to The Fixed Point Website ^ ^

Friday, April 1, 2011 by Abadi Askdg

Several cities have developed apps that allow citizens to report things like downed tree branches, breaches of city ordinance, or potholes in roadways, but the city of Boston is trying to take the human out of the process. An app called Street Bump will take advantage of smartphones’ GPS data and accelerometers to automatically report potholes to city authorities without the user having to raise a finger—if it actually works, that is.
The free app, which runs on the Android operating system for now, is still in alpha testing and isn’t quite ready for public consumption. But the idea is that it will allow citizens to help the city create work orders for problem areas on city roadways without requiring a phone call or email to city engineers. “It’s a new kind of volunteerism,’’ Nigel Jacob, one half of Boston’s Urban Mechanics office, told the Boston Globe. “It’s not volunteering your sweat equity. It’s volunteering the devices that are in your pocket to help the city.’’

But the city of Boston and its partners (the city is receiving help from experts at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and the Santa Fe Complex, a technology think tank in New Mexico) aren’t the first to try to make this kind of roadway-assessing app, and the challenges are many. Microsoft has looked into it, as has MIT, with varying degrees of success.

The challenge: teaching a phone to tell the difference between a pothole and a speed bump or elevated crosswalk, or—perhaps even more challenging—a railway crossing or sewer grate. That’s pretty tough to do, and an app that issues false positives could degrade the city’s ability to respond to potholes by sending workers to repair nonexistent problems, costing time and money.
But the city of Boston seems well aware of the challenges. Street Bump will soon be distributed to thousands of testers and a $25,000 prize will be offered to programmers who can devise the best ways to correct the app’s shortcomings. If users can help the city smooth out a few bumps in the road, the city could soon have a citywide network of pothole sensors patrolling the pavement around the clock.

by Abadi Askdg

Nokia, which has been floundering for, oh, the last five years or so, announced early this morning that they'll be embracing Microsoft and its Windows Phone 7 platform, and basically abandoning the infuriating Symbian OS and the likely-DOA Meego OS. It's actually an interesting partnership: it could be a chance for the two companies to come together to improve the Windows Phone 7 platform as a whole.

Despite the company's position as the top cellphone maker in the world, Nokia is in a deep, dark tailspin. Most of its sales are of low-profit, low-function cellphones to developing countries, rather than the exciting and profitable high-end smartphones that have made Apple, HTC, and Motorola successful. That's due to its software, rather than its hardware: The Nokia N8, for example, had some reasonably impressive hardware (especially its camera), but ended up pretty much unusable thanks to the intrusive, incomprehensible mess that is Symbian, Nokia's go-to operating system.

The pattern is pretty clear: Get Nokia some decent software, and they could make a damn fine phone. Nokia's stubbornness made that seem impossible for the last few years (a Nokia rep once told me there's "no way in hell" they'd ever make an Android phone), but early this morning, a joint Nokia-Microsoft conference announced a key partnership between the Finnish hardware maker and the Redmond-based software giant. It's more than just Nokia signing up to stick Windows Phone 7 on their phones, like Samsung, LG, and HTC--Nokia's Ovi Maps application will take the place of Microsoft's Bing Maps, for example, and Nokia's connections with European carriers will help Microsoft break into that market. Also, Nokia (unlike the other Windows Phone 7 partners) will have total freedom to customize the OS as they choose--a dubious advantage, given Nokia's software track record, but we'll reserve judgment.

There was no specific announcement about a particular phone, but we did learn that Nokia and Microsoft have been working for weeks, so presumably they've gotten underway at least a little bit. Hopefully the partnership delivers the first killer, must-have Windows Phone 7 smartphone--it certainly seems possible.

by Abadi Askdg

With NASA’s space shuttle program in full wind-down, it seems like there are a lot of “lasts” in America’s storied, three-decade Space Transportation System. Space shuttle Discovery successfully touched down at Kennedy Space Center in Florida just before noon today, marking the end of STS-133 and Discovery’s final mission, the 39th and last flight for the busiest spacecraft in NASA’s shuttle fleet.

