A GENTLE pat on the back and a short walk can put a crying baby to sleep. Four-legged newborns, too, calm down when their mothers hold them by the nape of their necks to carry them. Precisely why, though, has remained a mystery. Kumi Kuroda, of RIKEN Brain Science Institute, in Japan, and her colleagues decided to find out.
The researchers monitored the heart rates of twelve human infants aged between one to six months under three conditions: while they lay by themselves in a crib, immediately after they were picked by their mothers, and while they were carried around. Specifically, they measure the heart rate variability (HRV), or the tiny differences in the interval between successive heart beats, since previous research showed that lower HRV is tied to higher stress.
As the researchers report in Current Biology, true to stereotype, the babies' HRV increased significantly when they were carried, suggesting less stress. The results persisted when controlled for things like crying, which can increase the heart rate considerably and skew HRV readings. Given the ethical constraints on experiments involving human babies, Dr Kuroda and her team then turned to mice.
After ascertaining that murine newborns, too, show the same physiological response to carrying as human infants do, they examined the sensory mechanisms which might give rise to the phenomenon. First, they used a local anaesthetic to numb the skin on back of the mice’s neck. This blocked the neural signals that are produced by touch. Anesthetised mice were more fidgety while carried than those that were not.
Next, Dr Kuroda gave the mice a large dose of vitamin B6, to strip them of the ability to judge the relative position of their body parts, or proprioception, as it is known in the argot. Mice plied with the vitamin were also friskier than those that weren't, judged both by observed behaviour and physiological measures such as HRV.
Finally, the researchers used a drug to suppress the mice's parasympathetic nervous system. This is responsible for unconscious "rest-and-digest" or "feed-and-breed" activities like sexual arousal, salivation or urination, that occur when the body is at rest. When parasympathetic nerves were impaired, the carrying-induced, stress-lowering spike in the HRV was not seen, suggesting that the cardiac effect resulting from carrying did indeed stem from the parasympathetic nerve.
Crucially, the nervousness caused by pups' impaired senses meant that murine mothers took longer to carry them to part of the enclosure considered safe. Because the young often squirm when sensing danger, such impairment would make whisking them away from potential threats harder. The calming mechanism, then, appears to have evolved to facilitate such extraction. Although human offsrping are not exposed to as many existential threats as their murine counterparts, their parents will no doubt be grateful anyway.]]>
THE fire season has come much earlier than usual to southern California—and with a vengeance fuelled by one of the driest winters on record. So far this year, the region has received only a quarter of its normal rainfall. Making matters worse, the only serious rains of the season occurred during four days in late January, just as much of the vegetation was awakening from its dormant phase. Had the rains come a week or two earlier, or even several weeks later, their effect would have been minimal. But their coming when they did soon made the hills knee-high in a bumper crop of grass and brush. Baked by the sun, this is now one more load of tinder waiting to catch fire.
Even the hot, dry Santa Ana winds have come whistling out of the desert and through the canyons months before they are normally expected. Temperatures have soared as a result, to over 40ºC, causing spontaneous wildfires to race across the Santa Monica mountains and down to the sea. In one conflagration, 11,200 hectares (28,000 acres) of Ventura county were blackened within a day or so (see photo above). This past week, wildfires have raged in several locations less than an hour from downtown Los Angeles.
Fire is no stranger to California. Thanks to its Mediterranean climate of hot, dry summers and mild, wet winters, the region is home to one of the largest chaparral biomes in the world. These dense scrublands owe their existence to cool, moist air from the ocean colliding with an unusually warm land mass. The result is ground cover comprising mainly small oaks, manzanitas, lilacs, sumacs, buckwheat and sagebrush. Chaparral covers most of the southern part of coastal California and northern Mexico.
With precipitation ranging from 30 to 100cm (12 to 40 inches) a year, the chaparral’s native plants rely on small, waxy, evergreen leaves to conserve water by limiting transpiration. Unfortunately, the same waxy leaves that help those plants survive the baking summers make them especially vulnerable to fire.
Fire can strike the same stretches of chaparral as often as once a decade, or as infrequently as once in half a century. Sooner or later, though, the chaparral will burn—whether as a result of lightning strikes or human action. For centuries, the local Chumash people torched large swathes of chaparral in Babbage’s neighbourhood to replenish the vegetation and provide better hunting. Spanish settlers continued the practice. With its resinous foliage, woody stems and accumulated leaf litter, the chaparral always has been, and always will be, a tinderbox in search of a flint.
Even so, Babbage remains impressed by how quickly the chaparral’s scorched earth recovers after a fire. Some species—the native cacti, in particular—are natural survivors. The paddle or prickly-pear cactus have pads containing water that help them withstand the ravages of wildfire. Most plants, though, are not so lucky. Fortunately, when the first rains arrive after a fire, the lack of shade that would otherwise hinder the growth of new plants allows the hills to bloom with a profusion of native wildflowers—including orange poppies, golden lilies, purple snapdragons, blue hyacinths, crimson campions and pink wild onions.
The success of these “fire followers” depends on their seeds being retained dormant in the soil for decades, ready to germinate with the heat shock of a passing wildfire, aided by chemicals precipitating from the subsequent smoke. The colourful annuals die back during long, dry periods, only to be replaced as the woody, underground stumps (basal burls) of charred chamise, manzanita and other shrubs send up fresh shoots through the nutrient-rich, ashy soil to recolonise the hillsides. Within a few short years, the wildfire’s passage can barely be detected.
