* 21 entries including: communications infrastructure, THE MAKING OF THE FITTEST, voice input on the rise, Estonian oil shale, Swiss bomb shelters, smarter radiation therapy against cancer, Google bashing, Frananglais in Cameroons, reviving the 1918 flu, counterfeiting holographic seals, gift card scams revisited, Moscow casinos, indirect tests for drugs, and eyeglasses for poor countries.
* INFRASTRUCTURE -- COMMUNICATIONS (9): Before moving on from the subject of communications, it's worthwhile to discuss some specialized communications systems.
Fire alarm systems are actually one of the oldest electrical communications schemes, almost as old as the telegraph. One of the first was put up in Boston in 1852. It consisted of alarm boxes that would ring a bell at a local fire station. Of course, the firemen had to be able to identify which box tripped the alarm; the most obvious scheme would have been to use a board of bells, each connected to an individual alarm -- but all that wiring would have been expensive.
The actual solution was clever, evidence that though our ancestors didn't have the body of technology we have to fall back on, they were still technically ingenious. Boxes were wired in series on the same line pair, with the switch in each box in a "normally closed" configuration. That meant that current was normally flowing in the series line, holding off the ringing of a bell activated by a different circuit. This ensured that a failure of the circuit would set off the bell, ensuring that the system was relatively "fail safe".
The switch in each of the boxes was activated by a spring-driven wheel with notches in it, with the pattern of notches being distinctive to each box. A wheel for box 312 might have three notches, a space, a notch, a space, and two notches, causing the ring pattern to sound off as: DING DING DING ... DING ... DING DING. Of course, if two alarms were pulled at the same time, they would garble each other.
These days, although buildings have fire alarm systems, municipal fire alarm systems are generally obsolete. The phone system is so pervasive that calling 911 does the job just as well. Some alarm systems that linger may be wired into the landline phone system or a wireless network, sending an alarm to a computer server that passes on the emergency to the appropriate responders.
* Those of us who grew up in the USA during the height of the Cold War also recall another specified form of communications, the alert siren, which in principle was to pass out warning of an attack. They were tested once a week at a scheduled time. The sirens either consisted of a spinning disk or cylinder with a pattern of holes driven by a blower, or a stack of vibrating diaphragms.
Some of the old US Civil Defense System sirens linger, rusting away. Sirens are still in first-line use in regions prone to natural disasters such as tornadoes or hurricanes. After disastrous tsunamis in the Indian Ocean a few years back, a warning network based on seafloor sensors and buoys was set up that trips off sirens to tell citizens of coastal villages to head for the hills. [END OF SET 7]START | PREV | NEXT
* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: MIT TECHNOLOGYREVIEW.com featured an article that reported how researchers at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), have built a demonstrator solar-energy system to convert carbon dioxide into oxygen and carbon monoxide. The carbon monoxide could then be converted into ethanol or other organic feedstocks for fuels or plastics. In the prototype, sunlight shines through carbon dioxide dissolved in a solution before being absorbed by a semiconductor cathode, which converts photons into electrons. Aided by a catalyst, the electrons react with carbon dioxide to form carbon monoxide at the electrode. At the anode, which is plated with platinum catalyst, water is converted into oxygen.
To make a fuel, the carbon monoxide can be combined with hydrogen to create syngas in a well-known catalytic technology called the Fisher-Tropsch process, which has been widely used to make diesel oil from coal. The UCSD system is strictly a proof-of-concept demonstrator -- it requires a bit of electricity to work -- and nobody has any estimate for how efficient or cost-effective it would be in production. However, not only is the idea of soaking up atmospheric carbon dioxide to make fuels very attractive, but the scheme also gets around the classic problem of the fact that solar power only works in sunlight and requires energy storage at night: store the energy as a fuel.
* BUSINESS WEEK reported on a interested gimmick named "On Time", produced by a California company named Securus. It's a box fitted to a car to ensure that the buyer keeps up payments: it starts flashing a light three days before the payment is due, activates a beeper on the day the payment is due, and after that shuts down the car. The dealership can provide an emergency code to get the driver home if necessary. The On Time box is apparently popular with used-car dealers, and the dealers report they have much lower delinquency rates with vehicles sold with the box. I imagine that the buyer feels a certain sense of relief when after the last payment and the box is finally yanked.
* China carries a quarter of the world's train traffic on all of 6% of the world's track, so not surprisingly upgrading the rail system is a high priority. This spring China introduced the very first of 280 high-speed "bullet trains", with the "China Railway High-Speed (CRH)" machines capable of speeds of up to 250 KPH (155 MPH). They've cut the trip time from Beijing to Shanghai from 12 to 10 hours, and cut the trip time from Shanghai to Suzhou to 39 minutes, about half of what it was.
Introduction of the service has not been entirely smooth, with complaints of steep ticket price rises along some routes and, of course, a "rough element" among the passengers. There's also complaints that, despite major investments in track upgrade, there's only about 6,000 kilometers (3,750 miles) of track where the trains can cruise at high speed, though the railway ministry says the amount of high-speed track should double by 2020.BACK_TO_TOP
* I HEAR YOU TALKING: Voice recognition has been a "technology of the future" for a long time now, and has seemed doomed to stay that way. However, as reported in THE ECONOMIST ("Are You Talking To Me?", 9 June 2007), the technology now appears poised to enter the mainstream.
One of the drivers for the emergence of the technology is the mobile telephone. Cellphones are stuck with a tiny keyboard but by definition have a voice interface, making voice input technology a natural fit. Microsoft recently bought out Tellme Networks, a startup that has developed "mobile search" software to allow cellphone and pocket computer users to search the internet using voice commands. Says an industry observer: "The appeal of speech is to flatten menus and to handle names that don't lend themselves to a ten-digit keypad." Google has similarly launched an experimental service named 1-800-GOOG-411 that provides voice-driven search to find local business services.
Use of voice recognition is also catching on in cars and call center systems. The market is worth about a billion USD now and is expected to triple in value by 2010. Improved technology has been one of the keys in bringing voice recognition out of the lab. The task has been simplified by focusing on sets of keywords instead of trying to take dictation; it is good enough for many applications to be able to recognize a set of keywords or a list of address-book entries. Vocera in Cupertino, California makes a "Star Trek" style communications badge that hospitals use to link up hospital staff: a doctor simply says "call" or "find" and then adds a name. More powerful chips can enhance the capability of a cellphone to understand its user's voice; but processing can also be offloaded. The Vocera badges use a central server to do most of the heavy lifting.
Businesses are finding that voice recognition can cut costs and improve customer satisfaction. Lloyds TSB, a British bank, now handles its yearly load of 70 million calls with a voice recognition system provided by a startup named Nuance and Canadian telecom firm Nortel. Says a bank official: "PRESS ONE FOR THIS AND TWO FOR THAT is not that customer-friendly." She added that the voice recognition system is easier to use and more efficient, allowing the firm to close one of its 11 staffed call centers.
Other emerging applications for voice recognition include scanning through phone records to obtain customer satisfaction survey data; scanning through podcasts to pick out segments of specific interest to a particular listener; and allowing drivers to control the systems of high-end vehicles -- luxury cars now generally offer voice-recognition systems. The US military is into voice recognition as well, having fielded a laptop PC system that provides voice translation from English to Arabic, and a similar handheld system from a startup named VoxTec that does the same sort of job with a set of about a thousand predefined phrases. It is interesting to speculate that law-enforcement and intelligence services are also using voice recognition to scan calls, but if so they're not talking about it much.