A quick eulogy for Discovery: It has spent 365 days in space (that’s a full year in orbit), carried more crew members into space than any other shuttle, made more orbits than any other shuttle in the fleet, and docked with both Mir and the International Space Station (the latter multiple times, because Discovery built the ISS). Discovery launched the Hubble Space Telescope and the solar exploring Ulysses spacecraft.

space shuttle programDiscovery was chosen for the the first return to flight missions after both the Challenger and Columbia disasters. And, with the two shuttles that preceded it to the launchpad lost to tragedy, it is now the fleet veteran. Appropriately, Discovery is the first of the remaining fleet to make its last journey to space.

But Endeavour isn’t far behind. The youngest space shuttle is scheduled to make its last journey to the launchpad at Kennedy Space Center tonight--just 8 hours after Discovery cleared the runway for the last time--setting the stage for its own final mission. In a rare occurrence, the crew of an incoming shuttle mission will more or less pass the crew of an outgoing mission on the tarmac.

Endeavour is scheduled for launch to the ISS on April 19. Atlantis’s final mission--and the space shuttle program’s last hurrah in space--is slated for late June.

by Abadi Askdg

The aerial water bombardment of Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facilities began in earnest late yesterday after being deemed too risky earlier in the week. The strategy--previously untested as far as we know--is aimed at cooling the reactor cores and spent fuel rod storage pools, but it's highly unclear whether it's doing any good. The choppers are dropping their payloads on the go, presumably out of radiation fears, and as such Japanese authorities can't ascertain whether any of the water has actually been delivered to its targets.
Helicopters aren’t the only aircraft in the air over Japan’s stricken nuclear plant today. The U.S. Air Force is dispatching a Global Hawk UAV from Guam to Japanese airspace today to gather high-resolution images of the situation at Japan’s nuclear facilities and perhaps even peer into the damaged reactors and cooling pools from above.

The Global Hawk has been gathering aerial data for days over other parts of Japan in order to assist with relief efforts, but this will be its first attempt to assist in the ongoing nuclear crisis there. And the Global Hawk is well suited for the job; Aside from being unmanned (it is a radioactive mess down there, after all), the Global Hawk’s sensor array includes heat-detecting infrared sensors.

That means the UAV can gather imagery showing where the hot spots are, what parts of the reactors may be closest to rupture or other damage, whether or not fires have been completely extinguished, and, over time, the effectiveness of different methods of cooling.
At this point, those methods are diverse. The remaining workers on the ground are braving elevated radiation levels to direct fire hoses at the various overheating elements within the complex, and that previously-scrubbed strategy to drop water from above via firefighting helicopter has now been initiated as the situation becomes more desperate. The effectiveness of the water-bombing at this point is unknown, though it doesn’t appear to be doing much good.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011 by Abadi Askdg

