Category: writing stuff

I’m very selective (on the verge of Luddite) in my embrace of online tools and technology – somewhat unfortunate, given my line of work, as the road to freelancer success can be somewhat more smoothly paved for those of us who hurl ourselves vigorously into the blogosphere or Twitterverse whatever hackneyed ‘social media’ + ‘topographic delineation’ construct you may prefer. There are many reasons I fundamentally dislike Facebook and Twitter, but it’s often hard for me to express them lucidly without descending into visceral “you’re a big doody-head” level arguments.

I am, in fact, on Facebook. Furthermore, I go on every single morning, primarily because I’ve learned the hard way that it’s the only way to find out whether people I know are getting hired, fired, married, divorced, pregnant, exiled, executed or canonized. And it has that little birthday box on the right. But I would say that only a vanishingly small percentage of my friends know how to use Facebook the way I would want to use it – posting interesting, thoughtful articles and provoking stimulating discussion with people I wish I knew. Otherwise, it’s like a cross between the world’s longest no-cover open-mic night and the comments section of YouTube. Likewise with Twitter – I am not personally on Twitter, but I do use it to, for example, get ‘behind the scenes’ information from scientific meetings or product launch events. But then I have to roam through endless repetitive retweets and sad, sad attempts at “wit”. And god save us all from #hashtaghumor.

This is why the idea of ‘social search’ scares me – even though tech pundits seem to love the concept so. So few people are looking for exactly what I want, and almost none of my friends does exactly what I do, and everybody’s idea of what’s ‘important’ and ‘interesting’ is miles apart from everbody else’s, with the convergence of this messy Venn diagram unfortunately landing squarely on lolcats and the Harlem Shake. If this kind of ‘digital democracy’ determines what comes up on top of my list, it’s going to take me ten times as long to find anything I need – if I ever find it at all.

And this, in turn, is why I love, love, love Google Reader. Love it.

I’m a Google partisan anyway – Android phone, Chrome browser, Google as homepage – but there is no single page I spend more time on. In the last five years, I have put together a magnificently manicured collection of feeds for both business and pleasure. For my work as a journalist, it’s critical – I can’t even begin to count how many times I’ve started my day stumbling across a story or two that is directly relevant to an assignment I’m working on. My other option is to go to each journal homepage, science blog and science news website every day and try to figure out what’s been updated. Open about three or six dozen browser tabs, because otherwise I can’t keep track of what I haven’t read yet, and hope I remember to ever look at them again. Then, when it’s time to take a break and goof off, let’s just slap a few dozen more tabs up there, because I can’t be spending all day goofing off, but there’s so much new stuff on Cracked and AV Club… Google Reader is my salvation; an hour or two every morning, and maybe a half hour in the afternoon, and I can economically blast through information that would take me eight hours or more to find otherwise. And of course, I have it on my Android phone, so I can never be far from my precious, precious feeds.

But now that’s done. As the nerds among you – and who else is visiting my website, anyway? – know, Google has decided that I should instead find my information by stumbling across whatever articles the five people I know on Google + are reading. Oh, or I suppose I could let Facebook and Twitter show me what to read. Probably something about cats. Cats are funny.

I think this headline from The Guardian puts it better than anybody else I’ve seen so far: “Killing Google Reader is like killing the bees.” This is a tool for primary productivity. It’s like when you hear all the wonderful shiny news about how the new media will kill off the dinosaur tree-killing old media. Yes, there’s lots and lots of room for complaint about newspapers and magazines, and there’s a lot to be said for the fast upload, fast update means of information dissemination… except that probably 75% of all of the news being dissected and re-analyzed online was first broken by reporters and editors working at ‘old media’ institutions. You know – the bees.

Maybe it’s a touch melodramatic – the RSS format isn’t dead, after all. But without the momentum of a unified Google Reader community behind it, who knows how long that will last. This will almost certainly be the last time I ever write these words, but perhaps Hitler put it best:

UPDATED: Oh, and if you’d also like to join in the quixotic battle against a massive global corporation dizzy with its own power, please sign this petition at “Keep Google Reader Running.” It’s almost up to 150,000 signatures…

One of my two articles in the November issue of Nature Biotechnology looks at some of the cool stuff that’s going on right now with wearable wireless medical sensors that can track and transmit data about cardiac health, blood sugar and even brain activity to a smart phone for the benefit of patients, their family members and their caregivers.

