonin system, but it's also possible that the low number of receptors are the result of damage to the hippocampus that is caused by depressive episodes. It also might be that depression results from a process akin to what causes type 2 diabetes. In type 2 diabetes, people still make plenty of insulin, but their insulin receptors don't work well.

"Those people get diabetes not because they don't make enough insulin but because the receiving end ? the receptors ? don't work as well," Mintun says. "In diabetes, we give more insulin to overcome that problem, and in depression we raise serotonin levels. But just because raising serotonin levels relieves symptoms of depression, we can't assume that the original problem was abnormal serotonin production."

Mintun says preliminary data from studies of depressed people after treatment indicate that the number of serotonin receptors in the hippocampus appears to be rising and returning to normal. But he cautions those studies are preliminary and require more analysis. He also hopes to study other types of serotonin receptors. In particular, he plans to use a new chemical tracer that has been developed to bind to 5-HT1A receptors, which also are found in large numbers in the hippocampus.

Such studies might help explain why SSRI drugs take several weeks to work. If making more serotonin is only one step in a cascade of cellular changes in depression, it might be more effective to treat depressed people by concentrating on some other step in that cascade. But little is known about what those other steps might be.

In addition, better understanding of those additional steps might make it possible to treat people whose depression doesn't respond to SSRIs and other antidepressant therapies. It also might help scientists understand why depression tends to recur many months, or years, after patients get better.

"There are some important things we need to understand about how these drugs work and how we can make them better," Mintun says. "Part of that will involve understanding more of the basic biology of what happens during depression and its treatment."


Mintun MA, Sheline YI, Moerlein SM, Vlassenko AG, Huang Y, Snyder AZ. Decreased hippocampal 5-HT2A receptor binding in major depressive disorder: in vivo measuement with [18F]altanseerin positron emission tomography. Biological Psychiatry, vol. 55, pp. 217-224, February 2004.

This research was supported by the National Institutes of Health.

The full-time and volunteer faculty of Washington University School of Medicine are the physicians and surgeons of Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children's hospitals. The School of Medicine is one of the leading medical research, teaching and patient care institutions in the nation, currently ranked second in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. Through its affiliations with Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children's hospitals, the School of Medicine is linked to BJC HealthCare.

Posted by thinkum at 12:35 PM

June 01, 2004

Cosmos at Full Throttle

Baffling Dark Energy Is Pulling Universe Apart, But How?

June 1, 2004 ? Will the universe eventually collapse in the "big crunch," expand forever in the "big loneliness," or be torn to bits in the "big rip"?

The key to answering those questions appears to lie in a mysterious form of energy that has been cracking the cosmic whip on the universe for the past 6 billion to 7 billion years. This "dark energy" appears to be causing the universe to grow at an accelerated rate rather than a rate scientists previously thought would slow forever.

Six years after astronomers first stunned the scientific world with this discovery, researchers say dark energy still baffles them. Yet several studies reported over the past year have strengthened the evidence for dark energy's role as cosmic gas pedal, researchers say.

The results "point to the promise of improving our understanding of dark energy," says Michael Turner, head of the astronomy and astrophysics department at the University of Chicago. That understanding, he says, is critical to answering fundamental questions about the origin and future of the universe and the nature of matter and space-time.

Gradual or Sudden Stretch?

Researchers from Britain, Germany, and the United States recently announced results from studies of hot gas surrounding vast clusters of galaxies. The effort, using NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory, was designed to determine the amount of dark energy the universe holds, compared with other forms of matter and energy. In addition, the team took a tentative stab at trying to see if the amount of dark energy changes with time ? key to determining its nature.

Anyone reading their results might be excused for feeling a bit special. The team found that 4 percent of the universe is made of ordinary matter. Another 21 percent consists of so-called dark matter, inferred from its gravitational effects on matter. The remaining 75 percent consists of dark energy, which exerts a form of pressure that makes it act like gravity thrown into reverse. These figures are consistent with results reported last year from satellite measurements of the big bang's afterglow ? the cosmic microwave background.

