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News Bytes Of the Week—What Type of Robot Are You Attracted To?

Beating computer encryption, antidepressants only effective for the most severe cases and more ...



Courtesy of the University of Hertfordshire

Find your robot soul mate
What's your type of robot? The more humanoid model or that boxy little number that looks like it was thrown together from spare parts? Researchers at the University of Hertfordshire Science and Technology Research Institute in Hatfield, England, are studying human perceptions of robots in an attempt to gauge our comfort level with them. Their findings: extroverts tend to favor robots with realistic facial features and humanlike voices (sort of like a cross between the Terminator and 2001's HAL 9000), whereas shy people generally like the mechanical-looking ones, perhaps because they seem more impersonal and less likely to demand attention. "It seems that there are those who prefer an unobtrusive robot and then others who want a cheerier presence," says Hertfordshire PhD candidate Michael Walters, who worked on the project under the direction of Kerstin Dautenhahn, a professor of artificial intelligence. The real question is, however: What type of humans do robots prefer? (University of Hertfordshire Science and Technology Research Institute)

How to beat laptop encryption
Think all that data stored on your laptop is secure because it's encrypted? Beware: a group of Princeton University researchers recently figured out how to beat several high-profile encryption programs, including those shipped by Apple (Mac OS X FileVault) and Microsoft (Windows Vista's BitLocker) with the latest versions of their operating systems as well as the open-source Linux operating system's dm-crypt encryption program. The attacks, devised by Alex Halderman, a PhD candidate in Princeton's computer science department, and his colleagues are particularly effective against computers that are powered up but locked, such as laptops that are in "sleep" or hibernation mode. The strikes exploit the fact that information stored in a computer's temporary working memory, or RAM, can take up to a minute to clear when a computer is shut down (even longer when the memory chip is cooled). During this time, a computer thief can use software to copy this information (including the password that unlocks the encryption) and use it to log into the computer when it's turned back on—much like opening a door when the key is left in the lock. Bad news for those who take for granted the built-in security software that comes packaged with computers is adequate protection. (Princeton University Center for Information Technology Policy )

Antidepressants (still) only help the most depressed
A new analysis adds to the pile of evidence that antidepressant drugs are often no more effective than a placebo for anything but the most severe depression. Researchers reached their conclusion after reviewing all published and unpublished clinical trial data submitted to the Food and Drug Administration for regulatory approval of four new-generation antidepressants—fluoxetine (Prozac), venlafaxine (Effexor), nefazodone (Serzone) and paroxetine (Paxil). Before treatment, trial volunteers responded to a standardized series of questions to rate their degree of depression. Patients rated as moderately or severely depressed responded to medication and placebo similarly enough to be considered clinically indistinguishable. Those suffering from extreme depression did not respond any better to the drugs; instead they had less of a response to placebo. (PLoS Medicine).

Current Events: Wind Power Hiccup in Texas; Nuclear Shutdown in Florida
Texas has gone gaga for wind (as has native son and oil man extraordinaire, T. Boone Pickens)—and it cost the state this week. During an evening peak electricity consumption load, the wind died to a whisper in many parts of the state, causing the local grid operators to cut power to folks who had agreed to accept such interruptions in exchange for lower rates. But this blip pales in comparison with the inconvenience caused to residents of Florida when a fire in a substation caused the Turkey Point nuclear reactor near Miami to shut down. Such measures are part of normal safety procedures; a nuclear reactor without reliable backup power would not be able to operate safety systems in the event of a meltdown. But the breakdowns left a huge gap in the power supply of the state—ultimately causing much of the grid in southern Florida to fail in a cascade. That left thousands of people throughout the state without power and grid operators in the dark as to how the problem spread so quickly. (Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT; AP article)

Survey Shows U.S. National Parks Tainted by Pollution

There's no getting away from the polluting hand of man, yet another study shows. A survey of 20 western U.S. national parks and monuments found traces of a slew of man-made chemicals and pollutants in even the most remote areas. Even banned substances, such as the insecticide DDT, still showed up in fish in the survey, leading researchers to question the source of such pollution. For more common pollutants, like mercury and other pesticides, it's pretty clear that it rides through the air before dropping out in rain. For Glacier National Park in Montana—which had the highest overall levels—it was an added blow to the scenic refuge that is suffering the continuing shrinkage of its eponymous glaciers. ( NPS research; San Francisco Chronicle)

New Technology Puts a Chill on Carbon Capture and Storage

FutureGen—an ambitious effort to build a coal-fired power plant with carbon capture and storage technology—has died from budget cuts. But that has not killed off the carbon sequestration effort. We Energies, based in Milwaukee, Wisc., has attached a device to the smokestack of one of its coal-fired power plants that will chill emissions from 130 degrees to 41 degrees Fahrenheit (55 degrees to 5 degrees Celsius). At that temperature, and in the presence of ammonia, carbon dioxide turns into a crystallike snow. The test process will capture roughly 1 percent of the emissions from the plant—and then immediately release that carbon dioxide back to the atmosphere. It is the first of three demonstration projects by various power producers in the Midwest and many more are planned throughout the country—and the world. After all, without innovative technology, operators of coal-fired power plants may find it difficult to raise money or even continue their operations. (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel; USA Today)

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