Voice recognition has come a long way, but still faces challenges. One is the issue of developing a sensible usage model, always a difficulty with a new technology. A VoxTec official says he has a Honda minivan that can understand hundreds of verbal commands; it is nice to be able to ask the navigation system to locate nearby hospitals, but bothersome to ask it to raise the volume of the radio when it's easier to turn a knob. There is also the fact that the long bad history of voice recognition technology has left both customers and venture capitalists sensibly hesitant to jump on board. This time, however, the advocates of voice recognition technology think they've got something that really works and can overcome the barriers to acceptance.BACK_TO_TOP
* ESTONIAN OIL SHALE: The Baltic state of Estonia, having freed itself from Soviet domination, is in a hurry to modernize, and it is now common to find internet cafes and wi-fi connections there. However, as reported in the February 2007 issue of IEEE SPECTRUM ("New Tech, Old Fuel" by Michael Dumiak), the electric power that drives all that high tech is produced by means from an earlier era.
The national fuel of Estonia is a pale brown stone known as "oil shale", or what the locals call "fire rock". It supplies at least 70% of the nation's electricity from two grim Soviet-era power plants, sited in the town of Narva, on the border with Russia. One of the plants even retains a huge hammer and sickle on its face. No other country in the world has such a dependence on oil shale.
It's a dirty source of power. Burning the shale produces about 5 million tonnes (5.5 million tons) of ash per year, with the slag piled up almost 100 meters (330 feet) tall in huge mesas. The slag is pumped to the dump using water, resulting in brilliantly blue wastewater full of heavy metals and other toxic materials held behind a dike. Burning the shale produces particulates also full of metals, as well as nitrous oxide (NOx), an air pollutant, and sulfur dioxide, which reacts with water in the air to produce sulfuric acid that falls as acid rain. The two plants also produce a disproportionate amount of carbon dioxide. Together they produce as much emissions as all of Finland's energy sector -- even though much effort has been put into cleaning them up, with the emissions being three times greater in the Soviet era.
There have been suggestions that the plants should be shut down and the power obtained from elsewhere, but plant engineers believe that they can do much more to clean up. "Fluidized-bed" boilers are now being installed, in which pulverized shale is fed into a combustor, to be blown about by air nozzles as it burns, ensuring more complete burning. The particulates going up the flue are intercepted by a cyclone centrifugal separator that dumps the ash back down into the combustor for further burning. The combustor is kept at an optimum temperature, which, along with the air jets, helps ensure efficient combustion. This makes more efficient use of the fuel, reduces ash, and reduces NOx. Precipitators take care of the particulates, while a catalytic system takes care of the sulfur dioxide.
All this improvement comes at a price, and the Estonians are not done paying yet: to meet European Union standards, they still have to deal with the ash piles and wastewater pool. However, the Estonians have proven industrious in dealing with the problem, and despite the expense would prefer make use of their own energy supplies than be dependent on energy from outsiders -- particularly the grumpy Russian Bear to the East.
* A brief article in BUSINESS WEEK also discussed another source of dirty emissions: commercial shipping. The more than 90,000 commercial vessels cruising the oceans produce more carbon dioxide than many industrialized nations -- topping the Netherlands and Spain, for example. The ships also produce a sixth of NOx emissions and more sulfur dioxide than all road traffic on the planet. One of the problems is a lack of emission regulations. In principle, such rules are generated by the United Nations International Marine Organization, but the IMU has to coordinate activities among 139 nations. However, work is being done at the IMU to come up with better standards.BACK_TO_TOP
* THE MAKING OF THE FITTEST (12): A previous installment in this series discussed immortal genes, which remain functionally the same in widely differing organisms. It turns out that there are also "fossil genes" -- genes that remain in an organism's genome even though they have been mutated into uselessness.
As mentioned in the last installment, dolphins have rhodopsins fine-tuned to short blue wavelengths. What about their opsins? It turns out that they, and in fact all the members of the whale family, can only produce the long-midwave opsin, which means that they have no color vision. Their ground-living mammalian ancestors no doubt had both the long-midwave and shortwave opsins. What happened to the shortwave opsin?
It turns out that it's still there, it's just broken. The gene is missing a few bases; this is a catastrophic error because it throws off the sequence by which the DNA sequence is read by the protein-expression system, or in other words shifts its "reading frame" and completely garbles the expression of the gene. The dolphin and its other family members all carry evidence of their ancestry from mammals with dichrome vision. Creatures who spend most of their time in the deep dark sea can do without color vision, losing it does not impose a selective disadvantage on them, and so once the gene broke, there was nothing to prevent the broken gene from propagating through the entire whale family tree.
The story gets more interesting. In 1938, a strange fish was caught in the seas off Madagascar. On examination it proved to be a "coelacanth", a fish thought extinct since the age of the dinosaurs, which ended 65 million years ago. It turns out that coelacanths are alive and well in the deep waters of the Indian Ocean. The mention of "deep waters" immediately pops the question: do coelacanths have functional shortwave vision? The answer is no, but like dolphins they do have a fossil shortwave opsin gene -- though the way in which it's disabled is different, with a single nucleotide change jamming a STOP signal into the gene, telling the protein expression system to STOP expression and shutting off the gene. Like the dolphin, the coelacanth's ancestors had the shortwave opsin, but the coelacanth has lost it. It doesn't need it in its deep-water environment, and its loss didn't do the coelacanth any harm. The evolutionary rule is simple: "Use it or lose it."
To add to the intrigue, the coelacanth doesn't even have a long-midwave opsin -- it only sees with rhodopsins. There is no recognizable remnant of the long-midwave opsin in the coelacanth's genes. It seems it was lost so long ago that mutations have completely scrambled the gene into obscurity. Eventually, mutations are likely to erase the shortwave opsin gene completely as well.
The same sort of loss of an unused function is also seen in the owl monkey, a New World monkey and the only nocturnal monkey. Its shortwave opsin gene includes a STOP-code mutation, disabling it, though the owl monkey does retain a functional long-midwave opsin gene. Similarly, among the prosimians -- the lemurs and their relatives -- the nocturnal bushbabies and slow lorises both have broken shortwave opsin genes. In this case, the gene is broken in exactly the same way in both animals, implying they were derived from a common nocturnal ancestor with the same broken gene.
The same pattern is found in the naked mole rat, a burrowing rodent that doesn't seem to have eyes. Actually it does, but they're buried under skin and fur. Their only function appears to be to determine night versus day to help the animal maintain a regular living cycle. The naked mole rat has functioning rhodopsin and long-midwave opsin genes, but once again the shortwave opsin gene is broken.
Humans have fossil genes as well. Anyone who has noticed how fascinated a dog can be about smells we can't sense has a good idea that humans have a poor sense of smell, and this is proven by the fact that about half of our genes for smell receptors are fossilized. We are very dependent on vision, so much so that loss of our ability to smell doesn't do much to compromise our ability to survive. Lemurs and New World monkeys have a good sense of smell; the trichromat Old World monkeys have lost a greater proportion of their smell receptor genes, while the apes have even more broken smell receptor genes. Humans are even worse off in this respect, having the worst sense of smell of all the primates by a good margin.
It should be noted that the basic assumption being used so far is that these fossil genes broke and, not being really needed, were not missed. This is known as "relaxed selection" -- natural selection is no longer winnowing out broken genes. However, it is also possible in some cases that natural selection could actually select against the broken gene. If a certain trait became a liability due to a change in circumstances, organisms with the broken gene would gradually displace their comrades with the active gene. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT
* INFRASTRUCTURE -- COMMUNICATIONS (8): Although almost all homes can still pick up broadcast TV, the majority also have cable or satellite TV access.
The first cable TV systems were built simply to pipe TV programming into mountain valley communities that otherwise couldn't pick up TV signals. The earliest such system was set up in Astoria, Oregon, in 1949. Today cable's available everywhere, with a network of connections meeting up at a central "head end". The head end may have satellite dishes or dedicated microwave links to pick up its programming feed.
