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Bitter Pills

CNBC is airing a series called "American Greed," which chronicles epic scams online and off.  They recently ran an expose of Berkeley Nutraceuticals, the company behind Enzyte, a “natural male enhancement."  

Since releasing Enzyte in 2001, the company created both a cultural and economic juggernaut.  It started with their ubiquitous pitchman:  Smiling Bob.  With his thumbs up sign and strained grin, Bob was a viral phenomenon online and off.  Campy ads showed Bob bowling and gardening, rife with cheeky double-entendres about the “big lift” he got from Enzyte.   With $240 million in annual revenues, Berkeley was the great American success story in the $18 billion herbal supplement industry.  The empire fell apart when the company was embroiled in a host of scams, and the story raises questions over the engineering of such pills.

It underscores the wild west that still exists in the "science" of this enormous industry - which gets a huge amount of its sales online.  Yes, there are some regulations - but nothing prohibiting outlaw rule.   Congress passed the Dietary Supplements Health and Education Act in 1994 to help protect consumers.  This includes having the Federal Trade Commission regulate the ads we see and hear for supplements.

The protection, however, pales in comparison to real pharmaceuticals.   The regulation occurs after the products hit the shelves.  All the Supplements using existing ingredients can be sold without approval by Food and Drug Administration. In fact, the FDA can only intervene if and when a product is proved to be harmful.  Supplement makers had even more leeway with ads.   While supplement makers couldn’t claim their products cured diseases, there remained plenty of wiggle room:  letting the bill pills as wonder cures from baldness to erectile dysfunction. 

Rich Cleland, assistant director division of advertising practices for FTC, which is now processing a civil case against Berkeley Pharmaceuticals, says the potential for hustlers is rife.  “There’s always someone hawking a product to them that will promise to do with them miracles and lot of people have made lot of money doing that,” he tells me, “These are smart people, they know what people are susceptible to. They know that consumers want a quick fix, they want an easy solution, they want the pill - and scam artists prey on that.”  So what’s a nutritional pill popper to do?   “We tell people it’s in your hands,” Cleland says.

Michael Herndon, a spokesperson for the FDA, paints an even gloomier picture.  “Except for rules described above that govern ‘new dietary ingredients,’ there is no provision under any law or regulation that FDA enforces that requires a firm to disclose to FDA or consumers the information they have about the safety or purported benefits of their dietary supplement products. Likewise, there is no prohibition against them making this information available either to FDA or to their customers. It is up to each firm to set its own policy on disclosure of such information.”

 

Players Vs. Haters

Are violent videogames bad for kids?  It's an old question with a new twist.  Last week, the Supreme Court announced that it would consider whether a California law banning the sale of violent games to minors is unconstitutional.

As the New York Times and others weigh in, it's worth stepping back and asking a question:  What defines a generation?  The music.  The films.  The politics.  Yeah, all that.  But, these days, you can’t really know a generation without also understanding – and playing - their videogames.  As Marshall McLuhan once put it, “The games of a people reveal a great deal about them.” 

Of course, videogames have been deeply meaningful to generations before.  They're how the brightest young minds of the future – from Microsoft to Facebook – cut their teeth, and play with new technology:  the young engineers who played text-only games in computer labs in the 1960s, the suburban kids weaned on the Atari 2600 in the 70s, the arcade gamers of the golden age of the 1980s.  As personal computers began infiltrating our homes over the next decade or so, diligent braniacs began coding and distributing their own games in legion.  

Little did we know the seismic shift at play.   Videogames had largely been the province of corporations like Nintendo and elusive programming “priests,” as some called the lucky few.  But with the proliferation of Apple IIs and Commodore 64s and other personal computers, you didn’t have be like Jeff Bridges and materialize inside Tron to get inside a game.  All you had to do was learn the code.   By the mid-1990s game programmers were pioneering the business, culture, and lifestyle that defined the coming revolution online. 

As videogame programmer John Carmack told me while I was researching my book, Masters of Doom, “in the information age, the barriers just aren’t there.  The barriers are self-imposed.  If you want to set off and go develop some grand new thing, you don’t need millions of dollars of capitalization.  You need enough pizza and Diet Coke to stick in your refrigerator, a cheap PC to work on, and the dedication to go through with it.”

