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Monday, August 20, 2012

It Stands for What?

One hundred years ago, more or less, a fictional character named Tom Swift was first introduced.  He was a young inventor who loved adventure.  Over the years, new series of books have been introduced with this Tom and later his son, Tom, Jr.  

Some of the inventions in the Tom Swift novels include: a photo telephone, a portable movie camera, a rifle with electric bullets, a house on wheels (house trailer), and an electric locomotive.  All of these books with these ideas were published before any real items were invented.

In 1969, a NASA researcher named Jack Cover started developing a new weapon.  He completed the device in 1974 and named it after his childhood hero, Tom Swift.  He called it a Thomas A. Swift Electric Rifle, or TASER.  

I have always wondered what that acronym stood for.  It isn't anywhere close to what I imagined. 

Now you have heard something interesting.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Custom made body part

In the medical field, new advances are always being made in the quest to repair and replace broken body parts.  This is the story of one of those new techniques.

Organ transplants have been performed for many decades.  It has always required strong medication to keep the body from rejecting the alien organ.  Until now.

In 2008, a Colombian woman named Claudia Castillo was the first to receive a new procedure in the area of transplantation.  She needed a new trachea.  Her original had been damaged from tuberculosis.  The doctors were able to take a donor trachea, and using chemicals and enzymes, they were able to "wash away" all the cells from it, leaving a tissue scaffold made of cartilage.  Then, taking both cells that lined Castillo's windpipe and her own stem cells (immature cells from bone marrow), they were able to regenerate the trachea into a living organ.  Because the cells came from the recipient, no anti-rejection medicine was needed.  They had tricked her body into believing this new body part was her own.   Only four days after the transplantation, the new windpipe was "almost indistinguishable from adjacent normal airways."

Here is one account of that surgery.

How cool is that?  Think of the possibilities!

In the summer of 2011, surgeons in Stockholm, Sweden, tried a new version of the artificial trachea.  A man from Eritrea had cancer so advanced that emergency surgery was his only chance of survival.  (Where was he from?  Eritrea. I had never heard of it!  It is a small country on the continent of Africa not far from Egypt. They have been independent from Ethiopia since 1991.)

Doctors didn't have time to wait for a donor trachea, so they made a 3D image of his damaged windpipe, and then made a synthetic scaffolding out of polymer plastic.  This was bathed in the recipients own stem cells and in two days was ready to be transplanted.  The size and shape was custom-made for him.  The surgery was a success.

Here is a picture of what it looks like.  

Not every surgery has been successful.  There was another with this artificial scaffolding done on an American.  It seemed to go well, but he only survived four months.  Here is the story from Baltimore.

In the case of a 9-month-old infant born without a trachea, they used a biodegradable polymer scaffold that will dissolve over time as it is replaced with the child's own cartilage.  This way it will grow with her.

Now you have heard something interesting.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Embrace for babies

An incubator can cost up to $20,000 and requires electricity.  Many premature and low birth weight babies born in 3rd world countries live in rural areas with no electricity. Access to a hospital is difficult at best.  In many of these cultures, the babies are not named for the first month because so many of them die, many from hypothermia.  They have no fat on their bodies and cannot keep warm.  The mothers try various ways to keep them warm, from heating towels in the frying pan and wrapping the baby, to holding the child over hot coals.  But still, many die.  Those who survive are faced with a life full of health problems because so much of their energy went to trying to stay warm that their organs suffer. In India, more babies die every year than in any other country in the world.

In 2008, Stanford University put together a unique class.  It was multi-disciplinary and was called Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability.  One of the assignments for the students was to come up with an incubator (one use of an incubator is for warmth) for premature and low birth weight infants that would not only keep them warm, but use no electricity and cost less than $200.
Four of the students, Jane Chen, Rahul Panicker, Naganand Murty and Linus Liang, teamed up on the project.  Among the four, their schooling already consisted of a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering, an Aerospace Engineer, and a Masters in Computer Science.  What they came up with was sheer genius!

Here it is.

It looks like a sleeping bag for a baby.  A pouch filled with paraffin wax and water is heated - either with an electric warmer or with boiling water being poured over it - and the pouch is slipped inside a pocket in the bag.  The baby is wrapped up inside the bag and the wax keeps the baby warm for 4-6 hours.  The inside of the bag is seamless so that bacteria won't collect, and it can be washed in boiling water.  It took two years of prototypes before this one came about.  The company, Embrace, is currently in India getting the distribution and training under way.  Then they will move to other countries.

It is hoped that over the next 5 years, 100,000 babies can be saved.

Now you have heard something interesting.

Just a personal note....

About a year ago, I signed up for a Netflix account.  Wow, it was fun! Instant movies and tv episodes. This was better than any "on-demand" offer on the satellite tv subscriptions we had in the past. One of my favorite shows was on Netflix.  The old Dick Van Dyke show.  I watched every episode.  Then on to Nova, Murder, She Wrote, and Andy Griffith.

