Powell to Congress: UUNET could shut down

FCC Chairman Michael Powell sent a good strong scare into lawmakers Tuesday when he testified that WorldCom might be able to shut down its UUNET subsidiary’s Internet backbone without government approval. UUNET is a major component on the Internet, and its loss could potentially have devastating effects, particularly on corporate and government clients.

“Mr. Powell said he was confident in the long-term health of the telecom industry,” the Wall Street Journal reports. “But in the short term, ‘there are question marks’ about whether the FCC can order a bankrupt company’s Internet subsidiary to keep its backbone operational. ‘I could hypothesize that (the company) would refuse to comply.'”

After Powell’s shake-em-up, Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ernest Hollings, a South Carolina Democrat, said he would introduce legislation to clarify the agency’s authority over Internet-backbone companies like UUNET. The Journal notes that the panel reacted positively to Powell’s request for Congress to strengthen the FCC’s jurisdiction over telecom companies that file for bankruptcy protection, to ensure it can stop them from shutting down essential services.

One plus two equals WOOF!

Dogs, it turns out, are a lot smarter than you thought. Unless you’re a dog, that is. In which case you probably figured you were clever all along. Researchers say they’ve found canines can perform rudimentary math and “speak” by modifying their barks situationally. Not surprisingly, the math trick was discovered using food treats. Shortchange Fido on a Scooby snack and he just knows. Regarding their speaking ability, dogs usually use high-pitched single barks when separated from their owners and a lower, harsher superbark when strangers approach, say the researchers. Playful woofs are high-pitched and unevenly spaced.

Three-way chip deal promises smaller everything

Computer chips have been shrinking for years. But who stops to consider that that’s only been possible because the stuff on the chips, like circuits, transistors and memory have shrunk too? To keep the trend going, Germany’s Infineon has joined Advanced Micro Devices and United Microelectronics Corp. to develop technology to produce the tiny structures needed inside chips. As the number of elements on a chip doubles approximately every year, “chipmakers are under pressure to develop new microelements to fit on (them),” Reuters reports. Currently, the size of the smallest element on a chip is 130nm. The three-way alliance will focus on developing a 65nm and 45nm manufacturing process.

Attention passengers, this is your car

David Hasselhoff would be proud. Under a deal signed with IBM, future models of the Honda Accord will let drivers talk to their car’s computer to locate nearby gas stations and restaurants. Better still, the car will answer back, using its stereo system to provide driving directions. The voice recognition system is based on Big Blue’s ViaVoice product, which the company says understands different speech accents and has a large vocabulary.

Come fly with me

Boeing has joined a small group of technology bigwigs trying to test a theory that would let engineers negate some of the effects of gravity. The American aerospace giant is using the work of controversial Russian scientist Yevgeny Podkletnov, who claims to have developed a device that can shield objects from the Earth’s pull. Other researchers claim Podkletnov’s work is hokum, but considering the cost savings such a device would represent for air travel, Boeing seems intent on getting to the bottom of it all. The Russian says he found that objects above a superconducting ceramic disc rotating over powerful electromagnets lost weight, the BBC reports. “The reduction in gravity was small, about 2 percent, but the implications — for example, in terms of cutting the energy needed for a plane to fly — were immense.”

Slice that DNA carefully

The genome of the pufferfish, a Japanese delicacy, is teaching researchers about the more complex genetic makeup of humans. The pufferfish, or Fugu, has about the same number of genes as humans, but without most of the repetitive “junk” DNA found in naked apes, researchers at the Joint Genome Institute in Walnut Creek, California, report. Fugu can pack a lethal tetrodotoxin whallop, but manages to do so with the smallest genome of any vertebrate. The findings were detailed in the journal Science and reported on by the Associated Press.

What a waste … of calamari

City work crews were busy Friday cleaning up 12 tons of dead and dying squid after what looks to have been the largest mass beaching of the rubbery mollusks in a century. Scientists say the squid were likely following prey, maybe grunion, when they ventured into the shallow waters off La Jolla Cove, California, and were washed up on shore. Locals were freaked. “It was just unbelievable,” Bill Halsey, 26, told Reuters. “They made these strange noises like a dolphin or a seal as they were dying.” Added Clif Williams: “The thing that weirds me out about the squid is that they have humanlike eyeballs.” The jumbo flying squid, aka Dosidicus gigas, usually call the eastern Pacific Ocean home, but have been turning up on beaches from Orange County to the Mexican Border. Researchers think warm water currents associated with El Nino are drawing the suckers north.

Congo town gets volcano double-whammy

Goma, a town in eastern Congo, has been hit with a volcano spurting molten rock 100 meters in the air, just a few months after a separate volcano devastated the area. “It was something like an explosion of the sun,” Dario Tedesco, a volcano consultant to the United Nations, told Reuters. “It was really spectacular, it was glowing everywhere, the sky was red, you could see the lava coming up from the fissure.” In January another volcano razed much of Goma, and researchers say they’re worried that hothead could blow again. According to the wire service, the winter eruption forced tens of thousands of people to flee into neighboring Rwanda — something few rational people would do by choice. Vulcanologists say the pool of molten rock bubbling in a 1.2-km wide crater at the top of the January volcano had risen rapidly in the last two weeks, but that it is devilishly hard to judge how much risk it poses.

Incidentally, the Granular Volcano Group runs a Web site that explains the physics behind much of a volcano’s activity. It’s a little math-heavy, but you can watch some neato supercomputer simulations of different kinds of gas clouds and debris flows.

Just wait til Lance Bass gets there

Stargazers this week may be surprised by the sight of a glowing orange object streaking across the night sky. It?s the International Space Station, which is making bright passes over the U.S. and Canada until mid-August. The ISS — which travels at 17,000 mph and circles the planet 16 times a day — crosses the sky in three to six minutes, and can shine more brightly than any planet or star except our sun and moon. (Its brightness depends on its orientation, your location and the sun.) Right now this impressive sight can be observed by the unaided eye if skies are clear. (A flyby near downtown Los Angeles on Wednesday night was clearly visible despite city lights.) To find out when the station will fly above your town, orbit over to NASA SkyWatch.

Who says chickens can’t fly?

The Associated Press reports materials researchers have begun experimenting with chicken feathers and soy resin to craft future computer processors. Researchers in the University of Delaware’s ACRES program — Affordable Composites from Renewable Sources — looked to chicken feathers because they have shafts that are hollow but strong, and made mostly of air, which is a great conductor of electricity. The feathers and resin are crafted into a composite material that looks and feels like silicon, according to program director Richard Wool. In initial tests, electric signals moved twice as fast through the organic chip as through a silicon chip, researchers said. “The first time, Dr. Wool’s response was, ‘Recheck,'” said post-doc Chang Kook Hong, who headed the research. “I repeated the test three times with the same results. Then he said, ‘You have a hit here.'” Don’t expect feather Pentiums any time soon, however. The natural bumps and irregularities that come from using an organic base are a big impediment to commercial use. “The microchip industry depends on materials that are ultrasmooth and ultraflat,” said one researcher. “This was anything but that.”