Infinite in All Directions: Barbie Typewriters, Aftershock Landslides, the CRISPR Patent Battle

Infinite in All Directions is The Wire‘s science newsletter. Subscribe and receive a digest of the most interesting science news and analysis from around the web every Monday, 10 am.

Infinite in All Directions is The Wire‘s science newsletter. Click here to subscribe and receive a digest of the most interesting science news and analysis from around the web every Monday, 10 am.

The Barbie typewriter. Credit: uriba/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

The Barbie typewriter. Credit: uriba/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Barbie typewriter

It turns out a later variant of the famous E-115 electronic typewriter, built by the Slovenian company Mehano, has a built in cryptographic feature that wasn’t advertised in the manual. Why is this significant? Because the E-118 ‘Barbie typewriter’ is marketed at young girls who Mehano assumed might not be interested in ciphers and the like. Its chassis is a bright and telltale pink and also sports the Mattel Barbie logo. The cryptographic capabilities were found recently when users tried to check if using the shift and lock keys together with a designated third key would activate the feature, as was the case with the E-115, E-116 and E-117 models. From CryptoMuseum:

The encryption facilities of the Barbie Typewriter consist of a mono alphabet substitution cipher, also known as MASC, with 4 different keys (i.e. 4 different transposed alphabets) which we will call KEY 1 thru 4. When coding a message, the desired KEY is selected with the first 4 buttons on the top row of the keyboard. Note that the black numbers are shown here for clarity only. They are not printed on the keyboard. To start coding, three keys have to be pressed simultaneously.


Once the KEY has been selected, the plaintext message can be entered on the keyboard and the ciphertext message will appear on the paper. The paper may now be sent to the recipient by means of regular mail other otherwise. The recipient should now select the appropriate KEY for decoding by using the corresponding key combination…

About the colour

Who decided that pink is for girls anyway? There are three fronts to this issue. On the first, research has found that there is some preference for pink-coloured toys over blue-coloured toys (marked for boys) among girls – but that this preference is learned, not innate, and becomes more pronounced at around 2.5 years of age. On the second (and related to the first): the precise roots of this preference aren’t yet fully resolved: culture, marketing, fashion history, gender anxiety, urban legends and biology have all been argued to play a role. On the third, toymakers who dress their products in pink in an effort to get girls to buy them actually effectively tell those girls that they shouldn’t pick toys of other colours – a form of passive gender segregation.


Reviewing Lem

It’s true that I read more articles than essays, more tweets than commentaries, more reviews than novels themselves. Have I ever felt guilty about being so? I’m not sure. I do have the occasional moments of regret about not reading voraciously anymore, but the days of such reading are long gone I’m also pretty sure I read far more words these days than I did back then. Being a journalist/editor constantly on the lookout for new ideas, the changing shapes of my habits serve me well.

One interesting consequence of this has been the abstraction of some conversations. For example, after having read a magnificent review of the works and motivations of the Polish sci-fi author Stanislaw Lem in the LA Review of Books, I now have some thin ground, but ground nonetheless, to begin to talk about what science fiction really should be (or if such limitations could be imposed at all, etc.) without having read Lem at all. From the review:

Stanisław Lem, the Polish novelist, futurologist, literary theorist, satirist, and philosophical gadfly, tried mightily to free his work from the shackles of the present. In dozens of novels, short stories, essays, metaliterary experiments, and futurological treatises, he attempted to imagine everything from a living ocean that could read human minds (Solaris) to a swarm of nonbiological mechanical insects (The Invincible) to a supercomputer many times more intelligent than its human creators (Golem XIV). In his 1964 book Summa Technologiae, Lem mocked writers whose works were merely historical fiction recast in the future — “corsairs and pirates of the thirtieth century.” It’s easy to find targets for Lem’s criticism; most SF movies are exercises in wish fulfillment, projections of a space-age Columbus in search of a final frontier. For Lem, science fiction meant thinking harder and imagining more.