Pizza, Coke, and PCs became the fuel of the Gamer Generation, as they took over the new world of the Internet just after the turn of the millennium.  How fitting that the first decade of this explosive new time could be rendered in binary – the 00s.  After 40 odd years as outsiders, gamers finally became the Players in the realist sense.  The heroes of the Zeroes were them, the solitary whiz kids and dynamic duos – the Google guys, the YouTube guys, the Twitter guys – who disrupted so much of what we took for granted:   information, knowledge, communication, entertainment.  

The coders took their giant pixilated cleaver to the ground, and split the generation gap wider than ever before with a sizzle and zap.  On one side were the geeks, gamers, hackers, Instant Messengers, texters –  the digital natives, as sociologists and marketers termed the strange new species.   On the other side of the chasm stood most everyone else – the parents and pundits and politicians, the Player Haters.

Both legions eyed each other dubiously, if not fearfully.  The Players saw a generation who denied, ignored, and misconstrued them and new power they held so dear:  the incredible instantaneous ability to get almost anything you wanted online the instant you wanted it.   The Haters saw trouble, and plenty of it – pirates, predators, plagiarists, a ruthless and anonymous ­mob.  The Supreme Court's decision won't end the meta-game between the Players and the Haters, but it sure will make it a lot more interesting.

Taking online privacy personally

It’s been a tough couple of weeks for online privacy. Over on Facebook, the “Instant Personalization Program” meant that I was suddenly broadcasting their activities on a wide variety of websites, not just Facebook but on participant websites, like Pandora, Yelp, and Microsoft docs. And that was intentional; an unintentional glitch in the Facebook system meant that for several hours users were even broadcasting private chats and then some, and I was glad I don't use Facebook chat.

I went over to nix “Instant Personalization." You can do that. Sort of. But if any of my Facebook friends visit the participant websites without opting out, the sites will get my Facebook information anyway. To stop that I have to go to each individual partner site and block it at that point.

I didn't take the time to do that, because while I was figuring out how to get out of instant personalization, I noticed that my personal email that I had intentionally not published to my Facebook profile was now out in the open. Not only that, it couldn’t be tucked back out of sight; Facebook’s new policy is that email, profile pictures, networks, and pages are permanently public. After solving that problem by creating a new Gmail account that from now on will be my official email on Facebook, I realized that my activities and interests fields, which previously had been set to be only seen by friends, had been reset to be visible to everyone. I reset those back to "friends only", wondering how long that change will stick before Facebook “upgrades” it again.

So far, I haven’t been easily disturbed by the curtains pulled back by the Internet on my virtual home in cyberspace. Heck, I don’t have any curtains on my real home; I like to walk down the street at night and notice my neighbors sitting around the table, or in front of the TV, or, most likely, since I do live in Silicon Valley, in front of the computer; I don’t mind if my neighbors see me doing the same; I'll even wave if I see them looking.

But the folks looking at me on Facebook aren’t my neighbors. They are, as Facebook dials down my ability to control my privacy, more likely to be complete strangers. And I’m getting mad.

I’m not the only one worried about the new Facebook privacy policy. From the looks of the comments in my Facebook news feed, a lot of my friends are upset as well. In fact, in the wonderland-world of the Internet, the way I typically find out about the latest nasties Facebook is implementing is through rants appearing on my news feed on Facebook.  The Electronic Privacy Information Center and 14 other organizations filed a joint complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Senators Charles Schumer, Michael Bennet, Mark Begich, and Al Franken sent a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg expressing their concerns over recent privacy changes and indicated that they are looking “forward to the FTC examining this issue.”

Meanwhile, the Electronic Frontier Foundation is tracking Facebook’s privacy changes closely, and providing clear instructions as to how to adjust your personal settings when that is possible.  Will all this have any effect on Facebook’s privacy policies? I doubt it.

And just as I was trying to figure out just how much loss of privacy I am willing to tolerate to find out what my cousin is making for dinner tonight and to make sure I don’t miss my friends’ culling of the best articles, TV clips, or YouTube videos of the past 24 hours, the alarm bells started ringing over Spokeo and I had to go over to that site to see what all the fuss was about.

Spokeo touts itself as an online phone book. It works quite well for looking up numbers; it’s fast and accurate. But along with the phone number, Spokeo instantly pops up a little additional information—street name (but not house number), age, ethnicity, marital status, length of residence in the home, home value, occupation, interests (which it seems to collect from magazine subscription info). That’s for free. Before an initial outcry earlier this month, that free information also included a home photo and credit rating. For a monthly subscription fee (as low as $3), it’ll give you the complete address, email address, information on religion and politics, photos, videos, blog posts, and, it says (and I don’t doubt it), much more.

