Alaska Town Spends Bulk of Winter In One Building

whittier ak--photo

Turtle-like, Whittier AK pulls everything inside a single building – all the people, stores, services – as residents ride out Arctic-quality snow and cold every winter. Begich Towers originally was two buildings used to house military personnel and families during World War II. Then a third structure was added during the 1950’s, and a few years ago they were repurposed as a single entity intended to house nearly all of the town’s 218 full-time residents in condo-like units that are interspersed with such services as “a playground, a church, a post office, a clinic, two convenience stores, a police station, a video rental store, city offices and a laundromat all under the one roof,” Smithsonian Magazine reported in late March.

A school serves the community from across the street from Begich Towers.

‘Sounds like a setting made for the kinds of misunderstandings and mishaps forming the under-girding of Fawlty Towers, home to the British TV comedy of the same name. (John Clease created the show with his then-wife, Connie Booth, and both starred in it with Prunella Scales and Andrew Sachs. In 2000, it ranked Number One on a list of 100 Greatest British Television Programs.)

Basel Fawlty, a hotel keeper, regularly reacts (mostly inappropriately) to things his staff and guests do. He could have used a dose of the treatment given to “crabby” members of the Begich Towers’ community.

“If somebody’s crabby around here, we just tell them, ‘Alright I’ll see you later,’” June Miller, a full-time Towers resident told Smithsonian Magazine. “[We] let them go and take care of their issues.” After some time apart, she said, everything gets back to normal.

While that approach might have occasionally worked at Fawlty Towers, it probably wouldn’t have, because [1] Basel Fawlty was crabby beyond belief, and [2] that was the whole point of the BBC comedy!


Vibrator Maker Gets Too Close To Customers


Photo: Emily Berl, for The Guardian

A Canadian vibrator manufacturer has been fined a total of C$4 million – to be paid to customers at rates up to C$10,000 each – for using a smart app to track user activities including body temperatures and vibrator rates. We-Vibe was sued in an Illinois court class action suit, The Guardian reported today (March 14). (Beware, indeed, the ides of March!)

In what could be termed a royal cock-up, the company’s parent, Standard Innovations, was ordered to shell out when it was learned that its sex toy was designed to enable clients to, as The Guardian put it, “keep their flame ignited – together or apart” via use of a blue tooth connection. Unfortunately, security issues made it possible for anyone within range to use a separate blue tooth device to take control of the vibrator, potentially leading to more than slightly embarrassing outcomes for intended or accidental users of the toy.

As bad or worse, the device allows information to be sent back to the company about users’ activities – representing the ultimate invasion of the bedroom.

You’d have thought, that somewhere along the design-and-manufacturing path on this product’s road to market, someone would have realized its potential downside. Or was this a Canadian version of “boys will be boys?”


Uber A Marriage-Wrecker? French Court Will Decide


A French businessman who was cheating on his wife – or so she suspects, and thinks she can prove – learned about his straying ways after he borrowed her iPhone to schedule an Uber. When he hung up, the app didn’t, and continued sending reports on his whereabouts to his wife’s phone. As a result, the French paper/website Le Figaro, reported recently, she filed for divorce.

Rightly enough, the allegedly cheating husband believes, Uber should pay what he’s suing the company for: $45 million. (How, in such a case, such a number is decided upon, is a mystery!)

His claim is that the app, “not the whole cheating thing,” as The Daily Dot put it, ) led to the wife’s divorce appeal.

Le Figaro was able to duplicate the “problem” on iPhones – and no such “fault” has been found to affect Android phones, news that no doubt comes as a relief to owners (or borrowers) of phone using that operation system.

Uber hardly surprisingly, would no doubt be laughing at the lawsuit, which it has no intention of settling. But fighting lawsuits is expensive, and a distraction from business-as-usual.

(What was I saying?)

The Daily Dot said the case will have an initial court hearing late this month, with the French government – meaning taxpayers who support the government – picking up their side of the tab. The husband will be responsible for his share of the costs.


Spinach To Human: ‘Hey, there’s a bomb around here!’

Plant to person communication

Yep, you read that right: A spinach plant – or some other type – could be ‘programmed’ to detect and alert a human, via a computer-recognized signal, of the presence of an explosive device.

They never even taught this concept in Science Fiction 101!

Who even comes up with these ideas?  – the concept that a plant’s can be groomed to detect “nitroaromatics” in nearby substances that may – hopefully on rare occasions – point to the presence of an explodable  device. As it happens, ‘they’ were Min Hao Wong, a grad student at MIT, and Juan Pablo Giraldo, a former MIT postdoc,  now an assistant professor at the University of California/Riverside. Their discovery was announced a few days ago (on Oct. 31) in the scientific journal Nature Materials.

Wong, Giraldo and their team – which included seven others then working at MIT — embedded a spinach plant’s  leaves with carbon nanotubes—tiny carbon cylinders able to detect “nitroaromatics”—chemical compounds often used in landmines and other explosives. When one of these chemicals compounds is absorbed naturally by the plant (either in the air or through groundwater), the embedded nanotubes emit a fluorescent signal that can be read with an infrared camera, MIT said. “The camera can be attached to a small computer similar to a smartphone, which then sends an email to the user,” the school said in a release.

