31 December 2013

Most clinical studies on vitamins flawed by poor methodology

Research at Oregon State University has identified one of the ways in which vitamin D can help protect against respiratory infections. Credit: Oregon State University. 

Most large, clinical trials of vitamin supplements, including some that have concluded they are of no value or even harmful, have a flawed methodology that renders them largely useless in determining the real value of these micronutrients, a new analysis suggests.

Many projects have tried to study nutrients that are naturally available in the human diet the same way they would a powerful prescription drug. This leads to conclusions that have little scientific meaning, even less accuracy and often defy a wealth of other evidence, said Balz Frei, professor and director of the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University, in a new review published in the journal Nutrients.

These flawed findings will persist until the approach to studying micronutrients is changed, Frei said. Such changes are needed to provide better, more scientifically valid information to consumers around the world who often have poor diets, do not meet intake recommendations for many vitamins and minerals, and might greatly benefit from something as simple as a daily multivitamin/mineral supplement.

Needed are new methodologies that accurately measure baseline nutrient levels, provide supplements or dietary changes only to subjects who clearly are inadequate or deficient, and then study the resulting changes in their health. Tests must be done with blood plasma or other measurements to verify that the intervention improved the subjects' micronutrient status along with biomarkers of health. And other approaches are also needed that better reflect the different ways in which nutrients behave in cell cultures, lab animals and the human body.

The new analysis specifically looked at problems with the historic study of vitamin C, but scientists say many of the observations are more broadly relevant to a wide range of vitamins, micro nutrients and studies.

"One of the obvious problems is that most large, clinical studies of vitamins have been done with groups such as doctors and nurses who are educated, informed, able to afford healthy food and routinely have better dietary standards than the public as a whole," said Frei, an international expert on vitamin C and antioxidants.

"If a person already has adequate amounts of a particular vitamin or nutrient, then a supplement will probably provide little or no benefit," Frei said. "That's common sense. But most of our supposedly scientific studies take results from people with good diets and healthy lifestyles and use them to conclude that supplements are of no value to anyone."

Vitamin or mineral supplements, or an improved diet, will primarily benefit people who are inadequate or deficient to begin with, OSU researchers said. But most modern clinical studies do not do baseline analysis to identify nutritional inadequacies and do not assess whether supplements have remedied those inadequacies. As a result, any clinical conclusion made with such methodology is pretty much useless, they said.

An optimal diet, rich in fruits and vegetables, can provide most of the nutrients needed for good health which critics say is reason enough not to use supplements. LPI researchers say that misses a pretty obvious point that most Americans do not have an optimal diet.

"More than 90 percent of U.S. adults don't get the required amounts of vitamins D and E for basic health," Frei said. "More than 40 percent don't get enough vitamin C, and half aren't getting enough vitamin A, calcium and magnesium. Smokers, the elderly, people who are obese, ill or injured often have elevated needs for vitamins and minerals.

"It's fine to tell people to eat better, but it's foolish to suggest that a multivitamin which costs a nickel a day is a bad idea."

Beyond that, many scientists studying these topics are unaware of ways in which nutrients may behave differently in something like a cell culture or lab animal, compared to the human body. This raises special challenges with vitamin C research in particular.

"In cell culture experiments that are commonly done in a high oxygen environment, vitamin C is unstable and can actually appear harmful," said Alexander Michels, an LPI research associate and lead author on this report. "And almost every animal in the world, unlike humans, is able to synthesize its own vitamin C and doesn't need to obtain it in the diet. That makes it difficult to do any lab animal tests with this vitamin that are relevant to humans."

Many studies have found that higher levels of vitamin C intake are associated with a reduced incidence of chronic disease, including coronary heart disease, stroke, diabetes, hypertension and some types of cancer. The levels of vitamins needed for optimal health also go beyond those needed to merely prevent deficiency diseases, such as scurvy or rickets.

Even though such studies often significantly understate the value of vitamin supplements, the largest and longest clinical trial of multivitamin/mineral supplements found a total reduction of cancer and cataract incidence in male physicians over the age of 50. It suggested that if every adult in the U.S. took such supplements it could prevent up to 130,000 cases of cancer each year, Frei said.

"The cancer reduction would be in addition to providing good basic health by supporting normal function of the body, metabolism and growth," he said. "If there's any drug out there that can do all this, it would be considered unethical to withhold it from the general public. But that's basically the same as recommending against multivitamin/mineral supplements."


Oregon State University

Now read: Immune Function May Increase By Eating Red Grapes, Blueberries

Hubble sees a stellar "sneezing fit"

Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, Acknowledgement: Gilles Chapdelaine

Look at the bright star in the middle of this image. It appears as if it just sneezed. This sight will only last for a few thousand years a blink of an eye in the young star's life.

If you could carry on watching for a few years you would realize it's not just one sneeze, but a sneezing fit. This young star is firing off rapid releases of super-hot, super-fast gas, like multiple sneezes, before it finally exhausts itself. These bursts of gas have shaped the turbulent surroundings, creating structures known as Herbig-Haro objects.

These objects are formed from the star's energetic "sneezes." Launched due to magnetic fields around the forming star, these energetic releases can contain as much mass as our home planet, and cannon into nearby clouds of gas at hundreds of kilometers/miles per second. Shock waves form, such as the U-shape below this star. Unlike most other astronomical phenomena, as the waves crash outwards, they can be seen moving across human timescales of years. Soon, this star will stop sneezing, and mature to become a star like our sun.

This region is actually home to several interesting objects. The star at the center of the frame is a variable star named V633 Cassiopeiae, with Herbig-Haro objects HH 161 and HH 164 forming parts of the horseshoe-shaped loop emanating from it. The slightly shrouded star just to the left is known as V376 Cassiopeiae, another variable star that has succumbed to its neighbor's infectious sneezing fits; this star is also sneezing, creating yet another Herbig-Haro object HH 162. Both stars are very young and are still surrounded by dusty material left over from their formation, which spans the gap between the two.


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Sleep and vigilance surprising new findings in the neurology

Sleep spindles during NREM sleep in CaV3.1+/+ (WT) and CaV3.1−/− (KO) mice. (A) Sample traces show the raw (upper trace) and filtered (lower trace) EEG signals recorded during NREM sleep. Bandpass-filtered (6–15 Hz) EEG signals clearly show spindle events (arrowheads) in both genotypes. (B) There were no differences in the mean length of each spindle episode, number of episodes, mean peak-to-peak amplitude, and peak frequency between CaV3.1+/+ (WT) and CaV3.1−/− mice. Copyright © PNAS, doi:10.1073/pnas.1320572110
A recent neurological addressing one of the most fundamental issues in sleep rhythm generation study underscores an inconvenient truth namely, that established scientific facts have and will continue to change. Researchers at Institute for Basic Science (Daejeon), Korea Institute of Science and Technology (Seoul) and Yonsei University (Seoul) have demonstrated significant exceptions to the theory, long accepted as dogma, that low-threshold burst firing mediated by T-type Ca2+ channels in thalamocortical neurons is the key component for sleep spindles. (A T-type Ca2+channel is a type of voltage-gated ion channel that displays selective permeability to calcium ions with a transient length of activation. Burst firing refers to periods of rapid neural spiking followed by quiescent, silent, periods. Sleep spindles are bursts of oscillatory brain activity visible on an EEG that occurs during non-rapid eye movement stage 2, or NREM-2, sleep, during which no eye movement occurs, and dreaming is very rare.) The scientists presented both in vivo and in vitro evidence that sleep spindles are generated normally in the absence of T-type channels and burst firing (periods of rapid neural spiking followed by quiescent, silent, periods) in thalamocortical neurons. Moreover, their results show what they describe as a potentially important role of tonic (constant) firing in this rhythm generation. They conclude that future studies should be aimed at investigating the detailed mechanism through which each type of thalamocortical oscillation is generated.

