From: The New York Times and CNet.com —

A dissident Russian hacker has posted files — purportedly from a Russian criminal organization — outlining an insidious fraud scheme revolving around fake anti-virus software.

The ‘company’ is called Bakasoftware, apparently headquartered in Moscow, and product is called Antivirus XP or, more recently, Antivirus XP 2009. It is distributed via unsolicited e-mails. If a recipient responds to the e-mail, a nasty program is downloaded and installed, lodging itself deep in their computer. Thereafter, it issues frequent, irritating pop-up messages warning that the computer is infected with various viruses and urging the user to spend (US)$49.95 to buy the product, which will supposedly clean out the infection.

In reality, there is no anti-virus product. The criminal hackers behind the scam simply collect the (US)$49.95 and then remotely disable the pop-up messages.

But it doesn’t end there…

The malevolent software that generated the pop-ups remains on the unwitting user’s system, making it part of a clandestine network of thousands of computers — commonly called a ‘bot net’ — that can be used to broadcast spam or act as a platform to infect other computers.

It’s the latest high-profile appearance of what Internet security specialists call ‘scareware’, which basically holds users hostage to real or imaginary threats until they ransom their computers back from the crooks.

The serious flaw in the new Android cell phone operating system, revealed earlier this week, is a buffer overflow problem. That’s the same kind of flaw that used to plague Windows computers before Microsoft started its security initiative headlined by the now-familiar monthly Security Bulletins.

To make the proverbial long (programmers’ explanation) story short, buffer overflows can allow baddies to invade your computer and turn it into a spam broadcaster or a base from which to infect other computers. Advanced cell phone operating systems have now become ‘smart’ enough to be susceptible to such threats.

The flaw is specifically associated with Android’s built-in Web browser.

Google — the developer of the Android cell phone platform — is working on the problem. The technically-minded can watch for updates at the official Android Web site.

If you own a Dell, Hewlett-Packard or Toshiba laptop made between 2004 and 2006, your laptop’s battery may be involved in a massive recall announced this week.

More than 100,000 laptop batteries made by Sony Corp. have been recalled by the computer makers following at least 40 incidents of battery overheating, including reports of smoke and flames coming from affected portables.

The U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) echoes recommendations by computer makers to remove the battery from any potentially affected laptop immediately and contact the manufacturer to request a replacement, under the recall program.

The CPSC has posted a full list of the makes and model numbers of laptops affected under the recall.

We’ve known it in our hearts forever. So have car makers, cosmetics manufacturers and purveyors of Valentine’s Day gifts and greetings. But, now, there’s hard, scientific proof: Red makes the heart grow fonder.

Psychologists at the University of Rochester, NY, have confirmed in a recent study that men rate women wearing red, or in photos framed in red, as more attractive than women wearing other colours or framed in other colours.

Professor Andrew Elliot and his team showed their test subjects two photos each of a number of women, identical in every way except for the colour of their tops, which was varied in the pictures using computer image enhancement technology producing a red version and a blue version. The men consistently preferred the woman in red. Likewise in the border tests, where men preferred the women in photos bordered in red — regardless of what they were wearing — to those in photos bordered in green, grey or white.

Elliot told reporters, red may be linked with attractiveness simply because that association has been a part of human culture for ‘eons’. But the power of the red ‘signal’ may run much deeper. He notes that the phenomenon is not exclusive to humans. Other higher primates, notably some species of chimpanzees and baboons, literally display red on parts of their bodies in their mating rituals.

Elliot notes that the men in the test process did not attribute any preference based on ‘likability, intelligence or kindness’ for the women dressed or framed in red — just attractiveness.

In addition, gay and colour-blind men were excluded from the study.

There’s more to the story, but you get the drift. And I have to go dress shopping — right now…

From: Ars technica.com

A controversy is brewing in Australia, where the country’s Family First party is lobbying to have hard-core sex- and drug-related Internet content included in the ‘illegal’ content which would be filtered out of Net traffic entering Australia from outside, under a new national censorship scheme now before the lawmakers.

The controversy arises from the fact that the sex and drugs content targeted by Family First is currently legal for adults to view on the Web and in other media in Australia.

As Nate Anderson of Ars Technica.com reports, “The government … has been pursuing a two-tiered scheme. The first tier would be a ‘clean feed’ that filters porn and ‘illegal content’, and it would be optional. The second tier would filter only ‘illegal content and would be mandatory for all Australians.”

Some critics have already drawn unflattering comparisons between the proposed Australian government Internet filtering plan and the Chinese government’s overall censorship of Internet traffic entering and leaving its government-controlled networks.

As well, the filtering program as proposed by the government would be the functional responsibility of Australia’s Internet service providers (ISPs). The System Administrators’ Guild of Australia (SAGE-AU), which speaks for many of the country’s ISPs, has warned that the filtering technology currently available is not up to the task as defined in the proposed legislation. They don’t want to be stuck in the middle between the government and irate users complaining of the massive performance hit their Internet connections would suffer from filtering and the inevitable (with current technology) erroneous filtering out of legitimate, legal content.

An University of California (Los Angeles) neuroscientist says technology-associated activities such as Internet searching and text messaging can make your brain more adept at information handling and decision-making.

Dr. Gary Small’s findings — and his associated prognostications about the future of the human brain — are laid out in his new book: iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind.

“We’re seeing an evolutionary change. The people in the next generation who are really going to have the edge are the ones who master the technological skills and also face-to-face skills,” Small told Reuters news service this week.

However, Small also cautions that, taken to extremes, indulgence in tech pursuits can lead to problems, such as Internet addiction and an increase in Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) diagnoses.

