Saturday, September 1, 2007

Giant Spider Web in Texas Baffles Experts

Giant Spider Web in Texas Baffles Experts

Remember the famous episode in the X-files series, when David Duchovny aka Agent Mulder was nearly killed during a night attack of some strange web-weaving fireflies?

Well, the same scenery witnessed by agent Scully and agent Mulder in that episode revealed itself to the public and to entomologists recently, in a region of Lake Tawakoni State Park, situated in Texas. Although not as gruesome and frightening as the one depicted in the X-files episode, the giant spider web is definitely one of the top attractions for some tourists, although others reject even the idea of standing anywhere near it.

The web is now the final destination for thousands of insects, most of them mosquitoes, whose combined death-screeches can sometimes be heard loud and clear.

"At first, it was so white it looked like fairyland," said Donna Garde, superintendent of the park about 45 miles east of Dallas. "Now it's filled with so many mosquitoes that it's turned a little brown. There are times you can literally hear the screech of millions of mosquitoes caught in those webs."

Scientists have two hypotheses for this “sticky” appearance: they said the web could be either the result of a “massive” collaboration between spiders- called social cobweb spiders- or it could be the result of a mass dispersal in which the arachnids spin webs to spread out from one another.

However, the second option seems to be more plausible, since the creation of a web with such dimensions by the cobweb spiders would require an enormous amount of time (and the naissance of the web has only been signaled recently).

Robb Bennett, Ph.D., Editor-in-Chief at The Canadian Entomologist said: “ would not surprise me if this is the result of another mass dispersal event rather than the result of theridiid communal activity. The web page [describing the discovery] states that the web only appeared recently - in my experience communal spider webs take a considerable time to achieve this sort of size.”

"I've been hearing from entomologists from Ohio, Kansas, British Columbia- all over the place," said Mike Quinn, an invertebrate biologist with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department who first posted photos online.

John Jackman, a professor and extension entomologist for Texas A&M University and author of "A Field Guide to the Spiders and Scorpions of Texas," didn’t seem surprised or enthusiastic about the discovery:

"There are a lot of folks that don't realize spiders do that, [but] until we get some samples sent to us, we really won't know what species of spider we're talking about." He said similar cases were witnessed in other parts of the world too.

For example, the world’s largest communal spider web was spotted in the northern parts of British Columbia, where Brian Thair, a retired biology professor of the College of New Caledonia, saw on October 27, 2002, a silky, white web stretching 60 acres across a field, whose tensile strength was enough to hold a handful of coins without letting them fall. He said that there were "in the order of tens of millions of spiders running frantically back and forth."

"Somebody needs to come out that's an expert. I would love to see some entomology intern come out and study this," Donna Garde said of the Texas spider web.

Lake Tawakoni State Park is a 376.3-acre park in Hunt County with 5.2 miles of shoreline along the south central shore of the main body of the water reservoir.

Battle brewing between States, DoJ over Microsoft settlement expiration

California and several other states have authored a report evaluating the efficacy of the Department of Justice's 2001 settlement with Microsoft. California's attorney general and representatives of other states that make up what is called the California Group believe that the government's scrutiny of Microsoft should extend beyond the November 12 expiration date stipulated in the settlement. The group will have a conference with Judge Kollar-Kotelly on September 11 to discuss their objections.

Meanwhile, the Department of Justice Friday gave Microsoft an okay for changes it has made to the Windows Vista operating system aimed at addressing the complaints registered by Google earlier this year. The DoJ also said that Microsoft was generally in compliance in other areas of monitoring, too. The DoJ's report was not a response to the California Group, but it does highlight the disparity in assessment of the settled.

Hence, we have a bit of a stand-off forming, with the DoJ and Microsoft on one side, and several powerful states on the other. In what follows, we examine the California's Group's complaint as well as Microsoft's response to it.

Microsoft to be a repeat offender?

The settlement, which was reached in 2001 after Microsoft was found by the courts to be in violation of the Sherman antitrust act, established a consent decree agreement which requires Microsoft to allow original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and end users to easily replace or remove standard Microsoft "middleware" products like Internet Explorer, Outlook Express, and Windows Media Player. The consent decree agreement also prohibits Microsoft from retaliating against vendors that bundle or distribute third-party software. Microsoft's compliance with these terms has been monitored by court-appointed officials that investigate complaints issued by other companies.

