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Medical professionals have long agreed that electronic patient records are the future, but the vast majority continue to balk at making the financial and time commitment to get there. Now Medicare, the U.S. program that reimburses hospitals and physicians for medical care to qualifying people over age 65 years, has stepped in with an unprecedented offer to make software to computerize medical practices available to U.S. doctors free of charge. Medicare officials claim the lack of e-records is one of the greatest impediments to improving U.S. health care, reports the New York Times. The software giveaway, which began in August, could transform American medicine, though probably not as quickly as the government agency hopes. The Vista software and documentation arrives in the mail, but physicians must take it from there. Moreover, the Vista program has a reputation for being difficult to install, and although Medicare has modified and simplified it for physicians' offices, it still involves a significant learning curve. To help ease the transition, Medicare will provide a list of companies trained to install and maintain the system.

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Virus Motors Running

Car industry officials and analysts worldwide say it's only a matter of time before computer viruses become virulent in vehicles. Indeed, the growing interest in the hacker community in writing viruses for wireless devices puts auto-based computer systems at risk of infection. Reuters reports that as carmakers adjust onboard computers to allow drivers to transfer information with MP3 players and mobile phones, they also make their vehicles more vulnerable to mobile viruses that jump between devices via the Bluetooth technology that connects them. The worst that could happen is the computer's control of engine performance and emissions, navigation, and entertainment systems ceases to function, say automakers. No reports of viruses in auto systems have been filed to date, and studies indicate it is not easy to transplant a virus into a car's computer system. Still, carmakers are taking the risk seriously, particularly since the first mobile phone virus (Cabir) spread through 20 countries using only Bluetooth.

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Border Security Tags

The British government is ready to test new license plates with RFID tags capable of transmitting vehicle identification numbers and pertinent data to readers more than 300 feet away. The goal of the "micro-chipped number plates," as they are called in the U.K., is to see whether the tags will make license plates more difficult to copy and use illegally (an ongoing problem there). Meanwhile, U.S. security officials are monitoring the use of RFID tags used by foreign visitors crossing some U.S. borders. The first tests began at the Thousand Islands Bridge crossing from Canada into New York as well as the Peace Arch and Pacific Highway crossings in Washington, and two crossings in Arizona. If successful, the tags will be carried by all travelers and be part of the standard registration process for those entering the U.S.

"How many fields can you get into right out of college and define substantial aspects of a product that over 100 million people are going to use? We promise people when they come here to do programming that they're going to have that opportunity, and yet we can't hire as many people as we'd like."—Microsoft chair Bill Gates, baffled that more students do not choose computer science.

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Japan Sets `Super' Sites

The sting of losing the top spot as makers of the world's fastest supercomputer to IBM in 2004 has not deterred Japan from making plans to gain that position again. Japan, in fact, plans to start building a supercomputer next year that will operate 73 times faster than IBM's Blue Gene/L supercomputer, which currently holds the title of world's fastest. Japan wants to develop a supercomputer that can operate at 10 petaflops, or 10 quadrillion calculations per second, 73 times faster than Blue Gene's current speed of 136.8 teraflops. Kyoto News reports the total cost of the project could be $714 million to $893 million. Assuming government funding is available, Japanese officials hope to complete the system in 2010.

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Beautiful Music

The number of digital music tracks legally downloaded almost tripled in the first half of 2005, according to the International Federation of Phonographic Industries. The group said 180 million single tracks were downloaded legally in the first six months of the year, compared to 57 million tracks in the first half of 2004 and 157 million by year-end. Moreover, the group credited the increase to a 13% rise in the number of broadband lines installed around the world, along with an industry campaign to both prosecute and educate against illegal downloading. "We are now seeing real evidence that people are increasingly put off by illegal file sharing," says IFPI chair John Kennedy. "Whether it's the fear of getting caught breaking the law or the realization that many networks could damage your home PC, attitudes are changing, and that is good news for the whole music industry."

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Energy-Saving Appliances

The U.S. Department of Energy is developing technologies to avert electrical grid failures, including smart home appliances that temporarily reduce their power consumption or switch off entirely when they detect a power disruption on the grid. reports the DOE's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory is working with power companies to determine whether such appliances can make the electric grid more resilient and cost-effective. The first test involves 150 clothes dryers and 50 water heaters that shut down for a few minutes during power disruptions caused by demand overloads or severe weather. Officials say they could one day save consumers billions of dollars by reducing the need to build new power plants.

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