Giving Health a Hand

Giving Health a Hand

giving health a hand

Between the holidays bringing people closer together and cold weather forcing them together, often in enclosed spaces, now is the time that illness-causing bacteria and viruses start jumping from host to host, having the time of their short, hedonistic lives.
One of the best ways of minimizing their rampage, and the chances of getting sick, is by keeping our hands clean. Thanks to our hygiene-obsessed culture, we have at our disposal a whole arsenal of anti-germ tactics, from fancy hand sanitizers to good old soap and water. But how do they stack up against each other? Microbiologist Michelle Sconce Massequoi has some opinions about it — and also about handwashing technique, which is often the weakest link in the illness prevention chain.
The first main strategy is to reduce the number of bad bacteria or viruses on our hands:
“Studies have shown that effectively washing with soap and water significantly reduces the bacterial load of diarrhea-causing bacteria.

The second strategy is to kill the bacteria. We do this by using products with an antibacterial agent such as alcohols, chlorine, peroxides, chlorhexidine or triclosan.

[…]However, there’s a problem. Some bacterial cells on our hands may have genes that enable them to be resistant to a given antibacterial agent. This means that after the antibacterial agent kills some bacteria, the resistant strains remaining on the hands can flourish.”
While there does appear to be some extra benefit to having anti-bacterial properties in the soap, regular soap and elbow grease goes a long way towards knocking out hand-based bacteria, as well as avoiding the development of more dastardly superbugs. Sudsing up all the surfaces of your hands (including wrists, if needed!) for between 15 and 30 seconds — “about the time to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ twice,” says Sconce Massequoi — is key. (A recent NIH study of a college town population’s hand hygiene habits returned the sobering average scrub length as six seconds.  While the refined focus of the study didn’t include a look at subsequent illness rates, I think we can all agree that that comparative light rinse sounds gross.)
Dear reader, as you gather your family around you this winter, or press an elevator button, or muscle your way through a subway trip beside some dude who unrepentantly sneezes on you four times, I wish you all good luck in keeping colds and viruses at bay. It’s heartening to remember that we are not powerless against them — our best tools to stay healthy are literally in our hands!

The Paradox of Power: Between Bahaviour and the Brain

show of power

We at DFC are about to take a strategic news holiday, having overdosed a little on politics updates from our southern neighbour. There’s a lot of atypical decision making going on down there — and most of these choices are united by the same underlying lack of empathy.

To risk a sweeping generalization, it seems to be easy for folks in power to leverage troublesome policies on people who are, well, not them. It’s likely you’ve even seen this change on a personal or business level, where a colleague or friend gets promoted, and gradually loses the ability to see things from the perspectives of others.

The Atlantic has a fascinating recent breakdown of behavioural and neurocognitive research into the phenomenon. It outlines how a study out of Berkeley coined the term “power paradox” to describe it. And how, most recently, a team from McMaster University has looked to brain imaging for answers: Scans showed that, in the brains of people who felt powerful, “mirroring” (the lighting up of sympathetic areas of the brain when we witness another person take an action) is physically impaired.

“Was the mirroring response broken? More like anesthetized. None of the participants possessed permanent power. They were college students who had been “primed” to feel potent by recounting an experience in which they had been in charge. The anestheticwould presumably wear off when the feeling did — their brains weren’t structurally damaged after an afternoon in the lab. But if the effect had been long-lasting — say, by dint of having Wall Street analysts whispering their greatness quarter after quarter, board members offering them extra helpings of pay, and Forbes praising them for “doing well while doing good” — they may have what in medicine is known as “functional” changes to the brain.”

All is not lost, though, with either colleagues or politicians — the effect of the power paradox can be reduced! The trick is, the affected individual has to cease actually feelingpowerful. This can happen consciously, if a CEO reminds themselves of how they felt a time when they weren’t in authority. And (I’m sure) it can also happen involuntarily, when, say, a voting population decides to remind a politician who works for whom…

Internet in Detroit: A Community Coming Together

Detroit map

As a Canadian from Michigan, I’ve always kept a soft spot in my heart for my childhood “big city”, Detroit, the former automotive crown jewel of the Midwest — that has been having a really rough go of it over the past several decades. The disappearance of major industry and cultural forces was terrifying at the beginning. But now, the city is in the midst of a well-established renaissance, with an extraordinary flourishing of grassroots communities — of artists, farmers, activists, and more! These groups seek improvement of everyday life in the Motor City, and do it by playing to their unique strengths and niches.
The Equitable Internet Initiative is one such group, which is striving to bring connectivity to ’Net deserts in Detroit. I was staggered to hear the stats that spurred this group: an enormous 40% percent of Detroit residents are completely without Internet access! While cost is a factor, the central problem is a lack of physical infrastructure — the city is still considered too economically depressed by many of the big companies to warrant expansion of their networks there. This means that almost half of the population can’t connect with information, opportunities, businesses, and communities, via the method that comes most naturally to us in our modern world.
So the Initiative went out into these under-connected areas, spread the news, and helped create community networks for citizens who need the Internet the most. In addition to establishing physical cables and fibre, the program also supports training in network installation, maintenance, and teaching of digital skills.
“‘We want to make sure that we’re not just installing all the equipment, but also educating the community,’ said Rita Ramirez, one of the stewards working on the project in Detroit’s Southwest neighborhood.

