More data, less clarity in bee colony collapse

A bee carrying a parasitic mite.
Image: ARS/USDA/ÍScott Bauer

When last we visited the issue of sudden colony collapse, which is worrying farmers by emptying beehives across the US, a parasitic fungus was being tapped as a potential cause. An early access publication in today's Science Express revisits the issue and, although it finds the fungus is more frequent in infected samples, the study suggests a virus is the actual culprit. But a global look at the parasite load in these sick bees suggests there are still some unanswered questions. HangZhou Night Net

The new work performed large scale sequencing on a number of samples from colonies that have collapsed, plus a few that have remained healthy. At the bacterial level, everything looked reasonably normal; there were no major differences between the two types of hives. The same was true for a trypanosomal sequence that appears to be part of the Leishmania family. Funguses, including the one previously suggested as a potential cause, also appeared in unaffected hives. Things finally got interesting when viruses were examined. One virus, Israeli acute paralysis virus of bees, had a 95 percent association with colony collapse.

So, mystery solved? Not really. The authors show that the virus appears to have arrived in the US with bees imported from Australia, a practice that began at about the same time as colony collapses were noted. But Australia does not appear to have any problems with its bee population, suggesting something else must be involved. The researchers suggest US-only parasitic mites or the chemicals used to control them as possible enabling factors.

There are two big limiations with the study as things now stand. The first is that it's not quantitative. If one of the pathogens was present at much higher levels in collapsing hives, the study would not detect it. The second is that it's purely correlative. Correlations can be very informative, but the authors themselves produced data that indicates their value is limited in this case. When the researchers looked at a set of four pathogens (including the virus and fungus suggested as causes), normal colonies were likely to have two, while those suffering a population crash had a mean of 3.7. Separating cause, enablement, and opportunism among those pathogens isn't possible with the available data.

So, the cause of sudden colony collapse remains a bit mysterious, although some positive candidates are emerging. If the virus that these authors suspect really is a key factor, then there's good news: up to a third of the bees in Israel, where it was first identified, are already resistant to it.

Science, 2007. DOI: 10.1126/science.1146498

News unFlash: New iPod touch could do iPhone apps

For those still deciding between an iPhone and a new iPod touch, perhaps application compatibility between the two devices can help. While it never really occurred to us that this wouldn't be the case, Gizmodo says the unofficial word on the street is that the new iPod touch might very well be able to run the same third-party apps that the iPhone does, as well as the Apple-designed apps the iPhone ships with. HangZhou Night Net

We're going to have to wait for confirmation from the iPhone hacking teams that have been doing such a stellar job so far, but assuming that it's true, you can thank the reliable assumption that both devices are probably running the same version of OS X (note: not Mac OS X). This should minimize or simply remove the need for extra hacking just to get apps to run between these two devices.

That said, I can't help but worry that, come October with the release of Mac OS X Leopard, Apple will finally endow developers with "true" iPhone development tools. Hackers have been digging up strong evidence in both the iPhone's system files and the latest builds of Xcode, Apple's development app, that bolsters this assessment. If true, we would definitely see a significant boom in powerful, well-designed apps for both the iPhone and iPod touch (after all, that new iPod has even more open slots for new apps than the iPhone does). Folks will eventually spend far less time digging around in file systems and more time bringing the much-needed third-party game to Apple's mobile device platform.

This is probably obvious news to some, but we felt it was worth a mention to get it out on the table. After all, no one likes to let that elephant in the room gobble up all the party snacks, do they?

NSL provision in PATRIOT Act struck down by federal court

The National Security Letter (NSL) provision of the PATRIOT Act was struck down today by federal court judge Victor Marrero. The controversial NSL provision has allowed the FBI to secretly demand access to records held by organizations like libraries and Internet service providers. National Security Letters, which can be used without probable cause or judicial oversight, also impose "gag" restrictions on recipients, forbidding them from disclosing that they have received the letter. HangZhou Night Net

Judge Marrero originally struck down the NSL provision in 2004, when an Internet service provider challenged the constitutionality of the NSL non-disclosure requirements. At the time, Marrero determined that the NSL provision of the PATRIOT Act violated the First and Fourth Amendments and also pointed out that the associated gag orders make it difficult, if not impossible, for recipients to consult legal counsel without fear of punishment. When the government appealed the ruling, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals acknowledged that the NSL provision was probably unconstitutional but returned the case back to Marrero for a second analysis after Congress altered and renewed the PATRIOT Act. Now that Marrero has reviewed the revised PATRIOT Act, he has determined that the NSL provision is still unconstitutional.

