White House Honors Two Techies for Making Programming Cool

Bay Area residents Carlos Bueno and Kimberly Bryant are helping to prepare kids to use programming concepts in daily life and work.

Tech Titans Join Forces on Internet Surveillance

More than 60 technology firms and other groups are urging the federal government to let companies disclose Patriot Act data requests.

Crashes Cast Doubt on Future of Commercial Space Industry

Two recent crashes, including a fatal one involving a Virgin Galactic shuttle, raise new questions about the future of the commercial space industry. Twenty people who had purchased seats to fly to the edge of space on Virgin Galactic have reportedly asked for their money back. The second crash, with a company that carries cargo to space for NASA, happened late last month. We'll discuss the state of the $300 billion global space economy.

Novelist and Programmer Vikram Chandra Sees the Beauty in Code

Computer code has changed the world. But is it beautiful? That's the question at the heart of Vikram Chandra's first non-fiction book, "Geek Sublime." Best known as a novelist and UC Berkeley English professor, Chandra is also a computer programmer. We'll talk with him about the links between literary theory, aesthetics and the craft of writing code.

PBS NewsHour

San Diego to recycle sewage water as drinking water


San Diego approved of a plan to purify sewage water for reuse. Photo by Flickr user Jase Curtis

What’s there to do when your city is in the midst of an ongoing drought and the price tag on imported water continues to spike? Recycle your sewage water, that’s what.

On Tuesday, the San Diego City Council approved plans to turn sewage water into drinking water through a heavy-duty purification process.

“We can no longer afford to use water just once in this region,” Councilwoman Marti Emerald said.

The city is pouring $1 million into efforts to educate the public on why drinking purified wastewater isn’t harmful — what critics call “toilet-to-tap.”

The process involves sending sewage water through an intense filtration system to ultimately kill any and all contaminants. The “Pure Water” project mirrors a plan that was raised in Orange County, California, and San Diego back in 2008.

The post San Diego to recycle sewage water as drinking water appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

5 things you should know about the freaky Buffalo snowstorm

         angular roofs of houses in West Seneca, New York, turned into lumps of snow after a Tuesday night snowstorm in the region.
         Photo by Derek Gee/Buffalo News

The angular roofs of houses in West Seneca, New York, turned into lumps of snow after a Tuesday night snowstorm in the region. Photo by Derek Gee/Buffalo News

Winter has landed in the United States. On Tuesday, all 50 states recorded freezing temperatures, breaking temperature records in many states for the month of November.

science-wednesdayIn Florida and Hawaii, it meant a chilly day, but the Great Lakes, Northeast and Central U.S. are getting the frozen end of the stick in this cold snap. Starting Tuesday, Buffalo and other cities in western New York have been walloped by a massive snowstorm. Some parts of Erie County, New York reported 65 inches of snowfall as of 10 a.m. EDT this morning, and the snow will continue tonight. Forecasters predict some areas could receive 3 more feet of snow before the storm stops.

Here’s what you should know about this cold front:

         Lorenzo snowblows a path in Orchard Park, a suburb of Buffalo, New York. With some areas hit by five feet of snow and more
         forecast tonight through early Friday, snow crews and residents face a daunting task of clearing snow. Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo

Paul Lorenzo snowblows a path in Orchard Park, a suburb of Buffalo, New York. With some areas hit by five feet of snow and more forecast tonight through early Friday, snow crews and residents face a daunting task of clearing snow.
Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News

1) What caused this snowstorm?

The short answer is the wind, cold air and warm water in Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, says Bruce Terry, a meteorologist and forecaster for the National Weather Service in Maryland. It’s called the lake effect. The Great Lakes haven’t frozen yet, so when the cold air hit the warmer waters of the lakes, it picked up moisture. When the wind carried the moist air to shore, the colder air over the land created snow — and lots of it.

A lake-effect storm is not that unusual for Buffalo and other Great Lake cities, not even for this time of year, Terry said. But the amount of snowfall this early in the year is unusual, and much higher than expected. A strong wind pushed a wall of snow over western New York, and it sat over Buffalo for hours, he said.

Without a change in the wind direction and more cold air coming from the North Pole, the snow just keeps coming.

