Archive for the ‘Science, Math, Technology’ category

The Silent Triumph of Linux

April 24, 2012

Linux LogoThe Linux Penguin

The Silent Triumph of Linux
Cell phones, businesses, critical environments, and the infrastructure of the Web all function with this system
El País: Linux, el triunfo silencioso
Laia Reventós reporting from Barcelona April 22, 2012

When you navigate the Internet, you use Linux. When you search on Google, gossip on Facebook, or play with your Android phone (850,000 of those are activated each day), you also use this operating system. When you see a movie on an airplane, take money from a teller, or make a long-distance phone call…yes, Linux is at the heart of multiple daily activities, even though you aren’t conscious of it.

The most installed open source operating system in the world and the motor of free software still is not massively installed in desktop computers, where Windows reigns with 92% of the market. That is the same share it had in the 90s, when Linus Torvalds (born in Helsinki in 1969) developed Linux. On Friday, Technology Academy Finland recognized its compatriot for creating a system which has had “a great impact on the development of open source programs, work on the Internet, and the opening of the Web to make it accessible to millions of people.”

Torvalds was a 21-year old student of computer engineering at the University of Helsinki in 1991. In his room, he began “a small project. It was something fun to help my learning, but it ended up having everything an operating system is supposed to have.”

The youth released the first version of Linux on the Internet, and word of mouth did the rest for a system protected by the General Public License (GPL), which permits its use, copying, modification, and free distribution. As opposed to other systems, Linux has improved thanks to collaboration. Close to 8000 developers and 800 companies have contributed to its 15 million lines of code since 2005. The Iliad had 15,000 lines. Every three months, a new version of the core system is released under Torvalds’s supervision.

“Linux was the first modifiable operating system that could be installed and used by anyone,” explains Miguel Jaque, director of Spain’s National Open Source Technology Center (CENATIC). “You could find out how its code worked. The secret was out. And that allowed the peak of free software to begin.”

Twenty years later, the system still has not gatecrashed domestic computing (it has a 0.98% worldwide market share according to Netmarketshare), but it rules mobile phones, businesses, data centers, critical environments, and the infrastructure of the web. 80% of stock transactions have the penguin symbol beneath them. Even televisions and cars use it. 25% of their costs are for software, and in four years the proportion will be 75%. For that reason, giants like General Motors, BMW, Hyundai, PSA Peugeot Citroën, and Renault-Nissan have constructed an open platform for entertainment and information systems (the GENIVI Alliance).

In Spain, the management and education communities have led Linux’s advance. 83% of public organizations have some kind of open software installed for them. Don’t forget that Extremadura took the lead in providing computers for its students with its Linex system in 2003; it just don’t preach about it much. This tide has swept to seven other Autonomous Communities, including Andalusia and Catalonia (Lincat). The Andalusian system Guadalinex now serves 1.8 million students in 5882 schools with a network of 640,000 PCs and 4200 servers.

What are the advantages? “It reduces costs because the license is free; you can change providers without problems, and you can personalize all the components,” says Jaque. Munich City Hall has saved a third of its technological budget (€4 million) thanks to Linux, and now, in a time of crisis, it could save more if its civil services “save and reuse their computing resources.” In 2011, according to CENATIC, 46% of civil services created their own programs, but only 18% set them free.


Female High School Falconer Contributing to Saga Raven Removal

April 10, 2012

Female High School Falconer Contributing to Saga Raven Removal
Yomiuri Shimbun: 女子高生鷹匠、カラス駆除に乗り出す
April 9, 2012

Saga Prefecture Takeo High School Senior Misato Ishibashi (17) and her father Hidetoshi (45), who are both falconers, are leading their falcons and horned owls in an effort to scare off the crows living in the prefecture’s forests.

According to the prefecture’s Agricultural Support Division, crows caused an estimated ¥66 million ($809,000) in damages to its oranges, pears, beans, wheat, and other crops in 2010. Crows can fly 10-20 kilometers at a time, and they are plundering crops more than city garbage. The prefecture is making an effort to introduce falcons and horned owls, which frighten crows, inside its cities in order to scare the crows into the mountains, where they can eat the fruit that grows naturally in the trees there.

In recent years, the father-daughter team has also received calls from the prefecture to chase crows from the Saga Castle Park, where the crows’ droppings and cries were disturbing residents.

In order to frighten the crows today, Misato set loose a Harris Hawk named Momotarō (Peach Boy), and Hidetoshi walked around with a Eurasian Eagle-Owl on his arm. Hidetoshi also suggested, “Wouldn’t it be even more effective if we set Momotarō loose from the top floor of the new prefectural administration building (which is 11 stories high) so he could have a downward angle on the crows?”

