Immune system thwarted to allow pregnancy.

The concept of pregnancy makes no sense — at least not from an immunological point of view. After all, a fetus, carrying half of its father’s genome, is biologically distinct from its mother. The fetus is thus made of cells and tissues that are very much not “self” — and not-self is precisely what the immune system is meant to search out and destroy.

Women’s bodies manage to ignore this contradiction in the vast majority of cases, making pregnancy possible. Similarly, scientists have generally paid little attention to this phenomenon — called “pregnancy tolerance” — and its biological details.

Now, a pair of scientists from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) have shown that females actively produce a particular type of immune cell in response to specific fetal antigens — immune-stimulating proteins — and that this response allows pregnancy to continue without the fetus being rejected by the mother’s body…

Scientists had long been “hinting around at the idea that the mother’s immune system makes tolerance possible…”What they didn’t have were the details of this tolerance — or proof that it was immune-related.

Now they do…

RTFA. Or spend the money and read the original paper at PNAS.

Capitol Police probing phony death notices


Senator Leahy with soon-to-be Justice Kagan
Daylife/Getty Images used by permission

At least three Democratic senators have been subjects of false reports of their deaths in the past two days, prompting the U.S. Capitol Police to open an investigation into the matter.

Several news outlets received a hoax e-mail news release, announcing the death of Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) on Tuesday. Leahy, 70, who participated in July 4 events, is alive and well, according to spokesman David Carle.

“It was spoofed to look as if it had come from the office,” Carle said.

A copy of the e-mail, posted on the Web site of Washington’s WTOP radio, said Leahy had died of liver cancer.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), an 86-year-old appropriator who recently announced he is free from a form of stomach cancer, was also spoofed, his office confirmed.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who serves on the Judiciary and Appropriations committees with Leahy, was subjected to a hoax of the same kind on Monday, her office confirmed. Similarly, she was said to have died of cancer at her home…

U.S. Capitol Police spokeswoman Kimberly Schneider told POLITICO that the police are looking into the hoaxes but declined to say how many there were or to provide any other details.

Sounds like wishful thinking from the sort of ignoranuses who populate the Tea Party. Or some high school Young Republican.

The Paywall will fail!


No – Murdoch’s not feeling sorry for himself, yet
Daylife/Reuters Pictures used by permission

If you are reading this article on a printed copy of the Guardian, what you have in your hand will, just 15 years from now, look as archaic as a Western Union telegram does today. In less than 50 years, according to Clay Shirky, it won’t exist at all. The reason, he says, is very simple, and very obvious: if you are 25 or younger, you’re probably already reading this on your computer screen. “And to put it in one bleak sentence, no medium has ever survived the indifference of 25-year-olds…”

His predictions for the fate of print media organisations have proved unnervingly accurate; 2009 would be a bloodbath for newspapers, he warned – and so it came to pass. Dozens of American newspapers closed last year, while several others, such as the Christian Science Monitor, moved their entire operation online. The business model of the traditional print newspaper, according to Shirky, is doomed; the monopoly on news it has enjoyed ever since the invention of the printing press has become an industrial dodo. Rupert Murdoch has just begun charging for online access to the Times – and Shirky is confident the experiment will fail.

Everyone’s waiting to see what will happen with the paywall – it’s the big question. But I think it will underperform. On a purely financial calculation, I don’t think the numbers add up.” But then, interestingly, he goes on, “Here’s what worries me about the paywall. When we talk about newspapers, we talk about them being critical for informing the public; we never say they’re critical for informing their customers. We assume that the value of the news ramifies outwards from the readership to society as a whole. OK, I buy that. But what Murdoch is signing up to do is to prevent that value from escaping. He wants to only inform his customers, he doesn’t want his stories to be shared and circulated widely. In fact, his ability to charge for the paywall is going to come down to his ability to lock the public out of the conversation convened by the Times…”

Instead of lamenting the silliness of a lot of social online media, we should be thrilled by the spontaneous collective campaigns and social activism also emerging. The potential civic value of all this hitherto untapped energy is nothing less, Shirky concludes, than revolutionary…

“The final thing I’d say about optimism is this. If we took the loopiest, most moonbeam-addled Californian utopian internet bullshit, and held it up against the most cynical, realpolitik-inflected scepticism, the Californian bullshit would still be a better predictor of the future. Which is to say that, if in 1994 you’d wanted to understand what our lives would be like right now, you’d still be better off reading a single copy of Wired magazine published in that year than all of the sceptical literature published ever since.”

RTFA. Interesting, provocative. Having wandered through this cyber-landscape for a larger number of years than either the protagonist or antagonist – I’ve been online since 1983 – I have a passing acquaintance at least with each facet of the discussion.

Like Shirky, I agree with him because I want to. Though that’s an equal part reflection from someone who is a hermit in real life as much as online.

New adhesive: eco-benign, inexpensive


Kaichang Li

An incidental discovery in a wood products lab at Oregon State University has produced a new pressure-sensitive adhesive that may revolutionize the tape industry – an environmentally benign product that works very well and costs much less than existing adhesives based on petrochemicals…

The discovery was made essentially by accident while OSU scientists were looking for something that could be used in a wood-based composite product – an application that would require the adhesive to be solid at room temperature and melt at elevated temperatures.

For that, the new product was a failure…

“Then I noticed that at one stage of our process this compound was a very sticky resin,” Li said. “I told my postdoctoral research associate, Anlong Li, to stop right there. We put some on a piece of paper, pressed it together and it stuck very well, a strong adhesive.”

