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Sunday, January 18, 2009

Apple, Yahoo boards face denigration

By raising as many questions as it answered, last week's announcement that Steve Jobs will take a six-month medical leave has sparked fresh denigration from those who say Apple's board seems more worried with shielding the charismatic chief executive's privacy than with meeting its responsibility to shareholders.

Critics have often accused corporate boards of being too deferential to management or ignoring stock owners' best interests. Last year, some investors accused Yahoo's directors of failing to meet their fiduciary duty by allowing then-CEO Jerry Yang to reject Microsoft's offer to buy the company at a huge premium.
While the circumstances were different, both boards have been too submissive, charged Darren Chervitz, co-manager of the Jacob Internet Fund, which owns shares in both Apple and Yahoo. "If their job is to look out for shareholders, they're not doing a good job of it."
Governance experts say corporate directors' first obligation is to make sure a company is operated in the best interest of its owners. Recent regulatory reforms have attempted to reinforce the role of directors as independent overseers, rather than simply advisers to management, by providing that outside directors meet independently and serve on committees that oversee audits and compensation.
But experts also said there is not a checklist of rules that tell corporate boards how to handle the kinds of situations that Apple and Yahoo faced.
In addressing .

Jobs' health problems, Apple has offered only terse statements that at times seemed to conflict with previous announcements. Critics point to the way Apple disclosed Jobs' medical leave as a sign the board is giving him too much leeway in determining his own fitness and deciding who will run the company, while depriving shareholders of relevant information.
The announcement came Wednesday in the form of a brief memo from Jobs, which said that "during the past week I have learned that my health-related issues are more complex than I originally thought."
"The fact the announcement came from the CEO and not from the board tells you a lot,'' said Nell Minow at the Corporate Library, a research group that advocates for governance reforms. Citing past episodes involving Jobs' generous stock compensation and an investigation into back-dating allegations, she added, "this is a board that has repeatedly had problems exercising independent oversight."
"The board should drive this process," not Jobs, agreed Charles Elson, a professor at the University of Delaware's Center for Corporate Governance.
But some experts said that, while the board should insist that Jobs keep them informed of his health, it may not have a duty to disclose details if directors are satisfied they aren't relevant.
"From my perspective, much of this criticism is based on speculation," said Joseph Grundfest, co-director of the Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford. "Much of this depends on what the board knew and when did they know it."
Investment banker Gary Lutin, who has served on several corporate boards, added that directors must balance shareholders' right to know against perhaps needlessly panicking investors, customers or employees.
Critics also have complained that Apple's board has failed to articulate a plan for replacing Jobs in the event he is not able to return to work full-time.
"Sadly, this board of excellent people seems to get caught up in the emotional vortex of protecting and sympathizing with their legendary and beloved CEO," said Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, an associate dean at Yale University's School of Management. Apple's eight-member board includes such luminaries as Al Gore, Google chief executive Eric Schmidt and Avon chief executive Andrea Jung, in addition to Jobs himself.
Apple declined comment Friday. A spokesman said the company has a succession plan for the chief executive's job, but the plan is confidential.
Governance experts also are divided over the role of Yahoo's board in last year's unsuccessful buyout talks. Like Jobs, Yang's reputation and identity is closely tied to the fate of the company he co-founded. Some critics have argued that the board should have formed a committee of independent directors to handle the Microsoft bid, rather than allowing Yang to play a leading role in negotiations.
Yang was chief executive and a board member when Yahoo rejected Microsoft's offer to buy the search company for $33 a share, or roughly $47.5 billion, saying the price was too low. The stock was trading at just under $29 at the time of Microsoft's last offer; it's now below $12.
At one point, Yang and co-founder David Filo met with Microsoft executives to discuss their offer, with no other Yahoo directors present. But board chairman Roy Bostock publicly backed Yang throughout the negotiations.
Shareholders voiced their displeasure, however. More than a third voted against retaining Yang and Bostock as board members in August. Three months later, Yang announced he would step down as chief executive.
Board members have an obligation to evaluate whether the chief executive has personal or financial motivations that present a conflict of interest to such negotiations, but the question is ultimately up to the board's judgement, said Michael Klausner, a professor of business and law at Stanford, who added that he wasn't commenting specifically on the Yahoo case.
"The role of the board is oversight, but not necessarily to second-guess, unless there's a red flag," Klausner said.

Three million beat by Windows worm

A worm that spreads throughout low security networks, memory sticks, and PCs without the most recent security updates is posing on the get higher threat to users.
The malicious program, known as Conficker, Downadup, or Kido was first discovered in October 2008.
Although Microsoft released a patch, it has gone on to infect 3.5m machines.
Experts warn this figure could be far higher and say users should have up-to-date anti-virus software and install Microsoft's MS08-067 patch.

