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Thursday, November 22, 2007

NASA's Messenger mission reaches halfway point

The Messenger probe is nearing the halfway point of 7.9 billion kilometre journey, which when completed will make it the first man-made object to orbit the planet Mercury.

During the craft's first three years and three months in space since its launch in August, 2004, Messenger has flown by Earth once and Venus twice. Now Messenger is nearing the goal of its mission, when it will pass the closest planet to the Sun three times before attempting to lock into orbit.

On January 14, 2008, Messenger will fly within 200 kilometers of the surface of Mercury — making it the first spacecraft to pass the planet since Mariner 10 flew by in 1974. Messenger will make two additional passes by Mercury and three deep space maneuvers, which will slow the spacecraft down enough to enter Mercury's orbit on March 18, 2011.

Mariner 10 also flew past the planet three times but was only able to photograph 45 per cent of the surface and carried out no other scientific investigation. Messenger's instruments have a few more tricks up its sleeve.

Among the goals of the mission are mapping the elemental and mineralogical composition of Mercury's surface; global imaging of the surface at a resolution of hundreds of meters or better; determining the structure of the planet's magnetic field; and measuring its gravitational field structure.

"The halfway point for Messenger's cruise phase is more than a statistical milestone, because in less than two months we'll have our first close-up view of Mercury," said Sean Solomon, head investigator of the Messenger mission in a statement. "From then until the end of the mission, we'll be peeling back Mercury's mysteries, many of which have perplexed the planetary science community for more than three decades

Leopard security bug puts Mail users at risk

Programmers have reintroduced a yawning security hole in Leopard, the latest version of Apple's highly regarded operating system, after having patched it more than 20 months ago in an earlier version, a researcher has warned.

The bug in Apple Mail makes it possible for attackers to run malicious code on a victim's machine by disguising an executable program as an image or other type of innocuous file, said Juergen Schmidt, editor-in-chief at Heise Security. A user can become infected simply by clicking on an attachment that looks like a jpeg image.

The bug is similar, if not identical, to one that Apple patched in March 2006, which also affected the Safari browser and iChat instant messenger program. The fix prompted Tiger, Leopard's predecessor, to inspect attached files and present a warning if the file a user clicked on was potentially unsafe.

Alas, that warning has largely vanished when Leopard users click on disguised executable files received in Mail, said Schmidt, who has set up a demo exploiting the bug here. About 90 percent of the time, he said, the file will run with no warning. He has yet to pinpoint what causes the dialog box to appear sometimes and not others.

"You would think that since they went to the trouble to fix it in Tiger, why reintroduce it in Leopard?" said Kevin Long, a researcher at Verizon Business, who specializes in security issues affecting Apple software. "The fact that they had done that before in Tiger and they didn't pro actively put that in Leopard is unfortunate."

Apple representatives didn't respond to a request for comment by time of writing. Apple has sold more than 2 million copies of Leopard to date.

Shortcomings in file validation have plagued Apple for some time now. The original bug resided in Mac operating systems for years before Apple finally patched the vulnerability. Even then, the security measure was criticized by some because it didn't work with third-party apps such as Firefox or Thunderbird and because OS X still made it easy to disguise malicious files as images.

Schmidt says he has not yet analyzed Safari or iChat to see if they properly validate files under Leopard but says "it's entirely possible" they don't

With one bound, Apple is free of 54 security bugs
Apple has rolled out software updates that patch just about everything but the kitchen sink. In all, there are fixes for at least 54 security bugs, many of which could allow attackers to remotely execute code on vulnerable Macs and Windows machines.

A whopping 41 vulnerabilities reside in OS X 10.4, which is better known as Tiger, 1of which 15 could lead to "arbitrary code execution". Buggy components include Safari, Kerberos, CFNetwork, AppleTalk, as well as the OS X kernel itself. The updates also fix a security hole in Apple's version of Adobe's Flash Player. Adobe has offered a update since July, but Apple is only now rolling it into its list of automatic updates.

The patch fest comes less than 48 hours after Microsoft released one of its sparsest monthly security updates in recent memory, with only one rated as critical. It also comes shortly after the discovery of a sophisticated port Trojan that targets Mac users.

"As Apple grows its market share and becomes a more mainstream operating system, there's going to be a lot more interest in it from the whitehats and the blackhats," said Randy Abrams, director of technical education at anti-virus provider Eset. "Apple users are going to have to get used to the same things that Microsoft and Unix users have dealt with for a long time and that's that patches are a fact of life."

A separate patch fixes three vulnerabilities for Leopard, the successor to Tiger that Apple released last month. The fixes appear to be tweaks to improve the security of the Leopard firewall. The patch, for instance, changes the description of one setting from "Block all incoming connections" to "Allow only essential services", so it's clear that mDNSResponder and other services continue to receive connections. Apple has also pared the processes permitted to receive such connections when the setting is turned on.

The Leopard fixes come two weeks after researchers from Heise Security criticized Apple for providing misleading firewall settings in the new OS.

"This is a good step forward in the right direction," Juergen Schmidt, Heise's editor-in-chief, said of the change. "I really appreciate it, that Apple did not take the smallest possible step to only change the name from "Block all" to "Allow only essential" but also drastically reduced the attack surface by allowing only a limited number of documented services to be reached."

By default, OS X is set to automatically check for the updates and prompt users to install them.

Apple also issued patches to plug 10 holes in the beta version of Safari for Windows. XP or Vista users who have installed the Apple software update application should receive a prompt to install the update. They can also do so manually by visiting this page.

