Big Data equals Shorter Walks in NYC


Ben Wellington's determination of the farthest spot from a subway entrance.

Ben Wellington’s determination of the farthest spot from a subway entrance.

Ben Wellington, a Visiting Assistant Professor in the City & Regional Planning program at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, has been running a fascinating blog called I Quant New York in which he slices and dices publicly available data about New York City.

Of interest to seniors who may wish to visit or move to Manhattan, he just produced a map showing the distance between Manhattan addresses and subway stops. It’s extremely useful information if you happen to have arthritis in your knees–or happen not to have an umbrella.

Along with the map, he’s also included a link to a spreadsheet where you can look up individual addresses; however, it takes a long time to fully load.

Clip ‘n’ Save: How to avoid scams that target seniors

“Wherever a new technology goes, scammers follow. There’ll be scammers on Mars just after the astronauts land.”

An FBI agent

Most techies know the term “social engineering;” it refers to a scammer’s ability to gain trust. The scammer may sound friendly, threatening or conspiratorial (“we can both get one over on them together!”), whatever the mode, they get you to believe they are who they say they are and that whatever they promise or threaten will come true. The simplest way to avoid getting scammed is this: Never agree immediately. No matter what sense of urgency a phone call, email, or letter may insist on: “Act Now to Save!” “Pay Now or Risk Jail!” always double-checkor have a friend or relative double-check for you. Never, ever provide private information such as credit card numbers, birth dates, or a social security number to someone who contacts you by phone or email.

By now, you may be thinking, “Thanks, but I’ve got good instincts; I can sense a rat.” Alas, a UCLA study from 2012 gave the dismal news that as we age our ability to detect untrustworthiness diminishes. The problem is compounded if you really did have good instincts–you may think that you still do, and not realize how badly out of tune your sense of trust has become.Continue Reading

A Nobel Prize that’s actually comprehensible  

The total lunar eclipse and the announcement of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry both took place at the same time last night, so we decided to make it an insomnia two-fer. We were rewarded with a beautiful moon the color of Mars and Sonoma, and a fascinating discussion of super-resolution microscopy, which is likely to drive biomedical research for decades to come.

Imaging super-small biological features historically had a big problem: Because of the techniques required to prepare the specimens, if you wanted to see details below the diffraction limit of light (approximately 200 nanometers), what you were looking at had to be dead.

But what scientists hope to understand are the many processes in living cells that can determine whether we lead healthy lives or fall victim to diseases and other debilitating conditions. Most of those cellular processes, however, take place at the single molecule level, below the diffraction limit. Using a light microscope, which does allow for living specimens, all a researcher could see would be a blurry spot, instead of clearly resolved individual molecules.

In 2000, Stefan Hell became the Chuck Yeager of light microscopy, when he demonstrated a way to break through the diffraction limit, which had stood as a barrier to discoveries since it was first described by Ernst Abbe in 1873. Later, William Moerner, Eric Betzig and other scientists, including Jennifer Lippincott-Schwartz and Xaiowei Zhuang, two women not cited by the Nobel committee, created limit-breaking techniques that were more easily accessible to most researchers.

Now, cutting-edge biomedical researchers can detect such biological processes as single proteins interacting with other proteins. Simply put, just like in a mechanical assembly line, if you know all the steps in the manufacturing process, you can know at what step something went wrong—and begin to understand how to fix it.

Here’s the video of the Nobel press conference. At 7:05, there’s a slide show explaining the work.


New wallet makes using cards easier

ID cards, credit cards, loyalty cards, life seems to be filled with cards that need to be dug out of purses and wallets, which as fingers get older and joints get stiffer becomes increasingly painful. There’s currently a Kickstarter campaign to fund a new type of wallet that might make using all those cards easier.

Designed by two brothers, the “Glider” is a hard-shelled wallet that resembles an iPhone in both form and function. It’s small, extremely thin and made from a glossy polycarbonate, with a sliding bar in its center. Moving the bar makes a card emerge just far enough to be swiped. Thus, if there’s a card you need to use frequently, say to swipe at the gas pump or supermarket, all you need to do is slide the bar, rather than remove and replace the card. If you need to use a full card, pressing a button makes it emerge.

