Tag Archives: system

MondayMap: Feeding the Mississippi

The system of streams and tributaries that feeds the great Mississippi river is a complex interconnected web covering around half of the United States. A new mapping tool puts it all in one intricate chart.

From Slate:

A new online tool released by the Department of the Interior this week allows users to select any major stream and trace it up to its sources or down to its watershed. The above map, exported from the tool, highlights all the major tributaries that feed into the Mississippi River, illustrating the river’s huge catchment area of approximately 1.15 million square miles, or 37 percent of the land area of the continental U.S. Use the tool to see where the streams around you are getting their water (and pollution).

See a larger version of the map here.

Image: Map of the Mississippi river system. Courtesy of Nationalatlas.gov.

First, Build A Blue Box; Second, Build Apple

Edward Tufte built the first little blue box in 1962. The blue box contained home-made circuitry and a tone generator that could place free calls over the phone network to anywhere in the world.

This electronic revelation spawned groups of “phone phreaks” (hackers) who would build their own blue boxes to fight MaBell (AT&T), illegally of course. The phreaks assumed suitably disguised names, such as Captain Crunch and Cheshire Cat, to hide from the long-arm of the FBI.

This later caught the attention of a pair of new recruits to the subversive cause, Berkeley Blue and Oaf Tobar, who would go on to found Apple under their more common pseudonyms, Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs. The rest, as the saying goes, is history.

Put it down to curiosity, an anti-authoritarian streak and a quest to ever-improve.

[div class=attrib]From Slate:[end-div]

One of the most heartfelt—and unexpected—remembrances of Aaron Swartz, who committed suicide last month at the age of 26, came from Yale professor Edward Tufte. During a speech at a recent memorial service for Swartz in New York City, Tufte reflected on his secret past as a hacker—50 years ago.

“In 1962, my housemate and I invented the first blue box,” Tufte said to the crowd. “That’s a device that allows for undetectable, unbillable long distance telephone calls. We played around with it and the end of our research came when we completed what we thought was the longest long-distance phone call ever made, which was from Palo Alto to New York … via Hawaii.”

Tufte was never busted for his youthful forays into phone hacking, also known as phone phreaking. He rose to become one of Yale’s most famous professors, a world authority on data visualization and information design. One can’t help but think that Swartz might have followed in the distinguished footsteps of a professor like Tufte, had he lived.

Swartz faced 13 felony charges and up to 35 years in prison for downloading 4.8 million academic articles from the digital repository JSTOR, using MIT’s network. In the face of the impending trial, Swartz—a brilliant young hacker and activist who was a key force behind many worthy projects, including the RSS 1.0 specification and Creative Commons—killed himself on Jan. 11.

“Aaron’s unique quality was that he was marvelously and vigorously different,” Tufte said, a tear in his eye, as he closed his speech. “There is a scarcity of that. Perhaps we can all be a little more different, too.”

Swartz was too young to be a phone phreak like Tufte. In our present era of Skype and smartphones, the old days of outsmarting Ma Bell with 2600 Hertz sine wave tones and homemade “blue boxes” seems quaint, charmingly retro. But there is a thread that connects these old-school phone hackers to Swartz—common traits that Tufte recognized. It’s not just that, like Swartz, many phone phreaks faced trumped-up charges (wire fraud, in their cases). The best of these proto-computer hackers possessed Swartz’s enterprising spirit, his penchant for questioning authority, and his drive to figure out how a complicated system works from the inside. They were nerds, they were misfits; like Swartz, they were a little more different.

In his new history of phone phreaking, Exploding the Phone, engineer and consultant Phil Lapsley details the story of the 1960s and 1970s culture of hackers who, like Tufte, devised numerous ways to outwit the phone system. The foreword of the book is by Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple—and, as it happens, an old-school hacker himself. Before Wozniak and Steve Jobs built Apple in the 1970s, they were phone phreaks. (Wozniak’s hacker name was Berkeley Blue; Jobs’ handle was Oaf Tobar.)

In 1971, Esquire published an article about phone phreaking called “Secrets of the Little Blue Box,” by Ron Rosenbaum (a Slate columnist). It chronicled a ragtag crew sporting names like Captain Crunch and the Cheshire Cat, who prided themselves on using ingenuity and rudimentary electronics to outsmart the many-tentacled monstrosities of Ma Bell and the FBI. A blind 22-year-old named Joe Engressia was one of the scene’s heroes; according to Rosenbaum, Engressia could whistle at exactly the right frequency to place a free phone call.

Wozniak, age 20 in ’71, devoured the now-legendary article. “You know how some articles just grab you from the first paragraph?” he wrote in his 2006 memoir, iWoz, quoted in Lapsley’s book. “Well, it was one of those articles. It was the most amazing article I’d ever read!” Wozniak was entranced by the way these hackers seemed so much like himself. “I could tell that the characters being described were really tech people, much like me, people who liked to design things just to see what was possible, and for no other reason, really.” Building a blue box—a device that could generate the same tones that the phone system used to route phone calls, in a certain sequence—required technical smarts, and Wozniak loved nerdy challenges. Plus, the payoff—and the potential for epic pranks—was irresistible. (Wozniak once used a blue box to call the Vatican; impersonating Henry Kissinger he asked to talk to the pope.)

