The Town Where Wireless Signals Are Illegal

NRAO
NRAO

Shhh! The scientists are listening to space!

Green Bank, West Virginia, is a tech-savvy teenager’s nightmare. In this tiny town in Pocahontas County—population 143, as of the last census—wireless signals are illegal. No cell phones. No WiFi. No Bluetooth. No electronic transmitters at all. Recently, a store even had to remove their automatic doors because they caused too much interference.

The remote town is smack in the center of the National Radio Quiet Zone, a 13,000 square mile stretch of land designated by the FCC to protect two government radio telescopes from man-made interference. The rules, though, are most strict in Green Bank’s neck of the woods. So strict, actually, that someone roves the streets listening for verboten wireless signals.

It’s necessary, though. The town is home to the Green Bank Telescope, the largest steerable radio telescope in the world—and arguably our most powerful link to the cosmos. Scientists there listen to radio energy that has journeyed light years, unlocking secrets about how the stars and galaxies formed. A rogue radio signal could prevent potential discoveries, discoveries that could answer big questions about how the universe ticks.

Green Bank, West Virginia: A Visitors Guide

In Green Bank, finding cell phone service is the only thing harder than finding another human. A flip of the radio dial won’t reward you, either—it’s all a steady whoosh of white noise. If you’re lucky, though, you may catch a faint flicker of the only AM broadcasting from the area, hosted by the Allegheny Mountain Radio Network.

First responders are the only residents allowed to use communication radios, although they’re limited to short-distance CB radios. If you get lost, one pay phone is there to rescue you—a pay phone, mind you, that people actually use. And you can search the web there, too, but you’ll have to get used to the grating ping of a dial-up modem again. (Although some homes have ethernet, it’s generally not worth it for companies to bring in anything faster.)

Surprisingly, a ban on all things wireless hasn’t driven residents away; it’s actually drawn people all across the United States to settle down. Sufferers of electromagnetic hypersensitivity—a disease supposedly caused by wireless signals, but dismissed by the scientific community—have moved into the electronic dead space.

If you're in Green Bank and desperately need to update social media, you’re in luck: Recently, engineers at AT&T brought cellular connectivity to the Snowshoe Mountain Ski Resort, which lies in the center of the quiet zone. Doing this was no easy task, because they needed to get the radio wave interference down to extremely low levels. In a post on AT&T’s website, the director of the site, Dr. Karen O’Neil, explained the problems involved. To get approval, AT&T installed 180 antennas around the resort and 3 miles of fiberoptic cable so that the signals don’t need to travel very far. Which is good, because they also had to lower the power—according to O’Neil, your phone ordinarily emits 500 milliwatts when you’re using it. But if you’re skiing the slopes, that goes down automatically to less than a milliwatt.

A version of this story appeared in 2013; it has been updated to add new information.

Now Ear This: A New App Can Detect a Child's Ear Infection

iStock.com/Techin24
iStock.com/Techin24

Generally speaking, using an internet connection to diagnose a medical condition is rarely recommended. But technology is getting better at outpacing skepticism over handheld devices guiding decisions and suggesting treatment relating to health care. The most recent example is an app that promises to identify one of the key symptoms of ear infections in kids.

The Associated Press reports that researchers at the University of Washington are close to finalizing an app that would allow a parent to assess whether or not their child has an ear infection using their phone, some paper, and some soft noises. A small piece of paper is folded into a funnel shape and inserted into the ear canal to focus the app's sounds (which resemble bird chirps) toward the child’s ear. The app measures sound waves bouncing off the eardrum. If pus or fluid is present, the sound waves will be altered, indicating a possible infection. The parent would then receive a text from the app notifying them of the presence of buildup in the middle ear.

The University of Washington tested the efficacy of the app by evaluating roughly 50 patients scheduled to undergo ear surgery at Seattle Children’s Hospital. The app was able to identify fluid in patients' ears about 85 percent of the time. That’s roughly as well as traditional exams, which involve visual identification as well as specialized acoustic devices.

While the system looks promising, not all cases of fluid in the ear are the result of infections or require medical attention. Parents would need to evaluate other symptoms, such as fever, if they intend to use the app to decide whether or not to seek medical attention. It may prove most beneficial in children with persistent fluid accumulation, a condition that needs to be monitored over the course of months when deciding whether a drain tube needs to be placed. Checking for fluid at home would save both time and money compared to repeated visits to a physician.

The app does not yet have Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval and there is no timetable for when it might be commercially available. If it passes muster, it would join a number of FDA-approved “smart” medical diagnostic tools, including the AliveKor CardiaBand for the Apple Watch, which conducts EKG monitoring for heart irregularities.

[h/t WGRZ]

Uber Passengers Can Now Shush Their Drivers with a Mute Button

Spencer Platt, Getty Images
Spencer Platt, Getty Images

Even friendly and sociable people don't always feel like talking, especially if it's late, they're sad, or they're in the middle of an arduous trip. For customers of the ride-sharing service app Uber, there's now a way to terminate conversation with drivers. You simply push a button on your phone and request they stop talking.

This slightly dystopian feature is part of Uber Black, the app's premium interface for people looking for a ride in a luxury vehicle and drivers with top satisfaction ratings. If a passenger isn't in the mood for chatting, hitting "quiet preferred" on the app will notify the driver to stop speaking. They can also opt for "happy to chat" if they care to engage in conversation. It's part of a bundle of features that also allows users to ask for help with their luggage, request more time to get to the vehicle, or adjust the temperature inside the car.

The button is an attempt by Uber to address some of the ambiguity surrounding the relationship between driver and passenger for the service, which allows both parties to rate the other on the overall experience. Some passengers have felt that being uninterested in speaking to their driver might lead to a lower score.

The quiet button might eventually be rolled out to encompass all of Uber's platforms. If the idea of a human mute button is uncomfortable, passengers can also choose "no preference" and let conversation—or the lack of it—takes its natural course.

[h/t Vox]

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