One component the groups are most eager to build out is the intranet that will result from connecting so many homes (about 50 in each neighborhood) to a shared wireless connection. They are encouraging local residents to take advantage of that intranet and build shared tools like a forum and emergency communication network that is completely localized and secure.”
As immersed in the computer industry as I am, I often advocate that more Internet is a good thing as a matter of course. But when I think about it in the Detroit context, the Internet transforms from a simply good thing into a necessity. I’m fascinated to see how the Equitable Internet Initiative will have fared when this main project completes next month. And I’m really looking forward to what widespread Internet access helps make happen for the citizens of Detroit!

“Smashie Smash!”: Goldfish Hulks Out in Art Piece about Ecological Balance

Smashy the goldfish

As the calendar clicks over to December, the less prepared among us (Exhibit A: me) are just getting an inkling that maybe they should start shopping for the gift-giving portion of their winter  festival of choice. Happily, you and I now have it covered! — Thanks to a hilarious artwork called “Fish Hammer,” originated by UK artist Neil Mendoza, as a cheeky commentary on human-fish relations.
As an Autodesk Artist in Residence at San Francisco’s Pier 9, Mendoza used the design and fabrication software to build an apparatus for a goldfish he named “Smashie.”  Smashie lives in a cylindrical tank, and is tracked by a motion-detecting camera. The camera maps the direction of Smashie’s aimless swimming onto a hammer mounted on an aluminium track in front of the tank. The hammer pivots as Smashie moves, while a cam randomly drops the head of the hammer on a doll-house-sized human habitat arranged underneath it. (See video of the art in action here)
The artwork represents a union of technology and nature but also exists as a tiny, Twilight-Zone-like alternate universe where fish are empowered to destroy human habitats the way that we do theirs. Mendoza’s body of work generally treads this fascinating line between funny and scary, or the familiar and uncanny — like his “Electric Knife Orchestra” or “Rock Band”.
Neatest of all, Mendoza has released the building instructions for “Fish Hammer” for public use! The process does require some specialized equipment, like Autodesk Inventor, and oh, whichever old waterjet cutter you’ve got kicking around, but it’s still within the realm of possibility. So, my gift list is done: Laminated Instructables, and Home Depot and Big Al’s Aquarium gift certificates for all. Have fun!

Talking Trees Project Bringing Sustainability into the Future

(David Craig is a local innovator whom I met at an event a couple weeks ago, and he wowed me when we chatted about his newest project. I know I can’t stop singing the praises of DFC’s neighbourhood, but the news David related to me means my community is about to get even more exciting!)
Builder David Craig’s Talking Trees Earthship build is unfolding as part of North Frontenac’s “One Small Town” project — The first Canadian iteration of a utopian community planning initiative
While the town will — according to plans — feature a wellness centre, a wood shop specializing in canoes, and an apiary, The Talking Trees project will take care of the homes: each one built to the Earthship design.
The Earthship concept was invented in the 1970s by Michael Reynolds, an American architect who sought to create a home concept that would use indigenous or recycled materials, rely on passive solar energy or other naturally occurring energy sources, and adhere to principles of sustainable architecture.
Craig has modified the overall shape of the Earthship design, but retained key functional components, like a south-facing bank of windows to grow greenhouse plants for food and processing greywater, and a back wall made of rammed earth and recycled car tires, that acts as “thermal mass” to regulate internal temperature, no matter the conditions outside. Proponents tout Earthships as being so self-sufficient they are nearly “off the grid.” Which could be great for some homeowners!
“[Craig] said the owner of the home plays a big part in the design in terms of how many solar panels are used, size of the greenhouse and accoutrements as well as actual construction if desired but $150 per square foot is ‘middle ground’ building cost for these homes.
The actual plan for One Small Town is very much still in the planning stages but for Craig location, and/or construction of the other components (medical centre, electrical generating plant, aquaculture facility, apiary and wood products) is a non-issue. He’s ready to start building houses as soon as the land is secured and subdivided.” 
I love how, with this project, local people are coming together to realize an innovative, almost pie-in-the-sky dream, and using technology to bring our community back into sync with the land. We’ll see how funding and permit-acquiring go, and check back in with Talking Trees by the time they break ground in 2018!

