February, 2019

Can “dirty” electricity make us sick?

Is electromagnetic field sensitivity a genuine problem? A lengthy article in The Globe and Mail looks at the issue of "dirty" electricity and its possible effects on our health. At issue is the amount of power our PCs, gadgets, and other electrical devices consume and how they can "dirty up" the electrical current running through our homes and offices.HangZhou Night Net

The rise of fluorescent lights, dimmer switches, PCs, and many other modern conveniences has led to a degradation in the quality of the power supply. It’s a known issue to utilities, which have seen a "more complicated" use pattern develop over the past couple of decades. While most people think that electrical problems begin and end with electronics, others believe that they’re far more serious.

For instance, consider those who claim that degraded electrical currents have left them with any number of aches, pains, and other maladies. Kevin Byrne, a 47-year-old Ontario resident who suffered from hip problems and chronic back pain decided to drop a grand on power filters for his house. The result?

But within a couple of days, after months of pain for which his doctor could find no cause, he started feeling fine again. "I said to my wife, ‘This has got to be the placebo effect,’ " he said, referring to the well-known medical phenomenon of patients reporting that they are cured of illnesses after being given a sugar pill doctors suggest will help them.

Anecdotes similar to Byrnes are not uncommon, and researchers are beginning to look into the issue to see if some people are especially susceptible to electromagnetic fields. The World Health Organization has said that there is such a thing as "electromagnetic hypersensitivity" that affects people in much the same way that various chemical sensitivities do.

There has also been research into the effects of electrical currents on the development of certain forms of cancers, but at this point, there is not a whole lot of hard research into the problem. Madga Havas, an associate professor at the Environmental Studies Department of Trent University has performed a couple of studies. In one, she installed electrical filters in a Toronto private school. Half of the teachers who responded to a questionnaire after the study reported that they felt better overall when the filters were in place, and 60 percent of their classes were better off when the filters were in place.

The utility industry questions whether there is such a thing as elevated sensitivity to electrical fields, citing studies that have shown that people with "electrical allergies" are unable to notice the presence or absence of electrical currents under controlled conditions.

"We don’t have support to suggest that there is electrosensitivity in members of the population," says Jack Sahl, a manager of safety and environmental issues at Southern California Edison, a large U.S. electricity provider.

As you may have guessed, that assertion doesn’t go over too well with people who say they suffer from electromagnetic hypersensitivity.

More carefully controlled studies will need to be conducted to determine whether electrical sensitivity is a real problem for a significant percentage of the population. Given the degree to which we are increasingly reliant on electrical devices and gadgets, it is an issue definitely worth looking into. Maybe it will even explain Ken’s twitching.

Apple expands Season Pass offerings, Disney prepares “rich media destination”

The Season Pass concept is taking shape at Apple’s iTunes Music Store. Following the unveiling of the "multi-pass" earlier this month, Apple has now added season pass options to several other shows. A quick look at the structure and pricing of these offerings reveals a bit about how these shows are being positioned vis-?-vis other post-broadcast options, including on-demand and network-run marketing operations.HangZhou Night Net

Unlike the multi-pass which was debuted for frequently-aired, topical shows, the season pass has been designed for prime-time network fare such as Lost and Desperate Housewives. Priced at US$34.99 for both shows, the season pass includes rights to all episodes from the season, including episodes that have yet to air. For Lost, that translates to 25 episodes at a cost of US$1.40 per show, and Desperate Housewives lands within pennies of this.

Focusing on these two shows, a comparison to DVD prices shows that the online versions are competitively priced. The first seasons of both shows sell for nearly $60 each on Amazon, roughly $25 more than the iTMS cost. What does that price premium get you? Physical media, superior resolution, and a dead-simple way to play the content on your TV. Is this going to be the big differentiator between online content and traditional content delivery mechanisms?

Breaking the pricing down to the show-level also allows us to consider on-demand pricing, too. NBC has been working the street to solidify a 99¢ on-demand price for its hit shows, and the other networks are working their connections, too. What’s interesting here is the price for TV that you don’t get to "own." While the networks want to monetize shows using on-demand, they’re also quietly working away on marketing-based approaches meant to entice viewers into identifying heavily with their hit shows.

