Sample News Briefs

by Michael McGinnis

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WeirdTech: Telecommunications Tidbits (2001-2002)

In 1940, on the eve of World War II, two inventors in California were brainstorming the concept of a radio-controlled torpedo. But how to keep the Nazis from jamming the signal? They devised a scheme, similar to a player piano, to make both the transmitter and receiver quickly hop between 88 random frequencies. The invention became known as spread-spectrum technology, later used worldwide for wireless communication, but only after the patent had expired in 1959. And the main inventor? Movie star Hedy Lamarr, who had learned about torpedos during an early, failed marriage to an Austrian arms exporter.

Tired of trying to watch a good movie while, in the row just behind you, a cellular conversation drags on and on? France recently passed a law allowing devices that will “scramble” cellular signals in theaters and auditoriums. Though the European Commission must first clear their use, the French Autorité de Régulation des Télécommunications (ART) says the gadgets should be approved in France by early summer. Until then, warns the ART, jamming cellular signals in French movie theaters is still punishable by law. So is strangling obnoxious cell phone users.

It isn't R2D2, but Sprint is developing a short-statured robot to ease the isolation of telecommuting. The Digitally Enhanced Network Appliance Project (DENAP) developed by Frank Denap (hmm - coincidence?) won't keep you company at home, but rather, will represent you at the office as a "wireless videoconferencing unit on wheels." Suppose you want to talk to your boss or ask a co-worker a question. The droid, presumably with a live image of your face on its screen, will roll across the floor to begin the conversation on your behalf. Participating in departmental potlucks will still be a problem.

Japan's Zojirushi Corporation has released the i-pot, an Internet-enabled hot pot that produces boiling water for tea and lets caregivers remotely monitor the users' tea-drinking patterns. The idea is that regular drinking of tea by a Japanese senior, reported in twice-daily emails or on the web, indicates his or her well-being. The company hopes that the families of elderly people might buy the i-pot for their parents or grandparents, when they don't live close enough to check on them themselves.

In Sweden, where more than 70% of the people have both Internet access and mobile phones, customers at B+W Supermarkets don't need to wait in the checkout line anymore. They simply scan the bar codes on the items they want to buy, and the total is automatically billed to their credit card. The "smart homes" in the community of Varmdo feature self-propelled lawnmowers programmed to emerge on schedule to cut the grass automatically by using sensors implanted in the sod, then to return to their sheds.

In an attempt to boldly go where no human has gone before, wireless content provider Versaly Games has bought a license to use material from four Star Trek series and nine films. Versaly already owned a Jimi Hendrix license. The new deal won’t result in beepers that can be set on “stun,” nor will doctors be able to diagnose injuries by waving a Nokia over their patients. Instead, Versaly wants to sell Star Trek ringtones, pictures of the cast, interactive games and audio-visual clips for download to the full-color screens of next-generation wireless phones. Punch in your credit card number and you can beam down Scotty.

Caribbean leaders are trying to end the 130-year-old telecommunications monopoly which Cable & Wireless (C&W) has held since the English-speaking islands were under 19th century British colonial rule. In 2000, C&W netted $428 million, almost 40% profit, on their Caribbean enterprises. Because of C&W’s exclusive licenses, a typical business in Barbados shells out $10,000 per month for a T1 line. And that’s half what they used to pay before a competitive Internet company forced its way into the market. While North America has 95% telecommunications coverage, the Caribbean has 34%. C&W officials defensively claim that’s still pretty good – most of the world has less than 15%.

Please turn off all wireless devices before reading the next item. In September 2001 at TAKEOVER: the Ars Electronica Festival in Linz, Austria, composer Golan Levin premiered “Dialtones: A Telesymphony,” a musical work performed entirely through the ringing of the audience's mobile phones. Before the concert, audience members registered their cellphone numbers at a Web kiosk. In return, they received an assigned seat for the show and a new ringtone for their phone. Musicians performed the symphony by speed-dialing the phones using special software. According to the web site, “Towards the end of its half-hour composition, Dialtones builds to a stunning crescendo in which nearly two hundred mobile phones peal simultaneously.” I can imagine.

Sure, your new cellphone has Enhanced Voicemail, Wireless Web and Call Return. But if you bury it in a landfill, will it decompose with decency? That's what researchers at Nokia want to know. According to a report in The Net Economy, Nokia has succeeded in developing a biodegradable shell that will break down in a couple of months, but it had other problems and won't be available in stores very soon. Meanwhile, American inventors are trying to come up with disposable cellphones. If the Finns and the Americans don't get together first, we may have a problem...

