Tuesday AM March 4th, 2008

Swiss lecturer explains business and research value of "grid computing" to UH students...IRS says one of four tax returns so far has come from home computers...Merck says 44,000 people taking part in $5 billion Vioxx settlement...

A representative of the Swiss-based European Organization for Nuclear Research talked about the need for very large computing power at a recent University of Houston lecture. Bob Jones with CERN—the organization credited with "inventing" the World Wide Web—talked about "grid computing," which allows users to access very large scale computer resources.

"Companies themselves are already working with enterprise grids, where they often link together the offices, if you want, in a large company across the different sites. Initially they think of doing it for optimization reasons. It means that you can better use the computing resources. In the end it means that you can potentially do more with less. But the second step they realize then is that ‘well, wait a minute! There are new things we can do. We can develop new products. We can do further research, and so on, into our products.' And so they actually don't end up reducing the amount of computing power and capacity, but they enlarge it, and use more of it, you know? It allows you to link together people in a lot better manner. It's the collaboration aspect. It's not just the nuts and bolts of the CPUs and the discs and so on. It's bringing people together so they can work together as teams."

Companies on Wall Street and in London's financial district are using grids for business risk simulations.

"At the moment, they themselves tend to use it in an enterprise way. That's to say that the value of the data that they're processing is a lot higher than the value of the computing equipment. So they do not want to let it go outside the confines of their own building because of security reasons. But we are starting to develop with research communities and with some companies the idea that they may want to share computing resources when they have a very high-risk situations which require enormous computing power."

Jones addressed the University of Houston to talk about how Grid computing is being used to create a seamless global computing infrastructure to advance science and technology. UH Physics Professor Lawrence Pinsky is part of a team using super-computing as part of a physics project.

"Oh, we participate at CERN as a member of the ALICE collaboration. ALICE is one of the four major experiments that's being done at CERN. ALICE is an acronym for A Large Ion Collider Experiment. It's one of the experiments that's intended to examine the nature of matter in the first few moments of the Big Bang."

Professor Pinsky says the infrastructure is spread out around the world, but the user works from just a local computer.

"From the standpoint of a user, scientists or a student or a post-doctoral fellow who sits here on campus at the University of Houston at their work station in their office, to them, what they do looks like it's running on their computer. I mean it's just like, for example, if you're running something like Microsoft Excel, and you ask the spreadsheet to recalculate when you change a value or something like that. In the case of a grid application, the use of the Grid is transparent to the user."

More than 200 virtual organizations currently make use of the computing Grid, with some 250 sites aggregating 50,000 CPUs across 48 countries. The grid handles more than 100,000 application executions per day.

The IRS says that so far this year, one out of every four tax returns has come from someone filing from a home computer. The IRS said has received some 47 million returns, as of the week ending February 22nd. Of those, 38 million were filed electronically--up five percent from the 2007 filing season. Tax professionals were responsible for almost 26 million e-files, up slightly from last year, while self-prepared returns filed electronically jumped almost 14 percent to 12.3 million. The tax agency said that more than 39 million returns qualified for a refund, for a total of nearly $107 billion. The average refund was just over $2,700, up two percent from last year.

A nearly $5 billion settlement over the withdrawn painkiller Vioxx is on track to move forward. Merck says more than 44,000 people have signed up to take part in the deal by submitting medical records and other necessary paperwork. That's out of roughly 47,000 people who registered for the settlement earlier this year. Merck has said it would withdraw from the agreement unless at least 85 percent of people in four different groups join in. The drug company says if all of the submissions are verified, the number would exceed 93 percent in each of the four categories. One of the lead plaintiffs' lawyers says the enrollment figures show near universal acceptance of the program. Lawyers for thousands who blamed Vioxx for their heart attacks announced the settlement last November.

ExxonMobil, Occidental Petroleum and Maersk Oil are finalists being considered to develop an existing onshore field in Bahrain. According to Bloomberg, a winner will be determined by the end of June. The country's oil minister says Bahrain wants to increase output at the field.

A National Sleep Foundation survey of 1,000 people found participants average six hours and 40 minutes of sleep a night on weeknights, even though people estimated they'd need about 40 more minutes of sleep to be at their best. About one-third said they've had fallen asleep or become very sleepy at work in the past month. Last week, the chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission acknowledged it should have done more to investigate a tip that security guards routinely took naps while on the job at a Pennsylvania nuclear plant. Why so tired? The survey finds workdays are getting longer and time spent working from home averages close to four-and-a-half hours each week. People are trying to squeeze in more family time, too. The average wakeup time is 5:35 in the morning. Average bedtime is 10:53 p.m.

The reviled and prolific cockroach that homeowners love to hate could finally be getting some respect. A flying cockroach from Asia has shown a voracious appetite for pests that plague south Texas cotton farmers. Bob Pfannenstiel is a south Texas bug expert for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He concedes that the general public would probably be repelled by the numbers of roaches that feast in the fields. But he says he thinks people might give the bugs some grudging respect if they knew what they were up to. The Asian cockroach first appeared in Florida in 1986, and the species has expanded its range ever since. The nocturnal insects next migrated to southern Georgia, Alabama and up the east coast. It ventured west into Texas in 2006 and became the most common predator of bollworm eggs in the state's Rio Grande Valley region. That's where Pfannenstiel gathered data on predation in soybean fields. The bollworm threatens cotton, soybean, corn and tomato crops. The cockroach is an omnivore that also eats the eggs of the beet armyworm--a pest to cotton, cabbage and a variety of other crops.

Bio photo of Ed Mayberry

Ed Mayberry

Local Anchor, All Things Considered

Ed Mayberry has worked in radio since 1971, with many of those years spent on the rock 'n' roll disc jockey side of the business...