The Bacteriaophage

Back in the 1920s and 1930s, millions of dollars were poured in to the study of bacteriophages – viruses that kill bacteria but are otherwise harmless to humans. Back then, diseases like cholera and dysentery were running rampant throughout the planet, and millions died from those two diseases alone. But then Alexander Fleming discovered the antibiotic properties of penicillin in 1928, and Western medicine dropped bacteriophage study almost en masse to move into the new and sexy world of antibiotics.

Looking back on it now, that was a pretty boneheaded move. The overuse and misapplication of antibiotics has helped to hasten the day when bacteria become resistant to many (if not most) types of antibiotics. You see, not every single bacterium is affected equally by an antibiotic. Some antibiotics merely weaken a bacterium until the antibiotic ceases to be administered. Other bacterium might be completely immune to an antibiotic. Regardless, the important thing is that those bacteria most able to survive against antibiotics are the ones that survive and multiply. And given the short life of bacteria in general, natural selection can work its magic in months or even days, instead of the centuries and millennia that humans tend to associate natural selection with. Staphylococcus aureus is not only one of the most common infections in hospitals, it’s one of the hardiest too, having developed resistance to penicillin as early as 1947. MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) is now considered to be “quite common” in British hospitals. And to show you what a problem its become, MRSA was the cause of 37% of all fatal cases of blood poisoning in the UK in 1999; less than a decade earlier, only 4% of blood poisoning deaths in the UK were caused by MRSA.

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One-Hit Wonders

Like pornography, “one-hit wonders” are hard to define, yet people know them when they see them.

A “one-hit wonder” is technically defined as “a band that has a single hit song in a nation’s official music charts, then fades into obscurity forever”. But, in reality, it’s a bit more complicated than that.

For example, it’s often implied that the “one hit” is huge, like Los del Rio’s “Macarena”, Baha Men’s “Who Let the Dogs Out?” or Chumbawumba’s “Tubthumping”. This is to differentiate it from a long-running, well-respected indie band who just happened to have one song peak at #39 in the mainstream charts. I call this the “Pixies Clause”, because although the Pixies had a long career and several hits on the US Alternative charts, most mainstream music fans only remember them for “Where Is My Mind?” (a song, incidentally, that was never a single).

But even this is open to interpretation. The Swedish band a-ha landed at #8 on VH1’s “100 Greatest One-Hit Wonders” list of 2002, not to mention countless “One-Hit Wonders of the 80s” lists. But the band actually had two Top 20 singles in 1985: “Take On Me” reached #1 while the arguably better “The Sun Always Shines on TV” reached #20. Similarly, Great White are often considered one-hit wonders for their #5 hit “Once Bitten Twice Shy”, even though “The Angel Song” also made it to Billboard’s Top 40.

Geography is integral with one-hit wonders. A band can be hugely successful in one country but still be considered a one-hit wonder in another. Sweden’s The Cardigans had ten Top 40 singles in the UK, yet are thought of as “one-hit wonders” in the US for their hit “Lovefool”, which became popular after being featured in Leonardo DiCaprio’s version of Romeo + Juliet. Other geographically-hindered bands in the US include Nena, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Dexy’s Midnight Runners and Crash Test Dummies. Flipping it around, Brownsville Station and Alphaville are considered one-hit wonders in the UK, even though both had more than one hit single in the US.

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Industry “Standards”

Anyone familiar with the IT industry is surely aware of the hundreds of “industry standards” that have come and gone over the years: USB, FireWire, PictBridge, 802.11g, Bluetooth, Ethernet, PCI, ISA, RS-232… the list goes on and on. Most of these standards are (were) well thought-out systems created by engineers working with designers and marketing departments. But that’s not always the case. Industry standards are sometimes determined by available components or corporate warfare… or even one man’s random decision! And you can find all three of those reasons in the chequered history of the phonograph record.

