Monday, February 26, 2007

Chimps use tools while hunting

We normally believe that some of the distinguishing characteristics of mankind are the ability to effectively communicate, advanced mental capability, the ability to use tools and having a hand with an opposing thumb. In a recent discovery, a researcher studying chimpanzees in Africa has discovered that chimapanzees have some rudimentary capabilities in using tools during hunts. Now this ability may not be so advanced as being able to create a space station, but it does give an insight into how humankind may have slowly developed the ability to use tools.

Chimps would typically use around 2 foot long tree branch that they would have stripped with their teeth to make sharper, and then use these as makeshift spears to hunt their prey. This ability had been reputed for quite some time, but this was the first time that such behaviour was documented.

Such behaviour also shows how close chimps are to humans genetically, and also a chance to be able to figure out that they have a high level of intelligence. Read this whole article to know more about this research.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Google apps for $50

Google, in the first direct assault on the money making machine of Microsoft (its Office line of products), has launched a line of key business applications for money. Titled the 'Google Apps Premier Edition', it provides some key office productivity tools such as a Word processor, a spreadsheet application, Google Talk (messaging), Calendar, Gmail. These are wrapped in a promise of support with IT management tools, technical support, and service level agreements for uptime, costing a total of $50.
In addition, it will offer a platform for integrating with third parties such that it can become integrated with a client's other business applications. This is a big step ahead in the area of hosted applications or Software as a service. The service will provide 10GB of storage per user, 24X7 support for critical issues, and 99.9% service uptime.
This will be very advantageous for those customers who are currently struggling with the expenses of Microsoft office, and this provides a very low cost alternative. In addition, with more integration with other business applications such as ERP, sales, etc., companies will start to see this as a feasible alternative. Plus, features such as being able to easily share documents across users (a big feature of the word processor and spreadsheet application) can be a major advantage.
However, there are some critical issues that need to be overcome. This is a hosted solution, and will be unavailable if connectivity is unavailable. In addition, office applications by Microsoft are seen so firmly as desktop products that it will require a major shift in thinking to see them as hosted applications. And Microsoft is not going to be staying still, they will also take steps to try to overcome this challenge from Google.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Getting closer to 'Minority Report'

In an experiment at mind-reading, a team of scientists used a brain scan to determine what somebody was thinking.

I am not making this up; the summary of the experiment was that by studying the brain through a MRI process and training a computer to read the results, scientists could determine whether subjects planned to subtract or add 2 numbers. The probability of determing this is 50%, but in the experiment, the scientists got upto 70% accuracy.

The current experiment is very limited, but given the speed of progress in research, it would not be very far away when we will get up every day and submit to a computer for it determine whether we planned to do something wrong that day. It may seem far away, and I am sure that it will take many years before such a capability is available, but it will happen.
Read the complete story here.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

How safe are electronic voting machines ?

The US electoral system is rapidly moving towards increased usage of electronic voting machines. In a bit of news which is certainly not going to be very comforting, a researcher has managed to buy 5 voting machines from a Government auction site. He is now embarking on a project to reverse-engineer these machines to determine their security levels.

At one level, he found that the security is pretty low. The ones that he bought came with keys that allowed him full access to the hardware and software (the guts of the machine). But even if he did not have keys, one of his students had managed to pick the lock in 7 seconds. One fundamental question - why would any county be auctioning electoral voting machines ?

If he does find out the code can be tampered easily and in such a way that it does not flag any alarms, then the situation would be very risky. Tampering with one machine would not impact any election; but tamper with a number of machines that are not stored with fool-proof security could swing close elections. This is a very serious matter in terms of its implications. But is anybody seized of the matter ?

Read the detailed article here.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

YouTube and removal of copyrighted videos

YouTube is the leader in online postings of videos. Videos that get popular on YouTube have literally millions of people viewing these videos, and people featuring in these videos become minor celebrities.
YouTube also has a large number of videos that show clips from movies, TV Shows and other copyrighted material. Owners of these copyrights look askance at these clips (or whole sections) occurring on YouTube and want these to get removed from YouTube.
What is the debate over ? Currently YouTube is offering the option of removal of such copyrighted material only as part of a deal between YouTube and the copyright owner; and this concept if making people see red. These owners have an objection to being faced with such a condition for removal of copyrighted material.
Read the article on YouTube's offer of removal of these copyrighted material.
It may be that this is only the first salvo in terms of business negotiations, and that eventually most people will make deals with YouTube. After all, YouTube also offers the promise of being able to extend media viewership to the young people who go to YouTube and who seem to be moving away from regular TV viewing.
Of course, if the issue does not get resolved, it will go to court, and I would expect that the court would not allow YouTube to keep copyrighted material on its servers.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Effect of spyware and adware

In a case that has caused a lot of disquiet, a teacher has been convicted of exposing seventh-grade students in the US to pornography and could face a long sentence. Read the CNN article.
She has been convicted of having a computer in the classroom in which students were able to see ads showing inappropriate content.
Her defence: When she was not in the classroom, some students clicked on a link for some hair styles that also loaded spyware and adware pop-ups on the computer, and since the computer did not have a firewall (and probably not having the latest patches), these pop-ups started appearing faster than she could control them. A pretty strange case, after all, if by mistake you land up on a site, and you do not have pop-up protection, then the number of pop-ups that can get opened can be over-whelming.
One main point that emerges from this case is that it is absolutely necessary that a machine be running a firewall and has all the latest patches.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Funny geeky stories

For a number of years, I have been reading some articles called BOFH on theregister. What does BOFH stand for ? At the risk of offending people, it stands for 'Bastard Operator from Hell'. And what does it mean ? These stories are about the IT support staff for a London firm who are essentially looking to avoid work at any cost, who like to torture the boss and other users, and who would take any opportunity to enrichen themselves.
Essentially 2 people in this series - the main IT support guy and his helper, called the PFY - Pimply Faced Youth.
These are slightly geeky, but these are the stories that I always read to get a chuckle.