March 10, 2008

TECHNOLOGY: July 05, AU Edition

From cough syrups to eyeglasses for cows, Martha McKay takes a peek into a very tiny future

At the nanotechnology show in New York City recently, companies touted the state-of-the-art, from quantum dots to microscopes powerful enough to see atoms.And then there were two guys from Cleveland hawking cough syrup.If you follow the nanotechnology industry closely, this sort of thing isn’t surprising.

But if you don’t, such seemingly humdrum technology on display alongside the advances at the fourth annual NanoBusiness conference might seem unusual.

Spend time with nano-experts and one thing becomes clear: nanotechnology is more commonplace than you might think – from nano-engineered eyeglass coatings used on one in five pairs of eyeglasses, to sunscreens and stain-resistant fabrics.

One of the most hyped areas of technology since the Internet, nanotechno- logy is the study and engineering of really small things – particles and gizmos from 1 to 100 nanometres, or a billionth of a metre, in size to be specific. The paper you are reading this on is about 100,000 nanometres thick.

As you might expect, there are hundreds of ways of using nano-sized particles and devices, with new ideas popping up all the time.
The U.S. government will pour an estimated $1.3 billion into nano-based R&D with a particular emphasis on such areas as cancer research. Here in Australia, governments are putting up $100 million for domestic nanotechnology research this year.

Jeffrey M. Jaffe, president of research and advanced technologies for Lucent Technologies’ Bell Labs, told conferees how telecommunications networks could be transformed by nano-sized devices. Tiny power supplies working together with nano-sized microphones, tiny sensors and video displays could one day give us a communications ‘wallpaper’.
Even the ability to have ‘several microphones inside a phone would be a tremendous (sound quality) improvement’, he said.

Out at the New Jersey Nanotechnology Consortium, university researchers have 60 to 80 nano-based projects under way.They include building a stress gauge to strap on the back of a fruit fly. The tiny device will enable scientists to tell if the drosophila is asleep (they don’t have eyelids, in case you wondered). Researchers, who
study fruit flies because they are well-suited to genetic studies, want to be able to test whether their modifications to the fruit fly’s sleeping patterns work.

They are also looking into ways to build an electronic nose that can smell, a real-time DNA analyzer, and what they call a ‘rubber mirror’, which would map the imperfections of your eye and allow the creation of perfect corrective lenses.

‘We could fit a cow with glasses’, says David Bishop, vice president of nanotech-nology research at the labs.

But along with purely scientific uses for nano-devices, many companies hope to turn a profit – the motivation behind Cleveland-based Five Star Technologies and its cough formula. Nano-emulsions and dispersions made using a patented technique called controlled-flow cavitation make the cough syrup adhere to the throat better.
Gerry Weimann, Five Star’s CEO, doesn’t think consumers really care about the ‘nano’ aspect of the syrup, which is made by another company called Improvita Health Products.

‘Most people are just looking for a good experience – not a lot of people wonder about the technology behind it’, says Weimann.

Posted by InvestigateDesign at 11:47 PM | Comments (0)

TECHNOLOGY: Dec 05, AU Edition

What makes a storm a killer? Scientists are searching for the early warning signs, say Jeremy Manier and E.A. Torrier

The two hurricanes that roared into the Gulf of Mexico earlier this year were identical in nearly every way. Born in the same region near Haiti, the storms called Katrina and Rita reached monster status in the warm waters off Florida and swirled toward major cities along the coast.

But before they struck, the two hurricanes underwent subtly different yet fateful changes deep within them that resulted in Katrina reaching land with considerably more destructive power – and a far greater death toll – than Rita would nearly four weeks later.

That divergence is stirring ardent debate among experts eager to build better theories of what separates less intense storms from those that become historic killers. The battle of ideas will help shape how experts study hurricanes and prepare for the next big one.

One explanation in this case may be the movement of deep, warm currents in the Gulf that fed Katrina but slipped to the side of Rita days before that storm reached land. Some researchers believe a Gulf system called the loop current played a major role in the evolution of Katrina and Rita.

During both hurricanes, government scientists deployed a battery of experimental tools to measure deep ocean temperatures and currents where the storms passed through the Gulf. Experts hope the new information will improve forecasters’ ability to predict the intensity of future hurricanes.

“We’re looking at what we did with these storms as a poster child for techniques we might use in the future to get better observations on the interaction between hurricanes and the ocean”, said Peter Black, a meteorologist with the Hurricane Research Division of the United States’ National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Hurricanes are among the most complex weather systems that bedevil meteorologists, in part because of the peculiar way the storms can change their nearby ocean environment, which in turn can affect the power of the hurricane.

One way to think of a hurricane is as a vast engine that converts ocean heat – its fuel – into high winds. A shortage of fuel or other glitches in the engine can reduce the storm’s strength.

An example of this is when a hurricane’s winds churn up cold water from the ocean depths, robbing the storm of the warm water it needs to sustain high winds. Deep, warm currents such as the loop current in the Gulf can reduce that effect. They provide more fuel for the storm to rage without picking up colder water from below.

Both Katrina and Rita strengthened as they passed over the loop current, experts said. Katrina headed straight from the current to the shore, where it unleashed destruction across a heavily populated region. Rita was just as powerful at its peak, but it took longer to reach shore after it moved off the deep current, losing energy along the way.

“Rita peaked early”, said Kerry Emanuel, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “It was on its way out when it hit the coast.”

Researchers have recognized the importance of that interaction between hurricanes and the ocean only in the last 10 years or so, Emanuel said. In fact, some experts at the National Hurricane Center in Miami still doubt that deep temperatures played a decisive role in building up the two storms.

