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The Wonderful World of What’s Living on your Bath Towel

The Wonderful World of What’s Living on your Bath Towel

bath towel

With certain personal items, it’s quite obvious when it’s appropriate to swap them out and wash them. Socks? Every day, of course! Bed sheets? Weekly, you spend like 60 hours total in them, for Pete’s sake. Bath towel? Well, considering you’re squeaky clean (in theory) when you dry yourself off post-shower, you’re… probably good for a while, right?
 
Wrong, says NYU School of Medicine microbiologist Philip Tierno. As clean as you think your shower gets you, your bath towel is covered in bodily secretions, fungal spores, bits of dead skin — plus any other free floating oogies that are present in your bathroom. (Six-foot toilet plume, anyone?) Also, your towel is damp and warm: perfect conditions for trouble.
 
“Your cellular debris and other deposits from the air serve as food for the microbes, and the moisture supplies water at a neutral pH. […]

[If] you share your towel with others, you could potentially come into contact with organisms that your body isn’t used to dealing with – such as Staphylococcus aureus, Tierno said, ‘which may give rise to a boil, or a pimple, or an infection.’”
 
According to expert Tierno, the maximum number of times you should use your bath towel before washing it is three — and that’s only if you manage to completely dry it out between uses… Yeugh.
 
This fascinating tale makes me glad we live in a time when we can know what’s crawling around on us and on our bath towels, for the sake of both interest and cleanliness! Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to throw everything I own into the washing machine. See you next week!

What do Blimps and the Great Pyramid Have in Common?

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Back in November, muon tomography of the Great Pyramid at Giza revealed a previously undiscovered large void, deep within the last standing Wonder of the Ancient World. Naturally scientists are super enthused about exploring this new mystery — but how to do so in a way that won’t break through doors or walls, compromising the state in which the mystery was left? Besides the loss of scientific clues due to damage, explorers could also cause a collapse of part of the structure, or might bring down an ancient curse. (Kidding about that last one!)
 
To get around these challenges, French research institutes Inria and CNRS are working on a brand new kind of remote robot, an autonomous blimp. They hope the robot will open up the Great Pyramid void to science, while leaving it as sealed as possible in practical terms.
 
The deployment procedure would involve drilling an approximately 3.5cm hole into the outer wall of the chamber, and sliding the cylindrical robot inside, nestled into its rod-like dock. Once in the chamber, the robot would unfold and inflate its 80cm helium envelope and take off into the void. Equipped with 50g worth of sensors, lights, and motors, the blimp would investigate the secrets of the space, before returning to the dock, folding back up, and being withdrawn through the hole. (Check out the design video here)
 
The robot is designed but not yet prototyped — one of the puzzles the creators are still working through is how exactly the robot will fold up its deflated envelope again. But the rest of the concept is well hashed out, and represents a great improvement over other, traditional methods of exploration:
 
“[T]here are quite a few good reasons why it would be better than other types of ground robots with wheels, tracks, or legs, or drones with rotors. A blimp doesn’t have to worry about stairs, rocks, ramps (or traps). You get a much better perspective from a blimp, and you can also cover more area more quickly. Blimps can also harmlessly bounce off of obstacles and are less likely to crash than a conventional rotorcraft, and you have to figure that a blimp crash (if it does occur) would be much more pillowy in nature.”
 
I cannot wait to see how cutting edge tech unveils more of the mysteries of the human past, in a way that is as respectful as possible of the mystery itself! I’m sure chances of finding something as immediately gratifying as, say, treasure, are not high. But there is huge value in any information the blimp might uncover — and besides, if there’s no treasure, there’s no Boris Karloff look-alike to hassle you over it!

The Hidden Talents of Jellyfish

a jellyfish

On this New Year’s Day, I’m excited to tackle the challenges the future will bring! But this exhilaration is tempered a bit by the realization that the holiday-mandated relaxation period will soon be over. During these holidays, I’ve been unwinding by watching nature documentaries — particularly BBC selections narrated by the incomparable Sir David Attenborough.
 
I’m fascinated most by episodes about the oceans, and I particularly love hearing about my favourite sea creatures, jellyfish! We solid bipeds might only think of them as either goopy blobs on beaches, or venomous menaces that ruin your swim first by causing stinging pain, then by obliging someone to urinate on you. (The efficacy of that strategy is a myth, by the way!) The Conversation has a breakdown of some of the coolest jellyfish facts that you can bust out around the water cooler when you return to work — including, my personal fave, the fact that some species of jellyfish are effectively immortal.
 
“Many jellies have evolved unique abilities, some of which seem almost supernatural. […] The pièce de résistance is surely their second chance at youth. When conditions are unfavourable, certain species including compass, barrel, and moon jellyfish can reverse their development and effectively turn back into jelly-children in order to wait out the hard times.”
 
This youth-cycling happens on a cellular level, and is actually right up there with stem cells as a possible solution to the human aging process. Hopefully, this remains a fun fact for you, rather than a fervently wished for dream resulting from overindulgence last night! Happy New Year, and here’s to a 2018 filled with natural marvels and technological breakthroughs.

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

talking trees earthship logo

(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

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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.