Scientists gain new respect for turkeys


Perhaps more than any other animal in America, the turkey symbolizes the ambivalence that many people have about animals. The turkey figures simultaneously as a sacrificial victim, a figure of fun, and a sacred player in America's mythic drama about itself as a nation.

The word turkey as an all-purpose term of derision has been traced to the American theater meaning a "third rate production." In James T. Farrell's 1932 novel, "Young Lonigan," the character Dooley is described as "one comical turkey, funnier than anything you'd find in real life."

The term "gobbledygook" is attributed to U.S. Rep. Maury Maverick from Texas, who, as chairman of the Smaller War Plants Corp. during World War II, issued a 1944 order banning the bureaucratic jargon he said reminded him of his "old bearded turkey gobbler back in Texas who was always gobbledy-gobbling and strutting with ludicrous pomposity."

The idea of the comical turkey persists in the litany of sarcasm that accompanies the piety of Thanksgiving each year in the United States, when newspapers and other media poke fun at the "Thanksgiving Day bird" along with the human "turkeys" in power, and holiday rituals include, or have included, everything from throwing turkeys off scaffolds and out of airplanes to forcing them to participate in turkey "Olympics" and in White House "turkey pardoning" ceremonies.

America celebrates its heritage paradoxically by feasting on a bird reflexively despised

by mainstream culture as stupid, dirty and silly, a misunderstanding reinforced by the turkey food industry, which alternates between caricaturing the turkey as a ludicrous "personality" vs. representing the bird as an anonymous "production animal." Stock photos of thousands of de-beaked turkeys crowded together awaiting slaughter in nondescript sheds reinforce the popular idea that turkeys are worthless except as objects of sport and meat.
Even so, the derogatory turkey stereotype is starting to change. In the last quarter of the 20th century, the creation of farmed animal sanctuaries and turkey-adoption programs offered new opportunities for people to get to know turkeys differently from the demeaning stock versions of the bird.

Partly in response to these encounters, a growth in vegetarianism is occurring in the United States and elsewhere. At the same time, the avian sciences are debunking the prejudice against birds in general, and ground-nesting birds such as turkeys and chickens in particular, as "primitive."

Avian scientists are calling for a whole new bird-brain nomenclature based on the now overwhelming evidence that birds share with humans a complexly evolved brain that processes information and gives rise to experience in much the same way as the human cerebral cortex, findings summarized by the Avian Brain Nomenclature Consortium in Nature Neuroscience Reviews in 2005.

An irony of the low esteem in which domestic turkeys have been held is that, as wildlife biologist William Healy points out, much of what is known about the wild turkey's intelligence is based on work with domestic turkeys. He defends domestic turkeys from the charge of stupidity by observing that genetic selection for "such gross breast development that few adult males can even walk" fuels the fallacy that they are "stupid."

A further irony is that the wary turkey that dominates modern hunters' discourse is not exactly the bird the early European explorers and colonists encountered. As John Madson writes in the Smithsonian, "Wild turkeys, as the first settlers found them, were as trusting and unwary as they were plentiful."

From the 17th through the 19th centuries, wild turkeys were characterized repeatedly as showing the same kind of friendly curiosity toward people that modern visitors often discover with surprise and delight when they meet domestic turkeys at animal sanctuaries. "They often sat with their young on my fences so trustingly that I found it difficult to bring myself to shoot them," said one person of the wild turkey's amiableness toward the settlers.

It remains to be seen whether modern experiences and the advancing sciences of avian cognition and ethology will lead people to rethink, as did naturalist Joe Hutto in the course of raising young turkeys to adulthood, many of their attitudes and presumptions about "the complexity and profoundly subtle nature of the experience within other species."

As the single most visible animal symbol in America, the de facto symbol of the nation and "icon of American food," the turkey highlights the growing conflict in Western culture between the age-old presumption that animals exist solely for humans to exploit and the view that non-human animals are kin to humans with value and autonomy in their own right.

Ellen Goodman: Gore models life's second act
Until now, I believed that the smallest unit of time was between the moment the traffic light turned green and the car behind you honked. I was wrong. The shortest unit is between the moment you win the Nobel Peace Prize and someone asks if you're running for president.

This is the story of Al Gore. It's wrapped succinctly in the Time magazine headline: "Gore Wins the Nobel. But Will He Run?" The best answer came from congenitally sardonic congressman, Rahm Emanuel: "Why would he run for president when he can be a demigod?"

Indeed, the man who is free at last from politics has learned anything, it's that becoming a candidate means open season on his weight, his wit, his wisdom and his son's arrest record. Besides, which would you rather do, save the Earth or dial for dollars in Iowa?

The attention on Al Gore's trajectory from loser to laureate misses something about this second act and second actor. As he approaches 60, Gore's staking out something of a new path for his generation.

Consider the new sixtysomethings. Last week, 61-year-old Kathleen Casey-Kirschling, the first baby boomer and a retired teacher, signed up for early Social Security benefits. Next Friday, Hillary Clinton turns 60 and her second act is running for president. And when the new Harvard president, Drew Faust, 60, met with her Bryn Mawr classmates last summer? Many were talking about leaving their "extreme jobs" just as she was installed in hers.

Baby boomers are the first generation that can look forward to such a lengthy and (fingers crossed) healthy stage of later life. They are as likely to be talking about what they want to do next as about where they want to retire. Never mind all those declarations that 60 is the new 40. In fact, 60 is the new 60.

The stage of life called adolescence was only invented a century ago. Today, says Rosabeth Kanter, Harvard Business School professor, "We have a chance to invent another stage of life that doesn't have a name yet."

