Monthly Archives: November 2011

Technology

Useful Links: November 2011

A list of items I’ve come across recently that I found potentially useful, interesting, or just plain funny:

  • Web symbols typeface – A typeface that includes frequently used web design iconographics and symbols
  • Print friendly – Make any web page print-friendly (including PDF generation)
  • Social media icons – A set of social media icons by Paul Robert Lloyd (in 4 sizes)
Technology

Marketing in a digital world (@allisterf at #digitalsurrey)

Last Thursday was Digital Surrey night and this month’s speaker was Allister Frost, Head of Digital Marketing Strategy at Microsoft.  Allister gave an engaging talk on “doing marketing in a digital world” and, whilst there might have been a couple of things I wasn’t entirely convinced of, I’m not a marketing professional (even if I spend a good chunk of my day in what could be described as marketing) so I’ll defer to those with more experience.

Allister has kindly shared his slides, along with some supporting materials – which makes my task of blogging about the evening a lot easier, but I decided to have a play with Storify for this one:


I’m in two minds about this approach to curating the information from the evening… it took just as long as writing a blog post and all of Google’s (sorry, Bing’s) link love goes to another site… but it was worth a try (and it’s definitely a great tool when most of the content is already spread around the web). If you have any content from the evening that I missed, please get in touch and I’ll add it to the story.

Exercise

Update on my Fit at 40 challenge

Today’s the last day of Movember and, whilst I said I wouldn’t be growing a ‘tache this year, I did say I’d push to make sure I’d lost my second stone by the end of the month (all part of  my “Fit at 40″ challenge). Despite not being able to exercise for nearly two weeks earlier in the month due to a heavy cold (man flu), I’ve been pounding the streets since then, combined with spinning classes, the occasional swim and being really careful about what I’m eating.

Even so, it was with some trepidation that I stood on the scales this morning and…

…I did it!

15st 10lbs (100kg) means I’ve shed two stone since I started this challenge and, for those who are thinking “yeah, but anyone can lose a couple of stone on a diet” the whole point has been to avoid “diets” and to lose weight by switching to a more healthy, sustainable lifestyle (i.e. I can still have a drink from time to time, and eat food that I like, in moderation).  It also means I’m lighter than I’ve been in years – probably since before my wife was pregnant with our first child (I put on weight to match, but she lost hers…) – and certainly fitter than I’ve been since… my teens I guess.

My weight loss seems to come in fits and starts (it plateaus, then I lose half a stone, before it plateaus again) and the 16 stone barrier has been tough to break through – if I can get below 15 and a half stone before Christmas (and keep it off after Christmas), I should be back on track!

So, here’s where I’m at:

  • 10 months into my challenge, 28lbs (12.7kg) lost, a lot leaner body, and two 10K races under my belt (Bupa London 10,000 and Buckingham 10K).
  • 4 months to go, 15lbs (6.8kg) to lose and another 10K race (at least) to run.

The challenge continues… Thanks to everyone who has supported me so far and who continues to do so – donations to my JustGiving page in support of the Prostate Cancer Charity are a great motivator!

Technology

Starting to play with the Internet of things

Unlike some people, who find it invasive, I love the concept of the Internet of things. I’m truly excited by some of the possibilities that a world driven by data opens up. Sure, there are issues to overcome (primarily around privacy and connectivity) – but anyone who believes their data isn’t already being captured by service providers (even if those providers don’t yet know how to handle the massive volumes of data) is in for a shock. So why not embrace the possibilities and use our increasingly smart world to our collective advantage?

In my recent presentation to the BCS Internet Special Interest group, I referred to the Technology Strategy Board‘s Future Internet Report, which talks about [emphasis added by me]:

“An evolving convergent Internet of things and services that is available anywhere, anytime as part of an all-pervasive omnipresent socio–economic fabric, made up of converged services, shared data and an advanced wireless and fixed infrastructure linking people and machines to provide advanced services to business and citizens.”

The report also acknowledges the need for more than just “bigger pipes” to handle the explosion in data volumes. We do need a capable access mechanism but we also need infrastructure for the personalisation of cloud services and for machine to machine (M2M) transactions; and we also need convergence to enable a transformational change in both public and private service delivery.

That’s the big picture but scaling back down to a personal level, one of my colleagues, David Gentle (@davegentle – who happens to be the main author of Fujitsu’s Technology Perspectives microsite) highlighted a site called Pachube to me last week. I first came across Pachube a few months back but [partly because it used to be a chargeable service (it became free at the start of this month)] it got added to my “list-of-things-to-have-a-better-look-at-one-day” (that day rarely comes, by the way!). This time I had a better look and I found it to be pretty cool.

Pachube is basically a cloud-based broker for connected devices with a web service to manage real-time data and a growing ecosystem of applications to feed and consume data. That sounded like it might need some programming (i.e. could be difficult for me these days) but then I found a method to hook an energy monitor up to the web, with no coding required!

I’ve written before about the EnergyFit (Current Cost) power meter that E-ON sent me. I wasn’t a fan of E-ON’s software so I hooked it up to Google PowerMeter for a while, but that service has closed down (along with Microsoft’s Hohm service – which I don’t think even made it to the UK). Using a USB to serial driver and a companion application I now have one of my computers feeding data from my Current Cost meter to the Pachube website, where it gets transformed into JSON, XML or CSV format and “magic” can be performed. I used the Mac OS X software versions of the driver and the application but there are also Windows (driver/application) and Linux (driver/application) variants that I have not tested. The process of setting up a Pachube feed has also changed slightly since the original guidance was written but the basic steps are:

  1. Install the USB-serial drivers.
  2. Install the application
  3. Run the application and select the appropriate serial port (for me, on my Mac, that is /dev/tty.usb-serial).
  4. Create a feed (a push feed – and however many times I turn it private it seems to switch back to public…).
  5. Paste the XML version of the feed into the application.
  6. Set up a secure sharing (API) key (you probably don’t want to use the master key) and paste it into the application.
  7. Save preferences and wait for the application to start feeding data, at which point the feed should show as live

The application I used and the Pachube website seem to work together to configure the datastreams within the feed (one for temperature and one for power) and it’s all set to go.

Once the feed is live, there are a load of apps listed on the Pachube website with everything from graphs and visualisations to mapping tools and augmented reality. I decided to create a page to display some of these, starting out with a customisable PNG-based graph from my feed. That worked, so I added another, together with a PachuDial and a couple of PachuBlog gadgets (sadly, these are Flash-based, so don’t work on the iPad…). Next I created a second feed to consume the power usage from the first one and measure the associated carbon footprint.

Having played around with energy usage, I found that I could also use Pachube to monitor my Twitter account (a pull feed this time) – which might be useful too.

Now I’ve mastered the basics with my Current Cost meter, I might try some home automation using Arduino devices – although that looks to have quite a steep learning curve on the electronics front… In the meantime, you can see the Home electricity usage and Twitter statistics pages that I created using just the Pachube platform and some basic HTML.

[Update 30 November 2011: added comment about Pachube becoming free to use]

Exercise

How changing the way I tie my shoe laces improved my running comfort

I never thought I’d be putting up a blog post about tying my shoelaces, but this little tip has been a godsend for me and I thought it was worth sharing.

A few months ago, I bought some new running shoes. I used a reputable running shop, with the facilities to perform gait testing (for me that was Advance Performance in Peterborough – Up and Running in Milton Keynes were friendly enough but seemed to have issues with getting sufficient stock) and I eased myself into them with some shorter loops around town before going out on my usual 5-mile circuit (which is a mixture of road running and cross-country).

Unfortunately I was suffering with some pain on the side of my feet, above the arches and getting blisters to match – the Arch Lock on my Saucony ProGrid Stabil CS2s seemed to be rubbing.

