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Saturday, November 17, 2007

Yahoo settles its China lawsuit

Yahoo's Michael Callahan and Jerry Yang at the House committee hearing
Yahoo senior officers were criticised in a congressional hearing
Yahoo has agreed to settle a lawsuit brought against it on behalf of several Chinese dissidents, according to papers filed in a California court.

No details have been given of the settlement, but Yahoo will cover legal costs and will also set up a fund to support other political dissidents.

The case alleged Yahoo had provided information to the Chinese government then used to prosecute the dissidents.

Yahoo said it had to comply with Chinese laws to operate in the country.

'Right move'

But after settling the lawsuit, Yahoo chief executive Jerry Yang said it was "clear to me what we had to do to make this right for them, for Yahoo and for the future".

A statement released by the World Organization for Human Rights USA, which brought the case, said Yahoo had decided to settle the case following criticism at a US Congressional hearing on 6 November.

A Congressional panel criticised Yahoo for not giving full details to its probe into the jailing of a reporter by Chinese authorities.

Yahoo had been "at best inexcusably negligent" and at worst "deceptive" in evidence given to the House Foreign Affairs Committee last year, the panel said.

One journalist cited in the case, Shi Tao, was tracked down and jailed for 10 years for subversion after Yahoo passed on his e-mail and IP address to officials.

He was convicted in 2004 of divulging state secrets after posting online a Chinese government order forbidding media organisations from marking the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.

Yahoo's original response to the lawsuit acknowledged releasing information to the Chinese government.

But it argued that there was little connection between the information the firm gave and the ensuing arrests and imprisonment of its users.

Michael Callahan, Yahoo's executive vice-president and general counsel, then told a congressional panel in February 2006 that he did not know why the Chinese authorities wanted to trace Shi Tao.

Last week, Mr Callahan wrote to the committee admitting that other Yahoo employees had a document saying it was to do with the "suspected illegal provision of state secrets".

Mr Callahan said the information only came to his attention months after he testified.

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Stars back for Ghostbusters game

Bill Murray
Who you gonna call? Bill Murray played Peter Venkman in the film
The original cast of Ghostbusters have signed up to lend their faces and voices to a new game based on the hit film series, reports say.

Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis and Ernie Hudson have all agreed to take part, says trade paper Variety.

Aykroyd and Ramis, who wrote the original films, will also pen the story for the game - which will be set in New York City during a new ghoul invasion.

The game will be released on all major consoles in late 2008.

It comes on the heels of several other classic movies that have recently been adapted into successful video games, including The Godfather and Scarface.


"We noticed we did well on Scarface and were alert for new opportunities to turn iconic film products into games in a way that is a new manifestation of the franchise," Vivendi Games chief executive Bruce Hack said.

"Ghostbusters is unquestionably among the small number of movies in that class."

The new game will be set in the early 1990s after the events of Ghostbusters II.

Some supporting cast members have even signed up to participate, including Annie Potts who played the ghost-busting team's receptionist, Janine.

Several Ghostbusters games were released around the time of the two movies, and one in the past decade was tied to the animated series, Extreme Ghostbusters.

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UK military spacecraft launched

Launch of Ariane 5 (AFP)
The Ariane 5 lights up the night sky over French Guiana
Britain has launched Skynet 5B - the latest spacecraft in a sophisticated new military communications system.

The satellite rode into orbit atop an Ariane 5 rocket from Europe's Kourou spaceport, in French Guiana.

Over the course of the next month, 5B will take up a position over the Indian Ocean and begin handling secure traffic for UK forces around the world.

The £3.6bn Skynet project is the UK's single biggest space venture and is designed to operate until 2020.

The rocket left the spaceport at 1906 local time (2206 GMT). It was a case of third time lucky after technical glitches had thwarted two previous attempts at a launch.

The Skynet payload separated from the Ariane just 27 minutes into the flight and was soon picked up by controllers through a ground station in Africa.

The spacecraft will need about 20 days of manoeuvres to take up a geostationary position at 53 degrees East.

Skynet 5B joins the 5A platform which was launched successfully in March. Working together, the two spacecraft will provide near-global coverage.

They will allow the Army, Royal Navy and RAF to pass much more data, faster between command centres. The bandwidth capacity of Skynet 5 is two-and-a-half times that of the old satellite constellation, Skynet 4.

