28th > December > 2006 Archive

Mobile network operators roll over and die

2006 in review2006 in review 2006 saw the death of the UK mobile network operator. The wireless industry seemed to realise that it had come of age and it was time to get serious with a round of consolidations and expansions which turned mere operators into "communications companies" able to operate over any kind of connectivity.
Bill Ray, 28 Dec 2006
cloud

How the net changed the ancient art of the con

CommentComment It's called a confidence game. Why? Because you give me your confidence? No. Because I give you mine, House of Games
John Leyden, 28 Dec 2006

Stock scammer gets coal for the holidays

The US Securities and Exchange Commission put a suspected Russian brokerage-account thief's money on ice last week, after he allegedly used illicit access to people's online portfolios to drive up stock prices.
Robert Lemos, 28 Dec 2006

The Vulture's Mobile Awards 2006

Villain of the Year Everyone All of the operators, for their rip-off roaming data charges. For much of the past decade, operators have made excessive profits from voice calls between networks, and from roaming calls in Europe. Roaming voice is now cheaper, but roaming data users can expect to pay a pound for a typical page (100kb). And if you thought US carriers were backward - your reporter recently got charged $50 by Cingular for an amount of roaming data that clocked up a bill approaching $400. How do they get away with it? Thanks to a dozy regulator. In January, Ofcom announced it was investigating roaming call charges and texts - but not data. Thanks, Ofcom. Hero of the Year The 3 network for losing its fear of the internet - and for bringing Sling and Orb on board. 3's X-Series plan open up the network, allow you to make Skype calls, and listen to your media at home - all for a flat fee. Whether the public buys into this remains to be seen. There's only one handset, Nokia N73, that works with the X-Series plan (3 quietly dropped a too-buggy Sony Ericsson after launch). 3 makes existing subscribers sign up for a new 12-month plan; and for many people the mobile intarweb isn't worth even £5 on top of their monthly bill. Honorable mention: T-Mobile for its flat rate Web n' Walk data plan. Or rather, to T-Mobile for having the good sense not to enforce its own Ts&Cs. The operator turned a blind eye to its bans on using your phone as a modem, and for VoIP calls. The Best App You Can't Use Zi Corporation's Qix. Nokia's S60 user interface is a sprawling mess: even Nokia can't seem to remember where it's put the configuation options. You'll find Bluetooth over here, Profile settings over there, and something like SIP buried four menus down. Themes is nowhere near Display. This makes Qix a must-have for any S60 owner. It works like QuickSilver on the Mac: indexing every application, function and contact (and now every media clip too), so they can be launched from the keypad by typing in the the first letters. It's quite painful to use a Qix-free phone again. Unfortunately, it's only available through carriers, and not many of those have inked deals with Zi. So you'll have to scrounge one from somewhere. Turkey of the Year UIQ. Sony Ericsson had such a nightmare integrating UIQ 3.0 into its previously successful smartphones that it eventually bought the company off Symbian. The damage has already been done, however. The most-talked about phone of the 3GSM Show in Barcelona, the W950 (the first Walkman smartphone) failed to make it to market in time for Christmas. 3 humiliatingly pulled it from its X-Series roster (of two) in December. And the much-anticipated successor to the P910, the P990i arrived months late and half-cut. Previously, Sony Ericsson has made light work of repairing serious bugs in early production models. But five months on, severe problems remain, with rumoured firmware updates failing to materialise. By the end of the year, even the P-series' most loyal defenders had agreed it was a disaster. Fortunately for Sony Ericsson, its mid range is strong. Next year can't be any worse - although how much lasting damage has been done to the P-series brand remains to be seen. Best Innovation Motorola for its F-3 Motofone. It's a low cost phone aimed at the developing world that, amazingly, doesn't look crap. To date, handset manufacturers have tended to treat developing countries like pharmaceutical companies: shove them last year's dangerous rubbish. The F-3 takes a different approach, with an emphasis on style. Motofone uses an eInk display to save battery juice, and two antenna, because rural areas often have poor reception. Motorola's F3 Motofone: cheap, but not nasty Moto won't disclose the cost, but it's believed to be around $50. Honorable Mention: Sony Ericsson's K800i- Phone of the year. Biggest Waste of Time Mobile Web 2.0 fends off a strong challenge from "Mobile TV" to scoop this year's award. There was no contest, really. Web 2.0 is the hype with no trousers. Early in the year, Yahoo! illustrated how annoying Web 1.0 can be when put in your hand. How will Web 2.0 - the one with added Javascript security flaws, bloatware, and junk pseudoscience - fare? You already know the answer to that one. What makes the web useful is that it isn't tied down to a tiny screen. What makes mobile data useful is that isn't encumbered by web cruft. Vive la difference. As we discovered when the Web 2.0 evangelists met the carriers The Web people in October, the Webbies need mobile far more than the mobile industry needs the Web. The Special Award for Unstoppable Incontinence: Jointly to Microsoft for Windows Mobile and to HTC for several dozen quite unlovable smartphones - often the same model rebranded. 2006 was the year Windows matched the competition feature for feature. They were everywhere, because network operators love Microsoft's co-op marketing. But the historical problems of Windows CE remain: the phones are big and clunky, sluggish, and guzzle battery life. Your reporter finally tracked down a couple who enthused about their HTC Windows smartphones. "We have our own Exchange Server," they explained. Which shows that every ugly duckling finds a home, somewhere. Best Kept Secret No, we won't tell you either. So there you have it: no prizes for the winners, and just (virtual) ASBOs for the villains. But if we've missed off some categories you think we should have included, let us know. ®
Andrew Orlowski, 28 Dec 2006

