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Catching Up (02/03/06)

jiang-salmonella.jpgThis week's update checks out malaria outbreak prediction, solar ink, peeking inside a virus, nanotech capacitors, and the dangers of using search engines.

Climate Models Predict Malaria: In an article in this week's Nature, researchers from the European Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasts demonstrate that a combination of climate models can be used to predict outbreaks of malaria up to five months in advance, giving ample time to bring resources to bear to reduce the impact of outbreaks.

The study was based on an early-warning system developed by Botswana's National Malaria Control Programme. The system uses information about rainfall, health surveillance and the population's vulnerability to malaria to detect unusual changes in seasonal patterns of disease.
By using a combination of climate models, Palmer's team eliminated uncertainties in the system's predictions. [...] Following Botswana's lead, other countries in sub-Saharan Africa are now developing early-warning systems.
"My colleagues are developing our methods for Zimbabwe, South Africa, Swaziland and Zimbabwe," says Palmer. "Some research is being done for the more complex terrain of Kenya, though here the results are less well developed."

One of the benefits of increased understanding and more sophisticated modeling of the climate is a better ability to predict and respond to events driven by changes to the climate. This won't be the last time we see a story about improved disease preparedness based on better climate models.

Quantum Dot Solar: About a year ago, we posted a discussion of research on the application of nanocrystals -- aka, quantum dots -- to polymer photovoltaic materials. An update to that research in May brought the potential efficiency of quantum dot solar to 65% -- well above what we see with traditional silicon photovoltaics. And now, we're starting to see that research turn into real products.

Silicon Valley-based Inovalight has come up with a method to make nanocrystal photovoltaics in bulk, resulting in something they call "solar ink." The material should be usable with "roll-to-roll" printing techniques, making it possible to put photovoltaic layers on flexible materials such as fabric or plastic. By adjusting the size of the nanocrystals, Inovalight solar ink can capture energy from light at a wider spectrum than is possible with traditional photovoltaics, including infrared and (according to the Energy Blog) ultraviolet light. Inovalight plans to have commercial photovoltaic products available by next year.

Looking Inside a Virus: Purdue biologists have improved the ability to understand how viruses work by making it possible for microscopes to have look inside -- not by changing the hardware, but by updating the software.

Developing the software package enabled the team to examine the Epsilon 15 virus, a "bacteriophage" that infects the salmonella bacterium, and to resolve features as small as 9.5 angstroms across — less than a billionth of a meter. Until now, the high-resolution device, called a cryo-electron microscope, used to examine such objects could only examine the virus's outer shell.

This will be a step towards a better understanding of how bacteriophages work, and could facilitate the development of more sophisticated phage therapies in days to come.

Phages that attack bacteria are harmless to humans, Jiang said, and for each bacterial species, including those that cause human disease, nature has evolved several phages designed to infect it specifically.
"Phage therapy as an antibacterial weapon was an idea that was introduced in the early 20th century, but it fell by the wayside as antibiotics came to the fore," Jiang said. "It is possible that as we learn more about how viruses work on the molecular level, their promise as a medical tool will finally come to fruition. Until then, software will be the key to focusing our technological eyes, and teams like ours must keep improving it."

Operating system developers could learn a thing or two from these guys -- imagine, a software patch that makes the hardware work better!

(Via Medgadget)

Oh Carbon Nanotube... (etc.): Cambridge University engineers have developed capacitors -- devices that can swiftly store and release electrical energy -- based on carbon nanotubes. Using nanotubes significantly increases the surface area available to the storage material, hence the amount of energy that can be stored. The level of energy storage approaches that of a battery, and the engineers have great hope that the method could lead to so-called "supercapacitors" for use in everything from handheld devices to hybrid cars.

...such nanoscale capacitors might help improve the development of compact and cost effective supercapacitors, which has direct bearing on "electric or hybrid electric vehicles such as the Toyota Prius," Amaratunga said. These supercapacitors could help reduce the amount of battery weight these vehicles carry, thus improving their fuel consumption or performance or both, he explained.
The researchers are currently pursuing supercapacitors for portable electronics "such as PDAs, where the optimization of battery weight and lifetime remains a significant issue," Amaratunga added.

Capacitors are used in hybrids because of the speed at which they can charge and discharge, making it possible to deliver a large burst of energy to start the vehicle from a stoplight. Previous research on carbon nanotube-based supercapacitors has shown an energy storage density nearly 10 times than of commercial capacitors.

I Feel Lucky (Not): If you've ever searched for something on Google, Yahoo or Microsoft's search engines that you, um, might not want other people to know about, pay attention: it turns out that all three of these companies have chosen to retain information about searches that directly ties search terms to Internet addresses. Only AOL does the right thing and discards identifiable data.

This would allow lawyers and government officials to take a peek at what you've been searching for, should they be interested. And privacy laws may be no protection, at least in the US. The federal law that protects electronic communications was written in a way that allows search engines to fall outside of its purview.

Author and entrepreneur John Battelle received word from Google this week that the company can perform two important types of matches. [...]
First, given a number of search terms, Google can produce a list of people (identified by Internet address or cookie) who searched for a given term. Second, given a collection of Internet addresses, Google can produce a list of the terms searched by the user of a given address. That effectively creates an electronic dossier of an individual.

According to C|Net, Google, Yahoo and Microsoft hang onto this data for as long as "it's necessary," which as of now means for the foreseeable future. MS and Yahoo may decide to allow users to erase their histories at some point. AOL, conversely, deletes data after 30 days.

Danny Sullivan at Search Engine Watch has a useful article on how to increase your privacy while using search engines -- and look for a familiar name mentioned in the text!

Comments (2)

Pace Arko:

Re: improvements to electron microscope resolution

"features as small as 9.5 angstroms"

Wow! They can resolve features only 10 atoms across?! That is very, very cool!

Re: search privacy


I suppose the paranoid could use some combination of chained anonymizing proxies, tor and lynx run from ssh, plus have the whole works boot from a disposable thumbdrive version of Tinfoil Hat Linux while at some Internet cafe that accepts cash and doesn't ask too many questions.

Or they could just avoid the computer entirely.

Maybe the only thing that gives me hope about all this is the possibility that some politician might be criminally prosecuted and have Google records correlated against their home computer's IP address.

Or, borrowing a page from sousveillence book, maybe they should be required by law to make public the search term records for the IP addresses associated with all major government and corporate offices, local, national and international.

That might keep them humble and desirous of protecting the little folks privacy.

Maybe someone needs to invent a method of decentralizing search.

Happy fishbowls everyone.

I wrote a long note about the bacteriophage virus observed in detail by the Purdue's biologists. You'll find many references and several images in these two entries on Primidi (http://www.primidi.com/2006/02/04.html) or on ZDNet (http://blogs.zdnet.com/emergingtech/?p=152).

You'll see in particular that the shell proteins of various bacteriophages share similar fold. So if you can know better one virus, you'll know more about others as well. This could give some hope to people affected by Herpes for example.



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