But Gore is its poster child, the model for what Marc Freedman calls the "encore career." The head of Civic Ventures, a think tank promoting civic engagement as the second act for boomers, Freedman says, "Gore found himself by losing himself -- literally losing -- and being liberated from ambition, the idea that there's a particular ladder you have to scurry up and if you don't make it to the top it's all over. Essentially he found a different ladder."

Alas, Gore's "liberation" came with a little help from the Supreme Court. But he spent time in the wilderness -- bearded and academic, rested and restless -- before reconnecting with what he cared most about.

There's an inconvenient hole in "An Inconvenient Truth." Gore never confronts his failure to accomplish more on climate change while vice president. But elsewhere he has implied that he'll be better at "creating that sea change in mass opinion" to force this agenda from the outside. This, says Freedman, "is the classic baby-boomer pattern of returning to an earlier dream unclouded by the compromises of midlife."

We have a roster of famous second actors, from Jimmy Carter to Bill Gates. The transition is a lot easier for folks not worrying about 401(k)s and pharmacy bills. Nevertheless, many in what Kanter calls the "Al Gore population" approach their 60s with a different set of values ... and, it must be said, urgency.

As a country, we are at the beginning of an enormous transition. Under the old compact, sixtysomethings were supposed to get out of the way and out of work. They were encouraged by financial incentives and prodded by discrimination. Now we are drawing blueprints for people who see themselves more as citizens than seniors.

"We used to say that the choices ran from A to B&B," says Kanter, author of "America the Principled." Today, she says, "we have an opportunity to define it as a time when your wisdom gets put to work on complex problems."

Demigod or demographic? Al Gore may not have invented the Internet, but the "Al Gore population" is reinventing this altogether new stage of life.

scientists had turned human skin cells

Scientists Bypass Need for Embryo to Get Stem Cells

Two teams of scientists reported yesterday that they had turned human skin cells into what appear to be embryonic stem cells without having to make or destroy an embryo — a feat that could quell the ethical debate troubling the field.

All they had to do, the scientists said, was add four genes. The genes reprogrammed the chromosomes of the skin cells, making the cells into blank slates that should be able to turn into any of the 220 cell types of the human body, be it heart, brain, blood or bone. Until now, the only way to get such human universal cells was to pluck them from a human embryo several days after fertilization, destroying the embryo in the process.

The need to destroy embryos has made stem cell research one of the most divisive issues in American politics, pitting President Bush against prominent Republicans like Nancy Reagan, and patient advocates who hoped that stem cells could cure diseases like Alzheimer’s. The new studies could defuse the issue as a presidential election nears.

The reprogrammed skin cells may yet prove to have subtle differences from embryonic stem cells that come directly from human embryos, and the new method includes potentially risky steps, like introducing a cancer gene. But stem cell researchers say they are confident that it will not take long to perfect the method and that today’s drawbacks will prove to be temporary.

Researchers and ethicists not involved in the findings say the work, conducted by independent teams from Japan and Wisconsin, should reshape the stem cell field. At some time in the near future, they said, today’s debate over whether it is morally acceptable to create and destroy human embryos to obtain stem cells should be moot.

“Everyone was waiting for this day to come,” said the Rev. Tadeusz Pacholczyk, director of education at the National Catholic Bioethics Center. “You should have a solution here that will address the moral objections that have been percolating for years,” he added.

The White House said that Mr. Bush was “very pleased” about the new findings, adding that “By avoiding techniques that destroy life, while vigorously supporting alternative approaches, President Bush is encouraging scientific advancement within ethical boundaries.”

The new method sidesteps other ethical quandaries, creating stem cells that genetically match the donor without having to resort to cloning or the requisite donation of women’s eggs. Genetically matched cells would not be rejected by the immune system if used as replacement tissues for patients. Even more important, scientists say, is that genetically matched cells from patients would enable them to study complex diseases, like Alzheimer’s, in the laboratory.

Until now, the only way most scientists thought such patient-specific stem cells could be made would be to create embryos that were clones of that person and extract their stem cells. Just last week, scientists in Oregon reported that they did this with monkeys, but the prospect of doing such experiments in humans has been ethically fraught.

But with the new method, human cloning for stem cell research, like the creation of human embryos to extract stem cells, may be unnecessary. The new cells in theory might be turned into an embryo, but not by simply implanting them in a womb.

“It really is amazing,” said Dr. Leonard Zon, director of the stem cell program at Children’s Hospital Boston at Harvard Medical School.

And, said Dr. Douglas A. Melton, co-director of the Stem Cell Institute at Harvard University, it is “ethically uncomplicated.”

For all the hopes invested in it over the last decade, embryonic stem cell research has moved slowly, with no cures or major therapeutic discoveries in sight.

The new work could allow the field to vault significant problems, including the shortage of human embryonic stem cells and restrictions on federal financing for such research. Even when scientists have other sources of financing, they report that it is expensive and difficult to find women who will provide eggs for such research.

The new discovery is being published online today in Cell, in a paper by Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University and the Gladstone Institute of Cardiovascular Disease in San Francisco, and in Science, in a paper by James A. Thomson and his colleagues at the University of Wisconsin. Dr. Thomson’s work received some federal money.

While both groups used just four genes to reprogram human skin cells, two of the genes used differed from group to group. All the genes in question, though, act in a similar way — they are master regulator genes whose role is to turn other genes on or off.

The reprogrammed cells, the scientists report, appear to behave very much like human embryonic stem cells but were called “induced pluripotent stem cells,” meaning cells that can change into many different types.