Among the most commonly cited challenges in bringing these tools forward is providing adequate power to drive both the device and to enable routine data transmission to ensure that the wearer is getting a real-time ‘story’ of physiological changes. We all know that even while technology just gets more powerful and versatile, batteries have more or less continued to suck, and the folks who have been trying to create fully functional medical devices that are essentially small enough to be taped onto your body with a Band-Aid have really been grappling with this. Julian Penders at Belgium’s IMEC research institute is deeply immersed in the world of so-called ‘body area networks’, the design of wireless electronics for physiological monitoring, and a lot of his team’s efforts are particularly focused on this problem and in particular on the idea of moving away from conventional batteries altogether. He told me:

“There has been quite a lot of work in terms of energy harvesting… the dream is to have wearable devices that can be used for an entire lifetime without having to charge them. We’ve been looking into thermal harvesting, radiofrequency harvesting and harvesting of energy from vibrations. We’re not at the point where we can have a fully autonomous system, but I would say that the gap between consumption and generation and harvesting of power is really shrinking. We are on the order of 1 milliwatt for a wearable electrocardiograph, and what we can generate in terms of harvesting is typically on the order of around 100 microwatts – we still have a factor of ten to bridge, but this gap has become much easier to cross.”

Obviously, this is really cool stuff – the equivalent of a body-powered ‘perpetual motion machine’ (or at least as perpetual as things get for we mere mortals). Plus, it’s just one less thing to worry about when your doctor is worried about making sure your heart is working properly 24/7.

An early iteration of IMEC’s wearable ECG patch.

If only I’d been able to wait another month! Just in the past week, a pair of research teams have presented two completely different mechanisms for continuously harvesting power to drive an on-body medical device. The first of these appeared in the exact same issue of Nature Biotech as my article.

MIT’s Anantha Chandrakasan and Konstantina Stankovic of the Massachusetts Eye & Ear Infirmary took advantage of a source of natural electrical power within the inner ear. The cochlea is a snail shell-shaped structure where vibrations received at the eardrum get translated into neural impulses to the auditory cortex of the brain. It contains two types of fluid with different ionic concentrations, separated by a membrane, resulting in a voltage potential of 70-100 millivolts. This endocochlear potential (EP) is a critical component for the generation of electrical signals in response to sounds and therefore must be stably maintained, making it a promising biological battery for ear implants.

Of course, this requires accessing the cochlea and connecting electrodes to the biological ‘anode’ and ‘cathode’ without interfering with normal ear function – no mean feat. But in a series of experiments with guinea pigs (as in actual research guinea pigs, not unwary humans), Stankovic and Chandrakasan pulled it off.

(from Nature Biotechnology)

As Penders remarked, making electronics that can get by with what the body provides is a singular challenge, and the researchers here devised a custom semiconductor chip that can work with the approximately 1.1-6.3 nanowatts generated by the guinea pig EP – including a remarkable wireless radio transmitter that requires only 46 picowatts of standby power, and is estimated to be in ‘active mode’ only 0.0001% of the time.  The initial test was only a proof of concept, showing that the chip could run and transmit a wireless signal for at least five hours continuously. Importantly, the authors observed some impairment of hearing, and note that:

“Our data imply that major improvements in low-impedance, small-diameter electrode design would be required to allow long-term energy extraction from the EP without causing long-term cellular trauma during electrode insertion.”

Nevertheless, it’s a very exciting demonstration both of sensor miniaturization and a promising potential mechanism for the long-term operation of cochlear implants and other inner-ear-based sensors in the future. Especially since most of the immediate challenges appear to relate to electrode miniaturization, an area where device manufacturers are making remarkably steady progress.

The second study, although more preliminary, is exciting because it’s targeted for use in cardiac pacemakers, which are the most widely-used medical implants currently on the market: according to a recent article in the American Heart Association’s journal Circulation, there are roughly three million people with implanted pacemakers worldwide. However, with a battery life of five to ten years, many patients can anticipate having to undergo replacement surgery at least once in their lifetime. As an alternative, M. Amin Karami of the University of Michigan is looking into piezoelectric harvesting – drawing power generated from vibrations. Last winter, Karami and his UMich colleague Daniel Inman published an article in Applied Physics Letters, describing how energy obtained from heartbeats might be transformed into a stable reservoir of long-term power for implanted pacemakers. More recently, they presented findings at the American Heart Association showing that their piezoelectric harvester, which is half the size of existing pacemaker batteries, could obtain ten times the power required to operate a pacemaker from the range of vibrations generated by a typical heart. Although these devices have not yet been put to the test in animal studies, this demonstration suggests a promising road forward for pacemakers as well as implanted defibrillators.

It’s definitely nice to think that there may be at least one aspect of our lives where bitching about lousy battery life might soon become a thing of the past – especially if it’s for technology designed to help keep us alive.