Disney is perhaps the one to watch. While it may be among the first to try its hand at an iTMS season pass, it’s also pushing ahead with its own designs. At its annual shareholder meeting earlier this month, the company said that it was working on a "rich media destination" that would provide fans with an "immersive and multidimensional experience." Visitors to the site will eventually be able to watch advertising-supported shows like Lost over the ‘net, and the company said that it is building a kind of virtual screening room where fans from multiple locations could meet online and watch an episode together. Thus, in a few short months, the options for Lost fans will be rich, indeed:

Broadcast for free, with ads.ABC’s online offering for free, with ads.On-demand through cable, satellite: priced ~$1.00 without ads.iTunes purchase for $1.99.iTunes Subscription for ~$1.40.DVD (when available) for $2.40, $60 for entire season.

It’s not exactly a linear trend, but you can chart content ownership and overall convenience alongside these prices.

TV is the missing link

Without an easy way to watch shows on a television, Apple’s customer base is limited when compared to the other competing venues. A $300 iPod makes playing shows on a TV that much easier, but it’s also a $300 solution. Apple needs to bridge that gap, and neither the iPod nor FrontRow are going to do it. Ideally, Apple could modify their DRM to allow consumers to burn their videos to DVD, but studios seem extremely resistant to the idea. Barring that, as I mentioned during the height of the last Apple DVR frenzy, Apple’s best bet will be with a device like the AirPort Express that will handle PC-to-TV streaming. It’s simple in theory: an 802.11b/g device with video outputs that talks with your computer. Don’t think for a minute that it’s a technical challenge to pull off: there have been devices on the market that do exactly this for more than two years. They just happen to bridge Windows XP/Media Center with televisions.

AirPort Video: are you out there?

Shake, rattle, and blow: things that shook the earth

The Geological Society of America is having a meeting in Argentina, focused primarily on events in the Americas, but with a fairly global perspective. What follows is a quick rundown on a few of the talks that caught my attention via Eurekalert. HangZhou Night Net

Shake: The tsunami-spawning Great Sumatran Earthquake did more than shake the earth: it's also shaking the prevalent understanding of earthquake risk. Geologists had assumed that there were two ways to build up the stress that can generate an earthquake of such a magnitude: either a fast-moving fault, or a young and buoyant plate that will resist being pushed under another. Sumatra had neither, and yet produced a quake over 10 times stronger than the predicted maximum magnitude for the area. The presenter is suggesting that the assumption that speed or age were involved was simply based on a sample of quakes that was too small, and a general reassessment of potential quake risk should be performed.

Rattle: The earth has been rattled by many impacts of asteroids over the years, but few are more famous than the one in the Yucatan that generated the Chicxulub crater, created the K/T boundary, and wiped out the dinosaurs. Or, maybe not. Results at the meeting, however, suggest that the date of the crater impact precedes the K/T boundary and dinosaur die-off by over a quarter-million years. If these results hold up, then may we have to go looking for some other cause for all the asteroidal material that forms the K/T boundary.

Blow: Yellowstone isn't the only massive volcanic caldera in the Americas. Somewhere on the border of Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia lies the Eduardo Avaroa Caldera Complex, which apparently contains several enormous volcanic sites, including the Vilama Caldera. At that site, a single eruption about 8.4 million years ago blew out about 2,000 cubic kilometers of material. There's more to discover there, but as it's remote and 13,000 feet high, work has been slow.

Hopefully, by studying exceptional occurrences such as these, we can both get a better idea of our planet's history, and detect and prepare for similar events in the future.

iPod Update rekindles debate about iPods and hearing loss

As most iPod users know by now, a recent iPod update made available just this week offered, as usual, a number of small improvements and bug fixes here and there, but one new feature raised the eyebrows of many. Apple added, with this most recent iPod update, iPod audio volume limits—the user ability (whew, at least it’s still up to us!) to decide what the maximum volume his or her iPod will be able to play and a warning on the Apple web page to "Listen Responsibly." HangZhou Night Net

Listen Responsibly
Most research about noise-induced hearing loss has focused on prolonged exposure to loud sounds in industrial workplaces. While not as much research exists regarding the effect of recreational exposure to loud sound, if you listen to music and audio with headphones or earbuds — whether they’re connected to your iPod, your computer, or some other audio source — you should follow a few common-sense recommendations.

