Archive for April, 2008

Let the bots fight it out

April 15, 2008

(New) dirt-cheap bots attack Hotmail Captchas | The Register

The Newcastle researchers took a decidedly different approach. They figured out a way to isolate each of the eight characters that make up a Hotmail Captcha image. Defeating Microsoft’s so-called segmentation-resistant technology was a major accomplishment. It blends the characters together in an attempt to thwart optical character recognition. Once they were able to segment the image – usually in about 80 milliseconds using a PC with a Core 2 and 2 GB of random access memory – the machine could easily read the individual characters.


Small compared to several million

April 15, 2008

BT’s ‘illegal’ 2007 Phorm trial profiled tens of thousands | The Register

Phorm sent us this statement:

We confirmed in our 2006 Financial Statement that we had concluded the trial announced on 19 July 2006 and were about to start a larger trial in 2007. In reality, the 2007 test was actually smaller than was planned at the point this statement was issued. At its peak, it involved tens of thousands of users for a couple of days, not the several hundred thousand as anticipated.

Don Foster MP, a Liberal Democrat who has taken a lead in parliament over the Phorm controversy, has called on BT to reveal the details of its allegedly illegal action. Branding BT’s role in the secret trials “disgraceful”, he said: “It’s time for BT to come clean about exactly what happened last summer and why customers were kept in the dark while they were used as guinea pigs.”

Instead, Emma Sanderson, the BT Retail executive offered to television news for interviews last week parroted the line that no personally identifiable information had been disclosed. She said the tests were “small scale”.

If you think about it, though, tens of thousands of users is pretty small-scale. For a serious overestimate, let’s say that 10,000 users visited 1000 pages an hour for 10 hours a day. That would be all of 100 million URLs. You could fit the whole dataset in an ipod nano. My PC is going on five years old, and with just the tiniest bit of indexing you could hold all the information in RAM and throw statistical-analysis software at it for fun.

Which potentially means that phorm and the ISPs it’s working with have no idea how their software and hardware will perform under real loads, and are silently signing up entire subscriber bases as unknowing alpha testers. Whee.


April 14, 2008

WebHome < Main < Reprap

So what the RepRap team are doing is to develop and to give away the designs for a much cheaper machine with the novel capability of being able to self-copy (material costs will be about €400).


April 14, 2008

Technology Review: A Fuller Picture of Your Lungs

Led by Matthew Rosen, a visiting scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian center, and Ronald Walsworth, a senior lecturer in physics at Harvard, the researchers built an MRI scanner that images how gas flows through the lungs and how much oxygen is being absorbed throughout lung tissue. They’ve used the system to study how lung function differs when lying down and sitting or standing up, and are planning a study of asthma in conjunction with the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging in Boston. The system has not yet been used to compare healthy and diseased patients. If it proves its worth in clinical trials, the Harvard researchers believe it would be inexpensive and simple enough to be used in pulmonologists’ offices.

I would want one of these if I could use it. I think one of the neat parts is that the use pre-polarized gas to simplify the imaging. There are, iirc, a bunch of gases that can be pre-polarized and keep their polarization for interesting periods of time.

Back to the biomass

April 14, 2008

The incredible shrinking city – Apr. 14, 2008

Under the initiative, dubbed Plan 2010, city officials are also monitoring thinly-populated blocks. When only one or two occupied homes remain, the city offers incentives – up to $50,000 in grants – for those home owners to move, so that the entire area can be razed. The city will save by cutting back on services like garbage pick-ups and street lighting in deserted areas.

The environmental pony

April 14, 2008

The Reality-Based Community: Biodegradability: Bug or Feature?

The second part has to do with what happens to the materials after use. For a piece of organic material (plastic, wood, fabric, etc.):, five futures are of interest:
-1.nothing (sitting forever in that landfill);
-2a. burning for usable energy (you can put lots of plastic into a boiler with other fuels directly, or process them into liquid fuel);
-2b. recycling (for example, turning old soft drink bottles into polyester fabric);
-3a.aerobic decay to CO2 and water, which is what happens to that potato-starch bag in the compost; and
-3b.decomposition and decay in anaerobic conditions, which generates methane, an especially nasty greenhouse gas (if you catch the methane and burn it for fuel, this is about equal to 2a). This is what happens in a landfill that’s airtight but isn’t kept dry inside.

