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News Tracks

  1. Not Your Average Supercomputer
  2. Chip-Based Replacement Retinas
  3. INS High-Tech Holdup
  4. Boosting Courts Confidence Over Handwriting Analysis
  5. Par for Cell Phones
  6. Geese Phone Home
  7. Author
  8. Figures

A compact supercomputer that proponents say could provide the model for high-performance computing systems in the years ahead has been built by the Research and Development in Advanced Network Technology (RADIANT) group at Los Alamos National Laboratory. A Beowulf cluster, the minisupercomputer—Green Destiny—was built from hundreds of “blade servers,” or compact servers stripped to their most basic components. Using blade servers, the system consumes far less power, requires less maintenance, and is more cost-effective than typical supercomputers. And, unlike many such systems that use specialized components and fill entire buildings, Green Destiny fits 240 blade servers into a server rack that would fit inside most closets. Whereas many such systems use massive cooling systems, Green Destiny requires no active cooling because of its substantial difference in heat dissipation. A smaller version of Green Destiny called Metablade has been up and running for almost a year without failure and would cost about $33,000 to buy and operate for four years, compared to $120,000 for a comparable Pentium 4-based workstation and $93,000 for a Pentium 3-based workstation.

Figure 1. Upping Surveillance

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Chip-Based Replacement Retinas

Experimental eye implants—silicon chips functioning as replacement retinas—have slightly improved the vision of six patients who have received them. The surgical process they underwent involves cutting a tiny pocket in the retina and inserting a microchip that packs 5,000 microscopic solar cells onto a pinhead-size disk. The chips convert light into electricity, which stimulates retinas degraded by retinitis pigmentosa and macular degeneration, two causes of untreatable blindness. Following successful tests on animals, Optobionics, of Wheaton, IL, received U.S. FDA approval to test the procedure on humans.

“I was the guy who screwed up scientific computing by putting VAX out there. Groups of scientists could have their own computers out of the hands of big centers. This phenomenon is happening all over again.”
—Gorden Bell, referring to his work in the 1970s on Digital Equipment Corp.’s VAX minicomputer, which helped lower the price bar for high-performance systems.

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INS High-Tech Holdup

Thousands of applications at the Immigration and Naturalization Service in New York were delayed due to a post-9/11 rule requiring a new security protocol. The reason: few INS employees were computer-trained, and only one computer terminal was compatible with the new technology at the New York office, one of the busiest in the nation, reports the New York Daily News. The integrated database, which is in use at airports and other border crossings, provides an array of cross-checks of information from the INS, FBI, U.S. Customs, Border Patrol, and other federal agencies. Before the new rule (and protocol) went into effect, district INS workers ran only applicants’ fingerprints for investigating criminal histories.

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Boosting Courts Confidence Over Handwriting Analysis

A new computer-based study is helping restore the credibility of handwriting analysis as an investigative tool, assisting the courts in resolving disputes in cases involving contested documents such as wills, ransom notes, and forged checks. For the study, published in the Journal of Forensic Sciences, letters handwritten by 1,500 people were scanned into computers that measured letter dimensions and pen pressure; with 98% confidence, a writer could be identified. However, Seton Hall University professor Michael Risinger, who has studied handwriting evidence extensively, emphasized the limits of the study, which used a finite number of relatively long and identical texts in which the writers did not try to disguise their writing. Financed by the National Institute of Justice, the study represents the most comprehensive effort to confirm one of the premises underlying handwriting analysis: that everyone’s handwriting is unique.

“The courts are genuinely divided, which is a peculiar place to be on a kind of evidence that purports to be scientific.”
—Jennifer L. Mnookin, University of Virginia Law professor, on handwriting analysis

Figure 2. Top Internet Search Sites

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Par for Cell Phones

Many major U.S. wireless carriers are expanding their mobile phone gaming options, offering golf, combat, and a version of the ever-popular Dungeons & Dragons to be played on cell phone handsets. A new technology known as the BREW platform, an open standard supporting multiple languages, including Java, provides a software foundation that makes it easy to build game portfolios on phones; game developers don’t have to write multiple versions for different devices. The BREW package also allows for flexible billing; customers pay by the download, pay to play, or monthly subscriptions. The latest example of this new entertainment: a Tiger Woods golf game on Verizon’s Sharp BREW-enabled phone, where users choose courses, wind speeds, and the number of holes and clubs.

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Geese Phone Home

Bird lovers can track migrating geese with cell phones and on the Web, reports BBC News Online. Anyone sponsoring one of six geese carrying a satellite tag will be sent a weekly text message giving the bird’s exact location, as the species—the light-bellied brent goose—migrates from the west of Ireland to Canada to breed. This epic journey—one of the longest migrations of any species of goose—is being plotted on the Web, with data being used to assess whether rising sea levels, habitat destruction, or hunting poses the greatest future threat to the birds. The U.K. conservation body, the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, set up sponsorship, costing about U.S. $110 a year.

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F1 Figure 1. Upping Surveillance

F2 Figure 2. Top Internet Search Sites

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