Medicine and the Blockchain?: An Innovative Approach to HIV Treatment


Last month, American biohacker Tristan Roberts participated in a unique collaboration with Ascendance Biomedical on a new treatment for HIV. The collaboration was unprecedented not just in its approach, but its execution: Roberts voluntarily injected himself with Ascendance-provided components of a new gene therapy, over livestream. Roberts and the corporation hoped to find an ethical way to circumvent an extended testing and approval process that they both see as a roadblock to fast and cheap HIV and AIDS interventions.
This action has opened up a debate about the necessity of that approval process, and the future use of the blockchain for medical purposes. And, Roberts’ one-month results (which in true biohacker spirit he has transparently shared with the public) have just come in — which add a whole new dimension.
Roberts’ therapy involves plasmids, which are circular pieces of DNA that can self-replicate. In 2016, National Institute of Health scientists (unaffiliated with the Ascendance experiment) isolated from an HIV positive patient and antibody called N6, which proceeded to knock out a startling 98% of known HIV strains. The ultimate aim of the discoverers is to replicate enough N6 to transfer it into HIV positive patients, which will modify their own cells to start producing it, and will functionally cure them of HIV. (That is, to drop their viral load into undetectability) But this process is slow and expensive.
So Ascendance Biomedical and volunteer Roberts united to test both the therapy, and a new way to access it — through the blockchain. Says Ascendance Biomedical CEO Aaron Traywick:
“‘We’re basically working with a model that’s a replication of the FDA’s Compassionate Access Program. […]’

‘We make all our technology and all our treatments available to anyone who buys our Ethereum coins,’ Traywick explained. The purchase of a coin enters the buyer into a contract relationship with the company. Traywick says this means Ascendance ‘will provide to you at the cost of production and materials, the treatment for research purposes only and not for human consumption.’”
And this is the problem, according to medical ethicists. The standard approval and testing procedure, which Roberts, Ascendance Biomedical, and others who think like them see as an impediment, is a time-tested way of “lower[ing] the chances that people will be directly harmed by their ‘treatments,’ will end up wasting their time and energy on useful ‘cures,’ or [avoiding] helpful treatments while chasing a pie in the sky panacea.” 
But Roberts, in particular, is hoping his results will someday speak for themselves. So far, they haven’t quite: at the one-month mark (Nov. 15), Roberts’ viral load has increased. However, his count of CD4 cells (healthy immune cells whose destruction is a clear marker of unchecked HIV infection) has also risen. Roberts himself thinks it’s still to early to tell whether his results mean the therapy is working, but pledges to keep getting tested, and if his viral load continues edging upward, to attempt another dose of N6 by the end of the year. It seems that in both the medical and ethical aspects of this case, only time will show how things will shake out.

New Bird Behaviour Points Out Global Warming

baby birds

I’m grateful that DFC’s office is one where it’s easy to strike a work-life balance. I manage to indulge in one of my favourite hobbies — birdwatching — simply by looking out the office window!
It was after returning from one of these coffee break birding sessions that I came across some startling news from New Scientist. Researchers are concerned that singing behaviour by the females of some northern bird species (which is unusual — females are typically silent) is a change caused by global warming. Here I was, thinking that I had been observing something charming, rather than the fallout of a sinister planetary trend.
Scientists out of Ohio Wesleyan University looked to North America’s dark-eyed juncos  (which are officially migratory, but spend a lot of time in our neighbourhood in Southern Ontario) and set up an experiment within a wild population in San Diego, CA. They placed a caged female into their established territory to see if the dreamstime_xxl_86180182females could be prodded into their atypical singing behaviour.
“In all, 17 females, along with 25 males, interacted with the caged females. Half the females dived and lunged at them, and a minority also performed aggressive tail-spreads not normally seen in females. Three of the females sang songs similar to those of males.

“The context in which the songs were observed – responding to a female intruder – suggests these songs have an aggressive, territorial function,” says [Dustin] Reichard [of Wesleyan’s Department of Zoology]. “But we can’t say whether female song is specific to female intruders without also measuring their response to male intruders.”
In addition to racking up “some of the first evidence that female song can be rapidly regained in a songbird species,” the scientists are extrapolating this territorial behaviour as a response to climate change. The junco community in the study stopped migrating 35 years ago, resulting in this defensive behaviour in females. As North America warms, the need to migrate to avoid inhospitable weather will further reduce, leading to bigger pockets of permanent junco populations. And females there will also be pressured to sing in order to hold onto their mates and their territory.
All this is very stressful to contemplate as I gaze out at the fall landscape around our office. I hope out biosphere is able to roll with the punches of climate change. Only time will tell – but I have a new thing to think about as I (attempt to!) decompress at the office.