Which is most green? If you care about carbon in the atmosphere, 1 is the winner, 2a and 2b are next, though if doing 1 instead of 2a just means more coal goes in the boiler, there’s no real gain, and if 2b requires a lot of fossil energy it may be even worse than 3a. So at least to a first approximation, simply “saving” organic materials indefinitely, which may be a very long time, perhaps until global temperatures are stabilized, is the best option, and this is best done by putting them into a dry, well-constructed, landfill.

Notice (my main point) that this ranking does not depend on how the object in question was made. Though biomaterial may be more green in creation than petromaterial, it doesn’t have any special claim to fate 3a. Biodegradability is better than having plastic junk floating around the ocean or sitting in the woods forever, but it’s a litter and wildlife and aesthetic strategy, and inferior to good housekeeping and landfilling.

Of course any strategy that releases carbon back into the atmosphere is inferior to strategies that sequester it. But given humanity’s past record in this regime, it’s important to consider what happens if we’re stupid as well as what happens if we’re smart. And for that, it seems that making stuff that biodegrades reasonably benignly if you treat it carelessly — and can still be sequestered if you want — is a good idea. (We also have to remember, of course, that collecting stuff and putting it in a purpose-built well-maintained landfill results in a fiar bit of emission as well, so that side of the process starts with a deficit that has to be overcome before you reach neutrality and net sequestration.)

I demand a recount

April 14, 2008

Manufactured Buckyballs Don’t Harm Microbes That Clean The Environment, Study Shows

“We found no effect by any amount of C60 on the structure or the function of the microbial community over a short time,” Nyberg said. “Based on what we know about the properties of C60, this is a realistic model of what would happen if high concentrations of nanoparticles were released into the environment.

It’s not a short time anyone was that deeply worried about, no? I’d be more interested to see longer-term studies as well — for instance, do we know whether the buckyballs eventually break down, persist indefinitely, or what? I know that previous studies of interesting environmental contaminants (oils, pcbs) have shown important changes over 5-10 years that didn’t show up in a few months or a year.

New York Times snockered by innumeracy again

April 14, 2008

I.R.S. Scrutiny of Big Firms Plummets, Study Says – New York Times

Despite the shift in focus, the I.R.S. is bringing in more money from corporations of all sizes through audits. Last year it brought in more than $59 billion in unpaid tax revenues, according to agency statistics. That is nearly twice the level of 1998 and is consistent with a steady climb since then.

Larry Langdon, who ran the I.R.S.’s large and midsize business division from 1999 to 2003, called those amounts “phenomenal” and said that the number of dollars brought in, rather than the type or size of company audited or the amount of time spent on audits, might be a better indicator of how well the I.R.S. is doing.

They brought in more money with audits than they did 10 years ago? Gosh, do you think that might be because corporate gross income and profits also went up? A quick search shows that reported (ahem) corporate profits almost exactly doubled between 1997 and 2006, so if the auditors’ take only “nearly” doubled in that time, they’re not even keeping up, much less making headway.

So much for those sex-segregated classes

April 14, 2008

Keep Boys And Girls Together In The Classroom To Optimize Learning, Research Suggests

Boys with more female peers in their classes show higher enrollment rates in both advanced math and science classes, but overall benefits were found in all grades for both sexes. Prof. Schlosser found that primary-school classrooms with a female majority showed increased academic success for both boys and girls, along with a notable improvement in subjects like science and math. In the middle schools, girls were found to have better academic achievement in English, languages and math. And in high school, the classrooms which had the best academic achievements overall were consistently those that had a higher proportion of girls enrolled.

A higher percentage of girls lowers the amount of classroom disruption and fosters a better relationship between pupils and their teacher, a study of the data suggests. Teachers are less tired in classrooms with more girls, and pupils overall seem to be more satisfied when a high female-to-male ratio persists.

Girls are such a civilizing influence. Oh, and so, apparently are boys. Who woulda thunk it.

O Tempura, O Morels

April 10, 2008

Your Stolen Data Is Worth Nothing | Gadget Lab from

Currently, some stolen credit-card numbers are begin sold in batches of 500 for as low as $200. That’s 40 cents for each number, less than half the price observed during the first half of 2007, according to the report. What’s more, “full identity” packages, which include a working credit card number, a Social Security number and a person’s name, address and DOB, are going for as little as $100 for 50, or $2 apiece. Now that’s a bargain.

Even crime doesn’t pay these days. That’s how you really know you’re in a recession