Recently in Science, Technology & Health Category
You've got 10 times as many bacteria in your body as you do human cells, and it shouldn't be surprising that these hitchhikers have a huge effect on health. New research shows that by drugging our gut bacteria we may be able to significantly reduce the incidence of heart disease without changing our diets. Faster, please!
Writing in the journal Cell, researchers from the Cleveland Clinic and UCLA's division of cardiology suggest that disrupting the cascade of events that results in the production of TMAO might also prevent the kinds of fatty buildup in the arteries that leads to heart disease.
They came up with a chemical lookalike to choline, a common chemical compound that plays a key role in processing fatty acids. The lookalike chemical, called DMB, suppresses the first step in the lengthy process of TMAO production. Both in laboratory tests and in mice (where researchers added DMB to the drinking water), they saw that DMB drove down the amount of triethylamine available for liver enzymes to turn into artery-clogging TMAO.
In the study, mice were fed chow that typically doubles fatty buildup in the arteries. Among those mice that got DMB in their water, arterial buildup was significantly reduced; their arteries looked almost like those of normal, healthy mice, the researchers found.
UnitedHealth Group is warning that it might withdraw from Obamacare by 2017 because it's losing too much money. I'm sure the warning is legit, but it should really be viewed as a negotiation gambit.
The company admits it's "a potentially huge blow" to the new system: "If a major publicly traded insurer bows out, others may follow and destabilize the entire individual market."
Game over for ObamaCare?
UnitedHealth CEO Stephen Hemsley seems to imply just that: "We can't really subsidize a marketplace that doesn't appear at the moment to be sustaining itself."
As Megan McArdle points out writes about the potential for an Obamacare death spiral, but of course she's cautious in making predictions.
An earnings call like today's can also be a bargaining tactic. Health insurers are engaged in a sort of perpetual negotiation with regulators over how much they'll be allowed to charge, what sort of help they'll get from the government if they lose money, and a thousand other things. Signaling that you're willing to pull out of the market if you don't get a better deal is a great way to improve your bargaining position with legislators and regulatory agencies.
That said, strategic positioning is obviously far from the whole story, or even the majority of it. UnitedHealth really is losing money on these policies right now. It really is seeing something that looks dangerously like adverse selection.
No matter how you look at it, the news isn't good for the Affordable Care Act.
Elephants live as long as humans and they don't get cancer. Obviously we need to create human-elephant hybrids.
"Half of all men and a third of all women will develop cancer in their lifetime," said study author Dr. Joshua Schiffman, an investigator at the Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah. "The uncontrolled cell division and genomic instability that is cancer is very much a disease of aging, because the older we get the less we're able to repair damaged cells."
Because elephants "are 100 times our size, and have so many cells, and live for such a long time, it stands to reason that just by chance alone all elephants should be dying from cancer. But they don't," said Schiffman. ...
Analysis of zoo elephant death records revealed that less than 5 percent died of cancer. The cancer death rate in humans is 11 to 25 percent, the researchers said.
A new brain-to-tablet interface that allows "locked-in" people to interact with the world sounds miraculous. The volunteers and scientists who are developing this technology deserve recognition and thanks.
The team's breakthrough moment came when they realized their point-and-click cursor system was similar to finger tapping on a touchscreen, something most of us do everyday.
We were going to design our own touchscreen hardware, but then realized the best ones were already on the market, laughed [ Dr. Paul ] Nuyujukian, so we went on Amazon instead and bought a Nexus 9 tablet.
The team took their existing setup and reworked it so that patient T6's brain waves could control where she tapped on the Nexus touchscreen. It was a surprisingly easy modification: the neuroprosthetic communicated with the tablet through existing Bluetooth protocols, and the system was up and running in less than a year.
"Basically the tablet recognized the prosthetic as a wireless Bluetooth mouse," explained Nuyujukian. We pointed her to a web browser app and told her to have fun.
In a series of short movie clips, the team demonstrated patient T6 Googling questions about gardening, taking full advantage of the autocompletion feature to speed up her research. T6 had no trouble navigating through tiny links and worked the standard QWERTY keyboard efficiently.
This is the kind of story that makes me skeptical about the risk of anthropogenic global warming. I'm sure there are a lot of explanations for why such adjustments are "necessary", but I wasn't born last night.
The US accounts for 6.62% of the land area on Earth, but accounts for 39% of the data in the GHCN network. Overall, from 1880 to the present, approximately 99% of the temperature data in the USHCN homogenized output has been estimated (differs from the original raw data). Approximately 92% of the temperature data in the USHCN TOB output has been estimated. The GHCN adjustment models estimate approximately 92% of the US temperatures, but those estimates do not match either the USHCN TOB or homogenized estimates. ...
It should also be noted, that the U.S. Climate Reference Network, designed from the start to be free of the need for ANY adjustment of data, does not show any trend, as I highlighted in June 2015 in this article: Despite attempts to erase it globally, "the pause" still exists in pristine US surface temperature data
(HT: Power Line.)
New models of the solar cycle predict that the earth could enter a mini ice age in the 2030s, a prospect much scarier global warming. Life tends to flourish in warm eras and is strangled in the cold.
A mini ice age could hit the Earth in the 2030s, the first such event to occur since the early 1700s. New mathematical models of the Sun's solar cycle developed at Northumbria University suggest solar activity will fall by 60 percent, causing temperatures on Earth to plummet.
The last mini ice age occurred between 1645 and 1715 and caused global temperatures to fall dramatically, with London's River Thames freezing over during winter and sea ice extending for miles around the UK. The prolonged cold snap, known as the Maunder Minimum, was due to sunspots becoming exceedingly rare, as observed by scientists at the time.
Even China -- home of the world's "cheap labor" (though not as cheap anymore!) -- is investing in robotic manufacturing. The numbers look big, but these are baby-steps. Once the bugs in the robotic systems get ironed out we'll see robots displacing millions of workers.
Robots are set to take over in many factories in the Pearl River Delta, the area of southern China known as the 'world's workshop' because of the huge export manufacturing industry there, as labour shortages bite and local authorities face the need to spur innovation to counter the economic slowdown.
Since September, a total of 505 factories across Dongguan have invested 4.2 billion yuan in robots, aiming to replace more than 30,000 workers, according to the Dongguan Economy and Information Technology Bureau.
By 2016, up to 1,500 of the city's industrial enterprises will began replacing humans with robots.
At current exchange rates that's about $22,500 per worker.
It appears that some prominent scientists and researchers have been hired by the Global Warming Policy Foundation to look into the adjusted surface temperature records for the last 150 years or so. The GWPF is generally skeptical of anthropogenic global warming, but hopefully the inquiry will be rigorous and transparent enough that its conclusions, whatever they are, will be above reproach.
Their inquiry's central aim will be to establish a comprehensive view of just how far the original data has been "adjusted" by the three main surface records: those published by the Goddard Institute for Space Studies (Giss), the US National Climate Data Center and Hadcrut, that compiled by the East Anglia Climatic Research Unit (Cru), in conjunction with the UK Met Office's Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction. All of them are run by committed believers in man-made global warming. ...
For this the GWPF panel is initially inviting input from all those analysts across the world who have already shown their expertise in comparing the originally recorded data with that finally published. In particular, they will be wanting to establish a full and accurate picture of just how much of the published record has been adjusted in a way which gives the impression that temperatures have been rising faster and further than was indicated by the raw measured data.
Robots are complementing human care-takers in hospitals. The two most interesting aspects to me are:
- Administrators claim that no human jobs are at risk.
- The humans show natural deference to the robots.
Well, according to Pamela Hudson, the medical center's associate director of administration, their jobs are safe. In fact, she says that with such a massive new hospital, hiring in some departments is on the rise. The robots are about supplementing current jobs, she says, not eliminating them. "It would be a travesty for us to hire more techs who specialize in instrumentation but all they're doing is running around delivering trays," Hudson says. "That's not the best use of their skills--that's not a real job satisfier." As an added perk, she says, if staffers aren't pushing around huge carts, they're not straining themselves or mowing down their colleagues.
As for deference:
"We had to train on a lot of robot etiquette, you know," says operations director Brian Herriot as we walk the halls in search of Tugs, aided by a laptop that tracks their movements. "Which is, we train them to treat a robot like your grandma, and she's in the hospital in a wheel chair. If something's in their way, just move it aside, don't go stand in front of them." ...
It may have an adult voice, but Tug has a childlike air, even though in this hospital you're supposed to treat it like a wheelchair-bound old lady. It's just so innocent, so earnest, and at times, a bit helpless. If there's enough stuff blocking its way in a corridor, for instance, it can't reroute around the obstruction.
This happened to the Tug we were trailing in pediatrics. "Oh, something's in its way!" a woman in scrubs says with an expression like she herself had ruined the robot's day. She tries moving the wheeled contraption but it won't budge. "Uh, oh!" She shoves on it some more and finally gets it to move. "Go, Tug, go!" she exclaims as the robot, true to its programming, continues down the hall.
The title of this video is mocking, but the rocket is very cool!
How a car engine works. Learn something new every day! Also, this will be helpful knowledge in case you survive the always-impending collapse of civilization.
George Johnson writes about a recent study that concluded that most cancer is caused by random mutations rather than environment or heredity. This is good news and bad news: your behavior makes less difference than you think. Smoking is obviously bad, but otherwise your behavior and genes only have a minority effect on your cancer risk.
Some of these genetic misprints are caused by outside agents, chemical or biological, especially in parts of the body -- the skin, the lungs and the digestive tract -- most exposed to the ravages of the world. But millions every second occur purely by chance -- random, spontaneous glitches that may be the most pervasive carcinogen of all.
It's a truth that grates against our deepest nature. That was clear earlier this month when a paper in Science on the prominent role of "bad luck" and cancer caused an outbreak of despair, outrage and, ultimately, disbelief.
The most intemperate of this backlash -- mini-screeds on Twitter and hit-and-run comments on the web -- suggested that the authors, Cristian Tomasetti and Bert Vogelstein of Johns Hopkins University, must be apologists for chemical companies or the processed food industry. In fact, their study was underwritten by nonprofit cancer foundations and grants from the National Institutes of Health. In some people's minds, those were just part of the plot.
What psychologists call apophenia -- the human tendency to see connections and patterns that are not really there -- gives rise to conspiracy theories. It is also at work, though usually in a milder form, in our perceptions about cancer and our revulsion to randomness.
You can view cancer like a slow-motion car crash: most of the time it's not your fault, and it really sucks. Unlike a fatal car crash, cancer usually gives you time to see your loved ones.
William H. Davidow and Michael S. Malone echo an observation about robots replacing ever-more-capable workers and how the shift to automation will affect society. They even follow my example and use IQ as a proxy for generic capability -- though they ignore the gender implications.
Suppose, today, that the robots and smart machines of the Second Economy are only capable of doing the work of a person of average intelligence - that is, an IQ of 100. Imagine that the technology in those machines continues to improve at the current rate. Suppose further that this rate of technological progress raises the IQ of these machines by 1.5 points per year. By 2025 these machines will have an IQ greater than 90% of the U.S. population. That 15 point increase in IQ over ten years would put another 50 million jobs within reach of smart machines.
Impossible? In fact, the vanguard of those 115-point IQ machines is already here. In certain applications, the minds of highly educated MD's are no longer needed. In 2013, the FDA approved Johnson & Johnson's Sedasys machine, which delivers propofol to sedate patients without the need for an anesthesiologist. An emerging field in radiology is computer-aided diagnosis (CADx). And a recent study published by the Royal Society showed that computers performed more consistently in identifying radiolucency (the appearance of dark images) than radiologists almost by a factor of ten.
Politicians, economists, and scientists might debate these particular estimates, but to do so is to miss the larger point. Machine intelligence is already having a major effect on the value of work - and for major segments of the population, human value is now being set by the cost of equivalent machine intelligence.
The shift to automation will be a growing challenge for capitalism as the dependent class grows.
Bill Blunden writes a long rant warning against trust in encryption and the companies who peddle it, pointing out that no matter how good your encryption algorithms are they can be subverted by the people who use or implement them.
Greenwald believes that leaked documents will induce Silicon Valley to clean up its act. But given the systemic forces at work, Silicon Valley will likely continue to consort with spies. In light of wage cartels, slave labor and wanton tax avoidance, it should be clear that high-tech companies have absolutely no shame at all. Like a textbook psychopath, most corporate entities really care about one thing only: profit. Caught in bed with the intelligence services, they'll simply keep on selling more lies.
Why should they clean up their act when it's cheaper and more profitable to sell snake oil to rubes? In the C-suites of Silicon Valley managing bad publicity is largely a matter of cleverly devised public relations. Having beguiled their users with a newly minted "encryption everywhere" sales pitch they will return to their old ways. High-tech executives, you see, want to have their cake and eat it too. People raking in billions are used to getting what they want: patronize the unwashed masses with talk of improved security and simultaneously maintain their links to their brethren in the intelligence services.
Read it all. Basically, be more paranoid.
Conservative Party London Mayor Boris Johnson comes to the defense of Philae mission astrophysicist Matt Taylor and his sartorial whimsy. Here's a picture of the supposedly offensive shirt:
Says Mayor Johnson:
This mission is a colossal achievement. Millions of us have been watching Philae's heart-stopping journey. Everyone in this country should be proud of Dr Taylor and his colleagues, and he has every right to let his feelings show.
Except, of course, that he wasn't crying with relief. He wasn't weeping with sheer excitement at this interstellar rendezvous. I am afraid he was crying because he felt he had sinned. He was overcome with guilt and shame for wearing what some people decided was an "inappropriate" shirt on television. "I have made a big mistake," he said brokenly. "I have offended people and I am sorry about this."
I watched that clip of Dr Taylor's apology - at the moment of his supreme professional triumph - and I felt the red mist come down. It was like something from the show trials of Stalin, or from the sobbing testimony of the enemies of Kim Il-sung, before they were taken away and shot. It was like a scene from Mao's cultural revolution when weeping intellectuals were forced to confess their crimes against the people.
Why was he forced into this humiliation? Because he was subjected to an unrelenting tweetstorm of abuse. He was bombarded across the internet with a hurtling dustcloud of hate, orchestrated by lobby groups and politically correct media organisations.
And so I want, naturally, to defend this blameless man. And as for all those who have monstered him and convicted him in the kangaroo court of the web - they should all be ashamed of themselves.
Let's celebrate the brilliance of Dr. Taylor and the rest of the Philae team and reserve our faux outrage for really offensive shirts.
Congratulations to the European Space Agency for a fantastic accomplishment! The probe Philae has landed softly on its target comet.
To avoid sickness we're all taught to wash our hands, cover our mouths when we cough or sneeze, and avoid touching our face. However, for most of my life I viewed the prospect of getting sick as a binary state: either I caught something or I didn't. As I got older I considered that I might get less sick if I reduce my exposure to infected fluids, even if I couldn't avoid getting sick entirely. I read about attenuated vaccines that contained live viruses but didn't make their recipients sick (usually). As I investigated further, I finally came across a description of viral load and the puzzle pieces fell into place. Why hadn't anyone told me about this concept as a kid? Maybe most people don't know that infections aren't binary! So what is viral load?
Viral load, also known as viral burden, viral titre or viral titer, is a measure of the severity of an active viral infection, and can be calculated by estimating the live amount of virus in an involved body fluid.
Basically, it's how many copies of a virus you've got in your body: your infection (and immune response) is worse if you've got more of the virus. Your kid gives you a lot of virus copies when she sneezes into your open eyes, and you're likely to get sick more severely and more quickly. This is significant especially as a parent because it's impossible to avoid contamination from a sick kid completely, but you can reduce the severity of your eventual sickness if you work to minimize your viral load.
Viral load is also an important factor when it comes to Ebola infections:
The relatively swift recoveries of Vinson and Pham might also be attributed to their personal protective equipment (PPE) they were wearing when they treated Duncan.
While some nurses at the Texas hospital reportedly complained about PPE that left their necks exposed, at least Vinson was suited up.
"She was wearing personal protective equipment during the care of her patient in Dallas, and therefore it is quite likely that the amount of virus she was exposed to was substantially less than what we see in patients who get infected in less developed countries," Ribner said.
"And we also know that the higher the viral load that you get infected with, the more severe your disease is likely to be."
"Infection" is a continuum. Even when you can't avoid exposure entirely, you can minimize the severity of your illness by minimizing your viral load.
General John Kelly makes an astute point: if Ebola breaks out in Central America millions of people will flood the United States to escape the epidemic. We must make much stronger efforts to contain Ebola in West Africa.
Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly, commander of the U.S. Southern Command, predicted last week that the Ebola virus will not be contained in West Africa, and if infected people flee those countries and spread the disease to Central and South America, it could cause "mass migration into the United States" of those seeking treatment.
"If it breaks out, it's literally, 'Katie bar the door,' and there will be mass migration into the United States," Kelly said in remarks to the National Defense University on Tuesday. "They will run away from Ebola, or if they suspect they are infected, they will try to get to the United States for treatment.
Not that we should just throw money at the problem, but if the U.N. and W.H.O. are right that only $1 billion is needed to contain the epidemic then it's pretty foolish not to write a check.
Ebola experts agree that we don't know enough about the virus to guarantee that it only spreads via close contact with bodily fluids and that asymptomatic carriers are non-infectious.
Dr. Philip K. Russell, a virologist who oversaw Ebola research while heading the U.S. Army's Medical Research and Development Command, and who later led the government's massive stockpiling of smallpox vaccine after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, also said much was still to be learned. "Being dogmatic is, I think, ill-advised, because there are too many unknowns here." ...
"I see the reasons to dampen down public fears," Russell said. "But scientifically, we're in the middle of the first experiment of multiple, serial passages of Ebola virus in man.... God knows what this virus is going to look like. I don't." ...
Skinner of the CDC, who cited the Peters-led study as the most extensive of Ebola's transmissibility, said that while the evidence "is really overwhelming" that people are most at risk when they touch either those who are sick or such a person's vomit, blood or diarrhea, "we can never say never" about spread through close-range coughing or sneezing.
In my opinion, we need to be much more aggressive in isolating exposed people. We obviously need to care for them as well as we can, but we can't let our compassion put the whole population at risk. Near the apartment complexes where the Dallas patient lived government officials are worrying more about "civil rights" than about containing the epidemic.
Vickery Meadow, a crush of low-income apartment complexes just a short drive from some of Dallas's toniest neighborhoods, appeared calm on Tuesday. Women in traditional Muslim head coverings, mothers carrying children and workers headed to the bus stop walked along the road next to The Ivy apartments, where Duncan had stayed.
But some tensions have surfaced.
Dallas City Councilwoman Jennifer Staubach Gates said three residents of Vickery Meadow reported that their employers sent them away from work out of fear that they could be carrying the virus. Gates said Tuesday that she had contacted a lawyer to help those men.
The city has also enlisted doctors to explain Ebola to neighborhood residents and assure them that they are safe, Gates said. Vickery Meadow is home to thousands of immigrants from Afghanistan to Mexico, many of whom don't speak English.
But are they safe? That's not clear at all. I think our leaders and citizens should be a little less starry-eyed and a little more paranoid.