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Journal Journal: Chrome Puts Flash In Security Sandbox

Information Week reports that Google and Adobe have announced the addition of a new security sandbox for Adobe Flash Player that will allow the software to operate with less risk in Google's Chrome Web browser. "This initial Flash Player sandbox is an important milestone in making Chrome even safer," say Google engineers Justin Schuh and Carlos Pizano. "In particular, users of Windows XP will see a major security benefit, as Chrome is currently the only browser on the XP platform that runs Flash Player in a sandbox." The timing is good not only for Adobe, which needs to undo its reputation for vulnerable software, but for Google too, which is about to launch its Chrome Web Store. The fact that Chrome is the safest way to run Flash on Windows XP at the moment might just prompt a few more Internet Explorer 6 users to defect to Chrome.

It's funny.  Laugh.

Journal Journal: See-Through Fish Help Cancer Research

What is transparent, swims, and helps cure cancer? Caspar the friendly fish - a zebrafish bred with a see-through body to make studying disease processes easier for rapidly changing processes such as cancer, Zebrafish are genetically similar to humans in many ways and serve as good models for human biology and disease. In one experiment, researchers inserted a fluorescent melanoma tumor into the abdominal cavity of the transparent fish and by observing the fish under a microscope, they found that the cancer cells started spreading within five days and could actually see individual cells spreading. "The process by which a tumor goes from being localized to widespread and ultimately fatal is the most vexing problem that oncologists face," says Richard White, a clinical fellow in the Stem Cell Program at Children's Hospital Boston. "We don't know why cancer cells decide to move away from their primary site to other parts in the body." Researchers created the transparent fish, (photo) by mating two existing zebrafish breeds, one that lacked a reflective skin pigment and the other without black pigment. The offspring had only yellow skin pigment, essentially appearing clear.

User Journal

Journal Journal: Robotic Telescope Installed on Antarctica Plateau

Antarctica claims some of the best astronomical sky conditions in the world - devoid of clouds with steady air that makes for clear viewing - that unfortunately lie deep in the interior on a high-altitude plateau called Dome A with an elevation up to 4,093m known as the most unapproachable point in the earth's southernmost region. Now astronomers in a Chinese scientific expedition have set up an experimental observatory at Dome A after lugging their equipment across Antarctica with the help of Australia and the US. The observatory will hunt for alien planets, while also measuring the observing conditions at the site to see if it is worth trying to build bigger observatories there. The observatory is automated, pointing its telescopes on its own while astronomers monitor its progress from other locations around the world via satellite link. PLATO is powered by a gas generator, and has a 4000-litre tank of jet fuel to keep it running through the winter. The observatory will search for planets around other stars using an array of four 14.5-centimetre telescopes called the Chinese Small Telescope Array (CSTAR). Astronomers hope to return in 2009 with new instruments, including the Antarctica Schmidt Telescopes (AST-3), a trio of telescopes with 0.5-metre mirrors, which will be more sensitive to planets than CSTAR.


Journal Journal: Online Gap Widens between Parents and Children

A new study by Dafna Lemish from the Department of Communication at Tel Aviv University has found that there is an enormous gap between what parents think their children are doing online and what is really happening. "The data tell us that parents don't know what their kids are doing," says Lemish. The study found that 30% of children between the ages of 9 and 18 delete their search history from their browsers in an attempt to protect their privacy from their parents, that 73% of the children reported giving out personal information online while the parents of the same children believed that only 4% of their children did so, and that 36% of the children admitted to meeting with a stranger they had met online while fewer than 9% of the parents knew that their children had been meeting with strangers or engaging in what could be viewed as very risky behavior. Lemish advises that parents should give their children the tools to be literate Internet users and most importantly, to talk to their children. "The child needs similar tools that teach them to be weary of dangers in the park, the mall or wherever. The same rules in the real world apply online as well."

Real Time Strategy (Games)

Journal Journal: Dreams Are Virtual Reality Threat Simulation

Psychology Today has an interesting story on a new theory of why we dream. Finnish psychologist Antti Revonsuo believes that dreams are a sort of nighttime theater in which our brains screen realistic scenarios simulating emergency situations and providing an arena for safe training. "The primary function of negative dreams is rehearsal for similar real events, so that threat recognition and avoidance happens faster and more automatically in comparable real situations," he says. We have 300 to 1,000 threat dreams per year--one to four per night and just under half are aggressive encounters: physical aggression such as fistfights, and nonphysical aggression such as verbal arguments. Faced with actual life-or-death situations--traffic accidents, terrorist attacks, street assaults - people report entering a mode of calm, rapid response, reacting automatically, almost without thinking. Afterward, they often say the episode felt unreal, as if it were all a dream. "Dreaming is a sensitive system that tries to pay much attention to the threatening cues in our environment," Revonsuo says. "Their function is to protect and prepare us."