“That stuff about the loop current – it doesn’t hold water, so to speak”, said Stacy Stewart, a hurricane specialist at the Hurricane Center. “You have to have a lot of other conditions right to allow the storm to extract energy from the water.”

She pointed out that other factors also affected Rita’s decline, including a lack of moisture in the hurricane’s middle levels. As it hit land, the storm also was undergoing eye wall replacement, a poorly understood phenomenon that happens in cycles with the most powerful hurricanes and often saps their strength.

Katrina and Rita were unusual from the start, in that they were “Bahama busters” that took shape in the Caribbean rather than off the coast of Africa, which spawns most of the storms that become hurricanes. Hugh Willoughby, a hurricane researcher at Florida International University, said the wind shear – a change in wind speed at different altitudes – was too great for large storms to develop near Africa.

That wasn’t the case in the Caribbean, where Katrina and Rita formed within a few hundred miles of each other.

“They were almost like twins,” Willoughby said.

At 11 a.m. on Aug. 24, the National Hurricane Center announced the formation of Tropical Depression 12, the storm that became Katrina, about 200 miles southeast of Miami.

Actually, it was an energizing small squall that started off the coast of Africa but never formed into a storm because of the wind shear. Some of the formation came from a different tropical depression that ran out of gas.

Tropical Depression 14 was spotted on Sept. 17 at 11 p.m., about 500 miles southeast of Miami. This was the birth of Rita.

The storms were nourished by the exceptionally warm waters of the Atlantic, a pattern since 1995. But in both cases, high pressure across much of the United States blocked the storms from turning northward, a trend for much of the last two years. Instead, they headed west over the open ocean.

“Both would have turned otherwise,” said Keith Blackwell, a hurricane researcher at the University of South Alabama, “and we would have heard from them no more.”

In the Gulf of Mexico, both hurricanes moved over the loop current, which moves around the Gulf and exits south of Florida into the Atlantic, becoming part of the Gulf Stream current.

Black of NOAA’s Hurricane Research Division said the data his team gathered this year should help improve computer models used to predict hurricane intensity. Forecasting intensity remains a glaring weak spot in hurricane models, experts say, even as the ability to anticipate where a hurricane will go has improved greatly.

The workhorses of Black’s research are small, disposable probes called AXBT devices, which are dropped from planes and measure the temperature of the ocean at depths up to 1,000 feet. Black got his probes as Navy surplus, leftover from Cold War efforts to track enemy submarines using sonar.

He said it would help attempts to gauge hurricane intensity if the US government would buy more temperature probes and make their deployment a routine part of hurricane tracking.

“We’re just about out of these hand-me-downs,” Black said.

Posted by InvestigateDesign at 10:41 PM | Comments (0)

TECHNOLOGY: Nov 05, AU Edition

A new internet numbering system could computerize everything, reports Brian Kladko

The Internet is running out of real estate. Just like a city, the Internet’s virtual space is divvied up into addresses – not e-mail addresses, but Internet Protocol (IP) addresses. Each numerical address represents a piece of the Internet, and you can’t connect to the Internet without one.

The current version of the Internet has more than four billion IP addresses. But soon, that might not be enough.

Fortunately, there is a solution: a new system that will not only provide an address for every person on earth, but every animal, every electronic device, every mechanical part. Everything, not just everyone, could be connected.

“Because you have the ability to link everything to everything else, you could conceivably have your cell phone control up to 250 different electronic appliances in your home”, explains Alex Lightman, an inventor, writer, entrepreneur and one of the most ardent boosters of the new system, called Internet Protocol version 6.

IPv6, as it’s known, is a set of international standards, or protocols, that allow computers to understand each other. It will replace IPv4, the standard that has enabled the Internet to function since its creation 35 years ago.

IPv4 worked fine when the Internet was used by a bunch of computer scientists. Now that everyone wants a piece of it, IPv4 is seen as increasingly obsolete.

Most people aren’t even aware of their IP addresses, because most people don’t own one: the addresses belong to government agencies, universities and companies. When someone logs on from home, they borrow an address from a pool of addresses owned by their Internet provider. Although there are still 1.3 billion addresses yet to be assigned, that’s not enough to accommodate two of the most exciting trends of the Internet – high-speed mobile computing and Internet telephony. Both technologies depend on the ability of two computers to communicate directly with each other. Every mobile device, for example, will need its own IP address to tap into the Internet with a broadband connection.

The U.S. Department of Defense has realized the possibilities. It’s converting all of its computerized systems to IPv6 by 2008, so that it can create a “Global Information Grid” – a military network that would provide commanders in the Pentagon and front-line soldiers a wealth of information about battle conditions.

But drumming up interest among private companies, and their customers, is more difficult. So proponents are dangling the prospect of an automated, remote-controlled future: one that will be made possible by giving an address to every device, not just computers.

IPv6, for example, could make it easier to get a taxi when you’re getting drenched. In Japan, sensors with their own IP addresses have been attached to taxis’ windshield wipers.

When the wipers start moving in response to rain, that information is collected through the Internet. Taxi companies use the information to redirect their fleets to rain-soaked locations.

If ordinary household devices can go online, manufacturers could monitor them to make sure they’re working right, or diagnose a problem when they’re not.

If a digital video recorder has its own address, the owner could tap into it from another city and download a show it had previously recorded.

In other words, the Internet won’t just be about sitting in front of a computer, reading Web sites or tapping out messages. It will be about controlling the minutiae of our lives, down to the most mundane details.

“Your refrigerator could call the store when it needed to and order more milk because it would know you were out of it”, explains Doug Barton, general manager of the international organization that distributes addresses. “There are some pretty grandiose ideas behind some of these things.”

