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Friday, August 1, 2008

The Thing -- lego's...G.I.Joes!! ...techno....sick!!

First non-official video clip made for Zombie Zombie, the electrifying French duo of Etienne Jaumet and Cosmic Neman. Directed by Simon Gesrel and Xavier Ehretsmann thanks to their favourite toys... the GI Joes ! The video is an hommage to the director AND soundtrack composer John Carpenter, especially one of his masterpieces : THE THING.


"Very Hopeful About Life on This Planet"


The Voyager spacecraft will be the third and fourth human artifacts to escape entirely from the solar system. Pioneers 10 and 11, which preceded Voyager in outstripping the gravitational attraction of the Sun, both carried a graphic message in the form of a 6- by 9-inch gold anodized plaque bolted to the spacecraft's main frame.

On the plaque a man and woman stand before an outline of the spacecraft. The man's hand is raised in a gesture of good will. The physical makeup of the man and woman were determined from results of a computerized analysis of the average person in our civilization.

The key to translating the plaque lies in understanding the breakdown of the most common element in the universe - hydrogen. This element is illustrated in the left-hand corner of the plaque in schematic form showing the hyperfine transition of neutral atomic hydrogen. Anyone from a scientifically educated civilization having enough knowledge of hydrogen would be able to translate the message. The plaque was designed by Dr. Carl Sagan and Dr. Frank Drake and drawn by Linda Salzman Sagan.

With this example before them, NASA placed a more ambitious message aboard Voyager 1 and 2-a kind of time capsule, intended to communicate a story of our world to extraterrestrials. The Voyager message is carried by a phonograph record-a 12-inch gold-plated copper disk containing sounds and images selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth. The contents of the record were selected for NASA by a committee chaired by Carl Sagan of Cornell University. Dr. Sagan and his associates assembled 115 images and a variety of natural sounds, such as those made by surf, wind and thunder, birds, whales, and other animals. To this they added musical selections form different cultures and eras, and spoken greetings from Earth-people in fifty-five languages, and printed messaged from President Carter and U.N. Secretary General Waldheim. Each record is encased in a protective aluminum jacket, together with a cartridge and a needle. Instructions, in symbolic language, explain the origin of the spacecraft and indicate how the record is to be played. The 115 images are encoded in analog form. The remainder of the record is in audio, designed to be played at 16-2/3 revolutions per second. It contains the spoken greetings, beginning with Akkadian, which was spoken in Sumer about six thousand years ago, and ending with Wu, a modern Chinese dialect. Following the section on the sounds of Earth, there is an eclectic 90-minute selection of music, including both Eastern and Western classics and a variety of ethnic music. Once the Voyager spacecraft leave the solar system (by 1990, both will be beyond the orbit of Pluto), they will find themselves in empty space. It will be forty thousand years before they make a close approach to any other planetary system. As Carl Sagan has noted, "The spacecraft will be encountered and the record played only if there are advanced spacefaring civilizations in interstellar space. But the launching of this bottle into the cosmic ocean says something very hopeful about life on this planet."

Information about the Earth and its Inhabitants

Back to Basics

In the first place, we should insist that if the immigrant who comes
here in good faith becomes an American and assimilates himself to us, he shall
be treated on an exact equality with everyone else, for it is an outrage to
discriminate against any such man because of creed, or birthplace, or origin.

But this is predicated upon the person's becoming in every facet an American,
and nothing but an American...There can be no divided allegiance here.
Any man who says he is an American, but something else also,isn't an American at all.

We have room for but one flag, the American flag... We
have room for but one language here, and that is the English language...
and we have room for but one sole loyalty and that is a loyalty to the
American people.
-Theodore Roosevelt 1907

15 Dumbest Things You Hear at Work

Authored by EP member theTruth, from the group: I Hate Corporate Cliches

I want to point out the most ridiculous work sayings or cliches that really get on my nerves. It's as if taking something simple and phrasing it in an idiotic and often nonsensical way has become a key part of fitting into corporate culture. I say NO. Let's take a look at my favorite 15 of these gems...

15) Best Shored � as in, we're going to have this project "best shored." Ouch. Talk about euphemisms. This isn't even proper English AND it's insulting and foreboding all at the same time.

14) Too Many Indians, Not Enough Chiefs -- I'm amazed that in our politically correct world, this phrase seems to linger on. And in reality, it's usually the other way around-- there are far too many middle managers trying to prove that their jobs have some meaning and impact and not enough people actually doing work.

13) Run it up the Flagpole and see if someone salutes it -- Wow. This is guilty of so many things, but most importantly of trying to tie poetic imagery and patriotism into a business decision.

12 ) Evolutionary not Revolutionary -- we get it, you're talking about incremental change. But the fact that this rhymes does not merit that ridiculously smug look you get after you say it.

11) Can't Change a Leopard's Spots-- Are you saying that some things are permanent? Wow, great observation! You're so clever!

10) Do you have Enough Bandwidth? � The answer to this is always supposed to be yes but in reality is no. Why bother asking it? And does it make sense to use a networking metaphor to discuss the 45 year old woman in accounting's availability?

9) Let's not Fight the Tide -- this is humorous because the person that says it generally would stand no chance of fighting anything but a twinkie wrapper. You know what I mean, too.

8) Let's Not Go Into "Solution Mode" Yet � Immediate translation: I have no plan. Secondary comment: I didn't realize that you had to enter a particular state of mind to solve a problem. Shouldn't companies always be in "solution mode"?

