Antibiotics in early life may alter immunity long-term

Most bacteria living in the gut play a positive role in promoting a healthy immune system, but antibiotic treatments often do not discriminate between good and bad bacteria. The study published today in Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology helps scientists understand how different antibiotics affect good bacteria.

between good and bad bacteria. The study published today in Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology helps scientists understand how different antibiotics affect good bacteria.

“This is the first step to understanding which bacteria are absolutely necessary to develop a healthy immune system later in life,” says Kelly McNagny, a professor in the Dept. of Medical Genetics who led the research along with UBC microbiologist Brett Finlay.

The researchers tested the impact of two antibiotics, vancomycin and streptomycin, on newborn mice. They found that streptomycin increased susceptibility to a disease known as hypersensitivity pneumonitis later in life, but vancomycin had no effect. The difference in each antibiotic’s long-term effects can be attributed to how they changed the bacterial ecosystem in the gut. Hypersensitivity pneumonitis is an allergic disease found in people with occupations such as farming, sausage-making, and cleaning hot tubs.

The researchers stress that infants should be treated with antibiotics when needed, but they hope these results will help pinpoint which bacteria make us less susceptible to disease. This could open up the possibility of boosting helpful bacteria through the use of probiotics.

“Probiotics could be the next big trend in parenting because once you know which bacteria prevent disease, you can make sure that children get inoculated with those bacteria,” says McNagny.

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The above story is based on materials provided by University of British Columbia . Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Ultra-Cheap TVs, Now With Roku Steamers Built Right In



In a few years, 4K content should be plentiful and OLED sets could be entirely affordable. But we’re not there yet. While you wait it out, it might be best to buy a cheap-but-decent set. A range of new sets from TCL and Hisense are good options, and they offer one feature no TV at any price can match: built-in Roku, with no box or stick required.

That eliminates an extra piece of hardware for Roku fans, and it also brings an intuitive, widely used, and well-stocked smart-TV platform to two brands trying to grab U.S. market share. Like Roku boxes and USB sticks, each TV comes with a dead-simple remote that was developed in collaboration with Roku. It’s not a motion controller like the one included with the the highest-end Roku 3 box, but the remotes for the TCL and Hisense sets are much simpler compared to your average TV remote. Buttons are kept to a minimum, although there are dedicated ones to quickly access Netflix, Amazon Video, Rdio, and Vudu.

The navigation and search functions of each set were also developed with the help of Roku. Roku channels and input sources are boiled down to a grid of tiles on the main menu screen, and you can search for actors, shows, and movies across all Roku channels using the remote or the Android/iOS Roku app.

Out of the box, the streaming selection should eclipse the built-in offerings of the big-name TV makers, although major services such as Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, Hulu Plus, and Pandora are generally available on all smart-TV platforms these days. Where Roku excels—along with ease-of-use—is its breadth. The service has 1,700 channels to choose from, so you’re more likely to find special-interest programming: A “Mullet” channel for ‘80s hair bands, a channel devoted to vibraphones, and so on. There’s one helpful touch in the mix for traditional TV, too: Once you plug in an antenna and perform an over-the-air scan, the channels are listed by name in their own “Antenna” menu.

The TVs themselves won’t blow you away with specs, but they do offer plenty of punch for the price. The TCL and Hisense sets have built-in dual-band Wi-Fi, screen sizes ranging up to 55 inches, and 120Hz refresh rates at their larger sizes. TCL’s Roku TV lineup will be available first, and they’ll be shipping at the end of this week: A 32-inch/720p set for $230, a 40-inch/1080p/120Hz model for $330, a 48-inch/1080p/120Hz set for $500, and a 55-incher for $650.

Hisense’s Roku TV lineup will be available at the end of September, and they’ll use direct LED-backlight systems. They’ll all be 1080p sets, too: A 60Hz 40-incher and 48-incher, and 120Hz 50-inch and 55-inch models. Hisense says it won’t set an MSRP for their Roku sets, and you should expect the prices to be very agreeable.

Scientists make hospital superbugs breakthrough

Scientists at Queen's University Belfast have made a breakthrough in the fight against the most resistant hospital superbugs.

The team from the School of Pharmacy at Queen's have developed the first innovative antibacterial gel that acts to kill Pseudomonas aeruginosa, staphylococci and E.coli using natural proteins.

The gels have the ability to break down the thick jelly-like coating, known as biofilms, which cover bacteria making them highly resistant to current therapies, while leaving healthy cells unaffected.

Dr Garry Laverty, from the School of Pharmacy at Queen's University, and lead researcher, said: "When bacteria attach to surfaces, including medical implants such as hip replacements and catheters, they produce a jelly-like substance called the biofilm. This protective layer is almost impossible for current antibiotics to penetrate through. Therefore bacteria deep within this protective layer are resistant as they remain unexposed to the therapy. They grow and thrive on surfaces to cause infections that are very difficult to treat. The only option is often to remove the medical implant leading to further pain and discomfort for the patient. Our gels would prevent this.

"Our gels are unique as they target and kill the most resistant forms of hospital superbugs. It involves the use of gels composed of the building blocks of natural proteins, called peptides. The same ingredients that form human tissue. These molecules are modified slightly in the laboratory to allow them to form gels that will rapidly kill bacteria. This is further evidence of Queen's research advancing knowledge and changing lives."

The new approach, which was developed as part of an international collaboration between the School of Pharmacy at Queen's and the School of Chemistry at Brandeis University, Waltham, USA, is published in the journal Biomacromolecules next month.

The results will form part of a presentation delivered by Dr Laverty at the Academy of Pharmaceutical Sciences, UK PharmSci: The Science of Medicines conference at the University of Hertfordshire on the 8th September 2014.

