Thursday Oct 26, 2006

Why Open Source Communities Can Work

Joanmarie Diggs yesterday said something to me that struck a chord. We'd been discussing the "where am I" command in the Orca screen reader, which is currently going through a redesign.

Joanie, who is an access technology instructor at the Carroll Center for the Blind in Newton, Massachusetts (and who has a blog there), is helping to specify what it should be like. She said:

Not sure if we're going to get "everybody" in agreement simply because "everybody" doesn't seem to realize the opportunity they have here. Y'all listen and do what folks ask -- they can help design the very screen reader they use! -- and still most don't ask or state an opinion.

My flippant response was:

Yup. It's a new world. Not everybody is there yet.

Which got me thinking. That's not exactly right. If you had access to USENET and a Unix box twenty years ago, you could have downloaded free software (in 64Kb chunks), put it back together, compiled it and ran new useful programs.

You could have provided feedback to the authors of said software either via the sources discussion news groups or via email. You could have asked for new features or reported bugs or even written those features or fixed those bugs for yourself and then passed the code onto other people who were interested.

It's certainly how it worked on the calculator I've been maintaining for the last 21 years. Plus lots of other projects too.

Then it got a little more formalized. Larger communities such as GNU and Linux and then GNU/Linux. Nowadays there are thousands of such software communities of various sizes. Some of the larger ones I contribute to are GNOME and Firefox/Mozilla and OpenOffice.

Why this is all strange to the blind users who are now trying out Orca is that they are so used to paying a large sum of money to a commercial organization and dealing with the way that support is handled in such a company, that they don't realize that alternatives exist.

The main Orca development team is small. You could count us on the fingers of one hand and still have one left over. But the community is growing. We want to hear what our users have to say. They have an opportunity here to help design the screen reader that they could be using.

As with all design-by-committee approachs, not everything is going to get done. But everything (assuming the users speakup), is going to get heard.




Friday Jun 03, 2005

Omni - where are they now? (September 1989)

It's been over a month since I did one of these. Two Continuum articles:

  • Body Music:

    Strap on a headband and a couple of armbands, close your eyes and start waving your hands around. Presto! You're making beautiful music with just the motions of your body.

    The article mentions that this is the promise of Biomuse, an electronic music system being developed by researchers from Stanford University.

    Biomuse's creators Hugh S. Lusted and R. Benjamin Knapp believes that the device can also be used to give 'voice' to the audibly handicapped or as a training device for athletes, who would then be able to literally "listen to their bodies" as they exercise. He also talks of hooking the system up to intelligent animals (presumably other than the human ones).

    The inventors believe that the Biomuse system could retail for $2,000 to $4,000.

    So where are we now? Biomuse looks like it peaked around 1992 with an appearance at the 1992 CSUN Virtual Reality Conference, with a paper entitled Biocontrollers for the Physically Disabled: A Direct Link from Nervous System to Computer. Nowadays, Hugh Lusted has more loftier bio-engineering ambitions.

  • Spider Car: This is the idea of Canadian inventor Gordon Dowton who, after watching the Tegenaria atrica spider (that doesn't spin a web to catch its prey but instead favours jumping in the air), thought that this approach could be applied to the design of a car.

    The spiders leaps are powered not by muscle but by bodily fluid that's pumped into its legs. Using the spider as a model, Dowton has now built a 14 pound aluminium and fiberglass vehicle - powered by hydraulics - that allows paraplegics to roll sideways, somersault and even stretch into a near-standing position. The vehicle gives the disabled a wider range of movement than a wheelchair can.

    Riders sit low so they can push off with their hands. "It's like a skateboard except you sit on it," says John Hastings, a paraplegic who rides the device for an hour every week.

    Fascinating, but where are they now? As far as I can tell from googling around, nothing as all materialized out of this.


Friday Apr 29, 2005

Omni - where are they now? (February 1991)

It's been a while since I've done one of these. Just one Continuum article this time, but several of the factoids:

  • Dracula's Nightmare: Garlic has been touted as having many legendary powers from a cure for the common cold to keeping vampires at bay. Penn State scientists have just added a couple more miracles to the list: thwarting heart attacks and preventing breast cancer.

    This all started when these scientists read reports about near-cancerless regions in China where garlic consumption can hit 20 cloves a day.

    Dr. John Milner, head of the nutrition department at Penn State's College of Health and Human Development then did some tests with rats, feeding them upto 20 grams of garlic a day (a gram for a rat equals a clove for a human) along with a carcinogen that induces breast cancer. The result? A marked lack of mammary tumors. There is now a search for the active ingredient that suppresses the cancer.