The Skynet spacecraft should meet military needs up to 2020

The new spacecraft have been "hardened" for military use. They will resist attempts to disrupt them with high-powered lasers, and have some capacity to ride out the electromagnetic pulse emitted by nuclear weapons - something that would knock out normal electronic systems.

Classified receive antenna technology on the spacecraft can also go deaf to signals that try to jam communications, whilst at the same time leaving channels open for use by British commanders.

The 5A platform is already making important contributions in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) says.

The RAF's new Reaper Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) have begun monitoring Taleban operations, and 5A is being used to feed full-motion video back to the UK for analysis.

UK forces expect more high-bandwidth applications such as Reaper to come online in the years ahead.

The upgraded Skynet system is being funded with City money through a commercial company - Paradigm Secure Communications. The firm now provides all satcom services to the Army, Royal Navy and RAF, including the "welfare services" that allow service personnel on tour to phone and email home.

Reacher satellite truck (Astrium)
The Skynet project provides a range of satellite services
"The deal we have enables our customer, the British forces, to concentrate on what they are doing - the military campaign," said Malcolm Peto, the managing director of Paradigm.

"They get better technology, faster; and we get more money because we're incentivised to invest in the technology. It's a virtuous circle.

"The technology in our space industry is supremely efficient. In terms of the special bits that Skynet 5B's got for our military, it's just the best of the best."

Spare bandwidth on the Skynet 5 system will be sold to Nato countries and other "friendly" governments, bringing revenue back to Paradigm and the MoD.

Wednesday's Ariane rocket also lofted a Brazilian telecommunications spacecraft. The Star One C1 spacecraft will provide broadband internet services to South American consumers.

Skynet (BBC)

1. Skynet 5 overhauls satellite communications for UK forces
2. The largely autonomous satellites talk to two UK ground stations
3. Skynet 5 supports high-bandwidth applications, such as UAV video
4. Antennas and terminals are upgraded to make best use of Skynet
5. New battlefield networks, such as Cormorant, feed into the system
6. System gives commanders access to more information, faster

Skynet system

The satellites are 'hardened' against interference. A special receive antenna (1) can resist attempts at jamming
Each spacecraft has four steerable antennas (2) that can concentrate bandwidth onto particular regions
The system gives near-global coverage (3), providing 2.5 times the capacity afforded by the previous system
Each spacecraft (4) is a 3x4x4.5m box and weighs just under 5 tonnes; the solar wings once unfurled measure 34m tip to tip
Improved technologies, including a solar 'sail' (5), lengthen the platforms' operational lives to at least 15 years

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China spying 'biggest US threat'

A computer keyboard (file image)
The US must boost its computer security, congressional advisers say
Chinese espionage poses "the single greatest risk" to the security of US technology, a panel has told Congress.

China is pursuing new technology "aggressively", it says, legitimately through research and business deals and illegally through industrial espionage.

China has also "embraced destructive warfare techniques", the report says, enabling it to carry out cyber attacks on other countries' infrastructure.

A foreign ministry spokesman in Beijing denied any spying activities by China.

"China and the US have a fundamental common interest in promoting sound and rapid development," said Liu Jianchao, quoted by the Associated Press news agency.

Weapons advances

The allegations were made by the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission in its annual report.

The Pentagon, Jan 2007
China denied reports that it had hacked into Pentagon computers

The advisory panel, appointed by Congress, recommended that US security measures and intelligence be stepped up to try to prevent the theft of military technology, in particular.

"Chinese espionage activities in the United States are so extensive that they comprise the single greatest risk to the security of American technologies," the report said.

It urged Congress to study "military, intelligence and homeland security programmes that protect critical American computer networks and sensitive information, specifically those charged with protecting networks from damage caused by cyber attacks".

The report also identified other grounds for concern, such as the fact that the Chinese are manufacturing "sophisticated weapon platforms" speedily and efficiently.

The unexpected pace of China's military development has fuelled analysts' suspicions that it is being helped by stolen information, the commission said.

'Unfair trade'

In addition, the Chinese media - firmly under state control - are being used to create "deep feelings of nationalism", it said.

In an international crisis, the panel warned, that could turn misunderstanding into conflict.

