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Archive for August, 2017

One of the hallmarks of modern day science is our unique ability to take control of our own destiny.  To “play God” as we edit genes, create synthetic organisms, and grow meat in a laboratory.  Thankfully this sort of biological tinkering is on the rise as it’s now given us one more novel course of action to add to our technological toolbelt: the ability to use plants to create vaccines.  In fact, such a method is already be used to create a Polio vaccine.

As the Huffington Post UK explains:

“This new approach, devised by the John Innes Centre, is particularly exciting for the World Health Organization because it does not require scientists to grow live versions of the virus (to inject into people) so lessens the risk of it escaping from the laboratory.

Instead the method uses virus-like particles (VLPs) – non pathogenic mimics of poliovirus – that look like viruses but are biologically engineered without a nucleic acid (that allows them to replicate) making them non-infectious.

Then when the VLPs are transferred into a human, they still make the immune system react and create immunity, but without the risks associated with stronger versions of the virus.

Using a unique system known as ‘Leaf Expression Systems Hypertrans transient expression’ (quite a mouthful), the VLPs are grown in plants instead of animals, which makes the process cheap, easy and quick, according to the team.”

Hopefully, this new method with continue to show progress and will eventually supplant our old way of doing things.

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Is a plant based vaccine the Greatest Idea Ever?

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#1,146 – MoviePass

There’s a lot going on these days.  The racial tensions in Charlottesville that lead to three people dying.  The push to remove confederate statues that followed.  President Trump’s off the rails press conference in which he blamed both sides.  All of the CEOs and moderate Republicans who have abandoned Trump in droves since.

Combine all that with Trump’s feud with the FBI, the Attorney General and anyone else who has crossed him, the Congressional failure to repel and replace Obamacare, and with the Russian election meddling and possible collusion, and it’s enough to make you wonder if we’re really living in Westeros all of a sudden with enough sub-plots to fill an entire series of books and spawn a hit HBO series.  With the threat of North Korea looming, our very own (nuclear) winter is coming as well.

So what do you do when life begins to imitate art?  When you need to find an escape from all the bad news inundating your Facebook feed?  You do the only thing you can do.  You spend more time with the arts! A feat which is now imminently possible thanks to the MoviePass, a monthly subscription service that lets you attend one in theatre movie per day for just $10 a month.  Considering that a single movie ticket usually costs around $10 this deal sounds almost too good to be true.  So, what’s the catch?

Well, for starters there are a few restrictions.  The ticket doesn’t cover IMAX or 3-D movies and the corresponding app will only work when you’re within 100 yards of a theatre.  That means that you can’t buy tickets online ahead of time which could limit your ability to see a popular new release.  And even for movies that have been out for a while you run the risk of schlepping all the way to the theatre just to find out that the movie you want to see is sold out.  Plus, it is for only one movie per day.  But, still.  We’re talking about $10 a month to have the ability to see up to 28-31 movies per month if you really wanted to.

So, let’s evaluate this.  It sounds like a no-brainer, but is it?  $10 a month for thirty movies is a great deal but that’s $10 more per month than I pay right now.  An additional $120 per year that I’d have to budget for.  Keep in mind that I haven’t seen a movie in the theaters in several months.  I wanted to see Wonder Woman and the new Spider Man but couldn’t bring myself to do it.  So, if I’m not going to use this pass religiously, or even all that often, am I literally just throwing away $10 a month?

Well, if I had this pass a few months ago logic would dictate that I probably would have used it to see Spider Man and Wonder Woman thereby recouping my investment.  So long as I see at least two movies a month then the deal is worth it.  But would I see two movies a month? 3 movies a month?  4 movies a month?  Two seems doable.  Anything more than that seems unlikely.  Who has that much free time to be able to go to the movies everyday anyway?  Especially, once the weather clears up and hiking season begins.  Not to mention the fact that there really aren’t that many good movies that are worth seeing in theaters.  For every Dunkirk there’s five Valerians.  Is this pass worth it if it means I’m going to be spending a Saturday night watching Brigsby Bear or a Sunday morning watching the Emoji Movie?  Sure, the value is there but what about the psychological toll that watching dozens of bad movies will take on my psyche?