Judge Marrero's decision is a profound meditation on the necessity of the Separation of Powers doctrine and the important role that the judiciary plays in protecting civil liberties. Marrero writes about the potential cost of allowing the tradition of judicial oversight to be undermined by national security legislation. "The past is long, and so is the future we want to protect," writes Marrero. "But too often memory is short. The pages of this nation's jurisprudence cry out with compelling instances illustrating that, called upon to adjudicate claims of extraordinary assertions of executive or legislative or even state power, such as by the high degree of deference to the executive that the Government here contends [the NSL provision of the PATRIOT Act] demands of the courts, when the judiciary lowers its guard on the Constitution, it opens the door to far-reaching invasions of liberty."

Marrero notes that the effects of the 9/11 attack are still felt and "acknowledged by this Court, which sits just a few blocks from where the World Trade Center towers fell. The Court is also mindful of the executive's need to meet new threats to national security with new and ever more effective means of detecting and stopping those perils." Although Marrero recognizes the importance of preserving national security, he asserts in his decision that "The Constitution was designed so that the dangers of any given moment would never suffice as justification for discarding fundamental individual liberties or circumscribing the judiciary's unique role under our governmental system in protecting those liberties and upholding the rule of law."

Although this ruling is unsurprising in light of Marrero's earlier evaluation of the PATRIOT Act, it represents a significant blow to the Administration's efforts to expand the federal government's investigatory power beyond the scope of judicial oversight. Considering the FBI's long record of serious misconduct and intelligence violations, it is apparent that there is a clear need for broader judicial oversight. If the National Security Letter provision of the PATRIOT Act is finally eliminated or altered to adhere to the requirements established by the Constitution, it will be a considerable victory for American civil liberties.

HP unveils Blackbird 002

At the HP Your Life is the Show event last night, besides being in a room with stars like Shaun White, Serena Williams, and the guys from West Coast Choppers, Ars was also at the unveiling of the first gaming machine HP has released since its acquisition of Voodoo of September of 2006. It's called Blackbird 002. HangZhou Night Net

Rahul Sood, founder of Voodoo PC and now Chief Technology Officer for HP's gaming division, took the stage to reveal Blackbird 002. He started out by claiming that the new desktop was far better than any other desktop product out there, so much so that the others were "like a bag of sticks compared to a bag of golf clubs" on the golf course. Um, ??? Anwyay, let's take a look.

It became immediately apparent that Sood's team had focused on cooling. The entire chassis of the Blackbird is cast aluminum, and it sits a few inches above the base of the system. Sood claims this "create[s] a sixth side of cooling. The 1.1 kilowatt power supply is located just above the back… the system brings cold air up on the power supply," and throughout the rest of the system. The processor, not unlike many other offerings from competitors, is water cooled also, and Sood claims that Voodoo "knows liquid cooling. Better than anybody." Inside the chassis, there's also a "Voodoo DNA" label, which Sood claims is an "ingredient that signifies that passion of gamers."

Sood didn't discuss what kind of power was placed under the hood, however, he did say that the systems are "fully configurable," and that customers can "buy it with whatever combination of components they want… choose between NVIDIA and ATI video cards, and choose between Intel and AMD processors." The Blackbird 002 website confirms this: customers can choose among five processors, including four from Intel and one from AMD. The high-end Intel processor on the configuration list is the Core 2 Extreme x6800.

Hard drive options include a 120GB 10,000rpm Western Digital Raptor, or a choice of a 320GB, 500GB, or 750GB 7200rpm drive, and there's room for up to five drives which can be configured to run in a hot-swappable RAID. Memory choices include 1GB of 667Mhz, 800Mhz, or 1GHz with Corsair's PC2-8500DDR2 SDRAM SLI enabled. The system will support up to 8GB of memory across 4 DIMM slots.

