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Tuesday, June 17, 2008

iPhone killer: Samsung Omnia i900 offers 'everything'

Is it possible to write about Samsung's latest announcement without referring to the iPhone? Too late.


In Singapore for CommunicAsia 2008, Samsung has announced the i900 Omnia — a Windows Mobile 6.1 touchscreen smartphone. The fact that the i900 is being announced a week after the Steve Jobs iPhone 3G song and dance at WWDC 08 is probably no coincidence, nor is the fact that Samsung will ensure that the i900 is in stores by July (in Europe at any rate).

While the iPhone announcement may have left many tech-savvy pundits cold — well, those not foaming at the mouth with a bad case of Mac rabies — the i900 seems set to live up to its Latin name, Omnia, meaning everything.

In terms of the hardware, the iPhone comparisons are startling; with nearly identical physical dimensions, touchscreen input, accelerometer, GPS, and the choice of 8GB and 16GB models. In almost all other areas, the i900 leaves the iPhone for dead. It has 7.2Mbps HSDPA data, memory expansion up to an extra 16GB via microSDHC, a 5-megapixel camera with auto-focus and image stabilisation, and video codec recognition including DivX, Xvid, WMV and H.264. In fact, every feature absent in the iPhone 3G is found in the i900, including simple things like MMS and A2DP stereo Bluetooth.

The two major battlegrounds in this head-to-head will be the user interface and battery life: two major selling points for the first generation iPhone. Early battery life figures from Apple suggest the new 3G hardware may pull these figures back into line with the averages seen in its competition, but the interface will be no less sexy and easy-to-use.

Omnia uses Samsung's TouchWhiz UI, which includes a scrolling vertical panel of widgets on the home screen. It's a nifty idea and appears to be quite responsive, but we'll have to wait and see how the mobile public take to it. Battery life could be the Achilles' heel for the Omnia, not that we've seen official Samsung battery ratings yet, but all that tech will certainly chew through the juice.

To see how this battle plays out, we'll have to wait until July when we can get both phones in our Labs. There's no word yet on pricing for the i900 but we'll be sure to keep you in the loop as soon as we find out.

Joseph Hanlon travelled to CommunicAsia as a guest of Samsung.


Copyright © 2008 CNET Networks, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
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Inside Line Audi R8 Long Term update.


Pardon us if our Web site goes untended for the next three months. We've already made arrangements to have someone come by to feed our pets. We've kissed our loved ones good-bye.

You see, we've just signed the paperwork for a new long-term test car and the lines are already forming. Bribery and backstabbing are soon to follow.

We know you, our loyal readers, will understand. After all, you get it; you voted for it thrice on the Inside Line 2008 Readers' Most Wanted Awards, once for "Speed Over $30,000," once again for "Luxury Over $30,000," and again for "Instant Classic Over $30,000." Apparently the 2008 Audi R8 Quattro has already made quite an impression in the few months that it's been available.

That's right, Audi's new R8 supercar — rocking a 420-horsepower V8, Quattro all-wheel drive and Audi's R tronic automatic transmission — has just joined our long-term test fleet. Forgive us if we seem a little distracted.

What We Borrowed
When Audi agreed to supply us with a 2008 Audi R8 for long-term testing, there were two conditions. First, Audi stipulated that the term of the test would last for only three months instead of the customary year over which we evaluate long-term test cars. And two, we had to take a car already in Audi's media fleet.

We hesitated. Usually we lay down the law: "Bring us a brand-new car for 12 months or you can stuff it where the sun don't shine."

But rules are meant to be broken, especially when an Audi R8 is on the line. So when Audi called and said there's an R8 in Atlanta, Georgia, with 7,000 miles on its odometer and the R tronic automatic transmission (we would have preferred the six-speed manual), we said, "We'll take it."

Besides its Daytona Gray Pearl paint — a $650 option — our test car is equipped very much like the R8 in our recent supercar test entitled "Ultimate Performance Car Test: 2009 Nissan GT-R vs. the World." That means it's comprehensively equipped with convenience features, including a package of enhanced leather upholstery (in Tuscan Brown), which adds a few more swatches of high-quality hide to the tune of $5,500.

Also included is the $3,500 Premium package, which includes a hill-hold feature for the transmission, Bluetooth phone connectivity, a six-disc CD changer, auto-dimming side mirrors and Audi's system of parking sensors. Audi's navigation system adds another $2 grand to the sticker.

MSRP of our 2008 Audi R8 test vehicle is $132,745, which is nearly four-times the cost of our outgoing supercar, the 1984 Ferrari 308 GTSi. Still, it's not even twice the price of our soon-to-be long-term test car, the 2008 Nissan GT-R, and it can be considered a bargain when cross-shopped with a Lamborghini Gallardo or Porsche 911 Turbo.

Why We Borrowed It
When Audi AG (itself a subsidiary of Volkswagen AG) bought Lamborghini S.p.A. in 1998, the Germanification of the Raging Bull was expected to follow. We figured the ability to share the engineering and production of parts would allow Lamborghini to build cars that could be a usable means of conveyance rather than just outlandish status symbols that made loud noises.

