Honda, UC building computer-controlled car

Engineers from Honda R&D North America have joined researchers from UC's Partners for Advanced Transit and Highways program (PATH) in an effort to build a computer-controlled car.

The goal of the project, now underway at UC Berkeley's Richmond Field Station, is to produce a demonstration of some Automated Highway System (AHS) capabilities by August.

In the demonstration, two test cars will follow each other down a stretch of highway completely under computer control, using video cameras to detect an obstacle and safely steer around it and magnetometers to sense magnetic markers embedded in the roadway. Test drivers will sit behind the wheel as the cars drive themselves.

Honda is supplying three 1996 Accords, each with a laser rangefinder and automatically controlled steering, throttle, and braking systems.

The third car will be a backup.

For a preview, and for more information about PATH, see the PATH Web site at

Skin ailments linked to air pollution

If you're plagued by bad skin and live in the city, the culprit is likely air pollution, according to a new UC Berkeley study. It found that ozone rapidly strips vitamin E, an important component of healthy skin, from the uppermost skin layer.

Skin conditions reportedly aggravated in urban environments include atopic dermatitis, psoriasis, and other ailments which generate itchy, red, inflamed, and scaly skin.

Medical studies have repeatedly indicated that in urban, air-polluted areas, such skin problems increase.

Ozone concentrations peak daily between noon and early afternoon. Mexico City has the highest ozone levels in the world, while Los Angeles leads in the U.S.

Construction woes

"The Walled-Up Wife" isn't a ballad most Americans learned around the campfire. But the folk song, at least 1,000 years old, is one of the most famous in the world, according to a new book edited by Alan Dundes, folklorist at UC Berkeley.

Dundes, whose book also is called "The Walled-Up Wife," says the song has inspired more than 700 versions, mainly in eastern Europe and India, as well as countless essays by scholars.

The song, still sung today, tells the story of the sacrifice of a woman by men whose work by day on a construction project is undone at night by supernatural powers. To break the negative magic spell and ensure the success of their project, the workers decide to kill a woman, usually one who is married and a mother, by walling her up in the structure.

Dundes' book offers 18 essays on various versions of the ballad - interpretations ranging from literary to ritual to feminist.

Dundes himself believes the ballad's message is that "marriage is a trap. . . . The woman must sacrifice everything - her mobility and even her life." By entering marriage, he writes in his chapter, the woman is "figuratively immured." Kept behind walls to protect her virtue, she is treated as a second-class citizen.

"In a sense," he says, "the ballad represents wishful thinking on the part of males, so that they can create remarkable edifices just as women can procreate." Much like Jesus, he says, a woman becomes "an innocent person sacrificed for the good of society."

In another chapter, scholar Paul Brewster writes that the ballad is based on an actual historical custom in which women were ritually killed as a form of foundation sacrifice.

When antibiotics lose their power

A dangerous rise in antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections has been documented in a large New York hospital by professor of public health Lee W. Riley.

His study suggests that drug-resistant enterococci, which cause blood infections, are "rapidly becoming endemic in an increasing number of hospitals in the United States." The number of vancomycin-resistant enterococcus infections in the hospitalized patients he studied increased 14-fold between 1990 and 1992.

"This is a major disaster," says Riley. "Vancomycin is one of the drugs of last resort. If we see this happening with enterococci, it's not too long before it will happen with staphylococci."

These two classes of bacteria account for the great majority of infections contracted by patients in hospitals, which, even when treatable with antibiotics, carry high mortality rates.

Resistant enterococci first appeared in the U.S. in 1989. By 1993, they had increased 20-fold. It appears from the Riley study that drug-resistant bacteria are more lethal than vancomycin-susceptible forms, particularly among subgroups of patients older than 50.

Heavy use of antibiotics was strongly associated with appearance of the resistant strain, and Riley is convinced that if hospitals applied antibiotics more discriminatingly, the bacteria might lose their molecular protection against the drugs.

Riley is part of a new program at the School of Public Health that studies drug-resistant infectious diseases, which are expected to become an ever-more important public health threat.

New diseases are emerging, such as AIDS, hantavirus infections, hemorrhagic colitis, and Lyme disease. Old ones, such as tuberculosis, are becoming drug-resistant. Riley says that stories of a future plague may not be far off the mark.

Saving the infrastructure

The estimated cost to repair U.S. bridges alone now stands at $100 billion, but UC Berkeley researchers are devising new ways to save crumbling infrastructures around the world.

Paulo Monteiro, professor of civil and environmental engineering, and Frank Morison, professor of mineral engineering, unveiled an apparatus March 13 with patent pending that provides on-site, non-invasive detection of breakdowns and durability problems in reinforced concrete - the main ingredient in dams, roads, and bridges.

Using an electrical resistivity array, the portable device will allow changes in the reinforcement to be detected much more easily and repairs to be made earlier, especially in bridges and pavements, thus potentially saving huge sums of money.

The new method detects problems caused by ice damage, alkali aggregate reaction (concrete expands due to its alkali component), and rebar corrosion.

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