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Journal: 2 (well, 3 really) Questions 1

Journal by rm007

As the Politics of Life square off against the Politics of Liberty in the aftermath of Terri Schiavo's passing, a few questions spring to mind:

Mr DeLay: What did you and your family decide about prolonging care for your father? Did the government have any role in this?

Mr Bush: Who was the governor who signed the "futile care" law in Texas?

Questions, questions, questions...
User Journal

Journal: Moral Values? Go figure...

Journal by rm007
Today's New York Times is running an article about the apparent disparity between the moral values of voters and what they choose to watch for entertainment. That is, despite the alleged importance of moral issues for voters, particularly those supporting President Bush, according to the article: "representatives of the four big broadcast networks as well as Hollywood production studios said the nightly television ratings bore little relation to the message apparently sent by a significant percentage of voters." For example, in the greater Atlanta market, reaching more than two million households, "Desperate Housewives" is the top-rated show. Nearly 58 percent of the voters in those counties voted for President Bush. And in the Salt Lake City market, which takes in the whole state of Utah and parts of Nevada, Idaho and Wyoming, "Desperate Housewives" is fourth, after two editions of "C.S.I." and NBC's "E.R."; Mr. Bush rolled up 72.6 percent of the vote there.

What the article does not say is that "moral values" were cited by only about 22% of voters as being the main driver in their decision making and dispite the hoopla surrounding its "number one" ranking, it barely edged out the economy and Iraq as key issues in exit polls. And, of course, even in Salt Lake City, something like "Desperate Housewives" could rake up over 25% of the viewers (still a pretty good figure in today's multi-channel world) and only have supporters of Senator Kerry glued to the screen (yeah, and if you believe that's what's happening, I have some recreational property in Florida that might interest you....) Nevertheless, the article hit a few buttons for me. I have been wondering about something similar in the guise of Fox network programing. Fox, the darling news source of the conservative right, seems to specialize in morally dubious entertainment - reality shows that set out to humiliate and debase by misleading contestants (My Big Fat Obnoxious Boss), reality shows based on family conflict (Trading Spouses) and titillation drama (The OC, North Shore). Am I the only one that sees a big disconnect here?

[note: in the interest of full disclosure, I awknowledge being a big fan of "24" on Fox.]
User Journal

Journal: Now for a real standards issue 2

Journal by rm007
Forget W3C standards making, forget IEEE standards making, here is news of some really important standards making activity from Wired News on Neapolitan pizza standards:

In America, everyone from the local pizzeria to international chains like Domino's has their own idea of what makes a pizza delizioso. But in Italy, the Agriculture Ministry has defined exactly what constitutes an authentic Neapolitan pie. There is to be no deep dish (à la Chicago), no Hawaiian pizza with ham and pineapple, no monster-sized pies at all. The ministry issued strict guidelines Tuesday decreeing that true pizzas must be "easily foldable," less than 14 inches in diameter and no thicker than 0.1 inches in the middle. Only three styles (Marinara, Margherita and extra-Margherita) shall be recognized as real. Any way you slice it, those Italians take their pizza seriously.

Of course, this just applies to anything that purports to call itself a genuine Neapolitan pizza, so those of you who want to "enjoy" your Pizza Hut food product, are free to do so.
User Journal

Journal: Champions League Wide Open?

Journal by rm007
Out last round: Man United (yeah!!), Juventus :-(

Out this round: Arsenal, Real Madrid and AC Milan.

At the beginning of the year, I thought that the semi-finals would have 3, if not 4 of these teams. I don't think that I was alone.

None of Chelsea, Deportivo, Porto and Monaco were really tipped to win at the beginning - although the new Chelsea was really an unknown at the beginning of the year.

The semi-finals are: Monaco v Chelsea and Deportivo v Porto. I kind of like Chelsea (I have a soft spot for them having lived in The Royal Borough of Chelsea and Kennsington at one point) to go all the way ... or Deportivo... but look at who Porto and Monaco have beaten along the way. So, does anyone have any views on who will actually pull it off?
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Journal: Mobile Phones on Commercial Aircraft

Journal by rm007
There have been two articles today drawn from this week's Economist (one on Chaotic Computing and one on Quantum Computing) - that's usually my schtick, so not to be out done, here is one the possibility that restrictions on cell phone use on board commercial aircraft being lifted. Having known that the case for the current prohibition had more to do with telecoms systems than aircraft control systems, I have always found the "safety" announcements made at the beginning of flights to be a little annoying - notwithstanding the fact that I am more than happy to have one area that is off limits to having to listen to other people's telephone conversations. Anyway, enough of my rant, here is the article:

CLEARED FOR TAKE-OFF?
Apr 1st 2004

Mobile phones may not be banned on planes for much longer

CONTRARY to popular belief, mobile phones do not pose a safety threat to airliners. On an average transatlantic flight, several phones are usually left switched on by accident, and the avionics systems on modern aircraft are hardened against radio interference. No, the use of phones on planes is banned because they disrupt mobile networks on the ground. An airliner with 500 phones on board, whizzing across a city, can befuddle a mobile network as the phones busily hop from one base-station to the next.

This obstacle is on the point of being overcome: the technology is being developed to allow passengers to use their existing handsets in flight, without interfering with ground-based networks.

First, a laptop-sized base-station, called a "picocell", will be installed in the aircraft cabin. This is connected to the telephone network via a satellite link. The aircraft cabin is shielded to prevent handsets from making contact with base-stations on the ground. Instead, they "roam" on to the network signal from the picocell. Since the picocell is so nearby, the handsets need use very little transmission power to maintain contact with it, which eliminates interference with the plane's avionics, and with networks on the ground.

