Saturday, March 15, 2008

Hard-liners 'dominate Iran poll'

Hard-line allies of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are ahead in Iran's parliamentary election, partial results suggest.

But conservative critics of Mr Ahmadinejad also appear to be making a strong showing that could undermine his domination of the parliament.

Reformists are said to be struggling after large numbers of their candidates were barred from the race.

The United States says this means the results were "cooked".

The Associated Press (AP) news agency reports that 144 out of 290 parliamentary seats have been decided so far.

Quoting state television, official news agency IRNA and reports from local officials, AP says pro-Ahmadinejad politicians have won 53 seats, reformists 18, and conservative critics of Mr Ahmadinejad 38.

Independents whose political leanings were not immediately known claimed the remaining 35, the agency says.

An Iranian official claimed that Friday's turnout was as high as 65%, the BBC's Jon Leyne in Tehran reports.

But our correspondent says that polling stations in the capital were not busy, and many people said they felt there was nothing or no-one to vote for.

The Iranian authorities had called for a big turnout to defy the US and other countries they say are Iran's enemies.

The election will shape the political map ahead of 2009's presidential poll.

President Ahmadinejad flew in from an Islamic summit in Senegal to cast his vote.

He said the world had chosen Iran as its "role model and saviour".

Real winners

The reformists seem to have given up the fight after many of their candidates were disqualified on the grounds of alleged lack of loyalty to Islamic values, says our correspondent.

They made up the bulk of about 1,700 candidates barred from running by Iran's Guardian Council - an unelected body of clerics and jurists that vets election candidates.

The Guardian Council has denied bias.

Analysts expect the poll's real winners to be former members of the hardline Revolutionary Guards, who could replace the Muslim clergy as the biggest force in the assembly.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei could also gain strength if, as forecast, a new younger generation of hard-line loyalists gains positions of power.

Going nuclear

The likely effect of a further increase in conservative self-confidence, our correspondent says, will be even less chance of compromise over Iran's nuclear programme, and a yet more assertive foreign policy.

It is thought the reformists may struggle to hang on to the 40 or so seats they hold in the assembly.

They say the election is unfair but still urged Iran's 44 million eligible voters to turn out for the country's eighth parliamentary elections since its 1979 Islamic revolution.

President Ahmadinejad's political opponents blame him for the three rounds of sanctions imposed on Iran by the United Nations over its nuclear programme.

The US, Israel and key Western powers accuse Iran of attempting to build a nuclear bomb, but Tehran insists it is only enriching uranium for a civilian energy programme.

Australian Grand Prix

Lewis Hamilton took pole position for Sunday's Australian Grand Prix, but Kimi Raikkonen must start from near the back of the grid in Melbourne.

McLaren's Hamilton was fastest in the second and third runs, while Raikkonen was forced out before the second session after his Ferrari pulled up.

BMW Sauber's Robert Kubica almost stole pole but a slight oversteer in his last lap saw him finish second fastest.

Hamilton's McLaren team-mate Heikki Kovalainen was third quickest.

After claiming his seventh pole from just 18 starts, Hamilton was naturally in upbeat mood.

"Being in pole is a great feeling, but there's always improvements you can make,"

said the 23-year-old Briton.

"It's going to be a very tough race and we just have to do the best we can in managing our tyres and hope for the best."

With traction control now outlawed, Hamilton said the start would be a crucial moment during the opening race of the season, particularly as Kubica is no slouch off the line.

"Obviously the start will be a major factor,"

said Hamilton.

"The new regulations makes the starts a little bit trickier and I think you will see a wide range of good and bad starts."

As well as the removal of assisted engine braking, cars are also no longer allowed to refuel between qualifying and the race.

Hamilton said he had yet to give any thought as to how the rule changes might affect his planning for the race.

"There are definitely places where I can improve and the team can improve but it is very difficult going from a light fuel load to a heavy fuel load,"

he said.

"Going out, trying to brake at the same spot, you can't do that. You have to re-adjust.

"I've not really thought about strategy to be honest. It will be a little different, I think, at the first race because everyone's going to be experimenting and there's a lot of pressure on everyone."