A basic cable network consists of coaxial cable strung up on telephone poles, with "taps" to link to individual subscribers and a signal regenerator box spliced in here and there. In some locations the coax cable is "hardline", which doesn't have an external sheath, appearing as strands of aluminum among the insulated power and phone cables. Modern cable networks may also have "supertrunk" lines, using fiber optics, to distribute signals over relatively long distances to local distribution subnetworks.
Modern cable systems transmit digital signals, providing noise-free imagery. These days, cable doesn't just provide video; as mentioned in a previous installment, it is also used as a high-speed internet connection through a "cable modem" at each subscriber's home.
* Satellite TV is an outgrowth of satellite communications in general. If a satellite is placed in orbit around the Earth, the higher the orbit, the longer the satellite takes to complete an orbit. In the late 1940s, the well-known British science and science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke suggested that if a satellite were placed in orbit over the equator at an altitude of 35,820 kilometers (22,250 miles), it would orbit the Earth every 24 hours and seem to stay in one place. The orbit would have to be in the plane of the equator, otherwise the satellite would cross north and south of the equator during its orbit and seem to bob up and down in latitude. Three communications satellites or "comsats" spaced at 120 degrees in such a "geostationary" orbit would be able to relay signals to everywhere on Earth except for the polar regions.
The first geostationary satellites were put into orbit during the 1960s, and since then they have gone from strength to strength. Originally they were for telephone and video relay; however, the long distance paths of international phone calls bounced to geostationary orbit and back down to Earth again are long enough to cause a noticeable delay, and these days fiber optic cables handle most voice traffic. However, comsats are still in heavy use in applications where full two-way traffic isn't required, such as video or data transmission.
With the rise of cable TV, comsats were used to relay video streams to head ends. Some ingenious hobbyists figured out how to "hack into" the video streams with their own satellite receiver systems; in some cases they even offered to pay the cable company for the video they were receiving, but the cable company didn't know how to handle the situation. After puzzling the matter over, the industry embraced "direct to home" video and antennas began to sprout up at homes, particularly in isolated rural areas.
Early satellite TV antennas were large affairs, but by the late 1990s they had given way to the small platter-sized "pizza box" dish antennas. Such antennas are now common, each aligned to a particular comsat over the equator providing a specific video service package. Some of the dish antennas have twin feeds, allowing them to pick up a package shared over two satellites. Comsats are now also used as internet data connections. They always provide a rapid download rate and a slower upload rate, there generally being not as much need for upload "bandwidth" as for download bandwidth.
* Geostationary comsats can be and are used for mobile telephone services, but since the phones are necessarily low-power, such a comsat requires a powerful transmitter system, and a sensitive receiver system using huge unfurled antennas. During the 1990s there was a big push towards "low Earth orbit (LEO)" mobile communications systems, particularly the Iridium system pushed by Motorola. Iridium was described as a "cellphone network in the sky", with the low-orbit satellites providing "cells" that moved overhead.
The business model behind Iridium was dodgy -- subscriptions cost too much, the handset was clunky, few potential users needed global reach -- and though the satellite constellation was put into orbit, the operation went bankrupt. That threw cold water on other LEO comsat efforts, though after Iridium was bought up following its bankruptcy proceedings, it proved profitable for its new owners, who focused on government and military users. Of course, the new owners didn't have to pay the original capital cost of developing and launching the satellites, though they did maintain the satellite constellation. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT
* WELL-PREPARED SWISS: During the Cold War, the US made much of preparations to defend the American public from nuclear attack, but it was always much more show than substance. In contrast, as discussed in a BBC.com article ("Swiss Still Braced For Nuclear War" by Imogen Foulkes), militantly neutral Switzerland took the matter very seriously, and the preparations still remain in evidence.
Driving through Lucerne to Italy means passing through the Sonnenberg tunnel in the Alps. It is a formidable work of engineering -- all the more so because it's not just a traffic conduit, it's the world's largest nuclear shelter. Swiss law requires that local governments provide shelter space for everyone, and when the Sonnenberg tunnel was being built, the city of Lucerne felt the tunnel could be enhanced to act as a shelter -- for 20,000 people -- in a cost-effective fashion.
The shelter is impressive, with blast doors 1.5 meters (5 feet) thick and a weight of 350 tonnes (385 tons), capable of withstanding a nuclear strike only hundreds of meters away. There are sleeping quarters with bunks stacked four high, a medical operating theater, a command post, and even a lockup. There was supposed to be a post office, though that led to the question of exactly where letters were going to be sent in the midst of a nuclear exchange. There are colored lights that are set to remind people whether it's day or night outside -- the Swiss like to keep track of time. There is an enormous air filtration system.
Although Sonnenberg is the biggest shelter, it's only one of a quarter of a million of them in Switzerland -- in private residences, under public facilities like fire stations, and so on. The law for providing shelters still remains in force, and new houses are often built with shelters dug in under them. Given the end of the Cold War, Swiss are starting to ask why. Says a public civil-defense official: "We asked ourselves this question, but then we thought, we've built all these things, so let's just carry on. And there could be new threats around the corner."
A Social Democrat member of parliament replies contemptuously: "What threats exactly? Bird flu? Terrorism? An underground bunker won't protect against that. It's time we stopped this nonsense, all we're doing is building very expensive wine cellars." Indeed, shelters in private homes are generally used for storage these days. The Swiss government will decide later in 2007 if the shelter policy should remain in force. The Sonnenberg shelter is now being dismantled -- not because it was judged unnecessary, but because the blast doors won't close any more.BACK_TO_TOP
* PRECISION STRIKE: Cancer treatments tend toward the drastic -- surgery, toxic chemotherapy, and radiation treatments. Medical researchers have long wanted to obtain a "magic bullet" that kills off cancer cells without any side effects to the patient, but it's proven a utopian concept. According to an article in BUSINESS WEEK, however ("Precision-Guided Cancer Weapons" by Peter Burrows and Nichola Saminather, 12 February 2007), if magic bullets aren't in the arsenal, there's plenty of room to improve existing tools to fighting cancer.
The case in point is a new $3 million USD gadget from Varian Medical Systems that uses a linear accelerator to product X-rays that zap tumors. There's nothing new about that in concept, but medical X-ray beams have long tended to be blunt instruments. In the 1990s, Varian, deciding that better tools were needed, came up with a scheme called "intensity modulated radiation therapy" that provides much more selective targeting of tumors and much less damage to healthy tissues.
Then, more recently, Varian came up with "image guided radiation therapy". Traditionally, a radiotherapist targeted tumors with X-ray images and then hammered at them, but the new Varian machine uses 3D medical imaging systems -- computer tomography (CT) and positron-emission tomography (PET) scanners -- to precisely target the X-rays. Varian software makes the system relatively easy to use. A doctor described the result colorfully: "For the first time in history, we can bomb the equivalent of an outhouse from 30,000 feet with no collateral damage."
Oncologists -- doctors specializing in cancers -- are enthusiastic about the new technology, which provides options previously unavailable. Says one oncologist: "We used to consider metastatic cancer incurable, so what was the point of taking aggressive treatment that would lower the quality of the remainder of the person's life?" Now, he says, "we're giving options to people who had no options." The precision nature of improved radiation therapy permits targeting of metastasized tumors; once the technology matures, a patient could undergo radiation therapy to sweep out the tumors, and then come in years for follow-up treatments. Cancer would then become another chronic but treatable disease. Medical centers that have bought Varian's new high-end systems report that they are in continuous operation, with very good results.
Varian Chairman Richard M. Levy believes that improved radiation therapy can take most of the credit for the rise in five-year survival rates for cancer patients from 40% to 65% over the past three decades, and sees no inherent obstacle to raising to 80%. He has reason to be enthusiastic, since Varian Medical Systems controls 70% of the radiotherapy equipment market in the US. Varian sold 500 radiotherapy systems in 2006 and profits are booming.