TomTom wins (or loses) Garmin US lawsuit

TomTom, the Dutch maker of GPS navigation devices, says it has emerged victorious in the latest round of the acrimonious patent dispute with Garmin, its American rival. Or did it? Garmin says it is the winner. From where we are sitting, it looks like TomTom has the better claim to victory: US District Judge Barbara B. Crabb of the Western District of Wisconsin has granted a summary judgment ending the year-long legal battle between TomTom and its US rival Garmin. Garmin brought the litigation against TomTom, asserting five core patents. The decision finds that all five Garmin patents asserted against TomTom in the lawsuit are either invalid or not infringed by TomTom's popular line of navigation products. Garmin says it really won because "the Court’s ruling gave Garmin a complete victory in its defense of TomTom’s claims of infringement of three patents and left unadjudicated many of the claims filed by Garmin against TomTom". Hmm. So in other words, the doors are not closed on legal action elsewhere. The next venue is Texas, where Garmin recently filed yet another patent infringement case. "We did not start this fight and tried to convince Garmin that the case did not have merit," Harold Goddijn, CEO of TomTom said in a statement. "Garmin has spent considerable amounts of money and manpower to try and stop TomTom making inroads into the US market. The net result is that many of their claims were invalidated." TomTom believes that the Texas case is also without merit and urges Garmin to focus on developing the market. A couple of months ago TomTom lost its "me too" design infringment case in the Netherlands against Garmin. TomTom sought to prevent the sale of Garmin's StreetPilot c300 and c500 series in Europe, alleging that Garmin copied aspects of the TomTom GO design in its product line. The Dutch company is still counting on a procedure on the merits it has filed earlier on Garmin's car navigation design. ®
Jan Libbenga, 28 Dec 2006

Intel to intro Core 2 Quad at CES?

Intel will formally launch its already announced four-core Core 2 Quad processor at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in less than two week's time, it has been claimed.
Tony Smith, 28 Dec 2006

Sony preps video store to fill hole in PSP film revenues

CommentComment According to recent headlines, Sony is somehow going to challenge Apple iTunes with a film download service straight for the PSP. Instead those headlines should have asked why it has taken so long.
Faultline, 28 Dec 2006