Asked if he thought Raikkonen's lowly grid position would make his own race easier, Hamilton said:

"I don't think so because we're not really sure what sort of pace Ferrari were going to have during Q3.

"I think I've got a tough enough job anyway, so I don't think not having Kimi in the top three is going to make it any less difficult."

Raikkonen, winner in Melbourne from pole position on his Ferrari debut last year, was eliminated when his car coasted to a halt with a fuel pressure problem and he had to be pushed back to the garage.

The Finn sat in his car at the start of the second session but climbed out of the cockpit after being told the assistance from his crew meant he was not allowed to continue.

Raikkonen, who will start the race from 16th place on the grid, said:

"It's definitely not the best way to start the season.

"Clearly I'm disappointed. Now we must try to do our best to pick up some points tomorrow."

Better news for Ferrari was the performance of Felipe Massa, with the Brazilian clinching a place on the second row.

But there was disappointment for two-time world champion Fernando Alonso, back at Renault after a season at McLaren, who failed to reach the third stage of qualifying and will start in 12th place.

Australia's Mark Webber spun his Red Bull into the gravel during the second run, bringing out the red flag. He will start from 15th.

Britain's David Coulthard grabbed an impressive eighth for Red Bull but compatriot Jenson Button missed out on a place in the third qualifying session and will line up his Honda in 13th place.

"The car was working pretty well but I just had a rubbish couple of corners,"

said Button.

"We lost about four tenths, which is so annoying. But I'm surprised by our performance and considering the mistakes I made, I'm pretty happy."

Toyota's Timo Glock will start from 19th place after being penalised 10 grid placings after two qualifying offences.

He qualified ninth but was moved back five spots because Toyota changed his gearbox in between morning practice and qualifying.

He suffered another five-place penalty for impeding Webber.

Final qualifying times for the Australian Grand Prix

1. Lewis Hamilton, Britain, McLaren-Mercedes, 1 minute, 26.714 seconds.
2. Robert Kubica, Poland, BMW-Sauber, 1:26.869.
3. Heikki Kovalainen, Finland, McLaren-Mercedes, 1:27.079.
4. Felipe Massa, Brazil, Ferrari, 1:27.178.
5. Nick Heidfeld, Germany, BMW-Sauber, 1:27. 236.
6. Jarno Trulli, Italy, Toyota, 1:28. 527.
7. Nico Rosberg, Germany, Williams, 1:28.687.
8. David Coulthard, Britain, Red Bull, 1:29.041.
9. Timo Glock, Germany, Toyota, 1:29.593.
10. Sebastian Vettel, Germany, Toro Rosso, did not start.

Eliminated after second session

11. Rubens Barrichello, Brazil, Honda, 1:26.173.
12. Fernando Alonso, Spain, Renault, 1:26.188.
13. Jenson Button, Britain, Honda, 1:26.259.
14. Kazuki Nakajima, Japan, Williams, 1:26.413.
15. Mark Webber, Australia, Red Bull, did not finish.
16. Kimi Raikkonen, Finland, Ferrari, did not start.

Eliminated after first session

17. Giancarlo Fisichella, Italy, Force India, 1:27.207.
18. Sebastien Bourdais, France, Toro Rosso, 1:27.446.
19. Adrian Sutil, Germany, Force India, 1;27.859.
20. Takuma Sato, Japan, Super Aguri, 1:28.208.
21. Nelson Piquet Jr., Brazil, Renault, 1:28.330.
22. Anthony Davidson, Britian, Super Aguri, 1:29.059.

Microsoft And Yahoo Met To Discuss Merger, Sources Say

Senior executives from Microsoft and Yahoo met Monday to discuss Microsoft's takeover bid for the company, according to two people familiar with the matter.

The meeting was said to be the first since Microsoft made its unsolicited offer for Yahoo, worth nearly $42 billion, on Jan. 31. Yahoo rejected the offer as inadequate last month.

The meeting was not a negotiation and no bankers were present, said one of the sources, who was not authorized to speak about the matter and thus wanted to remain anonymous.

The meeting with Microsoft is part of the company's strategy to keep all its options open, the people familiar with the matter said.

