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Sunday, March 30, 2008

The worst computer viruses of all time


If you haven't experienced a computer virus yet, just wait -- you probably will.

Fortunately, you missed the real heyday of computer viruses when anti-virus software wasn't very widely used, and virus attacks caused millions of dollars in damages overnight. Today's viruses can still be nightmarish, but for the average user, cleanup is considerably easier than it was just a few years ago, when the only solution in many cases was reformatting your hard drive and starting from scratch (and even that didn't do the trick sometimes).

So join me on a trip down memory lane as we revisit some of the worst viruses of all time and count our blessings that our computers are still up and running despite it all. (Though, please note, "worst" is a matter of considerable debate in the security industry, as the number of infected machines and amount of financial loss is always estimated. If you think another virus was worse than these, please post it in the comments to remind us!)

The worst viruses of all time

Brain, 1986
It all started here: Brain was the first "real" virus ever discovered, back in 1986. Brain didn't really hurt your PC, but it launched the malware industry with a bang and gave bad ideas to over 100,000 virus creators for the next 2 decades.

Michelangelo, 1991
The worst MS-DOS virus ever, Michelangelo attacked the boot sector of your hard drive and any floppy drive inserted into the computer, which caused the virus to spread rapidly. After spreading quietly for months, the virus "activated" on March 6, and promptly started destroying data on tens of thousands of computers.

Melissa, 1999
Technically a worm, Melissa (named after a stripper) collapsed entire email systems by causing computers to send mountains of messages to each other. The author of the virus was eventually caught and sentenced to 20 months in prison.

This was notable for being one of the first viruses to trick users into opening a file, which in this case claimed to be a love letter sent to the recipient. In reality, the file was a VBS script that sent mountains of junk mail and deleted thousands of files. The results were terribly devastating- one estimate holds that 10 percent of all computers were affected, to a cost of $5.5 billion. It remains perhaps the worst worm of all time.

Code Red, 2001
An early "blended threat" attack, Code Red targeted Web servers instead of user machines, defacing websites and later launching denial-of-service attacks on a host of IP addresses, including those of the White House.

Nimda, 2001
Built on Code Red's attack system of finding multiple avenues into machines (email, websites, network connections, and others), Nimda infected both Web servers and user machines. It found paths into computers so effectively that, 22 minutes after it was released, it became the Internet's most widespread virus at the time.

Klez, 2001
An email virus, Klez pioneered spoofing the "From" field in email messages it sent, making it impossible to tell if Bill Gates did or did not really send you that information about getting free money.

Slammer, 2003
Another fast spreader, this worm infected about 75,000 systems in just 10 minutes, slowing the Internet to a crawl (much like Code Red) and shutting down thousands of websites.

MyDoom, 2004
Notable as the fastest-spreading email virus of all time, MyDoom infected computers so they would, in turn, send even more junk mail. In a strange twist, MyDoom was also used to attack the website of SCO Group, a very unpopular company that was suing other companies over its code being used in Linux distributions.

Storm, 2007
The worst recent virus, Storm spread via email spam with a fake attachment and ultimately infected up to 10 million computers, causing them to join its zombie botnet.

Thanks to Symantec for helping to compile this list.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

What's That Stuff?


Contact Lenses

AS A KID who could barely stand eye drops, I had to struggle to muster strength to insert my first contact lens. I was about 13 years old, needed correction only for my left eye, and had to have the lens in place for a couple of hours before an after-school check with my optometrist. It took 30 minutes of staring myself down in the junior high school bathroom mirror to land that first lens.

More than two decades later, inserting my lenses—now needed for both eyes—happens with barely a second thought. I have also hardly given a thought to exactly what it is that I put on my eyes every day. Like most people, I suspect, I tend to think of my lenses as a rather innocuous personal care product. In fact, they're considered a medical device and are regulated by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration Center for Devices & Radiological Health, along with breast implants, artificial knees, and drug-eluting coronary stents.

The first contact lenses were blown of glass in the 1880s and rested on the white of the eye rather than covering just the cornea; they could be worn for a few hours at most. Plastic lenses were introduced in the 1930s. The first lenses with mass appeal were smaller lenses that covered just the cornea and were made from poly(methyl methacrylate) (PMMA), also known as Plexiglas. Popular through the 1960s, PMMA contacts were notorious for popping out at inconvenient moments. Softer, more comfortable lenses made from poly(hydroxyethyl methacrylate) (poly-HEMA) were introduced in the 1970s.

