Posts about government

Computer Code for NASA’s Apollo Guidance System

photo of Margaret Hamilton, NASA

Margaret Hamilton, NASA. Standing next to a printout of the source code she and her team wrote for the Apollo guidance computer that made the moon landings possible.

Meet Margaret Hamilton, the badass ’60s programmer who saved the moon landing

The software for the guidance computer was written by a team at the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory (now the Draper Laboratory), headed up by Margaret Hamilton.

The guidance computer used something known as “core rope memory“: wires were roped through metal cores in a particular way to store code in binary. “If the wire goes through the core, it represents a one,” Hamilton explained in the documentary Moon Machines. “And around the core it represents a zero.” The programs were woven together by hand in factories. And because the factory workers were mostly women, core rope memory became known by engineers as “LOL memory,” LOL standing for “little old lady.”

Hamilton is now 78 and runs Hamilton Technologies, the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based company she founded in 1986. She’s lived to see “software engineering” — a term she coined — grow from a relative backwater in computing into a prestigious profession.

In the early days, women were often assigned software tasks because software just wasn’t viewed as very important. “It’s not that managers of yore respected women more than they do now,” Rose Eveleth writes in a great piece on early women programmers for Smithsonian magazine. “They simply saw computer programming as an easy job. It was like typing or filing to them and the development of software was less important than the development of hardware. So women wrote software, programmed and even told their male colleagues how to make the hardware better.”

My aunt was one of those early software engineers. She wrote a chapter for a book, Programming the IBM 360, in the 1960s. My uncle was one of the first employees at NASA and rose to be one of the senior administrators there over his career.

It is great when society is able to capture the value individuals are capable of providing. We need to make sure we allow everyone opportunities to contribute. We do well in many ways but we also do lose from discrimination and also just making it uncomfortable for people to contribute in certain roles when we need not do so.

We have accomplished great things with software in the last 40 years. We could have accomplished more if we had done a better job of allowing women to contribute to the efforts in this field.

Related: The Eagle Has LandedBarbara Liskov wins Turing AwardGreat Self Portrait by Astronaut with Earth Reflected in His Visor

80% of the Antibiotics in the USA are Used in Agriculture and Aquaculture

Citing an overabundance in the use of antibiotics by the agriculture and aquaculture industries that poses a threat to public health, economics professor Aidan Hollis has proposed a solution in the form of user fees on the non-human use of antibiotics.

In a newly released paper published (closed science, sadly, so no link provide), Hollis and co-author Ziana Ahmed state that in the United States 80% of the antibiotics in the country are consumed in agriculture and aquaculture for the purpose of increasing food production.

This flood of antibiotics released into the environment – sprayed on fruit trees and fed to the likes of livestock, poultry and salmon, among other uses – has led bacteria to evolve, Hollis writes. Mounting evidence cited in the journal shows resistant pathogens are emerging in the wake of this veritable flood of antibiotics – resulting in an increase in bacteria that is immune to available treatments.

If the problem is left unchecked, this will create a health crisis on a global scale, Hollis says.

Hollis suggest that the predicament could be greatly alleviated by imposing a user fee on the non-human uses of antibiotics, similar to the way in which logging companies pay stumpage fees and oil companies pay royalties.

“Modern medicine relies on antibiotics to kill off bacterial infections,” explains Hollis. “This is incredibly important. Without effective antibiotics, any surgery – even minor ones – will become extremely risky. Cancer therapies, similarly, are dependent on the availability of effective antimicrobials. Ordinary infections will kill otherwise healthy people.”

Bacteria that can effectively resist antibiotics will thrive, Hollis adds, reproducing rapidly and spreading in various ways.

“It’s not just the food we eat,” he says. “Bacteria is spread in the environment; it might wind up on a doorknob. You walk away with the bacteria on you and you share it with the next person you come into contact with. If you become infected with resistant bacteria, antibiotics won’t provide any relief.”

While the vast majority of antibiotic use has gone towards increasing productivity in agriculture, Hollis asserts that most of these applications are of “low value.”

“It’s about increasing the efficiency of food so you can reduce the amount of grain you feed the cattle,” says Hollis. “It’s about giving antibiotics to baby chicks because it reduces the likelihood that they’re going to get sick when you cram them together in unsanitary conditions.

