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Monday, March 16, 2009

Boeing 777 safety measures 'insufficient' to prevent risk of disaster


Interim safety measures put in place on 220 airliners with an engine flaw are “insufficient” to prevent the risk of a fatal crash, according to the US air safety body.

The National Transportation Safety Board said that passengers could not be sure that the procedures, adopted by airlines flying Boeing 777s with Rolls-Royce engines, would work.

The board’s report will increase the pressure on British Airways to ground 15 of its 777s, the airline’s most profitable aircraft, until the flawed component can be replaced with a redesigned part.

The board said: “Current operational mitigations, which require power reductions, may not prevent additional occurrences at critical flight altitudes.

“Therefore, until the current fuel/oil heat exchangers are replaced by heat exchangers more tolerant to ice accretion, additional failures to achieve commanded thrust could occur and could result in a serious accident and, possibly, injuries and deaths.”

BA, Singapore Airlines, American Airlines and Delta Airlines had all been hoping to continue using the interim safety measures for another 18 months until the modified heat exchanger was ready to be fitted.

Rolls-Royce is under extreme pressure to have the part ready earlier. The language in the board’s report is so stark that the airlines, Boeing and Rolls-Royce would be highly exposed to litigation and damages running potentially to billions of pounds if there were a fatal crash before the new part was fitted.

The last time British Airways had to ground an entire fleet of aircraft was in 2000, when it stopped flying all Concordes after the fatal crash in Paris.

The US National Transportation Safety Board initially highlighted the danger in a report on Thursday. The British Air Accidents Investigation Branch also issued a report on Thursday on the problem but avoided mentioning the continuing risk to passengers.

In January last year, the 152 people on board a BA 777 had a narrow escape when the aircraft lost power in both engines during final approach and crashed on to grass just inside Heathrow’s perimeter fence.

The aircraft’s landing gear was ripped off but only one passenger was seriously hurt, thanks to the skills of John Coward, the co-pilot, and Captain Peter Burkill.

Another 777 with Rolls-Royce engines, operated by Delta Airlines, lost engine power in almost exactly the same way last November after ice blocked the fuel supply.

The pilots managed to take emergency action to correct the failure, known as engine rollback. This incident occurred despite Boeing introducing new safety procedures last September that it claimed had solved the problem.

The US safety board said: “With two of these rollback events occurring within a year, we believe that there is a high probability of something similar happening again.” It said that “the only acceptable solution to this safety vulnerability” was to redesign the flawed component in the engine.

Rolls-Royce is hoping to accelerate the modification programme to begin installation before next winter, when the risk of ice forming in the fuel system is much greater. It declined, however, to set any deadline for removing the flawed components.

“We are working closely with the relevant airworthiness authorities to certify and deliver this modification as soon as possible,” it said in a statement.

British Airways said that it would not be withdrawing any 777s from service. “Absolutely not. That’s not something that’s been suggested in any of the reports,” a spokesman said, adding: “We wouldn’t operate any aircraft if it was unsafe to do so.”

In a separate report on the BA crash, the British Air Accidents Investigation Branch said that more research was needed into why ice accumulated in the fuel supply.

It said that mixing an anti-icing additive into aviation fuel was one possible solution but this “has many drawbacks”, including the need for more regular maintenance.

The problem of ice blockages has grown in recent years with the popularity of ultra-long-haul flights over the poles, meaning that many more aircraft are flying at a high altitude in extremely cold air for several hours.

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Researchers move closer to cracking peanut allergies


Medical researchers appear to be one step closer to conquering potentially deadly peanut allergies. At a scientific meeting this week, they're reporting on an experimental treatment that has freed a small number of children from their allergies.

More than 3 million Americans are allergic to peanuts or tree nuts, such as walnuts, and, for reasons that aren't clear, the number seems to be rising. About half of the 150 deaths caused by food allergies in the USA each year are caused by peanut allergies.

FOOD ALLERGIES: On the rise for kids

Only 20% of children with peanut allergies outgrow them. The rest must stay vigilant, bringing their own food to parties and avoiding restaurants if they can't be sure the menu is "peanut-safe." An allergic response usually strikes within minutes of exposure.

The new therapy works similarly to allergy shots, which haven't proved safe against food allergies. Exposure to increasing amounts of peanut flour gradually builds up tolerance. Blood tests show that the immune system begins to ignore the peanut flour instead of attacking it.

Children start with the lowest dose of peanut flour they can take without a reaction — just one one-thousandth of a peanut in some cases, says Wesley Burks, chief of pediatric allergy at Duke University. Duke is collaborating on the research with the Arkansas Children's Hospital.

