SciTechBlog
October 31, 2008

Clear skies abound for Election Day

Posted: 02:03 PM ET

Whomever you support, there's some good news for Election Day:  With very little rainfall forecast across the U.S., it'll be harder for the candidates to make more last-minute mud to throw at each other.

Forecasts from CNN and the National Weather Service call for sunny skies and mild November temperatures for most of the US.  But there are a few areas where a chance of bad weather could impact key election states:

The Southeast Atlantic Coast could see some rain on Tuesday, potentially putting a slight dent in turnout in three hotly-contested states for McCain and Obama:  Florida, North Carolina, and Georgia.   The latter two also have tight US Senate races.

Rain in the Pacific Northwest might be a factor in the re-match between Democratic incumbent Christine Gregoire and challenger Dino Rossi.    The two faced off in 2004, and after a flurry of lawsuits and recounts, Gregoire won by only 129 votes.   This year's race is also expected to be tight.

One more region that's trending wet for Election Day is the Upper Midwest, where portions of Minnesota could see some chilly rain as voters choose between Republican incumbent Senator Norm Coleman and his challenger, the former Saturday Night Live writer/performer Al Franken.

But for most of you, the good weather is one less excuse not to vote - unless you've already done so.  The runaway popularity of early voting in many states may also mean that the weather, whether fair or foul, will impact elections less than in the past. 

Peter Dykstra    Executive Producer, CNN Science, Tech & Weather

Filed under: Uncategorized


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October 29, 2008

On cancer warnings and MIDI-making

Posted: 12:00 PM ET

Have you ever seen a small label on electronic devices, glassware, or other products that warns you about chemicals known to the state of California to cause cancer and reproductive harm?

A warning label says you should wash your hands after using this MIDI device, but the company says don't worry.

I recently discovered this warning on my MIDI interface, a small device that has cables connecting my keyboard to my laptop so I can record and edit the music that I play.

(Side note: MIDI stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface, and refers to the protocol that allows instruments and computers to communicate. If you own a computer and a musical keyboard, I highly recommend you try connecting them and playing with a program such as Apple's GarageBand. The program, coupled with the keyboard, allows your keyboard to take on the sounds of dozens of instruments, from "orchestral strings" to "Fiji afterglow.")

Great, but I didn't want playing "Falling Slowly" using "tula bass" sounds to give me cancer. So, I called the maker of the MIDI interface device, and found out that the warning is required by California law for products sold in California that contain more than a minimum amount of particular substances, such as lead. But, according to the company, M-Audio, I shouldn't worry about getting toxic chemicals on my hands.

What's inside a product with a warning label? Read more on "Paging Dr. Gupta."

–Elizabeth Landau, Health Writer/Producer, CNN.com

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Filed under: computers • Materials


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October 28, 2008

Microsoft "hacking" computers in China?

Posted: 12:06 PM ET

An anti-piracy campaign by Microsoft is having a difficult time in China. The company may face an investigation from local authorities who allege Microsoft is trying to “hack” consumer computers.

Getty Images

Microsoft started a global plan in August to upgrade one of its anti-piracy tools, to make a stand against bogus copies of Windows XP Professional. PCs running either genuine or counterfeit XP Pro will automatically update themselves with an authorization evaluation program. Computers installed with the phony software will thereafter display a black desktop at start-up and revert to black again in an hour even if the background is changed. A permanent notice will also appear at the bottom right-hand corner of the screen warning users to purchase genuine XP copies. However, all programs will run normally.

The campaign expanded to China last week, and induced scares and firestorms among the large PC population, which exceeds 135 million.

More than 80% of the 60,000 Internet users participating in an online survey conducted by Tencent, one of the largest Internet service portals in China, protested the campaign. They complained that it was the high price of a legitimate copy of XP that had forced them to turn to counterfeits. A genuine copy of XP Pro is priced at $376 (2,578 yuan) in the Chinese market.

A lawsuit followed. On the second day of the campaign’s landing, Dong Zhengwei, a lawyer specialized in consumer rights protection, charged Microsoft with potentially sabotaging private computers. He suggested a billion-dollar fine for Microsoft.

Dong said that the anti-piracy program would “pose a threat to personal information security” and could be defined as a “crime.” “It is equivalent to illegal invasion, or hacking,” he said on Sina, the largest Chinese news portal. Many of the country’s computer societies, IT critics and scholars also stated their agreement with Dong.