Disassortative mating alert! A group of European scientists led by Oxford biostatistician Raphaelle Chaix has provided some of the most compelling evidence yet that we humans pick our partners based on how different their immune systems—or officially, their Major Histocompatibility Complexes—are from our own. The MHC is a large and super-important group of related genes that regulate what antibodies we produce. It is unusually polymorphous—that is, it differs quite a bit from person to person, even within genetically similar groups. Theoretically, it makes perfect sense that animals would choose to reproduce with someone with a very different MHC so that the resulting offspring will have immunity to as many disease-causing pathogens as possible. And it has long been known that a number of squirmy little creatures—mice, rats, frogs, and the like—prefer mates who have dissimilar MHCs. But the case for MHC-based mate selection in humans is not so clear-cut.
For the past ten years, it has seemed like every study that "proved" that we choose MHC-dissimilar partners was immediately contradicted by another bit of evidence. When University of Chicago geneticist Carole Ober looked at the Schmiedeleut Hutterites of South Dakota (a group of tremendously fertile Amish-like Anabaptists who isolate themselves on remote "colonies"), she found that an improbably low number of community members—who marry for love but are not allowed to divorce—chose mates with similar MHCs. The effect was so strong that when couples whose immune systems were too similar tried to have children, they had more trouble conceiving, and their fetuses were more likely to spontaneously abort. But later, two ASU biologists surveyed couples across 11 different Amerindian tribes in the Amazon Basin and discovered that similarities between the MHCs of men and women who had chosen to reproduce together were almost completely random. A series of gross-sounding "sweaty t-shirt experiments" performed at the University of Bern conclusively demonstrated that women prefer to smell the sweat of men who are MHC-dissimilar. But if the women were on birth control, their scent preferences were reversed.
The latest study, published on September 12, examined the genomes of fertile Mormon and Yoruba couples to see how exactly their MHCs differed. The results were both fascinating and conflicting. Chaix and her coauthors found that the Mormons were significantly more MHC-dissimilar than randomly chosen pairs of people. Even more interestingly, although the Mormon mates were genetically very close to each other (they're Mormons, after all), the genes in their MHCs were often very different. But (as usual in this area of study, there's a "but") they couldn't find any pattern at all in the MHC-dissimilarity of the Yoruba couples. This might be because Yoruba society is highly patriarchal and stratified, producing a lot of social pressure for genetically similar men and women to mate. Or it might be that in Africa, where modern medical care is less widely available, there is much more selection pressure for antibodies that will protect their carriers against a few especially devastating diseases. More research here is definitely necessary to tease out the precise relationship between histocompatibility and mating choices, and how social and environmental factors might affect this relationship. But if you're a European American woman, sniff hard next time you're at the gym; the best-smelling guy might just be your immunological soulmate.

by Abadi Askdg
This is actually a well-documented phenomenon, complete with hundreds of Yahoo! Answers queries (my favorite response: "well probly idk mayb there jus bored lol") and a book called, yup, Why Do Men Fall Asleep After Sex? Even Arianna Huffington has weighed in ("Men go to sleep because women don't turn into a pizza," Men's Health editor Dave Zinczenko informed her.)
There's no hard-and-fast consensus yet, and physical exertion probably plays a small-to-middling role in the post-sex snoozathon, but the chief culprit seems to be (as you guessed) the soup of hormones that men release after orgasm. Prominent among these is prolactin, which mediates a variety of physical responses, including sleepiness. Levels of the hormone are highest while we are sleeping, and mice deprived of prolactin are not able to get the amount of REM sleep that they should. Interestingly, prolactin also induces the sexual refractory period by suppressing the effects of dopamine, an arousal hormone. Actual intercourse produces about four times more prolactin than masturbation, which explains why men don't crash after a solo orgasm. (Check out the paper for more info on this interesting quirk of human sexuality.)
So there's a kernel of truth at the heart of this claim. But do men actually fall asleep after sex more often than women? Nobody knows; I certainly haven't been able to find any scientific evidence to back up such a strong assertion. The authors of WDMFAAS seem to think it has something to do with the extra work the male body does to produce an ejaculation. It's also possible that women get just as sleepy as men do after orgasm, but that they don't orgasm during sex as often as men do. Or maybe women fall asleep after sex just as often as men do, but men just don't notice or mind as much.
The verdict? Not precisely true, but not precisely bull.

International Research Labs Rapidlash Eyelash Enhancing Serum (3ml), 0.1-fluid ounces Bottle
OPI Nail Lacquer BLACK SHATTER - Katy Perry Collection
Rogaine for Men Hair Regrowth Treatment, Easy-to-Use Foam, 2.11 Ounce (Pack of 3)
Millenium Tanning New Paint It Black Auto-darkening Dark Tanning Lotion, 50X, 13.5-Ounce
Olay Professional Pro-X Advanced Cleansing System
by Abadi Askdg

When it comes to contraception, women have their pick of techniques. In addition to sperm-blocking barriers and foreign objects in the uterus (IUDs), there are about a million ways to pump extra hormones into the bloodstream (pill, patch, ring, shot, or implant).