Dr. Hee-Sup Shin and Prof. Eunji Cheong discussed the paper that they recently published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "The previous theory implicated thalamocortical TC burst firing in all sleep waves which appear in different sleep stages," Cheong tells Medical Xpress. "However, we've long questioned the extent to which thalamocortical T-type Ca2+ channels and the resulting burst firing contribute to the heterogeneity of thalamocortical oscillations during non-rapid eye movement sleep consisting of multiple brain waves." A T-type Ca2+channel is a type of voltage-gated ion channel which displays selective permeability to calcium ions, in this case with a transient length of activation.

Shin notes that the scientists faced a number of issues in designing and interpreting the results of the in vivo and in vitro experiments to test their hypothesis. "Since we observed the quite intact sleep spindles in CaV3.1 knockout mice, we tried to figure out how the sleep spindles are generated in the absence of a thalamocortical burst." (A gene knockout, or KO, is a genetic technique in which one of an organism's genes is made inoperative to learn about its function from the difference between the knockout organism and normal individuals. CaV3.1 is a T-type calcium channel found in neurons, cells that have pacemaker activity.) "The issues were if the spindles are generated within the thalamocortical circuit as previously known, and how thalamocortical neurons generate spikes during spindles in the presence or absence of a thalamocortical burst." All of the researchers' the experiments were designed to investigate these questions.

"The purpose of in vitro thalamocortical-thalamic reticular nucleus," or TC-TRN, "network oscillations was to show if thalamocortical oscillations observed in CaV3.1 knockout mice could be generated either within an intrathalamic network or if they were cortical driven oscillations," Cheong points out. "Another difference between in vivo and in vitro networks is that compared to in vivo network all the afferent inputs into TC or TRN are not intact in an in vitro TC-TRN network." The results showed that spindle-like oscillations were generated even in the absence of cortex.

The study shows that these differences also relate to In vivo data suggesting that TRN neurons are spindle pacemakers. "There have been debates on the leading role of TRN versus cortex in pacing the sleep spindles. In an in vitro TC-TRN network, both the afferent inputs and corticothalamic inputs onto TC neurons are not intact," Shin explains. "Therefore, major inputs onto TC neurons in those experiments come from TRN neurons. The generation of intrathalamic oscillations under this condition indicates that the reciprocal connection between TRN and TC could generate the oscillations, which adds weight to the TRN neurons as spindle pacemakers. The generation of CaV3.1 knockout mice which lack T-type Ca2+ channels in TC neurons was the key to address this issue."

Cheong emphasizes that the study's major findings call into question the essential role of low-threshold burst firings in thalamocortical neurons. "It's noteworthy that tonic spikes were more abundant than burst spikes during spindles even in wild Type thalamocortical neurons – not only in CaV3.1-/- TC neurons – whereas no difference in tonic and burst spike frequency was seen during non-spindle periods. Moreover," he continues, "the tonic spike frequency increases significantly during cortical spindle events compared to non-spindle periods even in wild-type TC neurons. This is clearly different from that seen for burst spike frequency in wild-type TC neurons, which occurred with almost equal incidence during both the spindle and non-spindle periods." Therefore, Cheong points out, the scientists concluded that TC burst firing is not required for the generation in spindle generation.

The researchers also found that the peak frequency of sleep spindles was not different between wild and CaV3.1 KO mice, which suggested that TC spikes are not critical in determining the spindle frequency. However, Shin notes, the question of what drives TC neurons to fire during spindles remains to be further investigated, although they think that TC firing during spindles indicates that the TC-TRN network is not as simple as previously believed.

Moving forward, Cheong tells Medical Xpress, the researchers would like to further investigate the firing pattern of TC neurons during natural NREM sleep, including spindle, delta and slow waves. and also elucidate the detailed ensemble behavior of neuron within thalamocortical network during sleep. Moreover, TC burst firing has long been implicated in both physiological thalamocortical oscillations during both sleep and pathological thalamocortical oscillations, such as spike-wave-discharges appearing in absence epilepsy. "Our current study clearly showed that TC burst are not essential for sleep spindles, which would be helpful information to develop the anti-epileptic agents," Shin concludes.

Sleep spindles are generated in the absence of T-type calcium channel-mediated low-threshold burst firing of thalamocortical neurons, PNAS December 10, 2013 vol. 110 no. 50 20266-20271, doi:10.1073/pnas.1320572110

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

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People worldwide may feel mind-body connections in same way

Maps of bodily sensations associated with different emotions. Hot colors show activated, cool colors deactivated regions. Credit: Lauri Nummenmaa, Enrico Glerean, Riitta Hari, and Jari Hietanen.

Many phrases reflect how emotions affect the body: Loss makes you feel "heartbroken," you suffer from "butterflies" in the stomach when nervous, and disgusting things make you "sick to your stomach."

Now, a new study from Finland suggests connections between emotions and body parts may be standard across cultures.

The researchers coaxed Finnish, Swedish and Taiwanese participants into feeling various emotions and then asked them to link their feelings to body parts. They connected anger to the head, chest, arms and hands; disgust to the head, hands and lower chest; pride to the upper body; and love to the whole body except the legs. As for anxiety, participants heavily linked it to the mid-chest.

"The most surprising thing was the consistency of the ratings, both across individuals and across all the tested language groups and cultures," said study lead author Lauri Nummenmaa, an assistant professor of cognitive neuroscience at Finland's Aalto University School of Science.

However, one U.S. expert, Paul Zak, chairman of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University in California, was unimpressed by the findings. He discounted the study, saying it was weakly designed, failed to understand how emotions work and "doesn't prove a thing."

But for his part, Nummenmaa said the research is useful because it sheds light on how emotions and the body are interconnected.

"We wanted to understand how the body and the mind work together for generating emotions," Nummenmaa said. "By mapping the bodily changes associated with emotions, we also aimed to comprehend how different emotions such as disgust or sadness actually govern bodily functions."

For the study, published online Dec. 30 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers showed two silhouettes of bodies to about 700 people. Depending on the experiment, they tried to coax feelings out of the participants by showing them emotional words, stories, clips from movies and facial expressions. Then the participants colored the silhouettes to reflect the body areas they felt were becoming most or least active.

The idea was to not mention emotions directly to the participants but instead to make them "feel different emotions," Nummenmaa said.

The researchers noted that some of the emotions may cause activity in specific areas of the body. For example, most basic emotions were linked to sensations in the upper chest, which may have to do with breathing and heart rate. And people linked all the emotions to the head, suggesting a possible link to brain activity.

But Zak said the study failed to consider that people often feel more than one emotion at a time. Or that a person's own comprehension of emotion can be misleading since the "areas in the brain that process emotions tend to be largely outside of our conscious awareness," he said.

It would make more sense, Zak said, to directly measure activity in the body, such as sweat and temperature, to make sure people's perceptions have some basis in reality. Nummenmaa said he expects future research to go in that direction.

How might the current research be useful? Zak is skeptical that it could be, but the study lead author is hopeful.

"Many mental disorders are associated with altered functioning of the emotional system, so unraveling how emotions coordinate with the minds and bodies of healthy individuals is important for developing treatments for such disorders," Nummenmaa said.

Next, the researchers want to see if these emotion-body connections change in people who are anxious or depressed. "Also, we are interested in how children and adolescents experience their emotions in their bodies," Nummenmaa said.

"Bodily maps of emotions," by Lauri Nummenmaa, Enrico Glerean, Riitta Hari, and Jari K. Hietanen. www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1321664111


Now read: Researchers Make First Strides Toward Mind Reading

Boots Industries unveils BI V2.0 for 3D printing

Boots Industries is a Quebec City, Canada, company that was founded in 2012 with a mission to spread the excitement of a printing technology that may allow everyday users to create three-dimensional objects from various plastics. Their latest adventure is the unveiling of a 3D printer whose parts they say can be assembled quickly, the BI V2.0. "Our assembled components remove the longest and trickiest steps from the equation (i.e. stringing the pulleys, wiring the towers etc.). With our simple to follow instructions the partial assembly will take between 30 minutes and an hour of work."