The age-old puzzle of how, after a wildfire, long-dormant seeds in the soil get a wake-up call has finally been pieced together by a team at the Salk Institute and nearby University of California, San Diego. As trees and shrubs burn, chemicals known as karrikins are created in the smoke. When molecules of one particular karrikin come in contact with dormant seeds, they attach themselves to receptor sites on the protein responsible for germination. In doing so, the karrikin changes the protein’s shape, causing it to signal to other proteins to activate the genetic pathway regulating germination.
This finding answers one of the most important “circle of life” questions in plant ecology. It could also provide useful clues to help scientists develop plant varieties capable of restoring and maintaining other important ecosystems. Personally, Babbage is fascinated by the idea of dying plants sending messages to subsequent generations, telling them it is time to sprout and get on with life.
With fire having been a recurring feature of the chaparral for thousands of years, only plants that have adapted successfully to being able to recover from flames have persisted. As a result, many plants rely on either the fire itself or the environmental conditions that follow a blaze to reproduce. But that does not mean the chaparral needs to burn as frequently as it does.
As housing developments have pushed ever further into the wilderness, human carelessness means wildfires have increased dramatically. Many contend that fire suppression—with firefighters rushing to snuff out every blaze for fear that property may be lost and people might die—has caused an unnatural accumulation of old brush (ie, “fuel”) that encourages fires to spread and become more dangerous. In their view, suppression should be curtailed. Besides, they say, the chaparral needs to burn for its own good.
But letting wildfires run their course—especially at the frequency they occur nowadays—can render the chaparral vulnerable to invasive, non-native species. More to the point, there is no evidence that the age of the fuel load affects the probability of fire. When the hot Santa Ana winds blow and a downed power-line arcs, fire sweeps through all chaparral stands irrespective of their age. If anything, the balance of informed opinion has swung back in favour of fire suppression. At least, it has led to fewer, larger fires in the chaparral.
This may be an even smarter move than ever, now climate change has to be taken into account as well. According to an index developed by the United States Geological Survey, coastal land in southern California has either a “high” or “very high” vulnerability to climate change. Habitats from San Luis Obispo to the Mexican border are among the most threatened in the world.
What bothers Babbage is the thought that a changing climate could alter the chaparral in irreversible ways. For instance, southern varieties of Californian sagebrush, a fragrant grey-green shrub found on coastal hillsides, are expected to adjust to climate change better than many other plants. As a resident of the chaparral biome, sagebrush could come to dominate the habitat. While he would not object to the smell (sagebrush is not called “cowboy cologne” for nothing), he would genuinely miss the present palette that colours the Californian landscape. All the more so when the occasional wildfire prompts such a bright profusion of wildflowers.
The Data Sensing Lab, a project of O’Reilly Media, has deployed over 500 sensor motes at key locations around the Moscone West centre. Each phone-sized mote is a self-contained computer based on a cheap Arudino micro-controller and linked with low power ZigBee digital radios. Some measure temperature, pressure, noise, humidity and light levels. Others are tracking air quality, the motion of crowds or how many mobile phones are being used nearby. Together, they form a network producing over 4,000 streams of data that are uploaded to Google’s Cloud Platform software for analysis.
The network is an example of the "internet of things", where physical objects are digitally interconnected and communicate without human intervention. At a shindig like I/O, this could one day mean rooms pre-emptively activating air conditioners when they detect delegates arriving, or organisers rating speakers by the level of mobile phone use during their presentations.
At the Google event, the Data Sensing Lab showed live visualisations of people flowing out of seminars and forming an eager cluster around a stand showcasing Google Glass wearable computers. It also highlighted the noisiest area (the keynote by Larry Page, Google's co-founder) and the quietest (a pop-up shop selling Google-branded products). All the data will be made freely available online after the conference wraps up.
If the internet of things is going to expand as some enthusiasts predict, ultimately comprising trillions of objects and encompassing entire cities, practical experiments like the one at Google I/O will be invaluable. Each sensor mote at the conference cost about $50 to build and it turned out that “you really need density to build good insights,” says Michael Manoochehri, an engineer at Google. Nevertheless, deploying such networks outside the rarefied atmosphere of a tech gathering will be expensive, not least because nifty sensor motes could simply be pinched. There are also unresolved issues around standards for machine-to-machine communication and interaction, as well as the perennial privacy bogeyman.
“But the real problem is the data,” says Mr Manoochehri. Even his small network is creating gigabytes-worth. Crucially, he adds, more and better brains are needed to work out how to answer questions as fast as they can be asked.]]>
MEDICAL implants, such as stents and catheters, bring a risk of infection. Specifically, their smooth surfaces encourage the growth of bacterial films—and such sheets of connected bacteria are far more resistant to disinfection than are isolated bugs. The trick, therefore, is to stop these films forming in the first place and, as he describes in Biomacromolecules, Marek Urban at Clemson University in South Carolina thinks he may have a way of doing so.
Dr Urban and his colleagues are employing viruses called bacteriophages as microbiological landmines. A bacteriophage (or “phage”, for short) is a virus that attacks bacteria—in the process, causing them to explode. Like most viruses, phages are host-specific, so Dr Urban chose phages known to attack Escherichia coli and Staphylococcus aureus, the types of bacteria that most commonly cause problems in hospitals.