What we didn't anticipate, however, was the parts could be shared in the other direction. Despite Audi's famed racing lineage, the thought of any Lambo bits falling into the Audi bins seemed out of the question. But then, Audi pulled the sheet off of the Le Mans Quattro concept at the 2003 Frankfurt Auto Show. It was built on a Lamborghini Gallardo chassis and looked like the future itself. The Italians must have slipped some grappa into the coffee at an all-company meeting and suggested that the Audi geeks put down the T-square and have some fun.

And unlike so many other show-cars-turned-production, the R8 (as it was henceforth to be known) wasn't visually neutered in the process. It still had the gaping maw, the overstated side-blade and the poised, athletic stance.

What the R8 did not have, though, was a billion horsepower 18-cylinder engine fueled by whale oil. The normally aspirated version of its corporate 420-hp 4.2-liter V8 didn't even feature rocket boosters, much less a turbocharger. And the combination of an all-wheel-drive system and a ride height that could easily clear speed bumps seemed entirely too practical. We began to suspect that this was perhaps not the supercar we expected. That it was a sheep in wolf's clothing.

Once we had a turn at the wheel, however, we learned the truth. The 2008 Audi R8 is a proper rival for the untouchable Porsche 911, at once extraordinary and yet useful. As the Acura NSX forced the hand of Ferrari in the 1990s, the Audi R8 has called out the 911. The Audi is a supercar that's designed to be driven every day.

And we intend to do just that.

The Mileage Mission
Our traditional mission in a long-term test is to hit 20,000 miles in 12 months. For you math majors out there (we had to get a calculator), this works out to 1,667 miles per month. Now multiply that number by the three months we have the car and that works out to a total of 5,001 miles in our short-term long-term test.

Well, our calculator can go to hell. We're still shooting for 20,000 miles, and we've begun our three-month test with a cross-country jaunt from Atlanta, Georgia, to Santa Monica, California.

What else should we do with Audi's new supercar? Comment on the R8's long-term road test blog and tell us. You've got a 2008 Audi R8 for three months in Southern California; what would you do?

Insane Wooden Bicycle Creations

image via KK’s Street Use

The modern bicycle as we know it, originated from the “dandy horse,” invented in 1816 by German baron Karl Friedrich Freiherr von Drais de Sauerbronn. Notwithstanding this, there have been countless bicycle-like designs beforehand. Indeed, yonks ago two-wheelers were not made of metal, they were all made of wood.

The first wooden bike design is popularly attributed to Leonardo Da Vinci, but this is not necessary true since many historians fail to imagine the Renaissance genius getting around on a small wooden bicycle. Perhaps its origin is even more ancient, although no evidence has been found.

Nowadays the wooden bike does not have to stand as a dependable transportation device since many consider building them, a form of art. Inventors all over the world work to forge more complex wooden bikes which could be used in different environments. For example, a number of inventors managed to create a tricycle capable of transportation on land as well as on water. It is called “Roadable Canoe For Seamless Transitions Between Land and Water” and was designed by the Autocanoe Company.

wooden bike

image: autocanoe.com

The Roadable Canoe looks like a long wooden tricycle when used on land and a single rear wheel is used to change direction on land as well as in the water. Pretty cool, huh?

wooden bike wooden bike

Another great example is probably Steve’s Recumbent Bicycle. Steve got the idea a few years ago and, being a wood worker, he decided to build a bike (made of wood of course). His enthusiasm combined with sweat, created two wood-framed recumbent bikes: Woody and TreeBike. Both seem very comfortable and practical.

wooden bike
image via country seat

An the beginning of the 20th century most bicycles were made of bamboo. Why? The answer may be that wood is lighter than metal – the bike therefore, is easier to transport and not a burden.

In Africa the main mode of transportation is the bicycle of course, and now through a project called “The Bamboo Bike” they want to revive the old fashion. Yet there are other places that have crazy wooden bikes…

wooden bike
image via KK’s Street Use

Every year a festival takes place in the Banaue region in the Philippines, it is a celebration of the tribal culture. In this particular festival, a number of men dressed in native costumes get on a wooden bikes and race each other.

It’s a surprisingly original celebration and definitely a spectacle. Dressed in their red outfits with feathers on their heads, you can just imagine them zooming past on their wooden, bipedal creations.

Although the wooden bicycle is centuries old, fashion is cyclical. I personally can’t wait ‘till they come back in fashion.

The Best-Paid Bench Warmers

It's every general manager's nightmare: shelling out millions for players who can't stay on the field. Whether because of chronic injuries or just poor play, some highly paid pros just don't hold up their end of the bargain.

read more | digg story

The United States Park Police vs. the Google Maps Car San Francsico’s Presidio


The Presidio of San Francsico hasn’t seen this much action since they filmed The Presidio, starrring Sean Connery. It appears that a mounted member of the United States Park Police briefly detained a Google Maps camera car for some sort of driving infraction this morning. Oh noes! Don’t impede this car - it’s gone to some interesting places. (But, there’s nothing scary about Street View, right?)

