* 22 entries including: a short history of life, Dawkins' THE BLIND WATCHMAKER, digital broadcast TV arriving, Delgado's brain implants, The Movies machinima, terrorist threat to chemical plants, Chinese net censorship, C.K. Prahalad's economic ideas, backhoe threat to fiber-optic lines, e-gold troubles, junk patents, US Army training grounds, technology for old Japanese, OLEDS, click fraud, tsunami alert system, ultra-tech Smartwrap house, medical malpractice lawsuits, political issues over vaccine production, gift card scams, fun and games with product rebates, military blogs.
* MACHINA REVISITED: Back in these pages in November, I ran an article on "machinima" -- videos constructed using video games -- and speculated that video games might soon be designed with "hooks" to allow users to manipulate them for video productions. According to an article in WIRED Online ("Machinima for the Masses" by Annalee Newitz), things have already advanced well beyond that. A new Activision game titled "The Movies" has been released that is actually designed for making machinima, and has already led to an online hit -- THE FRENCH DEMOCRACY, a 13-minute video by French designer Alex Chan that tells a story of how discrimination in French society led to the country-wide riots of 2005.
The Movies is, on the face of it, a simulation game where players build a movie studio and then use it to produce movies, employing a toolkit to help with movie production. Peter Molyneux, whose UK-based Lionhead Studios developed The Movies, says it's a no-brainer: "A game about the movie industry that doesn't allow you to make movies would be pretty weird. We wanted you to be able to make your own unique movie in no way controlled or defined by us. I think that's what we've achieved."
Up to this time, machinima has been limited to the characters and props defined for specific games and restricted by the ability of game users to hack into games or otherwise manipulate them. The Movies provides machinima producers with a kit of sets, props, and actors that can be pasted onto "storyboards", with body movements, facial expressions, dialogue, sound, and subtitles pieced in as needed.
The Movies has made it much easier to put together machinima, and even in the short time the game has been available floods of videos have been built with it -- mostly junk, to be sure, but with a few gems like THE FRENCH DEMOCRACY among them. The Movies game is actually geared to support movie production in various styles -- 1920s silents, 1940s film noir, and so on -- and in various genres -- sci-fi, horror, mystery, romance, western, et cetera.
The Movies comes with a fixed set of sets, props, and characters, which tends to lead to a certain sameness after a while, but a number of "modders" like British computer science student Robert Ashton have been developing tools to extend the game. His "Pak Poker" tool allows users to modify the game's ".pak" files, which provide textures for backgrounds, and his new "The Movies Editor (MED)" even allows users to export the digital modeling files for props and costumes, modify them in a 3D modeling package, and then import them back in again.
Peter Molyneux is doing everything he can to encourage the modders: "In no way do I want to stifle them." He is, however, discouraging users who want to use The Movies for porn productions -- that's one genre not supported by the game. It's not even possible to get the characters to appear in the nude. Another issue that is likely to arise is litigation when machinima producers begin to model real actors or Hollywood movies. So far, machinima has been too marginal to attract such unwanted attention, but as tools for producing machinima videos continue to improve, it's sure to happen.
* ED: Obviously, machinima is still more or less a toy, and likely to remain a toy for some time. However, it seems likely that in the not-too-distant future, tools will be available to allow somebody tinkering on a PC to create video productions comparable in quality to a typical 2006 animated cartoon. Users will be able to buy or trade add-ons, such as characters or props, in much the same way that flight simulator users can obtain new types of aircraft, featuring different paint schemes or "skins".
One scenario is that machinima productions will become the Internet equivalent of amateur stage productions, but with a global audience. They may also provide a training ground for aspiring film-makers, as well as a way to cheaply "storyboard" a more professional video production. However, machinima productions might also be used for purposes other than entertainment -- say, a simulation of a crime scene for a criminal investigation. We may laugh at machinima now, but in a generation it may be such a common and widely-used tool that nobody will think twice about it.BACK_TO_TOP
* DIGITAL BROADCAST TV ON THE HORIZON (2): Efforts are now in progress in both European and America to revise their radio-spectrum regulations to adjust to digital TV. In the US, in 2001 and 2002, the US FCC auctioned off four small slices of spectrum totaling 6 MHz in the 746 MHz to 806 MHz range. These slices had been reserved as unused "guard bands" to block interference; the allocation of this spectrum included strong restrictions on interference with other bands. The FCC issued 104 licenses and took in $540 million USD. Three communications companies, Access Spectrum, Nextel, and Pegasus Communications were the big buyers. In 2002 and 2003, the FCC followed up this initial auction with a second auction of 18 MHz between 698 and 746 MHz, corresponding to UHF TV channels 54, 55, and 59. Buyers included Qualcomm and Aloha Partners LP; the auction brought in $145 million USD.
Qualcomm plans to use the spectrum to send video and audio programming to cellphones, PDAs, and other handheld devices; the company calls the service "MediaFLO" for "Media Forward Link Only", and content is expected to be items such as hit TV shows, sports clips, news updates, and movie trailers. MediaFLO will use buffering in the handheld unit to ensure smooth video reception. Qualcomm wants to use MediaFLO to promote CDMA cellphone technology, which the company pioneered. CDMA is in competition with the TDMA standard, common in the US, and GSM, common in Europe. CDMA is now used in 35 countries.
There are other schemes being promoted for delivery of video and audio to handhelds. One is the "Digital Video Broadcasting Handheld (DVB-H)" scheme, a variation on the DVB scheme used in Australia, India, and many European countries. South Korea is pushing a scheme known as "Terrestrial Digital Multimedia Broadcasting (T-DMB)", and it may become a player in the US market in the near future.
Aloha Partners LP is taking a different approach to the use of its new bandwidth: the company wants to use it to support high-speed broadband wireless Internet services for handhelds. Aloha has experimented with a scheme named "Flash-OFDM", where "OFDM" stands for "Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing". Transmission is based on "frequency hopping" spread-spectrum technology. Different cellphone base stations use different hopping patterns to reduce interference with each other.
Of the 84 MHz of spectrum not auctioned off so far, 24 MHz will be reserved for emergency services, such as police and fire crews. This bandwidth will be taken out of four existing UHF channels -- 63, 64, 68, and 69. The decision reserve these channels was made in 1997 and was not given much fanfare, but after the 9/11 terrorist attacks much more emphasis has been placed on "homeland security" and trying to help public safety organizations. Congress has mandated that the allocation of this 24 MHz be expedited. Although the US Federal government is pushing the distribution of this public-safety spectrum, it will be up to local governments to make use of it. Currently, the bandwidth for public safety services is cramped. More bandwidth would permit better voice and text transmission, as well as still image and video transmission. Images could be sent from a disaster site to responders en route so they know what to expect when they arrive; fire or police teams could review building plans before entering a building.
That leaves 60 MHz to be auctioned off, including channels 52, 53, 56 to 58, 60 to 62, and 65 to 67. The channels will be divided into five blocks, with four of the blocks organized as channel pairs: 52 and 57, 53 and 58, two 5 MHz channels in 60 and 65, and two 10 MHz channels in 61 to 62 and 66 to 67. Channel pairs are useful for communications that need the same bandwidth for transmission and reception, such as contemporary cellphone services. The fifth block, channel 56, will be used for one-way transmission services, such as video broadcast to cellphones and handhelds. The estimate of $50 billion USD return on this auction is disputed by some who claim that even $30 billion would be too high an estimate. In any case, it is likely that Congress will dictate that about $5 billion of the return be set aside to subsidize converter boxes for low-income families.
* The communications companies buying up bandwidth are likely to be among the big winners in US digital conversion, though of course some of these ventures are likely to fail. Manufacturers will be big winners, not only because of consumer demand for converter boxes and HDTVs, but also because of the need of broadcasters for digital production and transmission tools. Broadcasters should be also among the big winners, though they have proven hesitant to invest in the upfront costs to "go digital": without public demand, it's been hard to justify the investment, but without the investment, it's hard to drum up public demand. In particular, broadcasters have shown little interest in video services for handhelds, an oversight that might cost them dearly over the long run.
The politicians are at risk themselves: if the transition goes poorly, they will of course be blamed. Naturally, if it goes well, they will be able to take the credit, and if much of what is expected of digital broadcast TV pans out, there will be plenty of credit to go around.
ED: The US Congress finally agreed that America's analog TV channels will cease to exist on 17 February 2009. Those still stuck with analog sets at that time will be able to use a converter box to pick up digital transmissions, with such boxes expected to be available in the $50:$100 USD range. About $1.5 billion USD of the funds the government expects to pick up from the sale of radio spectrum released by killing the analog channels will be used to help poor Americans obtain converter boxes.
Over the short term, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has mandated that all TVs with displays measuring 90 centimeters (36 inches) or more on the diagonal now have to be sold with a digital tuner system; half the TVs in the 60:90 centimeter (24:36 inch) range must also include a digital tuner at present, with all sets in that size range to be digital by 1 March 2006. By 2007, all TVs must be sold with a digital tuner -- though "displays" lacking any sort of tuner, capable of being connected to a DVD player or set-top box, are not covered in the mandates. This will mean higher prices for TVs for a while, but competition is expected to rapidly drive down prices. [END OF SERIES]PREV
* A SHORT HISTORY OF LIFE (1): We share this planet with an astonishing array of other organisms. Even cataloging all of them is a monster job. The cataloging scheme that we use today was basically invented by the Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus in the 18th century, and hierarchically broke life down into "kingdoms", such as the plant and animal kingdoms; broken down into "phyla", such as the phylum of vertebrates, including the fish, reptiles, mammals, and other creatures with backbones; then "classes", such as the warm-blooded furry mammals; "orders", such as the carnivores, including cats, wolves, bears, and so on; "genus", such as the cats; and finally the "species", though there could also be races (breeds or variants) of a species.
Ever since Linnaeus there has been debate over how particular organisms should fit into this cataloging system. This series will assume that there are six kingdoms of life, as well as three "superkingdoms" or "domains" to organize that diversity. This is just to simplify the discussion, since taxonomists -- the genus, so to speak, of biologists who worry about the classifications of organisms -- are notoriously argumentative and not in agreement on the matter. However, even the taxonomists do not debate the idea that this enormous array of organisms evolved over time, branching out in ever-increasing elaboration from the origins of life billions of years ago.
Pinning down the exact history of how this happened is not easy. The main evidence is from fossilized organisms dug up from the earth. The problem is that fossilization is an unusual circumstance: after most organisms die, they are consumed or decay and little trace of them is left. Fossilization requires that organisms be neatly buried in sediments, ash, or the like, and left undisturbed while their environment turns into stone. Finding fossils is another problem -- it's not like they can be discovered simply by digging into any arbitrary plot of earth. Worse, stone is impermanent, with geological processes tending to disturb or destroy fossil beds over time -- in fact, it's almost impossible to find undisturbed rocks over about 3.5 billion years old. Still, there have been vast numbers of organisms on this planet, and even if only one in millions survives as a fossil, that still gives plenty of clues as to the evolution of life on Earth.
* It is known from radioactive dating that the Earth is about 4.5 billion years old. The first billion years were unsettled, with a hot, geologically active Earth pounded by impacts of enormous asteroids.
