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Study: U.K. Girls Best Boys in Computer Skills

In Britain, the girls are beating the boys these days when it comes to information technology. A new study by a foundation that raises money for computers in the classroom has found that school-age girls perform basic tasks such as downloading online files better than their male counterparts.

The U.K. study was undertaken by Tesco Computers for Schools, an organization sponsored by Tesco, a commercial retailer based in Hertfordshire, England. It questioned 1024 U.K. parents with children ages 7 to 16 by phone. The results of the survey found British parents gave higher marks to their daughters than their sons straight across the board when it came to understanding fundamental user skills.

The girls topped the boys with the following grades:

  • Find what they need on a search engine: 83%

  • Create and edit a word document: 73%

  • Download photos: 52%

  • Create a social networking profile: 44%

  • Use and manipulate photography: 25%

The survey also asked the parents to rate themselves in comparison to their children at performing the same tasks and found the youngsters were in charge when it came to IT in the household. Only 40% of parents judged themselves as superior at computer use, with 57% admitting they relied on their kids for advice on doing things online and off.

The Tesco poll found that British boys and girls are as plugged into the information age as just about any other nation's. It stated that 76% spend up to 3 hours a day at the computer, with 41% responding that they "couldn't live without the Internet."

"It's great to see children really getting to grips with technology and being creative with it," commented Debra Stones, the manager of the Tesco Computers for Schools project. "Whilst most children now have access to computers, whether that is at home or at school, this is not necessarily the case when it comes to digital multimedia gadgets and other creative equipment."

She added that it is vital to equip schools with the latest educational hardware and software to foster technological "growth and development."

If you would like to participate in this worthy project, you can get onboard at a Tesco outlet by simply purchasing goods and services and redeeming special Computers for Schools vouchers. To learn more about the campaign, visit its How It Works site on the Web.

If you have any trouble finding it, you can always ask one of your children for help.

Out of Africa: the Evolving Web Cafe

Mark Davies is one of the great unsung heroes of the information-technology scene in Africa.

The founder of the finest Internet café in the sub-Saharan â'' the spacious and stimulating Busyinternet café in Accra, Ghana â'' Davies is true original character who recognizes the monumental deficit in African scientific and technological communities. The signal problem is not money, or opportunity or â''bandwidthâ'' or even brain drain. Rather the big deficit in Africa for technical people is social networking.

Everything Davies does in Africa is based on his shrewd understanding that until Africans communicate with one another more effectively â'' and build fluid networks that can improvise and tackle urgent problems â'' technological innovation will always lag in the region. Creating ad hoc, ever-evolving teams of African innovators is the key -- a form of social knowledge more important than any electronic tool or service.

BusyInternet has been a smash hit in Ghana -- and drawn accolades around the world -- not because of its computers or connectivity, but because this spacious meeting place in the middle of Accra has served to link talented young people together, permitting them to grow in unexpected ways by drawing on each other's talents.

Davies, who hails from Wales and came to Africa by way of California, is a relentless experimenter, always trying to upend African stereotypes. His new project is called TradeNet, that tries to leverage the mobile phone and agriculture â'' the fact that many successful African farmers now own phones and use them to help conduct business.

Hereâ''s how Ethan Zuckerman, who follows technology matters in Africa closely, describes Davies, whom he's spent time with in Accra (as I have):

â''Mark is one of the key figures in Ghanaâ''s IT scene. After retiring from the dotcom world in 2000 (he was one of the founders of Metrobeat, which became part of CitySearch), he poured his energy into the founding of BusyInternet, a remarkable cybercafe and business incubator in downtown Accra. In more recent years, Mark has been helping to build software businesses in Ghana, working with programmers around the world, but especially focusing on African software developers. Given the model I started Geekcorps with - encouraging local IT entrepreneurship - I canâ''t help but be a fan.