According the report issued by The California Group, Microsoft's operating system market share, which still exceeds 90 percent, is evidence that the terms of the settlement negotiated by the Department of Justice have not adequately remedied the detrimental impact of Microsoft's prior anticompetitive behavior. Although the California Group report acknowledges that Microsoft has adequately complied with the requirements of the consent decree agreement, the states believe that Microsoft would resume using anticompetitive behavior if the terms of the settlement are permitted to expire in November as scheduled. Additionally, the California Group argues that pushing back the expiration date of the agreement is further necessitated by the recent release of Windows Vista, which they argue warrants further scrutiny.

"When the remedial regime imposed by the Court expires in large part in November 2007, the principal constraint on Microsoft's ability to abuse its market power will be gone," the report states. "There is no way of knowing whether Microsoft will continue to refrain from engaging in the anticompetitive conduct enjoined by the Final Judgment once it has expired and plaintiffs are no longer able to enforce it... Termination of Microsoft's obligations and of plaintiffs' oversight, including plaintiffs' ability to investigate complaints and review Microsoft's internal records, will remove a significant constraint on Microsoft's behavior."

Microsoft responds

Microsoft filed its own report with the courts in response to the report issued by The California Group. In its own report, Microsoft notes its compliance with all of the requirements of the consent decree and argues that the significant changes in the technology industry that have transpired since the settlement indicate the presence of broader competition.

"Fundamental changes have taken place in the information technology ('IT') industry that The California Group fails to note. Those changes reflect dynamic competitive forces at work," Microsoft's report argues. To support this, the report points out that web-based applications have "impacted the applications barrier to entry said to protect Microsoft's leading share in PC operating systems," and that OEMs now "distribute numerous non-Microsoft software products on their new personal computers."

Microsoft also argues that the Windows operating system market share isn't an appropriate metric to use for evaluating the efficacy of Microsoft's settlement with the Department of Justice. Microsoft argues that the company's dominance in the operating system market wasn't obtained illegally, and that anticompetitive practices were, according to the court's findings, only used to maintain that dominant position. Microsoft further argues that since the company no longer uses any of those practices-and even The California Group acknowledges that fact-the terms of the settlement have succeeded in equalizing competition.

"The Final Judgments have done exactly what they set out to do, i.e., remedy practices engaged in by Microsoft that were found to be anticompetitive by this Court and the Court of Appeal," the report states. "The Final Judgments were never designed to reduce Microsoft's share in any putative market...That 'metric' misconstrues the purpose of the Final Judgments and overlooks significant changes that have occurred in the IT industry since the Court entered the Final Judgments almost five years ago."

Misguided solutions?

It is arguable that the factors that have most contributed to increasing competition and leveling the playing field in recent years have come in the form of radically innovative business models like those used by open-source software companies. Looking back at the various regulatory remedies that governments have attempted to use to rein in Microsoft to spur competition, it would appear that they have no led to a consensus on their efficacy.

"To the best of The California Group's knowledge, no major OEM has taken advantage of the OEM flexibility provisions of the Final Judgment to designate a web browser other than Microsoft's IE as the default on the Start Menu of its new PC systems," the report says. "Moreover, there is no reason to believe that any decline in IE's usage share is attributable to the Final Judgment."

A big question, of course, is what are the outward signs of increased competition, and a reformed Microsoft? Need there be OEMs shipping Firefox as the default browser for the government to consider Microsoft defanged? A bigger dip in market share for Windows or IE? How do you know when it works?

That is the question which must be answered, for how else can the government judge whether or not it has succeeded, or whether or not it should extend oversight? To complicate matters, if The California Group's report is read as an indictment of the entire settlement process, it raises the question of what methods, if any, could have made a difference.

Comparing 2007 to 2001, it's hard to say that there isn't more competition. In the world of Windows web browsers, Firefox has done very well, and even Apple brought Safari to Windows. Large OEMs like Dell now sell Linux directly to end users, and Microsoft can't stop them. Yet, if we believe The California Group, Microsoft may very well try once it thinks that the DoJ isn't watching.

