Research that matters

New Scientist reports on a year-long study to find the world’s funniest joke. The Internet-based project was coordinated by psychologist Richard Wiseman and colleagues at the University of Hertfordshire, U.K. and involved more than 2 million votes on 40,000 submissions. The goal was to identify universal aspects to humor, which could one day allow computers to devise truly funny jokes. Before we get to the winner, an interesting aside is that the team found in the process the world’s funniest animal: the duck. “If you’re going to tell a joke involving an animal, make it a duck,” Wiseman says. Now to the ultimate rib-tickler, which folks from Asia to Africa, the States to Siberia all seemed to enjoy. A couple of New Jersey hunters are out in the woods when one of them falls to the ground. He doesn’t seem to be breathing, his eyes are rolled back in his head. The other guy whips out his cell phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps to the operator: “My friend is dead! What can I do?” The operator, in a calm soothing voice, says: “Just take it easy. I can help. First, let’s make sure he’s dead.” There is a silence, then a shot is heard. The guy’s voice comes back on the line. He says: “OK, now what?” Thank you folks, I’ll be here all week.

New worm a real bear

PC users of the world beware! A new worm called BugBear is making the rounds, and New Scientist says it reflects a worrying new trend in virus code. Instead of disabling your computer, or turning it into a denial of service pod to flood other machines with garbage, BugBear contains a Trojan horse program that can collect credit card details, passwords and other private information stored from a computer and send it to a hacker. “When run, the Trojan disables anti-virus programs running on your machine,” New Scientists says. “It then installs a ‘keyboard sniffing’ program that remains in the background and copies every keystroke on your keyboard and saves them to a file. At some point later it opens a network connection and transmits the file to its creator, or bundles it up and sends it out as an email.” One side effect of the worm is that it tries to mail itself to any other machines on your network, including printers. So if you see unexpected, long junk printouts spewing for the LaserJet, you ought to get checked for infection.

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>>BugBear at Sophos

Wascally Waksal

Though not strictly a science story, the Wall Street Journal has a devastating profile this morning of Sam Waksal, founder of ImClone. It’s a warning not only for directors of technology-based companies, but for investors and the media, who can be charmed by one person with a winning personality and a compelling story (in this case a promising cancer-fighting molecule). Terrific digging by reporter Geeta Anand reveals a string of research jobs from which Waksal was ousted for misleading and sometimes falsified results. Do yourself a favor and read this one through to the end. Suddenly Martha Stewart’s alleged insider trading of ImClone stock seems like the least of anyone’s worries about Waksal.

From the mouthes of Babe

This weekend I sank my teeth into some delicious beef ribs. But researchers at the Forsyth Institute say they’ve done one better ? they’ve sunk pork teeth into rat guts. The experiment involved taking seeded cells from immature teeth of six-month-old pigs and placing them in the intestines of rats (who no doubt were thrilled at the addition). Within 30 weeks, small tooth crowns made of enamel and dentin had formed. Within five years, the Forsythe team says, they hope to be able to harvest teeth of specific size and shape, and five years after that to regrow human teeth.

Device gives smart bombs a headache

Plans for GPS-guided bombs to do much of the heavy lifting in a U.S. war on Iraq could be seriously hampered by a $40 device available over the Internet. As reported by the Wall Street Journal, so-called global positioning system “jammers” can interrupt the system’s satellite signal. “At the Paris Air Show in 1999, a Russian company called Aviaconversia demonstrated a 4-watt GPS jammer, weighing about 19 pounds, capable of denying GPS reception for more than 100 miles,” the paper says. “While we do not know the extent of our vulnerability, there is evidence to suggest that GPS jamming can significantly inhibit precision targeting,” says Rep. Joseph Pitts (R., Penn.), co-chairman of Congress’ Electronic Warfare Working Group. So far the only known fix is to boost the GPS signal strength. But without new satellites in place, there’s only so far that approach can go.