The Bastard's guide to airport security

Episode 44Episode 44 Ah, the strange twists of fate which conspire both for and against us. Against us when I believed that my trusty co-worker would treat me with the respect I deserved from my years at the coal face of IT and cut me a little slack when it came to me stealing his Christmas presents. And locking me in a lift. And for us when The Boss, supposedly the victim of a convoluted photoshop inspired blackmail scheme, instead calls lift maintenance because he doesn't want to carry his presents down three flights of stairs. And so it is that I am free from my elevatory prison... ... and seeking revenge. First stop, Mission Control - but The PFY has long gone. Second stop, the secretary's desk because it's more than apparent that the PFY and Cathy are acting in collusion - but she too has departed hastily. A brief ferret around her desk reveals nothing however a couple of moments thought (plus those hours trapped in a lift) have given me a plan... I dash off a quick email to Cathy, ostensibly ordering a batch of new paper-clips or something, and quick as a flash her out-of-office message pops back to say that she's off to Spain for a week and won't be contactable over the break. I shove a Knoppix disk into The PFY's machine and peruse the contents of his hard drive until I hit paydirt in his webcache. A set of transactions with an online travel agency. Interesting.. A further disk scrape or two reveals a deleted PDF file containing the e-ticket receipt and flight information including departure time - and joy of joys - it's not going to depart for another couple of hours! While the PFY and Cathy no doubt spend a couple of hours sampling the fare of a Heathrow drinking establishment I work a little magic on the airline's telephony server... It is criminal how little care and attention is paid to proper security on these machines. A quick rummage through the information therein gives me a couple of suitable names, numbers and locations. A few quick modifications later and I'm on the tube rattling my way to Heathrow... I get there about 10 minutes after the plane's departed, which suits me just fine. It's a timing game this - too soon and they'd never get on the plane and too late and it'll never work. I search for the public phone I'm after and bash out the first number I'm after, departure control.. “Hello?” “Hi Jim in baggage handling. We've got a burst case here and I need to know if the flight's gone?” “Which flight?” I'm asked without further query - given that the guy's phone caller-ID tells him I'm ringing from baggage handling. I blurt out The PFY's flight number, only to be told that the flight has just left. “We can let the owner know when he gets in. jJst tell me the barcode number,” Control says, helpfully. "I can't," I sigh. "The bag got caught in a conveyor mechanism and it's been pulled to bits. There's part of his luggage label though, so I can give you the guy's name?" "Sure, that'll do." I rattle off the PFY's name before going off onto a tangent about the unreliability of the model C17-A conveyor system and how they never should have replaced the Bristol 12s which were so reliable they actually used them in the first Gulf War to aid in the loading of munitions, etc., etc., etc., until the guy cuts me off. "Okay, I'll send a note through to the other side letting them know and they'll tell the passenger when he arrives. Can you bag up the contents and send them on?" "Well that's the thing," I say, getting into the whole 'Jim' role. "I can package up most of it in a 3T4 bag, although they're not as robust as the 3F4s but their cost per unit's about twice that of the 3T4, but we're not allowed to package drugs in transparent packaging..." "Drugs?!" the guy snaps. "Yeah, flu medication." "Oh," the guy says, almost sounding disappointed. "Yeah, it's just those anticongestant tablets - the ones they make poor-man's-Speed out of. There must be 10 cartons of them." "TEN CARTONS!" he gasps. "Yeah, and condoms, lots of condoms. Although it looks like he's used about three packs of them, the lucky bastard!" Before Jim can tangent off onto the subject of the Spanish package holiday him and the little woman had back in '74, I'm put on hold while the guy has a quick chat on the other line to someone from HM Customs... "Okay, that's all sorted, they're going to contact Spanish Customs, but they want you to get the bag up here, ASAP." "You've got to be joking!" I gasp. "We're two men down and one of the C17-A's is on the fritz. I've rung a couple of the on call guys and I can probably get one of them to drop it off to you in about an hour or so..." I say. ";Hang on... Yeah, they say that'll be OK -they'll hold the guy at the other end..."; "Right then!" Jim says, and I hang up and wander back to the Tube entrance. Looks like the PFY will be getting a little more sex than he bargained on this trip... ® BOFH: The whole shebang The Compleat BOFH Archives 95-99
Simon Travaglia, 28 Dec 2006

HD DVD anti-rip encryption cracked

Has the HD DVD next-generation optical disc format's anti-rip technology been cracked? That's certainly what's being claimed by a programmer going by the name muslix64 who has posted a Java-based app he maintains will free the video on a disc from its encryption shackles.
Tony Smith, 28 Dec 2006