    A related study by Dr. Yu Yan Yeh suggests that garlic may stave off heart disease by lowering blood cholesterol.

    Where are we now? This article in the Mail on Jan 4th 2004, suggests they now know what the active ingredient is, but there is still a little way to go.

  • Factoids:
    • A blowfish's toxin is 100 times more potent than cocaine; a lethal dose, about 1 mg, could fit on a pin head.
    • Apollo 8 astronauts used a new adhesive to fasten down their tools in zero gravity -- silly putty.
    • The oldest rocks retreived from the moon's surface are 4.72 billion years old -- older than any found on earth.
    • It's only the female mosquito that bites.
    • Studies of fossil coral suggest that 370 million years ago, a year was 400 days long.


Monday Apr 04, 2005

Omni - where are they now? (April 1989)

Two more Continuum articles:

  • Drought Repellent for Fruits:

    This piece describes how Walter Polovina, a chemist at Southern Research Enterprises in Florida has come up with a way to protect fruits and vegetables from the ravages of drought.

    The produce is coated in a biodegradable film that blocks the evaporation of fluid from fruit trees or vegatable plants.

    The non-toxic film can be applied using a hand-held sprayer or a field conveyor. Polovina says the substance should be available later this year.

    On googling for "Walter Polovina", I found that, he's was involved in litigation over his invention, where (in 1996) he was denied a motion to prevent another company selling a similar product which he alleges was based on his invention and was affecting his royalities. In 2003 and appeal of this decision was also denied.

  • Organic Sidewalks:

    What do you add to concrete to make it stronger? Well, if you are Innobat, a small but innovative company in France, you pep up your product with a healthy dose of dried animal blood.

    Innobat buys beef blood from French slaughterhouses, dries it to a powder then blends it with two varities of cellulose cementing agents.

    When mixed with water. the blood protein molecules in the solution react to form crystalline shells as the concreate hardens. These shell coated bubbles make the concrete significantly lighter and because the bubbles are distributed evenly throughout the concrete (in traditional concrete, air bubbles are randomly distributed), it is upto 40% stronger than other concretes.

    As this list of building events show, Innobat are still going strong, but it's unclear if they are still selling their bloody concrete product.


Monday Mar 14, 2005

Omni - where are they now? (November 1989)

Two drug related Continuum articles:

  • Baking Soda For Stamina:

    Baking soda can clean your teeth, make dough rise and vanquish heartburn. Now comes word that it may also give athletes a stamina boost.

    Using drinks containing sodium bicarbonate, intermixed with drinks with none added and days when no drinks at all were administered, exercise physiologist Craig Horwill ran an experiment on ten intercollegiate swimmers. His results showed that when the swimmers took the placebos or no drink at all, their speeds remained the same throughout the test. After downing the baking-soda laced drink, they clocked their usual times for the first three races, but for races four and five, speeds increased an average or three seconds per 100 metres.

    Googling around looking for current research on this, I found a report from 1989 entitled "A Personal Trainer's Guide to Supplements". In the For Athletic Performance, Increased Endurance section, it mentioned baking soda, which included these precautions:

    Can cause explosive diarrhoea. Use only for big events.

    Personally I'd consider those two sentence a tautology.

  • Superwoman Hormone:

    Woman leaders such as Pakistan's Benazir Bhutto and Great Britain's Margaret Thatcher (don't forget this is an article from 1989), may have a biological advantage over other females who are trying to reach the top of the political heap.

    Successful women secrete larger-than-normal amounts of a hormone that makes stress a pleasurable experience.

    The hormone in question is norepinephrine, and these statements come from Malcolm Carruthers, medical director of the Positive Health Center at Harley Street in London. Carruthers research has included several members of Parliament, but he admits that he had not tested Prime Minister Thatcher's hormone levels, "but I'd certainly love to look at what's going on in her" he added.

    My first reaction, as I''m all for reducing stress (or at least handling it better), was where do I get me some of this hormone and do I need a sex-change operation? It doesn't look like I can go into my local health shop and pick up a bottle of pills, but these adrenergetic drugs are available for men and women in life-threatening conditions.


Saturday Mar 05, 2005

Omni - where are they now? (July 1990)

Two more Continuum articles:

  • He Sweeps, he Scrubs, but how's his French? Short piece on a fully automated cleaning robot called Cab-X that has just been introduced to the Paris metro system to help keep the pavements clean. Cab-X is six feet tall and weighs in at about 200 pounds, gets its power from a battery pack and moves on tank-like treads. He's guided by clusters of magnetic discs embedded in the station's pavement and by an artificial vision system, that allows him to avoid such obstacles as scurrying passengers.