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The above story is based on materials provided by Queen's University, Belfast . Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Artificial cells act like the real thing

Imitation, they say, is the sincerest form of flattery, but mimicking the intricate networks and dynamic interactions that are inherent to living cells is difficult to achieve outside the cell. Now, as published in Science, Weizmann Institute scientists have created an artificial, network-like cell system that is capable of reproducing the dynamic behavior of protein synthesis. This achievement is not only likely to help gain a deeper understanding of basic biological processes, but it may, in the future, pave the way toward controlling the synthesis of both naturally-occurring and synthetic proteins for a host of uses.

The system, designed by PhD students Eyal Karzbrun and Alexandra Tayar in the lab of Prof. Roy Bar-Ziv of the Weizmann Institute's Materials and Interfaces Department, in collaboration with Prof. Vincent Noireaux of the University of Minnesota, comprises multiple compartments "etched'' onto a biochip. These compartments -- artificial cells, each a mere millionth of a meter in depth -- are connected via thin capillary tubes, creating a network that allows the diffusion of biological substances throughout the system. Within each compartment, the researchers insert a cell genome -- strands of DNA designed and controlled by the scientists themselves. In order to translate the genes into proteins, the scientists relinquished control to the bacterium E. coli: Filling the compartments with E. coli cell extract -- a solution containing the entire bacterial protein-translating machinery, minus its DNA code -- the scientists were able to sit back and observe the protein synthesis dynamics that emerged.

By coding two regulatory genes into the sequence, the scientists created a protein synthesis rate that was periodic, spontaneously switching from periods of being "on" to "off." The amount of time each period lasted was determined by the geometry of the compartments. Such periodic behavior -- a primitive version of cell cycle events -- emerged in the system because the synthesized proteins could diffuse out of the compartment through the capillaries, mimicking natural protein turnover behavior in living cells. At the same time fresh nutrients were continuously replenished, diffusing into the compartment and enabling the protein synthesis reaction to continue indefinitely. "The artificial cell system, in which we can control the genetic content and protein dilution times, allows us to study the relation between gene network design and the emerging protein dynamics. This is quite difficult to do in a living system," says Karzbrun. "The two-gene pattern we designed is a simple example of a cell network, but after proving the concept, we can now move forward to more complicated gene networks. One goal is to eventually design DNA content similar to a real genome that can be placed in the compartments."

The scientists then asked whether the artificial cells actually communicate and interact with one another like real cells. Indeed, they found that the synthesized proteins that diffused through the array of interconnected compartments were able to regulate genes and produce new proteins in compartments farther along the network. In fact, this system resembles the initial stages of morphogenesis -- the biological process that governs the emergence of the body plan in embryonic development. "We observed that when we place a gene in a compartment at the edge of the array, it creates a diminishing protein concentration gradient; other compartments within the array can sense and respond to this gradient -- similar to how morphogen concentration gradients diffuse through the cells and tissues of an embryo during early development. We are now working to expand the system and to introduce gene networks that will mimic pattern formation, such as the striped patterns that appear during fly embryogenesis," explains Tayar.

With the artificial cell system, according to Bar-Ziv, one can, in principle, encode anything: "Genes are like Lego in which you can mix and match various components to produce different outcomes; you can take a regulatory element from E. coli that naturally controls gene X, and produce a known protein; or you can take the same regulatory element but connect it to gene Y instead to get different functions that do not naturally occur in nature." This research may, in the future, help advance the synthesis of such things as fuel, pharmaceuticals, chemicals and the production of enzymes for industrial use, to name a few.

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The above story is based on materials provided by Weizmann Institute of Science . Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Mary’s Monday Metazoan: Lobopods forever! [Pharyngula]

I think this is rather awesome: a detailed examination of the Cambrian fossil Hallucigenia , specifically an examination of the fine structure of its claws, has revealed clear affinities of the long extinct form to this adorable little guy, the velvet worm.


Mimicking geckos [Life Lines]

Researchers at DARPA are using geckos to create biologically inspired methods of scaling vertical walls.

Check out this video demonstration of “Geckskin”:

Searching for Causes of the Ebola Outbreak, and a Way to Stop the Next One

Ebola patients at an MSF treatment facility in Kailahun, on August 15, 2014. Kailahun along with Kenama district is at the epicentre of the world's worst Ebola outbreak.

Ebola patients at an MSF treatment facility in Kailahun, on August 15, 2014. Kailahun along with Kenama district is at the epicentre of the world’s worst Ebola outbreak. Carl De Souza/AFP/Getty

Every time Daniel Bausch, a virologist from Tulane University, went back to Guinea, things looked worse. The country’s few paved roads crumbled. The forests seemed thinner. Prices shot up on everything in the market. From 1998 to 2008, Bausch was working for the World Health Organization in West Africa, chasing a viral disease called Lassa. He had no idea at the time that he was seeing the kinds of changes that would, half a decade later, make possible the worst outbreak of Ebola the world had ever seen.

Bausch went back to Africa in July this year to work at a hospital in Sierra Leone dealing with the outbreak. Entropy was in full effect: Blood, vomit and urine smeared hospital floors. Without protective gear, some hospital workers treated Ebola patients wearing only scrubs. When nurses got sick, others went on strike, leaving few people left to pick up patients who had fallen out of their beds.

This health-care breakdown is the main reason why the virus has spread so far this time, Bausch says. It doesn’t just show up, randomly appearing from the forest. Outbreaks happen where the economy and public infrastructure have fallen apart for years.

Daniel Bausch.