Mastering Regular Expressions

Book reviewBook review Like SQL and XML, regular expressions are an essential tool in every developers’ toolbox. Processing text, which is pretty much what most programs do when you think about it, is so central a concern that even without regular expressions most developers quickly build up a library of functions and idioms for text matching, replacement, parsing, token extraction etc.
Dr Pan Pantziarka, 28 Dec 2006

Wireless chess cheat banned for 10 years

An Indian chess player has been banned from competing for 10 years after seeking the assistance of a computer via a bluetooth headset. Umakant Sharma was caught during a "random check" in a New Delhi tournament on 4 December, Information Week reports. The headset was sewn into a cap which he "typically pulled down over his ears". The All India Chess Federation (AICF) found Sharma's accomplices had used a computer to calculate moves and had transmitted the recommendations to him via said headset. The World Chess Federation's rules on the matter are explicit, reading: "It is strictly forbidden to bring mobile phones or other electronic means of communication, not authorized by the arbiter, into the playing venue. If a player's mobile phone rings in the playing venue during play, that player shall lose the game." AICF treasurer Bharat Singh Chauhan produced the cap and headset at a meeting earlier this week and duly banned Sharma for a decade. ®
Lester Haines, 28 Dec 2006

US to approve cloned meat

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will declare today that meat from cloned animals is safe to eat. A safety assessment released on Thursday is expected to approve the entry of products from genetically identical cattle and other livestock into the human food chain. The FDA indicated which way the wind was blowing back in 2005. Now an article published by its scientists in the journal Theriogenology dated January 1 forms the scientific basis of the approval. Larisa Rudenko and John C Matheson wrote: "[The FDA] concludes that meat and milk from clones and their progeny is as safe to eat as corresponding products derived from animals produced using contemporary agricultural practices". The pair said no special labelling of cloned meat would be needed, which has outraged some consumer groups. AP reports Joseph Mendelson, legal director of the Centre for Food Safety, said: "Consumers are going to be having a product that has potential safety issues and has a whole load of ethical issues tied to it, without any labelling." Concerns have been raised about the safety of cloned animals since the world's first cloned mammal, Dolly the sheep, died prematurely with arthritic joints. Complex enviromental factors can have an effect on embryo development, and the impact of the cloning process is not known fully. The FDA's announcement is expected to have a significant impact worldwide, with many nation's habitually taking the FDA's lead on safety issues. In the EU food products classed as "novel", like cloned animals, have to get case-by-case approval from the European Commission. A green light seems unlikely given the anti-GM crops line the Commission took. There has been a voluntary moratorium on cloned meat and milk in place for five years Stateside. Industrial scale ranchers have been keen to see the shackles off, as cloning would allow them to reproduce their tastiest, or biggest, or fastest growing individuals ad infinitum. The announcement is unlikely to have an immediate impact down at WalMart though. Attrition rates for cloning are still far too high for it to be economical to clone meat on an industrial scale. More likely in the early stages is that cloned bulls would be raised by biotech firms and sold to ranchers for insemination of their herds, for example. The LA Times reports one rancher said he has cloned his prize bull five times and its progeny is already in the food chain. ®
Christopher Williams, 28 Dec 2006
3

Elgato EyeTV Diversity dual-tuner digital TV dongle

ReviewReview Elgato's made-for-Mac EyeTV Hybrid analogue and digital TV tuner is an impressive add-on for a media centre, but it runs into trouble when you take it out on the road. The UK's terrestrially transmitted Freeview digital network isn't broadcast as powerfully as it could or should be, and the Hybrid's tiny antenna has a job picking it up. Not one to ignore an opportunity, Elgato's come up with a solution: the EyeTV Diversity, a digital-only USB dongle with two aerials...
Tony Smith, 28 Dec 2006