    Seems Cab-X was still around in 1997 according to a report entitled Reality of robotics in the European Cleaning Journal, with its lease renewed for ten years in 1996.

  • The Itsy-Bitsy Spider Lab: Did you know that spider silk is more elastic than nylon and five times as strong as steel? Molecular biologist Randy Lewis at the University of Wyoming says that spider silk would be ideal for sutures, artificial ligaments, aircraft carriers' catch cables, body armor, wet suits and even space suits. Lewis predicts that super silk should be available for experimentation in about a year.

    Looks like it took a little longer than that according to this January 14th 2005 National Geographic article. "Hopefully in the next month we'll start spinning fibers" says Lewis, who is now a professor of molecular biology at the University of Wyoming. Hmmm. Perhaps we should check in with Randy in another fifteen years.


Friday Feb 11, 2005

Omni - where are they now? (December 1989)

Yes, you've guessed it. Two more Continuuum articles.

  • Left Face: Thinking about whether to give your child piano lessons? Rather than checking their fingers dexterity, perhaps you should determine whether your youngster is left-faced or right-faced.

    Just as most people are left- or right-handed, most people have a more dominant, flexible facial side that steers the production of speech. "And unlike handedness", says psychologist Karl Smith, professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, "which isn't determined until at least age two or three, facedness is decided before birth."

    So what does your face side give you?

    "With rare exceptions, all talented musical performers -- singers, instrumentalists, jazz artists, composers, conductors, and even country music artists -- are left-faced."

    To determine whether you are one of the 12 percent of Americans (it doesn't give world statistics, but I'd like to believe that the figure applies to all humans if it's valid at all), who are left-faced, look in the mirror and note which side of your face is larger, more muscular, more flexible, has deeper dimples and a higher eye brow.

    I'd not heard about facedness before but had heard about how people are left-brain or right-brain and how the one type is found in artists and the other is for people who think logically and would make good scientists and mathematicians. I wonder if there is a correlation. Wouldn't the formation of the brain to be left- or right-side dominant have a deciding factor on the facial features as well?

    Unfortunately I couldn't find anything to substantiate or disprove this theory.

  • Cat Tuna - Good for the Belly, Bad for the Brain: Any cat owner knows that their moggie just loves Tuna, but this piece reports that a study by two Cornell University researchers shows that tuna may be hazardous to the cats mental health.

    Cornell veterinarian Katherine A. Houpt and toxicologist Donald Lisk fed off-the-shelf tuna cat food to six kittens from the time they were six weeks old until they reached the age of eight months. Another group of kittens ate cat food with a beef base. While the behaviour of the beef group remained normal throughout the testing period, the tuna-fed kittens were decidedly less vocal, less active and less playful than there beef-eating feline counterparts.

    The ingredient causing this difference is, methylmercury, a heavy metal that accumulates in the organs of many saltwater fish.

    Now, if you are wondering whether you should ever eat a tuna sandwich or casserole ever again, Houpt goes on to point out that the tuna in cat food is from the red meat part of the fish, while that in people food is white meat.

    I did find an online report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human services that give the Mercury levels in commercial fish and shellfish, plus an advisory on what you need to know about Mercury in fish and shellfish.


Friday Feb 04, 2005

Omni - where are they now? (April 1990)

Yet two more Continuum articles.

  • How to Eat Like an Inca:

    Speckled beans that puff up in hot oil like popcorn, two-foot-long pods that produce a frothy sweet-as-ice-cream pulp and tubers that taste much the same as potatoes flavoured with sour cream.

    These delicacies are among at least 30 "lost" crops once cultivated by South America's Inca civilisation. With the exception of the potato, these Inca foodstuffs were ignored by the Spanish invaders.

    The article goes on to mention that these items could be grown in cooler zones like North America, Europe and Australia and hopes that farmers there might be interested in cultivating them.

    Did that happen? I don't know, but I did find a company that's supplying some of these exotic crops and where you can get them if you live in the United States.

    I also found The Exotic Kitchens of Peru, a book of recipes, to help you cook these dishes yourself (which has mixed reviews on Amazon).

    And finally, and slightly off-subject but still interesting, I also found a great site if you want to get back to your primative roots. It's A Taste of History Through the Ages.