“By any means we test them they are the same as embryonic stem cells,” Dr. Thomson says.

He and Dr. Yamanaka caution, though, that they still must confirm that the reprogrammed human skin cells really are the same as stem cells they get from embryos. And while those studies are under way, Dr. Thomson and others say, it would be premature to abandon research with stem cells taken from human embryos.

Another caveat is that, so far, scientists use a type of virus, a retrovirus, to insert the genes into the cells’ chromosomes. Retroviruses slip genes into chromosomes at random, sometimes causing mutations that can make normal cells turn into cancers.

One gene used by the Japanese scientists actually is a cancer gene.

The cancer risk means that the resulting stem cells would not be suitable for replacement cells or tissues for patients with diseases, like diabetes, in which their own cells die. But they would be ideal for the sort of studies that many researchers say are the real promise of this endeavor — studying the causes and treatments of complex diseases.

For example, researchers could make stem cells from a person with a disease like Alzheimer’s and turn the stem cells into nerve cells in a petri dish. Then they might learn what goes awry in the brain and how to prevent or treat the disease.

But even the retrovirus drawback may be temporary, scientists say. Dr. Yamanaka and several other researchers are trying to get the same effect by adding chemicals or using more benign viruses to get the genes into cells. They say they are starting to see success.

“Anyone who is going to suggest that this is just a sideshow and that it won’t work is wrong,” Dr. Melton predicted.

The new discovery was preceded by work in mice. Last year, Dr. Yamanaka published a paper showing that he could add four genes to mouse cells and turn them into mouse embryonic stem cells.

He even completed the ultimate test to show that the resulting stem cells could become any type of mouse cell. He used them to create new mice. Twenty percent of those mice, though, developed cancer, illustrating the risk of using retroviruses and a cancer gene to make cells for replacement parts.

Scientists were electrified by the reprogramming discovery, Dr. Melton said. “Once it worked, I hit my forehead and said, ‘It’s so obvious,’” he said. “But it’s not obvious until it’s done.”

The work set off an international race to repeat the work with human cells.

“Dozens, if not hundreds of labs, have been attempting to do this,” said Dr. George Daley, associate director of the stem cell program at Children’s Hospital.

Ever since the birth of Dolly the sheep in 1996, scientists knew that adult cells could, in theory, turn into embryonic stem cells. But they had no idea how to do it without cloning, the way Dolly was created.

With cloning, researchers put an adult cell’s chromosomes into an unfertilized egg whose genetic material was removed. The egg, by some mysterious process, then does all the work. It reprograms the adult cell’s chromosomes, bringing them back to the state they were in just after the egg was fertilized. A few days later, a ball of stem cells emerges in the embryo, and every cell of the embryo, including its stem cells, is an exact genetic match of the adult.

The abiding questions, though, were: How did the egg reprogram the adult cell’s chromosomes? Would it be possible to reprogram an adult cell without using an egg?

About four years ago, Dr. Yamanaka and Dr. Thomson independently hit upon the same idea. They would search for genes that are being used in an embryonic stem cell that are not being used in an adult cell. Then they would see if those genes would reprogram an adult cell.

Dr. Yamanaka worked with mouse cells, and Dr. Thomson worked with human cells from foreskins.

The researchers found more than 1,000 candidate genes. So both groups took educated guesses, trying to whittle down the genes to the few dozen they thought might be the crucial ones and then asking whether any combinations of those genes could turn a skin cell into a stem cell.

“The number of factors could have been 1 or 10 or 100 or more,” Dr. Yamanaka said in a telephone interview from his laboratory in Japan.

If many genes had been required, the experiments would have failed, Dr. Thomson said, because it would have been impossible to test all the gene combinations.

As soon as Dr. Yamanaka saw that the mouse experiments succeeded, he began trying the same brute force method in human skin cells that he had ordered from a commercial laboratory. Some were face cells from a 36-year-old white woman and others were connective tissue cells from joints of a 69-year-old white man.

Dr. Yamanaka said he thought it would take a few years to find the right genes and the right conditions to make the human experiments work. Feeling the hot breath of competitors on his neck, he was in his laboratory every day for 12 to 14 hours a day, he said.

A few months later, he succeeded.

Scientists report stem cell breakthrough; no embryos needed
Scientists have made ordinary human skin cells take on the chameleon-like powers of embryonic stem cells, a startling breakthrough that might someday deliver the medical payoffs of embryo cloning without the controversy.

Laboratory teams on two continents report success in a pair of landmark papers released Tuesday. It's a neck-and-neck finish to a race that made headlines five months ago, when scientists announced that the feat had been accomplished in mice.

The "direct reprogramming" technique avoids the swarm of ethical, political and practical obstacles that have stymied attempts to produce human stem cells by cloning embryos.

Scientists familiar with the work said scientific questions remain and that it's still important to pursue the cloning strategy, but that the new work is a major coup.

"This work represents a tremendous scientific milestone - the biological equivalent of the Wright Brothers' first airplane," said Dr. Robert Lanza, chief science officer of Advanced Cell Technology, which has been trying to extract stem cells from cloned human embryos.

"It's a bit like learning how to turn lead into gold," said Lanza, while cautioning that the work is far from providing medical payoffs.

"It's a huge deal," agreed Rudolf Jaenisch, a prominent stem cell scientist at the Whitehead Institute in Cambridge, Mass. "You have the proof of principle that you can do it."

There is a catch. At this point, the technique requires disrupting the DNA of the skin cells, which creates the potential for developing cancer. So it would be unacceptable for the most touted use of embryonic cells: creating transplant tissue that in theory could be used to treat diseases like diabetes, Parkinson's, and spinal cord injury.