So this photo shows how the magic of Google Street View happens - you can see their method all laid out. In this case, Google is using a brand-spanking-new Toyota Prius gas-electric hybrid (wouldn’t a 50-state VW Jetta TDI diesel get better mileage?) and a rather tall metal mast with mad cameras and GPSes. Click to expand:

2584018127_c2701eaef8_o.jpg

Courtesy of damianspain of the San Francisco Bay area. Thanks Damian! Check out his flickrstream for lots of great shots of San Francisco, including a rare blue sky at the North Beach Festival.

(Normally, the Presidio is a quiet place, except for people fueding over the location of the new CAMP museum and the occasional coyote attack. And Hooverball - the kids these days make all sorts of noise throwing their old school medicine balls around.)

Keep up the good work, Google. And stay safe!

Why You Should Download Firefox 3 Right Now

Firefox 3 — available for download at 10am PDT Tuesday — is the culmination of a two-year quest to build the best browser ever. And while it’s not perfect, it comes pretty close.

read more | digg story

10 Highest Waterfalls on Earth [pics


If you’re like me, as a kid, you probably enjoyed throwing heavy objects off super-high buildings, just to see how long it took and what they looked like when they smashed. As a responsible adult, I now get my pleasure in gazing at water falling from extremely high cliffs and splashing into the rocks. It’s quite spectacular. We wanted to find out .

read more | digg story

Artificial Islands Would Generate Drinking Water in Dead Sea


In the Dead Sea region, control of water is a source of political friction and presents an ecological quandary that threatens the drinking supply for inhabitants. A project called ‘No Man’s Land’, would solve these issues thru a series of artificial islands that would provide recreation, tourist attractions, renewable energy, and create fresh water

read more | digg story

Why You Should Carry a Digital Camera At All Times

Last Tuesday, Lori Mehmen looked out her front door in Orchard, Iowa and this is what she saw. She had a digital camera handy, and somehow managed to take this photo before crapping her pants and taking cover. This, my friends, is why always having a camera nearby is helpful. Oh, and no one was injured during this tornado, fortunately. [NY Times]

many more pics here

Why Tiger's 2008 US Open Win Was His Best Yet

Rocco Mediate and Tiger Woods share a laugh after the shooting stops. (AP)
Rocco Mediate and Tiger Woods share a laugh after the shooting stops. (AP)





As Tiger Woods kissed the US Open Trophy, his coach had no trouble putting the guy's latest other-worldly accomplishment into perspective. It's his greatest win, given all of the things he had to overcome ... The amount of pain he played in, the lack of preparation, it's his greatest win and I know he feels the same way."

read more | digg story

Cosmopolitan Teaches Girls How to Break DRM & Pirate Music

I have new respect for this magazine.

read more | digg story

Wanted 'Nazi' found in the crowd at Euro 2008

A wanted war criminal, suspected of sending hundreds of people to death camps in Croatia during World War Two, has been spotted by a newspaper drinking in the atmosphere at Euro 2008. Milivoj Asner, who is now 95 years old, apparently lives in Klagenfurt in Austria.

read more | digg story

Mazda To Unveil New Nagare Concept Car


Mazda has released sketches of a new concept crossover sport-utility vehicle to be unveiled at the 2008 Moscow International Automobile Salon in late August.

read more | digg story

25 Great Places to Visit for Free


Gas at $4 a gallon? A trip around the country can still be a bargain. These 25 destinations teach a little bit about history, science, nature, and culture -- without costing a cent.

read more | digg story

Baby Born With 8 Limbs Takes Her First Steps [6 PICS]


Families in Lakshmi's remote Indian believed she was the reincarnation of the eight limbed Hindu goddess of wealth and fortune Lakshmi

read more | digg story

The Best T-Shirts at Bonnaroo

There's nothing like a four-day music festival to bring out the best today's T-shirts have to offer. A round-up of the notable shirts we saw over the weekend at Bonnaroo.

read more | digg story

iPhone Economy: Application developers swarm to iPhone

Can someone explain how so many developers are going to make money exactly? Or is this a typical herd effect that won't benefit anyone but Apple?

read more | digg story

Nude Censor Art Dance Video [SNSFW?]

See more funny videos at CollegeHumor

Rotating Wind Power Tower to begin construction in Dubai





Remember way back last May when we talked about the twirling tower that seemed, well, off the wall? Surprise, surprise, it is set to start construction in Dubai this month.

Each of the 59 floors of the tower will be able to rotate independently of each other, and in between them will be wind turbines to generate all the power needed to run the tower, plus, apparently, several others. The tower is expected to generate 10 times the power it needs through solar panels on the roof and 48 wind turbines, each of which are expected to generate as much as 0.3 megawatts of electricity, creating an estimated 1,200,000 kilowatt hours of energy annually. These are some seriously big numbers…and we’ll see how they pan out.

As for the construction, the floors will be made of 12 individual units all created in a factory and spit out fully complete, with plumbing, electrical, air conditioning and everything else in place. The floors will then be fitted to a concrete tower core According to architect David Fisher, designer of the building, this construction will make it highly earthquake resistant, as well as just plain neat to watch as folks push the button that makes their floor spin.

An international press conference is set for June 24 in New York. We’ll keep tabs.