Critics do wonder, however, if that's not just another case of the health industry pushing the latest expensive gimmick to rake in the dollars. Advocates reply that Medicare and private insurers are keeping an eye on the phenomenon, and one doctor says that the procedure is "very labor-intensive -- I can't imagine prescribing it when it wasn't necessary."BACK_TO_TOP
* GIANT GOOGLE: It is somewhat ironic that a business can tell when it's finally arrived at the top of the heap when it starts being called a public menace. A BUSINESS WEEK article ("Is Google Too Powerful?" by Robert D. Hof, 9 April 2007), suggests that search-engine giant Google has become the latest corporate bogeyman -- an ironic circumstance for a company whose motto is: "Don't Be Evil".
Google is flush with money and is making use of it, conducting big advertising campaigns in traditional media, buying up useful companies like YouTube, and branching out into new product lines -- for example, a suite of office software that goes head-to-head with Microsoft Office, but sells for a fraction of the price. The backlash has started: Viacom recently began a lawsuit against Google, demanding a cool billion dollars for copyright infringement on YouTube, where users post TV shows illegally for download. There's even talk of taking government antitrust action against Google.
Some think the talk is way overblown, with some analysts saying that if Google doesn't come up with a new strategy soon its bubble will likely to burst. Still, nobody else has been able to touch Google's near-monopoly on search, which effectively gives Google the ability to direct the internet superhighway. Google determines what sites people find and so directs traffic according to its own rules. The information the company has acquired in the course of that traffic management is a massive asset in itself.
Google officials shrug off accusations that the company is a predator, replying that it's predominant because it gives users the services they want. Few of even the loudest critics are really eager to sic government regulators onto Google, and most users aren't losing much sleep over "overbearing Google" themselves. Google has helped support websites by offering the convenient Adsense web-advertising service, and the company has also pumped a lot of money into the latest leading-edge internet tech. Certainly, Google hasn't been the target of the sort of bitter hatred directed towards Microsoft -- at least not yet. [ED / 2018: Google and big tech in general are now getting all the hate they need.]
Google-bashing began to emerge in 2004 when the company started a large-scale program to digitize books from public libraries, with the goal of allowing users to search through books and obtain snippets of text. Google officials regarded this as fair use -- entire texts wouldn't be available -- and didn't expend much effort in checking to see if publishers agreed. The publishers howled: in many cases, all people want from a book is a bit of information, and if they can get the bits when they need them, why buy the book? A group of publishers sued in 2005. Google is now trying to communicate with the book publishers, but the company still believes in digitization, arguing that it will let people know about books they would have otherwise never heard of, boosting sales.
Madison Avenue is also afraid of Google's power in online advertising. Online advertising is now substantial, and it has a selectivity that no other form of advertising can touch. Traditional advertising seems to be threatened by this, visualizing a day when Google will use its online advertising clout to become a broker for advertising dollars across the board. Google's advertising schemes also have critics among those who have signed up with them, with advertisers finding it difficult to determine the rules by which Google bills them -- which leads to antagonism when the advertisers are nailed by click fraud.
One of the problems with Google is that the company is not only opaque in its operations, it is also increasingly perceived as arrogant. The Viacom lawsuit over YouTube was apparently initiated after Google demanded what was perceived as an excessive cut from video revenues. Google officials are increasingly trying to counter the negative image, but critics feel that the data-driven company needs to figure out a better strategy for protecting its assets -- without coming across as antisocial.
ED: One of the little comments in the article was from some folks who have suggested that the Google system may become so powerful that it will spontaneously generate self-consciousness. It's a little hard to see how a search-engine system could achieve this trick simply by becoming bigger. Somebody's been watching too many old sci-fi flics.BACK_TO_TOP
* THE MAKING OF THE FITTEST (11): Having discussed how noncoding DNA can be used to trace the genealogies of species, we can now move on to describe the evolution of color vision. Humans, apes, and Old World monkeys are all trichromats; most New World monkeys and other mammals are dichromats. That suggests that the third opsin gene in Old World monkeys arose after the split between the New World and Old World monkeys, and that early mammals were all dichromats.
Incidentally, if the fact that we are trichromats and most other mammals are dichromats seems as an indication of our "advanced" nature, many birds, fish, and reptiles have four opsin genes, and the disgusting lamprey has five. It seems plausible that our trichrome vision is a reinvention of a capability lost in the distant past -- apparently because early mammals were generally nocturnal and had no use for color vision, a matter discussed in more detail later.
Most mammals have a long-midwave opsin and a shortwave opsin. Humans, as noted, have long, midwave, and shortwave opsin. The hint that the human long and midwave opsins were derived from the older mammalian long-midwave opsin is the fact that the human long and midwave opsins are right next to each other on our X chromosome, and that their codes are about 98% identical -- in other words, the old opsin gene was duplicated, and then the two new genes evolved into separate bands.
This is not genetically tricky to do. The proteins produced by the two genes only differ in 15 amino acids, and only three seem to be involved in shifting the spectral response of the opsins -- the others may just be simple mutational noise. The gene duplication also supports the neutral theory of evolution. Initially, the duplicated genes provided exactly the same opsins and provided no selective advantage. However, they did no harm and so were not lost. Once mutations began to set in, shifting the spectral response of the opsins, the genetic variability created by the duplication mutation began to make itself felt.
Since the New World and Old World monkeys split into separate families about 30 to 40 million years ago, when the African and South American continents broke apart, that puts a time limit on when the duplication event occurred. Color vision proved an important adaptation, permitting primates to identify more nutritious foods. It seems particularly important in "ruminating" or leaf-eating monkeys, such as the African colobus monkey and the Indian langur monkey. Leaves are common but not very nutritious, so the ability to spot the most nutritious leaves provided a significant survival advantage.
The "selective advantage" of trichrome vision is apparently considerable. While color blindness is common in relatively coddled humans, with up to 8% of white males being color-blind, it is very rare in wild trichrome primates, well less than a percent. Color-blindness makes life so much more difficult for them that they don't reproduce well enough to carry it on.
* The evolution of trichrome vision in Old World primates provides an intriguing example of evolution at the genetic level. There are other interesting examples of evolution in animal visual systems.
Consider deep-sea creatures. While coral reefs are famously brilliant in their colors, in the deep sea, a few hundred meters down, the light fades into dim dark blue -- the shorter the wavelength of light, the deeper the penetration of light into the sea. Under such dim light conditions, the sensitive rhodopsins become very important to vision.
The interesting thing about the rhodopsins of deep-sea creatures is that their rhodopsins are modified to be sensitive to even shorter blue wavelengths than those picked up by surface creatures. Bottle-nosed dolphins have rhodopsins that are sensitive to wavelengths of blue light about 2% shorter than the rhodopsins of surface mammals. That isn't a big difference and it might be simply written off as a random variation -- except for the fact that deep-sea eels have rhodopsins sensitive to wavelengths of blue light about 2% shorter than those of shallow-water eels.
The clear implication is that dolphins, descendants of surface mammals with the longer-wave rhodopsins, acquired the same modifications under natural selection as the deep-sea eels. In fact, they are the exact same modifications, with the same three amino acids tweaked in the rhodopsins. That might seem extremely coincidental, but what it suggests is that those modifications are the most likely or even only avenue available to deepen the blue sensitivity of the rhodopsins, and both eels and dolphins took that main road. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT
* INFRASTRUCTURE -- COMMUNICATIONS (7): With all the fuss over the digital communications revolution, it's easy to take traditional analog radio and TV for granted -- but they're still around in force, at least for the moment. Broadcast radio still is split between the amplitude modulated (AM) radio band and the higher frequency modulated (FM) radio band, with FM technology offering more immunity from noise or interference, and stereo capability. Analog TV -- which uses AM for video and FM for sound -- occupies the band above FM (and in fact partly overlaps it, since TV audio can be picked up sometimes on the higher FM channels.
