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.
On the plus side (Eds: see the minus side below), Hewlett-Packard today is set to announce what it describes as a breakthrough in building nano-sized computer memory. The company has developed a technique for building a matrix of super-thin platinum wires atop a piece of silicon. So small is the resulting 64-bit memory unit that 1,000 of them could fit on the end of a single strand of hair. Even in the world of PCs, that’s small.
Chalk up another casualty of the Hewlett-Packard/Compaq merger. For two years, Bruce Perens was an in-house evangelist for the Linux operating system at computer giant HP. He would go around extolling the virtues of the open source software to corporate clients, pointing out that it was secure, cheap and kept customers from being locked into proprietary systems like Sun Solaris or Microsoft Windows. In fact, it appears to have been his self-acknowledged baiting of Redmond that eventually did him in. Perens was canned by HP, which finds itself post-merger as the single biggest buyer of Windows for PCs and servers and thus, as the New York Times’ Steve Lohr put its, more dependent on Microsoft than ever. But don’t expect Perens to go quietly into that dark night. “I’m sorry that I had to leave HP, but I’m not going to shut up about my views,” he said. “I’m not just going to sit back and be a quiet engineer. I have a two-year-old son and I don’t want him to grow up in a world that is less free.”
Dual use technology usually starts out with a military use that civilians find a way to commercialize. The U.S. Navy is hoping to turn that equation around with a $5 million program to improve breast cancer detection. As it happens, looking for a cancerous cell in a human breast relies on a lot of the same science as identifying targets in spy satellite photos. And since the Navy believes its current pick-’em-out technology has hit a ceiling, it hopes to develop advances in breast cancer screening that can be applied to spotting Osama bin Laden from space. Wired has a terrific story on this, and notes that real-world applications are already emerging.
A Los Angeles County woman has tested positive for West Nile virus in what is likely to be the first case of a person contracting the illness west of the Rockies, state health officials said today. Today’s preliminary results are expected to be confirmed by further tests next week. The unidentified woman, who is being treated for meningitis, had not traveled outside the region, which would indicate that the infection, if confirmed, occurred locally. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 43 people have died so far this year from the disease, which is spread by mosquitos (or possibly through organ transplants).
From Barney W. Greinke in Berkeley:
“When people point out the great technological accomplishments of the 20th century, they usually think it’s the big things that are the most important ones. The atom bomb, jet airplanes, the Salk vaccine, electronic computing, DNA, men on the moon.
“How incredibly wrong they are.
The good thing about using silicon in electronic components is that it is abundant and easy to dope with other materials to help control how electrons flow through it. The bad thing is that it becomes unstable at high temperatures, say above 150C. Diamonds are also pretty easy to dope, and can handle temperatures up to 400C with ease, but natural diamonds are lousy with impurities that can ruin electric flow. And man-made ones are comprised of many small crystals whose borders likewise interfere with a circuit’s feng shui. But New Scientist reports today that researchers have developed a synthetic diamond film comprised of a single crystal that may be terrific for chips and such. “In the short term, the new diamond electronic components are likely to be too expensive to replace everyday silicon chips, which in any case work well for many applications. But diamond components may be useful in specialised applications,” the magazine says. Likely uses include flat panel displays, big radar systems and space craft.
THOMPSON SAYS FOOD SUPPLY VULNERABLE TO ATTACK
The number of U.S. food inspectors has risen over the last year, but Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said the nation is still vulnerable to an attack on its food supply. It was clear even before Sept. 11 that the Food and Drug Administration’s inspection system had big holes, the Associated Press reports, with 150 inspectors together examining less than one percent of the nation’s food. After last fall, Congress opened the purse strings enough to hire 750 additional inspectors, and new technology has made some inspections faster. But Thompson said danger remains. “I still believe that is the area we are subject to a terrorist attack in the future and one that could cause problems.” In perhaps the most shocking part of Thompson’s coments, he blamed the previously low number of inspectors on a vindictive Congress that punished the agency for former FDA Commissioner David Kessler’s efforts to regulate the tobacco industry.
DUST-SIZED CHIPS TO COMBAT BIOTERRORISM
Silicon chips the size of dust particles that can quickly detect biological and chemical agents have been developed by University of California, San Diego scientists. As reported by HealthScoutNews, the versatile chips can identify substances that can be dissolved in drinking water or sprayed into the air during a bioterrorist attack. “The idea is that you can have something that’s as small as a piece of dust with some intelligence built into it, so that it could be inconspicuously stuck to paint on a wall or to the side of a truck or dispersed into a cloud of gas,” UCSD researcher Michael Sailor said. Each chip is barcoded, and can be read using a laser detector to see what if any reaction has occurred. “When the dust recognizes what kinds of chemicals or biological agents are present, that information can be read … to tell us if the cloud that’s coming toward us is filled with anthrax bacteria or if the tank of drinking water into which we’ve sprinkled the dust is toxic,” Sailor said.
Chalk up mass-washings as another activity wrecked by the spectre of terrorism. Thirty years ago, a call for volunteers to strip to their skivvies, as the coy Washington Post puts it, would have signaled some post-Summer of Love fun. These days, it refers to a far more sober scrubbing: the debut of a new $350,000 chemical, biological and radiation decontamination facility at the Inova Fairfax Hospital in northern Virginia.