All of these pieces have been put together in a prototype system by WirelessCabin, a consortium led by the German Aerospace Centre with members including Airbus, Siemens and Ericsson. It will allow mobile phones based on the dominant GSM standard to be used in the air, and also supports laptop-based internet access via the popular Wi-Fi protocol. (The first commercial airborne Wi-Fi service is being launched this month by Lufthansa.) The system has been successfully tested on the ground and will be tested in flight this summer, says Josef Kolbinger of Siemens.

A similar system for business jets will also be flight-tested this year, says Mike Fitzgerald of Altobridge, which provides technology to bridge cellular and satellite networks. Then it will be up to the regulators. In both Europe and America, regulatory bodies are drawing up rules to govern the use of wireless devices in flight--probably by mid-2005, says Mr Fitzgerald.

Perhaps surprisingly, airlines are reluctant to turn themselves into network operators, despite the prospect of lucrative roaming charges. Instead, they will probably team up with existing mobile operators or satellite operators. On-board telephony may be linked to loyalty schemes, giving regular customers lower rates or loyalty points when they make calls.

But even when technological, regulatory and commercial hurdles have been overcome, there will still be the matter of "user etiquette", notes Stephen Mallinson of ip.access, a maker of picocells based in Cambridge, England. Perhaps aircraft will offer "phoning" and "non-phoning" cabins. Still, what better way to drown out the noise of a screaming baby in the next seat than to phone a friend?
User Journal

Journal: Domestic robots 2

Journal by rm007
Here's a slightly edited down version of an article on domestic robots that appears in this week's Economist includes their Technology Quarterly. As ever, there is a lot of material there that while not cutting edge, would be of interest to a Slashdot readers, so once again I recommend getting a subscription (yes, I know everyone has lots of spare time to read yet another publication). In the meantime, enjoy.

THE GENTLE RISE OF THE MACHINES
Mar 11th 2004

Robotics: The science-fiction dream that robots would one day become a part of everyday life was absurd. Or was it?

WHO would have thought that a Frisbee-shaped contraption that extracts dust from carpets would be the state of the art in household robots at the dawn of the 21st century? In the past year, Roomba, a circular automatic vacuum cleaner made by a firm called iRobot, has swept up millions of dollars from over 200,000 buyers--and was a must-have at Christmas, among geeks at least. Rival firms such as Electrolux and Karcher sell similar but pricier sweepers. Robot vacuum cleaners, it seems, are catching on.

So far, however, such robots have proliferated in science fiction, but have proved rather more elusive in the real world. But optimists are now arguing that the success of the Roomba and of toys such as Aibo, Sony's robot dog, combined with the plunging cost of computer power, could mean that the long-awaited mass market for robots is finally within reach. "Household robots are starting to take off," declared a recent report from the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE). Are they really?

HAND-BUILT BY ROBOTS
Although the dream of the home robot has not died, robots have had their greatest impact in factories. Industrial robots go back over 40 years, when they first began to be used by carmakers. Unimate, the first industrial robot, went to work for General Motors in 1961. Even at a time when computing power was costly, robots made excellent workers and proved that machines controlled by computers could perform some tasks better than humans. In addition, robots can work around the clock and never go on strike.

There are now about 800,000 industrial robots around the world, and orders for new robots in the first half of 2003 were up a record 26% from the same period in 2002, according to the UNECE. Demand is increasing as prices fall: a robot sold in 2002 cost less than a fifth of an equivalent robot sold in 1990, for example. Today, in car factories in Japan, Germany and Italy, there is more than one robot for every ten production workers.

Similarly, agricultural robots harvest billions of tonnes of crops every year. There are six-legged timber cutters, tree-climbing fruit-pickers, robots that milk cows, and others that wash windows, trucks and aircraft. Industrial robotics is a $5.6 billion industry, growing by around 7% a year. But the UNECE report predicts that the biggest growth over the next three years will be in domestic rather than industrial robots. Sales of such devices, it predicts--from toys to lawnmowers to, yes, vacuum cleaners--will grow ten-fold between 2002 and 2006, overtaking the market for industrial robots.

The broader application of robotics is becoming possible thanks to the tumbling cost of computing power, says Takeo Kanade of Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute, who has built robots on both sides of the Pacific. This lets programmers write more sophisticated software that delivers more intelligent robotic behaviour. At the same time, he notes, the cost of camera and sensor chips has tumbled too. "The processing power is so much better than before that some of the seemingly simple things we humans do, like recognizing faces, can begin to be done," says Dr Kanade.

While prices drop and hardware improves, research into robotic vision, control systems and communications have jumped ahead as well. America's military and its space agency, NASA, have poured billions into robotic research and related fields such as computer vision. The SPIRIT and OPPORTUNITY rovers exploring Mars can pick their way across the surface to reach a specific destination. Their human masters do not specify the route; instead, the robots are programmed to identify and avoid obstacles themselves.

"Robots in the first generation helped to generate economies of scale," says Navi Radjou, an analyst at Forrester, a consultancy. Now, he says, a second generation of more flexible and intelligent robots will be able to do many more jobs. Hence the UNECE report's suggestion that domestic service robots might now be entering "into a diffusion process similar to that which the PC, the mobile telephone or the internet have had in recent years." But if robots really are poised on the cusp of ubiquity, what will they be used for?

