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Car Rental Firm Halts Fingerprinting of Customers


Dollar Rent a Car pulled the plug Tuesday on a trial program that required customers to be fingerprinted.

Dollar instituted the practice after Sept. 11, saying the terrorism attacks were such a disaster for its bottom line that a bold approach was required to combat fraud.

Banks sometimes require a fingerprint for certain transactions, but Dollar’s foray into fingerprinting marked the first time a corporation made routine demands that consumers submit to a procedure associated with criminals.

Dollar required customers at 14 airports, including Los Angeles International and San Francisco International, to ink their thumbs and put their imprint on car rental contracts. The thumbprints were filed away with the contracts, though customers were given the option of having the thumbprint torn off when they returned the car.

“There’s a stigma associated with putting a thumb on a pad,” conceded Jim Senese, Dollar’s vice president of quality assurance. “But 99.8 percent of the customers were supportive.”

Even so, the three-month test ended 22 days early because fraud, which costs the company $1 million a year, didn’t appear to be shrinking. “The anticipated savings just weren’t compelling enough,” Senese said.

Greenpeace, Feds Strike Deal On Star Wars Protests


Greenpeace USA signed a consent decree Tuesday agreeing to halt civil disobedience at all U.S. military installations involved in the Star Wars anti-missile defense program.

The agreement with federal prosecutors in Los Angeles was part of a deal that led to the dismissal of felony charges against 14 Greenpeace activists and two free-lance journalists.

The 16 defendants entered guilty pleas to misdemeanor counts as they were about to go on trial for trying to disrupt a missile launch at Vandenberg Air Force Base last July.

Under terms of the plea agreement, each of the defendants now faces a maximum of six months in custody, although some are expected to receive probation.

John Passacantando, Greenpeace USA’s executive director, said that relinquishing civil disobedience in the anti-Star Wars campaign was a “worthwhile price to pay because we wanted the prosecution to drop those completely unwarranted felony charges.”

Since its founding more than 30 years ago, Greenpeace has resorted to civil disobedience as a favored tactic in protests involving a wide range of environmental issues and the nuclear arms race.

Passacantando said the organization would continue its campaign against the U.S. missile defense program through other means. “Sometimes,” he said, “you have to bob and weave.”

Early Universe Had Explosion Of New Stars, Astronomers Suggest


Pushing the limits of what is possible with today’s most powerful space and ground telescopes, astronomers have come up with a controversial new analysis of what may have happened during the early universe -- an epoch too old and distant to probe directly even with today’s most powerful technology.

Astronomers have long thought of the very early universe as a dark and quiet place, with only a trickle of new stars beginning to pierce through the gloom. Many felt that a “baby boom” of star birth did not occur until the 15 billion-year-old universe was middle-aged.

The new theory suggests that when the universe was just a few hundred million years old, it may have experienced a bright, violent tempest of new stars being born -- a torrent of light reminiscent of a fireworks finale.

“Quite surprisingly, the finale came first. The fireworks ran backward. It’s not exactly what would have been predicted,” said Bruce Margon, the associate director for science at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, which operates the Hubble Space Telescope.

Exactly what happened in the early universe -- in the hundreds of millions of years after the Big Bang -- remains a mystery. The universe has expanded ever since its creation. The stars or galaxies created in the early universe are too far away for current telescopes to see most of the light they emit.

Damaged Genes Linked to Mothers’ Smoking, Low Birth Weight


Two genes involved in metabolizing toxins from cigarettes apparently lead to low birth weight in newborns whose mothers smoke, providing a rare glimpse into the interplay between genes and smoking, researchers will report Wednesday.

Doctors have long known about the danger of smoking during pregnancy and have cautioned pregnant women to stop. Low birth weight is a major consequence of maternal smoking. But doctors have also observed that some smokers produce low birth weight babies while others do not.

In the medical analysis to be reported on Wednesday, it appears that the two genes, one dubbed CYP1A1 and the other called GSTT1, govern the risk of low birth weight. Both genes are involved in the chemical breakdown of poisons from cigarettes. Tobacco, previous studies have shown, contains more than 4,000 toxins. The most lethal -- because they also figure in lung cancer -- are polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, arylmines, and N-nitrosamines, all of which are inhaled in a single drag on a cigarette.

“Our data demonstrate that a subgroup of pregnant women with certain genotypes appeared to be particularly susceptible to the adverse effects of cigarette smoke,” said Dr. Xioabin Wang, an associate professor at Boston University’s medical school and an attending pediatrician at Boston University Medical Center.