RIAA denies copyright misuse in the wake of antitrust, monopoly accusations

One of the common defenses against the music industry's lawsuits is to accuse the record labels of copyright misuse by collusion and acting as an illegal cartel in their legal campaign. In UMG v. Lindor, the labels are attacking that defense in a motion filed earlier this week, asking a federal judge to either strike the defense or force Marie Lindor to amend it to include something other than "mere conclusions and buzzwords."

What has the record labels upset is the accusation that the they are acting in violation of antitrust laws in their legal campaign against consumers. Here's how Marie Lindor's fourth affirmative defense reads: "The plaintiffs, who are competitors, are a cartel acting collusively in violation of the antitrust laws and of public policy, by tying their copyrights to each other, collusively litigating and settling all cases together, and by entering into an unlawful agreement among themselves to prosecute and to dispose of all cases in accordance with a uniform agreement, and through common lawyers, thus overreaching the bounds and scope of whatever copyrights they might have." By acting in such a manner, Lindor argues, the record labels are guilty of misusing their copyrights.

The fact that the record labels act together to advance their litigation agenda is unquestioned. At this point, the record labels have filed over 25,000 lawsuits, and since some very early setbacks, they have gone about them in the exact same manner. From the use of Media Sentry as its investigative arm and subsequent John Doe lawsuits to the boilerplate complaints with identical wording, the one thing that the RIAA has demonstrated is a stunning uniformity in its approach to file-sharing cases.

In a way, it makes a lot of sense. The record labels are all attempting to address what they perceive to be a big problem: file-sharing. With the vast majority of the 25,000+ cases settled in the RIAA's favor either via favorable settlements or outright victories, the strategy has proven to be devastatingly effective in the court of law—even if it is a dismal failure in the court of public opinion.

The downside to the record labels' strategy is that they are ostensibly competitors, vying for sales from the music-consuming public. But instead of adjusting their business models to compete more effectively against one another and bolster their sales, competition is laid to the side in favor of a united front in the courtroom.

In its motion to strike the monopoly accusation from the lawsuit, the RIAA argues that its conduct is protected by the First Amendment and Lindor's affirmative defense doesn't hold up to scrutiny. "The Second Circuit has not recognized the affirmative defense of copyright misuse," argues the record labels. And when it has been recognized in courts outside of the Second Circuit, its scope has been limited. "Specifically, those courts that have recognized the existence of such a defense have found it to exist only where a copyright owner 'has impermissibly extended the copyright monopoly in a manner which constitutes an unreasonable restraint of trade.'"

If the court decides that the plaintiffs' alleged copyright misuse is a valid defense for Lindor, the RIAA wants her to be forced to amend her defense. As it stands now, the RIAA argues, her defense consists solely of "mere conclusions and buzzwords... that are meaningless in this context."

As copyright attorney Ray Beckerman notes, this is the first time the RIAA has attacked the copyright misuse claim when used solely as a defense by one of the record labels' targets. Typically, the charges of monopolistic behavior and copyright misuse are made as part of a counterclaim, and the RIAA is all too happy to challenge those charges when they come up.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

SCO Unix Suit Bites the Dust and Novell Gets Closure

While SCO has issued a statement indicating that the ruling against SCO in its legal fight with Novell does not mark the end of SCO's legal strategy, Joe LaSala, Novell's general counsel, said the ruling against SCO vindicates the position Novell has taken since the dispute's inception, and settles the issue of who owns the copyrights of Unix.

The Linux camp is celebrating. The SCO Group's attempts to lay claim to Linux seem to have run out of gas after years of legal wrangling.

For four and a half years, SCO has vehemently claimed that it owns the copyrights to Unix. SCO implicated Linux by alleging the free operating system relies on code stolen from Unix. But a Utah judge has ruled against SCO, deciding that SCO does not own the copyrights to Unix, making the Linux allegation moot in this case.

SCO acknowledged its disappointment in a statement issued on August 10. However, that statement more than hinted that SCO is refusing to give up without an even longer fight, which means that Novell might find itself back in court with SCO again.

SCO's Tenacity

"The court clearly determined that SCO owns the copyrights to the technology developed or derived by SCO after Novell transferred the assets to SCO in 1995," SCO said in its statement.

"What's more," the statement continued, "the court did not dismiss our claims against Novell regarding the non compete provisions of the 1995 Technology License Agreement relating to Novell's distribution of Linux to the extent implicated by the technology developed by SCO after 1995. Those issues remain to be litigated."