Telecommunications satellites are awfully expensive, so can we make do with an airplane? Marc Arnold hopes so. Since 1994, backed by Raytheon, he has pursued a dream of putting "communications planes" into the air. Circling at 51,000 feet over major American cities, members of the HALOstar fleet would act as very, very tall communications towers. Arnold expects that each plane could provide wireless broadband services to customers over a 30 mile radius, at 50 megabits per second. Test flights in 2000, piloted by two crew members in space suits, set three altitude records. According to The Net Economy, all Angel Technologies needs now is another $50-$100 million in funding to put the first three planes in the air, and some spectrum licenses for the 20 GHz-plus transmissions. Other groups, including the U.S. military, are testing the same technology.

About 62,000 cell phones were left in the back seats of London taxis in the first six months of last year. Cabbies say, "It happens to me about every other month." They also found 2,900 laptops and 1,300 palm computers. Most of the phones are never reclaimed, since British cell phone companies will give you a new phone to keep you from changing carriers. One patron misplaced his suitcase full of diamonds; another left behind $2,900 in cash; a third customer forgot a goldfish (in a bag of water).

Why didn't we guess that gall bladder surgery could be done by remote control? Last September, doctors in New York gave it a whirl. They decided to operate on a 68-year-old French woman - while she was still in Strasbourg, France. It took a high-speed network and surgical robots, but wouldn't you know it, that ol' gall bladder came right out. Experts say this technology will allow doctors to work together in a distant location, even when they're thousands of miles from each other. “I felt as comfortable operating on my patient as if I had been in the room,” one of the surgeons said reassuringly. When the doctor touched the robotic mechanism in his New York office, he saw the scalpel move in France, via high-speed fiber optics, less than two-tenths of a second later. Minimizing the delay is rather crucial, for everyone involved. Surely your company could offer this service, perhaps as an employee benefit. By the way, how's your gall bladder? Er... leave nothing to chance.

When you can't say it precisely enough with flowers, let a stuffed animal say it for you. TheBuild-A-Bear Workshop lets your special ones hear a 10-second recording in your own voice when they press the toy's tummy. "A perfect way to say 'I love you', 'Will you marry me?' or 'You got the job,'" says Maxine Clark, the company's CEO. Customers ordering stuffed bears from the web site can dial a tollfree number, enter a passcode and record a 10-second message. The technology may be useful in business management as well. How about a "get back to work" bear?

MediaWatch (1992-1994)

NEW YORK CITY (LAR) - Today a smaller percentage of elderly people are disabled or institutionalized. Dr. Eli Ginzberg of Columbia University reports that two-thirds of those entering nursing homes are back out in three months. The percentage of elderly people who are disabled has declined 16.3 percent since 1982. And a new study in the New England Journal of Medicine finds that the percentage of Medicare costs for patients in the last year of their life has remained consistent since 1976, about 29 percent of the total budget, half of it paid in the last 60 days of life.

NEW YORK CITY (FFL) - When the Alan Guttmacher Institute asked 1,000 sexually active girls, 16 and younger, what subject they wanted more information on, 84 percent chose "How to say no without hurting the other person's feelings."

NORWAY (LAR) - Instead of causing suicidal depression, having children actually prevents it, according to the Archives of General Psychiatry. Norwegian researchers found that single, childless women have a higher suicide rate than married women with children.

GALVESTON (PRI) - A UT-Galveston virologist believes that HPV (human papilloma virus), a widespread sexually transmitted disease, causes cancer by infiltrating its way into human DNA. In a Duke University study, one-third of penile cancer tumors contained some DNA typical of HPV. HPV is more noticeable in women; in fact, cervical cancer caused by HPV kills more American women than HIV (AIDS). Younger girls are most likely to be afflicted with such "sexually transmitted cancer."

ST. LOUIS (NRTL News) - Instead of suicide being a sensible choice for a terminally-ill person, a 1981 Missouri study found that 94 percent of those who commit suicide are mentally ill, replicating the results a 1974 British research project. The suicide rate for terminally ill patients is only 2-4 percent. Psychologists see suicide attempts as a cry for help, and a 30-year Swedish study discovered that only 11 percent of those who survive suicide attempts ever kill themselves later, once they realize that others want them to live.

TAMPA (ALL) - Margaret Bonnell's boss took up a collection of pennies in a wicker basket to pay for her abortion. When she had a baby girl instead, he fired her. (She is now suing him.)

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