7) Keep the Train on the Tracks -- this essentially says nothing. Trains are at their very foundation of design meant to stay on tracks. A derailment is a one-in-a-million accident, not something you have to actively work against. Yet this is said as if it's an everyday occurrence.

6) Sing from the Same Hymn Book -- not only is this offensive to people who don't practice organized relgion, but anyone that has sung from a hymn book knows that half the people are frantically trying to find what verse they're on while the ones that are singing are butchering the song. By the time the first half catches on to where they are, everyone else is at "amen."

5) Work to a Program -- as opposed to working haphazardly? "Hey boss, I want to work as randomly as possibly, OK?"

4) Tighten our Belt -- belts go around the middle... meaning we're going to squeeze the people who actually do the work, and leave the top alone.

3) Give 150% -- you are aware that this is actually an impossible task, yes? Then why do you say this at practically every meeting?

2) Peel Back the Onion � This is an insanely odd reference, as I can pretty much guarantee most people don't peel back onions ever, yet for some reason that's become a basic part of their job description.

And the #1 worst work saying:

1) Come to Jesus Meeting -- With one phrase, you have taken a simple concept of a group discussion and managed to make both Christians and non-Christians feel uncomfortable. That right there, is 100% of the people, and is worthy of recognition.

Bonus for reading this far... Dilbert's "diagnosis"...
Can he lead a normal life?
No, he'll be an engineer.

Real Fries in a Fake World

1password makes secure logins easier on iphones

iPhone/iPod touch only: Free application 1Password makes logging into secure sites much easier on the iPhone's mobile Safari browser by creating a double-protected mini-database of your passwords. The app won't auto-fill login forms in Safari, but provides its own mini-browser that plugs in your credentials into any site's login form. Great for checking your bank accounts or secure work data, but the big drawback is lack of a keyboard inside the mini-browser—so no further typing once you're in. Of course, you can just use 1Password as a memory-booster for your user/password combos, for which it works just fine. Users of 1Password's Mac version can sync their passwords between versions with the $35 upgrade. 1Password is a free download for iPhones and iPod touch devices only.

Driving Through a Massive Dust Storm

Does anyone know where dust storms like this occur? That is totally insane and I would be convinced the world was coming to an end.

Driving Through a Massive Dust Storm - Watch more free videos

A Radio Telescope the size of Planet Earth is ready to work

Photo: Roger Ressmeyer/Corbis

Arecibo, Puerto Rico: The 1000-meter radio telescope dish at dawn.

This fall, the world's largest telescope will begin its scientific mission. Made up of radio telescopes in Chile, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Puerto Rico, South Africa, and Sweden, the e-VLBI—for electronic very long baseline interferometer—creates in effect a telescope with a diameter of 11 000 kilometers; Earth's own diameter is about 12 750 km at the equator. Because a telescope's resolution is proportional to its size, the e-VLBI should see farther out in space and time and elucidate the finer structures of the most energetic phenomena in the universe, such as supernovas, pulsars, and black holes.

Although a smaller, Europe-wide e-VLBI has been in operation for more than a year, the full multicontinent version opened its eye only on 22 May 2008, when all seven sites were linked to a custom-built supercomputer, operated by the European VLBI Network (EVN), in a test observation.

VLBI increases the resolution of a pair of radio telescopes by using the time a particular radio wave arrives at each of them to estimate its frequency and pinpoint its origin. Although the technique has been in use since the mid-1980s, linking radio telescopes between other countries and continents in real time has not been possible until now.

Each of the radio telescopes used in the May test produced up to 1 gigabit per second of data. Until the EVN supercomputer was built, the only way to transport such large volumes of data across the globe for analysis was by recording them on magnetic media and then physically shipping the media to the Joint Institute for VLBI in Europe, located in Dwingeloo, Netherlands.

The new system transports data via a large number of network providers. Just getting the data to EVN “was an enormous technical hurdle to overcome,” says Arpad Szomoru, head of technical operations and R&D at Dwingeloo. The supercomputer can handle flows of up to 100 terabytes per observation coming in from 16 radio telescopes.

Radio astronomers were initially skeptical that moving to real-time VLBI was worth the effort, says Huib van Langevelde, director at Dwingeloo. But the recent test showed that e‑VLBI collapses processes that would have taken weeks without the supercomputer networking into a matter of hours.

Earth-Size Radio Telescope Opens Its Eye By Barry E. DiGregorio

First Published August 2008
Seven telescopes act as one to produce finest radio images ever

For the new intercontinental e-VLBI system to work, all the telescopes must observe the same astronomical radio source at exactly the same wavelength. All the stations have atomic clocks, synchronized to within a few millionths of a second, so that a radio wave's arrival can be precisely marked at every telescope. 

As Earth rotates, an observational target will drop beneath the horizon in relation to some telescopes and rise in relation to others. “The source is tracked by a changing set of telescopes,” says Szomoru. 

According to Szomoru, astronomers will get the most from the e-VLBI when they're tracking stellar explosions and other transient cosmic activity, including gamma-ray bursts and flaring microquasars. “It is now possible to observe a number of candidate cosmic sources and, if one of them is seen to come into an active state, do one or several follow-up observations, thus catching a flare in a microquasar at a very early moment, something which was not possible previously.”