When addresses were first doled out, the United States – which invented the Internet – got most of them, even though many are going unused to this day. But when Asian countries finally got on board, they couldn’t get nearly as many, which is another factor that is pushing many to advocate for IPv6. At one point, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology had more addresses than China.

“There is a real sense of injustice about how the addresses have been provided over the years”, said Jim Bound, a Hewlett Packard computer engineer who heads a group promoting IPv6 in North America.

Thanks to a reform of the way addresses are assigned, as well as a technological workaround that allows many network users to share one address, the depletion of addresses that some people had predicted just a few years ago has still not come to pass.

But Chinese officials continue to complain about a disparity.
Countries throughout East Asia see IPv6 as a remedy to past wrongs, as well as their best hope of catching up to, or surpassing, the United States.

IPv6 conferences in Japan and China attract thousands, and Japanese prime ministers even mention it in speeches.

Some IPv6 missionaries, such as Lightman, say the United States will pay for its complacency. As the rest of the world moves to a different standard and starts slapping addresses on everything with a circuit, the United States will lose its technological edge.

“We’re a bunch of rubes with respect to the new Internet”, Lightman says.

But even some IPv6 boosters, such as Bound, say it’s only a matter of time before companies realize its potential.

“We are not the overweight, sloppy ex-heavyweight champion”, says Bound, who helped select the IPv6 standard. “What we are is someone who’s ahead. And therefore, for new technology, we have the luxury of operating at a slower pace. We’ll get there when we need to get there.”

Posted by InvestigateDesign at 07:34 PM | Comments (0)

TECHNOLOGY: Mar 05, AU Edition


Paul Wright takes a caffeinated tour of Sydney’s suburbs to test go-anywhere broadband

The setup procedure for my new Unwired broadband modem was extremely fast and friendly. Four clicks and I was off to the car to test whether mobile internet access really means mobile as in “while driving from place to place”, or mobile as in dangling in one spot while slowly turning around and around while singing “It’s a Small World After All” as the parents weep quietly in the corner of the baby’s room because all they want is just one night of sleep, is that too much to ask?

First stop: Birdies’ Cafe, Alexandria. Fast call to the Good Lady Wife because I forgot to bring the demo password, and I was off into the wild blue internet. Popular myth has the first telephone call being from Alexander Graham Bell to his assistant Watson to help him with an acid burn. In a remarkable coincidence, the first Unwired email I received was an eerie reflection of Bell’s plea; it begins “Mr Watson, I need help get $93 million out of the Bank of Lagos.”

The tests were performed using a Toshiba Pentium 3 600 notebook, test websites chosen for load speed were the Sydney Morning Herald, as a popular local website with medium graphics content, and, a very popular US website with low graphic content. Most tests were performed in business hours.I recommend turning on the “Reception Assistant” whenever going online from a new location. Without this, there is no way to tell why the system is not connecting.

Cafe Bianchi, Summer Hill. Reception: four bars. Download speed: good. Watching: movie trailers from Coffee: excellent. People: ugly.

The modem has no battery indicator, so user won’t notice when it tanks. Like the reception, this is irritating in extremis, and means one more thing to check when a page won’t refresh. Also, the modem needs to be physically switched off after use. This is an entirely new habit to form, and for the first few days, expect the modem battery to be as flat as a pancake every morning.

Starbucks, Park Street, City. Reception: off the chart. Load speed: excellent. Service: where’s my triple espresso?! These people are moving at the speed of mud.

Make sure the computer you are using has an ethernet port. That’s the one that looks like an overweight telephone socket. Without it, you’ll have to deal with the mutants at Tandy as they gibber incomprehensibly about what sort of cable you need while making insulting comments about your manhood because you actually require assistance with your computer.

Big roundabout, Sydney Park, Alexandria. Reception: poor; connection dropped out. Repeated laps of roundabout failed to regain signal. Other motorists increasingly rude. Decided not to explain reason for driving behavior. Left before police arrived.Since this is a free demo account, I decided to test e-mail load speed by signing up for every possible spam site, porn offer and scam letter I could get my hands on. I want every part of my body enhanced and enlarged with cheap generic medicines supplied to me by the wife of the former Chief of the Army of Nigeria. And Hot College Chicks will then Want To Meet Me Now.

Blackwattle Bay park, walking the dog. Or rather, sitting down while the dog chases the trams on the overhead railway. Computer says it has many, many spyware programs. Decide to download and install Ad-aware software. Reception: hovering between 2-3 bars. Download speed for a 2Mb program file: 8 minutes. I mean, sitting in the middle of a sunny park, no visible means of communication, and it takes 8 minutes to reach out across the other side of the world to get a free program that will prevent marketers from tracking my internet movements? Eight minutes! May as well be living in Russia!

As an aside, it’s worth noting that the software used by Unwired cannot be exported to Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya or North Korea. So if you were planning on making a killing re-exporting wireless broadband to countries that still communicate by writing notes on their enemy’s livers, think again.

Note to Unwired: when I’m driving over the Harbour Bridge and need to email ahead to have someone open the wine, I do not want to have to wait to get a connection. A man is not a camel, you know.