According to Microsoft, the worm works by searching for a Windows executable file called "services.exe" and then becomes part of that code.
It then copies itself into the Windows system folder as a random file of a type known as a "dll". It gives itself a 5-8 character name, such as piftoc.dll, and then modifies the Registry, which lists key Windows settings, to run the infected dll file as a service.
Once the worm is up and running, it creates an HTTP server, resets a machine's System Restore point (making it far harder to recover the infected system) and then downloads files from the hacker's web site.
Most malware uses one of a handful of sites to download files from, making them fairly easy to locate, target, and shut down.
But Conficker does things differently.
Anti-virus firm F-Secure says that the worm uses a complicated algorithm to generate hundreds of different domain names every day, such as,, and Only one of these will actually be the site used to download the hackers' files. On the face of it, tracing this one site is almost impossible.
Speaking to the BBC, Kaspersky Lab's security analyst, Eddy Willems, said that a new strain of the worm was complicating matters.
"There was a new variant released less than two weeks ago and that's the one causing most of the problems," said Mr Willems
"The replication methods are quite good. It's using multiple mechanisms, including USB sticks, so if someone got an infection from one company and then takes his USB stick to another firm, it could infect that network too. It also downloads lots of content and creating new variants though this mechanism."
"Of course, the real problem is that people haven't patched their software. If people do patch their software, they should have little to worry about," he added.
Technicians have reverse engineered the worm so they can predict one of the possible domain names. This does not help them pinpoint those who created Downadup, but it does give them the ability to see how many machines are infected.
"Right now, we're seeing hundreds of thousands of unique IP addresses connecting to the domains we've registered," F-Secure's Toni Kovunen said in a statement.
"We can see them, but we can't disinfect them - that would be seen as unauthorised use."
Microsoft says that the malware has infected computers in many different parts of the world, with machines in China, Brazil, Russia, and India having the highest number of victims.
The worm can also spread via USB flash drives.

MIT) has developed carbon nanotubes that can be used as sensors for cancer drugs and other DNA-damaging agents inside living cells.

A multidisciplinary team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has developed carbon nanotubes that can be used as sensors for cancer drugs and other DNA-damaging agents inside living cells. The sensors, made of carbon nanotubes wrapped in DNA, can detect chemotherapy drugs such as cisplatin as well as environmental toxins and free radicals that damage DNA.

“We've made a sensor that can be placed in living cells, healthy or malignant, and actually detect several different classes of molecules that damage DNA,” said Michael Strano, Ph.D., leader of the research team and a member of the MIT-Harvard Center of Cancer Nanotechnology Excellence. Dr. Strano and his colleagues published their work in the journal Nature Nanotechnology.

Such sensors could be used to monitor chemotherapy patients to ensure that drugs are effectively battling tumors. Many chemotherapy drugs are powerful DNA disruptors and can cause serious side effects, so it is important to make sure that the drugs are reaching their intended targets. The sensor can detect DNA-alkylating agents, a class that includes cisplatin, and oxidizing agents such as hydrogen peroxide and hydroxyl radicals.

“You can figure out not only where the drugs are, but also whether a drug is active or not,” said Daniel Heller, a graduate student in chemical engineering and lead author of the paper.

Using the sensors, researchers can monitor living cells over an extended period of time. The sensor can pinpoint the exact location of molecules inside cells, and for one agent, hydrogen peroxide, it can detect a single molecule.

The new technology takes advantage of the fact that carbon nanotubes fluoresce in near-infrared light, whereas human tissue does not, which makes it easier to see the nanotubes light up. In addition, each nanotube’s fluorescence depends strongly on events taking place on the surface of the nanotube, such as when molecules bind to the nanotube surface.
Each nanotube is coated with DNA, which binds to DNA-damaging agents present in the cell. That interaction between DNA and the DNA disruptor changes the intensity and/or wavelength of the fluorescent light emitted by the nanotube. The agents produce different signatures that can be used to identify them. Moreover, the investigators developed signal processing methods that separate the signatures of multiple different molecules binding to the nanotubes.

“We can differentiate between different types of molecules depending on how they interact,” Dr. Strano said. He added that future studies will use the new nanotube sensors to study the effects of various antioxidants, such as the compounds in green tea, and learn how to more effectively use toxic chemotherapy drugs.
This work, which was detailed in the paper “Multimodal optical sensing and analyte specificity using single-walled carbon nanotubes,” was supported in part by the NCI Alliance for Nanotechnology in Cancer, a comprehensive initiative designed to accelerate the application of nanotechnology to the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of cancer. Investigators from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute also participated in this study.

scientists keep searching for new sources of drugs.

New Family Of Antibacterial Agents discovered
As bacteria resistant to commonly used antibiotics continue to increase in number, scientists keep searching for new sources of drugs. One potential new bactericide has now been found in the tiny freshwater animal Hydra.