â''TradeNet is designed to take advantage of the boom in mobile phones on the African continent, a boom thatâ''s put mobile phones in the hands of 10% of Africansâ'¿ an amazing growth over the number of people connected via wired telephony. TradeNet is designed to be an open marketplace for buyers and sellers of agricultural products throughout West Africa. The reason for this is simple: most farmers sell their goods to wholesalers located near to them. They might get much better prices for their goods selling to customers located elsewhere in the country or the region. But without accurate pricing information, itâ''s difficult for a farmer to invest the money neccesary to bring goods to a faraway market.

â''TradeNet tries to solve this problem by letting farmers and customers post their products and find each other via the web and SMS. Theyâ''re building a set of server software that NGOs or for-profits could use to build local or national exchanges. As the software gains popularity, it should become increasingly possible to search for products both locally and internationally using little more than a mobile phone and an account.â''

The code for TradeNet was written in Accra by African codewriters -- another hallmark of Davies' approach. He nurtures local talent. While commercial success has yet to come for TradeNet, the project is both a dazzling example of whatâ''s possible in Africa â'' and a reminder of how technologists can easily get ahead of their times. Information is a big issue for African farmers, and there is no question that the mobile has helped keep African farmers informed as never before.

But the problem of selling crops â'' and food products generally â'' is not solved by identifying customers and making deals. TradeNet indeed helps this process enormously and deserves being tested widely. But the problem moving material goods from one place to another remains. The cost of transporting goods is quite high in Africa â'' when it is even possible to do. Too much produce still spoils in Africa for lack of ready transport. And the Internet, not even linked to the mobil phone, wonâ''t change that.

Out of Africa: is the cult of organic keeping people poor?

Robert Paarlberg, a professor of political science at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, thinks he knows why African farmers are poor: they've been systematically denied the benefits of biotechnology, cut off from modernizing forces by a cabal of European donors and stupid African governments. In his new book, "Starved for Science: How Biotechnology is Being Kept Out of Africa," Paarlberg makes a cogent case for why how genetically-modified seeds and biotech generally can help African farmers. He also examines the perverse incentives African governments receive for continuing to oppose GM crops.

Paarlberg wrote in The International Herald Tribune on Friday: "In Europe, meanwhile, some official donors and nongovernmental agencies are working to block farm modernization in Africa. Despite Africa's worsening soil nutrient deficits, European donors like to promote costly organic farming techniques as the alternative to chemical fertilizer use. This is not how European farmers escaped poverty. Only 4 percent of cropland in Europe is currently being farmed organically (and less than 1 percent in America), but European NGOs such as Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace tell Africa's poor this is the path they should follow."

I've seen first-hand in Africa some of the costs of promoting organic crops: lower yields often mean less money for farmers, even when their organic crop fetches higher prices. Mark Wood, an agricultural expert from Zimbabwe who most recently has done wonders in Uganda, is fond of telling people that the organic movement is immoral so long as it continues to deliver lower incomes -- and more poverty -- to Africans.

The answer isn't always to say no to organic crops. In Uganda, the Memphis cotton trading enterprise, Dunavant, has shifted nearly all of its production to organic, in one swoop becoming the largest single buyer of organic cotton in all of sub-Saharan Africa. Dunavant's Uganda chief, Pacu Patel, and I discussed the shift on my recent visit to Kampala. Patel waxed enthusiastic about the potential for "inter-cropping" other organic crops along side of cotton. Dunvant, he promises, is prepared to buy and market these crops internationally.

So there are organic success stories in Africa. Paarlberg is wrong to dismiss these. He also overlooks the costs of importing exotic biotechnologies into Africa. Some of these costs will fall onto farmers themselves, not their governments. And these farmers must ask, are the benefits (in higher revenues from crops) worth the added cost? Often additional "input" costs are not recouped in Africa.

To be sure, I have advocated myself that the biotech revolution must come to Africa in an essay for Arizona State University's Consortium on Science, Policy & Outcomes, "GM Comes to Africa (sort of)." The time is surely right, what with prices of wheat, corn and coffee -- all grown in Africa -- at very high levels. There is no question that GM seeds will make African farmers more competitive in cotton, for example. Important work is also being done by Ohio State University in cassava, a root crop that is a basic staple in many parts of west and southern Africa. Monstanto, meanwhile, continues to push governments in Africa to follow the lead of South Africa, where biotechnology is being used to good effect.