Boots Industries has been selling both fully assembled printers and DIY printer kits but now the company is taking pre-orders for their BI V2.0 on Kickstarter, after which they will offer the new printer on their online store. A key feature of the new printer is that the Boots Industries designers offer a larger build volume, which in turn expands options for what people can make.

The makers have already surpassed their $30,000 goal; at the time of this writing they raised $36,450.41 with still 23 days left to go. The BI V2 team said it was derived from the insights they gained from their previous line.

Providing details on the new BI V2.0, they said: "Our design can support up to triple extrusion and can print virtually any 1.75 mm filament extruding at up to 240 degrees Celsius," They called attention to the printer's "self-replicating" design, which can empower the user to share the technology with others. "Once you receive the BI V2.0, you can print, improve upon and share components so that anyone can build their own printer at a very low cost." The BI V2.0 3D printer does not need a computer for operation; one can use an integrated LCD controller.

Boots Industries turned to Kickstarter to advance the new machine's design and production. "Although our BI V2.0 is definitely ready for production, we still plan to make several last minute 'cosmetic' improvements. For example we will be tweaking the lengths of electrical wires and sleeving around the delta head. These modifications will not impact the delivery schedule of the BI V2.0, but we felt it was important to mention that we will tweak a few details to make your printers look even better!"

For pledges of $79 and higher, users receive all the BI V2.0 printed parts, For pledges of $653 SD or more, users get a BI V2.0 3D printer with heat bed, LCD controller and auto-level probe. About $1,120 gets a fully assembled printer with heat bed , LCD controller, auto-level probe, and two hours of training on designing 3D parts and operating the BI V2.0 optimally. Estimated delivery dates in 2014 vary depending on the type of pledge and appear on the Kickstarter page.



Now read: Deltaprintr offers cheap 3D printer a Kickstarter project

NSA seizes full control of targeted iPhones via DROPOUTJEEP malware

The NSA developed in 2008 a software program for iPhones that can selectively and stealthily deliver data from iPhones to the NSA. The program is called DROPOUTJEEP. News of the malware is the latest to come out of the ongoing Snowden document media bonanza.

DROPOUTJEEP can read and retrieve SMS messages, contact lists, voice messages, and the iPhone's location via GPS and cell phone towers. It can also remotely activate the microphone and the camera.

In short, DROPOUTJEEP can gain full covert "command and control" over any iPhone on which it is installed.

The method of installation is not entirely clear, but logic dictates DROPOUTJEEP has to be installed either remotely or with hands on. In light of last weekend's Der Spiegel Snowden document analysis showing the NSA has infiltrated a wide range of proprietary hardware throughout the tech industry, the latter is a distinct possibility. That is to say, some iPhones currently in use in the wild may have physically passed through the NSA before arriving, bugged, in users' hands.

The NSA document describing DROPOUTJEEP seems to imply exactly that:

"The initial release of DROPOUTJEEP will focus on installing the implant via close access methods."
How many iPhones have DROPOUTJEEP installed? And how many iPads? There's no way of knowing that at this point. It could be considered alarmist to imply a pervasive NSA influence on the iOS ecosystem. Equally alarmist and unfair might be to imply that Apple knowingly cooperated with the NSA on DROPOUTJEEP.

But questions are being raised, as in the case of Jacob Applebaum's comments today at a Chaos Communication Project event. Among them: "Either [the NSA] have a huge collection of exploits that work against Apple products, meaning that they are hoarding information about critical systems that American companies produce and sabotaging them, or Apple sabotaged it themselves."

In either case, iOS owners won't find much comfort in this little revelation. But neither will anyone who owns almost any kind of device from any manufacturer. The NSA is now everywhere.

Forbes, Crounji

Now read: NSA spying reached next level, targets hardware end users

Slow eating can lead to less hunger later on

Image Credit: Levranii / Shutterstock

You’ve probably been told to slowly chew your food slowly during mealtime, and a new study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that eating slowly can help to reduce feelings of hunger later in the day.

The study team set out to investigate what, if any, connection exists between the rate of eating a meal and total calorie consumption, as previous research has indicated that a rapid eating rate may weaken the feedback mechanisms that regulate how much we eat.

In the study, researchers at Texas Christian University (TCU) examined how the rate of eating affects calories consumption in both healthy-weight and overweight or obese subjects. Participants were asked to consume two meals in a controlled setting. The first was eaten at a slow, deliberate pace: participants were told they had no time constraints and instructed to pause and put the spoon down between bites. For the second, ‘fast’ meal, participants were told they had a time constraint, should take large bites, needed to chew quickly, and not pause between bites.

In addition to tracking how many calories were eaten, the investigators also collected data on pre- and post-meal hunger and satiation, as well as water consumption during the meals.

At the conclusion of the trials, the researchers said that they suspected that their results were tainted by participants’ sense of being observed.

“Slowing the speed of eating led to a significant reduction in energy intake in the normal-weight group, but not in the overweight or obese group. A lack of statistical significance in the overweight and obese group may be partly due to the fact that they consumed less food during both eating conditions compared to the normal-weight subjects,” said lead author Meena Shah, a professor of kinesiology at Texas Christian University. “It is possible that the overweight and obese subjects felt more self-conscious, and thus ate less during the study.”

The researchers discovered that the healthy-weight subjects had a statistically significant drop in caloric consumption during the slow meal compared to the fast meal: 88 kcal less for the normal weight group, compared to only 58 kcal less for the overweight or obese group.

Despite a potential tainting of the caloric consumption aspect of the study, researchers discovered that both groups reported being less hungry later on after the slow meal but not after the fast meal.

“In both groups, ratings of hunger were significantly lower at 60 minutes from when the meal began during the slow compared to the fast eating condition,” Shah said. “These results indicate that greater hunger suppression among both groups could be expected from a meal that is consumed more slowly.”

The study team also found that both groups drank more water during the slow meal, 12 ounces compared to 9 ounces during the fast meal.

“Water consumption was higher during the slow compared to the fast eating condition by 27 percent in the normal weight and 33 percent in the overweight or obese group,” Shah said. “The higher water intake during the slow eating condition probably caused stomach distention and may have affected food consumption.”

Now read: Nut consumption reduces risk of death

El Salvador Volcano eruption prompts evacuation

El Salvador’s Chaparrastique volcano also known as the San Miguel Volcano erupted suddenly on Sunday, causing local authorities to start evacuating thousands of residents within a two-mile radius. The eruption started at 10:30 am local time, spewing hot ash and smoke into the air up to a height of more than 3 miles. Reuters reported that some 5,000 people live in the San Miguel region around the volcano.

Two people had apparently been treated at nearby hospitals for respiratory problems possibly linked to the eruption, but no serious cases have been reported yet, said Eduardo Espinoza, Assistant Health Minister told the Associated Press.

Authorities have issued a ‘Yellow Alert,’ meaning that the volcano has to be continuously and closely monitored for “possible renewed increase.” Authorities have also sent investigators to the area to check for the presence of lava.

Thick black smoke and heavy ash was reportedly seen over nearby towns and the coffee plantations which the area is famous for. Authorities have warned people in the vicinity against going near the volcano and advised them to breathe through moist handkerchiefs, as the smell of sulfur spread to towns in the surrounding area. Flights have also been redirected to local airports including the nearby republic of Guatemala.

The volcano, at 7000 feet above sea level, is the third highest in the country. Located 90 miles east of the capital city San Salvador, it is also the most active volcano in the region, with 26 eruptions in the last 500 years, according to the country’s environment ministry. Lava flowed down the volcano once in a 1976 eruption, and it gave rise to violent tremors in 2010.