If the quantity of dark energy is constant, astronomers say, the universe will continue to expand at an increasing rate. In about 20 billion years or so, only about 100 galaxies might be visible from Earth. Think of it as the "big lonely." If dark energy were to change with time, it could relax to let gravity once again dominate, prompting the universe to collapse in the "big crunch." Or if the pace speeds up, it could lead to the "big rip," in which the fabric of space-time stretches so rapidly that even atoms get torn apart.

Based on the team's observations, dark energy is holding steady and "behaves much like the cosmological constant in Einstein's theories" about the evolution of the universe, says Steve Allen, an astronomer at Cambridge University in England and the team leader.

Essentially, this means that the amount of energy per volume of space remains constant. If this observation holds up under more rigorous programs, it would substantially narrow the range of explanations for what dark energy really is.

That's not bad for a "constant" that Albert Einstein dubbed his greatest blunder. In 1917, when he pondered the implications of his general relativity theory for the universe, most astronomers believed that the size of the universe didn't change. Other galaxies appeared on astronomers' photographic plates, but many thought the fuzzy images were nebulae or clusters of stars in the Milky Way.

When Einstein applied his equations to the observed universe, his numbers led him to an unsettling conclusion. Given the way his equations showed gravity distorting the shape of space-time, and given the amount of matter and energy in the universe to exert gravity, the universe could not remain static. It would have to collapse through gravitational attraction.

Observers saw no evidence for change, so he reasoned that there must be some form of "negative energy" offsetting gravity's tug. By tweaking his numbers, he could get a static universe.

Profound Questions

In the 1920s, Edwin Hubble burst Einstein's bubble. Using the most powerful telescopes of the day, Hubble showed that the fuzzy patches were galaxies, and that the galaxies appeared to be speeding away. The universe was expanding.

For nearly 60 more years, astronomers would trot out Einstein's blunder to explain one new phenomenon or another, only to find later that more conventional explanations were correct.

Meanwhile, particle physicists in the 1960s were working on ideas in quantum mechanics in which a vacuum could exhibit a form of energy. And when they applied Einstein's theory of general relativity to this vacuum energy, thought to permeate the cosmos, it produced the gravitational repulsion that mimicked Einstein's cosmological constant. The work gave the feature an underpinning in physics it had lacked.

The only task left was to observe it in nature. That came in 1998, when two teams working independently reported observations that showed space expanding at a more rapid rate than it should be.

This time, invoking a gravitationally repulsive dark energy appears to be the correct answer. But how it relates to physicists' discoveries about the forces of nature and the subatomic particles associated with them remains a mystery. Dark energy could indeed be Einstein's cosmological constant. It could be a quantum field dubbed "quintessence." Or it could be a new aspect of gravity itself.

"Keep in mind that we call this dark energy, but that gives a false impression that we understand what it is. We really don't," says Adam Riess, astronomer with the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Md. Early this year, Riess and colleagues added what many astronomers call a significant advance in observing dark energy.

New Evidence

In February, the team published results of Hubble Space Telescope observations that spanned a range of distances and periods in the universe's history. They found the period, some 6 billion years ago, when the shift occurred from a slowdown in the rate of expansion to an acceleration ? a turning point that has become known as the "big jerk." The team used the light from a powerful "standard candle" ? a type of exploding star, or supernova ? to gauge distance. Then they used spectrographic data on these objects to determine the speed at which the galaxies containing the supernovae were receding.

A third major contribution came last year from a set of studies involving the cosmic microwave background measurements from a NASA satellite and observations from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. Both pointed to dark energy as the dominant ingredient in the universe's recipe. And by combining data from the two, four teams working independently found evidence for the action of dark energy on the scale of galaxy clusters, which cover a huge expanse of space and embrace from 50 to 1,000 galaxies.