The potential for massive gains in African output seems only possible with an assist from biotechnology. But Paarlberg's argument is not simply about science and technology, of course, but about politics. African politics is strange indeed, and the role of donors in pushing their own agendas hardly stops with agriculture. So I am unconvinced that the situation is as dire as Paarlberg insists.

Biotechnology is coming to Africa, and should make a larger impact, sooner, than many think. Professor Paarlberg, understandably, is impatient.

Alltop is aggregating the news so I don't have to


Have you set up an RSS reader yet, to bring news from your favorite websites to you instead of having you surf out to them, usually somewhat randomly? I confess I havenâ''t, beyond creating a simple My Yahoo page several years ago; not because I donâ''t think itâ''s a good idea, but because it would take time to set up, Iâ''d have to spend some time thinking about my web browsing habits to figure out what to put there beyond the obvious, decide what RSS reader to useâ'¿ You get the picture. Itâ''s just one of those things Iâ''ve been meaning to get to eventually.

And now Iâ''ve got one more excuse to put it off: Guy Kawasakiâ''s new online venture, Alltop. Alltop has sorted news sites into categories (food, green, news, politics, technology, and science, among others), put a selection of RSS feeds onto one page per category, and done so in a nice, clean, format that reminds me of IEEE Spectrumâ''s new design. Alltop displays five headlines from each site, with popups that show a little more of the story, and clickthroughs to the original site. It calls this aggregation variously a dashboard, table of contents, and digital magazine rack, pick your favorite metaphor.

Alltop admittedly copied the Popurls concept, but did it well, and made it a heck of a lot easier to read. (Popurlsâ'' tiny blue type on a black background page makes me worry that I need new reading glasses; not fun.) And, as of today, Spectrumâ''s RSS feed is at the top of Alltopâ''s science page, right around where I would have put it were I setting it up myself.

Critics have been slamming the semi-transparent bar that splices the lower quarter of the page, I kind of like it, it reminds me of the elastic strap across my low-tech copy stand, and helps me keep track of where I am on the page.

Clearly Iâ''m the target market for this site. From the Alltop FAQs section: Q: â''Couldnâ''t I build my own custom aggregation using customizable home pages, Netvibes, etc? A. Yes, you couldâ''knock yourself out. While youâ''re at it, you could backup your hard disk, bake your own bread, iron your own shirts, floss daily, tune your own car, and bike to work.â''

Kudos to Kawasaki for making my life a little simpler. Wonder if heâ''d mind coming over and backing up my hard disk next.

A Modest Proposal: The Netflix Jury

I received a questionnaire for jury duty yesterday in the mail. It wasnâ''t a summons, though surely it will lead to that. I donâ''t mind. Serving on a jury is one of our few civic duties, a cornerstone of free and fair trials, which itself is a cornerstone of democracy.

The notice says that my name was culled at random from voter registration, driver registration, unemployment, or other social service records. I have no problem with that. But it did make me stop and think. Thatâ''s not a bad way to come up with a jury of my peers â'' I do, after all, vote, drive, and rely on the social safety net from time to time â'' but to really come up with a jury of my peers, how about getting records from Netflix?

Hereâ''s what I have in mind. Netflix already has a system for comparing my movie ratings and the films in my queue to the ratings and queues of every other Netflix subscriber. Itâ''s the basis of, among other things, Netflixâ''s recommendations â'' the feature by which it says, â''Viewers who liked this movie also liked....â''

So in my imagined system, Netflix sends the city a list of every other Netflix subscriber in nearby zipcodes who matches my ratings and queue above a particular threshold. Now that would be a jury of my peers!

Of course, movie preferences track with citizenship only imperfectly. Even among my friends, who I as a defendant would love to see on a jury, there are some with just terrible taste in movies, that is, they disagree with me as to what the best movies are. And, no doubt, plenty of people who share my cinematic tastes and yet would put me behind bars without even listening to the evidence.

So a better system might be to find people who read the news in the same way I do.