Question: Could spinach so equipped detect, after being consumed by a human, the ‘explosive’ gut feeling when too-hot peppers are eaten?

“The goal of plant nanobionics is to introduce nanoparticles into the plant to give it non-native functions,” says Michael Strano, the Carbon P. Dubbs Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT and the leader of the research team.

To add another strange note to this tale, Carbon P. Dubbs, a co-founder of what’s now known as UOP (formerly Universal Oil Products), sported the middle name ‘Petroleum.’

In the news release from MIT, Strano said, “This is a novel demonstration of how we have overcome the plant/human communication barrier.” The senior author of the paper listing Wong and Giraldo as the lead scientists on the project, Strano believes plant power could also be harnessed to warn of pollutants and environmental conditions such as drought.

Min Hao Wong has started a company called Plantea to further develop this nanobionics technology.

A Less-Than-Friendly Lounge Preceded United’s ‘Friendly Skies’ At Newark Airport Last Week



I recall once seeing an airplane crew member in an argument with one of the ground crew as the latter was trying to deliver something for the in-flight catering service. I thought, “They do this every day! How can they not get the job done smoothly?”

One of the jobs done infrequently, but just as important as the daily tasks, is ensuring that necessary licenses are updated as needed. Someone at United Airlines slipped up in that department recently, and failed to renew the liquor license for the carrier’s club room at Newark Liberty International Airport’s Terminal C. So, for two days last week, passengers passing through that lounge in one of United’s busiest terminals had to do without the free drinks the carrier usually dispenses there.

No beer, wine or spirits could be served – even for free! – until someone made a trip to Newark’s City Hall to get the matter sorted out. That happened in time for Friday morning travelers to innocently – most of them can be presumed to have not been flying out of there on Wednesday or Thursday – carry on consuming free cocktails before jetting off. (And yes, many fliers do enjoy getting a ‘lift’ before being taken airborne!)

“We resumed service this morning and apologize to our customers for the inconvenience,” United spokesman Rahsaan Johnson said on Friday.

Technology Disrupts Technology Project In Indian Offices


Photo: The Economic Times of India

An ambitious Indian government plan to digitize all office files, to create paper-free work places, is being obstructed by desk staffers who, to the tune of 70% of them, use their desktop units to play YouTube videos – consuming huge amounts of bandwidth in the process.

The Economic Times’ New Delphi bureau said the issue was discussed last week at an e-office conference for all ministries. A presentation was made by the Rural Development Ministry, among the first to execute the ‘e office’ plan. It featured a demonstration of how a 700-page file could be scanned in about six minutes and how a digitized file could be retrieved in roughly five minutes.

But the high use of bandwidth for YouTube viewing has become such a problem that unless ministries curb their workers’ enthusiasm for them – whether they are or aren’t watching Larry David – the e office initiative simply won’t succeed, RDM Joint Secretary Santosh Mathew said.

Also impeding it, Mathew noted, is the fact that many junior-level workers are using monitors so small that they can’t read digitized files.

The glut of small monitors in the hands of lesser staffers is a result of them having been handed down through the ranks as higher-ups were upgraded to larger screens.

Mathew also sees a challenge in getting junior-level workers to go along with the e office scheme because it will enable managers to monitor their activities. High-ups already have the ability to determine who is spending ‘company time’ on video-watching, and the government is encouraging them to do so.

Mathew also noted that Cabinet Secretary P.K. Sinha would soon be writing to all ministers, asking them for a cut-off date after which they’d no longer be accepting paper files.

Raise a Blue Ribbon To Hefner, Whose House Was Sold to The King of Twinkies

playboy mansion

There are some things so weird that they can’t have been made up. Among them is news that Hugh Hefner’s Los Angeles mansion — AKA The Playboy Mansion —  with its multiple hot tubs, saunas and grottos, has been sold for roughly $200 million to the billionaire owner of Hostess Twinkies and Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer.

Daren Metropoulos, 32, Hefner’s next door neighbor, plans to conjoin the two property when he’s able to do so – when Hefner dies. Until then, Metropoulos will be owner but not resident of the iconic near-palace which, as he told The Wall Street Journal, has a heritage that “transcends its celebrity.” He declared that “to have the opportunity to serve as its steward would be a true privilege.”

Metropoulos, son of Greek American billionaire and private equity tycoon C. Dean Metropoulos, presently calls an $18m mansion home. When he is able to join the two properties, his ‘estate’ will comprise 7.3 acres (2.95 hectares).

While it’s true that somebody had to buy Hef’s place, it’s more than ironic that the deed was done – and a deed will be signed by – the owner of a cupcake franchise that lent its name to young gay men, a man who also owns a beer that’s long been popular particularly in the American Midwest. A beer baron buying the home of a man whose tastes, and budget, must certainly have been champagne-oriented for well over half a century!