As you probably know, the first commercially viable recording and playback system was invented by Thomas Edison in 1877. The system used a needle to cut grooves into a spinning wax cylinder. The only problem with the system was the the cylinder was turned by a hand crank. This meant that you could record something at 30 cranks per second (cps), while your neighbor might record something at 50cps, while the guy down the street might use 60cps. It wasn’t long before Edison’s engineers were asking him to create a “cranks per second” standard so that any recording would play back correctly on any machine. Edison found a machine and played with it for a while before setting on 80cps… “because it sounded right”. No scientific testing, no focus groups, no careful study of the results… just Edison playing around with the machine for 15 minutes.

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How A Flea Spawned The Middle Class

There are around 2.8 billion people in Europe, North and South America, Japan and India. A huge chunk of these people are middle class. Neither rich nor poor, the middle classes are able to obtain comfortable shelter, an adequate supply of food, clothing and basic utilities like electricity and sewer service, as well as education for their children and entertainment for themselves. But I wonder how many people in the middle classes know that they owe their existence… to a flea!

Well, not to a flea, exactly. But rather Yersinia pestis, a bacteria that piggybacked on the flea… which in turn piggybacked on rats in the holds of ships. You might have guessed that I’m talking about the Black Death (a.k.a. the bubonic plague) which happened in Europe and the rest of the world between 1347 – 1351. Little is known about the epidemic outside of Europe except that it was also found in the Middle East, India and China and killed around 75 million people worldwide – around 34 million of which were Europeans. Of course, most of us learned about the Black Death in high school, yet we were often never taught about what the disease actually meant at the time and what happened after the disease had run its course…. which is odd, because one of the most important things to come out of the Black Death was the middle class itself!

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The Sad Saga of Diego Garcia

Imagine a scenario where Venezuela wanted a military base somewhere in the Caribbean and offered the United States a nice discount on oil if it would move the residents of Puerto Rico off their island, demolish all existing structures and lease it over to Venezuela in perpetuity… Sounds improbable, doesn’t it? Perhaps Puerto Rico isn’t a good example – with a modern infrastructure, a population of almost four million people and thousands of American businesses on the island, it would be a monumental task (logistically as well as politically) to pull something like that off. But what if the island’s population was much smaller? Could something like that happen?

Well, something like that already did. You might of heard of the island of Diego Garcia on the news. Located in the Indian Ocean, Diego Garcia is one of the largest American airbases in the world, and planes regularly take off from the island for missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. What you probably haven’t heard is how it came to pass that America got an airbase there in the first place. It’s a story of realpolitik, nuclear weapons, a few thousand Creoles and the mysterious powers of the British monarch.

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REVIEW: Illegal Tender

What: An awesome book by author David Tripp
Where: Bookstores everywhere
How Much: $16.38 from Amazon (as little as $2.70 used)

Would you believe me if I told you that one of history’s greatest mysteries was about… a handful of coins? Author David Tripp makes the case with his book Illegal Tender: Gold, Greed, and the Mystery of the Lost 1933 Double Eagle, a tale of intrigue at the highest levels of government, back-room deals between shady coin dealers, a madness of pursuit worthy of the search for the Holy Grail… and one corpulent and corrupt king.

Here’s the basics of the story in a nutshell:

Theodore Roosevelt had long been critical of the beauty – or lack thereof – of American coinage. In fact, one of the things he was bound and determined to do while in the White House was to remedy this, and to that end he sent a brutally short and to-the-point memo to Secretary of the Treasury Leslie Mortimer Shaw on December 27, 1904: “I think our coinage is artistically of atrocious hideousness.” This memo set off a chain of events that eventually resulted in the hiring of famed American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens to redesign American coins. Although Saint-Gaudens was in ill health – as it turns out, he would barely live long enough to see his designs to completion – he took to the task with gusto, creating new designs for just about every American coin. Sadly though, most of Saint-Gaudens’ designs were simply too complex for the Mint to implement. Striking a coin four times was perfectly acceptable for medallions, but it just wasn’t cost-effective to do the same for pennies. Of all of Saint-Gaudens’ designs, the only one to be implemented without major alterations would be $20 gold piece, which was nicknamed the “double eagle”. The coin would go down in history as perhaps the most beautiful coin the United States ever minted, and it would enjoy robust circulation for around 25 years.