Firefox 3.1 Alpha Preview Delivers Slick New Features

Firefox 3.0 is barely out of the gate, but already Mozilla is moving toward the future with the first alpha release of Firefox 3.1. The final release of 3.1 is scheduled for the end of 2008 with the usual series of alpha and beta releases in the coming months.

The first 3.1 alpha (code-named Shiretoko) already packs some impressive new features like the new visual tab switcher, which offers previews of pages, and changes the sorting order based on which tab was most recently open. In essence it mimics the behavior of cmd-tab application switchers on most OSes. The visual eye candy is quite nice, but the real benefit is the dynamic ordering, which makes it much easier to quickly jump between recently viewed tabs.


Also new in alpha 1 is the wildcard searching capabilities we mentioned earlier. Firefox 3.1 will allow you to quickly restrict your “awesome bar” searches using customizable wildcard characters. For instance typing an asterisk limits results to your bookmarks and typing a pound sign limits results to page titles (rather than titles and URLs).


The Gecko rendering engine, which powers Firefox under the hood, also has support for some new CSS options like text-shadow, box-shadow, border images and the HTML5 Canvas text API. The first three are already available in some other browsers like Safari, but with Firefox on-board as well, web designers will no doubt feel more comfortable using those elements in their designs.

The HTML 5 canvas support is a bit more experimental (the W3C spec is still in the draft stages), but Mozilla has rolled it in anyway. If you want get really bleeding edge, the latest Firefox nightly builds also include support for audio and video tags.

Like the Canvas element, the and HTML 5 elements are still in the draft stages, but the idea is to easily embed media without proprietary plugins (like Quicktime, Windows Media, etc). Technically both tags are codec-neutral, but Mozilla has bundled the Ogg Theora and Vorbis codecs giving you the option to deliver audio and video in an open format.

Keep in mind though that the and aren’t part of alpha 1. For those elements you’ll need to go to the nightly builds.

So far, Firefox 3.1 is looking like it will be a very impressive release, building on and refining many of the best features in 3.0, as well as adding some important new ones. If you’d like to test it out, head over to the download page, but bear in mind that, as this is an alpha, the usual warnings apply and most of your extensions will probably be disabled.

See Also:

Electronic shifting for a bicycle

Stefan Schumacher of Germany speeds down Ombarde Pass using Shimano's Di2 electronic shifting system during the 2008 Tour De France.
Photo: Christophe Ena/AP

Japanese parts manufacturer Shimano is launching an electronic shifting system for high-end road bikes that it claims will vastly improve performance and reduce maintenance. By replacing the conventional levers that pull wound-steel cables through protective housings with solid-state switches and rubber-coated wires, there's no chance for road gunk to clog things up and interfere with shifting, or, for that matter, your post-ride beer.

The principle of an electronically controlled drive train is to execute perfect shifts every time, thus "reducing mental overhead," in the words of Shimano marketing manager Devin Walton. This is a resource cyclists find in short supply during epic rides.

Thursday's announcement that the system, called Di2, will hit shops in January 2009 settles a question first raised in 2005 when prototypes began cropping up on the bikes of select Shimano-sponsored racers in the pro peloton. The system's development has been photographed, chronicled and Angsted over ever since.

But if the existence of electronic shifting comes as no surprise, its weigh-in certainly should. During a recent telephone interview, an industry insider who spoke on condition of anonymity stopped cold amid a why-do-we-need-this diatribe, upon learning that Di2 weighs less than Shimano's current generation of parts. According to the company, Di2 will be 67 grams lighter than the current Dura-Ace 7800 and only 68 grams heavier than Dura-Ace 7900, the snazzy forthcoming 2009 suite of parts. "I'll be going to hell," said the source, who then fell silent -- no doubt converting grams to ounces to fractions of a pound to the limitless advantages of such weight savings. That's at least an extra Clif Bar.

Di2's front derailleur automatically adjusts itself so the chain doesn't rub as you shift.

Shimano plans to offer the electronic setup as an upgrade option within the 7900 group -- which is preselling for $2,600 -- so parts such as the two-tone cranks and brakes will be the same. (No word yet on the additional cost for electric; it could be double.) Di2 consists of two brake-and-shift levers, two derailleurs whose springs have been replaced by servo-motors, a 7.4-volt lithium-ion battery pack, and the wiring harness that connects everything.

The derailleurs, whose job is to move the chain from gear to gear as you shift, talk to each other and automatically adjust so the chain doesn't rub. They also calibrate themselves, so you don't have to play with cable tension to maintain shift quality as cables stretch and the chain and cogs wear. And although the control buttons have been placed in the traditional location behind the brake levers -- so as not to confuse anyone or overly tax that mental overhead -- they could be integrated with the ends of time-trial bars, the top of the handlebars or just about anywhere a rider might find convenient.

Still, the advantage that people who've experienced the system talk about is how little effort it takes to change gears. A quick nudge to one of the shift switches signals a motorized worm gear in the derailleur to instantly move the precise amount it needs to. Fractions of a second later, the chain snaps into position.

Chris d'Aluisio, director of advanced research and development for Specialized, likens the difference between mechanical and electric shifting to the difference between driving a race car with a manual transmission and one with F-1 style paddle shifters. "You can stay on the gas and flip through the gears with no hesitation," said d'Aluisio. "It's seamless power."

Frankie Andreu, who raced in nine Tours de France, described the shifting as "immediate and very smooth and accurate.... It's super nice."

