Ig®Nobel Prizes, 2011

September 30, 2011

Yesterday evening, in  a ceremony at Harvard University’s Sanders Theater, the Journal of Improbable Research awarded the Ig® Nobel Prizes for 2011.    The prizes are awarded for research that “first makes people laugh, and then think”.   The awards are generally based on real published research that also has elements of humor or absurdity.  The complete list of winners is available at the Journal‘s site; some of my favorites are:

  • CHEMISTRY PRIZE: Makoto Imai, Naoki Urushihata, Hideki Tanemura, Yukinobu Tajima, Hideaki Goto, Koichiro Mizoguchi and Junichi Murakami of JAPAN, for determining the ideal density of airborne wasabi (pungent horseradish) to awaken sleeping people in case of a fire or other emergency, and for applying this knowledge to invent the wasabi alarm.
  • LITERATURE PRIZE: John Perry of Stanford University, USA, for his Theory of Structured Procrastination, which says: To be a high achiever, always work on something important, using it as a way to avoid doing something that’s even more important.
  • BIOLOGY PRIZE: Darryl Gwynne (of CANADA and AUSTRALIA and the UK and the USA) and David Rentz (of AUSTRALIA and the USA) for discovering that a certain kind of beetle mates with a certain kind of Australian beer bottle.

There are two of the awards this year that deserve special mention.  The first is the Mathematics Prize, awarded jointly to a group of people who have predicted that the world would end at various times in the past.  The award citation was to:

Dorothy Martin of the USA (who predicted the world would end in 1954), Pat Robertson of the USA (who predicted the world would end in 1982), Elizabeth Clare Prophet of the USA (who predicted the world would end in 1990), Lee Jang Rim of KOREA (who predicted the world would end in 1992), Credonia Mwerinde of UGANDA (who predicted the world would end in 1999), and Harold Camping of the USA (who predicted the world would end on September 6, 1994 and later predicted that the world will end on October 21, 2011), for teaching the world to be careful when making mathematical assumptions and calculations.

Finally, the Ig® Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the mayor of Vilnius, Lithuania, Arturas Zuokas, who decided to discourage wealthy people with expensive cars from parking illegally: he ran over the parked cars with an armored personnel carrier, crushing them (YouTube video).

The list of winners, linked above, also has citations for the research papers.  Ars Technica also has an article on this year’s prizes.  I’ve written here previously about the Ig® Nobel awards in 2010 and 2009.

Firefox Updated to 7.0.1

September 29, 2011

Mozilla has released an updated version, 7.0.1, of its Firefox browser.  The new version fixes an occasional problem with version 7.0, released Tuesday, in which extensions previously installed by the user seemed to disappear.  (Their settings are preserved, and the extensions can be recovered.)  More details on this issue, and on  a recovery work-around for version 7.0, are in the Release Notes and a post on the Add-Ons blog.

You can get the new version via the built-in update mechanism (Help / About Firefox), or you can download versions for all platforms (Mac OS X, Linux, and Windows) from the Firefox download page.

Update Friday, September 30, 22:19 EDT

Mozilla’s E-mail client, Thunderbird, has also been updated to version 7.0.1 to address this same add-on issue.  More information is in the Release Notes.  As with Firefox, you can get the new version using the built-in update mechanism, or you can get the installation package from the download page.

Solid-State Disk Forensics

September 29, 2011

Earlier this year, I wrote about some of the new security issues presented by the increasing use of solid-state disk [SSD] technology.  In particular, some of the methods developed for “sanitizing” conventional disk drives — that is, deleting stored data in a manner that prevents its recovery — do not work reliably or at all for SSD devices.  Some of these devices include a “secure erase” capability, meant to address this issue, but even this is not a truly reliable solution.

The SANS Internet Storm Center has a diary entry, by Daniel Wesemann, revisiting this issue, particularly as it pertains to forensic examinations.  It turns out that the picture is also a bit gloomy from this perspective.   A forensic examiner will often want to get an exact bit-level copy of a storage device, to be used for later analysis.  Unfortunately, some of the “wear leveling” capabilities built into SSDs can autonomously rearrange and re-write data sectors as soon as power is supplied to the device, without any instructions from the host computer.  This can corrupt evidence, and can make the recovery of deleted files nearly impossible.  (Wesemann refers to an excellent paper [PDF] by Graeme Bell and Richard Boddington describing this phenomenon, which they call “self-corrosion”.)