Now, it’s not that I didn’t know this information was living somewhere out there on the Internet. It didn’t bother me in bits and pieces. Remember AnyBirthday? This short-lived web site was one of the first to provide instant birth date information from just a name and a city. I loved it; there were people in my life that I should have been calling with birthday greetings but forgot their birthday information years ago but was too embarrassed to ask. There were people I know who I thought were fudging their ages and now I could tell for sure (not sure why I cared, but it was interesting). And I didn’t mind that people in return could find out how old I was.

How about when Google Street View first came out? There was privacy panic, and indeed a few folks recorded for posterity coming out of strip clubs in the middle of the working day were justifiably upset.  But I liked the way my house looked, and made a game out of trying to figure out just what day and time the images were recorded, based on the state of the front yard, what cars were around the neighborhood, and the like. (Though the number of blogs that posted a copy of the Street View photo of Steve Jobs’ car in his home driveway was beyond ridiculous.)

And Zillow—never mind that the real estate data on that site is often vastly off target, it’s fun looking up the house I once owned, the one I currently owned, and others in the neighborhood to see what they’re worth, at least in the Zillow world.

But pulling lots of this information together used to take a lot of effort or a hefty fee, it wasn’t available to the idly curious. It’s a lot creepier when it’s free and easy.

Theoretically, you can opt out of Spokeo. I haven’t decided to do that yet, some of the information is weirdly inaccurate, like my astrological sign (how hard can that be?), and I’m wondering if maybe it’s better to know what’s out there about me on the Internet than to try to hide from it. But I did try to go to the page that supposedly allows the opt-out, and, at least that day, the page was unavailable. And Snopes.com reported that none of their attempts to block a name on Spokeo were successful.

Snopes also pointed out that, with all the information floating around the Internet, blocking one aggregator like Spokeo won’t insure your privacy. “Removing your personal information from display by Internet aggregators isn’t a one-time deal, but rather more like a never–ending game of Whack-a-Mole.”

Snopes nailed it. We all are playing Whack-a-Mole. On Facebook. On Spokeo. And on whatever pops up tomorrow. However, while Whack-a-Mole used to be one of my favorite arcade games, I’m not enjoying this online version. But I don’t see any way of opting out.

Photo: Subcircle

Freeing Gary McKinnon

This week,TechCrunch is asking readers if they should prosecute a hacker caught for allegedly defacing their site. "If enough readers vote yes, there could be another Gary McKinnon type battle as the hacker could be extradited to the US for his trial," TechCrunch posted.

The Gary McKinnon case is one I've been following closely, and it  sheds interesting light on the battles over computer crimes. Here's what happened. A few months after the World Trade Center attacks, a strange message appeared on a U.S. Army computer: "Your security system is crap,” it read. “I am Solo.I will continue to disrupt at the highest levels.” Solo scanned 65,000 government machines, and discovered glaring security flaws on many of them. Between February 2001 and March 2002, Solo broke into almost a hundred PCs within the Army, Navy, Air Force, NASA, and the Department of Defense. He surfed around for months, copying secret files and passwords. At one point, he brought down the US Army’s entire Washington network, over 2000 computers, for 24 hours. It remains, as one U.S. attorney put it, “the biggest military hack of all time.”

But despite his expertise, Solo didn’t cover his tracks well enough. He was soon traced to a small apartment in London.  On March 27th of 2002, the UK National Hi-Tech Crime Unit arrested Gary McKinnon, a quiet 36-year-old Scot with elfin features and Spock-like upswept eyebrows. He’d been a systems administrator, but he didn’t have a job at the moment—he spent his days writing brooding electronic music, and indulging his obsession with UFOs. In fact, he claims that aliens are the reason he was accessing classified computers. “I knew that governments suppressed antigravity, UFO-related technologies, free energy or what they call zero-point energy,” he explained. “This should not be kept hidden from the public when pensioners can't pay their fuel bills.” 

He got caught just as he was downloading a photo from Johnson’s Space Center of what he believed to be a UFO. UK officials told McKinnon he'd probably get off with community service. But the Feds are mortified that this boy-man pulled off the hack of the century, and they’re making him pay. McKinnon faces extradition to the United States under a controversial treaty that could land him in prison for 70 years. Now rock stars, human rights activists, and members of parliament are racing to free Gary. The reason: he has Asperger Syndrome.

