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September 4, 2004

Chew Britney Spears' Gum?

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You can - maybe.

There are currently over two dozen pieces of used Britney gum up for bid on eBay.

The pieces sell for hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars.

One has a $14,000 bid.

There are other artifacts if you don't chew gum; cigarette butts, a tissue, and an allegedly Britney-used bath towel and soap.

But watch out: there are fakes out there too.

September 4, 2004 at 09:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

BehindTheMedspeak: Got Dyslexia? Learn Chinese

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Robert McGough's story in Wednesday's Wall Street Journal caught my eye.

It seems that brain scans of Chinese children reading light up differently than those of Western children reading Western languages.

The study, published this week as a letter to the journal Nature,

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suggests that specific brain miswiring leading to dyslexia in an English reader might not do so in a Chinese one.

Here's the Wall Street Journal story.
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WallStreetJournalLogo

Dyslexia Manifests Differently For Chinese Readers

Scientists scanning the brains of Chinese children as they read have found that the Chinese writing system puts demands on some different parts of the brain than Western alphabetical writing systems.

The study by Chinese and U.S. scientists, published as a letter to the journal Nature, was said by the researchers to be the first to scan the brains of dyslexic Chinese readers.

It suggests that helping dyslexics in China will require different methods than those used in the West.

The study also lends tentative support to the possibility that specific brain miswiring leading to dyslexia for an English reader might not lead to dyslexia for a Chinese reader.

Dyslexia is a severe reading disability in people of normal schooling and intelligence.

Li-Hai Tan, senior author of the study, and an associate professor of Linguistics at the University of Hong Kong, said an estimated 2% to 7% of the Chinese population is dyslexic.

Estimates of dyslexia in the U.S. usually run from 5% to 12%.

The lead author on the study was Wai Ting Siok, also at the University of Hong Kong.

In the study, MRI scans were done of 16 Chinese children from 10 to 12 years old, including eight normal readers of Chinese and eight with reading difficulties.

The researchers found differences in the functioning of brains of the normal and dyslexic readers, just as differences have been found in brain scans of English-speaking readers.

However, the regions used by the normal and dyslexic Chinese readers were in some instances distinct from the brain areas used by readers of Western, alphabetic languages.

Brain-imaging studies of dyslexic Western readers have found deficits in the left temporoparietal region of the brain, located toward the middle and upper part of the brain on the left.

That is where the brain maps alphabetical symbols to phonemes, or the sounds that letters represent.

The dyslexic Chinese readers ran into trouble in a different part of the brain known as the left middle frontal gyrus, located toward the front of the brain on the left.

That area of the brain is known to map written symbols to meaning, and written symbols to syllables.

The researchers said differences in Chinese writing from Western writing account for the different work done by the reading brains.

Chinese characters contain elements indicating both symbolic meaning and pronunciation of syllables, which are larger and more complex sounds than the sounds indicated by letters in an alphabet.

Guinevere Eden, director of the Center for the Study of Learning at Georgetown University, in Washington, called the study "important and innovative."

She added: "Reading is not a skill that is innate, and hence the mechanisms that the brain will draw upon to accomplish this task are likely to differ depending on the demands of a particular writing system."

In Hong Kong, Dr. Tan said, intervention programs for dyslexic children "all follow Western traditions, emphasizing phonological awareness of spoken words."

The new study suggests shifting the emphasis to teaching "effective links among visual shape, sound and meaning of characters."

He also said that some dyslexics in English and other alphabetic languages might fare better through a "whole word" approach to reading, a technique that has declined in favor in recent years compared with phonetic teaching methods.

Dr. Tan said one prior study had found that some dyslexic English-reading children were able to quickly master "the English equivalents of Chinese characters."

He said the differences in demands on the brain found in the current study could account for that intriguing ability.

September 4, 2004 at 06:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

BehindTheMedspeak: 'Virtual colonoscopy not ready to replace traditional method'

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That's the news from the American Gastroenterology Association's president, Dr. Emmet B. Keefe, speaking for the group at their annual meeting.

Really?

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Think his conclusion has anything at all to do with the fact that his society's members make the bulk of their money from traditional colonoscopies?

Nah, couldn't be.

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What a cynic I am, a total discredit to my profession.