Surrogates: Lynn native rates role in Willis movie currently filming


This wrecked bus parked in an Oxford Street lot will be a prop in the movie 'Surrogates' which will be filming in the downtown Lynn area this week. Item photo / Reba M. Saldanha

LYNN - When filming of the new Bruce Willis movie "Surrogates" resumes in the downtown business district Wednesday, a Lynn native will be in the spotlight.

Professional actor Jack Noseworthy is set to play a dominant role in the motorcycle and helicopter chase scenes along Munroe and Andrew streets from Wednesday through Friday.

Noseworthy, 38, the son of John and Thelma Noseworthy and an English High Class of 1982 graduate, will be joined by his stuntman, as well as a Willis double, and a second stuntman who will do the superstar's rough work.

"The motorcycle chase scene starts on Munroe Street, moves to Exchange and Central, and then onto Andrew Street where it comes to an end near an alleyway," said Patrick Donovan, assistant location manager for the Disney-produced action flick.

Although there's no foot chase scheduled in Lynn as previously reported, two helicopters will be used - one as part of action and the other as an aerial camera platform.

Ernie Malik, the film's publicist, said Willis will not be present during the upcoming round of moviemaking in Lynn. Willis' appearance during two days of shooting in Central Square in late May attracted a large crowd of fans and spectators.

"There will be no Mr. Willis this time. He's in Taunton working with the first unit," said Malik. "Right now we're scheduled for three days of shooting in Lynn. We'll be there Wednesday through Friday, and Lynn native Jack Noseworthy will be in some of the scenes."

Donovan said motor vehicle traffic along the streets used for the chase scene will be blocked during production. "Pedestrians will be allowed to pass, except when we're actually filming," he said, noting that cast extras and movie-related vehicles will be brought to the scene.

Additional filming is scheduled for this week in Central Square near The Daily Item building and along Mt. Vernon Street, Donovan said. Parking will be restricted on all streets involved in the movie production.

Noseworthy, who plays a villain named Strickland opposite Willis' police detective, grew up on Atkins Avenue and after high school attended the Boston Conservatory where he majored in dance. He has appeared on Broadway, on MTV, in mainstream movies, and in episodes of popular television shows such as CSI, Law and Order and Crossing Jordan. His career first kicked off when he auditioned for the touring company's production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical "Cats", in which he played the role of Mungojerrie. Other successes followed, including roles in "Jerome Robbins" and "A Chorus Line".

In a 1987 interview with The Item, the actor recalled those early days. After auditioning for "Cats" the choreographer told Noseworthy he was being considered for a part, but that he should return to school and not dwell on it.

"Two weeks went by, and it started to eat me alive," he said. "Did I get the role or didn't I? I had to know. I had to call."

Noseworthy called. "Hi, this is Jack...

"Oh, you haven't heard? We're offering you the role of Mungojerrie," said the voice from New York on the other end of the line.

"I tried to be cool. I really did. I didn't want them to know I was the new kid on the block. My heart was pounding," he said, chuckling at the recollection. "I hung up the phone and screamed. I called my parents. They had gone through the waiting with me. We all cried."

During another interview in 1993 with The Item, Noseworthy said, "An actor's job isn't acting. It's auditioning. Sometimes, that's very frustrating. But at least I'm pursuing my dreams. It's like building blocks. The foundation is finished. Now I'm working on the house."

"Surrogate" is a futuristic thriller in which Willis plays a detective forced to venture out of isolation and into the dangerous world to buy a replacement for his damaged robot clone. Some of the scenes from that shopping excursion were filmed at a former bank in Central Square that was transformed into a next-century electronics store.

Ving Rhames and Radha Mitchell also star in "Surrogates".

Surrogates: Movie magic is returning to Lynn


Lynn
By Thor Jourgensen


The Daily Item

Rick Vitali and his brother practice law on Andrew Street but Hollywood, not habeas corpus, has been on his mind this week.

The Vitalis and Andrew Street neighbors Christopher Joyce and David Peralta are located in the epicenter of the upcoming filming schedule for “Surrogates,” the futuristic movie starring Bruce Willis.

The star and a sizeable supporting cast took over Blake and Willow streets May 29 and 30. Starting Wednesday, they will occupy a swath of downtown ranging from Broad Street to Market Street.

There was no definitive word Friday from the production company confirming if Willis will be in town next week.

Anyone living or working downtown or doing business in the area can expect traffic detours, parking bans and film production crew members politely telling them to wait until filming halts or to move out of camera range.

“Spectator access will be limited and we are asking for cooperation,” Deputy Police Chief Kevin Coppinger said.

Beginning Wednesday, the Surrogates production crew will film an action sequence involving two helicopters. One will be part of the sequence and the other will film the scene.

The tentative film schedule involves filming on Munroe and Washington streets with filming shifting to the walkway between Washington Street and Central Square underneath the commuter rail tracks late Wednesday.

Filming will switch to Exchange and Mount Vernon streets on Thursday and include a movie set depicting a car wreck at Andrew and Washington streets. Traffic and parking will be limited on main streets running through Central Square and side streets for all or part of Thursday.

