.................with apologies to Alistair Cook

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

The biter bit? Poetic justice? Desperation? Your call...

When Microsoft purchased Hotmail in December of 1997 for an estimated $400m, it ran on FreeBSD. But Redmond ripped out the open source OS and replaced it with Windows 2000. Or at least, it tried to.

More than a decade on, Microsoft still harbors some sort of deep-seated urge to destroy the free software movement it once compared to cancer. But unmitigated open-source antipathy has given way to a kind of free software schizophrenia. In need of extra licensing dollars, Microsoft may sue a Dutch GPS maker over its use of Linux. But in its ongoing struggle to catch the un-catchable Google, Redmond has no problem reversing its Hotmail-era attitudes.

In July of last year, Microsoft acquired Powerset, a San Francisco startup intent on bringing natural language processing to web search. And like the original Hotmail, the startup's semantic search engine leans heavily on open source code.

Some of the company's core technologies are proprietary, including the XLE ranking algorithms it licenses from the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). But outside of that core, as Powerset product manager Mark Johnson once put it, the company uses open-source code wherever possible.

Most notably, Powerset generates its search index via Hadoop, the same open-source distributed computing platform that juices Yahoo!'s search engine. Based on Google's MapReduce distributed computing platform and GFS file system, Hadoop was originally developed by open-source maven Doug Cutting, now on the Yahoo! payroll. But it was Powerset that originated Hadoop's HBase project, an effort to mimic Google's famous distributed storage system, BigTable.

When Microsoft acquired the company, Powersetters Michael Stack and Jim Kellerman took a hiatus from their full-time HBase contributions. But by October, Redmond had cleared the pair to resume their open coding. And that's what we'd call giving yourself cancer. 'While Microsoft has supported open source in the past,' a company mouthpiece tells us, 'this is the first time that Microsoft has continued to support open source with an acquired company.'

By all accounts, Powerset will drive Microsoft's latest, ill-fated attempt to unseat the Google search monopoly. In March, a Tweet from Powerset co-founder Barney Pell set the blogopshere a-burbling about the impending relaunch of Microsoft Live Search, and days later, screenshots of an internal beta - dubbed Kumo - rose to the surface of the web.

When Kumo launches, in early June, it will be the first 'shipping' Microsoft product backed by open source code. That's the word from Robert Duffner, a senior director in Microsoft's platform strategy group.

In an email to The Reg, Microsoft points out that several other product teams have their hand in free software, including the Windows HPC and System Center teams. But they've yet to actually ship code drawn from the community.

In recent years, Microsoft has enjoyed hearing itself talk in vague terms about its commitment to open source. 'Microsoft believes contribution and co-development are natural progressions of participating in open source communities,' the company burbled to us over email. 'A variety of Microsoft product teams and business groups are moving towards increasing contribution and co-development. The opportunity is in understanding the rules and practices of the particular project’s community to participate or contribute in a positive way.'

But with Kumo, it can't help but go whole-hog. Yes, a search engine can't be confused with a shrink-wrapped application or downloadable software. But remember the Hotmail switcheroo.

Regardless, it's a telling moment when Microsoft contributes to an open-source project with such a high-profile. After years of hostility towards Free Software Foundation (FSF) licensing, Redmond has contributed patches to the ADOdb database abstraction library for PHP, and the company likes to boast that to date, it has initiated more than 300 open-source projects.

But the Apache-licensed Hadoop - with its ability to process epic amounts of data on commodity hardware - underpins not only Yahoo! but Facebook. And it's the bastard child of the Google Chocolate Factory.

Perhaps Microsoft is changing after all. Or perhaps Ballmer's Google chase has reached the point of desperation. ®"

(Via The Register.)

I love the quote; "She makes Dr. Strangelove look sane"...

DHS’ New Chief Geek is a Bioterror ‘Disaster,’ Critics Charge

By Noah Shachtman

Depending on who you ask, the Obama administration’s controversial pick to be the Department of Homeland Security’s geek-in-chief is either a leading authority on the deadliest terror threats — or a biowar chicken little, dangerously out of touch with reality.

At first glance, Dr. Tara O’Toole is a dream candidate to take over the position of DHS under secretary for science and technology. She’s a doctor, the CEO of the University of Pittburgh’s Center for Biosecurity, the chairwoman of the Federation of American Scientists, and the brains behind a series of influential disaster response exercises that woke Washington up to the threat of terrorists with weapons of massive destruction. Who better to take over DHS’ nearly billion-dollar research portfolio — about 45 percent of which goes towards chemical and biological defense?


