Archive for May, 2010

DINOSAUR fossils found on School Grounds

Posted May 31, 2010 By David Kolle

DINOSAUR fossils have been discovered in a veggie patch at a Queensland school, 100 million years after the beasts roamed the inland sea.

Year 10 student Raymond Hodgson and groundsman Ben Smith unearthed six vertebrae from the ichthyosaur on May 20, while laying out a vegetable garden at the Richmond State School, in the state’s northwest.

Mr Smith said Raymond was complaining about the difficult digging after he had struck something hard.

“He hit a rock, and once he got it out, he threw it to the side because he wasn’t taking any notice,” he said.

“I picked it up and had a look at it, and thought ‘That looks more like a fossil than a rock’.”

Students and the principal descended on the patch and watched as five more vertebrae were unearthed.

“Of all things in the school ground, you don’t expect to see that,” Mr Smith said.

The curator of local fossil museum Kronosaurus Korner, Paul Stumkat, said ichthyosaurs were prolific in the area from the end of the Jurassic period through to the early Cretaceous period.

“They were the wilderbeasts of the Cretaceous inland sea,” Mr Stumkat said.

The creature looked like a cross between a dolphin and a shark and could grow to about eight metres.

They had some of the largest eyes in the animal kingdom, allowing them to dive to the dark depths of the inland sea to hunt squid.

The ichthyosaur found at Richmond State School came from a mature adult and Mr Stumkat is hoping its skull will be found.

“To find fossils is great, but to find a complete animal is better,” Mr Stumkat said.

The Richmond area is famous for fossils.

Mr Stumkat said a “grey nomad” was travelling just outside of the town in May last year, when he came across a fossil by accident.

“He went to relieve himself, and he came across an ichthyosaur,” Mr Stumkat said.

“As we were excavating, it disappeared halfway along so we were suspicious that something bit the whole thing in half.”

He said many of the museum’s 500 specimens had bite marks, mainly from ichthyosaurs and kronosaurus – a marine reptile that was, arguably, the largest in the world.

The ichthyosaur fossils found by Raymond and Mr Smith are on display at the school and the veggie patch has been relocated for now.

Source: Herald Sun


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4G wireless: fast, but is it overhyped?

Posted May 31, 2010 By David Kolle

People attending a 4G telecommunication connection conference at  the Telia headquarters. 4G is off to a slow start.People attending a 4G telecommunication connection conference at the Telia headquarters in May.

Mobile phone companies will soon start a barrage of advertising for the next advance in wireless network technology: 4G access.

Carriers in the US are are promising faster speeds and the thrill of being the first on the block to use a new acronym. But there’s less to 4G than meets the eye, and there’s little reason for people to scramble for it, at least for the next few years.

Sprint Nextel is the first carrier to beat the drum for fourth-generation wireless technology. It’s releasing its first 4G phone, the EVO, this week.

// In the fall, Verizon Wireless will be firing up its 4G network in 25 to 30 cities, and probably will make a big deal of that. A smaller provider, MetroPCS Communications, is scheduled to introduce its first 4G phone around the same time.

So what is 4G?

Broadly speaking, it’s a new way to use the airwaves, designed from the start for the transmission of data rather than phone calls. To do that, it borrows aspects of the latest generation of Wi-Fi, the short-range wireless technology.

For consumers, 4G means, in the ideal case, faster access to data. For instance, streaming video might work better, with less stuttering and higher resolution. Videoconferencing is difficult on 3G and might work better on 4G. Multiplayer video games may benefit too.

Other than that, it’s difficult to point to completely new uses for 4G phones — things they can do that 3G phones can’t.

Instead, the upgrade to 4G is more likely to enhance the things you can already do with 3G, said Matt Carter, president of Sprint’s 4G division.

“View it as the difference between watching regular TV and high-definition TV,” Carter said. “Once you’ve experienced high-definition TV it’s hard to go back to standard TV. It’s the same sort of thing here.”

