Oak Island treasure: the search renews

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Photo: Archives of Nova Scotia This 1938 photo shows one of the treasure dig pits on Oak Island, off Nova Scotia’s south shore. A group is using technology on the island to locate secret underground tunnels that may lead to fabled pirate’s treasure.

In a renewed bid to uncover the elusive and mystical treasure believed by man to be buried deep within Oak Island off Nova Scotia’s south shore, a group of treasure hunters is using electrical currents to detect secret underground tunnels

For the past six years, Rick Lagina and four others – including Dan Blankenship, whose lifetime dedication to the island is almost as legendary as the place itself – have been searching for the hidden treasure.

This summer, they put their hopes in technology.

On a hot, cloudless day in early July, they placed a device in the middle of the island that miners, archeologists and environmentalists often use to map underground structures.

Powered by a car battery, the square, greyish-green box zapped 800-volt bursts of energy through attached cords to various points on the island, to depths sometimes the length of a football field.

The method, called electrical resistivity, pulsed electric currents through the earth and recorded how much each area repelled the charge.

Lagina said he hoped to pinpoint spots that were particularly resistant or unexpectedly conductive compared to their surroundings – anything out of the ordinary.

Lagina has been dreaming about the fabled Nova Scotia island ever since he was an 11-year-old living in Michigan. He read a magazine article about the 200-year-old search for the fabled money pit some believe was buried on Oak Island by pirates.

Now 59 years old, Lagina is still dreaming.

After two weeks of gathering data, the team sent the numbers to a geological analyst in Montreal. Lagina said he got the results back three weeks ago.

When asked if there was anything interesting, he paused.

“There are interesting anomalies, yes,” he said. He later added, “There are more than several sites that we are very excited about.”

But the island has a well-documented history of thwarting discovery efforts, Lagina said.

While they were cutting through the brush to make way for their line grid, everything that could go wrong did, he said. The truck’s engine blew, tools went missing, and the resistivity device itself stopped working more than once.

When they phoned the manufacturer in France, the woman on the line said, “‘Can’t happen, never happened, not in the history of the instrument. The unit is incapable of shutting down.’

“Five times it shut down,” Lagina said.

Legend has it that the Oak Island treasure will not be found until seven humans have died trying to find it and all the oak trees on the island are gone. So far the island’s native umbrella oaks have all wilted away, and the treasure hunt has claimed six lives – none of them from Lagina’s crew.

For the rest of the summer, Lagina said he and the others will assess which anomalies show the most promise and warrant further investigation with drilling. They have to be selective because wherever they drill needs to be worth the cash, he said.

They’ve already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars, exploring Oak Island (Lagina’s brother Marty – who’s also in on the search – did well in the oil and gas industry). Each new drilling venture costs about the same as a water well, foot for foot.

However, they must do the drilling soon, though; their government-granted treasure trove licence expires in December.

“I wish I had an X-marks-the-spot, but alas, I have no ‘X’.”

While Lagina acknowledged they might not find anything, he said they’re excited about their chances.

“I believe that it will be a fairly rich, to use the word, story of what happened there.”

However, not everyone is so sure.

Alex Storm got into the Nova Scotian treasure hunting business in the 1960s and has had substantial success, finding famous wrecks, such as the French treasure ship Le Chameau. He said he bases all his searching on documentation and verifiable data – something he said Oak Island lacks.

“I don’t think it will work out to anything. It’s just people keeping busy and trying to keep a dream alive.”

But that hasn’t stopped people from trying. Ever since a teenaged Daniel McGinnis came across a curious depression in the ground in 1795, there have been many excavations of the Money Pit – all of which have been fruitless except for the discovery of various booby traps and suggestive bits of metal.

Theories abound as to what might be hidden there, from pirate booty to knights Templar treasure to Shakespeare’s manuscripts.

But Lagina said that for him, it’s more about filling in the blanks of the story and solving the mystery.

“What really happened on Oak Island?”


Previously published in the Telegraph-Journal, Aug 22, 2011

Hospitals reuse medical devices to save cash

In a bid to save cash and reduce landfill use, New Brunswick’s largest health network has started reusing medical equipment originally meant to be trashed after first use.

The process though, is completely safe, Nancy Parker said. She is the administrative director for the surgery program at the Moncton hospital.

In the past few months, the Moncton hospital has piloted the initiative, which entered the planning stages about a year ago, she said.

“Patient safety is certainly a priority … we’re confident that every measure and precaution is being taken to lessen any risks for patients.”

The single-use medical equipment, which had been originally labelled as such by the manufacturer, is sent to certified reprocessing companies in the United States. The practice is stringently regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.

“Reprocessing” means taking all the necessary steps to ensure the device is safe and ready for another patient. This could include cleaning and sterilizing, functional testing, repackaging and relabelling. The companies are held to the same standards as the manufacturers, Parker said.

The hospital can then buy back the items at a fraction of the original cost – from 30 to 50 per cent less. When a hospital is stocking up on $5,000 ultrasound catheters, the difference can be substantial. The savings can be upward of $100,000 for a single hospital, Parks said.

An added perk, she said, is the “greening effect” of less medical waste gets tossed into landfills.

Other hospitals in the provincial Horizon Health Network will soon be jumping on board and, as far as she knows, Vitalité Health Network has also been working towards third-party reprocessing, Parks said.

Canada has no federal regulation when it comes to reprocessing single-use devices. But some provinces create their own policies. New Brunswick Health did this almost four years ago, when the department sent a bulletin to all of the hospitals in the province indicating they had a year to change their practices.

The new policy, which still stands today, states that only “non-critical” single-use devices can be reprocessed in-house. Hospitals can only reuse a device that has been cleaned at that hospital if it has not been inserted in a body. One example, Parker said, is a compression sleeve, which is fastened around an arm or leg to increase blood flow.

It is the critical and semi-critical single-use items – such as surgical saw blades or the pricey ultrasound catheter – that they must send to third parties for appropriate care.

Until there is Canada-wide regulation, New Brunswick will keep this policy, said Tracey Burkhardt, a communications officer for New Brunswick Health.

A report released in 2008 by the Canadian Agency for Drugs and Technologies in Health, stated that New Brunswick hospitals held the Canadian record for most widespread single-use item reprocessing, at 57 per cent. In comparison, the national average was just over 25 per cent, the agency stated.

Parker said she doubts that statistic still holds true today.

Reusing medical devices labelled as single-use by manufacturers is a common practice in hospitals all over the world. Most of the hospitals in Spain and Japan do it (80 per cent and 80 to 90 per cent, respectively), according to a 2010 report in the International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Science.

Advocates say it is safe if done properly and is good for both the environment and hospital budgets, but there is still controversy surrounding the ethics of it, the journal stated.

Previously published Aug 2, 2011; Telegraph-Journal

NB med school top of its class

It may just be a year old, but New Brunswick’s medical school already has some of the most advanced technology on the continent. Or at least they’re using it in a most advanced fashion.

As per the usual classroom setting, a professor delivers a lecture and students take notes, ask questions which the professor then tries to answer. The thing is, more than 400 kilometres separate pupil and teacher.

The school is being hosted at the University of New Brunswick’s Saint John campus, but is actually an expansion of the medical school in Halifax, and is formally called Dalhousie Medicine New Brunswick. The goal is to give New Brunswick students an opportunity to learn medicine in their own province, but without sacrificing quality of education. By using the high-definition video-conferencing equipment, students get the exact same education as their colleagues in Nova Scotia.

And now they’ve installed the equipment at four hospitals across the province so students completing their clerkship can be equally linked to their peers.

“It’s just a real tremendous improvement,” Pamela Bourque, Dalhousie Medicine New Brunswick’s program manager, said of the new installations, which took place in June. The four hospitals are located in Saint John, Fredericton, Miramichi and Moncton.

Each video-conferencing classroom is identical, with grey walls and light grey wall-hangings, medium brown tables, pleasant lighting and carpets with a grey-toned, geometric design. This way, the two parties feel more like they’re in the same room. At the front of the room are three large flat screens. During class, one displays the professor, the second the material, and the third screen shows the other students sitting in Halifax.

Sheldon Wood is going into his second year – or M2 – at the Saint John location. After next year, Wood will start his clerkship at a New Brunswick hospital, where he will be able to take advantage of the new equipment expansion. He admits that he was at first skeptical about not having the professor in front of him, but said he didn’t notice a difference. He said there is no noticeable time gap between a student asking a question in Saint John and a professor responding in Halifax – the broadcast transmission is that instantaneous.

The professor can even see the student, thanks to a table buzzer. There’s one for every two student seats, and when pressed, a camera at the front of the room swivels to point there and the student appears on the screen in front of the professor.

Representatives from other medical schools across the country have already visited Saint John to see and possibly copy the set-up. Ken Lerette is the technical operations manager at Dalhousie Medicine New Brunswick and said they’ve given tours to representatives from the University of Toronto and even Saudi Arabia.

The pilot year passed virtually flawlessly, Bourque said. She estimates that if you added up all the time that was used to fix technological problems, they probably only lost about 17 minutes of class time, over five incidents. Two impressive, futuristic central command centres in Saint John and Halifax handle all the troubleshooting and maintenance.

While similar video-conferencing equipment has been used for long-distance education, this is the most advanced system for medical education.

Previously published July 25, 2011; Telegraph-Journal

Picture within a picture: Holograms hide confidential info

Telegraph-Journal archive

Holograms, in their most basic form, are an illusion. They make your eye see something that isn’t actually there. Dr. Habib Hamam is using them to hide secrets.

The Université de Moncton professor said he has developed software that takes a public image – say a photograph of the White House – and hides confidential information within the data – say blueprints for the inner sanctum.

The original White House picture will change, perhaps a tiny blue pixel of sky will blacken, but the naked human eye won’t be able to notice it. However, a hacker with the help of technology potentially could.

This is where Hamam’s holograms come in. Should a meticulous hacker pick up on the differences and dig deeper into the data, any suspicion would be wiped out when he or she encountered the hologram. But instead of a pixelated 3D Captain Kirk rising from a computer screen, they would see a mess of garbled numbers. Dismissing it as digital nonsense, the hacker would move on. At least this is what Hamam is counting on.

The method of hiding data within other seemingly innocent data is called steganography. When a teenage boy saves pornography in a computer file and calls it Tax Forms 2004, it’s the same basic technique.

Steganography, rooted in the Greek word for ‘covering,’ is the most recent advance in data protection. It joins other methods such as watermarking, which is usually used to protect intellectual property such as photographs, and cryptography, which takes information and makes it look jumbled to unauthorized people.

Cryptography has been used “since the time of Jesus,” Hamam said. It’s evolved from ancient ciphers to digital encryption.

But the problem with cryptography, Hamam said, is that even if it makes the data very hard to access or figure out, you still know it’s there. Steganography is about stealth. Hackers are less likely to decrypt an image that looks perfectly normal.

Hamam is the first to add the second level of protection with holograms. But they have another benefit: they make it possible to hide more information in a single image. Usually when cloaking information within other data, the host has to be significantly larger than the information you’re trying to hide so the changes aren’t as noticeable.

“You can insert the baby of the kangaroo inside the pocket of the kangaroo mother, but you cannot do the opposite,” Hamam said.

With Hamam’s holograph, the baby kangaroo could be a quarter of the mother’s size and stay hidden.

Hamam said he has already developed software that can produce a modified image from a public picture and your secret information with the click of a button. Now he’s taking it one step further. Hamam said he wants to see if he can apply the same holographic idea to audio tracks.

For this, Hamam – who holds a Canada Research Chair – is partnering with Sid-Ahmed Selouani, a professor at the Université de Moncton’s Shippagan campus who specializes in audio.

“I’m very advanced in images, but now I’m tackling a new road.”

Hamam estimates it will cost around $1.7 million to turn his research to product, and has received funding from a variety of sources, including the New Brunswick Innovation Fund. He said his research could be ready to commercialize in two years. When it does, theoretically anyone would be able to buy the software. He said he hopes to make it into an app for mobile devices as well.

Holograms could also be used by companies wanting to protect their own software from being illegally copied to another computer by branding the original computer’s information onto the software and hiding it.

Hamam also has a marketing partner connected to the Minister of Defence.

Everyone has information they want to protect, he said.

Previously published May 23, 2011; the Telegraph-Journal