The most visible infrastructure for broadcast media consists of the transmission towers, which are often sited on hills to extend their "line of sight". In the USA, they are limited to a height of 625 meters (2,049 feet), with the limit set by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in order to prevent hazards to air traffic. All US towers have a plaque on the bottom with a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ID number, and this number can be used to index an FCC website to get the particulars on who owns the tower.
Towers can be free-standing, with a wide base, conceptually along the lines of the Eiffel Tower; or guyed, balanced on a bearing and held in place by cables. A free-standing tower is more expensive to build, but a guyed tower requires more land. Actually, safety concerns dictate that a tower usually has to be sited where it won't fall on anything, and so the land concern is something of a wash. Outside the USA, TV towers are sometimes built as elegant structures to also serve as tourist attractions. One of the best-known is the CN Tower in Toronto, Ontario, with a height of 553 meters (1,815 feet). It broadcasts signals for seven TV and nine FM radio stations.
Broadcast towers are not necessarily just mounts for antennas; in some cases the tower itself is the antenna. This is the case for relatively longwave AM transmissions, with the AM tower built to the height of a quarter of the transmission wavelength and sitting on an insulator assembly to keep the signal from being shorted out into the ground. Normally a simple "dipole" antenna has to be at least a half wavelength long, but an AM tower is surrounded by a radial set of copper conductors buried in the soil that act as reflector or radio "mirror", giving the "illusion" of a half wavelength tower. The low end of the AM band corresponds to a tower height of about 137 meters (450 feet), while the high end is about a third of that.
Longwave AM signals can curve or "diffract" over the horizon, but shortwave signals are line-of-sight. This is why FM radio and TV towers tend to be very tall. While AM and FM radio receivers often use simple dipole antennas, analog TV reception is usually through the "Yagi"-style antenna, with rows of dipoles and a vee-style "reflector" improving the ability of the antenna to pick up signals in a particular direction, and ignore signals arriving from other directions.
Although FM signals are exclusive -- the stronger transmission on one band will override the weaker transmission -- AM signals simply add together, with two stations being received simultaneously. For AM radio this is a garble, for AM analog TV video this can result in conflicting images, or more often in "ghosts". Radio signals can "bounce" off structures or mountains, and that means that the TV set gets the same signal arriving at two different times, resulting in the ghosts.
* Analog TV is likely to be completely dead by 2015 or so. It is being replaced by digital TV, which is moving into the same bands as analog TV (except for a portion that's being eliminated and sold off) but provides such services as high-definition TV and the ability to send multiple programs in parallel over the same channel. In principle, digital TV is also much more resistant to noise and interference -- ghosts are impossible -- but if a signal is of marginal strength, "dropouts" can do strange things to the video, the imagery shattering into patterns of squares and the like.
Digital TV has been slow to take off because it is such a big change, requiring a massive adjustment in infrastructure -- the old towers can still be used, but the station gear has to be updated. Such a change has a precedent: early broadcast TV was all monochrome, and the switch to color involved a massive technology war between CBS and RCA that took about two decades to work out. CBS actually got the lead early on, but their system wasn't compatible with monochrome TV signals while RCA's was, and eventually RCA won out. There has also been work on digital audio broadcast, but it seems to be moving along more slowly because there hasn't been as big a push behind it. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT
* FRANANGLAIS: The African country of Cameroon has a problem. There are over 250 local tongues, and as a common language many use French -- but others use English, and the question arises as to which to use. According to an article on BBC.com ("New Language For Divided Cameroon" by Francis Ngwa Niba), the solution is simple: why not use both?
The result, "Frananglais", has a definite snap to it. Says a high-school girl: "Frananglais is cool. How do you expect my English-speaking friends to understand my message if I don't use Frananglais? They will not comprend tout ce que je dis [understand everything I say]."
The common language used to be a pidgin English, but it is now being rapidly absorbed into Frananglais. In Frananglais, "je veux go" means "I want to go", while "Tu as sleep hier?" means "Did you sleep well last night?" One might complain: "Tout le monde hate me, wey I no know." -- means: "All the world hates me, I don't know why." Teachers are not happy about the use of a mongrel tongue like Frananglais, and though they can't stop it, they are trying to slow it down a bit. Some schools set aside "all English" and "all French" days and punish students who lapse into Franangalais.
The language just arose from the grassroots. English and French are vastly more similar to each other than either is to any of the local tongues, and so blending them is straightforward. Local Afro-pop groups also like to sing in Frananglais, with a popular singer named Koppo hitting the charts with "Tu Vois Ma Go [If You See Me Go]". Like the kids say -- Frananglais is cool.
* ED: I had a colleague from Louisiana who was fluent in French and had lived for a while in Lyons. He told me once that while he was there he knew a fellow who was from Quebec; they went to a bicycle shop one day, with the Quebecer getting dumbfounded looks when he asked for "une bicycle tire". The French have been more persistent in resisting the infiltration of English terminology into their language than the Quebecers.BACK_TO_TOP
* FLU RESURRECTION: In 1918, a highly lethal strain of influenza swept the world, infecting what has been estimated as a third of the world's population and killing an estimated 40 million people. Death rates among the populations infected were up to five percent of the patients, and bizarrely it tended to kill the young and healthy more often than the old and weak. There has been long been scientific curiosity as to where this strain of flu came from and why it was so virulent and lethal -- the curiosity being given an edge by the possibility that something like the 1918 pandemic could happen again.
According to a BBC.com article ("Lethal Secrets Of 1918 Flu Virus"), researchers have now resurrected the virus in order to obtain answers to these questions. The virus was obtained from a flu victim buried in the Alaskan permafrost and reconstructed in a top-security biosafety facility at the National Microbiology Laboratory of Canada. A test group of macaque monkeys verified the ghastly reports of doctors from 1918: within 24 hours, their lungs had been destroyed, and they would have drowned in their own blood quickly had they not been killed. Reports from the days of the pandemic indicated that autopsies of victims showed their lung tissue looked like "red currant jelly".
The idea of resurrecting such a ghastly pathogen sounds like something out of a horror movie, but Darwyn Kobasa, a research scientist with the Public Health Agency of Canada, and lead author of the research, defended the exercise: "This research provides an important piece in the puzzle of the 1918 virus, helping us to better understand influenza viruses and their potential to cause pandemics."
There are three main "families" of flu viruses, logically named "A", "B", and "C". The B and C families only infect humans and are not particularly dangerous. The A family, however, infects a wide range of animals -- aquatic birds like ducks, poultry, swine, horses -- as well as humans. There are a wide range of strains of influenza A viruses, distinguished by two structural "surface proteins": hemagglutinin (HA), with at least 15 variants; and "neuramidase (NA), with 9 known variants. Strains are identified by the combination of these two proteins: the 1918 flu was an "H1N1" strain, which were prevalent up to 1957, when a pandemic introduced the "H2N2" strain -- which was replaced in turn by the "H3N2" strain in 1968. The modern "bird flu" strain, incidentally, is the "H5N1" strain.
Analysis of the 1918 virus by organizations cooperating in the research effort shows that it was likely a bird flu virus that jumped to humans. It was thought for some time to have been transmitted through pigs, but modern research suggests that the pigs got it from humans, not the other way around. The 1918 virus was apparently able to suppress an important immune system component. That's a bit alarming because the H5N1 bird flu virus is similar in some ways, another researcher saying: "What we see with the 1918 virus in infected monkeys is also what we see with H5N1 viruses." The researchers believe that they may be able to figure out ways to interfere with the progress of the infection.BACK_TO_TOP
* HOLOGRAPHIC COUNTERFEITS: Once upon a time, "white light holograms" -- three-dimensional images that operate in ambient light -- were a marvel of technology, but we've long since come to take their use on credit cards and the like for granted. They were originally intended as a security measure, to make the cards harder to fake -- but, according to an article from WIRED.com ("Fake Holograms A 3-D Crime Wave" by Marty Graham), crooks have learned how to fake them. The technology to duplicate holograms is now increasingly available, and the number of counterfeits has tripled in the past three years.