Daniel Bausch. Tulane

Even now, as WHO and aid organizations work to fight the outbreak, Bausch and other disease specialists still have more questions than answers. How did it get this far? This particular strain of Ebola — called Ebola Zaire — comes from Central Africa. How did it get to West Africa? Why did it start in Guinea, which has never seen the Ebola virus? And why is this happening now?

“We’ll have to wait for the outbreak to conclude,” he says. “Even then we may never know.”

Yet despite Bausch’s pessimism, researchers are actually starting to find answers. They’re mapping out the connections between communities where people have contracted Ebola. They’re testing bats from the nearby forest to determine if Ebola has been in the area all along. They’re talking to residents about other conditions that could have caused this outbreak to spread so fast and so far—weather, government help and hospital safety. Because finding those answers will mean more than just slowing or stopping this outbreak. It might help stop the next epidemic, whatever disease it is, before it even begins.

The first problem is figuring out how this particular Ebola strain got to West Africa in the first place. Guinea residents have never encountered the disease, and now more than 500 have become ill; nearly 400 have died. This flavor of the disease—Ebola Zaire—somehow jumped up the Gulf of Guinea from Central Africa, from Gabon and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Did it travel through an infected person? Not likely. Anyone with contagious symptoms wouldn’t make it through the 12-hour drive over tough terrain. So disease specialists are now wondering if bats migrated to West Africa. Or, perhaps more frighteningly, always harbored the virus but never had contact with humans. People may just now be catching the virus because the population of infected animals grew, or shrinking forest put more humans closer to the bats.

On the other hand, maybe Ebola has infected people in West Africa for years and nobody knew. Symptoms such as fever, muscle aches and bleeding could mean many different diseases—malaria, for example, or Lassa, which is endemic to the area. Lab tests aren’t exactly routine or widely available in these hospitals. But Bausch says testing human blood samples from Lassa research as far back as 1996 could be the answer. He and fellow researchers are developing a way to look for Ebola antibodies in samples that showed viral hemorrhagic fever symptoms but tested negative for Lassa.

People walk in a street in Kenema, Sierra Leone, on August 16, 2014. The death toll from an Ebola outbreak that began at the start of the year stands at 1,145 in four afflicted west African countries: Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Nigeria. Kailahun, the traditional home of around 30,000 mainly Mende tribespeople, and Kenema account for the lion's share of Sierra Leone's 810 cases and 384 deaths.

People walk in a street in Kenema, Sierra Leone, on August 16, 2014. The death toll from an Ebola outbreak that began at the start of the year stands at 1,145 in four afflicted west African countries: Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Nigeria. Kailahun, the traditional home of around 30,000 mainly Mende tribespeople, and Kenema account for the lion’s share of Sierra Leone’s 810 cases and 384 deaths. Carl De Souza/AFP/Getty

Of course, none of that would explain why this outbreak happened now. One possible explanation is the weather—disease outbreaks often accompany the transition from rainy to dry season, and this year the dry season was longer and drier than usual, which could pump up the number of virus-infected bats [[I’m not clear on how this works]]. If so, looking to the forest makes sense—the Guinea forest touches Liberia and Sierra Leone, where the outbreak has been the strongest.

Once the disease makes its way out of its animal reservoir and into people, those people become vectors for its transmission. Central Africa is more rural, which means less person-to-person contact. But West African nations are urbanized, populous, and connected, with porous borders.

Poverty exacerbates that problem, Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone are among the poorest countries in the world—numbers 175, 179 and 183, respectively, out of 187 countries on the United Nation’s Human Development Index. In that part of the world, poor people have to go deeper into the surrounding forest just to stay alive, hunting for food, looking for wood to build fires and goods to sell. As they push in, new and strange diseases come out.

Once infected, people find limited help back at the hospital. These countries have just one doctor for every 40,000 to 80,000 people.

“A colleague of mine working there told me they don’t have gloves and can’t afford them,” says Carlos del Rio, a global health and infectious disease expert at Emory University in Atlanta. “They can’t protect themselves. What are they supposed to do?”

Infected patients then return home, where the virus spreads and is inefficiently battled by governments with few resources, slow response times, poor communication networks and huge language barriers across borders.

All these trends and results are true for more diseases than just Ebola. In fact, the poorest communities in the U.S. all face “tropical diseases”—mosquito-borne Dengue fever; Chagas disease, which causes debilitating heart damage; and toxocariasis, a parasitic disease transmitted by roundworms.

They’re the “most important diseases you’ve never heard of,” says Peter Hotez, a virologist and founding dean of Baylor College of Medicine’s National School of Tropical Medicine. “We put a large emphasis on biodefense and imaginary threats to the U.S. with smallpox and the avian flu, but this is at the expense of the real threats that have been here a long time.”

“Calling them ‘tropical diseases’ is a misnomer,” he says. “They’re really diseases of poverty.”

Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) medical workers disinfect the body bag of an Ebola victim at the MSF facility in Kailahun, on August 14, 2014.

Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) medical workers disinfect the body bag of an Ebola victim at the MSF facility in Kailahun, on August 14, 2014. Carl De Souza/AFP/Getty

Hotez has linked these diseases to other problems—mental illness, achievement gaps and socioeconomic inequality. That’s why figuring out the Ebola question is a tall order but an increasingly important one.

“This is about gaining an understanding of the dire conditions in these countries that we have been ignoring,” del Rio says. “What happens over there matters to us. We can no longer say it’s an ‘Africa problem.’”

Bausch, now stationed in Peru at a U.S. Navy medical research station, is still on WHO’s list of Africa experts. Every day he takes calls from reporters and phones into international meetings to give advice. He sees this moment as a time to explain to the public, especially the Western world, what he’s seen firsthand on West Africa’s dilapidated roads and in its dysfunctional hospitals. As world health experts and aid organizations ramp up a response, he reminds them about the ramifications for now and in the future.

