A new robotic pizza-making kiosk has drawn mixed reviews — ranging from ambilvalence to disdain — from traditional pizza makers and pizza lovers, alike.

The Let’s Pizza machine actually creates a complete, fresh pizza, to order, from scratch, using advanced infrared baking and robotics technology, in less than three minutes.

It’s proved very popular in public trials, according to the inventor, native Italian Claudio Torghele. But we can’t help noticing that those trials rook place in Germany.

Nevertheless…

Torghele says part of the machine’s appeal is its high ‘curiosity’ factor.

“This is not just a vending machine, it’s a mini-pizzeria,” he told reporters. “It has windows where you can watch the pizza-making process. Kids, including my own, love it. When the machine is working, there’s always a crowd.”

Let’s Pizza will be marketed worldwide, featuring topping selections geared to each culture and market.

And what do real pizza aficionados have to say about ‘The Pizzanator’?

“This machine is a toy,” Pino Morelli of the Association of Italian Pizzerias told Reuters news agency. “Perhaps it will find a niche overseas but Italians are born with pizza. Their mothers feed it to them as babies. They understand it.”

Pizza is said to have been invented in the southern Italian city of Naples, in the mid 18th century.

The Canadian government is planning to set up a new online auction site, in some ways similar to auction icon eBay, to sell off its constant stream of surplus goods and equipment.

Word has it that the current CGSurplus site will be massively revamped, making it easier for buyers to find what they’re looking for and adding new features, including the ability of buyers to monitor the bidding on items they’re interested in.

The Canadian government says it sells off about (C)$40 million per year in seized and surplus goods each year, direct to buyers or jobbers, via live and online auctions.

The government hopes that the new eBay-style open bidding system will spark bidding wars on some of the more popular items up for sale and result in higher revenues.

A similar initiative by the U.S. federal government, GovSales.com, attracts more than 250,000 visitors a month and has seen revenues increase more than 20 per cent over the past year, since moving to an open bidding system.

The electric toaster turns 100 this year.  As the UK’s Daily Express newspaper notes, General Electric technician Frank Schailor built a prototype, on a hunch, back in 1909 — 20 years before someone else invented pre-sliced bread!

Schailor’s idea was to provide a way for people to make stale bread palatable again. It worked.

It was 1919 before a pop-up toaster appearsd on the market, solving the then decade-old question of how do you get the toast out of the toaster without getting your hands burned?

The first automatic toaster appeared in 1926.

Then… In 1928, Otto Frederick Rohwedder invented the automatic bread slicer and, suddenly, everyone wanted a toaster!

For those with an insatiable appetite for ‘toastiana’, there’s a whole museum in Kettwig, Germany, which holds examples of almost every model of toaster ever made.

Internet security giant McAfee is treating the Conficker worm’s potential April 1 trigger date as a serious threat, even if other observers are taking a wait-and-see stance and still others are saying that the trigger date embedded in variant ‘C’ of the bug is, itself a hoax to distract researchers around the world who are working feverishly to track down the source of the infection.

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Microsoft (MS) is also taking the situation very seriously and has, in fact, offered a (US)($250,000 reward for the group or individual who tracks down the source of the Conficker worm and exterminates the bug.

McAfee says the bug is hard to find, but there are symptoms you should be able to see…

…Once it is on a computer, Conficker digs itself in by attempting to deactivate security software and sabotaging tools to remove it. If you notice that you’re unable to access Web sites such as www.mcafee.com or your security software is acting up, that could be a sign that your system was taken by Conficker.

The good news is that protecting against Conficker isn’t hard. There are two basic things that will ensure a Windows computer is shielded against the worm.

  • Install Microsoft’s Security Update MS08-067
  • Run up-to-date anti-malware software

Most of the major anti-virus companies offer free online scans that will catch and kill Conficker.

McAfee will follow the ‘progress’ of the Conficker worm tomorrow on its Avert Labs Blog.

Pioneering consumer Internet phone (VoIP) service provider Skype is available on the iPhone today.

“The number-one request we get from customers is to make Skype available on iPhone. There’s a pent-up demand,” Skype CEP Scott Durchslag told Reuters news service at the CTIA annual mobile showcase in Las Vegas.

Skype already offers versions of its service for Nokia, Windows Mobile and Android-based phones.

Skype’s new iPhone app is free to download and calls between Skype users will be free. As with Skype’s services on other platforms, there will be a charge to connect calls to numbers outside of the Skype network.

iPhone Skype will also work on the latest iPod Touch, which has a WiFi connection and a microphone.