El Salvador’s government has been monitoring the volcano for the last two weeks, when they detected increased activity inside it. Even as early as 2011, the volcano started releasing small plumes of gases, restricting residents’ access within a mile of the volcano.

The NOAA released an image of the volcano about 2 hours after the eruption began, taken by its Suomi NPP satellite, and BBC news released a video showing ash and gas being spewed into the air as the volcano erupted.


Now read: OpenWorm simulation brings life one step closer with ‘real’ digital muscles

30 December 2013

NSA spying reached next level, targets hardware end users

A new examination of the seemingly bottomless well of Snowden documents describes an internal NSA catalog of dead ringers for consumer hardware that the NSA can deploy on unsuspecting targets' systems. For example, when a target orders a new hard drive, router, monitor cable, or USB plug online, the NSA can intercept the order and send a bugged clone, which the target would then install by his own volition. The catalog includes hardware by Seagate, Samsung, Cisco, Huawei, Dell and many others.

Western Digital and Maxtor are two other hardware providers named in the monitoring device catalog. It also includes back door access to firewalls by Juniper Networks, as well as ready-made hacks for the BIOS firmware that runs when a personal computer starts up.

The catalog was produced by the Advanced/Access Network Technology (ANT) division of the NSA hacker unit Tailored Access Operations (TAO).

Der Spiegel reported that the NSA can intercept automated personal computer communications like Windows crash reports to ferret out vulnerabilities in users' systems. It does this via a so-called "shadow Internet" that runs alongside the regular Internet. SlashGear has previously reported on the NSA's "quantum insert" technique of serving copies of popular sites like LinkedIn to target users by dint of beating the legitimate websites to the server punch.

In other words, any of your electronics and favorite websites could actually be NSA-created resources should the spy agency deem you an asset.

On the industrial side, the catalog lets agents acquire and physically install bugged base stations that stand in for proprietary mobile network equipment. The NSA can use the stations to collect mobile communications data from personal devices in range.

Finally, the Der Spiegel analysis delved into how the NSA and its partners in private telecommunications companies have tapped major intercontinental data cables to conduct mass data surveillance. For example, the agency in early 2013 mapped the "SEA-ME-WE-4" undersea cable that connects Europe, North Africa and Asia.

SOURCE: Der Spiegel

Russian firm developing visual display that uses water vapor

Image Credit: Displair

Could television sets and computer monitors one day be replaced by visual displays created using mist? That’s the goal of one Russian firm that has dubbed their unique displays “the next step in visual technology,” according to CNN.

The company, Displair, and its creator, Max Kamanin, are working on next-gen visual displays that will feature “interactive images floating in mid-air,” CNN’s Arion McNicoll and Monique Rivalland wrote. Having grown weary of “electronic junk” such as TVs and monitors, Kamanin said that he wanted to create a way for users to view and interact with visual data without having to use actual physical objects.

To accomplish this, Displair is developing a method that essentially projects three-dimensional images onto sheets of mist, effectively creating what appears to be a hologram, McNicoll and Rivalland said. Tiny, moisture-less water drops are used to create an airstream, and the images will be projected onto those droplets, Kamanin explained.

No special glasses will be required to use the screen system, since the images will be projected onto an invisible screen that can respond to a reported 1,500 hand movements similar to those currently used on smartphones and tablet computers. While companies such as Google and Coca-Cola are currently using this type of technology for advertising purposes, Kamanin said that he could see the devices being used for more practical purposes.

“A heart surgeon could see in the air a patient’s heart and could blow it up and search for information immediately without having to wash his hands,” he told CNN, adding that the product could also “be used as a public terminal for extracting necessary information such as timetables and restaurant menus. It means that in the future when bigger displays are created numerous people can use Displair at the same time, play games and search for information.”

As Leo Kelion of BBC News reported earlier this year, Displair had their products on display at the International CES global consumer electronics and technology tradeshow in Las Vegas. Kelion explained that the technology used built-in cameras and software algorithms to analyze a person’s hand movements so that he or she can manipulate the image they are looking at.

“Volunteers have been able to use it to play Fruit Ninja, karate chopping the video game’s virtual pineapples and bananas in half,” Kelion said. He added that “the prototype’s image quality” wasn’t “good enough to watch a show or movie” at that time, but the company vowed that it would improve and Displair spokeswoman Kim Terca emphasized that their unit was “a greener option” than traditional televisions and monitors.

The company is reportedly capable of producing 40 to 140 inch screens, and the systems will cost an estimated $4,000 to $30,000. Displair’s efforts have previously been commended by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, and they have also been awarded the TechInnovations Award for their work on the device.

Now read: New OLED tech could make smartphone screens cheaper and more power-efficient

Chromebooks gobbled 21% of notebook sales in 2013 tips NPD

Several years ago, the netbook boomed and grabbed a significant portion of the computer market thanks to its lower price. One of the most costly parts of a notebook is the Windows operating system. That fact has led to some alternative OS' trying to make a dent in the market over the years, including the Chrome OS from Google.

Those alternative operating systems have had varying degrees of success. Research firm NPD Group has published some numbers recently that show Chromebooks are making an impressive impact on the notebook market. Chromebook machines made up 21% of notebook sales in 2013 according to the NPD report.

I'd wager a large percentage of those Chromebook sales were to schools. Back in October, we learned that 22% of K-12 schools in the US are using Chromebooks. The statistics also show another trend Microsoft won’t like, Windows notebooks showed no growth between 2012 and 2013.

NPD's report also showed that combined sales of Apple notebooks and desktops declined by 7%. NPD reports that there were 1.76 million Chromebooks shipped between January and November 2013. In 2012 only about 400,000 Chromebooks shipped. Chromebooks also did well over the holiday shopping season with Amazon listing two Chromebooks in the top three spots for holiday best sellers.


Now read: LG’s all-in-one Chromebase with Chrome OS

New version of Soyuz successfully launched saturday

Image Credit: Russian Federal Space Agency

After numerous delays earlier in the week, Russia successfully launched the Soyuz-2.1v, an upgraded version of its venerable series of spacecraft, at 16:30 Moscow time (12:30 GMT) on Saturday.

According to RIA Novosti, the rocket lifted off from the Plesetsk space center in northern Russia. The launch had originally been scheduled for Monday, but was delayed repeatedly due to concerns over a possible engine malfunction.

“The light-weight rocket Soyuz, which blasted off from Plesetsk [Cosmodrome], has successfully placed its upper stage and three satellites into an interim orbit,” a Defense Ministry spokesman told The Voice of Russia. “The satellites are expected to reach their designated orbits in several hours.”

The Soyuz family of launch vehicles has been around since the 1960s, and was designed by the Korolyov Design Bureau as a replacement for the Voskhod spacecraft. The new Soyuz-2.1v features an entirely new first stage that is powered by an a NK-33 (14D15) rocket engine built by the NK Engines Company.

The successful launch will help give “a boost to the country’s troubled space program,” according to Reuters reporters Megan Davies and Alissa de Carbonnel. “Despite an improved budget, Moscow’s space program has suffered a series of humiliating launch failures in recent years that industry veterans blame on poor management.”

“The Soyuz, the most frequently launched rocket in the world, has undergone more than 1,700 launches since its debut in 1966,” added RIA Novosti. “It is one of only two rockets worldwide that are capable of sending astronauts into orbit, the other being the Chinese Long March 2F.”

On Friday, Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov and Sergey Ryazanskiy attempted to install a pair of high-fidelity cameras on a combination biaxial pointing platform on the International Space Station (ISS). However, attempts to install the devices, which will be used to take pictures of Earth as part of a Canadian commercial endeavor, were unsuccessful due to an issue with the electrical connections.