“We need to make the scale of the response commensurate with the scale of the outbreak. This has become a big deal,” Bausch says. “It takes time to mobilize people and equipment in a place that’s not organized to begin with. It’s destabilizing a region that can’t afford to be set back even more.”

When an infrastructure falls apart, more than roads crumble.

Watch: A Hypnotizing Video Installation Inspired by Plato


Capturing the vastness of time, space, and the origins of man is an ambitious task, and one that many philosophers have attempted in words. In Timee, an A/V installation, artist Guillaume Marmin and musician Philippe Gordiani try to tackle some of the same big, heady concepts using a projector, a haze machine and a hole-filled wall.

Timee is based off Plato’s “Timaeus,” the famous dialogue in which the philosopher explores the creation of the universe. More specifically, the installation looks at Plato’s philosophical concept of Musica Universalis or Music of the Spheres, which regards the movement of the celestial bodies as having tones. The system Plato describes is comprised of 7 planets, each one with its own tone based on its orbital revolution. In other words, Plato reasoned that the universe could be viewed as a perfect musical score.

Baseball Bat With an Axe Handle Brings More Power, Fewer Injuries


Josh Valcarcel/WIRED

The shape of a baseball bat hasn’t changed much in the past 150 years, and the axe is many times older than that. By combining those age-old tools, however, the makers of the Axe Bat believe they can bring something new to the Grand Old Game.

The Axe Bat is more than a Frankenstein-style meshing of an axe handle and a baseball bat barrel. The key lies in the bat’s final few inches near the handle. That’s where the design gracefully curves from the standard round shape to a asymmetrical oval before tapering to an angled knob at the end.

The results, as reported in a recent study (PDF) by UCLA engineering professor Dr. Vijay Gupta, show that the Axe Bat is more comfortable, delivers more power and speed, and reduces injuries when compared with traditional bats.


A hitter’s bottom hand grips the Axe Bat away from the palm and more in the fingers, producing a more stable grip with less tension in the hands. Also, the back side of the handle is flat, so it won’t poke a hitter in the palm the way a traditional bat handle does. That protrusion can injure the hamate bone on hard and checked swings. If you’ve ever gone to the batting cages and come away with a bruise between the middle of your palm and the bottom of your thumb, that’s your hamate bone. Fractures there have sent dozens of major leaguers, including Ryan Zimmerman, Gordon Beckham, and Pablo Sandoval (twice — once on each hand), to the disabled list.

An asymmetrical handle also means that the bat doesn’t rotate in the hitter’s hands, so the same face of the bat hits the ball every time. The company calls that “one-sided” hitting. Its latest composite bat, the Avenge L140B, has special construction that allows the hitting side to flex like a spring.


Josh Valcarcel/WIRED

New York woodworker Bruce Leinert got the idea for the Axe Bat in 1990 while chopping wood. To help pass the time, the lifelong baseball fan pretended he was swinging a bat as he swung at trees. The natural fit in his hands and the resulting accurate swings had him convinced he had come upon baseball’s next big innovation.

His idea had some support from one of the game’s greatest hitters. In his 1971 book The Science of Hitting, Ted Williams said that a hitter’s wrists, at the point of contact, should be “square and unbroken … just as when you hit a tree with an ax.”

Leinert build his first bat in two hours, but it took much longer for his idea to get widespread attention. He filed a patent application in 2007, and two years later, he signed a 20-year licensing deal with Baden Sports, a family-owned sporting goods company based in Washington.

The company’s research and development team has spent the last few years refining the design, including a months-long ergonomic study. They were able to speed up the testing phase by 3D-printing prototype bats and then making changes based on feedback from hitters.

“I do believe there will be some point in the future when every bat looks like this,” said Hugh Tompkins, who heads R&D for Axe Bat. “This is the first handle that really actually is designed for the way that a hand fits the bat and the mechanics that a hitter goes through when he swings.”

Sales have more than tripled since 2012 when the full lineup was first introduced. A majority of those sales have been to youth, high school, and college baseball teams and players, although a few major leaguers, most notably Philadelphia Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins, have experimented with a wood model.


Josh Valcarcel/WIRED

Marietta College won the 2012 NCAA Division III national baseball championship in its first season swinging the Axe Bat. The team led the nation in hits (636) and batted .331 as a team. San Jose State, one of two Division I teams that use the Axe Bat exclusively, starting using it in 2013 and had more hits and fewer strikeouts than any team in the Western Athletic Conference that year. And this spring, Memphis Tigers outfielder Chris Carrier used an Axe Bat in winning the American Athletic Conference Home Run Derby.

“My hitting coach, Clay Greene, likes it because he thinks our bat stays in the zone a little bit longer,” said Memphis head coach Daron Schoenrock, whose team led the league in hitting in 2013. “Our guys like it so much that they’re swinging the wood Axe Bat in summer ball.”

While the Axe Bat isn’t threatening the big players like Louisville Slugger and Easton for market dominance just yet, it’s already secured a coveted spot in a baseball shrine. Inside a reproduction of a Seattle Mariners’ locker in the “Today’s Game” exhibit at the Baseball Hall of Fame sits an Axe Bat. The company is hoping others will one day join it there in Cooperstown.

Find the Perfect Coder Boot Camp for You With This Handy Site



Jonathan Lau discovered his passion for programming while working at an environmental consulting firm where he processed data with his own automated scripts. It wasn’t a big part of his job, but he loved it. So he decided to leave the firm and look for work as a web developer.