Europe's planet-seeking satellite blasts off

Europe's "Convection Rotation and planetary Transits" (COROT) satellite yesterday successfully blasted off from Baikonur in Kazakhstan on its mission to seek out strange new exoplanets and "probe the mysteries of stellar interiors". Specifically, COROT will use its 30-cm telescope to study "the acoustic waves that ripple across the surface of stars, a technique called asteroseismology" which will allow astronomers to calculate the their "precise mass, age and chemical composition". COROT will also keep an eye out for stellar dimming caused by planets passing in front of any of the 120,000 stars it will examine. According to the European Space Agency (ESA) blurb, most of the planets detected will be gaseous "hot Jupiters", with an unkown percentage consisting of rocky bodies - perhaps "just a few times larger than the Earth". COROT mission updates are available here. ®
Lester Haines, 28 Dec 2006
arrow pointing up

Congressional aide fired after trying to hire hackers

The press attaché of a Montana Congressman has been left red faced after "hackers" he was trying to hire to change his lowly college grades published his email exchanges instead.
John Leyden, 28 Dec 2006

Apple 'falsified' share documents

Apple's chief executive Steve Jobs was given share options on the basis of falsified documents which claimed to show the board of directors had approved the stock grant, the FT has claimed. Apple admitted back in June that it had incorrectly accounted for share options between 1997 and 2001. The SEC is investigating dozens of Silicon Valley firms for backdating or wrongly accounting for share options. But the SEC is now looking at documents relating to the granting of 7.5 million options to Steve Jobs in 2001 which supposedly showed Apple's board of directors approved the grant. It believes these documents were falsified at a later date. According to the Financial Times, which broke the story, Apple will confirm the dodgy documents in an SEC filing later this week. Apple claimed its own house was clean after an internal audit late last year which resulted in the resignation of chief financial officer Fred Anderson. Steve Jobs apologised at the time to Apple staff and shareholders. Jobs never actually excercised the options in question. Some stock market analysts are predicting Jobs will not have to carry the can and shares will bounce back if ex-Apple staff are blamed for the problem. Legal newswires report that Jobs has hired his own independent legal counsel. More from the FT here.®
John Oates, 28 Dec 2006

Cloaking device makes invisible progress

Mathematicians have proposed improvements to cloaking technology to hide objects which emit their own electromagnetic radiation. In October, a transatlantic team of scientists demonstrated the world's first working invisibility cloak, which uses metamaterials to bend electromagnetism around an object as if it weren't there. However, the sums say the effect would be ruined by electromagnetic radiation from inside the cloak - so an object like a mobile phone, computer or aircraft could not be hidden. Analysis also showed that with current technology, to a person inside the cloak its inner surface would appear mirrored and they would not be able to see out. A group led by Professor Allan Greenleaf at the University of Rochester, New York, said on Tuesday they had solved these problems with the invisibility cloak by revisiting the 19th century work of James Clerk Maxwell. Maxwell's four equations describe how electromagnetism interacts with matter. The team propose two possible solutions to the twin issues; to line the inner surface with conductive materials tuned to the geometry of the cloak, or to "match" the outer metamaterial surface with an inner one. They say Maxwell's equations back up the fix. With current metamaterials, devices are only able to provide a cloaking effect for a very limited wavelength range, as Greenleaf points out. He said: "For example, an object could be rendered invisible at just a specific wavelength of red; it would be visible in nearly every other color." The new findings do seem to bring a functioning invisibility cloak nearer however. David R. Smith, a physicist at Duke University, part of the team which built the first cloak, said: "Allan has been looking at the problem much more generally, and deriving the conditions for when true invisibility is or is not possible. We are very interested in what he and his colleagues come up with!" We're sure the news will also be read with great interest in the corridors of the DARPA, which funds Smith's work. ®
Christopher Williams, 28 Dec 2006
7

Building a data warehouse on parallel lines

Never look a gift horse in the mouth, especially if there are many of them running in parallel… There are various structures we can use in a data warehouse – each with its pros and cons. For example, if you use a relational structure for the core of the warehouse then you gain very high flexibility but lose out on speed. Flexibility ensures that you can ask any question of the data and that you can drill down to the leaf level data - but the potentially poor performance is always a pain. You can index the structure but time and disk space usually limit the number of indexes you can apply which in turn reduces the flexibility. As the users’ analytical requirements change, so you need to update the indexing strategy which is often complex and expensive. You can, of course, elect to use a different structure, perhaps a dimensional one, whereupon you gain speed but lose more flexibility.
Mark Whitehorn, 28 Dec 2006

