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05 Jun 08
Newspaper

The Search for Perfect Blackness Continues

Researchers at Duke University and Boston College have developed a metamaterial (i.e., one which obtains its primary properties from structure rather than composition) that has proved to be a perfect absorber of electromagnetic radiation in the microwave spectrum. Instead of reflecting like a mirror, or transmitting as glass, this material absorbs all the electromagnetic radiation put to it and turns it into heat. The material is constructed in two elements at right angles to each other, which absorb the electric and magnetic components of radiation separately. Since the construction is scalable, it can be tuned to specific frequencies and operate over a wider portion of the electromagnetic spectrum.
At the time of this news post, I did not see any mention of research into moving the response of this particular material into the visible spectrum, although other technologies have come close. I’ll hazard a guess and say it probably has something to do with the microwave spectrum being in the 10 – 0.01 cm range, whereas the visible spectrum covers the narrow region of 7 × 10-5 – 4 × 10-5 cm. This would require extremely small construction from methods that may not be available in this formation. But imagine if you will: perfect blackness.

01 Jun 08
Newspaper

111 Countries Ban Cluster Bombs

Cluster bombs are typically fired from artillery or dropped from planes, exploding in mid-air and releasing hundreds of smaller bombs scattered over a large area. Delegates from 111 countries have signed a new treaty at the close of a 12 day meeting in Dublin, Ireland that bans the “use, production, transfer and stockpiling of cluster bombs.” It also requires signatories to destroy their cluster bomb munitions within eight years and to assist in clearing any contaminated areas. With the release of so many bombs, many times some do not explode at first strike, only to wind up killing or wounding civilians in the area months or years later. The United States opposes the ban along with Israel, China, India and Pakistan, all of whom boycotted the meeting. The United States is the largest manufacturer of the bombs, and though officials express concern about unexploded bomblets, they are more in favor of developing technology that would render the bombs harmless after a certain time period.

31 May 08
Newspaper

Low Tech - High Stakes

We’re all familiar with movies such as "Mission Impossible" or "Oceans 11" which depict spectacular break-ins featuring some high-tech method of defeating the elaborate security systems used to protect the valuables. Though this makes for an entertaining movie, in reality, many times the easiest way into a supposedly secure area is by means of a low-tech solution. Johnny Long is a professional ‘penetration tester’ working for Computer Science Corporation. His task is to find weak points in a company’s information security. One of his favorite examples involving low-tech hacking of a security system was in trying to steal data from an ultra secure building protected with proximity card readers. Knowing that by law, employees do not need to show identification to leave a building, he didn’t bother attempting to bypass the card readers, instead he and an associate simply threaded a wet washcloth on a clothes-hanger through a small crack in an emergency exit, tripping the touch sensitive plate and allowing them total access to the building. Coffee or smoking breaks are another common means of gaining access to restricted buildings. Simply dressing for the part and making light conversation with the employees out on break usually allows him to just file in the door with the rest of them, no questions asked. Places that require secure operations are increasingly becoming aware that their weakest point of entry is through their employees whether it be data networks, physical access or just plain slips through conversation. As Jeff Moss, the organizer for cyber-security conferences Black Hat and Defcon observes, "There’s a tendency in our industry to focus on the latest and most interesting attack," he says. "But Johnny is trying to show that the simple security problems that were spotted a long time ago haven’t gone away, and the bad guys will use whatever’s available."

20 May 08
Cup

A Future of ISP and Media Device Filtering?

Every so often a news item comes along that is a good indication of what the weather might hold for a certain issue. A recent N.Y. Times blog put in a claim that Microsoft, in conjunction with NBC Universal, might be looking to put filtering technology into the Zune personal media player – an attempt to prevent copyright infringement from file sharing and illicit download sites. The "filter," in theory, would block the playback of anything except "authorized" media on the Zune. Now, Microsoft has been more than quick to try and dissuade any notion this might be happening, but as a parallel subject, it brings the old smoldering issue of Net neutrality out into the light again. It seems because a tremendous amount of Internet traffic consists of peer-to-peer file sharing, and much of this has been deemed as being deep in the realm of copyright infringement, a fair number of cable company ISPs are beginning to "manipulate" the data coming through their services. A recent example of an argument supporting these actions is voiced by NBC Universal’s general counsel Rick Cotton when he equates the need for ISP filtering to the need for laws preventing companies like UPS or FedX from using a large percentage of their delivery services for illegal drugs, arms and stolen goods delivery.

08 May 08
Newspaper

That Fly on the Wall, That Bee in Your Garden

The top brass at the Pentagon has added yet another item to their technological wish list, and this time it’s a request for an atomic clock which is small enough to build into a microchip. You might wonder what possible purpose such a small clock would serve; until you realize that insects like the cyborg beetle are easily lost as they fly about, and require an extremely accurate GPS system for their precise positioning and location needs. For some years DARPA’s HI-MEMS program (Hybrid Micro Electro-Mechanical Systems) has been placing micro-mechanical devices into various insects while in their larvae and pupae stages in order to facilitate a stable tissue-to-machine interface as the insects develop into adults. The main purpose for these mini cyborgs, as we can well guess, is for spying and reconnaissance, but they also have merit for any application requiring the retrieval of information from small or hard to access places. Location tracking via GPS requires extremely accurate clocks in order to obtain the precise positioning needed for what I can only deem as a science fiction scenario coming to life.

