Watching the World
Crime—A Lucrative Business
Organized crime in Italy takes in an estimated $200-240 billion every year, says the 1997 Report of the Commercial Confederation, an association of Italian businessmen. At least $18 billion is said to come from drug trafficking, $11 billion from prostitution, and $15-18 billion from usury and rackets. “Three out of every ten commercial enterprises are managed by individuals or companies connected to criminal organizations; 20 to 25 percent of the banking transactions that take place every day have an obscure origin,” states the newspaper La Repubblica.
Book Reading Remains Popular
Computer technology has yet to change British reading habits, according to a survey by the Policy Studies Institute. As reported in The Times, “nearly half of those surveyed said that they were currently reading a book for pleasure, a proportion that has changed little since 1989.” Women read more than men, and people over 55 are the biggest readers. Cookbooks are the most popular, followed by crime or thriller stories, romance novels, and 20th-century fiction. Although 30 percent of households own a computer, only 7 percent are equipped to run CD-ROMs, the book’s competitor. And unlike a laptop computer, says The Times, an interesting book is not spoiled by grains of sand in its works on a vacation beach or by jostling crowds in a busy subway, and a beautifully produced book can be “as aesthetically pleasing as its contents are nourishing.”
Back to Water
“The long search for a firefighting chemical that does not damage the ozone layer has finally led to . . . water,” states New Scientist. “After dousing a hundred experimental fires, the Norwegian Fire Research Laboratory in Trondheim has come to the conclusion that fine sprays of water are a suitable substitute for ozone-destroying halons, which are still widely used in fire extinguishers.” Halons—compounds of carbon, bromine, and fluorine—suffocate the fires. Water droplets do the same, vaporizing and expanding 1,700 times their original volume to displace the oxygen. The only time they were found to be less effective than halons was in small, smoldering fires that did not reach a sufficient temperature to vaporize the water. But artificial substitutes for halons are still being sought, as water poses another problem: Not much money can be made in selling it.
Doctors in Japan have confirmed that within a month of receiving blood transfusions, patients became infected with the hepatitis G virus, a new strain identified in 1995 in the United States. By reexamining the blood of liver-cancer patients who underwent surgery between 1992 and 1994 at Tokyo’s Toranomon Hospital, the doctors discovered that 2 of the 55 patients had been infected before surgery and that 7 others became infected after the operation. The contaminated blood that each of the 7 patients received came from an average of 71 donors, the doctors said, indicating that 1.4 percent of the blood supply used was contaminated with the new virus. Very little is known about the hepatitis G virus or what percentage of the carriers will yet develop hepatitis or liver cancer, says the Asahi Evening News.
“The Millennium Bug”
“Known as the Millennium Bug, the Year 2000 Problem, or simply ‘Y2K,’” it is “one of the most potentially crippling forces known to modern computing,” says U.S.News & World Report. It began in the 1960’s when computers were expensive and their memory was limited. To save space, programmers wrote dates using only the last two numbers of the year. To the computer, the year 1997 was simply “97.” The problem? “On Jan. 1, 2000, some 90 percent of the world’s computer hardware and software will ‘think’ it’s the first day of 1900.” Mistakes have already been made. “At one state prison, the bug made computers miscalculate the sentences of several inmates who were then released,” says Newsweek. “Some credit cards have been refused at stores and restaurants when their ‘00’ expiration dates confused computers. And in several states truckers have found their interstate licenses canceled when computers couldn’t handle renewal applications with dates past the millennium.” Corporations worldwide will have to spend an estimated $600 billion to change the date codes—and they hope they can do it in the remaining two years.
During the summer of 1996, a common tern established a record for “the longest flight ever made by an animal in the course of migration” for which we have evidence, says the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera. After setting off from Finland, where it was ringed, the tern was captured 18 weeks later in the state of Victoria in Southeast Australia—after a journey of 15,200 miles [24,400 km], covering an average of 120 miles [200 km] a day. The previous record was held by an arctic tern that flew 14,000 miles [22,530 km] from Russia to Australia in 1955. Some other animals whose migrations cover thousands of miles are red salmon, eels, monarch butterflies, green turtles, and humpback whales.
Humpback whales normally take about 102 days to migrate from Alaska to Hawaii, but researchers have discovered one that took just 39 days to swim the 2,775 miles [4,465 km]! The journey represents an average speed of three miles per hour. The same whale has also been sighted in Mexico. Humpback whales migrate to Hawaii to breed because their calves have little fat to withstand the freezing waters of Alaska. Their migration is one of the longest that marine mammals make, reports The Times of London.
That Elusive Fly!
Why is it so difficult to swat a fly? How does it manage to get away so quickly? The secret lies in a structure in its brain called the giant fiber. This is a ribbonlike cell that communicates electrically, rather than chemically, with other parts of the fly’s brain. As a result, the current flows rapidly to the part of the brain that activates jumping and flying, enabling the fly to move out of danger in a few thousandths of a second. In a typical human, for example, it takes about a quarter of a second before the hand can respond to something seen by the eye. Armed with this knowledge of flies, researchers at Britain’s Sussex University are hoping to develop an insecticide that will successfully disable the fly’s reaction, reports The Times of London.
Sea-turtle populations are reaching dangerously low levels because of overhunting in Asia-Pacific waters, reports The Weekend Australian. This led Australia and Indonesia to cohost a conference in Java with a view to improving conservation methods. Because turtles are migratory and carry no national banners, the best conservation programs in one country are of little value if another country on the migratory route hunts the turtles without thought for future stocks. “An estimated 50,000 turtles are killed each year in Bali alone for the tourist trade,” says the newspaper, “and hundreds of thousands of turtle eggs are harvested for food.” Papua New Guinea also trades in marine turtles, including the endangered loggerhead and vulnerable leatherback and green turtles. Other species at risk are the hawksbill, flatback, and Oliver Ridley turtles.
Morse Code Near Death at 150 Years
Over 150 years ago, Samuel Morse, an American inventor, assigned each letter of the alphabet a specific code of dots and dashes. This enabled messages to be tapped out over radio waves by means of a device known as a Morse key. Thousands of lives have been saved at sea when ships in distress used the emergency code SOS. The armies of the world have also made use of this simple means of communication, as have countless amateurs in transmitting messages for pleasure. The great advantage of the Morse code lies in its clarity, an essential factor when a radio operator has a strong accent or cannot speak the language where his message will likely be heard. But Morse messages have steadily been replaced by voice radio contact and satellite communication systems. In 1993 the code was no longer required on seagoing ships. France abandoned the Morse system earlier this year, and by 1999 it will have been phased out worldwide.