Week in Review

by by Alex Ronan & Kate Van Brocklin

illustration by by Robert Sandler

Current Events

After floating in the north sea for 98 years, a message in a bottle was pulled in by a Scottish skipper near the Shetland Islands last April. A tortured lover? Not quite.

“Please state where and when this card was found, and then put it in the nearest Post Office,” read the message. “You will be informed in reply where and when it was set adrift. Our object is to find out the direction of the deep currents of the North Sea.” The scrap of paper in the bottle—certified by Guinness World Records on August 30 as the oldest ever recovered—was part of an experiment designed to map water circulation patterns in the seas around Scotland. Captain C. Hunter Brown of the Glasgow School of Navigation sent 1,890 bottles adrift on June 10, 1914, as a test of local ocean currents, according to doctor Bill Turrell, head of Marine Ecosystems at the Marine Scotland Science Agency. Message number 646B was found by Andrew Leaper only nine miles from where Brown released it.

Turrell’s government agency, based in Aberdeen, keeps Captain Brown’s log updated. Leaper’s discovery marked the 315th bottle of the series to be recovered. Each one was “specially weighted to bob along the seabed,” according to Turrell.

The tradition of putting messages in bottles has been ubiquitous for centuries. Around 310 BC, the Greek philosopher Theophrastus sent sealed bottles out to sea to prove that the Mediterranean was created by the inflowing Atlantic. In the 16th century, Queen Elizabeth I of England appointed an ‘Uncorker of Ocean Bottles’ in an attempt to protect secret messages sent home by British spies and deemed it unlawful for anyone else to open a floating bottle.

Drift bottles are still used today by oceanographers. Initiatives such as the Drift Bottle Project, started by climate researcher Eddy Carmack at Canada’s Institute of Ocean Science, examine global currents. Over a period of 12 years, Carmack and his team have sent 6,400 messages in bottles out to sea from ships around the world, about four percent of which have been discovered. One bottle circled Antarctica one-and-a-half times, eventually showing up on the island of Tasmania. Another traveled from Mexico to the Philippines. An ecological connection was made when oil and debris from development in Canada’s Labrador Sea and Baffin Bay were found on bottles on Irish, French, Scottish, and Norwegian beaches.

Physical oceanographers and hydrographers study currents like El Niño and La Niña—mid-Pacific heat-driven circulations that affect climate around the world. They also track wind-driven currents like the Gulf Stream and the oceans’ deepest currents, known as the Great Ocean Conveyor, which are driven by temperature and salinity. With technology like radar altimetry (satellites that track currents and tidal changes), maritime bottle traditions hardly seem to be current events. — KVB

Dear Diary

Last Friday, Anderson Cooper admitted to using the private diary of the late Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens to report on Stevens’s growing security anxieties preceding his death at the American Consulate in Benghazi, Libya. On September 11, Ambassador Stevens was killed along with three members of his staff when an armed mob attacked the consulate following the release of the Arabic translation of the trailer of Innocence of Muslims. On his show, Anderson Cooper 360, Cooper said that in the months leading up to his death “a source familiar with Ambassador Stevens’s thinking” said that Stevens worried about continual security threats, al Qaeda’s growing presence, and the rise of Islamisic extremism. Cooper did not mention that the information regarding Stevens’s fears was first gleaned from his diary, which was found by CNN inside the US consulate in Libya four days after the attack.

Cooper’s reporting received a quick condemnation from the State Department. Philippe Reines, senior adviser to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, called CNN’s actions “disgusting” and “indefensible.” According to Reines, CNN “completely ignored the wishes of [Stevens’s] family.” CNN has defended its decision, maintaining that not mentioning the source of information was not an act of deception, but rather an act in compliance with the family’s wishes.  On the network’s Monday morning coverage, Mark Whittaker, the managing editor of CNN worldwide, insisted that CNN respected the wishes of the family. “When we talked to the family, their main concern was [that] they wanted the physical journal back and they didn’t want personal details from the journal revealed. We felt we had respected that, and as a result, we didn’t report on the existence of the journals or any of those details,” he said. Many sources have since repeated Reines’ accusation, but the Independent could not find any that had directly spoken to Stevens’s family.

CNN executives have since admitted to some ambiguity in the conversation between Richard T. Griffiths, a senior editorial director, and Tom Stevens, the ambassador’s brother. Since the initial phone call, the network has not been in touch with the Stevens family. Nonetheless, a CNN representative asserted that the public “has a right to know” what CNN learned from “multiple sources” about the issues that “are now raising questions about why the State Department didn’t do more to protect Ambassador Stevens and other US personnel.” The representative added, “perhaps the real question here is why is the State Department now attacking the messenger.” — AR

Magic Mirror

Oftentimes when one looks into a mirror, it is to examine oneself. A student at MIT is subverting convention with his new invention—a mirror with a camera that examines you.

The mirror component would aid those who require ongoing monitoring—the system can easily be built into a bathroom mirror. People who want to keep track of their pulse, respiration, oxygen saturation, and blood-pressure readings could track these health indicators with the display panel in the corner of the mirror.

The technology can monitor a person’s vital signs—pulse, respiration, and blood pressure—when a person simply stands in front of a low-cost camera. Graduate student Ming-Zher Poh in the Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology program has shown that his system can accurately detect pulse measurements from ordinary low-resolution webcam imagery. Poh is now working on new technology that would be able to monitor blood pressureas well as measure respiration and oxygen levels. Initial results of his work were published earlier this year.

The science behind the system involves measuring slight variations in brightness produced by the flow of blood through blood vessels in the face. Once the position of the face is identified by the software, the digital information from the facial region is broken down into separate red, green, and blue portions of the video image. Poh adapted a method called Independent Component Analysis (formally used to extract a single voice from a roomful of conversations) to pinpoint the pulse signal of the individual in front of the mirror. Poh’s system can gather accurate pulse signals from three people in the camera’s view simultaneously.

Poh’s system would have the ability to perform initial telemedicine screening tests using only a webcam or cell phone camera. The noninvasive screening process—one need only stand in front of a camera—would benefit burn victims, newborns, and other situations where attaching sensors to the body would be uncomfortable or laborious.

Though the concept of using a camera to determine health indicators is not new technology, Poh’s innovations open up the realm of fancy touch screen computer mirrors to the public, as his system only requires low-cost camera equipment. The Wall Street Journal recently featured different models of “smart mirrors,” which contain myriad sensors, cameras, and a touch screen display built into the reflective surface. Though these mirrors function similarly to Poh’s invention, the use of low cost cameras is revolutionary. Compared with the Panasonic model of the smart mirror, which costs $38,000, Poh’s technology benefits not just the fairest of them all. — KVB