Taken together, the X-ray, supernova, and microwave-survey studies represent "extraordinary evidence" for dark energy, the University of Chicago's Turner said at a briefing last week.

The next step is to learn whether dark energy varies with time. Already, Riess and his colleagues have been awarded a generous amount of observing time with the Hubble Space Telescope next year to get a more detailed look at dark energy's workings. Ground- and space-based optical telescopes are being planned to study it. Ground-based radio telescopes are getting into the act. And Chandra will be surveying more clusters at a wider range of distances.

The discovery of dark energy has handed researchers "the most profound problem in all of science," Turner says. Solving it "will require a full-court press."

Posted by thinkum at 03:46 PM

Venus to cross the face of the sun

Few sciences are as intertwined and rooted in history as astronomy is. On the morning of Tuesday, June 8, most of the world?s population will be able to witness at least a portion of a celestial event that is not only scientifically significant, but one that is steeped with historical connections back to the early 1600s. The upcoming transit of Venus is not only an observational event, it is also an opportunity to look back and see that four hundred years ago, astronomy was an important part of peoples? lives, just as it is now.

If you sample some of the activities that the June 8 transit is initiating, you will find that then as now, investing in space research netted gains for society in general from one end of the practicality spectrum to the other. Knowing about what happens out there, can make our lives better, down here.

On the historical side, around 1620, Johannes Kepler, a German astronomer had just put forth a set of natural laws that described the motion of the planets.

Kepler?s three laws of planetary motion, as they came to be known as, greatly influenced later scientists like Isaac Newton, Edmond Halley and others. Kepler?s third law of planetary motion simplified by the expression P2/A3=K and translated into words says that if you knew a planet?s period of revolution around the sun ? the length of its year (P), you could calculate its average distance to the Sun (A).

In the expression for Kepler?s third law, P, the period is expressed in years and A, the average distance to the sun, is expressed in astronomical units, or AU for short.

The AU was and still is the astronomical yardstick for measuring distances between the planets-within our solar system and was defined as the average distance between the sun and Earth. What astronomers of the 1600s did not know, was the actual, physical length of the AU. Nobody really knew how far the planets were from each other in absolute numbers, only in units of the AU.

The determination of the length of the AU was the holy grail of astronomy at the time. The elusive quantity remained an extremely important goal for astronomers all over the world into the late 1800s.

The British, Astronomer Royal, once referred to the determination of the AU, as "the noblest problem in astronomy."

Not only was Kepler the first to formulate the fundamental laws governing planetary motion, he was also the first to understand that Venus and Mercury would occasionally transit, that is pass across, the sun?s disc. Since they are the only planets that orbit the sun inside of Earth?s orbit, they are the only planets that can pass across its disc as viewed from Earth.

In September of 1627, Kepler published a set of tables that predicted that a Venus transit would occur in December 1631. Kepler died in 1630, and as far as we can tell, no one witnessed this transit. What made matters worse, was that at the time of Kepler?s death, the next transit of Venus was not to happen until the middle of the 18th century.

Kepler also knew that if teams of observers could accurately observe and record the passage of Venus across the sun from different vantage points on Earth, the actual value of the AU could be determined using the effects of parallax. Parallax can be easily demonstrated by holding a finger out in front of your face.

By alternately closing one eye, then the other, your finger appears to shift in position against the background. By measuring the angle of that shift, one can calculate the distance from your face to your finger.

If Venus? passage across the disc of the sun was observed by several different expeditions from widely separated locations on Earth, Venus would appear in slightly different positions silhouetted by the sun.

If the distance between observers was accurately known, the Earth-Venus distance could be solved for using geometry.

