Mankind has been able to accomplish some pretty impressive things, but some of them were around long before we figured them out. Ants, for instance, hunt for food in a way that’s basically the same as the Internet’s Transmission Control Protocol (TCP), and they were doing it long before the Internet was around.
It all has to do with how harvester ants gather their food. The same way that TCP will throttle data transmission if initial packets indicate little bandwidth, harvester ants will send less foragers out for food if the initial ones take too long to come back with grub.
From Stanford News:
[The] rate at which harvester ants – which forage for seeds as individuals – leave the nest to search for food corresponds to food availability.
A forager won’t return to the nest until it finds food. If seeds are plentiful, foragers return faster, and more ants leave the nest to forage. If, however, ants begin returning empty handed, the search is slowed, and perhaps called off.
And that’s not where the similarities end either. Ants also use TCP’s slow start technique, by sending out a wave of foragers (packets) to figure out the relative amount of food (bandwidth) before scaling their numbers up or down. Likewise, the same way a connection will time out if the source stops sending packets, the ants will stop sending out new foragers if none return for 20 minutes.
Balaji Prabhakar, one of the researchers behind the discovery, says that if this behavior had been uncovered pre-Internet, it might have influenced its design. Even so, this foraging process has been seriously time-tested, and there still might be things we can learn from it. In the meantime, who knows what other algorithms might already be out there, quietly waiting to be discovered. [Stanford News]
There’s always that part at the end of drug commercials that goes something like: if you develop sausage fingers, webbed feet, or a three-week erection, call your doctor! But as exhaustive as those auctioneer-style lists sound, they barely scratch the surface when it comes to the side effects pople are actually experiencing.
Stanford researchers created an algorithm that identified 1,332 drug side effects not currently listed on labels. They estimate that each drug has 329 adverse reactions on average, nearly five times the 69 currently listed.
The FDA maintains a database of about 4 million side effects reported by doctors and patients, but no one’s sure exactly what causes most of them. That’s partly because so many people take more than one drug at a time—seniors take an average of seven—and it’s impossible to know how all of the combinations react in each individual. It’s also because individuals often react differently to the same drugs.
So researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine wrote an algorithm that sifts through millions of reports and surfaces what they call “true” side-effects. They reported their new method in Science Translational Medicine.
One important adverse interaction they turned up was that serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which are antidepressants, interact badly with common blood pressure medications, diuretics called thiazides, significantly increase the risk of a heart condition called prolonged QT, which can lead to irregular heartbeats and sudden death.
But the FDA can’t just slap this information on labels now. They have to do follow-up research, possibly a clinical trial examining people who take both SSRIs and blood pressure meds, to monitor them for prolonged QT. And what to do with the information on the thousands of side effects in this new database? Looks like the FDA’s job just got even harder. [Nature News]
Folding: it’s detestable and boring, as any Gap employee can tell you. But it’s also a totally fun thing you can do in a video game! And today it’s particularly exciting because players of the online game Foldit have redesigned a protein, and their work is published in the science journal Nature Biotechnology.
It seems nobler than shooting people in the face, somehow. Granted, Foldit attracts a unique kind of gamer who enjoys obsessing over biological protein folding patterns. Proteins get their function from the way they are folded into coils like in the image above. When the amino acids in a protein interact, they create that coiled, three-dimensional structure. Scientists can manipulate the structure to make the protein more efficient. In Foldit, designs that create the most efficient proteins garner the highest scores.
University of Washington in Seattle scientists Zoran Popovic, director of the Center for Game Science, and biochemist David Baker developed Foldit (which is different from Folding@home, Stanford software that lets people donate their idle computer processing power to create a protein-folding supercomputer). By playing it, at-home gamers have redesigned a protein for the first time, and they did it better and faster than scientists who have trained their entire careers to build better proteins. Justin Siegel, a biophysicist in Baker’s group told Scientific American:
I worked for two years to make these enzymes better and I couldn’t do it. Foldit players were able to make a large jump in structural space and I still don’t fully understand how they did it.
Here’s how it works: Researchers send a series of puzzles to Foldit’s 240,000 registered users. The scientists sift through the results for the best designs and take those into the lab for real-life testing. They combed through 180,000 designs to get to the version of the protein published today. The paper details an enzyme that thanks to the crowdsourced redesign is 18-fold more active than the original version.
Now for the anticlimactic part: this particular enzyme doesn’t really have any practical uses. But the researchers say it’s a proof of concept, and future Foldit designs will be more useful. In fact, Baker has fed players a protein that blocks the flu virus that led to the 1918 pandemic—and their puzzle solving for this one could lead to an actual drug.
You’ve got to be kidding me. The US Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that Congress can remove works from the public domain and re-copyright them in order to bring the the pieces into compliance with international copyright schemes. Yeah, because that doesn’t run completely against the spirit of copyright law or anything.
For one reason or another, the American copyright protections of many famous, foreign works—including H.G. Wells’ Things to Come, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony and Peter and the Wolf, Shostakovich’s Symphony 14, Cello Concerto and everything by Igor Stravinsky—moved into the public domain despite still being copyrighted overseas. To “correct” this issue, Congress passed legislation in 1994 that would move the works in question back to protected status and comply with the Berne Convention, an international copyright treaty.
This week, the Supreme Court ruled on a case brought by a coalition of educators, performers, and film archivists who rely on public domain works such as these for their livelihoods. If these pieces are place back under copyright, this group (like everybody else) simply can’t use them. However in a 6-2 ruling—Justices Stephen Breyer and Samuel Alito dissenting—the Court ruled that bringing these works into agreement with the international treaty did not violate the First Amendment rights of those people using the works as they are now (no, those folks will just have to pay licensing fees to perform), nor does it set a precedent for Congress to eventually push for perpetual copyright protections.
In his dissent, Justice Breyer stated that the congressional legislation,
bestows monetary rewards only on owners of old works in the American public domain. At the same time, the statute inhibits the dissemination of those works, foreign works published abroad after 1923, of which there are many millions, including films, works of art, innumerable photographs, and, of course, books – books that (in the absence of the statute) would assume their rightful places in computer-accessible databases, spreading knowledge throughout the world.
As Anthony Falzone, executive director of the Fair Use Project at Stanford University commented, the ruling “suggests Congress is not required to pay particularly close attention to the interests of the public when it passes copyright laws.” Well, yeah, it’s Congress. They don’t need to read bills and amendments, they don’t need to represent their constituents. They jus need to ensure hard-working people like Igor Stravinsky gets the royalty checks he needs so desperately. Hey, a guy’s gotta eat—especially when he’s been dead since 1971. [ArsTechnica - top art: the AP]
Dr. Augustine Fou is Digital Consigliere to marketing executives, advising them on digital strategy and Unified Marketing(tm). Dr Fou has over 17 years of in-the-trenches, hands-on experience, which enables him to provide objective, in-depth assessments of their current marketing programs and recommendations for improving business impact and ROI using digital insights.
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