December 2011


Life in the future will be incredible. Flying cars. Robots driving buses. Exoskeletons that allow you to lift a car up as easily as picking a book off a shelf.

These are a few of the futuristic predictions in a new batch of documentaries that focus on man merging with machines, technology that produces self-aware computers, and medical advances that extend human life beyond imaginable limits.

I’ve been watching some of them on a very good website called Topdocumentaryfilms.com. If you’re into reality TV, but are sick of Storage Wars and Pawn Stars, I’d highly recommend this alternative. You can watch documentaries on all kinds of topics from health to art and politics.

No, not all of them are good, but there are some interesting selections. I recently watched one on planned obsolesence, called The Light Bulb Conspiracy, that was terrific.

What struck me about the futuristic films is how similar many of them are. They share the same themes I mentioned above, so assuming that great minds think alike, surely a lot of these 21st century trends are right around the corner for us. Right?

Then I remembered that the 20th century futurists were often well off the mark. Suspension bridge apartment houses. Robots that respond to verbal commands by 1960. Clothing with “electronic belts” that allow people to automatically adapt to changes in the weather.

This 1957 Soviet vision of the year 2000 showed women “cooking on a marble top that remains cold to the touch, even though the food is cooking!” The cooking is actually controlled by punch cards.

A YouTube visitor commented: “Excuse me while I go take my infra-red roasted chicken from my glass oven.”

Back to the 21st century. With so many futurists onboard with concepts like humans merging with robots, and medical advances leading to near-immortality, we might conclude that something quite different is in store.

Technology no doubt marches on, but fate has its own game plan. Round and round it goes, and where it stops nobody knows.

*

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the researchers who developed an airborne version of the deadly H5N1 influenza virus in the lab. They created a mutation that nature itself has been thus far unable to produce. Ferrets exposed to it were able to transmit the new strain, a version of bird flu, from cage-to-cage.

The question many have been asking: What happens if this thing somehow gets out of the lab — or someone learns to duplicate it and decides to unleash it on an unprepared world?

The bird flu is a deadly agent, killing 60 percent of the people it infects. But H5N1 is not easily transmissable in its present form and usually only those who handle infected chickens or other birds are at risk.

So. Why deliberately create an airborne version? The argument is that it would allow other scientists to study it and develop preventive techniques should the mutations occur naturally.

But now a government advisory board has asked scientific journals not to publish details of the experiments. Officials are concerned that the information could be used by terrorists to trigger a worldwide epidemic. It’s the first such request on record.

The panel, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, an arm of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), made the request to two prestigious journals — Science and Nature. Advocates of the censorship believe that the conclusions should be published, but not experimental details “that would enable replication of the experiments.”

The board can’t force the journals to take the action, but editors are considering it. They want guarantees that the government will allow “legitimate scientists” to access the information around the world.

As more researchers obtain the information, however, the number of potential sources for something to go wrong grows. Essentially, the genie has been let out of the bottle and cannot be coaxed back in. So maybe the NIH should turn its attention to funding vaccines for this new mutated H5N1 virus. Seriously, get to work.

Because there’s a little axiom called Murphy’s Law, and it doesn’t take a scientist to see how it may apply here.

Photo via Flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/96khz/3127953038/

Cell phone use while driving was back in the news last week after the National Transportation Safety Board called for a 50-state ban on all use of “portable electronic devices” while driving.

No state bans all cell phone use but nine currently prohibit the use of handheld phones and 30 ban cell phone use by new drivers. Thirty-five states outlaw texting.

I live in Florida, one of the rare states that have no restrictions on cell phone use whatsoever, and the practice seems to be epidemic. I believe that people deliberately wait until they’re in the car to make their calls because it’s the sort of “multi-tasking” that saves time. There’s nothing else to do in the car anyway, so why not make use of the time and return phone calls?

On a routine 20-mile drive I conducted a random count and found about one in four drivers yapping on the phone.

I’m an offender myself, but I do it hands-free, and I won’t text while I’m on the road. (As you’ll see below, there’s good reason to not even do hands-free. The best bet is to pull over.)

For a complete run-down of state laws — and it’s a hodge-podge — check the Governors Highway Safety Association website.

You might think that the NTSB would be wiser to press for a 50-state cell phone ban that still allows hands-free use, as they have in Maryland, California and seven other states.

But a study last year by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that state bans like the one in California don’t reduce crashes. Apparently, the risk of a crash for distracted driving is the same for a hands-free cell user as it is in someone holding the phone.

Also, the law is unevenly enforced.

It’s temping to conclude that if you’re using a hands-free device it’s basically no different than talking to a passenger in the car. But I think what happens is that cell phone users are mentally “transported” to another place, perhaps visualizing the person they’re talking to. Their brain is not sifting through and analyzing the visual information coming at them from the road.

Will the NTSB recommendation lead to cell phone bans throughout the country? I’m betting that it won’t.

It’s now so ingrained in the culture that people will use a cell phone even if it’s against the law. According to the NTSB, the cell ownership rate in the U.S. “exceeds 100 percent.” I assume that means that every adult in the country has a cell phone, and some have two.

It may be up to the insurance industry to curb cell phone use. Just like health insurers give discounts to non-smokers, auto insurers could offer discounts to drivers who agree not to use a cell on the road.

If they violate the agreement — records are available and can be subpoenaed — they have to pay a financial penalty.

Money talks, and it doesn’t need a cell phone to communicate.

Photo: A road sign warns of a ban on texting in a Texas town. Via Flickr.com.

It’s flu season, as anyone can tell by driving by their neighborhood pharmacy and seeing the signs for “flu shots” all day, every day.

