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A Modest Proposal: The Netflix Jury

I received a questionnaire for jury duty yesterday in the mail. It wasnâ''t a summons, though surely it will lead to that. I donâ''t mind. Serving on a jury is one of our few civic duties, a cornerstone of free and fair trials, which itself is a cornerstone of democracy.

The notice says that my name was culled at random from voter registration, driver registration, unemployment, or other social service records. I have no problem with that. But it did make me stop and think. Thatâ''s not a bad way to come up with a jury of my peers â'' I do, after all, vote, drive, and rely on the social safety net from time to time â'' but to really come up with a jury of my peers, how about getting records from Netflix?

Hereâ''s what I have in mind. Netflix already has a system for comparing my movie ratings and the films in my queue to the ratings and queues of every other Netflix subscriber. Itâ''s the basis of, among other things, Netflixâ''s recommendations â'' the feature by which it says, â''Viewers who liked this movie also liked....â''

So in my imagined system, Netflix sends the city a list of every other Netflix subscriber in nearby zipcodes who matches my ratings and queue above a particular threshold. Now that would be a jury of my peers!

Of course, movie preferences track with citizenship only imperfectly. Even among my friends, who I as a defendant would love to see on a jury, there are some with just terrible taste in movies, that is, they disagree with me as to what the best movies are. And, no doubt, plenty of people who share my cinematic tastes and yet would put me behind bars without even listening to the evidence.

So a better system might be to find people who read the news in the same way I do.

Imagine a Website that lets you read current news stories. Every time you click on a headline, the software makes a small note of it. It quickly begins to compile a profile of your newsreading preferences based on these notes and recommends other news stories to you, based on the behavior other people reading news at the site and the profiles it has compiled of them. It then notices whether you click on the recommended stories or not, and so on.

Such a site existed from 2004 to 2007. Called Findory, it was developed by Greg Linden, the author of â''People who Read This Article Also Read....â'' in this monthâ''s issue of Spectrum. Linden wrote Amazon's original recommendation system.

Greg doesnâ''t speculate on the jury-building possibilities of such software, but he does consider its potential for reviving newspapers as that industry moves inexorably online. He describes the thorny technical challenges he and researchers at Google and elsewhere have encountered in designing and applying recommender-software.

Sure, there are grave privacy issues with the idea of Netflix or Findory (or Google or the New York Times) handing our personal information over to the city or any other government. But at least weâ''d know who hereabouts has newsreading habits and preferences that are similar to mine. If I canâ''t have them on my jury, maybe I can at least meet them for dinner â'' and a movie?

Famed Inventor Stirs Confusion in TV Ad

Robert Jarvik is one of those names that has a certain familiar ring to it. We need only hear the phrase "inventor of the artificial heart" before we nod our heads in recognition and murmur, "Ah, yes." So when a prominent pharmaceutical firm hired Jarvik to serve as the national spokesperson for a television ad campaign pitching the benefits of a cholesterol-lowering drug, it seemed like a perfect match of commerce and science.

That lasted about two years before someone started questioning the connection. Earlier this week, those questions, having reached the ears of U.S. government officials, caused the ad campaign to be pulled from the air.

So what's the fuss all about?

In 2006, Pfizer Inc. filmed a commercial for its product Lipitor featuring Jarvik as its pitchman. The ad depicted the 61-year-old doctor pursuing an active lifestyle while narrating the benefits of the statin drug (known generically as atorvastatin). Jarvik is shown going on a run with his son. Then he says: "When I was growing up, I wanted to be an architect. But when my father had a heart attack, I dedicated my life to studying the human heart."

The implication was clear: Jarvik was a cardiologist who had spent his career probing the workings of the heart. Who could be better informed to know that reducing the risk of coronary disease consisted of leading a healthy lifestyle and perhaps taking a cholesterol-lowering statin like Lipitor if prescribed by your doctor? Anyone could understand that.