ROBOTS GO HOME?
A possible robotic foot in the door could be toys. For the past two years, robots have been among the bestselling toys in the world. And they can be more than just playthings, once they have been hooked up to a network. Personal robots, wireless systems and cheap cameras, all tied together by a PC, could enable robots to water the plants while you are on holiday, or provide a roving set of eyes and ears. Sony's robot dog, Aibo, for example, can be linked wirelessly to a PC, so you can remotely monitor your home through its eyes as it walks around.

Given that homes are designed for human inhabitants, the best shape for such robots might be humanoid. In Japan, the development of such robots--by firms such as Honda, Mitsubishi and Toyota--seems to have become a symbol of technological superiority. But ultimately, says Mr Engelberger, who went through this with Unimate, if domestic robots are going to succeed, they will have to be reliable and demonstrate value for money. You have got to be able to show, he says, "how this damn thing can justify itself."

THEY ARE ALREADY AMONG US
Yet for all the progress in computing, there has not been a corresponding leap forward in robotics. Talk of robot helpers for the elderly has been around for years. Only a fervent optimist would take the success of the Roomba as the dawning of a new robotic era. But there is another way to look at things. We may, in fact, be surrounded by more robots than we realise. The trouble is that they have not taken on the forms that Hollywood, or robot researchers, led us to expect. Automated machines have, however, quietly slipped into many corners of everyday life.

Far more prevalent than robot vacuum cleaners are copiers that collate, staple and stack your documents and automated-teller machines that, as their name suggests, save human bank tellers the trouble of dispensing cash. Other machines scan groceries, wash dishes, make bread, sort mail by reading hand-written addresses, and dispense train tickets. Commercial airliners fly and even land themselves using radar and satellite-positioning systems to navigate through fog and storms. Autonomous trains, akin to giant robotic snakes, drive themselves. All of these devices are autonomous computer-controlled machines, capable of responding to changing circumstances in accordance with orders from their human masters. They are, in other words, robots. But they are not the general-purpose mechanical men that most people associate with the term.

Why not? The answer, ironically, could lie in the rapid advance of computing power. Back in the mid-20th century, when the robotic future was being imagined, computers were huge and expensive. The idea that they would become cheap enough to be integrated into almost any specialised device, from a coffee-maker to a dishwasher, was hard to imagine. Instead, it seemed more likely that such intelligence would be built into a small number of machines capable of turning their robotic hands to a range of different tasks. In place of the general-purpose housebot, however, we are surrounded by dozens of tiny robots that do specific things very well. There is no need to wait for the rise of the robots. The machines, it seems, are already among us.
User Journal

Journal: Carbs, Glycemic Index and Sensible Eating 2

Journal by rm007

For those of us who have watched with growing horror as Atkins evangelists have tried to turn us off our pasta (... when they pry the noodles from my cold dead hands...) there was an interesting series of articles in the Globe and Mail last week discussing the glycemic index values of different carbohydrates. G.I.-based menu selection makes use of much of the same understanding of endocrinology and metabolism that Atkins adherents do, but does not assume that all carbohydrates are sugars and other simple carbohydrates,

The first article is entitled Are All Carbs Bad? and gives a good overview, from there you can link to the rest of the series, or you can just skim one of the last ones in the series excerpted below. Or, for more G.I. Data, you can look at the G.I. Table at WWW.GITESTING.COM. More information on G.I. in general is at: WWW.GISYMBOL.COM. Basically, what we all knew about sensible eating turns out to be just that, sensible.

Concerned about carbs? Look Down Under

Australia is the first country in the world to routinely label food products based on their glycemic index.

Helen Goddard was overweight and, when blood tests taken during her annual checkup showed she was developing insulin resistance and was well on her way to diabetes, she got scared. She also decided to start eating healthily.

But, instead of latching on to one of the crop of fad diets such as Atkins , she decided to adopt a low-glycemic diet, eating foods that are digested gradually, releasing glucose slowly and steadily.

"I don't think of it as being on a diet," Ms. Goddard said. "I just look at the food I eat and what the GI effect will be."

Being a resident of Sydney, Australia, that is quite easy because Australia has become the first country in the world to routinely label food products based on their glycemic index. The index is a measure of the speed at which food is digested and converted into glucose, the body's source of energy.

Now when she is shopping, Ms. Goddard simply reaches for the foods labelled "low GI" and avoids those that are high GI.

As a result, she has cut down on white breads and replaced them with whole grains. And she is eating more pasta and rice than she ever has, foods that in many diets are shunned because of their high carbohydrate content.

At a time when cereal and pasta makers are reeling from the impact of carb-shunning diets, and consumers are more confused than ever, Jennie Brand-Miller, a professor of human nutrition at the University of Sydney, believes that labelling foods based on GI content is the perfect compromise.

"Low GI foods are the happy medium. They meet everybody's desire to lower insulin levels -- and that's one of the main reasons the low-carb diets are promoted -- but you can still eat healthy carbs," Dr. Brand-Miller said.

"You can have your cake and eat it too if you use low-GI carbs."

GI labelling began in the summer of 2002, and over the past 18 months, as an ever-growing number of products have begun to carry the circled G symbol, it has become familiar to Australian shoppers. The approach is also actively promoted by Diabetes Australia, which embraced the GI concept after studies showed a low-GI diet worked as effectively as drugs in controlling blood glucose levels

...

Glycemic index

The lower the GI of a food, the better the carbohydrate food is for everyone, especially if it's also low in fat and/or added sugar, high in fibre and low in salt.

High GI value: 70 or more

Medium GI value: 56-69

Low GI value: less than 55

*Having 4-5 small meals a day containing at least one low GI food will allow a slow diffusion of energy through the body, thus eliminating peaks and troughs when blood sugar levels rise and fall.