He attached his phages to sheets of polyethylene or polytetrafluoroethylene, two polymers often used to make implantable medical devices, by exposing the sheets to a chemical called maleic anhydride while simultaneously bombarding them with microwaves. That caused acids to form on the plastic surfaces, and those acids bonded readily with chemical groups called amines on the phages. The upshot was that the plastic became covered in a layer of phages.
He then laid the pieces of plastic, phage-side down, on nutrient-rich culture gels impregnated with E. coli and S. aureus. This, he hoped, would mimic conditions inside the body. That done, he left the pieces of plastic in place for six months, as an implant might be left in a body. As he hoped, the phage-coated areas of plastic blew up the bacteria, successfully inhibiting their growth. Even low concentrations of phage did this.
Whether the technique will work in real bodies remains to be determined. But if it does, then one of the risks of surgical implants will have been usefully diminished.]]>
AMERICANS have grown accustomed to North Korean nuclear petulance. Now they are learning to live with its cyber sabre-rattling. Earlier this month the Department of Defence delivered a report to Congress accusing the hermit kingdom's expanding army of “cyber-warriors” of using foreign infrastructure, such as broadband networks, to launch cyber-attacks on American allies, most notably South Korea.
Kim Jong Un, North Korea's fresh-faced dictator, is said to have 4,000 loyal cyber-warriors at his disposal. Brightest sparks at the sharp end of Songbun, the North’s rigid social hierarchy, are plucked from school to train as elite hackers. Following graduation they are often posted in China and Europe to wreak digital havoc, says Sun Chul Kim, a cyber-security expert at Korea University in Seoul.
According to American report, cyber-warfare is a cost-effective way for North Korea to boost its military capabilities, which may explain the keen interest Mr Kim has taken in it. Prominent web security analysts such as Rob Rachwald of FireEye, an American firm, agree that the tools used in a recent cyber-attack on South Korea could have cost just tens of thousands of dollars, compared to the estimated $1.3 billion the North spent on its rocket programme last year.
On March 20th thousands of South Korean banking and broadcasting systems were paralysed by a devastating cyber "time bomb" spread unwittingly via the ViRobot Management System, corporate antivirus software made by Hauri, an internet-security firm. When the bomb exploded, it wiped the master boot record (MBR), which stores the information a computer needs to start the operating system. If the MBR is wiped or damaged, the computer system will not start up.
The attack targeted machines running Windows and Linux operating systems, throwing ATMs offline and crippling national television stations. Derek Manky of Fortinet, another American security firm, who led a team of experts sifting through the virtual debris of the virtual bombing alongside the Korean Internet Security Agency (KISA), says it is hard to identify the perpetrators. But at a time of heightened tension on the Korean Peninsula many fingers in Seoul are pointing at the North.
Similar viruses have been deployed before, most notably against Iran in 2012. Parts of the malicious software, dubbed Trojan.Jokra, were written in English, and on an English-language keyboard, according to FireEye. Mr Manky says such outsourcing is common. But it does suggest that if North Korea is behind the attack, it is plugged into the hacker world.
This worries the South. Since the start of the year it has doubled the number of experts at its "cyber-command" to 1,000. As one of the world’s most connected nations South Korea represents a tempting target for cyber attacks. Whereas its government systems are well protected, South Korean companies and individuals often are not: the attacks on March 20th exploited vulnerabilities that were previously known. Digitally deprived North Korea, meanwhile, is one of the safest places in the world in this respect.]]>
LARRY PAGE, Google’s co-founder and chief executive, had plenty to crow about at the firm’s annual developer meeting on May 15th. That day the firm’s share price soared past $900 for the first time and its market capitalisation topped $300 billion. At the event, Google also unveiled a number of new and revamped offerings, including a music-streaming service and plentiful tweaks to its popular online-mapping service. After the presentations were over, some attendees were already speculating that its shares would hit $1,000 before too long.
This time last year Apple’s fans were forecasting that its shares would blast through that target too. But after rising to just over $700 last September, the firm’s share price imploded and its stock now trades at $429. Could Google suffer a similar fate?
There is certainly a great deal of hype around the company, just as there was around Apple early last year. Everything from Google Glass, the firm’s smart specs, and its driverless cars are hogging headlines. But its core search business—and the online advertising associated with it—is the key to the company's success and that is still pumping out impressive profits. The stunning rise of Google’s Android mobile operating system is also boosting use of the firm’s search and other services on smartphones and tablets. At the conference, Google revealed that Android has now been activated on 900m devices worldwide, up from 400m a year ago.
Google is also seeking more revenue from things such as its new music-streaming service, Google Play Music All Access, which is being launched in America first before being rolled out to other countries. The firm’s offering, which beats to market one that Apple is widely rumoured to be developing, competes with services such as Spotify and Pandora and costs $9.99 a month for a subscription (or $7.99 for those taking up a trial offer before June 30th).
One cloud hanging over the company was also largely dispelled this week when Mr Page revealed more information about an ailment that has been the cause of some concern amongst investors. In a post on Google+, the company’s social network, Google’s chief executive said he has a rare nerve condition affecting his vocal cords that has left his voice softer than before, but he stressed that this has not impaired his ability to run the company.