I went back to the shop, who tested me in the shoes again (definitely a good fit) but also suggested a couple of modifications to how I tie them. Firstly, I skipped a hole above the Arch Lock but I’m pretty sure the big difference came from switching to a lock-lacing method, also known as a runner’s tie (the video shown here is from Runners World but the same technique is also described in pictures at run4it).  I hadn’t noticed that my heel was slipping, but it seemed to work, by creating a loop with the last two eyelets then feeding the laces through the opposite side, pulling down to tighten and up to tie in a bow as usual.

Since changing the way I lace my shoes I’ve had no problems at all…

Photography

55 years of iconic images: an evening with Ken Lennox

A couple of nights ago, I went along to listen to four times British Press Photographer of the Year, Ken Lennox, talk about his experience as a press photographer and picture editor. And what a fascinating evening it was.

Starting out sweeping the floors of a friend’s uncle’s darkroom, Ken sold his first photo to the Daily Express 55 years ago and hasn’t looked back since. He’s taken picture in war zones, of the Royal Family, of celebrities and politicians – in fact, pick a major event of the last few decades and Ken Lennox was probably there!

He convinced Bob Geldof to visit Ethiopia (at a time when he was convinced people would think he was cashing in on the plight of others); he captured the first pictures of Lady Diana Spencer (as she was then) at Balmoral; he was sued by Michael Jackson (he took the famous image showing the state of the star’s face after extensive cosmetic surgery, resulting in years of legal wrangling and extensive abuse from Jackson’s fans); he has pictures of Terry Waite as a newly-freed man; of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo; of the first gulf warthe Russian Coup from 1991; and many, many more subjects.

Ken’s pictures show a tenacity to get “the shot” at a time when press photography was about turning up, getting something good and running. Newspapers are tomorrow’s chip paper, he says – and pictures are only interesting on the day. But there’s clearly far more to it than turning up and grabbing the shot.  Ken has stories of stake-outs to take pictures of Diana, Princess of Wales (including some of the games of cat-and-mouse that were played) and, despite overstepping the mark at times, he clearly built a rapport with the Princess during his time as a royal photographer (although he also has stunning images of other members of the family, right back to 1959, and including The Queen Mother standing in a river, fishing for salmon, aged 80 – followed by an image that appears to show her describing “the one the got away”!).

As a news photographer at war he tells tales of running up a £1.3m Inmarsat bill to let British troops phone home  (later paid by a Saudi King) as well as sleeping in a nest of sandbags on the top of a tank.  His gear of choice (for war photography at least) was three bodies (two and a spare) three lenses (70-200mm is perfect, he says) plus a long lens (although you don’t use it much as it might be mistaken for a gun). Add some clothes, a satellite phone, water, chemicals, etc. and that’s quite a lot of gear to carry (even if he calls it travelling light). Ken’s tales include tragic stories of other photographers who didn’t make it through alive and it’s clear that he’s had to abandon his equipment on a number of occasions so I asked what he does to “get the shot” without a camera.  He tells me that you make do, you borrow someone else’s spare, and that despite the competition, photographers will help one another out.

Asked which is his favourite shot, he says that he can’t say it’s his famous image of Mrs Thatcher in tears (as she left 10 Downing Street for the last time), because it’s out of focus. It may only by a fraction but he knows it (even though Time Magazine called it one of the 20th Century’s greatest images). Ken says that 90% of his pictures are taken with a manual focus and that blurring or movement is OK but focus is important. As a result, his favourite picture is one of Lenny Henry in an African hospital, with a bed frame made of string and a floor that looks like it’s in a slaughterhouse.

Ken still shoots today (his portfolio includes images from the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton although his LinkedIn profile says he specialises in PR, advertising and magazine reportage)  but he admits times have changed. Once, he says, the question was never “how much?” but “how quickly can you get here?”. Today, magazines don’t have the money to pay for shoots and photographers need to earn royalties over an extended period in order to cover their costs.  He still gets to travel but whereas once he had a “fizz” inside (will he survive?), today it’s not quite the same, it’s more commercial than the “mad newspaper stuff where you can do what you want”.