So the improvement from 3G to 4G is not as dramatic as the step from 2G to 3G, which for the first time made real web browsing, video and music downloads practical on phones. The introduction of 3G started in earnest about five years ago, but it isn’t complete.

There’s an important caveat to the claim that 4G will be faster, as well. It will definitely be faster than the 3G networks of Sprint and Verizon Wireless — about four times faster, initially. But the other two American national carriers, AT&T and T-Mobile, are upgrading their 3G networks to offer data-transfer speeds that will actually be higher than the speeds 4G networks will reach this year or next.

That means that rather than focusing on real speeds, Sprint and Verizon will try to frame their marketing around the 4G term, said Dan Hays, who focuses on telecommunications at management consulting firm PRTM.

“It’s a terrible story from a consumer standpoint, because it’s tremendously confusing,” he said.

The fact that Verizon Wireless and Sprint are adding fresh spectrum may be more important than the fact that they are using it for 4G service. No matter if used for 4G or 3G, new spectrum means the companies can accommodate more data-hungry devices such as smart phones.

AT&T’s network is already staggering under data congestion caused by the iPhone in New York and San Francisco. The carrier has made relieving the congestion a top priority this year, and 3G upgrades are part of that process. (As an aside, there is a lot of talk of a coming “iPhone 4G.” Apple will most likely release the fourth generation of the iPhone for AT&T’s network this summer, but it’s virtually certain that it will not be able to use a 4G wireless network. It likely won’t be called the “iPhone 4G” either.)

Faster in a way

There’s another, more subtle benefit to 4G. While it’s not always faster than the best 3G when it comes to helping you download a big file in less time, it is definitely faster in the sense that it takes less time to initiate the flow of data to you.

What that means is that 4G is faster for quick back-and-forth communications. You wouldn’t notice this when surfing the web or doing e-mail: We’re talking delays of 0.03 second rather than 0.15 second. But it could mean that 4G will work better for multiplayer gaming, where split-second timing is important. Even phone calls could benefit from shorter audio delays.

In five years or so, many phones are likely to have 4G capabilities, but they’ll complement it with 3G. Rather than a sudden revolution, consumers are likely to experience a gradual transition to the new technology, with increasing speeds. But for now, 4G is no magic bullet.

“It’s an important thing for the industry,” said Bill Davidson, senior vice president of marketing and investor relations at wireless technology developer Qualcomm. “It’s absolutely needed. … But I just think some of this has gotten a bit ahead of itself in terms of expectations for consumers.”



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Gaming improves brain functions: research

Posted May 31, 2010 By David Kolle

Medal of Honor... new research shows certain games can help  improve brain function.Medal of Honor… new research shows certain games can help improve brain function.

You’re at the front lines shooting Nazis before they shoot you. Or you’re a futuristic gladiator in a death match with robots.

Either way, you’re playing a video game — and you may be improving your vision and other brain functions, according to research presented Thursday at a New York University conference on games as a learning tool.

“People that play these fast-paced games have better vision, better attention and better cognition,” said Daphne Bavelier, an assistant professor in the department of brain and cognitive science at the University of Rochester.

// Bavelier was a presenter at Games for Learning, a daylong symposium on the educational uses of video games and computer games.

The event, the first of its kind, was an indication that electronic games are gaining legitimacy in the classroom.

President Barack Obama recently identified the creation of good educational software as one of the “grand challenges for American innovation,” and the federal Department of Education’s assistant deputy secretary for the Office of Innovation and Improvement, Jim Shelton, attended Thursday’s conference.

Panelists discussed how people learn and how games can be engineered to be even more educational.

“People do learn from games,” said J. Dexter Fletcher of the Institute for Defense Analyses.

Sigmund Tobias of the State University of New York at Albany said an Israeli air force study found that students who played the game “Space Fortress” had better rankings in their pilot training than students who did not.

He added that students who played “pro-social” games that promote cooperation were more likely than others to help out in real-life situations like intervening when someone is being harassed.

Bavelier’s research has focused on so-called first-person shooter games like “Unreal Tournament” and “Medal of Honor,” in which the player is an Allied solder during World War II.