*What are good carbohydrates to eat? Pasta, beans, lentils, chickpeas, oats, bread with 'bits' and seeds in it (eg. Wholegrain), and whole pieces of fruit all have a low GI. Cooking, mashing or juicing a food will increase the GI.

Cereal............Glycemic index

Waffles (Aunt Jemima, Quaker): 78

Donut (Loblaws): 77

French fries (Cavendish): 76

Wholewheat snack bread (Ryvita): 75

White bagel (Lenders): 74

Commercial white (Dempster's): 72

Light rye (Silverstien's): 69

Super Taco shells (Old El Paso): 69

Macaroni & cheese, boxed (Kraft): 66

PEI, boiled potato (Bulk): 64

Arrowroot (McCormick's): 64

Cheese pizza (Pillsbury): 61

Banana, ripe: 54

Orange (Sunkist): 49

Apple juice (Allens): 42

Dried apricots (Wasco Foods Inc.): 33

Lima beans (York): 33

Pearled barley + tomato: 33

Chickpeas, dried: 31

Spaghetti (protein enriched) + cheese + tomato (Catelli Plus): 27

Red lentils + butter + tomato: 26

FOR MORE GI DATA LOOK AT THE TABLE AT WWW.GITESTING.COM. MORE INFORMATION ON G.I. IN GENERAL IS AT WWW.GISYMBOL.COM

User Journal

Journal: And now for something completely different... Google food

Journal by rm007
Some of you may already be familiar with Cookin' With Google , an application program interface for Google from Researchbuzz.com. It was mentioned in the March Wired magazine (... yes, I do subscribe, it's only ten bucks and is good for browsing on weekends between kids' basketball, soccer, baseball etc. games). You enter in whatever ingredients that are lying around the kitchen and it delivers recipes that use them.I ran a few test baskets through it and compared the results with simply googling the same search terms and low and behold, it did return just recipes rather than the mixed bag of menus, cooking sites, restaurant sites etc. that Google returns. Finally, something that might be useful on the WWW - new to me, although I realize that participants one particular recurring JE series may already be using it.

25/02/04 UPDATE: when this JE was posted, the Wired News site was still featuring the Feb issue of the magazine. They have now put a link to the March issue with the special section on Google that this came from. Given how anything to do with Google seems to make it to the Slashdot front page eventually, this will be there in a couple of days.
User Journal

Journal: When will they ever learn? Another Videophone 4

Journal by rm007
Today's NYT has an article on a new videophone product. This seems to be an idea whose time is always about to come but which never seems to catch on. Personally, while I can appreciate the utilitity of video conferences and webcams, there is no way I would want my normal phone to be a video phone. Anyway, below is most of the article's text for those who don't feel like registering at the NYT.

State of the Art: Videophones Revisited, by Way of the Modem

February 19, 2004

By DAVID POGUE

I mean, everyone knows that videophones are far-fetched. Plenty of people have tried NetMeeting software from Microsoft or the Beamer videophone screen from Vialta, for example, and discovered that ordinary dial-up phone lines were never intended to carry a video signal. By the time the software compresses your image enough to fit through a phone wire, you look like a Picasso viewed through textured bathroom-door glass. But more than 30 percent of American homes now have much faster "pipes" coming into their homes: broadband Internet.

In general, cable modems and D.S.L. boxes offer much greater capacity, enough to carry clean, convincing video. Apple exploited this feature, for example, with its $140 iSight camera, a pocketcam that clips onto a Macintosh screen for free, high-quality Internet video calls.

Now a company called Viseon has taken the next step by creating an actual video telephone called the VisiFone. It looks like a typical, not especially sleek office phone, with a tilting six-inch flat-panel screen on top. Actually, if you inspect the thing more closely, you'll see another telltale difference: there's nowhere to plug in a telephone wire. Instead, you're supposed to plug the VisiFone into your cable modem or D.S.L. box.

Now, "no computer needed" is supposed to be one of the VisiFone's chief virtues, but can anyone spot the Catch-22 here? Anyone? Anyone?

That's right: Who on earth has a cable modem but not a computer?

Put another way, it's much more likely that your VisiFone will be sharing your computer's Internet connection. And that means you'll probably be hooking the phone up to a router (a box that lets you share your broadband connection with multiple Macs or PC's), somewhere on your home or office network. If you're a networking professional, this is no big deal. You simply assign the phone a static I.P. address, and then use the router's configuration page to open all ports , and of course plug in your subnet mask and gateway addresses. If that's all Greek to you, though, you have to call Viseon to walk you through 15 minutes of setting up networking addresses, which most people will find terrifying. (The manual offers 12 pages of geek-speak on this topic alone. Trust me, you'll be calling the company.) When it comes to calculating the VisiFone's odds for success in the consumer marketplace, this is Strike One.

Once connected, the VisiFone is ready to go. All you have to do is dial the network, or Internet Protocol address - not the phone number - of your lucky video friend. (An I.P. address looks like 127.54.36.45.) The Internet, not the phone company, will carry your call. (The VisiFone has a phone book, but unfortunately, many I.P. addresses change from time to time, giving you a little black book that's almost always out of date.)

But here's Strike Two, otherwise known as the First Fax-Machine Conundrum. As the Ghostbusters would say, who you gonna call? I placed calls to various Viseon employees in Dallas, and even one of its investors in New York. I also hooked up a second VisiFone at a neighbor's house to conduct, somewhat pointlessly, a video chat down the street.