In response, Microsoft China’s Intellectual Property Rights Supervisor Yu Weidong explained that this was a global campaign that aimed to educate consumers and keep them from harmful counterfeits.
The program would not affect normal functions of a PC and the company would not collect any personal information through it, he said.

On October 27, a week after the debate began, Chinese authorities made a statement that it supports any legal campaigns to protect intellectual property rights. But, “the companies should weigh their approaches and consider the affordability of Chinese consumers,” said Yan Xiaohong, deputy director of China’s National Copyright Administration.

Although more than 80% of surveyed Internet users in China told Sina that they would not purchase legitimate XP copies, Microsoft's campaign, in combination with promotions on Office and Vista, did push up the company’s overall sales by roughly 60%. But, some free open-source software also witnessed a huge increase in sales, apparently thanks to Microsoft’s crackdown.

And more experienced PC users said they had simply shut down the “automatic update” function to avoid the “black screen” desktop and additional costs.

Chong Wu, CNN Science and Technology

Filed under: computers • consumer tech • Windows


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October 24, 2008

Real-life Tony Starks?

Posted: 11:31 AM ET

Could the days of becoming half-man, half-machine be getting closer? Cyberdyne, a company just outside of Tokyo, has manufactured a robotic suit designed to help the elderly and disabled walk and go up stairs. Cyberdyne says even partially-paralyzed individuals are able to move around slowly with this device.

YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images

The "hybrid assistive limb," HAL for short, attaches to a user’s waist, thigh, and calf. Cyberdyne says brain signals that tell HAL to help a person walk are captured through the skin. HAL calculates how much energy the person will give towards the movement then it compensates with the right amount of assistance.

Even though HAL weighs 22lbs, the user does not have to carry around that weight as HAL is supported through its exoskeleton. The battery charge should last five hours under normal use.

HAL is currently available only in Japan. Users can choose between three different sizes. It can be rented monthly for $2,200.00 for two legs or $1,500.00 for one leg.

Cyberdyne has also designed a full robotic suit that includes assistance for the arms, allowing users to lift and hold objects they normally wouldn’t be able to. A release date for this has not been announced.

One question - can't help but wonder why the company chose the names "Cyberdyne" and "HAL" - names that have less-than-stellar reputations from the Terminator movies and 2001, A Space Odyssey.

Christopher Piatt, CNN Sci-Tech Unit

Filed under: consumer tech


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October 23, 2008

Rolling out Endeavour

Posted: 11:50 AM ET

Workers at the Kennedy Space Center will roll the space shuttle Endeavour from launch pad 39B to 39A Thursday in advance of a mission to the International Space Station targeted for November 14.

Space shuttles Atlantis, left, and Endeavour on their launch pads last month.

Endeavour has been undergoing preparations for launch on pad 39B for the past month. For a time, it was second in line for launch behind Atlantis on pad 39A, which had been scheduled to fly the fifth and final Hubble Servicing Mission this month.

A Hubble mission carries additional risk because astronauts cannot take refuge in the space station in the event of Columbia-style catastrophic damage to the orbiter on lift-off. So before the final Hubble mission was approved, NASA managers decided it would only be safe to fly if a rescue vehicle was prepared and ready to launch on very short notice. Endeavour was to have been that rescue vehicle.

The Hubble launch was postponed in late September due to a computer failure on the telescope. Mission managers now want to replace that computer - but the spare needs to be prepared for flight, and the astronauts need time to train on how to do the replacement. The Hubble mission is now scheduled to fly no earlier than February. Workers rolled Atlantis back from pad 39A to the vehicle-assembly building on Monday.

Launch pad 39B, where Endeavour is currently located, it being modified to launch NASA’s next generation of manned spacecraft called Orion. While it is still technically possible to launch a space shuttle off 39B, NASA would prefer to keep the modification work underway – which is not possible when there is a shuttle parked there. So the launch team has opted to move Endeavour from 39B to the now empty 39A, and allow the construction work on 39B to resume.

Endeavour’s crew, led by Commander Chris Ferguson, will carry up additional equipment and supplies to the space station that will make it possible to expand the station crew from three to six people next year.

Spacewalkers will also work on a malfunctioning rotator joint on the left side of the station that is designed to rotate and track the sun. It has been out of commission for the last year, and complete repairs will continue into 2010. But station engineers hope the Endeavour astronauts can make it functional again.