But the DNA disruption is just a byproduct of the technique, and experts said they believe it can be avoided.

The new work is being published online by two journals, Cell and Science. The Cell paper is from a team led by Dr. Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University; the Science paper is from a team led by Junying Yu, working in the lab of in stem-cell pioneer James Thomson of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Both reported creating cells that behaved like stem cells in a series of lab tests.

Thomson, 48, made headlines in 1998 when he announced that his team had isolated human embryonic stem cells.

Yamanaka gained scientific notice in 2006 by reporting that direct reprogramming in mice had produced cells resembling embryonic stem cells, although with significant differences. In June, his group and two others announced they'd created mouse cells that were virtually indistinguishable from stem cells.

For the new work, the two men chose different cell types from a tissue supplier. Yamanaka reprogrammed skin cells from the face of an unidentified 36-year-old woman, and Thomson's team worked with foreskin cells from a newborn. Thomson, who was working his way from embryonic to fetal to adult cells, said he's still analyzing his results with adult cells.

Both labs did basically the same thing. Each used viruses to ferry four genes into the skin cells. These particular genes were known to turn other genes on and off, but just how they produced cells that mimic embryonic stem cells is a mystery.

"People didn't know it would be this easy," Thomson said. "Thousands of labs in the United States can do this, basically tomorrow."

The Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, which holds three patents for Thomson's work, is applying for patents involving his new research, a spokeswoman said. Two of the four genes he used were different from Yamanaka's recipe.

Scientists prize embryonic stem cells because they can turn into virtually any kind of cell in the body. The cloning approach - which has worked so far only in mice and monkeys - should be able to produce stem cells that genetically match the person who donates body cells for cloning.

That means tissue made from the cells should be transplantable into that person without fear of rejection. Scientists emphasize that any such payoff would be well in the future, and that the more immediate medical benefits would come from basic research in the lab.

In fact, many scientists say the cloning technique has proven too expensive and cumbersome in its current form to produce stem cells routinely for transplants.

The new work shows that the direct reprogramming technique can also produce versatile cells that are genetically matched to a person. But it avoids several problems that have bedeviled the cloning approach.

For one thing, it doesn't require a supply of unfertilized human eggs, which are hard to obtain for research and subjects the women donating them to a surgical procedure. Using eggs also raises the ethical questions of whether women should be paid for them.

In cloning, those eggs are used to make embryos from which stem cells are harvested. But that destroys the embryos, which has led to political opposition from President Bush, the Roman Catholic church and others.

Those were "show-stopping ethical problems," said Laurie Zoloth, director of Northwestern University's Center for Bioethics, Science and Society.

The new work, she said, "redefines the ethical terrain."

Richard Doerflinger, deputy director of pro-life activities for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, called the new work "a very significant breakthrough in finding morally unproblematic alternatives to cloning. ... I think this is something that would be readily acceptable to Catholics."

Another advantage of direct reprogramming is that it would qualify for federal research funding, unlike projects that seek to extract stem cells from human embryos, noted Doug Melton, co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute.

Still, scientific questions remain about the cells produced by direct reprogramming, called "iPS" cells. One is how the cells compare to embryonic stem cells in their behavior and potential. Yamanaka said his work detected differences in gene activity.

If they're different, iPS cells might prove better for some scientific uses and cloned stem cells preferable for other uses. Scientists want to study the roots of genetic disease and screen potential drug treatments in their laboratories, for example.

Scottish researcher Ian Wilmut, famous for his role in cloning Dolly the sheep a decade ago, told London's Daily Telegraph that he is giving up the cloning approach to produce stem cells and plans to pursue direct reprogramming instead.

Other scientists said it's too early for the field to follow Wilmut's lead. Cloning embryos to produce stem cells remains too valuable as a research tool, Jaenisch said.

Dr. George Daley of the Harvard institute, who said his own lab has also achieved direct reprogramming of human cells, said it's not clear how long it will take to get around the cancer risk problem. Nor is it clear just how direct reprogramming works, or whether that approach mimics what happens in cloning, he noted.

So the cloning approach still has much to offer, he said.

Daley, who's president of the International Society for Stem Cell Research, said his lab is pursuing both strategies.

"We'll see, ultimately, which one works and which one is more practical." takes on Facebook's 'Beacon' ads

Online activist group is poised to announce a campaign targeting Facebook's "Beacon" advertisements, which post information about users' activity on partner sites (movie rentals, purchases from online retailers) onto their friends' News Feeds. According to MoveOn representatives, the organization considers this to be a "glaring violation of (Facebook's) users' privacy," and has launched a paid ad campaign on Facebook, a "protest group" on the social-networking site, and an online petition to encourage the company to allow users to opt into the program at their own volition.

"The bottom line," MoveOn spokesman Adam Green said in an interview with CNET, "is that no Facebook user should have their private purchases online posted for the entire world to see without their explicit opted-in permission."

It's true that Beacon advertisements are limited to the news feeds of the people on a user's friends list, but Green said that doesn't make a difference. He cited Facebook user testimonials that ranged from members who said their entire Christmas lists had been published on their News Feeds (spoiling many a surprise in the process) to student activists who were concerned that sensitive purchases might show up and result in serious consequences--"If a college kid rents Brokeback Mountain and some homophobic person on his campus sees that, that could be a real problem," he explained.