If you have only one VisiFone, you have three alternatives. First, you can call Viseon's test line; it connects you to a VisiFone in Texas that's trained on a tacky Elvis Presley wall clock, its legs swaying back and forth like a pendulum. Second, it's technically possible to connect with somebody else whose videocam uses the so-called H.263 video protocol, like somebody using Microsoft NetMeeting. The people you call will see terrific video, but you'll see only the tiny, jerky output of their Webcams. Finally, the company says that the VisiFone can connect to corporate videoconferencing gear.

In any case, once you're connected, you finally understand why you've gone through all of this. The screen is big, the motion is smooth (30 frames per second, just like television), and the picture is super-crisp most of the time. Sudden movement can create momentary blocky distortion. Otherwise, though, using a videophone is clearly the new next best thing to being there - especially because, thanks to the Internet, you're not paying a penny for the privilege.

Using a videophone is a weird, wild experience, a cross between using the phone and being on TV. It's ideal for the functions that companies like Viseon inevitably cite: showing Grandma the new baby, showing clients sketches for the new advertising campaign, conferring with medical colleagues in distant cities, and so on.

To make the device even more useful, video inputs on the back accommodate a camcorder, a VCR or a DVD player. Tapping a Camera button on the phone switches its broadcast from the built-in camera to whatever you've hooked up back there. This way, you can use your camcorder to show Grandma something cute that the baby did earlier, even if the baby is currently unresponsive. The back of the phone also has outputs so that you can put Grandma on your big-screen TV for the whole family to enjoy. In short, having a high-speed Internet connection neatly solves the technological problems that have prevented videophones from becoming commonplace. It does not, however, solve the cultural problems.

Using the VisiFone makes you acutely aware of being on camera, especially if you tap the View button to place your own image in a small picture-in-picture rectangle on the screen. There are buttons that can "mute" the audio or video, freeze the outgoing picture while you perform small acts of personal grooming, and so on.

Nonetheless, a videophone deprives you of visual privacy. You're pretty much obligated to give the other guy your full attention, and even nod understandingly, while he talks; you can't doodle or shoot exasperated "What a windbag!" expressions at your spouse. You're locked in front of the phone, too, worried about centering yourself in the frame. (The screen tilts up and down, but not side to side.) You can't clip your nails or walk around, cleaning the apartment as you chat.

But what will really block the VisiFone's acceptance is its price: $600 each. Between you and Grandma, that's $1,200, enough to send her not just a videotape of the baby, but a whole home-entertainment center to play it on, too. That, alas, is Strike Three.

Still, even if the VisiFone amounts to nothing more than a plaything for lottery winners, or maybe a deductible expense for small businesses, it's an important proof of concept. It's the first simple-to-use desktop videophone that offers TV-like high quality. Viseon plans to send current owners a "firmware updater" next month that will eliminate the blockiness during motion, solve the changing-I.P. problem in the phone book,

and introduce compatibility with Internet phone-dialing services like Vonage. There's also a much more promising phone in the works for 2005, which Viseon says will use a new networking scheme (called S.I.P., or Session Initiation Protocol) with a host of other calling features. For example, it will let you dial a phone number rather than a networking address. More important, next year's phone will cost only half as much. (Competition from companies like WorldGate and D-Link, which are also readying Internet videophones, may help explain the price drop.)

It's more likely, though, that your first videophone won't come directly from Viseon at all. The company is already in discussions with cable and phone companies about using these phones as an incentive to sign up for cable or D.S.L. In that scenario, you might pay, say, $5 a month for unlimited video calls, but the phone itself would be free.

User Journal

Journal: First Security Problem from Windows Leak 2

Journal by rm007
This story will probably be showing on the /. front page before too long (I submitted it, but some one may well do a better job - I confess, my blurbs are not all that interesting - or have beaten me to it)

I.T. Vibe has a story about the first security problem related to the leak of Windows code on the web last week. They report: The reported vulnerability affects only Internet Explorer version 5, and causes an integer overflow which can result in arbitrary code being executed on the affected machine. A modified bitmap file is all that is needed to be loaded in order to execute the exploit. Needless to say, there is no word on when a patch will become available. We will probably be seeing more stories like this.
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Journal: Valentines Day Special: The Science of Love

Journal by rm007
This week's Economist has an article on the chemistry of love and relationships (at least in voles.) For those of you who do not have a subsciption - and I recommend that you get one - here is the article for your enjoyment and reflection:

I GET A KICK OUT OF YOU

Feb 12th 2004

Scientists are finding that, after all, love really is down to a chemical addiction between people

OVER the course of history it has been artists, poets and playwrights who have made the greatest progress in humanity's understanding of love. Romance has seemed as inexplicable as the beauty of a rainbow. But these days scientists are challenging that notion, and they have rather a lot to say about how and why people love each other.

Is this useful? The scientists think so. For a start, understanding the neurochemical pathways that regulate social attachments may help to deal with defects in people's ability to form relationships. All relationships, whether they are those of parents with their children, spouses with their partners, or workers with their colleagues, rely on an ability to create and maintain social ties. Defects can be disabling, and become apparent as disorders such as autism and schizophrenia--and, indeed, as the serious depression that can result from rejection in love. Research is also shedding light on some of the more extreme forms of sexual behaviour. And, controversially, some utopian fringe groups see such work as the doorway to a future where love is guaranteed because it will be provided chemically, or even genetically engineered from conception.