The earliest traces of life are about 3.5 billion years old. Geologists have long divided the history of the Earth into a set of "eras", which are subdivided down into "periods" and in some cases "epochs". The different subdivisions of geological time were originally determined by the fact that they features distinct sets of fossils. In some cases, the boundaries between the subdivisions are fuzzy and somewhat arbitrary, but in others the boundaries are clear-cut, indicating some relatively abrupt change in the state of the world. The following table gives the subdivisions, with their beginning dates:
date era period epoch __________________________________________________________________________ 570,000,000 Paleozoic Cambrian 500,000,000 Ordovician 435,000,000 Silurian 410,000,000 Devonian 360,000,000 Carboniferous Mississippian 330,000,000 Pennsylvanian 290,000,000 Permian __________________________________________________________________________ 240,000,000 Mesozoic Triassic 205,000,000 Jurassic 138,000,000 Cretaceous __________________________________________________________________________ 65,000,000 Cenozoic Tertiary Paleocene 54,000,000 Eocene 38,000,000 Oligocene 24,000,000 Miocene 5,000,000 Pliocene 1,500,000 Quaternary Pleistocene 10,000 Holocene __________________________________________________________________________
There were actually eras before the Paleozoic, but here they are simply lumped into the general subdivision of the "Archeozoic" era or "Precambrian" period, stretching back to 3.5 billion years ago, the time of the origin of life on Earth, and beyond through the "Hadean" era when the planet was molten, back to its creation. Some sources subdivide the Precambrian into multiple periods -- after all, it was much longer than all the later periods put together -- but for the sake of simplicity, it's given as a single period here.
How life began in the Precambrian remains a mystery, a subject of informed speculations. During the Precambrian, for almost three billion years the Earth was the exclusive property of single-celled organisms. Large multicellular organisms are a comparatively recent phenomenon. However, it should not be thought that nothing much interesting was going on before multicellular organisms made their entrance. [TO BE CONTINUED]NEXT
* CHEMICAL TERROR: On 3 December 1984, a Union Carbide chemical plant at Bhopal, India, suffered a system breakdown and released a cloud of toxic chemicals. Thousands of people were killed, tens of thousands injured. After the terrorist attacks on the United States on 11 September 2001, there was worry that plants manufacturing toxic chemicals and sited near large urban areas might make very attractive targets for further attacks that could kill hundreds of thousands. However, according to US NEWS & WORLD REPORT ("The Toxic Politics Of Chemicals" by Angie C. Marek, 23 January), so far not much has been done to safeguard American chemical plants from terrorist attack.
While security has been tightened somewhat at airports, seaports, and borders, chemical plants remain largely insecure. Including chemical factories, oil refineries, and waste treatment plants, there are about 15,000 such facilities, with about 100 each presenting a threat to over a million people in the worst-case scenarios. Some of the big players have worked hard to beef up their security -- they have good reason to worry about the destruction of their facilities, even ignoring the threat to the public -- but the US government has done little to encourage or assist in the effort.
Environmentalists claim that chemical industry lobbies have blocked attempts to mandate security measures for chemical plants. The American Chemistry Council (ACC), a major industry group, says its members have invested nearly $3 billion USD since 9-11 on a voluntary program to improve security, but even some industry security officials call current measures "a joke". The money has gone for more cameras, better fencing, and network security that might keep out a small group of monkey-wrenchers but would hardly slow down an organized attack by a well-armed terrorist group. A good number of the companies running high-risk sites aren't even on voluntary programs, and a few won't allow Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials on their sites without a warrant.
Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine, chair of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, has introduced a bill to give the DHS much greater powers over the chemical industry, with the DHS able to impose security requirements and shut down plants that don't meet them. There is interest in the proposal in Congress -- though the ACC has come out against a clause in the bill that allows states to have tougher requirements than the Feds, the ACC plausibly claiming that inconsistent standards make life unnecessarily difficult for industry. The issue will work its way through the legislature over the coming months.
* SEE NO EVIL: Google just made headlines that reported the search-engine giant had agreed to requests by the Chinese government to filter out web pages deemed unacceptable by the authorities. It is a bit odd that this made news, since this is business as usual in China. According to an article in BUSINESS WEEK ("The Great Firewall Of China" by Bruce Einhorn and Ben Elgin), when US voice IP / instant messaging company Skype decided to penetrate the China market, partnering with TOM Online INC of Hong Kong as a local partner, the Americans got a lesson in how things are done in China. They were flatly told that any services installed would have to include filters to block messages that contained words and phrases such as "Dalai Lama", "Taiwan independence", "Falun Gong", "Tianamen massacre", or even "democracy". Skype officials protested, but it did no good: either they did as they were told, or they didn't do business in China. They caved in and installed the filters.
Welcome to China, where the main target of email filters is political dissidence and not spam. Any foreign firm that does business there immediately learns to play by the rules. If Microsoft is informed by the authorities that a blogger on the MSN service isn't acceptable, he is removed from the system, no argument about it. Internet companies are given regular updates on what is not acceptable, and are held accountable if users of their services break the rules. In short, companies have been pressured into maintaining security for the state.
This is only the tip of the iceberg. Chinese internal security services employ about 30,000 people to spy on Chinese Web surfers; in comparison, the US Central Intelligence Agency has only 16,000 employees. Bloggers who don't post to controlled commercial sites must register with the authorities. Internet cafes keep files on their users. All Internet traffic into and out of China is run through government-controlled gateways, where it is filtered for content; troublesome sites like CNN, BBC, and Amnesty International are blocked. The censorship is an irritant even to people who don't have any inclination to rock the boat, since the government gateways are chokepoints that make obtaining materials from the outside world very slow and difficult.
When new Internet technologies arrive, the net police are quick to slap controls on them. The continuous introduction of such new technologies is a real challenge to the authorities, and there are those who think that China's heavy-handed government is fighting the tide. So far, however, the net police seem to be doing a fairly successful job of it. Whether they can continue to do so in the face of spiraling use not only of the Internet, but also mobile phones with text-messaging services, remains to be seen.
* Along this line, in the "news too bizarre to be taken seriously" category, the police in Shenzhen, China, have come up with an interesting innovation on the Internet gateways of the city: two cutesy anime-style cartoon police, a guy cop named "JingJing" and a girl cop named "ChaCha". In Chinese, the word for "police" is "JingCha", so there's the derivation. They are not there for amusement value. Their function is to remind Web surfers that WE ARE WATCHING YOU. Clicking on them takes a surfer straight to a live cop, who will be happy to hear about anyone who seems inclined to deviate from the acceptable. The police are refreshingly honest about the little cartoon cops, flatly admitting that the duo's function is to intimidate. Think of JingJing and ChaCha as the iron fist in the Mickey Mouse glove.BACK_TO_TOP
* PRAHALAD'S PYRAMID: BUSINESS WEEK correspondent Pete Engardio, working on a profile of 64-year-old University of Michigan Professor Coimbatore Krishnarao ("C.K.") Prahalad for the 23 January 2006 issue, got a dynamic lesson in his subject's ways of thinking during a drive through Mumbai. The reporter's first impressions were of poverty, but Prahalad claimed that there was more going on than sheer misery: there were floods of people trying to get ahead and demonstrating a lot of ingenuity in doing it.
Prahalad pointed to a cubbyhole of a shop in which the proprietor was sending faxes for customers, charging them small sums for the service: "That guy probably started with a single phone and then added a fax and a printer. Now he has a self-contained communications center, offering extremely low prices." Prahalad then took the reporter into a tiny dry-goods shop, pointing out that the single-serving containers of soap, toothpaste, and other household goods being sold for tiny sums were all major brand names, like Colgate, Lifebuoy, Lux: "Low quality won't sell."
C.K. Prahalad made his name encouraging major corporations to rethink their business models, becoming a sought-after consultant and hitting the business best-seller lists with books written along with his colleague Gary Hamel. Prahalad's 2004 book THE FORTUNE AT THE BOTTOM OF THE PYRAMID brought to center stage one of his particularly radical assertions: that there is a fortune to be made at the bottom of the economic pyramid, where people are generally assumed to be mired in hopeless poverty.
To anti-globalism activists, Prahalad's notion sounds like a plot for new exploitation of the masses, but he stands that notion on its head. The poor have money -- not much for any one of them, but there are a lot of poor -- and they are often both ingenious and energetic in trying to get ahead. Corporations that can help them advance stand to make rewards. On the other side of the coin, Prahalad says that the emerging economic power of the poor at the bottom of the pyramid represents a challenge to corporations, one which will sweep away the old ways of doing business and leave those who don't adjust high and dry.
Prahalad's next book, to be published this year, will showcase Indian companies whose innovative ways of doing business demonstrate the changes he believes are coming. Indian telecom operators like Bharti can offer consumer data and voice communications packages for a third of what they would cost in the US; Bangalore's Narayana Hrudayalaya Hospital can perform competent heart bypass surgery for only $1,500 USD. Narayana also insures 2.5 million poor Indians against serious illness for 11 cents a month per person. The hospital even operates on hundreds of infants each year for free -- and still shows a profit. Prahalad's analyses show that the low wages and cost of living in India don't come close to fully accounting for the economies he observes. The real key, he claims, is management using innovative procedures and financing, and outsourcing as much as possible.
* Management gurus come and go, and there are those who find it hard to take Prahalad very seriously. Trying to reach the very poor is a low-margin game and even large volume might not make the effort very worthwhile. In response, Prahalad points out how $100 USD laptop PCs, once thought of as impossible, are now going into production.
C.K. Prahalad is regarded as blunt, pragmatic but innovative, and endlessly curious about the economic life of the world. Some find him overly serious, he himself admitting: "I'm not much fun at parties." He has had his hits and misses, but he points to ICICI Bank in India as one of his successes. He pushed ICICI into the "microcredit" business, lending small sums to the poor, with the bank installing 2,000 ATMs in cities and villages around the country, and setting up self-help groups to provide loans of as little as $100 USD for someone trying to set up a business. ICICI has pushed 75% of its transactions online, greatly reducing costs, with software developed in-house to save money. ICICI has been growing rapidly and the bank thinks its business model is applicable elsewhere.
Prahalad holds up Bharti as another example of what he's talking about. The telecom company outsourced as much as possible, pushing the use of prepaid call cards that the poor find attractive and which generate up-front revenue. The poor can't usually afford PCs, but they can afford cellphones, and Bharti has built up a huge subscriber base on that premise.
Yet another showcase is Narayan. The hospital does have some cultural advantages: malpractice suits are rare in India, so malpractice insurance isn't much of a financial burden. However, Narayan also does things very differently than in the US, taking an "assembly-line" approach to health care. In America, a surgeon directs the care from beginning to end for a patient, but in Narayan the surgeons focus on surgeries, performing three or four a day, every workday. It might sound robotic, but Narayan insists its mortality rates for heart surgery are half that of the US: practice makes perfect, and Narayan surgeons get a lot of practice.
Narayan's approach would shock American doctors, and there would be strong resistance to such an approach in the US. However, Prahalad believes the new business models will be irresistible over the long run. The longer the established order tries to protect its turf, the more the lean and agile newcomers will undermine them.BACK_TO_TOP
* DANGER BACKHOES! Although the digital press has long fretted over various threats to the global computer network, worrying about everything from spam to cyberterrorists, one major threat -- the backhoe -- has been generally overlooked. A WIRED Online article ("The Backhoe: A Real Cyberthreat" by Kevin Poulsen) shows that errant backhoes can do a great deal of damage. On 9 January 2006, cable TV contractors were laying a line in rural Arizona when the work crew suddenly noticed: "Oops! We've hit something!" It was a high-speed fiber-optic line. Long-distance phone service for millions of Sprint PCS and Nextel wireless users in the West was cut off immediately. Vital communications networks were disrupted for almost four hours. It wasn't the work crew's fault: they had contacted a state "call before you dig" helpline, and the site had been erroneously cleared.
There are hundreds of thousands of excavation accidents in the US each year that involve some damage to underground cables and pipes, with cable dig-ups being the most common cause of telecom outages in the 12-year period up to 2004. Such outages have become more infrequent, but when they happen now they are worse than before.
Statistics on outages are now privileged information. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials started worrying that digup accident data might give terrorists a convenient roadmap for an attack on America's communications infrastructure that would cause major disruption. Although such an infrastructure attack isn't really al-Qaeda's style -- they prefer much more bloodthirsty actions, though cutting communications might help sow confusion in conjunction with more violent attacks -- eco-terrorists, anarchists, and the like would find it right up their alley.