Even my curmudgeonly unidentified source said, "The shifting is mind-blowing: I mean, you just touch the button, and it shifts."

The shift buttons are located in the traditional place -- behind the brake levers -- but they could go anywhere without affecting the performance of the system.

But let's not lose perspective. Shimano isn't the first company to attempt electronic shifting. Mavic introduced Zap in 1994 and then a wireless version called Mektronic in 2000, neither of which survived. Zap's wires proved to be less than waterproof, and Mektronic was finicky to set up properly. Shimano, notorious for its rigorous testing gauntlet, is betting that its engineers have solved the electricity problem -- and so is Campagnolo, a competitor that is on a similar development path but has yet to announce when it will release its system.

The crux of the engineering challenge is making the battery light yet long-lasting, so Shimano's engineers turned to the hardest-working part in any shifting system: the front derailleur. It's also the most temperamental, with a nasty habit of dropping or jamming the chain if the rider doesn't modulate his tempo properly while shifting. (Mavic didn't even go there -- only the rear was electric.) To be fair, the front derailleur has the notably tough job of moving a chain under heavy load between two gears of dramatically different sizes, moving at different speeds. The Di2 crew knew going in that it would require three or four times the juice of the rear derailleur.

So, when Shimano started out in 2003, the initial strategy was to throw a bunch of power at the problem, and take advantage of the servo-motor's massive torque. But this came at too high a cost, according to former Olympian Wayne Stetina, a Shimano vice president whose primary job is to test equipment and provide feedback to the engineers in Japan. "As I recall, in 2004 we had a much larger battery that went dead on me several times during long rides," said Stetina, who has logged 19,000 miles on various iterations of Di2. "It couldn't last more than three or four hours between charges, and the battery pack and control system weighed nearly a pound."

Shimano claims that the 7.4-volt lithium-ion battery will go 1,000 kilometers between charges.

That wasn't going to fly in a sport where grams can translate directly into seconds. The trick would be to conserve power, not squander it. Shimano's engineers redesigned the geometry of the front-derailleur to amplify the force, so they could get the necessary output with far less input. The greater leverage of the new derailleur allowed for a much smaller battery and ultimately shaved half a pound off the system. Stetina claims the battery consistently lasts 2,000 miles between charges (which takes 90 minutes). Officially, Shimano says the battery will last for 1,000 kilometers (621 miles).

The front derailleur doesn't actually move with more force or more speed, as you might assume. It does receive the signal to shift faster than you can send one by cranking on your lever and fighting against friction, spring tension and a lesser mechanical advantage. More important, it should do the same exact thing, every time, without needing to be coaxed or cursed. Powered as it is by an electric motor, the front derailleur simply moves a calibrated distance when it's told. "It just jams the chain into the big ring, no matter how much load is on it," d'Aluisio said. "You don't lose any momentum, and your legs never stall."

Road-bike aficionados are much like trout: simultaneously enthralled and mortified by anything shiny and new that enters their environment. And so it's not surprising that the first two questions people tend to ask about Di2 are: 1) What if the battery dies? and 2) What if it gets wet?

Stetina believes he's personally answered the first. And besides, he said, there is a battery meter on the Flight Deck computer (which includes heart rate, altimeter, inclinometer, calorie counter and the ability to download all these details to your PC after the ride). His unscientific-though-admirable strategy for testing the waterproofness of the system has been to blast the components with the high-pressure hose at a coin-op car wash.

Presumably Shimano's engineers in Japan have more-traditional testing methods. The company prides itself on systems engineering, and has been working on this set of components for more than five years. How will it work? You can find out for yourself when Di2 goes on sale in January. Call us when you've put 12,000 miles on it

The $46,616.47 Oil Change and Size-22 Carbon Footprint


Of all the absurdly wealthy men in the Middle East, at least one has far more money than sense and proved it when he had his Lamborghini flown from Qatar to Britain for an oil change.

According the The Sun, the owner -- which the paper surmises is a sheik -- had Qatar Airways ship the Murcielago LP640 about 6,500 miles round trip at a cost of about 39 grand and God-knows-how-much greenhouse gas just to service the car (cost: $7,030.47). "This car doesn't have a carbon footprint," an unnamed airport worker told The Sun. "More like a crater."

Environmentalists are all but demanding the unidentified owner's head, the UK Lambo club can't see what all the fuss is about and Lamborghini has found itself in a bit of a sticky wicket.

"With rising fuel costs and concern about climate change, most people are likely to find this type of wasteful and damaging activity outrageous," Tony Bosworth of Friends of the Earth told the BBC. "The pollution from driving a Lamborghini is bad enough, but flying one thousands of miles for a service is taking climate-wrecking behavior to new heights."

For the record, the LP640 has a 6.5-liter V-12 that produces 640 horsepower. It gets about a dozen mpg and emits 495 grams/kilometer of carbon dioxide. That's about four times greater than the 130 g/km limit the European Union wants to place on autos.

David Price of Lamborghini Club UK essentially told the environmentalists to bugger off. He told the BBC that Bosworth's argument isn't "relevant to anything" and The Sun quoted him saying, “If an owner wants to service his car in that way, it is his choice. I'm not surprised. Thankfully an age of excess in some areas continues."