A glance through the User Guide produces some interesting examples of Tech-Speak. My favourite came at the top of the document, where they urged me to put in the Quick-Start CD to assist in installing the User Guide. Perhaps this is included to throw those annoying North Koreans off the scent.
When using the Unwired modem in a public space, the signal strength can be enhanced by holding the modem up higher, placing it next to a window, or moving g it about the room. While this may have an effect on connection speed, it will definitely make sure everyone in the restaurant knows you’re an Unwired user and therefore at the bleeding edge of technology. As with every other broadband service provider, reading Unwired’s pricing plans rapidly causes glazed-eye induced bouts of keyboard face. If your boredom threshold is so high you are willing to pay extra for the grass-growing cable channel, I commend you to the pricing plan page. For the rest of us, I recommend choosing blindly, and hope there isn’t a kidney forfeit clause in the fine print.
Interesting thought: will mobile broadband spell an end to fights over bar bets? Who will resort to fisticuffs over the level of influence Seneca had over Pliny the Elder (well it comes up where I drink), when the dashing Unwired user can swiftly settle the matter to the satisfaction of all parties?
One significant problem with the Unwired system is that you can’t tell if it will work in your house or place of business, until you actually purchase the whole deal, get it delivered, install it, and spend a few hours shouting at the screen to get it running. There is a 30-day money-back guarantee, but in the meantime, you’ve parted with some hundreds of the readies, and signed up for a year-long contract, which you now have to inveigle your way out of. There probably isn’t a way around this, but it’s still annoying. For instance, the on-line mapping of coverage in Sydney tells me I have access from my house. I relayed this slowly and loudly to the Connection Assistant, to little avail. No connection.
All in all, Unwired is a nifty system that portends serious changes to the way we will do business in the future. For home use, it is more cumbersome, and less reliable, than a wireless LAN, but Unwired still offers speed and big-time convenience for road warriors. To say nothing of that increasingly rare commodity, major pose value.

Posted by InvestigateDesign at 05:34 PM | Comments (0)

TECHNOLOGY: May 05, AU Edition

Television-showroom.jpgMUST-SEE TV
Josephine Cooper reports that Pioneer’s latest plasma TVs are finally living up to the technology’s promise

Plasma screens are the trophy wives of the television world. Seductive in their shiny slimness, deep-pocketed men (often in league with their partners) have been damning the cost and throwing over their old, boxy boob tubes for these new, younger, skinnier models from almost the first day they came on the market.

But that doesn’t mean these new relationships have always been happy: along with the initial entry price, flat-panel plasma units generally require expensive accessories such as tuners to get them out of bed in the morning. What’s more, while they start out as bright young things, the dirty little secret of this wall candy is that they are also subject to burnout: leave it on too long, or with the contrast set too high, and the bright, vibrant colours of the unit’s first heady days start to go drab and fade. Furthermore, from their first day out of the box, plasmas have a problem handling dark colours, especially black, properly: because every gas cell in a plasma unit is on all the time, and because there is no black backdrop as in a standard TV, it takes a lot of power to come close to displaying the dark range of the spectrum properly. Even at the best of times, plasma owners have for years had to live with blotchy being the new black.

Plasmas have what might be called a long memory as well; many users report that just a couple of weeks of watching, say, CNN is enough to burn the network’s logo into the screen for good. (Think of how a bank’s logo and welcome message is always faintly visible in an ATM screen, no matter what is being displayed. Now imagine having spent several thousand dollars for the privilege of that burn-in.) Part of this has been avoidable by keeping contrast set low and the channels flipping during the first few weeks of a unit’s life, when such burn-in is most likely to occur, but until recently, it’s also just been a problem that plasma users have had to either learn to live with or figure out tricks to avoid.

And in what may be the ultimate insult, many plasma buyers are discovering that despite all the money they spent on them, their new loves aren’t really up for a long Sunday afternoon watching sports.

Although manufacturers have been struggling with the problem for years, until recently, most plasma units suffered from all sorts of unpleasant (and unpleasant-sounding) syndromes when they tried to handle fast-motion action of sport, such as jitters and smearing.

Unlike a standard TV, the plasma screen simply can’t keep up with the action, which means that on many units, a flying football or cricket ball will appear like a comet, complete with tail. It can also mean problems with lip-syncing: depending on the quality of image
being fed it, sound doesn’t always keep up with motion, and everyone starts to look like they’re in a poorly-dubbed old Japanese movie.

On the flip side, the good news is that this young technology is great with the kids: plasmas are absolutely tailor-made for digital productions such as Pixar movies, which explains why flicks like Finding Nemo and Toy Story get so much play at the electronics retailers.

It’s all almost enough to make a plasma buyer want to go back, tail between his legs, to his old conventional unit: ‘I want you back. I’m sorry I dallied with that new technology. Remember all the great times we had watching the Ashes together?’

Or, as one online commentator put it recently, ‘Plasma TVs cost a hilarious amount of money, and are ridiculously non-durable. If you’ll excuse me, I’ll go back to my still-good-looking, several-years-old rear projection big screen TV.’

Plasma screen manufacturers have started to realize that they have a real problem, both in terms of the real limitations of their product and, just as if not more important in the tough world of the marketplace, reputation. Makers of plasma units at all price and size levels are all waking up to the fact that they need to either lift their game, or get out of it. Sony, for one, has reportedly decided to withdraw its plasma screens from the market, and Fujitsu has sold half its own plasma business – there were just too many problems.

On the other hand, electronics maker Pioneer has decided to take things in the other direction and break through some of the barriers that have become all too apparent in the flat-panel market and create what might be called next-generation plasma TV. And it seems to be working: their latest models, (the PDP505HD and PDP435HD, coming in at 50 and 43 diagonal inches respectively) received top honours from EISA, the largest editorial multimedia organisation in Europe.

Pioneer has so far succeeded by tackling head-on the biggest problems of plasma TVs thus far. For one thing, the whole issue of colours and skin tones and natural-looking reproduction has been solved through what they call their ‘Advanced Super CLEAR Drive System’: basically, this means that their panels can recreate a ridiculously huge number of colours, 2.79 billion to be exact. This is a huge advantage when it comes to faithfully reproducing colours at the dark end of the spectrum, ensuring that blacks are truly black. Unlike previous plasma units, which were great only for certain limited types of programming (especially those demonstrated at the shop), these are screens that really are good for everyday TV watching.

