It's bad to talk

Children don't care:They simply love mobile phones with a passion

Jenny McCartney

ANXIETY and paperwork were the only two things to come out of Sir William Stewart's report into the safety of mobile phones, which finally appeared last week. After lengthy deliberations, he could uncover nothing to show that mobile phones have unsafe effects upon the brain. Nor could he conclude that they are safe. He has therefore suggested that children - with their dangerously flimsy skulls and greed for perpetual chatter - should be prohibited "unfettered access" to them. Sir William's inconclusiveness is not his fault. There have been a number of scientific studies into the potential side-effects of mobile phones, and at the end of them we are as wise as was the average medieval peasant when, with a slack jaw and crossed eyes, he contemplated the mysterious workings of the moon. Researchers in Freiburg, Germany, have claimed that the use of mobile phones increases blood pressure. Dr Kjell-Hansson Mild in Umea, Sweden, has said that they cause fatigue, headaches and skin irritation. Scientists at the University of Washington, found rats exposed to mobile- phone microwaves are more likely to binge on alcohol. Scientists at the University of Nottingham have found that nematode worms grow faster but wriggle less when exposed to microwaves. Dr Lennart Hardell, a Swedish cancer specialist, has claimed to find a correlation between the side of the head on which mobile users hold their handset and the location of tumours.

A team at the University of Bristol then found that the reaction times of mobile-phone users became faster than those of non-users. Adults have no idea whether a mobile phone will eventually transform their child into a fast-growing binge-drinker with lightning reaction times and a tumour the size of a grapefruit, or not. Their children don't care: they simply love mobile phones with a passion. One in four of Britain's 24 million mobile phone users is under 18. Last Christmas, according to a Woolworth' s survey, mobiles were the presents most wanted by 10 to 15-year-olds. Teenagers are obsessed with communication, mainly the communication of banalities. They do it with insane commitment. I can remember bidding my schoolfriend goodbye after school: once home I would sneak off upstairs and get straight back on the telephone to her, sometimes for an hour, hogging the family phone-line as we plucked over the skeins of the dull day in exquisite detail. No matter that we would see each other first thing the following morning; no matter that serious people with work-related messages for other family members might be dashing their heads against walls in frustration at the persistence of the engaged tone. A teenager in possession of a telephone is a creature utterly without conscience. That is why teenagers want mobile telephones : to pursue their ridiculous, interminable conversations in secrecy, and at any time, without the looming shadow of a watch-tapping parent. They get mobile phones for a different reason - because they have convinced their parents, the poor saps, that a mobile is necessary for "safety reasons". The safety argument has become the weakness of modern parents, especially middle-class parents. As real risk to children has decreased, parents' perception of such risk has soared. In the days when children were regularly carried off by cruel fate - in the form of scarlet fever, or diphtheria, or a carelessly reversed milk-lorry - parents were more devil-may-care about the whereabouts of their offspring. Minors were permitted to roam streets and woodlands with impunity, on condition that they returned at an appointed hour. In Enid Blyton's Famous Five books, the four children were forever haring off to investigate smugglers' coves, nipping backstage at circuses, and getting embroiled in fierce arguments with angry, moustachioed men. Their adult supervisors, Uncle Quentin and Aunt Fanny, were remote and disinterested figures, emerging from the shadows only occasionally to offer a scrap of philosophical wisdom or to hand over a packed lunch. Were the Famous Five written to reflect children' s lives today, the four would rarely be free of the oppressive presence of Uncle Quentin and Aunt Fanny. They would be picked up individually in a car from afternoon music lessons, and - if they wished to socialise - driven to a friend's house, in which they might pass a few happy hours with the Playstation or the Gameboy, before being collected once more and driven home to bed.

The modern parent has been conditioned by fevered media reports to believe that town centres, beaches, woodlands and fairgrounds - once the happy hunting grounds for loose packs of children - are now peopled entirely by lunatics and paedophiles. When their children insist on going to such places, as children will, the parents sit at home, fretting. The mobile phone, for all the irritation of its variable ringing-tones and sky-high bills, appeared to offer parents a way out of their anxieties, an electronic apron- string to their wandering children. Now, thanks to the Stewart report, it is itself a font of anxiety. For it will always be impossible to give a child a mobile phone, and persuade them to use it only in emergencies. Children don't want to use the phone to inform parents of their whereabouts, or to reassure them that they have not - as yet - developed any mobile-related syndromes. They want to talk about last night's EastEnders with their friends. For hours and hours.