Cutting the line in Arizona shouldn't have knocked out service, since the network was redundant, but another section of the line in California had been damaged in a mudslide a few days before. The massive outage was a fluke. However, the networks are clearly vulnerable to deliberate attacks by groups that have identified the system's chokepoints. In 2003, Sean Gorman, a doctoral candidate at George Mason University, constructed a map of America's fiber-optic network for his PhD dissertation, demonstrating how straightforward it was to identify and target critical nodes in the system. Gorman went on to form FortiusOne, a data security company that advises financial companies on how to implement secure communications, and consults with other organizations such as the DHS. Gorman says the national datacom network is just as vulnerable as it was, that it would be fairly easy to completely cut fiber-optic communications from the US East Coast to the West Coast.
Gorman claims that the lack of redundancy is partly due to communications industry consolidation. Fewer companies laying fiber-optic trunklines means fewer trunklines, all the more so because companies are reluctant to pay for redundant capacity. Worse, terrain and legal rights-of-way mean that multiple companies tend to lay down their lines along the same paths.
There's an ongoing debate over possible solutions to the problem. Gorman thinks the US government should mandate more redundancy. Critics reply that this is an expensive solution, proposing instead that the government perform research and establish recommendations on building a more secure communications infrastructure, able to reroute communications over fiber optic cable, satellite, or wireless as needed.
In the meantime, efforts are being made to reduce the level of accidental breakages. Under the current system, there are call centers in each state that diggers can contact; the call center then contacts utilities, which send people out to mark the dig area with spray paint. The system is a bit clumsy; worse, a lot of people just go ahead and dig without bothering to call, possibly out of ignorance. Accidents hit gas lines about half the time, telecom lines about a quarter of the time. Usually the damage is minor, but it's like playing Russian roulette: in 2004, a work crew in California hit a petroleum pipeline, lighting off a fireball that killed three people and injured six more.
In hopes of improving matters, in 2002 the US government established the basis for a national "call before you dig" three-digit phone number that, like 911, would route automatically to the caller's local center. The number, which the FCC established as "811", will go live on 10 April 2007. A national advertising campaign will be performed to ensure that the public gets the message.BACK_TO_TOP
* DIGITAL BROADCAST TV ON THE HORIZON (1): As discussed in an article from IEEE SPECTRUM ("The Dawn Of Digital TV" by Robert M. Rast, October 2005), by the beginning of the millennia, television was "going digital", with DVD discs, digital satellite TV, and digital cable providing noise-free digital imagery to video consumers around the world. The next step was to convert broadcast TV to digital, with the US Congress eventually proclaiming that the US would shut down analog TV in 2006.
2006 has come and analog TV is still here. There were a number of factions in the US who had an interest in digital TV, and they were slow to come to agreement. Congress was not happy with this state of affairs, since once analog TV was shut down, large regions of the radio spectrum would be placed on the auction block, earning tens of billions of dollars for the government.
However, things are coming together now, and the current thinking is that the US will abandon analog TV transmission sometime from late 2008 to mid-2009. As it turns out, converting to digital wasn't perfectly straightforward elsewhere, either. Berlin did it in 2003, Munich in 2005, but all of Germany won't follow until 2010. France will convert in that same year, Japan will go in 2011, and the UK will do so in 2012.
Of course, the end of analog TV means that consumers will have to get a converter box to pick up digital video, or buy a new high-definition TV (HDTV) to take full advantage of high-resolution digital imagery. Many countries that have committed to digital broadcast TV, particularly in Europe, haven't committed to a terrestrial HDTV broadcast scheme yet, but even without high definition, digital TV provides a cleaner picture and digital surround sound. Broadcasters will even be able to multiplex multiple standard-definition video streams over a single channel.
* The original plan for US conversion to digital broadcast TV emerged in the late 1990s, when the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) loaned each TV broadcaster an alternate channel in the existing broadcast band -- 54 through 806 MHz -- with 6 MHz assigned to each channel. There had been some chance of interference between adjacent analog TV channels, and so consecutive channels were never assigned in the same broadcast area: if there was a channel 4 in one area, there might be a channel 2 or channel 6, but no channel 3 or 5.
The unused TV channels were referred to as "taboo channels". Since digital TV signals produce less interference and are less subject to interference than analog TV channels, the FCC felt that digital TV channels could be assigned into the taboo channels during the transition period.
Congress dictated that at the end of 2006, the analog TV channels would be shut down. Since digital TV channels didn't need as much bandwidth as analog TV channels, the digital TV channels could then be "repacked" into a tighter band between 54 and 698 MHz, releasing 108 MHz of bandwidth -- at the desireable, less noisy, upper end of the radio spectrum -- for new uses. That was a big chunk of bandwidth: the entire US AM radio band is only 1.2 MHz, and all wireless local area networks using the IEEE 802.11b and 802.11g protocols, the most common forms of wi-fi, take up 83.5 MHz. Auctioning off that spectrum meant big bucks for the US government.
Congress did hedge the bet, however, by requiring that at the cutoff date, at least 85% of the households in every TV service market have at least one digital TV. By late 2005, everyone knew there was no way this condition could be met. Many of the players in the market -- such as consumer electronics and computer manufacturers, as well as communications and other companies who want to get their hands on the released bandwidth -- are insisting that Congress set a "hard date", with no conditions, for the conversion so they can make their plans accordingly. Congress has not passed the appropriate legislation at last notice, but the matter is being taken very seriously there, with both houses getting eager for the money from the spectrum auctions. The auctions will probably begin in late 2006 or early 2007, since the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has advised that the spectrum auctions be spread out, ensuring that a glut of bandwidth doesn't drive down bids.
Cellphone operators are expected to bid aggressively for the released spectrum, since it is optimum for cellular services. Current US cellular bands are at high frequencies, up to 1.9 GHz. At the lower frequencies, the signals propagate farther, meaning fewer cellphone towers have to be set up, and the signals also propagate more deeply into buildings. Vendors are believed to be considering wideband Internet and mobile video services for the released bandwidth.
* As mentioned, Berlin went to digital broadcast TV in 2003. It was possible to do so because the service area was geographically small and most of residents already had digital TV services of some sort. A low-cost set-top box gave the citizens access to digital TV, with the government subsidizing the boxes for poorer households.
The "Berlin Switch" provided a vision of the future of digital broadcast TV: each digital channel could support four standard-resolution channels in the same bandwidth as had been used by one analog channel, and the number of broadcast stations accordingly jumped from 12 to 27. Broadcast viewers were able to receive specialty stations normally only found on cable / satellite TV, such as the sports channel Eurosport, the arts channel Arte, the political channel Phoenix, the pop-music channel Viva II, and a number of new local channels. [TO BE CONTINUED]NEXT
* BLOGS IN UNIFORM: Modern communications technology has changed the way military operations are performed, not merely allowing combat units to stay in touch with each other, but also giving the folks back home a keyhole into life on the front lines. Now, according to a BBC WORLD Online article, American citizens are able to keep up with the troops through military-oriented blogs.
The first "milblogs" appeared in late 2002. The term was coined by "Greyhawk", a US serviceman stationed in Germany who runs the "Mudville Gazette" blog, which has become a hub for other milbloggers. Milbloggers have various motives for their activity. According to "Matt", who runs the popular "BlackFive" blog, some just want to use a blog to keep in touch with friends and family, others use a blog to organize their thoughts, while still others are aspiring writers.
Pioneers like Greyhawk, LT Smash, Sergeant Hook, and Sergeant Stryker have inspired literally hundreds of milblogs. Some milbloggers have gone on to use their materials to write books, including Jason C. Hartley, who wrote JUST ANOTHER SOLDIER, and Colby Buzzell, who wrote MY WAR: KILLING TIME IN IRAQ.
Those old enough to remember the Vietnam War might think that the milblogs are forums for antimilitary discontent, but this is another generation. In fact much of the discontent is focused on what some milbloggers perceive as biased reporting on events in Iraq, particularly by news media organizations with axes to grind for President George W. Bush. However, the milblogs are still unfiltered and unsanitized, and the brass has disciplined milbloggers who have crossed the line. Greyhawk suggests that milbloggers remember that their writings may be read by somebody's mother, Pentagon brass, or Osama bin Laden.
The military is likely to formalize rules about milblogs. Hopefully the brass will not attempt to simply ban them. Although it is a truth that the US armed services are authoritarian organizations in defense of a representative society, milblogs can work for the military, and trying to suppress them would be counterproductive. The troops will gripe, but generally remain loyal; when the griping goes quiet, sensible brass get the feeling something's wrong.START | PREV
* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: Video conferencing has been around for many years, but it has generally been more impressive in concept than in execution. One who wasn't impressed was movie mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg of DreamWorks Animation, who was so disgusted with existing video conferencing that in 2001 he set an effort in motion to get it right. The result is the "Halo" system, built by an alliance between DreamWorks and Hewlett-Packard (HP). Halo is not so much a system that can be put in a room than a system that is the room. Four big plasma panel TVs in each Halo room give windows into a Halo room elsewhere; each room is properly arranged, lit, and covered by cameras. The video is transferred over high-speed datalinks.
The cost of building a Halo room is $550,000 USD, with HP charging $18,000 USD a month to run one. DreamWorks now has nine Halo systems, HP thirteen, Advanced Micro Devices two, and PepsiCo five. More are being sold. Steve Reinemund, boss of PepsiCo, says that every CEO he's let sit in on a Halo session has immediately decided to get a Halo system as well. Although the system is expensive, it's still cheaper than flying all over the world, with Katzenberg claiming that it has cut the rate of his trips to the UK from once every three weeks to once every four months. Those who have Halo rooms are running them around the clock. HP, which has been struggling as of late, has a smash hit on their hands, and DreamWorks in turn has shown how the movie technology used to create virtual worlds has applications in the real universe.
* According to FLIGHT INTERNATIONAL Online, anyone interested in an exciting airplane ride will get all that could be hoped for if and when the four-passenger "Rocketplane XP" spaceplane goes into service. The XP hardly seems to be all that exotic on the surface, consisting of a Learjet 25 executive jet -- but with some special modifications. The XP will fly to 7,600 meters (25,000 feet) using its twin GE CJ610 turbojets, and then will light a Rocketdyne RS-88 liquid-fuel rocket engine, boosting the aircraft to 45,700 meters (150,000 feet) at burnout. The XP will continue to coast upward to a peak of 100,600 meters (330,000 feet), with flight control provided by a nose and wingtip thruster system. The aircraft will then glide back down into the atmosphere, relight its turbojet engines, and fly back to its home base. The passengers will experience over three minutes of weightlessness on the flight.
* A WIRED NEWS Online article describes an interesting software application named "Electroplankton" for the Nintendo DS handheld game system. Electroplankton, design by Japanese media artist Toshio Iwai, is not really a game, instead being a "virtual aquarium", in which sea creatures swim around to the tune of one of ten possible soundtracks. It is possible to interact with the software by touching the handheld's screen or speaking at the mike. Soundtracks can be overlaid for different fish, creating harmonies or disharmonies as the case may be.
It's definitely a "smart" aquarium, with a "Volvoice" plankton that records sounds and then plays them back in different ways; "Nanocarp", which consists of a school of tiny plankton whose configuration changes in response to sounds; and "Hanenbow", in which the user spins an aquatic plant to create rhythms as fish bounce off the leaves. If the user just wants to watch, an "Audience" mode is available to allow things to happen pseudorandomly. As the article pointed out, this is the sort of thing that will bore some and mesmerize others. I would like it myself; I have long wanted to visual environments like this. Why not similar tours through the solar system, ancient or future landscapes, and alien worlds?