  • Robug - The Incredible Mechanical Beetle: this piece describes how British designer Arthur Collie has been studying the movements of stag beetles. From this he's come up with the design of an insect-like robot which is able to cling to and climb up plywood and even glass surfaces.

    The article then describes several scenerios where this type of robot could be used, including inspecting a ships hull under water or cleaning up a nuclear power plant.

    This appears to be a robot which had a great future, as I was able to find web sites for later generations of the same beast (Robug III and Robug IV).


Friday Jan 28, 2005

Omni - where are they now? (June 1990)

Two more Continuum articles.

  • The Feel of Flying: if you are a wannabe sky-diver but can't quite buck up the nerve to throw yourself out of an aeroplane, you can instead try throwing yourself into a JET-FLY machine. It's a vertical wind tunnel, with streams of air coursing upwards at up to 90 mph.

    With an inflatable flight suit, donned to increase the thrill seekers surface area, the wind provides ample support for turning, swooping and rolling just as well-seasoned sky divers do.

    The cost (in 1990) was $7-$14 each "dive".

    It seems that since then, vertical wind tunnels have really taken off. Click on the links to the individual locations to find todays "dive" cost.

  • It Was Better Off Extinct: back in 1938, it was discovered that the coelacanth, which was thought to be extinct, was in fact alive and well and living off Africa's Comoro Archipelago. This piece reports that the Toba Aquarium in Japan has slated $1.76 million to try to capture a coelacanth, which as you can imagine, wasn't going down to well with the various conservation groups.

    Landing a breeding pair is a long shot because you can't tell a coelacanth's sex by looking at it. In addition, no specimen has survived more than 20 hours topside because the temperature change from the ocean floor to the surface generally overheats the fish, inducing fatal trauma.

    This was one of those stories where I really hoped that nothing much had happened since then. Googling around, I found a report dated September 1998 that stated that a second group of these living fossils had been found off the Indonesian island of Manado Tua. It went on to mention that Jacques Cousteau (who is himself now extinct) failed to find one, and Japan's Toba Aquarium spent millions to no avail.


Monday Jan 17, 2005

Omni - where are they now? (July 1991)

Two more Continuum articles.

  • Why Dogs Bark: Hampshire College biologist Raymond Coppinger, who has spent 30 years studying dogs, teamed up with fellow linguist Mark Feinstein to figure out why dogs bark. (One cocker spaniel, under observation barked 907 times in ten minutes). Their conclusion: Dog barking is a pointless, energy wasting activity. Dogs bark for the same reason teenagers hang out in shopping malls. That's what adolescents do. There is a similar report online.

    "When dogs bark, they are doing the same kind of thing they do when they chase balls or their own tails," Coppinger and Feinstein report. "Whilst these behaviours serve no real function, the dog is likely to repeat them over and over."

    Barks can mean anything - let me in, let me out, feed me, pet me - or nothing at all. "Unlike other wild animal calls, the bark has no built-in biological meaning," Coppinger says.

    Well maybe, but from my short up-close-and-personal experience with our dog Dusti, I firmly believe that each time she barks she is trying to tell us something, rather than emitting meaningless barks. I will admit she chases her tail for no apparent reason at all, apart from giving enjoyment to the people who are watching. Especially when she then starts doing it in the opposite direction. I gotta get that on video.

    I've been unable to find any conclusive evidence to back up the theories of Coppinger and Feinstein though. The latest reasoning behind all this can be seen online. I didn't like some of the "quick fixes" suggested here. I also found it interesting that the 1991 article claimed 52 million dogs in the U.S. and this 2004 articles claims the same number.

  • COSTAR Comes Through: COSTAR (Corrective Optics Space Telescope Axial Replacement) is the leading contender is a number of plans to correct the Hubble Space Telescope's (HST) faulty vision. In effect, fitted the telescope with "spectacles".

    A team of astronauts will spend about three days installing the corrective device, in addition to replacing the telescope's gyroscope and its solar array to correct the "bump" that disturbs the telescope as it passes between day and night.

    Dennis McCarthy, NASA deputy program manager for the HST estimates that the repair mission, slated for 1993, will cost between $20 million and $30 million.

    From googling around, I found out that the actual repair was done in December 1993 with a second servicing mission in September 1997. And yes, it was the COSTAR solution that was used. From various reports though the cost was a lot more than the quoted price above.


Sunday Jan 09, 2005

Omni - where are they now? (April 1991)

This issue also included the wonderful short story They're Made of Meat" by Terry Bisson, a must-read for science fiction fans or anybody else who enjoys superb humor for that matter.