The report also criticised Chinese economic policy, saying that small and medium-sized American businesses "face the full brunt of China's unfair trade practices, currency manipulation and illegal subsidies for Chinese exports".

The BBC's Vincent Dowd in Washington says that this is a hard-hitting report which will be consumed eagerly and with concern in the US capital.

In September, the Chinese government denied reports that its military had hacked into the computer network of the US defence department in Washington.

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Pushing the PC gaming boundaries

Games like Crysis can demand high-specification hardware

The PC remains a big player in the games market but in recent years its cutting edge has been blunted.

The vast majority of games are still played on PCs rather than consoles; typically casual games played on cheap desktop machines or online games, such as World of Warcraft.

The industry is currently experiencing a renaissance in innovation as the trinity of new hardware, developer ambition and tools come together to improve experiences.

The introduction of chip technology with four cores, effectively quadrupling processing power, graphics cards using DirectX 10 tools and developers keen to push powerful machines to the limit are resulting in games which set new graphical benchmarks.

In some cases these machines are desktop behemoths; near supercomputers in a box that are delivering game experiences beyond the wildest dreams of console owners.

The latest games, like Crysis and Unreal Tournament 3, are taking advantage of quad core processors, and twin graphics cards. These are the play things of hotrod PC gamers - the enthusiasts who see their machines as customisable dragsters delivering the pinnacle of performance.

Tricked out PC
High end games PCs are important to the professional players
Michael O'Dell

"PC gamers see themselves as the elite gamers," said Michael O'Dell, who runs the professional gaming group Team Dignitas and manages Birmingham Salvo, a team in the Championship Gaming Series.

"High end games PCs are important to the professional players and hard core because the extra processing power can make that millisecond of difference between success and failure, and whether you win prize money or not."

For the hardcore the extra grunt of the most powerful desktops improve the FPS (frames per second) in FPS (First Person Shooter) games.

"My gamers are always moaning about their FPS (frames per second). They always want more and some of the newest games are very demanding on the hardware."

For these gamers, whose reaction times put them in the superhuman category, more frames per second means a smoother experience.

So how much more powerful are these high-end PCs than the latest generation of consoles?

"It's absolute nonsense to think that consoles are at the cutting edge," said Roy Taylor, vice president of content relations at Nvidia, the world's biggest manufacturer of graphics cards.

"As good as consoles are, they are so far behind the PC gaming experience that there is no comparison.

Unreal Tournament 3
Unreal Tournament 3 will help hardware sales

"In terms of raw processing power, the high-end PCs are at least three times more powerful."

Nvidia provides the graphics grunt for the PlayStation 3, while rival ATI provides the imaging hardware for the Xbox 360.

Mr Taylor points out that the latest graphics cards can draw twice as many pixels, twice the screen resolution, as a PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360.

The latest games are employing DirectX 10 tools developed by Microsoft, which are used by developers to get the best out of the high-end and middle-range graphics cards.

Mr Taylor said the new tools and the new hardware had given developers a library of effects to play with.

Nvidia's latest high-end graphics cards, the 8800 series, can easily produce graphical effects that tax the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, such as motion blur, depth of field and volumetric smoke.

Mr Taylor said: "Fog, smoke or mist in games until now have been flat and don't respond to objects. Volumetric effects mean they are dynamic - a helicopter can now displace cloud or smoke, or a character can step through the fog realistically."

But these sorts of effects come at a price.

A quadcore Intel machine with twin graphics cards and four gigabytes of ram - at the high end of the PC gaming experience - can cost more than £2,000, six times the price of an Xbox 360.

Nvidia's flagship graphics card, the 8800 Ultra, costs more than £400 although a cut-down version, the 8800 GT, costs from £120, about the same price as a Nintendo Wii.

Rival ATI also sends a high-end graphics card which supports DirectX 10, costing from about £120.

Modded PC
PC gamers love to "mod" their machines

Hardcore PC gamers also specialise in customising their "rigs", with unique cases and intricate cooling systems.

The gaming experience they deliver can be exceptional.

Playing Crysis with the screen resolution set at 1920x1200 with all effects switched up to very high and anti-aliasing turned on, the game is breathtaking to look at and puts consoles titles like Gears of War and Call of Duty 4 into the shade.