* According to THE ECONOMIST, 10 December), an Australian firm named DataDot Technology is conducting a lively business with their "microdot" technology. These are tiny polyester dots, about a millimeter wide, that can be laser-scribed with a serial number and then sprayed on parts or other items of value. The serial number can be read with a microscope under ultraviolet light. They can be scraped off, but it's hard to get them all. Products protected by microdots are visibly labeled, as a deterrent to theft.
BMW began using microdots in 2001, and Australian statistics say thefts of BMWs have dropped by 60% by that time. Thefts of Subarus have dropped by 90%. Other automobile manufacturers have been using or experimenting with microdots as well. They make it difficult to even break down a stolen car into parts; they can be used to protect almost anything, from laptop computers to farm equipment. In 2004, Florida police planted microdots on coins inserted into parking meters to grab a corrupt official who looting the meters.
The idea is not new, having been around since the 1940s, but required the introduction of laser etching in the 1990s to be practical. Vegas casinos were one of the first users, applying them to gambling chips to nail counterfeiters. Australian investors, with a eye partly towards car thefts, then bought up the rights to the technology. It seems poised for much greater use.BACK_TO_TOP
* TAINTED GOLD: Everybody now realizes that the Internet has its seedy side, having become a productive environment for shady business and outright crime. An article in BUSINESS WEEK ("Gold Rush" by Brian Grow, 9 January 2006) shows how seemingly straightforward Internet operations, in the form of a online named "e-gold LTD", can be drawn into the whirlpool of sleaze and thievery.
On the evening of 19 December 2005, officials of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Secret Services raided the offices of e-gold's parent company, Gold & Silver Reserve INC, as well as the home of its CEO, 49-year-old Douglas L. Jackson, a medical doctor who decided to go into the "digital currency" business. Jackson was not charged with any crime, but the investigators seized records and other materials.
There are about a dozen digital currency operations online at this time. They permit users to perform financial transactions with each other, with the service operator charging a small fee on transactions to make a profit. About eight of the digital currency operations, including e-gold, claim that their accounts are backed by hard bullion. Digital currency hasn't really caught on in general; E-Bay's PayPal service is popular, but it's regarded as a credit card processing operation, not a digital currency scheme as such, since it maintains accounts in national currencies. Digital currency does have its attractions to a few specific groups of users. The virtue of e-gold from a user's point of view is its convenience. Units of gold can be purchased by wire transfer or credit card, establishing an account. The company has $58 million USD in gold, kept in secure locations in London and Dubai. Once an account has been set up, transfers can be made from account to account with little fuss -- or accountability.
The fact that e-gold accounts are based on gold appeals to "gold bugs", or folks want to go back to a previous era where currencies were backed by precious metals, a notion regarded by mainstream economists as crackpottery. The lack of accountability makes e-gold attractive to criminals. Investigators have run across online sites such as "CC-cards", where criminals blatantly sell stolen credit-card information, and child pornography sites where payment is taken in e-gold, instead of VISA or Mastercard. It's played a role in some online scams, and there is a worry that terrorists are catching on to the scheme as well.
Jackson's e-gold LTD was one of the pioneering digital currency operations. He became interested in libertarianism and Ayn Rand in the mid-1990s, reading up on monetary policy and becoming a gold bug. Governments having given up on the idea of gold-backed currencies, he decided to create his own, setting up e-gold in 1996 in collaboration with a friend, attorney Barry K. Downey. Jackson finally left his medical practice in 1998 to run e-gold full time. He had hoped his scheme would catch on in a big way, but e-gold has remained a niche operation -- a niche, unfortunately, that crooks seem to have found very useful for their purposes. Nobody has accused Jackson of complicity in criminal activities, but government investigators think he has turned a blind eye to some of the things going on in his operation.
Jackson denies that he has conveniently overlooked illegal transactions on his service. He is, after all, a libertarian, and it is a fundamental belief of libertarians that people should be able to conduct their own business in privacy. He also points out that he is under little legal obligation to snoop on the business of his users, since even government officials admit that regulations designed for banks and other mainstream financial institutions, such as the Bank Secrecy Act, don't cover digital currency operations like e-gold. He admits that his single in-house investigator is swamped, trying to keep up with the "pile of subpoenas" on his desk.
Some e-gold users became skeptical of the operation's loose methods and jumped ship to GoldMoney.com, operated out of the British Channel Island of Jersey. GoldMoney is another gold-based digital currency, but users are required to provide proof of identity before opening an account, with their IDs checked against known lists of money launderers. An independent accounting firm periodically checks GoldMoney's books.
Jackson claims such procedures are unnecessary and add to the overhead of doing business. In fact, he makes little secret of his efforts to avoid scrutiny, even going so far as to avoid using terms such as "deposit" and "withdrawal" in favor of "in-exchange" and "out-exchange" to make his service sound less like a bank, which would imply banking regulations. Although Gold & Silver Reserve INC operates out of Florida, the company is actually registered on the Caribbean island of Nevis, where banking regulation is thin. Again, this is consistent with his libertarian beliefs, and investigators say that when they make requests to Gold & Silver Reserve INC for data, the company is always responsive. Jackson has also been very energetic in dealing with kiddie pornsite operators using e-gold services.
It is easy to see Jackson as a honest man with a vision that happens to include anti-establishment ideas. Unfortunately, he seems to be a bit out of his depth, and it also seems unlikely his troubles will go away any time soon -- not merely because of the government's specific interest in his operation but because regulations covering digital currency operations are sure to be tightened up. Even if e-gold crashes and burns, however, the cat's out of the bag: there are other digital currency schemes elsewhere, such as WebMoney in Russia, that will take up the slack and which won't be so easy to monitor. The fight's just getting warmed up.
* JUNK PATENTS: According to a BUSINESS WEEK article ("The Patent Epidemic" by Michael Orey, 9 January 2006), when Canadian auto parts supplier KSR International was asked by American car giant General Motors (GM) to supply a gas pedal, KSR officials thought it looked like a straightforward deal. GM wanted a pedal that could be adjusted to the heights of different drivers, and which would also use a electrical signal instead of a mechanical linkage to control the throttle. Both features had been around for a time, so the combination of them seemed no problem -- until lawyers of Teleflex INC of Limerick, Pennsylvania, told KSR that the Canadian company was in violation of Teleflex's patent, which covered the combination of an adjustable pedal and electrical throttle control. KSR, so said the lawyers, would have to pay a royalty. KSR ignored Teleflex and shipped pedals to GM without paying Teleflex off.
KSR and Teleflex are now fighting the matter out in US court. KSR has a good case to make in principle, since American patent law specifically states that a patent must be "non-obvious". In other words, somebody might patent the light bulb and somebody might patent the refrigerator, but putting a light bulb in a refrigerator shouldn't be worthy of a patent. Teleflex insists their patent is not obvious, and the case is being pushed up to the US Supreme Court.
Critics of the current US patent system claim it is being swamped in a sea of "junk patents". A group of American companies is throwing its weight behind KSR in the patent dispute with Teleflex, and several dozen intellectual-property law professors have begun similar legal actions, claiming that massive overpatenting is a "drag on innovation." In 1990, the US Patent & Trademark Office issued 99,000 patents; in 2004, the number was 181,000, and patent applications are being filed at 400,000 per year. An attorney named Barry Schindler wrote that companies seek patent rights on "every conceivable business operation, such as methods of billing clients, hiring employees, marketing products or service ... " The most famous of these junk patents was Amazon's patent on "one-click shopping", which amazingly the courts backed up. A joker came up with a fake patent on the procedure for "walking and chewing gum at the same time."
Instead of encouraging innovation, junk patents end up becoming a form of parasitic speculation, with phony "inventors" simply accumulating portfolios of dubious patents so they can extort royalties from people who actually produce things. The result is continuous litigation over patent rights, and designers never knowing if some minor change they make will cause a patent dispute. Apparel maker VF Corporation finds even implementing a simple brassiere a tricky business, since any tweak they make might end up in court. Says an attorney involved with patent reform: "How many bra patents could you possibly have?"
Trying to dodge the patent bullet is troublesome and expensive. Even if a patent is bogus, companies may end up spending millions fighting it. As a defensive measure, companies have been forced to pile up junk patents of their own, in hopes of being able to counterchallenge anyone who claims a patent infringement.
Critics believe that the real problem is the failure of the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals to enforce the non-obviousness provision. When a Federal court in Detroit ruled in favor of KSR in the gas-pedal dispute, the judge stating that the concept was an obvious combination of existing technologies, an appeals court overturned the verdict, claiming that there was no mention of the concept in any earlier literature and so it was not in fact obvious.
The condition of prior citation applied by the appeals court is reasonable on the face of it, since it's common experience that something that seems obvious in hindsight may not have been obvious at all before the fact. However, the result is an out-of-control and literally counterproductive patent system, and it's not clear when the law will get the flood under control.BACK_TO_TOP
* FIGHT AS YOU TRAIN: The American war in Iraq remains hotly argued, but some elements of the story are fairly clear. One was the fact that the US Army was not well prepared for the kind of war the troops found themselves caught up in. According to THE ECONOMIST ("How To Do Better", 17 December 2005), the Army is working hard to adjust to the new reality.
As a prominent example, welcome to the province of Talatha, where American troops spend their days trying come to grips with Islamic terrorists and deal constructively with the local citizenry caught in the crossfire. Trying to find the province of Talatha on the map might be difficult, however, since it's not anywhere near the Middle East, instead being located in Fort Polk, Louisiana, as part of the US military's "Joint Training Readiness Center (JTRC)". As sham countries go, Talatha -- which is actually supposed to be in Afghanistan, not Iraq -- is fairly elaborate. There are 160 "hostile" troops playing as al-Qaeda and Taliban insurgents, with the al-Qaeda guerrillas operating from an off-limits territory marked with signs reading PAKISTAN, and the Taliban operating from 18 mock villages. There are 800 more role-players in Talatha, including about 200 Afghan Americans, with the rest including local Louisianans hired as peasants, plus a smattering of fake journalists, aid workers, and so on.
As the military puts it: "Train as you fight, fight as you train." It's expensive, with a month of training for a combat brigade at the JTRC running about $9 million USD. The Army is similarly building up the service's two other "Combat Training Centers (CTCs)", particularly Fort Irwin in California. Fort Irwin has long been host to desert training exercises, but in the past these were classic wargame exercises, with armies shooting and maneuvering, refighting El Alamein with new weapons and tactics. Now a dozen mock villages have been set up on Fort Irwin, with a $50 million USD mock city in the works. Two Hollywood companies are on contract to provide special effects for the training and to give role-players acting lessons.
* The Army's new approach hasn't come easily. Traditionally, the US Army's mindset might be summed up as: "Find the black hats and kick ass." That is not a particularly appropriate approach for Iraq. In April 2003, jumpy American troops fired into a crowd of protesters in Fallujah, killing and wounding dozens, with matters then escalating and leading to a violent battle over the city. More finesse is required.
The Army is a big bureaucracy and, as with all big bureaucracies, changes are necessarily slow and difficult, but the brass are exerting themselves. For example, facilities have been provided to make sure that all the troops provide inputs to the "tactics, techniques, and procedures (TPPs)" for getting the mission done, with every brigade in Afghanistan and Iraq having their own secure intranet page where they can discuss matters. A high-level "Battle Command Knowledge System" has now been implemented, in the form of a secure chat room and knowledge base that troops can use to get answers to questions. A "Center For Army Lessons Learned (CALL)" at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, has a large staff to accumulate observations and provide reports.
Critics suggest that this is all more flash than substance. As typical of bureaucracies, the military has a tendency to take the reasonable notion of "maintaining a positive attitude" to the extreme of suppressing dissent and punishing bearers of bad news -- the end result being that everyone claims things are going swimmingly when nothing much is actually getting done. American troops still remain ignorant of the cultures of their host countries, and in the hotter areas of Iraq the brute-force mentality remains in effect -- maybe necessarily, given the tactical situation.