Simon Baron-Cohen, director of the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge (and cousin of Sacha), diagnosed McKinnon with Asperger’s, a mysterious form of autism that's now in the public eye. Baron-Cohen released a report in McKinnon defense, saying “Mr. McKinnon actually poses no harm to society as he was motivated by an altruistic pursuit of the truth,” he wrote. “His emotional age or social intelligence is at the level of a child, even if his intelligence is systemizing at an advanced level. If Gary McKinnon is sent to the U.S. I fear he will kill himself.” 

The so-called "Geek Defense" is spreading. In August, Viachelav Berkovich, a 34-year-old Russian immigrant in the United States diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, received a reduced sentence after being convicted of a hacking into a trucking company in California.  Also last year, a defense witness for Hans Reiser, a computer programmer convicted of brutally murdering his wife, testified that Reiser might have Asperger’s. Defense attorneys also used the Asperger’s defense for Lisa Brown, a 22-year-old convicted of murdering her mother. “Someone with Asperger’s syndrome could still plan an act but, because of deficiencies in their social imagination, might be unable to see what the consequences of those actions might be,” a psychiatrist said of Brown, who received a life sentence regardless. Lawyers for Albert Gonzalez, the hacker convicted in the massive TJX identity theft case, are also now wielding the Asperger's defense.

Forecasting Apple's Intrinsity Acquisition

Now that Apple has officially confirmed that it has purchased the Austin, Tex.-based smartphone CPU redesign firm Intrinsity for an estimated $121 million, tech blogs have been buzzing about what it all means. Despite all the rampant speculation, though, one of the only things known for sure is: The now-Apple-owned Intrinsity designed the iPad's CPU— basing it around Intrinsity's "Hummingbird," a modified ARM Cortex A8.

But will Intrinsity's secret CPU hot-rodding technique (which IEEE Spectrum described in detail in January) be a game changer for the next-generation iPads and iPhones?

Cue industry analysts who will say, essentially, "Maybe. Although... maybe not."

Here's one other thing we do know, though. Before Steve Jobs' borg descended on Intrinsity and put Apple's trademark cone of silence over it, IEEE Spectrum had a lengthy sit-down with the management and engineering team (Sept. 2009) for what was one of the company's final pressers as an entity that could speak on the record.

At the time, of course, the iPad was just one of numerous fanboy pipe dreams of an Apple netbook/tablet that could dominate the market the way the iPhone overtook many other smartphones. 

Intrinsity's CEO Bob Russo told Spectrum that the company was applying its same chip streamlining techniques to ARM's Cortex A9 -- the logical successor to Hummingbird and now speculative candidate for future iPads and iPhones. ("We are engaged in a multicore A9 development. ... I just can't tell you who it's for," Russo said at the time.)

Below are some further excerpts from that confab on a stormy Thursday morning in Austin. Watch out for interesting mentions of Apple’s earlier chips design purchase, PA Semi.

IEEE SPECTRUM: How do you take a pre-existing ARM chip and make it faster?

Bob Russo, Intrinsity CEO: There are two ways to enhance a chip. One, you can take the existing product and enhance that core -- and keep it totally software-compatible for the customer at the end....The other way is to go in and change the entire architecture. That's a bigger undertaking. Companies have done that. Qualcomm's done it, for example, [with their redesigned A8, "Snapdragon."]

SPECTRUM: So "Hummingbird" follows the first of those two models, right?

BR: Yes. That's the model that we like, that we're set up to produce. And we're trying to make it so that we produce 8 or 9 of these a year.

SPECTRUM: Eight or nine chip redesigns?

BR: That's the ultimate goal here. To enhance the cores. You can't do that if you fool around with the [CPU's] architecture. But if you have the right tools, technology, and know-how -- which we do -- you can take on multiple customers who require a higher frequency part than what's available in the standard marketplace.

[Russo describes Samsung's desire to speed the 650 MHz A8 up to 1 GHz.]

There are only two ways to do it. One, you have your own internal team to develop it, like Qualcomm has. And you go for all the work to develop a high-speed part. Or you come to us.

Apple went and bought PA Semi for that very reason. Apple bought PA Semi because they wanted to control more of their destiny...to have their own team to be able to come out with a part that is faster than is currently available in the marketplace.

