Science and Technology Guests on Late Night, Week of September 1

It’s Labor Day in the United States, so most shows are on repeats.  With this week’s repeats, there’s a double dose of Michael Sheen.  Sheen currently plays sex researcher William Masters on the Showtime drama Masters of Sex.  His recent appearances on Conan and The Colbert Report are both on this evening (Monday).  Depending on your time zone and cable operator, the shows do overlap, though Sheen’s interview segments may not.

The science and technology guest of note this week is on The Colbert Report Wednesday night.  Randall Munroe, writer and artist behind the xkcd webcomic, will be there to promote his latest book, What If?  This work is a collection of illustrated explanations of the ‘absurd hypotheticals’ mentioned in the books subtitle.  For instance, could a person walk the entire city of New York in his or her lifetime?  The book includes material not on the website, and is available through your typical purveyors starting tomorrow, September 2.

One of the games on @midnight last week was claimed to be inspired by the anniversary of Scientific American (the specific anniversary year – 169, was not mentioned on air).  The game is #HashtagWars, which is a Twitter game based on a theme.  The theme was #RuinAMagazine, and winners will be recognized tomorrow, with the top entry named on the show.  Video is online, but it is certainly NSFW.  If you don’t believe me, read the URL.

LA Theatre Works Helps Bring The Science Play To You

L.A. Theatre Works makes a large number of their works available via audio.  Its Relativity series (H/T Scirens) is a collection of (at this writing) 25 plays with science and technology either as themes and/or as forces driving the action of the play.  You’re certainly familiar with War of the Worlds, and you may have heard of the plays Arcadia and Copenhagen.  The science covered in these plays is from a number of different fields, and some works will try to engage the audience on the social implications of how science is conducted.  The casts have many familiar faces as well.

The series is supported with the help of the Sloan Foundation (at least one of the works, Photograph 51, was commissioned by Sloan).  You can access free audio for each of the plays through the series website.  While L.A. Theatre Works offerings are available (often for free) through other podcast sources (and radio affiliates), I think the website may be the best way to access the Relativity Series.  But I would recommend poring through other L.A. Theatre Works offerings for science and technology influenced works – like Proof – that are not part of the Relativity series.

Have You Ever Smushed Your Face On An Airplane Window At Night?

One of the reasons I prefer the window seat on the airplane is the view. Now weather, how well I slept and flight plans don’t always make it a wondrous experience, but there’s usually something worth checking out.

That said, I’m not sure how good I’d be at identifying cities at night from photos taken on the International Space Station.  With the cooperation of the space agencies participating in the station, Cities At Night is trying to do just that.  Coordinated by students and staff at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid in Spain, Cities at Night is looking for people to identify cities from photographs taken from about 200 miles up.  You’ll have more than the pictures to work with, as the location of the ISS is known.  That still makes for a lot of ground in the camera’s field of view, and the absence of identifiable geographic features can still make identification a difficult process.

There is more than a cataloging purpose to the project.  The organizers are concerned about light pollution, and by identifying the light sources, lighting efficiency can be measured and cities can be approached about measures to improve the effectiveness of their lighting while mitigating light pollution.

You can identify photos anonymously, but if you register you will receive credit for your identifications and future (as yet unspecified) recognition.

I think the photos are cool, but that’s just me.

Federal CTO Steps Down, But Not Out

Todd Park, the second-ever federal Chief Technology Officer (CTO), is leaving his position.  While he has been CTO since 2012, he has been part of the Administration since 2009, when he joined the Department of Health and Human Services as its CTO.

While the President will need to find a new CTO, Park will continue to work for the Administration.  Once he returns to California, he will serve as a technology adviser to the President.  To my knowledge, having a presidential appointee based outside of Washington is rare, if not unique.  But in Park’s case, it makes a lot of sense.

His main focus on the West Coast is to recruit technology-savvy people for work in Washington.  Personnel has been an interest of Park’s; he was instrumental in developing the Presidential Innovation Fellows, a program where technologically savvy professionals would serve short stints in federal agencies.  Those fellows were part of the technology overhaul of the health care website, and helped staff the General Services Adminstration technology team, called 18F.  They, and others who have worked with Park may well play a part in the newly formed U.S. Digital Service housed in the Office of Management and Budget.

Given how low on the priority list science and technology appointments are now in this Administration, I do not expect Park’s successor to be announced quickly.  (If a successor has been identified from within Park’s current staff, I may be proven wrong.)  And there is still the matter of an Associate Director for Technology and Innovation at the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).  Continue reading

U.S. Government Checking How Wide Open The Pathogenic Barn Door Is

Earlier this summer there were a series of incidents involving pathogens (anthrax, H5N1 influenza, and smallpox) in both Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and National Institutes of Health (NIH) facilities (the Food and Drug Administration was responsible for the NIH lab where the smallpox was found).  Perhaps overshadowed by the Ebola outbreak in Africa, the lapses in security were notable and prompted institutional reviews, at least one congressional hearing and increased calls for oversight.  So far those efforts have been focused on the agencies directly affected by the lapses.  The CDC has issued a report on the anthrax incident, and the Government Accountability Office has been asked to assess how well federal agencies manage the pathogens under their control.

The Executive Branch joined the fray last week.  Posting to the Office of Science and Technology Policy blog, OSTP Director John Holdren and Deputy National Security Adviser Lisa Monaco described the August 18 memo distributed to several federal agencies (any agencies operating facilities that may use, transport, or possess biomedical toxins or infectious agents; a longer list than you might expect).  Amongst the recommendations:

  • Conduct a ‘Safety Stand-Down’ – a review of biosafety and biosecurity best practices and protocols – within 30 days of the issuance of the memo.  This should happen for both federal facilities and non-federal facilities that use federal funding.  Documentation of these activities should be submitted by October 15.
  • Interagency reviews of federal practices and protocols in biosecurity will run in parallel with a non-federal review (presumably the one initiated by the Department of Health and Human Services described on the bottom of page 3.

More information should be available as the reviews called for in the memo take shape.


Tomorrow’s Tricorder Getting Closer To Today

The finalist teams were announced in the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE.  The submissions of the 10 finalists were the best amongst 21 submitted.  Judging criteria included health assessment, user experience and safety.  The finalists will have their submissions subjected to consumer testing and evaluations of diagnostic experience.  Successful submissions are supposed to diagnose five vital signs, and at least 13 health conditions.  That’s certainly a fair distance from what the Star Trek Medical Tricorder can do, but that one is fictional.

The 10 finalist teams represent six countries:

  • Aezon (Rockville, Maryland), led by Tatiana Rypinski, a team of student engineers from Johns Hopkins University partnering with the Center for Bioengineering Innovation & Design.
  • CloudDX (Mississauga, Canada), a team from medical devices manufacturer Biosign and led by company chief medical officer, Dr. Sonny Kohli.
  • Danvantri (Chennai, India), a team from technology manufacturer American Megatrends India and led by company Director and CEO, Sridharan Mani.
  • DMI (Cambridge, Massachusetts), a team led by Dr. Eugene Y. Chan of the DNA Medicine Institute partnering with NASA, the National Institutes of Health and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
  • Dynamical Biomarkers Group (Zhongli City, Taiwan), a team of physicians, scientists and engineers led by Harvard Medical School professor Chung-Kang Peng.
  • Final Frontier Medical Devices (Paoli, Pennsylvania), a team led by the founders of Basil Leaf Technologies—brothers Dr. Basil Harris, an emergency room physician, and George Harris, a network engineer.
  • MESI Simplifying diagnostics (Ljubljana, Slovenia), a team from diagnostic medical device manufacturer MESI and led by company CEO, Jakob Susteric.
  • SCANADU (Moffett Field, California), a team from Silicon Valley-based start-up SCANADU led by technology entrepreneur and company co-founder and CEO, Walter De Brouwer.
  • SCANurse (London, England), a team from diagnostic medical manufacturer SCANurse and led by biomedical engineer and company founder, Anil Vaidya.
  • zensor (Belfast, Ireland), a team from clinical sensor and electrode company Intelesens and led by chief technology officer, Prof. Jim McLaughlin.

Final round testing will take place in the second half of 2015, with the expected awarding of the prize to a qualifying team in 2016.

Science Fiction To Motivate The Imagination (And The Innovation)

Next month William Morrow will release Hieroglyph, a collection of science fiction short stories edited by the Director of the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University.  The name of the collection is taken from a theory advanced by science fiction writer Neil Stephenson, and a larger writing project of which this book is a part.  The Hieroglyph Theory describes the kind of science fiction that can motivate scientists and engineers to create a future.  A Hieroglyph story provides a complete picture of the future, with a compelling innovation as part of that future.  An example would be the Asimov model of robotics.

Hieroglyph will be available on September 9th at the usual outlets, but you can read a preview online now.  It includes biographies of the authors (an impressive collection of people, many of whom have scientific credentials in addition to their literary work), and the prefatory material from Stephenson, physicist Lawrence Krauss, and the book’s editors.  This project has been in the works for about three years now, and hopefully this book will represent a continuation rather than an end.