Since astronomers already knew that Venus was 0.7 AU from the sun, it was a very simple feat to solve for the value of the AU, once the Earth-Venus distance had been determined. This fact was also realized by Edmond Halley (The Halley in Halley?s comet). Halley reasoned that if the expeditions could accurately observe and time the duration of the transit, a very exact measure of the Earth-Sun distance (the AU) could be made. And so until 1882, there was a "space race" of sorts to determine the value of the AU-to determine just how big our universe really was.

Due to a small error in his calculations, Kepler did not realize that there was to be another transit of Venus in 1639. This omission was uncovered by a twenty-one year-old, English amateur astronomer, Jeremiah Horrocks only a few weeks before the December 4 transit. Despite being called away from his home on the day of the transit, Horrocks observed at least some of the transit and later wrote up his observations.

Early the following January, he was about to publish his findings and set up a meeting with astronomer and friend, William Crabtree, quite possibly the only other person that observed the 1639 transit.

As fate would have it, the day before Horrocks and Crabtree were to meet, Horrocks died unexpectedly and his work went unpublished until 1662, when Isaac Newton got a hold of it and actually may have used it to formulate his own theories of planetary motion.

While no one witnessed the 1631 transit of Venus, two witnessed the 1639 transit, Crabtree and Horrocks. Certainly not enough came out of their partial observations to lead to the determination of the value of the AU.

But, the importance of future transits was now clear to astronomers around the world. Accurately observe the transit, and with that data the size of the solar system could be determined.

Over the next 243 years, Venus transited the Sun four more times, in 1761, 1769, 1874, and again in 1882.

The years leading up to each transit brought with them a treasure trove of stories and adventures of the teams that set out to observe the upcoming transits.

Before each transit, nations allocated large sums of money and planned extensive, scientific expeditions to cover each one-to extract the data that lay buried in the difficult and tedious observations.

But each time, something intervened to thwart their efforts. Often times it was the weather?other times it was stormy seas or resentful natives or warring factions. Sometimes it was just plain bad luck. As it turns out, the transits of Venus never gave astronomers the true value of the AU to the accuracy they were looking for-they came close, but not close enough.

As other technologies developed like radar and laser ranging, astronomers used them to measure the true distances to the planets.

With radar, an antenna directs pulses of electromagnetic waves(radio waves) at a target and receives a return pulse after the wave bounces off of the target.

The time it takes for the pulse to return is accurately measured and since we know the speed of the wave, we simply multiply the speed of the wave times the time it took the pulse to return. When this is done, we get a very accurate distance to the object.

Laser ranging is another distance measuring technique used by astronomers. A powerful laser beam is fired at a target. The faint laser reflection is recorded and timed. Again, we are left with a very accurate distance measurement to the target in question. The McDonald Observatory, operated by the University of Texas, has utilized its laser ranging facility for many years to measure the distance to the Moon to an accuracy of the width of your hand.

Well, if scientists do not need transits of Venus to determine the AU any longer, what?s all the fuss about? Why do we care about transits? First, transits are extremely rare events. The last transit occurred in December of 1882. That alone makes them interesting. Second, transits allow us to see the inner planets, Mercury and Venus, in a different way.

If you will recall, all through the spring, Venus has graced our western, evening sky. Its brilliant, white, star-like appearance has captured our attention for the last few months. Between now and the June 8 transit, Venus will move closer and closer to the Sun.

Another reason transits of Venus create such a stir is because for over 400 years, Scientists, navigators, and the curious have been chasing transits around the globe. The June 8 transit will be no different. Hundreds of expeditions have been organized and thousands have signed up to view the silhouetted image of Venus against the Sun.

Some will be fortunate and will watch Venus traverse the Sun?s disc. Others will travel thousands of miles and will be clouded out. But all will have their stories to tell. All who partake in the adventure will be changed by it, just like the transit chasers of the past.

Besides the aesthetic and historical aspects of the transit, there are still scientific justifications for studying these events.

For example, astronomers have discovered planets orbiting other stars. So far, they have discovered over 100 stars that have planets orbiting them. Imagine that, there are already more than 100 solar systems astronomers have cataloged besides our own.

