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     Volume 4 Issue 61 | September 2, 2005 |

   Cover Story
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Googles latest is all talkr

After several months of feverish speculation about a mysterious new service under development, Google unveiled its latest tool Wednesday: Google Talk, a text-chat and voice-communication program that looks nice, but has no obvious advantage over competitors.

The moment you fire it up, the sparse white design and primary-colour logo make it obvious that this is a Google application. When not in use, Google Talk shrinks down to a "speech bubble" icon on the Windows taskbar (for the time being, it's available for Windows only). Clicking on this opens the main pane, with a searchable list of your contacts, or "friends" as Google optimistically calls them.

Click on a name to initiate text chat, or click on the phone icon next to it to start a voice call. The person you're calling hears a ringing tone and can answer if they wish. Individual windows open for each voice or text conversation.

A broadband internet connection is essential for voice calling. In my testing, voice quality was very clear, even when calling internationally. Any standard microphone, headphones or headset will work. The software adjusts its sensitivity for your microphone, though you might have to delve into the Windows control panel if your existing sound settings are seriously awry.

Apart from this, Google Talk requires little tinkering under the hood of your PC. I tried it on three different PCs running Windows XP and Windows 2000, and in all cases, it worked fine. It worked perfectly through a Linux firewall, both across the internet and inside a LAN. You can also text chat with people using other programs that are compatible with the open Jabber/XMPP protocol, like iChat and Gaim.

On a couple of occasions, text messages got delayed in transmission and took several minutes to appear, but this was rare. So smoothly does Google Talk work that it's easy to forget this is beta software.

It's really the lack of features that telegraphs Google Talk's prototype status. If you're familiar with feature-laden competitors like MSN Messenger or AIM, it would almost be easier to describe Google Talk in terms of what it doesn't have: no cheery emoticons, no fancy fonts and no file transfers, for example. And there's also no advertising at all, a curious departure from Google's standard operating procedure and sole source of revenue.

There's also no way to call to or from traditional telephone networks. That's a significant difference from Skype, the internet telephony wunderkind, which holds between 30 and 46 percent of that market, depending on which statistics you look at.

So, if you're already using Skype or a similar program, why should you switch to Google Talk? The program is closely integrated with Gmail (you must have an invite-only Gmail account to use it), which might be nice if that's your main e-mail provider. The clean, simple interface could appeal to some, and the attempt to adhere to open standards seems worthy of support.

In the future, Google says it intends to add a raft of new features, including support for other operating systems (presumably Mac and Linux), encryption, compatibility with other internet telephony standards, and versions with a user interface in languages other than English (text chat already works in any language supported by Windows).

But for now, there really isn't any compelling reason to switch. Google Talk certainly doesn't enjoy the clear advantages over competitors that Google Search or Gmail had at their introductions. Google has to do something to make its new service outstanding. After all, who wants to use a communications service that has no users?

--Simon Burns of wired.com
A free trial version of Google Talk can be found at: http://www.google.com/talk

How to set up a moon base

If money were no object, what would it take to build a moon base fit for human habitation? Nasa is looking into just that, using the Hubble Space Telescope to hunt for suitable locations. And what if they build on one of the millions of plots already "sold" by entrepreneurs?

It's easy - relatively - to visit to the Moon, just five days' spaceflight from the Earth. What's considerably more complicated is to set up a lunar base where humans can live, work and breathe.

That's just what Nasa is trying to do, using the Hubble Space Telescope to scout possible locations as part of George Bush's push to revisit the Moon by 2018.

Air, water and electricity are the key requirements of any habitation. Because it would be prohibitively expensive to ship out supplies, these would need to be produced on the Moon itself. For the raw materials are in plentiful - if not easily extractable - supply.

What Nasa is looking for are sites with a good supply of ilmenite, a mineral from which to extract oxygen, hydrogen and helium. As well as producing air and water, the flammable gases could be burned to generate electricity. Nasa scientists know to look for ilmenite, as it was found in soil samples brought back by the Apollo missions.

"You'd also want to use lunar rocks as building supplies - it is so costly to lift even an extra kilo of steel into space, running to many hundreds of thousands of dollars," says Professor Colin Pillinger, the planetary scientist best known for heading the ill-fated Beagle 2 mission to Mars.

"It would be not too difficult to make bricks and mortar from lunar rocks, and ilmenite would provide a nice supply of titanium, a light strong metal, and iron."

As a moon base would doubtless be involved in research, its equipment would need to be shielded from the interference spewed out by Earth's electronic chatter. This means a site on the far side of the Moon, says Professor Pillinger.

Which does rather leave its inhabitants stuck for communicating with those back home. The answer, he says, is to deploy a battery of satellites to relay messages.

Then there are the extremes of temperature - ranging from about 100C down to at least -73C - the risk of solar flares and damage done by abrasive moon dust.

While planning permission is not an issue - there is no law in space - a claim of ownership has been made by US entrepreneur Dennis Hope, who in 1980 spotted a loophole in the 1967 United Nations Outer Space Treaty.

Although no country or government can lay claim to extraterrestrial land, it makes no mention of individual or corporate ownership. Plots have been put up for sale ever since.

Thus in the 18 months since President Bush's announcement, he has received numerous letters from lunar property owners, which typically read thus:

"I do worry that the future space station might be built on my lot. So I would like to inform you that I might allow the US government to do so, but only if I am paid for that area. If this should happen, I would be ready to enter into negotiations with the US officials."

UN lawyers say Mr Hope's claim on the Moon is without merit, and no government has yet recognised his claim. That, obviously, also goes for the 3.4m people to whom he has sold lunar plots, and those who have bought from rival companies.

Mr Hope predicts moon-based colonies within 12 years, and is a key investor in the TransOrbital project, which aims to launch the first private commercial flight to the Moon at the end of the year. The ship will carry a CD detailing Lunar Embassy's ownership rights as the company believes this staking process will stand up under US property law at least.

To this end, he says he has been in negotiations with the US Government. "We are proposing to the USA and any other space-faring country to lease to them a large parcel of land at no expense for a time period of 400 years initially. This would provide them with the legal instrument to proceed with their building without violating the Outer Space Treaty."

His rivals, too, hope to turn lunar property into reality. The Lunar Registry says proceeds from its sales go towards the Kennedy II Project, a private venture to establish a permanent, self-supporting community by the end of the decade.

But agents are under no illusions as to the appeal of lunar ownership - novelty value. And as with any purchase, read the fine print. The Moon Estates website makes clear that owners cannot charge Nasa if they land on their plot.

"The Outer Space Treaty... states that the Moon [is] the heritage of all mankind for the purposes of exploration. So Nasa can do what they like and where they like, as long as they are exploring. But if someone wants to build a house or drill for minerals or water on your property, that is quite a different issue altogether."

But before you think the Moon is a property hotspot, read on: "The Lunar Embassy and MoonEstates.com has never and will never sell a past or planned Nasa landing site on any celestial body."
-- bbcnews.com

Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2005