–Kate Tobin, Sr. Producer, CNN Science & Technology

Filed under: NASA • Space


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October 22, 2008

Nuclear power: seeing less political fission these days

Posted: 11:30 AM ET

From the Society of Environmental Journalists' annual conference in Roanoke, Virginia:

Is nuclear power making a comeback?

After being battered by its own missteps, near-calamities, strong opposition and financial overruns, the nuclear power industry is showing increased signs of emerging from a three-decade coma in the U.S.

Many are giving a second look to the U.S.. nuke industry, including longtime skeptics on the lookout for alternatives to fossil fuels.  Here at SEJ's annual conference, there's a livelier-than-usual discussion about nuclear power as a part of the solution to America's energy woes.  One of the most prominent voices here calling for a nuclear power revival was R.K. Pachauri, who as Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore last year.

Right now, the U.S. gets just under 20% of its electricity from nukes, and about half from coal.  Natural gas is good for nearly another 20% of energy generation, with oil, hydro, wind, and solar contributing most of the last 10%.  To listen to the rosy projections a half century ago, nuclear would have provided power "too cheap to meter" from over 400 reactors by the year 2000.

We topped out at just beyond 100 reactors total when Wall Street got cold feet from the risk, the opposition, and the above-average costs of boiling water by splitting atoms.  The 1979 near-meltdown at Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania put the chill on the industry, and the disaster at the Soviet reactor in Chernobyl, Ukraine seven years later brought on the deep freeze.  Nuclear advocates didn't help their cause by acting like the shark-denying mayor of Amity Island in the movie "Jaws."  No new reactor orders were placed in the U.S. for three decades.

But the permit requests are trickling in, and in this election season, the candidates are hopping aboard the nukewagon:   Obamas cautiously supports new licensing (his home state of Illinois hosts eleven reactors, more than any other state).  McCain gets more specific, targeting 45 new reactors by the year 2030 - a goal many say is unrealistic.   With the industry in cold shutdown and steel manufacturing pulling up stakes in the U.S., we don't make reactors any more, and would have to wait in a long, long line to order reactor vessels from the steelworks in Japan.

The nuke industry's arguments are piling up: Thirty years of relatively safe operation with no major incidents; improving technology; and a measure of liberation from fossil fuels, imports, and greenhouse-gas emissions.  Its public front is now a lot more polished than back in the Mayor-from-"Jaws" days, and they're much better positioned to argue against nuclear opponents, some of whom are falling back on hidebound, reactionary, dubious arguments. 

But the questions haven't gone away:

The industry still has no answers to ensure safe storage of nuclear waste, potentially dangerous for thousands of years.  Britain and France reprocess spent fuel and re-use the recoverable material, but the reprocessing facilities at Sellafield, UK and La Hague, France have left a messy environmental legacy.  For the U.S., the designated site is Yucca Mountain, Nevada.   Overruns at the Yucca Mountain site are measured in the billions, and the delays are into the decades, with commercial nukes continuing to store their own waste on site across the country.   And the desert site north of Las Vegas has a powerful home-state foe in Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, so there's little chance of action there soon.

The world is a more dangerous place than it was 30 years ago.  Spreading nuclear fuel always leaves the risk of spreading nuclear weapons to those who would be eager to use them.

Also, many nuclear arguments overlook the continuing, shameful legacy of uranium mining.  Los Angeles Times reporter Judy Pasternak did a remarkable series of stories last year on the widespread damage to human health and the environment in the US Southwest last year.

So what's your take?   Is it a fair trade to swap the risks for a weapon against global warming and an increase in electrical capacity?  Or are nukes still too hot and costly to revive?

–Peter Dykstra Executive Producer, CNN Science, Tech, & Weather

Filed under: Energy • environment


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October 21, 2008

McCain, Obama both AWOL on environmental votes

Posted: 11:04 AM ET

The non-profit, non-partisan League of Conservation Voters has released its updated National Environmental Scorecard, which ranks each Senate and House member on key environmental votes. The LCV awarded presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama rock-bottom scores for skipping Senate votes for the campaign trail.

Both Barack Obama and John McCain missed a lot of Senate votes on environmental issues this year.

The LCV scored the Senate on 11 key votes in the current session covering global warming, energy policy, oil drilling, public lands, and hurricane insurance. But here’s the catch: An “absent” vote counts as a “no” vote in LCV’s scorekeeping. That gave John McCain, consistently among the highest-scoring GOP Senators on the 30-year-old LCV scorecard, a perfect zero.