Imagine a Website that lets you read current news stories. Every time you click on a headline, the software makes a small note of it. It quickly begins to compile a profile of your newsreading preferences based on these notes and recommends other news stories to you, based on the behavior other people reading news at the site and the profiles it has compiled of them. It then notices whether you click on the recommended stories or not, and so on.

Such a site existed from 2004 to 2007. Called Findory, it was developed by Greg Linden, the author of â''People who Read This Article Also Read....â'' in this monthâ''s issue of Spectrum. Linden wrote Amazon's original recommendation system.

Greg doesnâ''t speculate on the jury-building possibilities of such software, but he does consider its potential for reviving newspapers as that industry moves inexorably online. He describes the thorny technical challenges he and researchers at Google and elsewhere have encountered in designing and applying recommender-software.

Sure, there are grave privacy issues with the idea of Netflix or Findory (or Google or the New York Times) handing our personal information over to the city or any other government. But at least weâ''d know who hereabouts has newsreading habits and preferences that are similar to mine. If I canâ''t have them on my jury, maybe I can at least meet them for dinner â'' and a movie?

Famed Inventor Stirs Confusion in TV Ad

Robert Jarvik is one of those names that has a certain familiar ring to it. We need only hear the phrase "inventor of the artificial heart" before we nod our heads in recognition and murmur, "Ah, yes." So when a prominent pharmaceutical firm hired Jarvik to serve as the national spokesperson for a television ad campaign pitching the benefits of a cholesterol-lowering drug, it seemed like a perfect match of commerce and science.

That lasted about two years before someone started questioning the connection. Earlier this week, those questions, having reached the ears of U.S. government officials, caused the ad campaign to be pulled from the air.

So what's the fuss all about?

In 2006, Pfizer Inc. filmed a commercial for its product Lipitor featuring Jarvik as its pitchman. The ad depicted the 61-year-old doctor pursuing an active lifestyle while narrating the benefits of the statin drug (known generically as atorvastatin). Jarvik is shown going on a run with his son. Then he says: "When I was growing up, I wanted to be an architect. But when my father had a heart attack, I dedicated my life to studying the human heart."

The implication was clear: Jarvik was a cardiologist who had spent his career probing the workings of the heart. Who could be better informed to know that reducing the risk of coronary disease consisted of leading a healthy lifestyle and perhaps taking a cholesterol-lowering statin like Lipitor if prescribed by your doctor? Anyone could understand that.

Here's the thing: It turns out that while Jarvik has a medical degree (from the University of Utah in 1976)--and knows an immense amount about the physiology of the heart--he has never applied for a license to practice medicine. He is, in fact, a biomedical engineer by profession. More specifically, he is an inventor.

He rose to prominence in 1982 when a team led by William DeVries at the University of Utah implanted an artificial heart developed by Jarvik and his mentor Willem J. Kolff into the body of a patient named Barney Clark, a retired dentist. It made international headlines and ushered in the era of total artificial heart replacement. The first patient's progress was followed by the press for months as a modern marvel of medicine. While Clark succumbed eventually to infection, the new electromechanical unit, called the Jarvik-7, became the basis for further developments in the field of life-saving assistive devices.

Jarvik himself set up a number of companies to pursue improvements in the technology. To this day, his reputation rests on his work with the artificial heart, not with the organic original. So, over the last year, some began to question the appropriateness of having an inventor and not a cardiologist making recommendations to millions on TV about the benefits of taking a particular medication for heart health. In January, a Congressional subcommittee opened an inquiry into the matter. And this Monday, Pfizer folded its cards and pulled the ad from the American airwaves.

In his own defense, Jarvik has posted a public statement on his own professional website. In it he notes: "I do not practice clinical medicine and hence do not treat individual patients. My career is in medical science. ... I accepted the role of spokesman for Lipitor because I am dedicated to the battle against heart disease, which killed my father at age 62 and motivated me to become a medical doctor. I believe the process of educating the public is beneficial to many patients and I am pleased to be part of an effort to reach them."

He adds: "I am a medical scientist specializing in advanced technology to treat heart failure who understands that no one in his or her right mind would want an artificial heart if it could be avoided with preventive medicine."