And this one comes with over140 functions you'll never use

Jenny is absolutely right,the media takes any story where there is some risk and terrifies its readership into thinking the dangers posed are way beyond what they actually are.Even during the BSE crisis were thousands dropping like flies? No. The perception of risk from technology is due to the public distrust of science,the perception that man made objects are inherently dangerous.For the most part this is based on a fear of the unknown; people's inadequate understanding of how technology works and the capacity to be innumerate,unable to make clear and concise determination of what danger is actually posed by and conceivable threat. Thus we get the knee-jerk and ill-thought out reactions to media hyped stories and "Frankenstein" type scenarios of "meddling with life" via GM foods from semi-religious writers who owe some kind of allegiance to ethics that are in them by default,or else are actually practiced in the from of some religious worship. Those ethics,very much like those of HRH Prince of Wales,presume that if we used the intuition of our hearts it will tell us something more or superior to the thoughts of our heads,or be more informative than actual statistics calculated for dangers such as any supposed threat of cancer from cell-phones.This "intuition" is based on half understood myths, rumours, hearsay, ignorance and an incapacity to come to terms with facts or mathematics.No matter how many reports are published testifying to the safety of objects such as cell phones ,there is still a murmur of dissent,that the public should have to "trust" what is told to them about technology. They have no need to take the word of science,they should be able to figure it out for themselves. But because of their innate aversion to things scientific,they refuse to find out the facts themselves,and so are at the behest of media hype. The public outcry is often accompanied by a lone voice asking why it is that technology is never 100% safe,seemingly oblivious to the naivety of this question. Nothing is 100% safe - ever.All science can do is "minimise" risk. There are known causes and effects between cancers and smoking,and the advice is that you are increasing risk of cancer through smoking,yet people continue to smoke - why? Because it's an acceptable risk? Can any smoker say in percentage terms what the risk is? Probably not,and yet smokers may also be among the people who are scared of getting cancer from cell phones. Sitting in front of TV or VDU screens all day poses a risk,charged particles beamed at the phosphor are what excites the screen to produce a picture.In other words "radiation" is emanating from TV screens,and yet no one has ever caused a "TV screen scare" - Why?
The word "radiation" itself may have conurtations for people,based on its associations with nuclear fallout. EM (Electromagnetic) radiation is all around us,both man-made and natural,and yet no one ever worries about radiation from then sun-unless that is,there is "scientific evidence" linking UV radiation with melanomas, which there is. Microwave ovens are used regularly,and have a "magnetron" inside which creates microwave "radiation". Radio Transmitters create "radiation" much more powerful than any cell phone, and yet no one cries out in alarmist fashion about the dangers of Radio transmissions. Radar used by the military and commercial airlines emits radiation. My physics teacher once told me the story of the guy who worked bringing in aircraft to land whose insides were slowly microwaved by the radar left switched on,in the aircraft he was guiding in.Distance to the source of radiation and its screening by shields makes a difference to its capacity to affect tissue. If you check you technology you will like as not find a tag which says what classification of radio emissions it complies with.Some emanations can be picked up by a radio receiver indicating that they are being emitted in the local vicinity.So such things as PCs and musical digital keyboards (computing devices) emanate radio frequency emissions by virtue of the speed of the electronic processors.This is not necessarily anything to worry about,as the frequency of the emission makes a difference as does the amplitude.
When we go into hospital we use X-ray and MRI and PET scanners all which use different frequencies of EM radiation in different ways,and don't forget light is a form of EM radiation too.One cannot tar them all with the same brush. X-ray machines invariably are shielded and use kept to a minimum.Magnetic resonance imagers use high strength magnetic fields which is not so much radiation as a "field" of energy.We use such machines when hospitalised with apparently no thought to any potential danger.Presumably because the device is in a hospital and is supposed to aid our health not diminish it.
Most everyone will be familiar with the lines of force generated around a bar magnet with iron filings.This pattern shows the local effect of the field.Such fields are also available in TV screens to keep the electrons in place on the screen.Moving a magnet close to the screen will deflect the beam and distort the picture.
But it can readily be seen that with weak magnets the effect falls of quickly with distance. Some of the problem with cell phones has been the idea that radiation can be "focussed" along the direction of the aerial creating a concentration of energy in the head.That may be a concern.But if you compare this with the focussed beam of electrons on a TV screen,it seems a bit bizarre to worry about it. As with the guy whose insides were microwaved this happened over a period of time as he systematically was exposed to point sources of radiation of a powerful nature.Cell phones aren't nearly as powerful as a radar system,but the phone is commensurately nearer the head. I think people underestimate the capacity of the manufacturers and safety guidelines which such products are subject to before release. If one takes a magnifying glass and focuses the suns "radiation" onto your skin,it is readily apparent what damage it can do,but if one does the same thing with a household light bulb,there will be no noticeable smell of burning flesh.If one has concerns over such items,it is incumbent upon the user to check the facts,and not get hysterical because some media writer with no story to tell emphasises risks in order to sell a newspaper or get a bigger audience for a TV programme. Still further,those with beliefs,or an axe to grind with modern technology, seize upon public fears to try to undermine modern methods and send us backwards to presumed "halcyon" periods when their was less risk.
In actual fact times of old,were more risky,because no one was paying attention to risk. If you have a problem with technology, and suffer at its hands,its your own fault for not understanding it. You play with fire and get burnt.It's up to the person in question to be responsible and learn about what fire is,and does,before making use of it.The public is audacious enough to take the benefits of technology without heeding the instruction manual and then carp when they suffer through their own ignorance of risk, mathematics, and physics. It is not the scientists fault if they come a cropper,it is the person who neither understands nor respects,the objects which they readily make use of.