Still, Army leadership seems committed to change. The new mindset is in much evidence at the top, with new doctrines being formulated and war colleges changing their curricula to emphasize that there is more to war than simply kicking ass. Certainly, nobody could identify a lack of determination in the massive resources being pumped into the CTCs and the Army's TPP infosystems, Whether this will be enough to help the US achieve a satisfactory resolution to the conflict in Iraq is of course impossible to say. What can be said is that part of the change in mindset is the creation of a new generation of leadership that, win or lose in Iraq, will have absorbed the lessons for the future.BACK_TO_TOP
* DELGADO'S BRAIN CHIPS (2): Jose Delgado described his experiments and ideas on brain implants in his 1969 book, PHYSICAL CONTROL OF THE MIND: TOWARDS A PSYCHOCIVILIZED SOCIETY. The book was intelligent and well received, though some were nervous with Delgado's evangelical tone when he claimed that electrical brain stimulation might be able to create a "less cruel, happier, and better man."
Public reaction became more nervous the next year, 1970, when two Harvard Medical School researchers, Frank Erwin and Vernon Mark, published a book titled VIOLENCE & THE BRAIN that made the suggestion that blacks rioting in the inner cities of America might be made docile using electrical stimulation. In 1972 Robert Heath, a psychiatrist at Tulane University who had been working on electrical brain stimulation in parallel with Delgado, discussed how he had tried to change the sexual orientation of a homosexual using the technology.
Delgado had been cautious and had never gone so far, but he was caught up in the predictable backlash. The whole concept of electrical brain stimulation was denounced by psychiatrist Peter Breggin, who claimed that the work raised the prospect of a society where nonconformists would be "surgically mutilated". In 1973, a neurophysiologist named Elliot Valenstein published a book with the subtle title of BRAIN CONTROL, which described the claims of stimulation advocates as oversold -- to the irritation of Delgado, who was always careful not to oversell his experiments in his own writings, though he had been enthusiastic about the potential of his work. The technology made its way into pop fiction, presented in a negative light by novels such as Michael Chrichton's THE TERMINAL MAN. By no coincidence, Chrichton had actually studied under Erwin as a medical student. In a bizarre but somehow unsurprising twist, complete strangers who had never had any association with Delgado claimed he had implanted devices in their heads to enslave them, one even filing a massive lawsuit against Delgado and Yale.
Delgado left the US with his wife and two children in 1974 to take a prominent position at a medical school associated with the Autonomous University of Madrid; he insisted that he left because the university offered him such a good deal, not because the barking was getting too loud in the States. Back in Spain, he worked with noninvasive schemes of brain stimulation, developing a "crown" and a helmet to do the job. He did achieve some positive results with this work, but few were paying any attention by that time. Moving to Spain had taken out of the line of fire, but it had necessarily also reduced his visibility outside of Spain. He did get some attention in the mid-1980s when OMNI magazine, a prolific source of wild speculations and dubious declarations, claimed Delgado's work might have been used by both the US and the USSR for remote brain-control experiments. Of course, the notion was a fantasy, and Delgado ridiculed it on its technical merits.
In the meantime, back in the USA, few researchers wanted to deal with the storm of controversy that electrical brain stimulation studies had provoked, and so the work faded out. Drugs seemed to be a better option at the time. Delgado retired from research in the early 1990s; he felt great satisfaction when electrical brain stimulation research began to revive in the US during that decade.
The new research has actually reached the stage of practical implementation, with over 70,000 deaf patients implanted with an "artificial cochlea" that gives them back a degree of hearing. 30,000 victims of Parkinson's Disease and related disorders have been aided by brain implants, as have about the same number of epileptics. Other work -- to find cures for the kinds of psychiatric disorders that Delgado had focused on, provide sight to the blind, give back memory to Alzheimer's patients, and allow paralytics to control machinery using brain activity -- remain experimental.
Delgado has moved back to the US, setting up a home in San Diego. His satisfaction with the revival of research into electrical brain stimulation has been tempered by the fact that few of the new generation of researchers have heard of him. He has chalked it up to simple ignorance, not any snub -- after all, he was before their time -- and his work is becoming better known in any case. Although the same worries about "mind control" have begun to arise again, Delgado retains his old enthusiasm about the potential of the technology -- as well as his cautions that it not be oversold or misused. [END OF SERIES]PREV
* THE BLIND WATCHMAKER (13): Richard Dawkins completes his argument in THE BLIND WATCHMAKER by examining the scientific alternatives to modern evolutionary theory. Of course, the leading alternative is, or at least was, Lamarckism, postulated over two centuries ago by the Chevalier de Lamarck. The idea was simple, based on the notion of "inheritance of acquired characteristics". The classic example was that of a giraffe: proto-giraffes stretched their necks to feed on higher branches of trees, passing their stretched neck on down to progeny, who stretched more, and so on until the modern giraffe came to be.
Now we know that the genome doesn't absorb such lessons from its current embodiment and then pass them down to its next embodiment. However, Lamarckism tends to persist in various ways. During Josef Stalin's reign over the USSR, a quack biologist named Trofim Davidovich Lysenko managed to get his ear.
Traditional Communism was unenthusiastic about Darwinian ideas. As has been said in a different context, Marxists prefer their theories to be deterministic, and natural selection is not. Lysenko's enemies were sent off to prison, sometimes executed, and it is generally said that he set back Soviet biology for an entire generation. Dawkins commented kindly on a Marxist colleague who asked if Lamarckism was clearly wrong. Dawkins replied that it was, and his colleague sadly accepted this, but added that it was a pity that it wasn't, since it held out hope for the perfectibility of humankind.
In fact, the only alternative to evolution by natural selection being pushed in a significant way in the modern era is, in its most general form, known as "Intelligent Design" -- the idea that the complexities of organisms can only be explained by the intervention of some "Intelligent Designer", such as powerful aliens who visited the Earth in the past or the equivalent.
In principle, advocates of Design are asking a serious question, a perfectly legitimate one that an honest person could ask, one which Dawkins wrote THE BLIND WATCHMAKER to answer: how could an undirected process like evolution account for such biological elaboration and diversity? Dawkins indeed makes a good case for his views, but it's by no means an open-and-shut one, particularly with regards to the origins of life itself. That leaves welcome space for alternate scientific theories.
The crippling flaw of Design is that while it raises a legitimate question, it gives a bogus answer, or rather no answer at all. Who were the Alien Designers? What did they do? When did they do it? It is an explanation with no details, a mechanism with no mechanics. Imagine going back to the middle of the last century to listen to James Watson and Francis Crick working on the mystery of the genome: "Francis, this whole genome business is just too hard to explain by any physical means. We obviously don't really know the principles of how it works, and critics have mocked all the theories put forth so far as completely unbelievable and laughable. I think we just ought to just concede that there's no way we'll ever understand it."
"Jimmy my boy, you're completely right. Obviously some supernatural process has to be involved. We'll have to give up on our double-helix speculations and devise a theory named Intelligent Genomics to put the whole thing to bed."
It is understandable that Design advocates find the notion of undirected evolution unsettling. However, evolutionary scientists can respond to Design advocates that it seems as least as hard to swallow that all the features accounted for by modern evolutionary theory -- the lopsided halibut, the useless rear leg bones in the tails of whales, tree kangaroos, the genomes of mitochondria, the succession of life forms in the fossil record, the patterns of distributions of families of animals, and the well-ordered DNA "tree of life" -- have no underlying rationale, that all the clues are noise, just false leads left by a prankish Alien Designer.
* It was a relief to finish outlining Richard Dawkins' THE BLIND WATCHMAKER. It was a generally fun and interesting read, but it was work that cut into time I couldn't spare that easily. THE BLIND WATCHMAKER also does have one half-exasperating, half-amusing feature, in that Dawkins is something of a stereotypical academic: a sparkling, articulate, clever writer who has done his homework, but sometimes self-superior and willing to sound off emphatically on matters great and small. In a later book, he adds a footnote to denounce the US "right-wing Moral Majority, whose ignorant and single-minded opposition to the teaching of evolution endangers educational standards in several backward North American states."
I find his annoyance understandable, having little respect for the con games of creationists myself -- but where is dry witty British understatement when we need it? Somehow Dawkins reminds me of the saying that the more times you run over a dead cat, the flatter it gets. I must acknowledge in Dawkins' defense that he can admit that he gets wound up, and he clearly realizes, no doubt from being bopped over the head with it repeatedly in the press, that he's not very diplomatic. In one chapter, he gets very hot about a member of a group of taxonomists named "cladists" who argue for legitimate if not unarguable reasons that evolutionary theory is a distraction to their work -- with this particular member going so far as to even publicly declare that it was "false". All he actually meant was that it was irrelevant to cladistic taxonomy and was being dramatic for shock effect, but of course creationists seized on the remark immediately, so thoroughly to Dawkins' totally sympathizable fury that he ended the discussion by saying: "Now I need to go dig in the yard or something."
In the end, there is the brilliant Dawkins and the opinionated Dawkins. They have a close relationship; one can appreciate the brilliant Dawkins, but the Dawkins who takes no prisoners is always going to be there alongside him. As the saying goes -- there's always a catch. [END OF SERIES]START | PREV |
* OLDTECH: According to an article in THE ECONOMIST ("Hey, Big Spender", 3 December 2005), Japan is rapidly aging. By 2015, 25% of the population will be over 65, a matter which had led to worries about where the nation's future workforce is going to come from.
There is a silver lining to an older Japanese population, in that Japanese manufacturers see it as a potential source of profit. Old folks may need some lesser or greater level of assistance around the house, and since the Japanese don't promote immigration -- bringing in low-cost household help from, say, the Philippines -- that means that technology is the most attractive solution. For example, Synclayer of Nagoya, which is focused on cable TV and datacom network technology, has developed a system in which oldsters take readings on blood pressure, temperature, and the like, which are relayed to a central hub where any anomalies will trigger an alarm. The Synclayer scheme also includes a sensor that indicates when a refrigerator door is opened, with an alarm sent when nobody opens the fridge after a period of time.
Zojirushi, Japan's biggest manufacturer of rice cookers and electric kettles, has come up with something much like the refrigerator alarm in the form of the "iPot". Japanese like to keep hot water on hand all day for coffee or tea or ramen or miso soup; the iPot logs each time hot water is dispensed, with the usage record sent to a designated email address or mobile phone. The scheme was developed in collaboration with Fujitsu and NTT DoCoMo, Japan's biggest mobile phone provider.
There's a lot of interest in robots for the elderly, and in fact old folks are already buying robots, though for the moment they're basically just glorified toys, used to provide a comforting presence around the house. The Snuggling Ifbot wears a spacesuit, can talk about the weather, and play quiz games; Primo Puel, an interactive doll that was originally designed to comfort lonely young girls, has become popular with the elderly as well. In the future, however, household robots for the aged will be able to help with simple tasks such as bathing or lifting heavy objects -- one could imagine a robot with attributes resembling those of a mini-forklift -- or to keep an eye on their masters to make sure they're still up and around. By 2015, the market for household service robots could amount to the equivalent of billions of dollars.
There is also a market for mainstream products designed specifically for the old. Japanese cellphones, designed for a notoriously gadget-happy general population, are usually full of bells and whistles -- music player and camera capability, navigation systems, and so on -- which leads to a level of complexity that can challenge even a hardcore technophile. Japan's second biggest mobile phone company, KDDI, has sold a hundred thousand subscriptions, generally to seniors, of its Tu-Ka phone service, which uses a cellphone that works like ..... an ordinary no-frills telephone.