Recently, astronomers have discovered some of these extrasolar planets, as they transit across their parent star?s disc, much like Venus will do on June 8. If an extrasolar planet?s orbit is lined up so we see it cross its sun?s disc, the star?s light diminishes by a very small amount. Scientists can detect this small light drop and plot it as a function of time. They can even determine the transiting planet?s size and make estimates of its mass, density, and temperature. Astronomers will be using the upcoming Venus transit to hone their skills for studying planets orbiting nearby stars.

What can we

expect to see?

Venus will first touch the Sun?s disc at 1:19:57 a.m. on Tuesday, June 8. Of course, you?ll probably be sleeping at that time, but don?t worry, you will get your turn. While the east coast will miss the ingress, Venus? entry on to the sun?s disc, when the sun rises around 5:04 a.m. Venus will be a little more than halfway across the sun. From that point, over two hours will pass before the transit ends.

The best way to view this event is to use the special solar sunglasses that are manufactured especially for viewing the sun.

These filtered glasses will not only block out the sun?s intensity, but also the damaging infrared and ultraviolet portion of the sun?s spectrum. You eyes cannot see these wavelengths of light, but they are there.

Another safe way to view the transit is to use a small telescope to project the sun?s image on to a white card set up behind the telescope.

If the telescope has a finder scope, don?t forget to put its lens cap on to protect it from the sun. Put a low to medium power eyepiece into the telescope and focus the sun on to the white card. Venus will be easy to identify as a perfectly round, black dot near the bottom of the sun.

Depending on what kind of telescope you have, Venus may be near the top of the sun. Also, don?t be confused by sunspots. It is quite normal for the sun to have other black dots on it surface.

Usually they are irregularly shaped-not like the crisp round shape that Venus will have. One additional word of caution if you plan on projecting the sun on to a white surface; NEVER look through the telescope to sight the sun. Instead, point the scope at the sun without looking through it.

When the telescope tube casts the smallest shadow onto the card or ground, lock the scope into place. You should be close enough to carefully center the sun.

As Venus approaches egress, its exit from the disc of the sun, watch very carefully. This is where the real science will be done during this transit. Just before 7 a.m. make sure you have a good clear view of Venus and don?t take you eyes off it. Prepare to witness the "black-drop" effect. A poorly understood phenomenon that prevented astronomers from accurately timing the previous transits of Venus.

No one really understands for sure what causes this interesting effect. It actually looks like the perfectly round shape of Venus, distorts like two drops of water will when merging together on a flat surface.

This only happens when Venus is very close to fully entering or leaving the sun?s disc. This aspect of the transit is the other scientific goal for this transit of Venus: to find out what causes the "black-drop" effect?

It has been 121½ years since the last transit of Venus. No one alive has ever seen one. The next one occurs in June of 2012. If you miss that one, you have to wait until December 2117. That will be a long wait. If you are interested in viewing this historic, celestial event, I suggest you join astronomers from the University of New Hampshire observatory and Physics department, Representatives from Rivers Camera and the Seacoast Science Center, at the Seacoast Science Center in Rye, as we train our telescopes on the Sun and provide the public with a great location from which to view the transit.

The UNH observatory staff will be handing out solar sunglasses while supplies last.

This free, public session will begin at 5 a.m. and end as Venus leaves the Sun?s disc around 7:25 a.m. You can view this grand astronomical event and you don?t even have to be late for work or school.

Now how can you beat that? To make your observing of the 2004 transit of Venus memorable, the astronomy staff will email participants a digital photograph of the event.

The Seacoast Science Center is located at 570 Ocean Blvd. in Rye, New Hampshire.

For more information you can call the science center at 436-8043, or send inquiries to John Gianforte at jsg00027@aol.com. If it is raining the morning of June 8, the session is cancelled. We hope to see you at sunrise on June 8.

Posted by thinkum at 03:44 PM