Category: Geek

Effects of East Anglian breast screening on climate change

A newly appreciated problem — climate change, for example — can spur people to consider all sorts of possible remedies. This study appears to have been done in that spirit:

The authors, at the University of East Anglia and at Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital, explain:

Health services contribute significantly to carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and, while services in the UK are beginning to address this, the focus has been on reducing energy consumption rather than road transport, a major component of emissions. We aimed to compare the distances travelled by patients attending mobile breast screening clinics compared to the distance they would need to travel if screening services were centralized….

The availability of mobile breast screening clinics for the 60,675 women who underwent screening over a three-year cycle led to a return journey distance savings of 1,429,908 km. Taking into account the CO2 emissions of the tractor unit used for moving the mobile clinics around, this equates to approximately 75 tonnes of CO2 saved in any one year.

Gotta love unintended consequences when they turn out positive.

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Dancing robot cheerleaders

The only thing better than state-of-the-arts robotics is when it’s combined with Force 9 cuteness. Japanese electronics company Murata Manufacturing has given us one example with the unveiling if its robotic Cheerleaders. The squad of ten ball-mounted robots uses advanced ultrasonics, infrared, and group control technology to perform synchronized dance routines with perfect stability.

The Murata Cheerleader stands 36 cm tall. The pom poms of the Murata Cheerleader are part of the balance system.

The Cheerleaders were built in collaboration with Matsuno Lab at Kyoto University and represent Murata’s fourth generation of robots. The design is based on the company’s bicycle-riding Murata Boy and unicycle-riding Murata Boy, though the Cheerleader robots are designed to represent “elementary school students full of energy and curiosity…”

Who says robots can’t be cute en masse?

Nissan unveils LEAF truck prototype

“If necessity is the mother of invention, engineers fuel that fire at Nissan’s Technical Center in Stanfield, Arizona. Here engineers are plentiful. They love to build things, test things and tinker with things. This team thinks a lot about “why not?” Recently they created a one-of-a-kind electric vehicle to haul supplies and people around on the tech center property. This is Sparky as he’s known around the campus. It is a Nissan LEAF crossed with a Nissan Frontier, brought to life by Nissan’s Roland Schellenberg and Arnold Moulinet.”

Lots of still photos over at the article.

Home Depot data theft affected 56 million credit/debit cards

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The world’s largest DIY retailer has admitted that 56m credit and debit card numbers were compromised over a five-month period in one of the worst breaches of customer data ever recorded. Home Depot said on Thursday night that although the data theft began in April, the malware used by the hackers had only been completely removed from its systems this month.

The breach was revealed on 2 September by the security website Krebs on Security, which said that all 2,200 of Home Depot’s US stores could have been affected. The chain, which did not confirm the data breach until 8 September, said that security groups Symantec and FishNet Security were brought in to investigate the possible hacking as soon it became known.

The criminals used “unique, custom-built malware” that had not been seen in similar attacks, which helped them to avoid detection for so long, Home Depot said. It had completed a major payment security upgrade to ensure better encryption of customers’ card numbers.

US retailers have been slower to adopt the chip-and-Pin technology found in Britain and most European countries as many American credit cards still lacked the appropriate chips. The US payments industry has set a deadline of October 2015 to switch to chip and Pin.

Who deserves the core blame here? Probably the Big Banks. The fast buck is always sweetest – while ignoring long-range dangers. And that should read “American Big Banks”.

When chip and Pin came out over a decade ago, Euro banks, banks around the world realized the importance of increased security. Not worrying specifically about hackers, they still realized the cost of prevention was a helluva lot less than the cost of theft. American banks? They worried about next month’s bottom line. So they didn’t consider the investment in each new card of about $5 [at the time] to be worthwhile.

Now – it’s $10 per card and retailers like Home Depot are spending tens of million$ just to begin to recover from this data theft.

Sorry, NSA – we’re not able to decrypt user info – Apple

Among the privacy policies outlined by Apple in a new privacy policy webpage on Wednesday is an iOS 8 feature that makes it technically impossible for the company to decrypt a device to harvest user data, even if law enforcement agencies request it…

In a document (PDF link) meant to guide law enforcement officers in requesting user information, Apple notes that it no longer stores encryption keys for devices with iOS 8, meaning agencies are unable to gain access even with a valid search warrant. This includes data store on a physical device protected by a passcode, including photos, call history, contacts and more.