Yahoo has held talks with News Corp. and Time Warner's AOL, other sources told Reuters earlier.

The session was intended to allow Microsoft to present its vision of a combined company, and Yahoo executives mostly listened, said the Wall Street Journal, which first reported the news, citing a person familiar with the matter.

Financial terms were not discussed and it was unclear which executives took part, the Journal said.

Microsoft and Yahoo spokesmen declined to comment.

The meeting represents a

"solid move, heading into the inevitable,"

said The 451 Group analyst Brenon Daly, referring to a consensus that a deal between the two companies will happen.

"My read on it is that it's a good-faith effort on both sides to begin the process of sorting through really thorny personal questions"

such as how to divide talent and how to work with counterparts in case of a merger, he said.

Since Yahoo rejected Microsoft's offer last month, no other bids have been made public nor has Microsoft sweetened its bid, leaving the two companies in a stalemate.

Yahoo recently extended the deadline for nominations to its board of directors in an effort seen by analysts and investors as forestalling a potential hostile effort by Microsoft.

Microsoft had originally proposed to pay nearly $45 billion for Yahoo, but the value of its offer has since declined to less than $42 billion as its shares have fallen 12 percent.

Microsoft shares were down 61 cents, or 2.1 percent, at $28.05 in Friday afternoon trade on the Nasdaq, and Yahoo shares were down 72 cents, or 2.6 percent, at $26.78.

News Corp Chief Executive Rupert Murdoch has said he would not fight Microsoft for a Yahoo deal.

AOL Thursday said it was buying the social networking site Bebo, in a move that some say signals that its parent, Time Warner, has plans that do not involve Yahoo.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Galileo demo sat to be despatched

Giove-B, the second demonstrator spacecraft for Europe's proposed satellite navigation system, is finally to be sent for launch.

The craft, currently held at a test centre in Holland, will be despatched to the Baikonur spaceport next week for a Soyuz flight in late April.

Giove-B will trial key technologies for the Galileo project, including the most advanced atomic clock to go into orbit.

Precise timing is one of the principal elements of any sat-nav system.

The passive hydrogen maser device on the new spacecraft will keep time with an accuracy of better than one nanosecond (billionth of a second) in 24 hours.

The European Commission and the European Space Agency, which together are driving the Galileo venture, hope such technologies can bring a leap forward in performance over the existing American GPS (Global Positioning System).

They believe improvements in accuracy and reliability can spark a multi-billion-euro industry in which receivers find their way into many more markets - from mobile phones to safety-critical applications such as guided trains and buses.

Component failure

At one stage, Giove-B was being built in parallel with Giove-A, the first test platform launched in December 2005.

But the former's preparation was then hit by lengthy delays, including a major setback when a component blew on the spacecraft whilst it was sitting in a thermal vacuum chamber designed to assess the satellite's ability to withstand the extreme conditions of space.

"It was a capacitor that failed; and you can imagine, you then have to stop the test sequence and have an analysis,"

explained Reinhold Lutz from manufacturer EADS Astrium.

"It took two or three months to determine what really was the problem, and then we had to dismantle the satellite to replace each capacitor. And we had to do it not just on Giove-B but on all our satellites.

"This exercise alone took almost one year."

After the repairs and modifications, Giove-B would have been ready for flight in December 2007, but has since had to wait for a rocket to become available to take it into space.

Money package

Giove-B's woes have to some degree mirrored those of the Galileo project as a whole.

The sat-nav venture came close to being cancelled last year when the private consortium selected to build and operate the system collapsed.

European Union finance ministers had to step in with a 3.4bn-euro public funding package to keep Galileo alive.

Galileo cannot truly proceed until the money is released, and that requires the formal agreement of the EU's legislative arms.

Scenarios for Galileo roll-out (BBC)
2 demonstrators will test key technologies; Giove-A is in orbit now
In addition, 30 satellites are needed for the full Galileo system
First 4 spacecraft in the constellation have already been ordered
Remaining 26 yet to be ordered; they will be launched in batches
A mix of medium- and heavy-lift rockets could do the job
The timeline is challenging whichever rocket system is used

"What is needed now is a regulation, a legal instrument, which is necessary to allow us to spend the money,"

said Paul Verhoef, who heads up the Galileo Unit at the European Commission.

