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Europe Fines Microsoft for Monopoly Tactics

from the desk of IEEE Spectrum contributor Morgen Peck

Europeâ''s second highest court has upheld a 2004 antitrust ruling against Microsoft with a sentence carrying a fine of 497.2 million euros, the equivalent of US$689.4 million. In addition, the company must change some policies which the courts have argued aggressively stultify competition and undermine consumer rights.

In the past, Microsoft has packaged Media Player software into its operating system instead of giving buyers a choice of software, a practice the company has revised during its protracted court battle. But, Microsoft will take its biggest blow in the way it handles intellectual property. The ruling requires that Microsoft now share information with other software companies enabling them to write compatible programs.

Brad Smith, a senior vice president at Microsoft, did not say whether the company will file another appeal, and in a press conference signaled that the company would respect the sentence. â''Weâ''re 100 percent committed to complying with every aspect of the commissionâ''s decision,â'' he said. However, some of his true feelings about the ruling may have come out in subtle tones as he denounced the requirement to share software code with other companies and pointed out the â''unprecedented nature of that obligation.â''

The United States dealt with Microsoftâ''s practices years ago. On 30 August the Department of Justice and several U.S. states saidsaid that their efforts had â''protected the development and distribution of middlewareâ''including web browsers, media players, and instant messaging softwareâ''that has increased choices available to consumers.â''

Astronauts and Cosmonauts Experience Drowsiness Differently

from the desk of IEEE Spectrum contributor Morgen Peck

According to a report in the journal Acta Astronautica, Russians and Americans describe and experience drowsiness differently. A collaboration of researchers in San Francisco and Moscow found that, in the setting of the International Space Station [ISS], cosmonauts tend to suffer symptoms of depression as they tire, whereas astronauts more often experience fatigue as a discreet state. Language in the two cultures suggests the same distinction. Russian physicians have a term for linked depression and drowsiness (asthenia) that lacks an equivalent in English.

The distinction could be extremely useful as we consider putting humans farther into space. If you consider day-to-day realities, the oft-touted plan to â''go to Marsâ'' is much more about the going than it is about Mars. Before these hypothetical adventurers reach their destination, the public will have cycled many times through forgetting and remembering that theyâ''re even up there. Meanwhile, the bodies will float around, bored, lonely, sleep deprived, and in constant danger.

Scientists in Russia are starting to take the psychology of long-term space travel seriously (even if NASA isnâ''t) and they will soon throw six lucky volunteers into a simulator for over a year to see how many come out with sanity intact. The success of the experiment depends in large part on designing assessments that are sensitive enough to detect psychological aberrations while they can still be treated. The new research from the International Space Station suggests that psychologists working on the simulation project could screen for early onset of depression by gauging how tired a cosmonaut is.


At the beginning of the TechCrunch conference today at San Francisco's Palace Hotel, conference organizers held up an iPhone and asked members of the audience to please turn off these devices. He was not talking about cell phones in general; those of us with old-tech phones just switched them to vibrate. It's the WiFi connectivity that's the concern. At a conference in which nearly every attendee is tapping on a laptop, looking for supplemental material on an interesting presentation or checking email during a boring one, good wireless network access is a must. But conference organizers designed the network here for a thousand laptops, not a thousand laptops plus a thousand iPhones, and iPhone WiFi was bringing the network to its knees.

When I heard this plea to turn off iPhones for the first and second times, I thought the organizers must be kidding, just an excuse to wave their cool new gizmos in the air. But strolling through the aisles during the morning break, I realized that indeed, there are an awful lot of iPhones sitting on the tables. Definitely an iClog.

Good morning, Silvia

The first session of TechCrunch40 is over. Four flavors of search engine (Powerset,, Faroo, and Viewdle), none quite impressive enough to break my Google habit. But a fifth company, Cognitive Code, intrigued me. (I wasnâ''t clear why the conference organizers grouped this company with the search engines.) Cognitive Code introduced a conversational tool called Silvia (for Symbolically Isolated, Linguistically Variable, Intelligence Algorithms), intended to be used as an adjunct to existing applications or built into new ones. The company founders envision Silvia allowing people to have conversations with their cars, microwaves, televisions, and cell phones, as well as being used in commercial operations like call centers. Silvia reminded me of Eliza, the 1966 simulation of a psychiatrist (interesting that AI programs are always named after women, no?). Silvia is less annoying and more useful than her ancestor; she can understand requests and take actions, not just respond with questions (although, in the demo, while she was happy to open up a Word document upon request, she was reluctant to put it away). Cognitive Code promised that at least one product from a major company to be unveiled at the upcoming January Consumer Electronics Show would showcase Silvia technology; Iâ''ll be looking for it.

