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Uncertain futures


Wednesday, August 28, 2002

Cats and dogs innocent

Far from increasing a baby's chances of developing allergies, early childhood exposure to household pets has a protective effect.
'Exposure to two or more cats or dogs in the house during the first year of life reduces the probability that a child would have any positive skin test to common allergens by about 50 percent', according to US medical researcher Dennis Ownby. He's just done a study tracking almost 500 children. There's a good report in the Boston Globe, with more detail here.

Friday, August 16, 2002

Mad Cow risk not over

Research published last week suggests the risk of catching variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, the human form of Mad Cow disease, from blood transfusions is significantly greater than previously supposed. Now British hospitals are to import US blood because of worries that the UK supply may be contaminated.

The blood is to go only to children under six years old. Anyone older than that in the UK may already have been exposed to contaminated food.

So far there have been 122 confirmed cases of vCJD in the UK, six in France, and one in the US. Canada has just had its first confirmed case.

The worry with CJD is that more than ten years into the epidemic there is still not enough information to estimate its eventual scale. It may turn out to be a rare killer, or as common as cancer or heart disease. Unlike these better-understood conditions, vCJD is invariably fatal.

Back in 1992 Bruce Sterling wrote a story called Sacred Cow (Omni Jan 1993). It follows an Indian film crew making Bollywood musicals against the backdrop of a devastated Britain. Following a pandemic of CJD among meat-eaters, India and Japan dominate the world.

Tuesday, August 13, 2002

More early ID thieves

In the very first book of the Bible Jacob pretends to be his elder brother Esau. His objective is to trick his blind father Isaac into blessing the wrong son. He accomplishes this by dressing in Esau's clothing and taking dinner to his father, a task normally performed by the senior son.

There have been countless stories involving identity theft in the years since. In the 1973 film The Day of the Jackal the assassin played by Edward Fox creates several false identities for himself. On one occasion he steals a passport and alters his appearance to resemble the picture. On another he fools the paper-based bureaucracy of the time into giving him a genuine passport in the name of a long-dead child - by taking details off a gravestone. The film ends without his true identity ever being discovered.


Feds get tough on ID thieves

Or at least they do according to this piece, written by a Fed on an Internet opinion site. His basic point is that new crimes demand new countermeasures - and they are beginning to arrive, with the courts imprisoning more ID thieves.

He may be right. But I'm not sure that the wider perception that new technology automatically makes us more vulnerable is correct. Identity theft (impersonating someone to further a crime) has a long history, and doesn't require computers.

The wolf in Little Red Riding Hood needed only a nightdress to pose as Ms Hood's granny, not advanced computer hacking skills. What makes us vulnerable to deception is the unfamiliar, as this retelling of the classic tale make clear.

One of the roles of fiction is to prepare us for situations we haven't encountered yet. So in the long term storytellers may be as important as judges and police in giving us the ability to survive new threats.

Thursday, August 01, 2002

British Jews rallying to Israel

Most of Britain's 300,000-strong Jewish community are rallying around Israel, according to the Independent. Even those with misgivings about Israeli policy see now as a time to close ranks.


Army equipment unfit for desert war

In any future desert war the British army could face big problems with its equipment. In a recent exercise in the Gulf, guns jammed, boots melted and radios were useless. Tanks ground to a halt after only a few hours, engines clogged with sand.

The problems are catalogued in a report by the UK's National Audit Office into a two-month long exercise that pitted 22,500 British troops against the desert in Oman last year.

The Independent has a good summary of the equipment failures, while the Telegraph has more background on the shortcoming.

The goverment is seeking to minimise the political fallout by downplaying the problems. The press release announcing the report is a classic of understated spin. But - with war in Iraq looming, more practical steps to provide better equipment are presumably underway.


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