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March 2004
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Listen Carefully


I never realized iTunes was so powerful....

The following is a direct quote from the iTunes Terms & Conditions. We all expect you to remember it well the next time you find yourself operating a nuclear reactor!


Now, I'm not all that clear on what constitutes environmental damage, but be careful anyway. Don't try to say that no-one warned you...

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Computer helps map ancient Rome

BBC NEWS | Science/Nature | Computer helps map ancient Rome

Progress has been made in piecing together the Forma Urbis Romae, a map of Rome carved into stone slabs about AD 210 but later broken into fragments.

Measuring 18m by 14m, it was originally hung in the Templum Pacis, one of the ancient city's major public landmarks.

The map was remarkably accurate but researchers looking for new sites to excavate in Rome had only managed to fit back together a few of the pieces. Now a Stanford University computer program is now being used to aid restoration.

So complicated is the jumble of parts that for decades the map pieces have been referred to as "the biggest jigsaw in the world".

Every few years, a researcher has suggested a match between two pieces. And now, the new computer program produced by Stanford's Dr David Koller has found seven high-probability matches and a host of other possibilities.

"When David put up a slide of his findings at a recent conference there was an audible gasp from the audience," said Professor Marc Levoy, also of Stanford University.

With the new computer analysis, experts are predicting a huge expansion in knowledge of the map and a new insight into ancient Rome.

The Forma Urbis showed almost every feature of the city from the Coliseum and the Circus Maximus, where the chariot races took place, down to individual shops and even staircases. But shortly after the fall of Rome, it is thought that the lower part of the map was torn from the wall, probably to be burned in kilns to make lime for cement.

It may have lain for centuries as just a heap of jumbled fragments, occasionally plundered for other building works.

During the Renaissance, some recognised its importance, but still the pieces continued to be dispersed.

"The map will never be fully recovered; no more than 15% of it survives and that is in 1,186 pieces," Professor Levoy told BBC News Online.

"But there is much about ancient Rome hidden in this jigsaw, and many new computer techniques required to extract it.

"The first big task was to scan and digitise the existing pieces," Professor Levoy said. "In doing so, we have created the largest and most detailed model of a cultural artefact."

The Stanford team has also made its data available to anyone via the internet.

"Anyone can see our 3D models of the map fragments but our software does not allow them to download details of the fragments' geometry."

The need for security regarding the map fragments was dictated by Italian researchers but it is an interesting aspect of the database that Levoy believes may have other uses.

The algorithms developed for matching pieces could perhaps be employed in other areas of science where pattern recognition is required, such as looking for structure within the data obtained by the Human Genome Project.

New directions

Town planners and scientists studying urban sprawl may also benefit from the ancient map. The pieces of the Forma Urbis show a mix of monuments, shops, private houses and open spaces which is remarkable given the size of the city at the time. The relationship of private and public spaces has attracted some researchers' interest as a way to tackle town planning today.

But Professor Levoy believes the map will be forever unfinished business.

"With so little of it remaining, we will never match all the pieces we have, but what we can do is gain an insight into unexcavated parts of the city and point archaeologists towards particular sites.

"It's a curious feeling to be walking down a street in Rome and know what was on the same street some 2,000 years before."

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Modules idea for university entry

BBC Education

Exam experts are considering whether university applicants might be judged on the grades in their individual A-level modules, to sort out the best.

Some university courses are swamped with well-qualified applicants. But it is possible to get an A overall while scoring less on some of the six modules that make up each A-level. So if universities saw the module grades they would have a better idea of people's strengths and weaknesses - typically across three subjects.

The chief executive of the QCA exams regulator, Ken Boston, said in a recent speech that it would be less risky than devising a completely new grading scale. He gave as an example the English Literature exam set in 2002 by the OCR board. Overall, 26.5% of candidates achieved an A - but the proportion who did so in all six modules was just 6.2%.

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Illuminating the Dark Ages

American Institute of Physics Bulletin of Physics News Number 683 April 29, 2004 by Phillip F. Schewe, Ben Stein

In the very early universe the so called "dark age" comes after the time of the first atoms---a moment when suddenly neutral atoms, mostly hydrogen, could form, allowing photons to stream freely, photons we now see as the microwave background---but before the first stars formed.

But maybe this era needn't be so dark. Just as numerous finds of arts and crafts from the European dark ages have helped to enlighten us on what the sixth to the eleventh centuries were like, so too some bits of light from the cosmic dark ages might illuminate that epoch.

Abraham Loeb and Matias Zaldarriaga of Harvard believe that the early, cold, neutral hydrogen can be made to speak, as it were. These atoms, in a redshift window of about 30 to 100, would be colder than the background radiation.

The atoms would absorb photons and cause a deficit in the microwave background at cold hydrogen's characteristic wavelength of 21 centimeters.

This absorption wavelength, in turn, would be stretched out, courtesy of the universal expansion of the universe, to a wavelength of 6-21 meters or so. Because the cosmic hydrogen is not uniform, the level of absorption varies across the sky and the microwave background would show anisotropies at these long wavelengths. These anisotropies could be sought using special radio interferometers.

Just as microwave telescopes mapping the early sky see minute temperature variations, so the primordial hydrogen could also be mapped. This map might well show the influence of dark matter through its influence in shepherding early hydrogen.

Interest in this hydrogen has been expressed before, but the Harvard proposal is the first to be specific about how to search for information imprinted in the dark-age atom distribution.

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UK Foresight


The bread-and-butter stuff is below. But the latest UK publication on Science is a fascinating piece of imaginative writing called "Tales from the Future". It is available as a .pdf file here and is well worth a browse.

Foresight aims to provide challenging visions of the future, to ensure effective strategies now. It does this by providing a core of skills in science-based futures projects and unequalled access to leaders in government, business and science.   Foresight operates through a fluid, rolling programme that looks at 3 or 4 areas at any one time. The starting point for a project area is either: a key issue where science holds the promise of solutions; or, an area of cutting edge science where the potential applications and technologies have yet to be considered and articulated.

The current projects are: Brain Science, Addiction and Drugs; Cyber Trust and Crime Prevention; Exploiting the Electromagnetic Spectrum; and Flood and Coastal Defence.

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New Land Speed Record

Physics News Update

A land speed record for data flow, 6.25 gigabits per second (average rate over 10 minutes) moving over an 11,000-km course, has been set a consortium of scientists form the CERN lab in Geneva and Caltech in Pasadena.

This new result was announced at the Spring 2004 Internet2 Member Meeting in Arlington, Virginia.

The World Wide Web got its start at CERN, where particle physicists had to find ways of sending huge loads of data to collaborators.

CERN will again need huge flow rates, perhaps at the 10-gigabit-per-second level, when they begin physics experiments at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) now under construction. (More information at Caltech website.)

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DNA computers to fight diseases

BBC Science

Israeli scientists have developed tiny devices able to detect signs of cancer, and release drugs to treat the disease.

The work is still test-tube-based but it could lead to "nano-clinics" which remain in the body, sensing illnesses and then treating them automatically. The devices are so small that roughly a trillion of them can fit into a microlitre (a millionth of a litre).

The research is led by Ehud Shapiro from the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot and is published in the journal Nature. "The devices are made of biological molecules - DNA; synthetic DNA molecules which we produced to our design, and a naturally occurring enzyme which cuts DNA," Professor Shapiro told BBC News. They look like chains consisting of three main segments.

The first segment senses levels of substances which are produced by cancerous cells. It functions like a computer running through a simple algorithm. One algorithm which the team tested is intended to diagnose prostate cancer.

It says that if levels of two messenger RNA molecules (PPAP2B and GSTP1) are lower than usual, and levels of two others (PIM1 and HPN) are elevated, there must be prostate cancer cells in the vicinity.

If this analytical/computational segment "decides" that cancer is present, it tells the second segment to release the third segment, which is an anti-cancer drug - in this case, consisting of so-called anti-sense DNA.

This has the effect of suppressing gene activity involved in the cancer.

"We demonstrated one particular 'computer' for diagnosing prostate cancer and another 'computer' for diagnosing small-cell lung cancer," Professor Shapiro said. "We mixed them together in solution with various disease conditions, and the right computer diagnosed the right disease in all conditions."

So far these devices have only been trialled in test-tube solutions, and several decades of further work are needed before research could begin in humans. But one day nano-scale devices like these could be used inside our bodies to protect against or treat cancers and other diseases.

"The best way to think about it is as a smart drug," suggested Professor Shapiro. "Today, we bombard the body with drugs that go everywhere and operate everywhere and at any time. And what we designed is a smart drug that has some conditions encoded for its release; and it will be released and activated only at the right time and at the right location when a disease is diagnosed."