Beacon does allow members to opt out. But, Green said, that isn't enough for MoveOn, which got its start as a left-leaning grassroots organization. "The opt-out is very well hidden," he said. "It basically pops up for a second and then goes away, and it's on the bottom of your screen when you're purchasing on a totally unrelated Web site, so you aren't even looking for it." He added that there's not a universal opt-out, so members have to repeat the process on each partner site. "Even if you see the opt-out and jump through the hoops of opting out once, that doesn't solve the problem."

Some retailers participating in Beacon say they're familiar with its potential pratfalls, but insist that it will ultimately be a positive development. "I think it's a new technology, and until people get used to it, it might surprise some," said Josh Mohrer, director of retail for "We have had a few instances where people were surprised, not necessarily angry, but surprised that their purchase showed up on their Facebook feed...I think when it becomes ubiquitous, which it most certainly will as Facebook things tend to be, that people will get used to it and see it as a good thing."

Mohrer said that he saw where the complaints were coming from. "I think Facebook probably needs to do a better job of warning people about it," he said. "What's bad is that people are probably going to blame the merchant and not Facebook."

Additionally, Mohrer admitted that he doesn't entirely disagree with the concerns of activists who have pointed out potential privacy issues with Beacon. "You should have an option to turn it on," Mohrer added, "not the other way around, especially around this time of year."

Facebook Users Complain of New TrackingSome users of the online hangout Facebook are complaining that its two-week-old marketing program is publicizing their purchases for friends to see.
Those users say they never noticed a small box that appears on a corner of their Web browsers following transactions at Fandango, Overstock and other online retailers. The box alerts users that information is about to be shared with Facebook unless they click on "No Thanks." It disappears after about 20 seconds, after which consent is assumed.
Users are given a second notice the next time they log on to Facebook, but they can easily miss it if they quickly click away to visit a friend's page or check e-mail

People should be given much more of a notice, much more of an alert," said Matthew Helfgott, 20, a college student who discovered his girlfriend just bought him black leather gloves from Overstock for Hanukkah. "She said she had no idea (information would be shared). She said it invaded her privacy."

The girlfriend was declining interviews, Helfgott said.

An Inc. spokesman said no one was immediately available for comment Wednesday.

Facebook has long prided itself on guarding its users' privacy, but the walls have gradually lowered. In 2006, a "news feeds" feature allowing users to track changes friends make to profiles backfired when many users denounced it as stalking and threatened protests. Facebook quickly apologized and agreed to let users turn off the feature.

The new program lets companies tap ongoing conversations by alerting users about friends' activities through the feeds. About 40 Web sites have decided to embed a free tool from Facebook, known as a Beacon, to enable the marketing feeds.

The idea is that if users see a friend buy or do something, they'd take that action as an endorsement for a movie, a band or a soft drink.

But it also raises privacy concerns.

Mike Mayer, for instance, saw a feed item saying his boyfriend, Adam Sofen, just bought tickets to "No Country For Old Man" from movie-ticket vendor Fandango.

"What if I was seeing `Fred Claus'?" said Sofen, 28. "That would have been much more embarrassing. At least this was a prestigious movie."

In some cases, companies can buy an ad next to the feed item with the friend's photo. Although Fandango didn't do that, Mayer, 28, still found Beacon unsettling.

"If my identity is going to be used to promote something for someone else, that seems problematic," said Mayer, who was previously employed in online advertising. "It could be a misrepresentation of my purchases."

Fandango officials referred inquiries to Facebook, which issued a statement defending its practices. Facebook officials have also said advertising supports the free service.

"Beacon gives users an easy way to share relevant information from other sites with their friends on Facebook," the statement said. "Information is shared with a small selection of a user's trusted network of friends, not publicly on the Web or with all Facebook users. Users also are given multiple ways to choose not to share information from a participating site, both on that site and on Facebook."

Users are able to decline sharing on a site-by-site basis, but can't withdraw from the program entirely.

On Wednesday, Facebook launched a mechanism for users to indicate what types of news feeds they like and dislike. Individuals could possibly use that to lower the frequency of marketing items, though the company has said they won't be able to reject them completely.

Liberal advocacy group formed a protest group Tuesday and had more than 6,000 members by Wednesday. The group is calling on Facebook to stop revealing online purchases and letting companies use names for endorsements without "explicit permission."

"We want Facebook to realize that their users are rightly concerned that private information is being made public," MoveOn spokesman Adam Green said, adding that Facebook could quell concerns by seeking "opt in" consent rather than leaving it to users to "opt out" by taking steps to decline sharing.

Facebook user Nate Weiner, 23, said he uses a tool for the Firefox Web browser called BlockSite, which he says prevents sites from sending data to Facebook.

"What if you bought a book on Amazon called 'Coping with AIDS' and that got published to every single one of your friends?

General Motors Corp (GM.N: Quote, Profile, Research) plans to launch its electric car, the Chevrolet Volt

GM to launch Volt by end-2010

General (GM.N: Quote, Profile, Research) plans to launch its electric car, the Chevrolet Volt, by the end of 2010 despite skepticism at GM about that target, its chief of global product development told Reuters on Tuesday.

As the race to bring a mass-market, rechargeable electric vehicle to the market heats up, GM's Bob Lutz said employees working on the Volt "are becoming increasingly nervous."

"There is a lot of skepticism within the company about the timeline," Lutz said at the Reuters Autos Summit in Detroit. "People are biting their nails, but those of us in a leadership position have said it has to be done."

Lutz said the Volt plug-in hybrid -- which GM plans to road-test early next year and produce by late 2010 -- is crucial to GM's efforts to snag the environmental technology crown from Japanese rival Toyota Motor Corp (7203.T: Quote, Profile, Research).