"The target is to come to an agreement even before Easter. It then needs some formal adoptions in plenaries and eventually it will enter into force. The date is not precisely known but it is expected to be May or early June."

He added:

"It would come to delays only if in the next two weeks the [Council of Ministers and the European Parliament] don't come to agreement. But this is not expected."

A raft of technical issues have to be addressed if Galileo is to become a fully functioning civil sat-nav service that, unlike military systems, gives guarantees to users over performance.

Issues such as liability have to be sorted out; who would pay out, and how much, for example, if a Galileo failure was found to be the cause of an aeroplane crashing?

Contracts will be issued later this year to build all aspects of Galileo's vast infrastructure - from the satellites in orbit right through to the ground monitoring and control centres.

Kazakh date

The timeline will be challenging. European ministers have insisted that Galileo should be up and running by the end of 2013. This will require launching a constellation of 30 satellites, the first four going up in 2010.

Giove-B will show whether the technology in these operational spacecraft is robust. As well as its atomic clocks, the latest demonstrator carries a signal generation unit, a complex processing centre that produces the all-important navigation signal.

This signal goes through an amplification system and is then converted to the three frequency bands over which Galileo will work. This will enable engineers to test the Galileo system across the full spectrum it intends to use to transmit its five sat-nav services.

"Giove-B is 95% identical to the final constellation satellites,"

said Reinhold Lutz.

"It is much more complex than Giove-A and can transmit the right waveforms simultaneously in all three bands."

Giove-B will leave the European Space Agency's research and technology centre (ESTEC) in Noordwijk, the Netherlands, on Tuesday, and fly to Moscow. It will then travel on to Baikonur, Kazakhstan, on the following Thursday.

The launch on a Soyuz-Fregat vehicle is timed for 0416 local time on Sunday 27 April (2216 GMT on Saturday 26 April).

Giove-B will be placed in a medium-Earth orbit 23,222km above the planet's surface.

It should begin its first transmissions in May.

Giove-A, produced by the UK firm Surrey Satellite Technology Limited, has worked flawlessly in orbit for two years.


NAVIGATION Open Access This will be 'free to air' and for use by the mass market; simple timing and positioning down to 1m

Commercial Encrypted; high accuracy at the cm scale; guaranteed service for which service providers will charge fees
Oil rig

Safety of life Open service; for applications where guaranteed accuracy is essential; integrity messages warn of errors

Public regulated Encrypted; continuous availability even in time of crisis; government agencies will be main users
SAR Search and Rescue System will pick up distress beacon locations; feasible to send feedback, confirming help is on its way

Giant telescope opens both eyes

The world's most powerful optical telescope has opened both of its eyes.

Astronomers at the Large Binocular Telescope (LBT) in Arizona have released the first images taken using its two giant 8m diameter mirrors.

The detailed pictures show a spiral galaxy located 102 million light-years away from the Milky Way.

LBT has been 20 years in the making but promises to allow astronomers to probe the Universe further back in time and in more detail than ever before.

"The amount of time and work that was put into this project to reach the point where we are today is immense,"

said LBT Director Richard Green.

"To see the telescope operational with both mirrors is a great feeling."

The $120m (£60m) telescope uses two mirrors in tandem to maximise the amount of light it gathers, which allows astronomers to look deep into the Universe.

Using two 8.4 m (27ft) mirrors will give LBT the equivalent light-gathering capacity of a single 11.8m (39ft) instrument and the resolution of a 22.8m (75ft) telescope.

Impressive detail

The resolution is 10 times greater than the space-based Hubble telescope, which has a 2.4m (8ft) mirror.

"The images that this telescope will produce will be like none seen before,"

said Professor Peter Strittmatter of the University of Arizona.

The first pictures are false-colour images of the spiral galaxy NGC 2770. The pictures show what is a flat disc of stars and glowing gas.

The images - which take advantage of the telescope's ability to view the same point in space with multiple wavelengths of light - emphasise different features of the galaxy.