People Power

Here’s another one that ‘got away’ – an article on various stem cell therapy-based approaches for multiple sclerosis that I wrote this past August, originally slated for a special collection that fell through at more or less the last minute. Since it doesn’t seem like that project is going to be resuscitated at the moment or any point in the near future, here is the final draft of that article…

* * * * * *

The remarkable potential of stem cells to develop into healthy adult tissue has led many people to view them as a biomedical Wizard of Oz, ready to grant them a healthy new heart or brain on demand—a perception fuelled by fevered media coverage extolling their vast therapeutic potential. But as with the Great and Powerful Oz, misconceptions abound regarding the present capabilities of stem cell-based therapies, and some patients with serious degenerative disorders such as multiple sclerosis (MS) are finding themselves disappointed once they actually peer behind the curtain.

“Most of the patients that come to us ask me to give them stem cells because they want to walk again,” says Antonio Uccelli, a neuroimmunologist performing clinical stem cell research at Italy’s University of Genoa. “Patients are mesmerized by the hope that stem cell treatment is a treatment for regenerating tissue, and it’s difficult to convince them otherwise.”

(more after the jump)

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Just published a new piece in Nature about ongoing research into the role of telomeres in human health, and you can read it here. As usual, I wrote much more than made it to the final version (what can I say, I’m a man of many words), and one of the casualties of the cut was an entire section on anti-aging therapeutics that supposedly work by ratcheting up telomerase activity.

Now, although the link between telomere shortening and age-related tissue degeneration appears to be relatively robust, it’s clearly a gross oversimplification to see telomere length as a sole driver of the overall aging process or as any kind of simple quantitative metric of ‘biological age’. But that hasn’t stopped several companies from attempting to capitalize on the general public’s limited understanding – and the extreme complexity – of telomere biology.

Boy, that stupid scientific community really burns my britches... what with all their "theories" and "experiments". Jerks.

(image from here)

Many of these products claim to harness “Nobel prize-winning technology”… such as Reneuve, which consists (for some reason) of pig thymus glands in grain alcohol with elderberry and currant juice. Yummers! Oh, wait… I meant to say, rejuvenating! Apparently, the idea is that you’re taking invigorating porcine telomerase with every delicious sip. But, you say, how on earth would eating glandular extracts manage to deliver telomerase enzyme intact into the nuclei of cells in every tissue of my body? Here’s the brain-melting explanation:
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From the ScienceInsider blog comes the truly depressing news that The Scientist will be no more. They quote CEO Vitek Tracz with an utterly unsurprising explanation:

The only reason is economic – we simply could not find a way to make it pay. There is no other reason. It has wonderful and talented staff, an audience that likes it, and it succeeded in keeping high editorial and production standards for many years. The world is turning away from traditional magazines, and our dependence on page advertising brought us to this point.

One of the toughest aspects of working at Seed was that feeling of watching disaster unfold in slow motion, as the magazine gradually fell apart in spite of all the incredibly talented and motivated writers and editors who were struggling to keep it alive. A lot of it came down to an ongoing series of bad business decisions by the company as a whole – which I won’t get into – but a lot of it also simply boiled down to the harsh realities of publishing. But the audience was certainly there… and enthusiastic, to boot. If I had a dime for every person who told me, “Oh, Seed? I loved that magazine!”…? Depressing.

But this is the reality now – I’m very lucky that I manage to find regular work and sustain myself as a freelancer, even as the number of mainstream outlets for science writing continues to dwindle steadily and rapidly. It’s sad to go to Barnes & Noble and see that the ‘Science’ section in the periodicals pretty much consists of Scientific American and National Geographic and Sky News (for the astronomy geeks), possibly New Scientist, and… Cat Fancy.

Wired, of course, being a “technology” magazine, enjoys much much more company in a different section, and as such, appears to be doing just fine thank you very much. So at least there’s that. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for a brighter future as new web- and iPad- and other device-oriented news platforms emerge (especially since it’s clear I’ll never survive as a full-time blogger!), but in the meantime, it probably wouldn’t hurt to start updating my resume…

UPDATE (18 Oct): Looks like the Old Boy got a reprieveLabX, a company that runs what appears to be a Craigslist for lab equipment (minus, hopefully, the ‘Casual Encounters’) and publishes LabManager magazine, has acquired The Scientist and apparently intends to keep publishing the magazine with editorial staff intact. Seems like an odd fit to me, but apparently they will keep things rolling along as they are without any obvious disruption, so I’ll just take the good news wherever I can get it…

Another fallen soldier…

A new piece up over at JustGarciaHill, based on an interview I conducted with Kweisi Mfume, former Maryland congressman and president of the NAACP, and current executive director of the National Medical Association. As a grizzled veteran of the ridiculous Clinton administration-era wars over medical insurance reform, Mr. Mfume is remarkably well-informed about healthcare policy and he took the time to share his opinions with me regarding the Obama administration’s PPACA legislation (and its failings) as well as the larger issues of addressing the severe racial/ethnic healthcare disparities that are widespread in America. Check it out

I’ve got a new article in Nature that should be out in the next few weeks, and I’m working on a few other projects right now that are still in the early stages… there’s one in particular I’m rather excited about, but no more news on that until I’ve made a bit more progress.

Some updates

Two new pieces up in the February issue of Nature Biotechnology. The first is a short news piece about the synthetic biology regulatory recommendations from the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, which was mostly remarkable in that everybody I spoke to seemed pretty darn satisfied with them, which is always a pleasant surprise when it comes to government oversight of research.

The other is a much longer feature about new ways of getting antibody and antibody-like drugs into the body, as an alternative to making patients sit through a 4-hour IV drip every week or so… especially for cases where you’re just trying to target a particular tissue or organ, and don’t necessarily want to dump tremendous amounts of antibody into the bloodstream to hit it. This was pretty interesting stuff for me, since I don’t venture into the pharma world too much, but I was a bit sad that one of my favorite parts of the piece had to be cut due to my old arch-nemesis, length constraints. A quick overview of the cut section after the jump…
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Edible antibodies

OK, I’ve given up on pretending that I’m gonna be regularly blogging away over here… I’m finally enjoying a little break in the action, with a couple of pieces slated for publication over the next few weeks, and additional ‘spare time’ writing is not on the agenda just now.

HOWEVER. It is a good time for a spot of Winter Cleaning around here, most notably on my Writing Portfolio page. The old one was bland and ugly and it made my soul bleed to look at it, so I’ve cleaned it up quite a bit and added some pretty pictures. I won’t pretend that my aesthetic sensibility is matched by my web-design acumen, but hopefully the improvement will be clear even to the casual visitor (the only kind I get around here, I’d imagine).

I’ll hopefully be doing some more touch-up in the days ahead, especially if the weather around here turns out as nasty as everybody seems to expect it will…


A few weeks ago, I published a short interview/profile of National Medal of Science recipient Warren Washington over at JustGarciaHill. I haven’t done one of these in ages, but I got a lot of practice in the past when I used to write a regular monthly feature on the history of some ‘classic’ molecular biology techniques, for which I’d track down and interview the folks who made it all happen. In some cases, it was pretty straightforward to track them down because they’d have gone on to win a Nobel or become head of Caltech or something like that, but in other cases they’d retire or leave science or otherwise drop off the map, and I’d have to pull a bit of a Sam Spade to make it happen. I remember at least one case where the guy I was looking for had left research more than a decade ago, and the only way I found him was through his membership in a Scottish beekeeping organization that happened (against all probability) to be maintaining a well-updated public website. Dr. Washington fell plainly in the former camp – he’s been at NCAR for decades, and is a regular on the lecture and interview circuit. He was very nice and helpful and although there were no shockers or scandals in this write-up to spice things up, he’s an interesting guy and it was definitely a fun change of pace.

I also published a news feature in this month’s Nature Biotechnology about the recently issued government guidelines on how synthetic DNA companies should screen orders and customers in an effort to intercept purchases that might be put to dubious use by shady individuals. A big motive force behind this document was the mini-scandal brewed up by a UK Guardian reporter back in 2006, when he managed to purchase a small segment of the variola (smallpox) virus genome with a personal credit card, and had it sent to a residential address. The DNA itself was harmless – and the reporter managed to rile up synthetic biology luminary Drew Endy with his efforts to enlist the latter’s help in designing a harmless, but smallpox-specific gene order (“Please consider reporting the news instead of creating it,” responded Endy).

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Two new articles

Although I’d hoped to maintain at least a weekly rhythm of posting after I got back from vacation, I’ve instead been completely swamped by work – I’ve just finished three articles for an upcoming issue of Nature, which should be out in print next month. But now I’m in the middle of three entirely new articles that promise to more or less knock me out of commission for another week or two.

Once things settle down a bit, I’ll get back into the blogging thing a bit more routinely. Since my Nature articles were mercilessly cut and compressed for space, I may include some ‘deleted scenes’ here, just because I talked to some pretty interesting people about some really cool stuff. Vague enough for you? Well, that’s all you’re getting for now.