“You have to jump into vehicles, you have to crouch and hide,” said Tammy Schachter, a spokeswoman for game developer Electronic Arts.

Bavelier said playing the kill-or-be-killed games can improve peripheral vision and the ability to see objects at dusk, and the games can even be used to treat amblyopia, or lazy eye, a disorder characterized by indistinct vision in one eye.

She said she believes the games can improve math performance and other brain tasks.

“We are testing this hypothesis that when you play an action video game, what you do is you learn to better allocate your resources,” she said. “In a sense you learn to learn. … You become very good at adapting to whatever is asked of you.”

Bavelier believes the games will eventually become part of school curriculums, but “it’s going to take a generation.”

Schachter said the purpose of “Medal of Honor” and other games is to have fun, and any educational benefits are a bonus.

“Through entertainment these games test your memory skills, your eye-hand coordination, your ability to detect small activities on the screen and interact with them,” she said.

Not everyone is a fan

Gavin McKiernan, the national grassroots director for the Parents Television Council, an advocacy group concerned about sex and violence in the media, said that when it comes to violent video games, any positive effects are outweighed by the negative.

“You are not just passively watching Scarface blow away people,” McKiernan said. “You are actually participating. Doing these things over and over again is going to have an effect.”

Bavelier said games could be developed that would harness the positive effects of the first-person shooter games without the violence.

“As you know, most of us females just hate those action video games,” she said. “You don’t have to use shooting. You can use, for example, a princess which has a magic wand and whenever she touches something, it turns into a butterfly and sparkles.”



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Google open-sources VP8

Posted May 31, 2010 By David Kolle

Google unveiled an open-source, royalty-free video format called WebM on Wednesday, lining up commitments from Mozilla and Opera to support the encoding technology in their browsers and pledging to support it on its YouTube site.

“The WebM project is dedicated to developing a high-quality, open-video format for the web that is freely available to everyone,” the WebM web page states. As expected, Google made the move in conjunction with its Google I/O conference on Wednesday.

It’s not yet clear how much success Google will have spreading WebM, but the company has big web ambitions, a powerful brand, heavy influence through the popularity of YouTube, and deep pockets to help handle any legal threats to the WebM project.

Google lined up some outside support. “The VP8 and WebM specifications as released on 19 May 2010, are final, and we encourage everyone to use them for developing applications. Google, Mozilla and Opera are all adding WebM support to their browsers and all videos that are 720p or larger uploaded to YouTube after May 19th will be encoded in WebM as part of its HTML5 experiment.”

The format is based on the VP8 technology that Google acquired from On2 Technologies in February. It also uses the Ogg Vorbis audio technology that also has its origins with On2.

The “codec” technology for encoding and decoding video competes with H.264, a format that Apple and Microsoft prefer but comes with steep licensing fees and restrictions that keep it out of open-source software. That includes Mozilla’s Firefox and Google’s Chromium, the open-source project underlying its Chrome browser.

Microsoft said on Wednesday it will “support” the open-source, royalty-free WebM technology — as long as Windows users install software on their own.

That’s not much of an endorsement, but it’s a lot more favourable than anything the company said to WebM’s earlier alternative, Ogg Theora. Microsoft also continued to raise the issue it did before: the intellectual property risks of patent infringement involved with video encoding and decoding technology, or “codecs”.

“We are strongly committed to making sure that in IE9 you can safely view all types of content in all widely used formats. At the same time, Windows customers, developers and site owners also want assurances that they are protected from IP rights issues when using IE9,” Hachamovitch said.

Web video, a big new feature of the still-developing HTML5 standard, has been deadlocked between two codecs, Ogg Theora and H.264. Microsoft, a major contributor to the H.264 patent pool, builds H.264 support into Windows and will do so with the forthcoming IE9. Apple, which has a single patent in the H.264 pool, also is a big H.264 fan, seeing it as an enabler for web video technology that sidesteps Adobe Systems’ Flash Player.