However, old folks are a market for mainstream products as well. Japanese are not only living longer, they are healthier in their old age, and in retirement many have money and free time on their hands. That means that manufacturers can bring in money simply by advertising their products to the top age bracket. The elderly have financial clout, and Japanese businesses dare not ignore it.BACK_TO_TOP
* OLEDS ON A ROLL: As discussed by an article in AAAS SCIENCE ("Organic LEDs Look Forward To A Bright White Future" by Robert F. Service, 16 December 2005), household lighting is a major component of US energy use, accounting for about 17% of all the energy used in buildings. The classic incandescent light bulb makes inefficient use of that energy, converting only 10% of it into light. Fluorescent lights do better, providing about 70% efficiency, and semiconductor light-emitting diodes (LEDs) can do even better than that, and also provide a service life much longer than that of any bulb. However, although LEDs are now in common use in traffic lights and car taillights, they're too expensive to be used in general lighting.
Researchers from the US, Germany, and Japan are now reporting progress in fabricating LEDs with organic thin films. An organic LED (OLED) consists of an organic film sandwiched between two electrodes, with a voltage placed across the electrodes causing the thin film to glow. Semiconductor LEDs use materials that are very expensive, but the materials used to make OLEDs are in principle cheap, as well as potentially convenient for mass production. The first white-light OLEDs for general lighting are expected to hit the market in 2007.
Until recently, most of the interest in OLEDs came from display manufacturers, since the display market is twice the size of the lighting market. OLED displays are thin, making them suitable for thin display panels, and the current relatively poor efficiency and high price of OLEDs don't matter so much for displays. For general lighting, OLED cost must drop and efficiency must increase.
Junji Kido of Yamagata University in Japan reports that his lab has fabricated white-light OLEDs that have efficiencies of 57 lumens per watt, almost as efficient as fluorescents and four times as efficient as incandescents. Kido's team produced the first white OLED in 1993, with the device using a film containing red, blue, and green light-emitting compounds to produce overall white light. At first the efficiency was only 1 lumen per watt, high voltages were required, and burnouts were frequent, but Kido and other researchers have made steady progress.
One of the big improvements was a shift from fluorescent materials to phosphorescent materials in the organic thin films. When negatively-charged electrons encounter positively-charged vacancies or "holes" in an organic thin film, they form a short-lived coupling called an "exciton" that quickly decays by combining, providing either heat or a photon of light. As defined by a particle property know as "quantum mechanical spin", excitons can exist in either a "singlet" state (25% of the time) or a "triplet" state (75% of the time). The precise details are not important here; the important issue is that fluorescent materials can only convert singlet excitons into light, with all the triplet excitons converted into heat. Phosphorescent materials, in contrast, can convert both singlet and triplet excitons into light. Kido's team used an ingenious arrangement of phosphorescent materials to achieve high efficiencies.
Stephen Forrest of Princeton University in the US thinks he has a better idea. Actually, it's not so much true that phosphorescent materials can convert both singlet and triplet excitons to photons; they actually only convert triplet excitons to photons, but also transform singlets to triplets before doing so. This indirect step has a cost in efficiency. Forrest's team has worked with a different scheme, in which singlet excitons are used to generate blue light, while the lower-powered triplet excitons are used to generate red and green light. They were able to segregate the two because singlet excitons decay quickly after being created in a thin film, while triplet excitons take longer to decay and can travel farther into the thin film. The blue fluorescent material was placed in the middle of the thin film, where the excitons arise, with the singlets decaying quickly in that layer while the triplets migrated to the red and green layers on each side.
Both Kido and Forrest think they can increase efficiency further by applying an antireflective coating to the outside of the glass that covers the OLED. Photons reflected by the glass end up back in the organic layer and are usually converted into heat. Kido's white OLED only had an efficiency of 36 lumens per watt before an antireflective coating was added.
The current progress is very encouraging, but there are some who wonder if OLED displays will be cheap and reliable enough to be useful for general lighting. However, Kido is working with a group of Japanese companies to commercialize large white OLEDs. The group has already fabricated 30 x 30 centimeter panels and hopes to have product on the market in two years.
The only problem with the high-efficiency OLEDs being developed by Kido and Forrest is that fabrication is complicated, requiring the deposition of up to ten layers to make the organic thin film. Other research groups have focused on single-layer thin films, but so far they aren't more efficient than incandescent light bulbs. However, progress is expected along this line as well. The day when the light bulb is as old-fashioned as buggy whips and slide rules may not be too far off in the future.BACK_TO_TOP
* CLICK FRAUD RAMPANT; According to a WIRED Online article ("How Click Fraud Could Swallow The Internet" by Charles C. Mann"), the development of "pay per click (PPC)" Internet advertising -- in which a website owner is paid whenever a user clicks on an ad on the website -- is now under attack from widespread "click fraud".
In 2002, Stuart Cauff set up a charter-jet service in Miami, Florida, advertising as "JetNetwork" on the Web. Charter jets are not something that have a mass market, and reaching the diverse and thinly-spread groups that need JetNetwork's services would have been difficult using traditional advertising channels. On the Web, a Google query for "charter jet Miami" quickly leads a prospective client to JetNetwork. PPC advertising on the Web seemed to be the ideal solution. There was, unfortunately, a pitfall, which Cauff discovered when he found out that about 40% of his clicks were from a single Internet address. It turned out to be run by a New York City competitor who was trying to burn up JetNetwork's advertising budget.
Cauff was being victimized by a crude "click fraud" scam; there are others. Website owners generally run banner ads provided by an ad service, most significantly Google's Adsense program. The ad service's systems scan the website page content and assign the most appropriate ads from their advertising client pool to the website, with the website owner being paid on a PPC basis. Of course, website owners are then confronted with the temptation to artificially increase clicks to the banner ads on their own websites. Website owners may also try to artificially increase clicks to their site in order to improve their search-engine ranking.
Another ingenious variation on click fraud is "impression fraud". The banner ads placed on website pages are swapped out if the page is loaded many times but nobody clicks on the ad, and so some companies repeatedly load pages where the banner ads of a competitor appear, making the ads then disappear. Yet another trick is the "splog" or "spam blog", a blog that steals material from legitimate mainstream blogs to generate banner ad revenue -- a scam that hits website owners instead of advertisers.
Internet advertising is now becoming a multibillion dollar industry. Click fraud is threatening the structure. Nobody knows right now how many clicks are fakes, with estimates running from 10% to 50%. A number of Internet firms were set up in India to provide click fraud for hire, with marginally employed people hammering on banner ads all day long. The TIMES OF INDIA blew the whistle on these operations in 2004, and they then effectively disappeared, unable to reach clients without being detected by the law.
Google, Yahoo, and other major search-engine firms offering PPC advertising programs have been trying to figure out ways to deal with the threat, but the click fraud scammers are becoming more sophisticated. Cauff's JetNetwork site was being hammered from a single Internet address, which made click fraud obvious. Now click fraud scammers are disguising the source of the fake clicks, using software to spoof queries for the address of the click. Website owners who trace back such referrals from their usage logs only get a "404" -- site not found. Networks of "zombiebots" -- virus-infected PCs that can be controlled by the virus writer -- may be used to perform massive click fraud campaigns. In response, outfits like Yahoo have been building click fraud filters that analyze click inputs to find patterns suggesting click fraud, though unsurprisingly they don't discuss the techniques they are using. Any clicks determined to be phonies are not charged to the advertiser. Companies have sprung up offering analysis services and software to fight click fraud.
Bill Gross, who invented PPC in the late 1990s when he ran the IdeaLab company, thinks PPC is doomed. The ultimate solution will be what he calls "cost per action (CPA)", in which the website owner only gets paid if somebody actually "bites" on the ad -- signing up on a mailing list, joining a forum, or buying a product -- instead of simply clicking on the ad. People are experimenting with the notion, but there are obstacles to the idea, since it requires that the ad service know about the revenues and pricing of their advertisers, who don't like to hand out information like that to third parties if they don't have to. Few are ready to give up on PPC just yet and that means staying in the fray.
At present, PPC attacks are focused on specific advertisers and websites, but there are worries that somebody might try to attack the entire PPC system, setting up a zombinet that scans the Web, clicking on every Adsense ad that it finds. It's not easy to think of what profit there might be in doing such a thing, but there are at least a few people out there who would do it just for the fun of trashing the entire PPC system.
* ED: Every now and then I get a spam from somebody offering to improve my search engine ranking. I wondered what they were proposing for a good long time, but then I realized: They're click fraud scammers. I found the idea annoying on principle, and also annoying because most of the major documents on my site come up at least on the first page of a Google search, and it's not unusual to find them at the top.
It's not so hard to get a high ranking sometimes, actually. Try Googling "radar technology" and this site's INTRODUCTION TO RADAR TECHNOLOGY comes up first in the list. This is for the completely obvious reason that there aren't any other serious radar tutorials on the Web. Who in his right mind would do that kind of work and then just give it away? I ask myself this at times.BACK_TO_TOP
* DELGADO'S BRAIN CHIPS (1): As discussed by an article in SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN ("The Forgotten Era Of Brain Chips" by John Horgan, October 2005), during the early 1970s, a professor of physiology at Yale University named Jose Manuel Rodriquez Delgado acquired both fame and infamy for his controversial experiments, which involved control of the brain using electrical stimulation. Much was made of the concept at the time, but the public's attention span tends to be short and Delgado's 15 minutes of fame passed.
Delgado was, however, a pioneer in "brain chip" technology, which is now in use, or being tested for use, to treat a wide range of neurological disorders such as epilepsy, paralysis, blindness, and Parkinson's disease. Delgado's work helped pave the way for brain chips; in fact, he performed experiments that were in some cases much more bold than anything being done today.
* Delgado was born in Ronda, Spain, in 1915, the son of an ophthalmologist, and obtained a medical degree from the University of Madrid in the 1930s. He served as a medic in the Leftist Republican army during the Spanish Civil War; the Republicans were crushed by General Franco's Rightist Nationalists and Delgado was held in a concentration camp for a few months, to finally be released and return to his medical studies.
Delgado had originally wanted to be an ophthalmologist like his father, but his research led him to become more interested in the workings of the brain, the operation of which was then, and still very much remains, mysterious. He was particularly interested in the work of a Swiss physiologist named Walter Rudolf Hess, who in the 1920s began experiments in which he showed that he could implant wires in the brains of cats and provoke behaviors such as sleep, hunger, or anger by stimulating the appropriate parts of the brain.
In 1946, Delgado received a fellowship to go to Yale University in the US. He ended up staying, joining the physiology department in 1950. It was then run by John Fulton, who in 1935 had given a talk in London describing how he had rendered a violent chimpanzee docile by performing surgery on the beast's prefrontal brain lobes. In attendance was a Portuguese psychiatrist named Egas Monitz, who was so taken with the idea that he began performing lobotomies on psychotic human patients. After Monitz won the Nobel prize in 1949 -- sharing it with Walter Rudolf Hess -- the procedure became popular.
The idea of the lobotomy was not popular with Delgado, who called the procedure "horrendous". He believed that electrical stimulation could get the same results without mutilating patients. His early experiments involved subject wired to a test fixture, but that eliminated the subject's mobility and also led to infections. Delgado came up with fully implantable stimulator modules, the size of a big coin, that were operated by radio. In fact, Delgado was technically clever, and also invented a prototype cardiac pacemaker, plus a radio-controlled drug delivery implant that he called a "chemitrode".
Delgado published his first formal paper on brain stimulation via implants in 1952. Over the next two decades, he installed implants on 25 human patients, residents of a mental hospital in Rhode Island whose afflictions defied all other treatments. He determined the proper placement of the electrodes using data from animal experiments, studies of brain-damaged patients, and the work of a Canadian neurosurgeon named Wilder Penfield. Beginning in the 1930s, Penfield had performed brain surgery on epileptics, using electrodes to stimulate the brain of a patient to give a guide as to where to start.
