Hizbollah's new toy; America's "Pedestrian Danger Index"; the perils of dialing drunk
In an incident that passed largely unnoticed in the American press, the Lebanese terrorist organization Hizbollah launched an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) late last year, according to a recent report by the National Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism (MIPT), in Oklahoma. The unmanned aircraft flew from Lebanon into Israel late on the morning of November 7, passed over the northern Israeli town of Nahariya, and then turned west and returned to Lebanese territory, landing in the Mediterranean Sea not far from shore. The UAV spent roughly half an hour in Israel's airspace, undetected by Israeli air force radar but noticed by local residents (the UAV's engine is reportedly "quite noisy"). The next day Hizbollah triumphantly released a grainy twenty-second video of the flight, claiming that the aircraft could fly "deep, deep" into Israel. MIPT estimates that the aircraft can carry a payload of up to eighty-eight pounds, making it an "attractive option" for launching a covert attack with chemical or biological weapons. Israeli sources claim that Hizbollah's UAV is an Iranian-made aircraft, one of eight such planes given to the terrorist group by Iran; Hizbollah, on the other hand, claims it developed the UAV entirely on its own. It may be telling the truth: MIPT notes that "a small group of air model fans (or even someone alone) can build a capable UAV. All necessary equipment and parts are available in the open market at affordable prices."
—"Terrorists Develop Unmanned Aerial Vehicles," Eugene Miasnikov, National Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism
Could shoulder-fired missiles be the next terrorist weapon? In late October—just two weeks before press reports indicated that some 4,000 surface-to-air missiles had gone missing from Saddam Hussein's arsenal after the invasion of Iraq—the Congressional Research Service released a report assessing the threat such missiles pose to the U.S. airline industry. According to the study, some twenty-five to thirty terrorist and insurgent groups already have surface-to-air missiles, including groups in Turkey, Thailand, Ireland, and Russia. The weapons generally have a range of about four miles, meaning that planes are safe while flying at 20,000 feet or higher, but vulnerable during takeoff and descent. The report notes that since surface-to-air missiles were first developed, in the late 1950s, there have been only six incidents in which passenger jets have been attacked with them; only two of these attacks were classified as "catastrophic," resulting in the deaths of all passengers on board. (The most recent attack occurred in November of 2002, when terrorists linked to al-Qaeda unsuccessfully fired two surface-to-air missiles at an Israeli passenger jet in Mombasa, Kenya.) The bad news, according to the report, is that there is no simple or affordable way of protecting planes from such missiles. If the U.S. government were to install countermeasures on each of the country's thousands of large passenger jets, the cost would be somewhere between one and three million dollars per aircraft. Deterrence flares (which will soon be installed on planes flown by the Israeli airline El Al) are not good at fooling newer models of the missiles and pose a fire hazard to the areas surrounding an airport. Evasive maneuvering by pilots is deemed "not a viable option."
—"Homeland Security: Protecting Airliners From Terrorist Missiles," Christopher Bolkcom, Andrew Feickert, and Bartholomew Elias, Congressional Research Service
It always pays to look both ways when you cross the street, but it's particularly critical on the mean streets of Orlando, Florida. Or so one concludes from the Surface Transportation Policy Project, which calculates a Pedestrian Danger Index for American cities, based on the rate of pedestrian deaths relative to the amount of walking done in each metropolis. (The safest metropolitan area, surprisingly enough, is Boston, whose drivers are apparently far more careful than their nasty reputation would suggest.)