Security holograms were first used, on credit cards, in the 1980s. They are now used on driver's licenses, passports, ID cards, tax stamps, software packaging, music CDs, designer clothing, and so on, making the incentive to fake them very attractive. It's hard to do much about it; hologram counterfeiting is merely one part of the vast international counterfeiting apparatus that is based in countries -- mainly China, Korea, India, and Russia -- where enforcement of intellectual property laws is very weak.
A hologram is just a photograph of sorts, with the image originally obtained by splitting a laser beam; using one half of the beam to illuminate a polymer photographic film; and using the other half to illuminate the object being imaged. The film records the interference of the reflections from the object with the illumination beam. When light falls on the developed film, the interference pattern recorded on it reconstructs the three-dimensional light pattern from the object. Once the film pattern has been recorded, it can be copied in bulk. Various "covert" features can be added to make the hologram more distinctive. There are ways to make copying more difficult, but they substantially increase the cost of the holograms.
Hologram production was once an industrial process, but in the late 1990s cheap hologram printers became available, and they sell for as little as $10,000 USD now. There are also houses that print up holograms on contract, and not all of them are scrupulous about what they print, as long as the customer pays. In addition, there have been cases where holograms were stolen from legitimate manufacturers.
Software is a common target of the fakers. In 2001, a California-based gang of software pirates duplicated Microsoft holograms and used them to "validate" about $10 million USD of pirated software. It's not just the "big guys" like Microsoft who are at risk; the "little guys" are also vulnerable, since collectibles -- comic books, coins, baseball cards, and so on -- are generally handled in bags with holographic seals to help validate them.
The International Hologram Manufacturers Association began a hologram registration program in 2003, but so far only about 70 companies have signed up, a fraction of the total number worldwide. In the meantime, the fakes are getting better. Says an industry expert: "Shiny does not a hologram make. For a trained eye, it used to be easy to tell a fake, but the counterfeits are getting far better than they used to be. The covert features aren't detectable by the human eye, so unless people are carrying equipment when they buy league clothing, they have to trust their eyes."
The ultimate lesson is that permanent security is hard to obtain: sooner or later someone is likely to figure out how to compromise a security system, with the race between producer and parasite ratcheting up another level.
* GIFT CARD SCAMS REVISITED: An article run here in early 2006 described gift card scams: a thief would lift a gift card from a store, get its ID numbers, put the card back on the sales rack, and then monitor the card account online to see when someone bought the card and activated the account. The thief would then clean out the account.
According to an article in BUSINESS WEEK ("Someone's Been Using My Gift Card" by Elizabeth Woyke, 15 January 2007), matters have evolved since then. Most gift cards are now either sold in envelopes or have scratch / peel-off layers on top of a security code, making it difficult to tamper with the card without invalidating it.
The new security features have cut down on the old ripoff schemes, but there's no security scheme that can't be compromised, and now the major problem is the "inside job": crooked clerks who con the buyer when the card is activated. The clerk may try to palm an empty card off on the buyer and keep the real one, or record the data and then raid the account before the buyer can use the card. However, these tricks can be easily defeated if the buyer ends the transaction by asking the clerk to verify the card account and produce a receipt with the proper balance on it. Keeping a receipt for the card is a good idea anyway, since it can be used to recover the money if the card gets ripped off.
There has been a lot of hype about gift card scams lately, but given the security precautions and the fact that gift cards are usually for relatively small sums, most industry observers think the problem is overblown. Good old fashion credit-card ripoffs, despite great improvements in security, remain a much bigger problem. Nobody needs to fear buying a gift card these days, though given the ingenuity of thieves, it's hard to rule out someone finding a new loophole in the future.BACK_TO_TOP
* THE MAKING OF THE FITTEST (10): Before discussing the genetic evidence for the evolution of opsins, it's worthwhile to discuss how genetics is used to determine relationships between different organisms in general. The coding of the genome can be regarded, for purposes of analysis, as something like a "serial number" -- a very long serial number -- that is passed down through lines of descent, with occasional changes in the serials from generation to generation. The similarity of these "serials" can be used to establish family relationships between different species: two species with similar serials are closely related, two species with dissimilar serials are not closely related.
It must be noted, however, that the variations are not necessarily nice, neat, tidy, and unambiguous. The sheer size and complexity of the genome also makes it difficult to analyze. Although the most obvious way to compare genomes is to compare the specific sequences of nucleotide bases, this is a cumbersome approach, and it turns out there's a simpler shortcut approach that works much better.
The individual genes in our genome are not found in contiguous sequences of DNA. A gene is usually broken up into segments by chunks of "noncoding DNA" known as "long interspersed elements (LINEs)" and "short interspersed elements (SINEs)" that have to be chopped out when the gene is interpreted by the cell. The LINEs and SINEs have been introduced into the genome at very rare instances over time, and once inserted they remain in later generations. The pattern of LINEs and SINEs in a genome provides a very precise means of tracing the genealogy of a species without having to decode the complete genome.
A taxonomic tree of primates can be built by selecting a set of SINEs from particular parts of the human genome, and then checking for the presence or absence of SINEs in other primate genomes. It's simple to see if a SINE isn't present -- SINEs are about 300 base pairs long, and if the SINE isn't in a particular gene, it's about 300 base pairs shorter. An analysis on this basis using 100 SINEs showed, to no surprise, that chimps were the most closely related to humans, with successively more distant relationships to gorillas, orangutans, gibbons, and green monkeys. The nocturnal owl monkey did not have any of the 100 SINEs in common with humans.
All this said, now we can go on to discuss the evolution of color vision -- in the next installment. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT
* INFRASTRUCTURE -- COMMUNICATIONS (6): The cellphone has become the "universal tool" of the early 21st century, with cellphones featuring built-in cameras often providing dramatic footage of terrorist attacks and disasters. They have also supported voyeurism -- in Japan, cellphones have to be sold with the capability of issuing a loud "click" sound when the camera is shuttered to prevent sneaky shooting of attractive people. The click can't be muted.
The camera phone is the most high-profile cellphone capability, but other whizzy features are available, such as digital music players. Cellphones with short-range "near field" wireless interfaces are also being increasingly used in the Far East as "electronic wallets" for small purchases. Cellphones are very popular in undeveloped countries, allowing locals to bypass unreliable landline telephone systems to obtain information on markets, look for jobs, and keep in touch with family. Now cellphones are emerging that are basically handheld personal computers, complete with small computer operating systems.
In a complementary fashion, computer communications are also going wireless. There's the short-range networking scheme popularly known as "wi-fi", but this is basically intended to link computers in a building or a site to a long-distance network portal. Another specification known as "WiMAX" permits connections between computers and a city networking node; WiMAX will also support voice, essentially using VOIP virtual circuits, and may be the basis for a "fourth generation" cellphone network.
* Even the rare folks (such as myself) who don't have a cellphone are perfectly familiar with the cellphone towers that now dot the landscape to provide the "connection" infrastructure for the cellphone network. The towers essentially define a "honeycomb" grid of (irregular) hexagonal cells. The towers, however, are not usually at the center of the cells, instead being at the vertices. This allows a single tower to service three cells -- using the distinctive triangular array of directional antennas generally seen on cellphone towers.