The scientific tale of love begins innocently enough, with voles. The prairie vole is a sociable creature, one of the only 3% of mammal species that appear to form monogamous relationships. Mating between prairie voles is a tremendous 24-hour effort. After this, they bond for life. They prefer to spend time with each other, groom each other for hours on end and nest together. They avoid meeting other potential mates. The male becomes an aggressive guard of the female. And when their pups are born, they become affectionate and attentive parents. However, another vole, a close relative called the montane vole, has no interest in partnership beyond one-night-stand sex. What is intriguing is that these vast differences in behaviour are the result of a mere handful of genes. The two vole species are more than 99% alike, genetically.

WHY DO VOLES FALL IN LOVE?

The details of what is going on--the vole story, as it were--is a fascinating one. When prairie voles have sex, two hormones called oxytocin and vasopressin are released. If the release of these hormones is blocked, prairie-voles' sex becomes a fleeting affair, like that normally enjoyed by their rakish montane cousins. Conversely, if prairie voles are given an injection of the hormones, but prevented from having sex, they will still form a preference for their chosen partner. In other words, researchers can make prairie voles fall in love--or whatever the vole equivalent of this is--with an injection.

A clue to what is happening--and how these results might bear on the human condition--was found when this magic juice was given to the montane vole: it made no difference. It turns out that the faithful prairie vole has receptors for oxytocin and vasopressin in brain regions associated with reward and reinforcement, whereas the montane vole does not. The question is, do humans (another species in the 3% of allegedly monogamous mammals) have brains similar to prairie voles?

To answer that question you need to dig a little deeper. As Larry Young, a researcher into social attachment at Emory University, in Atlanta, Georgia, explains, the brain has a reward system designed to make voles (and people and other animals) do what they ought to. Without it, they might forget to eat, drink and have sex--with disastrous results. That animals continue to do these things is because they make them feel good. And they feel good because of the release of a chemical called dopamine into the brain. Sure enough, when a female prairie vole mates, there is a 50% increase in the level of dopamine in the reward centre of her brain.

Similarly, when a male rat has sex it feels good to him because of the dopamine. He learns that sex is enjoyable, and seeks out more of it based on how it happened the first time. But, in contrast to the prairie vole, at no time do rats learn to associate sex with a particular female. Rats are not monogamous.

This is where the vasopressin and oxytocin come in. They are involved in parts of the brain that help to pick out the salient features used to identify individuals. If the gene for oxytocin is knocked out of a mouse before birth, that mouse will become a social amnesiac and have no memory of the other mice it meets. The same is true if the vasopressin gene is knocked out.

The salient feature in this case is odour. Rats, mice and voles recognise each other by smell. Christie Fowler and her colleagues at Florida State University have found that exposure to the opposite sex generates new nerve cells in the brains of prairie voles--in particular in areas important to olfactory memory. Could it be that prairie voles form an olfactory "image" of their partners--the rodent equivalent of remembering a personality--and this becomes linked with pleasure?

Dr Young and his colleagues suggest this idea in an article published last month in the JOURNAL OF COMPARATIVE NEUROLOGY. They argue that prairie voles become addicted to each other through a process of sexual imprinting mediated by odour. Furthermore, they suggest that the reward mechanism involved in this addiction has probably evolved in a similar way in other monogamous animals, humans included, to regulate pair-bonding in them as well.

YOU MIGHT AS WELL FACE IT...

Sex stimulates the release of vasopressin and oxytocin in people, as well as voles, though the role of these hormones in the human brain is not yet well understood. But while it is unlikely that people have a mental, smell-based map of their partners in the way that voles do, there are strong hints that the hormone pair have something to reveal about the nature of human love: among those of Man's fellow primates that have been studied, monogamous marmosets have higher levels of vasopressin bound in the reward centres of their brains than do non-monogamous rhesus macaques.

Other approaches are also shedding light on the question. In 2000, Andreas Bartels and Semir Zeki of University College, London, located the areas of the brain activated by romantic love. They took students who said they were madly in love, put them into a brain scanner, and looked at their patterns of brain activity.

The results were surprising. For a start, a relatively small area of the human brain is active in love, compared with that involved in, say, ordinary friendship. "It is fascinating to reflect", the pair conclude, "that the face that launched a thousand ships should have done so through such a limited expanse of cortex." The second surprise was that the brain areas active in love are different from the areas activated in other emotional states, such as fear and anger. Parts of the brain that are love-bitten include the one responsible for gut feelings, and the ones which generate the euphoria induced by drugs such as cocaine. So the brains of people deeply in love do not look like those of people experiencing strong emotions, but instead like those of people snorting coke. Love, in other words, uses the neural mechanisms that are activated during the process of addiction. "We are literally addicted to love," Dr Young observes. Like the prairie voles.

It seems possible, then, that animals which form strong social bonds do so because of the location of their receptors for vasopressin and oxytocin. Evolution acts on the distribution of these receptors to generate social or non-social versions of a vole. The more receptors located in regions associated with reward, the more rewarding social interactions become. Social groups, and society itself, rely ultimately on these receptors. But for evolution to be able to act, there must be individual variation between mice, and between men. And this has interesting implications.

Last year, Steven Phelps, who works at Emory with Dr Young, found great diversity in the distribution of vasopressin receptors between individual prairie voles. He suggests that this variation contributes to individual differences in social behaviour--in other words, some voles will be more faithful than others. Meanwhile, Dr Young says that he and his colleagues have found a lot of variation in the vasopressin-receptor gene in humans. "We may be able to do things like look at their gene sequence, look at their promoter sequence, to genotype people and correlate that with their fidelity," he muses.

It has already proved possible to tinker with this genetic inheritance, with startling results. Scientists can increase the expression of the relevant receptors in prairie voles, and thus strengthen the animals' ability to attach to partners. And in 1999, Dr Young led a team that took the prairie-vole receptor gene and inserted it into an ordinary (and therefore promiscuous) mouse. The transgenic mouse thus created was much more sociable to its mate.