Faceless Future of Robot Cats to Colonize Couch Cushion Near You

bias towards cat behaviour

As a dog owner, I know firsthand how wonderful it is to have a furry friend (or two) in your life. Dogs and cats have been living with and alongside humans for centuries — but sometimes, due to living space constraints or mobility issues, keeping a live pet is not an option. And, in finding tech workarounds, sometimes you end up with something really… weird.
Take Qoobo, a fuzzy “therapy robot” created by Yukai Engineering in Japan, and set to hit the market in 2018. Billed as “a tailed cushion that heals your heart,” it’s basically a tubby disc with a cat-like tail appendage that swipes back and forth when sensors detect a human petting it. Or, as Jezebel puts it, “an animatronic coonskin cap.”. Check out a video of it in action here.
Compared to other therapy robot animals on the market, like Hasbro’s Joy for All companion pets (a line of three, startlingly accurate cat robots), Qoobo is very minimalist. And for anyone who has a living animal in their life, it the whole thing is a bit strange and soulless.
However, for people without the space to keep or the resources to feed and clean up after a living animal, a robo-kitty could be a mental health godsend. The benefits of animal company to humans are well documented. There are many programs that bring living pups into senior care centres, among other places. And, when a person living with dementia needs a soothing animal friend at 3 a.m., having a robot in the facility is more convenient — and helps just as well — as the real thing.
While there is a time and place for robot pets, I’ll have to leave them for the time being to folks better suited to the lifestyle. I definitely have my hands full with my living fur balls!

Death and Tech Meet in Spooky Smiths Falls

‘Tis the season for the creepy, kooky, mysterious, and spooky — it’s Hallowe’en! Back in civilization, I used to love handing candy out to the neighbourhood kids; I think this year we’re going to have to be satisfied with dressing up the dogs.

But underneath the costumes and the sugar rushes, Hallowe’en has another purpose: it lets us confront scary and uncanny things in a healthy and fun way. In line with this theme was our look at the controversy around “space” burial. I’ve kept looking into the macabre nexus of death and tech, and, in the spirit of Hallowe’en, offer a look into a fascinating innovation just around the corner in Smiths Falls, ON.
A funeral company there is offering “green cremations” in the form of alkaline hydrolysis: instead of burning human remains, AquaGreen Dispositions dissolves them in a mix of potassium hydroxide and water, and then drains the result into the municipal wastewater system. For [60% water] thou art, and unto [water] shalt thou return
“The computerized Aquagreen Dispositions system takes less than two hours to dissolve most organic material.

Once the cycle is complete, the caustic fluid from the pressure vessel passes through two filters and on into the municipal sewer system, leaving only the skeleton behind.

Those bones, soft and wet from the alkaline hydrolysis process, are then dried in a convection oven, pressed into a fine white powder and finally returned to the loved one’s family to be scattered.”
Unlike standard burial, which leaches embalming chemicals into the earth; or traditional cremation, which involves burning of natural gas or propane, and releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere alkaline hydrolysis purports to be “entirely green.” This is great news for consumers — and also the folks in the town’s wastewater treatment, who have been keeping an eye on the flow from AquaGreen’s facility and have given it a thorough thumbs-up for safety!
So this Hallowe’en, while I’m at home eating tiny chocolate bars and unsuccessfully trying to attach a Superman cape to Samson, I’ll be sparing a thought for the travellers to the undiscovered country, who are taking an unusual route via Smiths Falls.

Young Eyes Offer Fresh Perspective on Harmful Lead

testing lead in drinking water

This amazing story hits the sweet spot for me as both a now-grown kid science nerd and transplanted Michigander — I just had to share! 11-year-old Gitanjali Rao has been named the grand prize winner ($25,000!) of the 3M Young Scientist Challenge, for Tethys, a device she created that can quickly pick up on lead levels in water. She was inspired to do so by the contamination that has been plaguing the city of Flint, MI, and by an article on new technologies that she spotted on MIT’s website.

Tethys was devised as a low-cost, personal lead-testing device that uses carbon nanotube sensors. Connected to a user’s smartphone, it then shows the results of tested water within a proprietary app – faster than any other lead sensor on the market today.

The process this whiz-kid and the other finalists went through sounds fascinating. From 3M’s press release:

“During the past three months, Gitanjali and the other finalists had the exclusive opportunity to work directly with a 3M scientist to develop their innovations as part of a unique summer mentorship program. Gitanjali was paired with Dr. Kathleen Shafer, a 3M research specialist who develops new plastics technologies that have real-world applications in dentistry and other fields.
Each of the students collaborated with some of 3M’s leading scientists, who provided guidance as they worked through the scientific method to advance their ideas from a theoretical concept into a physical prototype. Together, the 3M mentors and finalists shared their passion for science, reviewed the scientific process and worked virtually through pre-assigned objectives[.]”

Rao hopes that her invention will help people like those in Flint take charge of their own lead exposure in a simple way. With bureaucracy at the centre of the Flint water crisis, grassroots action may prove the best way around it.