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Journal Journal: New Years Resolutions: An Engineering Approach

Four out of five people who make New Year's resolutions will eventually break them and a third won't even make it to the end of January says the NY Times but experts say the real problem is that people make the wrong resolutions. The typical resolution often reflects a general desire. To engineer better behavior, it is more productive to focus on a specific goal. "Many clients make broad resolutions, but I advise them to focus the goals so that they are not overwhelmed,'' says Lisa R. Young. "Small and tangible one-day-at-a-time goals work best.'' Here are some resolutions that experts say can work: To lose weight, resolve to split an entree with your dining partner when dining out. To improve your fitness, wear a pedometer and monitor your daily activity. To improve family life, resolve to play with your kids at least one extra day a week. To improve your marriage, find a new activity you and your spouse both enjoy such as taking a pottery class. On a lighter note: What was Steve Jobs' New Year's Resolution?


Journal Journal: Software Detects 100 Foot Rogue Waves

For centuries sailors have been telling stories of encountering monstrous ocean waves that tower over one hundred feet in the air and toss ships around like corks. Once dismissed as a nautical myth, Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) from ESA's ERS satellites has helped establish the widespread existence of these 'rogue' waves and study their origins. Over 200 supertankers and container ships have been lost in the past twenty years and rogue waves are now believed to be responsible for many of the losses not only because of the waves' immense size and power, but because rogue waves emerge unpredictably from calm seas. Now Jose Carlos Nieto, a researcher the signal theory department of the University de Alcalá, Madrid has developed a software tool that can detect rogue waves from radar images and monitor their evolution in time and space, giving time to prepare and minimize its effects. The wave dynamics that the software detects could also be used to predict the precise trajectory of oil spills and other contaminants that float on the sea.


Journal Journal: Decoding the Brain's Network of Neurons

New technologies that allow scientists to trace the fine wiring of the brain more accurately could soon generate a complete wiring diagram--including every tiny fiber and miniscule connection--of a piece of brain. "The brain is essentially a computer that wires itself up during development and can rewire itself," says Sebastian Seung, a computational neuroscientist at MIT. "If we have a wiring diagram of the brain, we might be able to understand how it works." With an estimated 100 billion neurons and 100 trillion synapses in the human brain, creating an all-encompassing map of even a small chunk is a daunting task. Winfried Denk, a neuroscientist at the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research in Heidelberg, Germany, has developed a new technique to make more fine-scaled wiring maps using electron microscopy. Starting with a small block of brain tissue, the researchers bounce electrons off the top of the block to generate a cross-sectional picture of the nerve fibers in that slice. They then take a very thin--30-nanometer--slice off the top of the block and repeat the process going through slice by slice to trace the path of each nerve fiber. "Repeat this [process] thousands of times, and you can make your way through maybe the whole fly brain," says Denk. The researchers train an artificial neural network to emulate the human tracing process to speed the process about one hundred- to one thousand-fold.


Journal Journal: Are Aliens Living Among Us? 1

Thirty years ago the prevailing view among biologists was that life resulted from a chemical fluke so improbable it would be unlikely to have happened twice in the observable universe. In recent years, however, the mood has shifted dramatically with one scientist calling life "a cosmic imperative" and declaring "it is almost bound to arise" on any Earth-like planet. If life does emerge readily under terrestrial conditions, then perhaps it formed many times on our home planet. To pursue this tantalizing possibility, scientists have begun searching deserts, lakes and caverns for evidence of "alien" life-forms--organisms that would differ fundamentally from all known living creatures because they arose independently. Microbes have already been found inhabiting extreme environments ranging from scalding volcanic vents to the dry valleys of Antarctica. Other so-called extremophiles can survive in salt-saturated lakes, highly acidic mine tailings contaminated with metals, and the waste pools of nuclear reactors. Although "alien" microbes might look like ordinary bacteria, their biochemistry could involve exotic amino acids or different elemental building blocks so researchers are devising tests to identify exotic microbes. If shadow life is confined to the microbial realm, it is entirely possible that scientists have overlooked it.

Social Networks

Journal Journal: Turning E-Mail into a Social Network

Saul Hansell at the NY Times has an interesting article on his technology blog about his conversations with executives at Yahoo and Google about how they plan to turn their e-mail systems and personalized home page services into social networks. Web-based e-mail systems already contain much of what Facebook calls the social graph -- the connections between people. That's why social networks offer to import the e-mail address books of new users to jump-start their list of friends. Yahoo and Google realize they can use this information to build their own services that connect people to their contacts. Yahoo is working on what they call "Inbox 2.0" which will display messages more prominently from people who are more important to you, determining the strength of your relationship by how often you exchange e-mail and instant messages with him or her. "The inbox you have today is based on what people send you, not what you want to see," says Brad Garlinghouse, who runs communication and community products for Yahoo. "We can say, here are the messages from the people you care about most." There will also be some sort of profile system attached to Inbox 2.0 with a profile users show to others and a personal page where they can see information from their friends. "The exciting part is that a lot of this information already exists on our network, but it's dormant," Mr. Garlinghouse added.