LOVE, LOVE ME DO

Scanning the brains of people in love is also helping to refine science's grasp of love's various forms. Helen Fisher, a researcher at Rutgers University, and the author of a new book on love*[1], suggests it comes in three flavours: lust, romantic love and long-term attachment. There is some overlap but, in essence, these are separate phenomena, with their own emotional and motivational systems, and accompanying chemicals. These systems have evolved to enable, respectively, mating, pair-bonding and parenting.

Lust, of course, involves a craving for sex. Jim Pfaus, a psychologist at Concordia University, in Montreal, says the aftermath of lustful sex is similar to the state induced by taking opiates. A heady mix of chemical changes occurs, including increases in the levels of serotonin, oxytocin, vasopressin and endogenous opioids (the body's natural equivalent of heroin). "This may serve many functions, to relax the body, induce pleasure and satiety, and perhaps induce bonding to the very features that one has just experienced all this with", says Dr Pfaus.

Then there is attraction, or the state of being in love (what is sometimes known as romantic or obsessive love). This is a refinement of mere lust that allows people to home in on a particular mate. This state is characterised by feelings of exhilaration, and intrusive, obsessive thoughts about the object of one's affection. Some researchers suggest this mental state might share neurochemical characteristics with the manic phase of manic depression. Dr Fisher's work, however, suggests that the actual behavioural patterns of those in love--such as attempting to evoke reciprocal responses in one's loved one--resemble obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).

That raises the question of whether it is possible to "treat" this romantic state clinically, as can be done with OCD. The parents of any love-besotted teenager might want to know the answer to that. Dr Fisher suggests it might, indeed, be possible to inhibit feelings of romantic love, but only at its early stages. OCD is characterised by low levels of a chemical called serotonin. Drugs such as Prozac work by keeping serotonin hanging around in the brain for longer than normal, so they might stave off romantic feelings. (This also means that people taking anti-depressants may be jeopardising their ability to fall in love.) But once romantic love begins in earnest, it is one of the strongest drives on Earth. Dr Fisher says it seems to be more powerful than hunger. A little serotonin would be unlikely to stifle it.

Wonderful though it is, romantic love is unstable--not a good basis for child-rearing. But the final stage of love, long-term attachment, allows parents to co-operate in raising children. This state, says Dr Fisher, is characterised by feelings of calm, security, social comfort and emotional union.

Because they are independent, these three systems can work simultaneously--with dangerous results. As Dr Fisher explains, "you can feel deep attachment for a long-term spouse, while you feel romantic love for someone else, while you feel the sex drive in situations unrelated to either partner." This independence means it is possible to love more than one person at a time, a situation that leads to jealousy, adultery and divorce--though also to the possibilities of promiscuity and polygamy, with the likelihood of extra children, and thus a bigger stake in the genetic future, that those behaviours bring. As Dr Fisher observes, "We were not built to be happy but to reproduce."

The stages of love vary somewhat between the sexes. Lust, for example, is aroused more easily in men by visual stimuli than is the case for women. This is probably why visual pornography is more popular with men. And although both men and women express romantic love with the same intensity, and are attracted to partners who are dependable, kind, healthy, smart and educated, there are some notable differences in their choices. Men are more attracted to youth and beauty, while women are more attracted to money, education and position. When an older, ugly man is seen walking down the road arm-in-arm with a young and beautiful woman, most people assume the man is rich or powerful.

THESE FOOLISH THINGS

Of course, love is about more than just genes. Cultural and social factors, and learning, play big roles. Who and how a person has loved in the past are important determinants of his (or her) capacity to fall in love at any given moment in the future. This is because animals--people included--learn from their sexual and social experiences. Arousal comes naturally. But long-term success in mating requires a change from being naive about this state to knowing the precise factors that lead from arousal to the rewards of sex, love and attachment. For some humans, this may involve flowers, chocolate and sweet words. But these things are learnt.

If humans become conditioned by their experiences, this may be the reason why some people tend to date the same "type" of partner over and over again. Researchers think humans develop a "love map" as they grow up--a blueprint that contains the many things that they have learnt are attractive. This inner scorecard is something that people use to rate the suitability of mates. Yet the idea that humans are actually born with a particular type of "soul mate" wired into their desires is wrong. Research on the choices of partner made by identical twins suggests that the development of love maps takes time, and has a strong random component.

Work on rats is leading researchers such as Dr Pfaus to wonder whether the template of features found attractive by an individual is formed during a critical period of sexual-behaviour development. He says that even in animals that are not supposed to pair-bond, such as rats, these features may get fixed with the experience of sexual reward. Rats can be conditioned to prefer particular types of partner--for example by pairing sexual reward with some kind of cue, such as lemon-scented members of the opposite sex. This work may help the understanding of unusual sexual preferences. Human fetishes, for example, develop early, and are almost impossible to change. The fetishist connects objects such as feet, shoes, stuffed toys and even balloons, that have a visual association with childhood sexual experiences, to sexual gratification.

So love, in all its glory, is just, it seems, a chemical state with genetic roots and environmental influences. But all this work leads to other questions. If scientists can make a more sociable mouse, might it be possible to create a more sociable human? And what about a more loving one? A few people even think that "paradise-engineering", dedicated to abolishing the "biological substrates of human suffering", is rather a good idea.