A key thing to know about eye anatomy is that the cornea does not have blood vessels. Consequently, corneal cells get nutrients from tear fluid and from gelatinous material called the aqueous humor, which is located on the inside of the eye. Corneal cells get their oxygen directly from the air. A big drawback for PMMA and poly-HEMA lenses was that neither is permeable to oxygen. This became a particular problem for the softer poly-HEMA lenses because wearers found them more comfortable than rigid PMMA lenses and people therefore wore them longer. In extreme cases, oxygen deprivation to the cornea can lead to growth of blood vessels into the cornea, threatening eyesight.

From the 1970s to the 1990s, much of contact lens research focused on improving oxygen permeability of lens materials. This effort first led to rigid gas-permeable lenses that incorporated a small amount of silicone for flexibility and oxygen permeability, but many wearers found it hard to adjust to the new lenses. Having started with soft lenses in junior high, I tried rigid gas permeables in high school but went running back to soft lenses within a few weeks.

IN THE 1990s, manufacturers turned to the soft hydrogel materials, silicone hydrogels in particular, that are used in the lenses most common today. Of approximately 30 million contact lens wearers in the U.S., around 98% wear soft lenses, says James Gardner, vice president for marketing at contact lens manufacturer CooperVision.

Hydrogels are networks of water-insoluble polymers that can simultaneously hold large amounts of water. They provide significant advantages over previous lenses in oxygen permeability and comfort—their high water content means that they'll stay moist and nonirritating even during extended periods of wear.

A major component in some modern lenses is phosphorylcholine, a hydrophilic material that mimics part of the cell membrane. It is commonly used in medical devices to improve biocompatibility, reduce protein adsorption, and reduce inflammatory response. In contact lenses phosphorylcholine also helps to maintain hydration while preventing deposition of lipids and proteins on any dry spots that do develop, Gardner says.

As an alternative to phosphorylcholine, lenses can be engineered to contain longer siloxane chains, which hydrogen bond to water and eliminate the need for added wetting agents. In saline the lenses contain 48% water by weight and are extremely soft, contributing further to comfort.

Common varieties of contact lenses can be replaced daily, weekly, or monthly. The materials used in these lenses are fundamentally the same, Gardner says. The differences lie in the manufacturing. Lenses to be replaced daily are made on very high volume lines set up to maximize production efficiency, and such lenses are typically offered in fewer power increments and perhaps with only one base curve—the radius of the sphere described by the lenses. Lenses replaced less frequently have more options to achieve better sight correction and fit.

At lens manufacturer CIBA Vision, R&D efforts are directed toward incorporating lubricants that elute over time, to maintain that "fresh lens feeling," says Lynn Winterton, global head of research. For example, a daily disposable lens approved by FDA earlier this year has a lubricant that is forced out with each blink of the eye.

Winterton also says that the company is working on ways to improve the safety of lenses, primarily by looking for materials that don't create a good breeding ground for bacteria, fungi, or other microorganisms that can cause eye infections. Most of the patent literature involves impregnating lenses with silver, he says, although some people are looking at incorporating active pharmaceutical agents. He notes that companies have to juggle maintaining transparency, avoiding an inflammatory response, and preventing the evolution of drug-resistant microbes. That's a lot to consider for a product most of us insert in just a blink of an eye.

Monday, March 24, 2008


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Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The Ugliest Products in Tech History

Microsoft Windows 1.0
The first Macintosh operating system popularized the concept of graphical user interfaces when it was launched in 1984, and a year later Microsoft responded with the first version of Windows--and no GUI has been as blocky or garish since. To be fair, the first Windows wasn't so much an operating system as an add-on to MS-DOS, which meant living with design groaners like ALL-CAPITAL file names and the still-very-DOS-like graphics standard. Though more than a few people would contend that Microsoft has been playing catch-up with Apple's design sense ever since, the ugly duckling did eventually turn into a swan with Windows Vista. And, as we understand it, Windows has done kind of okay in the marketplace.

iMac Flower Power and Dalmatian
Apple's first iMacs were like a breath of fresh air to the computer-buying public. The bright, playful colors and rounded design of the all-in-one computers were in sharp contrast to PCs, which were still mostly beige blocks. Among the 2001 lineup of iMacs were two new color schemes, Flower Power and Dalmatian (white with hazy blue spots). No doubt Steve Jobs felt that the softly colored hues would be considered soothing and tasteful, but frankly they were a bit more reminiscent of a cheap shower curtain. Even the Mac faithful agreed, and saved their oohs and aahs for the Indigo and Graphite models released at the same time.

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Monday, March 3, 2008


Can you imagine life without chocolate? Possibly not. Can you imagine chocolate without science? Probably yes. Well, think again the next time you snap a bar of that delicious brown or white stuff and allow a piece to melt in your mouth.

Chocolate's varied flavors, colors, shapes, and textures result from different recipe traditions that have evolved in different parts of the world. However, although the preparation of top-quality chocolate products may be regarded as an art form, modern processes for manufacturing the most popular brands rely heavily on science and technology.