“That was a really enhanced lake-effect snow,” he said. “The wind direction didn’t change, so a persistent band set up, and [that’s why] it kept snowing in the same area for hours and hours.”

2) Why did the whole country get so cold?

It’s polar, but it’s not the vortex, Terry explained. The polar vortex is a cold weather pattern that typically sits over Canada at this time of year, he said. The cold air that dropped all 50 states to freezing temperatures originated in Siberia. A high pressure system over the U.S. West Coast stretching up through Alaska and a low pressure system over the central United States formed a trough. The cold air migrated over the North Pole and rolled south through that trough, freezing Canada and the entire U.S. The cold Siberian/polar air mass has even reached parts of the Caribbean, Terry said.

That trough is sticking around the rest of the week, funneling more cold air over the Great Lakes and Upper Midwest, the National Weather Service reported early this morning. There was a short reprieve from the snow this afternoon for western New York, but another lake effect storm is coming tonight, forecasters warn. The area could get another three feet of snow before the week is over.

3) How did that wall of snow happen?

Videos and pictures drifted around the internet this morning, showing a wall of snow slamming the cities with white powder.

The wall of snow is a genuine lake effect phenomenon, says meteorologist Steven Welch with the National Weather Service in Buffalo, NY. The convection of moist air coming off the lake forms ominous clouds, creating a sharp cutoff between the clear sky and the storm, he said. A band of wind about 15 to 20 miles wide pushed the wall over the southern part of the city, dropping between 50 and 65 inches of snow.

But just a few miles north of the wall, the storm was unimpressive — 4 to 6 inches in most areas, Welch said. Driving into the National Weather Service office on the north side of town this morning, he could see the cutoff where the band of snow stopped.

“You could just see looking down to the south it was a whiteout,” he said.

         Porto family digs out their driveway in Depew, NY. Photo courtesy: John Hickey/Buffalo News

The Porto family digs out their driveway in Depew, New York. Photo by John Hickey/Buffalo News

4) Is this a record-breaking storm?

Not yet, Terry said. The data is still coming in from weather stations around the area, so there has been no official word yet on this storm breaking snowfall records for the city or the state. Meteorologists also need to confirm the snowfall recorded.

The current record snowfall for a single day in Buffalo is 33.9 inches on Dec. 10, 1995, NOAA reports. In Cheektowaga, a suburb of Buffalo, 65 inches of snow were reported Wednesday morning.

         plow pushes through snow in Lancaster, NY. Some areas of western New York received 5 feet of snowfall. With more to come between
         Wednesday and Friday, clearing the streets has become a daunting task. Photo courtesy: John Hickey/Buffalo News

A plow pushes through snow in Lancaster, New York. Some areas of western New York received five feet of snowfall. With more to come between Wednesday and Friday, clearing the streets has been a daunting task. Photo by John Hickey/Buffalo News

5) Can Buffalo handle this much snow?

Snowstorms don’t usually faze people in the Great Lakes, but this storm caught many by surprise. Buffalo News reports that six people have died as a result of the storm. Some suffered heart attacks while clearing the mountains of snow; one 46-year-old man died trapped in his car. Buffalo News also reported that 40 motorists who were stranded on the Thruway during the storm were recently rescued, and 70 people were stuck in fire stations, unable to get home.

The county is currently under a state of emergency, according to the Erie County office. County officials are urging all residents in hard-hit areas to stay off the roads. A travel ban is in effect for the hardest hit areas, only allowing emergency vehicles through. Many roads are still closed, including 140 miles of Interstate 90 according to NBC News.

Buffalo News reported this morning that 5,000 tons of snow has been removed from South Buffalo. The paper reports that the city has brought in 200 snowplows to help with the cleanup efforts. Erie County press secretary Peter Anderson says that the county is receiving aid from Albany and Niagara counties. Albany county has sent 350 personnel, 160 plows, 8 roadside snow-blowers and 6 heavy-treaded track vehicles to clear the streets.

When the weather warms up again, the county will face flooding, Anderson said, but no additional flood prevention plans have been made yet.

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz told reporters Wednesday morning that the county hopes to apply for federal aid.

And Poloncarz has christened the storm “Knife” because it cut “through the heart of Erie County.”

