Archive for the ‘Science & Technology’ Category

A doubleheader…oil spill stops, financial reform passes!

Friday, July 16th, 2010

One of the big stories today, of course, is how BP finally stopped the oil leak; I previously talked about it here and here.

The good news is that supposedly the well is completely sealed off, with no oil leaking. It remains to be seen whether the pressure inside the well will remain steady; a steady pressure would indicate that oil is not leaking around the cap. Meanwhile, one of the relief wells is 150 feet away from intersecting the leaking well; after the test is complete, drilling will resume so the leaky well can be finally killed.

The other major piece of good news is that the financial reform bill finally passed the Senate, as three republicans  - Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine and Scott Brown of Massachusetts – joined with democrats to break the GOP filibuster.  (Democrat Russ Feingold voted against the bill on the grounds that it isn’t strong enough). The republican leadership, of course, immediately called for repeal.

Public interest groups praised the legislation, which has been languishing in the Senate since the House passed it in June. The law attempts to avoid the need for another wall street bailout by setting up an advance warning system for banks that are deemed too big to fail, setting new limits on speculation by banks, and regulating the derivatives market. It also launches a new customer protection agency.

Many regulations called for by the law still need to be drafted over the next two years; it is expected that those opposed to reform will be donating heavily to republicans in order to water them down as much as possible.

Space, the final frontier..

Monday, July 12th, 2010

I’ve been following with interest the progress of Spaceport America, out in New Mexico; even though I know I’ll probably never get to go into space myself, it’s cool to know that we’re actually on the verge of commercial space travel! (Granted, Russia has been selling trips into space for a while now, but if you have to be a billionaire it doesn’t really count).

Spaceport America is a great example of where innovation can depend on government investment; can you imagine this thing being built without government involvement?  The Spaceport, which is expected to cost about $200 million altogether, is about sixty percent complete and has so far created over 600 jobs. Just this month, they finished a 10,000 foot runway and are looking for contractors to actually run the facility. If I was in New Mexico, I’d want to get in on one of those hard hat tours they offer.

Remember when SpaceShipOne won the $10 million X-prize a few years back?  Its successor, SpaceShipTwo (yes, they’re very creative) first launched on March 22 of this year; the ship is currently being tested at Scaled Composite’s home base in Mojave, California, but will then be moved to Spaceport America for commercial flights.

Image credit: Spaceport America

Now, if I was a  multi-billionaire, I’d be tempted by the company that plans to send tourists to the moon, even if it does cost $100 million a pop..

White House Releases Drupal Code

Wednesday, July 7th, 2010

Last October, the While House website migrated to the Drupal open source web platform.

The manager of whitehouse.gov has now announced that they will be releasing four custom-built modules back into the Drupal community.  These consist of:*

The Node Embed module improves screen-reading support

The Gov-Delivery module improves dynamic email

The Context HTTP module improves caching decisions

The Akami module allows integration with the Akami CMS.

This is cool as it shows this administration recognizes the importance of the principles of open source software; these improvements, done with tax dollars for government purposes, will now be available for anyone to use, free of charge. Isn’t that good news?

* Hat tip to Linux Pro Magazine for information used in this article

E-reader Price War

Monday, June 21st, 2010

I happen to be the proud owner of a first generation Kindle. I find that I can read for hours without my eyes getting tired, longer than with a real book and much longer than reading off a screen. With the advent of the iPad, many people have been wondering if e-readers are dead; the iPad, with its backlit screen, is infinitely inferior to a dedicated e-reader for reading, but better at everything else.

Now, e-readers are firing back: Borders just introduced their Kobo, which prodded Barnes & Noble to drop the price of the Nook and Amazon to drop the price of the Kindle 2.

Why is this good news? The Kindle’s new $189 price point puts it less than $40 above the estimated $150 sweet spot where e-readers should really take off. And I see more people reading more books as a good thing.

One issue with e-reader usability is that so far the screens are black and white only, which makes using certain books difficult; color screens are under development but are not expected to be released in the near future.

Millennium Technology Prize awarded for cheap solar panels

Wednesday, June 16th, 2010

The Millennium Technology Prize is awarded in recognition of innovations that result in a significant improvement in people’s quality of life or sustainable development; it is awarded every other year, with the winner receiving approximately $1 million. Past awards went to the inventors of the World Wide Web, blue and white LEDs, and innovative biomaterials for controlled drug release. It differs from the Nobel in being for technology rather than science.

This year’s prize has been awarded to  Michael Grätzel of Switzerland for his invention of third generation dye-sensitized solar cells, which are flexible and low-cost. Smaller prizes ($180,000) were awarded for cheap plastic electronics (also used in solar cells) and the ARM microprocessor, used in 90 percent of mobile phones.

The good thing about solar power is that it’s a renewable energy source that can be generated where it’s used. The drawback is that it’s expensive. The reason Grätzel’s work is significant is that it lowers the cost of solar; his cells can be built into glass windows cheaply, removing the need to install expensive solar panels on the roof of the building you want to power.