“These methods are obviously profitable to the farmers, but that doesn’t mean it’s generating a huge benefit. In fact, the profitability is usually quite marginal.

“The real value of antibiotics is saving people from dying. Everything else is trivial.”

While banning the use of antibiotics in food production is challenging, establishing a user fee makes good sense, according to Hollis.

Such a practice would deter the low-value use of antibiotics, with higher costs encouraging farmers to improve their animal management methods and to adopt better substitutes for the drugs, such as vaccinations.

Hollis also suggests that an international treaty could ideally be imposed. “Resistant bacteria do not respect national borders,” he says. He adds that such a treaty might have a fair chance of attaining international compliance, as governments tend to be motivated by revenue collection.

Hollis notes that in the USA, a move has been made to control the non-human use of antibiotics, with the FDA recently seeking voluntary limits on the use of antibiotics for animal growth promotion on farms.

Related: Raising Food Without AntibioticsOur Dangerous Antibiotic Practices Carry Great RisksWhat Happens If the Overuse of Antibiotics Leads to Them No Longer Working?Antibiotics Too Often Prescribed for Sinus Woes

Deadly Trio of Acidification, Warming and Deoxygenation Threaten Our Oceans

An international panel of marine scientists is demanding urgent remedies to halt ocean degradation based on findings that the rate, speed and impacts of change in the global ocean are greater, faster and more imminent
than previously thought.

Professor Dan Laffoley, International Union for Conservation of Nature, said: “What these latest reports make absolutely clear is that deferring action will increase costs in the future and lead to even greater, perhaps irreversible, losses. The UN climate report confirmed that the ocean is bearing the brunt of human-induced changes to our planet. These findings give us more cause for alarm – but also a roadmap for action. We must use it.“

Results from the latest International Programme on the State of the Ocean (IPSO)/IUCN review of science on anthropogenic stressors on the ocean go beyond the conclusion reached last week by the UN climate change panel the IPCC that the ocean is absorbing much of the warming and unprecedented levels of carbon dioxide and warn that the cumulative impact of this with other ocean stressors is far graver than previous estimates.

Decreasing oxygen levels in the ocean caused by climate change and nitrogen runoff, combined with other chemical pollution and rampant overfishing are undermining the ability of the ocean to withstand these so-called ‘carbon perturbations’, meaning its role as Earth’s ‘buffer’ is seriously compromised.

Professor Alex Rogers of Somerville College, Oxford, and Scientific Director of IPSO said: “The health of the ocean is spiraling downwards far more rapidly than we had thought. We are seeing greater change, happening faster, and the effects are more imminent than previously anticipated. The situation should be of the gravest concern to everyone since everyone will be affected by changes in the ability of the ocean to support life on Earth.”

Among the latest assessments of factors affecting ocean health, the panel identified the following areas as of greatest cause for concern:
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Anti-Science Politics in Australia, Canada and the UK

Age of Unreason by George Monbiot

The governments of Britain, Canada and Australia are trying to stamp out scientific dissent.

in Canada… scientists with government grants working on any issue that could affect industrial interests – tar sands, climate change, mining, sewage, salmon farms, water trading – are forbidden to speak freely to the public(17,18,19). They are shadowed by government minders and, when they must present their findings, given scripts to memorise and recite(20). Dozens of turbulent research programmes and institutes have either been cut to the bone or closed altogether(21).

In Australia, the new government has chosen not to appoint a science minister(22). Tony Abbott, who once described manmade climate change as “absolute crap”(23), has already shut down the government’s Climate Commission and Climate Change Authority(24).

Follow the link for sources. Sadly governments are fighting for the crown of how anti-science they can be. It isn’t a matter of the countries that are doing a good job and a better job of using scientific understanding to aid in policy decisions. It is a matter of how extreme the anti-science crowds are in each country.

Trashing the scientific method and the use of scientific knowledge to pursue a pre-determined political agenda is a foolhardy action putting political expediency above effectiveness. Making political judgement, considering the available scientific research is fine, and will result in some people being upset. But the extremely bad process behind ignoring and intentionally sabotaging the use of data and scientific thinking is extremely harmful to society.