Tories spin Web 2.0 to out-Fox Ofcom

CommentComment The internet has always offered a stage for dramatic reinvention. Corporate lobbyists have found it a suitable theatre for AstroTurfing, given the willingness of a net audience to suspend its disbelief. Now, internet television lets professional politicians play the role of citizen-reporter. 18DoughtyStreet Talk TV launched in October as Britain's first political internet TV channel. It describes itself as "an anti-establishment TV station on the internet" with "citizen journalist reporters" who will be "championing rebel opinions" and "constantly questioning authority". But its five directors are all former Conservative candidates or employees and it advertised for staff in America with the claim that it would be "Like Fox News". 18DoughtyStreet streams up to five hours a night of political chat (talk radio for the eyes) untroubled by Ofcom regulations that require "due impartiality" from broadcasters. And it is not subject to Ofcom's Broadcasting Code that states, "No politician may be used as a newsreader, interviewer or reporter in any news programmes unless, exceptionally, it is editorially justified. In that case, the political allegiance of that person must be made clear to the audience." Which is fortunate for Iain Dale, formerly a Tory candidate and David Davis's chief-of-staff, who rebounded after the failure of Davis's leadership bid, first as blogger, then as pundit, to become 18DoughtyStreet's front man. And for Tim Montgomerie, presenter of "Up Front, the Doughty News Discussion" and founder of the Conservative Christian Fellowship. As Iain Duncan-Smith's political secretary in 2003 he urged Tories to "praise God" each Monday for IDS's work as Conservative leader. Fortunate too for Donal Blaney, a graduate of Virginia's Leadership Institute. (Its mission: "to identify, recruit, train and place conservatives in politics, government and media". Its alumni: Karl Rove, Grover Norquist and a former Director of the Christian Coalition). He has appeared across 18DoughtyStreet's schedules and became a Director of the station after serving as a Conservative councillor and starting the Young Britons' Foundation to implement, "lessons learnt from a collection of American thinktanks, most notably The Young America's Foundation, The Leadership Institute, The Heritage Foundation, Accuracy in Academia and the American Conservative Union". 18DoughtyStreet was recruiting from a right-wing American think-tank back in September (a strategy previously favoured by the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad). It was an advert for interns on the website of the Institute for Humane Studies ("assists.. students.. with an interest in individual liberty") that claimed that 18DoughtyStreet, "will challenge the liberal bias of the mainstream broadcast media, most notably the BBC." And, as well as emulating Fox News, that, "it will provide a voice for the silent majority." This assumption of popular authority is continued by Alex Story, the Producer of programmes at 18DoughtyStreet. He writes that, "His view is that the working man... has consistently been taken for granted or ignored" and that he, "will endeavour to always take the working man's side and see the Nation through his eyes". Alex Story failed to win the seat of Denton and Reddish for the Conservatives in 2005. Involvement in a failed Conservative campaign is something shared with his fellow directors by the man funding 18DoughtyStreet, Stephan Shakespeare. He was an unsuccessful Tory candidate in '97 and the campaign manager for Jeffrey Archer's mayoral bid, when he said, "I am not blind to Jeffrey Archer's weaknesses, but for me they simply underline his great strengths." In July, he made just under £3m selling shares in the online-polling company he founded, YouGov. He is reported to be not involved in the day-to-day running of the station but has appeared as a guest. Perhaps we should not be surprised that a right-wing group can step from the wings wearing the costume of popular rebellion, playing to a common mythology of the net as a guerilla medium. But, 18DoughtyStreet doesn't see itself as a false-flag operation or a ruse to evade and, perhaps fatally weaken, broadcasting regulation. It's TV 2.0. "At the heart of the station will be a website of blogs and daily votes," says the channel. "Comments left on the blogs will shape the content of the programmes." So, here's one from the 18DoughtyStreet blog: Lagwolf left this Comment on December 9, 2006 at 1:27 pm: On the subject of being "out" as right-of-centre (either Conservative or libertarian) in the arts - its a great way of complete buggering your career. Once you are very high-profile then you can come out as right-of-centre but before is suicide... Internet TV, blogs, citizen-journalism websites, these are the "We Media" of the tech-evangelists. And all claim an advantage over the mainstream by virtue of their authenticity and sincerity. All of which reminds us of the old advice that, "sincerity is the key to success". Once you can fake that you've got it made.®
Shaun Rolph, 28 Dec 2006
channel