Stop the bleeding! New drug arrives

Tuesday, June 15th, 2010

Transexamic acid, or TXA, is a drug commonly used in wealthy countries to stop bleeding during elective surgeries; it costs about $9 per dose.  A recent study involving more than 20,000 trauma patients found that by administering the drug to people within 8 hours of the injury, the patients had a 15 percent lower chance of dying from a hemorrhage and a 10 percent lower chance of dying from any other cause.

The World Health Organization is being urged to include TXA on its List of Essential Medicines, which would likely result in the drug seeing more use in poor countries; however, it is expected to see more use in developed countries as well.  The drug works by interfering with the breakdown of clots, which reduces bleeding.

Stem cell research and miracle cures

Monday, June 14th, 2010

In 2004, California voters, unhappy with funding restrictions imposed by then-president George Bush, approved $3 billion in funding for stem cell research.  Scientists happily began the process of basic research that could eventually lead to cures for a number of serious conditions.  What have they found so far?

One important discovery made with the money from the California initiative is how to generate pluripotent cells; these are cells that have many of the same properties as embryonic stem cells. (Ironically, opponents of embryonic stem cell research cite these pluripotent cells as proof that the research that created them is unnecessary, because they can be used instead!)  Scientists have also learned to grow cells more efficiently and gained a better understanding of how cells work. The influx of money has also encouraged other scientists to move to California, drawn by the promise of a supportive environment for basic research.

While President Obama’s reversal of the Bush restrictions on stem cell research in March of last year have permitted scientists across the country to join those in California in working in this area, the field is complicated and has a number of regulations meant to ensure that ethical guidelines are followed.  A blog post I ran across today, by a scientist working in stem cell research, offers a brief discussion of some of the issues involved.  Under Bush, only 22 embryonic stem cell lines were available to researchers using federal funding (which is to say, pretty much all of them outside of California); scientists are now in the process of gaining access to many of the more than 1,000 new lines that have been created worldwide in the past decade.  New lines must undergo a complex vetting procedure before they can be used; currently over 60 lines are available, but many of them have restrictions on how they can be used.

Research is ongoing with both embryonic and adult stem cells.  The difference is that embryonic stem cells can be grown into any type of cell, while adult stem cells can only make the cells in the type of tissue they’re taken from.  Both types are very valuable, but embryonic cells are more versatile and less susceptible to aging. Recently they have been used to create a type of cell that’s lost after spinal cord injury; in tests, the cells have restored injured rodents their ability to walk.  Research in using stem cells to treat hearing loss, Parkinson’s disease, and many other problems is ongoing.

In related news, scientists have recently grown a liver in the lab.  While an actual liver is required, diseased and damaged livers that would not be suitable for transplants can be used; the cells are removed and replaced with stem cells grown from the patient’s skin, which removes the risk of rejection.

Drug development and the long tail

Sunday, June 13th, 2010

Traditionally, pharmaceutical companies have concentrated on making new drugs that will help most of the people, most of the time. With today’s population, though, it becomes cost-effective to research drugs that will work only for a small percentage of the population, but will be more effective for that percentage than anything else on the market.  Pfizer, for example, has an anti-cancer drug designed for 4% of lung cancer patients that has a 90% success rate within that group.

Two drug makers, Takeda Pharmaceutical and Celgene, recently tested a combination of treatments aimed at patients with the blood disease multiple myeloma; in  trials with 66 patients, every patient responded to treatment, seeing his or her cancer reduced by at least half.

The rapid development of new drugs also underscores the importance of basic research; improvements in our understanding (and this is true of most if not all fields, not just medicine) often comes from academic labs; that knowledge is then used by private labs to create commercial applications.  Because much of this research is embarked on with no particular end in mind, for long-term or uncertain benefit, government funding is required.  The Department of Defense recognizes that more knowledge inevitably leads to more benefits, even if those benefits are unknown and may not manifest for some time; as such, the DoD provides much of the funding for basic research in this country.

Loyalty Store Cards & the CDC

Saturday, June 12th, 2010

For years, stores have been encouraging customers to sign up for loyalty cards, promising discounted groceries in exchange for providing them with your personal information and shopping habits.  While the programs really amount to a price increase on people who don’t participate, it works out the same either way: signing up for and using the card saves you money.

While there are serious privacy concerns related to the use of these cards (if the database is hacked, for instance, do you really want it known what medications you’re taking?), having an accessible database of who’s purchased what also has legitimate uses.  During a recent salmonella outbreak, for example, the Center for Disease Control was able to use the loyalty card information provided by Costco to determine the source of the salmonella and notify other consumers who had purchased the salami that was spreading the disease.  The information has also been used to notify customers of important recalls.

I’d be interested in hearing where my readers (all 3 of you) stand on this issue: is storing data on your shopping habits an invasion of privacy or a helpful convenience?

Quit needling me! Wait, don’t..

Thursday, June 10th, 2010

What do acupuncture and the cancer drug deoxycoformycin have in common?  According to a new study, acupuncture may relieve pain by triggering a chemical called adenosine, which is a painkiller naturally used by the body.  The cancer drug, on the other hand, helps keep up adenosine levels.

Which brings up the question: does this mean that acupuncture may be particularly effective at relieving pain in cancer patients?

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