Daily Archives: July 19, 2011

Reinventing the Toilet

You might take the toilet for granted. But the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has been thinking about it a lot. The foundation announced $41.5 million worth of grants on Tuesday aimed at inspiring someone to re-engineer the toilet.

Why fix something that doesn’t seem to be broken? The basic design hasn’t changed much in its 200 year history. Why is it suddenly a problem?

“No innovation in the past 200 years has done more to save lives and improve health than the sanitation revolution triggered by invention of the toilet,” Sylvia Mathews Burwell, president of the foundation’s global development program, said in a statement. “But it did not go far enough. It only reached one-third of the world. What we need are new approaches. New ideas. In short, we need to reinvent the toilet.”

When you think about it, a toilet is demanding. It requires lots of running water and a sewer hook up, both of which are hard to come by in developing countries. And for all of its demands, the toilet does nothing to treat waste.

About 2.5 billion people don’t have access to toilets as we’ve currently imagined them, and this lack of toilet access encourages the spread of diarrheal diseases, which are blamed for the deaths of 1.5 million children each year, according to the World Health Organization.

The Gates Foundation has handed out eight grants to universities who dare to dream of a better toilet. Some especially dramatic re-design ideas include:

• Andrew Cotton, from Loughborough University in the UK, is making a toilet that will “recover water and salt from feces and urine.”

• Georgios Stefanidis, from Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, is working on a toilet that will generate electricity from waste, which will be “gasified into plasma” using microwaves. That gas can be used to generate electricity, according to the proposal.

• Yu-Ling Chen, from the University of Toronto, is trying to make a toilet that will “sanitize feces within 24 hours” so human waste doesn’t transmit disease through a community. Chen plans to use a process of dehydration, filtration and smoldering to render the waste harmless.

• Michael Hoffmann, from the California Institute of Technology, plans to develop a solar-powered toilet. Solar cells generate enough power to process waste and turn it into fuel for electricity.

These innovations will not just help developing nations. In the American west and many parts of China, for example, a toilet that does not require potable water will alleviate water shortages.

The Gates Foundation hopes their grants will bring about a “cell phone” of sanitation – independent, convenient and beneficial.

Contains information from CNN.

Recommendation for Nationwide Free Birth Control

The United States Institute of Medicine is recommending free birth control and other health services to all women.  The recommendation is to make all birth control methods, including the day after pill, readily available to women for free.  Unplanned pregnancies have been increasing and are at an all time high.  Studies have shown women who have unplanned pregnancies were more likely to put their baby at risk by smoking, drinking alcohol, and also experience depression.  Besides for making birth control available other services would also be added such as HPV testing, domestic violence screening,  counseling for HIV, and other services.  The object to make birth control readily available for free is to reduce the amount of unplanned pregnancies.  Many women do not have the expendable money to purchase birth control, so this plan will help those who cannot afford it.

A’s are the Common Grade in Colleges

Stuart Rojstaczer, a retired professor of geology at Duke University, and Christopher Healy, an associate professor of computer science at Furman University published an analysis that the most common grade at four year colleges and universities is an A (43 percent of all grades). It also shows that D’s and F’s are seen much less as a grade for a class. The study was published last Wednesday in Teachers College Record.

So, does this study show that American students are getting more and more smart? Or are they given a cushion to lean on? When an A is common and ordinary, students tend to try less at excelling.

While A’s were the most popular grades, they also found some differences between private and state colleges in the study. Private institutions tend to be more generous with grades than state universities. Rojstaczer and Healy believe that the abundance of A’s is a serious problem.

“When A is ordinary, college grades cross a significant threshold. Over a period of roughly 50 years, with a slight reversal from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, America’s institutions of higher learning gradually created a fiction that excellence was common and that failure was virtually nonexistent,” writes Rojstaczer and Healy. “The evolution of grading has made it difficult to distinguish between excellent and good performance. At the other end of the spectrum, some students who were once removed from school for substandard performance have, since the Vietnam era, been carried along. America’s colleges and universities have likely been practicing some degree of social promotion for over 40 years.”

This article contains information from USA Today.

Breaking Bad’s Fourth Season Starts with a Bang

Breaking Bad, the television drama airing on AMC (premiering in early 2008), began it’s fourth season on Sunday night, entering the new slate of episodes with much of the same raw material that has made it a success through three seasons. The stars of the show, Bryan Cranston as Walter White (of Malcolm in the Middle fame, among other things) and Aaron Paul (playing the character of sometimes addict sometimes simply an infuriating miscreant Jesse Pinkman), who have forged an unlikely relationship which borders on friendship and mutual compassion–at times–drives the dark, gripping, but frequently humorous series.


Aaron Paul and Bryan Cranston, the stars of "Breaking Bad"

For those, who haven’t have not gotten into the series yet for whatever reason (or are not quite caught up), I would recommend doing so. The series, based in Albuquerque, New Mexico (or the “ABQ”), chronicles Walter White’s declining health. Mr. White–a brilliant high school chemistry teacher who constantly bemoans the fact that he never accomplished more with his considerable talent–is diagnosed with cancer early on in the series. As a result, he must struggle to find a way to pay for the extremely expensive treatments. Eventually, Mr. White meets Jesse Pinkman, a former student and a general hoodlum of sorts. Through a series of intense events, Mr. White and Pinkman eventually go into business together: making and selling methamphetamine, which Mr. White uses to pay for his cancer treatments. The name “Breaking Bad,” according to Cranston, comes from a southern colloquialism which refers to a deviation from the “straight and narrow” to a path of  Cranston, who many remember as the father from Malcolm in the Middle, has a completely shaved head for the part, a part which could quite possibly be one of the most well-acted roles on television today.

The show’s brilliance is in the strength of its actors, particularly Cranston but also in Paul’s portrayal of the no-good-doing Jesse Pinkman, who we eventually comes to see actually has somewhat of a moral compass (if not an unorthodox version of one).  The two serve as partners throughout the first three seasons, and, despite the obvious illegality of their actions, the viewer is unable to withhold his or her sympathy, particularly for Mr. White and his fight against cancer (it should be noted that Walter has a family, including a wife, a teenage son and an infant child). Walter and Jesse run into a number of problems throughout their run as partners in crime, including Mexican cartels, assassins, and other competition in the methamphetamine production market. While the storylines are all interesting and psychologically evocative, the actors themselves drive the show. I continue to watch the show because Cranston’s performance in this role–quite possibly the antithesis of many of the light-hearted, happy-go-lucky roles he’s had in the past–is nothing short of brilliant, and Aaron Paul has thus far served as a perfect youthful and brash counterpart to Walt’s cold, calculated, rationality. It is unclear to me how many more seasons the show might continue on for, but I know this: this is one of the best shows on television today.

According to CNN, a total of 2.6 million viewers tuned in to Sunday’s season premiere, which is up 30% from the previous season’s premiere. Hopefully, this is a sign that people are catching on to the brilliance of Breaking Bad.

What Space Shuttles Did for You

The space shuttle program was not designed to advance science, like the Hubble telescope or Large Hadron Collider.

In roughest terms, shuttles often functioned as orbital trucks, hauling cargo between Earth and satellites and space stations. But in 30 years of hauling, the shuttles created an extremely detailed topographic map of Earth, inspired medical breakthroughs and made many inventions possible. If you need help getting out of a crashed car, or if you’re a soldier maneuvering around an active land mine field, space shuttle-derived technology may have saved your life. And thanks to the space shuttle, we have healthier baby formulas and cooling socks to wear in hot weather.

Yet the space shuttle program often doesn’t get recognized for its science and technology, NASA says. And shuttle-based science will come to a halt when Atlantis — carrying mouse stem cell and vaccine experiments — comes home from its final mission on Thursday.

The space shuttle was crucial in building the International Space Station. In its years of operation, the station has benefited virtually every branch of science, from medical science to biology to astrophysics. Astronauts on the station are currently conducting a groundbreaking antimatter experiment, thanks to materials provided by a May shuttle mission.

People often overlook the health benefits learned from space travel. Astronauts lose bone strength, have balance problems and weakened immune systems that in many ways are similar to aging. Learning how to combat bone loss on shuttle astronauts with exercise and other activity has helped the Earth-bound.

And don’t forget the Hubble Space Telescope, which changed our understanding of the cosmos and even the age of the universe itself. It was launched with the shuttle, fixed with the shuttle and upgraded four other times by shuttle astronauts. Without the efforts of the shuttles and their crews, our view of the universe would still be fuzzy at best.

One of the most promising spinoff technologies from the space shuttle is the bioreactor. It originally was designed to grow cells and tissue in space for experiments in zero gravity, but it’s used on Earth for research. Bioreactors can grow blood and human tissue in a constantly rotating growth medium that simulates the free fall of zero gravity. In this environment, scientists can direct the growth of artificial tissue in any way they want. It’s a developing technology, and biologists are still unsure where it will lead.

Whether it’s something everyday – the socks you wear in Summer or the formula you feed your baby with, or life-changing – being saved from a car accident – space shuttle technology has effected your life. With the last shuttle mission drawing to a close, keep in mind the benefits of space. Space travel is dangerous and expensive. But it can be a laboratory where being forced outside “the box” can make a world of difference.

Contains information from Associated Press.
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