Delgado found that electrical stimulation could make patients abruptly fly into rages, be overwhelmed by terror, start laughing uncontrollably, begin talking incessantly, or induce a state of euphoria. Inducing euphoria seemed like a very promising approach to treatment of depression, but Delgado never felt that his implants were ready for use as a formal treatment. The effects of an implant were difficult to predict and could be inconsistent in operation, and so he limited his experiments on humans.
He performed more drastic experiments on animals. In one study, he wired an aggressive male macaque monkey with an implant that rendered it docile. He put a lever controlling the implant in the macaque cage, and a female macaque soon learned that she could use the lever to protect herself when the male became hostile. In 1963, in his most famous experiment, he put an implant into a bull that similarly rendered it docile; the experiment made front-page news.
Delgado himself believed that an experiment on a female chimp named Paddy was more significant. Her implant was designed to pick up a certain type of brain activity -- known as "spindles" -- and cause pain when it occurred. Within six days, the spindles dropped by 99%. Although Delgado noted that Paddy became listless, he still felt that the scheme might be useful for treating epilepsy or other chronic neurological conditions.
The US military provided some financial support for Delgado's work, but he insisted that all his work was basic research and military applications were never specifically considered. He also denied that any funding was provided by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), though the CIA was known to have invested in some "blue sky" research projects, some of them pretty wild. He always dismissed any notions that brain implants could be used to turn people into robotlike assassins; electrical brain stimulation was able to provoke a wide range of moods, some of them violent, but other than that the procedure offered no specific control over the behavior of a patient. It was like an automotive remote control that might cause a car to stop or crash, but couldn't drive it anywhere. [TO BE CONTINUED]NEXT
* THE BLIND WATCHMAKER (12): Another theory about origins in some circulation is the idea that life started someplace else other than Earth and was transplanted here. The idea is far from new, having been put forward by the great Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius early the 20th century, but it was generally a sci-fi concept until the 1980s.
The item that advanced the "extraterrestrial origins" theory was the analysis of strange meteorites known as "SNCs", the acronym standing for the three locations where they were found -- Chassigny in France (1815), Nakhla in Egypt (1911), and Shergotty in India (1865). The "snicks" had strange compositions, with a high proportion of volatiles and (as was found once chemical isotopes were understood) odd oxygen isotope ratios. In particular, they were made up of igneous -- volcanic -- rock. Most meteorites come from asteroids and comets, which don't have volcanoes. Volcanoes are associated with planets.
In the early 1980s, radioactive dating showed the SNCs ranged from 180 million to 1.3 billion years old. Asteroids and comets, in contrast, date from the origin of the solar system and are about 4.6 billion years old. This led to the idea that the SNCs were fragments of some other planet, Mars being the prime suspect, ejected into space by meteorite impacts and then swept up by the Earth. An analysis of gases in a bubble inside a SNC showed that the gas composition matched that of the atmosphere of Mars, and the idea that the SNCs were from Mars became generally accepted.
A few years later meteorites were recovered from the ice sheets around the Allan Hills in Antarctica. One, designated ALH84001 -- the "ALH" standing for "Allan Hills" -- proved to be a Mars meteorite under inspection by researchers at the US National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA). Further careful analysis of isotopes embedded in its surface layer showed that it had been in space for about 16 million years; and the decay of these isotopes from the time ALH84001 fell to Earth and stopped being bathed in cosmic radiation meant it had been lying on the Antarctic ice for about 16,000 years.
It was the next stage of analysis that was interesting. Close inspection showed that ALH84001 contained tiny blobs of carbonate materials that contained hydrocarbons, along with what looked like sausage-shaped fossils. The evidence suggested that ALH84001 contained evidence of Martian bacteria. A public announcement was made by NASA in 1996, though the researchers were careful to say that the evidence was merely suggestive and did not remotely amount to proof. There was considerable excitement over the announcement, but many rebuttals followed, and these days only a minority seems to be persuaded.
Still, the idea that there might have been bacteria on Mars in the distant past remains intriguing. If life did arise there, it may persist deep underground even now. NASA's two Viking Mars landers of the 1970s did perform searches for life using a set of instruments that actually gave positive indications, but the conclusion of the research teams for the instrument was that the positive results were simply due to unusual chemical activity of Martian soil, as observed in control experiments performed by the two landers.
The concept that life might be found on Mars is a prod to further exploration of the planet. What we do know about the planet at this time makes it certain that in the distant past Mars, now dry and covered with a thin atmosphere, had plenty of water and a thick atmosphere, possibly making it a fine place for life to start. If Martian microbes are indeed found by Mars explorers and if these microbes prove to be completely unrelated to Earth microbes, that would be powerful evidence that the spontaneous origin of life on Earth wasn't a massive fluke.
Incidentally, few think that Martian microbes might be dangerous to Earth life: pathogens are generally adapted to infecting specific hosts, interacting with host biosystems and evading host defenses, and Martian microbes simply wouldn't know what to make of Earth creatures. Samples will of course be strictly quarantined, but mostly to make sure they aren't contaminated by Earth microorganisms and so rendered useless. Reassuring the public would also be an important motive.
However, what if Martian microbes resemble Earth microbes? Then that opens the possibility that life arose on Mars and then "infected" the Earth. Bacteria can form spores that can sit in suspended animation almost indefinitely, and if the spores are buried in a chunk of rock they would be protected from space radiation. Of course, this works both ways: if meteorites from Mars landed on Earth, then meteorites from Earth might have landed on Mars and "infected" the planet to begin with.
* Others have suggested that comets, which are full of organic materials, might have been a good breeding ground for life, and helped seed the Earth and possibly Mars. Fred Hoyle was a particular advocate for this idea. However, all this remains speculation, and certainly sidesteps the vital question of how the engine got running in the first place. We're making progress, but we're not quite there yet. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT
* TSUNAMI ALERT SYSTEM: A BBC WORLD Online report discussed the efforts to set up a tsunami alert system in the Indian Ocean regions that were devastated a year ago. The network is being assembled by an international collaboration under the direction of the UN. It uses a variety of sensors. Seismometers will pick up earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, but since many such events don't cause tsunamis, seismometers by themselves give a high rate of false alarms. As a result, the seismometers are backed up by undersea pressure gauges and seacoast tidal gauges.
As discussed here in November, the pressure gauges measure wave height from the weight of water above, relaying data periodically to network control centers through a buoy via a communications satellite. Germany and Indonesia are setting up a string of ten such stations as elements of the "Deep-Ocean Assessment & Reporting of Tsunami (DART)" system. India, Thailand, and Australia are working to set up a further network of DART stations along the Sunda Trench, where the tsunami originated.
Since the DART stations are far out to sea, they can give plenty of advance warning of a tsunami, but they are expensive. UNESCO's Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) is working on a complementary network of coastal tidal gauges as the "Global Sea Level Observing System (GLOSS)". Some of the gauges simply use a scheme of tubes and floats to read the sea level, while others use radar or sonar, and still others use shallow-water pressure gauges.
GLOSS stations were actually sited in the Indian Ocean before the tsunami, with about 70 in place there at present. They were originally used simply to monitor sea level for long-term studies and only provided updates on long intervals. Now they are being upgraded to higher sampling rates, with the data relayed by satellite to the network control centers. They are also being fitted with solar panels to ensure a reliable power supply. 23 stations should be updated by the middle of 2006, with the rest following over the next few years.
The sensors are only half the battle; the other half is to get a tsunami warning to the people. The 27 nations bordering the Indian Ocean have been setting up individual warning programs, but they have been squabbling over which nations will host the network alert stations. Thailand, India, and Indonesia are building their own national systems, while Australia, Malaysia, and Singapore are in the planning stage to do so.
Thailand has opened a disaster warning center that receives alerts from Japan and Hawaii. The Thais are setting up 76 siren towers and recently conducted a tsunami emergency alert exercise. India has set up an alert center, which monitors seismographs and 11 tide gauges, and plans to have a fully functional system in two years. The UN is working with other countries on public education and training of emergency officials. The UN's Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning System group is also promoting mapping efforts to determine which coastal regions are most at risk and where locals can run to for safety.
* SMARTWRAP: POPULAR SCIENCE magazine, that amusing source of technofluff, ran a set of little articles on "beyond leading edge" technologies in the June 2005 issue. One of the articles, "Little Plastic Houses For You And Me", was downright fascinating. Two Philadelphia architects, Stephen Kieran and James Timberlake, have come with a scheme for "smart walls" that they call "SmartWrap". A house built with SmartWrap would be solar-powered, energy efficient, and highly programmable in appearance, able to change colors or create windows in any place as desired. The SmartWrap wall is built in layers:
This idea is certainly sexy, but though it's technically plausible, it's clearly not something that's going happen any time soon. That's OK; the set of articles was explicitly "beyond the horizon", and who knows? Maybe it will happen faster than anyone suspects.BACK_TO_TOP
* LIABILITY TANGLE: One of the major pressures towards tort (civil lawsuit) reform in the US is the way medical malpractice suits have made medical costs skyrocket. An article in THE ECONOMIST ("Scalpel, Scissors, Lawyers", 17 December 2005), outlines of the situation.
Nobody disputes that a patient who has been injured by medical incompetence has a legal right to seek compensation, but the downsides of the current American system are obvious. Trial lawyers claim that malpractice suits keep doctors honest; that may be true, but it also makes them determined to play it safe. An obstetrician named Craig Dickman said that he will order every possibly relevant test for a patient, even ones that are arguably worthless, since a trial lawyer could use the failure to perform a test as a basis for a lawsuit. Dickman estimated that up to 15% of the tests performed on patients in the US are not needed. Due to lawsuits that claimed that a failure to deliver babies by caesarian section resulted in the babies developing cerebral palsy, a notion with no strong medical support, obstetricians will often perform c-sections when they aren't needed. Despite the fact that the number of c-sections has increased by a factor of five, the rate of infantile cerebral palsy is the same as it was before.
Obstetricians are unusually vulnerable to malpractice suits, since they work with patients who are normally healthy; patients who are ill when they come in the door are less likely to sue. Even if the doctor wins the case, it still costs time and money; and when the doctor loses, it costs a lot more money, with jury trials awarding an average of $4.7 million USD in damages to plaintiffs. The result is that medical malpractice insurance rates are astronomical; in the state of Maryland, insurance runs to $118,000 USD a year. It is worse in some other states; to no surprise, doctors have shown a strong tendency to pack up their practice in punitive states and take it elsewhere.
Since 1975, the cost of medical malpractice lawsuits has risen 2,000%, to $26.5 billion USD. A study of malpractice suits in New York state by the Harvard Medical Practice Group found that only about 17% of the suits involved any real negligence on the part of doctors. Patients with small claims can't get a lawyer to help them, while patients with big claims may find the lawyers get up to half of the award.
In the early 1990s, health maintenance organizations (HMOs) tried to cut costs by being conservative on treatments, focusing on those that were known to be cost-effective. After being sued, they gave up trying to economize and simply passed the costs on to the consumer. Americans end up paying twice as much per head for health care as do other rich countries, and medical costs are a major drain on the international competitiveness of American industry. The US medical business swallows up 15% of American GDP, $1.6 trillion USD in 2003. While malpractice suits aren't responsible for all the high cost, they clearly make up a good part of it.
* What can be done? Although soaring health costs hurt poor Americans the worst, Democrats aren't enthusiastic about medical tort reform, since trial lawyers provide generous party support. Republicans, who are supported by insurers and hospitals, are left to lead the charge. During 2005, the US Congress did manage to pass a bill that forced big class-action suits to go through Federal courts, preventing lawyers from hunting around for friendly local courts and placing the decision in the hands of a Federal judge, not a jury. This is likely to help big drug firms over the long run.