A second advantage of Pioneer’s new product is that they have ditched the traditional glass panel filter that traditionally sits on the front of plasma units. Because the glass filter often had the annoying side effect of creating multiple reflections between the filter itself and the display unit, Pioneer developed ‘direct colour filter’ technology that not only is crisper (and lighter) than old-fashioned glass panels, but also improves contrast, making images clearer in bright locations.

One more thing that Pioneer has done right: They’ve recognized that there are more places for a flat-panel unit to go then just on a wall, and as such have come up with a pretty schmick-looking stand to hold the thing. Free speakers are a nice extra touch, too, even though the recommended retail price of the two units have just dropped by a thousand dollars a piece – the 43-inch model clocks in at $6,999, while the top-end 50-incher will set you back $8,999.

Posted by InvestigateDesign at 12:42 PM | Comments (0)

TECHNOLOGY: June 05, AU Edition

sonyericsson.jpgCALL BAITING
Mobile phone phishers will always have Paris, writes Chris Cobb. Will they have you too?

Paris Hilton may have unwittingly provided us a glimpse of a new technology menace when telephone numbers from her personal address book appeared on the Internet in February, after her mobile phone was apparently hacked.

It appears as though she may have company in the not-too-distant future, Internet security experts say.

The proliferation of ‘smart’ phones, which are mobile phones with the brains of a personal computer, means users increasingly will confront the same risks as desktop and laptop Web surfers and e-mailers – including spam, worms, viruses and phishing.

Phishing, an e-mail ploy to trick computer users into revealing personal data such as credit-card numbers and passwords, has grown dramatically in the past year to become the scourge of the wired world.

The number of phishing messages jumped dramatically in the second half of last year – 300 percent to 1,000 percent by various counts – and the total continues to grow, says Alfred Huger, senior director of engineering for Symantec Security Response, a Cupertino, Calif., maker of anti-virus software and other security products.

The cost of phishing scams to consumers and corporations – estimated by one expert at several billion dollars – is hard to determine precisely because financial institutions are reluctant to provide such sensitive data, but phishing is on the increase and becoming more sophisticated.

‘The low-hanging fruit has been swept up’, Huger says, ‘but people are having success at it. More people are coming into the game.’
Phishing hasn’t shown itself to be a serious threat yet on mobile phones, but it may be just a matter of time.

‘As more financial applications, like shopping and banking, become accessible on mobile phones, they will be targeted by hackers,‘ says Stephen Cobb, a St. Augustine, Fla., information-security expert and author.

Along with the threat of phishing, mobile phone users likely will have to deal with worms and viruses, which could steal private information, delete files or worse, experts said.

‘It hasn’t happened yet, but when it hits it, it could hit spectacularly’, says Richard Ford, a research professor at the Center for Information Assurance at Florida Institute of Technology.

‘One nasty cell-phone virus could bring down an entire network.’

One bright spot is the diversity of operating systems in the smart-phone arena. Unlike the PC world, where Microsoft Windows is the dominant OS, the mobile sector is home to several distinct OS.

‘That makes it more challenging for hackers’, says Philip Marshall, an analyst for the Yankee Group, a tech research firm. ‘They can’t attack as many systems with a single virus. They have to modify the virus for different phones.’

Wireless-industry officials said steps are being taken to try to head off such problems.

‘We’ve learned from all the worm and virus attacks on PCs, and we’re aware of what can happen,’ said Eric McGee, spokeswoman for Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, a Washington, D.C., trade group.

‘The problem will get worse before it gets better’, says Stephen Cobb.

‘The consumer has been sold the Web as a wonderful place to bank, shop and meet with friends, but without appropriate disclaimers as to the dangers.’

‘Phishers exist off the gullibility of the average user.’

Posted by InvestigateDesign at 11:07 AM | Comments (0)

TECHNOLOGY: Apr 05, AU Edition


Nokia’s feature-packed 9300 communicator over-delivers on just about every score

Ialmost got arrested because of the Nokia 9300, I liked it so much. I had just gotten the handset to review the day before, and had spent the previous 24 hours eagerly trying out every one of its bells and whistles when, out of sheer exuberance, I turned the thing on in a place I should not have: aboard a QANTAS puddle-jumper that had just landed in Canberra.

Now, we were safely on the ground and the door to the plane was open when I decided to turn it on and check my voicemail, so I just assumed that any danger that a rogue SMS could have sent us hurtling to a fiery death had well and truly passed.

As it turns out, they do things differently in our nation’s capital.
Not only did a stewardess practically yank the thing out of my hand as I stepped out onto the tarmac, but as I walked to the terminal a burly fellow passenger who claimed to be part from the Transport Safety Bureau clapped me on the shoulder saying, “Mate, you cannot have that thing on anywhere airside at this airport! It carries the potential of jail and a very heavy fine!”

Perhaps he thought I had paid retail for the thing – just about anywhere you look, the pricetag tips over into four-figures territory – and needed to have a little more of my wealth redistributed.
By the time he was done, we were through the little building and I was diving out the door into a waiting cab, briefcase in one hand, schmick silvery mobile in the other, one step ahead of the law.

Brushes with authority aside (I doubt I would have been so eager to play with a $49 pre-paid jobby), the Nokia 9300 is a truly life-changing little bit of technology. Yes, it’s a good deal bigger than most phones on the market, but that’s because there’s more to it than just about any other handset available today. For one thing, it flips open to reveal a little QWERTY-layout keyboard which, though too small for even the slenderest fingers to type comfortably on, works great when held in both hands with each thumb working one side.