My work is mostly in my basement.  Sewing for a living, and mostly working by myself, makes for a very boring day. In the past I had amused myself by listening to audio books and podcasts.  It was a great mix of learning and earning a living.  Then I got Netflix and it opened a new vista of entertainment.  I was hooked.

When my children were young, I noticed a very strong correlation between electronic games and tv vs. creativity.  When one went up, the other went down.  It was so obvious to me.  We didn't own a gaming system then.  Occasionally we would rent a Nintendo and some games and they would play to their hearts content for a few days. It was for specific days like New Year's Eve or for one of their birthdays.  I am sure they often felt like the odd man out among their friends because we didn't own one.  I am sure other mothers felt like my children were deprived.  One year a neighbor gave my son their used Nintendo when they upgraded.  (I was so proud of him a year or so later at the young age of 13 when he gave it to someone for Christmas who really longed for one.)

Anyway, what has not been so obvious to me is what has happened in the past year.  The movies and tv episodes that I have watched on Netflix have been good shows.  Nothing R rated or that would bring down my attitude.  But just like with my children, when my watching went up, my creativity and learning plummeted.

Yesterday I cancelled my Netflix account. I am excited to experience the rebound of what I have lost.  So many things to learn and books to read.  I'm sure my blog will be affected, too.

I am not saying Netflix is bad, but there needs to be a balance of things in our lives for us to be balanced.  I have an addictive side to my personality, and could not control the amount of time spent watching.  The only solution for me was to quit cold turkey.  Pushing that cancel button was a one-time decision and much easier than making the decision over and over again that I had seen enough for one day.

Now, on to some serious blogging.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Real Deal

There once was an economics student who, while going to school, would sit in the campus bar at Catholic University in Rio, Brazil with his drinking buddies complaining about the hyperinflation plaguing the country, criticizing those in power who were not doing the right things to solve it.  They were sure that if given the chance, they would have the solution that would reverse the problem.

The inflation problems started in the 1950's when the Brazilian government decided to build a new capital, Brazilia.  There was not enough money in the coffers, so they started printing money. By 1990, the pattern of inflation was so entrenched, the people had lost any hope of the government being able to control it.

The rate of inflation was astounding.  Most years it was above 100%, and some of the bad months it reached 80%!  Between March 1989 and March 1990 it climbed to 5,000%.  A reputable journalist named Joelmir Beting took the official reports, did the math, and calculated that between the years of 1964 and 1994, the total amount of inflation reached 1,000,000,000,000,000% (that is one quadrillion percent)!!

President after president would come up with plans, they would fail, and then he would either be voted out or impeached.  And the cycle continued.

People would spend their paycheck as quickly as they could, sometimes running in front of the man who changed the price stickers on the cans of food so they could grab the can with the old price.

Then in 1992 with a new president came a new Financial Minister.  He didn't know anything about economics, so he called Edmar Bacha, the economist who used to complain in the campus bar.  He was invited to come up with a plan to fix the problem.  Bacha and his drinking buddy's had a plan.  They came up with a crazy one that had not been tried before.  The four friends set about explaining their idea.  First, you have to slow down the creation of money, they explained. But, just as important, you have to stabilize people’s faith in money itself.  People have to be tricked into thinking money will hold its value.

The four economists wanted to create a new currency that was stable, dependable and trustworthy.  The only catch: This currency would not be real.  No coins, no bills.  It was fake.  “We called it a Unit of Real Value — URV,” Bacha says. “It was virtual; it didn’t exist in fact.”

People would still have and use the existing currency, the cruzeiro.  But everything would be listed in URVs, the fake currency.   Their wages would be listed in URVs.  Taxes were in URVs.  All prices were listed in URVs.  And URVs were kept stable — what changed was how many cruzeiros each URV was worth.

Say, for example, that milk costs 1 URV. On a given day, 1 URV might be worth 10 cruzeiros. A month later, milk would still cost 1 URV. But that 1 URV might be worth 20 cruzeiros.  Every night the Central Bank would print a table of the conversion rate between a cruzeiro and the URV.

The idea was that people would start thinking in URVs — and stop expecting prices to always go up.  After a few months, they began to see that prices in URVs were stable. Once that happened, Bacha and his buddies could declare that the virtual currency would become the country’s actual currency. It would be called the real (pronounced hey-ow).

“Everyone is going to receive from now on their wages, and pay for all the prices, in the new currency, which is the real,” Bacha says. “That is the trick.”  And the idea was you would start thinking in URVs. Because just last week you got paid a thousand URVs. Milk costs one URV. Next month, you’d get a thousand URVs again and milk would still be one URV. The exchange into cruzeiros, what you actually handed the clerk would change. But the price in URVs would not.

So on July 1st, 1994, the Central Bank released the new money. Everyone in Brazil, collectively, as a country, tricked themselves into believing that this fake currency was real. More real than the actual physical bill they were holding in their hands. And that made all the difference. That made it real. For money, it’s crazy but that’s all you need; people to believe in it. Our four heroes literally turned Brazil’s economy in the opposite direction with their plan. Brazil went from being an irrelevant, economic basket-case to one of the most important economies out there. The eighth largest in the world.