Medical malpractice suits against doctors do not involve class-action suits and so are another matter. Maryland's state government has tried to help stop the flow of doctors out of state by partly subsidizing their insurance payments, but few could think this is a satisfactory solution. Philip Howard of Common Good, a group that lobbies for legal reform, thinks the answer is the specialist medical court. In this scenario, medical malpractice suits won't go to a jury trial, instead being handled directly by a judge. The judge would be a specialist in such cases and able to call his or her own expert witnesses as needed. Non-economic compensation for "pain and suffering" would be by a fixed schedule -- so much for loss of an arm, so much for blindness, and so on.
The concept sounds more radical than it is; patent disputes and bankruptcies are already handled in much this way. A lawyer's advocacy group calls the notion "horrific" -- a word which others might apply to the current system. The idea is starting to work its way through the US Senate.
* VACCINE WARS: As discussed here in November, the Bush II Administration has begun an initiative to provide defense against the H5N1 bird flu, with the program including production of vaccines. The article wondered what was going to be done about the liability issue: vaccines have a certain probability of causing big troubles for a small number of subjects, and fear of litigation is a major reason for why US pharmaceutical firms haven't invested much in the way of resources in vaccine production. If the US government wants to encourage vaccine production, the pharmaceutical companies are going to need legal protection.
Something is being done about the liability issue, or at least there's motion in Congress over the matter. According to an article in BUSINESS WEEK ("The Sickening Politics Of Vaccine Legislation" by Richard S. Dunham and John Carey, 5 December 2005), an earnest political tug of war is now in progress on vaccine liability. On one side of the rope are trial lawyers and Democratic Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts. On the other side are the pharmaceutical companies; the Senate Majority Leader, Republican Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee; and two Republican senators, Richard Burr of North Carolina and Judd Gregg of New Hampshire.
Senator Kennedy and the trial lawyers are not against government protection of the pharmaceutical companies, but they take an expansive vision of that protection, saying that the government should provide full compensation for anyone harmed by the vaccines. Senator Frist has pointed out this would be impractical, leaving the government liable for up to trillions of dollars in claims. Senators Burr and Gregg are promoting a bill that would set up a compensation program under the direction of the Department of Health & Human Services.
Details of this compensation program remain undefined, one Republican staffer saying: "We just don't have enough information to set one up now." Trial lawyers and their political allies are contemptuous of the idea, feeling it's an attempt to sell them a cat in a sack. Public health officials are trying to take a middle road, asserting that the government really needs to push vaccine production to ensure public safety, while cautioning that the effort should be backed up by a reasonable if not extravagant compensation program to help those who are inevitably going to be hurt.
A compromise of sorts will likely be worked out. Backers of the Burr-Gregg approach are trying to attach it as a rider to a bill that will be appealing to moderate Democrats, particularly prominent New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. The whole matter brings up the saying that everyone is better off for not knowing how sausages and laws are made -- but would it have ever been anything else?BACK_TO_TOP
* GIFT CARD SCAMS: Gift cards are a tidy invention, a shrewd if somewhat impersonal gift. No more worry about what to get someone; give them something that can be turned into anything that's desired. Retailers like them too, since a store can take in money without actually shipping any product for the moment. Sales of gift cards in the US ran to an estimated $19 billion USD in 2005, a big business by anyone's standards.
With all that money involved, as reported by BUSINESS WEEK (5 December 2005, "To Scammers They're Grift Cards"), it's not surprising that scammers are starting to target gift cards. Gift cards really amount to nothing but a medium carrying a serial number and an associated barcode. The cards are usually just set up on a display in a store where anyone can pick one up. They're so easily pocketed that they can be stolen with little difficulty, but they have no value until purchased. Once purchased, the retailer sets up a cash account on their own system that tracks purchases using the card, with no concern for who actually is carrying the card.
Scamming gift cards is simple. The scammer gets the serial number from the card -- either by temporarily "borrowing" the card from the display or simply imaging the serial number -- and then makes queries to the retailer's online gift card system to see when the card is activated. The scammer then uses the serial number online to clean out the card account. The problem is not widespread at the present time, but the US National Retailer's Federation has formed a committee to investigate the matter and recommend countermeasures. The brakes are likely to be put on this particular scam in the near future.
* REBATE HOCUS-POCUS: Rebates are popular with manufacturers of consumer products. A BUSINESS WEEK article ("The Great Rebate Runaround" by Brian Grow, 5 December 2005) explained why.
About a third of computer products are sold with mail-in rebates, as are about a fifth of digital camcorders, cameras, and LCD TVs. Roughly 400 million rebates are offered in the US each year, with a total value of $6 billion USD. The office supplies retailer Staples claims to be a conduit for $3.5 million in rebates each week.
Rebates seem like a good deal for consumers, but they turn out to be a better deal for sellers. The trick is that they allow a product to be sold at a cut-rate list price, but in the end only about 60% of rebates are redeemed. People don't get around to sending them in, or feel they're not worth the hassle; sometimes the rebates are rejected. It's free money for the seller.
To the extent this sounds like a problem, the sellers would have to reply it's the customer's problem, but critics are now zeroing in on the practice, saying the game is set up to raise obstacles to prevent customers from collecting their rebates. Filing periods may be as short as a week, the rules may be complicated, the rebates take too long to arrive -- and when they do, the envelope looks like junk mail and may end up being thrown out by accident. Industry terminology refers to failures to submit rebate forms as "breakage", while failures to cash checks are called "slippage". Companies deny there is any intent to defraud consumers, claiming in their own defense that bureaucratic obstacles arise because the companies don't want to be defrauded themselves.
Proctor & Gamble came up with the idea of product rebates in the 1970s; it exploded in the early 1990s when makers of computers and other consumer tech products got on the bandwagon. The size of rebates increased from petty sums to a hundred dollars or more. Complaints have risen in step. Defenders of the system say that the rate of complaints is low and the process is basically working.
Even ignoring suspicious practices, mail-in rebates are clumsy to administer, and some companies are moving away from them. Mail-in rebates were the number-one customer complaint at Staples for a long time, and so the company set up an online system named "EasyRebates" that makes it much simpler to file and track rebates, and also gave customers a quicker turnaround time on their rebate checks. Rebate complaints have dropped by 25%.
Regulators are now paying more attention to the rebate business. The New York state attorney general's office filed a legal complaint against Samsung when the company failed to pay rebates to apartment dwellers, Samsung saying that only one payment could be made to an address and that there was no space for an apartment number on the rebate form. To absolutely no surprise, that line of reasoning did not fly with the law -- it's startling that Samsung even tried to pull off such a stunt -- and 41 customers got a total of $200,000 USD in rebates. Connecticut authorities are investigating firms that only list prices after rebates, a practice which is illegal in that state, focusing particularly on companies that seem to deny rebates for arbitrary reasons. One Massachusetts state official concerned with rebates compares some of the schemes to the old "bait and switch" sales dodge -- in which a seller advertises a low-cost product that always ends up being out of stock, with a more expensive product sold in its place.
Regulators are now working on tightening up the rules for rebate programs, but industry has been fighting back. A bill submitted to the California state legislature that specified filing periods of at least 30 days, mailing of rebate checks within 60 days of filing, and rules for the format of paperwork was shot down by business lobbyists. It made it through the California house and senate, but was then vetoed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Rebates are not likely to go away, there being no legal basis for objecting to them in principle. Consumers might not like some of the hassles, but given the choice between a rebate and having to buy at a higher price, they'll take the rebate any day.
* ED: I haven't had much trouble with rebates myself. I like to think I never pass one up, though I suppose I might not have bothered with some of the smaller ones. Still, I would feel stupid failing to file a rebate, and I also find jumping through hoops to make a bit of money something of a fun game in itself. Sometimes the effort involved makes the payoff less than minimum wage, but it's still money I wouldn't have had otherwise. Yes, I have been accused of being tight-fisted.
As far as accusations that the rebate system incorporates an amount of deliberate crookedness, that may be so, but it is worth remembering the saying that it is unwise to attribute to malice what could just as easily be attributed to stupidity. This remark certainly applies to corporations, which tend to be clumsy bureaucracies. Unfortunately, there is a fuzzy border between malice and stupidity. Some of the bogus things that I saw when I was in the Corporation -- along the lines of the foolishness over apartment numbers that got Samsung in trouble -- were not due to any corporate policy, instead being the brainstorm of some middle management type trying to impress the brass with a higher profit margin, and becoming so totally focused on the bottom line as to be oblivious to any other consideration.
At a more general level, corporations will wise up to stupidity more quickly when it costs them something than they will when the stupidity brings in profits -- even if the money is a bit shady and may well lead to trouble, possibly disastrously big trouble, over the long run. It's easier to remain fat and dumb when you're happy.BACK_TO_TOP
* ANOTHER MONTH: Another year gone by, getting started on the new one. I packed up my plastic Christmas tree today. I always haul down the holiday decorations on 1 January as a way of getting a running start on the new year. The tree, incidentally, was of fiber-optic configuration, with a rotating color wheel in the base driving myriad stars of light out the ends of fiber-optic threads laced through the branches. It was very pretty but alas, after several years of working fine, the electrics in the thing decided to call it quits in mid-December. The motor appears to have been the weak link. I shrugged; I still had old strings of Christmas lights around and strewed them around the tree. Looked fine.
It did seem a little bare, so I went to the neighborhood K-Mart and picked up some globe-type ornaments -- they were cut-price, since the selling period for holiday ornaments was fading out. I found the ornaments very interesting. Holiday decorations are as a rule about as low-budget as anything comes, but these little shiny globes were labeled as unbreakable. When I got home, I took the ugliest one and tried bouncing it off the floor, even tossing it down hard. It wasn't even chipped, a far cry from traditional glass ornaments that would break if I simply stared at them hard enough.
The new ornaments appear to be some sort of metalized plastic. One of the signs of real advance in technology is not the introduction of bleeding-edge whizzy high-budget items, but the emergence of improved products at the bottom of the pyramid. After all, if the new ornaments hadn't been at least as cheap to manufacture as the old, we'd still be buying the old breakable ones. Now to go on to Christmas lights using LEDs instead of fragile and power-hungry incandescent lamps -- LED decorations are around a bit but haven't displaced the brighter lamps yet -- and even, I should hope, fiber optic trees driven by electronics, with cycling LED arrays instead of motors that break down after a few years.
* I spent a lot of time cooking up drawings this month, but managed to get the time go down to Denver International Airport (DIA) on 23 December to do some "planespotting" with my Nikon Coolpix 8800 10x zoom camera. There's always a fair amount of flight traffic at DIA, but it's usually the same sorts of aircraft over and over again. There's only so many pictures I can take of United Boeing 737-300s before it gets old, though there is a bit of a knack to getting good pictures of aircraft in flight and the practice is useful. If I go to an airshow and shoot the Blue Angels or Snowbirds, I have to get it right the first time, since they won't be there the next day.
Still, I figured with the holidays, I might see some aircraft I hadn't seen before. What I didn't figure on was ground traffic congestion and security being unusually jumpy. I never stray past any NO TRESPASSING signs and security usually is tolerant of planespotters, but they were edgier with so many people coming and going.
The drive did pay off, since near the air freighter unloading area I found a Russian Antonov An-124 sitting on the tarmac. If you're not familiar with this aircraft, it's the biggest full-production cargolifter in the world, literally big enough to drive a couple of buses into. I was thoroughly surprised to see it; later reference to the Web suggested that it was there to haul an Atlas booster from the Lockheed Martin plant south of Denver to Cape Canaveral, An-124s having done so several times before. Things change. Incidentally, in a further irony, modern Atlas boosters use Russian main engines.
I got some very nice pix of the An-124 for my article on the type, but that meant overhauling the article and adding drawings as well. I was surprised I managed to get it all done -- and then, not able to leave well enough alone, on 31 December I knocked out two more simple drawings that I couldn't pass up: "Oh, they won't take any time." I'm obsessive. I admit it. It's a curse.BACK_TO_TOP