Oh,we do like to text beside the seaside

I fear the time has come to bid farewell to saucy seaside postcard.No more pictures of henpecked husbands with red noses under constant verbal bombardment from indignant wives with mountainous bosoms and elephantine backsides.
No more vicars blushing scarlet at the unintended double-entendre.These,along with the deceitfully overcoloured snaps of dull sea-views,are being swiftly wiped out,not by puritanical censors,but by text-messaging and e-mails.
According to the Royal Mail,the number of cards posted is falling by a million a year.Holidaymakers no longer want to go to the trouble of looking through the racks and buying the stamps."Sending a card" says a postal official,will very soon be a thing of the past.It's far easier and trendier to peck out a quick message on the mobile".
Deploring this tragic end is - understandably - John Bateman of the Postcard Traders' Association."Text-messaging," he protests,"is killing the care crafting of the written word.
"And so,alas,it is.George Orwell,whose centenary is celebrated this year,would have been shaken to the core. He adored naughty cartoon caricaturists of the seaside,lauding the genre's first maestro,Donald McGill,in an article that bubbled delight over five magazine pages. A tiresless defender of the plain spoken English fun-seeking folk,Orwell would not have considered "Wsh u wr hr" an improvement on "Wish you were here." [Manchester Evening News]

Writing without vowels

John C. Marshall

IN this issue (page 2581) Roberto Cubelli reports a novel (and quite unexpected) form of writing deficit. Two Italian-speaking patients who had suffered damage to the left hemispheres of their brains were selectively impaired on writing vowels.
Disorders of writing and spelling (the dysgraphias) are a frequent consequence of damage to the left hemisphere. If adults who were previously fully literate, suffer stroke, tumour or trauma that involves left parieto-occipital cortex in particular it is highly likely that significant reading and writing impairments will result. These problems will usually, but not inevitably, be found in the context of more widespread disorder in the expression and comprehension of spoken language (aphasia), with concomitant involvement of temporal cortex.
The qualitative nature of acquired dysgraphia can assume many forms. Some patients write what they hear, and will thus (in English) transcribe yacht as yot, laugh as laf, or room as rewm2. Equivalent errors from French patients include photo written as fauto, and pigeon as pijon3. Mistakes of this type occur both in spontaneous writing and in writing to dictation. Other patients write (approximately) what they (or the examiners) mean. Cake may be written as bun, star as moon, or nephew as uncle4. Comparable errors reported in French are crabe written as homard, auto as voiture, and biche as gazelle5.
Some patients show that they recognize their own spelling problem by simply leaving out the letters they are unsure of. For instance, one patient attempting to produce the names of countries wrote: In a; Tur y; and C na6. Cubelli's two subjects, who had suffered left-hemisphere infarcts, manifested a curious variant of this deficit.
The first (C. F.) was similar to the case just mentioned in that he left spaces for the 'unavailable' letters; but unlike that earlier case, the missing items were always vowels. For example, requested to write the name of the town in which he lived, C. F. wrote B L G N. There is no obvious reason why vowels should be more difficult to 'remember' than consonants or more difficult to execute motorically. One might, however, reflect tht whn y wrt wtht vwls the message is still (fairly) clear, but e ou ie iou oe.