The children go home with precisely measured daily doses for two weeks and then return for tests and two weeks of slightly larger doses to be mixed in food. In one study, subjects ate flour equal to 15 peanuts a day after eight to 10 months of this. Nine of 33 have or had been on that maintenance dose for 2½ years.

After "challenges" in which they were asked to eat peanuts, four of the nine were declared ready to stop treatment.

For now, at least, those four still must eat peanuts every day. Other studies have shown that "as long as you keep something in your diet, your tolerance stays," Burks says. He cautions that the treatment shouldn't be tried outside a research study in which subjects are closely monitored.

The researchers also are conducting a trial in which 10 children were randomly assigned to get either peanut flour or a placebo flour. After a year, all five who had been getting peanut flour could tolerate a challenge of about 13 peanuts; those on placebo could tolerate only one peanut.

"Within the next five years, I think we're going to have some active therapy for food allergy," says Burk's collaborator, Stacie Jones of Arkansas Children's Hospital.

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Medical-marijuana hearing gets delayed as pot-fueled opposition grows

michael lee.jpg
Michael Lee, owner of the Colorado Springs marijuana dispensary Cannabis Therapeutics

In the game of bureaucratic chicken between state officials and medical marijuana advocates, chalk one up for the stoners.

In response to a growing Colorado medical marijuana community, and reports of abuses in the unregulated industry, state health officials proposed new regulations last month that could put a stranglehold on the local medical-pot business. Among other things, the rules would limit each medical marijuana "caregiver" to a max of five patients -- a constraint that would seem to disallow the state's growing number of marijuana dispensaries.

At the time Ron Hyman, state registrar of vital statistics, said he expected the March 18 Colorado Board of Health hearing on the regulations to be "energetic," but even he wasn't prepared for the subsequent backlash by those who believed the state was trying to take away their voter-sanctioned marijuana (not to mention dispensary owners who believed the state was torpedoing their voter-sanctioned livelihood). After more than a hundred people swamped a minor logistical meeting on the matter last week, officials decided to delay the March 18 hearing so they could find a larger meeting room. Now Hyman says they're expecting to hold the hearing in June.

"I think we put a little fear in them," says Brian Vicente, Executive Director of the drug policy reform group Sensible Colorado.

The state's pot movement is growing stronger all the time. Medical marijuana advocates have been emboldened by new attorney general Eric Holder's announcement that the Justice Department will stop raiding marijuana dispensaries, not to mention President Barack Obama's recent decision to fill his drug czar position with Gil Kerlikowske, police chief in Seattle, where the medical marijuana and "decriminalization" laws are similar to Denver's. An unnamed source notes that an entrepreneur is looking to open a medical marijuana dispensary around the Highlands neighborhood, and word has it that dispensaries are starting to open up on the Western Slope. While most Colorado dispensaries so far are small-scale operations, it's likely only be a matter of time before a large-scale enterprise -- think the Walgreens of ganja -- rolls into town.

But even Vicente believes the state's medical marijuana scene could use additional regulating. Instead of the new rules proposed by the state, though, he'd like to see a task force involving health administrators, law enforcement patients, caregivers and advocates come together to consider new dispensary rules such as advertising and location restrictions, sales tax obligations and quality control measures.

Hyman isn't opposed to such a working group -- but that doesn't mean the state will put the kibosh on its proposed regulations. "Once we are able to confirm exactly where we are going to hold the hearing and have an exact date, we will send out another notice," says Hyman. "I'm guessing we need room for at least several hundred. We are trying to find a place that can handle that size crowd and has adequate parking and handicapped access."

Considering those prerequisites, here's a possibility: Red Rocks Amphitheatre. Maybe even Widespread Panic would play. For lots of the marijuana advocates in attendance, it'll be just like old times.

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In Italy, a Vending Machine Even Makes the Pizza

Lucio Tonina/SITOS

The Let’s Pizza vending machine at a shopping mall in Trentino, Italy. It can turn flour, water, tomato sauce and fresh ingredients into hot pizza in a few minutes for a price as low as $4.50.

By JOHN TAGLIABUE

ROVERETO, Italy — Is Europe bringing back the automat? Claudio Torghele hopes so.

Over the last decade, Mr. Torghele, 56, an entrepreneur in this northern Italian city who first made money selling pasta in California, has developed a vending machine that cooks pizza. The machine does not just slip a frozen pizza into a microwave. It actually whips up flour, water, tomato sauce and fresh ingredients to produce a piping hot pizza in about three minutes.

The machine, which Mr. Torghele calls Let’s Pizza, is only the spearhead of a trend. Restaurants reminiscent of the old Horn & Hardart chain in the United States, which are fully automatic, are also showing up around the Continent.