Combining ultraviolet and green light shows up clumpy regions of newly formed hot stars in the spiral arms, whilst a combination of red wavelengths highlights older, cooler stars.

The images were taken on 11 and 12 January but have only just now been released.

The LBT is located on Mount Graham in southeastern Arizona. It achieved "first light" with one mirror on 12 October 2005 when it imaged a spiral galaxy in the constellation of Andromeda.

Sea slug inspires brain implant

The response of a startled sea cucumber has inspired a new material that could one day be used to build brain implants for patients with Parkinson's disease.

The material can rapidly switch from being rigid to flexible and vice versa.

Writing in the journal Science, US researchers describe how species of the sea creatures "tense" when threatened.

The new material mimics this ability, and could be used to make advanced brain electrodes which are stiff when implanted, yet supple inside the body.

Adding water changes the state of the material.

"The water acts as a chemical switch,"

Dr Christoph Weder, one of the team who developed the material, told the BBC News website.

This is important as the brain is around 75% water.

Chemical change

The material consists of naturally occurring nanofibres, or "whiskers", carefully embedded in a polymer.

The cellulose fibres, each just 25 nanometres (billionths of a metre) in diameter, are taken from a different sessile sea creature known as a tunicate or sea squirt.

"There are many sources of nanofibres such as cotton or wood,"

said Dr Weder.

The structure of the un-named material mimics the skin of sea cucumbers which have collagen nanofibres embedded in a soft connective tissue.

"These creatures can reversibly and quickly change the stiffness of their skin,"

explained Dr Jeffrey Capadona, another member of the team.

"Normally it is very soft; but for example in response to a threat, the animal can activate its 'body armour' by hardening its dermis."

Changes to the stiffness of the sea cucumber's skin are thought to be triggered by chemicals secreted by the animal's nervous system that rearrange the collagen threads.

"Our architecture is the same, but the chemistry is different,"

explained Dr Weder.

In the absence of water, the nanofibres are held together by chemical links known as hydrogen bonds. This gives the material its rigidity.

When exposed to water, the water molecules "competitively bond" with the fibres.

"The water also likes to stick to the cellulose,"

said Dr Weder.

This has an effect of "ungluing" the fibre-to-fibre bonds, and the material becomes about 1,000 times softer, with the consistency of rubber.

When the water evaporates, a network of cross-linked whiskers reforms, stiffening the material.

Brain aid

This ability to morph could help build therapeutic devices to be implanted into the brains of patients who suffer from Parkinson's disease, stroke or spinal cord injuries.

At present, there are a number of research teams hoping to develop "artificial nervous systems" that aim to treat these disorders.

These systems need to "plug" into nerve cells within the brain - known as cortical neurons - to record electrical activity.

But animal studies have shown that the quality of the brain signals recorded by implanted electrodes often degrades after a few months.

One hypothesis is that stiff electrodes damage the surrounding brain tissue.

"There is a mechanical mismatch - the electrode is rigid but the brain is more like jello,"

said Dr Weder.

The team believes that an implant built on a substrate of the new material could overcome this problem, by being rigid during implantation, and softening once in the body.

Dr Weder also has his eye on other applications for the material. Potentially, electricity rather than water could be used to switch its state.

"Smart bullet proof vests, prosthetics - the list goes on and on,"

he said.

Pentagon bans Google map-makers

The US defence department has banned the giant internet search engine Google from filming inside and making detailed studies of US military bases.

Close-up, ground-level imagery of US military sites posed a "potential threat" to security, it said.

The move follows the discovery of images of the Fort Sam Houston army base in Texas on Google Maps.

A Google spokesman said that where the US military had expressed concerns, images had been removed.

Google has now been barred from filming and conducting detailed studies of bases, following the discovery of detailed, three-dimensional panoramas online - and in particular, views of the Texan base.

"Images include 360-degree views of the covered area to include access control points, barriers, headquarters, facilities and community areas,"

said the defence department in a statement quoted by AFP news agency.

It said such detailed mapping could pose a threat.