The protein identified by Joachim Grötzinger, Thomas Bosch and colleagues at the University of Kiel, hydramacin-1, is unusual (and also clinically valuable) as it shares virtually no similarity with any other known antibacterial proteins except for two antimicrobials found in another ancient animal, the leech.
Hydramacin proved to be extremely effective though; in a series of laboratory experiments, this protein could kill a wide range of both Gram-positive and Gram-negative bacteria, including clinically-isolated drug-resistant strains like Klebsiella oxytoca (a common cause of nosocomial infections). Hydramacin works by sticking to the bacterial surface, promoting the clumping of nearby bacteria, then disrupting the bacterial membrane.
Grötzinger and his team also determined the 3-D shape of hydramacin-1, which revealed that it most closely resembled a superfamily of proteins found in scorpion venom; within this large group, they propose that hydramacin and the two leech proteins are members of a newly designated family called the macins.

The ocean's insubstantial acid balance may be getting help from an astonishing source, fish poop

Ocean wants fish devastate
The increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere also raises the amount of CO2 dissolved in ocean water, tending to make it more acidic.Alkaline chemicals such as calcium carbonate can help balance this acid. The main source for this chemical was thought to be the shells of marine plankton, but researchers report in Friday's issue of the journal Science that marine fish contribute 3% to 15% of total carbonate.Bony fish produce carbonate to dispose of the excess calcium they ingest in seawater. This forms into calcium carbonate crystals, or "gut rocks," which are then excreted.
The process is separate from digestion and production of feces.U.S. children study is recruitingScientists begin recruiting mothers-to-be this week for the largest study of U.S. children ever performed -- aiming eventually to track 100,000 across the country from conception to age 21.Nearly a decade in the planning, the ambitious National Children's Study tackles a major mystery: How the environment -- including a pregnant woman's diet and a child's exposure to various chemicals -- interacts with genetics to affect youngsters' health and development.Microwave 'cloaks' enhancedResearchers at Duke University, who developed a material that can "cloak" an item from detection by microwaves, report in Thursday's edition of the journal Science that they have expanded the number of wavelengths they can block.The team reported in 2006 that it had developed so-called metamaterials that could deflect microwaves around a three-dimensional object, essentially making it invisible to the waves.The system works like a mirage, in which heat causes the bending of light rays and cloaks the road ahead behind an image of the sky.Research planes are unmannedThere will be a powerful new scientific eye in the sky come summer.NASA and Northrop Grumman on Thursday unveiled two unmanned drones that will be used for atmospheric research. One of the two Global Hawks, a version of the Air Force's top-of-the-line unmanned spy plane, will conduct its first earth science mission in June for NASA.The planes, which are capable of staying aloft for more than 30 hours, will sample greenhouse gases and verify measurements by NASA's Aura atmosphere research satellite.Antidepressants may relieve painAntidepressants appear to relieve pain, sleep disturbances and other symptoms of fibromyalgia, a debilitating and painful ailment with no known cure, researchers reported in this week's issue of the Journal of the American Medical Assn.In an analysis of 18 previously published studies, they found that tricyclic and tetracyclic antidepressants seemed to have a large effect in easing pain, fatigue and sleep disturbances while selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors such as Prozac had smaller effect for pain relief.New, efficient rice in the worksAn international team of scientists is attempting to develop a new rice strain that will use less water and fertilizer but could boost yields by up to 50% to meet growing demand.The ambitious laboratory project, announced Wednesday by the Philippines-based International Rice Research Institute, could take a decade or more to complete.The project aims to improve the efficiency of a rice plant's photosynthesis, the process by which plants use solar energy to capture carbon dioxide and convert it into carbohydrates.Study finds stents may be overusedA new study gives fresh evidence that many people with clogged heart arteries are being overtreated with stents and that a simple blood-flow test might help prevent unnecessary care.Fewer deaths, heart attacks and repeat procedures occurred when doctors implanted fewer of these tiny artery props, using the blood-flow test to decide when they were truly needed, the study found.
Fish digestions help keep the oceans healthy..

The digestive systems of fish play a vital role in maintaining the health of the oceans and moderating climate change, researchers said on Thursday.

Computer models showed how bony fish produced a large portion of the inorganic carbon that helps maintain the oceans' acidity balance and was vital for marine life, they said.
The world's bony fish population, estimated at between 812 million and 2 billion tons, helped to limit the consequences of climate change through its effect on the carbon cycle, University of British Columbia researchers reported in the journal Science.
"This study is really the first glimpse of the huge impact fish have on our carbon cycle -- and why we need them in the ocean," researcher Villy Christensen and colleagues wrote.
Calcium carbonate is a white, chalky material that helps control the acidity balance of sea water and is essential to the health of marine ecosystems and coral reefs.
It helps regulate how much carbon dioxide oceans would be able to absorb from the atmosphere in the future, the researchers said.

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