04 May 08
Newspaper

Politics, Agendas and Then… Science

In what is becoming a continuing battle between science, politics and special interest groups, more than half of the 1586 EPA scientists who responded to an independent survey from the Union of Concerned Scientists claimed they had experienced some kind of interference from lobbyists and political leaders. This interference usually came in the form of some sort of suppression or distortion of scientific findings, or the selective use of data to push forward a specific regulatory outcome. Some cases even included political figures directing a scientist to alter or omit inconvenient data from a report. Francesca Grifo of the Union of Concerned Scientists states, "Distorting science to accommodate a narrow political agenda threatens our environment, our health and our democracy itself." However, a government spokesman denies the administrative manipulation saying that scientific findings are merely being balanced with policy concerns.

30 Apr 08
Newspaper

The Fourth Basic Circuit Element

The "memristor;, or memory resistor, previously resided as a theoretical fourth basic electric circuit element next to the resistor, capacitor and inductor. Its function is to "remember" the amount of current that passed through it by varying its resistance accordingly and keeping that information even after all power has been removed from the circuit. In 1971 Professor Leon Chua theorized the necessary existence of this circuit element in his publication titled "Memristor-The missing circuit element; (abstract).
Scientists at the Information and Quantum Systems lab at HP Labs are beginning to demonstrate that this circuit element exists by combining 2 layers of titanium oxide sandwiched between two wires. One layer is made of standard TiO2, the other is made of a layer where 1 percent is missing some oxygen. When current is applied, the oxygen vacancies move from one side to the other changing each layer’s resistance. The scientists claim the switching action happens faster than they can even measure. Because this material can be arranged into much denser arrays than transistors, the potential for large zero-power memory storage and computers that boot instantly while retaining their last powered state may be in our near future. Some are even predicting the eventual phasing out of transistors as the new technology develops.

24 Apr 08
Newspaper

To Control Lightning

In their effort for greater understanding of lightening strikes, a team of European scientists is getting out of the lab and moving forward on their 2004 research in a quest to use high power laser pulses to trigger electrical activity in actual thunderclouds. The powerful lasers create ionized channels known as plasma filaments in the atmosphere, which will conduct electricity. According to Jérôme Kasparian of the University of Lyon in France; "It was the first time we generated lighting precursors in a thundercloud."
Though these strikes were only generated within a cloud, the scientists hope to fine-tune the lasers to create filaments lasting long enough to produce air to ground strikes. If successful, the research will be used in lightning sensitivity testing for airplanes and power lines.

23 Apr 08
Newspaper

Extraterrestrial Life Unlikely

Since the dawn of the scientific age when telescopes revealed the existence of planets other than our own, humankind began asking questions and fantasizing about whether Earth holds the only complex and intelligent life in the universe. All sorts of opinions have been circling around for a long time, and even a simple Google search reveals hundreds of thousands of items on the subject.
Professor Andrew Watson from the University of East Anglia has derived some mathematical models (pdf) in an attempt to show the likelihood that any intelligent life outside our planet is highly improbable. His main point comes from his theory that it took several very difficult evolutionary steps to get us to where we are, and these steps took 4 billion years, only developing intelligent life near the end of Earth’s total habitability range. This range is based on the effects the sun will have as it expands in the next few billion years. These unlikely combinations of events lead Professor Watson to conclude that intelligent life on other planets is extremely unlikely. He states, “At present, Earth is the only example we have of a planet with life. If we learned the planet would be habitable for a set period and that we had evolved early in this period, then even with a sample of one, we’d suspect that evolution from simple to complex and intelligent life was quite likely to occur. By contrast, we now believe that we evolved late in the habitable period, and this suggests that our evolution is rather unlikely. In fact, the timing of events is consistent with it being very rare indeed.”

11 Apr 08
Newspaper

Stolen Military Equipment for Highest Online Bidders

The Government Accountability Office, or GAO, is investigating the fact that a lot of sensitive military gear is showing up and being sold on Craigslist and Ebay. The investigators were able to buy everything from F14 parts and night vision goggles to body armor vests and protective plates. Full combat uniforms were also for sale, which would enable anyone anywhere to pose as a member of the U.S. Service. According to the 35 page GAO report (pdf), there was even nuclear, biological protective gear placed on Craigslist, which would give someone the potential to reverse engineer the equipment and possibly compromise any soldiers wearing it. According to the report, many of the sales went to people overseas. The other side of the problem is the fact that much of this equipment is stolen and being sold for personal profit at the expense of the U.S. taxpayers.