Brent Chambers, Intrinsity director of engineering: We're taking Ferrari technology that typically takes Ferrari development time and Ferrari dollars to afford, and we're bringing that to the masses in a much lower cost and much more specific application. It gets you 90 percent of the speed for a fraction of the cost.

BR: We're an order of magnitude less expensive than everyone else who developed this [enhanced A8 core] on their own.

SPECTRUM: And that's because you streamline the CPU, but only in the choke-points, right?

BC: That's what gets us in the power envelope for the mobile space. But the cost is the automation.

SPECTRUM: So the way you automate your streamlining of a CPU is how you can cut your costs.

BR: It's all the patents we have, all the circuit technology we've developed. There's another component here, too. We're a premier shop of talent. We're the last-standing independent, high-end CPU design house in the world. There's no one else left but us. The last one was PA Semi, and they got bought by Apple.

SPECTRUM: So Hummingbird wasn't designed with a netbook in mind, was it? It's more for a smartphone, right?

BR: I would think that's the case. Where it ends up, I believe -- my opinion, I've never been told this -- it's going to end up in more places than just a smartphone. And one of the potential places could be a netbook. Potentially.

Photo: Robert Galbraith/Reuters

iPiracy

Between the iPad and the Kindle, there has been a lot of talk lately about the future of books and magazines online.  As a writer, I’m happy with anything that keeps people reading – especially if it makes reading fun for people who might not otherwise pick up a book.  The only downside?  The coming wave of piracy that will crash the publishing industry just as it hit music and movies before.  But hopefully publishers can learn from the others mistakes.

Just look at how the music labels screwed up.  Labels lost billions each year, with annual drops of more than 25% since 2000.  The blame often falls on piracy. Post Napster, the industry’s strategy was Scared Straight:  sue a 12-year-old for illegally downloading Metallica, and hope his friends get the message.  It didn’t work.  Sales continued to plummet.  Hackers grew more sophisticated.   Then, on the heels of a precedent-setting Supreme Court ruling, the industry switched targets:  the geeks who coded the pirate sites.  Turns out, the three biggest ones are harbored in New York City.  The labels went gunning.  The plan wasn’t just to destroy them.  It was to own them.  They’d sue for an ungodly amount of money, and pressure the sites to settle, in part, by converting to legal services – services which would compensate labels for the downloaded tunes.

First went eDonkey, a global operation ran by two hackers out of an apartment in Hoboken – settled for a whopping $30 million.  The scrappy cofounders, who blasted the industry in congressional testimony, would rather go down with the ship than sell its soul.  Across the river in Manhattan, a site called iMesh was more than eager to cash in.  The start-up, founded in Tel Aviv by a former chief information officier for the Israeli Defense Forces Command, not only converted to a legal site, it hired Sony Music president Robert Summer to be its executive chairman.  Then iMesh became busy striking up deals with labels, and gobbling up (then converting) other peer-to-peer file-sharing sites.  Only one more site remaind in the balance – LimeWire, a site run by Mark Gorton, who runs the file-sharing site out of his capital management firm in Tribeca.  The Recording Industry Association of America sued LimeWire for hundreds of millions, trying to force LimeWire convert to a legal service, like iMesh, or make it die like eDonkey.  Either way, the music industry seemed to win.

And, yet, did they?  In truth, they were pursuing a negative strategy - spending millions to hunt down the pirates, meanwhile Apple makes all the money by creating iTunes.  At the same time, kids around the world are churning out more and more file-sharing sites every day. Do a search for one of my books, and you’ll find free copies to download or print.  Yeah, it takes money out of my pocket.  But if people are going to work that hard to read my book, I’m flattered. And hopefully they’ll tell a friend who will buy the book the new old-fashioned way online. 

Obama Should Take Systems Approach to Clean Energy

The Obama administration is developing a clean energy system as if it were a science project. The focus is on technology and ideas, not systems and strategic goals. The emphasis is on near term solutions with no effort made to envision what the whole system should look like 40 years from now. There are no phases, no disciplined reviews, no milestones. The hope seems to be that somebody will invent something great, solving all our problems in the blink of an eye.

An example of this science approach is a recent report entitled America’s Energy Future: Technology and Transformation (AEF), by the Committee on America's Energy Future, the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the National Research Council. This was a multi-year study that developed a baseline energy scenario based on “a projection of current economic, technology ... and policy parameters.”  