"When people think of Toyota, their iconic brand is the Prius," Lutz said, referring to Toyota's popular hybrid car.

"When they think of GM, the iconic brand is, unfortunately, the Hummer," he added, referring to its gas-guzzling, military-inspired sport utility vehicles. "That perception needs to change.

GM is the only automaker to have provided a timeline on production even though other companies, such as Ford Motor Co (F.N: Quote, Profile, Research) and Toyota, are working on similar technology.

"We have to reestablish GM's leadership and the Volt is, frankly, an effort to leapfrog anything that is done by any other competitor," Lutz said.

Unlike earlier gasoline-electric hybrids, which run on a system that twins battery power and a combustion engine, plug-ins are designed for short trips powered entirely by an electric motor and a battery charged through a socket at home.

Lutz said GM regrets its decision not to build a hybrid car when Toyota launched its game-changing Prius in 1997.

"We kind of lost the first couple of laps of the green car race," Lutz said, saying they couldn't go to GM's board "for a multihundred-million program that was going to lose money."

With the Prius, Toyota controls about 80 percent of the market for hybrids in the United States.

"We have since realized that letting Toyota gain that mantle of green respectability and technology leadership has really cost us dearly in the marketplace," Lutz said.


GM is designing the Volt to run 40 miles on battery power alone, with an on-board gasoline-powered engine as a backup

The Volt would be outfitted with new lithium-ion battery packs, which hold a charge longer than the nickel metal hydride batteries now used widely in automobiles.

Automakers say lithium-ion technology remains the biggest challenge in producing a plug-in as they try to lower the cost of the batteries and boost their power and storage capacity.

Also, the current generation of lithium-ion batteries, used in devices like laptop computers, have a tendency to overheat.

Toyota executives have said they do not expect lithium-ion batteries to be ready for use in the company's market-leading Prius hybrid by GM's 2010 timetable.

GM is testing lithium-ion battery technology developed by its two suppliers -- A123 Systems and Compact Power Inc, a subsidiary of South Korea's LG Chem (051910.KS: Quote, Profile, Research). But Lutz said GM needs to invest more in battery development internally.

GM already has a patent attorney assigned to the Volt to make sure the company keeps hold of rights to the technology.

"I'm convinced we can do the Volt and put it on the road, but if we want a commanding and permanent lead on this type of vehicle ... we have to control the intellectual property," Lutz said. "Otherwise it will propagate to other manufacturers too quickly."

General Motors' all-electric Volt to reach consumers in late 2010

General Motors is quite confident these days. The company recently priced its highly-anticipated full-size hybrid SUVs and showed off a concept version of its full-size hybrid Chevrolet Silverado. GM CEO Rick Wagoner also noted that his company will release one hybrid per quarter for the next four years -- lofty goals indeed.

Likewise, the company's brand new Chevrolet Malibu mid-sized sedan has been generating an overabundance of praise and its new $32,000 second-generation Cadillac CTS just walked away with Motor Trend's Car of the Year award.

GM is hoping to use this momentum and high level of interest in its vehicles to push the electric motor-powered Chevrolet Volt to customers by the end of 2010.

GM vice chairman Bob Lutz has heard all of the critics who question GM's aggressive ramp for the Volt, but is still committed to moving forward.

"There is a lot of skepticism within the company about the timeline," said Lutz. "People are biting their nails, but those of us in a leadership position have said it has to be done."

GM is hoping to use the Volt as a halo car to further strengthen its brand and its commitment to fuel economy. Dodge used the Viper to enhance its image for performance and styling in the 1990s. Toyota used its Prius at the turn of the century to shroud the entire company with a green image despite the fact that gas guzzlers like the Tundra and Sequoia share the same showroom space.

"When they think of GM, the iconic brand is, unfortunately, the Hummer," continued Lutz. "That perception needs to change.

The GM Volt features a 1.0 liter, 3-cylinder gasoline engine which is solely used to recharge the onboard lithium-ion battery pack. The battery pack, which will be manufactured by Compact Power and Continental Automotive Systems, powers the Volt's electric motors for forward propulsion.

GM says that the Volt can travel for up to 40 miles on battery power alone. After the 40 mile threshold has been reached, the gasoline engine kicks back in again to recharge the battery pack.

The entire industry has its eyes on GM and its Volt. Toyota took a big risk with its Prius and it has paid off dearly for the company.

"We have since realized that letting Toyota gain that mantle of green respectability and technology leadership has really cost us dearly in the marketplace," Lutz added. "We have to reestablish GM's leadership and the Volt is, frankly, an effort to leapfrog anything that is done by any other competitor."

New York's iconic Christmas tree this year will use energy-efficient lighting powered by solar panels,

Gotham's Christmas tree gets greenerNew York's iconic Christmas tree this year will use energy-efficient lighting powered by solar panels, part of a refurbishing at Rockefeller Center to conserve energy.

The Norway Spruce, set to be lighted on November 28, will use 30,000 light-emitting diodes (LEDs) strung on 5 miles of wire, according to Mayor Bloomberg's office, which announced the changes on Wednesday with real estate company Tishman Speyer.

The energy-efficient bulbs will save as much electricity per day as a single family in a 2,000-square-foot home uses in a month, they said.

Rockefeller Center now has the largest installation of solar-electric panels in New York City--365 General Electric panels capable of generating 70 kilowatts.

The tree itself is in for more sustainable treatment as well. It was cut down by a handsaw to cut down on pollution. At the end of the holiday season, the tree will be made into lumber to be used by Habitat for Humanity.