Obama scarcely did better, siding with the environmentalists twice while missing the other nine votes for an 18% score. Running mate Joe Biden scored a 64% for the session by LCV’s standards. Biden has an 81% LCV score for his Senate career. Both Obama (72% lifetime) and McCain (24% lifetime) saw their career averages plummet after a year on the campaign trail and away from the Senate.

This year, 27 Senators and 67 House members got a perfect 100% score from LCV; Two Senators and 70 Representatives received a perfect 0%.

Though the LCV maintains its non-partisan status – retired GOP Congressman Sherwood Boehlert is a Board member, and former Kansas Governor John Carlin is a former LCV Chair – the group’s numbers consistently score Democrats higher on key environmental votes. Senate Democratic leaders Harry Reid and Dick Durbin both received 100% scores, while their Republican counterparts, Mitch McConnell and John Kyl, scored 9% and 18% respectively.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Democratic Whip James Clyburn both scored 92%; their GOP counterparts, John Boehner and Roy Blunt, both received a 0% from LCV. Nancy Pelosi received no rating, as the Speaker of the House traditionally does not vote.

The American Land Rights Association is a national property owners’ group that produces a scorecard offering a near mirror-image opposite of the LCV scorecard. Last updated in February, the ALRA scorecard gave a 20% approval rating to Obama and his VP candidate, Joe Biden, and and 30% score to McCain.

ALRA’s scorecard gauges votes on environmental and land-use issues, as well as other property-related votes like those on the inheritance tax. The group designates any Congressman or Senator with a score of 80% or better as a “Champion” of property rights; a 20% or lower score is a property rights “enemy” by ALRA’s standard.

Thirty Senators and 103 House members, all Republicans, scored the “Champion” label. Six Senators and 208 House members were labeled “Enemies” by the property rights group – all Democrats save for GOP congressmen Wayne Gilchrest of Maryland and Chris Shays of Connecticut.

- Peter Dykstra, Executive Producer CNN Science, Technology & Weather

Filed under: environment


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October 20, 2008

Nobel laureate offers hope, and a warning

Posted: 12:44 PM ET

"The British Empire got its standard of living by consuming half the world's resources.  How many planets will it take for India to do the same?"

Nobel Laureate R.K. Pachauri

Thus did R.K. Pachauri, last year's Nobel Peace Prize co-Laureate, quote his most famous countryman, Gandhi.  And so did he underscore how the problem of Gandhi's time has gotten much, much bigger and more immediate.

Pachauri delivered the keynote address to the Society of Environmental Journalists'  Annual Conference in Roanoke, Virginia, last week.  WIth nearly all the world's governments, relevant science organizations, and a torrent of peer-reviewed research converging on a picture of climate change already taking hold, Pachauri delivered a mixed message of alarm and hope.

There's still time, he said, but not much.   The whirlwind of financial news - nearly all of it bad - in the past few weeks could mean a sharp turn away from the potential investments needed to alter our energy economy, he said.   Even a two-year stall in reversing greenhouse emissions could threaten our ability to pull the world out of a worsening greenhouse situation within the next decade - the critical time for action, he said.

Pachauri welcomed the U.S. presidential candidates' attention to climate.  John McCain was one of the first U.S. Senators, along with Joe Lieberman, to introduce legislation to cap greenhouse gas emissions (the legislation never passed, however).   McCain has called for a 60% cut in U.S. greenhouse emissions by mid-century; Barack Obama has set a target of 80% by 2050.

With a diplomatic phrase and a bit of a smirk, Pachauri insisted that he didn't "want to name countries" that had slowed progress in reaching global climate agreements, but it was clear to all in the room that he was fingering the U.S. and the Bush Administration.  He acknowledged that even if the Developed World made strides in reining in greenhouse emissions, the aspirations of China, India, and much of the Developing World could more than offset the gains as those countries increase their standard of living via a fossil fuel economy.

Pachauri also offered a glimpse of his day job as Director General of the Energy and Resources Institute in New Delhi.   It's a non-profit dedicated to bringing solar and other non-fossil forms of energy to some of the hundreds of millions of Indians desperate to improve their standard of living without impacting their - and our - climate further.

–Peter Dykstra    Executive Producer, CNN Science, Tech & Weather

Filed under: Uncategorized


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October 17, 2008

More Hubble trouble

Posted: 12:15 PM ET

Engineers at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland have hit a snag in their efforts to bring the Hubble Space Telescope back on-line after a major equipment failure in space last month.