Wozniak immediately called Jobs, who was then a 17-year-old senior in high school. The friends drove to the technical library at Stanford’s Linear Accelerator Center to find a phone manual that listed tone frequencies. That same day, as Lapsley details in the book, Wozniak and Jobs bought analog tone generator kits, but were soon frustrated that the generators weren’t good enough for really high-quality phone phreaking.

Wozniak had a better, geekier idea: They needed to build their own blue boxes, but make them with digital circuits, which were more precise and easier to control than the usual analog ones. Wozniak and Jobs didn’t just build one blue box—they went on to build dozens of them, which they sold for about $170 apiece. In a way, their sophisticated, compact design foreshadowed the Apple products to come. Their digital circuitry incorporated several smart tricks, including a method to make the battery last longer. “I have never designed a circuit I was prouder of,” Wozniak says.

[div class=attrib]Read the entire article after the jump.[end-div]

[div class=attrib]Image: Exploding the Phone by Phil Lapsley, book cover. Courtesy of Barnes & Noble.[end-div]

Vaccinia – Prototype Viral Cancer Killer

The illustrious Vaccinia virus may well have an Act Two in its future.

For Act One, over the last 150 years or so, it has been successfully used to vaccinate most of the world’s population against smallpox. This helped eradicate smallpox in the United States in the early 1970s.

Now, researchers are using it to target cancer.

First, take the Vaccinia virus — a relative of the smallpox virus. Second, re-engineer the virus to inhibit its growth in normal cells. Third, add a gene to the virus that stimulates the immune system. Fourth, set it to work on tumor cells and watch. While, such research has been going on for a couple of decades, this enhanced approach to attacking cancer cells with a viral immune system stimulant shows early promise.

[div class=attrib]From ars technica:[end-div]

For roughly 20 years, scientists have been working to engineer a virus that will attack cancer. The basic idea is sound, and every few years there have been some promising-looking results, with tumors shrinking dramatically in response to an infection. But the viruses never seem to go beyond small trials, and the companies making them always seem to focus on different things.

Over the weekend, Nature Medicine described some further promising results, this time with a somewhat different approach to ensuring that the virus leads to the death of cancer cells: if the virus doesn’t kill the cells directly, it revs up the immune system to attack them. It’s not clear this result will make it to a clinic, but it provides a good opportunity to review the general approach of treating cancer with viruses.

The basic idea is to leverage decades of work on some common viruses. This research has identified a variety of mutations keeping viruses from growing in normal cells. It means that if you inject the virus into a healthy individual, it won’t be able to infect any of their cells.

But cancer cells are different, as they carry a series of mutations of their own. In some cases, these mutations compensate for the problems in the virus. To give one example, the p53 protein normally induces aberrant cells to undergo an orderly death called apoptosis. It also helps shut down the growth of viruses in a cell, which is why some viruses encode a protein that inhibits p53. Cancer cells tend to damage or eliminate their copies of p53 so that it doesn’t cause them to undergo apoptosis.

So imagine a virus with its p53 inhibitor deleted. It can’t grow in normal cells since they have p53 around, but it can grow in cancer cells, which have eliminated their p53. The net result should be a cancer-killing virus. (A great idea, but this is one of the viruses that got dropped after preliminary trials.)

In the new trial, the virus in question takes a similar approach. The virus, vaccinia (a relative of smallpox used for vaccines), carries a gene that is essential for it to make copies of itself. Researchers have engineered a version without that gene, ensuring it can’t grow in normal cells (which have their equivalent of the gene shut down). Cancer cells need to reactivate the gene, meaning they present a hospitable environment for the mutant virus.

But the researchers added another trick by inserting a gene for a molecule that helps recruit immune cells (the awkwardly named granulocyte-macrophage colony-stimulating factor, or GM-CSF). The immune system plays an important role in controlling cancer, but it doesn’t always generate a full-scale response to cancer. By adding GM-CSF, the virus should help bring immune cells to the site of the cancer and activate them, creating a more aggressive immune response to any cells that survive viral infection.

The study here was simply checking the tolerance for two different doses of the virus. In general, the virus was tolerated well. Most subjects reported a short bout of flu-like symptoms, but only one subject out of 30 had a more severe response.

However, the tumors did respond. Based on placebo-controlled trials, the average survival time of patients like the ones in the trial would have been expected to be about two to four months. Instead, the low-dose group had a survival time of nearly seven months; for the higher dose group, that number went up to over a year. Two of those treated were still alive after more than two years. Imaging of tumors showed lots of dead cells, and tests of the immune system indicate the virus had generated a robust response.

[div class=attrib]Read the entire article after the leap.[end-div]

[div class=attrib]Image: An electron micrograph of a Vaccinia virus. Courtesy of Wikipedia.[end-div]