Sine o’ the times

Proving again that clever sloth trumps dull industriousness, a mischievous group of transistors at a British university has spontaneously converted itself into — of all things — a radio receiver.
No word yet if the transistors are next planning to materialize as headphones or a graphic equalizer. New Scientist reports that the recreating of century-old technology occurred at the University of Sussex in Brighton during an experiment that was unusual in its own right. Researchers took transistors, added an evolutionary computer program and were expecting to end up with an oscillator — a repeating sign wave signal.
Instead of forming their own waves, though, the transistors utilized a part on a nearby circuit board as an antenna and began receiving the oscillations from an adjacent computer. Somewhere out in the ether, Guglielmo Marconi ought to be proud. And slackers everywhere, too.

Dell embraces clusters

No one will begrudge Dell Computer its success in the marketing and sales realms. When it comes to getting companies and consumers to buy PCs, Dell sets the standard. But for such an accomplished firm, Dell has lacked the reputation for innovation and design smarts that companies like Apple, Hewlett-Packard and IBM have built. Apparently aware of that, wanting to make a change and still looking for the shortest possible path to a buck, Dell announced it will set up the Dell Centers for Research Excellence, a program that CNET’s News.com reports will acknowledge breakthroughs in PC clustering and take part in research with chosen universities. Clustering, for the uninitiated, is the process of linking several, sometimes hundreds of off-the-shelf PCs into one big computing leviathan. To kick off its effort, Dell unveiled Tuesday with the State University of New York at Buffalo a cluster of 2,008 Dell PowerEdge servers running Red Hat Linux. SUNY Buffalo researchers will use the cluster to study the structure and orientation of human proteins, CNET says, an important step in finding cures for many diseases. The Buffalo cluster is one of the largest of its kind, and in terms of sheer computing power makes the set-up one of the 500 fastest computers in the world.

Dude, computer science is so sophomoric

The Washington Post takes a look at what effect the tech industry downturn has had on enrollment in undergraduate computer science programs. The short answer is that growth has ground to a halt. In 2001, CS enrollment dropped 1 percent, according to a report from the Computing Research Association. “And educators in the field say the trend seems to be accelerating, with some colleges seeing much greater drops as the new academic year begins,” the paper says. In its own backyard the Post found that at Virginia Tech, enrollment of undergraduates in the computer science department will drop 25 percent this year, to 300. At George Washington University, the number of incoming freshmen who planned to study computer science fell by more than half. Ironically, the Post notes, while near-term prospects may be a little dim, the U.S. Labor Department projects that software engineering will be the fastest-growing occupation between 2000 and 2010, with other computer-related industries trailing close behind.

When to pull the cyber trigger

The Washington Post, which built its reputation covering the federal government, has in the last year or two carved out a respectable niche in the tech sector. The two come together in stories like this, in which reporters Ariana Eunjung Cha and Jonathan Krim delve into the debate underway in the Bush administration on the proper rules of engagement for cyberwarfare. Bush’s point man on the topic, Richard Clarke, says it’s still nation-states that pose the biggest threat in the cyber arena, not terrorist groups. The administration has traced break-ins back to foreign governments and even reckons a state may have been involved in developing last year’s damaging Code Red virus. The prospect of more attacks has led the government to explore how far it is willing to go to counter such incidents. The Geneva Convention prohibits attacks on civilians, and given the interconnectedness of computers around the world, any campaign against an enemy military network could seep into computers at large — and even back to the U.S. itself. It’s a fun, thought-provoking read. So go read it.

Long-life contact lenses

A Texas scientist has discovered that a special metal coating could allow contact lens wearers to keep their lenses in for longer periods of time. Coating contacts with a one-molecule-thick layer of selenium, an antibacterial metal, keeps them bacteria-free for at least two months, says Ted Reid of Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center in Lubbock. Although selenium can be toxic to humans in large quantities, these lenses would apparently be safe, with less selenium than you’d find in an average lunch. Reid hopes the coating could be used on other internal devices, like heart valves and catheters, and even suggests selenium-coated molecules could be used to keep people exposed to HIV from becoming infected. In other eye news, new eye-tracking software developed by scientists at Cambridge University could help computer users with disabilities write more quickly, accurately, and comfortably than before.

