Dan's Data letters #13

Publication date: 25-Nov-2002.
Last modified 03-Dec-2011.

 

Nuclear computing redux

This is regarding your response to a letter [in this column] entitled "Nuclear computing?".

You wrote:

"... there's no laboratory or epidemiological evidence to suggest that low level non-ionising radiation poses any health risk at all, despite mass hysteria about mobile phone emissions causing brain cancer and so on."

I would like to point you to some references that show otherwise...

www.electric-words.com/cell/radiation/adelaide.html

www.tassie.net.au/emfacts/mobiles/cellphones.html

www.powerlinefacts.com/EMF.htm

Barry

Answer:
I've revised what I said in that column; you're right, there's not no evidence. But there is no good reason to suppose that low-level non-ionising radiation is linked to any real health problems in humans, or indeed in any animals outside a lab.

In response to the specific links you provide:

Indeed, as Stewart Fist points out, reports having to do with phone companies that suggest that their products may be hazardous are squished in much the same way as were unfavourable tobacco-risk reports sponsored by cigarette companies, with the phone companies then firmly asserting their original company line, utterly unmodified by any adverse findings.

It is similarly possible, though not at all certain, that studies funded by an industry will be biased towards that industry. Telecommunications companies are also happy to pretend that irrelevant research supports their contention that their products are perfectly safe, when in fact there's little positive evidence to that effect. There's little negative evidence either, though.

Hushed-up industry-funded reports are not valid just because they've been hushed up; loudly-trumpeted industry-funded reports are not invalid just because they say what the phone companies want them to say. Replication of results is the key to finding out what's really going on, and to my knowledge replication of EMR-risk results is currently sparse enough that there's no rational cause for concern, because nobody's come up with a plausible theoretical mechanism by which mobile-phone radiation could be harmful, and expected false-positive rates have not been exceeded by the studies that've been done.

If you work to a 5% confidence interval (common in epidemiological studies), one in twenty positive results will be spurious. If (say) 50 studies have been done, then, you can expect two or three positive results, even if there's no actual effect there to be found. Quote only those two or three studies and gloss over the rest and you can create an unwarranted panic. You can find a handful of studies to support practically any out-there assertion. (And many con artists do.)

Note, in case it matters: I like Stewart Fist. We've swapped e-mail. We get on well. Heck, I sub-edited a few of his columns for Web publication, when I worked for the Dark Lord Murdoch for a spell. I do not have a vendetta against the guy.

I've corresponded with Don Maisch, too; mainly a few years ago, when I was having some fun with a device called the EMPower Modulator. The most Don-relevant page is my old one here, and I finally got a Modulator to review a little while ago, and wrote about it here.

As Don says, the widely-reported Danish mobile-phone-safety study does not have nearly such convincing "clean bill of health" results as you might think, from reading news reports about it. This does not invalidate its actual results; it just means that the reporters should have had their act together. Science reporters practically never do, often because science is frequently reported upon by journalists who know nothing at all about it.

Don goes on to talk about Russian research. Note that, in general terms, Russian research having to do with EMR seems likely to be kooky. Not certain to be kooky, at all, and please don't take this as a racist slur; it's just that far-out pseudoscientific nutcases abound in the Russian allegedly-peer-reviewed literature. People like me, who aren't familiar with exactly which Russian journals publish real science and which ones publish levitating-perpetual-motion-tinfoil-hat material, need to be careful.

As regards www.powerlinefacts.com/EMF.htm, I don't know much about the "Power Line Task Force", but low-frequency power line EMR is a quite different animal from high-frequency microwave EMR, and this looks to me like just another data-dredging operation, which throws back into the metaphorical sea anything that doesn't support their contentions.

No new evidence has actually been turned up by the California Department of Health Sciences Evaluation that the site quotes as their most recent piece of supporting evidence, for instance (quick reference: this, which is more from Robert Park, on whom Don Maisch is not totally keen...), and various of the Task Force's other cites are news-media reports on studies, not the studies themselves.