The former option was, of course, adopted for Phoenician script, and can still be seen (to a first approximation) in modern (unpointed) Hebrew7. C. F.'s stroke had resulted in a right-sided hemiplegia, and the patient was therefore forced to write with his left (non-dominant) hand. It is thus possible (but intuitively unlikely) that C. F. 's pattern of performance was a 'strategic' adaptation to the difficulty of writing with his left hand; Fig. 1 (page 259) of Cubelli's report shows some shakiness in the execution of the (upper case) letters that C. F. produced.
The second case (C. W.), however, had no hemiplegia and wrote with his (preferred) right hand. His performance cannot by any stretch of the imagination be made to fit this 'strategic' hypothesis. C. W. did make some errors on consonants, but there was an overwhelming preponderance of vowel errors. More crucially, C. W. did not (typically) omit vowels (as C. F. did); rather, 90 per cent of his errors were substitutions or transpositions. For example, dietro (behind) was written as diatro, and caro (dear) as cora. These two responses, like the vast majority that Cubelli reports C. W. as making, are possible but not actual Italian words. The pattern of performance was constant across a range of relevant tasks: written and oral spelling, typing, and delayed copying. In all instances, vowel errors were significantly more frequent than consonant errors.
The critical question is where in the functional architecture of the spelling system could such errors arise. C. W. 's error rate is not affected by lexical variables: he makes the same proportion of errors irrespective of whether he is writing high or low frequency words, abstract or concrete words, or indeed words or nonwords. Likewise, the errors themselves are not constrained to be (attested) words. The disorder thus seems to have no involvement with central lexical processes.
Neither is it the case that C. W. has 'lost' the graphemic representations of vowels as such; he can write single vowels and syllables to dictation without error. Substitutions, transpositions and omissions occur only when a multisyllabic sequence of letters is required. The conclusion, then, is that there is impairment of a short-term memory system specific to written (and oral) spelling -the 'graphemic buffer'.
The deeper question of why this graphemic buffer should be sensitive to the phonologically based distinction between vowels and consonants remains open. C. W. has good (but not perfect) immediate repetition of the words and nonwords that give rise to such high levels of writing errors (Table 1, page 259). One would like to know if delayed oral repetition showed errors selectively concentrated on vowels. Cubelli argues that "the consonant/vowel status of graphemes is differentially specified in the spelling process and may be selectively affected following brain damage" but this selectivity may not be truly specific to writing. It is furthermore difficult to imagine that the direction of the effect could be reversed in other patients. Roberto Cubelli has shown that a dysgraphic patient could write that name as R B R T C B LL ;but the odds do not appear favourable that we shall ever find his name transcribed as O E O U E I.

John C. Marshall is in the Neuropsychology Unit, University Department of Clinical Neurology; The Radcliffe Infirmary, Oxford 0X2 6HE, UK.

1.Cubelli, R. Nature 353, 258-260 (1991).
2. Newcombe, F. & Marshall, J. C. in Surface Dyslexia (eds Patterson, K. E. et al) 35-51 (Lawrence Eribaum Asssociates, London, 1965).
3. Beauvois. M. F. & Dérouesné, J. Brain 104, 21 (1981).
4. Marshall, J. C. & Newcombe, F. Neuropsychologia 4. 169-176 (1966).
5. Michel, F. Lyon Médical 241,141-149 (1979).
6. Morton, J. in Cognitive Processes in Spelling (ad. Frith, U.) 117-133 (Academic, London, 1980).
7. Barr, J. in Writing without Letters (ad. Hass, W.) 71-100 (Manchester University Press. 1976).





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