Two continuum articles:

  • Cheaper by the Russians: a piece describing where Yuri Shestov, a Boston University computer scientist who emigrated to the U.S in 1974, used his old comrades to do some work for Intelligent Resources International (IRI). The Russians provided the expert services (which were worth $60 an hour in the U.S) for the equivalent of $3 an hour.

    No need to ask what's happened since then. Out-sourcing of this sort of work has become the norm. It was only in 1991 that this was considered newsworthy. Although nowadays, a lot of companies are reconsidering and in-sourcing is becoming popular.

  • Gourmet Garbage: an article suggesting that edible food packaging should be considered to help reduce the tons of garbage that Americans generate each year. Toby Thompson of the Rochester Institute of Technology says "Why don't we eat the damn stuff?". He goes on to add "We eat apples and grapes and other things that that come in their own natural packages". Thompson would like to see this extended to other foodstuffs such as rice and wheat. Pasta packaging could be dropped into the water and boiled off. Labeling would be done with vegatable dyes rather than toxic inks.

    Thompson has been lobbying (back in 1991) the food industry for funding and support. So far there have been a few nibbles but no bites.

    Fascinating idea. The sort of thing that would really be useful. Did it get implemented? Is this happening now? Googling around found a lot of "Tony Thompson's", but there doesn't seem to be any progress with man-made edible food packaging.


Friday Dec 31, 2004

Omni - where are they now (September 1990)?

There is now an Omni category if you want to see similar posts from me for other issues of Omni.

As per usual, this month I've taken my two followups from short pieces in the Continuum column.

  • Blood Bath: hypothesises about the potential contamination problems that could occur when you go to a hospital for a major blood transfusion. To overcome this, Joseph Walder, a University of Iowa biochemist has created a blood substitute, by extracting purified hemoglobin from donated blood.

    In the past, purified hemoglobin was an unsuitable blood substitute because it hoarded its oxygen, causing a host of medical problems. Walder sidesteps that problem by modifying the chemical structure of hemoglobin so that it freely passes its oxygen to the body.

    Walder goes on to say that the substitute should have a shelf life of about a year (regular blood stays "fresh" for about a month in comparison). Furthermore the process eliminates the fine chemical distinctions between different blood types, making it possible to use the treated blood for anyone, no matter what their blood type is. The blood substitute is now undergoing trials at Baxter Healthcare Corporation in Illinois (i.e. in September 1990).

    This sounds too good to be true. Apparently it is. It looks like it is still undergoing clinical trials at Baxter Healthcare, only it's now in Australia. It seems that according to a 1996 report, they have developed a blood substitute called HemAssist and have moved manufacturing to Switzerland. Trouble is that it's still not a complete success. Looks like Baxter are one of several companies still in the running to try to produce a viable blood substitute.

  • We Love You Tomorrow: Ted Turner, the broadcast mogul, is looking for unpublished fiction stories from 50,000 to 100,000 words long that convey how to ensure the survival and prosperity of all life on Earth. The first prize-winner of this Turner Tomorrow Award will receive $500,000, while four runners-up will collect $50,000 each.

    Looks like Ted was true to his word, and the awards were presented in 1991, although I only count three runners-up. Did you notice Jane Fonda getting in on the action.

    The overall winner was Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn. Natural Enemies by Sara Cameron, a thriller about elephants in Kenya, was one of the three additional prizewinners that included Necessary Risks by Janet Keller and The Bully Pulpit by Andrew Goldblatt.


White bits in my calendar

I've spent way too much time on this, this morning. I'm trying to get back to my old look&feel for my blog. I'd almost got that by using my previous Weblog and _css files from the earlier version of roller, but I had two problems:

  • The category list wasn't showing up below my "A DUMPING GROUND FOR WHAT'S ON MY MIND RIGHT NOW" sub-title.
  • There were white areas before and after the dates in the calendar on the top right of the page.

I've solved the first one but I'm still stuck on the second. My custom _css file has an entry:

.hCalendarDayNotInMonth {
 font-size : x-small;
 background-color: #dfdfdf;
 color: gray;

If you "View Source" on the page you are reading now, you'll see that near the bottom, the calendar layout includes:

<th class="hCalendarDayNameRow" align="center">Sat</th>
<td class="hCalendarDayNotInMonth"> </td>
<td class="hCalendarDayNotInMonth"> </td>
<td class="hCalendarDayNotInMonth"> </td>
<td class="hCalendarDayLinked"><div class="hCalendarDayTitle">
<a href="/roller/page/richb/Weblog/20041201">1</a>

I was fully expecting those three "hCalendarDayNotInMonth" to have a grey background. But they don't.