The antenna systems, incidentally, are carefully configured to ensure coverage of a cell without overlap and interference with neighboring cells. The channel allocations of a particular cell are carefully controlled so it will not use channels in operation in a neighboring cell. The towers are usually linked into the base station through a coaxial or fiber-optic cable, but sometimes they use a dedicated microwave link.
Cellphone towers tend to be taller in rural areas where the cells are necessarily bigger to support a much more thinly-spread population. A scheme has been proposed for North Dakota, where the thin population density makes tower construction uneconomical, in which balloons carrying cellphone relays would be released on a regular basis -- believe it or not, on paper it's cheaper, and in fact the company proposing the scheme uses a comparable approach to monitor oil wells in the US Southwest. On the other side of the coin, in dense urban environments, mobile cellphone antennas mounted on trucks with extendable antenna masts are sometimes sent to parts of town where some mass activity is in progress that might temporarily swamp the cellphone bands.
Cellphone towers are, with some good reason, often regarded as public eyesores. There has been some effort to make them more discreet, mounting them on the sides of buildings or water towers -- saving the cost of the tower as well. It isn't unusual any more to see cellphone towers disguised as plastic trees, which to some are more of an eyesore than the towers. In the US Southwest, they're occasionally camouflaged as saguaro cactus. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT
* NEON MOSCOW: Russia may still remain an enigma in many ways, but one of the interesting indications that things have changed is the presence of Vegas-style gambling casinos in the nation's big cities, as described by BBC reporter Richard Galpin on BBC.com ("Russian Casinos Ordered Out Of Town").
The reporter visited the Jazz Town casino in Moscow, passing through a glittering neon portal into smoke-filled rooms, filled with card tables, roulette wheels, and electronic slots, with mirrored ceilings. Most of the clientele seems to be older men in business suits, with their ties pulled open at the collar. The owner of the casino works the crowd, glad-handing customers and kissing the girls. He can afford to be gracious; he started out with a pittance and now owns a Russian gambling empire with 6,000 employees and a net value of about a billion dollars.
He is, however, not a Russian but a Briton named Michael Boettcher, who lost his shirt in the London property crash in the late 1980s and decided that the new capitalist frontier in Russia had opportunities. He is making roubles hand over fist, but insists that his operation is altruistic: money and power are concentrated in an elite in Russia, and his operation helps redistribute the wealth. He claims to have seen oligarchs lose a million in one of his casinos in a few days. However, gambling has a long and bad history in Russia, the dissolute gambler being something of a stock character of classic Russian writers like Dostoyevsky, and the control-oriented authorities don't particularly care for Boettcher's "egalitarian" redistribution of wealth. Now the Russian parliament has passed a law that will ban casinos and slot arcades from the cities within two years. Gambling will be restricted to four resort areas, scattered around the country and outside the cities. That way, workers will have to go on vacation to blow their money at the slots, instead of doing it in the evenings after work.
The government claims that gambling addiction has become a serious problem, and Father Anatoly Berestov, who runs a rescue clinic for various kinds of dependencies in a 16th-century Moscow church hall, agrees. He can't provide statistics, but he says more gamblers are coming to him for help. Some businessmen who he deals with have lost everything in the casinos, and reports there have been many suicides. He is particularly worried about the spread of gambling to villages, where poverty is much more acute and elderly folk are throwing away their pensions in pursuit of easy money.
Boettcher can apply for a license to operate in the new resort areas, but he is of the mind that it might be wiser just to pack up and move elsewhere. He thinks India might be the next land of opportunity.BACK_TO_TOP
* DRUG TEST: As reported by an article in AAAS SCIENCE ("Hard Data On Hard Drugs, Grabbed From The Environment" by John Bohannon, 6 April 2007), trying to determine the levels of usage of recreational drugs is troublesome: users are not inclined to cooperate with surveys on the matter, and the statistics obtained from drug busts can only reveal the tip of the iceberg. Fritz Soergel, an environmental chemist and director of the Institute for Biomedical & Pharmaceutical Research in Nurenburg, Germany, has come up with a better idea. He and Vererna Jakob, a doctoral student at the institute, travel to different parts of Europe, where they exchange a stash of 300 100-euro bills with locals in bars and other establishments, trading new notes for old notes.
The trick is that the old notes are contaminated with cocaine, with the level of contamination proportional to the level of cocaine use in a locale. The bills are taken back to Nurenburg, where they are analyzed for their cocaine content. The analysis involves soaking the old bills in methanol to extract the residues and then running the residues through a mass spectrometer. The treatment effectively ruins the bills, but the institute has a deal with a local bank that accepts the damaged bills, disposes of them through the appropriate channels, and hands back nice crisp new bills. Still, the institute has a 30,000 euro stake in the game, and wandering around with the stash can be a bit nerve-wracking.
Soergel has been doing this for seven years and has been gradually building up a map of cocaine usage around Europe. Nobody's actually sure how the cocaine ends up in the bills; sometimes cocaine is snorted through a rolled-up bill, and since the paper is absorbent, other bills pick it up when stored in a retailer's till or in a bank's money-sorting machines. The dosage in a contaminated bill is very small, maybe a thousandth or less of a dose of cocaine, but still detectable.
Soergel has been playing this game the longest, but others have picked it up as well. Jonathan Bones and Brett Paull, chemists at Dublin City University (DCU) in Ireland, have been finding some of the highest rates of cocaine contamination in euros obtained from Dublin' banks. Bones says that "people have been in denial that there's a cocaine problem" in Ireland, but the evidence provides a "warning light" that things are not all well on the Emerald Isle.
The limitation of using the bills to track cocaine use is that the approach can only determine relative levels of usage. The data so far, incidentally, matches the general impression from other sources that cocaine use is greatest in Spain, with Italy following and Ireland catching up. Researchers are trying to nail down more of the specifics of how the bills are contaminated to see if estimates of actual use statistics can be obtained from them.
Soergel and Jakob have also been using another approach to test for cocaine use: they obtain samples of clean water in a locale and compare them to samples from the output of sewage-treatment plants. Cocaine residues pass into urine and are not much affected by sewage treatment; in effect the researchers are drug-testing an entire city, or a district of one. The idea was actually invented by Roberto Fanelli, a toxicologist at the Mario Negri Institute for Pharmacological Research in Milan, Italy. Fanelli tried it for the first time in 2005, sampling waters of the Po River near Milan. He was originally looking for usage levels of legal pharmaceuticals, but found out that it would work with cocaine residues as well.
A tonne of cocaine is seized by authorities in Germany each year. Soergel's samplings of 29 German rivers gives him an estimate that the actual usage level is on the order of 20 tonnes a year. Fanelli has sampled the waters of London and estimates that the sampling show the use of a kilo of cocaine per every million Londoners every day, which translates roughly into cocaine use by 4% of Londoners in the age range of 15 to 40. The official rate is 2%, which Fanelli regards as in the ballpark with his estimate.
Water samplings have taken place in the USA, with the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) obtaining samples from about a hundred wastewater treatment facilities across America. Some municipalities haven't liked the idea of the Federal government drug-testing their cities, and a discussion is underway about concerns and how to answer those concerns.
The ultimate dream is to make drug testing normal at all municipal sewage treatment plants and link the data into computer mapping systems that can interpret it into national maps. Before that can happen, procedures need to be standardized and subjected to rigorous peer review as well as public comment. Advocates believe that the effort will be worthwhile, allowing authorities to determine the worst trouble spots and focus resources on them.BACK_TO_TOP
* SEEING EYE: It is an appealing notion to a technophile to think of what technology -- even very simple technology -- can do to improve the lives of the impoverished around the globe. According to an article in THE ECONOMIST ("Pyramid Power", 13 January 2007), a US optical firm named Scojo Vision is pursuing a program to get reading glasses into the hands of the poor.