Now, years later, he’s come up with an idea designed to help out other developers who decide to finally get serious about their coding. It’s called Switch; Lau thinks of it as a kind of Yelp for programming schools.

It was his own experience that gave Lau the seed for the Switch idea. Although he had taken a programming class in college, Lau didn’t know anything about coding for the web. He didn’t want to learn strictly on his own, but having already shelled out for a master’s degree in civil engineering from MIT, he wasn’t keen on returning for another degree.

So he did what thousands of other aspiring developers do. He signed up for one of many so-called “code boot camps” cropping up across the country. These small, generally unaccredited and for-profit schools offer to teach students how to program in anywhere from four weeks to four months. Lau was happy with his bootcamp, Launch Academy, but he saw a huge need for more information on all the different boot camps on offer. So he did what any hacker would do and put his newly acquired coding chops to work building a web app to solve the problem. The result is Switch.

Although Lau built the prototype on his own, he quickly realized that he would need help making it into something truly useful. So he brought in co-founders Michael Suen and Jeremy Schwartz and turned the project into a company. The site now has over 200 reviews of 120 different schools across 10 different countries. But it’s more than just a review site. It also helps connect potential students with mentors, help them find jobs, and, soon, connect with other resources to learn job skills. The next step is a tool called Switcher that helps students figure out what type of web work they want to do, and which code schools offer the skills they need to learn. It comes with a quiz that helps match people to programs that fit their interests. Think of it as OkCupid for code boot camps.

As somebody outside the industry I didn’t have perspective to know who was worth listening to and who was full of shit.

There are now at least a couple competing boot camps in every major city. But each one has a different curriculum, covers different technologies and has different educational methods. Some expect students to already have a certain amount of programming experience before they start. Others are designed for absolute beginners. Many try to accommodate students with widely ranging levels of experience.

And while they pretty much all claim to have great placement rates, these numbers can be hard to interpret. “Does a part-time job count? Does getting an adjacent position that isn’t software development count?” Lau says. “It’s really confusing for the consumer.” Regulators in places like California and Ontario are starting to look into how to deal with these schools; there’s still not much guidance for students.



George Bonner, who attended Hack Reactor in San Francisco last year, says these issues made selecting a bootcamp a real pain. “The biggest problem I had was reliable info,” he says. “As somebody outside the industry I didn’t have perspective to know who was worth listening to and who was full of shit. And I knew that I didn’t know.”

But that’s the problem. If he were to go through it all again, Bonner’s not sure whether he’d be able to trust the information on Switch. The company makes its money by partnering with boot camps, which will make many prospective students cautious of the information.

Lau is well aware of that issue, and says the company will clearly label all the schools that Switch partners with, and won’t alter or reject the reviews it receives, even if they are unfavorable to a sponsor. After all, the site’s value depends on developing a reputation for cultivating fair and impartial reviews. And Bonner says that having more information will always be helpful, even if it has to be taken with a grain of salt.

The Boot Camper’s Social Network

But Lau wants to the site to be more than just a collection of reviews. After all, there are already other code bootcamp review sites, such as and Techendo, and as Bonner points out, even Yelp itself includes many reviews of these schools.

That’s why the company built the new Switcher feature. So far it will only ask a few simple questions designed to help potential bootcamp students decide what sort of work they want to do, such as web design, front-end development, or backend development. But eventually Lau says it will expand to add more questions to help learn about your personality and how much experience you already have.

“The long game is to help people customize a curriculum for themselves,” Lau say. “There are a lot of online resources, but deciding which resource to use is a big deal.” For example, a student might want to start out with online tutorials from Codecademy, then move on to a code bootcamp in their city that specializes in front-end development, and then follow that up with some advanced tutorials on the site or Treehouse. He hopes Switcher could help those students pick the right tutorials and the right bootcamp, and eventually, even help them land the right job.

Lau says the company will eventually branch out into other fields as well. The first, he says, will be graphic design, which there are already boot camps for. But eventually the site might include reviews and data on traditional vocational schools, such as those for welding, nursing and other professions.

In the meantime, though, the company needs to collect more information about the code boot camps of the world. Getting more alum to write reviews is key to that process, and Switch has a full-time person dedicated to finding alum and asking them to write about their experiences at various schools.

Ironically, Lau’s quest to help other people learn to program has led him away from programming full-time. He now spends most of his time managing the company and talking with students and schools. But he says he does still get to spent 30 to 40 percent of his time coding.

“Getting that mix is really satisfying,” he says. “Doing 10 hours of programming a day isn’t as fulfilling and as doing 4 hours of programming and 4 hours of product work. I think I’ve found my calling here.”

Pushing the Boundaries of Digital Diplomacy in Kosovo

Early evening in Pristina, Kosovo's capital city.

Early evening in Pristina, Kosovo’s capital city. Rachel Denison

Google “Kosovo”, and Petrit Selimi knows exactly what you’re going to see: dry, diplo-speak scouting reports at best, and depressing references to past conflicts at worst. It’s not exactly the promotional buzz a fledgling country with sights set on global integration would hope for*. To Selimi, Kosovo’s Deputy Foreign Secretary and a pioneer in Digital Diplomacy, this is a major problem.

“Things on Google were all bad,” Selimi notes, “but Kosovo has moved way beyond this in terms of nation building.” Two glaring issues of the country’s internet presence were the nature of the content and a general lack of material with which to counter decade-old news pieces. To start the digital offensive, Selimi initiated “Wikipedia camps”, at which teenagers would learn the basics of researching and writing articles while creating novel contributions about Kosovar arts, culture, or sports – subjects slightly more removed from the third rail of politics and recent history. The camps served a dual purpose for Kosovo’s government, bolstering favorable content and seeding a crop of web-savvy young programmers. Camp graduates have gone on to develop apps centered around street fashion, tourism guides, and language translation.