The action shifts to Andrew Street on Friday where part of the action will take place in an alleyway below street level bordering 56 Andrew St. where the Vitalis have a ground floor office.

“We think it’s great. This could be our big break,” said Rick Vitali.

Parking will be off limits on Munroe Street and Washington Street from Andrew to Union Street as well as Exchange Street, Central Square and Willow Street from Central Square to Oxford Street.

“A lot of areas will be affected with no parking,” said Andrea Scalise, aide to Mayor Edward J. Clancy, Jr.

Coppinger urged drivers to park on filming days in the Market Street garage.

The Andrew Street parking lot will be closed most likely on Thursday and Friday and tentative plans call for allowing traffic to travel in both directions on Mount Vernon Street beginning Wednesday.

The “Third Thursday” international fair scheduled for Central Square will be relocated from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. to Heritage State Park near Seaport Landing.

Area businesses like Vitali’s will be open while others, like Eastern Bank, will see their daily operations limited. The bank will be open but its Oxford Street parking lot will be closed next Thursday and Friday and its drive through window will be closed beginning Tuesday through Saturday.

Surrogates producers hired four Lynn police officers to work a traffic detail two weeks ago and the moviemakers will hire three times that number next week to handle pedestrian and vehicle traffic flow.

Vitali will be welcoming the interruption.

“It brings goodwill into downtown,” he said.

Stem Cells used to abate elderly muscle atrophy


Restoring youth: Older muscles typically grow new cells slower than young ones do, but inhibiting a key pathway in the stem cells of aging mice appears to restore youthful vigor. In these two images, muscle stem cells are shown in red, and muscle fibers in green. The top image, which shows muscle from older mice given the inhibitory treatment, clearly exhibits more muscle growth than the bottom one, which shows muscle from untreated aging mice.
Credit: UC Berkley

Manipulating stem cells in old muscle can restore youth to aging tissue, according to research from the University of California, Berkeley. Scientists altered the activity of a molecular pathway to make stem cells in older tissue produce new muscle fibers at levels comparable to young stem cells. They say that their findings may one day lead to novel therapies for age-related diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, as well as possibly to the reversal of the atrophying effect of aging.

"When we exert ourselves, like going to the gym or running after the bus, we always damage muscles which are being replaced over time [by] muscle stem cells," says Irina Conboy, assistant professor of bioengineering and an investigator at the Berkeley Stem Cell Center. "But when we get older, cell death is faster than cell replacement."

Muscle wasting--loss of muscle mass--occurs both during aging and in a number of diseases, such as cancer and muscular dystrophy. Because muscle loss often correlates with poor health outcomes, pharmaceutical companies have been striving to find new treatments that boost muscle mass without the harmful side effects of anabolic steroids.

In previous research, Conboy's team found that old stem cells, placed in culture with young blood and muscle tissue, were able to churn out new cells at a speedier rate. Conversely, young stem cells exposed to old tissue grew prematurely old, significantly scaling back new-cell production. Conboy reasoned that stem cells must receive different chemical cues in youth versus in old age, and identifying and manipulating those cues may successfully restore youth to old muscle.

In their current study, published in the online edition of the journal Nature, Conboy and her team found that old muscle produces elevated levels of a molecule called TGF-beta, which is known to inhibit muscle growth. The researchers then showed that the muscle-deteriorating effects of TGF-beta can be reversed by blocking its pathway in old mice.

In the experiments, the researchers used RNA interference, which can silence specific genes, to inhibit the molecules that act downstream of TGF-beta to prevent cells from multiplying. They then locally injured the muscles of treated mice, as well as untreated old and young mice, by injecting a small amount of snake venom, which killed muscle tissue in the immediate vicinity.

After five days, the team found that the young mice were able to produce healthy cells to replace damaged tissue. The treated older mice, whose inhibitory pathways were suppressed, were able to regenerate new cells in much the same way. Not surprisingly, old untreated mice did not recover as well and developed fibroblasts and scar tissue around the injured site.

Conboy says that regulating the TGF-beta pathway may provide a therapeutic possibility for treating age-related muscle disorders. However, she adds that shutting down the pathway altogether may lead to unwanted consequences, such as tumor growth and other side effects. She says that the team's next goal is to find an appropriate balance between TGF-beta activity and another protein, called Notch, which has previously been shown to successfully rejuvenate old tissue.

Both proteins bind to the same receptors on the surface of stem cells and therefore naturally compete with each other. "In physiologically young animals, Notch is high and TGF-beta is low, and in old animals, it's the opposite," says Conboy. "These levels are definitely regulated by the aging process, but we don't yet know what is the cause."

Conboy says that this relationship reflects an unfortunate cycle in aging: as levels of Notch drop off with age, TGF-beta is left with ample room to inhibit stem cells, further suppressing the body's ability to repair damaged tissue. "It's a self-imposed inhibition of regeneration," says Conboy.

Michael Rudnicki, director of the Regenerative Medicine Program and the Sprott Centre for Stem Cell Research at the Ottawa Health Research Institute, says that while finding appropriate calibrations may prove challenging, identifying the relationship between Notch and TGF-beta pathways may be a first step in developing therapies for a range of diseases.