If you use these devices for any system that stores sensitive data, or that may be subject to malicious hacking (thus perhaps requiring forensic analysis), you should tale a bit of time to familiarize yourself with their idiosyncracies.  Especially for portable devices, you should seriously consider using “full disk” encryption; this also addresses other problems, like loss of the device.  Above all, do not  assume that SSDs work just like rotating magnetic disks; they don’t, and those differences can bite you.

How Bugs Fight Drugs

September 28, 2011

Although antibiotics have been an enormous boon to human health, providing successful treatments for a variety of bacterial infections that had been killers for millenia, their use creates selection pressure that leads to the evolution of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria.  I’ve written here before about the emergence of new strains of resistant organisms; often, these are first discovered in a clinical setting, when they make someone sick.

The Technology Review has a recent article describing a new approach to understanding the evolution of antibiotic resistance.   Developed by Professor Robert Austin and his research group at Princeton University, the method uses a specially constructed microfludics chip to provide a range of nano-scale environments for bacteria.   The chip contains more than 1,000 tiny hexagonal chambers, interconnected by tiny slits.  A nutrient solution is allowed to flow along one side of the chip, and a solution of the antibiotic ciprofloxacin along the other.  This produces a range of environments in the chip’s chambers, with gradients of nutrients and antibiotic.   This allowed the researchers to observe how the evolution of resistance took place as a function of the local environment.

One of their observations was that developing resistance did not require a great deal of time, even considering the short duration of bacterial generations.

Austin and colleagues began to see resistant strains emerge within five hours. After 10 hours, the resistant strains  were populating even the most Cipro-saturated chambers

What is perhaps more interesting is that, when the experiments were repeated, the same pattern of mutations and evolving resistance was observed.

The researchers also discovered that the evolution occurred predictably. Every time they ran the experiment, they got the same result, with the same four resistance-conferring mutations emerging over and over again.

If this result holds true, it could be of great value in drug development; potentially, drugs could be designed to block the emergence of resistance.  The same technique could also be used to study the evolution of beneficial bacteria, and Prof. Austin hopes that it may also be useful in understanding how some types of cancer cells become resistant to chemotherapy agents.

Mozilla Releases Thunderbird 7.0

September 27, 2011

In addition to its release of Firefox 7.0 today, the Mozilla organization has released a new version 7.0 of the Thunderbird E-mail client, for all platforms (Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux).   The new version contains numerous fixes and improvements for user interface components, attachment handling, and the Address Book; it also incorporates the newest version of the Gecko layout engine.  More details are available in the Release Notes.

You can get the new version via the built-in update mechanism, or you can get versions for all platforms in many languages from the download page.

Update Wednesday, September 28, 15:55 EDT

Mozilla has now posted the list of vulnerabilities fixed in Thunderbird 7.0.

Mozilla Releases Firefox 7.0

September 27, 2011

The Mozilla organization today released a new version, 7.0, of its Firefox Web browser, for Mac OS X, Linux, and Windows.  Version 7.0 incorporates some new capabilities, including:

  • Better memory handling
  • Faster sync for bookmarks and passwords
  • Support for the Navigation Timing specification
  • Better support for MathML
  • Upgraded WebSocket support

More information is available in the Release Notes.  The new release also incorporates several stability and security fixes.

You can obtain the new version, in 70+ languages, from the download page.  Alternatively, you can use the built-in update mechanism (Help -> About Firefox -> Check for Updates).

Update Tuesday, September 27, 22:30 EDT

The official Mozilla Blog has a post giving an overview of  the new version.

Update Wednesday, September 28, 15:48 EDT

Mozilla now has posted a list of security vulnerabilities fixed in Firefox 7.0.   And Ars Technica has a post that discusses some of the changes in the new version.

Dead Sea Scrolls Online

September 26, 2011

Just after I finished writing the post about Princeton’s new policy of making all scholarly papers available to the public, I came across a story at the BBC News site, which reports that Google has worked together with the Israel Museum in Jerusalem to put facsimiles of some of the Dead Sea Scrolls online.   The Scrolls, originally discovered at Qumran on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea, preserve the oldest existing copies of some parts of the Hebrew Bible, as well as some other texts.  The scrolls that have been made available so far include:

  • The Temple Scroll
  • The Great Isaiah Scroll
  • The War Scroll
  • The Community Rule Scroll
  • The Commentary of Habakkuk Scroll

The online edition contains very high resolution images of the scrolls (1200 megapixel), so that users can inspect the text in detail.  Additional scrolls may be added in the future.  More details are available on the museum site.

This is another aspect of Google’s project to make more of the world’s cultural heritage available online.  I’ve written before about the Google Art project, and about some of the work done on the Google Books project.  It’s good to see some of the positive potential of the Web realized.

The Official Google Blog also has a post on this project.

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