But stop, wait... what's that sound?

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Everybody look, it's the virtual colonoscopy radiologists

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gathering 'round.

September 4, 2004 at 03:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Slobodan Milosevic, Ted Kaczynski, and Linda Tripp are now on U.S. postage stamps - for real

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Jessica Mintz wrote an amusing story for Thursday's Wall Street Journal about the attempts of thesmokinggun.com to game the new USPS vanity postage stamp program.

They submitted Lee Harvey Oswald, Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic (currently on trial for war crimes), and Linda Tripp, Monica Lewinsky's old bud, to the service to be put on stamps.

Surprise: only Oswald was rejected.

The stamps featuring the other three are now legal postage.

Here's the article.
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Custom Stamps Put Dogs and Dictators On Your Envelopes

When Stamps.com launched a service that turns any digital photo into a custom postage stamp - a vanity stamp of sorts - the company anticipated portraits of Spot, the family dog, not the spot on Monica Lewinsky's infamous blue dress.

But the Smoking Gun Web site decided to use the latter to prove a point.

"We thought it was ridiculous - a way to raise revenue by letting anyone put their mug on a stamp," says William Bastone, editor of thesmokinggun.com, a site owned by Court TV that collects celebrity mug shots, quirky court reports and government documents.

"For the longest time, stamps [were reserved for] statesmen, people who helped do incredible things for the country.

Now it's devolved into Daffy Duck and every manner of dopey thing," he says.

So Mr. Bastone and his colleagues decided to push the envelope. Some of their more egregious submissions for the stamps, like a mug shot of Lee Harvey Oswald, were swiftly rejected by Stamps.com.

But pictures of a high school-aged Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic and Lewinsky confidante Linda Tripp - along with Ms. Lewinsky's dress - are now legal postage.

"We designed the PhotoStamps product with a family orientation in mind," says Stamps.com Chief Executive Ken McBride.

So far, 40% of the 40,000 stamps ordered have been pictures of babies.

Pets - many dressed in costumes - make up 15%. The stamps cost about twice what the U.S. Postal Service charges.

The Smoking Gun "took great lengths to game our system," Mr. McBride says.

A staff of 35 at Stamps.com screen incoming photos, and are constantly being trained (mostly by surfing the Web) to recognize inappropriate yet obscure faces. Over a thousand images have been rejected for taste or copyright concerns, according to criteria the company sets, Stamps.com says.

The Postal Service authorized Stamps.com to conduct a two-month test of PhotoStamps, starting Aug. 10.

The USPS declined to comment on what would happen to the service after the trial ends.

Instead, a spokesman noted that the service's next official stamp will feature John Wayne.

September 4, 2004 at 03:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Beluga caviar - $3,000 a pound... and it may not even be the real thing

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We go now from the sublime - Trader Joe's "World's Largest Salted Cashews" - to the ridiculous.

The United Nations Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora has halted all caviar exports worldwide until further notice.

As a result, the legal supply of Caspian caviar in the U.S. is likely to dry up once the 2003 harvest is consumed.

Lots of black-market caviar is available in the U.S., some sold as low as $132/lb. on eBay.

Caveat - or, should I say, caviar - emptor.

FunFact: a recent study employing DNA testing of so-called beluga, osetra, and sevruga caviar from a variety of dealers, both high-end and low, revealed that almost all of it was not what it was reputed to be.

Go for the cashews, would be my advice.

Here's the full story, from Wednesday's New York Times.
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NYT

World's Caviar Faces a Ban

by Christopher Pala and Florence Fabricant

The United Nations agency that controls trade in endangered species has halted exports of caviar until the countries where it is produced comply with an agreement to protect sturgeon, an official of the agency said yesterday.

The main exporting countries, those that border the Caspian Sea, have failed to provide an accurate measurement of how much much sturgeon is illegally harvested, the official, Jim Armstrong, deputy secretary general of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, said in an interview at the agency's headquarters in Geneva.

The countries had not complied with a conservation agreement signed in 2001.

It took affect this year, and the agency has not issued new permits since January.

As a result of the ban, the legal supply of Caspian caviar in the United States - the osetra, beluga and sevruga that sells for up to $3,000 a pound in the West - is likely to dry up once the 2003 harvest is consumed.