The way SCO sees it, although the district judge ruled in Novell's favor on important issues, the case has not yet been fully vetted by the legal system. SCO plans to continue to explore its options.

A Tangled Web

The tangled Web began in 2003, when SCO sued IBM for taking code from Unix and putting it into Linux. In a case-changing twist, Novell stepped up and claimed it owned Unix copyrights. That forced SCO to take on Novell before taking aim at IBM.

Big Blue could not immediately be reached for comment, but Joe LaSala, Novell senior vice president and general counsel, commented on the ruling in his blog. Today's court ruling, he wrote, vindicates the position Novell has taken since the inception of the dispute with SCO, and it settles the issue of who owns the copyrights of Unix in Novell's favor.

"The court's ruling has cut out the core of SCO's case and, as a result, eliminates SCO's threat to the Linux community based upon allegations of copyright infringement of Unix," LaSala continued. "We are extremely pleased with the outcome."

SCO Surprises

The analyst and legal communities seem unsurprised by the SCO ruling. "Folks in the know in the open-source intellectual property communities have sensed -- at least from the evidence and findings they had seen -- that Novell had a pretty solid case," said Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT. "SCO can say they are going to keep fighting, but it's unclear to me what they are going to be fighting for."

Indeed, the ruling suggests Novell has the right to pursue its own sanctions against SCO, but SCO has no basis to pursue copyright-infringements remedies against Novell on the Unix side. It's a potentially devastating outcome for SCO, which has sunk considerable resources into litigating the case at the expense of its own reputation.

Linux users, meanwhile, waited for the possibility of lawsuits against them. Some purchased indemnification insurance to guard against litigation. "It's definitely a tough time for SCO," King noted. "But a lot of champagne was probably spilled in various open-source community offices over the weekend."

Sony Ericsson Speaks on Possibility of PlayStation Phone

Sony Ericsson says PlayStation Phone will come before Christmas of unknown year

Given the feature-filled mobile phones Sony produces as part of its partnership with Ericsson, it wouldn’t surprise many if the Japanese electronics giant eventually released a hybrid product that incorporates both communications and gaming functions into one unit.

The release of the Apple iPhone has further fueled speculation that Sony may be preparing a competing product that will be a mix of a Sony Ericsson phone and a PSP handheld console.

In a Pocket Gamer interview with Sony Ericsson’s gaming guru Peter Ahnegard at the Leipzig Games Convention, hints were dropped regarding the possibility of a PlayStation-branded mobile phone.

“Gaming is probably the most mature content area we have today in mobile phone and Sony Ericsson has always reflected that, having games embedded on our handsets for many years,” said Ahnegard, who also conceded that Sony Ericsson hasn’t yet put the same focus on gaming as the company had on music and imaging features as it has on its Walkman and Cyber-shot phones.

Despite not having specifically targeted a gaming brand as of yet, the power of the latest phones are beginning to catch up to previous generation consoles. “The power of the phones we're creating now is phenomenal,” added Ahnegard. “Smartphones like the W960, P1 and associated families have hardware acceleration and OpenGL ES and are capable of providing gaming experiences on a level similar to PSP, certainly somewhere between PS1 and PS2.”

One potential challenge is that Sony Ericsson is facing is the ergonomics of melding together phone and game. Ahnegard explained, “It's a tricky balance. The latest craze for slim handsets doesn't really go hand-in-hand with gaming comfort. Console controllers are bulky for a good reason and have been designed with specific elements in mind, e.g. the need to be hardwearing, ergonomically comfortable, etc. The same considerations go into our phones and there are lots of elements that affect gaming performance, from the spacing between buttons to joypad position. We have to accept that some devices simply won't be appropriate to drive some games and, in many cases, gaming or other entertainment content isn't the prime concern behind the design.”

With Sony’s other cross-branding of its other product lines into its mobile phones, it’s almost expected that a PlayStation phone will appear sometime in the future. “Up until today we haven't felt we could launch a PlayStation phone because it wouldn't be recognized as a true continuation of that brand of products,” said Ahnegard, who then coyly added, “It's obviously something that we're looking at but right now I can't really comment. Before Christmas, certainly... but exactly which Christmas I can't confirm!”