Shifting gears, the two researchers then worked to develop a pressure-sensitive adhesive, the type used on many forms of tape, labels, and notepads.

It’s really pretty amazing,” Li said. “This adhesive is incredibly simple to make, doesn’t use any organic solvents or toxic chemicals, and is based on vegetable oils that would be completely renewable, not petrochemicals. It should be about half the cost of existing technologies and appears to work just as well…”

The new approach used at OSU is based on a different type of polymerization process and produces pressure-sensitive adhesives that could be adapted for a wide range of uses, perform well, cost much less, and would be made from renewable crops such as soy beans, corn or canola oil, instead of petroleum-based polymers.

The technology should be fairly easy to scale-up and commercialize, Li said.

“We believe this innovation has the potential to replace current pressure-sensitive adhesives with a more environmentally friendly formulation at a competitive price.”

The best scientists, the best science requires open, flexible minds – ready to respond to the unexpected with unintended discoveries.

Kaichang Li already has this sort of reputation. We should be glad he’s teaching future scientists to think and act to his standard.

Netanyahu’s bodyguard guns disappear. Welcome to the USA!

Not even officers from Israeli security service Shin Bet can escape the scourge of lost [and stolen] luggage it seems.

A bag belonging to agents travelling with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was mistakenly put on a flight from New York to Los Angeles, not to Washington. Alarmingly the bag contained four 9mm Glock handguns, which are now missing…

The Israeli officers were accompanying Mr Netanyahu to Washington for White House talks with President Barack Obama.

NBC News reported that the handguns had, in accordance with security procedures at New York’s John F Kennedy airport, been placed inside checked luggage. The luggage was then supposed to be put on a connecting flight to Washington however, American Airlines workers at the airport instead sent it right across the country to LAX in Los Angeles.

By the time the luggage was located and recovered, the guns had disappeared, and are presumed to have been stolen.

Hey, life in the fast lane – in 21st Century America.

Year 2 of the EcoCar challenge

Automotive technology is evolving at a dizzying pace, and training the next generation of car engineers is no longer confined to traditional classrooms and textbooks. Real-world, hands-on experience is crucial and that’s why collegiate engineering competitions like the EcoCar Challenge are more important than ever before. The 2010 finals have just ended and [Motorweek] we were proud to take part in the judging, so let’s tally up the results.

EcoCar is a three-year competition in which 16 North American college teams were challenged to improve the emissions and fuel economy of a compact GM crossover vehicle while retaining all of its utility, safety and performance.

Teams were allowed to design their own drivetrain architectures, and chosen technologies included full-electrics, plug-in hybrids, fuel cells, and extended range electric vehicles…

After a year of modeling and simulation, teams were given their vehicles for year two, and have worked ever since on implementing their designs. But the students also had to think real-world in terms of packaging their components, fit and finish, drivability and consumer acceptance…

All these kids are top-notch engineers already, even before they’ve graduated. But what we’re doing is giving them experience with the latest tools and techniques, plus a very long-term disciplined process that we give to them and their schools so that they can have a three-year experience doing something really big…

After a grueling week of testing, Mississippi State University claimed top honors for 2010. Their Biodiesel extended-range electric vehicle achieved fuel economy equivalent to 118 miles per gallon while also achieving the fastest acceleration and autocross times and the cleanest tailpipe emissions. Congratulations also go to Virginia Tech for 2nd place, and Penn State in 3rd position.

But the EcoCar Challenge doesn’t end here. Year Three of the competition is when teams must show full component integration in a near-production-ready vehicle.

Bravo! To the students and sponsors together and separately. This kind of hands-on experience is invaluable. And, frankly, the competition seems to be turning out some interesting drive trains.

Pentagon wants to build a flying submarine


Russian design from the 1930’s

Guillemots and gannets do it. Cormorants and kingfishers do it. Even the tiny insect-eating dipper does it. And if a plan by the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) succeeds, a remarkable airplane may one day do it too: plunge beneath the waves to stalk its prey, before re-emerging to fly home.

The DARPA plan…calls for a stealthy aircraft that can fly low over the sea until it nears its target, which could be an enemy ship, or a coastal site such as a port. It will then alight on the water and transform itself into a submarine that will cruise under water to within striking distance, all without alerting defences…

The challenges are huge, not least because planes and submarines are normally poles apart. Aircraft must be as light as possible to minimise the engine power they need to get airborne. Submarines are heavyweights with massive hulls strong enough to resist crushing forces from the surrounding water. Aircraft use lift from their wings to stay aloft, while submarines operate like underwater balloons, adjusting their buoyancy to sink or rise. So how can engineers balance the conflicting demands? Could a craft be designed to dive into the sea like a gannet? And how will it be propelled – is a jet engine the best solution, both above and below the waves?

According to Norman Polmar, former adviser on naval strategy and technology to the US government, the starting point must be to find a way to make an aircraft that can sink in water. “Submarines cannot fly,” he says, “but seaplanes can submerge…”

“What the Americans want sounds incredibly ambitious,” says UK Royal Navy commander Jonty Powis, head of NATO’s submarine rescue service. “If they achieve half of what they want from this machine they will be doing well.” Others are more optimistic, especially in the light of advances in engineering and materials science since the last attempt – notably in lightweight carbon fibre composites and energy-dense batteries.

RTFA. Learn how much time, effort and money can be spent on designing something useful in 1945 – at the latest.

Tough enough trying to move bodies like the Pentagon to modern Fourth Generation warfare. Giving them sandbox time to play with more archaic concepts only encouraging looking backwards at useless tactics.