The AEF baseline scenario is an evolutionary one. That means it looks at what exists today and asks how today’s technologies be improved. Good things come from this approach, including energy efficiencies, the smart grid, and quick returns on investment. One down side, though, is that today’s reality of uncertain rules, regulation, policy, legacy system integration, and rapidly changing technologies are all mixed together. With such confusion, and no easy way to pick out the most important issues or solutions, it is no wonder that the AEF study concluded that there is no “silver bullet,” recommending a “balanced portfolio approach” to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

By contrast, "old school" systems engineering is driven by a purpose, a strategic goal. President Obama has provided an excellent strategic goal: to reduce carbon dioxide emissions below 2005 levels by 83 percent by 2050. This goal is certainly feasible. During the past 40 years France developed a nuclear electric power system that is 78 percent carbon free. There is no technical reason why the US cannot use nuclear to achieve 83 percent reduction in emissions over the next 40 years if the president, Congress, and the American people choose to do so. There is no development risk.

The main barrier to nuclear power, however, is the high cost of capital due to the risk of political obstructions. For this reason, the AEF evolutionary study viewed nuclear power as unattractive. But because disciplined development separates engineering from policy, a purely engineering-based approach such as the recent MIT study on the future of nuclear power comes up with different answers. The MIT study compared the direct cost of different technologies with the same cost of capital as: 6.6/6.2/6.5 ¢/kWh for nuclear, coal, and gas, respectively. Thus, after an objective assessment of the facts, the client—in this case the president, Congress, and the American people—could choose between the negatives of carbon dioxide emissions and the fear of using nuclear power, then create policy based on that balanced, informed choice.

Unlike evolutionary scenarios, strategic scenarios address the ability of a whole system to achieve a goal. For example, wind power looks attractive from an evolutionary point of view because we can certainly build systems that are 10-20 percent wind-powered. But a recent paper entitled Wind Energy Contribution to a Low Carbon Grid shows that wind cannot contribute much to a grid that is substantially carbon free because the wind subsystem is 80 percent dependent on fossil fuel generators for backup.

Both evolutionary and strategic scenarios are concerned with the uncertainty of changing technologies. But as with any long-term program, engineers incorporate risks and uncertainties into the engineering development plan. A clear purpose, the strategic goal, is what simplifies classic engineering development plans. Every approach is continuously tested against its ability to achieve the goal. Further, the suite of strategic scenarios is simplified by separating engineering from policy, ignoring legacy system constraints, and basing plans on technology as we know it today, rather than hoping for grand innovations.

It seems clear that the big challenge in clean energy development is not technology; it is the sheer number and diversity of stakeholders. Energy affects everyone, and everyone has an opinion. In my next post, I will show how disciplined engineering simplifies the politics and management of stakeholder interests.

Alex Pavlak is a PhD Professional Engineer with experience in systems architecture and the economics of wind power systems. He has had various management responsibilities in the development of large military systems. He has spent 15 years in alternate energy and holds several patents pending on wind turbines and static solar concentrators. apavlak@comcast.net

Cooling Off Chips With a Nice Warm Drink

It’s a hot summer day. You’ve been working hard and you’re burning up. You decide to take a break, so you wipe your brow and head inside to quench your thirst. What do you reach for? Whether your beverage of choice is lemonade or a, um, wheat-and-hop smoothie, you want it cold and you want it right now.

It’s that same thinking that has informed the way supercomputer makers have used water to keep the chips inside their number-crunching behemoths from succumbing to their own brand of heat stroke. Many liquid-cooled machines come equipped with electric chillers that keep the fluid that flows through them at a relatively brisk 15 degrees Celsius.

But a team of researchers at IBM Research in Zurich, Switzerland, reported in the 16 April issue of Science their discovery that warm water is just as effective as cold water at ensuring that chips stay within their rated temperature range. They proved it with a supercomputer they built called Aquasar. The 10-teraflop machine has 60-degree water flowing through its network of copper pipes. The researchers say these viaducts draw away enough heat to keep the microprocessors’ temperature from exceeding 75 degrees Celsius—well below their rated limit of 85 degrees, where they begin to malfunction.

Though chilled chips run faster and have a longer lifespan, there is a good reason to let the warm water flow. The IBM team says that getting rid of the chillers lets Aquasar operate using half the energy that would be consumed by a similar model that is treated to a cold drink. IBM says it hopes to narrow the performance gap by making warm-water heat removal even more efficient. Within five years, the company says, the tubes that now carry the water around the chips will run right through them.