For men, it's always been pretty much condoms or a vasectomy.

But medicine is (finally) trying to even the burden. Popular Science has featured several up-and-coming techniques, but most of them are still in the lab, more useful for multiplying rabbits than the reproductive habits of humankind.

However, a recent large-scale clinical trial, published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, features a method closer to real-world use. The results show that someday men may be able to temporarily put their sperm on hold. If they're willing to put up with a monthly shot. In the butt.

The study enrolled about 1,000 healthy men and their female partners. In a preliminary phase, docs gave men monthly time-release testosterone shots for a few months until exams showed that their sperm counts had dropped to sub-preggo levels. Then the couples mated at will, without the aid of other contraceptives, for two years. Those who stuck it out 'til the end of the two-year test period had nine "oops" pregnancies, a failure rate of 1.1 in 100 couples per year, comparable to perfect use of condoms or the pill.

The initial shots didn't lower the sperm counts enough for 5 percent of the men to try the method for contraception. Two poor fellows' sperm counts never recovered at the end of the trial. And about a third of the guys who enrolled in the trial dropped out before it ended due to a combination of going MIA, skipping injections, and rare side effects (skin rash, severe acne).

So, men, would you be willing to put up with this literal pain in the ass in order to keep the reins on impending parenthood? Ladies, would you ever trust a man with the future of your womb? Chemists and pharmacists, why can't testosterone work in a pill?
by Abadi Askdg

The Love Bug Cytomegalovirus is generally harmless unless introduced during pregnancy; British researchers now think the practice of kissing ones mate evolved as a means to spread and build immunity to the saliva-dwelling pathogen prior to a pregnancy.

It looks like your kindergarten gut reaction to kissing might have been correct after all: it really is sick. Or, more specifically, the practice is designed to spread sickness. British scientists say the human habit of kissing evolved for less-than-romantic reasons, but one that is nonetheless important to a healthy reproductive relationship: to spread germs.
Cytomegalovirus, which lives in human saliva, is generally innocuous, but when introduced during a pregnancy it can be extremely dangerous, killing unborn babies or causing birth defects like deafness or cerebral palsy. However, if cytomegalovirus is introduced to a woman in small doses before she conceives, she will build an immune resistance to it. Optimally, kissing the same male for six months prior to pregnancy gives the woman’s immune system the practice it needs to render cytomegalovirus impotent.

The escalation of a physical relationship also aids in the immunity-building process. That initial, innocent peck delivers just a small amount of the virus to the woman, reducing her chances of becoming seriously ill. As the relationship ramps up, so does the face time with her mate, delivering stronger and stronger doses as the snogging becomes more, ahem, passionate.

Ideally, by the time the stork comes calling, her mate has spent plenty of time dosing her heavily and her immune resistance is strong enough to ward off infection in her offspring. It turns out love really is infectious, and it’s a good thing too.

by Abadi Askdg

Most houses require hundreds of feet of electrical wire to connect light switches to a main power source, but not my eco-friendly dream home. I’ve installed a wireless lighting system called Verve that uses radio waves instead of copper wiring to command all the lights and outlets in my house. The system not only saves copper (imagine the savings in a skyscraper) but also lets me put switches wherever I want—beside the kids’ beds, in my

pocket or even on the dash of my car—without the need to pull out wires or rip up walls.

A small module inside each light switch harvests energy from the motion of turning the switch on or off and uses it to transmit radio signals up to 300 feet away to a central 10-channel controller that’s hardwired to my fuse box. Since the switches generate their own power, they require no batteries, wires or messy electrical channels carved into my brand-new insulated wall panels.