As for Lamborghini, it appears to be dancing like Fred Astaire. Lamborghini UK spokeswoman Juliet Jarvis told the BBC that the car was not serviced by any of Lamborghini's authorized dealers in the UK. But she told The Sun there could be “kudos” for the guy having his car serviced in London. She noted that most cars are serviced in the same country they're purchased -- imagine that! -- but, “This sort of thing is not unheard of.”

Yes, because we all know how hard it is to find oil in the Middle East.

Photo by Lamborghini. To see a pic of the car in question at Heathrow,

Tidal Power comes to Market

Tidal power: Marine Current Technologies, based in the United Kingdom, has built a system called SeaGen that uses two turbines to generate electricity from the tidal currents in Northern Ireland’s Strangford Lough. The turbines are connected to a crossbar on a large steel beam embedded in the seabed. The crossbar can be raised and lowered so that researchers can inspect the turbines.
Credit: Marine Current Technologies

The world's first commercial tidal-power system has been connected to the National Grid in Northern Ireland. Built by the British tidal-energy company Marine Current Technologies (MCT), the 1.2-megawatt system consists of two submerged turbines that are harvesting energy from Strangford Lough's tidal currents. The company expects that once the system, called SeaGen, is fully operational, it will be able to provide electricity to approximately one thousand homes.

The system is currently being tested and has briefly generated 150 kilowatts of power into the grid. But it has also damaged one of its rotors due to a failure in the control system when the rotor began turning too fast. Although the problem was a minor setback, the unit is not expected to start running continuously and at full capacity until November, says Peter Fraenkel, the technical director at MCT.

The technology works like a wind turbine, but instead of wind, the turbines are driven by the flow of tidal currents. It offers a significant advantage over wind because currents are predictable, says James Taylor, the general manager of environmental planning and monitoring at Nova Scotia Power, a company that also has plans for a one-megawatt tidal-power project. "Wind is intermittent and, because of that, is much more difficult and expensive to integrate in a power system," he says.

Generating power from currents in the form of "watermills" was first demonstrated by MCT in 1994 with a 15-kilowatt system in Loch Linnhe, off the west coast of Scotland. In 2003, MCT installed a 300-kilowatt system off the coast of Lynmouth, England. At the same time, a Norway-based energy company, Hammerfest Strom, installed a like-sized system in the Kvalsund strait. In the spring of 2007, Verdant Power submerged six 35-kilowatt turbines in New York City's East River. SeaGen, however, is much larger than any of these systems and is not an experimental device, says Fraenkel.

SeaGen uses two rotors that are 16 meters in diameter and can each produce 600 kilowatts of power. Fraenkel says that using two rotors is a "cost-effective solution" because the depth of the seas limits the size of the rotors. "We have to grow sideways," he says.

The researchers also have complete control over the rotors. "They are pitched like the propeller on an old aircraft, so by changing the angle--which dictates how much force is produced--of the blades, it allows us to optimize the rotor," says Fraenkel. The researchers can start and stop the rotor, and make it go faster or slower. And to prevent any damage to the ecosystem, it is important that the researchers keep the rotors at about 14 revolutions per minute, a speed that is too slow for marine life to run into the blades or to alter tides. The rotors are connected to a crossbar on a large steel beam that is held in place by four legs cemented into the seabed. The crossbar can be raised above or lowered below the surface of the water for easy assess to the turbines.

Patient Matched Stem Cells.

Motor neurons: Scientists generated motor neurons (cell nuclei shown here in red), which are destroyed in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), from stem cells created from a patient with the disease. The newly created cells should allow scientists to study the disease and screen new drugs. All neurons are marked in green.
Credit: Kit Rodolfa and John Dimos at Harvard University

Stem cells derived from the skin of an 82-year-old patient with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) could provide a novel model for studying the degenerative motor disease and for screening new treatment drugs; eventually, it could pave the way for cell-replacement therapies. The findings, published today online in Science, were made possible by new techniques to reprogram adult cells to become pluripotent--able to become any type of cell in the body.

Researchers have long wanted to make stem cells from actual patients to better understand the diseases from which they suffer. "Because the cells harbor genes that led to the disease in that patient, we might be able to use them in the laboratory to understand certain aspects of disease," says Kevin Eggan, a stem-cell scientist at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, who led part of the research.

To create the stem cells, researchers used a novel technique, recently developed by scientists in Japan, that doesn't require human eggs or the creation or destruction of embryos, and thus bypasses major ethical and technical hurdles that have plagued the field of embryonic stem-cell research. Eggan's team exposed the patient's skin cells to four genetic factors found in the developing embryo. The procedure turned back the clock on the cells, triggering them to look and behave like embryonic stem cells.

While scientists had already used these reprogramming techniques to create stem cells from skin cells, this is the first time that these cells--called induced pluripotent stem cells, or IPS cells--have been generated from a patient. The ability to do so is key to creating models for studying complex genetic diseases, such as Alzheimer's. The findings also confirm that it's possible to use reprogramming techniques in older people and in those with a serious disease. "It was unclear if the fact that the patient had been sick for many years would interfere with our ability to reprogram [the cells]," says Eggan.

The researchers prodded the stem cells to differentiate into motor neurons by exposing them to another series of chemicals. Motor neurons are the primary cell type destroyed in ALS, a progressive neurodegenerative disease. While animal models of the disease exist, they can't capture the complexity of human biology.