Asked how he feels about today’s technology, Ken doesn’t appear to have any desire to return to the days of film – he sees the benefits of the digital age where pictures can be shot, edited and on the picture editor’s desk within minutes. What he doesn’t say (although I suspect he might agree) is that anyone is potentially a press photographer today, and “citizen journalism” is adding to the difficulties felt by professional photographers. He’s pretty critical of his students though – encouraging them to get out there and take more photos – to shoot until people react, to turn around and look behind for a photograph (don’t just look  at your subject – think about the reaction of a crowd, reflections, etc.) and topping off with a quote:

“All photographers take photographs – professional photographers make them.”

[Which sounds very much like the advice I was given several years ago by Charlie Waite]

(Incidentally, the photographer Ken most admires is Tom Stoddart)

Sadly, Ken doesn’t have any intention of writing a book – although he undoubtedly has the photos and the stories for a fantastic piece of literature. He claims to be “too lazy” and, even though his wife Sue [Crawford] is a freelance journalist, he says it’s not worth her time. That’s a shame; it seems to me that Ken worked through the glory days of press photography, had a great time, and has a fantastic portfolio to show for it. And if you get the chance to listen to him talk any time, it’s well worth it – there are many more colourful stories that I couldn’t tell here!

Technology

Handy WordPress URL re-write

Last week, I accidentally advertised a blog post using two different URLs (I edited the title, which changed the WordPress slug, but forgot to edit a draft email to refer the new URL). With Twitter advertising one URL to potential customers, and our internal newsletter advertising another, I needed both to work.

I don’t have access to the server (only to the WordPress application), so playing around with IIS/Apache URL re-writes wasn’t an option. I started to look for WordPress plugins but couldn’t find any – and then I found out why…

Although there is no mention of it in the Codex, when you change the title of a post, WordPress automatically creates an HTTP 301 redirect from the the old URL to the new. I’ve seen this on my own blog but Johannes Pille describes it beautifully on StackExchange:

“The previously used slug(s) are stored in the database in the wp_postmeta table. Check for _wp_old_slug in the meta_key column (the actual slugs being stored in the meta_value column). Hence should you ever want this default behavior not to happen in a particular case, this is where to delete a value.”

I also found that the URL (and hence the slug) is not set until the post is published. I had edited the title whilst the post was in a scheduled state, so there was only one slug recorded (the new title). By editing the slug post-publish, I was able to prevent the HTTP 404s that some people were seeing.

Technology

Bring your own… or use what you are told?

A few days ago, I read an article about the risks presented by IT consumerisation. It rang alarm bells with me because, whilst the premise is sound (there are risks, some serious ones, and they need to be mitigated), the focus seemed to be on controlling data leakage by restricting access to social media and locking down device functionality (restricting USB ports, etc.). Whilst that was once an accepted model, I have to question if UWYT (use what you are told) is really the approach we should be taking in this day and age?

One of the key topics within the overal consumerisation theme is concerned with “bring your own” (BYO) device models. I recently wrote a white paper on this topic (a condensed “insight and opinion” view is also available) but, in summary, BYO offers IT departments an opportunity to provide consumer-like services to their customers – i.e. business end users.

In a recent dialogue on Twitter, one of my contacts was suggesting that Fortune 500 companies won’t go for BYO.  But the tide does seem to be turning and there are significant enterprises who are seriously considering it. I’ve been involved in several discussions over recent weeks and I’ve even seen articles in mainstream press about BYO adoption (for example, Qantas has publicly announced plans to allow up to 35,000 employees to connect their own devices to the corporate network). Interestingly, both those links are to Australian publications – maybe we’re just a little more conservative over here?

Of course, there are hurdles to cross (particularly around manageability and security) and it’s not about undoing the work put into managing “standard operating environments” but about recognising how to build flexibility into our infrastructure and open up access to what business end users really need – information!