A lean green computing machine

PCs aren’t known for being great friends of the environment. Chip making uses toxic chemicals, wastes water, and pollutes both water and air. Computers and components fill up landfills and add heavy doses of lead to the solid waste stream. NEC Solutions America says it’s taking a step toward a more environmentally friendly computer with the PowerMate eco — the first all-in-one, fanless ecological PC. The PowerMate eco has a 15-inch flat panel screen that contain none of the boron found in traditional CRT monitors and radiates less heat than its tubular counterparts; its motherboard is made with lead-free solder; it uses laptop components and has a “boxless” design; it has no fan; and it is made of a 100 percent recyclable plastic. The desktop is targeted at high density computing locations where noise, heat and desktop real estate are big concerns — like call centers, hospitals, reception desks and financial trading rooms.

NASA, Northwest team on mind-reading tech

This is something that’s been talked about for years, though before Sept. 11 it was always in the context of a bank or high-security government facility, not Northwest Airlines. The upshot of this Washington Times article is that NASA and Northwest are teaming to see if mind-reading technology is feasible, and if so, can it be used to mass-screen airline passengers. Opinion is mixed, and no one in this article addresses the pharmaceutical countermeasures that could potentially be employed to calm a guilt- or panic-ridden brain and heart. Still, plenty creepy.

Mice in the news

It has been a big week for the common lab mouse. Tests in mice showed that the deadly botulism toxin could be neutralized with an experimental drug. The drug, fashioned from two antibodies from mice and one from a human, could be mass-produced and thus could be used as a deterrent to the use of botulism toxin as a weapon. In other mouse news, scientists at the Universiy of Pennsylania have figured out that they can turn mice into goat and pig sperm “factories” by grafting testes onto their backs. The technique could be used in the future to make sperm for young cancer patients left infertile after treatment, to help human couples struggling with male fertility problems, and to preserve species close to extinction. The most amazing mouse news of the week? Researchers at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston created a transgenic mouse with Lance Armstrong-like capabilities, able to endure hard exercise for extended periods of time.

U.S. got its e-bomb on

New Scientist says that a military attack on Iraq could see the first use of an e-bomb designed to destroy electronics but not harm people. U.S. intelligence reports that Iraq has moved much of its military infrastructure underground or beneath civilian buildings like hospitals. As such, the magazine says, the role of non-lethal and precision weapons would be a critical factor in any conflict. The U.S. reportedly has in its arsenal High Power Microwave (HPM) devices that produce an electromagnetic field so strong they can destroy electronic equipment in hardened command, control, communications and computer targets. One mechanism for achieving this sounds like something out of “Back to the Future”: An explosive pumped flux generator. That device is essentially a bomb which with a combination of explosives and electronics, sends out an electromagnetic wave of up to tens of millions of Amps. By comparison, a typical lightning strike — which can wreak plenty of damage on its own — carries just 30,000 Amps.

Edsger Wybe Dijkstra: 1930-2002

John Mahoney writes: “Noted computer scientist Edsger Wybe Dijkstra died on August 6, 2002.” Here’s a link to what looks like a university obituary on Dijkstra and here’s part of what CNET’s News.com had to say about him: “Dijkstra was on the committee that created Algol, the first block-structured programming language and one that introduced many ideas behind Pascal, Basic and C. His practical skills, especially in discerning and coding algorithms, were also remarkable–he wrote the first Algol 60 compiler. Other ideas he invented or helped define include structured programming, stacks, vectors, semaphores, synchronized processes and the notorious deadly embrace–feared by multitasking programmers the world over–where two processes both stop while they wait for each other to continue.”