The new research allows scientists to generate an endless supply of motor neurons that are genetically identical to those of the cell donor, which should allow them to study the molecular events that trigger the disease. "Now we can see if they behave in a manner that mimics the disease," says Chris Henderson, codirector of the Motor Neuron Center at Columbia University, in New York, who led part of the research. "For example, do they tend to die and degenerate in the culture dish? If so, we can try to understand more about the mechanism of degeneration." Scientists also hope to use the cells to screen for new drugs that protect against neurodegeneration in ALS.

Diseased stem cells: Scientists generated a type of nerve cell called an astrocyte (shown here in red) from stem cells created from a patient with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Previous studies suggest that these cells play an important role in the progression of the motor neuron degeneration. The green cells are neurons, while the blue circles highlight cell nuclei.
Credit: Kit Rodolfa and John Dimos at Harvard University

"It is likely that this will be one of the most important uses of stem cells during the next 10 to 20 years," said Ian Wilmut, director of the Scottish Centre for Regenerative Medicine, in Edinburgh, in an e-mail. Wilmut, best known for the cloning research that produced Dolly the sheep, was not involved in the current project but is pursuing a similar path.

Because the cells were created using genetic engineering, they are not suitable for therapeutic use. Scientists are now working on ways to reprogram cells using drugs rather than genes. However, therapies using IPS cells to replace the cells damaged in disease are likely years, if not decades, away.

The researchers haven't yet studied the new motor neurons for signs of disease, but similar experiments in mice hint at the cells' promise: mouse cells with a mutation in the same gene as that in the ALS patient seemed to reflect the disease. When differentiated into neurons and compared with neurons made from normal stem cells, those that carried the mutation didn't survive as well as those that did not carry it, says Eggan, who is now using the cells to screen potential new drugs for ALS. "These approaches would be much more powerful if we could do them with actual patient cells," he says.

The cells should also allow scientists to test specific theories of ALS. For example, in the mouse experiments, the researchers found that another type of neural cell, known as an astrocyte, seemed to produce a toxin that harmed motor neurons. "We're curious to see if we can make astrocytes from stem cells and if they also have this toxic effect," says Eggan.

The cell donor in this research has a rare, familial form of ALS linked to a specific genetic variation. Scientists are now trying to derive stem cells from a patient with the more-common sporadic form of ALS, as well as from a healthy control donor, in order to compare healthy and diseased cells.

Eggan first set out to create patient-specific stem cells more than two years ago using therapeutic cloning. In that technique, DNA from an adult cell is inserted into an egg whose DNA has been removed. The egg begins to develop as a normal embryo would, and scientists harvest stem cells after a few days. However, human eggs proved extremely hard to find: Eggan's group, which is still pursuing cloning, has received eggs from only one donor to date. No one has yet produced stem cells from human therapeutic cloning.

Desalination made simpler

Streamlining desalination: Researcher Ho Bum Park holds two samples of the chlorine-tolerant desalination membrane. The one on the left is one-tenth of a micrometer thick and is made of a porous support with a thin coating of the membrane. The blue membrane is about 50 micrometers thick.
Credit: Beverly Barrett/University of Texas at Austin

Getting access to drinking water is a daily challenge for more than one billion people in the world. Desalination may help relieve such water-stressed populations by filtering salt from abundant seawater, and there are more than 7,000 desalination plants worldwide, 250 operating in the United States alone. However, the membranes that these plants use to filter out salt tend to break down when exposed to an essential ingredient in the process: chlorine.

Now researchers at the University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin) and Virginia Polytechnic Institute have engineered a chlorine-tolerant membrane that filters out salt just as well as many commercial membranes. The researchers say that such a membrane would eliminate expensive steps in the desalination process and eventually be used to filter salt out of seawater. The results of their study appear in the most recent issue of the journal Angewandte Chemie.

The majority of desalination plants today use polyamide membranes to effectively separate salt from seawater. Since seawater harbors a variety of organisms that can form a thick film over membranes and clog the filter, plants use chlorine to disinfect incoming water before it is sent through membranes. The problem is, these membranes degrade after continuous chlorine exposure. So the desalination industry added another step, quickly dechlorinating water after it's been treated with chlorine and before it's run through the membrane. Once the water has been desalinated, chlorine is added again, before the water enters the drinking-water supply.

Benny Freeman, a professor of chemical engineering at UT Austin, says that a chlorine-tolerant membrane may help significantly streamline the desalination process. Freeman and James McGrath, a professor of chemistry at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, engineered a water-filtering membrane that stands up to repeated exposures of chlorine.

The new membrane is made from polysulfone, a sulfur-containing thermoplastic that is highly resistant to chlorine. Previous researchers have attempted to design chlorine-tolerant membranes using polysulfone but have been hampered because the material is extremely hydrophobic, and doesn't easily let water through. Scientists have tried to chemically alter the polymer's composition by adding hydrophilic, or water-attracting, compounds. However, timing is everything, and Freeman says that when researchers add such compounds after they synthesize the polymer, "eventually, you break the backbone of the polymer chain . . . to the point where it's not useful."

Instead, Freeman and McGrath added two hydrophilic, charged sulfonic acid groups during the polymerization process and found that they were able to synthesize a durable and reproducible polymer. They then performed a variety of experiments to gauge the material's ability to tolerate chlorine and filter out salt, compared with commercial membranes.

First, the team carried out salt permeability tests, measuring the amount of salt passing through a membrane in a given amount of time. The less salt found in the filtered water, the better. Freeman and McGrath found that the new membrane performed just as well as many commercial membranes in filtering out water with low to medium salt content. For saltier samples comparable to seawater, the team's membrane was slightly less permeable.

"We have materials that are competitive today with existing nano filtration and some of the brackish water membranes," says Freeman. "We are now pushing the chemistry to get further into the seawater area, which is a significant market we'd like to access."

The researchers also tested the polymer's chlorine sensitivity. They found that, after exposure to concentrated solutions of chlorine for more than 35 hours, the new membrane suffered little change in composition, compared with commercial polyamide membranes, which were "eaten away by the chlorine."

Currently, Freeman and his colleagues are further manipulating the polymer composition to try to tune various properties, in hopes of designing a more selective and chlorine-resistant membrane. They are also in talks with a leading manufacturer of desalination membranes, with the goal of bringing the new membrane to market.

"These membranes may represent a reasonable route to commercialization," says Freeman. "If we're successful, we'll have the possibility of basically making these membranes on the same equipment that people use today."

Eric Hoek, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California, Los Angeles, works on engineering new desalination membranes at the California Nanosystems Institute. He says that the chlorine-tolerant membrane developed by Freeman's team may be a promising alternative to today's industrial counterparts.

"This work is among the most innovative and interesting research on membrane materials in the past decade," says Hoek. "While the chlorine tolerance exhibited by these membranes is impressive, the basic separation performance is not yet where it needs to be for these materials to be touted as immediate replacements of commercial seawater membrane technology."

Solar Power Storage breakthrough

Splitting water: Daniel Nocera poses with a device for breaking down water into hydrogen and oxygen. The device uses an inexpensive catalyst that he has developed.
Credit: Donna Coveney, MIT
video Watch Daniel Nocera explain how his catalyst can be used to store sunlight.

Researchers have made a major advance in inorganic chemistry that could lead to a cheap way to store energy from the sun. In so doing, they have solved one of the key problems in making solar energy a dominant source of electricity.

Daniel Nocera, a professor of chemistry at MIT, has developed a catalyst that can generate oxygen from a glass of water by splitting water molecules. The reaction frees hydrogen ions to make hydrogen gas. The catalyst, which is easy and cheap to make, could be used to generate vast amounts of hydrogen using sunlight to power the reactions. The hydrogen can then be burned or run through a fuel cell to generate electricity whenever it's needed, including when the sun isn't shining.

Solar power is ultimately limited by the fact that the solar cells only produce their peak output for a few hours each day. The proposed solution of using sunlight to split water, storing solar energy in the form of hydrogen, hasn't been practical because the reaction required too much energy, and suitable catalysts were too expensive or used extremely rare materials. Nocera's catalyst clears the way for cheap and abundant water-splitting technologies.

Nocera's advance represents a key discovery in an effort by many chemical research groups to create artificial photosynthesis--mimicking how plants use sunlight to split water to make usable energy. "This discovery is simply groundbreaking," says Karsten Meyer, a professor of chemistry at Friedrich Alexander University, in Germany. "Nocera has probably put a lot of researchers out of business." For solar power, Meyer says, "this is probably the most important single discovery of the century."

The new catalyst marks a radical departure from earlier attempts. Researchers, including Nocera, have tried to design molecular catalysts in which the location of each atom is precisely known and the catalyst is made to last as long as possible. The new catalyst, however, is amorphous--it doesn't have a regular structure--and it's relatively unstable, breaking down as it does its work. But the catalyst is able to constantly repair itself, so it can continue working.

In his experimental system, Nocera immerses an indium tin oxide electrode in water mixed with cobalt and potassium phosphate. He applies a voltage to the electrode, and cobalt, potassium, and phosphate accumulate on the electrode, forming the catalyst. The catalyst oxidizes the water to form oxygen gas and free hydrogen ions. At another electrode, this one coated with a platinum catalyst, hydrogen ions form hydrogen gas. As it works, the cobalt-based catalyst breaks down, but cobalt and potassium phosphate in the solution soon re-form on the electrode, repairing the catalyst.

Nocera created the catalyst as part of a research program whose goal was to develop artificial photosynthesis that works more efficiently than photosynthesis and produces useful fuels, such as hydrogen. Nocera has solved one of the most challenging parts of artificial photosynthesis: generating oxygen from water. Two more steps remain. One is replacing the expensive platinum catalyst for making hydrogen from hydrogen ions with a catalyst based on a cheap and abundant metal, as Nocera has done with the oxygen catalyst.

Finding a cheaper catalyst for making hydrogen shouldn't be too difficult, says John Turner, a principal investigator at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, in Golden, CO. Indeed, Nocera says that he has promising new materials that might work, and other researchers also have likely candidates. The second remaining step in artificial photosynthesis is developing a material that absorbs sunlight, generating the electrons needed to power the water-splitting catalysts. That will allow Nocera's catalyst to run directly on sunlight; right now, it runs on electricity taken from an outlet.

There's also still much engineering work to be done before Nocera's catalyst is incorporated into commercial devices. It will, for example, be necessary to improve the rate at which his catalyst produces oxygen. Nocera and others are confident that the engineering can be done quickly because the catalyst is easy to make, allowing a lot of researchers to start working with it without delay. "The beauty of this system is, it's so simple that many people can immediately jump on it and make it better," says Thomas Moore, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Arizona State University.