Skype is scheduled to come to the BlackBerry in May.

A researcher at the University of California – Los Angeles (UCLA) has successfully built a prototype of a cell phone that can function as a mobile medical lab.

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Cell phone lab scanner prototype, showing image of a test sample.

Actually, it can image the microscopic particles and cells in body fluids and send the pictures to real labs where they can be examined. The results of the analysis can then be sent back to the field, via the same cell phone.

Professor Aydogan Ozcan says he added about (US)$50 worth of off-the-shelf electronic parts to a standard Sony Ericsson phone to create the mobile lab.

One feature that distinguishes his device from others that perform the same task is that the cell phone-based lab does not require bulky magnifying optics. His device images fluid samples directly on a digital imaging receptor panel. In addition, that means that only a small sample of any fluid is required for testing.

The cell phone-based medical ‘scanner’ will be extremely useful to doctors in  remote or developing areas and could be available within a year or two.

Call it a practical application of social engineering technology…

Professor James Murray of Oxford University has devised a mathematical formula which he says is 94 per cent successful in predicting which newly-wed couples will eventually divorce.

Murray and his research team filmed more than 700 newlywed couples discussing issues deemed likely to cause stress, such as sex and money, for periods of 15 minutes at a time. The researchers then graded the subjects’ statements and responses as either positive or negative. The resulting scores were then tallied to determine the likelihood that the relationship would last.

The same couples were contacted again, at one or two year intervals over the next 12 years to see how they were doing. Which is how Murray determined that his predictions, based on the math, had been so amazingly accurate.

“Some couples might as well get divorced right away,” Murray told reporters.

There’s no word as to whether Murray’s formula will be made available, on a commercial basis or otherwise, to marriage counsellors, clergy or others who counsel those preparing to marry. We wonder if there’s a mass market for a consumer test in which couples — upon payment of an appropriate fee, of course — could film themselves discussing specified topics, post the results to an official analysis Web site and, then, get back a report on their long-term prospects. We want stock in that company…

Microsoft (MS) usually never responds to Apple Inc.’s taunts (in its own advertising), about the quality, security or ease of use of MS’s Windows operating system.

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But MS is now fighting back on the one issue where it can blow Apple and it’s Macs out of the water: Price.

The first of a new series of MS ads débuted last week, showing a young, female, budget-conscious, energetic, presumably intelligent shopper looking for a new notebook PC — for under (US)$1,000.

She goes first to the Mac store (presumably in response to all the slick Apple advertising she’s been exposed to) but is aghast at the prices. There’s only one model that comes in under (US)$1,000 and it’s totally inadequate for her needs.

Off she goes to a big box office/computer store and it’s like springtime in the woods, attractive options popping up wherever she looks like exotic mushrooms after a cleansing rainshower.

Okay. It’s a little like watching a movie based on a book you’ve already read. You know the ending but you’re curious to see what the Hollywood writers have done to the story.

The notable thing, here, is that MS has stopped officially ignoring Apple and is fighting back. Perhaps a sign of the times, with computer sales predicted to sag by at least 12 per cent this year over last.

Curiously, the one subset of the computer market expected to make any gains at all is the laptop/notebook segment. No coincidence, we imagine, that a laptop was what MS’s young shopper was after, in that commercial.

Cell phone sales are expected to drop by more than eight per cent this year, over last, according to a new IDC thinktank survey.

That’s bad news for the major cell handset makers, who are already feeling a major pinch from sagging sales last year. Motorola, Ericsson and other have already announced production cutbacks and layoffs to cope with the tanking economy. And Sony is reported to be considering cutting itself loose from its stormy marriage with Ericsson.

While the overall cell phone market is expected to shrink by 8.3 per cent this year, IDC notes that the small but stronger ‘converged mobile device’ (smart phone) market will continue to grow, by an estimated 21 per cent.

The overall loss in new handset sales is largely the result of a reaction in the low-end mass market to the economic crisis.

Previous studies showed that, rather than trading up to fancier handsets with more features, people are sticking with the lesser-featured handsets they already have and even cancelling features which they consider less important than the money they’ll save.

Surveys also revealed that cell users on service contracts were considering caning their contracts in favour of pay-as-you-go service, to avoid paying for wasted minutes and unused features.

On the up side, however, the same surveys showed that the vast majorioty of cell users would get rid of their conventional, wired ‘landline’ phones before ditching their cells, if they had to choose.

