Sexy beast

Long, dark manes on male lions are more more attractive to females than shorter, lighter manes, researchers reported in today’s issue of the journal Science. Peyton West and Craig Packer of the University of Minnesota set up dummy lions with different mane types at Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. While males were more inclined to approach dummies with lighter, shorter manes, females were drawn to the dummies with big, dark hair. There’s good reason for this: blood tests revealed that males with darker manes tend to have higher levels of testosterone. But the most-wanted males pay a price for their looks: the dark hairs make the lions hotter, literally, and this extra heat results in a good deal of abnormal sperm.

No ‘Fear Factor’ for Thai goverment

Government officials in Thailand have been whining about the new trend of adopting giant African roaches as pets. Because they make lousy pets? No. Because they’re supposedly filthy. The people of Bangkok — like children in classrooms and museums the world over — are quite taken with the large Madagascar hissing cockroach, and are snapping them up at the popular Chatuchak market. But the goverment is worried that escaped roaches could become a health risk and is asking vendors to stop selling them. The Madagascar hissing cockroach is a docile, slow-paced creature that can grow to 3 inches and live for more than 3 years; its name derives from the fact that it can force air through a pair of breathing pores in its abdomen to make a hissing noise. It has not been established that roaches actually do spread disease, though some people are allergic to the feces of certain species. The hissing roach lives outdoors in the jungles of Madagascar with the lemurs and chameleons, and like 99 percent of roach species is not a household pest. (And check out the roach cam.)

When to pull the cyber trigger

The Washington Post, which built its reputation covering the federal government, has in the last year or two carved out a respectable niche in the tech sector. The two come together in stories like this, in which reporters Ariana Eunjung Cha and Jonathan Krim delve into the debate underway in the Bush administration on the proper rules of engagement for cyberwarfare. Bush’s point man on the topic, Richard Clarke, says it’s still nation-states that pose the biggest threat in the cyber arena, not terrorist groups. The administration has traced break-ins back to foreign governments and even reckons a state may have been involved in developing last year’s damaging Code Red virus. The prospect of more attacks has led the government to explore how far it is willing to go to counter such incidents. The Geneva Convention prohibits attacks on civilians, and given the interconnectedness of computers around the world, any campaign against an enemy military network could seep into computers at large — and even back to the U.S. itself. It’s a fun, thought-provoking read. So go read it.

Long-life contact lenses

A Texas scientist has discovered that a special metal coating could allow contact lens wearers to keep their lenses in for longer periods of time. Coating contacts with a one-molecule-thick layer of selenium, an antibacterial metal, keeps them bacteria-free for at least two months, says Ted Reid of Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center in Lubbock. Although selenium can be toxic to humans in large quantities, these lenses would apparently be safe, with less selenium than you’d find in an average lunch. Reid hopes the coating could be used on other internal devices, like heart valves and catheters, and even suggests selenium-coated molecules could be used to keep people exposed to HIV from becoming infected. In other eye news, new eye-tracking software developed by scientists at Cambridge University could help computer users with disabilities write more quickly, accurately, and comfortably than before.

NASA, Northwest team on mind-reading tech

This is something that’s been talked about for years, though before Sept. 11 it was always in the context of a bank or high-security government facility, not Northwest Airlines. The upshot of this Washington Times article is that NASA and Northwest are teaming to see if mind-reading technology is feasible, and if so, can it be used to mass-screen airline passengers. Opinion is mixed, and no one in this article addresses the pharmaceutical countermeasures that could potentially be employed to calm a guilt- or panic-ridden brain and heart. Still, plenty creepy.

Mice in the news

It has been a big week for the common lab mouse. Tests in mice showed that the deadly botulism toxin could be neutralized with an experimental drug. The drug, fashioned from two antibodies from mice and one from a human, could be mass-produced and thus could be used as a deterrent to the use of botulism toxin as a weapon. In other mouse news, scientists at the Universiy of Pennsylania have figured out that they can turn mice into goat and pig sperm “factories” by grafting testes onto their backs. The technique could be used in the future to make sperm for young cancer patients left infertile after treatment, to help human couples struggling with male fertility problems, and to preserve species close to extinction. The most amazing mouse news of the week? Researchers at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston created a transgenic mouse with Lance Armstrong-like capabilities, able to endure hard exercise for extended periods of time.

Czechs to get vaccinated after flooding

Following devastating floods that submerged central Prague in water and caused 200,000 Czechs to leave their homes, the Czech government said it will be vaccinating 65,000 children against hepatitis A — a liver disease that can spread when sewage systems are damaged and infected feces enters the drinking water. The Czech Republic’s health minister has also asked the government to provide 3.5 million euros for other public health measures. The flooding has killed more than 100 people across Europe and caused billions of euros’ worth of damage. It’s not just the people who are hurting — in the Czech Republic 100 animals died during the evacuation of Prague Zoo.

Avoid skeeter bites, says CDC

In response to outbreaks of West Nile virus throughout the eastern U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has pointed out that the best way to avoid infection is to avoid mosquito bites. West Nile virus is spread by the bite of an infected mosquito, and in addition to humans can infect horses, many species of birds, and some other animals. Fortunately, most people who become infected with West Nile virus will have either no symptoms or mild ones. But on rare occasions, infection can result in West Nile encephalitis, a severe and sometimes fatal inflammation of the brain. (The risk of severe infection is higher for persons 50 years of age and older.) Officials in Washington D.C. have been getting the word out about protective measures people can take after West Nile virus infected a 55-year-old resident, who is now hospitalized with encephalitis. As of Thursday, state health departments around the U.S. have released information on 113 cases of human illness related to West Nile virus this year, including 5 deaths.

IBM (hearts) NY

IBM Wednesday opened a sophisticated semiconductor plant in East Fishkill, NY. The $2.5 billion facility is the single biggest capital investment the company has ever made, and presumably reflects an optimism that things will improve for the tech sector generally, and the beleaguered chip business in particular.

The new factory will make processors for everything from videogames and cell phone to mainframe computers. “The plant also will be the first to mass produce circuits thinner than 0.1 micron, or 1,000 times thinner than a human hair,” the Associated Press reports. “The old standard was 0.25 microns, with some chips now at 0.18 microns. The thinner lines, or conduits, allow chips to run faster and use less electricity.”

When it begins normal production next year, the factory is expected to employ about 1,000 East Fishkillers.

Powell to Congress: UUNET could shut down

FCC Chairman Michael Powell sent a good strong scare into lawmakers Tuesday when he testified that WorldCom might be able to shut down its UUNET subsidiary’s Internet backbone without government approval. UUNET is a major component on the Internet, and its loss could potentially have devastating effects, particularly on corporate and government clients.

“Mr. Powell said he was confident in the long-term health of the telecom industry,” the Wall Street Journal reports. “But in the short term, ‘there are question marks’ about whether the FCC can order a bankrupt company’s Internet subsidiary to keep its backbone operational. ‘I could hypothesize that (the company) would refuse to comply.'”

After Powell’s shake-em-up, Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ernest Hollings, a South Carolina Democrat, said he would introduce legislation to clarify the agency’s authority over Internet-backbone companies like UUNET. The Journal notes that the panel reacted positively to Powell’s request for Congress to strengthen the FCC’s jurisdiction over telecom companies that file for bankruptcy protection, to ensure it can stop them from shutting down essential services.