Strategically placing networked controllers around my house allows me to turn on or off every light switch from a few convenient locations. For instance, I can program the controller to let me turn out the lights in my son’s bedroom from the living room. I can even pull a switch from its wall-docking plate and use it as remote, turning all the lights off in the house as I’m pulling out of the driveway.
Other whole-home lighting control systems offer more programming options, but they’re also more expensive and cost more to install because of all the wiring. At $3,500, Verve runs me only a bit more than the price of a home’s worth of fancy dimmers. The downside? The system is designed mostly for new construction—retrofits get messy and costly because they require ripping out wires.
Next month: Building a graywater recycling system

The Specs

House: 3,500-square-foot, four-bedroom contemporary
Location: Greenwich, N.Y.
Project: Installing a wireless lighting system
Cost of materials: $3,500
Time to install: A few days

What's Inside Wireless Light Switches:
Transmitter Sends a radio signal to a receiver up to 300 feet away
MicroGenerator Harnesses energy from the press of the light switch to power the radio transmitter
Control Unit Capture radio signals beamed from light switches throughout the house to turn them on or off
 Peter Bollinger

Already Have a Home?

How to Make Your Lighting More Efficient

    Under-cabinet lighting can be hard to install and inefficient. Kichler’s Design Pro LED Linear lighting gives off a bright, warm glow from eight LEDs that last about 20 years and draw 75 percent less energy than a comparable incandescent bulb. The foot-long fixture is a cinch to install and uses just one easy-to-hide transformer.
    The government’s $10-million “L Prize” competition aims to find a low-energy replacement for the ubiquitous 60-watt incandescent bulb. The first entry, an LED bulb by Philips, consumes less than 10 watts while producing light quality equivalent to a 60-watt incandescent. Look for it on shelves next year.
    The organic LEDs in the new Orbeos lighting panel are thinner, lighter and more flexible than traditional LEDs. They also throw very little heat, so the 2.1-millimeter-thick panel can be hung just about anywhere. Unlike CFLs, the OLEDs contain no mercury and cast a bright, inviting light that lasts about 5,000 hours.
    The colored LEDs in this wall switch help you visualize how much power your fixtures use. Flip the switch, and when the very top LED is on, you’ll know your lights are drawing full power. Clicking the rocker switch down to dial back the amount of energy the light draws can save you up to $30 a year per bulb.

by Abadi Askdg

Paralysis patients could play music with their minds, using a new brain-control interface that senses brain impulses and translates them into musical notes.
Users must teach themselves how to associate brain signals with specific tasks, causing neuronal activity that the brain scanners can pick up. Then they can make music.
It’s a pretty unique use of brain-computer interfaces, which are already being used to do things like drive cars, control robots and play video games. The device was developed by Eduardo Miranda, a composer and computer-music specialist at the University of Plymouth, UK. A composer by trade, Miranda said he was captivated by the idea of using a musical brain-controlled interface for therapeutic purposes. “Now I can't separate this work from my activities as a composer,” he told Nature News.

Patients with neurodegenerative disorders like Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s can use music to walk to a rhythm or even to trigger memories or emotions. But stroke patients or those with locked-in syndrome can’t interact with music beyond just listening to it. With this system, patients with physical limitations might be able to use music for therapy, too — truly making music the medicine of the mind.

Like other brain-computer interfaces, a user calibrates the system — and his or her brain — by learning to associate certain brain signals with a stimulus. While wearing an EEG cap, patients focus their attention on four small buttons on a computer screen, each of which triggers a series of musical notes. The user must direct his or her gaze at the target corresponding to the action he or she would like to perform, Miranda and colleagues explain.
Miranda and computer scientists at the University of Essex tested the system on a patient with locked-in syndrome, who learned the system in about two hours and was soon playing notes along with a backup track.
By varying levels of concentration, she learned to vary the amplitude of the EEG, which allowed her to choose among the different notes, like striking piano keys.
A future version of the system would not require calibration, relying on advanced algorithms to sense a user’s neuronal response to each button, the researchers say.

by Abadi Askdg

About 20 years ago, the static split-and-tilt ergonomic keyboard became the wrist-friendly standard. Today, Smartfish Technologies, a company founded by a former chiropractor, has a better approach: the Engage, a keyboard that periodically shifts its position. The goal is to constantly change your typing angle, thereby reducing the chance of repetitive-stress injuries. A motor inside the keyboard tweaks the separation (up to 1.4 inches) and tilt (up to 6 degrees) of each side in small increments every 2,500 keystrokes. You can also alter the frequency of changes.