Every man has a right to his own opinion, but no man has a right to be wrong in his facts.
– Bernard Baruch (Daniel Patrick Moynihan said something very similar later)

Related: The Politics of Anti-Science (USA focus)Science and Engineering in PoliticsStand with Science: Late is Better than NeverScience and Engineering in Global Economics

Scientific Research Spending Cuts in the USA and Increases Overseas are Tempting Scientists to Leave the USA

Unlimited Potential, Vanishing Opportunity

Globally, the United States invests more real dollars in research and development than any other country. However, in terms of percentage of gross domestic product, the United States is reducing its investment in scientific research. In fact, of the 10 countries investing the most money in scientific research, the United States is the only country that has reduced its investment in scientific research as a percentage of GDP since 2011.

The study by 16 scientific societies surveyed 3,700 scientists in the USA. As a result of the difficult research funding environment 20% of the scientists are considering going overseas to continue their research careers.

I have written about the likelihood of the USA’s leadership position in science, engineering and technology diminishing. As I stated (see links below), it seemed obvious many other countries were more committed to investing in science now than the USA was (which is different than decades ago when the USA was the country most committed). Various factors would determine how quickly others would shrink the USA’s lead including whether they could setup the infrastructure (scientific, social and economic) and how much damage the anti-science politicians elected in the USA do.

The advantages of being the leader in scientific and engineering research and development are huge and long term. The USA has been coasting on the advantages built up decades ago and the benefits still poor into the USA economy. However, the USA has continued to take economically damaging actions due to the anti-science politics of many who we elect. That is going to be very costly for the USA. The losses will also accelerate sharply when the long term investments others are making bear significant fruit. Once the economic impact is obvious the momentum will continue in that direction for a decade or two even if the USA finally realizes the mistake and learns to appreciate the importance of investing in science.

The good news is that many other countries are making wise investments in science. Humanity will benefit from those investments. The downside of the decisions to cut investments in science (and to actively ignore scientific knowledge) in the USA are largely to move much of the economic gains to other countries, which is regrettable for the future economy of the USA.

Related: Economic Strength Through Technology LeadershipScience, Engineering and the Future of the American EconomyGlobal Scientific LeadershipCompetition to Create Scientific Centers of ExcellenceEngineering the Future EconomyWorldwide Science and Engineering Doctoral Degree Data (2005)

Another Bee Study Finds CCD is Likely Due to Combination of Factors Including Pesticides

Abstract of open access science paper funded by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Crop Pollination Exposes Honey Bees to Pesticides Which Alters Their Susceptibility to the Gut Pathogen Nosema ceranae:

Recent declines in honey bee populations and increasing demand for insect-pollinated crops raise concerns about pollinator shortages. Pesticide exposure and pathogens may interact to have strong negative effects on managed honey bee colonies. Such findings are of great concern given the large numbers and high levels of pesticides found in honey bee colonies. Thus it is crucial to determine how field-relevant combinations and loads of pesticides affect bee health.

We collected pollen from bee hives in seven major crops to determine 1) what types of pesticides bees are exposed to when rented for pollination of various crops and 2) how field-relevant pesticide blends affect bees’ susceptibility to the gut parasite Nosema ceranae. Our samples represent pollen collected by foragers for use by the colony, and do not necessarily indicate foragers’ roles as pollinators. In blueberry, cranberry, cucumber, pumpkin and watermelon bees collected pollen almost exclusively from weeds and wildflowers during our sampling.

Thus more attention must be paid to how honey bees are exposed to pesticides outside of the field in which they are placed. We detected 35 different pesticides in the sampled pollen, and found high fungicide loads. The insecticides esfenvalerate and phosmet were at a concentration higher than their median lethal dose in at least one pollen sample. While fungicides are typically seen as fairly safe for honey bees, we found an increased probability of Nosema infection in bees that consumed pollen with a higher fungicide load.

Our results highlight a need for research on sub-lethal effects of fungicides and other chemicals that bees placed in an agricultural setting are exposed to.

The attempts to discover the main causes of bee colony deaths and find solutions continues to prove difficult years after the problems became major. The complex interaction of many variables makes it difficult. And special interest groups pushing pesticides and the like, which have seemed to be major contributors to the problem for years, make it even more difficult (by preventing restrictions on potentially damaging pesticide use).

The challenges in determining what is killing bees are similar to the challenges of discovering what practices are damaging human health. The success of studying complex biological interactions (to discover threats to human health) is extremely limited. I am concerned we are far too caviler about using large numbers of interventions (drugs, pesticides, massive antibiotics use in factory farms, pollution…).