The post 5 things you should know about the freaky Buffalo snowstorm appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

Turning technology into easy medical lifesavers


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GWEN IFILL: When it comes to global health, much attention is now focused on Ebola. But more routine diseases take a toll on the world’s poorest people every day.

In Seattle, there’s a not-for-profit group trying to develop new tools and medicines to combat them.

The “NewsHour”‘s Cat Wise has the story, another report in our Breakthroughs series, which explores inventions and innovation both here and abroad.

GLENN AUSTIN, Group Leader, PATH: All we need is salt, water, and electricity to make this product work.

CAT WISE: With just those three ingredients, this small device produces concentrated chlorine, a powerful disinfectant. The man behind the product, Glenn Austin, says it took years to develop, but now there is a greater need for chlorine in parts of West Africa because of the Ebola outbreak, and this device may one day soon be helping to meet that demand.

GLENN AUSTIN: We are really thinking about how quickly we can move, because there’s a sense of urgency here. Chlorine is probably the most widely accepted universal disinfectant. It’s great. You can treat water with it and you can treat surfaces with it. And that is the preferred application for infection control and disease outbreak control.

CAT WISE: The Electrochlorinator is just one of the many products turned out by a global health nonprofit in Seattle, Washington, called PATH. For more than 30 years, the organization has been developing innovative medical devices, drugs, vaccines, and diagnostic equipment for use in low-income countries.

STEVE DAVIS, President and CEO, PATH: The fact that some people have access to lifesaving devices and other people don’t is simply wrong, it’s unfair, and it’s correctable.

CAT WISE: Steve Davis is president and CEO of PATH. He says one of the organization’s most successful products could come in handy in fighting the Ebola outbreak if a vaccine using a live virus, that has to be kept cold, is developed.

It’s a tiny heat-sensing sticker that tells health workers if a vaccine is no longer effective. It’s been used on five billion vaccine vials over the past two decades.

STEVE DAVIS: It turns out, in food, in frozen chicken, they have something on the package to show that if it had been thawed or unthawed. So we took that idea and now, by having a vaccine vial monitor, this little dot, we can actually tell whether that vaccine has got too hot, and therefore we wouldn’t use it if it’s changed colors.

And so that’s — that’s been really critical, saved literally millions of lives.

CAT WISE: PATH got its start in the 1970s bringing reproductive health technology to rural China. Today, the organization has 1,200 employees, a mix of scientists, engineers, doctors, lawyers, businesspeople, and health policy experts.

They work in more than 70 countries on issues such as clean water and sanitation, maternal and newborn health and neglected diseases. They often collaborate with public and private sector partners on the development, funding and distribution of products.

MIKE EISENSTEIN, Shop Manager, PATH: So, welcome, this is PATH’s product development shop.

CAT WISE: Mike Eisenstein manages the workshop where many of PATH’s health tools have emerged after months, sometimes years of research, development, testing, and old-fashioned tinkering.

MIKE EISENSTEIN: We’re looking for solutions that are sustainable, that are easy to use. They’re low-cost, very sturdy, very affordable. So we try and mimic all the settings where they will be used, how are the technologies we develop going to react to dust, to high humidity, to temperature, things like that.

CAT WISE: Eisenstein says the end users, often women and children, are what drive the inventions and designs. He showed us how that played out during the development of a new version of a decades-old female contraceptive.

MIKE EISENSTEIN: The challenge in this particular case was, really, diaphragms come in many different sizes, and in developing countries, it’s especially hard, you know, finding a doctor and then getting sized for a specific diaphragm.

What we did was, we designed a diaphragm with the idea of it fits most of the female population.

CAT WISE: Another tool developed in the workshop project is the Uniject, aimed at low-skilled health workers administering shots. Steve Brooke was one of the product developers.

STEVE BROOKE, Commercialization Advisor, PATH: It’s unique in that its completely self-contained. The dose of vaccine or the lifesaving medicine is already filled in this little bubble.

So the health care worker doesn’t have to measure the dose, take the time to find a different syringe. Once you have made the injection, it’s designed such that you cannot refill it, because reuse of syringes is a significant problem in developing countries.