Dr. Jordan Kassalow, Scojo's co-founder, approaches the effort as a business venture that also happens to be socially responsible. Kassalow had been involved with foreign public-health aid efforts in the past and became disillusioned at the way they tended to drop dead in their tracks when donor money dried up. He believes a "bottom of the pyramid" effort, based on an economic model that pays for itself, is more sustainable, and also boosts commerce in poor societies.
During his earlier work, Kassalow had become aware of a condition known as "presbyopia", which causes blurry close-up vision. Technically, the solution was straightforward: "For every person that I treated for a serious eye condition, there were 50 that needed simple, non-prescription reading glasses." But where could the poor get them? Medical clinics in undeveloped countries are necessarily focused on dangerous diseases, not relatively minor vision problems, and city optical shops are focused on prescription glasses that the poor can't afford.
Unfortunately, even minor vision problems can be crippling. Not only do such problems make it hard to read, they make it hard to make a living -- craftsmen and seamstresses can't see their work. In response, Scojo Vision, which makes most of its money selling prescription glasses to the rich world, has set up an arm to sell non-prescription glasses to people in the poor world, and is now providing such glasses to customers in India, Bangladesh, Mexico, and Guatemala.
The basis of the exercise is a scheme called "microfinancing". Says . Kassalow: "We deliver a 'business in a box' to local entrepreneurs, train them, and enable them to make money helping people see better." It costs Scojo about $1 USD to make and deliver the glasses, with the franchisee paying $2 USD, and the customer paying $3 USD. Scojo makes a profit, allowing expansion of the effort; the franchisee makes a living; and the customer can see straight again, for the cost of about three days' wages or less. Scojo has shipped 50,000 pairs of glasses so far, wants to ship a million by 2010, and hopes for shipments of 10 million by 2016.
Scojo has formed alliances with local firms to get the glasses to the people. In India a firm named Drishtan, which operates Internet kiosks in villages, is involved; in Bangladesh, a community-lending operation named BRAC helps do the job. An African alliance is in the works. Big corporate giants like Unilever are also forming alliances with Scojo. The same model can obviously be applied to other necessities of life.
ED: The interesting thing is to consider possible extensions of the scheme. It might be interesting, for example, to develop a cheap system for franchisees that performs eye tests and then defines semi-prescription glasses using a set of prefabricated lenses, snapped into standard frames. Over the long run, the system might actually fabricate the lenses to order using some sort of rugged, highly transparent plastic.BACK_TO_TOP
* THE MAKING OF THE FITTEST (9): After discussing immortal genes, Sean Carroll takes a new track to discuss color vision. Humans have three types of color receptors: red, green, and blue. Apes and most Old World monkeys (which are distinct from the New World monkeys that live in South and Central America) are also "trichromats" -- but New World monkeys (with one exception) and other mammals are "dichromats", only able to see yellow and blue, unable to tell the difference between red and green.
At the base of human color vision are a set of visual pigments, each made up of a protein called an "opsin" linked to a small molecule called a "chromophore", which in humans is almost identical to the vitamin A molecule. It is the opsins that provide color sensitivity, the chromophore being the same for all the pigments. Each type of opsin is sensitive to a different wavelength of light, and humans have red or "longwave" sensitive opsins, green or "midwave" sensitive opsins, and blue or "shortwave" sensitive opsins. They also have a fourth and related but distinctly different opsin, "rhodopsin", operating in the blue-green range that is more sensitive to light and used for seeing in dim light, at the cost of perceiving much in the way of color.
The retina of the eye is carpeted with "photoreceptor" cells, each crammed with pigments. There are "rod" and "cone" photoreceptors, of course named for their general configurations, packed with pigments -- rhodopsin in the rods, and longwave, midwave, and shortwave pigments in the red, green, and blue cones respectively. The rods provide monochrome vision in low-light conditions, while the cones handle color vision in normal light conditions. There are about 120 million rods to about 7 million cones -- our color vision is low resolution.
Humans and apes have three different opsins, while most mammals only have two, and fish and birds have four. Each opsin is encoded by its own gene, and so the presence of different numbers of opsins in different sorts of animals unsurprisingly reflects genetic differences between them.
These genetic differences suggest an evolutionary relationship -- for example, that mammals in general started out as dichromats, but the branch of primates that went off to apes and humans became trichromats. What bolsters this idea is the phenomenon of "gene duplication". During duplication of the genome, a rare error can arise in which the duplication process "stutters" and produces two copies of a gene in the output. Initially, both genes work the same and it's hard to see any difference; but in time both genes undergo different mutations and their functions begin to evolve apart. Opsin genes reflect this pattern. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT
* INFRASTRUCTURE -- COMMUNICATIONS (5): The inadequacies of the first-generation AMPS analog cellphone scheme led to an improved cellphone scheme, known as "Cellular Digital Packet Data (CDPD)", which emerged as a standard in 1993. Digital data was sent over AMPS voice channels with a modem in much the same way that classic phone modems sent digital data over standard voice telephone lines. CDPD transmitted digitized voice communications in digital packets, using ordinary Internet Protocol, over existing AMPS channels at data rates of up to 14,400 BPS.
Since CDPD was basically a digital data service, it could support other forms of data, such as small web pages. However, although CDPD is still around in the USA and a handful of other nations, it's obsolescent, in much the same way that phoneline dialup connections are obsolescent: too slow and inadequate to handle long transfers of information. A "Circuit Switched CDPD (CS-CDPD)" was introduced in 1996 to help fix some of the problems, but the real push was towards second-generation digital cellphone systems.
Two second-generation digital cellphone systems emerged. One approach, like CDPD based on the multichannel AMPS scheme, used time-division multiplexing to cram three full digital conversations into a single channel. This approach became known as "TDMA (Time Division Multiple Access)". Since TDMA wasn't universally available when it was introduced in 1992, early TDMA handsets also supported AMPS, making them expensive. By the mid-1990s, TDMA had largely supplanted AMPS and it was no longer necessary to have a dual-mode phone. In addition, an improved spec was introduced at that time that provided a "digital control channel (DCCH)", like the AMPS control channel but providing new capabilities -- such as paging services or a "short messaging service (SMS)" capability.
A variation on TDMA known as the "Personal (or Pacific) Digital Communications (PDC)" system was introduced in Japan that was not interoperable with analog systems. European operators, frustrated with the patchwork of earlier incompatible analog schemes introduced in the region, came up with a standardized TDMA scheme known as "GSM", originally standing for "Groupe de travail Speciale pour les services Mobiles (Special Working Group for Mobile Services)" but has now been generalized to "Global System For Mobile Communications". GSM was the first to offer the "Short Messaging System (SMS)" to permit transmission of brief text messages; it is now an effective standard in Europe and many other locations.
* The other approach to second-generation cellphones is "CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access)", which was introduced by Qualcomm in the USA. CDMA is based on "spread spectrum" techniques developed for the military to prevent an enemy from "listening in", and to provide resistance to jamming. In civilian terms, these capabilities translate to an ability to use a large number of channels without interference. CDMA seems like black magic. Each transmission is spread across the full bandwidth of the entire transmission channel, but each transmission has a unique "spreading code" modulation pattern. At any one frequency, a CDMA transmission looks like faint background noise, but a CDMA cellphone using the spreading code keyed to its transmission will pick out the appropriate parts of the noise to reassemble its transmission. All other transmissions are filtered out as background noise.
One of the interesting things about CDMA is that subscribers can be added simply by adding new spreading codes to a cell, until all the channels disappear into the noise. One of the other interesting features of CDMA is that the cell base stations strictly control the transmit power of the handsets.
* Third-generation digital cellphone systems are now emerging, with data rates of hundreds of kilobits a second. Several of these schemes are based on advanced CDMA technology. The fast bandwidth supports digital multimedia transfers, including "video on demand". [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT