Friday, November 28, 2014

The Next Intrusive Wave of Computing Comes in a Pill

Hugh D'Andrade's design to commemorate Electro...
Hugh D'Andrade's design to commemorate Electronic Frontier Foundation's 20th Birthday. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

SAN FRANCISCO – They look like normal pills, oblong and a little smaller than a daily vitamin. And as society struggles with the privacy implications of Google Glass, they may represent the next, even more intrusive wave of computing: ingestible computers and sensors stuffed inside pills.

Some people are already swallowing them to monitor a range of health data and wirelessly share it with a doctor.

Inside the pills are tiny sensors and transmitters. Swallowed, the devices make their way to the stomach and stay intact as they travel through the intestinal tract.

“You will – voluntarily, I might add – take a pill, which you think of as a pill but is in fact a microscopic robot, which will monitor your systems,” Eric E. Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google, said last fall. “If it makes the difference between health and death, you’re going to want this thing.”

One pill, made by Proteus Digital Health, uses the body as its power source. Just as a potato can power a light bulb, Proteus has added magnesium and copper on each side of its tiny sensor, which generates just enough electricity from stomach acids. As a Proteus pill hits the bottom of the stomach, it sends information to a cellphone app through a patch worn on the body. It can track medication-taking behaviors and monitor how a patient’s body responds to medicine.

Executives at the company, which recently raised $62.5 million from investors, say they believe that the pills will help patients with physical and neurological problems. People with heart failure-related difficulties could monitor blood flow; those with central nervous system issues, including schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s disease, could take the pills to monitor vital signs. The United States Food and Drug Administration approved the Proteus pill last year.

A pill made by HQ Inc. has a built-in battery and wirelessly transmits body temperature. Lee Carbonelli, HQ’s marketing director, said the company hoped to soon have a consumer version with a smartphone app.

Future generations of pills could be used for convenience.

At a conference in May, Regina Dugan of Motorola Mobility showed an example, along with wearable radio frequency identification tattoos that attach to the skin like a sticker.

Once that pill is in your body, “your entire body becomes your authentication token,” Ms. Dugan said. Sit in the car and it will start. Touch the handle to your home door and it will unlock.

But ingestible computing’s privacy implications are daunting.

“This is yet another one of these technologies where there are wonderful options and terrible options, simultaneously,” said John Perry Barlow of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy advocacy group. “The wonderful is that there are a great number of things you want to know about yourself on a continual basis, especially if you’re diabetic or suffer from another disease. The terrible is that health insurance companies could know about the inner workings of your body.”

There is one last question for this little pill. After it has done its job, what happens next?

“It passes naturally through the body in about 24 hours,” Ms.Carbonelli said, but since each pill costs $46, “some people choose to recover and recycle it.”

Taken from TODAY Saturday Edition, July 6, 2013

Natural brain cell regeneration?

Monday, November 17, 2014

Not Enough Work, Too Much Positivity

English: Worker assembling rebar for water tre...
English: Worker assembling rebar for water treatment plant in Mazatlan, Sinaloa, Mexico. Česky: Dělník pracuje na výstavbě čističky vody ve městě Mazatlán, v mexickém státě Sinaloa Français : Ouvrier assemblant l'armature d'une centrale de traitement des eaux. Photo prise à Mazatlán, dans l'état de Sinaloa (Mexique). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Is there a way to easily find the right balance? How to we strike the middle ground, and not be underloaded, nor overloaded?


The dangers of stress are well-documented – sleep loss, anxiety, depression, stomach problems, obesity, headaches. We have long been warned that stress could be killing us. But some of us may be at risk of the opposite: being bored to death.

Recent research shows that being underworked can be as unhealthy as being overworked, Alina Tugend reported in The Times.” In essence, boredom is stressful,” she wrote.

“We tend to think of stress in the original engineering way, that too much weight on a bridge causes it to collapse,” Paul E. Spector, a professor of psychology at the University of South Florida, told the Times. “It’s more complicated.”

Professor Spector and other researchers say too little work (called underload), can cause problems associated with stress: muscles tension, stomachaches and headaches.

A study published this year in the journal Experimental Brain Research found that subjects watching a boring movie – men hanging laundry – showed greater signs of stress than those watching a sad movie.

James Danckert, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, and a co-author of that paper, said boredom is not so much laziness as the profound inability to engage with the environment. “It’s aggressively dissatisfying,” he told The Times.

Professor Spector and his colleagues say that the stress of boredom at work can lead to calling in sick, taking long breaks, spending time on the Internet, gossiping about colleagues, playing practical jokes or even stealing. Most workers engage in those activities, but those who are bored do it more often.

So the trick is to manage stress, and it seems that women are better at that than men, at least in some situations.

“Neuroscientists have uncovered evidence suggesting that, when the pressure is on, women bring unique strengths to decision making.” Therese Huston, a cognitive psychologist at Seattle University, wrote in The Times.

Researchers set up a variety of situation in which subjects were forced to gamble, and came up with similar findings: Men took more risks when stressed, trying to score big wins, even when they were costly and less likely.

Ruud van den Bos, a neurobiologist at Radboud University in the Netherlands, and his colleagues discovered that risk-taking under pressure is stronger in men who experience a larger spike in cortisol, a hormone associated with stress, Professor Huston reported. But a slight increase in cortisol seemed to help women with decision-making.

In a 2007 study in which men and women were both exposed to a stressful event, Stephanie Preston, a
 Cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Michigan, found that women tended to look for smaller, surer wins as time grew shorter. For men, their decision-making became more questionable as the deadline approached, and they were less aware that they had pursued a risky strategy.

Too much positive thinking can be risky strategy as well, at least according to Gabriele Oettingen, professor of psychology at New York University and the University of Hamburg.

Professor Oettingen and her colleagues have performed numerous studies showing that people who fantasized about happy results were less likely to realize their dreams. Dreaming about the future helps people calm down and reduces systolic blood pressure – in essence, lowering stress levels – but means they have less energy to achieve their goals.

“Positive thinking fools our minds into perceiving that we’ve already attained our goal,” she cautioned, “slackening our readiness to pursue it.”

Taken from TODAY Saturday Edition, November 1, 2014

Saturday, November 15, 2014

The Right Pose Influences More Than the Eye Sees

Judgment Day: My Years with Ayn Rand
Judgment Day: My Years with Ayn Rand (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
At Last (Lynda Carter album)
At Last (Lynda Carter album) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Watch celebrities on the red carpet, or models on a runaway, and you’ll undoubtedly see the classic stop-for-the-flashing-cameras stance: chest open, legs apart, head level, usually with a hand on the hip.

It turns out that this pose not only best shows off what they are wearing, but it also might send reassuring signals to their brains that they are capable and competent.

Social-science research over the last three years indicates such expansive postures release a flood of hormones that makes a person feel more positive and at ease, even if they were full of self-doubt beforehand.

The idea that posture is indicative of mental state is not new. Philosophers from Descartes to Ayn Rand wrote about the interplay between psychological and physical bearing. But the latest research suggests posture may precipitate, rather than just reflect, emotions.

Or, the studies found that how people carry themselves can actually change their mood, which greatly affects how they approach situations and solve problems, as well as how attractive they appear to others.

“Poses are powerful,” said Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist and an associate professor at Harvard Business School. With colleagues, she has, through a series of controlled experiments, shown that assuming an expansive pose (think Wonder Woman with legs planted apart and hands on her hips) for two minutes will increase testosterone and lower cortisol in the bloodstream.

Fighting premature aging?

Her research builds on other studies published since 2010. One showed recovering alcoholics were less likely to relapse if they had an expansive versus a slouched posture. Another showed that subjects made to assume erect, open postures were more likely to take the initiative or risks in tasks compared with others who were forced into closed and constricted postures. An expansive stance was also shown to increase pain tolerance.

So how long do the effects of a power pose last? Researchers say that the hormonal changes persist for at least 15 to 20 minutes. But Dana Carney, a social psychologist who studies power dynamics and posture at the University of California, Berkeley, said, “It could start a physiological cascade that lasts all day.”

This is a good thing, because there are situations where the pose is not welcome. “Like a job interview where puffing your chest wouldn’t be appropriate, you can stretch expansively beforehand – on the train, in the elevator, in the waiting room,” Dr. Carney said.

To look and perform your best, academic and image experts recommend a two-minute power pose before any stressful situation. During the event, keep an expansive posture with your chest open, but not puffed, and keep your head level or slightly raised. Don’t slouch or otherwise fold into yourself or make yourself smaller. Avoid touching your neck, crossing your arms over your chest or grasping the elbow of your opposite arm hanging at your side.

“It’s about becoming so comfortable and feeling you have so much control over how you present yourself that you become more your authentic self,” said Dr. Cuddy. “It’s about quieting all those voices that say ‘I don’t belong.’”

Taken from TODAY Saturday Edition, July 6, 2013

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Anonymity Proves Elusive as DNA Analysis Gains Precision and Speed

Animation of the structure of a section of DNA...
Animation of the structure of a section of DNA. The bases lie horizontally between the two spiraling strands. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Not so long ago, people who provided DNA for research were told their privacy was assured. Their DNA sequences were on available Web site, yes, but they did not include names or other identifiers. These were research databases, scientists said, not like the forensic ones kept by the F.B.I.

But lately geneticists have been given hints that subjects in fact could sometimes be identified by their DNA alone. In January, a researcher at the Whitehead Institute, which is affiliated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, managed to track down five people selected at random from a database using only their DNA, ages and the states in which they lived. And he did it in just hours. He also found relatives – a total of close to 50 people.

This month an international group of nearly 80 researchers, patient advocates, universities and organizations like the National Institutes of Health in the United States announced that it wants to consolidate the world’s databases of DNA and other genetic information, making data easier for researchers to retrieve and share. But the security and privacy of the study subjects are paramount concerns, said Dr. David Altshuler of the Broad Institute of Harvard University and M.I.T., a leader of the group.

“The problems are not yet solved in any general way,” Dr. Altshuler said.

In 2008, David W. Craig, a geneticist at TGen, a research institute in Phoenix, Arizona, theoretically proved that a particular person’s DNA could be found amid a mass of other samples. His method involved using combinations of hundreds of thousands of DNA markers.

The N.I.H. quickly responded, moving all genetic data from the studies it financed behind Internet firewalls.

But another sort of genetic data – so-called RNA expression profiles that show patterns of gene activity – was still public. Such data could not be used to identify people, or so it was thought.

Then Eric E. Schadt of Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York Discovered that RNA expression data could be used not only to identify someone but also to learn a great deal about that person. “We can create a profile that reflects your weight, whether you are diabetic, how old you are,” Dr.Schadt said.
He and a colleague also were also were able to tell if a person is infected with viruses, like HPV or H.I.V. that change the activity of genes.

Then, this year, Yaniv Erlich, a genetics researcher at the White head Institute, used a new computational tool he had invented to identify by name five people from their DNA, which he had randomly selected from a research database containing the genes of 1,000 people.

Experts were startled. “We are in what I call an awareness moment,” said Eric D. Green of the National Genome Research Institute at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.

Research subjects who share their DNA may risk a loss of not just their own privacy but also that of their children and grandchildren, who will inherit many of the same genes, said Mark B. Gerstein, a Yale University professor who studies large genetic databases.

George Church, a Harvard geneticist, said there appears to be no technical solution to the issue of DNA privacy.” If you believe you can just encrypt terabytes of data or anonymize them, there will always be people who hack through that,” Dr. Church said.

People who provide genetic information, he said, should simply be informed that a loss of privacy is likely, rather than unlikely.

Taken from TODAY Saturday Edition, June 29, 2013