AS TIME GOES BY

Progress in predicting the outcome of relationships, and information about the genetic roots of fidelity, might also make proposing marriage more like a job application--with associated medical, genetic and psychological checks. If it were reliable enough, would insurers cover you for divorce? And as brain scanners become cheaper and more widely available, they might go from being research tools to something that anyone could use to find out how well they were loved. Will the future bring answers to questions such as: Does your partner REALLY love you? Is your husband lusting after the au pair?

And then there are drugs. Despite Dr Fisher's reservations, might they also help people to fall in love, or perhaps fix broken relationships? Probably not. Dr Pfaus says that drugs may enhance portions of the "love experience" but fall short of doing the whole job because of their specificity. And if a couple fall out of love, drugs are unlikely to help either. Dr Fisher does not believe that the brain could overlook distaste for someone--even if a couple in trouble could inject themselves with huge amounts of dopamine.

However, she does think that administering serotonin can help someone get over a bad love affair faster. She also suggests it is possible to trick the brain into feeling romantic love in a long-term relationship by doing novel things with your partner. Any arousing activity drives up the level of dopamine and can therefore trigger feelings of romance as a side effect. This is why holidays can rekindle passion. Romantics, of course, have always known that love is a special sort of chemistry. Scientists are now beginning to show how true this is.

* "Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love[2]", by Helen Fisher. Henry Holt and Company, New York.
User Journal

Journal: The Brazilianization of American Constitutional Practice?

Journal by rm007
Regardless of one's view on whether or not homosexual marriage should or should not be possible, watching the current constitutional debate in Massachusetts and the wider discussions going on about the possibility of an amendment to the US Constitution sometime in the future, am I the only one who is wondering is this really a constitutional issue? If you read either the US or Massachusetts Constitutions, they deal pretty much exclusively with the structure and powers of government and courts, including nature and power of offices under the constitution & civil and political rights of citizens (i.e. their relationship to the government and the law). They do not deal with the details of how society should organize itself. Many laws have this effect, but Constitutions organize legal and political structures. There are constitutions that do this - for example, the Brazilian Constitution, specifically, Chapter VII, regulating family, children and the elderly. Now I have a great deal of respect for Brazil and Brazilians, especially their soccer and women, but is this really the constitutional precedent that Americans want for themselves? The detailed articulation of everything from what arms the armed forces shall have to pension levels and using lotteries to pay for social welfare has contributed to legislative deadlock that prevents government actually doing anything (of course, that may be a good thing) to help solve Brazils many social and economic problems. So I ask you, is this really what constitions are for in American practice? Or is that this is the only way to behave in a way that is otherwise unconstitutional?

... it looks like a bias towards one response to the issue is showing (guilty as charged), but to remove that: how about, if a constitutional amendment is required, wouldn't it be more in keeping with American constitutional tradition to put it in the form of a general principle on how laws are made e.g. that laws will be consistent with Christian values (... can't do that? really?) Any ideas as to an amendment that is consistent with American constitional practice?
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Journal: US Congressional Committee Talking About Privacy

Journal by rm007
I suspect that a story about this will eventually show up on the main boards. I finally submitted one, but so long after I first saw it that someone is sure to have already done it. Anyway, here's a bare outline:

The US House of Representatives Judicial Committee's Subcommittee on Commercial and Administrative Law is holding hearings on the Privacy Officer for the Department of Homeland Security and approved the Defense of Privacy Act. The DHS Privacy Officer hearings are to examine how well the incumbent, Nuala O'Connor Kelly, is doing and whether the statute creating the position sufficiently addresses concerns about the handling of personally identifiable information. This should be worth watching. Wired News has an article that covers both of these as does GovExec.com, a newsletter for senior Federal employees.
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Journal: Why are Canadians healthier than Americans? 6

Journal by rm007
The Boston Globe has an article today asking why Canadians are healthier than Americans despite spending less on healthcare.

From the article:

An impressive array of comparative data shows that Canadians live longer and healthier lives than we do. What's more, they pay roughly half as much per capita as we do -- $2,163 versus $4,887 in 2001 -- for the privilege.

Exactly why Canadians fare better is the subject of considerable academic debate. Some policy wonks say it's Canada's single-payer, universal health coverage system. Others point to Canadians' different ethnic mix. Some think it's because they use fewer illegal drugs and shoot each other less with guns, though they do smoke and drink with gusto.

Still others think Canadians are healthier because their medical system is tilted more toward primary-care doctors and less toward specialists. And some believe it's something more fundamental -- a smaller gap between rich and poor.

Perhaps it's all of the above. But there is no arguing the basics.

By all measures, Canadians' health is better," said Dr. Barbara Starfield, a university distinguished professor at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions. Canadians do better on a whole variety of health outcomes, she said, including life expectancy at various ages -- 1, 15, 20, 45, 65, 80, you name it.
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Journal: More news - The Convergence Between Computing and Biology 1

Journal by rm007
Here's another piece of interesting news that is not on Slashdot. (This may or may not become a habit.) In this case, I actually made the effort to post it to /. but it was rejected. Never one to be disuaded by mere rejection, I am posting it here.

Wired is running a special report on the convergence of technology and biology. While (a) we all know that Wired tends to run ahead of itself in proclaiming the next big thing that will transform our lives and (b) this has been happening for some time now, it is a nice summary of the application of biological principles from things ranging from fighting spam using genetics to autonomic approaches to computer security and using ant algorithms for business. The articles cover a lot of ground, but it is worth considering that while engineers have been tackling the complex problems of computerized systems for a few decades, nature has been addressing similar problems in biological systems for billions of years and has a lot to teach us.

Each honest calling, each walk of life, has its own elite, its own aristocracy based on excellence of performance. -- James Bryant Conant

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