But the outcry over O’Toole’s nomination began just moments after the White House announced its intent late Tuesday to name her to the job. To her critics, O’Toole has dangerously overhyped the bioterror threat — leading to a huge increase of the number of research labs and researchers handling deadly agents. Ironically, it’s these very facilities that are now these most likely sources for a deadly outbreak or bioattack; the 2001 anthrax strikes, for instance, were an inside job.

“This is a disastrous nomination. O’Toole supported every flawed decision and counterproductive policy on biodefense, biosafety, and biosecurity during the Bush Administration,” Rutgers University microbiologist and homeland security policy critic Richard Ebright tells Danger Room. “O’Toole is as out of touch with reality, and as paranoiac, as former Vice President Cheney. It would be hard to think of a person less well suited for the position.”

“She was the single more extreme person, either in or out of government, advocating for a massive biodefense expansion and relaxation of provisions for safety and security,” he adds. “She makes Dr. Strangelove look sane.”

O’Toole rose to prominence in biodefense circles after producing Dark Winter, a June 2001 exercise that explored how a single smallpox outbreak could threaten millions of lives in 15 countries. An Army War College report later found that the exercise tripled the normal transmission rate for smallpox — mak[ing] it next to impossible for the game players to do very much to contain the outbreak, and assur[ing] a disastrous outcome irrespective of whatever control measures the players may attempt to carry out.” Atlantic Storm, a 2005 exercise also produced by O’Toole, had similar issues. According to the report, it made “grossly misleading assumptions” about the ease of creation and dispersion of the same biological agent — assuming bioterrorists would enjoy a capability that neither the Americans nor Soviets could achieve at the heights of the Cold War.

To George Smith, a protein chemist a senior fellow at GlobalSecurity.org, these exercsies show O’Toole to be “the top academic/salesperson for the coming of apocalyptic bioterrorism which has never quite arrived. [She's] most prominent for always lobbying for more money for biodefense, conducting tabletop exercises on bioterrorism for easily overawed public officials, exercises tweaked to be horrifying. [And she] has never obviously appeared to examine what current terrorist capabilities have been… in favor of extrapolating how easy it would be to launch bioterror attacks if one had potentially unlimited resources and scientific know-how.”It’s a “superb appointment if you’re in the biodefense industry and interested in further opportunity and growth,” he tells Danger Room. “Alternatively, a disaster if threat assessment and prevention ought to have some basis in reality.”

If confirmed, O’Toole would succeed the widely-respected Jay Cohen, a retired admiral.

And for Mum as well...

Trial drugs 'reverse' Alzheimer's

The drugs are licensed to treat certain types of cancer. US scientists say they have successfully reversed the effects of Alzheimer's with experimental drugs. The drugs target and boost the function of a newly pinpointed gene involved in the brain's memory formation. In mice, the treatment helped restore long-term memory and improve learning for new tasks, Nature reports. The same drugs - HDAC inhibitors - are currently being tested to treat Huntington's disease and are on the market to treat some cancers. They reshape the DNA scaffolding that supports and controls the expression of genes in the brain.

"We need to do more research to investigate whether developing treatments that control this gene could benefit people with Alzheimer's" said Rebecca Wood of the Alzheimer's Research Trust

The Alzheimer's gene the drugs act upon, histone deacetylase 2 (HDAC2), regulates the expression of a plethora of genes implicated in plasticity - the brain's ability to change in response to experience - and memory formation. This findings build on the team's 2007 breakthrough in which mice with symptoms of Alzheimer's disease regained long-term memories and the ability to learn. Lead researcher Professor Li-Huei Tsai explained: 'It brings about long-lasting changes in how other genes are expressed, which is probably necessary to increase numbers of synapses and restructure neural circuits, thereby enhancing memory. 'To our knowledge, HDAC inhibitors have not been used to treat Alzheimer's disease or dementia. 'But now that we know that inhibiting HDAC2 has the potential to boost synaptic plasticity, synapse formation and memory formation. 'In the next step, we will develop new HDAC2-selective inhibitors and test their function for human diseases associated with memory impairment to treat neurodegenerative diseases.'

Future hope.

HDAC inhibitor treatment for humans with Alzheimer's disease is still a decade or more away, she said. The chief executive of the Alzheimer's Research Trust, Rebecca Wood, said: 'This is promising research which improves our understanding of memory loss in Alzheimer's. 'We need to do more research to investigate whether developing treatments that control this gene could benefit people with Alzheimer's. 'We desperately need to fund more research to head off a forecast doubling the UK population living with dementia.' Julie Williams, an expert in the genetics of Alzheimer's for the trust, said scientists were on the brink of finding a number of candidate genes that increase the risk of developing Alzheimer's. 'If we can find the triggers and causes then we can hopefully prevent them. That is the great ambition.'