Prices are already rising.

International trade in the world's 20-odd varieties of sturgeon has been regulated by the agency since 1998, after a drastic rise in poaching.

Last year, Iran, Russia, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan exported 150 tons of beluga, osetra and sevruga caviar from the Caspian.

The agency has also frozen much smaller exports of those species from the Black Sea; of Amur River sturgeon from China and Russia; of Canadian sales of four Great Lakes varieties to the United States and even of American exports of paddlefish roe to Japan.

The agreement, which was signed in 2001 and came into force this year, does not affect the international trade in caviar taken from farmed sturgeon, a tiny but fast-growing industry in California, France and Italy.

Nor does it affect domestic markets, including that in Russia, where most illegal caviar is consumed.

Exporters cannot legally ship caviar without a permit from the agency. In the United States, the Customs Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service check incoming shipments for the necessary export permits and other paperwork.

Officials of the United Nations agency do not believe that there is much illegal sturgeon fishing in Iran, the other major exporter of Caspian caviar, but as a signer of the 2001 agreement it is subject to the ban.

Dr. Armstrong said the illegal trade in Russia may be so great that there might not be any legal quotas issued in the foreseeable future if the total catch was counted accurately.

He also said the reasons for denying the export quotas outside the Caspian Sea varied.

For the Great Lakes sturgeon, he said it was because the United States and Canada had failed to submit a joint management proposal.

All the high-quality fresh beluga, osetra and sevruga in importers' warehouses is from the 2003 catch.

Paramount Caviar in Long Island City, Queens, received some 2003 Iranian two weeks ago and Hossein Aimani, the owner of Paramount, said he has enough caviar on hand to tide him over through the holiday season.

Fresh caviar, when properly cured and then shipped under refrigeration and stored at about 29 degrees Fahrenheit, has a shelf life of about 18 months.

The expiration date on tins of 2003 Iranian osetra that Rod Mitchell of Browne Trading in Portland, Me., received last week is May 2005.

But plenty of black-market caviar is available in this country, as well as caviar that may have been frozen or is two or even three years old.

Caviar listings on eBay show unbelievably low prices, like $34 for four ounces, for Russian caviar that is best avoided.

Reliable wholesalers who also sell caviar to consumers - like Browne Trading, Petrossian and Paramount, to name a few - are probably the safest sources, in terms of quality and dependability.

Fresh caviar can vary in color from jet to pale gray to gold and even to ivory.

The individual eggs can also vary in size, but should be consistent within an individual tin.

They should be glistening and moist, but not soupy or broken, which might indicate that they have been stored poorly or frozen.

They should also not be excessively hard or dry, which means they may have been pasteurized or may simply be too old.

A mild sea-breeze aroma is typical, but a strong odor or any offensive smell is reason to reject the caviar.

Chefs say they will make do.

"If we couldn't get imported caviar in the restaurant," said Jonathan Benno, the executive chef at Per Se in the Time Warner Center, "we'd probaby use American farmed sturgeon caviar from California."

Some chefs, including Rick Moonen of RM, already rely on farmed American sturgeon roe and roe from other kinds of fish.

Some dealers are trying to be optimistic, saying sources, especially in Iran, expect the agency may soon allow exports of the 2004 catch, and that the delay is due mainly to bureaucratic problems in Russia.

But Dr. Armstrong held out little hope for that.

"We had a similar case in Jamaica," he said about poaching.

"They had a quota of 1,200 tons of queen conch. When we asked them to take into consideration the poaching by fishermen from Haiti and the Dominican Republic, they estimated that was worth 800 tons. So we cut their quota from 1,200 tons to 400 tons, and that gave them the incentive to crack down on the poachers. This year we increased them to 550 tons."

But cutting down on poaching in Russia and Kazakhstan will not be as easy as chasing off foreign fishermen from coastal waters.

In both these countries, according to fishermen, traders and local officials, poaching, negligible during the Soviet period, has become a way of life in the past 15 years of economic upheaval and widespread corruption.

Most estimate the illegal catch at many times the legal one.

September 4, 2004 at 12:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

'World's Largest Salted Cashews'

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That's how Trader Joe's bills 'em, on sale now for $6.49/lb., either salted or unsalted.