Here's the thing: It turns out that while Jarvik has a medical degree (from the University of Utah in 1976)--and knows an immense amount about the physiology of the heart--he has never applied for a license to practice medicine. He is, in fact, a biomedical engineer by profession. More specifically, he is an inventor.

He rose to prominence in 1982 when a team led by William DeVries at the University of Utah implanted an artificial heart developed by Jarvik and his mentor Willem J. Kolff into the body of a patient named Barney Clark, a retired dentist. It made international headlines and ushered in the era of total artificial heart replacement. The first patient's progress was followed by the press for months as a modern marvel of medicine. While Clark succumbed eventually to infection, the new electromechanical unit, called the Jarvik-7, became the basis for further developments in the field of life-saving assistive devices.

Jarvik himself set up a number of companies to pursue improvements in the technology. To this day, his reputation rests on his work with the artificial heart, not with the organic original. So, over the last year, some began to question the appropriateness of having an inventor and not a cardiologist making recommendations to millions on TV about the benefits of taking a particular medication for heart health. In January, a Congressional subcommittee opened an inquiry into the matter. And this Monday, Pfizer folded its cards and pulled the ad from the American airwaves.

In his own defense, Jarvik has posted a public statement on his own professional website. In it he notes: "I do not practice clinical medicine and hence do not treat individual patients. My career is in medical science. ... I accepted the role of spokesman for Lipitor because I am dedicated to the battle against heart disease, which killed my father at age 62 and motivated me to become a medical doctor. I believe the process of educating the public is beneficial to many patients and I am pleased to be part of an effort to reach them."

He adds: "I am a medical scientist specializing in advanced technology to treat heart failure who understands that no one in his or her right mind would want an artificial heart if it could be avoided with preventive medicine."

In this particular case, Pfizer's critics may be in the right to suggest the employment of Jarvik could be confusing to consumers looking to learn more about consulting their personal physicians about the use of statins to reduce unhealthy cholesterol as part of an overall heart health plan. Unduly picking on Jarvik (or suggesting he was pretending to be what he is not), though, seems to be a low blow.

This is one doctor who is doing more (and done more) than just playing one on TV.

TechForward's buyback fees helps early adopters keep up with latest consumer electronics fashions

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Over the weekend I relocated my home office. Moving the furniture, computer, files, and books was the easy part. Next comes the hard partâ''cleaning out the crawl space, which, over the years, became a retirement home for obsolete electronics. Theyâ''re not old enough to be historic (the historic electronics are in the attic; I have no idea why Iâ''m still hanging on to my first Kaypro, but itâ''s up there, somewhere). These are just old enough to be pointless.

Iâ''ll likely box most of them up and haul them over to Green Citizen, my local electronics recycler.

And then Iâ''ll make a resolution not to let such a big pile accumulate again. Which will make me a potential customer for TechForward, a Los Angeles-based company that, for a fee, will guarantee to buy my retired electronics, as long as I give them early retirement.

Hereâ''s how it works. If you buy a consumer electronics device, like a computer, an iPod, or a television, you can, for a fee, register that device with TechForward. The company envisions retailers offering you that registration in the same way they offer extended warrantees; a few small retailers have already agreed to do so; theyâ''re hoping to eventually attract big chains, but, in the meantime, you can register your purchase after you take it home. That registration guarantees a buyback price for your device, assuming that it still works. The buyback price drops the longer you hold the item. TechForward will send you packing materials and cover the cost of shipping.

Some examples: A Macbook Pro that lists for $2000 can be guaranteed $59; buyback in six months to one year is set at $740, 18 months to two years at $600. A Sharp 52-inch LCD television that retails between $2000 and $3000 can be guaranteed for $69; buy back in two years is set at $470. An 8-gigabyte iPod Touch that lists at $300 can be guaranteed for $9; buyback in one year is set at $110, buy back in two years is $70. Could you make more selling it on eBay? Probably, but itâ''d be more hassle. If you simply take it to a recycling center, in most cases youâ''ll have to pay a disposal fee, and feel guilty about dumping something that still works. (These days, Iâ''m assuming you wouldnâ''t even think of just tossing it in the trash. Or maybe thatâ''s just a California thing.)

Itâ''s not unthinkable to pay a buyback fee at the time of purchase. Itâ''s the flip side of the extended warrantyâ''the extended warranty pays to fix it if it breaks, this helps you pay for a new device if it doesnâ''t break, it is just made obsolete by a new generation. Itâ''s a cousin of the recycling fee now charged by some states on every purchase of a product with a TV or computer screen.

Right now, with the company so new, itâ''s a slightly risky proposition: you canâ''t be sure the company will be around in a year or two to honor their guarantees. On the plus side, they do have venture backing, from First Round Capital and New Enterprise Associates, so, if youâ''re someone who always has to have the latest and greatest gizmo, this may be a good way to keep your crawl space from looking like mine does right now.

Nanotech Dialogue Seems More Like Simultaneous Monologues

The Los Angeles Times has been running a dialogue on its editorial page between Aatish Salvi, Vice President of the NanoBusiness Alliance (which by the way does have an interactive website now), and George A. Kimbrell, Staff Attorney for the International Center for Technology Assessment.

I suppose the LA Times should be commended for devoting some of its editorial pages to what probably seems a fairly esoteric subject for many: Is nanotechnology good or bad?

Unfortunately, for those who are only slightly informed on the subject they will find that much of the dialogue covers pretty familiar territory.

The format seems to be set up for one of them to make a comment and the next day the other responds, sort of like 60 Minutesâ'' Point/Counterpoint feature back in the 1970s. If you remember that segment and found it informative or entertaining, you might find this to be as well.

What is fascinating about this dialogue is that you never seem to gain a greater understanding of the subject. You follow one line of argument and then another, and you're left with believing one or the other, or both, or neither in my case.

Wouldnâ''t it be more interesting and more informative to have someone that wasnâ''t on one side of the subject or the other? In other words, letâ''s have a scientist, or an enlightened layperson, who wasnâ''t trying to either establish some kind of environmental NGO or start a nanotechnology company or nanotech trade association, discuss the pros and cons of nanotechnology without the obvious bias.

I am not looking for refutation of one side over the other, but some sort of synthesis in which we might come at some better understanding would be preferable...and maybe even more informative for the readers of the LA Times.

The "Nanotechnology Phone" of the Future

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Some of you may remember the light-hearted HP commercials back in 2003 heralding the day that nanotechnology will â''make possible cell phones so small that an ant could use itâ''.

HP was clearly joking but Nokia and Cambridge University are not. They are developing a flexible phone enabled by nanotechnology that could be available in seven years.

The Stuff article linked above continues the tried-and-true practice of mainstream media offering another misguided definition of nanotechnology: â''nanotechnology â'' technology built and assembled at the level of individual atoms.â'' Sighâ'¿

Anyway, aside from quibbling over definitions, Nokia has dubbed the phone â''Morphâ'', and its key attribute will be that itâ''s flexibleâ'¿not that itâ''s really, really small.

This technology builds on the work Professor Mark Welland and his team at Cambridge has been working on for some time: flexible electronics.

For those of you out there who have decided to see if you can hold your breath for seven years until you can get the next big thing in cell phones since the iPhone, well you may want to reconsider. According to Euan Boyd, who is quoted in the article, 20 years seems more like a fair estimation of how long it will take to develop this phone.

Whether itâ''s seven or twenty, I am not sure what the advantage may be in having a flexible phone. The inflexible one I have seems to work fineâ'¿it just runs down the battery far too quickly.

Gecko feet inspire a powerful new band-aid

Geckos can walk on ceilings upside down, performing this gravity-defying feat thanks to their unusual feet, which are ultra sticky. Now researchers at MIT and Harvard have been inspired by the stickiness of gecko feet to design a super sticky, waterproof and biodegradable bandage. This band-aid is so good that it can be used to seal surgical wounds instead of sutures, its inventors say. The bandages would dissolve harmlessly and be absorbed by the body, they say.