We need to think about device ownership too and, in particular, about whose data resides where. Indeed, one of the best articles I’ve read on the topic was Art Witmann’s suggestion that a BYO strategy should start with data-centric security, including this memorable quote:

“Understandable or not, if ‘your device is now our device’ is the approach your team is taking, you need to rethink things”

Virtualisation can help with the transition, as can digital rights management. Ultimately we need to re-draw our boundaries and we may find ourselves in a place where the office network is considered “dirty” (just as the coffee shop Wi-Fi is today) and we access services (secured at the application or, better still, at the data layer) rather than concerning ourselves with device or technology-dependant offerings.

Putting myself in a customer’s shoes for a moment, I expect that I’d be asking if Fujitsu is following a BYO model and the answer is both “yes”, and “no”. As a device manufacturer it presents some image problems if our people are using other vendors’ equipment so, here in the UK and Ireland, our PCs are still provided by a central IT function. Having said that, there are some choices with a catalogue to select from (based on defined eligibility criteria [- a choose your own device scheme]). We also operate a BYO scheme for mobile devices, based on [Fujitsu's] Managed Mobile service.

So we can see that BYO is not an all-or-nothing solution. And, whilst I’ve only scraped the surface here, it does need to be supported with appropriate changes to policies (not just IT policies either – there are legal, financial and human resources issues to address too).

To me it seems that ignoring consumerisation is a perilous path – it’s happening and if senior IT leaders are unable to support it, they may well find themselves bypassed. Of course, not every employee is a “knowledge worker” and there will be groups for whom access to social media (or even access to the Internet) or the ability to use their own device is not appropriate. For many others though, the advantages of “IT as a service” may be significant and far-reaching.

[This post originally appeared on the Fujitsu UK and Ireland CTO Blog.]

Technology

iMessage – the makings of a great idea but still needs some work

A few weeks ago, I wrote about my experiences with iCloud and photostreams. Well, now I’d like to touch on another iOS-related topic: iMessage.

Released to much fanfare about how it will save us all money because we won’t have to pay carriers for SMS, over here in the UK most packages include so many text messages that SMS is pretty close free anyway…

But iMessage has a problem. It actually gets in the way of message transmission.

Last week I wanted to send a message to my Manager. SMS was fine – I just needed to say I was running a few minutes late for our meeting and I would call him shortly. That’s what SMS is good for, right? Except that we’re both iPhone users, so iOS tried to send the message via iMessage. For some reason it couldn’t do that so, after five minutes, it timed out and and sent the message as an SMS instead. Except by then it was too late – SMS is an unreliable transport (i.e. there is no guarantee of delivery) but it’s generally immediate (as long as the device is in range and switched on). Unfortunately, iMessage’s delay meant that my Manager didn’t get my “running late” message until it was, literally, too late.

Send As SMS is an option in iOS, but it’s only a fallback when iMessage is enabled. Meanwhile iMessage has lots of potential for group collaboration and asynchronous conversations. I actually think Apple is onto something with a unified client for various message transports (now they need to add email, social networks, etc. into the mix) but it needs a manual override option too…

Motoring Technology

Brave new world

One of the advantages of spending most of yesterday in bed nursing a dose of man-flu was that I got to catch up with some tech-related TV including Channel 4′s Brave New World with Stephen Hawking (via the 4oD app for iPad). The episodes I watched focused on Machines, Health, Technology[,] and the Environment (the final episode in the series is focused on biology and will be broadcast next week) [and biology] – with each one including five new technologies that have the potential to change our world, presented by prominent scientists like professors Kathy Sykes and Lord Robert Winston.