Notch and TGF-beta are present in the stem cells of other organs, including the brain, so a similar approach may be a way of repairing tissue in these other organs. "One can think about targets for drug development to reverse or ameliorate many phenomena," says Rudnicki. "Whether it will reverse aging, I don't know, but it would be helpful for soft tissue damage or following a stroke."

US TOP GEAR hosts officially announced

BURBANK, Calif. — There's an interesting three-man cast for the U.S. version of Top Gear, the famous British car show, NBC has announced. Production is set to start this month with comedian and radio personality Adam Carolla, Eric Stromer and Tanner Foust at the helm. BBC America is producing the program for the U.S. An on-air date was not yet released.

NBC Entertainment executive Craig Plestis calls Top Gear "a proven winner worldwide" and says the trio of hosts is "a perfect match of humor, insider know-how and priceless track experience." The hosts will be shown on road trips, test-drives and stunt events involving "the world's most amazing cars," BBC America says.

The BBC2 program Top Gear has been on the air since 1977 and is digitally available in 100 countries.

Carolla is currently host of the Los Angeles-based syndicated radio show The Adam Carolla Show on KLSX-FM. He has also been on Comedy Central and MTV programs including The Man Show and Loveline and bills himself as a car collector with possessions including an Audi S4 and "several" Lamborghinis.

Foust is a stunt driver who has appeared in The Dukes of Hazzard, The Bourne Ultimatum, and other action films and who was the 2007 X Games Rally champion and the 2007 Formula Drift Pro Drift champion. He was the host of the program SuperCars Exposed on the Speed cable channel and says "a tricked-out [BMW] M3" is his personal "car of choice."

Stromer's car credentials are murkier. He hosted the HGTV channel's Over Your Head program and appears on the Clean Sweep program on TLC and has a background in construction. His preferred ride is a Toyota Camry Hybrid, he says.

What this means to you: The sun may never again set on the Top Gear empire. — Laura Sky Brown, Correspondent

Acoustic Cloaking - think of the applications

Homes and Hotels, submarines and naval vessels, movie theaters, airplanes, vacuum cleaners, power tools etc etc.


Sound shield: An acoustic cloak comprising alternating layers of sound-scattering materials should make objects invisible to sonar--and insulated from sound. In this computer-generated image, a cylinder (green circle) is coated with 200 layers of such a material, which was found to be the optimal design. Sound waves moving from left to right (their peaks and troughs are represented by red and blue lines) flow past the object and reform on the other side with no distortion.
Credit: New Journal of Physics

City dwellers, rest easy. Engineers have designed a material that redirects sounds and could be used in buildings to shield them from noises. The sound-shielding material, which, if actually made, would be the first acoustic cloaking device, could also be useful in hiding military ships and other vessels from sonar.

Acoustic cloaking materials, which direct sound waves around an object so that they re-form on the other side with no distortion, do not exist in nature. But engineers led by José Sánchez-Dehesa at the Polytechnic University of Valencia, in Spain, have created a plan for making them, using alternating layers of two different materials. These materials would comprise arrays of sonic crystals--patterns of small rods made of aluminum or other materials that allow some sound waves to pass while blocking the passage of others.

The design of the cloaking materials, published in the New Journal of Physics, shows that making an acoustic shield "can be done in a straightforward and simple way," says Steven Cummer, an electrical engineer at Duke University who was involved in the construction of the first light cloak in 2006.

Building on the theoretical work of John Pendry at Imperial College in London, a group at Duke University led by David R. Smith and including Cummer created a shield that makes objects invisible to a particular frequency of microwave light. They used metamaterials, artificially structured composites designed to have properties unmatched by natural materials. For about 10 years, engineers have been designing metamaterials to manipulate light in the hope of creating new display technologies, microscope lenses, and computer chips dense with transistors. The new acoustic-cloak recipe builds on Cummer's recent theoretical work on acoustic materials, and it shows that metamaterials can be used to manipulate sound waves as well as light waves. Cummer, who was not involved in Sánchez-Dehesa's work, says that it should now be possible to fabricate an acoustic cloak.

In order for a material to work as an acoustic cloak, the speed of sound passing through it must be direction dependent. That is, sound waves traveling through the shielding material from one direction must move at a different speed than waves traveling in a perpendicular direction. These differences create scattering effects that should direct sound waves to flow over a shielded object like water flowing around a rock. Because the waves return to their original conformation after passing such a shielded object, the object effectively becomes invisible to sonar. And a listener inside such a shield wouldn't hear the sounds flowing around.

Sánchez-Dehesa has modeled a two-dimensional acoustic cloak but says that extrapolating his work to three dimensions should be straightforward. "We're proposing a cloak for any shape," he says. Hiding warships from sonar is one possible application. But Sánchez-Dehesa is interested in the problem of noise generally. "In principle," he says, "it's possible to make this cloak very thin," on the order of centimeters. "If we're able to design a wall to put in a house to screen external noise, it would be very nice." Cummer imagines columns for concert halls that do structural work but, acoustically, are effectively not there.