—"Mean Streets 2004: Pedestrian Safety, 1994-2003," Michelle Ernst, Surface Transportation Policy Project
How much worse would America's Iraq War casualty figures be if we had only Vietnam War—era methods of transporting the wounded? That's one of the questions Atul Gawande, a medical doctor and a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, poses in a recent report in the New England Journal of Medicine. (The answer: a lot worse.) Analyzing ratios of killed-in-action to wounded-in-action, Gawande points out that although the lethality of combat wounds has dropped sharply since World War II, the steepest drop has come since the 1991 Gulf War: 24 percent of soldiers wounded in that conflict died, compared with just 10 percent in Iraq and Afghanistan. Gawande attributes this startling drop to leaner and more mobile medical units, which have reduced the lag time between suffering an injury and reaching surgical care. (In Vietnam only 2.6 percent of wounded soldiers who arrived at a field hospital died—most fatalities occurred en route.) Soldiers wounded in Iraq are also transferred swiftly from one hospital to another: if they need more than three days of treatment, they are moved from Iraq to a hospital in Europe or Kuwait; and if they need more than thirty days of treatment, they are sent back to the United States. Gawande cites a case of an airman severely injured in a mortar attack who went from an Iraqi mobile hospital to surgery in Germany to Walter Reed Hospital, in the United States—all within thirty-six hours. (He survived, but as a triple amputee.)
—"Casualties of War: Military Care for the Wounded From Iraq and Afghanistan," Atul Gawande, New England Journal of Medicine
Male scientists may be born, not made, a new study suggests—and the best way to tell if your son could be the next Einstein or Hawking might be to look at his fingers. According to a survey of academics carried out at Britain's University of Bath, men teaching hard-science subjects, such as mathematics and physics, tend to have index fingers as long as their ring fingers, indicating that they have testosterone levels equal to their estrogen levels. (The ratio of finger lengths is determined by one's exposure to estrogen and testosterone in the womb, and is the same at birth and middle age.) Male academics who teach in social-science subjects, such as education and psychology, have a more typical index-to-ring-finger ratio, suggesting a more typical testosterone-to-estrogen balance. The researchers speculate that lower-than-average testosterone levels in men may lead to unusually good spatial skills, which are useful in the hard sciences—and which develop at the expense of the language and people skills that are favored in the social sciences. Or perhaps it's a matter of spare time: the long-index-fingered, low-testosterone male is also less likely to have children, presumably leaving him with more free hours in which to plumb the mysteries of the universe.
—"Indexing Science: Report on Digit Ratios of Academic Staff," Mark Brosnan, University of Bath
What do most people do on a Saturday night when they've had one too many? Ninety-five percent of Virgin Mobile customers reach for their cell phones, according to a recent survey conducted by the phone company's Australian branch. Who are the lucky recipients of their sloshed calls? Among those admitting to DUI ("dialing under the influence"), only 19 percent felt inspired to chat with their current romantic partners—whereas 30 percent reported calling their exes. The largest group of respondents (36 percent of the total) rang up "anyone and everyone"—a category that presumably includes bosses and parents. Drunk dialing is so common that Virgin Mobile now offers customers the option of blacklisting selected phone numbers (at a cost of twenty-five cents per number) before heading out for a night on the town. The process takes only a minute, and the blacklisted numbers are off limits until six o'clock the next morning.
—"Dialing Under the Influence," Kerry Parkin, Virgin Mobile
At a time when politicians bicker about whether to hand out condoms or teach kids abstinence, the kids themselves seem to be hearing both messages. According to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, overall teenage sexual activity declined sharply in the late 1990s, while birth-control use among those teens who were having sex rose dramatically. In 1995, 55 percent of boys and 38 percent of girls ages fifteen to seventeen reported having had sexual intercourse; by 2002 the numbers had fallen to 46 and 30 percent, respectively—and there were similar declines among the under-fifteen set. Among those teens who did have intercourse, 79 percent reported using birth control, up by 18 percentage points from the 1980s. (Contraceptive use "at first intercourse" also rose significantly in the period studied.) Together these findings help explain the recent striking decrease in the rate of teen pregnancy. But disquietingly, the report notes that 10 percent of teen girls described the first time they had sex as "nonvoluntary."
—"Teenagers in the United States: Sexual Activity, Contraceptive Use, and Childbearing, 2002," J. C. Abma, G. M. Martinez, W. D. Mosher, and B. S. Dawson, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention