Recently in Science, Technology & Health Category
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.
Officials are urging parents to keep sending their kids to school even after acknowledging that the Dallas Ebola patient had contact with five kids who attend four different schools. But don't worry, they're "pretty confident"!
"Right now, the base number is 18 people, and that could increase," he said. Thompson said more details are expected by Thursday afternoon. The number includes five students at four schools, Dallas school district Superintendent Mike Miles said. ...
He urged parents to keep their children in school, but some were wary. ...
"Since none of the students had symptoms, I'm pretty confident that none of the kids were exposed," Miles said.
The superintendent is "pretty confident" that your kid won't get Ebola at school. Any parent who relies on that is a fool. I'll believe it when I see the superintendent and President Obama playing with the exposed kids. It's far better for your kid to miss a few weeks or a month of school than to risk exposure to Ebola.
The ongoing Ebola outbreak may be connected to infected bats.
The genomic sequencing also offers hints as to how the Ebola "Zaire" strain at the heart of the current outbreak -- one of five types of Ebola virus known to infect humans -- likely ended up in West Africa in the first place. Researchers said the data suggests that the virus spread from an animal host, possibly bats, and that diverged around 2004 from an Ebola strain in central Africa, where previous outbreaks have occurred.
One of the easiest ways to weaponize the virus wouldn't require any sophisticated technology: simply gather bodily fluids from Ebola victims, bring it to your target area, and scatter it on some native mammals. Some of the animals might die from Ebola, but other species might be resistant and might carry the virus as easily as the bats did.
Dogs in one community in Liberia are reportedly eating the remains of dead Ebola victims lying on the streets. ...
Dr. Stephen Korsman of the University of Cape Town's medical virology division tells News 24 that dogs can be infected with the Ebola virus but that "infections appear to be asymptomatic."
"This means that dogs won't get sick, but they still could carry a potential risk through licking or biting," Korsman explained to News 24.
Now you've created a native reservoir of Ebola in your target area that will periodically break out and infect humans and might be impossible to eradicate.
Thanks to the shoddy drafting of the Obamacare law the DC federal appeals court has ruled that it's illegal to subsidize healthcare plans bought through the federal exchange. The law only authorizes subsidies for plans bought through state exchanges, not through the federal exchange that was created for states that decided not to create exchanges of their own. Obviously this was not the intent of the law, and under normal circumstances Congress would simply pass an update to the law to remove any grounds for controversy. Of course that's impossible due to the politics surrounding Obamacare, and now the whole scheme may be doomed unless the courts decide to apply the law as intended rather than as written. Which these judges, at least, have refused to do.
The 2-1 ruling said such subsidies can be granted only to people who bought insurance in an Obamacare exchange run by an individual state or the District of Columbia--not on the federally run exchange HealthCare.gov. The ruling relied on a close reading of language in the Affordable Care Act.
"Section 36B plainly makes subsidies available in the Exchanges established by states," wrote Senior Circuit Judge Raymond Randolph in his majority opinion in the case known as Halbig v. Burwell, where he was joined by Judge Thomas Griffith.
"We reach this conclusion, frankly, with reluctance. At least until states that wish to can set up their own Exchanges, our ruling will likely have significant consequences both for millions of individuals receiving tax credits through federal Exchanges and for health insurance markets more broadly."
Obviously I think it would be best for the country for the whole law to collapse. The impossibility of properly fixing this "technical error" in the law is yet another example of how badly things can go when one party forces a bill into law against the will of the citizenry and with no support from the other party. Congress can't patch this mistake, and the courts shouldn't clean up Congress' mess.
It looks like an audacious plan to recover use of a 36-year-old satellite has ultimately failed as ISEE-3's thrusters have stopped responding to commands. Still, it's awesome that the attempt was made, and even cooler than it was done by a group of enthusiasts rather than a government team.
A team of space enthusiasts recently got permission from NASA to reconnect with the old spacecraft as it approached Earth. The idea was to put it on a new course so that it wouldn't just fly past. Instead, it would be commanded to go to a new orbit and join younger satellites in monitoring space weather.
On Tuesday, and then again Wednesday, the volunteer group sent commands to fire ISEE-3's engines again and again.
"And our first series of burns, we thought went OK," says Keith Cowing, a former NASA guy who is one of the leaders of the volunteer group -- the ISEE-3 Reboot Project. "And then when we went to the second set, pretty much nothing happened. And we tried it again, and nothing happened."
Jean-Baptiste Quéru describes the depth and complexity of what happens when you visit a website -- there's a lot more going on that most people realize. I'll quote the very first bit, but read the rest if you're interested in getting a glimpse of the magic behind our technology. As Quéru writes, no one person or company can fully comprehend it.
You just went to the Google home page.
Simple, isn't it?
What just actually happened?
Well, when you know a bit of about how browsers work, it's not quite that simple. You've just put into play HTTP, HTML, CSS, ECMAscript, and more. Those are actually such incredibly complex technologies that they'll make any engineer dizzy if they think about them too much, and such that no single company can deal with that entire complexity.
Roll Call has broken the news that the CBO has announced that it can no longer project the costs of Obamacare. All the CBO estimates for Obamacare over the past five years have turned out to be nonsense. Short version: President Obama has made so many unilateral modifications to the law that no one can figure out what the heck is going on anymore.
In its latest report on the law, the Congressional Budget Office said it is no longer possible to assess the overall fiscal impact of the law. That conclusion came as a surprise to some fiscal experts in Washington and is drawing concern. And without a clear picture of the law's overall financing, it could make it politically easier to continue delaying pieces of it, including revenue raisers, because any resulting cost increases might be hidden.
Charles Blahous, a senior research fellow at George Mason University's free market-oriented Mercatus Center, calls the CBO's inability to estimate the net effect of the law "a real problem."
"The ACA's financing provisions were assumed to be effective so as to get a favorable score out of CBO upon enactment, but no one is keeping track of whether they're being enforced," says Blahous, a public trustee for Social Security and Medicare. "We receive occasional updates on the gross costs of the law, but none on whether the previously projected savings provisions are producing what was originally projected."
As a result, Blahous says, "there's no barrier to continually rolling back the financing mechanisms without the effect on the ACA's finances ever being fully disclosed."
I asked Buser where he thinks things stand now. "The number of studies carried out so far is simply too small to come to a conclusive answer, especially because there are so many dimensions to multitasking," he replied. "It is entirely possible that women are better at some kinds of multitasking but not at others, but so far there is very little evidence for any gender differences."
Ann Althouse asks why people like to believe that women are better than men at multitasking, and offers a few suggestions.
Who benefits? Is it female ego-boosting? Is it another trick of the patriarchy that hoodwinks women into doing the housework and child-rearing?
I think she's on to something. Other possibilities:
- Perhaps women excel at tasks that are more commonly performed in parallel due to the nature of the tasks themselves.
- Perhaps women excel at multitasking some highly visible tasks, and this observation bias leads people to believe that women excel at multitasking in general.
- Perhaps women exert greater effort while multitasking in a real environment, while men only exert themselves while multitasking in an experimental environment.
Popular Science has a fantastic article about robot ethics, with a focus on robotic cars. The whole thing is worth reading, but here's a taste.
It happens quickly--more quickly than you, being human, can fully process.
A front tire blows, and your autonomous SUV swerves. But rather than veering left, into the opposing lane of traffic, the robotic vehicle steers right. Brakes engage, the system tries to correct itself, but there's too much momentum. Like a cornball stunt in a bad action movie, you are over the cliff, in free fall.
Your robot, the one you paid good money for, has chosen to kill you. Better that, its collision-response algorithms decided, than a high-speed, head-on collision with a smaller, non-robotic compact. There were two people in that car, to your one. The math couldn't be simpler.
In my opinion, your robotic car should has customizable ethics options that let you, the owner, choose your priorities. If you want to protect your family above all else, then you should be able to select that and bear the legal consequences.
"Buy our car," jokes Michael Cahill, a law professor and vice dean at Brooklyn Law School, "but be aware that it might drive over a cliff rather than hit a car with two people."
Okay, so that was Cahill's tossed-out hypothetical, not mine. But as difficult as it would be to convince automakers to throw their own customers under the proverbial bus, or to force their hand with regulations, it might be the only option that shields them from widespread litigation. Because whatever they choose to do--kill the couple, or the driver, or randomly pick a target--these are ethical decisions being made ahead of time. As such, they could be far more vulnerable to lawsuits, says Cahill, as victims and their family members dissect and indict decisions that weren't made in the spur of the moment, "but far in advance, in the comfort of corporate offices."
In the absence of a universal standard for built-in, pre-collision ethics, superhuman cars could start to resemble supervillains, aiming for the elderly driver rather than the younger investment banker--the latter's family could potentially sue for considerably more lost wages. Or, less ghoulishly, the vehicle's designers could pick targets based solely on make and model of car. "Don't steer towards the Lexus," says Cahill. "If you have to hit something, you could program it hit a cheaper car, since the driver is more likely to have less money."
These questions seem futuristic, but our robots will be making a lot of split-second decisions for us based on the rules we set up in advance. We need to think about what those rules should be.
Once the leader in cybersecurity, Symantec has declared that "antivirus is dead", at least as a business model. This is obviously true, considering the proliferation of excellent free antivirus software. Antivirus is also pretty stale as a technology:
Ted Schlein, who helped create Symantec's first antivirus product, describes such software as "necessary but insufficient." As a partner at venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Mr. Schlein invests in new cybersecurity companies that compete with Symantec.
Using antivirus software is like locking the door of your house. It's a smart thing to do, but it won't protect you if you expose yourself to danger in other ways.
Is the Golden Age of antibiotics drawing to a close? Will our children grow up in a world where minor infections that have been easily curable for decades are once again life-threatening? This is a huge public health concern with far greater impact than the availability of health insurance. Developing new antibiotics and preventing a return to bacteria-dominated health environment should be a top priority of the federal government.
The spread of deadly superbugs that evade even the most powerful antibiotics is no longer a prediction but is happening right now across the world, United Nations officials said on Wednesday.
Antibiotic resistance has the potential to affect anyone, of any age, in any country, the U.N.'s World Health Organisation (WHO) said in a report. It is now a major threat to public health, of which "the implications will be devastating".
"The world is headed for a post-antibiotic era, in which common infections and minor injuries which have been treatable for decades can once again kill," said Keiji Fukuda, the WHO's assistant director-general for health security.
Finally someone has improved on the millennia-old axe for splitting wood by hand! Behold: The Vipukirves, or Leveraxe.
So what makes a lever different than a wedge in this scenario? The Vipukirves still has a sharpened blade at the end, but it has a projection coming off the side that shifts the center of gravity away from the middle. At the point of impact, the edge is driven into the wood and slows down, but the kinetic energy contained in the 1.9 kilogram axe head continues down and to the side (because of the odd center of gravity). The rotational energy actually pushes the wood apart like a lever. A single strike can open an 8 cm gap in a log, which is more than enough to separate it.
Simple and brilliant. Also easy to mechanize.
Three million Californians are newly insured thanks to Obamacare, but they can't find any doctors willing to take them. One of the big philosophical problems with Obamacare is that it makes the assumption that getting someone health insurance will inevitably lead to that person getting health care. That isn't true.
Thinn Ong was thrilled to qualify for a subsidy on the health care exchange. She is paying $200 a month in premiums. But the single mother of two is asking, what for?
"Yeah, I sign it. I got it. But where's my doctor? Who's my doctor? I don't know," said a frustrated Ong.
Nguyen said the newly insured patients checked the physicians' lists they were provided and were told they weren't accepting new patients or they did not participate in the plan.
Dr. Kevin Grumbach of UCSF called the phenomenon "medical homelessness," where patients are caught adrift in a system woefully short of primary care doctors.
"Insurance coverage is a necessary but not a sufficient condition to assure that people get access to care when they need it," Grumbach said.
Those who can't find a doctor are supposed to lodge a complaint with state regulators, who have been denying the existence of a doctor shortage for months.
The NYT has a great piece about direct primary care: doctors who have stopped taking insurance and instead work for cash. Like a normal business. Surprise! It works pretty well.
Lee Spangler, vice president of medical economics with the medical association, said Texas was seeing an increase in practices like these because they gave doctors more flexibility to determine the services they provide and to cut costs for their practices.
"A physician has very little ability to negotiate all policies and procedures that come with insurance contracts," Mr. Spangler said, adding that some insurance companies can even dictate the business hours during which doctors can be paid. "Basically you get rid of all those shackles in terms of having a carrier dictate to the practice how to deliver medical services."
It is the direct primary care business model that proves most attractive, Mr. Spangler said, adding that doctors "want to get out from under what has been stacked up on them."
Bizarrely, "some people" seem to be more worried about health insurance than actual health care. Could it be that these "some people" make their livings as middlemen who don't want patients to go straight to doctors?
Some health care specialists worry that if too many practitioners choose this path, the state could be left struggling to find doctors to accommodate patients with insurance as the federal health care overhaul is making such coverage mandatory for most Texans. So far, efforts to enroll Texans in the federal insurance marketplace -- crucial to the success of the Affordable Care Act -- have made a small dent in the state's uninsured population, which has reached 6 million, according to United States Census Bureau data. The federal Department of Health and Human Services reported that 295,000 Texans had signed up for insurance coverage in the federal marketplace as of March 1.
"We have to find ways of stretching the current number of primary care doctors to meet that demand," said Dr. Clare Hawkins, president of the Texas Academy of Family Physicians. "Direct primary care goes in the other direction."
What if you passed a law mandating insurance, but no doctors showed up?
"The Schmidt Sting Pain Index rates the painfulness of 78 Hymenoptera species, using the honey bee as a reference point. However, the question of how sting painfulness varies depending on body location remains unanswered. This study rated the painfulness of honey bee stings over 25 body locations in one subject (the author). Pain was rated on a 1-10 scale, relative to an internal standard, the forearm. In the single subject, pain ratings were consistent over three repetitions. Sting location was a significant predictor of the pain rating in a linear model (p < 0.0001, DF = 25, 94, F = 27.4). The three least painful locations were the skull, middle toe tip, and upper arm (all scoring a 2.3). The three most painful locations were the nostril, upper lip, and penis shaft (9.0, 8.7, and 7.3, respectively). This study provides an index of how the painfulness of a honey bee sting varies depending on body location."
Ok, so I'm estimating the number of bee-stings... the actual number could be as few as 75 if the author didn't test all 78 species. But still.
Everyone has heard about BitCoin by now, but did you know that crypto-currencies are just a subset of Distributed Autonomous Corporations?
Distributed Autonomous Corporations (DAC) run without any human involvement under the control of an incorruptible set of business rules. (That's why they must be distributed and autonomous.) These rules are implemented as publicly auditable open source software distributed across the computers of their stakeholders. You become a stakeholder by buying "stock" in the company or being paid in that stock to provide services for the company. This stock may entitle you to a share of its "profits", participation in its growth, and/or a say in how it is run.