Unlike light cloaks, which can shield objects from light of only one frequency, acoustic cloaks should be able to shield an object to a broad range of frequencies. According to Einstein's theory of special relativity, light shields can only work at one wavelength. "As a wave moves around a [cloaking] material, it has to go faster than it does through the air," explains Cummer. According to the laws of physics, it's not possible to do this at more than one frequency at a time. The speed of sound, however, is not a universal constant, so it should be possible to craft broadband acoustic cloaks.

According to Sánchez-Dehesa's design, the thicknesses of the alternating layers making up the sound shield must be very carefully controlled. Cummer says that this will present an engineering challenge, but not an insurmountable one. Indeed, says Cummer, the design for a sound shield is "giving engineered acoustic materials a big push forward."


Breaking Phone call encryption

Might not be far off for Internet telephony

Bandwidth savings, security loss: Eavesdroppers could listen for specific phrases in encrypted phone calls sent over the Internet, if the calls use a bandwidth-savings tool called variable-bit-rate encoding. Different sounds produce different quantities of information. At right, that difference can be seen in the sounds’ energy distributions across a range of frequencies. With variable-bit-rate encoding, different quantities of information yield different-sized data packets, represented at left as color coding across the audio waveform. An eavesdropper could listen for particular phrases by looking for patterns in the sizes of consecutive packets.
Credit: Charles Wright/Johns Hopkins University

A technique for saving bandwidth in Internet phone calls could undermine their security, according to research recently presented at the IEEE Symposium on Security and Privacy. Johns Hopkins University researchers showed that, in encrypted phone calls using a certain combination of technologies, preselected phrases can be spotted up to 50 percent of the time on average, and up to 90 percent of the time under optimal conditions.

Voice-over-Internet-protocol (VoIP) phone calls, in which a computer converts a voice signal into data packets and sends them over the Internet, are increasingly popular for personal and business communication. Although most VoIP systems don't yet use encryption, says Jason Ostrom, director of the VoIP-exploitation research lab at Sipera Systems, it's absolutely necessary, particularly for business users. In many cases, security measures aren't in place because companies haven't realized how vulnerable VoIP can be, he says. He cites an assessment that he did for a hotel that uses VoIP phones, in which he showed that an attacker could access and record guests' calls using a laptop plugged into a standard wall connection. The Johns Hopkins researchers hope that pointing out possible holes in voice encryption systems can help ensure their security when they become more commonplace.

The Johns Hopkins attack takes advantage of a compression technique called variable-bit-rate encoding, which is sometimes used to save bandwidth in VoIP calls, explains Charles Wright, lead author of the paper. (Wright, who recently received his PhD from Johns Hopkins, will join the technical staff at the MIT Lincoln Laboratory in August.) Variable-bit-rate encoding, Wright says, adjusts the size of data packets being sent over the Internet based on how much information they actually contain. For example, when the person on one end of a VoIP call is listening rather than speaking, the packets sent from that person's computer shrink significantly. Also, packets containing certain sounds, such as "s" or "f," can take up less space than those containing more-complex sounds, such as vowels.

Encrypting the packets after they've been compressed scrambles their contents, making them look like gibberish. But it doesn't change their size, which is what would give away information to potential eavesdroppers.

In their tests, the Hopkins researchers simulated the packets that a combination of compression and encryption would produce for particular phrases. While an example of the way that a targeted speaker pronounced a particular phrase would give eavesdroppers a big advantage, they could still simulate the phrase using a pronunciation dictionary and a database of sample sounds from multiple speakers. The researchers can create many versions of the sounds in the phrase, which lets them accommodate different accents and other variations in pronunciation. They then use probabilistic methods to look for likely instances of the phrase. Wright says that the method can identify the phrase, on average, about half the time that it occurs, and that about half of the phrases it flags turn out to be exact matches of the desired phrase. In some circumstances, as when the phrases are longer, or when the speakers are particularly well matched to the simulated versions of the phrase, the accuracy became as high as 90 percent, Wright says. Because eavesdroppers have to know what phrase they're listening for, Wright says, "the threat would be more to technical, professional jargon than to an informal call between friends or family members."

While 50 percent accuracy may not sound like much, "these are encrypted conversations, so your expectation is not to be able to do this at all," says Fabian Monrose, an associate professor of computer science at Johns Hopkins, who was also involved in the research.

Matt Bishop, a professor of computer science at the University of California, Davis, agrees. "Fifty percent is quite scary," he says, "because what it means is that, in essence, you could potentially understand a fair portion of the conversation. The whole purpose of encryption is to prevent understanding." He adds that the attack is made more realistic by its ability to simulate phrases from standard sample sounds, which would be easier for an attacker to obtain than speech samples from the person he or she wants to spy on.

Sipera Systems' Ostrom says that he found the research particularly interesting "because it shows that you shouldn't feel safe just because you're using a security control. You still have to validate it to ensure that it meets your requirements." He adds, "In VoIP, there's always a fight between quality of service and security." The researchers' attack is a good example, he says, because it explores how an effort to improve quality of service by reducing bandwidth usage can affect efforts to protect calls. However, Ostrom notes that most corporations aren't currently using variable-bit-rate encoding and wouldn't now be at risk.