Dr Lesley Walker, director of cancer information at Cancer Research UK, said: "This work gives us some insight into the rapid progress being made in this field and the blurring of the divisions between the computer and natural sciences. They have moved the concept of the physician in the body - or more specifically here, an entire cancer team in the body - one whole step closer to reality. Inevitably, there's a huge amount of work to be done before molecular computers like this can be used to treat people. In the meantime, the global research effort to identify the perfect targets for treatment in different cancers will ensure that the biomolecular computers of the future have the best possible programmes."

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Augmented Reality Games

Fraunhofer FIT - NetAttack

Computer games -- and their virtual 3D worlds in particular -- have been a main driver of very rapid technological development over the past few years, creating a significant segment of the international entertainment industry. Today, the PC games and console games that dominate the market tie the players to their monitors and controls. Games on mobile phones or PDAs may be played anywhere, but they also aim to focus the players' attention away from their real environments.

Just a few advanced games go beyond the virtual world- paradigm, attempt to integrate the gamers' real environment in the game and to let the players perceive -- and act in -- their actual physical environment. Augmented Reality technologies now let us do just that, allowing game designers to start from a real physical environment and enhance it with virtual objects to create novel exciting games in an augmented reality-setting.

NetAttack is one such novel indoor / outdoor mixed reality computer-based game whose playing field is a real physical setting where the players can move about freely.

A cracker team consists of an Agent and an Operator. The Agent does the outdoor field work, wearing a helmet that has the personal display and the tracking system attached. The Operator works from a stationary computer, using an audio link to communicate with the agent and help her navigate the game world. The operator's main tool is a map of the game world that shows the positions of various virtual objects and the current position of his agent. Agent and operator need to cooperate and share the information each has available.

To allow an unlimited number of cracker teams in the game simultaneously, NetAttack is a distributed system whose modules communicate via Wi-Fi network. A central server manages intra-team communication and the overall state of the game, consumption of resources, allocation of virtual objects etc. as well as communication of specific events among teams.

To make sure that virtual objects are always perceived in the correct spot in the real setting, the system needs to 'know' the agent's position in the real setting and where exactly she is looking. A combination of tracking technologies is used to provide that information in NetAttack: Broad positioning is taken from GPS. Precision is significantly enhanced based on computer vision. An orientation sensor on the agent's helmet determines with great precision where s/he looks.

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Bleak future for Librarians?

The New York Times, Letters to the Editor

Letters to the Editor, Published: April 29, 2004

The Wired Library?

To the Editor:

Re"Libraries Wired, and Reborn'' (April 22), on Internet connectivity as a boon to public libraries:

The shift of focus in today's public libraries from books to computers and the Internet is a disaster for those of us holding the master of library and information science degree. Because most patrons now use libraries primarily for computer access, the librarian's profession has disintegrated into little more than computer kiosk sign-in clerk.

Because you don't need an expert to help you log into your e-mail or assist you with online dating service searches (these are all examples of common "reference'' requests), librarianship is no longer seen as a real profession by the public. The resulting lack of status is reflected in pay cuts and a lack of truly professional jobs for those of us who hold the degree.

I happily left the profession to work in the corporate world, where my job consists of more than keeping track of the computer sign-in sheets. Over the next few years, I expect colleagues to follow suit.

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In Class, the Audience Weighs In

The New York Times

PAUL CARON, a law professor at the University of Cincinnati, uses them to break through what he calls the "cone of silence" in his classroom. For Wendy Tietz, who teaches accounting at Kent State, they are a way to encourage teamwork and give credit for class participation. Melissa Wilde, a sociology professor at Indiana University, says they help her students feel a connection to the subject.

For these and other professors across the nation, the newest aid in the classroom is a small wireless keypad, linked to a computer. Students answer questions not by raising their hands but by punching buttons, with the results appearing on a screen in the front of the room.

Although some skeptics dismiss the devices as novelties more suited to a TV game show than a lecture hall, educators who use them say their classrooms come alive as never before. Shy students have no choice but to participate, the instructors say, and the know-it-alls lose their monopoly on the classroom dialogue.

Professor Wilde has her students answer multiple-choice questions to gauge whether she is getting her point across and adjusts her lectures accordingly. "I can instantly see that three-quarters of the class doesn't get it," she said.

Perhaps more profoundly, however, she uses the devices to turn the 400-student class into a sociological laboratory.

At the beginning of this semester, she had the class use the clickers to answer several basic questions about themselves, including their race, household income and political affiliation. Thanks to the clicker technology, she could collate the data immediately. At the next class, she posted the results, which showed that, compared with the average for the nation, the class had three times as many wealthy students and one-fifth as many poor students.

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