The essential ingredient in all chocolate is cocoa, which is made from the cream-colored beans that grow in pods on a tree with the botanical name Theobroma cacao. The cocoa or cacao tree, as it is commonly known, is a native of the tropical regions of South and Central America. Nowadays, it is also cultivated in West African and Southeast Asian countries that have humid tropical climates and lie within 20 degrees of the equator.

After harvesting, the beans are removed from the pods and piled in heaps. The growers allow the beans to ferment for several days in order to develop the chemical precursors of the chocolate flavor. The beans are then dried and transported to chocolate factories.

At the factory, the cured beans are sorted and impurities such as sand and plant materials are removed. The beans are then roasted. This process makes the bean shells brittle, darkens the color of the beans, and converts the beans' flavor precursors into the aldehydes, esters, lactones, pyrazines, and other groups of compounds that give chocolate its distinctive flavor and aroma.

The next step is to break up the roasted beans into pieces called nibs and remove the thin shells by blowing air through the beans in a process known as winnowing. The nibs are then ground into chocolate liquor--a thick brown liquid that solidifies at about room temperature.

Approximately 55% of the liquor is cocoa butter, a fat consisting of various triglycerides. Each triglyceride has three fatty acids attached to a glycerol backbone. Oleic acid, stearic acid, and palmitic acid account for more than 95% of the fatty acids in cocoa butter.

The concentration of fat in the liquor is too high for making cocoa powder and too low for making so-called eating chocolate. The trick is to remove about half of the cocoa butter from the liquor using heavy-duty presses and use the butter for making eating chocolate. The solid block of cocoa that remains is pulverized. The powder is used to manufacture drinking chocolate and cocoa. Dairies, bakeries, and confectionery manufacturers also use the powder as a flavoring ingredient.

"If you made a chocolate drink from ground-up cocoa, a lot of the fat would rise to the top of the drink and it would look ghastly," explains Stephen T. Beckett, departmental head at Nestlé Product Technology Centre, York, England, and author of "The Science of Chocolate" (Cambridge, U.K.: Royal Society of Chemistry , 2000).

Dark chocolate is made by mixing the separated cocoa butter with chocolate liquor and sugar. The same ingredients plus dried milk are used to make milk chocolate. White chocolate contains cocoa butter, sugar, milk, but no chocolate liquor. Eating chocolate typically contains between 25 and 35% fat and 50% sugar. Flavorings such as vanilla may also be added, depending on the product. Sugar substitutes are used for low-calorie products.

During processing, chocolate spends much of its time as a liquid. Viscosity, flow properties, and particle size are therefore important factors in chocolate manufacture. Fat content is a key consideration in determining these properties and, according to Beckett, can have a dramatic impact on viscosity. For example, increasing fat content of chocolate from 27% to 28% can halve its viscosity. Chocolate viscosity can also be reduced by adding a small amount of an emulsifier, such as lecithin, a naturally occurring surface-active agent.

The next stage in chocolate manufacture involves cooling the liquid under controlled conditions to allow the fat, which holds all the solid sugar and cocoa particles together, to set in a crystalline form that has a smooth texture and appealing appearance. For molded products, the fat must also contract on cooling so that the solid chocolate can be removed from the mold. The rate at which chocolate sets, the texture and color of the product, and its melting properties depend on the percentage of cocoa butter and milk fats in the mixture.

Finally, the product is packaged or wrapped to protect it from dirt, external odors, moisture, and insect infestation.

Migration of fat and moisture from caramel, peanuts, wafers, or other ingredients at the center of a confection through chocolate leads to deterioration of the product quality, Beckett points out. The rate of migration is largely determined by the temperature and humidity of the air around the chocolate and also by the moisture content of the chocolate and the type of fat present in the other components.

Chocolate is a food that contains a range of nutrients--including not only fats and sugar, but also other carbohydrates and proteins. In addition, chocolate contains small quantities of salts of metals such as magnesium, potassium, calcium, and iron; the vitamin riboflavin; the stimulant caffeine; and water.

Beckett tells C&EN that cocoa contains around 800 chemical compounds. They include a group of polyphenolic compounds known as flavanols or catechins. A 40-g (about 1 oz.) milk chocolate bar contains around 300 mg of these compounds, a relatively high amount compared with most other polyphenol-containing foods. Polyphenols exhibit antioxidant activity. They have, for example, been shown to inhibit oxidation of low-density lipoprotein cholesterol and may therefore help to protect against cardiovascular disease.

Chocolate, regardless of its nutritional benefits, is a pleasure to eat. I'm even tempted, at this moment, to reward myself with a bar of the luscious stuff. Can I tempt you to join me?

Sunday, March 2, 2008

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