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.”

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.”

Urban legends

Boy explodes from eating Pop Rocks with Coca-Cola. Girl summons vengeful spirit by chanting “Bloody Mary” while staring into mirror. Richard Gere checks into hospital, furry friend in tow. And once again, Apple plans x86-platform Macs. As posted on MacOSRumors, “Apple may be on the way to moving over to an x86-based platform, probably the AMD Athlon family of processors.”

Historically, this techno-legend was wishful thinking on the part of cultish Apple devotees in hopes that the Mac would rise up from its Amelio-era deathbed and strike a fatal blow to the Wintel camp. Today, there are several reasons why this rumor is feasible at this time in Apple’s history: Apple’s UNIX-based MacOS X seems an easy port to CISC-based processors; The Apple/Microsoft arranged union is soon to come to a close; rumors of Motorola’s processor shortages; and so on.

“Although Motorola sources have repeatedly stated that they do not believe Apple will be implementing Moto’s G5 family of processors as it is currently known — G4 processors “have legs,” according to those sources, and will power Apple computers for at least another year, they say — we do not believe that this means that Apple will not employ PowerPC processors significantly more advanced than the current crop. It may mean that Apple does not believe that the current G5 designs are suitable in terms of clock speeds, price, or reliable supply availability. In fact, this rumor that Apple isn’t going to implement the G5 may not be accurate at all.”

Consider that CISC-based processors are larger, consume far more power and run much hotter than RISC processors, which would not fare well in many of Apple’s newer, more compact machines that do not include processor-cooling fans. Additionally, Apple touts its PowerPC G4 with Velocity Engine processor“the chip that put supercomputing power on the desktop?can perform four (in some cases eight) 32-bit floating-point calculations in a single cycle ? two to four times faster than processors found in PCs.”

Loss of a troubled leader

Gene Kan, peer-to-peer file-sharing programmer extraordinaire, took his own life June 29, and Wired.com has a fine tribute to the troubled but brilliant 25-year-old. Kan’s professional life revolved around developing ways for people to swap information easily and quickly. As Wired notes, Kan was among the first programmers to create an open-source version of the file-sharing application Gnutella, which lets users search for and transfer files from computer to computer. “His ability to translate complicated technology into easily understandable terms quickly led to his becoming the unofficial spokesman for Gnutella in particular, and for file-sharing applications in general,” the new site says. “Gene was one of the first people to make hay with the idea that peer-to-peer file sharing wasn’t just about music, but about a powerful approach to problems in computer networking,” adds Tim O’Reilly, of O’Reilly Publishing. “It was Gnutella and Freenet, more than Napster, that got the attention of the technical elite and made us think more deeply about the way the Internet was evolving.” Kan’s death was not entirely unexpected, Wired reports. Friends had hoped Kan was winning his hard-fought battle against depression. “We did all the things you’re supposed to do,” said Cody Oliver, Gene’s business partner in peer-to-peer search technology gonesilent.com. “We got him on Prozac; we connected him to the suicide hotlines. He promised he wouldn’t do anything drastic. But now he’s gone. It’s a really rough time.”

Cocaine Inc.’s IT infrastructure

Business 2.0 has a compelling read in its July issue. “The Technology Secrets of Cocaine Inc.” looks at the IT infrastructure the Cali cartel has built to help manage its vast cocaine smuggling and sales empire. Particularly chilling is the organization’s use of data mining software to sift through phone records of its own operatives and the entire Cali phone exchange to see if any members were actually snitching to the authorities on the side. “They could correlate phone numbers, personalities, locations — any way you want to cut it,” said a former director of a law enforcement agency. “[Cali cocaine cartel leader Jos?] Santacruz could see if any of his lieutenants were spilling the beans.” At the heart of the system was a $1 million IBM AS400 mainframe. Observed one high-level DEA official: “It is very reasonable to assume that people were killed as a result of this capability. Potential sources of information were compromised by the system.”

Hey pal, here’s a billion-five

Hand it to eBay CEO Meg Whitman: She knows a bargain when she sees it. The online auction giant said Monday it would buy PayPal for about $1.5 billion. That’s a fair enough price by any reckoning for the Internet’s most popular electronic payment service. But when the teeming masses of eBay bidders and sellers get thrown into the mix, PayPal truly becomes a bargain. Indeed, with the right marketing it could one day join the likes of Visa and MasterCard among the heavy hitters of consumer payments. It was just as smart for PayPal’s board to see recognize which way the wind’s blowing. As Reuters notes, the company already derives about 60 percent of its business from eBay.

More confusion in cell phone, tumor flap

Science Blog reported earlier this week on a study suggesting a connection between use of an early cell phone standard and brain tumors. A separate study announced today says that no link has been found between radio emissions from mobile phones and the growth of tumors in mice. The Australian study contradicts yet another, earlier investigation that did find a connection. No word on what sort of calling plan the recent mice were allowed in the three year experiment.

Take your stinking calipers off me, you damn dirty drone!

Wired.com carries a gee-whiz tale from the Office of Naval Research on development of an army of drones that would fight the battles of tomorrow. It all sounds very Star Wars — and expensive. But the notion is that human commanders at the top would provide goals that a network of unmanned but highly-networked machines would work to achieve. That could be taking a hill in a combat zone, capturing a known enemy, or helping rescue disaster victims. One wonders who such an army would fight (the Chinese army of 2020? A resurgent Russia?) But maybe this will be one of those ideas that die on the vine in the armed services but find a robust future in the private sector. The original technology, after all, came from drones built to track migrating whales.

Can’t stop the music

Record companies will probably get the current standard CD to disappear over the next decade in favor of a new format that makes digital copying impossible without much hassle/hacking by the end user. But that won’t stop the trade of MP3s, or whatever successor format consumers choose. The ability to copy music once it reaches the analog stage in your stereo or PC will always exist. And that output can be stored digitally. At its most rudimentary this can involve connecting your stereo’s AUX or headphone jack to your PC’s microphone port. More sophisticated is software like TotalRecorder, which captures music on your PC from CDs, Internet radio or just about any other source, intercepting the signal as it heads out of your sound card and to your speakers.

Anthrax probe to use new methods

Nearly a year after an editor at American Media Inc. died from anthrax exposure, FBI officials said a new search of the contaminated ghost-like AMI building could find the source of the fatal spores and the person who unleashed them. The Miami Herald reports the search of the shuttered Boca Raton building will use new and different techniques than those employed in an initial search last fall. “Last year, we were in the building for a different reason,” the paper quotes Hector Pesquera, the FBI’s special agent in charge of the Miami division. “This investigation will be scientifically driven for a criminal investigation.” Last year’s investigation focused on mailrooms and areas surrounding the infected employees’ workstations. This time, scientists will search the entire three-story, 67,000-square-foot building. American Media publishes several tabloid newspapers, including The National Enquirer.