Spectrum gets crunched

Iâ''m spending today and tomorrow at TechCrunch40, a start-up showcase in San Francisco. Had a bit of a hassle earlier this month getting registered; the TechCrunch folks put out a call for "real" press persons or bloggers, real people who have a track record and are on assignment, people who cover technology on an ongoing basis (i.e. not someone who has started a blog to cover the event). Seems Spectrumâ''s 380,000 or so print readers, web site that gets half a million hits monthly, and my 20-plus years covering technology somehow didnâ''t count. I felt like Pinocchio when the blue fairy told him he wasnâ''t ready to become a real boy. I mean, what did I have to do here, get swallowed by a whale?

Well, eventually my registration request (along with a link to an article I wrote back in the early 80s on a relatively new technologyâ''the home video gameâ''built by a little company called Atari) made its way to the right person, who waved his wand and made me real.

So Iâ''m real, Iâ''m here, and Iâ''m hoping to be blown away by at least one or two truly new tech ideas. (Being real, Iâ''m also a realist, out of 40 companies on stage and 100 more in the so-called Demo Pit, I figure most will be showcasing small tweaks of established technologies. If one or two truly new ideas emerge, Iâ''ll be happy.)

Stay tuned.

May I See Your Papers Please?

A lot of Americans didn't take Gilmore v. Ashcroft seriously. Maybe now they will. A front-page article in today's New York Times shows the problem with secret regulations that restrict travel and the shadowy government bureaucrats that enforce them. The article headline says it all: "A Music Scholar Is Barred From the United States, But No One Will Say Why."

Back in 2003, John Gilmore anticipated this very problem, and tried to forestall it by walking onto a plane with a boarding pass and no government-issued ID. His goal was to clarify the ID requirements that airlines were imposing, in the face of what seemed to him to be the U.S. Constitution's clear intent that Americans have a right to travel without such restrictions.

Gilmore was to fly from Oakland, Calif., where he lives, to Washington, D.C., where he was to speak at a government hearing. Gilmore doesn't drive, so has no driver's license, and was traveling domestically, for which Americans have never needed a passport. He was not allowed to board. He went to nearby San Francisco Airport, and was told he could fly without ID if he submitted to an "intrusive search." He refused and hasn't flown since.

Gilmore's position, as expressed in an FAQ about the case, is that "people in the US have a right to travel and associate without being monitored or stopped by their government, unless they are actually suspected or convicted of a crime, and unless that suspicion is reasonable."

By the time the case reached the federal courts, Gilmore had a second complaint. No one, either in the government or the airline would produce the wording of the law or regulation that supported the ID requirement. So Gilmore v. Ashcroft became a case about secret laws.

In January 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a lower court's rulings that the ID requirement was constitutional and it could be secret.

The New York Times article details the harrowing case of

Nalini Ghuman, an up-and-coming musicologist and expert on the British composer Edward Elgar, [who] was stopped at the San Francisco airport in August last year and, without explanation, told that she was no longer allowed to enter the United States.

The United States is supposed to not have secret laws, and Ghuman's case makes clear why.

The mystery of her case shows how difficult, if not impossible, it is to defend against such a decision once the secretive government process has been set in motion.

After a year of letters and inquiries, Ms. Ghuman and her Mills College lawyer have been unable to find out why her residency visa was suddenly revoked, or whether she was on some security watch list. Nor does she know whether her application for a new visa, pending since last October, is being stymied by the shadow of the same unspecified problem or mistake.

In a tearful telephone interview from her parentsâ'' home in western Wales, Ms. Ghuman, 34, an Oxford graduate who earned her Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, said she felt like a character in Kafka.

â''I donâ''t know why itâ''s happened, what Iâ''m accused of,â'' she said. â''Thereâ''s no opportunity to defend myself. One is just completely powerless.â''

Kelly Klundt, a spokeswoman for Customs and Border Protection in the Department of Homeland Security, said officers at San Francisco International Airport had no choice but to bar Ms. Ghuman because the State Department, at its discretion, had revoked her visa. The State Department would not discuss the case, citing the confidentiality of individual visa records.

As it turns out, the Department of Homeland Security is getting ready to change all this. On the plus side, ID regulations will become public and explicit. On the minus side, from a civil liberties point of view at least, the requirement will become much more onerous.