Unlike the old automats (the last Horn & Hardart closed in 1991), which were staffed with workers who refilled the machines with creamed spinach and baked beans as fast as customers pulled them out, these restaurants consist entirely of vending machines.

In Milan, a two-hour drive west of Rovereto, a franchise chain called Brekky has opened the first three of what is planned to be a large chain of restaurants in which customers can buy cold dishes like salads and sandwiches, and warm dishes like pasta, from vending machines.

North of the Alps, the automat never really died out. In the Netherlands, Febo, a chain started in 1941 by a Dutch baker, now has about 60 restaurants. In France, bright green and yellow Yatoo Partoo machines — the name loosely translates as “You can get everything, everywhere” — sell milk, juice, snacks and sandwiches 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The European vending machine industry, which has grown significantly and now has annual sales of about 26 billion euros, or $33 billion, hopes the trend will catch on.

Much recent growth came with the placing of vending machines in factories and offices, where employees took coffee breaks or lunch from machines. But as recession bit into Europe and factories and offices closed, that market has contracted.

At the same time, Europeans are looking for less expensive ways to eat out, and the automat is far less expensive than a white-tablecloth restaurant.

“These are developments that we are watching,” said Luciano Iannuzzi, chief executive of Argenta in Carpi, Italy, a large vending operator with about 120,000 machines.

The idea for a pizza robot came to Mr. Torghele after he worked in California in the mid-1990s creating a fresh pasta manufacturer. “At food courts I saw a trend toward vending machines,” he said at his office in this mountain town. “In fast food, I saw pizza everywhere.”

With backing from a Dutch investment fund, his own capital and money from friends, he set to work. A plan to simply miniaturize industrial technology for producing frozen pizza failed, but by 2003 Mr. Torghele had produced a machine ready to be tested in Chicago and shown at a trade fair in Orlando, Fla.

That same year, with the help of Unilever, the British-Dutch food giant, he test-marketed 20 machines in Germany. “We had a bicycle,” he said. “Now we had to pedal.”

The machine Mr. Torghele and his engineers produced is outfitted with little windows so the customer can watch the pizza being made. As in the Charlie Chaplin film “Modern Times” (in miniature and without Chaplin) wheels turn and gears grind. The customer presses a button to choose one of four varieties — margherita (plain cheese and tomato sauce), bacon, ham or fresh greens. A plastic container dumps flour into a drum resembling a tiny washing machine; a squirt of water follows, and the drum goes into a spin cycle, forming a blob of dough that is then pressed flat to form a 12-inch disk.

Tomato paste is squirted onto the dough and cheese is added before it is lifted into a small infrared oven. The baked pizza then slips onto a cardboard tray and out into the customer’s waiting hands. Mr. Torghele says the pizza will cost as little $4.50, depending on the variety.

It is not surprising that the new drive to offer fresh-made food is coming from Italy. Italians may be legendary for long lunches of pasta and wine, but they also lead Europe in vending machines, with more than 614,000 installed, compared with 593,000 in France and 562,000 in Britain, according to the European Vending Association in Brussels.

Much of Italy’s strength in vending comes from coffee. An Italian coffee vending machine may offer up to 18 different varieties, including espresso, cappuccino, ristretto, lungo and macchiato.

But with coffee markets increasingly saturated, machine manufacturers are casting about for new products to push, like books, DVDs, scarves and handkerchiefs, even model cars and trains.

Operators are also increasingly offering fresh produce, like apples, and other healthy food at schools and fitness centers.

“Vending hasn’t arrived at the end of the road,” said Mr. Iannuzzi, 52, of Argenta. “It’s mature, but it’s growing.”

Argenta reflects the opportunities that vending offered to investors. In 2005, Argenta was snapped up by Advent International, a British equity fund, which turned around and sold it in late 2007 to an Italian fund, Cognetas. In that time, Argenta had doubled its annual revenue, to $260 million, partly through acquisitions and partly through growth.

Now, with the economic crisis spreading across Europe, the industry faces a different landscape. On the one hand, as factories close, potential vending machine sites disappear. On the other hand, as consumers find themselves with less cash, the lower-priced items in vending machines become attractive.

Where does this leave Mr. Torghele and his pizza machine? Initially, he thought the United States would be his primary market, but he learned that market would be hard to penetrate. Instead, when his machine goes into regular production this summer, he will be focusing on Italy and its neighbors. But vending machine prices there average about $2,600, and his machine will sell for $32,000.

Still, experts in the business are not discouraging. “You have to have a location; you have to understand where to go with that machine,” Mr. Iannuzzi said. “But there is a future for that.”