(Via BBC News.)

Always a few years too late. At least for Liz...

Gene allows cancer to enter brain:

Breast cancer is the commonest cancer in UK women.

A gene that allows cancer to spread into the brain has been identified by US scientists.

The brain is well protected by a network of defences, and it can be very difficult for foreign substances such as viruses and drugs to gain access. But scientists have discovered a gene which appears to give spreading breast cancer cells a 'free pass'. The study, published in the journal Nature, raises hopes of new drug therapy to stop cancer spread.

The genes they've identified could become good targets for new drugs

The brain is protected by a densely-packed network of tiny blood vessels known as the blood-brain barrier. This barrier prevents cells and molecules circulating in the general bloodstream from entering the brain tissue. Breast cancer can spread to the brain, but usually only does so years after the primary tumour has been removed - suggesting that the remaining cancer cells must acquire specialised properties to breach the brain's defences.

The researchers, from the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, examined tissue samples, and used sophisticated genetic analysis to try to determine how this takes place. They identified three genes in mice which are involved in the spread of breast cancer to the brain.
Two of the genes - COX2 and HBEGF - have already been shown to help breast cancer invade the lungs, suggesting they play a general role in the spread of secondary tumours. But the third gene, ST6GALNAC5, appeared only to be involved in helping the cancer penetrate the brain.
This gene seems to work by helping breast cancer cells 'stick' to blood vessels in the brain, which allows them to slip through into the brain tissue. Without ST6GALNAC5, the cells fail to breach the blood-brain barrier.

Important implications

Liz Baker, senior science information officer at Cancer Research UK, said: 'While this work is at an early stage, and was only carried out in mice, it could have important implications for breast cancer treatment in the future. 'Around 10% of breast cancers that spread will travel to the brain, and the outlook for these patients can be quite poor.
'Cancer spread is one of the most challenging aspects of the disease so we welcome this discovery.'

Professor Sir David Lane, Cancer Research UK's chief scientist, described the study as 'very exciting'. He said: 'The genes they've identified could become good targets for new drugs as well as some existing medicines, so they offer hope of being able to block this particular form of metastasis. 'One of the reasons why cancer is so hard to treat unless we catch it early is because it spreads.'"

(Via BBC News.)

Great joy! Star Trek's Warp Drive Not Impossible..

'No doubt trying to ride the hype train that's currently going for the new Star Trek film, Space.com has a new article detailing how warp drive may not be impossible to achieve. From the article,''The idea is that you take a chunk of space-time and move it,' said Marc Millis, former head of NASA's Breakthrough Propulsion Physics Project. 'The vehicle inside that bubble thinks that it's not moving at all. It's the space-time that's moving.' One reason this idea seems credible is that scientists think it may already have happened. Some models suggest that space-time expanded at a rate faster than light speed during a period of rapid inflation shortly after the Big Bang. 'If it could do it for the Big Bang, why not for our space drives?' Millis said.' Simple, right?'"

(Via Slashdot.)

Ashford, Kent? Why there!

Damn! So close and yet so far:

"Ashford, Kent households first to benefit from Virgin tests

Reaching four times that of its current broadband best, Virgin Media is trialling superfast 200Mbps broadband access.


(Via Macworld UK.)

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

London sees rise in terror stops

London sees rise in terror stops: "Somebody in London is stopped and searched every three minutes, according to new figures obtained by BBC London.
The Metropolitan Police used section 44 of the Terrorism Act more than 170,000 times in 2008 to stop people in London.
That compares to almost 72,000 anti-terror stop and searches carried out in the previous year.
The Met said anti-terror searches had been more widely used since the planting of two car bombs in central London in July 2007.

Of all the stops last year, only 65 led to arrests for terror offences, a success rate of just 0.035%.

Figures showed more than 60% of those stopped were white - about the same as the proportion of white people in London.

The Section 44 power allows police to search any person or vehicle without the need for suspicion.

It was intended to be used for big events like the Queen's Speech or just in designated areas where the terror threat was high.
Since February 2001, however, it has been in force throughout the Met area. Where and when it can be used is decided by the police who have to apply to the Home Office for approval for its use in a specific area for up to 28 days.

Lord Carlile said it was time for the Met to reconsider how the power was being used.

'The new Metropolitan Police commissioner should look at London again from the viewpoint of section 44,' he said.
'It catches no or almost no terrorism material, it has never caught a terrorist and therefore it should be used conservatively.'