Two Ill-Gotten Nobel Prizes

March 8, 2012

Javier Sampedro Self Portrait

Javier Sampedro: The First Pharmaceutical Thriller

Two Ill-Gotten Nobel Prizes
El País: Dos Nobel mal dados
By Dr. Javier Sampedro, published March 6, 2012

Although the news hasn’t yet reached the general public, scientists who have examined the subject now have little or no doubt that the Swedish Academy committed grave errors in awarding the Nobel Prizes in Medicine for 1952 and 2011. Almost 60 years separate the two, but both the modus operandi (ignore the discoverer to honor his boss) and the motives of these crimes were the same. Both errors touch on vital questions not only for science but for industry as well. As I’ve said to you, Dr. Watson, always follow the money trail.

The last Nobel for Medicine was given to the French immunologist Jules Hoffmann and two other colleagues for discovering the workings of the innate immune system, the first line of defense against virii, bacteria, fungus, and worms of every kind, that shoots first and asks many less questions than the exquisitively selective adaptive immune system, which is what we typically understand as the immune system.

The Academy credited Hoffmann, the former president of the French Academy of Science, for discovering the system by using the powerful genetics of the fly Drosophila, which permitted him to extrapolate to our species and open an investigation into a radically new kind of antimicrobial agent. Doctor Hoffmann’s New Penicillin would be a good name for a future product.

But that product wouldn’t have come about thanks to Doctor Hoffman’s work.

It would come thanks to a postdoc (postdoctoral fellow) in his Strasbourg laboratory, Bruno Lemaitre, who decided to do the crucial experiments with Drosophilia and who carried them out. Hoffman’s principal contribution to the research was to oppose it. The revelation of these actions, which has a sensible tone and a ton of minute details, came from Lemaitre himself, but Hoffmann has not issued a denial, even though he had a magnificent opportunity to do so. He says that “it wouldn’t be elegant.” Ignoring it doesn’t seem like much of a response, either.

The second story is older, but its resolution is even fresher: research by the British journalist Peter Pringle has revealed that young doctoral student Albert Schatz of Rutgers University discovered streptomycin, the first effective medicine against tuberculosis, in 1943. His thesis advisor, Selman Waksman, reaped the bounty: the Nobel Prize and money from Merck for the rights to the patent. Pringle’s book, Experiment Eleven will be published in English by Walker & Co. May 8.

As I’ve said to you, Dr. Watson, beneath every great man is a squashed scholar.

Javier Sampedro Self Portrait
Javier Sampedro (Madrid, 1960) is a doctor of molecular biology. Until 1993, he dedicated himself professionally to genetic investigation, first in the Severo Ochoa Center for Molecular Biology in Madrid, then in the Laboratory of Molecular Biology of the Medical Research Council in Cambridge. In 1994, he retrained himself as a journalist, and for 15 years he has been the a redactor for El País. He is a good illustrator and a bad jazz guitarist. His motto is: “[Those are my principles, and] if you don’t like them… well, I have others.”

Poor Chinese Selling Organs to Japanese on Black Market; One Community Has Become an “Organ Village”

March 4, 2012

Poor Chinese Selling Organs to Japanese on Black Market; One Community Has Become an “Organ Villages”
Jiji Press: 中国で日本人に生体闇移植=違法行為か、貧困層ら売る―「臓器村」存在
Report from Beijing February 20, 2012

Several Japanese are going to China and secretly buying kidneys from the poor to receive in transplants, this newspaper learned on the 20th. Several parties involved in Chinese organ transplants have affirmed this information; they say “30-40 Japanese people come to China each year to receive kidney transplants, and most of those organs were purchased.”

In principle, organ transplants to foreigners has been illegal in China since 2007. Last year, the sale of organs was made illegal as well, further exposing the strength of the organ trade. An organ donor shortage in Japan is deepening, but Japanese citizens’ involvement in the black market could cause problems of its own.

In 2010, the NPO (non-profit organization) International Medical Information Center, which connects Japanese seeking donations with Chinese hospitals, heard from a doctor in a Shandong Province military hospital that “we use intermediaries for organ transplants” and introduced the NPO to a broker in Beijing. That broker said, “we use organs bought and sold on the market for organ transplants.” The NPO sensed the broker’s offerings would be illegal and refused.

This broker also told the NPO, “One rural village in Linyi County, Shandong Province is an “organ village”. A group of people there have organized the sales of their own organs. There are 15 we can use.” The market price for a kidney is about ¥50,000 Chinese yuan (about ¥620,000 Japanese yen or $8000 USD). Factoring in commissions for the broker and doctor, however, the total amount Japanese and other foreigners have to spend for a kidney transplant rises to ¥500-600,000 RMB (¥6.25-7.25 million JPY or $80,000-95,000).

A source familiar with transplants indicated that “transplants to Japanese people are occurring in places like Shandong, Tianjin, and Hunan.”

Until some years ago, most Chinese organ donors were prisoners on death row. Because of ethical and human rights complaints by the international community, the Chinese government now requires the consent of both prisoners and their family members in order to use executed people’s organs for transplants. Until now, most organs received by Japanese and other transplant patients in China came from death row, but these days kidney sales are rampant all over the country.