CAT WISE: Down the hall from the workshop is PATH’s lab, where scientist Manjari Lal is developing methods to freeze-dry certain vaccines and drugs. The resulting tablets, which would eliminate the need for refrigeration and skilled health workers to administer shots or I.V.s, could be a game-changer, according to Lal.

MANJARI LAL, Technical Officer, PATH: We need to conduct some clinical studies to really demonstrate if this technology has value. But, yes, I mean, this is easy, packaging-wise, administration-wise, and storage, especially in places like sub-Saharan Africa or Africa in general, where the temperatures run so high, if we have a product which is stable, heat-stable, I mean, it can indeed save a lot of lives.

CAT WISE: Saving through the use of innovation was a big theme at a recent PATH event honoring supporters and donors.

During his speech, CEO Steve Davis spoke about the need for better health systems in the world’s poorest countries.

STEVE DAVIS: Health inequity is generating all sorts of challenges to economic development and it’s generating a lot of political instability, and we have to address that. And certainly the situation in West Africa in Ebola is demonstrating that very, very much.

CAT WISE: But while Davis says the Ebola outbreak deserves attention and better resources from the international community, he worries that other longstanding global health problems will be overshadowed.

STEVE DAVIS: We have to keep in mind that far, far more children and women and families will suffer from and die from other diseases far more than Ebola. And that’s because malaria and diarrhea and pneumonia and other things are killing far more people in that region.

A lot of the work to support and help all those other conditions has come to almost a complete stop.

CAT WISE: Over the coming months, Davis says PATH will continue to stay engaged in the Ebola outbreak, while launching a major new effort to eliminate malaria, a disease that kills hundreds of thousands each year.

CAT WISE for the “PBS NewsHour” in Seattle.

GWEN IFILL: Online, see PATH CEO Steve Davis’ idea for another medical breakthrough. That video is on the Rundown.




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Finding the culprit virus in starfish deaths, researchers look for environmental causes


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GWEN IFILL: For the past year-and-a-half, scientists have been trying to figure out what’s behind a mysterious disease that’s led to the death of millions of starfish.

Now they have figured out the culprit, a virus.  Sea star wasting syndrome has affected more than 20 species of West Coast starfish.  First detected in Washington State last year, it’s since spread, decimating populations from Mexico all the way to Alaska.

This story comes from Katie Campbell at KCTS9 in Seattle.  She reports for the public media project EarthFix.

KATIE CAMPBELL, KCTS9: After months of research, scientists have identified the pathogen at the heart of the starfish wasting disease.  They say it’s different from all other known viruses infected marine organisms.  They have dubbed it sea star associated densovirus.

IAN HEWSON, Cornell University: When you look on a scale of hundreds and hundreds of animals, as we did, it’s very clear that the virus is associated with symptomatic sea stars.

KATIE CAMPBELL: Ian Hewson is a microbiologist at Cornell University.  He’s the lead author of the study.  And he says it’s rare to figure out what causes marine diseases.

IAN HEWSON: In every drop of seawater, there’s 10 million viruses that basically we have had to sort through to try and find the virus that is responsible for this disease.

KATIE CAMPBELL: Researchers collected tissue samples and analyzed them for all possible pathogens.  Once they had identified the leading candidate, they tested it by injecting the densovirus into healthy starfish in an aquarium.  Then they watched to see if the disease took hold.

IAN HEWSON: When we inoculated them, they died within about a week to 14 days, whereas controls, which had received sort of viruses that had been destroyed by heat, did not become sick.  They remained healthy for — for weeks.

KATIE CAMPBELL: What’s strange, Hewson says, is that West Coast starfish have been living with the virus for decades.  Researchers detected the densovirus in preserved starfish specimens from as far back as the 1940s.

IAN HEWSON: It’s probably been sort of smoldering sort of at a low level for a very long time, and then eventually it becomes sort of an epidemic.

Something seems to have been the trigger to make this from some sort of benign infection into something that’s really widespread and affecting so many different species.

KATIE CAMPBELL: Now that scientists have identified the virus, the next step for Hewson’s team is investigating what environmental factors might make starfish more susceptible to it.

The post Finding the culprit virus in starfish deaths, researchers look for environmental causes appeared first on PBS NewsHour.