So far, there isn't anything that really makes the competition look like a "bag of sticks." Instead, it looks like the Blackbird 002 is dead-on with competition like Alienware and Falcon Northwest, both of which offer systems with nearly exactly the same configurations. However, the Blackbird 002 is fully tool-less, which means anything can be added or removed without the need of a screw driver. It also comes with "industry standard components, the system uses a high-end motherboard from a high-end manufacturer," according to Sood. This makes upgrading parts easier, since nothing is of a proprietary size.

Some of the smaller accessories include the option for both Blu-ray and HD-DVD drives, a lighting system on the back so that plugging in the dark is easier, and a memory card reader/headset/USB port panel that hides at the top of the system.
According to one of the display hands, the Blackbird 002 will be released to the market with a low-end MSRP of $2,500 and a high-end price of $6,500 on September 15th.

We saw a lot of other great stuff coming out from HP this year, so stay tuned.

Primates and the roots of cognition

When it comes to explaining the brain power of different primates, one theory focuses on social intelligence, which suggests that the complex social structures of each species causes an evolutionary pressure on developing cognition. This is backed up by positive correlations between brain size and markers of social complexity for different primates. Humans, out of all the primates, are considered ultrasocial and possess cognitive abilities beyond that of any of our hairier relatives. HangZhou Night Net

Human cognition depends on transmitted behaviors—the skills we use in adult life in society, we learn as children. The cultural intelligence hypothesis postulates that humans have a species-specific set of social-cognitive skills that other higher primates don't have that allows us to more readily learn from others. For the first time, this cultural intelligence hypothesis has been tested, and the results published in Science1.

The researchers conducted a series of cognition tests on a group of young children, chimpanzees, and orangutans. The tests were designed to differentiate between the cultural intelligence hypothesis and the general intelligence hypothesis that predicts that humans are simply more intelligent than other primates.

The experiments sought to examine intelligence as it relates to the physical world (spatial memory, tool use, etc) and also to the social world (social learning, comprehension, intentions, etc). Interestingly, the human subjects only did significantly better in the latter series of tests, but the chimps and orangutans were as adept at the physical world tests as the infants. This provides support for the cultural intelligence hypothesis, suggesting that humans have evolved specific social-cognitive skills relevant to exchanging knowledge between individuals in cultural groups.

Science contains another paper on cognition in primates, this time on the ability of nonhuman primates to demonstrate reasoning2. As humans, we are able to use an individual's actions to infer or extrapolate something about their mental state, but it's not known whether this is a specifically human trait. In this study, researchers sought to understand whether or not different species of primate were able to make inferences from a demonstrated behavior.

The primates were presented with a pair of containers potentially containing food. A demonstrator would then gesture intentionally to the one containing food, or unintentionally, in order to determine whether the primate could infer the reasoning behind the demonstrator's actions. In the first test, the demonstrator would either intentionally grasp the one containing food, or flop their hand down in an accidental manner. A second set of experiments involved the demonstrator touching the correct container with their elbow, as they had both hands occupied, versus using their elbows despite having an empty hand. Distinguishing between these gestures suggests an inference of intention by the demonstrator, for example using his elbow as both hands were busy, or rationally grasping a container instead of accidentally touching it.

Three different species of primates were used, representing old world monkeys, new world monkeys, and apes. These groups of primates last shared a common ancestor with man around 40 million years ago, 20 million years ago, and ten million years ago, respectively. Prior research with human infants has shown they have the capacity to distinguish between intentional and rational behavior as compared to more accidental behavior. The researchers found that, like human infants, all three species of primate tested had the ability to discriminate between the intentional and seemingly unintentional actions of the demonstrator, suggesting that the cognitive skill to infer another individual's intentions dates back at least 40 million years into our history as a species.