Think about the volume
There’s no single volume setting appropriate for everyone. You may experience a different sound level with different earbuds or headphones and with different EQ settings. Some hearing experts recommend that you set the volume while in a quiet environment, turn the volume down if you can’t hear people speaking near you, avoid turning up the volume to block out noisy surroundings, and limit the amount of time that you use earbuds or headphones at high volume.

While it’s very sweet of Apple to consider our poor ears, the other side of this issue ain’t so sweet. Many of you may remember the class-action lawsuit filed by John Patterson of Louisiana against Apple, claiming that the iPod is directly related to hearing loss. According to our front page coverage, Patterson was asking for monetary damages (of an unspecified amount) and for upgrades to the iPod line to protect users. I guess Mr. Patterson got his second wish with this iPod update, but his lawyers are going for the jugular with the update as well. According to MacNN, these lawyers are claiming that the iPod update actively acknowledges a flaw in the iPod’s design and therefore is an admission of guilt.

Attorneys representing iPod owners in a national class-action lawsuit today said that by introducing a limitation on volume control, Apple has acknowledged that its iPod line is flawed. "It is good to know that Apple finally acknowledges that there is a serious flaw with its iPod product, and is giving U.S. purchasers the same protection it has been giving French purchasers since 2002," said Steve Berman, an attorney representing the plaintiffs. "Unfortunately, this patch doesn’t help the millions of people who own older models — it is a jack-legged workaround that falls well short of what consumers demand and deserve."

Is it an admission of "guilt" (if you can even call it that), or is it Apple merely trying to be socially responsible? Apple is, by far, not the only company selling personal music players of any kind (not just digital ones), and most of the others have not imposed similar max volume controls, nor are they being held responsible by a class-action lawsuit of people who apparently listen to their music too loudly. How do our readers feel about this?

TiVo’s salvation… is in the courts?

A pivotal chapter in TiVo’s history is now being written, and its conclusion could be one of the biggest landmarks in a twisty and curvy plot that started roughly ten years ago when DVRs started to capture the imagination. The chapter in question isn’t about a hot new deal with a big cable company or the unveiling of a killer new feature, though. No, like so many technology dramas, this chapter will be written based on what happens in a courtroom.HangZhou Night Net

TiVo is battling EchoStar in the Federal District Court, Eastern District of Texas. They charge EchoStar— the company behind Dish Network—with stealing proprietary company technology related to DVRs, including technology for which TiVo has been granted a patent (a "multimedia time warping system"). Testimony today from former TiVo CEO Michael Ramsey alleged that EchoStar engaged in negotiations with TiVo to use their services, but ended up using information acquired from those negotiations to build their own DVRs in house. EchoStar denies the allegations.

TiVo’s current CEO, Tom Rogers, believes that a victory for his company will translate into a revenue boost, as the company will then be free to establish a licensing program with other DVR makers and sue hold-outs for infringement. In short, it could be a new revenue stream.

"It will certainly cause people to think long and hard not only about Tivo’s brand … and the best of our engineering, but on a whole different level of what we mean in the mix if our intellectual property is upheld in the courts," Rogers said at the Reuters Global Technology, Media and Telecoms Summit.

Yet it’s hardly a slam dunk for TiVo. Even with a win, few expect EchoStar to roll over and play dead: they could potentially attempt to outlast TiVo through an appeals process, and some fear that they wouldn’t have to last long due to TiVo’s own lackluster situation. Less likely, TiVo could also lose the case and end up with nothing to show for their efforts, but TiVo picked a venue known for siding with plaintiffs on patent cases. Last but not least, EchoStar retaliated against TiVo’s lawsuit with a suit of their own, charging that TiVo has violated some of EchoStar’s own patents. In short, it’s a legal mess, which is to say it’s par for the course for patent litigation.

Testimony in TiVo’s suit is expected to last about two weeks, with jury deliberations to follow. EchoStar’s countersuit is not scheduled for trial until next year.

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