In this particular case, Pfizer's critics may be in the right to suggest the employment of Jarvik could be confusing to consumers looking to learn more about consulting their personal physicians about the use of statins to reduce unhealthy cholesterol as part of an overall heart health plan. Unduly picking on Jarvik (or suggesting he was pretending to be what he is not), though, seems to be a low blow.

This is one doctor who is doing more (and done more) than just playing one on TV.

TechForward's buyback fees helps early adopters keep up with latest consumer electronics fashions


Over the weekend I relocated my home office. Moving the furniture, computer, files, and books was the easy part. Next comes the hard partâ''cleaning out the crawl space, which, over the years, became a retirement home for obsolete electronics. Theyâ''re not old enough to be historic (the historic electronics are in the attic; I have no idea why Iâ''m still hanging on to my first Kaypro, but itâ''s up there, somewhere). These are just old enough to be pointless.

Iâ''ll likely box most of them up and haul them over to Green Citizen, my local electronics recycler.

And then Iâ''ll make a resolution not to let such a big pile accumulate again. Which will make me a potential customer for TechForward, a Los Angeles-based company that, for a fee, will guarantee to buy my retired electronics, as long as I give them early retirement.

Hereâ''s how it works. If you buy a consumer electronics device, like a computer, an iPod, or a television, you can, for a fee, register that device with TechForward. The company envisions retailers offering you that registration in the same way they offer extended warrantees; a few small retailers have already agreed to do so; theyâ''re hoping to eventually attract big chains, but, in the meantime, you can register your purchase after you take it home. That registration guarantees a buyback price for your device, assuming that it still works. The buyback price drops the longer you hold the item. TechForward will send you packing materials and cover the cost of shipping.

Some examples: A Macbook Pro that lists for $2000 can be guaranteed $59; buyback in six months to one year is set at $740, 18 months to two years at $600. A Sharp 52-inch LCD television that retails between $2000 and $3000 can be guaranteed for $69; buy back in two years is set at $470. An 8-gigabyte iPod Touch that lists at $300 can be guaranteed for $9; buyback in one year is set at $110, buy back in two years is $70. Could you make more selling it on eBay? Probably, but itâ''d be more hassle. If you simply take it to a recycling center, in most cases youâ''ll have to pay a disposal fee, and feel guilty about dumping something that still works. (These days, Iâ''m assuming you wouldnâ''t even think of just tossing it in the trash. Or maybe thatâ''s just a California thing.)

Itâ''s not unthinkable to pay a buyback fee at the time of purchase. Itâ''s the flip side of the extended warrantyâ''the extended warranty pays to fix it if it breaks, this helps you pay for a new device if it doesnâ''t break, it is just made obsolete by a new generation. Itâ''s a cousin of the recycling fee now charged by some states on every purchase of a product with a TV or computer screen.

Right now, with the company so new, itâ''s a slightly risky proposition: you canâ''t be sure the company will be around in a year or two to honor their guarantees. On the plus side, they do have venture backing, from First Round Capital and New Enterprise Associates, so, if youâ''re someone who always has to have the latest and greatest gizmo, this may be a good way to keep your crawl space from looking like mine does right now.

Nanotech Dialogue Seems More Like Simultaneous Monologues

The Los Angeles Times has been running a dialogue on its editorial page between Aatish Salvi, Vice President of the NanoBusiness Alliance (which by the way does have an interactive website now), and George A. Kimbrell, Staff Attorney for the International Center for Technology Assessment.

I suppose the LA Times should be commended for devoting some of its editorial pages to what probably seems a fairly esoteric subject for many: Is nanotechnology good or bad?

Unfortunately, for those who are only slightly informed on the subject they will find that much of the dialogue covers pretty familiar territory.

The format seems to be set up for one of them to make a comment and the next day the other responds, sort of like 60 Minutesâ'' Point/Counterpoint feature back in the 1970s. If you remember that segment and found it informative or entertaining, you might find this to be as well.

What is fascinating about this dialogue is that you never seem to gain a greater understanding of the subject. You follow one line of argument and then another, and you're left with believing one or the other, or both, or neither in my case.