According to a posting at The Identity Project, DHS has proposed new regulations that would require

1. All would-be international travellers to or from the USA (even US citizens crossing the U.S.-Canada border on foot) would have to have government-issued ID credentials

2. All would-be passengers on international or domestic flights to, from, over, via, or within the U.S. would have to have both government-issued ID credentials and explicit case-by-case prior permission from the DHS to the airline to allow each passenger to board a plane.

Enforcement of the regulations will still have some uncertainties, according to the Identity Project posting.

Among other problems, this amounts to a general order subjecting travelers to private searches, and allowing the private searchers to use any information obtained from those searches for their own commercial or other purposes. Since it is impossible to tell who is, and who is not, actually authorized to act on behalf of the government or to whom an airline has delegated its work, the proposed rules would effectively subject travelers to compulsory search by anyone in any airport claiming (unverifiably) to be an agent of an airline.

And it should go without saying that if the government can impose such a regime on air travel, it can do so for other modes as well. Nominally, at least, Amtrak has the same ID requirements as air travel, and there's little reason why highway, subway, and bus travel wouldn't be excluded, in the long run. The New York City police have asserted a right to randomly search bags on the subways, while it would slow the system greatly to ID everyone, random inspection is now possible as well.

DHS is holding a required public hearing on the proposed regulations on Thursday, in Washington D.C.

From the Federal Register notice:



Transportation Security Administration

49 CFR Parts 1540, 1544, and 1560

[Docket No. TSAâ''2007â''28572]

RIN 1652â''ZA15

Public Meeting: Secure Flight Program

AGENCY: Transportation Security

Administration, DHS.

ACTION: Notice of public meeting and

request for comments.

SUMMARY: This notice provides the time

and location of the public meeting

which will be held by the

Transportation Security Administration oh

(TSA) regarding the Notice of Proposed

Rulemaking (NPRM) entitled â''â''Secure

Flight Program,â''â'' which was published

in the Federal Register on August 23,

2007 (72 FR 48356).

DATES: The public meeting will be on

September 20, 2007, in Washington, DC.

The meeting will begin at 9 am. Persons

not able to attend the meeting are

invited to provide written comments,

which must be received by October 22,


ADDRESSES: The public meeting will be

held at the Grand Hyatt Washington,

1000 H Street, NW., Washington, DC

20001. Participants should check in

with Secure Flight staff.

Polo for engineers

You don't have to ride a horse to play polo. This Sunday, at the 23rd annual Polo in the Park festival at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, Segway riders will compete for the Woz challenge cup. That's Woz as in Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak, an avid Segway Polo player.

The Segway Polo follows the rules of the traditional sport, but riders mount two-wheeled Segways, two-wheeled self-balancing transporters first unveiled by inventor Dean Kamen back in 2001. Segways have become popular transportation devices for police officers, disabled people, tourists on guided tours, and my neighbors in Silicon Valley. And, it turns out, for polo players.

Woz himself will play in Sunday's event, as a member of the Silicon Valley Aftershocks, competing against the Junkyard Dogs from Oakland, Calif. and the Pole Blacks from New Zealand. (Switzerland and Dubai also have teams.)

Admission to Polo in the Park is free; the Segway games start at 2:30 pm. The Bay Area Segway Enthusiast Group plays in Sunnyvaleâ''s Ponderosa Park the first and third Sundays of every month, weather permitting.

UPDATE: Latest word is the Woz will not play in the final games on Sunday, but will be playing in the preliminary games at Ponderosa Park Saturday afternoon.


Meet Zeno, a humanoid robot with a humanoid face

zeno.jpgMeet Zeno, a humanoid robot built by the founder of Hanson Robotics. Hanson Robotics is famous for their robotic humanoid faces -- among them Albert Einstein -- but many folks (including yours truly) find them pretty darn creepy. Despite the amazing technological achievement of detailed facial expression, Zeno is no exception to the uncanny valley.

Continue reading at Spectrum's robotics blog, Automaton...

Mexican students put their aquatic cleaning robots to the test


Last month, Mexican engineering students gathered in Puebla to participate in the 4th Mexican Cleaning Robot Contest (Torneo Mexicano de Robots Limpiadores). The robots competed in two categories: the â''Coke can fetching categoryâ'' and the "mine retrieving category". The goal was to investigate ways to collect garbage dumped in terrestrial and aquatic environments -- a problem that unfortunately is way too common not only in Mexico but in many other places. In fact, if these prototypes become products one day, I'd love to send one to my hometown, Sao Paulo, in Brazil, to help clean the ultrapolluted Pinheiros and Tiete rivers.

To see a video of the competition and a report from the organizers, continue reading at Automaton, Spectrum's robotics blog...

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