People don’t seem too worried about the flu this year. In fact, the 2011-2012 season has gotten off to a slow start, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

No states have reported widespread illness to the CDC, although the number reporting sporadic activity increased slightly last week from 28 to 30.

There is a corresponding lull in media coverage about the flu this year.

It’s been two years since the last pandemic scare over H1N1, commonly known as the swine flu. You might recall that an outbreak in Mexico triggered a panic, causing schools to close and public assemblies to be canceled. People rushed to get vaccinated. The media recycled the old stories from the 1918 outbreak that killed 50 million people.

H1N1 did spread globally and was officially declared a pandemic by the CDC and the World Health Organization. The illness killed 18,000, but the number of cases started tapering off in November 2009. It never was as deadly a variation as many people thought.

In truth, health officials have always been more worried about the H5N1 avian flu, which has been plaguing parts of Asia and the Middle East over the last 10 years. Fortunately, though, the virus can’t be passed easily from human-to-human, although it’s happened in rare cases. Instead, it’s spread more commonly to people who handle chickens and other fowl.

The theory has been that if H5N1 developed mutations allowing airborne transmission, it would also become less lethal. In its present form, it kills about 60 percent of those infected.

The biggest story of the 2011-2012 flu season may be that researchers have proven that theory to be wrong.

An article published Friday in Scientific American says an international ruckus is being raised after scientists created a laboratory version of the H5N1 that can easily be transmitted through the air without losing its virulence. It involved a combination of five mutations.

They used ferrets to test the virus since they react to the flu in a similar way to humans. They found that the virus was passed from animal-to-animal from their own cages. “A significant portion of the infected subjects died,” the magazine reported.

The researchers, from the University of Wisconsin and the Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands, have had trouble publishing their findings.

First, there’s the worry that biological terrorists could get their hands on the information and unleash an epidemic.

There’s also the issue that nature has been unable to accomplish this on its own during the last decade, and our top scientists have given it a helping hand. The virus now exists where it did not before, and maybe I’ve watched too many movies but accidents do happen. Things can go wrong and a secure lab may not be as secure as everyone thought.

Proponents say creating the new virus gives researchers an opportunity to study it and minimize its impact before it appears naturally.

But in my imagination, I see Michael Crichton and Ken Follett picking up a pair of scissors and carefully snipping out the magazine article, to be placed prominently in their ideas file.

We can only hope that fiction doesn’t one day become reality.

Photo: H5N1 or Avian influenza virus (Wikimedia Commons)

How will the basic benefits package be defined by the Department of Health and Human Services for the new federal health care law that takes effect in 2014? That’s the important question that HHS is deciding now, and all sides are weighing in.

The issue is what plans will be offered in insurance exchanges that states are required to create.

The Institute of Medicine, a private nonprofit organization that offers government officials what it calls “unbiased and authoritative advice” on health care questions, recommended an essential benefits plan similar to what small businesses offer.

But 2,400 health care providers signed a letter to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius voicing strong objections to the IOM recommendation. The letter was sponsored by Physicians for a National Health Program.

The providers, most of them physicians, want heftier benefits for the exchanges, like the kinds of policies offered by corporate employers, rather than the more skeletal packages of small businesses. Neither the IOM or the providers who signed the letter were specific about what their recommendations would include.

Many smaller employers offer high deductible plans, making the first $3,000 out of pocket for their workers.

The question is not what’s ideal, but what’s realistic. Let’s face it, the country will be lucky to have any national health care framework in place after the Affordable Health Care Act goes through the meat grinders of the 2012 elections and the U.S. Supreme Court.

This is how sausage is made in our system, but will what we have in the end even qualify as sausage?

Providers who signed the letter would like something that has been and will no doubt continue to be out of reach in the U.S.: “Our patients urgently need what people in these other nations already enjoy: universal and comprehensive coverage in a nonprofit system that prioritizes human need over corporate profit.”

Sounds nice, but why the overreach? It seems pointless.

Having a high deductible health care plan is far better than having no plan at all. Even for people struggling financially, facing a $3,000 or $5,000 health care debt beats looking at a $50,000 bill that ruins them financially for life.

For now, get what you can and run with it.

*

The Wall Street Journal reported last week that the obesity rate of Americans 20 and older has risen to 29.5 percent, up from 21.8 percent in 2000.

Actually, the Centers for Disease Control puts the percentage at 33.8 percent for all adults. If trends continue, half of adults will be obese by 2020, according to a Harvard University study cited by the WSJ.

Why? I’ve yet to see a convincing study explaining the obesity phenomenon. The CDC says: “Overweight and obesity result from an energy imbalance. This involves eating too many calories and not getting enough physical activity.”

No kidding, but that doesn’t get to the root of the problem. It’s easy to blame it on the proliferation of fast food, and that may be part of it. But I don’t believe it’s the root cause.

Americans have less time to prepare food at home so takeout is a quick alternative, especially since it’s so cheap. I’ve wondered, shopping at supermarkets recently, if it’s not become more expensive to buy food, bring it home and prepare it, than it is to go through the drive-through.

Not to mention the time spent slicing and dicing, boiling and broiling, shaking and baking. Followed by the time spent on clean-up, as opposed to sweeping a bunch of bags and cartons off a table and dumping it all in the trash.

And then the crushing blow of putting freshly cooked food on the table and your kids take two bites and decide they have a really important paper to write.

Something is out of whack, all right, but it goes way beyond the imbalance of “eating too many calories and not getting enough physical activity.”

This problem is systemic. It needs to be analyzed and addressed at many different levels.

Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/adrianclarkmbbs/3061919849/