It’s also fair to ask if this business model is even sustainable, a question that AMC is soon going to beasking via a subpoena.  When the program first launched back in NYC in 2011 it cost $50 per month.  That still sounds like a reasonably good deal to moviegoers and theaters realizing that most people wouldn’t go more than five times a month were on board with that.  But now that the cost has been slashed to $10 a month?!?! There’s no way this can last can it?

I don’t know.  All I know is that if you’re a movie lover who would go to the movies more than two times per month, and don’t mind having to buy last minute tickets, then you should definitely take the plunge.  And quickly!  Before they change their mind!

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Is MoviePass the Greatest Idea Ever?

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#1,145 – POPiN

I hate going to the gym.  All the stares.  All the judgment.  All the meatheads.  I’d much rather exercise outside.  Riding my bike, playing basketball, going hiking.  Unfortunately, during the summer time in Phoenix none of those are viable options.  If you go outdoors you’re liable to melt.  So for a few months out of the year you pretty much have no choice but to go to the gym if you want to stay in shape.  But I can’t just join any gym.  Deadlifting dumbbells isn’t my idea of fun.  No, if I’m going to work out I need to be entertained.  I need to be doing something.  Anything.  Racquetball.  Swimming.  Basketball.  Whatever.

The problem is that nice gyms, fitness centers, and sports clubs, the kinds of places that I actually wouldn’t mind working out in, are usually extremely pricey.  They envision themselves as lifestyle clubs, not mere gyms.  As Global Gyms not as Average Joes Gymnasiums.  So what happens if you want in to one of these exclusive exercise havens but can’t afford the pricey membership?  Well, if you’re an enterprising individual you go anyway, at a steep discount to boot, thanks to a new service that lets you go to expensive gyms on an a la carte, pay as you go program.

As The Next Web puts it, “If you’re broke, you know that gym memberships are a problem. 46-percent of former gym members cite expenses as the number one reason why they stopped using their membership, and almost everyone is too busy to work out every day. If that sounds like you, POPiN could be the solution to your fitness needs.”

Here’s how it works.  Instead, of committing to a pricey monthly membership that would cost say $150 for a month, you would instead pay as you go, paying let’s say $7 for thirty minutes of access.

If you’re the kind of person who works out multiple times a day, this isn’t the plan for you.  You’d go broke in no time at all.  But if you’re someone like me?  Who works out sporadically in short bursts when the inspiration strikes and is likely to want to leave as soon as the grunting begins?  Well, then this plan is perfect for you.

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Is POPiN the Greatest Idea Ever?

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Recently I’ve spent a lot of time reading about the exploits of Charles Darwin in Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From.  The famed naturalist spent the majority of his career studying coral reefs, birds, and myriad other organisms as he formulated his famous theory of an evolution guided by natural selection.  As I read about Darwin’s exploits on the Galapagos Islands and aboard the HMS Beagle, I was bothered by one nagging question: what’s the point of it all?

Even if we accept that life started in a proverbial primordial soup, likely in a volcanic deep sea hydrothermal vent, and then evolved from there to single cell and then multicellular organisms and then from there to land dwelling mammals and eventually homo sapiens, what’s the point?  Explaining how life formed and then spread out is important work.  Equally as important as understanding the Big Bang and the eventual spread of the cosmos.  But, again, I ask, what’s the point?  Why did life start at all, and continue to proliferate, against all odds, when it was such a long shot to do so?