1 Science, 2007. DOI: 10.1126/science.1146282

2 Science, 2007. DOI: 10.1126/science.1144663

Seagate’s new drives: 250GB notebook, hardware encrypted desktop

Seagate has announced two new drives today: one for the desktop and another for portables. The new desktop drive, the 1TB 7200 rpm Barracuda FDE, is the first drive of its size to contain an embedded encryption processor that encrypts all the data on the drive as it's written. In other words, it does something similar to Microsoft's BitLocker and Apple's FileVault but in hardware at a level beneath the operating system. HangZhou Night Net

The Barracuda FDE's DriveTrust encryption requires the user to enter a password prior to the boot-up stage so that the drive can decrypt the user's data, which has been encrypted by AES. This boot password can be paired with other pre-boot, hardware-based security measures, like biometrics and smartcards. Because the drive is unlocked prior to boot and remains accessible in the clear while the machine is powered on, this technology isn't quite yet suited for portables. The aforementioned BitLocker and FileVault solutions are aimed at portable users who worry about having their laptops stolen, and don't want hackers to have access to their data on waking the machine from sleep.

Seagate says that there's a DriveTrust SDK that software vendors can use "to build DriveTrust Technology-enabled applications such as access controls needed to manage encryption keys, passwords and other forms of authentication for large deployments," but this still doesn't suggest to me that the drive's encryption functionality could be readily integrated with a post-boot, login-based solution like FileVault. It's not a stretch to imagine that another revision of DriveTrust aimed at portables is on its way, however, and that it will feature such functionality.

For my part, I can already envision this drive as the basis for a new generation of consumer NAS devices that have a side-panel keypad for unlocking the device's drives on boot. Infrant, are you listening? Because I worry enough about thieves breaking into my home and walking out with my handily portable ReadyNAS NV+ that I jumped through hoops with OS X and various third-party apps to make sure that my nightly backups over my LAN are secure.

250GB of notebook storage ought to be enough for anybody

At 2.5" and 5400RPM the Momentus 5400.4 packs 250GB of storage into a very small space, but that particular combination of density and storage capacity is by no means a first. All the usual suspects (Wester Digital, Hitachi, Fujitsu, Samsung) have already introduced 2.5" drives this size or larger. But Seagate claims this new drive is the first notebook drive to use perpendicular recording, which cuts down on platter surface area to improve power efficiency and failure rates.

Note that Hitachi actually has a 250GB notebook drive with a similar encryption option as the Seagate 1TB desktop drive described above: the Hitachi Travelstar 7K200. Does anyone know if this thing's encryption functionality works in a MacBook Pro? If it does then I want one. I had problems with FileVault and had to disable it.

The Momentus will ship in the fourth quarter of this year, and the Barracuda FDE will ship in early 2008. There's no word on pricing at this time.

Early iPhone adopters receive $100 credit from Apple

Those who purchased iPhones before yesterday's "The Beat Goes On" event will be able to get a $100 credit to the Apple Store as compensation for their early-adopting ways, said Apple CEO Steve Jobs today. HangZhou Night Net

In a letter addressed to "all iPhone customers" on Apple's web site, Steve Jobs defended the decision to drop the 8GB iPhone's price from $599 to $399 less than two months after the device went on sale. The announcement, while met with some excitement, was also greeted with much gnashing of teeth by those who consider themselves the most loyal to the company. "iPhone is a breakthrough product, and we have the chance to 'go for it' this holiday season," Jobs wrote. "iPhone is so far ahead of the competition, and now it will be affordable by even more customers."

Jobs also reiterated his comments from this morning's USA Today in which he said that people upset about the price drop need to get used to the fact that technology moves quickly. "If you always wait for the next price cut or to buy the new improved model, you'll never buy any technology product because there is always something better and less expensive on the horizon," Jobs said in the letter.

At the time of the interview with the newspaper, he indicated that no refunds would be awarded to early adopters, although reports spread quickly throughout the web that some customers were having success pressuring Apple or AT&T's customer service into issuing them.

Uncle Steve doesn't "speak" to the world unless he has something interesting to say, however. Despite the fact that Apple feels it made the correct decision at the correct time, the company acknowledges that it has heard the complaints of the early-adopting crowd. Jobs said that a $100 store credit toward the purchase of any product in Apple retail stores or the online store would be awarded to anyone who bought an iPhone through Apple or AT&T (provided they paid full price, that is). Details of the offer are not yet available but will be posted to Apple's web site within the next week, he said.