But Mozilla and Opera rejected H.264, and the industry players creating the HTML5 specification chose against specifying a particular codec. WebM has some potential to ease the situation, but without Microsoft and Apple support, it seems unlikely it would be written into the standard. Apple didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Mozilla is a big fan of WebM and VP8.

“The VP8 codec represents a vast improvement in quality-per-bit over Theora and is comparable in quality to H.264,” Mozilla evangelist Chris Blizzard said. “We will include support for WebM in Firefox. You can get super-early WebM builds of Firefox 4 pre-alpha builds today.”

Opera, too, released a test version of its browser supporting WebM — along with an exhortation to keep patent restrictions off the web.

“The web has always been open and freely-usable; Tim didn’t patent HTML, I didn’t patent CSS, and Brendan didn’t patent JavaScript,” said Opera chief technology officer Håkon Wium Lie in a blog post. He was referring to three seminal web technologies: Hypertext Markup Language from Tim Berners-Lee, Cascading Style Sheets for formatting, and JavaScript programming language from Brendan Eich.

HTML5 video is a major competitive threat to Adobe’s Flash Player, which under the covers supports H.264 and a VP8 precursor called VP6. But Adobe and Google are allies these days, with Google building Flash into Chrome. So it shouldn’t come as too big a surprise that Adobe CTO Kevin Lynch announced Adobe will build VP8 into Flash Player and distribute it within a year.

“When it comes to video and HTML5, we’re all in. In its HTML5 support, IE9 will support playback of H.264 video as well as VP8 video when the user has installed a VP8 codec on Windows,” said IE general manager Dean Hachamovitch.

Google also released a WebM software developer kit, a licence guide, source code and FAQ.

In its On2 Technologies acquisition, Google argued that “high-quality video compression technology should be a part of the web platform.” (Google is in the process of buying another company, Global IP Solutions, with related technology for video-conferencing and voice-over internet protocol, too.)

Most often today, Adobe Systems’ Flash is the dominant player used to handle web video, with the H.264 codec under the covers handling the data. Web browser makers, including Apple, Mozilla, Microsoft, Google and Opera, want to build video directly into websites without a plug-in such as Flash through the new HTML5 video specification.

However, HTML5 doesn’t specify a particular codec, and the browser makers disagree on which is best. Microsoft and Apple are big fans of H.264. Mozilla and Opera aren’t, and they prefer the open-source Ogg Theora codec, which is based on a VP8 predecessor from years ago called VP3. Google’s Chrome is on the fence, supporting both Ogg Theora and H.264. So for now, web developers thinking about using HTML5 video face a lot of uncertainty.

“Many video codecs are plagued with uncertainty when it comes to patent rights and licensing costs,” said Vic Gundotra, vice president of engineering at Google, in a press conference following its WebM announcement. “The web needs an open standard.”

One of the big advantages H.264 has in the market is hardware support. That means chips can decode video directly rather than running software to do it, a process that’s slower and consumes a lot more power.

Hardware support could come to WebM, said Dan Rayburn, Frost & Sullivan analyst and executive vice president of

“Numerous sources are telling me that Google plans to announce hardware support for VP8. If true, and VP8 does what On2 claimed it could, the possibility does exist for VP8 to seriously challenge H.264 over time if Google can get enough hardware support, which I think they have a good shot at doing,” Rayburn said. “If that happens, we could see a push away from H.264 if Google approaches the market correctly. Without hardware support, VP8 can do well, but it will never disrupt H.264.”

Video streaming is complicated by patents, though. Mozilla’s top lawyer argues that Ogg Theora is safe to use in regards to patents. But Microsoft has cast doubts on Ogg Theora, and Apple chief executive Steve Jobs apparently is considering a patent attack on open-source video codecs.

Although Microsoft is a major patent contributor of the H.264 patents licensed by a group called MPEG LA, Microsoft pays more than twice to MPEG LA for H.264 licensing rights than it receives from the group, the company said.

By Stephen Shankland, CNET


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