Well, as it turns out there may have been a point after all.  Sort of.  According to a new theory, life isn’t just happenstance.  Isn’t just the casual byproduct of biological processes that have no rhyme or reason.  Luck has nothing to do with it.  Nor does probability.  Rather, life may be the result of plain old, straightforward physics.  A cosmic inevitability thanks to the rules that govern the distribution of energy at an atomic level.  And we may have a modern day Darwin, a physicist by the name of Jeremy England, to thank for this wild new theory with the potential to re-write the history books.

According to Wired:

“[England’s] equations suggested that under certain conditions, groups of atoms will naturally restructure themselves so as to burn more and more energy, facilitating the incessant dispersal of energy and the rise of ‘entropy’ or disorder in the universe. England said this restructuring effect, which he calls dissipation-driven adaptation, fosters the growth of complex structures, including living things. The existence of life is no mystery or lucky break, he told Quanta in 2014, but rather follows from general physical principles and ‘should be as unsurprising as rocks rolling downhill.’”

The article adds that, “The paper strips away the nitty-gritty details of cells and biology and describes a simpler, simulated system of chemicals in which it is nonetheless possible for exceptional structure to spontaneously arise—the phenomenon that England sees as the driving force behind the origin of life.”

In other words, structures, including living things, are inevitable outcomes of sub-atomic processes.  It’s these same processes that lead to the formation of other structures throughout the Universe including solar systems and galaxy clusters.  The organization of information and the drive towards entropy are the two driving forces for the existence of planets, lifeforms, and even the Universe itself.  It’s why the Universe is expanding, racing towards creating a vacuum cool enough for all remaining matter to dissipate.  And it’s why you and I exist in the first place.

Personally, I’m a big fan of this theory as it backs up similar beliefs held by others whose opinions I trust, including those of Wired co-founder Kevin Kelly who wrote about this very same phenomenon in the book What Technology Wants.  As Kelly puts it, information inexorably wants to be distributed in the most efficient way possible.  This is why Moore’s Law continues to hold true year after year and why technology continues to march forward at breakneck speeds.  In a way, technology is just living out it’s own version of manifest destiny, blindly following the same natural laws that England believes are also governing biological systems.

If proven true there are far reaching implications for this new theory as it could mean that life is far more prevalent throughout the cosmos than we currently realize.  We won’t even need the Drake Equation anymore to figure out just how widespread.  We might be able to just safely assume that life is everywhere, a cosmic inevitability, thanks to the natural laws of physics.  Thanks to nature’s propensity to act like a rock rolling downhill.

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Has this man come up with a new theory of evolution?

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Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the Universe and as such it has long been a goal of scientists to create a hydrogen based fuel source.  To date all such efforts have fallen short but a new accidental discovery could be about to change all that.

According to Futurism:

“If you have seen or read The Martian, you may recall the stranded astronaut converting a hydrogen-based fuel into water. Well, we may have just discovered material that easily reverses this process. Researchers at the U.S. Army Aberdeen Proving Ground Research Laboratory were developing a high-strength aluminum alloy when they made a startling discovery. During routine testing of the alloy, water poured over its surface started bubbling and producing hydrogen gas.

This is an unusual reaction — typically, aluminum exposed to water oxidizes, creating a protective barrier to prevent further reactions from occurring. In this case, though, the hydrogen-producing reaction just kept going, signaling the possibility of a portable, affordable source of hydrogen for fuel cells and other energy applications.”

This is an important breakthrough because it could greatly reduce the costs associated with creating a hydrogen based fuel.

“This serendipitous discovery, announced in July, has the potential to reinvigorate the hydrogen fuel industry. Aluminum that could react with water in a sustainable way would be able to produce hydrogen on demand. This would make hydrogen fuel cells much easier to use since there would be no need to pressurize and transport hydrogen gas for use. Instead, simple, stable tanks of water and pieces of aluminum would be all you’d need.”

This is a real game-changer.  After all, we’re talking about having the ability to turn water into fuel.  Just think about the possibilities, not just here on Earth, but for interstellar travel as well as we could planet hop from planet to planet, using the water we find at each locale, to re-fuel our ships.