Above the keyboard is a little colour screen that is small but rich and crisp enough to manage a Windows-style operating system – which is where the thing’s real grunt and growl becomes apparent. One can surf the Web (though for me this was more fun in theory than in practice; I may have just been unlucky but attempts to load even quick, text-heavy sites took forever) and, more usefully, send and receive e-mail from one’s own ISP’s POP3 server as well. And, happily, it’s no more difficult to configure than Outlook Express.

(Another advantage of the screen: there’s a great little built-in golf game that shows up a treat. Not only does it save your round mid-play – allowing one to play a quick hole in a free moment and come back to the round later – but for me at least, it perfectly mimicked my playing style. As in real life, gimme putts just sometimes failed to drop, and even when my electronic setup and swing were completely in order, my drives still sometimes just skittered harmlessly along the ground, coming to rest just past the ladies’ tees).

Some of the other features seem a little less necessary, if only because the idea of working on something so small takes some getting used to – both physically and mentally. Not only does one have to get one’s small-motor skills back up to snuff to work the keys and joystick that serves as a mouse, but I found something unnerving about the fact that I suddenly had a phone with a better display and more available memory than my computer. Although it is possible to do so, I don’t think I ever see myself knocking up a quick Excel-compatible spreadsheet or PowerPoint-compatible presentation on my mobile. If that sort of work is required on the road, I’ll bring along my laptop.
But the Nokia 9300’s real selling point, I think, is to the cashed-up technophile road warrior: with its own suite of PC software and docking station (a.k.a. “Connectivity Desk Stand”), the phone becomes an organiser par excellence. For those who travel a lot for business, especially overseas, one can easily see how the 9300 would be a God-send. Between the phone’s tri-band EGSM capabilities (in other words, it will work on five continents), the ability to grab e-mail on the go and write coherent responses without having to hit the “2” key three times just to type a “c”, and the contact and personal organizing software which syncs everything up with a home or office PC, those who spend anything approaching serious time travelling overseas for business will find this thing indispensable.

Finally, some quibbles: Why doesn’t the 9300 have a camera? With so much in the way of communications capabilities, it seems a waste not to be able to take a happy snap on the thing and then e-mail it around the world.

Also, a speakerphone function would be nice as well; while obviously not polite for, say, shared offices, the one-touch loudspeaker on my own Nokia flip-phone is a lifesaver in loud spaces, and I was surprised by how much I found myself missing it once I started using the 9300.

Ultimately, the best thing I could compare this phone to would be a big super-luxury car – say, a Bentley. Oversized, more powerful than most people need, and many times more pricey than something more utilitarian that will still get you from A to B. Admittedly, the Nokia 9300 is not for everyone, but for those who can and will really take advantage of all its features, it remains a great piece of engineering and a really useful toy.

Posted by InvestigateDesign at 02:52 AM | Comments (0)

TECHNOLOGY: Sep 05, AU Edition

treo650_340x719.jpgGETTING SMARTER
Have laptop? Get a PDA smartphone to make yourself fully mobile, suggests Ian Wishart

Stuck in traffic, and desperately trying to remember the name of that Turkish café further up the line so I could phone in an order ahead. Could I recall it? Not in a lifetime. I only did a little hooch in my youth, but I swear I can feel the loss of every single one of those brain cells two decades down the track.

My options were limited: try and play ‘guess the name you’re after’ with Directory Assistance, or simply turn up at the café and wait a further 20 minutes for the kebabs to cook. Neither option appealed.
Enter, the PalmOne Treo 650 smartphone. For a magazine that utilises the latest technology and software, the efficiency gains from making staff fully mobile have been tremendous. Even so, the Treo 650 has been a voyage of discovery. Combining all the bells and whistles of the Palm range with a mobile phone, the Treo range offers a versatility lacking in other PDAs. Frankly, I’d been sceptical of the PDA craze largely because I couldn’t see much point in them. Those who have laptops, use them. Those who don’t, use PDAs. Or so I thought. To a large extent, this remains my perspective. I still can’t see the merit in trying to do screeds of real work on a handheld device – texting is great for teenagers but you’re not exactly going to write King Lear on a mobile phone, are you? Sure, any PDA worth its name offers synchronicity with laptops or desktop PCs, but unless the PDA is fully wireless and independent in its own right then it still relies on said PC or laptop for its internet access which – to me – seems a little like putting an eagle on a leash. Great, so your PDA can link through your PC to go online. Yippee! Why not just use the PC to go online in the first place.

Ah, but the PalmOne Treo is an eagle set to wing.

Stuck in traffic, brain ticking over in that aforementioned mental dash for some kind of solution to my Turkish kebab dilemma, when suddenly a third option springs to mind: use the Treo’s mobile internet to Google a Turkish café in the suburb concerned, and see what turns up. Within seconds, not only had the café-whose-name-escaped-me popped up on the Treo’s screen, but the phone’s intuitive web interface gave me the option of dialling the café phone number at the tap of a stylus. And, after making the call, the experience was consummated by Treo offering to add the café to the address book.

Oh so easy, and it all took about 35 seconds – less time than it takes to navigate Telstra’s service menu.

The beauty of the Treo is that its web browser looks and works like a full monty browser: you get pictures, hyperlinks, the works. The PalmOne software supplied with the 650 optimises the internet so that websites download more quickly than you’d expect to your mobile phone.
As outlined above, Investigate magazine staff are equipped with the latest notebook computers and Telecom’s EVDO mobile broadband (for the NZ edition) and Optus mobile broadband in Australia. Thus, for heavy duty mobile journalism/production demands, we’re generally using notebooks. Where the PalmOne range slots in, however, is on those occasions where a notebook is too bulky or overt to be useful. The supplied software, again, provides an interface for Microsoft Office documents (Word, Excel or Powerpoint) to be optimised automatically and uploaded to the Treo, where I can either reference them in meetings or edit them on the run before emailing them to a colleague via the Treo’s online email function.