Now read: New massive star forming cluster discovered

Facebook is no longer cool in the eyes of teenagers: EU survey

Image Credit: Thinkstock

Since Facebook‘s “birth” in 2004, millions of users have logged on to the social media site. In fact, nearly half a million log on every day.

Results from the Global Social Media Impact Study, an extensive European survey, show that older teenagers, however, are not among that group. This key age group, which has moved on to Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp and Snapchat, considers Facebook “dead and buried,” according to The Guardian.

The scientists researched the Facebook use of 16- to 18-year-olds in eight European Union (EU) countries, finding that as parents and older users flood the social service site, the younger generation are shifting to different platforms. On The Conversation, Miller notes that their study involved nine simultaneous 15-month ethnographic studies, finding that Facebook just isn’t cool anymore.

“Facebook is not just on the slide it is basically dead and buried,” wrote Daniel Miller, lead anthropologist on the research team, who is professor of material culture of University College London.

“Mostly they feel embarrassed to even be associated with it. Where once parents worried about their children joining Facebook, the children now say it is their family that insists they stay there to post about their lives,” said Miller.

The teenagers who were surveyed say that they do not care that alternative social media services are less functional and sophisticated. Miller said that Facebook is technically better than Twitter or Instagram, being more integrated, better for photo albums, organizing parties and more effective for observing people’s relationships and none of the four contenders have the full range of integrated functions that Facebook has. This suggests to the team that the dynamics of new media may depend on factors other than function.

“What appears to be the most seminal moment in a young person’s decision to leave Facebook was surely that dreaded day your mum sends you a friend request,” wrote Miller. “It is nothing new that young people care about style and status in relation to their peers, and Facebook is simply not cool anymore.”

The researchers found that these older teenagers are also unconcerned about how information about them is being used commercially or as part of surveillance practice by the security services.

The team interviewed Italian Facebook users, finding that 40 percent had never changed their privacy setting. Eighty percent reported that they “were not concerned or did not care” how their personal data was accessed or that it was available to either an organization or an individual.

The scientists point out that information that people choose to share on Facebook has generally been through a psychological filtering process, unlike conversations, photos and videos shared through more private online tools such as Skype, or on mobile apps.

“Most individuals try to present themselves online the way they think society is expecting them to,” wrote UCLA anthropologist PhD student Razvan Nicolescu.

“It seems that social media works not towards change of society, notions of individuality and connectedness, and so on – but rather as a conservative force that tends to strengthen the conventional social relations and to reify society as Italians enjoy and recognize it,” he added.

“The normativity of the online presence seems to be just one expression of this process,” wrote Nicolescu.

According to Forbes, the study suggests that we need to know more about the diversity of Facebook usage because we tend to treat it as a homogeneous platform and it obviously isn’t. This lack of homogeneous usage habits will put more pressure on Facebook as the stock prices are beginning to rise and the lawsuits over the 2012 IPO are beginning.

Wired, on the other hand, says Facebook and its investors shouldn’t worry. Although the older teen demographic is leaving the site in droves, the 18 to 25 year-old group is returning for the ability to connect with old friends and network with new ones. The mobile apps like Snapchat and Instagram are no replacements for a comprehensive social tool that can be tailored to all sorts of needs.

Now read: Google’s million-row copyright claim dataset visuals

NASA’s Flexible rover could be used on future mission to Titan


While it might look like a squishable mess of ropes and tent poles, NASA’s proposed “Super Ball Bot” could hold the key to making landing a rover on another planet easier and far less expensive, according to a new report published last week in IEEE Spectrum, the journal of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

Under ideal circumstances, modern-day planetary rovers “can require careful choreography of multiple landing stages and involve parachutes, airbags, and retrorockets,” writer Rachel Courtland explained. Once landed, the vehicle would then have to traverse steep terrain that can make a journey slow and arduous.

However, researchers at NASA’s Ames Research Center told Courtland that they are working on a robotic exoskeleton that is flexible and capable of changing its shape the aforementioned Super Ball Bot. The device will be able to land unassisted and is capable of absorbing impact, eliminating the need for landing gear.

The Super Ball Bot would have all of the scientific instruments required to complete its mission embedded directly into its exoskeleton, and as demonstrated by a prototype unit in recently-released video footage, the robot would be capable of changing the length of its cables in order to roll around a planet’s surface without requiring wheels.

“Made up of hollow cylindrical rods connected by flexible materials such as elastic cable, the clever design draws on the principles of ‘tensegrity’ (a combination of ‘tensional’ and ‘integrity’), allowing any impact to be safely absorbed along multiple paths,” Trevor Mogg of Digital Trends explained. NASA believes it could survive a 60-plus mile drop onto a planet’s surface.

Super Ball Bot is being co-developed by Vytas SunSpiral and Adrian Agogino at the Ames Intelligent Systems Division. Earlier this year, they were awarded a Phase II grant to continue the research, said Phys Org’s Nancy Owano.

According to RT.com, NASA is considering using it for an expedition on Neptune’s moon, Titan. Titan could be a good test for the rover, the website said, because the moon’s dense nitrogen atmosphere would cushion the vehicle’s fall, and it would likely have an easier time traveling on the surface than its traditional wheeled counterparts.

“Another advantage of NASA’s ball bot is its small size when packed, with the space agency envisioning sending hundreds of them on a single mission. Upon arrival their destination, the bots would be able to automatically spring into shape,” Mogg said.

While movement needs to be perfected before the new-type rovers could be deployed, “there’s an excellent chance that these remarkable collapsing robots will one day be rolling across faraway planets and moons, sending back information that could help us unlock the enduring mysteries of our solar system and beyond,” he added.



Now read: NASA’s Swift discovers 100,000 super-massive black holes till now

29 December 2013

Pigs glow green in dark, thanks to cytoplasmic injection reproductive technique

A handout photo shows fluorescent green pigs in a Taipei lab. (Reuters/STR New)

Along with red, green is the color of this holiday season. And bright green is showing up in more than just decorations. In Guangdong Province in Southern China, ten transgenic piglets have been born this year, six of them since August, and under a black light, they glow a greenish tint.

A technique developed by reproductive scientists from the University of Hawai`i at Mānoa's John A. Burns School of Medicine was used to quadruple the success rate at which plasmids carrying a fluorescent protein from jellyfish DNA were transferred into the embryo of the pig. Drs. Zhenfang Wu and Zicong Li of the South China Agricultural University have detailed the research that produced the transgenic pigs in an academic manuscript recently submitted to the Biology of Reproduction journal. Dr. Zicong is a UH alumnus. Also assisting in the manuscript was Dr. Johann Urschitz, an Assistant Research Professor in the UH medical school's Institute for Biogenesis Research (IBR).

Credit: South China Agricultural University in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, China, 2013.

In a video accompanying the research, the pigs not unlike human children afraid of the dark begin to squeal when the lights are turned off, except for the black light, which helps illuminate the green tint. The noise is because the scientists are holding the by-now-large piglets in a container to prevent their movement, to make the florescent glow most visible.

The green color simply indicates that the fluorescent genetic material injected into the pig embryos has been incorporated into the animal's natural make-up. "It's just a marker to show that we can take a gene that was not originally present in the animal and now exists in it," explains Dr. Stefan Moisyadi, a veteran bioscientist with the IBR.

Dr. Moisyadi said the animals are not affected by the fluorescent protein and will have the same life span as other pigs. "The green is only a marker to show that it's working easily," he said.

The ultimate goal is to introduce beneficial genes into larger animals to create less costly and more efficient medicines. "[For] patients who suffer from hemophilia and they need the blood-clotting enzymes in their blood, we can make those enzymes a lot cheaper in animals rather than a factory that will cost millions of dollars to build," Dr. Moisyadi said.

The IBR technique involves proprietary pmgenie-3 plasmids conferring active integration during cytoplasmic injection. This technique was also used to produce the world's first "glowing green rabbits" in Turkey earlier this year. Turkey is expected to announce results of similar research involving sheep in the New Year.