Apple has finally released a promised graphics firmware update for its 17 in. MacBook Pro portable.

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The 17 in. MacBook Pro — recently released.

The patch, announced at Macword back in January, addresses stability issues with the computer’s display. A sigificant number of users reported seeing vertical lines disrupting their screens, after the new 17 in. unibody MacBook Pros were released earlier this year.

The update is available at the Apple support Web site.

Skype me!

As a security guy, I can’t help but find Skype interesting.  Some people love it, others hate it.  Individuals flock to it, yet many corporations avoid it.  Some privacy advocates herald it, yet some in the open source community slam it.  Oh, and it uses encryption.

I don’t remember how it came up, but I was talking to Kathryn Schwab the other day and we ended up talking about Skype.  Kathryn is a Communications Consultant and owner of PRceptive Communications Inc. in Ottawa.  She explained,

“Skype has become an important part of my business and my personal life.  On the business side of things, I have two remote clients that I need to communicate with easily and inexpensively.  One of my clients resides in the UK and we have used Skype to collaborate on many projects.  The beauty is that you are communicating in real time, whether you’re ‘chatting’ or you’re video-conferencing. Speaking of video-conferencing, that is my most favourite feature.  I have family members that live very far away; we use Skype to video-conference.  There’s nothing like seeing someone’s face when you speak to them.  I’m grateful for this technology, as it has made my life so much easier and has helped (I think) to remain close to people.“

So what’s not to like about Skype?

Some dislike Skype because it is a closed, proprietary system.  In other words, the only thing that can talk to Skype is Skype and it doesn’t support a standard interoperable protocol like SIP.  (SIP, the Session Initiation Protocol is the most popular open standard for VoIP). While I’m all for standards, SIP is an exceptionally poor choice for Internet telephony, as anyone who has tried to use it from behind an older firewall or from a hotel can testify.  We have to use all sorts of workarounds just avoid annoying problems like audio only working in one direction.  Skype was designed from the ground up for the Internet and it just works.

Some dislike Skype because they can’t examine the cryptographic source code.  But I’m willing to bet that these same people use a regular telephone (no encryption there at all) and a mobile phone.  And you don’t see mobile phone manufacturers posting their source code either.

My frustration with Skype is that, while it’s awesome for videoconferencing with the kids while I’m on the road, I can’t interface it to my PBX.  For example, when somebody calls my VoIP number, I can’t have my PBX send the call to Skype unless I buy a Skype phone number and bounce the call back through the PSTN.  And Skype also doesn’t offer numbers in Canada.

But all that is about to change.  In fact, the entire VoIP landscape is about to change dramatically.  Skype recently announced that they will interoperate with SIP-based PBXs and have launched a beta program.  As a result, we will soon be able to make and receive calls between Skype and SIP-based PBXs without hitting a landline. Businesses will be able to directly integrate Skype calls into their existing phone systems with links on their Web sites. Click on the Skype link and you’re connected, all without ever touching the good o’l public telephone network. And mobile workers will be able to answer their business phone using Skype.

From a security point of view, it’s too early to understand all of the implications. But my advice to security colleagues is to start brushing up on VoIP and Skype now. When this catches on, it will move fast and furiously, primarily because it’s much less expensive than toll-free lines and Skype clients are free. It’s hard to beat free. And, if you, like me, were wondering why EBay bought Skype, wonder no more. They’re about to rock the telephony world.

Industry observers are watching closely as a new online game streaming service steps up to challenge the game console industry for supremacy in the gaming sector.

OnLive, a start-up backed by WebTV founder Steve Perlman and former Eidos CEO Mike McGarvey, will digitally distribute first-run, ‘AAA’ games, from major developers including Electronic Arts, Take-Two, Ubisoft and Atari, at the same time as those titles are released at retail.

Users will be able to stream games on demand to any Windows XP or Vista computer or any Intel-based Mac. They’ll also be able to stream games to a TV set using a small plug-in device. An optional custom wireless controller and VoIP headset will be available.

The OnLive system relies on proprietary compression and streaming technologies that have been seven years in development. The company says almost any PC running a compatible operating system will allow ‘seamless’ play — provided users have a minimum 1.4 Mbps Internet connection for regular play and at least a 5 Mbps connection for Hi-Def play.

While OnLive has not yet revealed details of its business model, industry observers are betting on some sort of subscription setup.

OnLive is currently in a closed beta trial but is expected to go live in a public beta test this summer and launch for real sometime late this year.