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bookofjoe tip: buy equal amounts of each, then mix 'em together.

Just the right amount of salt, and not one solitary, perfect, sodium chloride crystal more.

FunFacts about cashews here.

September 4, 2004 at 09:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Bjork's quest to become the world's strangest pop star

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That's how reviewer Shannon Zimmerman began her recent piece about the Icelandic native's latest album, "Medulla."

She calls it Bjork's "least conventional album ever."

And that's saying something.

Here's her review, from Wednesday's Washington Post.
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Washpost

Bjork's 'Medulla' Touches a Nerve

In her quest to become the world's strangest pop star, Bjork Gudmundsdottir (yep, she has a last name) has tapped a seemingly bottomless well of weirdness.

Most are familiar with the infamous swan-dress gambit, of course, a high-fashion don't that found Bjork dressed as a fine feathered friend at the 2001 Academy Awards.

But the cuddly-cute singer has also gained notoriety in recent years for decking a pesky reporter at a Bangkok airport, for going AWOL from the set of Lars von Trier's "Dancer in the Dark" - and for promptly retiring from the silver screen after dangling from a noose at the climax of that twisted film.

Bjork's latest, "Medulla," is a beguiling but austere CD that's best left to hard-core fans. (Atlantic Records)

Bjork first gained fame outside her native Iceland with a band of spastic post-new wavers, the Sugarcubes.

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In the 'Cubes, the prodigiously talented (and classically trained) Bjork opted to share lead vocals with Einar Benediktsson, a boorish ranter whose main contribution involved serving as the band's onstage heckler.

The group wowed crowds anyway, thanks almost entirely to the pint-size Bjork's outsize charm and to "Birthday," a shimmery slice of alt-pop canon fodder whose precocious lyrics might make even Lewis Carroll blush.

As a solo artist, Bjork has kept up the weird work, collaborating with orchestras and computer programmers, remix mavens and visual artistes.

Along the way, she's issued a steady stream of sophisticated, futuristic albums, mesmerizing platters that somehow manage to be both difficult and easy listening at the same time.

On the best of them, 1995's "Post," Bjork even uncorked a high-steppin' show tune - albeit one that came outfitted with plenty of her patented shrieks, grunts, whispers and belly-growls.

With antics like that, of course, the $64,000 question quickly becomes: So what else you got?

On "Medulla," Bjork's latest and most arresting album, the singer offers a look-ma-no-hands kind of answer: It's her first a cappella effort.

Or at least mostly. Sensuous set-opener "Pleasure Is All Mine" comes wrapped in a gorgeous chorus of multi-tracked Bjorks, but the track, like several others here, is also powered in part by gently throbbing percussion that sounds like a beating heart.

And if you listen closely to tunes such as "Who Is It," an elastic, radio-ready pop song that could easily revive Madonna's career, and "Mouths Cradle," a purported ode to the pleasures of breast-feeding, you'll catch the occasional whoosh and squiggle of synthesizers, too.

Still, Bjork's voice is "Medulla's" lead instrument, and as ever, it's a gale force of nature.

On "Sonnets/Unrealities XI," jealous words become percussive tone poetry, while "Show Me Forgiveness," appropriately enough, sounds like an invocation sung by a priest with one heavenly set of pipes.

Elsewhere, on the thumping "Where Is the Line," Bjork chips in with the catchiest whistled hook this side of Peter Gabriel's "Games Without Frontiers."

For Bjork neophytes, "Medulla" isn't the place to start.

It's a beguiling disc, but austere, too - a thing of beauty if not exactly a joy forever.

Longtime fans, on the other hand, are likely to find it dazzling.

"Medulla" is the least conventional album their favorite elfin woman-child has ever made.

And given Bjork's track record so far, that's quite an impressive feat.

September 4, 2004 at 06:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

The rise of Wi-Fi - Philadelphia Freedom, indeed

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David Caruso's Associated Press story, which appeared in Thursday's Washington Post, ought to scare the bejeesus out of the telephone companies - both wired and wireless - as well as the cable giants.

Philadelphia plans to make the entire city a WiFi hotspot, either free or dirt-cheap.

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Those of us paying $40, $50, $60 or more a month for this utility will not be willing to do so much longer.

Big trouble, real soon, for the dinosaurs.