That email function, in the first instance, is a programme called Versamail 3.0, which comes as standard with the Treo. Others, like SnapperMail, can be purchased for a small extra fee. Initially it was the Versamail programme that gave me some grief on the phone. Thanks to interconnectivity issues between Vodafone (suppliers of the 650) and Telecom Xtra, one first has to purchase an extra service from Xtra for $2 a month before you can download email and – as I was to discover – a technical quirk with the Versamail software meant you couldn’t upload email to send via your Xtra account, you had to find another email provider to do this with. Conveniently, Vodafone allow the use of their own SMTP outgoing mail server so that problem was eventually solved. Alternatively, I could have purchased SnapperMail which works perfectly well with Xtra’s SMTP servers. The software integrates with Microsoft Outlook, although not with Business Contact Manager – if you use BCM you’ll need to select all your business contacts and copy them into the Outlook Contact directory in order for the Treo to see them.

The Treo also comes equipped with a digital camera and VGA video camera – again, a useful function both for home and business. Images and documents are either stored on the Treo’s 32mb internal memory or on an SD expansion card of your choice.

Bluetooth is standard on the 650, making for easy wireless synchronisation with the notebook computer or any other Bluetooth-enabled device you wish.

The 650 isn’t cheap – at around $1,150 plus GST it’s the price of a baseline laptop – but its versatility complements an existing IT setup. You wouldn’t purchase a PDA if you didn’t have a computer, and while you can get great PDAs for $400 upwards, without the mobile phone and internet coverage they’re not necessarily the best value for money if you need portability AND mobility. On the other hand, the Treo also comes in a cheaper format, the Treo 600, which is a similar phone designed for Telecom’s CDMA and 1X networks, rather than GSM. The Telecom version is on offer at $499, but differs slightly in that it doesn’t offer Bluetooth and its battery is built in, which means once the battery’s charge cycle is shot it’s a bit of a mission to fix.

Because of Telecom’s mobile internet framework, the 600 is reportedly slightly faster than the 650 online, but there’s not a lot in it. PalmOne’s agents in New Zealand tested their phones against the state of the art Harrier EVDO unit offered by Telecom, and found that on the Apple site, for example, the Palm units were only around 30% slower to download pages, despite the vast differences between the mobile internet and mobile broadband services on paper. That said, if speed is of the essence then you’re likely to be using a full EVDO wireless card on your notebook anyway and sucking webpages out of the ether at 500kbs. EVDO on handhelds is still not as fast as it is for computers.
Significantly, both Telecom and Vodafone will be offering much faster mobile broadband speeds between now and the middle of next year as network improvements are rolled out. Even so, the 650 is plenty fast enough for my purposes, and I’m an internet speed freak.

Posted by InvestigateDesign at 12:32 AM | Comments (0)

April 29, 2007

Dragon Naturally Speaking 9.0: Feb 07 issue



Ian Wishart discovers speech recognition software is light years ahead of where it used to be

It was in the mid 90s that Dragon and I first became acquainted, and I won’t say it was love at first sight. I remember walking into a Noel Leeming store and being told to come back in a week when the new, Dragon 2.0 version would be out - “much improved” on version one, the salesman assured me.

I bought it, and given the limitations of the old 486 processors (remember those?) and the software, it worked OK. Good enough to be novel, not good enough to write a novel, if you get the drift, and certainly not as fast as speaking or as fast as a good typist.

As a writer and book publisher, there were however certain tasks – like dictating someone else’s handwritten book manuscript – that made speech recognition software useful.

I vaguely recall purchasing Dragon 4.0 at some point then misplacing it, and so purchasing Dragon 7.0 a couple of years ago when, again, I needed to dictate 50 pages of transcripts of a major Maori hui dating from 1861 for an Investigate article.

It would be fair to say I was impressed by Dragon 7.0 and its ability, once I had trained it, to handle complex Maori tribal names and places like Whakarewarewa. Nothing wrong with version 7 at all and I still have it on one of the office computers, but when Mistral Software – the NZ agents for Nuance who now own Dragon – sent through the latest release, Dragon Naturally Speaking 9.0, I have to say I was blown away.

The speed at which the software now translates as you speak is incredible, and the accuracy is stunning to boot. We used it over the New Year break here at Investigate to compile the John Key/Bill English interviews in this issue – I simply played back the interviews on my MP3 recorder and live-dictated the questions and answers into the computer. The software transcribed so rapidly (Dragon boast 160 words per minute) that most of the time it was waiting for me, while I was trying to repeat a politician’s words on the wing so to speak whilst dropping the ums, ahs and pauses.

Like much of the software, and for that matter hardware, on the market today, Dragon 9.0 is capable of far much more than the average punter will use. In some programmes that’s a negative because they’re so complex to navigate and unlock. In Dragon’s case the company has always erred on the side of idiots, offering a package that allows users to either dip their toes in or plunge in. Like peeling away the layers of an onion, regular use of Dragon 9.0 turns up new tricks and new options on a semi-intuitive basis.

It can, for example, scan a downloaded voice memo from a digital recorder, Palm handheld or Pocket PC device, and automatically transcribe and type it out. Bluetooth headphone support is built in, allowing you to pace the room wirelessly while dictating. If the idea of bells and whistles excites you, why stop at dictation? Dragon is also pitching virtually keyboard-free use of your computer simply by talking to it.

