FBI investigators say photocopy machines were the reason anthrax spores spread so far and so quickly in a newspaper office where a tainted letter was mailed in last year’s attacks. As reported by the Associated Press, federal investigators found spores in all the copy machines in the three-story, 68,000 square foot building. The investigators returned to the building for 12 days armed with new tools and techniques for detecting anthrax. Investigators said they believe the spores spread from the first-floor mail room where the letter was opened, onto reams of nearby copy paper. When that paper was later loaded into copy machines, the anthrax spread both on the sheets of paper and through the air, blown by the copy machines’ internal fans. National Enquirer photo editor Robert Stevens died from anthrax in October, the first of five people to die nationwide in the mailings. A mailroom employee was hospitalized with anthrax but survived.
As if Afghanistan didn’t have enough woes, the country has just lost its main agricultural insurance policy: two stores of carefully selected and maintained seeds representing the biodiversity of the nation’s native crops. The seeds were ruined when looters broke into a storage facility where they were kept and made off with the airtight jars that held them. The seeds themselves were tossed on the ground, and have now been so jumbled together that they are virtually worthless. “It’s like having a library of books with no titles on them,” says Geoffrey Hawtin, director general of the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute in Rome. “All of the [traits you prize] are there, but you no longer know where to look for them.”
This Wednesday was supposed to see the release of the White House’s battle plan for cybersecurity. But the Washington Post and others report that the Bush administration will hold off and seek more industry input. So instead, the world will get another draft of the proposal, which Tiffany Olsen, an aide to White House cybersecurity adviser Richard Clarke, describes as a “living document.” “We wanted to make sure we have buy-in from all the parties involved before the official release comes out,” Olsen explained. Tech companies will have 60 days to comment on the report, with an official launch of the plan now expected by year’s end — or about 15 months after the war on terrorism began. Word in Washington is that the tech industry was unhappy with some of the plan’s proposals, such as the appointment of a privacy czar to monitor how firms handle the personal data they collect from customers.
Scientists have pinpointed a mutation that gives sheep big butts — big, hard, glorious butts. A callipyge sheep has a bottom made of muscle, not fat, due to a changed DNA letter. The Duke University geneticist who discovered the mutation, Randy Jirtle, said that some humans might share the trait: “They’d have relatively large rear ends, and absolutely no fat — like sprinters.” Just like Solid Gold, the first sheep with the trait, born two decades ago. His descendants are called “callipyge” from the Greek for “beautiful buttocks.” In another story about mutating bottoms, scientists at Cornell have discovered that disabling a gene can turn a tomato from round to pear-shaped. Without the gene, appropriately named OVATE, a fruit will grow more at the top, leading to a long neck and bulbous base. The missing gene is likely to be the reason that squash, eggplants, and, well, pears are shaped as they are. Most wild fruit are round, and it is suggested that humans bred elongated fruit for aesthetic reasons. You betcha.
It may be Microsoft’s time to feel a little smug. For years Redmond has been the butt of jokes — and curses — for the vulnerability its systems seemed to have to viruses. Now Linux has fallen prey to a nasty bug of its own, one that has created a giant peer-to-peer attack network from thousands of infected Linux Web servers. Only computer systems running both Apache Web server software and the Linux operating system are vulnerable, New Scientist reports. But that’s a heck of a lot of machines. Once installed on a machine, the Linux.Slapper.Worm tries to forward itself on to other computers. “But unlike many other worms, it also tries to establish connections with computers that have already been infected,” the magazine reports. The bug was first identified Friday, and though characterized by computer security firms as slow-moving, has so far infected an estimated 3,500 machines. In a note accompanying the worm, the author says it was designed as a proof-of-concept for “educational” purposes and should not be used for destructive attacks.
With all the conflicting studies emerging on whether cell phones do or do not cause tumors, Levi Strauss is betting plenty of European guys are willing to err on the side of caution. The clothing manufacturer is launching a brand of pants on the Continent that comes with a special radiation-shielding pocket, to keep any dangerous rays away from the family legacy. As reported by CNET’s News.com, precise details about the nature of the radiation-reducing material are unavailable. A Levi?s representative said that the lining is “97 percent cotton, with the remaining 3 percent being a substance called ‘MDF,’ but was unable to give any further information.” The Dockers S-Fit trousers are scheduled to hit European stores early next year, though there are no plans to launch them in the U.S.
World events got you down? Get your hands on the September issue of National Geographic, the one with the meerkat on the cover. Mattias Klum’s photos of meerkats are guaranteed to brighten your day. Klum has captured the swaggering little southern African mammal in a variety of poses — standing, sitting, eating, mating, foraging. The baby meerkat pictures are just ridiculous, but the funniest photo has to be the meerkats lined up in formation like a high school dance squad at halftime. As National Geographic Editor in Chief Bill Allen is quoted in the issue as saying: “You can never have too many meerkats.”
Texas researchers have developed a vaccine in mice against the deadly toxin Ricin, which has been used in the past as a biological weapon. Ricin is a protein produced by castor beans, making it one of the simplest and cheapest bioweapons to produce. Ricin can be administered in foods, water and through the air, and a single Ricin molecule inside a cell is enough to shut down protein synthesis and kill it. But researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas say that by removing snippets of the Ricin DNA, they were able to develop two strains of mutated Ricin that stimulate an immune response in mice, but cause no harm. The researchers say they believe one or both of the strains would be safe for use in humans. According to the UT team, Iraq is known to have stockpiles of Ricin as part of its bioweapons program, while at least one group associated with Al Qaeda is thought to have experimented with the toxin.
Because the idiot box at chez Science Blog is slowly dying (and was never DVD-compatible in the first place) we’ve been pricing new sets for the last couple months. Conclusion: Flat-panel, plasma televisions are the coolest and costliest around. The models on display at Fry’s, BestBuy and elsewhere tend to be around four-inches thick, between 36- and 42-inches wide diagonally, and possessing the sleek proportions of a movie screen. Price? Try a cool $13,000. If forking over a down payment on a home just to watch reruns of Law & Order makes you blanch — but something deep inside still insists on the latest tech gadgetry — sit tight, says the Wall Street Journal. Prices on plasma screen TVs are dropping fast, as manufacturers like Sharp, Matsushita Electric Industrial and Samsung are flooding the market with their products, and even dowdy old Sears Roebuck has plans to start carrying the machines. Now granted, they’ll still set you back plenty. But sets that once cost better than $10,000 will soon be available for less than half that, the Journal says. And if previous color television pricing is any indication, the technology may be within reach of underpaid columnists by the end of the decade.
Well, it’s not as dramatic as all that. But someone with the tag gernot.hacker snuck into the system and poked around. No damage done, near as I can tell. Impressive that people can get in so easily, though, which is why nothing of value is kept on this site — except all the outstanding science news!
Anyhow, if you’re the one who did this, drop me a line and let me know if you plan to keep this up. Otherwise, if anyone spots something amiss on the site that looks the work of a prankster, lemme know that too.
We now return you to your regularly scheduled science news….
A new reports says that up to half of all U.S. residents may be ineligible for smallpox vaccination because of the growing incidence of eczema. In a report appearing in the September issue of the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, Dr. Renata J.M. Engler from the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC, and colleagues note that in people with eczema, exposure to vaccinia — a relative of smallpox used to inoculate people — or even contact with someone who was recently vaccinated can cause a condition that can lead to scarring, blindness and even death. “A major challenge lies in the ability to protect the population from the disease while minimizing the considerable side effects from the vaccine,” Reuters quotes from their report. The researchers say more studies should be conducted to help identify people who are prone to side vaccinia effects. Others who should avoid smallpox vaccination include people with immune deficiency diseases such as AIDS, and those on immune system-suppressing drugs, such as transplant patients.
So there you are, zipping around the Qwik-E-Mart, picking up a dozen eggs, some beer, a carton of Abba Zabba and some smokes. You pull up to the checkout stand and your bill is already waiting for you. While you’ve been shopping, tags on your goods have been chatting with the store’s cash register, tallying your total. That’s the scenario in play with a new RF (radio frequency) technology being developed at the University of Arizona Optical Sciences Centre, which uses organic semiconductors that live on thin plastic films. As reported by Beyond2000, the centre recently acquired a deposition machine that can make such films, depositing layers of organic molecules 10 to 100 nanometers thick onto a plastic substrate. Look for real world uses in the next couple years. And leave the cigarettes behind; they’re bad for you.