Kosovo's Deputy Foreign Secretary Petrit Selimi

Kosovo’s Deputy Foreign Secretary Petrit Selimi Rachel Denison

While newly competent Wikipedia authors were bolstering Kosovo’s reputation from the ground-up, Selimi and his team worked with multinational social media and news outlets. They convinced the Weather Channel and Washington Times to include Kosovo’s borders on stock maps of the Balkans. They persuaded Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn – after persistent phone calls and online petitions – to recognize Kosovo as an independent country. Spain may not have diplomatic relations with Pristina, but you can “check in” from Kosovo on Facebook. If billions of web-users view Kosovo as a dynamic, independent country, the thinking goes, then their governments may follow suit. It’s a “hearts and minds” approach, a charm offensive well executed by the former PR maven who famously convinced a mobile phone company to sponsor a 50 Cent concert in the national football stadium.

Selimi’s digital ambitions are limited only by the country’s manpower, and he’s willing to take a different tack when it comes to thwarting unfavorable impressions ossified from years of click-based heritage. He is intimately familiar with search engines’ formulae, and while he doesn’t go into specifics, there are ways to get around the system. “Yes, those are the dark arts,” he says conspiratorially, with a sly grin. “Generally those algorithms are populist, based on what was clicked before, but that’s not what’s really here, things are changing so fast in Kosovo. There are some things that we try to do…”

One glaring question remains: have these Digital Diplomacy victories led to any real change in more official diplomatic circles? The answer is muddy, difficult to measure, and – perhaps most interestingly – increasingly irrelevant. “The lines between classical diplomacy and the ‘new diplomacy’ will blur to an extent that you cannot really distinguish,” Selimi contends. “It’s as much about digital dissemination as it is about classical means.” He recalls the viral #Kony2012 and #bringbackourgirls Twitterverse calls to action, hashtag diplomacy that has shaped governmental responses if not sustained lasting consciousness of the underlying issues.

“Nowadays, diplomacy is about nation branding,” says Selimi, “and we can’t allow others to depict us.” He is particularly sensitive about the external impression of Kosovo as a hotbed of Muslim fundamentalists; the population is 95% Muslim, yet churches and synagogues are scattered across the country, and “we are a bigger supporter of U.S. foreign policy than U.S. citizens are,” he exclaims.

As Selimi ponders his next move – a Eurovision entrant, a country code web address suffix – he clearly relishes the underdog role, the David vs. Goliath dynamic that largely defines the Kosovar identity. “People will always try something here, will always work to improve. This is just a tiny little country that’s trying to find a place under the global sun.”

*Perhaps the third category of Kosovo search engine hits tackles the question of sovereignty. As of writing, 108 nations (including the US and most of the EU) recognize Kosovo as an independent nation, while many globally relevant players do not.

Why do cavefish lose their eyes? [Pharyngula]

It’s another Dawkins question!

Why do cave-dwellers lose their eyes? They’re useless, but are they harmful? Costly to make? Or eroded by rain of uncorrected mutations?

I thought I’d already addressed this in a blog post long ago, but I searched, and I didn’t — it was my inaugural column in sadly defunct Seed magazine, way back in the paleolithic, I think. Fortunately, I still have the copy I sent in to the editor, so I resurrect it here.

Degeneration and development

It’s not disuse that leads to loss of organs in evolution, but competitive genetic interactions

Reduced or degenerate organs, such as the evolution of flightless birds or eyeless cave dwelling animals, were a problem that Charles Darwin considered; his answer was that disuse would lead to their progressive reduction over time (we do not believe this is correct any more). Darwin’s confusion is shared by many even today, and Stephen Jay Gould, in his magnum opus, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, listed three things that his readers found most confusing, as measured by the correspondence he received:

“I can testify that three items top the list of puzzlement: (1) evolution seen as anagenesis rather than branching (“if humans evolved from apes, why are apes still around”); (2) panselectionism (“what is the adaptive significance of male nipples”); and (3) Lamarckism and the failure of natural selection (“doesn’t the blindness of cave fishes imply a necessary space for Lamarckian evolution by disuse”).”

While all three are interesting questions, let’s consider just the third, which Darwin failed to answer. Why should animals living in total darkness lose their eyes? Gould described two good answers in his book, but recent work by W.R. Jeffery and his colleagues on the Mexican blind cavefish has supported a third. It’s an answer that highlights the importance of developmental biology in explaining some evolutionary phenomena…and it’s also an excellent way to introduce this new column, in which I’ll regularly be discussing the evo-devo way of thinking.

One possible answer is that it is an economical adaptation. It requires energy and effort to build something as intricate and fragile as an eye, so shutting off that pathway would be a sensible strategy in the embryo: the energy that would be used in constructing and maintaining the eye could instead be diverted to other growing organs. One analogy would be in building a house that will have one wall facing a brick wall; it would be sensible to not bother building a large and expensive picture window there. For the cave fish, those embryos that did not bother to build an eye that would never be used acquired some slight advantage over their fellows that did bear the burden of an eye, and so gradually came to dominate the cave population.

In the case of the Mexican blind cavefish, though, there is a striking observation against this explanation: the embryos make eyes! They initially develop, they form an eye cup, they develop the beginnings of neural circuitry, neurons proliferate…and then they stop. The rest of the skull continues to grow, overwhelming the budding eye with new tissue. It’s as if one paid to have that picture window built into the house, and then halfway through construction had it ripped out and a wall put in. This is hardly economical.