“Unlike our competitors, Apple cannot bypass your passcode and therefore cannot access this data,” Apple said on its new webpage dedicated to privacy policies. “So it’s not technically feasible for us to respond to government warrants for the extraction of this data from devices in their possession running iOS 8.”

The safeguards do not apply to other services including iCloud, however, meaning any data stored offsite is fair game for government seizure. Still, the security implementation will likely be seen as a step in the right direction, especially given the current political climate following revelations of governmental “snooping” activities.

Overdue. As Edward Snowden suggested, encryption is still one of the best ways to frustrate government snooping. A standard that other tech companies might emulate even if it gets in the way of their monetization of your data.

Transforming cancer cells into healthy cells

For almost thirty years, William Kuhens worked on Staten Island as a basketball referee for the Catholic Youth Organization and other amateur leagues. At seventy, he was physically fit, taking part in twenty games a month. But in July of 2013 he began to lose weight and feel exhausted; his wife told him he looked pale. He saw his doctor, and tests revealed that his blood contained below-normal numbers of platelets and red and white blood cells; these are critical for, respectively, preventing bleeding, supplying oxygen, and combatting infection.

Kuhens was sent to the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, in Manhattan, to meet with Eytan Stein, an expert in blood disorders. Stein found that as much as fifteen per cent of Kuhens’s bone marrow was made up of primitive, cancerous blood cells. “Mr. Kuhens was on the cusp of leukemia,” Stein told me recently. “It seemed that his disease was rapidly advancing…”

The only options were experimental. Stein had sent a sample of Kuhens’s bone marrow to be analyzed for the presence of thirty or so gene mutations that are known to be associated with blood cancers. The tests revealed one notable mutation, in a gene that produces an enzyme called IDH-2. Normally, the enzyme helps to break down nutrients and generate energy for cells. When mutated, it creates a molecule that alters the cells’ genetic programming. Instead of maturing, the cells remain primitive, proliferate wildly, and wreak havoc…

This past spring, Kuhens entered the AG-221 drug trial and received his first dose. Within weeks, the leukemic-cell count in his bone marrow had fallen from fifteen per cent to four per cent, and his counts of healthy blood cells improved markedly; he has been in complete remission for four months. The most noticeable side effect has been a metallic taste in his mouth. “For some reason, I can’t stand mayonnaise,” Kuhens told me recently. He just celebrated his fiftieth wedding anniversary. “I want to be around for a while,” he said, “and I don’t know how long this drug will last…”

The Agios drug, instead of killing the leukemic cells—immature blood cells gone haywire—coaxes them into maturing into functioning blood cells. Cancerous cells traditionally have been viewed as a lost cause, fit only for destruction. The emerging research on A.M.L. suggests that at least some cancer cells might be redeemable: they still carry their original programming and can be pressed back onto a pathway to health.

Most cancers, once they spread, are incurable. Cancer researchers are desperate to raise the number of patients who go into remission, to prolong those remissions, and to ultimately prevent relapse. So when a new way of attacking cancer comes along, it is often greeted with incautious euphoria and an assumption that the new paradigm can be quickly converted into a cure for all cancers…

Cancer does not have one fatal flaw. It advances along many paths, sometimes incrementally, often unpredictably, like the science arrayed against it. Nonetheless, these latest findings offer an unanticipated opportunity for scientists to reëxamine what many of us took for granted: that cancer cells must be destroyed if the patient is to improve. These discoveries could enable researchers to target cancers that were previously beyond treatment. For patients, they offer evidence that it is possible to live longer, and better, with cancer—and they provide hope that scientists are advancing on a cure.

The big CA scares all of us. Shuffling off this mortal coil is nothing any sentient rational human being looks forward to. Adding all the negatives of death by cancer increases anxiety and fear by an order of magnitude.

RTFA for an analysis of the treatment and research involved in this particular approach. Someday, it may help you through a difficult time.

Thanks, Mike

The coffee genome has been mapped — woo-hoo!

Scientists have now mapped the genome of the Coffea canephora plant species, better known as the Robusta, which constitutes around a third of coffee sold worldwide. The results were published in the journal Science.