MS sees out year with another Vista attack

Hackers have posted an exploit which might be used by local users to gain admin privileges on Windows boxes, including machines running Vista. However the bug is not as serious as it might be because initial analysis suggests it can only be exploited locally and not remotely across the internet.
John Leyden, 28 Dec 2006

Frankenstein's cure for ageing - botulism

Chemical AlleyChemical Alley How easy was it to buy an eye-popping 3,081 vials of research botulinum toxin, the deadly neurotoxin produced by Clostridium botulinum, always found on jihadist terror wish lists? Very easy in 2003 - unlike so many other things alleged to be simple to do by designated evil-doers in the war on terror. Two Arizona scammers in pursuit of profit in the anti-aging industry found it elementary to order the most poisonous substance known fresh from List Labs in Campbell, CA, a purifier of biochemicals and toxins used in counter-terror research. Chad Livdahl and Zahra Karim had set up a series of shell companies in Tucson with the aim of acquiring botulinum toxin cheaply and repackaging it as "Mimic Botox." The "Mimic Botox" would be shilled to cosmetic surgeons, fraudulently misrepresented as Botox, undercutting Allergan's product, the only company that can sell it as a trademarked and licensed drug. The scam worked. Using the front company Toxins Research International, Livdahl and Karim ordered thousands of 5 nanogram vials of botulinum toxin ( order form, and intro page) from List Labs sight unseen and promptly diverted it for resale on a collection of websites, as well as through anti-aging seminars. According to the US government's indictment (full text here), Livdahl and Karim paid List Labs about $30,000 for the botulinum toxin shipment, subsequently making about one and a half million dollars in profit through the operation. It unraveled when one of their primary customers, Bach McComb, a doctor in Florida whose license to practice medicine was suspended for overprescription of painkillers, accidentally mistreated - or overprescribed, if you will, himself and three others with purified toxin. Which brings us to a report in the Journal of the American Medical Association's November 22 edition entitled, "Botulism in 4 Adults Following Cosmetic Injections With an Unlicensed, Highly Concentrated Botulinum Preparation." (Subscription only.) Although the paper does not name them, it describes the poisoning of McComb and three patients, one of whom was his girlfriend. The onset of paralysis required hospitalization for all which, in turn, led to investigation and jail terms on intent to defraud for him (three years) - as well as Livdahl (nine years) and Karim (six years). NB: For the curious, McComb is referred to as "case-patient 2;" his girlfriend, "case-patient 1," in the medical journal study. In late November of 2004, McComb received a 100 microgram vial of highly purified botulinum toxin from List Labs. He injected himself and three others with aliquots taken from it in treatment for wrinkles. Three to four days later McComb and his patients were on hospital ventilators to keep them alive. McComb's girlfriend took the worst of it, requiring about six months on a machine, saying in a videotaped statement for the criminal trial that her body wasted away until it was unrecognizable. The JAMA paper describes the poisonings as equivalent to "21 to 43 times the estimated human lethal dose by injection." The vial from which McComb took his injections was thought to contain enough material for 14,286 fatal doses. At first look this seems to make the 100 micrograms of botulinum toxin as sold by List Labs a potential weapon of mass destruction. The JAMA paper informs that federal regulations allow for transfer, possession and use of up to 500 micrograms, or half a milligram, of the poison "without registration or notification of the Select Agent Program," a US operation administered by the Centers for Disease Control to control and monitor the use of toxins and microorganisms with potential applications in biochemical terrorism. As a consequence, the authors of the paper recommend that the current weight limit for botulinum toxin be revised downward for individual shipments, a task that's performed by a national interagency working group of researchers and medical doctors, which includes the authors of the paper, all plugged into the science of botox. More stringent examination of credentials is also called for, they say. For additional perspective the CDC was contacted. This resulted in being put in touch with with Charles Millard at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, which supports the CDC in this matter. Millard is a botulinum toxin expert and also part of the interagency working group on the