Wright and Monrose say that they see their work as more of a cautionary tale. Monrose says that recently he has been seeing drafts of technical specifications that call for variable-bit-rate encoders. "Our gut reaction was, this has privacy implications that people have not well studied," he says. The researchers say that they hope their work will prevent people from making design decisions in isolation and encourage them to think about solutions that will increase both efficiency and security. "If we start combining tools the way a lot of the specifications are calling for," Monrose says, "then we need to make sure that we do it in the right way."

As prices fall for big banks, dividend cuts may not be far behind


NEW YORK (Fortune) -- Falling bank stock prices are a warning to investors not to get too attached to those fat dividend checks.

The latest struggling lender to sock shareholders is Cleveland-based KeyCorp (KEY, Fortune 500), whose shares tumbled 24% Thursday after the bank said it would slash its quarterly dividend in half to conserve $200 million annually.

But with inflation worries driving up interest rates and house prices still tumbling, the market is betting Key won't be the last bank to cut its dividend. Unusually high dividend yields could point to coming dividend cuts at banks ranging from giants Bank of America (BAC, Fortune 500) and Wachovia (WB, Fortune 500) to regionals such as Fifth Third (FITB, Fortune 500) and Regions Financial (RF, Fortune 500).

The yield is the result of dividing the annual stated dividend payout by the current stock price. A higher number is typically better for investors, of course, because it means a bigger income stream relative to how much they've invested.

But in a credit crunch-obsessed market, a high dividend yield can actually be a warning signal. That's because an increase in the bank's dividend isn't the only factor that can cause the dividend yield to rise. So can a decrease in its stock price.

And with banks facing sharply reduced earnings prospects due to rising credit losses and tightening lending standards, a high yield can spell trouble ahead.

Gary Townsend, CEO of Hill-Townsend Capital in Chevy Chase, Md., says bank stocks historically have yielded in the range of 3% to 4%. So any stock with a yield in the high single digits can be viewed as a candidate for a future dividend cutback.

"When you get to about 8%, that speculation becomes quite pronounced," says Townsend, a former Wall Street bank analyst.

Which banks are in danger?

Some of the big banks with yields around that level include Bank of America, which as a yield of almost 9% and Wachovia, whose recent price swoon has left the stock yielding more than 8% even after a dividend cut in April.

Other candidates for dividend cuts include double-digit yielders Fifth Third of Cincinnati, which yields 14% after Friday's double-digit selloff; Regions of Birmingham, Ala., which yields 11%; and U.K.-based Barclays (BCS), which recently yielded 13%.

For now, the banks aren't signaling any intention to cut their dividends. Representatives from BofA, Wachovia, Fifth Third and Regions didn't immediately reply to requests for comment.

Barclays, which isn't due to make a semiannual dividend declaration until August, told analysts on a conference call last month that it hadn't made a decision on its payout.

"We're active managers of capital and we have a range of options. We're explicitly keeping all of them open today," finance director Chris Lucas said back on May 15. "We're aware of the importance that shareholders place on dividends."

To be sure, not every bank is cutting back. CNNMoney's Paul R. La Monica recently rattled off a list of banks whose cautious underwriting and conservative financing means their dividends are probably safe.

But no one is immune from scrutiny, given that even banks that have already reduced their dividends have, under stress, gone on to do so again.

Washington Mutual (WM, Fortune 500), for instance, cut its quarterly dividend to 15 cents from 56 cents back in December. WaMu then cut it again -- to a penny a share -- in April when it sold a big stake to a group led by private equity firm TPG.

Not everyone believes a big dividend yield points to a future cutback though.

Oppenheimer analyst Meredith Whitney, who was the first Wall Street analyst to predict (correctly) a dividend reduction at Citi, said last week that a chat with BofA chief Ken Lewis led her to conclude Bank of America's dividend was safe.

Lewis later said that while he hasn't explicitly defended the bank's current dividend, which runs $2.56 a share annually, he thinks the bank would only reconsider its payout if the economy suffers a sharp slowdown - an outcome he doesn't foresee.

Analyst: Credit Trends 'Are Quite Negative'

But Townsend wrote last week at the bankstocks.com Web site that he expects BofA to cut its dividend by about 40% later this year to reduce the strain on its capital base.

Townsend points to another dividend number - the bank's profit payout ratio, which reflects the proportion of annual earnings the bank sends out to investors as common dividends - as supporting that analysis.

He estimates BofA will spend all its projected net income this year and nearly three-quarters of its profit next year on common dividends - a trend he calls unsustainable. "The market is of a mind this dividend is too high," he says.

The dividend yield and the earnings payout ratio aren't the only numbers to consider either. Banks that have raised capital via preferred stock sales - such as Citi and Bank of America -- also agree to issue preferred dividends. And those must be paid out before any common dividends can be paid.

Finally, with house prices falling, mortgage defaults on the rise and employment growth weak, credit trends right now "are quite negative," Townsend says.

That gives banks another reason to be careful about not paying out too much in dividends -- and shareholders in high-yielding bank stocks another cause for concern. To top of page

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