Add VOIP capability, and you're talking wirelessly, free, to anyone in the world, anytime you want, for as long as you like.

WBOJ and KBOJ are back on track.

Also, note that Tuesday's Financial Times reported that HotSpot Amsterdam launched city-wide WiFi service this past Monday with seven base stations, another 40-60 coming within three months, and the entire city to be covered by the build-out to 125 antennae.

Thus will all of Amsterdam become a wireless hotspot.

Motorola and Nokia have started to add WiFi technology to their cellphones, anticipating the next big thing in communications.

Here's Caruso's story.
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Philadelphia Plan Would Give WiFi Access to the Whole City

Free or Cheap Wireless Service Could Threaten Businesses

Forget finding an Internet cafe. For less than what it costs to build a small library, city officials believe they can turn all 135 square miles of Philadelphia into the world's largest wireless Internet hot spot.

The ambitious plan under discussion would involve placing thousands of small transmitters around the city, probably atop lampposts.

Each of these wireless hot spots would be capable of communicating with the WiFi network cards that come standard with many computers.

Once complete, the $10 million network would deliver broadband Internet almost anywhere radio waves can travel, including neighborhoods where high-speed Internet access is now rare.

The city would likely offer the service either for free or at costs far lower than the $35 to $60 a month charged for broadband delivered over telephone and cable TV lines, said the city's chief information officer, Dianah Neff.

"If you're out on your front porch with a laptop, you could dial in, register at no charge, and be able to access a high-speed connection," Neff said.

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If the plan becomes a reality, Philadelphia would leap to the forefront of a growing number of cities already offering or considering a wireless broadband network for their residents, workers and guests.

Chaska, Minn., a suburb of Minneapolis, began offering citywide wireless Internet access this year for $16 a month. The signal covers about 13 square miles.

Cleveland has added about 4,000 wireless transmitters in its University Circle, Midtown and lakefront districts.

The service is free for anyone who passes through those areas.

At 2:20 p.m. Tuesday, 1,016 people were logged in to the system, said Lev Gonick, chief information officer at Case Western Reserve University, which is spearheading the project and paying for part of it.

"We like to say it should be like the air you breathe - free and available everywhere," Gonick said.

"We look at this like PBS or NPR. It should be a public resource."

But free, citywide Internet access would appear to pose a competitive threat to businesses such as phone carrier Verizon Communications Inc. and cable provider Comcast Corp.

Both companies have invested heavily in upgrading their networks to provide high-speed Internet connections for a monthly fee.

A free service might also hurt Verizon's wireless business, which is spending $1 billion to upgrade its network with a technology that will enable speedier Web access for laptops and mobile phones.

John Yunker, an analyst with Byte Level Research, said those companies could face a serious challenge if cheap or free WiFi proliferates.

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"When you see initiatives like Philadelphia's, you are conditioning people to expect free or very low-cost Internet service. And that is going to be a problem for providers who have built a business model around charging a fee," he said.

While business users might be willing to pay extra for reliability or national coverage, a free service might prove more than adequate for more recreational Web use, Yunker said.

As it stands, a typical WiFi transmitter such as those used in homes, coffee bars and airports is at least several times faster than the broadband connection provided by high-speed cable or DSL over a phone line.

And thanks to surging demand, the cost of those hot spots and WiFi computer cards has fallen sharply in recent years.

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At the same time, a glut of capacity on wired networks built during the technology boom has made it cheaper to deliver Web traffic to and from WiFi hot spots.

Neff, for example, estimated it would cost Philadelphia $1.5 million a year to maintain the system.

The main drawback to WiFi is that the signal travels only several hundred feet.

But the "wireless mesh" technology being considered by Philadelphia and other cities essentially joins those individual hot spots into a network to provide service across entire neighborhoods.

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Philadelphia Mayor John F. Street, who carries a wireless handheld computer everywhere he goes, appointed a 14-member committee last week to work out the specifics of his city's plan, including any fees or restrictions on its use.

Elsewhere, New York City officials are negotiating to sell six companies space for wireless transmitters on 18,000 lampposts for as much as $21.6 million annually.

Corpus Christi, Tex., has been experimenting with a system covering 20 square miles that would be used by government employees.

September 4, 2004 at 12:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

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