Another possible answer that loss of an eye in a cave fish does not impose any cost, and the eyes disappear in the population by random chance, and that without selection for sightedness, there is nothing to prevent the blind variants from competing equally with their sighted counterparts. This is a neutral theory of the loss of unused characters, which suggests that mutations that knocked out genes needed for development of the eye wouldn’t necessarily have any advantage, but they’d also have no cost. The eye is lost by harmless attrition, and would be represented by broken genes in the animal’s genome.

This explanation doesn’t seem to fit the facts, either. The genes involved in generating the eye all seem to be present and functional in the blind cave fish. Transplanting a lens from a cavefish species with eyes to the blind cavefish embryo is enough to rescue the eye—it then develops into a perfect and functional visual organ. The problem isn’t caused by outright broken genes, but by genes that are being regulated in a different way. Something is actively switching off lens formation and thereby removing a signal for eye development, and in fact, analysis of gene expression in the developing blind cavefish eye reveals that many genes are more active than they are in the sighted fish.

If neither the economical hypothesis or the neutral hypothesis adequately explain how cavefish lose their eyes, what is the answer? The evidence suggests a third alternative, an explanation based on pleiotropy and developmental interactions.

Pleiotropy is a common phenomenon in genetics: all it means is that a single gene may have many different effects on the organism. Two genes that interact with one another in this system are pax6, a ‘master gene’ controlling the development of the eye, and hedgehog, a signaling molecule that plays an important role in setting up the midline of the animal. pax6 is a transcription factor (a gene that regulates the expression of other genes) and is active in the region of the embryonic head where eyes will form, is expressed in the eye cup and lens, and regulates the development of the eye. hedgehog is a protein that is secreted at the midline and diffuses laterally to regulate many other processes. It’s function is complex, but one role is to inhibit and separate structures; one effect of mutations in hedgehog is midline defects, such as cyclopia, where the eyes fuse together in the absence of a hedgehog boundary. Among those effects is an inhibition of pax6.

hedgehog is also expressed in teeth, tastebuds, and the jaw. This is what we mean by pleiotropy — the gene is a midline gene that suppresses the eye gene pax6, but it’s also a jaw gene and a tooth gene and a tastebud gene. Now imagine a population of fish feeding and swimming in total darkness; which individuals will be most adapt at finding food, and therefore most likely to pass on their genes to the next generation? Those that are best at using senses other than vision, that can use the tactile senses of their lower jaw to probe the environment for a meal, and that can use taste instead of sight to discriminate among food choices. What this suggests is that animals with expanded hedgehog function would thrive best, and selection would work to increase the frequency of greater hedgehog expression in the population.

There is a side effect — pleiotropy at work — in that hedgehog also inhibits pax6 expression, which means that expanding jaws and tastebuds will lead to a concomitant reduction of the eyes. What we have is a perfect example of an evolutionary tradeoff. Because hedgehog and pax6 are negatively coupled to one another, one can be expanded only at the expense of the other, and what is going on in the blind cavefish is not selection for an economical reduction of the eyes, nor the accidental loss of an organ that has no effect: it is positive selection for a feature that is only indirectly related to the eyes.

Gould would have appreciated this discovery. The cause of the blindness is the interrelationship between two genes which have complementary roles in development in establishing the architecture of the face. This is not a necessary relationship — not all genes have to be coupled to one another in this way — but a result of the evolutionary history of the organism, and a different kind of economy. The lower part of the face can be expanded, but only at the expense of the upper half.

The general lesson from this analysis is that understanding selection is not enough. We also need to understand the developmental interactions present in an organism to understand how selection for one feature might lead to a surprising pleiotropic change in something completely different.

Just for completeness, I’ll include some bits that weren’t published, but passed along for the editor’s edification.

(Chris: for your fact checker, the reference to Gould is from page 204 of The Structure of Evolutionary Theory.

Darwin’s explanation for the eyelessness was this:

“By the time that an animal had reached, after numberless generations, the deepest recesses, disuse will on this view have more or less perfectly obliterated its eyes, and natural selection will often have effected other changes, such as an increase in the length of the antennae or palpi, as a compensation for blindness.”

That’s from Chapter 5, “Laws of Variation,” in his Origin of Species.

I don’t know how you want to include formal bibliographic citations. A good summary of the cavefish work is here:

Jeffery WR (2005) Adaptive evolution of eye degeneration in the Mexican blind cavefish. J Hered 96(3):185-196.

I notice these kinds of things weren’t explicitly listed in previous examples of the column.)

Jazz in Your Pants


Josh Valcarcel/WIRED

I’m crazy for portable Bluetooth speakers. They’re practical, they’re cute. They’re the type of gadget that works in every room—especially in places where you normally wouldn’t put a traditional sound system, like the kitchen, bathroom, basement, or back deck. Never mind the park, the beach, and the balcony at the HoJo.

As a result of my obsession, I have a great number of these speakers in my apartment (seven, by last count) and I’m always testing the new ones. This speaker, the Pocket Kick from Soundfreaq, has been my favorite new addition to the flock. It’s small (“pocket” is probably a misnomer, but it is very tiny), it costs $100, and the sound quality it produces puts it at the head of the class of small speakers at this price.

The speaker it looks the most like, and the one with which curious friends will surely confuse it, is the Mini Jambox. They can be forgiven for calling it a Jambox—the word has become a generic trademark of the digital age—but the differences are notable. Yes, both speakers are about the same size, but where the Mini Jambox is a stylized brick of shiny metal, Soundfreaq’s speaker box is a more traditional matte metal grille ringed with rubber and plastic. It’s also about $30 cheaper than the Mini Jambox.