The Hubble Space Telescope. Image: NASA

Hubble's Science Instrument Control and Data Handling (SIC&DH) system went down September 27.  This is the telescope's on-board computer that coordinates commands to the various instruments and then downlinks the scientific data to the ground.

While that computer is off-line, most science observations are at a standstill.

The good news is that the computer was built with a fully redundant back-up channel called "Side B" designed to come on-line in the event "Side A" ever failed.  Hubble team members at Goddard began a complicated process to switch over to "Side B" on Wednesday. This involved sending comprehensive software commands up to the telescope to essentially take control of Hubble's suite of telescopes and other sensors  through "Side B," recalibrate all those instruments which went into safe-mode when the computer went down, start and stop gyroscopes, downlink data, and then check the data quality against some older "Side A" samples to make sure all is square.

Problems cropped up somewhere in that process Thursday night.  We haven't been told yet exactly what happened.  The team is meeting today to discuss a further troubleshooting plan.  We may get additional details later when that meeting ends.  I am told they don't expect the issue to be resolved today.

As noted, the switch-over process is extremely complicated, and it is probably to be expected that they would hit some sort of snag.  Hopefully, they will work through it in the coming days and science operations can resume soon.

Even if the switch-over to "Side B" fails (and it is far too soon to go there), the Hubble design team had the foresight 20 years ago to build a spare SIC&DH system, which has been warehoused at Goddard all this time while the original instrument perked along just fine.  Astronauts are scheduled to conduct a fifth and and final Hubble servicing mission in the February time frame, and will almost certainly remove and replace the malfunctioning computer with the spare.   That mission was supposed to fly this month, but was postponed when the failure occurred to give the ground teams time to check out the spare and astronauts time to train on the removal and replacement procedure (which is apparently a relatively straightforward, two-hour spacewalk task).

If there is any silver lining to this whole thing,  it's that the failure happened before the servicing mission - while there is still the opportunity to fix it.   Imagine the disappointment if it had happened right after the astronauts returned!

I'll update later today if and when I get more information.

–Kate Tobin, Sr. Producer, CNN Science &  Technology

Filed under: Hubble Space Telescope • NASA • Space


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Stock trading meets fantasy football

Posted: 11:13 AM ET

The recent financial crisis has sent the stock market careening up and down like a ride at Coney Island, unnerving brokers and casual investors alike. It’s also boosted membership on UpDown.com, a Web site that gives people $1 million in imaginary money to invest in the market risk-free and compete against others’ virtual portfolios.

Stock market freaking you out? You can "invest" $1 million in virtual money online.

“We’ve seen a huge spike in traffic,” says UpDown CEO Michael Reich, who founded the Boston-based site last year with two other fellow Harvard entrepreneurs. “Times have really changed. It’s really important now to understand what’s going on with your money.”

UpDown’s 90,000 members are mostly young and overwhelmingly male. About half of them are real-life investors.

“There are definitely people who use the suite as a practicing environment alongside their real portfolio,” Reich says. “They use it to test strategies they might not feel comfortable doing in the real world.”

UpDown is similar to other sites like Marketocracy.com that recruit investors to manage virtual stocks. What makes UpDown.com different, however, are its social-networking components – there’s an UpDown page on Facebook – and the fact that the site pays prize money weekly and monthly to its top-performing investors. No wonder CNBC has described the site as “fantasy football meets the trading floor.”

Membership on UpDown is free; the top prize to date has been $3,701, although most winners earn much smaller amounts. The site so far has paid out more than $100,000 to its members, says Reich, who hopes to turn a profit through advertising and eventually create a hedge fund that outperforms the S&P 500.

So far the site has produced its share of savvy and not-so-savvy investors. Some UpDown members have lost their virtual shirts. One parlayed his initial $1 million into almost $60 million, while another has earned more than $51 million so far.

Of course, it’s easier to be bold when you’re playing with Monopoly money instead of watching your real-life retirement fund shrivel before your eyes.

“If you’re doing that great [on UpDown], you probably took fantastic risks,” Reich says. “We don’t necessarily consider those people the best investors.”

- Brandon Griggs, Tech Section Producer, CNN.com

Filed under: Internet


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About this blog

Are you a gadgethead? Do you spend hours a day online? Or are you just curious about how technology impacts your life? In this digital age, it's increasingly important to be fluent, or at least familiar, with the big tech trends. From gadgets to Google, smartphones to social media, this blog will help keep you informed.

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