All of this means that Google’s stock will rise further, though there is no guarantee it will pass the $1,000 mark. As Apple’s experience shows only too clearly, fickle investors can turn quickly on a tech company at the slightest whiff of bad news. Mr Page and his fellow executives will need to keep Google’s profits growing steadily and its innovation machine pumping out more sexy new offerings such as Glass in order to cement its status as one of the stockmarket’s great hits.]]>
THE accelerating pace of modern life is a common lament but American firefighters have more reason to complain than most. In the 1970s draughty homes filled with furniture made from natural materials were slow to burn. It typically took a quarter of an hour or more for an accidental fire to reach flashover, the point at which everything flammable in a room spontaneously ignites. These days, thanks to well-insulated modern homes and fixtures stuffed with hydrocarbon-based foams, flashover can happen in less than three minutes. This may sound counterintuitive, since fire feeds on oxygen and better insulation keeps more oxygen out. But it also prevents heat from escaping, causing it instead to build up inside, which is a bigger worry in large fires.
As a result, firefighters no longer have the luxury of scouting out a domestic blaze before it takes hold. That can be deadly. "If you're caught in a room when flashover occurs, you're pretty much guaranteed to die," says Ed Walker, director of the Massachusetts Firefighting Academy. This is especially true in America, where firefighters "tend to be aggressive and want to go inside to fight fires", he adds.
Tragically, flashovers have killed dozens of first responders in the past decade, despite improvements in protective clothing. Ironically, modern fireproof suits may themselves be partly to blame. In the past, firefighters would have physically felt the heat building towards flashover and have been forced to retreat. In today's fully encapsulated suits, they must rely instead on visual cues that flashover is imminent, such as flames rolling over the ceiling or a scrumpled-up ball of paper bursting alight. These folkloric warnings are dangerously imprecise.
For the past five years scientists at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Massachusetts have been trying to understand flashovers in order to predict exactly when they will occur. They have conducted a series of test burns to simulate different types of house fires, in wooden structures built to mimic standard American homes. One included an actual sofa, armchairs, television, carpeting, doors, windows and curtains.
The WPI scientists found that high temperatures alone were not enough to trigger flashover. If hot gases from burning materials could leak out of the room, flashover was unlikely. As real world elements such as plasterboard sheeting and furniture were added, a layer of super-heated toxic gases would be able to accumulate near the ceiling. Once that layer was radiating enough energy to the room below, flashover was inevitable, even if the air temperature below was relatively cool.
"The paper ball test turns out to be true," says Kathy Notarianni, head of WPI's department of Fire Protection Engineering. "If you can imagine yourself to be a ball of paper, you can predict when flashover will happen." WPI's system uses hardened thermocouples and thermal flux sensors to do just that, following the progression of the fire and constantly re-calculating a countdown to flashover. Its computer model is rather inaccurate at first but improves as flashover approaches. Within the final thirty seconds it becomes very accurate, giving firefighters a crucial last ditch alert.
"All we need to do is get outside the room. Even 10 or 15 seconds' warning could be enough," says Mr Walker, whose academy hosted the WPI tests. Notarianni has also adjusted the system to predict flashover 20 seconds early, giving firefighters an additional safety cushion. The next step is to get the flashover predictor out of the lab and into real fires. WPI has received a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to miniaturise the system to fit into firefighters' helmets, a process that will require electronics rugged enough to handle the infernal conditions inside a fire.
That leaves one problem to solve. The prototype gave the best results with sensors mounted one foot beneath the ceiling of the test structures. But because that is also where the hottest gases collect, firefighters sensibly navigate burning buildings on their hands and knees. Hot headed firefighters will have to keep their wits, and their paper balls, about them for a little while longer.]]>
WITH many of his friends and family getting on in years, Babbage has had perforce the chance to compare how the elderly are cared for professionally in America, Britain and Japan. In all three, the private facilities he has visited have been broadly similar and their costs much the same. But one thing stands out about the places the old and infirm are cared for in Japan. Whether they be nursing homes, geriatric hospitals or hospices, all seem to suffer a dire shortage of nursing staff. Being an inventive people, though, the Japanese have come up with some nifty solutions. The rest of the ageing world would do well to take note.
Blessed as they are with a healthy diet, plenty of unavoidable exercise and near universal access to cheap medical services, it is no surprise that the Japanese live longer than practically any other nationality. With an average life expectancy of 82 years for women and 79 for men, Japan has more than its share of octogenarians and nonagenarians.
Thanks to a rapid decline in its fertility rate over recent years (now down to 1.3 births per woman), Japan is also ageing faster than any other country. In 1990 only 12% of Japanese were over 65. In 2010, 23% were. By 2025 an estimated 33% of the population will have become senior citizens. No other country has seen so swift a reversal of its demographics.
This speedy change has focused the minds of Japanese health officials. All the more so as it has occurred while the young have migrated faster than ever to big cities in search of better jobs and services, leaving older relatives to fend for themselves in the provinces. Once the rule, inter-generational families—with children, parents and grandparents all living under the same roof—have become a rarity. A lot of long-living, solitary folk thus now find themselves in desperate need of professional care.
The waiting lists are lengthy. The trouble is not building facilities, but finding trained people to do the job. In 2010 the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare reckoned Japanese nursing homes and hospitals needed 2m professional carers to look after the country’s 30m elderly and infirm, but managed to attract only 1.3m. By 2025 the ministry expects the country to need 4m such workers.
One way to plug the gap would be to employ foreign nurses. Unfortunately, rather than being welcomed, foreigners seeking to work in Japan are discouraged as a matter of national policy. Japanese immigration authorities issue no more than 50,000 work visas a year—remarkably few for a country of 128m people. These visas go mainly to ex-patriot professionals with job offers from firms in Japan, or to “exotic dancers” seeking work in hostess bars and the like. The result is that, unlike other countries, Japan has few foreign nurses ready and willing to do the caring jobs locals prefer not to do, but which desperately need doing.
As the Japanese see it, the answer is not cheap foreign workers, but lots of cheap Japanese robots. This comes as no surprise. There is a profound belief in Japan that the application of ingenious hardware can be relied upon to solve most problems.
The development of caring robots could certainly reduce the work load on nurses, while enriching the quality of life for elderly patients. Researchers reckon people with impaired motor skills could benefit from robotic help with hygiene, eating meals and picking things up from the floor.
Because of the country’s vast experience with automation for the motor and electronics industries, Japanese researchers have tended to focus on developing nursing robots that can grasp or fetch things. Far less attention has been given to machines capable of performing trickier and more delicate tasks like washing, wiping, shaving or brushing a patient’s teeth. The trouble with anthropomorphic robots capable of such dexterity is that they are invariably complex and expensive—costing $200,000 or more.
They can be heavy, too. Robots can typically lift no more than 10% of their own weight. A nursing robot capable of lifting, say, a full-grown man and putting him in a bath or a wheelchair can weigh as much as a car. The possibility of a one-tonne robot becoming unbalanced and toppling on a patient does not bear thinking about.
Such issues have begun to give Japanese researchers pause for thought. The consensus now is that, rather than building robots capable of doing a nurse’s job, a better approach might be to develop “assistive mechanisms” that help nurses or patients do the chore themselves. With limited functions, such motorised assistants could help the elderly perform their daily activities, while reducing the burden on nursing staff.
A typical example is the Hybrid Assistive Limb manufactured by Cyberdyne, a nine-year-old robotics venture founded by Yoshiyuki Sankai of Tsukuba University. The battery-powered suit functions as an exoskeleton, sensing and amplifying the wearer’s muscle action when he attempts to lift or carry heavy objects. The suit can be used by carers for picking patients up off a bed. Or it can be worn by patients to help them move around and do things for themselves.
Over the past two years, Cyberdyne has delivered 330 motorised suits—costing a modest ¥178,000 ($1,780) apiece—to various hospitals and welfare facilities in Japan. It is the world’s first assistive nursing mechanism to be certified under a draft international safety standard for personal robots.
Health and welfare officials in Tokyo have clearly been impressed. Starting this fiscal year, the government is to provide subsidies covering half to two-thirds of the development cost for firms working on assistive robots with sticker prices of ¥100,000 or less. Officials hope to get a bill through the Diet (the country's parliament) that would modify the national health insurance scheme, so the elderly could hire such aids for little more than the cost of renting a wheel chair.
Apart from a motorised exoskeleton like the Cyberdyne device, the plan envisages three other assistive devices, each costing less than ¥100,000. One is a small, battery-powered trolley that helps the infirm to walk by themselves. The second is a portable, self-cleaning bedside toilet. The third is a monitoring robot capable of tracking and reporting the whereabouts of patients suffering from dementia. The government wants all four to be in production by 2016.
That Cyberdyne can sell its battery-powered exoskeleton for the price it does—even though it is manufactured on a limited scale—suggests Japan’s well-established mechatronics industry should have little difficulty mass producing assistive robots for the price the government has set. Babbage expects Japanese robot-makers to be flooding America and other export markets with cheap, single-purpose caring machines before the decade is out. As far as he and his ageing circle are concerned, they cannot come soon enough.
Lately, though, your correspondent has found that even many of those he contacts for work, mostly his (mature) generation, appear to have, to all intents and purposes other than personal ones, dispensed with e-mail. This makes sense for private citizens, but people involved in companies and enterprises?
Rohin Dhar, one of the founders of Priceonomics, a product price-tracking site, writes via e-mail (naturally) that he keeps his e-mail address off his site and his various personal profiles because it simply isn't necessary to provide it. Mr Dhar maintains a LinkedIn account, which allows a connection, but only for his direct contacts, those who cadge an introduction and those who pay for premium services. (Facebook also allows an unconnected party to pay to send a message.) "It's not really so important that people have an easy way to contact me," he explains. Plus they can always try to accost him on Twitter.
Bunnie Huang, an American hardware designer who currently lives in Singapore, also keeps his current address off websites, partly to stem and prevent the endless stream of spam aimed at addresses that may be harvested by "scraping" webpages: downloading and extracting anything that resembles an email address on them. Mr Huang says this is also because he makes an effort to try to respond to every e-mail that comes into his inbox. Should the volume soar, he would either give up more of his work hours or disappoint those who write to him.
It is not totally impossible to find an address for Mr Huang, Mr Dhar or others who take a similar attitude. And you can always try to guess, though Babbage desisted, on the reasonable assumption that someone who intentionally hides his e-mail prefers not to be harassed via it. But Mr Huang says that he has played with this notion. On his blog he occasionally offers strange competitions, as he calls them. The winner needs to e-mail him to provide a mailing address. "It's the last test," he says. Figure out the e-mail to secure the prize.]]>
Of course, another phone or camera could always capture the image or video while it is displayed. Now a firm in Utah called Decipher Forensics has something for those with an irrepresible urge to recover compromising images sent to them, but who find that method too much of a hassle (or don't have another device handy). It has found that temporary images are stored for long enough that, with the right tools, they can in fact be easily extracted.
Snapchat, invented in a fraternity house, lends itself to a practice known as sexting: sending salacious photos to partners. Unlike multimedia messaging (MMS) or e-mail, Snapchat claims to ensure that the glimpse of flesh is fleeting. To be fair, Snapchat appeals to more than prurient youths. It also provides an antidote to the persistence of Facebook, Instagram and other services for storing pictures and videos. Of the 150m images that pass through Snapchat each day (compared with 40m for Instagram) most depict innocent and prosaic parts of life that senders do not wish to become part of their permanent record.
So many Snapchat users must have shuddered when, on May 9th, Decipher Forensics published a paper describing how Snapchat's process of deleting a photo on Android phones involves renaming the image file with a ".nomedia" suffix. This hides it from straighforward access, but is a far cry from the app's vaunted irretrievability (The paper does not discuss a similar procedure for the iPhone.)
The paper offers enough information that those with some technical chops can reproduce the steps. Alternatively, you can pay the firm to recover Snapchat's "deleted" pictures for you (fees start at $300). Decipher Forensics' high-minded justification for such prying is that it may be useful to law enforcement for cases involving minors (though it by no means limits its offer to government agencies).
Snapchat, which could not be reached for comment, should be able to fix this specific problem quickly with a small tweak to its software. Nor does the technique lend itself to casual retention of incoming images. But the Utah firm's findings underscore just how hard it is becoming to keep things to yourself in the digital age.]]>
350 is a popular number among people concerned about climate change. That is because 350 parts per million (ppm) of carbon-dioxide in the atmosphere is the level that, in the words of James Hansen, a prominent climate scientist, is needed “to preserve a planet similar to the one on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted”. Today the ratio is nudging 400ppm, the highest since the Pliocene, 4m years ago, when Canada was a tropical jungle. This prompted some, including the UN, to suggest 450ppm, which should limit warming to 2ºC, as a more realistic goal.
All the same, 350 has become a rallying cry, especially for the younger generation which will bear the brunt of global warming but as yet lacks the political clout to do much about it. It is also the name of a network launched in 2008 by Bill McKibben, the aim of which is to shift the fight against climate change out of high politics and onto the streets—or at least to places where youngsters hang out.
Rather than lobby for change in dysfunctional, and old, Washington, DC, 350 has spent the past five years spreading the word around college campuses, religious organisations and municipal authorities, for instance pressing them to shed stakes in fossil-fuel firms. The outfit does not just argue that such investments are immoral, but also that they are risky (as we wrote last week, if governments were determined to implement their climate policies, a lot of energy firms fossil-fuel reserves, on which their stock valuations hinge, would have to be left in the ground).
Such arguments have so far convinced four American colleges and a big church in Australia to dump shares in fossil-fuel-related businesses and to invest in renewable energy instead. At the local-government level, ten American cities, including Seattle, San Francisco and Madison, have committed to similar divestments, persuaded, among other things, by 350’s lobbying.
Mr McKibben, a former journalist for the New Yorker and author of “The End of Nature”, published in 1989 and widely regarded as the first book on climate change for a general audience, co-founded the network with seven undergraduate college students. It now counts thousands of volunteer organisers in 188 countries.
Perhaps 350’s most famous day of action was October 24th 2009, when it co-ordinated 5,200 separate demonstrations in 181 countries. This was made possible in part thanks to 350's 132 chapters in 57 countries and helped by its large social-media following: with 138,000 Twitter. In fact, Mr McKibben claims that 350 has now managed to hold rallies in every country on Earth bar North Korea.
In June 350 will host 500 young grassroots activists and climate-conscious political leaders at the Global Power Switch conference in Istanbul, to be followed by a slew of smaller, regional summits. The shindig was ten-times oversubscibed, says Mr McKibben.]]>
IN “SKYFALL”, the latest James Bond movie, 007 is given a gun that only he can fire. It works by recognising his palm print, rendering it impotent when it falls into a baddy’s hands. Like many of Q’s more fanciful inventions, the fiction is easier to conjure up than the fact. But there is a real-life biometric system that would have served Bond just as well: cardiac-rhythm recognition.
Anyone who has watched a medical drama can picture an electrocardiogram (ECG)—the five peaks and troughs, known as a PQRST pattern (see picture), that map each heartbeat. The shape of this pattern is affected by such things as the heart’s size, its shape and its position in the body. Cardiologists have known since 1964 that everyone’s heartbeat is thus unique, and researchers around the world have been trying to turn that knowledge into a viable biometric system. Until now, they have had little success. One group may, though, have cracked it.
Foteini Agrafioti of the University of Toronto and her colleagues have patented a system which constantly measures a person’s PQRST pattern, confirms this corresponds with the registered user’s pattern, and can thus verify to various devices that the user is who he says he is. Through a company called Bionym, which they have founded, they will unveil it to the world in June.
Bionym’s first plan was to sell just the heart-identification software, in the hope manufacturers of phones, tablets and the like would embed into their devices a sensor that could use it. This would mean that, like James Bond’s gun, such machines could be operated only when the owner was touching them. The firm’s managers, though, quickly realised that persuading device-makers to do this was never going to happen. So instead, the company developed its own device: a wristband called Nymi that talks to other machines by way of Bluetooth and tells them that the person wearing it is, indeed, who he says he is. Nymi might thus, for example, replace passwords for its wearer’s computers. It might unlock and start a car. And it could even stand in for house keys or be used to verify financial transactions that currently need a PIN.
You can’t lose your heart
Biometric recognition systems, from hand geometry, via face recognition and fingerprints, to iris recognition, are becoming more common. But none has yet swept the board, partly for the reason Bionym found when it tried to get device-makers to put recognition hardware in their machines: manufacturers do not want the expense and hassle of doing that. Nymi gets rid of this problem.
ECGs are also difficult to clone. Cloning a biometric marker takes two steps. First it must be “skimmed”. In the case of an ECG, this means duping someone into touching a surface that can record his heartbeat. That makes ECGs more secure than, say, fingerprints, which can be recovered from nearly anything that has been touched.
The second part of cloning is replication—or “spoofing”, in the jargon. People have, for example, fooled fingerprint readers by making jelly replicas. Spoofing an ECG-based system would be much harder. The wristband can sense whether it is in contact with a person, so a con man would have to use electrical components to imitate both the ECG and the body.
One obvious worry is that a person’s PQRST pattern might change beyond recognition in response to exercise or—over a longer period—as he aged. But according to Karl Martin, another of Bionym’s founders, neither of these things is actually a problem. An elevated heartbeat does not change the shape of an ECG, just its frequency. And five years’ data collected by Dr Agrafioti’s group suggest age does not change it much either.
There is always the question, of course, of whether people will want to wear the wristband. But that might be dealt with by the development of smart watches that do lots of other things as well. Several large companies are thought to be working on these. Whether such watches will have other Bond-like qualities, from laser cutters (“Never Say Never Again”) via grappling hooks (“The World Is Not Enough”) to unzipping dresses from afar (“Live And Let Die”) remains to be seen.]]>
Daimler, the German carmaker which owns car2go (and produces the two-seat Smart hybrids in its fleet), launched the service in Ulm in March 2009, and began its roll-out in earnest in late 2011. Car2go recently set up shop in Seattle, Babbage's haunt. The firm enrolled 18,000 members in the city during its first 90 days, when it waived the £35 registration fee and offered some free service, too.
The firm has set its boundaries to cover all of Seatlle except some of its outermost reaches, as well as the University of Washington's campus (which has its own parking rules). A car may be parked temporarily anywhere during a trip, including far outside of the home area, so long as a member ultimately returns it to any point within the local zone.
In the United States, car2go has no minimum recurring charge (again, in contrast to ZipCar). Members who join in one city may drive cars elsewhere in the same country, though not yet across borders. The usage rate is $0.38 per minute up to a maximum of $13.99 per hour, or $72.99 per day. Cars may be driven any distance, but a fee of $0.45 per mile ($0.28 per kilometre) is added after 150 miles (240km). A 17% tax is levied on the fees.
A car may be reserved up to 30 minutes in advance at no cost, but you may also pick up any available car without prior notice, so long as no one else has booked it. Until a trip is formally ended, charges accrue whether the vehicle is parked, idle or in traffic. As with other car-sharing services, petrol, maintenance and insurance are included, making them a better deal for those with no car—and thus no separate insurance bill—than those with existing vehicles.
A car2go vehicle may remain at any two-hour or longer kerbside parking spot, whether it is a metered space or a free one. The company pays parking authorities to let its cars remain in on-street parking spots indefinitely, although the rules as to which spots qualify vary by town. In Seattle this amounts to $1,300 per car each year. Users still need to pay for parking in shorter-duration spots.
By deploying plenty of cars—322 in Seattle at the last count, with 250-500 in most other cities except Berlin, which boasts 1,200—and enabling one-way trips, the service allows taxi-like flexibility. People can, say, drive to a meeting point in separate vehicles but car-pool home, or use a car when hurrying to a meeting but take a bus back home. The firm's boss, Nick Cole, says it has considered joining forces with an airport parking lot, as it did in Austin, Texas, last month. This would undercut taxis, buses and park-and-fly drivers.
In principle, the service is predicated on the idea that users will shift cars about in such a way that they do not all end up in one place. This appears to be true in practice, too, although some businesses in several cities in which car2go operates have complained about its vehicles being legally parked for days at a time, displacing customers.
Your correspondent used the service for a recent trip to his doctor, where he would remain for an unknown period while having tests and waiting for results. Before departing, he checked car2go's real-time map, and spotted a vehicle a few blocks away. He also checked about the quantity of cars around his destination. A 10-mile trip mostly by highway set him back roughly $5 in one direction and $10 for the congested return journey. A cab ride would cost at least $29.50 in good traffic each way. Driving there yourself would cost in each direction $6 between petrol and a portion of depreciation and insurance, according to current mileage reimbursement rates set by the Internal Revenue Service.
Babbage released his car on arrival at the doctor's office. When his appointment was over, he walked a few blocks for lunch, and then checked the map again, this time through the firm's smartphone app. The same car happened to be free, as were four others within a short walk, and he used it to return home, parking it across the street from his house. Within an hour it was gone again, presumably picked up by another punter.