For more information on how it works, see the video on Kickstarter.

For more information on how it works, see the video on Kickstarter.

The Glider is not yet available because it is still raising funds on Kickstarter. If you want one, you have to pledge that you will buy at least one (there are various tiers of pledges available). If the fund-raising goal is met, you will receive one (or more) and be on the hook for your pledge. If it is not met, you will owe nothing, but alas, you will not get a Glider either.

Caveat: While the design is both clever and practical, we suggest you watch the video to see if either the slider bar or button might be too small for your hands. The wallet in the video is a prototype, so we can’t judge how much pressure it will take to work the slider.


Coming soon (but not soon enough!), pt.2: Fewer injections?

Continuing the theme of fewer needles = happier patients, MIT today described a possible way to deliver drugs in pill form that currently can only be injected. The problem, as the MIT press release describes, is that “many drugs, especially those made from large proteins, cannot be given as a pill because they get broken down in the stomach before they can be absorbed.” Thus, when you were hoping for a pill, you get punctured by a needle instead.

The MIT solution, we have to admit, is just this side of science fiction creepy: “a novel drug capsule coated with tiny needles that can inject drugs directly into the lining of the stomach after the capsule is swallowed.” That’s right, imagine swallowing something that acts like a tiny sea urchin.

Still, it beats needles. (And the pills are coated.)

At the moment, the pills have just started to be tested in pigs, using insulin. If full development goes forward, they are hoped to be “useful for delivering biopharmaceuticals such as antibodies, which are used to treat cancer and autoimmune disorders like arthritis and Crohn’s disease.”




Coming soon (but not soon enough!) near-painless blood draws

The only thing worse than having blood drawn is how much of it needs to be drawn. Just when you think you’ve reached your limit on needle sticks and bruising, a tech comes at you with yet another vial that needs to be filled. Entrepreneur Elizabeth Holmes figured, as most of us do, there had to be a better way. Unlike the rest of us, she actually created one.

Much less intimidating.

Much less intimidating.

Starting from the premise that too much blood was required for accurate diagnosing, she and her team developed a new method of analysis that needs only a finger-prick’s worth of drops to run hundreds of tests. Her company, Theranos, is partnering with Walgreens to offer walk-in testing clinics, called Theranos Wellness Centers.

Better still, according to Wired: “The company plans to charge less than 50 percent of the standard Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement rates. And unlike the rest of the testing industry, Theranos lists its prices on its website: blood typing, $2.05; cholesterol, $2.99; iron, $4.45. If all tests in the US were performed at those kinds of prices, the company says, it could save Medicare $98 billion and Medicaid $104 billion over the next decade.”

While a few Theranos Wellness Centers are already open in selected areas, Walgreens is still in the process of rolling them out nation-wide.


A “smart” approach to budgeting?

For many seniors, retirement and/or unexpected medical expenses mean much stricter budgeting than ever before. The Cash Smartwatch promises to help you keep on track—we only hope it can save you enough to make up for its $140 price.

Essentially, it’s a spreadsheet packed into a watch. You put in what you’re spending throughout the day and it keeps a running tally of whether you’re meeting—or alas exceeding—your budget goals.

It reinforces your habits with messages that range from upbeat cheers (“Hell yeah, who’s a budgeting superstar”) or no-punches-pulled nags (“Take the damn bus”). Online, it syncs with a website full of budget planning tools and financial advice; some of which, unfortunately, is blithely impractical, despite the watch being the creation of financial writer Nicole Lapin.

We haven’t tested the Cash Smartwatch, so we can only say that for those of you already good at budgeting, it may be overkill. You’re likely already achieving what it promises with a pad of paper and a four-dollar pocket calculator. Of course, if you’re thinking of spending $140 on a smartwatch, you’re probably exactly the sort of person who needs this.

All of that said, it could make an ideal, albeit pricey, graduation gift for a child or grandchild new to the complexities of personal finances.


A nanotech approach to increasing the power of antibiotics

As we age, our immune systems degrade, so the increasing ineffectiveness of many antibiotics leaves seniors especially vulnerable. According to UCLA bioengineering professor Gerard Wong, “It takes upwards of $100 million to develop one antibiotic drug, and bacteria develop resistance to it within two years. It’s a race that we can’t win.”

Fortunately, he and his colleagues have come up with a potential solution, which might be called “drug renovation” instead of drug discovery.

While much antibiotic resistance occurs when bacteria mutate, the organisms also have a natural defense: persister cells, which essentially play possum by turning down the cellular processes that antibiotics would normally interrupt. Once the antibiotic attack is over, the persister cells ramp back up, causing recurrent and chronic bacterial infections.

Screen Shot 2014-09-29 at 11.55.48 PMThe UCLA team added amino acids to a molecule of an existing antibiotic, called tobramycin, transforming it into a new, far more effective compound called “Pentobra,” which can be up to a million times more effective at killing bacteria.

“What we’ve done is make a molecule that kills with more than one mechanism,” Wong explains in UCLA’s press release. “Pentobra can punch enough holes in the cell membrane to kill the cell, but that may not be the most efficient way to kill a bug. This antibiotic also messes up their ability to grow by preventing them from making more bacterial proteins.”

Most importantly, the team believes this method can be used to re-engineer other antibiotics as well, thus, saving millions of drug development dollars and potentially, lives.

Thumb Extension for Smart Phones

We admit we were tempted to laugh at this clever invention, but then we realized it just might be very useful for seniors suffering from arthritis—or short fingers.

This is a real thing, according to no less than the Wall Street Journal.

Yes, this is a real thing.

We promise we’re not making this up! From gadget-loving Japan comes “Yubi Nobiiru” (finger growth), a prosthesis that looks like a long silicone thimble that you wear over your thumb to extend its reach across large cell phone screens. It’s supposed to be discretely “flesh-toned,” an accurate description if you happen to be a light-orange-skinned android.

What makes it real—and makes it work—is an embedded conductor that works on the principle of capacitance (charges across an electrical field). Our fingers themselves have slight electric charges, which is how they are able to activate the electronics in cell phones and other touchscreen devices. (For details on how this works, see this excellent illustrated overview from The Washington Post.)

Given the super-heroine graphics and the bombastic music in the video, you may find this hard to take seriously, but it’s worth thinking about where engineers could go with artificial skin capacitance. As we age, touch sensitivity can decrease while painful ailments in the hands can increase, so as silly as the Yubi Nobiiru seems, it could be the first of a new class of devices that enable seniors to function in an increasingly touchscreen world.

If you can read Japanese, you can order your own Yubi Nobiiru here.




New, Flexible Headband for EEGs

If you’ve ever had a medical procedure that requires electrodes, you know you’re often left with “souvenirs,” either circles of gel or even the electrodes themselves embedded in sticky pads that technicians forgot to remove. Now, from Finland, comes a neat technical solution: electrode-containing film that can be easily placed and removed.

No messy stuff! Courtesy: University of Eastern Finland

No messy stuff! Courtesy: University of Eastern Finland

Called “Brain Status,” the electrode set, currently approved for use in Europe, is an example of “flexible electronics,” in which electronic circuitry is printed in metallic inks on flexible films. For Brain Status, silver ink was printed on polyester film to create a headband-like device that can be used to check brain signals quickly and easily, without losing the time of precisely placing sticky electrodes in a patient’s hair. Most importantly, placing the device does not require moving the patient’s head, which as the University of Eastern Finland’s press release reminds us, “is especially important in patients possibly suffering from a neck or skull injury.”

Because flexible electronics permit fast application and diagnosis, UEF graduate student Pasi Lepola invented the Brain Status device with the idea that it would be ideal for time-intensive emergency situations. As the press release states: “Although the benefits of EEG measurements are indisputable, they remain underused in acute and emergency care. A significant reason for this is the fact that the electrode sets available on the markets are difficult to attach on the patient, and their use requires special skills and constant training.”

By contrast, an ambulance crew member could use Brain Status to take an EEG reading on the way to a hospital, helping the ER staff to prepare before the patient even arrives. As all neurosurgeons know, “time lost is brain lost” thus, Brain Status may not only save lives, but enable fuller recoveries.

On a far less serious note, we’re just grateful that the age of flexible electronics means electrode-based diagnosis may become a lot less messy.