"We worked really closely with Intel and Nvidia and even had engineers from Nvidia on site for the last year," said Bernd Diemer, a producer on Crysis at developers Crytek.

"We wanted to be an early adopter. When we started Crysis the current hardware wasn't available or being planned. There was no DX10 or the latest graphic cards. They were not even on the drawing board."

They went to a special effects company in Hollywood to create a render movie of how Crysis could look - and that movie has been the benchmark for the firm.

"We got pretty close. In some areas we even surpassed it," said Mr Diemer.

He said PCs gave gamers the "best possible experience".

Crysis boasts realistic breakable environments - a goal of developers for many years.

"In some areas we have managed to set a new standard. We've managed to push it a bit further," he said.

Crysis is at the forefront of a wave that is delivering blockbuster titles to PCs and making console owners envious of their PC gaming friends.

"The PC is finally back up where it belongs," said Mr Diemer.

He added: "The innovation is happening on the PC; but that's always been the case."

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Colossus loses code-cracking race

Colossus loses code-cracking race
By Mark Ward
Technology Correspondent, BBC News website

Colossus in operation during wartime, PA
Bletchley's code-breaking effort shortened the war by many months

An amateur cryptographer has beaten Colossus in a code-cracking challenge set up to mark the end of a project to rebuild the pioneering computer.

The competition saw Colossus return to code-cracking duties for the first time in more than 60 years.

The team using Colossus managed to decipher the message just after lunch on 16 November.

But before that effort began Bonn-based amateur Joachim Schuth revealed he had managed to read the message.

"He has written a suite of software specifically for the challenge," said Andy Clark, one of the founders of the Trust for the National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park where Colossus is sited.

News of Mr Schuth's success reached Bletchley Park on Thursday night, said Mr Clark.

The re-built Colossus

The target messages, enciphered with a Lorenz S42 machine as used by the German high command, were transmitted by a team of radio enthusiasts in Paderborn, Germany.

However, radio reception problems throughout the day on Thursday meant that the British code-cracking team did not get a full copy of the enciphered message until after 1700 GMT.

"For that all credit must go to Milton Keynes Amateur Radio Society," said Mr Clark. "They worked tirelessly yesterday."

A copy of the ciphertext in the messages was loaded onto the re-built Colossus at 0855 GMT on Friday morning, said Mr Clark.

At 1315 GMT on Friday Colossus managed to work out the message, he said - though there was a slight delay as two valves blew just as the final run was being carried out.

"We've got all the wheel settings," said a delighted Mr Clark, adding that there was spontaneous applause when the announcement of success was made.

At the same time as Colossus cranked through the messages a separate team used a virtual Colossus on a laptop to read the scrambled messages. That too beat Colossus and deciphered the message mid-morning on Friday.

hand plugs in telephone cable on rebuilt Colossus

The ciphertext from the messages will also be placed on the museum's website so amateur code-crackers who do not have access to radio can have a go at breaking the signals.

Colossus is widely recognised as being one of the first recognisably modern computers in that it could be programmed. It was the size of a small lorry and used more than 2,000 valves.

Tony Sale led the 14-year Colossus re-build project and it took so long because all 10 Colossus machines were broken up after the war in a bid to keep their workings secret. When he started the re-build all Mr Sale had to work with were a few photographs of the machine.

In its heyday Colossus could break messages in a matter of hours and, said Mr Sale, proved its worth time and time again by revealing the details of Germany's battle plans.

"It was extremely important in the build up to D-Day," said Mr Sale. "It revealed troop movements, the state of supplies, state of ammunition, numbers of dead soldiers - vitally important information for the whole of the second part of the war."

Close-up of Colossus, Bletchley Park

This, and the other information revealed by the code-cracking effort at Bletchley, helped to shorten the war by at least 18 months, said Mr Sale.

The Cipher Challenge is also being used to mark the start of a major fund-raising drive for the fledgling National Museum of Computing. The museum will be based at Bletchley and Colossus will form the centre-piece of its exhibits.

Colossus has a place in the history of computing not just because of the techniques used in its construction.

Many of those that helped build it, in particular Tommy Flowers, went on to do work that directly led to the computers in use today.

The museum said it needed to raise about £6m to safeguard the future of the historic computers it has collected.

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