Media reporting of science is uniformly appallingly bad, as mentioned above regarding the Danish study. Anybody who uses newspaper stories about EMR studies as "supporting evidence" is not exactly busting themselves in their pursuit of the truth.

 

The inescapable letterbox

Got a quick question for you. I have recently purchased a wide screen TV; yes you can finally get them in Australia. Woohoo!

Now, when watching a DVD via my Xbox, I still get those dang black lines. Of course, being a wide screen TV, they're a hell of a lot smaller and the picture is far more enjoyable to watch, but why are they still there? The DVD is in 16:9 and the TV is in 16:9, the menus all fill the screen, but the movies don't. It doesn't really bother me that much but I'd love to get an answer.

Guy

Answer:
Uncropped transfers of widescreen movies commonly still have black bars in 16:9 mode, because most movies have a wider aspect ratio than 16:9. The commonly-used CinemaScope aspect ratio, for instance, is 2.35:1, versus 1.78:1 for 16:9. A 16:9 widescreen TV will waste less screen than a plain 4:3 set when displaying 2.35:1 aspect ratio video, but it'll still waste some.

Aspect ratios

In the above Flag of the People's Republic of Eyestrania, the blue area in the middle has a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The green bars above and below it show you how much more screen a 16:9 set has; the red bars above and below the green ones show you how much more screen again a normal 4:3 set has.

 

Wanted: Wire with gain

I recently got hold of a Digitrex GK-705 [as sold at Aus PC Market] and I wish to hook it up to my dad's old pair of speakers. However they use bare wire connectors, and since I'm pretty much clueless with soldering and other electronic work, is there some way to connect them together with an adapter of sorts? Say, an RCA to wire speaker adapter?

Chris

Answer:
You can't connect speakers directly to any regular DVD player (or CD player, or tuner...), because it has line-level outputs. You'll need to plug the DVD player into an integrated amplifier (an amplifier with a pre-amp built in), or into a pre-amp and amplifier combination, and then plug the speakers into the amplifier. Source, amplifier, speakers; this is how all ordinary separate-components hi-fi systems work. You'll find that practically all amps have spring-terminal outputs, which accept bare wires.

 

Drive virus?

I don't have a PayPal account to give you a donation (paranoid), but I do have a question.

I bought a Maxtor D740L 80Gb HD and installed it in a WinME machine 6 months ago. Two weeks ago, it started making "expensive noises" (clicking & clacking). Within a few hours, no more R/W functions. Scandisk showed the drive riddled with "bad clusters."

I replaced it with an identical D740L (don't ask). Within a week, that, too, started making the same noises. I tried Scandisking it, fdisking it, and reformatting it. No joy. It died a quick, painful death.

Before HD #1 failed, I had copied most of its files to another 'puta on my LAN. With HD #2 installed, I moved the files back again. Suspicion: could a virus cause such a violent death? (I'm using PC-Cillin.) Even after all the files have been erased, the partitions deleted, and the HD reformatted?

Now you may begin to limn the extent of my paranoia....

Steve

Answer:
PayPal, for the benefit of everyone who's been scared to death by www.paypalsucks.com, is fine, provided you know about their limitations. Which they don't exactly take pains to point out.

Don't use PayPal for big transactions, don't leave tons of money in your account, and don't use a dumb password, and none of the stuff complained about on paypalsucks.com ought to happen to you. Sure, your account might be frozen because of some complaint you didn't deserve, but if there's only $10 in it, that's unlikely to upset you very much.

It's not as if PayPal have a big sign on their front page that says "If you've got $5000 in your PayPal account, you're a moron!", though, so most of the complaints about them are quite valid. I've no sympathy for people whose PayPal password was their last name backwards and who got reamed as a result, but something that looks like a respectable financial institution ought to act like one, and PayPal doesn't.