University of Hawaii at Manoa

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Genetic discovery points the way to much bigger yields in tomato, other flowering food plants

A mutation in the hormone that controls flowering postpones when a plant stops producing flowers, yielding many more fruits. Credit: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

Every gardener knows the look of a ripe tomato. That bright red color, that warm earthy smell, and the sweet juicy flavor are hard to resist. But commercial tomato plants have a very different look from the backyard garden variety, which can grow endlessly under the right conditions to become tall and lanky. Tomatoes that will be canned for sauces and juice are harvested from plants that stop growing earlier than classic tomato varieties, and are therefore more like bushes. While the architecture of these compact bushy plants allows mechanical harvesters to reap the crop, the early end of growth means that each plant produces fewer fruits than their home garden cousins.

But what if commercial tomato growers could coax plants into producing more fruit without sacrificing that unique and necessary bushy plant shape? Today, CSHL researchers announced that they have determined a way to accomplish this. Their research has revealed one genetic mechanism for hybrid vigor, a property of plant breeding that has been exploited to boost yield since the early 20th century. Teasing out the hidden subtleties of a type of hybrid vigor involving just one gene has provided the scientists with means to tweak the length of time that bushy tomato varieties can produce flowers. In these plants, longer flowering time substantially raises fruit yield.

First identified at CSHL by George Shull in 1908, hybrid vigor – or heterosis, as biologists call it – involves interbreeding genetically distinct plants to generate offspring more robust than either inbred parent. It has been used for decades to improve agricultural productivity, but scientists have long debated how and why it works.

In his previous work, CSHL Associate Professor Zach Lippman and Israeli colleagues identified a rare example of hybrid vigor involving a genetic defect in the gene that makes florigen, a hormone that controls the process of flowering and flower production. The mutation dramatically increases tomato yields in bush tomatoes, and Lippman and his team, led by postdoctoral researcher Ke Jiang, set out to understand the mechanism behind this remarkable result.

They found that bushy plants with a mutation in one of the two copies of the florigen gene, producing half as much florigen as plants without the mutation do, postpone the moment when they stop producing flowers. This, in turn, leads to many more fruits overall. "This is because," Lippman explains, "bushy tomato varieties are highly sensitive to the amount, or dosage, of the florigen hormone, which alters plant architecture – that is, how many flowers can form before growth ends. These discoveries lead to an exciting prediction: that it may be possible to tweak florigen levels to increase yields even further."

Lippman's team also studied florigen mutants in another plant, the crucifer weed known as Arabidopsis that is a cousin of crops like broccoli and cauliflower. Although they did not see the same increase in yield, they did observe similar changes in plant architecture because of florigen dosage sensitivities. These results suggest that it may be possible to manipulate florigen in a wide variety of flowering species to increase yields.

"Tomato Yield Heterosis is Triggered by a Dosage Sensitivity of the Florigen Pathway that Fine-Tunes Shoot Architecture" appears online in PLOS Genetics on December 26, 2013. The authors are: Ke Jiang, Katie Liberatore, Soon Ju Park, John Alvarez, and Zach Lippman. www.plosgenetics.org/doi/pgen.1004043


PLoS Genetics

Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

Now read: TomTato Plant Produces Tomatoes And Potatoes

Human brain development is a symphony in three movements

Credit: Shutterstock

The human brain develops with an exquisitely timed choreography marked by distinct patterns of gene activity at different stages from the womb to adulthood, Yale researchers report in the Dec. 26 issue of the journal Neuron.

The Yale team conducted a large-scale analysis of gene activity in cerebral neocortex an area of the brain governing perception, behavior, and cognition at different stages of development. The analysis shows the general architecture of brain regions is largely formed in the first six months after conception by a burst of genetic activity, which is distinct for specific regions of the neocortex. This rush is followed by a sort of intermission beginning in the third trimester of pregnancy. During this period, most genes that are active in specific brain regions are quieted except for genes that spur connections between all neocortex regions. Then in late childhood and early adolescence, the genetic orchestra begins again and helps subtly shape neocortex regions that progressively perform more specialized tasks, a process that continues into adulthood.

The analysis is the first to show this "hour glass" sketch of human brain development, with a lull in genetic activity sandwiched between highly complex patterns of gene expression, said Nenad Sestan, professor of neurobiology at Yale's Kavli Institute for Neuroscience and senior author of the study. Intriguingly, say the researchers, some of the same patterns of genetic activity that define this human "hour glass" sketch were not observed in developing monkeys, indicating that they may play a role in shaping the features specific to human brain development.

The findings emphasize the importance of the proper interplay between genes and environment in the child's earliest years after birth when the formation of synaptic connections between brain cells becomes synchronized, which shape how brain structures will be used later in life, said Sestan. For instance, disruptions of in synchronization of synaptic connections during child's earliest years have been implicated in autism.

Sestan says the human brain is more like a neighorhood, which is better defined by the community living within its borders than its buildings.

"The neighborhoods get built quickly and then everything slows down and the neocortex focuses solely on developing connections, almost like an electrical grid," said Sestan. "Later when these regions are synchronized, the neighborhoods begin to take on distinct functional identities like Little Italy or Chinatown."

Mihovil Pletikos, Andre ́ M.M. Sousa, and Goran Sedmak of Yale are co-lead authors of the study. Other Yale authors are Kyle A. Meyer, Ying Zhu, Feng Cheng, Mingfeng Li and Yuka Imamura Kawasawa.

Yale University

Now read: Study reveals striking differences in brain connectivity between men and women

Retrieving an asteroid

An image of the asteroid Tempel 1 taken during the Deep Impact visit. Tempel 1 is about five kilometers across. CfA astronomers have estimated the size of the smallest measured near Earth asteroid, 2009 BD, as only about three meters across, perhaps too small for it to be useful in NASA's planned asteroid recovery mission. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UMd

Asteroids (or comets) whose orbits bring them close to the earth's orbit are called near Earth objects. Some of them are old, dating from the origins of the solar system about four and one-half billion years ago, and expected to be rich in primitive materials. They are of great interest to scientists studying the young solar system. Others, of lower scientific priority, are thought to contain minerals of potential economic value.

NASA has announced its interest in sending a manned mission to a near Earth object. The NASA Asteroid Robotic Retrieval Mission concept involves the capture of an asteroid, and dragging it onto a new trajectory that traps it in the Earth–Moon system where it will be further investigated by astronauts. The current mission design requires the target asteroid to have a diameter of seven to ten meters. The object NEO 2009BD is a prime candidate for this retrieval mission. It was discovered on January 16, 2009, at a distance from the Earth of only 0.008 AU (one AU is the average distance of the Earth from the Sun). Its orbit is very Earth–like, with a period of 400 days, and it will end up close to the Earth–Moon system again in late 2022 when the proposed capture would take place. It seems to be a perfect candidate, with a time frame that allows for proper mission planning.

The problem is that the size of the NEO 2009BD is uncertain, and thus its density and composition are also uncertain, but first estimates are that it likely falls in the diameter range specified by the mission. The uncertainty arises because it was detected at optical wavelengths; they measure reflected light, which is a combination of both an object's size and reflectivity (albedo). For NASA mission planning to succeed, a more direct size measurement of 2009 BD is needed—and soon, before its increasing distance from the Earth makes such an observation a practical impossibility.

CfA astronomers Joe Hora, Howard Smith and Giovanni Fazio have been regularly using the IRAC camera on the Spitzer Space Telescope to measure the infrared emission of near Earth objects, and (with some modeling) deriving both the sizes and densities of these objects. They received special observatory time to study NEO 2009BD, and in an upcoming issue of the Astrophysical Journal they and their colleagues report on their conclusions. They did not detect the NEO 2009BD to a very low light level, implying that it is very small, probably only about 2.9 meters in diameter, and modeling suggests it has a rubble-pile composition. This is the smallest object ever reported on by Spitzer; whether it is still suitable for a NASA mission is now something that the NASA Retrieval Mission team must determine.