Almost Forgot- Dog Days of Summer Van Damme Friday

The Future of Drug Testing

New nanoscale anti-doping technology to sniff human growth hormone in urine
Growth Hormone: Photo by Rombik

Virginia company Ceres Nanosciences claims it has the first drug test capable of detecting human growth hormone in an athlete's urine. Validation of the test will require at least six months, meaning cheaters in the 2008 Olympics need not be concerned. The test claims it could detect HGH usage up to two weeks prior to testing, unlike blood tests, which can monitor only the past 48 hours.

"Hundreds of people and millions of dollars in research have been involved in trying to find HGH in urine, and no one has been able to do it," said anti-doping expert Don Catlin to the Associated Press. "This particular method has the potential -- I'm not saying it does it, but the potential -- to be a big step. It's delightful. It could be a quantum leap forward."

The Ceres method relies on nanoparticles, originally developed for cancer research purposes, that can capture microscopic elements in fluid. With player's unions opposed to blood testing, the development could add actually add some teeth to the currently just symbolic ban on HGH.

Unemployment at 4 year high

NEW YORK ( -- Employers trimmed jobs once again in July and the unemployment rate hit a four-year high, according to a government report Friday that showed the seventh straight month of job losses .

The Labor Department reported a net loss of 51,000 jobs in the month, compared to a revised loss of 51,000 jobs in June. Economists surveyed by had been forecasting a loss of 75,000 jobs in the latest report.

The unemployment rate edged up to 5.7% from a 5.5% reading in June. It was the worst reading since March 2004, and slightly worse than economists' forecast of a 5.6% rate.

The rate has now jumped a full percentage point from a year ago.

Beijing bugs

Senator Suspects Beijing Bugs

The Score
Reports indicate that the Chinese government is planning to spy on its Olympic guests
Beijing Swimming Center: Photo by angus_mac_123 (CC Licensed)

How do you say "Big Brother" in Chinese? Visitors to the Beijing Olympics need to be careful what they email (and what websites they peruse) according to Senator Sam Brownback, the senior Republican from Kansas. Based on hotel documents, Brownback alleges that the Chinese government has spent millions of dollars installing spy software in major hotel chains to monitor its guests' email and web surfing.

"The Chinese government has put in place a system to spy on and gather information about every guest at hotels where Olympic visitors are staying," said Brownback.

With blogging now allowed by the International Olympic Committee, the Chinese may have plenty to monitor.

It's just the latest example of the Chinese government keeping a close eye on the Olympics. Tickets to the opening ceremony are embedded with RFID tags that hold personal information intended to verify the identity of spectator, minimize scalping and keep away protestors.

Bees can help catch serial killers

Geographic profiling techniques can be used to hunt for psychopaths or for bees
Bee and Flower: Photo by aussiegall (CC Licensed)

Bumblebees are being used to help capture serial killers -- and not by being trained to find and sting the culprits. Researchers have found that by analyzing a bee's geographic pattern as it goes around poking into flowers, they can deduce where the bee lives.

In an effort to refine the geographic profiling technique used to capture serial killers, scientists from Queen Mary's School of Biological and Chemical Sciences in London tested the technique on bumblebees. Using computer model simulations to study the foraging habits of bees allowed researchers to distinguish between different types of foraging behavior.

The experiments highlight the two aspects on which geographic profiling relies: the fact that serial crimes happen near the killer's home; and that the home is surrounded by a buffer zone, an area close to home where a crime has a low probability of being committed.

During the experiments, researchers observed that bees did not visit flowers near the hive, creating a similar buffer zone. Most likely, the bees' buffer zone is used to keep predators and parasites from easily locating the hive. Predators don't use computer models, though, and we do: by studying the distribution of the flowers the bees visited beyond the buffer zone, and using geographic profiling techniques akin to the ones used to track killers, researchers were able to find the entrance to the hive.

Say hello to Ovi

Nokia's new media syncing tool shows promise
Ovi: Photo by Nokia

Ready for a rat's nest de-tangler? Nokia's service, set to debut in a few months, intends to reach into the myriad of digital files on your computer, sync them to an online portal, and make them available on your Nokia phone -– any time, from anywhere.

What I like about the concept is the simplicity: the Nokia N95 smartphone I'm testing and my Lenovo laptop live on separate islands, but will allow me to automatically sync files and access them from my phone. The alternative, which is a bit nightmarish, is to sync manually every time I connect my phone over Bluetooth or USB. And, for the past several years, that's exactly what cell phone makers have expected me to do. It's rife with problems: Bluetooth requires a passcode, USB cables from various phones are incompatible with each other, and I'm constantly running out of phone memory space.

The service will work with music files, documents, and photos. The music sync option is compelling: it means any MP3 track I rip to my computer will be accessible from my phone. Of course, that's true now for photos if I use Flickr or one of a multitude of photo-hosting services. For documents, Ovi supports Microsoft Word file, PDF, and text files -– anything a Nokia phone can open.

There are two major caveats. One is that the service only works with Nokia phones, so if you use a BlackBerry, the Apple iPhone, or a Windows Mobile device, you are out of luck. Second, while the syncing apparently works without a lot of fuss, you do need to sync files to your phone to play them. So, while you have eternal access to all of your media and documents, you still need to connect up over a fast cellular or Wi-Fi connection (which the N95 supports) to use the media.

Still, I'm all for a service that at least tries to solve the digital crisis in my life -– the mess of files I have spread over several hard disks and a server in my home. From here, Ovi looks promising and innovative.