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Female Inventors Who Reinvented Our World


By: Brie Cadman

March is Women’s History Month and a good time to recognize the important women who have paved the way for progress. While leaders, activists, writers, feminists, and teachers are all being honored, some of the most inspiring women are those inventors and entrepreneurs who broke new ground in the traditionally male-dominated fields of science and technology.

Virginia Apgar
Born in 1909, Apgar became the first female full professor at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. A leader in the field of anesthesia and pediatrics, she is best known for designing and popularizing the Apgar score, a standardized way of quickly assessing the health of a newborn infant.

Scaling from zero to ten, the Apgar score is a mnemonic that looks at five criteria—appearance, pulse, grimace, activity, and respiration. Although different forms of it are used today, Apgar’s work was the basis for rapidly sizing up an infant’s health, helping to decrease infant mortality.

Martha Coston
Coston invented the signaling flare, which is widely used in naval communication. In 1859, she found designs for a nonfunctioning flare in her deceased husband’s notebooks and set out to make them work.

Using pyrotechnics, she was able to design and patent a system of colored flares that allowed ships to communicate at night. The Navy purchased her flare system for $20,000, though she struggled for years to receive the compensation.

Her flare system was also adopted by the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. weather service, as well as governments in Europe. The use of colored, durable flares changed naval communication and are still used today.

Harriett Russell Strong
Strong was an entrepreneur, farmer, and engineer. Born in 1844 in New York, she moved to a ranch in California with her husband and became interested in ways to irrigate dry land. This led her to invent and patent a dam and water storage system; her irrigation system is credited with helping Southern California become a major food-producing region. She also developed a process to grow pampas plumes, drilled three oil wells on her property, and at one point had the largest walnut orchard in the nation. After accumulating a fortune, she focused her efforts on women’s suffrage, education, and water conservation.

Maria Telkes
Leading the charge in alternative energies well before her time, Telkes designed the first residential solar heating system. Born in 1900 in Hungary, she went on to earn a doctoral degree in physical chemistry and immigrated to the United States, doing solar energy research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and New York University. In addition to inventing a solar oven, she built the solar heating system for an experimental solar heated house in Massachusetts that is still in use today.

Elizabeth Coleman White
Elizabeth White is credited with introducing the first cultivated blueberry to the United States. She grew up on her father’s cranberry farm in New Jersey, which gave her an interest in industrial agriculture. Collaborating with Frederick Colville, they learned how to take wild blueberries, which grew in abundance near her farm, and turn them into a commercial commodity. In 1916, they marketed the first commercial blueberry under the name Tru-Blu-Berries. They also introduced cellophane packaging of blueberries.

Sally Fox
Inventor of Foxfibre Colored Cotton, Sally Fox contributed immensely to improving the environmental impact of cotton textile production. Because hand spinning colored cotton is so expensive, most manufacturers bleach, dye, and spin white cotton, which, due to the bleach and dyes, creates a large amount of environmental pollution. In the late 1980s, Sally Fox learned how to breed green and brown cotton. She bought some land and began to grow these cultivars, and by the 1990s, had a booming business that produced naturally-colored cotton for large manufacturers like Levi’s, Land’s End, and L.L. Bean.

Rachel Fuller Brown and Elizabeth Lee Hazen
Working for the New York State Department of Health in two different cities, Rachel Fuller and Elizabeth Hazen worked together to develop a widely successful antifungal drug. Working in two different cities (Fuller in Albany and Hazen in New York City) they shared their research information over the mail. In 1954, the FDA approved their drug, nystatin. The drug was used to treat infections that were previously untreatable; it also treated environmental molds. They also donated all of their thirteen million dollars in nystatin royalties to academic scientific research.

Reading about these amazing women makes inventions—or striving toward them—seem possible.

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Secret Message Found In Lincoln Pocket Watch

WASHINGTON — For nearly 150 years, a story has circulated about a hidden Civil War message engraved inside Abraham Lincoln's pocket watch. On Tuesday, museum curators confirmed it was true. A watchmaker used tiny tools to carefully pry open the antique watch at the National Museum of American History, and a descendant of the engraver read aloud the message from a metal plate underneath the watch face.

"Jonathan Dillon April 13 - 1861," part of the inscription reads, "Fort Sumpter (sic) was attacked by the rebels on the above date." Another part reads, "Thank God we have a government."

The words were etched in tiny cursive handwriting and filled the the space between tiny screws and gears that jutted through the metal plate. A magnifying glass was required to read them.