poison. While over fourteen thousand lethal doses sounds like an awful number, and one imagines the toxin reconstituted from the delivery vial and deposited with great malice into a vat of dressing at a serve-yourself bar, the feat is perhaps not that cut and dried or obviously practical. One hundred micrograms of the toxin is a vanishingly small amount, the high number of lethal doses being a theoretical number. (The method of reconstitution and toxicity of the toxin sold to McComb and Livdahl is described here and here.) However, as Millard explained, the actual amount for lethality in humans is not an exact science and extremely small amounts of highly purified protein complexes, which is what botulinum toxin is, tend to be unstable when put into much larger volumes. In other words, they denature, degrade and disappear. Millard indicated the vial contained much less practical material than the stated number of theoretical lethal doses. Millard suggested this uncertainty was perhaps seen in the variance of the severity of the disease suffered by McComb and his girlfriend. The levels of botulism toxin seen in blood samples from McComb's girlfriend and another patient appeared identical, yet the former was gripped by a deadly paralysis much greater than the others. The reasons for it remain unclear. What is clear from a reading of the court files and the JAMA paper is that diligence was absent everywhere in the case. No eyebrows were raised when over three thousand vials of botulinum toxin - about 0.7 of a theoretical lethal dose/vial - were ordered by people with no legitimate research connections, persons the Department of Justice described as wishing to "enrich themselves unjustly" by selling the material. Nary a peep was heard when List Labs sold the 100 microgram vial of purified toxin to a physician who'd had his license suspended, described in court by one of the case-patients tracked by JAMA as one "who practiced medicine like Dr. Frankenstein would have practiced medicine," according to The Palm Beach Post. In the hospital the man laid, his body wooden, saying at McComb's sentencing last January, "At first I thought I was at my own funeral... I thought I was dead." The same newspaper reported that a federal investigator in the McComb/Livdahl case, "[posed] as an employee of a company that sells the toxin to researchers" and was offered a few vials of it by List Labs. "He was asked only for his name, address and credit card number," added the newspaper. It is certain that more scrutiny is now being directed at those who purify and sell botulinum toxin in the US. The CDC, however, does not release the names of companies and researchers being regulated through its select agent program out of security concerns, paradoxically, over revealing information on where potential terrorists could get dangerous biochemicals and microorganisms. Thus the dilemmas posed by the McComb case become fairly obvious. One, this misuse of man-prepared botulinum toxin came not from al Qaeda terrorists, said repeatedly by terrorism experts and the mainstream media to be wishing for it, but fresh from a California lab which delivered it into the hands of people motivated by the pursuit of illegal profits. It underscores the dichotomy that while Islamists have shown no scientific know-how in the manufacture of poisons like botulinum toxin or ricin, an American purifier and three bad people unexpectedly collided in the delivery and employment of it through no more effort than a few telephone calls. More nettlesome, the problems in regulation exploited in the case appeared to come not so much from the weight regulation of toxin not being low enough as from the absence of common sense and appropriate scrutiny in the checking of who could obtain it. The good news, which is not widely publicized but which was emphasized repeatedly by the scientist interviewed for this story, is that, generally speaking, it still appears to be very difficult to poison large numbers of people with such things. ® George Smith is a Senior Fellow at GlobalSecurity.org, a defense affairs think tank and public information group. At Dick Destiny, he blogs his way through chemical, biological and nuclear terror hysteria, often by way of the contents of neighborhood hardware stores.
cloud

Vista's Suicide Bomb: who gets hurt?

AnalysisAnalysis So have fun fighting the battle against CPRM and alike but please do not be surprised when you fail, after all the war has been lost, long live the new world order: proprietary devices, proprietary interfaces, copy protection, limited functionality, and prepare you credit card accounts for all those monthly rental and service charges you will be paying for every "computer controller consumer electronics device" you use.
Andrew Orlowski, 28 Dec 2006