Google spokesman Larry Yu said the decision by a Google team to enter the Texas base and undertake a detailed survey, had been "a mistake".

He told the BBC that it was "not our policy to request access to military installations, but in this instance the operator of the vehicle with the camera on top - which is how we go about capturing imagery for Street-View - requested permission to access a military installation, was given access, and after learning of the incident we quickly removed the imagery".

Individuals and governments

Military officials are currently looking into exactly what imagery is available - though it may not be able to order its removal if images are taken from public streets.

Among the popular mapping services offered by Google are Street View, which allows web users to "drive" along virtual US landscapes with ground-level views, and Google Earth, which offers detailed satellite and 3D images of locations around the world.

In this case, it was imagery offered on Street View that caused the concern.

But both have provoked complaints - from individuals depicted in the images and from governments concerned that satellite images could compromise security.

Gary Ross, a spokesman for the US Northern Command, told AFP that although such services could be useful, "there has to be a balance".

But Mr Yu said Google would listen to concerns about privacy and security.

"We try to have a compliant image removal policy - not only relative to the military but to consumers also,"

said Mr Yu.

"If people have concerns, they should contact us."

Microsoft shows IE 8 at Mix

Microsoft offered its first public demonstration of Internet Explorer 8 on Wednesday, a prospect that had general manager Dean Hachamovitch struggling to figure out what to cover.

"I'm so excited that I had to figure out how to focus,"
he told the crowd. The marketing folks naturally suggested he point to three major advances, but Hatchamovitch disagreed.

"These are developers,"

he said he told the marketers.

"They can count higher than three."

So, instead he said he would talk about eight features: CSS 2.1 support, CSS Certification, performance, start of HTML 5 support, new developer tools, activities, Web slices and one he hasn't named yet.

Microsoft also said that the first beta of the browser, intended for developers, will be available after today's keynote.

One of the new features, WebSlices, allow users to break a Web site into parts and only get updates from the part they want.

"In IE 8 users can subscribe to parts of Web page,"

Hachamovitch said. He showed an example in IE 8 where users can use Web slices to subscribe to a single eBay auction.

Apple has its own Web-clipping subscription method that is part of Mac OS X.

Separately, Microsoft said it was making available a beta version of Silverlight 2, which will move the technology further beyond delivering video and into creating rich Internet applications.

Among the features of Silverlight 2 is what Microsoft calls adaptive streaming: the ability of the client PC to decide how large a streaming file it can handle at any given moment based on its CPU and network resources.

"If the network gets congested it can drop down to a lower bit rate,"

said Scott Guthrie a vice president in Microsoft's developer division.

With IE8, Hachamovitch discussed Microsoft's commitment to compatibility. He relayed a story of what his kids used to say whenever they had Internet problems.

"They'd ask 'Daddy, did you break the web?'"

Hachamovitch said.

"Most of the time I could honestly say 'No.'"

In a broader sense though, Hachamovitch said, that others might disagree that Microsoft, had in fact broken the Web.

"Web developers might answer the question differently,"

he said.

Hachamovitch then went on to talk about Microsoft's commitment to interoperability and steps that it has taken. Microsoft announced earlier this week that IE 8 would use its most standards compliant mode by default. The company said it believed that move would assuage developer concerns as well as regulatory and competitive issues.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Google Unveiling Orkut Apps To The Public

After several months of testing, Google is planning on releasing the first batch of (hopefully) many Orkut apps to the public.

(Orkut Official Blog) Starting this month, we're enabling developers to make their social applications available to orkut users. We'll start ramping up to more than 50 million people over the next few weeks.

To prepare for this growth, we're now accepting social applications. For a while now, developers have been able to write, test, and play with applications on orkut. Later this month, however, we're going to start rolling them out to orkut users. OpenSocial developers can submit their completed applications (deadline: Feb. 15).

While Google is silent on the total number of apps being tested in the Orkut Sandbox, those with access can test (and check out) a variety of applications over at the OpenSocial Directory.

It will be interesting to see which applications make the cut, although I am hoping that the Orkut Facebook App is approved, not to mention the various chat programs (especially Google Talk, although the greasemoneky version looks better in my opinion).