The Internet

Journal Journal: US Control of Internet Remains Issue

A UN-sponsored Internet conference ended with little progress on the issue of US control over the domain name system run by ICANN, a California-based nonprofit over which the US. government retains veto power. By controlling the core systems, the United States indirectly influences the way much of the world uses the Internet. As the conference drew to a close, the Russian representative, Konstantin Novoderejhkin, called on the United Nations secretary-general to create a working group to develop ''practical steps'' for moving Internet governance ''under the control of the international community.'' The United States insists that the existing arrangements ensure the Internet's stability and there's little indication that the US government and ICANN plan to cede their roles over domain names anytime soon. ''I think (there are) a small number of countries that are very agitated and almost don't care what the facts are,'' said Internet pioneer Vint Cerf, who stepped down as ICANN's chairman earlier this month. ''It's a very small vocal group bothered by this issue. ICANN has existed for eight years and done a great job with its plans for internationalization.'' With no concrete recommendations for action, the only certainty going forward is that any resentment about the American influence will only grow as more users from the developing world come online, changing the face of the global network. The next forum will held next year in New Delhi, India.

Hardware Hacking

Journal Journal: MIT Students Show How the Inca Leapt Canyons

When Conquistadors came to Peru from Spain in 1532, they were astonished to see Inca suspension bridges achieve clear spans of at least 150 feet at a time when the longest Roman bridge in Spain had a maximum span of 95 feet. The bridges swayed under the weight of traffic terrifying the Spanish and their horses, even though, as one Spaniard observed, they were almost as "sturdy as the street of Seville." To build the bridges, thick cables were pulled across a river with small ropes and attached to stone abutments on each side. Three of the big cables served as the floor of the bridge, two others served as handrails and pieces of wood were tied to the cable floor before the floor was strewn with branches to give firm footing for beasts of burden. Earlier this year students at MIT built a 70-foot fiber bridge in the style of the Incan Empire. The project used sisal twine from the Yucatan Peninsula and anchored it by wrapping it around massive concrete blocks. The weekend's burst of activity was preceded by 360 hours of rope-twisting as the 50 miles of sisal twine was turned into rope. Working together as a group was part of the exercise. "A third of the time was spent learning to work together," one of the students said. "But after a while, we were banging those cables out."


Journal Journal: New Encryption Standard may Contain Backdoor

Bruce Schneier has a story on Wired about the new official standard for random-number generators the NIST released this year that will likely be followed by software and hardware developers around the world. There are four different approved techniques (pdf), called DRBGs, or "Deterministic Random Bit Generators" based on existing cryptographic primitives. One is based on hash functions, one on HMAC, one on block ciphers and one on elliptic curves. The generator based on elliptic curves called Dual_EC_DRBG has been has been championed by the NSA and contains a weakness that can only be described a backdoor. In a presentation at the CRYPTO 2007 conference (pdf) in August, Dan Shumow and Niels Ferguson showed that there are constants in the standard used to define the algorithm's elliptic curve that have a relationship with a second, secret set of numbers that can act as a kind of skeleton key. If you know the secret numbers, you can completely break any instantiation of Dual_EC_DRBG. "We don't know where the constants came from in the first place. We only know that whoever came up with them could have the key to this backdoor. And we know there's no way for NIST -- or anyone else -- to prove otherwise," says Schneier.


Journal Journal: Stopping Cars with Radiation

Researchers have created an electromagnetic system that can quickly bring a vehicle to a stop by sending out pulses of microwave radiation to disable the microprocessors that control the central engine functions in a car. A 200-pound unit attached to the roof of a police car can be used to stop fleeing and noncooperative vehicles. The average power emitted in a single shot is about 10 kilowatts at a pulse rate of 100 hertz and since each radiated pulse lasts about 50 nanoseconds, the total energy output is 100 joules at a distance of 15 meters. One concern with the device is that it could cause an accident if a car is disabled and a driver loses steering control. The device could also disable other vehicles in the area so the most practical application may be for perimeter protection at remote areas. Criminals have a work-around too. Since electronic control modules were not built into most cars until 1972, the system will not work on automobiles made before that year.


Journal Journal: The Rules of the Swarm

Researchers are starting to discover the simple rules that allow swarms of thousands of relatively simple animals to form a collective brain able to make decisions and move like a single organism. To get a sense of swarms, Dr. Iain Couzin, a mathematical biologist at the Collective Animal Behaviour Laboratory at Princeton University, builds computer models of virtual swarms with thousands of individual agents that he can program to follow a few simple rules. Among the findings are that swarm behavior has patterns common to many different species, that just as liquid water can suddenly begin to boil, swarm behavior can also change abruptly in character, and that just a few leaders can guide a swarm effectively by creating a bias in the swarm's movement that steers it in a particular direction. The rules of the swarm may also apply to the cells inside our bodies and researchers are working with cancer biologists to discover the rules by which cancer cells work together to build tumors or migrate through tissues. Even brain cells may follow the same rules for collective behavior seen in locusts or fish. "How does your brain take this information and come to a collective decision about what you're seeing?" Dr. Couzin says. The answer, he suspects, may lie in our inner swarm.

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