As someone who spends a good chunk of his time thinking about the future application of technology (in an enterprise IT context), it was good to see the application of technology to much broader problems and here are the topics I saw covered:

  • Machines:
  • Health:
    • 75% of new human diseases cross from the animal/plant world to humans and the effect is exacerbated by increased communications (for example, it’s thought that HIV crossed over from SIV in the 1880s but was effectively contained until the 1980s). In Cameroon and elsewhere, the Global Viral Forecasting Initiative is looking to find new diseases before they cross over, potentially alleviating the greatest threat to mankind.
    • At St Thomas’ Hospital in London, biorobotics are being used to provide a less invasive approach to cardiac surgery. Advanced X-ray/MRI scanning is used to build a three-dimensional “roadmap” which can then guide a catheter to act on difficult-to-reach areas of the body with high frequency radio waves. Eventually, it is hoped that software can replace surgeons in the operation/guidance of the robotic procedure, increasing the number of operations that may be performed.
    • Some scientists are experimenting with optogenetics to take photo-sensitive properties from some cells and apply them to others then control them with light. It’s hoped that this ability to target and control parts of the brain may be used to treat brain disorders and even common mental illnesses such as anxiety and stress, where treatments based on drugs are less than ideal.
    • Every 30 seconds, somewhere in the world, a child dies from Malaria and, whilst insecticides and drugs are available, they are expensive and often its an easily-damaged net that forms the first line of defence. At Columbia University in New York, scientists have found that they can use a light barrier to repel mosquitoes that might lead to the creation of a high-tech laser mosquito net. Elsewhere, scientists are experimenting with genetic modification of mosquito so that they can’t even carry the Malaria parasite.
    • Current forms of cancer treatment affect not just the cancerous cells but healthy ones too. At the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center, scientists are working towards a new era of personalised medicines and smart-drugs that act on cancer at the genetic level. Unfortunately, not all mutations have drugs so it’s not a universal cure for cancer but treatments like this can be used to help people to live with cancer.
  • Technology:
    • At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, scientists studying Reality Mining believe that that, by understanding our behaviour, they may help us to live happier, healthier or easier lives. The key to this is the data about our personal movements and activities – but people are generally not too keen on the idea of “big brother” watching. The scientists at MIT believe that, by treating our information like a commodity, we may each own the data about ourselves and this presumption of ownership leads to a different balance of power.
    • Most manufacturing involves shaping raw materials to create the desired object, typically hewn out of a solid block. Additive manufacturing (commonly known as 3D printing) takes a design and builds it layer by layer. This allows more complex/efficient shapes to be created with minimum material use. One day maybe we will be able to just pop into our local 3D print shop to create spare parts for our washing machine, car, computer, etc.?
    • With the closure of NASA’s Shuttle programme, it’s hoped that private space exploration may provide the means to transport people and cargo into space. Founded by PayPal co-founder Elon Musk, Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) is the first private company to put a craft into orbit and return it intact and hopes to be the next step in enabling humans to move towards a multi-planetary existence.
    • Abu Dhabi is both built on, and dependant upon, oil but on the outskirts of this city a new city is being created. At a cost of $18bn, Masdar will house 40,000 people and aims to be the most sustainable city on earth. Transportation is sub-surface, with driverless electric capsules (personal rapid transport), not unlike the pods at London’s Heathrow Airport guided by GPS and running on pre-determined routes/speed. Street level is reserved for pedestrians, with traditional Arab low-rise buildings and narrow shady streets. Wind towers catch air and bring it down to street level (no need for air conditioning) and the largest solar power plant in the middle east (with 88,000 solar power panels – and a new “beam down” solar concentrator project in development) creates all the electricity that is required, and more. The aim is that the technologies showcased at Masdar can be taken to other cities around the world.
    • Neutrinos or “ghost particles” flow around and through us at around the speed of light as a product of the sun’s nuclear fusion. The Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (SNO) has been created 2km below ground in order to avoid interference from cosmic rays, studying their reaction with heavy water and to help us understand how the sun is working.
  • Environment:
    • The Frozen Ark is aiming to save the genomes of endangered species of wildlife, 10,000 examples of which are expected to become extinct overt the next 30-50 years.