08 Apr 08
Newspaper

The Slowest Burger Ever

Creating a 156 step mechanized process for assembling a hamburger enabled Purdue University students to win this year’s national Rube Goldberg Machine Contest. (videos!) Unlike some engineering contests, the winning criteria for these challenges consist of how creative a team can be with combining inefficiency and complexity to complete what normally would be an everyday task. The challenge for this year’s competition was to assemble a hamburger made up of at least one precooked meat patty, two vegetables and two condiments between hamburger bun halves. To qualify, the machines needed to use a minimum of 20 steps, but the more steps used the better. The captain of the Purdue team, Drew Wischer claimed, "We put 4,000 to 5,000 man-hours into this machine since September, and all the hard work has been well worth it," Some other teams worth mentioning are Texas A&M University placing second; with the team from the University at Buffalo in New York coming in third.

05 Apr 08
Newspaper

Proving an Age-Old Advertising Gimic

Most advertisers have known for a long time that "sex sells" especially when it comes to men; but Brian Knutson, assistant professor of psychology at Stanford University designed a study to prove if the concept really has merit. By using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of each man’s head in the study, he was able to monitor an area of the brain called the nucleus accumbens, which from the work of previous research was shown to be active when a participant was about to take a financial risk. Another area of the brain known as the insula was shown to be active when a person was choosing to avoid the risk. The men were shown pictures of three sets of stimuli, positive, negative and neutral. The "positive" picture consisted of erotic photos of a man and woman, the "negative" was of snakes and spiders and the neutral picture showed office supplies. (Just in case someone might have a particular aversion to office supplies, the men were asked to rate the pictures after the experiment.) After viewing each picture, the participants had to quickly decide on a 50-50 gamble in which they had to either bet a dollar or a dime. The results of the study showed, needless to say, that the men tended to bet the dollar more often when the erotic pictures were shown, and their active nucleus accumbens confirmed it.
"We knew that we should be looking at [the nucleus accumbens] from the previous study. But what we didn’t know is whether we could somehow control the activation in that area by presenting some completely irrelevant stimulus," Knutson said. "And whether that would change activation in that area and actually change behavior."

03 Apr 08
Newspaper

8 Glasses a Day Down the Drain

Doctors at the University of Pennsylvania are debunking a long held health myth that we should all drink 8 or more glasses of water a day. Misconceptions ranging from "it improves skin tone" to "it flushes all the toxins out" have no scientific backing, and no one seems to even know where the advice originated. With common sense abounding, Dr. Stanley Goldfarb of the University states, "If you’re thirsty, drink. If you’re not thirsty, you needn’t drink."

It stands to reason people who exercise or otherwise exert themselves need to replace the water they lose, but the researchers could find no conclusive evidence that 8 glasses a day under normal conditions attributed to better health, and too much water can actually affect the balance of body salts (hyponatremia) leading to a condition commonly known as water poisoning. "Those individuals that enjoy going to the bathroom would benefit from high fluid intake. But others definitely would not," Goldfarb said.

02 Apr 08
Newspaper

That Paranoid Public

"Are they laughing at me?" "That guy is just a little bit too close." "I swear that weird person’s been eyeing me this whole trip." Such are the paranoid thoughts revealed in a new study by Dr. Daniel Freeman of the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London. 200 volunteers picked as a well rounded representation of the general public wore virtual reality helmets which took them on a 4 minute virtual subway ride complete with typical subway sounds. The car contained avatars of your typical neutral subway riders; one read a newspaper, some looked around and others would make eye contact or even momentarily smile in the test subjects direction. Dr. Freeman and his researchers found that almost 40 percent of the participants held at least one paranoid thought while being tested. They also found, by means of an extensive evaluation of each participant beforehand, that the people who had the most real life anxiety, low self esteem, or were prone to always thinking in worst-case scenarios, had the highest occurrence of paranoid thoughts on the virtual train.
Freeman notes, "In the past, only those with a severe mental illness were thought to experience paranoid thoughts, but now we know that this is simply not the case. About one-third of the general population regularly experience persecutory thoughts. This shouldn’t be surprising. At the heart of all social interactions is a vital judgment whether to trust or mistrust, but it is a judgment that is error-prone. We are more likely to make paranoid errors if we are anxious, ruminate and have had bad experiences from others in the past."

31 Mar 08
Newspaper

Earliest Recorded Song Heard At Last

The earliest recording of a human voice, created in 1860 by French typesetter Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, was recreated in audio form by researchers at Stanford University. Scott’s "phono-autograph; which recorded sound by scratching a stylus onto smoke blackened paper, predates Thomas Edison’s phonograph by almost 20 years, although these recordings were only meant as visual representations of sound. The recording of Au Clair de la Lune is thought to be of Scott’s daughter. By optically scanning the paper records and doing some extensive cleanup and background noise removal, the researchers were able to process and present an admittedly scratchy sounding (mp3), but intelligible audio version of the recording. "We already knew Scott had invented sound recordings," said Patrick Feaster, the Indiana University professor who first pointed the way to the Parisian archives. "He just never got around to playing them back."

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