And as an editor, I commission stories every day by springboarding off of such half-baked ideas (on topics I’m not entirely familiar with), deflecting an incoming thought to the right writer who might be able to expand it into something more substantial, into an article I never know is there for sure but always play for. And while this may strengthen the writer’s repertoire, I remain a lowly jack of all trades, but curiously happy at the thought, too.

To be sure, on the flipside, this makes me more reliant on the judgment of the original piece’s author and thrusts me into the role of philosopher without giving me sufficient material to defend my positions. And I suspect this is how a world of dropping attention spans churns out its throngs of public intellectuals (at times me among them). But at the same time, you’ve got to appreciate how many things that might’ve otherwise remained in the dark this world manages to kick up every day.


Versatile RPCs

Resistive plate chambers (RPCs), of the sort slated to be used at the India-based Neutrino Observatory (INO), are being prepped in Europe to study neutron-scattering. RPCs are a type of detector where a thin layer of gas is sandwiched between two layers of material, one of which is resistive (like glass). When a particle impinges on a gas atom, an electric signal is generated that is conveyed by the plates to a circuit, which is connected to a computer for analysis. The INO was going to utilise 28,800 RPCs (each 4 sq. m.) assembled into a giant 51,000-kg magnetised detector called the Iron Calorimeter (ICAL) to detect and study neutrinos.


The Wire is a non-profit publication. If you liked this newsletter, make a donation and help pay for our journalism.

And by the way, we’ve also started three other weekly newsletters that you should totally sign up for:

  1. On social science research, compiled by the amazing Jahnavi Sen [archive]
  2. On contemporary cultural issues, by the feisty Nehmat Kaur [archive]
  3. On the world’s gender beat, by the wonderful Amanat Khullar


Aftershock landslides

Since the Gorkha earthquake in Nepal in May 2015, the National Remote Sensing Centre – an ISRO centre in Hyderabad – has mapped 15,551 landslides that happened as a result of the quake. The data and the consequent analyses by NRSC scientists were published in the journal Landslides (paywall) in October 2016. According to geologist Dave Petley, an interesting finding is that the landslides occurred in a region that lay to the north of the region in which the peak ground acceleration due to the quake was highest. Instead, and also using data from another paper, Petley speculates that the landslides weren’t triggered by the ground jerking at the surface as much as how the fault rupture moved underground as well as the pattern of aftershocks. From Petley’s blog:

Whilst [the landslides lying to the north of the region of highest PGA] might be tempting to explain … by the distribution of steep slopes, I do not think that this alone explains the result. Thus, in the case of the M=7.8 Gorkha Earthquake, the landslide distribution is more complex than one might have expected. The [NRSC paper] makes the point that the landslide distribution seems to have been strongly controlled by the behaviour of the fault rupture, and that the spatial termination of the landslides towards the east seems to be controlled by the termination of the rupture event. I think this is spot on.

            * Hat-tip to @nilpratimsen



As the Broad/MIT/Harvard v. UC patent-war over the CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing tools wears on, some interesting new details have emerged. The “interference proceeding” (called when two parties both claim primacy) is being heard by the patent trial and appeal board of the US Patent and Trademark Office.

  1. In 2013, US law was amended to regard the patent that was filed for first better than the which underlying thing was invented first. However, because both the Broad/MIT/Harvard and UC patent claims were filed for in 2012, they’re still subject to the “invented first” paradigm. And this means that in the ongoing case, UC’s filing for the patent first holds no advantage.
  2. UC’s lawyers have been making the case that Jennifer Doudna, of UC Berkeley, and Emmanuelle Charpentier, her co-discoverer from the Max Planck Institute, Berlin, came up with a form of CRISPR/Cas9 first that could edit the genes of a prokaryote, a cell with no distinct nucleus or well-defined organelles. And that the CRISPR/Cas9 system that the Broad/MIT/Harvard group came up with, which could edit the genes of eukaryotes (including humans), was only a straightforward derivative of the UC system that required “no special sauce”. So whether or not this “sauce” really exists has become the case’s prime contention – and things aren’t looking good for UC because this “no special sauce” claims have only emerged ex post facto.
  3. An outcome that’s quite possible is neither party winning a right to claim primacy as much as both parties each receiving a patent – UC for prokaryotes and Broad/MIT/Harvard for eukaryotes. However, this would still be a loss for UC because eukaryotes (plants + animals) is where the research, and the money, is at.