Jonathan Dillon, then a watchmaker on Pennsylvania Avenue, had Lincoln's watch in his hands when he heard the first shots of the Civil War had been fired in South Carolina. The Irish immigrant later recalled being the only Union sympathizer working at the shop in a divided Washington.

Dillon's story was passed down among his family and friends, eventually reaching a New York Times reporter. In a 1906 article in the paper, an 84-year-old Dillon said no one, including Lincoln, ever saw the inscription as far as he knew.

Dillon had a fuzzy recollection of what he had engraved. He told the newspaper he had written: "The first gun is fired. Slavery is dead. Thank God we have a president who at least will try."

For years the story went unconfirmed.

The watchmaker's great-great grandson, Doug Stiles, first heard the tale of the engraving from his great uncle decades ago. He said the story had reached extended family as far away as Ireland.

A few months ago, he used Google to find the New York Times story, and last month he passed the information along to Smithsonian curators, who knew nothing about the engraving.

On Tuesday, watchmaker George Thomas, who volunteers at the museum, spent several minutes carefully opening the watch as an audience of reporters and museum workers watched on a video monitor.

"The moment of truth has come. Is there or is there not an inscription?" Thomas said, teasing the audience, which gasped when he confirmed it was there. He called Stiles up to read his ancestor's words, drawing smiles and a few sighs of relief.

"Like Pearl Harbor or 9/11, this was the reaction he had (to the Civil War,)" Stiles said of the inscription.

Later, Stiles said he felt closer to the 16th president.

"My gosh, that was Lincoln's watch," he said, "and my ancestor put graffiti on it!"

Lincoln's family kept the watch until it was donated to the museum in 1958. It was Lincoln's everyday pocket watch, one of the president's only valuable possessions he brought with him to the White House from Springfield, Ill., said Harry Rubenstein, curator of the museum's politics and reform division.

"I think it just captures a bit of history that can transform you to another time and place," he said. "It captures the excitement, the hope of a watchmaker in Washington."

The watch will go back on display at the museum by Wednesday as part of the exhibit, "Abraham Lincoln: An Extraordinary Life." It will have a new label to tell Dillon's story and a photo of the inscription.

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Caravaggio used 'photography' to create dramatic masterpieces

By Nick Squires in Rome

Caravaggio's Supper at Emmaus
Caravaggio's Supper at Emmaus Photo: AP

The 16th century master used modern darkroom techniques to create his masterpieces, more than 200 years before the invention of the camera.

Italian researchers claim the technique explained why many of his subjects were left-handed – the image projected onto the canvas had been reversed.


Art historian Roberta Lapucci said Caravaggio's dramatic 'chiaroscuro' style of light and shadow was based on "a whole set of techniques that are the basis of photography".

Art history scholars have long known that Caravaggio worked in a sort of darkroom, illuminating his subjects through a hole in the ceiling and projecting the image onto a canvas using a lens and a mirror.

But Mrs Lapucci is the first researcher to suggest that he treated the canvas with light-sensitive substances, including a luminescent powder made from crushed fireflies, in order to "fix" the image as 19th century photographers later would.

He then used white lead mixed with chemicals such as mercury, to outline the image in greater clarity, she believes.

Mrs Lapucci, who teaches at an arts institute in Florence, the Studio Art Centers International, based her hypothesis on research by British artist David Hockney, who wrote in his 2001 book "Secret Knowledge" that many old masters used optical instruments to compose their paintings.

"There is lots of proof, notably the fact that Caravaggio never made preliminary sketches," said Mrs Lapucci.

An "abnormal number" of Caravaggio's subjects are left-handed. "That could be explained by the fact that the image projected on the canvas was backwards," she said.

Caravaggio's use of mercury might explain his violent temper – prolonged exposure to the chemical can affect the central nervous system.

Caravaggio was notorious during his lifetime for becoming involved in brawls, one of which ended in the death in 1606 of a young adversary, which forced the artist to flee from Rome to Malta.

Dr John Spike, a Caravaggio expert based in Florence, said that to prove the thesis that the Baroque master used chemicals to "fix" projected images, the paint in the pictures would have to be subjected to laboratory testing.

"If evidence was found, that would be amazing. But it would involve taking samples from some of the world's greatest masterpieces, which is not ideal.

"We know that he worked in a dark room and that he was fascinated by mirrors, and he was living in Rome at a time when it was a hotbed of scientific inquiry. "Might he have used this technique? It's possible – his protector, Cardinal Del Monte, was also the protector of Galileo, and they were all fascinated by optics and the new physics."

Leonardo da Vinci, who lived in the century before Caravaggio, was familiar with the principles of the "camera obscura" but Mrs Lapucci believes Caravaggio was the first to use it in paintings.

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