Preparing for smallpox

Guidelines for inoculating the entire U.S. population against smallpox are being distributed to states today by federal health officials. At the moment mass vaccination is likely only if the deadly virus returns through an act of bio-terrorism. In the event of an outbreak, states would have to vaccinate their populations within days. (A person exposed to the virus can only be successfully immunized within five days of exposure.) The plan from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows states how to handle this massive effort, down to details like the number of hours a clinic would need to stay open (16), what to stress in public announcements (“urgency and patience, not panic”), the number of large-screens TVs needed per clinic (5, for video orientation), the temperature at which each brand of vaccine must be stored (varies), and the number of security personnel needed per 8-hour shift at a clinic (20). Smallpox is deadly, with a mortality rate of at least 30 percent. Because the disease was eradicated globally in the 1970s, most people have little immunity to it — and health workers aren’t familiar with it. Those facts plus the mobility of our plane-hopping poplulation mean that without extensive planning an outbreak could overwhelm public health systems.

Gonna fly now

It’s a technique Orville and Wilbur (God, I still love those names) Wright used a century ago to keep their early airplane afloat. Now the U.S. Air Force thinks it might have legs — or wings — again. It’s called wing warping. Instead of movable flaps and ailerons to steer and control a plane, warping bends the entire wing to achieve the desired effect. The Air Force has fancied it up a bit and redubbed it “active aeroelastic wing” technology. But the goal of its $41 million investment is, like the Brothers Wright, to produce lighter, more maneuverable planes. >> Related sites

FBI finds anthrax in newspaper copy machines

FBI investigators say photocopy machines were the reason anthrax spores spread so far and so quickly in a newspaper office where a tainted letter was mailed in last year’s attacks. As reported by the Associated Press, federal investigators found spores in all the copy machines in the three-story, 68,000 square foot building. The investigators returned to the building for 12 days armed with new tools and techniques for detecting anthrax. Investigators said they believe the spores spread from the first-floor mail room where the letter was opened, onto reams of nearby copy paper. When that paper was later loaded into copy machines, the anthrax spread both on the sheets of paper and through the air, blown by the copy machines’ internal fans. National Enquirer photo editor Robert Stevens died from anthrax in October, the first of five people to die nationwide in the mailings. A mailroom employee was hospitalized with anthrax but survived.

Cybersecurity plan on hold

This Wednesday was supposed to see the release of the White House’s battle plan for cybersecurity. But the Washington Post and others report that the Bush administration will hold off and seek more industry input. So instead, the world will get another draft of the proposal, which Tiffany Olsen, an aide to White House cybersecurity adviser Richard Clarke, describes as a “living document.” “We wanted to make sure we have buy-in from all the parties involved before the official release comes out,” Olsen explained. Tech companies will have 60 days to comment on the report, with an official launch of the plan now expected by year’s end — or about 15 months after the war on terrorism began. Word in Washington is that the tech industry was unhappy with some of the plan’s proposals, such as the appointment of a privacy czar to monitor how firms handle the personal data they collect from customers.

Worm slaps Penguin

It may be Microsoft’s time to feel a little smug. For years Redmond has been the butt of jokes — and curses — for the vulnerability its systems seemed to have to viruses. Now Linux has fallen prey to a nasty bug of its own, one that has created a giant peer-to-peer attack network from thousands of infected Linux Web servers. Only computer systems running both Apache Web server software and the Linux operating system are vulnerable, New Scientist reports. But that’s a heck of a lot of machines. Once installed on a machine, the Linux.Slapper.Worm tries to forward itself on to other computers. “But unlike many other worms, it also tries to establish connections with computers that have already been infected,” the magazine reports. The bug was first identified Friday, and though characterized by computer security firms as slow-moving, has so far infected an estimated 3,500 machines. In a note accompanying the worm, the author says it was designed as a proof-of-concept for “educational” purposes and should not be used for destructive attacks.