On The Wire

The Wire published a bunch of interesting science pieces over the last two weeks (you should should check them out if you haven’t). I’ve featured three below; the third one, I have something extra to say about as well.

A unique event in the Lakshadweep: How fish colonise reefs

It was a bright February morning, a perfect day for diving in the blue waters off the east coast of Kadmat, Lakshadweep. Two Indian marine biologists, Rucha Karkarey from the Nature Conservation Foundation and Anne Heloise Theo of the Indian Institute of Science, strapped on their tanks and plunged into the waters at a spot near a lagoon called Seven Huts. For five years, Karkarey has been studying groupers in these coral reefs and it was to be another day of routine survey. That day was anything but routine. The two women were sampling along the reef slope when they looked up to find a black mass approaching from the open ocean. “We first thought it was the shadow of a cloud passing over us,” Karkarey told The Wire. “But as it approached, we realised it was a massive shoal of tiny fish.”

India knows its invasive species problem but this is why nobody can deal with it properly

We have a number of different legislations relating to invasive species. Some of these were enacted long before invasive species were a global concern – but have since been amended to include invasive species. An indicative, though incomplete, list includes the Plant Quarantine (Regulation of Import into India) Order 2003; The Destructive Insects and Pests Act, 1914 (and amendments); Livestock Importation Act 1898 and the Livestock Importation (Amendment) Ordinance, 2001; Environment Protection Act 1986; and The Biological Diversity Act 2002. So also, we have a number of different agencies charged with preventing the introduction of invasive species and for management and control of invasive species. These include the Ministry of Environment Forests and Climate Change, the National Bureau of Fish Genetic Resources, the Plant Quarantine Organisation of India and various departments of the Ministry of Agriculture. This situation – “everybody’s responsibility, therefore nobody’s responsibility” – is far from ideal.

Indian finding poses new challenge to Nobel-winning theory about superconductors

Physicists from the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Mumbai, have found that the metal bismuth becomes a superconductor at a temperature at least 1,000-times higher than predicted. The discovery has surprised the physics community because prevailing wisdom doesn’t allow bismuth to become a superconductor in the conditions in which it did. As a result, physicists will now have to find new explanations and rework a four-decade-old Nobel-Prize-winning theory.

At the time I wrote this piece, and for about a week after, no other major Indian publication (minor, too, but I’m not sure I surveyed all of them) had picked up on this story. I’d gone on a minor rant on my blog because – hey – “The mainstream as well as non-mainstream media in the country are usually quick to pick up on the slightest shred of legitimate scientific work and report it widely. Heck, many news organisations are also eager to report on illegitimate research – such as those on finding gold in cow urine.” But when we disregard truly legitimate and significant discoveries of the kind made by the TIFR group, “over time [the lack of attention] blinds us to an entire layer of enterprise that involves hundreds of thousands of our most educated people and close to Rs 2 lakh crore of our national expenditure (total R&D, 2013).”


Other interestingness

  1. In the Middle Ages, how much firsthand knowledge did women have about treating infertility amongst themselves?
  2. The Open Science Framework has launched; it aspires to be a “scholarly commons to connect the entire research cycle”. (They also claim to aggregate preprints but the link wouldn’t open the last time I checked.)
  3. Scientists at Cornell University have built a game that allows scientists to crowdsource the locations of blockages to the passage of blood inside a mouse’s brain – all in an effort to understand Alzheimer’s disease better.
  4. Has LIGO detected the first signs of ‘quantum gravity’? The detector is technically capable of doing such a thing and three scientists just showed one way how.
  5. New mystery: inside the world’s smallest pipes, only a few nanometers across, water freezes when it should really be boiling.

If you received this newsletter through a friend and would like to sign up too, you can here [archive]. And welcome!

Join The Discussion