Wouldnâ''t it be more interesting and more informative to have someone that wasnâ''t on one side of the subject or the other? In other words, letâ''s have a scientist, or an enlightened layperson, who wasnâ''t trying to either establish some kind of environmental NGO or start a nanotechnology company or nanotech trade association, discuss the pros and cons of nanotechnology without the obvious bias.

I am not looking for refutation of one side over the other, but some sort of synthesis in which we might come at some better understanding would be preferable...and maybe even more informative for the readers of the LA Times.

The "Nanotechnology Phone" of the Future


Some of you may remember the light-hearted HP commercials back in 2003 heralding the day that nanotechnology will â''make possible cell phones so small that an ant could use itâ''.

HP was clearly joking but Nokia and Cambridge University are not. They are developing a flexible phone enabled by nanotechnology that could be available in seven years.

The Stuff article linked above continues the tried-and-true practice of mainstream media offering another misguided definition of nanotechnology: â''nanotechnology â'' technology built and assembled at the level of individual atoms.â'' Sighâ'¿

Anyway, aside from quibbling over definitions, Nokia has dubbed the phone â''Morphâ'', and its key attribute will be that itâ''s flexibleâ'¿not that itâ''s really, really small.

This technology builds on the work Professor Mark Welland and his team at Cambridge has been working on for some time: flexible electronics.

For those of you out there who have decided to see if you can hold your breath for seven years until you can get the next big thing in cell phones since the iPhone, well you may want to reconsider. According to Euan Boyd, who is quoted in the article, 20 years seems more like a fair estimation of how long it will take to develop this phone.

Whether itâ''s seven or twenty, I am not sure what the advantage may be in having a flexible phone. The inflexible one I have seems to work fineâ'¿it just runs down the battery far too quickly.

Gecko feet inspire a powerful new band-aid

Geckos can walk on ceilings upside down, performing this gravity-defying feat thanks to their unusual feet, which are ultra sticky. Now researchers at MIT and Harvard have been inspired by the stickiness of gecko feet to design a super sticky, waterproof and biodegradable bandage. This band-aid is so good that it can be used to seal surgical wounds instead of sutures, its inventors say. The bandages would dissolve harmlessly and be absorbed by the body, they say.

The team that developed the bandage was led by Jeff Karp of Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School, and Robert Langer of MIT.

The reason geckos do not drop from the ceiling while scurrying upside down is that the undersides of their feet are covered with hundreds of thousands of tiny hairs, called setae. Each seta tip has thousands of nanoscale projections, which are so small that they allow them to produce the weak molecular interactions known as van der Waals forces. Traces of water that may be present add to this force by producing a capillary force. Taken together, the half a million odd setae on the underside of each gecko foot produce a force powerful enough to make sure that the gecko never falls. It has been estimated that a gecko foot is so sticky that it can lift an infant.

Karp and Langer and colleagues built their medical adhesive with a polymer called PGSA. PGSA is very tough and elastic and biodegrades over a period of weeks. They used semiconductor micropatterning technologyo shape the PGSA into different hill and valleys akin to a gecko's foot.

Karp then added a very thin layer of a sugar-based glue, to create a strong bond even to a wet surface.

Karp and Langer say the bandage is so powerful that there is hope that one day it can be used on the surface of the heart. However, to get to that stage, it will have to be made stickier. The current bandage is only about one-tenth as sticky as a gecko's foot.

Meanwhile, it can be used for closing wounds and cuts due to minor surgery, such as the holes left behind after laparoscopy.

"There is a big need for a tape-based medical adhesive," said Dr Karp.

The new bandage has other advantages. For example, Karp and Langer say it could be infused with drugs such as antibiotics or anti-inflammatory drugs or even stem cells that the bandage can release as it degrades. The elasticity and degradation rate of the PGSA polymer can be controlled, as are the number of setae-like pillars and valleys. This means that the new adhesives can be customized to have the right elasticity, resilience and grip for different medical applications.

"This is an exciting example of how nanostructures can be controlled, and in so doing, used to create a new family of adhesives," said Dr. Langer.


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