Some kinks need ironing out. The smartphone app, for instance, cannot be used to lock or unlock cars or enable a trip, even though all vehicles have a mobile broadband connection (a special card and a four-digit PIN are required instead; the key sits out in the open inside). Its satellite navigation technology has a distinct whiff of a five-year-old gadget. Nevertheless, car2go is a welcome addition to the "multi-modal" transit system that Seattle has stitched together in order to enable seamless travel by a combination of car-sharing, buses, commuter rail, light rail and streetcars. And another fine example of the inexorable rise of the sharing economy.]]>
The custom-built Shred Stop is slightly bigger than an office photocopier. The price is $2.50 per minute, but material may be fed in quite rapidly; it can cope with 50 sheets of paper at a go. This works out to about $0.75 per pound ($1.65 per kilogram) for an average customer. Efficient types who make clever use of a 30-second pause button to organise batches can shred a pound for as little as $0.50. This makes the Shred Stop competitive with or even cheaper than drop-off services where the material is put into locked bins and picked up regularly for destruction.
The amount of plastic and other materials is about 3%, the rest being high-quality paper. This allows the shredded and compacted effluvium to be treated as top-class raw material by recycling firms. Iron Mountain, a corporate shredding contractor, empties and services the kiosks, which automatically update the Shred Stop's website to show how full a unit's hopper is and let customers know which ones to avoid if carrying shedloads of stuff. Mr Hershman says customers will travel up to a few miles to use the kiosk, and that his system remains a reasonable investment of time for up to a few boxes, after which he recommends working with Iron Mountain or other contractors.
Mr Hershman and his partner originally conceived of the system as a freestanding outdoor shop in a grocery parking lot, such as the photo and locksmith drive-through services of yore. But markets typically do not own their parking lots, and such little shops have become unpopular over time. Instead, stores now offer a variety of new kiosks to attract customers and revenue, such as CoinStar for processing pocket change into cash or retail credits, and RedBox for DVD rentals.
Recently, Shred Stop entered agreements to put devices in Seattle-area stores run by Safeway and the Kroger chain, which operates thousands of shops across America. The first units will be shipped out of the region shortly, first to San Francisco. With the fear of identity theft constantly stoked by the media (not entirely gratuitously, it must be said), the Shred Shop has its work cut out.]]>
Orphan works have long been a pain for archivists, who are keen to digitise millions of books or years of film footage but unable to gain permission from rights holders who are dead, disappeared or disinterested. The British Library estimates that 40% of the copyrighted work in its archive is orphaned; the Imperial War Museum stores 2m photographs that have no identified owner. Organisations that make use of this content risk lawsuits should the rights-holder re-emerge. In 2011 a copyright review carried out for the British government declared that legislation enabling the licensing of orphan works would aid researchers, spur innovation and drive economic growth.
That ambition now enters law as a short section within the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act, a jumble of measures designed to bolster businesses that was published on May 2nd. It allows the government to grant firms or organisations the right to use orphaned material, providing “a diligent search” for the copyright owner is first carried out. It also allows for the creation of an organisation that might levy licensing fees on behalf of absent content creators—and which would pay out to rights holders who subsequently discover their work has been sold.
The law will encourage the profitable use of work that currently lies in limbo, and perhaps help reunite it with its creators. But it has dismayed photographers and news agencies, who fear their pictures will be swept into the scheme. Images incorporated into books, magazines and other materials are more likely than other types of content to end up orphaned; photos uploaded and shared on social media sites are commonly stripped of metadata that identify their creator. Snappers fret they will be forced to use costly copyright registries to reassert ownership of their work. They warn that the law could enable unscrupulous resellers to hoover up personal photos posted online.
These fears might be swiftly dismissed but for the new law's vague and broad language. The text omits vital details which will be published later as secondary legislation. It fails to specify what kind of orphaned content the law will apply to, who will be entitled to use it, or how a “diligent search” is defined. Such scantness compelled politicians to throw a similar clause out of the Digital Economy Act, passed in 2010. “It is lazy government,” says Iain Connor, a copyright expert at Pinsent Masons, a law firm. He regrets that the rule was bundled with unrelated legislation, not debated as a stand-alone copyright law.
Those uncertainties mean the law must be judged on the quality of the regime it inspires. Opponents warn that poorly drafted rules will hurt independent content creators more than large media firms (the British Library found that half of all orphaned books are by self-published authors, who are harder to trace than those with corporate patrons). Yet Britain's authorities are also hoping to make it easier and less costly to track down copyright holders by part-funding "The Copyright Hub", a directory of copyright databases which launches in July. And fears that families will lose control of their holiday snaps are overblown, in part because these are often easy to trace back to a social networking profile where their owner may be identified.
Britain is not the only country grasping for a solution. An EU directive passed in October already grants public institutions, like museums and libraries, the right to disseminate orphan works (member states have two years to enshrine those rules in national laws). But because it enables commercial use, Britain’s law is more ambitious, and more controversial. “This is not a passport to wide scale use of other people’s content,” says Alastair Shaw of Hogan Lovells, a big legal outfit. Rights-holders of all stripes hope the nitty-gritty of the new system, to be published in the next few months, will make that very clear.]]>