If there are any CSS wizards out there, I'd love to know what I'm doing wrong.


Wednesday Dec 22, 2004

Omni - where are they now? (September 1991)

Previous entries in the series:
1985: [May]
1989: [Jan] [Feb]
1990: [Jan]
1991: [June] [Aug]
1992: [July] [Aug] [Sept]

Really interesting issue this month. What with the Omni-Berkeley Personality Profile and an article where the top 20 predictions from Crystal Globe: The Haves and Have-nots of the New World Order were discussed. Plus a great piece of fiction by Michael Bishop entitled Life Regarded as a Jigsaw Puzzle of Highly Lustrous Cats, which was a Nebula nominee. There was also an inordinate amount of Star Trek related adverts, presumably because Star Trek, the Next Generation was knocking 'em dead on the boob tube.

Here I'll focus on two more Continuum articles:

  • Chocolate! We're Saved!: this was another case of where we are told that something is a good thing until somebody else comes along and proves that's wrong.

    In old-fashioned adventure stories, valiant explorers lost in the icy wilderness are saved by trusty Saint Bernard dogs carrying flasks of brandy around their necks. Now that alcohol has been found to increase hypothermia, rather than fight it, modern stories might have the dogs toting a special chocolate bar.

    The bar of chocolate in question, was developed by Lawrence Wang, a professor at the University of Alberta in Canada. In studies it boosted peoples cold tolerance by more than 50 percent. Dubbed the Canadian Cold Buster for commercial concerns, it should hit the stores in the Great White North in the fall (of 1991).

    So did it? Is this an essential item in the backpacks of wilderness explorers in the wilds of Canada nowadays? Seems like it's a winner according to this report, where

    Since its introduction to the marketplace in 1991, the Cold Buster bar has earned an outstanding food product of the year award (Gordon Royal Maybee Canadian Institute of Food Science and Technology), and Wang has received an ASTech Award for Innovative Technology.

  • At Long Last, Gum as most kids know, chewing gum tends to lose its flavour after about 20 minutes. This piece described how the scientists at Columbia Research Laboratories have invented chewing gum that keeps it's flavour for 5-10 hours.

    The new gum's long lasting nature makes it an ideal method to deliver certain medications. "At the moment, the major uses of gum, except for fun are for delivering pharmaceuticals - nicotine, diet aids and aspirin" said a spokesperson from Columbia. "We are hoping to expand that to treat a variety of mouth conditions such as herpes, canker sores, fungal infections and gum disease".

    As the article points out, that's all very well, but who wants to chew gum for 5-10 hours straight? As I couldn't find direct evidence of any commercial products based on this new technique nowadays, I'm feeling that might have been a real going concern.


Monday Dec 13, 2004

Omni - where are they now? (August 1991)

Previous entries in the series:
1985: [May]
1989: [Jan] [Feb]
1990: [Jan]
1991: [June]
1992: [July] [Aug] [Sept]

Two more Continuum articles:

  • I Vant to Drink Your Blood: for hundreds of years leeches were used to "cure" all sorts of ailments ranging from headaches to yellow fever. Modern medicine, (based on science rather than superstition), eliminated the leeches. This might have been a little premature because it seems that the creatures saliva have an ingredient that is the basis for a good anti-clotting drug. Several large pharmaceutical companies are now racing to produce a genetically engineering form of this called hirudin.

    That was thirteen years ago. Now, (according to to the hirudin web page on, there are two anticoagulant drugs desirudin and lepirudin (brand name: Refludan) that are genetically engineered recombinant forms of hirudin.

  • Pecans and Plastic: after processing pecans, there are 25 million pounds of nutshells left over each year. What do you do with them? According to polymer chemists Ramaswarmy G. Raj and B. V. Kokta,
    you can ground them up into a flour and this can be used to replace the unrecyclable filler substances such as talc and glass fibers that's used to strengthen plastic. Moreover, the fibrous structure of pecan shells actually binds more effectively with polymers than other fillers do.

    In tests, they found that the shell flour increased by 34 percent the tensile strength of high-density polyethylene, used in everything from milk containers to irrigation pipes.

    This seems a good thing. I wonder if anything has happened since then. I searched around to see if I could find any commercial products based on this idea nowadays but was unsucessful. I did find out the pecan shells make a good garden mulch though.





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