In addition to the energy-conservation measures for this holiday season, Tishman Speyer said that next year Rockefeller Center will have a green roof and an ice chiller installed.

The green roof, which will sit on top of Radio City Music Hall, will include desert plantings to reduce waste-water runoff. Green roofs also act as an insulator.

The ice chiller plant, which will include 47 water tanks that are 11 feet tall, will be a more efficient way to cool the building. The system will make cold water and ice at night, when there is less demand for electricity.

During the day, the building's air-conditioning will cool air by passing it through the cold water. The system is far more efficient and lowers the burden on the electrical grid during the hottest times of the day.

Mayor Bloomberg is one of several American mayors to promote energy conservation and environmental programs. Bloomberg hosted the C40 Large Cities Climate Summit in May where he unveiled what he called the city's "greenprint" for environmental sustainability.

Top 10 security threats for 2008

McAfee Inc has released its top ten predictions for security threats in 2008. Researchers at McAfee Avert Labs expect an increase in Web dangers and threats targeting Microsoft Corp's Windows Vista operating system, among other new or increased threats. At the same time ad-serving software known as adware is expected to continue to decrease.

"Threats are increasingly moving to the Web and migrating to newer technologies such as VoIP and instant messaging," said Jeff Green, senior vice president of McAfee Avert Labs and product development. "Professional and organised criminals continue to drive a lot of the malicious activity. As they become increasingly sophisticated, it is more important than ever to be aware and secure when traversing the Web."

Compromises and malware at, and MySpace, among others, represent a new trend in attacking online applications and social networking sites.
Web 2.0
Attackers are using Web 2.0 sites as a way to distribute malware and are datamining the Web, looking for information people share to give their attacks more authenticity. McAfee Avert Labs expects a large increase in this activity in 2008.


With a handful of high-profile prosecutions of bot herders in 2007, criminals will be seeking better ways to cover their tracks. The Storm Worm set a worrying precedent. Also known as Nuwar, the Storm Worm has been the most versatile malware on record.

The creators released thousands of variants and changed coding techniques, infection methods and social engineering schemes far more than any other threat in history.

Storm created the largest peer-to-peer botnet ever. McAfee expects others will ride the coattails of that questionable success, pushing up the number of PCs turned into bots. Bots are computer programmes that give cyber crooks full control over PCs. Bot programmes typically get installed surreptitiously on the PCs of unknowing computer users.

Instant malware
The scenario of a "flash" worm via instant messaging applications has been foreshadowed for years. This threat could reach millions of users around the globe in a matter of seconds. There has been malware that spreads via IM, but we have yet to see such a self-executing threat. However, this may be closer than ever as the number of vulnerabilities in popular instant messaging applications more than doubled in 2007 compared to 2006.

More importantly, there were 10 high-severity risks in 2007, compared to none in 2006. Additionally, the top IM virus families of 2005 and 2006 were replaced with new active threats, signifying an out with the old and in with the new milestone. Skype saw its first batch of worms in 2007. Many more are expected to follow.

Online gaming
The threat to virtual economies is outpacing the growth of the threat to the real economy. As virtual objects continue to gain real value, more attackers will look to capitalise on this.

The evidence is already there. The number of password-stealing Trojans that targeted online games in 2007 grew faster than the number of Trojans that target banks


In 2008, Windows Vista is set to gain additional market share and cross the 10 per cent barrier. The release of Service Pack 1 for Vista is also likely to accelerate the adoption of the Microsoft operating system. As Vista becomes more prevalent, attackers and malware authors will start in earnest to explore ways to circumvent the operating system's defenses.

There were 19 Vista vulnerabilities reported since its release earlier this year. We can expect a lot more Vista vulnerabilities to be reported in 2008.

The government crackdown against purveyors of ad-serving software has had a positive effect. The combination of lawsuits, better defenses, and the negative connotation associated with this form of advertising helped start the decline of adware in 2006.

This trend was confirmed in 2007 and with the major players out of the game, adware is expected to continue its decline in 2008.

Cybercrooks will increasingly target smaller, less-popular sites with data-thieving phishing scams. It has become tougher and riskier to target top-tier sites as the big-name brands are responding more quickly and providing increased security.

Knowing that a large percentage of people reuse their usernames and passwords, less popular sites are likely to be targeted more frequently than before, giving criminals the same access.

Parasitic crimeware

Parasitic infectors are viruses that modify existing files on a disk, injecting code into the file where it resides. While crimeware was storming ahead in recent years, parasitic malware faded to the background. In 2007 several crimeware authors turned old school to deliver threats like Grum, Virut, and Almanahe; parasitic viruses with a monetary mission.

The number of variants of an older parasitic threat, Philis, grew by more than 400 per cent, while over 400 variants of a newcomer, Fujacks, were catalogued. We expect a continued interest in parasitics from the crimeware community, with overall parasitic malware expected to grow by 20 per cent in 2008.


Security vendors will embrace virtualisation to create new, more resilient defenses. Today's complex threats will be easily defeated, but researchers, professional hackers, and malware authors will begin looking at ways to circumvent the new defensive technology, continuing the classic game of cat and mouse
Already this year, more than double the number of security vulnerabilities have been reported in Voice over IP (Internet Protocol) applications, compared to all of 2006. We have also seen several high-profile "Vishing" attacks and a "phreaking" conviction.

It is clear that VoIP threats have arrived and there's no sign of a slow down. The technology is still new and defence strategies are lagging. McAfee expects a 50 per cent increase in VoIP-related threats in 2008

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