Cardoso, the finance minister who hired our four heroes after admitting he knew nothing about economics, was elected president. Twice. And the four economists, despite the fact that most people don’t know them by name, really are seen as heroes. These guys made money worth something.

If you would like to listen to the one hour podcast of this story from This American Life, you can find it here.

Now you have heard something interesting.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Did you see that?

Chris Chabris, a psychology professor, and his co-researcher, Daniel Simons, a psychologist, have been conducting experiments on something they call Inattentive Blindness, or Change Blindness.

Here is an interesting YouTube video showing one of their studies. It shows study participants talking to a man behind a counter. The man bends down to supposedly get a packet of info, and another man stands up and finishes the conversation. The two men were wearing different colored shirts and had different colored hair. Chabris and Simons discovered that 75% of those in the study didn't notice the change.

How is this possible? Why would such a large portion of people not see the difference? It is because our senses are surrounded by so much data, we would be overwhelmed if we tried to process it all.  So we generally take in the most important things around us.

One day Chabris and Simons heard the story of Kenneth Conley, a Boston police officer, and decided to take their experiments from the lab to real life.

The story of Conley takes place in 1995. Just like every other police officer in Boston, he was intensely interested in the police radio report that an officer had been shot and the four black suspects were fleeing by car. There were 20 police cruisers involved in the chase all over town. It ended in a cul-de-sac when the four suspects jumped out and scattered in four directions.

The first police officer out of his car was a black officer named Michael Cox. Since he worked under cover, he was dressed in plain clothes. The next officers out of their car mistook him for a suspect and attacked him. They started beating and kicking him.

Conley then arrived on the scene and joined the chase for the suspects. He ran right past Cox who was being beaten. He always claimed he never saw it happening.  Soon after he passed, the mistake was realized and the beating stopped.

He was later convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice, because he was not believed when he said he saw nothing. He was sentenced to 34 months in prison. No other officer ever came forward or was ever identified. The official report on Michael Cox's injuries, which kept him out of work for six months, was that he slipped on ice.

Chabris and Simons wanted to find out if Conley was telling the truth The instructions to the participants were simple. Follow a jogger for a certain distance along a path and count how many times he touches his hat. This was to keep the attention on the jogger, just as Conley's attention was on the suspect in front of him. Then a minute into the run, they had three students stage a fight just off the path. With two beating and kicking a third, it seemed obvious that they would be seen.

They conducted the experiment at different times of day with both men and women. They were very surprised to find that during the night hours, the same as the Conley incident, only a third of the participants noticed the fight, and during daylight hours, only 40% saw what was happening.  Chabris and Simons proved that it was possible for Conley to have missed seeing the beating, but by then he had served part of his sentence and the rest was dismissed because of a technicality.

Chabris points out that our inability to absorb visual information coupled with our mistaken belief that we actually are able to absorb a lot of it influences all kinds of behavior.

"This underlies problems with using cell phones while driving and all kinds of situations like that," Chabris says.

There is an interesting video on YouTube that will test your inattentive blindness.  Try it out.

Now you've heard something interesting.

Sunday, February 6, 2011


When I first heard about Number Stations on an NPR Story of the Day podcast, I was very curious.  Then I listened to some audio files.  Very interesting.  I started this blog a week ago, but I was home alone and listening to the sound bytes made me so nervous I had to stop.  Now my husband is here in the same room and I can proceed.  (Yes, I am a wimp, and I have never denied it!)

Shortwave radio refers to the HF (high frequency) portion of the radio spectrum.  The waves are shorter than those used in ordinary radio.  They can travel a great distance, even to other continents.  It is often used to communicate to ships and aircraft, or to remote areas where the wired communication is either not available or too expensive.  It became popular in the 1920's with amateurs communicating with each other.

During the cold war in the 1980's, shortwave radio stations came into being that have no call letters and are not identified.  They just broadcast letters or numbers 24 hours a day and some of them have music interspersed.  The music sounds like it is coming from an ice cream truck.  The purpose of these Number Stations, as they are called, is to give information to spies.  They are encrypted with something called a one-time pad, which is unbreakable code.

One-time pads are very mathematical, and are only used one time.  If they are done correctly, they cannot be cracked.  If you want to learn the math behind them, or how to make your own, here is a Wikipedia article to read.

There is a man in Britain who came up with The Conet Project, which consists of 4 hours of recordings of these Number Stations on 4 CDs.  They actually became a cult hit.  If you want to listen to any, this is the web site.  Scroll down a bit and you will find links to many audio files of these Number Stations.  (They all have the name irdail in the title.  This is the name of the company who produced the 4 CDs.)  Of those I listened to, the one I found most creepy is the one called the "swedish rhapsody irdial."  It is first on the list.  In it there is a bit of music and then a little girl counting in German.  

There was a news story done in Salt Lake City, Utah that is on Youtube. If you want to see it, here is the link.  In this newscast, they claim that "according to a British Official, Number Stations are illegal to listen to."

Whether or not they are illegal, they have no pull for me.

Now you have heard something interesting.