Hacking Ticketmaster

At 10 a.m. on December 15, 2007, Springsteen fans pounded anxiously at their computers.  The Boss had just announced three concerts at Giant Stadium in New Jersey, and they were desperately trying to score prime seats.

Good luck, right?  With more than 40% of concert tickets now being sold online, it seems impossible to get good seats at face value anymore.  The best ones go in seconds.  Fans are then left to go to ticket resellers like Stubhub to pay a premium for what used to be their basic right.  And sure enough, in a flash that December, the 12,000 front seats for the Springsteen tour were gone.   The fans complained – sparking a federal investigation.  Now we’ve learned where the tickets really went:   to the Wiseguys.

On March 1,  four guys behind a Nevada-based start-up, Wiseguy Tickets, were indicted in New Jersey on 43 counts for fraudulently buying and selling over 1.5 million tickets online - including concerts (AC/DC to Barbra Streisand), Broadway shows (Wicked, The Producers), and sports (Yankees, Rangers).  They made $25 million.  According to the feds, the Wiseguys became “the leading source of the best tickets for the most popular events.”  The Wiseguys' innovation:  “To achieve this goal, Wiseguys deployed a nationwide computer network that opened thousands of simultaneous Internet connections from across the United States; impersonated thousands of individual ticket buyers; and defeated online ticket vendors’ security mechanisms. When online ticket vendors tried to stop Wiseguys from engaging in this conduct, Wiseguys adapted its methods and continued."

This story exposes the underworld of ticket hackers, and the feeble battle the multibillion dollar industry is waging against them.  The battle is over bots. Hackers code and deploy automated programs to log on to online vendors and buy tickets as soon as they go on sale.  Ticket vendors try to prevent this by using programs such as CAPTCHA, which supposedly requires an actual human being to read and retype a distorted image of a word.  The Wiseguys found an ingenious way around this in an elaborate three year operation.  Among other things, they hired geeks in Bulgaria to engineer bots that beat the CAPTCHA filters.  They then made hundreds of bogus websites and emails where they had the tickets sent.

While the Wiseguys face 20 years in prison, the problem is far from over.  Companies are racing to keep bots off their sites, and fans are still getting stiffed.  But lawyers are arguing that no crimes have been broken.  According to the Star-Ledger, one defendant's lawyer "has compared Wiseguy’s business model to a large-scale modern-day version of paying someone to camp outside a box office to buy premium seats for a big show."

It's the sort of question that is playing in other bot battles - are online bots breaking the law?  In online poker, for example, some gamers deploy auto-playing bots.  It's a perpetual cat-and-mouse game, with the sites development countermeasures to sniff out the programs.  I can't imagine that this meta-game will ever end.  

How To Solve the World's Greatest Technology Problems

grand challenges engineering nae

Uh, sorry, I don't have the answer here. But I know who might.

Next week, some of the brightest tech thinkers will gather near Boston to brainstorm solutions to the world's toughest and most important problems in areas like energy, environment, health, security, and learning.

The summit, to take place on Wednesday, 21 April, at Wellesley College, in Wellesley, Mass., is part of the Grand Challenges for Engineering, a program of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering (NAE).

A few years ago, NAE convened an international group of technologists -- including inventor Dean Kamen, Google's Larry Page, MIT's Robert Langer, and others -- to identify the world's most pressing engineering challenges. The result was a list of 14 formidable tech problems.

Now it's time to find the solutions.

NAE and other organizations, with input from the public and a host of experts, are organizing summits to discuss the challenges and ideas on how to tackle them.

Next week's event, organized by Babson College, Olin College of Engineering, and Wellesley College, is a regional event. You can see the whole program and lineup of speakers at http://grandchallengesummit.olin.edu.

A national summit will take place in October at the University of Southern California.

Below is the list of 14 tech challenges. You can find accompanying explanations, essays, videos, and discussion forums at the Grand Challenges for Engineering web site.

tech challenges engineering nae

The challenges:

* Make solar energy economical
* Provide energy from fusion
* Develop carbon sequestration methods
* Manage the nitrogen cycle
* Provide access to clean water
* Restore and improve urban infrastructure
* Advance health informatics
* Engineer better medicines
* Reverse-engineer the brain
* Prevent nuclear terror
* Secure cyberspace
* Enhance virtual reality
* Advance personalized learning
* Engineer the tools of scientific discovery

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