EDITORIAL: The Mosquito Wars

I just came back from a well deserved holiday - as it's my custom, in the Third World. You just can't beat underdeveloped countries for great vacations in the sun, more service personnel than guests, and provided you can live with the risk of cholera, the great tasting food. The only two real problems for me are i) locals tend to drink mostly beer, sending the price of gin to the clouds and ii) the bloody mosquitoes.

You can never see the flying pest in the hotel brochure, all you get is happy people in loose white linen clothing, sipping margaritas by the infinity pool. They have probably photo-shopped away the multiple bites in their faces, arms and ankles (why always in the ankles??!!) and have drugged the models with a cocktail of repellent and Calamine lotion to numb them just long enough for the photo-shoot.

As a business man, what pisses me off the most is the mosquito community's utter reluctance to enter into any kind of negotiations. I would be delighted to offer, every day at about 7pm, a small recipient with 2 or 3 millilitres of my blood, enough for the bastards to feast on for a full night, on condition that they let me sleep in peace.

I hate them. With a vengeance. It is not enough that they don't bite me, I want them dead, their offspring dead and if possible to inflict maximum pain in the process.

In today's "Mosquito Wars" our arsenal is quite limited: chemical weapons are attractive but the insects are gradually developing resistance to our various concoctions, which forces us to strengthen the next generation of drugs. This will soon reach to a point where our cats will be more at risk than the bloody mosquitoes.

The other alternative is physical barriers: mosquito nets are a popular choice, or long sleeves and trousers instead of T-shirts and shorts. They all share the same problem: airflow is restricted. Given that mosquitoes inhabit some of the hottest and most humid places on earth, you are trading off a mosquito free night for life inside a sauna.

It seems that mosquitoes are a big issue beyond holidays. People actually die of mosquito bites (malaria). I, of course, don’t care - but luckily for the potential malaria patients about whom I don't care, we have guys like Bill & Melinda Gates who do... and who funded a prize to reward new mosquito control solutions for the Third World. Various ideas were proposed and prototyped, mostly based in defence (nets, nets infused with chemicals, etc).

We seem to be limited to defensive weaponry. So, to add to the annoyance that I cannot negotiate with them, I now feel like all I can do is dig a trench and hope for the best. What a pussy. It is time we take the offensive.

Enter Nathan Myhrvold and his invention: the Photonic Fence. A device that electronically detects and tracks mosquitoes’ flight patterns and then uses a low energy laser beam to pulverize them in mid-air. Your heard it, the Photonic Fence can zap 50-100 mosquitoes per second. It is the mosquito Death Star.

Myhrvold – Microsoft former CTO, is a genius and a guy who uses his vast fortune to develop extremely cool and expensive stuff: as an example, a machine to induce ultrasonic cavitation in French Fries, part of his effort to produce the ‘perfect’ snack – this and many other technologies are covered in his 6-tome thick treaty on modernist (aka molecular) cuisine.

Nathan and his team took upon the Gates Foundation challenge and came up with a prototype of the Photonic Fence built with parts, literally, available on eBay and which at a cost of $50 or so per unit can pretty much guarantee a mosquito-free zone. The flying bastards can't develop resistance to being zapped with laser beams as they can to chemicals, the machine can distinguish (based on frequency of wing flapping) between a mosquito and other flying insects (bees for instance), plus other features that make of the Photonic Fence a zero-collateral-damage weapon which could effectively end malaria.

Detractors say that electricity may be a problem in Africa. True, but a small photo-voltaic cell may be the solution. And in terms of cost, technology only tends to be cheaper. And then you have guys like me whom would happily buy a couple of units at double the cost just for the pleasure of seeing mosquitoes being pulverized off the air while sipping gin & tonic - and in the process subsidizing another couple units for some less lucky chaps that need it more than I.


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