Hopefully, further testing will bear out the early results and this technology can make its way to market in short order.  And who knows.  Maybe one day, it’ll even give Penicillin a run for its money as the greatest serendipitous discovery of all-time.

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Is this new ability to create hydrogen from water the Greatest Idea Ever?

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Last night I read an inspirational story in The Originals about an entrepreneur who just wouldn’t take no for an answer.  Empowered by the belief that she had a revolutionary idea about wireless power, this entrepreneur refused to quit, even when every expert and scientist that she spoke to said what she hoped to accomplish was theoretically impossible.   Undeterred Meredith Perry decided to stop communicating what it was she was trying to do.  Instead she just hired people to build the tech that she needed in smaller increments, without telling them what it was for.  Eventually, she had created the product that she wanted all along, a way to wirelessly charge devices using ultrasound.   A breakthrough with far-reaching implications.

As Scientific American puts it:

“Sooner or later everything goes wireless. Over the decades we’ve figured out how to eliminate the cables that bring us sound, video, text, phone calls and data. Today there’s only one major cable left to eliminate: the power cord.

Imagine if we could tap into power wirelessly! We’d all quit bellyaching about our phones being dead by dinnertime. Battery life would become a meaningless spec. A new era of gadgets could be thinner, sleeker, lighter and more flexible—because they wouldn’t have to devote such a huge chunk of their volume to batteries.”

And now thanks to Meredith Perry and her startup uBeam we may be on the verge of that new era.  I bring this up to point out the key to making this revolutionary new technology possible: ultrasound.  Because as it turns out, wirelessly charging devices and viewing babies isn’t all it’s good for.  Soon, it may be also be possible to use ultrasound to wake up coma patients.

According to Futurism:

“The treatment, called low-intensity focused ultrasound pulsation, was led by Martin Monti, a UCLA associate professor of psychology and neurosurgery.  As its name suggests, the treatment made use of sonic stimulation to stir up the neurons in the thalamus—the brain’s focal center for processing information. This was done because, as previous assertions likely made clear, doctors hoped that this would help “jump-start” his brain back to functionality. And notably, according to the UCLA Newsroom’s release, the patient has regained full consciousness and full language comprehension just after three days.”

Between uBeam and this coma treatment it’s clear that ultrasound is going to play a big part in our future.  The question now becomes, just how big of a part? What else can ultrasound be used for?!?

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Is uBeam the Greatest Idea Ever?

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#1,141 – Triton

Scientists are constantly on the lookout for new renewable energy sources in the face of climate change and skyrocketing population growth.  Fortunately, they may have just found a real doozy: Triton, a new device capable of capturing energy from the ocean’s waves.  This wouldn’t be the first time that we’ve tried to use wave power to generate energy but it may be the best effort yet.  In fact, the device is so effective that it may be able to power a third of the U.S. all on its own.

So what exactly is Triton?

According to Futurism:

“It’s a new device invented by Oscilla Power that harnesses the kinetic power of the ocean’s waves. Since there’s a lot of waves out there (approximately 1.4 billion cubic kilometres, or 332 million cubic miles, of ocean water), there’s a lot of energy that can be obtained.

The device itself has no motors or running parts, which is great news in the case of a really rough wave. There’s only a series of generators and a heave plate that work together, and it all stays afloat and steady through underwater cables.

The science behind it is quite simple. ‘As waves interact with the device, there is an alternating magnetic polarity created in the metal that is used to generate electricity,’ asserts Meagan Parrish from ChemInfo.’”

If Triton continues to prove its effectiveness it could eventually make other complimentary energy sources such as wind power obsolete.  Ultimately though, we’re still going to need even more power than Triton can provide which makes the promise of cold fusion so tantalizing.  But for now Triton is a great start towards trying to solve our looming energy crisis.  Hopefully we’ll continue to make similar progress on other fronts.

Image result for triton waveIs Triton the Greatest Idea Ever?

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