In answer to your question - barring oddities like a drive-killing power supply, static damage on installation or tiny evil goblins, I'd bet that you just happened to get two lousy drives in a row. A reader's also pointed out to me that a lousy power connector caused the same problem for him - drive vibration caused the connector to jiggle in and out of contact over and over, and that resulted in horrible intermittent spiky sparky power that zapped two drives in a row.

In any case, it's not a software problem.

The D740L doesn't have an unusually high failure rate, to my knowledge, but it's possible you got two drives from the same crate that'd been dropped on the way to the reseller. Or, indeed, that you've got a bad power plug, or some other hardware oddity.

 

Polywindowlar browsing

When I click the links on your webpage, it opens in the parent window. I would greatly appreciate if you could target your external links to "_blank" instead of the default.

Opening external links up in a new window is what most people do on their websites. They do not do this to be courteous to their readers, but to get readers to stay at their page as long as possible. While I know that you would never do that, the greed of others has somehow established some kind of standard. Do you think it might be to much effort to comply?

Simon

Answer:
Yes, lots of sites use target="_new", or what have you, in their links to force a new window to open. I think that's stupid, though; it makes it impossible for someone to open the new page in the same window, if they're done with the old one.

Well, OK, in IE you can click and drag any link to the window address bar and open it that way, but this isn't exactly common knowledge.

Anyway, I'd rather give people the choice. If they don't know how to open a link in a new window then that's a shame, but it's not hard. Shift-click the link, in IE; right-click and select the new-window option in Netscape. Current Netscape and Mozilla versions also let you click the third mouse button (if you've got a wheel mouse, clicking the wheel down gives you button three) to open in new window, or in a new tabbed window, if you've got tabbed browsing turned on.

Don't get me started about people who use JavaScript new-window code that, if you shift-click a link because you WANT to open it in a new window but don't know about the code, just gives you a new empty window with "javascript:..." in the address bar.

(I've since done my best to open in new windows all links to sites that make it impossible to use the Back button to get back to where you came from. Everything else remains as plain links, though.)

 

Faster card?

I have an Asus P2-99 AGP Motherboard with a 433mhz processor. I cannot seem to play the new games such as WarCraft 3, and I'm assuming that it's because of my video card not being up to speed. I was hoping that you could tell me which one of the more top rated cards would be compatible with my motherboard so that I may upgrade.

Tracey

Answer:
You don't mention what video card you have at the moment, but you ought to be OK upgrading to a GeForce4 MX. Decent price, very good performance for the money, and not as power-hungry as the GeForce3s. Which could matter; your board will probably have trouble powering a really high wattage card, but lots of people are running GeForce4 MX cards successfully on BX-chipset motherboards, and the P2-99 uses the ZX chipset, which is a slightly cut-down BX.

 

Help! Do my homework!

Hey dan you seem to know what the hell your talking about. Because I am as lost as can be in my operating systems course. Can you help a sista out. I have an assignment on developing a network. I must include everything that is involved in order to make-up a network. Write a memo to the President to indicate the cost for the proposal. Of course, the cost should be related to the type of network you choose to implement.

Do an estimated cost based on your proposal. List the following: Item Description, Quantity, price, and Manufacturer of all the hardware components (Must put description of machine - Processor, Ram, Storage. Step 2: Do the design of your network. Step 3: Indicate the types of protocols, and software would you recommend based on the needs of the Holland College Step 4: You start the implentation (The diagram for the network is the most important) Now right now I'm like huh! My name is Natalie I attend NYC College of Technology this is my last semester to complete my assoc. degree. But I want to continue for my Bach. So what do you think it's due tommorow! Hair falling....

Natalie

Answer:
Is there some really good reason why I should do your homework for you that just hasn't occurred to me?

C'mon. You should at least have offered me a few hundred bucks. Jeez.

(Natalie, by the way, got back to me and did offer me money. Ay, as they say, caramba. High-school kids who ask me to write their assignments for them are understandable; they're not old enough to know better. If you've made it to tertiary education, though... Honestly. I don't know. Kids today. I ask you.)

If you want to ask me a question, feel free - but please read this and this first.

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