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News Bytes of the Week: Toxic Pets?

Trading security for sweets, Researchers trick Wi-Fi, Traders' testosterone levels predict their profits and more...



Courtesy of iStockphoto; Copyright: Pali Rao

Trick and treat: Workers divulge computer passwords for the promise of candy

Worried about someone stealing your identity? Hopefully you're more careful than our friends across the pond. Organizers of the Infosecurity Europe computer security trade show were alarmed to discover this week that 121 of 576 subway riders (21 percent) at London's Liverpool Street Station were prepared to reveal their computer passwords in return for a chocolate bar. The only comforting thing about the survey is that more people kept their mouths shut this time than they did last year when 64 percent of those polled were willing to part with their secret code in return for chocolate. It seems that women were most vulnerable on this score: 45 percent of women compared with 10 percent of the men surveyed gave up their passwords to researchers. "This research shows that it's pretty simple for a perpetrator to gain access to information that is restricted," says Claire Sellick, event director of Infosecurity Europe, set to begin in London on April 22, "by having a chat around the coffee machine, getting a temporary job as a [personal assistant] or pretending to be from the IT department." We hope the chocolate was good, at least.

Toxic pets?

Beware, dog and cat owners: a new study indicates that our beloved furry friends may contain high levels of toxic chemicals. The Environmental Working Group (EWG), based in Washington, D.C., found levels of flame retardants (used in fabrics and furniture) in kitties that were 23 times higher than in humans; it also found amounts of the potent neurotoxin mercury (likely from fish in pet foods), a carcinogen, in our purring pals at levels five times higher than in people. Our pooches didn't fare much better: EWG discovered perfluorinated compounds, which are used in stain and grease-proof coatings, at levels 2.4 times higher than in humans. Perfluorinated chemicals have been linked to liver damage and other problems. The research was based on blood and urine samples from 35 dogs and 37 cats at Hanover Animal Hospital in Mechanicsville, Va., collected in December and January. "This study shows that our pets are susceptible to the absorption of potentially harmful chemicals from our environment just as we are," said veterinarian John Billeter, who conducted the tests. "Perhaps even more troubling is that these chemicals have been found in higher levels in pets than in humans, implying potential harmful consequences for their health and well-being and the need for further study."

Maybe we should just ask for directions

It was music to the ears of the direction-challenged among us when Apple and Skyhook Wireless, Inc., cut a deal earlier this year that allowed owners of the newest crop of iPhones and iPods to use Skyhook's Wi-Fi Positioning System (WPS) to map their locations. The bad news: a new study indicates that the system is vulnerable to hackers who could manipulate it and send us astray. Under the Skyhook agreement, mobile phones and digital music players send information about wireless access points they detect to Skyhook computer servers, which in turn sends back data that enables users to pinpoint their positions. This is handy when you're looking for restaurants or shops—or if you're just plain lost. That is, unless some nogoodnik writes a malicious computer program that sends your handheld device false information, according to a group of computer science researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich. The researchers were able to disrupt Skyhook's WPS system—which doesn't require access points on its network to prove their authenticity—by using little more than a laptop, a Wi-Fi access point transmitter, and a database of Wi-Fi access point locations. Let's hope Apple and Skyhook take precautions to prevent such disruptions before too many people are led astray!

Milky Way's massive black hole shot its wad 300 years ago

Astronomers have long wondered why the mega–black hole at the center of the Milky Way, weighing as much as four million suns, shines billions of times less brightly than similarly hefty black holes in other galaxies. A new study to appear in Publications of the Astronomical Society of Japan attempts to solve the mystery by probing x-ray flare-ups in a large gas cloud near the black hole, known as Sagittarius A* (pronounced "A-star"). The flare-ups represent an echo of the black hole's activity, because they are triggered by x-rays it emits that take 300 years to travel the intervening distance. Combining data from Japan's Suzaku and ASCA (Advanced Satellite for Cosmology and Astrophyics) x-ray satellites, along with NASA's and the European Space Agency's Chandra and XMM–Newton x-ray observatories, respectively, researchers deduced from the flares that Sagittarius A* shined a million times more brightly three centuries ago than it does today. They speculate that the black hole pooped itself out—and is now resting.