Is a $100 rebate enough to satisfy the angry mobs? For some, it will only serve as a painful reminder that it costs money to be on the bleeding edge of technology, and Apple products are no exception. But for most, it's a decent compromise. Losing $100 stings only half as much as losing $200, even though customers will eventually have to spend that $100 on Apple products.

We will keep you updated when more details on the program become available.

DoJ argues against net neutrality in FCC filing, says “trust us”

The Department of Justice's Antitrust Division has two words for all the network neutrality backers who believe that a bit of government regulation could go a long way towards keeping the Internet open: trust us. In comments just filed with the Federal Communications Commission, the top lawyers from the Antitrust Division called preemptive network neutrality regulations a bad idea, instead arguing for a free market system in which the DoJ would step in to correct any antitrust violations after they occur. HangZhou Night Net

The filing is the DoJ's response to the FCC's continuing inquiry into "broadband industry practices." The FCC is trying to determine if some kind of network neutrality regulations might be necessary, and if so, what form they should take. The DoJ has no doubts, saying, "The FCC should be highly skeptical of calls to substitute special economic regulation of the Internet for free and open competition enforced by the antitrust laws."

The arguments in the paper are surprisingly lacking in depth, though one assumes that the Antitrust Division has a least some expertise in this area after examining several major telecom mergers over the last few years. Much of the filing is taken up with pointing out the incredible awesomeness of the free market, which makes possible "the kinds and quality of goods and services that consumers desire.” (How's that working out, xMac true believers?)

The basic arguments that relate directly to net neutrality are twofold. One, the DoJ points out that there have so far been few real violations of the neutrality principle in the US. When egregious examples have come to light (rural telco Madison River was smacked down by the FCC when it began blocking VoIP calls), they have been handled quickly. Rather than lay down a "prophylactic" system of regulations, the DoJ believes it would be better to leave the market unregulated and deal with problems as they come up.

The second major argument is that network operators need to massively expand their capacity and consumers will be stuck paying the bill if network neutrality is enacted. "Several studies have noted," says the DoJ, "that prohibiting broadband providers from charging content providers directly would lead consumers shouldering a disproportionate share of the costs necessary to upgrade network infrastructure."

Left unexplained is exactly how a network infrastructure has been paid for over the last 15 years as Internet traffic as exploded. Here's a hint: it hasn't been done by forcing every website to pay every major network operator if said website wants to reach customers a little faster. It also hasn't been done by sticking consumers with the bill in its entirety, as the DoJ filing appears to indicate. Content providers do pay for access to the network; they pay vast sums of cash for bandwidth, in fact, and that money filters out to the ISPs that carry their traffic through peering and carriage arrangements.

The US Post Office example also rears its ugly head. "No one challenges the benefits to society of these differentiated products; nor does anyone seriously propose that the United States Postal Service be banned from charging different fees for next-day delivery van for bulk mailers," says the DoJ. It's not quite clear how this is supposed to apply to the network neutrality debate. No one is seriously proposing that ISPs not be able to sell different speed and bandwidth tiers, either (ISPs already do this, of course, without complaint from anyone).

The report does makes a solid point about the “ambiguity of what conduct needs to be prohibited." With many different definitions of network neutrality, debaters sometimes sound like they're talking right past one another.

The filing has already attracted scrutiny from groups like Public Knowledge, which attacked the DoJ in a statement today. "The filing is filled with mischaracterizations of what Net Neutrality will preserve for consumers," said Gigi Sohn, president of the group. "Most blatantly, the DoJ failed to recognize that Net Neutrality is a protection for consumers and for Internet companies against discrimination by telephone and cable companies. Net Neutrality would not restrict the types of services that telephone and cable companies could offer; such a policy would make certain that those companies had to do so in a nondiscriminatory fashion as the law originally intended."