The team that developed the bandage was led by Jeff Karp of Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School, and Robert Langer of MIT.

The reason geckos do not drop from the ceiling while scurrying upside down is that the undersides of their feet are covered with hundreds of thousands of tiny hairs, called setae. Each seta tip has thousands of nanoscale projections, which are so small that they allow them to produce the weak molecular interactions known as van der Waals forces. Traces of water that may be present add to this force by producing a capillary force. Taken together, the half a million odd setae on the underside of each gecko foot produce a force powerful enough to make sure that the gecko never falls. It has been estimated that a gecko foot is so sticky that it can lift an infant.

Karp and Langer and colleagues built their medical adhesive with a polymer called PGSA. PGSA is very tough and elastic and biodegrades over a period of weeks. They used semiconductor micropatterning technologyo shape the PGSA into different hill and valleys akin to a gecko's foot.

Karp then added a very thin layer of a sugar-based glue, to create a strong bond even to a wet surface.

Karp and Langer say the bandage is so powerful that there is hope that one day it can be used on the surface of the heart. However, to get to that stage, it will have to be made stickier. The current bandage is only about one-tenth as sticky as a gecko's foot.

Meanwhile, it can be used for closing wounds and cuts due to minor surgery, such as the holes left behind after laparoscopy.

"There is a big need for a tape-based medical adhesive," said Dr Karp.

The new bandage has other advantages. For example, Karp and Langer say it could be infused with drugs such as antibiotics or anti-inflammatory drugs or even stem cells that the bandage can release as it degrades. The elasticity and degradation rate of the PGSA polymer can be controlled, as are the number of setae-like pillars and valleys. This means that the new adhesives can be customized to have the right elasticity, resilience and grip for different medical applications.

"This is an exciting example of how nanostructures can be controlled, and in so doing, used to create a new family of adhesives," said Dr. Langer.

South Florida Blackout: Are More Ahead?

In the wake of the power outages that swept South Florida this afternoon, the usual questions are sure to raise their heads: had Florida Power & Light (FPL) done all it could to enhance and maintain infrastructure in the affected region, with some 6 million inhabitants and perhaps 680,000 affected customers? Was it alert and on top of events today, which was almost record-hot, with summer-like air conditioning loads? Or was it like the sleepy and controversial Ohio utility in whose operating region the great Northeast-Midwest blackout of August 2003 began? Are blackouts inevitable?

An IEEE Spectrum article published in June 2000 drew attention to a crisis in U.S. power systems: everywhere in the country grids were thin-stretched, with additions to transmission and generation lagging behind growth in electricity demand, and with the personnel needed to design and maintain power systems in ever-shorter supply. Since then, some regions have been much more successful than others in building out their power systems and improving their management: New England, for example, has a highly regarded independent system operator, which has successfully overcome political and community obstacles to expand the region's transmission system.

FP&L reports that the South Florida blackout began with troubles at an electricity distribution substation at a nuclear power plant, and that the nuclear reactors shut down, either right before the outage or in response to it. When troubles develop in a the grid, electricity turbines in generating plants spontaneously speed up in an effort to maintain voltage and frequency levels; they can burn out unless they shut themselves down to protect themselves.

Since power systems can easily collapse in reaction to small initiating causes, some argue that large blackouts are mathematically inevitable, that only their scope and consequences can be mitigated. Indignantly, power system specialists reject the counsels of despair. Bloviating blogsters are supposed to know all the answers, but this one is an agnostic.

How would it be like to live on Mars? Two MIT students find out - in Utah

Two MIT students are living inside a Mars simulator in Utah, pretending they are on Mars. To go outside their simulator where they are spending a two-week-long "mission," they get into spacesuits and exit via an airlock.

They introduce a 20-minute delay into any email they send and receive, as if the email were actually traveling as radio waves from Mars.

Zahra Khan and Phillip Cunio, two graduate students from the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, began their stay at the Mars Society's Desert Research Station, near Hanksville, Utah, on Sunday, Feb. 17.