Microsoft Gets Official With Vista SP1 Details

(Source: Microsoft)

(Source: Microsoft)
Microsoft spills the beans on Vista SP1

After months of leaks and speculation, Microsoft is finally ready to talk about Windows Vista Service Pack 1 (SP1). Nick White, a product manager for Microsoft, posted today on the Windows Vista Team Blog that Vista SP1 will be released during the first quarter of 2008.

"We improve the Windows Vista experience by continuing to work closely with software partners to ensure application compatibility," said White. "We likewise align efforts with partners on the hardware side of the business to broaden the range of devices that work with Windows Vista and to constantly improve device driver quality."

"We didn’t design SP1 as a vehicle for releasing new features; however, some existing components do gain enhanced functionality in SP1," White added.

A new beta release of Vista SP1 is scheduled to be made available to a select group of testers during the first half of September. This is in addition to an even smaller pool of testers who have been testing a private beta of Vista SP1.

In keeping with its full disclosure on Vista SP1, Microsoft has posted a white paper on the SP1 beta. The white paper details the improvement that Microsoft has made in application compatibility and driver support as well as improvements to security and reliability.

The white paper also notes that there will be three ways of delivering Vista SP1: Express, Stand-alone and Slipstream. The Express install will require a 50MB download from the Internet. System-specific updates will then be downloaded from Microsoft’s servers.

The Stand-alone package will be roughly 1GB in size for x86 systems. Customers, however, will be able to deploy SP1 to any Vista installation with the Stand-alone package and it will be compatible with the System Center Configuration Manager 2007 software.

Finally, Slipstream versions of Windows Vista with SP1 included will be made available to Volume Licensing Customers (and later in retail packaging). Microsoft does note, however, that "customers cannot apply SP1 to offline Windows Vista images." This could mean that customers will not able to make their own personal Slipstream copy of Windows Vista SP1 from an existing Windows Vista disc.

Installation of Windows Vista SP1 regardless of which method chosen will require a minimum of 7GB free disk space on x86 machines and 12GB free disk space on x64 machines. Microsoft does state that "most of this space will be reclaimed after installation."

As previously stated, Microsoft is targeting a Q1 2008 release time frame. That could change depending on a variety of factors according to Microsoft. "We’re first and foremost focused on delivering a high-quality release, so we'll determine the exact release date of SP1 after we have reached that quality bar," remarked White.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

DX9 and DX10 performance compared

THERE ARE two evaluations of DX9 v DX10 image quality and performance out today, both of which make for interesting reading for graphics fanboys.

The first is here on FiringSquad, and compares BioShock in the two iterations of Microsoft's 3D spec, running on the GeForce 8800 and Radeon 2900. In terms of image quality, the guys were barely able to distinguish any difference whatsoever except when it comes to particle effects, such as fog and smoke. So much for new paradigms in PC gaming.

In terms of performance, what we find is that ATI is lacking behind substantially. The 1GB 2900 XT, under DX10, is given a beating by the 8800 GTS in every test except for the 2560x1600 resolution, where the numbers all flatten out due to the poor performance. In most cases, the DX10 path is marginally faster than the DX9, presumably down to performance enhancements baked in.

The second test is here at HardOCP, where Brent and Kyle put the ringers on Call of Juarez, the DX10 game that ATI has bundled with a number of 2900 XT cards. Unlike Bioshock, Juarez offers big differences in visual quality between the two DX paths. Texture quality is much higher under DX10, and the difference is likened to playing two different games. There is also a much nicer HDR lighting implementation in DX10, as well as some shinier water effects with better blending.

So, it seems, there is some difference to crow about - although it is our suspicion that, given the time and inclination, most of the flasher DX10 features could be retro-fitted without much hassle, and the differences are more a product of time and money than capability.

Under DX9, the Radeon 2900 is faster than the 8800 GTS, even the 640Mb version. The same is true under DX10, although performance overall is lower - performance drops off by as much as 30% with the high-end path enabled. Obviously, the 8800 GTX kicks them both into touch, especially when you get to higher resolutions, but it's interesting to see DAAMIT's strong showing here.

The conclusion is that not only do ATI and Nvidia share identical image quality (certainly something to be pleased about) but also that 512MB is swiftly becoming the new minimum spec for cards when talking about DX10 compatibility at any resolution above 1280x1024. All those effects need them some memory space, we suspect.