Companies and consumers both currently pay to access the Internet; the money comes from both ends of the connection. And both groups are paying for complete access to the "cloud." If network operators attempt to go after extra revenues from web operators, it would create a huge group of people "inside the cloud" that want to be paid. Instead of setting up a hot new web site, paying for plenty of bandwidth, and launching your business to the public, web site operators would need to pay not only their hosting provider but also Comcast, AT&T, Verizon, and a gazillion other networks that sit between them and their potential customers. Getting on the information superhighway thus becomes only the first stop on a very long toll road.

And, of course, let’s not forget that the most US consumers have only two choices (if they're lucky): cable and DSL. "Voting with your dollar" can be tricky or even impossible in many areas. Regulation may not be called for, but the DoJ report seems rather light on solid arguments to support that claim.

Gamers talk about words and concepts gaming taught them growing up

People say many negative things about games. They make you more violent, they make you less intelligent, and they're a waste of time. The thing is, many of us played games during our formative years, and as a thread over at SomethingAwful proves, we may have picked up more than we thought from our experiences. While the language over there may not be safe for work, I thought I'd pick out some highlights of what people learned gaming. HangZhou Night Net

The word "preemptive" "Thank you Final Fantasy VII and your random
encounters. I feel like games are a good way to teach words because
their meanings are so readily understood from context.""Friends and family compliment me on my vocabulary and spelling all the
time, and I am 100% sure it can be attributed to my early addiction to
video games. How else would a 6 year old know what a morning star or
halberd is?"Getting the word "voracious" right on an English test "Luckily I had logged hundreds of hours on Everquest killing voracious brutes outside KC"The word "Pilfer" "I learned this word from Breath of Fire 3… my favorite RPG. Ever since, I've preferred this word to any of
its synonyms.""The entire Legacy of Kain series turned me into a logophile. Example: 'To what depths had our dynasty plummeted, if these ghouls were the
descendants of my high-born brother? Were they so debased as to recruit
fledglings from the desiccated corpses here interred?'""From Sim City I learned the difference between residential, commercial, and industrial"

Some of these things may seem basic now, but when you're a child, you can pick up some nice words and concepts from gaming. I thought the thread was a great read, and it made me think of all the little facts and tidbits I've picked up from playing games. I would say my early-life infatuation with RPGs definitely helped my vocabulary. Let me leave you with the fact that one forum goer had this to say: "I'd have to say that old-school, text-based RPGs really improved my overall vocabulary and reading a lot. I've never had lower than an A+ in English."

One more: "I learned so much history and background to all the civilizations featured in Age of Empires II and it's expansion by reading the facts they give you before you play. That game made history fun."

Amen, brother.

Sony bans talk of custom firmware and emulators on official forums

Sony has never been comfortable with talk about cracking PlayStation Portables or homebrew hacks, but now the company is taking things an extra step and banned talk about such things on its official forums. This may be a tactical error, since one of the best aspects of the PSP is how crackable it is; no matter how many times Sony changes or updates the firmware, the scene will crack it in no time. A cracked PSP allows you to run games directly from the memory stick to save your battery, to run some classic console games via emulators, and to run homebrew games and applications. It also allows you to pirate games. You can guess which one annoys Sony the most. HangZhou Night Net

What aren't you allowed to talk about any more?

custom firmware themes, applications, custom bootup animations/sounds, and other materials made available only with use of homebrewprograms that may be used to aid or facilitate copyright violations
(such as Eboots, ripping software, decryption software) debugging software programs designed to emulate firmware TIFF applicationsprograms designed to provide for modification of the PSP® code or
firmware, or that would allow for any exploitation of the PSP® system
firmware flashing software applications designed to bypass PSP® system and game security features emulators, ROMs, CSO, ISOs, or any other unauthorized copies of copyrighted material software or hardware designed to aid or facilitate in cheating

"Any posting found to be in violation of this policy is subject to an immediate deletion," Sony explained further on the boards. "Members who continue to violate this policy may be subject to an immediate ban from this community, or other disciplinary actions as determined by the community Administrators." Unfortunately this is going to have the opposite effect, as we're all now talking about things like custom firmware, and emulators.

Sony, the more you make this an issue, the more it will be an issue. The better move may be to turn the other cheek, enjoy the added hardware sales all these features get you, and not give custom firmware any free press.