The Test

We used an early model for several days, typing articles on a Windows 7 PC as the Engage adjusted itself automatically. We paid close attention to key feel and wrist comfort and maintained an upright sitting position (we didn’t want to sabotage any benefits by slouching).

The Results

The ever-changing keyboard was startling at first, but we had no problem acclimating to it. Each shift takes only about two seconds, so using the Engage for long periods is comfortable. The downsides: the motor is noisy, the keyboard a tad high (which can itself cause stress), and the keys a bit stiff. But the company is already working on a model that fixes these problems, along with an additional nonsplitting option that tweaks just your wrist angle.

Sunday, March 20, 2011 by Abadi Askdg

We’ve heard it said that electric cars make driving like using an iPhone app. It’s not true, but Ford’s choice of venue for the reveal of the Ford Focus Electric—the Consumer Electronics Show—probably won’t help change that perception.

The Ford Focus EV is part of Ford’s overall electrification scheme, which involves rolling out five distinct electrified models (ranging from the purely electric Focus EV to an plug-in hybrid whose details have not yet been officially announced) by 2013. The Focus Electric, which is schedule to enter 19 markets by the end of this year, is a five-door hatchback powered by a 23 kilowatt-hour, liquid-cooled lithium-ion battery. As with the Chevy Volt, the battery supplier is LG Chem. The Focus Electric will have a top speed of 84 mph and should reach a driving range comparable to that of its closest competitor, the Nissan Leaf, which gets approximately 100 miles on a charge. We don’t yet know how much the car costs, whether it will be leased, sold, or both, or how many cars Ford plans to make. We do know that it will be built at Ford’s Michigan Assembly Plant, on the same production line as gas-powered Focuses—an arrangement that Ford says will allow it to adjust production volume to demand.

We’ve known about the Focus EV for quite a while, and in fact Ford has been giving journalists short test drives in hacked-up demo models for at least a year. Today’s two real pieces of news involve the charging time and the mobile smartphone control system.

First, the charging: Because the Focus Electric uses a 6.6kW onboard charger, it will be able to charge in about half the time of the Nissan Leaf—in three to four hours from a 240-volt docking station. (By contrast, the Leaf uses a 3.3 kW charger; we suspect Ford can get away with the faster charging because their battery, unlike Nissans, is liquid-cooled, so that the battery temperature can be carefully controlled during charging.)

Next, MyFord Touch mobile. This smart phone app will let you check the car’s state of charge, program its charging time, heat or cool the cabin remotely, find the car using GPS, and control various other functions. (The Chevy Volt and the Nissan Leaf can both be controlled using similar apps.)

Expect more Ford news on Monday, the first press day of the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.
by Abadi Askdg

Pumping a body full of celldestroying chemicals sounds like a bad idea, but that’s what chemotherapy entails. The side effects of intravenous chemo for liver cancer, the third deadliest cancer in men, usually necessitate a four-day hospital stay with each treatment. As doctors try to target the chemicals by injecting high doses into an artery that feeds the tumor, the bloodstream inevitably carries them into the rest of the body. It’s an imprecise and painful process, but a plastic bead called a QuadraSphere could make it less so.

Made out of a sodium acrylate and vinyl alcohol polymer that soaks up drugs and slowly releases them, QuadraSpheres are injected into an artery close to the tumor. The microscopic beads block the nearby capillaries, starving the tumor and preventing the drugs from escaping elsewhere into the body.

In March, doctors began a $10-million study of 500 liver cancer patients. The results won’t be known until the study ends four years from now, but previous small studies suggest that the beads can shrink tumors with fewer side effects. QuadraSpheres allow patients to go home the same day, says David Liu, a interventional radiologist at Vancouver General Hospital. They could be approved for liver-cancer treatment by 2015.