"Constraining the Physical Properties of The Near–Earth Object 2009 BD," M. Mommert,J. L. Hora,D. E. Trilling,S. R. Chesley and D. Farnocchia,D. Vokrouhlick´y, M. Mueller,A. W. Harris, H. A. Smith and G. G. Fazio, ApJ, 2013, in press.


Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

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How to make UEFI Bootable USB Flash drive to install Windows 8.1

Rufus is a small utility that creates bootable USB flash drive for all Windows versions. What makes Rufus different is that it offers 3 different partition scheme to target the system type, such as those UEFI based computers. You can make a bootable drive that can directly boot off on a UEFI computer without turning the Secure Boot off. It’s free and portable.

To make a UEFI bootable USB drive for GPT Harddisk,

1. Plug in your USB flash drive, of course.

2. Launch the program. Since it’s portable, you can simply just download and run it.

3. Check the option “Create a bootable disk using: ISO Image“, and click the icon next to it to pick up the ISO image file.

4. Select “GPT partition scheme for UEFI computer“.

Before you click Start button, check to make sure the settings are selected to similar like Figure below.

Rufus settings

5. Click Start, and sit back.

That’s it.

Hopefully it will help you out this UEFI, GPT mystery.

Source: Crounji

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28 December 2013

HTC One update status page explains why updates take forever

The HTC One was among the top Android smartphones in 2013, and that’s thanks in part to the company’s new focus on OS updates. The HTC One launched with Android 4.1, but now is on 4.3 or 4.4, depending on which version you have. It’s the multiple versions that can get confusing. Why do some variants of a phone get KitKat while others lag behind? Stop staring angrily at that useless system update button HTC has a new update status page with a big graphic that explains the anatomy of an Android update.

HTC sells several versions of the HTC One, but they are nearly identical on the inside. What sets each one apart is the software it runs. There are carrier-locked phones that you might buy on-contract from the likes of AT&T or Verizon, unlocked or developer edition phones, and the Google Play Edition HTC One. The OS update for each variant takes a different winding road through the testing labs and carrier bureaucracy.

The handy graphic created by HTC is thousands of pixels tall, which really serves to indicate how complex the process can be. All three categories of devices start out the same, with Google delivering the Platform Developers Kit (PDK). The PDK consists of tools and code to assist in building Android updates before the new version has been officially announced. The three phones stay in sync as chipset makers like Qualcomm update their drivers and HTC plans its development process.

Click to see the full image.

Things start to diverge when HTC begins integrating its custom services. The carrier and unlocked HTC One get the Sense interface and features, but the Google Play Edition phone (which runs stock Android) bypasses this step. Next, the carrier-locked phones have to be customized for each wireless company. This is when the infamous carrier bloatware and services are added, but again, the GPE device sails on by, this time joined by the unlocked HTC One.

HTC does internal lab testing on the updates for all three phones, but the carriers do additional testing on their devices. If bugs are found, the update will be tweaked and tested again before any wireless tweaks are recertified by regulators. When everything looks good, the update is ready for final approval, called Technical Acceptance. The locked versions have to go through Technical Acceptance from the carrier and Google, but the unlocked and GPE phones just go through Google. The last step is sending over-the-air updates out to customers, which is handled by HTC, the carrier, or Google, depending on the version.

HTC’s forthrightness reaffirms what we’ve long believed about Android updates the process is slowed down by the OEM skin integration (HTC Sense) and by carrier customization. The unlocked device gets to bypass the carrier nonsense, but the stock GPE phone bypasses carriers and HTC’s software tweaks. As such, it’s no surprise AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint One owners are still waiting on the 4.4 update. That software has already hit the unlocked and developer and GPE versions. At least now we know who to blame.

Now read: Master key vulnerability - Is your Android device safe from Hackers !

NASA continues work on Orion Spacecraft as engineers pivot to 2014

Image Caption: The Delta IV Heavy Lift rocket that will be used for Orion’s first mission, Exploration Flight Test-1, is in the final assembly area at United Launch Alliance’s factory in Decatur, Ala. Credit: NASA

Orion’s first mission, Exploration Flight Test-1, or EFT-1, is less than a year away now, and the team building the spacecraft is meeting milestones left and right as they prepare the vehicle for its debut.

The Orion crew module that will fly 3,600 miles above Earth on the spacecraft’s first mission is continuing to come together inside the Operations and Checkout Building at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Since the heat shield that will protect it from temperatures near 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit was delivered to Kennedy in early December, the Orion team has been preparing it for installation. They’ve placed it on a work stand and begun drilling the holes necessary to attach it to the module. The heat shield is scheduled be put in place in the spring.

Once the heat shield has done its job getting Orion through the Earth’s atmosphere after its two orbits around Earth, it will be up to the parachutes to do the heavy lifting, literally. A total of 11 parachutes will be used for various landing functions, but three main parachutes that together could almost cover a football field ultimately will slow Orion’s descent down to less than 20 miles per hour for the finale: a relatively gentle splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.

The three main parachutes that will be used for EFT-1 were installed on the vehicle this month. A crane lowered each of the 300-pound main parachutes into place near the top of the capsule, and technicians in clean suits fit them into their compartments. They’ll be deployed using three smaller pilot parachutes that pull them out after the preceding drogue parachutes have done the initial work of slowing the vehicle down.

While those activities are preparing the spacecraft in Florida, the rockets that will launch Orion into space are nearing completion in Decatur, Ala., home of United Launch Alliance’s final assembly facility. The core, port and starboard boosters of the Delta IV heavy lift rocket that will be used for EFT-1 are all final assembly, with the starboard section leading the charge. It’s currently in final acceptance testing, while the RS-68 engine was recently installed on the core booster, and the propulsion and wire harness assemblies are being integrated into the port booster.

The rocket is scheduled to be completed and shipped to Florida in the spring.

With all this activity wrapping up 12 months of arrivals, installations and tests, 2013 has been a good year for the Orion Program. In fact, the only thing that could top it would be 2014 and the launch of EFT-1.


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Cyberwar, high-tech weapons take center stage in defense budget

July 17, 2007: Capt. Jason Simmons and Staff Sgt. Clinton Tips update anti-virus software for Air Force units to assist in the prevention of cyberspace hackers at Barksdale Air Force Base, La. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Cecilio Ricardo)

The $552.1 billion defense budget approved by Congress calls for new regulations on cyberweapons  an effort to prevent the pervasive digital bombs from further spreading throughout the world at the same time that it dramatically boosts spending on them.

Section 940 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014, signed into law by President Obama Thursday night, calls for “Control of the Proliferation of Cyber Weapons” following increases in the clear and present danger from cyberbombs such as Stuxnet and growing teams of hackers in foreign countries.

“The President shall establish an interagency process to provide for the establishment of an integrated policy to control the proliferation of cyber weapons through unilateral and cooperative law enforcement activities, financial means, diplomatic engagement, and such other means as the President considers appropriate,” the act declares. The goal of the $2 million Cyber Security Initiative: suppressing the trade in cyber tools and infrastructure that can be used for criminal, terrorist and military activities, while still allowing governments to use those tools in legitimate self-defense.

Cyber is just one aspect of the military’s high-tech arsenal, which has been rapidly transformed to deal with the growing threat. (Indeed, the bill calls for a fresh report to take place in the next year on how secure the country’s major weapons and communications systems are from such attacks.)

Other high-tech weapons show up in the defense spending bill, notably $100 million meant to improve an outer space “kill vehicle” that travels at hypersonic speeds. The “exo-atmospheric kill vehicle” is built by Raytheon Missile Systems, and is viewed as a key part of the U.S. Department of Defense’s shield against intercontinental ballistic missiles.