Their goal: to understand the technological and psychological issues that

a crew on Mars will someday face.

Anyone interested in the project can see the team in action via a set of web cams at www.freemars.org/mdrscam.

Cunio is also blogging about his experiences at

exepsilonmars.blogspot.com.

Large Blackout Strikes Southern Florida

A little after 1:00 pm EST today, much of southern Florida lost electricity. CNN began reporting shortly afterward that the blackout affected a region stretching from Daytona in the north to the Florida Keys in the south, impacting the lives of millions of people. The TV news network said that a mix of eight regular and nuclear power plants were affected by the outage.

The blackout has knocked out communications, traffic lights, rail lines, and other vital infrastructure components. Miami International Airport lost power for about a half hour before backup resources kicked in.

Det. Robert Williams, a spokesperson for Miami-Dade County, told CNN, "It has been raining pretty hard, but if that's the cause of the outage, I couldn't really tell you."

A spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security told CNN that the incident had nothing to do with terrorism. "There is no indication of a nexus to terrorism at this time," Laura Keehner said. "[W]e will continue to monitor the situation."

Early speculation pointed to an initial failure at Florida Power and Light's (FPL) Turkey Point nuclear facility near Homestead.

As of 2:30 pm, FPL said that some systems were beginning to come back on line.

MIT's Lunar Telescopes

NASA announced last week that it will fund MIT to build an array of hundreds of radio telescopes over a 2-kilometer stretch of the far side of the moon. The telescopes will probe the "earliest formation of the basic structures of the universe,â'' according to MIT. But many such ambitious projects have started off strong, only to end in a whimper. How likely is this one to get off the ground?

That depends on how important the research is perceived to be. The moon telescope, called the Lunar Array for Radio Cosmology (LARC) project, will pick up very-low-frequency radio emissions, with which scientists can measure cosmic background radiation and investigate to a period known as â''the Dark Agesâ'' of the universe, which extends from the Big Bang to a billion years out (12.6 billion years ago, according to current estimates of the age of the universe).

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Physics professor Jacqueline Hewitt, director of MIT's Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Science, stands behind a prototype of a radio telescope array. A team she leads has been chosen by NASA to develop plans for such an array on the far side of the moon.

Photo credit: Donna Coveney/MIT.

"The more we learn about the microwave background, the better we understand cosmology," says Johns Hopkins University astronomy and astrophysics professor Richard Conn Henry. "Very important indeed." But Henry is not convinced that this project will be built in his lifetime. He has seen many such ambitious NASA projects fail.

Astronomers have long been eager to get to the dark side of the moonâ''because it is permanently turned away from earth, itâ''s the only place near us where nothing interferes with those very low frequency radio emissions.

Space telescopes can't do it because all our radio and television transmissions drown out the faint noise weâ''re looking for. â''Radio telescopes in orbit are terrible," says Henry. "They pick up noise from all over the earth." He says that the radio silence from the far side of the moon would give researchers better insight than even the WMAP Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation map. (The reason WMAP was so clean was that it was at L2 and pointed away from earth.)

For earth-based telescopes, the ionosphere also gets in the way. The far side of the moon is the only place anywhere near our orbit that is protected by its constant about-face. Henry was also a co-investigator on the Apollo 17 UV experiment in 1972, and he says,"the Radio experiment people said it was amazing how quiet it got on the other side of the moon."

But will it be built? Henry intimates that the plan is overly ambitious, and funding will be too scarce. He has seen many such expensive NASA projects peter out and die. The first step (laying out the blueprints for the mission) is being funded to the tune of $500,000 divided between MIT and the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. Team leader and MIT physics professor Jacqueline Hewitt (pictured) says this array of spider-like telescopes will be one of the easiest to build. (And because there are so many, the accidental failure of a few will not be devastating.)

If NASA eventually chooses MIT's LARC, construction is slated to begin after 2025 (cost estimates for the final project are at about $1 billion).

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