Related: Europe Bans Certain Pesticides, USA Just Keeps Looking, Bees Keep DyingGermany Bans Chemicals Linked to Bee Deaths (2008)Virus Found to be One Likely Factor in Bee Colony Colapse Disorder (2007)Study of the Colony Collapse Disorder Continues as Bee Colonies Continue to Disappear

Europe Bans Certain Pesticides, USA Just Keeps Looking, Bees Keep Dying

For years the bee colony collapse disorder has been showing the difficulty of the scientific inquiry process. And that difficulty often becomes more difficult if interests with lots of money at stake want to block certain conclusions.

One-Third of U.S. Honeybee Colonies Died Last Winter, Threatening Food Supply

Multiple factors — pesticides, fungicides, parasites, viruses and malnutrition — are believed to cause the losses, which were officially announced today by a consortium of academic researchers, beekeepers and Department of Agriculture scientists.

“We’re getting closer and closer to the point where we don’t have enough bees in this country to meet pollination demands,” said entomologist Dennis vanEngelstorp of the University of Maryland, who led the survey documenting the declines.

Beekeepers lost 31 percent of their colonies in late 2012 and early 2013, roughly double what’s considered acceptable attrition through natural causes. The losses are in keeping with rates documented since 2006, when beekeeper concerns prompted the first nationwide survey of honeybee health. Hopes raised by drop in rates of loss to 22 percent in 2011-2012 were wiped out by the new numbers.

Most losses reported in the latest survey, however, don’t actually fit the CCD profile. And though CCD is largely undocumented in western Europe, honeybee losses there have also been dramatic. In fact, CCD seems to be declining, even as total losses mount. The honeybees are simply dying.

“Even if CCD went away, we’d still have tremendous losses,” said entomologist Diana Cox-Foster at Pennsylvania State University. “CCD losses are like the straw that breaks the camel’s back. The system has many other issues.”

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CDC Again Stresses Urgent Need to Adjust Practices or Pay a Steep Price

Untreatable and hard-to-treat infections from Carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE) germs are on the rise among patients in medical facilities. CRE germs have become resistant to all or nearly all the antibiotics we have today. Types of CRE include Klebsiella pneumoniae Carbapenemase (KPC) and New Delhi metallo-beta-lactamase (NDM). By following the United States Center for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines, we can slow the penetration of CRE infections in hospitals and other medical facilities and potentially spread to otherwise healthy people outside of medical facilities.

The CDC has worked with hospitals to successfully apply these measures. The CDC worked with Florida to stop a year-long CRE outbreak in a long-term acute care hospital. With the improved use of CDC recommendations (such as educating staff; dedicating staff, rooms, and equipment to patients with CRE; and improving use of gloves and gowns) the percentage of patients who got CRE at the facility dropped from 44% to 0.

One travesty has been how poorly health care professionals have been about prescribe antibiotics wisely We need to improve and follow CDC antibiotics guidelines (stop the overuse of antibiotics) and use culture results (for patients undergoing treatment) to modify prescriptions, if needed. Antibiotic overuse contributes to the growing problems of Clostridium difficile (c-diff) infection and antibiotic resistance in healthcare facilities. Studies indicate that nearly 50% of antimicrobial use in hospitals is unnecessary or inappropriate (per CDC web site).

Israel decreased CRE infection rates in all 27 of its hospitals by more than 70% in one year with a coordinated prevention program. The USA is at a critical time in which CRE infections could be controlled if addressed in a rapid, coordinated, and consistent effort by doctors, nurses, lab staff, medical facility leadership, health departments/states, policy makers, and the federal government.

As I have been saying for years the damage we are creating due to our actions around the use and abuse of antibiotics is likely to kill tens of thousands, or more people. Because the deaths are delayed and often not dramatic we have continued dangerous practices for years when we know better. It is a shame we are condemning so many to increased risks. The CDC, and others, are doing good work, unfortunately too much bad work is continuing in the face of evidence of how dangerous that is.

Related: CDC Urges Increased Effort to Reduce Drug-Resistant Infections (2006)Key scientific articles on Healthcare Associated Infections via CDCOur Dangerous Antibiotic Practices Carry Great RisksDangerous Drug-Resistant Strains of TB are a Growing Threat

Smoking Bans at Work and Public Places Result in Significant Drops in Hospitalization for Heart Attacks, Strokes and Asthma.

