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The Bar Code Learns Some Snazzy New Tricks


The bar code isn't just a useful tool for retailers and overnight shippers. It can also be a powerful medium for advertisers. Japanese startup Content Idea of Asia (CIA) says it has invented a printable bar code that stores bulky data files such as video clips in a space just the size of a postage stamp. These can be swiped with a cell phone and the contents then viewed on the phone's small screen. The code, dubbed paper memory, could add a high-tech gloss to conventional print ads.

Traditional zebra-stripe bar codes can't store much data. There are square bar codes that hold far more, in a two-dimensional matrix that's read up and down and side to side. CIA's PM Code adds color. In tests, the company's research chief, Kazuhiro Miwa, has shown that a paper memory code with eight color layers can store 600 kilobytes -- enough for 20 seconds of low-resolution video. Snap a picture with the cell phone's camera, and the codes can activate the handset's Internet service to pull up an advertiser's home page, or view the embedded images. CIA hopes to sell its code in Japan later this year.

For 24 years the air force has been collecting a huge trove of data on Vietnam veterans in an effort to determine the long-term effects of Agent Orange, a toxic defoliant sprayed on Vietnamese forests by the U.S. during the war. The Air Force health study now has some 87,000 biological specimens and volumes of long-term data on more than 2,200 soldiers, half of whom flew defoliant-spraying planes. But the study is set to end in September, and scientists are worried that its wealth of research will disappear if congress doesn't appropriate funds to maintain it. In February, the institute of medicine issued a report recommending that the Air Force data be transferred to a new custodial organization so that scientists can continue to use it for medical research extending far beyond Agent Orange exposure. The cost, however, could run up to $500,000 a year.

Drug-resistant staph infections have skyrocketed in hospitals, where they can turn a routine procedure into a weeklong confinement. Now the microbes are expanding their sphere of influence. A recent study in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that treatment-resistant staph may be the primary cause of skin infections outside the hospital.

Researchers at Emory University found that 72% of the community-acquired skin infections tracked in Atlanta were due to methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) bacteria. Consequently, the authors recommended a powerful antibiotic, vancomycin, be used for treatment rather than the standard penicillin-like antibiotics given for community-based staph infections. That's a major prescribing change, and it may not work for long. MRSA is usually treated effectively with vancomycin in hospitals, but resistant strains of staph have already emerged.

>> Carbon dioxide from factories, cars, and other machines tends to grab all the headlines. Yet the earth's own emissions of methane, a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2, may play a bigger role in global warming than once thought. Scientists at Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar & Marine Research in Germany have discovered deep-sea mud volcanoes that emit plumes of the gas, which bubble up all the way to the ocean's surface. Several thousand such volcanoes are estimated to exist throughout the world.

>> Additional regions of the earth may be capable of generating a mega-tsunami of the sort that killed more than 200,000 Asians at the end of 2004. Scientists at California Institute of Technology compared GPS coordinates, satellite images, and water-level indicators on coral reefs before and after the great tsunami-causing quake. Publishing in Nature, they found that it was caused by a 1,000-mile rupture between tectonic plates, much larger than computer models had described. The researchers now think geologically similar areas -- such as the Caribbean and the sea between Taiwan and China -- face a higher tsunami risk than previously thought.


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