“But you can take steps to address this,” Small notes. “It means taking time to cut back on technology, like having a family dinner, to find a balance. It is important to understand how technology is affecting our lives and our brains and take control of it.”

From: The Seattle Times —

A new survey by virologists at the University of Virginia shows that common objects and surfaces in homes (and we assume, by association, office environments) can harbour germs deposited by one family member, friend or colleague and pass them on to others.

As Marilynn Marchione reports, in The Seattle Times, the chief culprits in the home identified by the sampling survey included door handles, light switches, faucet handles, telephone handsets and TV remotes.

We feel safe in extrapolating the danger that the study associates with phones and remotes to cell phones and other handheld digital devices, desktop PC keyboards and mice, and game console controllers.

The risk may be amplified in offices and public places such as libraries which offer community Internet access terminals, Internet cafés and computer gaming emporia. Not to mention schools, daycare centres and — yes — even doctor’s office and medical facility waiting rooms.

From: eWeek.com

Windows 7 — the next full version of Microsoft’s (MS) flagship operating system — was officially unveiled to software and system developers at this week’s MS Developers Conference in Los Angeles, CA.

As eWeek‘s Jason Brooks reports, following an intensive hands-on session with an early ‘development’ version, Windows 7 is a big improvement over its predecessor, Vista, which he terms overambitious. Vista was plagued with release delays and feature scale-backs during its development process.

Observers at the LA conference agreed that Windows 7 will deliver its promise of better performance and some interesting new features, including a streamlined Start menu, a more polished user interface, a new sticky notes application, enhanced file management with a decidedly image-oriented design and simplified wireless network connections and power management for portable computers.

No one at MS is making any firm statements as to when Windows 7 will officially be launched…

A new Ipsos MediaCT survey for game review Web site IGN Entertainment suggests that the usual stereotype of the computer gaming fan may be out of sync with reality. That is, the majority of gamers aren’t ‘loners’ or ‘losers’.

In fact, the study shows that people who play video games are generally more social and have higher incomes than those who don’t.

Among the study’s specific findings: The average age of U.S. computer gamers is 40 and the gaming population is pretty evenly split between men and women. More than half of them are married and almost half of those have children. Tellingly, almost two out of three of gamers who have kids say they regularly play computer games with their children.

“Families are getting very involved and parents are becoming more supportive about gaming,” notes Judit Nagy, Vice-President of Consumer Insights with Fox Interactive, IGN’s parent company. “It’s fun and interactive and a nice way to play with mom and dad.”

“[Parents] who grew up playing games have taken that into their adult lives and are now embracing that as a way to spend time with their kids,” suggests Nicole Helsburg of the Entertainment Software Association of Canada.

This upbeat news about modern computer gaming culture comes in the shadow of the Brandon Crisp case. The Barrie, Ontario (Canada) 15-year-old apparently ran away from home this past October 13 following a dispute with his parents over what they deemed excessive time spent playing online multiplayer hit Call of Duty 4.

The IGN survey showed that four out of five players spend at least 7 hours per week engrossed in computer games.

My six year old is at the kitchen table, working on a complex art project of his own devising that includes Pokemon and jack-o-lanterns. “What’s for dinner?” he asks.

“Pizza.” I tell him. I know it’s his favourite.

Sick!” he replies.

I roll my eyes. I really thought I had another half-dozen or so years before we got here. “Hey hipster-baby,” I say. “Where did you get that word from?”

“Internet,” he replies.

Sick.

Japanese researchers at Tokyo University’s Information and Robot Technology (IRT) Research Initiative have demonstrated a robot that can do the laundry, mop the floors and clean up the kitchen — all by itself.

The ‘Assistant Robot’ project is backed by a consortium of Japanese corporate giants including Toyota, Sega, Panasonic and Mitsubishi. Mitsubishi, in particular, has a direct stake in the success of the initiative, as a major supplier of industrial and manufacturing robots.

IRT research chif Isao Shimoyama told reporters that the housemaid robot is a demonstration project designed to help older people retain their functional independence. “This is the first launch of a robot that will be able to help with household chores in an era of aging population. We can show people we can do it.”

However, he also noted that a more-compact ‘retail’ version of the device — which, in its current incarnation, weighs in at 130 kg / 286 lb. and stands 1.5 m / 4.9 ft. tall — is still at least a decade away.

From CNN.com

Microsoft’s (MS) Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie revealed the company’s plans to bring Web-based storage and applications to the masses at the latest MS Developers Conference this week, in Los Angeles, CA.

As CNN.com reports, Ozzie unveiled MS’s ‘cloud’ initiative, Windows Azure, which he said will make Internet-based storage and computing power available to everyone — for a fee, of course.

The initiative will involve MS establishing massive new data centres around the world and deploying the new Azure platform on the Web.

Ozzie observed that one of the biggest benefits to users will be the ability to access their data files from anywhere, on any compatible device — be it a desktop PC at home or at the office, a notebook on the road, or a smart phone anywhere. No more laborious syncing files between a ‘home-base’ PC or network and ‘remote’ or mobile devices.

Azure is seen as a direct competitor to online applications and storage services already offered by Google and other major Internet players including IBM and Amazon.com. But being late to the party is nothing new for MS. Other players were already marketing word processor programs to the young PC market when MS launched its Word application. And MS is infamous among Web watchers for its late entry into the browser sweepstakes with Internet Explorer (IE).

In spite of its late entry into both markets, MS managed to dominate them by offering those products in concert with its popular Windows operating system. IE, in particular, quickly dominated the browser market simply because it was supplied free, and installed automatically, as part of the Windows operating system, on millions of new computers.