New ion engine gives satellite cruise control

When the European Space Agency launches the Gravity field and Steady State Ocean Circulation Explorer (GOCE) later this summer, it will carry a new type of engine that expels a stream of ions to produce a thrust equivalent to the weight of a postcard, the BBC reports. The T5, designed by QinetiQ, a Hampshire, England–based defense and security technology company, took decades and tens of millions of dollars to develop. Similar ion engines, which extract electricity from solar radiation to accelerate charged particles, have been used before in Smart 1, a European probe that orbited the moon, and NASA's Deep Space 1 spacecraft. The T5 will act as cruise control for GOCE as it maps variations in Earth's gravity from orbit, where winds will buffet it to and fro.

Are we fast enough to mind our brains?

Ten seconds is an eternity when someone has but an instant to make up his or her mind. But a team of German researchers reports in Nature Neuroscience that decisions are actually made in the brain up to 10 seconds before people become conscious of arriving at and acting on them. Study subjects were asked to decide whether to push a button with their left or right hands while their brains were scanned by functional magnetic resonance imaging. The scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, say they accurately predicted their choices based on activity in the frontopolar and parietal cortices, brain regions known to be involved with sophisticated decision making. The researchers believe that the frontopolar cortex makes a choice and the parietal cortex notes the result and shuttles it to the conscious mind. Study co-author John-Dylan Haynes, a neuroscientist, says that the new work makes a case against free will. "The question is," he says, "can we still decide against the decision our brain has made?" (The Boston Globe)

Day traders' mid-day testosterone level predicts their successes and flops

It seems that testosterone may be the driver behind buying on margin and tapping inside information when it comes to gaming the market. Cambridge University researchers swabbed the mouths of 17 male traders at a London-based financial institution at 11 in the morning and again at four in the afternoon to measure their levels of the stress hormone cortisol as well as of the male hormone testosterone, which is known to jump when men win and dip when they lose. To their surprise, testosterone not only rose in traders who had better than average days, but the morning levels predicted how they would do. The research team, reporting in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, also determined that levels of cortisol (which is secreted by the adrenal glands) spiked, as expected, when traders made particularly high-risk moves. (The Economist)

Bush takes heat on slow response to climate change

President Bush came under fire this week for failing to do enough to stem the growth of climate change–causing pollution. In an attempt to quell criticism that the U.S. is dragging its feet on the issue, Bush on Wednesday announced a "long-term" goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2025 and to boost investment in alternative energy sources—from nuclear and "clean" coal to renewable solar and wind power. World and environmental leaders were not impressed. A Chinese official called the plan too little, too late and Germany's environment minister, Sigmar Gabriel, called it "losership, not leadership." Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change agreed. "The only good news is that this is irrelevant—both in the U.S. and globally—because this administration has only nine months left in office," she said, "and we have three presidential candidates who will take this issue seriously." (Der Spiegel, AP)

This is your pain on dope: Study confirms marijuana's soothing effect

University of California, Davis, researchers report in the online edition of the Journal of Pain that they confirmed that pot can ease pain caused by nerve damage. The scientists asked 38 patients suffering neuropathic (nerve damage) pain from diabetes, spinal injury, multiple sclerosis and other causes to take hits on joints that were placebos or contained THC (tetrahydrocannabinol, the active ingredient in marijuana that binds to specific brain receptors called cannabinoids). Those who toked on the THC-laced cigs reported dramatic relief that lasted over five hours. Researchers Barth Wilsey and colleagues said the side effects "were relatively inconsequential" and "psychoactive effects were minimal and well-tolerated." The results were released on the same day that Rep. Barney Frank (D–Mass.) introduced legislation that calls for dropping federal criminal penalties for the possession of up to 100 grams (3.5 ounces) of marijuana and for the not-for-profit transfer of up an ounce of weed. "Congressman Frank's bill represents a major step toward sanity in federal marijuana policy,'' said Aaron Houston, government relations director of the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington, D.C. "The decades-long federal war on marijuana protects no one and, in fact, has ruined countless lives. Most Americans do not believe that simple possession of a small amount of marijuana should be a criminal matter, and it's time Congress listened to voters."

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