There’s a memorable scene from the 1986 movie Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, where Scottie confronts a 1980s desktop computer and tries desperately to make it respond to his voice. It was to be a further 11 years before the first Dragon programme hit shop shelves to help make Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s futuristic vision real.
Dragon 9.0, however, is itself galaxies away from its 1997 ancestor. Nuance are boasting 99% accuracy with the latest version and, for the first time, no lengthy training process. In previous versions time had to be spent reading set scripts for yonks while the computer got used to your voice patterns. No longer. In what Nuance claim is a world first, it’s virtually out of the box and go, and the software learns intuitively the more you work with it. Streamlined processing means coughs, sneezes, ums and ahs are all screened out, so they no longer appear on screen like a swearword in an Asterix comic.

As an office tool it’s excellent. As a homework aid, it allows students to much more quickly add passages from books or encyclopedias to their work

There are specialized versions available for the legal and medical professions, and the standard version of Dragon 9.0 kicks in at NZ$259 with a “Preferred” edition aimed at small business/home business users at $449, and a Professional edition for corporate and network use available as well.

Posted by Ian Wishart at 08:55 PM | Comments (0)

January 29, 2007

When laptops go bang

When laptops go bang

Alex Goldfayn assesses the risks of inflight fires caused by laptop batteries

Distraught and scrambling off the United Airlines plane, the man ran out of the jet bridge past passengers waiting to get on board, clutching his laptop. Smoke poured from it. He ran to a relatively unoccupied area of the gate and threw the Lenovo computer on the ground. It ignited, shooting a 60cm flame upward.

"A few people yelled `terrorist,' and ran away," said Tom Mustaine, 30, who was sitting at an adjoining gate and witnessed the event at Los Angeles International Airport.

"The thing gave off a terrible, chemical smoke. It burned for about two minutes before they extinguished it. The whole gate area filled with noxious smoke. People were gagging."

This incident, which occurred in September, was the latest, most public, and perhaps the most dramatic in a string of laptop
battery fires.

It prompted Lenovo to recall more than 500,000 of its notebook batteries worldwide.

So far, more than 5 million notebook batteries in the United States - and nearly 10 million worldwide - have been recalled this year by manufacturers including Dell, Apple, Panasonic, Sony and Toshiba.

Every one of the recalled batteries has one thing in common.

"They were all Sony batteries," says Richard Stern, associate director at the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (, the government agency that oversees consumer product recalls.

The recent spate of battery recalls falls under Stern's jurisdiction. The problematic units appear to have come from the same rather large "batch."

"It's a quality-control issue," Stern explains. "Sony has reported that for a certain batch of their lithium-ion production, there were metal particles located in a certain part of the battery cell that, under certain circumstances, could penetrate the insulating material inside the cell and create an internal short circuit."

Last month in Japan, a laptop battery sparked in a Fujitsu employee's hands as he was retrieving the battery from a user's home as part of the company's recall.

In June, a Dell laptop ignited in a conference room.

The United Airlines passenger's laptop that went up in flames at LAX started giving off smoke when he was seated on the plane.

My burning question is, what would happen if a laptop ignites in flight?

"On the plane, it would have been catastrophic," says Mustaine, who witnessed the LAX laptop fire. "I think there would have been an enormous panic. The smoke filled a large part of the terminal. It definitely would have filled the plane. It's an extreme fire causing an extreme inability to breathe."

What if a laptop ignites in an overhead compartment? Or under the seat in front of you?

Or worse, in the baggage compartment of the plane?

United Airlines, apparently not eager to discuss this issue in detail, responded to my inquiry with this e-mail: "When it is safe to use electronic equipment in-flight, for example not during take-off and landing, our customers can use their laptops."

But several non-U.S. airlines, including Virgin Atlantic and Korean Air, have been checking laptop battery serial numbers before passengers board.

Virgin's cabin crews, for example, check all batteries on Apple, Dell and IBM-made laptops. If the battery is on the recall list, it must be placed in checked luggage.

Airlines in the United States, however, provide no such safety checks.

"Airlines aren't allowing Scope and Crest on board, but they're allowing these batteries through," says frequent flier David Millman, chief executive of Rescuecom, a computer repair and support firm. "So far, we've been lucky, but it's a real danger."

Adds Mustaine: "I've thought about this a lot since seeing that laptop on fire. The laptop's going to burn until it's done burning (through the battery fuel cells and plastics). You have to let it do its thing. If there's fire on a plane, it makes people panic."

In a 2003 report, Britain's Civil Aviation Authority found that a lithium-ion battery fire "will almost certainly cause severe harm to any passengers in the immediate vicinity. There is also a risk that the fire will spread to adjacent flammable material, e.g. clothing, newspapers, rugs, carpet."

It went on to cite a "risk of harm from smoke inhalation to passengers and crew members, particularly if the electronic device is inside a carrying bag."

The Federal Aviation Administration, which is responsible for determining what can and cannot come on board U.S. flights, has not issued a ruling on the safety of passengers' laptop batteries.

But experts urge to keep the problem in perspective.

"There are well over 250 million laptops in use in the world," says Tim Bajarin, principal analyst at California-based Creative Strategies Inc. "And we've had less than 50 (battery fire) incidences recorded worldwide."

Adds the CPSC's Stern: "I assume risk every day. I can't control my environment unless I stay in my house."

Even Mustaine is going to keep flying - with his laptop.

"I think the airlines just need to be smart about it. This is obviously a bad batch of batteries. Just keep track of the known bad batteries and check for them before people get on board."

Here's hoping the airlines get the message.

Posted by Ian Wishart at 12:23 AM | Comments (0)