Most importantly, it sounds better too. I realize this isn’t saying much, as the quality you get from these super-tiny wireless speakers is never stellar. But if your ears can detect common flaws like muddiness in the bass, harshness in the high frequencies, and distortion at higher volumes, then you’ll be pleased with the Pocket Kick, which produces audio largely unplagued by these problems. Soundfreaq also makes great-sounding bigger speakers—the $150 Sound Platform 2 and the $130 Sound Step Lightning among them—so the fact that this little guy sounds excellent isn’t a surprise.

During the past two months, I used this speaker everywhere, playing all different kinds of music through it, from Bobby Timmons to Bobby Zimmerman. That’s actually the stuff that sounded best: jazz, classic rock, acoustic music, groovy jams. Everything was clear and natural. Really loud and heavy music (Opeth, Tobacco, Sleep) sounded decent enough to get the point across, but anything with a ton of distortion or low-end punch is going to require more hardware than the Soundfreaq’s pair of 1-inch drivers and rear-facing passive radiator to deliver the full brain-crush. Still, for a speaker that fits into the back pocket of your jeans, it’s very impressive.

Battery life is also stellar. I routinely got more than the quoted ten hours out of it. In fact, I took a fully charged Pocket Kick on a couple of road trips where I was staying in hotel rooms, and I didn’t need to charge it up again until I got home.

There are cheaper Bluetooth speakers, for sure. As the category grows (given the popularity of these things, it’s unlikely to ever stop growing), there are speakers popping up at $60, $50, or even less. Honestly, these cheaper speakers have such poor sound quality, I can’t recommend any of them—especially since you can get something that sounds remarkably better for only $100.

The current champion at the $100 mark is Logitech’s UE Mini Boom. It has the same battery performance as the Pocket Kick, and it’s the same price. The Soundfreaq is much thinner (only 1.25 inches) while the Logitech is more like an oblong softball. The UE Mini Boom does a neat trick, however: you can pair two of them wirelessly, creating either a stereo right-left arrangement, or a two-speaker system where both Mini Booms play the same thing. All of the Jambox products can do this, too. The Soundfreaq cannot. The lack of this stereo feature isn’t likely to be a deal-breaker for most people, but it is something to consider if you’re trying to decide which Bluetooth speaker to spend your $100 on.

Either one of these—the Logitech or the Soundfreaq—would be excellent choices if you want to get down to some Funkadelic while you’re washing the dishes or enjoying beers on the porch. The Soundfreaq is just the more portable option. If you’re the type of person who needs to have music everywhere, all the time, it’s $100 well-spent.


Josh Valcarcel/WIRED

How Scientists Upgraded Alvin Into a Superpowered Sub

Bryan Christie Design

Deep-sea explorers and scientists have long relied on the Alvin submersible, based in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, to visit the abyssal depths. But after 50 years of diving everywhere from hydrothermal vents to the wreckage of the Titanic, it was ready for a makeover. Three years and $41 million later, Alvin is back in the water, with upgrades to propulsion, sensors, and all the gadgets scientists will need for the next five decades of discovery.

1. Video System During one of Alvin's first return missions, its five new HD cameras and high-intensity LEDs captured a tiny ice worm grazing on a chunk of frozen methane hydrate.

2. Viewports The old Alvin had 5-inch viewports—they could endure deep-sea pressure, but it was hard for scientists to see. Engineers doubled the area of its three forward-looking windows for a better view.

3. Sample Basket Scientists need to transport seafloor samples to onshore labs for analysis. Alvin's new basket features twice the capacity (400 pounds) to haul heavy gets.

4. Personnel Sphere The new 11,000-pound titanium alloy sphere can withstand pressures down to 20,000 feet (6,500 feet deeper than before)—putting 98 percent of the seafloor within reach.

5. Control System Alvin's pilots used to struggle with manual controls in strong currents. Now computerized thrusters and steering systems maintain the sub's position automatically.

5 Reasons Why Kate McKinnon Will Be Comedy’s Next Superstar

Kate McKinnon


Perhaps not since Andy Samberg has one person risen to the title of Your New Favorite Saturday Night Live Cast Member as swiftly as Kate McKinnon. And with good reason. From Justin Bieber impressions to skits like “Dyke & Fats” with her frequent partner-in-crime Aidy Bryant, she’s consistently knocked it out of the park during her time at 30 Rock.

More and more, though, McKinnon’s been showing that her skills stretch far beyond sketch comedy. Her appearance in the sports comedy Intramural, in which she plays “a bitch” named Vicky, has been playing film festivals throughout the spring and summer. Later this month, the Big Gay Sketch Show alum will make her debut in Seth Meyers’ animated superhero spoof The Awesomes on Hulu.

The show is packed with SNL vets like Bill Hader, Bobby Moynihan, Kenan Thompson, Amy Poehler, and now McKinnon, who voices Lola Gold, a TV producer/supervillain who tries to convince the rag-tag Awesomes superhero team to take part in a reality show. It’s a character she took to easily. “The script is so funny and you really don’t have to do much besides say the lines as written,” McKinnon says, humbly. “So I mostly just did that.” Luckily for all of us, the show (which posts new episodes each Monday) still gave McKinnon an opportunity to give Lola a unique McKinnon-esque voice. The comedienne crushed it on SNL this year (so much so that she got nominated for an Emmy) with characters like Russian woman Olga Povlatsky and German chancellor Angela Merkel (“oh, ze things I have Googled!”), and says that while the scripts for The Awesomes were fantastic, “there’s always a little bit of improv.” And that’s where McKinnon shines. Here are a few reasons she’s about to be comedy’s next big superheroine.