Robusta only grows in the Eastern Hemisphere, and it is the parent plant of the Arabica bean. Robusta coffee is known for its use in instant coffees and supermarket coffees, while the more complex Arabica species is known for its use in more specialty coffees.

The mapping of the Robusta species helped the scientists learn how caffeine forms in the plant and how different genetics produce different flavors and caffeine strengths of beans. The study found that plants used for tea and coffee plants produce caffeine through a different biological process.

With the new information, coffee cultivators can identify different ways to breed coffee plants to produce desired results, like disease resistance or plants that can grow in environments they’re not accustomed to growing in.

More coffee, more coffee, more coffee.

This should be one of those accomplishments uniting the Vegetarian Left and Science-Technoids. Unless you’re limiting yourself to Postum. :)

Haboob swallows Phoenix, Arizona

The city of Phoenix, Arizona, was hit by a massive dust storm on Saturday evening…

The haboob left thousands of homes without power and grounded numerous flights at the city’s international airport.

Reports indicated this critter had about a 3000-foot top.

Now, folks over in Arizona will get to listen to Tea Party-types whine for a couple of weeks about this sort of dust storm being called a haboob. Even weather reports are judged on whether they’re white enough.

Genetically-engineered E. coli poops out propane

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Propane is an appealing fuel, easily stored and already used worldwide, but it’s extracted from the finite supply of fossil fuels – or is it? Researchers at Imperial College London and the University of Turku have engineered E. coli bacteria that create engine-ready propane out of fatty acids, and in the future, maybe even sunlight…

With the premise of producing a fuel that’s more sustainable in a biological host and easier to bring to market, the research team engineered a pathway in E. coli that interrupts the conversion of fatty acids into cell membranes and instead couples naturally unlinked enzymatic processes to manufacture propane…

“Although this research is at a very early stage, our proof of concept study provides a method for renewable production of a fuel that previously was only accessible from fossil reserves,” said Dr Patrik Jones, from the Department of Life Sciences at Imperial College London. “Although we have only produced tiny amounts so far, the fuel we have produced is ready to be used in an engine straight away. This opens up possibilities for future sustainable production of renewable fuels that at first could complement, and thereafter replace fossil fuels like diesel, petrol, natural gas and jet fuel.”

Manufacturing useable quantities of propane is the goal for future experiments, along with recreating the process in photosynthetic organisms, so that propane could truly be manufactured with the power of sunlight.

Genetic manipulation continues to forge ahead in the realm of molecular biologists. While I share the humor of fellow sci-fi fans, I doubt the fear of synthetic overlords is justifiable – given the requisite conservatism of the craft.

Though, poisonally, I ain’t holding my breath until this process is productive enough to be commercially viable.

NASA’s “swarmies” robots designed to explore alien worlds


What could possibly go wrong?

A collection of autonomous robots designed to scuttle around on distant planets looking for resources and materials in much the same way that members of insect colonies do on Earth are currently being tested by NASA engineers. The robots, dubbed “swarmies,” are designed to individually survey an area, signal the others when they have found something of value, and then divide up the task of collecting the material and returning it back to base.

Currently, four of these robots have been built, each of which is fitted with a webcam, a Wi-Fi system to communicate with each other, and a GPS unit. Whilst the test terrain is a little less alien than they one day may encounter – the swarmies are being deployed in an empty car park at Kennedy Space Center in Florida – the tests are meant only to prove that the software is functioning as it should and that the robots are operating as expected.

In the tests the robots are searching for barcoded pieces of paper. However, in the future similar robots deployed on an asteroid, the moon or Mars could continuously scan the surface for water, fuel resources or other commodities vital to an away mission…

“Assuming this pays off, we know somebody’s going to take this and extend it and go beyond the four or five rovers we have here,” said Kurt Leucht, a Kennedy Space Center engineer working on the project. “So as we design this and work it through, we’re mindful about things like minimizing bandwidth. I’m sure there will be a team whether it’s us or somebody else who will take this and advance it and scale it up.”

A proper hive mentality, hive consciousness with complex interrelationships and specialization is an obvious avenue.

Of course, anyone who fears – or is comfortable with – the Borg will have interesting dreams. I’m not worried about any variety developed by government agencies. Redundancy will always be designed to guarantee the safety of the slow.

Now, when surplus gear becomes available on the cheap in some 22nd Century flea market – that’s a different story.

Thanks, Mike