Laws that end smoking at work and other public places result in significantly fewer hospitalizations for heart attacks, strokes, asthma and other respiratory conditions, a new UCSF analysis has found.

The research provides evidence that smoke-free laws that cover workplaces, restaurants and bars have the biggest impacts on hospitalizations, reduce health care costs and also raise quality of life, the researchers said. The research is published in closed science journal; for an “association” (when you act as though your focus is just growing your income I have trouble seeing the claim for being an association as legitimate) to do that is particularly pitiful. Adding to the sad commentary on the lack of respect for open scient this is research done by a “public” university with grants from the federal government. So sad how little some that should care about science do when it conflicts with their outdated notions of how to publicize research. We really should not tolerate such behavior.

“The public, health professionals, and policy makers need to understand that including exemptions and loopholes in legislation — such as exempting casinos — condemns more people to end up in emergency rooms,” said senior author Stanton A. Glantz, UCSF professor of medicine and director of the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at UCSF. “These unnecessary hospitalizations are the real cost of failing to enact comprehensive smoke-free legislation,” he said.

The inquiry consisted of a meta-analysis of 45 studies published prior to Nov. 30, 2011. Altogether, the research covered 33 different smoke-free-laws in cities and states around the United States as well as several countries, including New Zealand and Germany. The laws variously prohibit smoking in such public spots as restaurants, bars, and the workplace.

The authors found that comprehensive smoke-free laws were followed rapidly by significantly lower rates of hospital admissions than before the laws went into force:

  • A 15% drop in heart attack hospitalizations;
  • A 16% drop in stroke hospitalizations;
  • A 24% drop in hospitalizations for respiratory diseases including asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

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Robot Prison Guards in South Korea

photo of robot prison guard

Robotic prison wardens to patrol South Korean prison

The one-month trial will cost 1bn won (£554,000) and is being sponsored by the South Korean government. It is the latest in a series of investments made by the state to develop its robotics industry.

The country’s Ministry of Knowledge Economy said in January that it had spent the equivalent of £415m on research in the sector between 2002 and 2010. It said the aim was to compete with other countries, such as Japan, which are also exploring the industry’s potential.

In October the ministry said the Korean robot market had recorded 75% growth over the past two years and was now worth about £1 billion…

The potential market for robotics is huge. Smart countries are investing in becoming the centers for excellence in that area. Japan and South Korea may well be in the lead. The USA, Germany and China also have strong communities.

Related: Robot Finds Lost Shoppers and Provides DirectionsThe Robotic Dog (2008 post)Soft Morphing Robot FutureHonda’s Robolegs Help People WalkRoachbot: Cockroach Controlled Robot

Apply to be an Astronaut

Are you looking to change jobs? NASA is seeking outstanding scientists, engineers (job announcement closed so broken link removed), and other talented professionals to carry forward the great discovery process that its mission demands. Creativity. Ambition. Teamwork. A sense of daring. Curiosity. That’s what it takes to join NASA, one of the best places to work in the Federal Government.

photo of astronaut's faceplate reflecting earth

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has a need for Astronaut Candidates to support the International Space Station Program and future deep space exploration activities.

In 1959 NASA selected its first group of 7 astronaut candidates. Since then 20 additional classes have been selected; bringing the total number of astronaut candidates to 330.

The astronauts of the 21st century will continue to work aboard the International Space Station in cooperation with our international partners; help to build and fly a new NASA vehicle, the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) designed for human deep space exploration; and further NASA’s efforts to partner with industry to provide a commercial capability for space transportation to the space station.

NASA is in the process of identifying possible near-Earth asteroids to explore with the goal of visiting an asteroid in 2025. With that goal, and keeping in mind that the plan is to send a robotic precursor mission to the asteroid approximately five years before humans arrive, NASA will need to select the first set of targets to explore within the next decade.

Requirement include: Applicants for the Astronaut Candidate Program must meet the basic education requirements for NASA engineering and scientific positions, specifically: successful completion of standard professional curriculum in an accredited college or university leading to at least a bachelor’s degree with major study in an appropriate field of engineering, biological science, physical science, or mathematics.

Related: NASA Robotics AcademyNASA’s Mars Curiosity RoverAstronaut Drops a Hammer and Feather on the Moon

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