If a threat is detected from sensors on either land or in space, a rocket blasts the weapon to the edge of space, where it deploys and travelling at speeds of up to 4 miles per second smashes into an incoming missile, destroying it.

That’s the theory anyway. But the system has faced persistent problems, leading the Pentagon’s Office of the Inspector General to begin a “quality assurance assessment” in Sept. The 2014 budget takes a cautious approach to the Kill Vehicle, including guidance on how to improve it and test it successfully over the next five years.

“It is the sense of Congress that the Secretary of Defense should not procure a Capability Enhancement II exoatmospheric kill vehicle for deployment until after the date on which a successful intercept test flight has occurred,” it reads.

The bill also allocates about $395 million for the eight-wheeled armored fighting vehicle known as a Stryker, and calls on the U.S. Army to evaluate how long the current fleet of such vehicles can keep running.

It also includes hundreds of millions to further drone warfare, including $352 million for the MQ-9 Reaper an armed, autonomous attack plane built by General Atomics more than $80 million more than requested.

But cyberspace is clearly front and center in the mind of the modern military.

The word “cyber” shows up 12 times in the 2012 defense appropriations bill. It pops up 61 times in 2013. The word makes 127 appearances in the 2014 bill, which catalogs the nation’s efforts to deal with the growing threats to cyberspace like never before.

The bill calls for hundreds of millions of dollars for cybercombat: the construction of cyber “ranges” to train cyber forces against threats known and unknown, a new analysis of overall cyber operations, an inventory of the military’s existing cyber skill set and the creation of a new Principal Cyber Advisor to supervise defense of the United States against all incoming digital threats.

There’s $68 million to operate the central Cyber Command, as well as $14 million for the Air Force’s cyberspace offensive program (and another $5.8 million for cyber defense). Nearly $19 million is allocated to cyber security research and another $20 million for “cyber security advanced research.”

The bill allocates $169 million to build or expand facilities to house all that cyberwar gear in Maryland, at Fort Meade’s Marforcybercom HQ-Ops Building and the Cybercom Joint Operations Center, Increment 1.


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PC makers plan rebellion against Windows at 2014 CES, analysts say

The LG Chromebase, an all-in-one computer running Google's Chrome operating system, rather than the traditional Windows. It's one of an increasing variety of threats to Microsoft's dominance on the desktop. (LG)

Fearing rapidly plummeting sales of traditional laptops and desktop computers which collapsed by as much as 10 percent in 2013 manufacturers are planning a revolution against Microsoft and the standard Windows operating system, analysts say.

At the mammoth Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas in early January, multiple computer makers will unveil systems that simultaneously run two different operating systems, both Windows and the Android OS that powers many of the world’s tablets and smartphones, two different analysts said recently. The new devices will be called “PC Plus” machines, explained Tim Bajarin of Creative Strategies.

"A PC Plus machine will run Windows 8.1 but will also run Android apps as well," Bajarin wrote recently for Time. "They are doing this through software emulation. I'm not sure what kind of performance you can expect, but this is their way to try and bring more touch-based apps to the Windows ecosystem."

These machines will be able to switch nearly instantly between the two operating systems, according to Computerworld, either booting both interfaces at the same time or running tablet apps meant for Android within a window, explained Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy.

"This is going to make buzz at CES," Moorhead told Computerworld. "OEMs will be trumpeting this ... it's going to be a very hot topic [at the trade show]."

The move is the latest push back against Microsoft and its Windows 8 operating system, an attempt at dramatic transformation of the traditional Windows desktop to incorporate touch screens and portable tablet shapes.

Consumers responded poorly, with widespread complaints about an interface that, while wonderful on tablets, essentially ignored the hundreds of millions of computer users worldwide that rely on mice and keyboards to interact with their systems. Desktop and laptop PC sales fell dramatically in 2013, according to data from research firm IDC. And sales of tablets running Windows 8, while growing, have in no way replaced them.

"The Windows-based tablet market is expected to grow to 39.3 million units in 2017 from less than 7.5 million in 2013 and less than 1 million in 2011. However, relative to a PC market size of roughly 300 million units, these Windows tablets would add just a couple percent a year relative to PC growth," said Loren Loverde, a vice president with IDC.

Microsoft plans yet another update to Windows 8 to address user concerns, likely called Windows 8.2. In the meantime the company has launched a campaign to disparage systems running Google's OS, especially Chromebooks, which are yet another alternative to the traditional Windows PC.

A new TV ads in Microsoft's "Scroogled" campaign suggest that a Chromebook is "not a real laptop." That hasn't stopped the low-cost systems from taking off, especially in education markets.

Moorhead suggests that “PC Plus” devices mean manufacturers won’t wait for Windows 8.2 or other efforts to "fix" the operating system, instead experimenting with ways to desert Microsoft for alternatives.

"[PC Plus] could get millions of consumers more comfortable with Android on PCs," said Moorhead. "Just imagine for a second what happens when Android gets an improved large-screen experience."

"This should scare the heck out of Microsoft," he added.


Now read: LG’s all-in-one Chromebase with Chrome OS

NASA, JAXA announce launch date for new precipitation satellite

Image Caption: Artist concept of the Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) Core Observatory satellite. Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

On Thursday, NASA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) announced the date and window Feb. 27 from 1:07 pm to 3:07 pm EST for the launch of a new precipitation satellite. The Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) Core Observatory satellite is slated to be launched from Japan’s Tanegashima Space Center.

GPM is designed to conduct observations of rain and snowfall several times a day around the world. NASA said it expects data from the satellite to increase the knowledge of the water and energy cycles that affect Earth’s climate. More specifically, the satellite will be used to calibrate precipitation recordings conducted by an international network of affiliated satellites.

“Launching this core observatory and establishing the Global Precipitation Measurement mission is vitally important for environmental research and weather forecasting,” said Michael Freilich, director of NASA’s Earth Science Division in Washington. “Knowing rain and snow amounts accurately over the whole globe is critical to understanding how weather and climate impact agriculture, fresh water availability, and responses to natural disasters.”

The new satellite will join a global network that already includes the NASA-National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership mission, the NASA-JAXA Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM) and several other satellites managed by various agencies in the US, Japan, Europe and India.

“We will use data from the GPM mission not only for Earth science research but to improve weather forecasting and respond to meteorological disasters,” said Shizuo Yamamoto, executive director of JAXA. “We would also like to aid other countries in the Asian region suffering from flood disasters by providing data for flood alert systems. Our dual-frequency precipitation radar, developed with unique Japanese technologies, plays a central role in the GPM mission.”

The new observatory expands on the sensor technology created for the TRMM mission with two new instruments. The GPM Microwave Imager will allow for precipitation observations on 13 different frequencies. The satellites’ Dual-frequency Precipitation Radar sends out radar pulses that are used to detect several kinds of precipitation and measure the characteristics of raindrops, snowflakes and atmospheric ice particles.

According to NASA, large gaps in ground-sourced precipitation data, such as rainfall or snow accumulation, cover 70 percent of the Earth’s surface, making the comprehensive tracking of the planet’s weather difficult. Satellites allow climate scientists to fill in these gaps. They enable climate scientists to follow changes in the precipitation structure of a storm, even if the storm passes over oceans and remote parcels of land. The space agency said its network of satellites allows it to see many details on the life cycle of a storm, such as the evolution of the eye of a hurricane and how a tropical storm intensifies over warm water.

On its official website, NASA said its Tropical Rainfall Measurement Mission (TRMM) was “a revolution in terms of how it ‘saw’ tropical cyclones.

“It provides important information about the size and frequency of occurrence of rain storms in the tropics,” NASA said. “TRMM fills a significant gap in our observations and increases our knowledge about the water cycle and atmospheric circulation over the globe.”


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