Section 44 is used outside London but far less. In 2007, all the other police forces in England and Wales combined only used it 12,399 times, compared to almost 72,000 in London that year alone.
A Met police spokesman said: 'The threat to London from terrorism is real and serious and these powers are a vital tactic in our counter-terrorism strategy.
'They can disrupt and deter terrorist activity, create a hostile environment for terrorists and provide visible reassurance to the public.'
He added: 'No one community is singled-out or targeted, terrorists come from all backgrounds.'
The Home Office, the Ministry of Justice and the Metropolitan Police were all unable to say whether anyone had successfully been charged or convicted for terror offences as a direct result of section 44."

(Via BBC News.)

Sunday, 3 May 2009

Bluetooth Phone Headset Makers in Class Action Lawsuit - Give Me a Break

Bluetooth Phone Headset Makers in Class Action Lawsuit- Give Me a Break: "

headset-lawsuit-noticeHave you ever received a letter notifying you that you are involved in a class action lawsuit and that your rights may be affected? Usually it involves the fact that you purchased something from a list of companies who have been sued and that a proposed settlement has been made that will determine what your damages will be. I got one of these letters yesterday that involves a suit against Motorola, Plantronics and Jabra concerning Bluetooth headsets they sold. The suit was filed because these companies did not warn consumers of a ‘risk of hearing loss and that Defendants acted wrongfully when they did not warn consumers of the risk (if it exists).’

I had to read that part twice, they are being sued because they didn’t warn about a risk that might not exist. That’s what it says and that’s what it means. Can you say frivolous lawsuit? I knew you could. This is what is wrong with this system in the US. Why bring a class action suit like this in the first place?  The answer is money. Millions of dollars are being pursued from these big, bad companies and all under the guise of trying to protect us, the unknowing public.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not railing against the ability to take recourse against companies that wrong us as consumers. It is important that we have an avenue of redressing wrongs. I am no legal expert but from all that I’ve seen of these class action suits I can’t say I have ever seen any consumer get fairly represented when the redressing takes place. It seems to me only the lawyers involved get any redressing and they deserve it, you can never have enough Armani suits.

This becomes glaringly obvious when you read through the aforementioned document above. The defendants in the suit ‘deny their Bluetooth headsets are unsafe or that they did anything wrong. Defendants are settling only to avoid the risk and expense of trial.’ In other words the law firms representing you and I bullied these companies into accepting a class action settlement to keep their potential risk as small as possible. This is how class action suits work and what is wrong with them.

If my best interests are being served by those who brought this class action suit against these companies what does this settlement mean for me and the other millions who bought headsets? Nothing it turns out.

‘It is not practical or economical to provide benefits directly to individual Class Members because the Class is very large and the amount each Class Member would receive is very small. Therefore, the Class Representative, the attorneys for the Class, and the Defendants agree that the cost of distributing any kind of benefit directly to Class Members would consume too much of the Porposed Settlement benefits. Instead, they believe that providing funding to non-profit organizations that focus on preventing hearing loss will indirectly benefit all Class Members’.

In other words there are too many of us consumers so we wouldn’t get much anyway.  That’s the reason for the part of the settlement that ‘will donate $100,000 to one or more non-profit organizations that focus on preventing hearing loss.’  This sounds like a drop in the bucket to me but a brilliant strategy because who among us can complain about a law suit that gives part of the settlement to charity?

The full settlement agreement shows the real purpose behind this (and many) class action lawsuits.  In addition to the $100k generously donated to several charities the proposed settlement will pay this:

Class Counsel will ask the court for up to $800,000 in attorneys’ fees and up to $38,000 for reimbursement of documented expenses.  Class Counsel will also request up to $12,000 total for the Class Representatives, who helped the lawyers on behalf of the whole Class.  The Court may award less than these amounts.  Defendants will separately pay the fees and expenses the Court orders.  These payments will not reduce the amount Defendants will donate to charity.

Defendants will also separately pay the costs to provide notice to the Class and administer the Proposed Settlement, up to $1.2 million.  If those costs are less than $1.2 million, Class Counsel may request reimbursement for additional documented expenses up to $12,000, which Defendants will pay upon approval by the Court.

It’s easy to see where the money will really go and who gets it- the law firms working in our best interests. No doubt the ultimate take will be in excess of $2 million as evidenced by these documents and what is really going on. To recap, the aggrieved parties (us) get nothing, a charity gets a pittance and the seven law firms handling the suit get a few million bucks. Sounds fair to me.

I win as a consumer in this suit because my best interests are being looked after. When I buy a Bluetooth headset in the future there will no doubt be a sticker on the box warning me that if I keep the volume too high I risk my hearing. That’s a big win for me. I am consumer hear me roar.


(Via jkOnTheRun.)