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Blind Spot in Anti-Monkey Electrical Fences Identified (The Fenceposts) and Addressed

February 29, 2012

Blind Spot in Anti-Monkey Electrical Fences Identified (The Fenceposts) and Addressed
Yomiuri Shimbun: サル用防護柵に盲点、つかむ柱に電流流したら…
February 5, 2012

Monkeys are plundering crops all over Japan. In response, the Mie Prefecture Agricultural Research Institute in Matsuzaka City has improved upon the monkey-proof electrical fence by electrifying the fenceposts, as well, so that monkeys can no longer climb up and over them.

The research institute noticed a flaw in typical fence design: though electricity ran across the highest horizontal post, it didn’t run through the vertical posts, and the monkeys took advantage of that.

According to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries, monkey-inflicted crop damages totaled 8500 tons and ¥1.9 billion ($19.8 million) in 2010, 400 tons and ¥200 million more than the year before. The general response has been to erect fences around fields and orchards, but farmers complained that even though the fences were tall, monkeys found spots that weren’t electrified and used them to cross over. Hence the Research Institute looked into the problem.

Its leader, Naoto Yamabata (42), studied surveillance film and realized that the monkeys were jumping fences more than two meters tall by taking hold of their posts. According to Dr. Yamabata, most fence makers do not electrify posts because they fear electrical contact with the ground will cause a short circuit. Dr. Yamabata solved the problem by wrapping aluminum tape and wire around the posts and running the power through them. Seven farmers in towns like Suzuka, Yokkaichi, and Taiki, in cooperation with local governments and agricultural improvement popularization centers, volunteered to install the new design for half a year’s trial starting last July.

One of these farmers, an 83-year old woman in Nishi-shonaichō, Shizuka, said that “last year, we couldn’t harvest any soybeans, cabbage, or napa, but this year they didn’t eat anything, and we had a harvest.” A Taiki farmer said that he harvested 1.7 tons of napa, and that was 1.7 tons more than he ever could before. The Agricultural Research Institute is planning to extend its trials to monkey-plagued farms in Tsu, Misugi, and Shiga.

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Man Survives Two Months Inside Snowbound Car by Hibernating

February 28, 2012

Hibernation CarA man was rescued from this automobile after he was trapped inside for two months. Umeå, northern Sweden. Photo by Reuters.

Man Survives Two Months Inside Snowbound Car by Hibernating
Yomiuri Shimbun: 雪中の車に2か月…男性、「冬眠」状態で生存
Masahiro Satō reporting from London February 19, 2012

On the 17th, a 45-year old man was rescued from a snowbound car on a forest road near Umeå in northern Sweden after he had been trapped for two months, according to Swedish news reports.

During that time, the man consumed nothing but snow. A doctor told the local paper that his body temperature fell to 31°C (88°F), and he entered a state of hibernation to preserve his strength.

On the 17th, a person driving by caught sight of the car. When he dug the car out, he found a man inside with his lower body wrapped in a sleeping bag.

At the time of the rescue, the man was too weak to speak, but he is now recovering. It is now known that he was in the car on December 19, but it’s still not clear how he was trapped.

85-Year Old Invents Device That Automatically Turns Off Circuit Breaker in Response to Serious Earthquake

February 27, 2012

Inventor Tadao Endo

85-Year Old Invents Device That Automatically Turns Off Circuit Breaker in Response to Serious Earthquake
Yomiuri Shimbun: 地震が起きるとブレーカー遮断…85歳が発明
February 20, 2012

85-year old retiree Tadao Endo of Sengen-chō, Fujinomiya City, Shizuoka Prefecture has received a patent for a device he recently invented which automatically shuts off a circuit breaker after an earthquake: the tremor makes a lead ball roll downward and fall, tugging a string downward and flipping the switch.

Mr. Endō said, “After serious quakes, people usually don’t have the time to turn off their circuit breakers. If there were such an emergency, this device would decrease the chances of an electrical appliance causing a fire.”

The device has a 20 cm long, slender chain with a 55g leaden ball attached to one end. The other end is affixed to the circuit breaker switch. The leaden ball usually rests atop a normal iron plate, but if a serious earthquake occurred, the ball would roll and fall; it weight would yank the chain and switch off the breaker.

Endō’s design was registered with the Patent Office on January 6.

The most difficult part of Endō’s project was determining how heavy of a leaden ball to use. “If it were too light, it would react even after a light earthquake, but if it were too heavy, it would be useless,” he said. After trial and error, he settled on 55 grams (1.94 ounces) as the perfect weight.

Endō once worked for the national railway, chiefly as a substation chief of safety on the Tokyo-to-Kobe Tōkaidō Line. “At work, as I watched the express trains and night trains come and go day and night, I often thought about what to do if there were a giant earthquake.” He ponders the same question even now. In his home, all the appliances are well-secured, and all the glass is covered with film so it won’t break in the event of an earthquake.

“I’ve heard that after a large earthquake, electricity often goes out for a spell and then comes back, and when that happens, electric heaters and irons that were turned on at the time cause fires. If your circuit breaker automatically turned off, you could feel secure about your home even after you evacuated it.”

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