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What’s a “fish camp”?

When people move from one state to another, they often have a ton of questions when they arrive at their new locale, stuff like “how does voter registration work here?”, “when do I need to change my car’s tags?”, “when’s trash pickup day?”, “how late are liquor stores open around here?” and “what’s the deal with local handgun laws?”. That sort of thing.

Of course, when I moved from Atlanta to Belmont, North Carolina in early 2003 I asked all those questions (and more). But I noticed one thing that seemed to be particular to Gaston Country, North Carolina… the “fish camp”. I gathered (correctly, as it turns out) that a fish camp is a locally-owned restaurant that serves up heapin’ helpins of fried seafood. But why is it a camp? And why are almost all fish camps located in Gaston County?

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Helpful Outlook Shortcuts

Microsoft Outlook is much more than just an email program. Outlook has robust contact, calendaring and tasking capabilities and even has a built-in function to create electronic Post-It notes. However, if all you need to do is create a quick note, it’s kind of a pain to have to open Outlook and click New > Note, especially if your office computer is a PII-300. Fortunately, there’s a way that you can create a new Contact, Appointment, Task, Note, Journal Entry or even email without having to open Outlook itself. The following trick works with Outlook 2000 and higher:

First of all, you need to find the path to OUTLOOK.EXE on your system. With Office 2003, this would typically be C:\Program Files\Microsoft Office\OFFICE11\OUTLOOK.EXE but you or your IT guy might have installed Office to a different location. To find out for sure, click on Start > Search and look for the file named OUTLOOK.EXE. Once you know the path, write it down.

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Installing Office & That Stupid Product Key

I have to install Office all the time at my job. One thing I absolutely hate about it is entering the stupid product key. If you have to install Office on a regular basis there’s an easy way to have the Office installer automatically insert the CD key for you. All you need to do is insert the Office CD-ROM in your computer and edit the SETUP.INI file that’s located in the root of the Office installation CD. When you first open the INI file, you’ll see a section that looks like this:

; If a value is present, the [Options] section gives the values of properties to apply to
; this installation. Specify them in the format:
; PropName=PropValue
; Remember to uncomment both the section name and the value names.
;USERNAME=Licensed User

Delete the semi-colon in front of the [Options] header and add the value PIDKEY= along with your CD-key like so:

; If a value is present, the [Options] section gives the values of properties to apply to
; this installation. Specify them in the format:
; PropName=PropValue
; Remember to uncomment both the section name and the value names.
;USERNAME=Licensed User

Save the edited INI file on your desktop (or Office network share, if you do network installations. If you go this route, you’re done). All you need to do next is burn a copy of the Office CD with the edited SETUP.INI file and the next time you install Office the CD key will automagically be filled in for you.

For more information, click here.

Hedy Lamarr, Adolf Hitler, and your cell phone

Can you name the Hollywood bombshell that partied with Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, then developed a communications system to defeat them both… which is still an integral part of modern wireless communications?

Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler was born in Vienna on November 9, 1913. Aside from being amazingly beautiful, Eva was as smart as a whip, too. When she married her first husband – Friedrich Mandl, a German arms manufacturer – it wasn’t long before she knew his trade inside and out. And it was at various “business social” events that Kiesler ran in to Hitler and Mussolini… which is ironic, because both Kiesler and Mandl were Jewish. Mandl did everything he could do disguise his Jewish background, even converting to Christianity. Mandl was also insanely protective of his wife, and had her followed nearly everywhere she went. Between her husband’s obsessive jealousy and Germany’s ever increasing anti-Semitism, Kiesler just couldn’t take it anymore, so she fled to London.

It was in London that Kiesler met movie legend Louis B. Mayer – the last “M” of MGM. Mayer hired her on the spot and personally changed her name to the one film buffs and geeks everywhere still remember: Hedy Lamarr. She had already appeared in several European films – including the sexually provocative Ecstasy. But it would be in Hollywood where she’d have her greatest success, appearing in Algiers (1938), White Cargo and Tortilla Flat (both 1942) and Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah (1949).

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