    • As out ever-growing population places new demands on the planet, around a third of our land mass is used for livestock production. At Maastrict University, scientists are “growing” in-vitro “meat”. As it’s more than 70% meat, it can be used as a processed meat product and consumed by humans under existing regulations but it’s still expensive and lacks the favour, texture and taste of real meat. Nevertheless, it could provide a method to produce meat for processed foodstuffs in the near future.
    • It’s expected that our energy usage will double by 2050 but with fossil fuels running out, nuclear under the spotlight and renewables unlikely to fill the gap, we need a new power source. Scientists believe that source may come from nuclear fusion. Unlike fission (splitting the atom), which requires the burning of heavy metals, available in limited supply, and creating radioactive waste products, fusion combines lightweight atoms (e.g. hydrogen) and, whilst it needs a lot of energy it releases more. The US National Ignition Facility has the world’s largest laser, split into 192 beams that can be fired onto a tiny pellet to generate tremendous amounts of energy.
    • Many of our planet’s problems are man-made but there are also natural forces at work – such as those when solar winds interact with the earth’s magnetic field (“space weather”). We our society based on complex electrical networks, we’re more vulnerable than ever but a new NASA satellite allows us to view the sun’s activity using different wavelengths of light and develop an early warning system.
    • Just as the Frozen Ark is storing animal genomes, the Millennium Seed Bank is aiming to store the seeds of plant life facing extinction. Each seed is cleaned, dried, x-rayed to check for an embryo, damaged seeds are discarded and healthy seeds are stored in a glass container at -20°C along with growing instructions for future generations (e.g. some seeds do not grow in soil/water but need smoke to trigger germination).
  • [Biology:
    • In central America, scientists from the International Cooperative Biodiversity Groups are looking to harness the power of bacteria to help defeat one of humanity's greatest killers. By taking the toxins created by a bacterium that grows in the ocean, they have successfully killed breast cancer cells and it's thought that the ocean could provide scope to further expand the frontier of medical science.
    • By combining biology and engineering, we can harness natural processes to work for us in what is known as synthetic biology. In the past this has been used to create paints, petrochemicals and plastics but now it could be used for fuel and medicines. In one example, at the Joint Bioenergy Institute, scientists are successfully altering the genetic make-up of e-coli bacterium before feeding them with plant cellulose, to create sugars that are then metabolised into biodiesel.
    • Medical research is also pushing the boundaries to allow our bodies to heal themselves. At the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine in Pittsburgh, scientists are researching the use of extra cellular matrix (ECM) - a structure that can be used for the body to build/rebuild itself. Used as a "scaffold" upon which bodies are built in the worm, ECM also helps small children to heal but then stops working. By using ECM to recruit stem cells and build healthy tissue instead of scar tissue, it's possible to overcome horrific injuries. In another example, regenerative cardiologists at the University of Texas have performed open heart surgery on mice, removing part of the heart and watching it grow back, after observing that heart cells continue to beat (and multiple) outside the body (in the first few days of life). Whilst this is still some way off a human application, in the future it may provide the key to new treatments for human cardiac diseases.
    • Much of the research performed by geneticists is concerned with fixing what's wrong but advances can also come from looking at what's right with our bodies. In San Diego, scientists are examining why some people (dubbed the "welderly") are living into their 70s and 80s without encountering any serious diseases, regardless of their lifestyle. It appears that, whilst there is no gene to help us live longer, there may be one that controls dying sooner and that manipulation of this may provide opportunities to prevent age-related damage to our bodies, although with a growing population there are some moral issues to address around increasing human lifespans.
    • It also appears that our lifestyle can affect not just ourselves but also our children and our childrens' children. Studies into epigenetics have shown that there is a correlation between early (pre-pubescent) smoking fathers and obesity in sons, regardless of social circumstances. Furthermore, overeating in pre-adolescence can impact the next generation. In females, stress during pregnancy has been shown to negatively impact cognitive ability and to increase emotional difficulties encountered by children. It seems that the lifestyle we choose not only sets and example but can also have a biological effect on health - i.e. that our environment controls us, not the other way around.]

If you think these topics sound interesting, you may just catch the programmes on 4oD but the whole series is also available to download from iTunes.

[Updated 21 November 2011: including details from the last programme in the series]

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