Four Neat Things

Friday, September 29, 2023

A Friday Hodgepodge

Image by the United States Department of Defense, via Wikimedia Commons, public domain.
Editor's Note: I have long had 'Consider taking Columbus Day off' in my calendar ahead of October, both in homage to my father and as an option for celebrating my birthday, with which it sometimes coincides.

Often Most years Practically every year, though, something comes up and causes me to scuttle the plan, so much so that the whole idea has become something of a running joke to me, and I chuckle when it shows up on my calendar.

Well, this year is ... different: Between moving preparations and a minor surgical procedure whose recovery is going to lay me out for a couple of days, I find that I am all but compelled to use the entire week before Columbus Day for recovery and catching up -- on anything not involving heavy lifting. (What a time for that!)

So: Between a period of enforced, unwanted idleness and having to catch up on a crap-ton of unusual obligations, I'm going to disappear from here for about a week. I expect to return by the eleventh (the Monday after next), but I might need another day or two.

In the meantime, I hope you enjoy today's post and, of course, I wish you a happy Columbus Day!


1. After we move, we will be using the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway quite a bit. Naturally, I wondered if there might be an easy way to get alerted to traffic problems. There is, thanks to a web page dedicated to the bridge, whose about section drew me like a moth to a flame -- although the fact sheets are more important, especially during the October to March "fog season" on the lake.

Missing from my quick scan of all this is the status of the bridge as the longest continuous span over water in the world.

2. Some time back, I learned that coffee lovers in Japan have an option we don't have in America: canned coffee that is warm and actually tastes good:
The year was 1969. Tadao Ueshima was at the train station.

In the sweltering heat of the Japanese summer he got himself a bottle of cold "coffee milk" (コーヒー牛乳) from the station's convenience store, figuring he had a few minutes till the train left.

In those days you would buy your drink, drink it on the spot, and return the bottle. As luck would have it, he mistimed his coffee and his train started to pull out of the station. He hurriedly returned his half-finished bottle and ran to his train.

Now, Tadao had somewhat of a reputation as a frugal man. He hated seeing things go to waste. And he couldn't shake off the frustration of the coffee. "If only there was a way I could buy and carry my coffee with me ... " he reasoned.

Fate couldn't have chosen a better person for this encounter.

Tadao Ueshima was the CEO of UCC Coffee, which sold coffee and tea in bulk to restaurants. He assembled a team at UCC and gave them an impossible mission: to create a coffee he could buy and walk away with.
It is fascinating to read about the innovations -- among them: stopping milk separating from coffee in the cans, heated vending machines, heating the coffee without ruining it -- but the story has additional funky bonuses, like Tommy Lee Jones playing an alien in commercials for Coca Cola's brand.

3. In the New Yorker is a fascinating and inspiring story of an engineer who blew the whistle on himself when he realized that the prestigious new skyscraper he had designed could blow over under certain storm conditions:
On the island, [William J.] LeMessurier considered his options. Silence was one of them; only Davenport knew the full implications of what he had found, and he would not disclose them on his own. Suicide was another; if LeMessurier drove along the Maine Turnpike at a hundred miles an hour and steered into a bridge abutment, that would be that. But keeping silent required betting other people's lives against the odds, while suicide struck him as a coward's way out and -- although he was passionate about nineteenth-century classical music -- unconvincingly melodramatic. What seized him an instant later was entirely convincing, because it was so unexpected -- an almost giddy sense of power. "I had information that nobody else in the world had," LeMessurier recalls. "I had power in my hands to effect extraordinary events that only I could initiate. I mean, sixteen years to failure -- that was very simple, very clear-cut. I almost said, 'Thank you, dear Lord, for making this problem so sharply defined that there's no choice to make.'"
From such a low point, LeMessurier reacts heroically, and the story of how he and the team he assembled prevented catastrophe makes a gripping read.

4. Regulars here will know that I keep an eye out for news in the effort to deal with multiple sclerosis. Not long ago a study offered long-range hope for eradication when it appeared that researchers had found its leading cause.

But what about now? And what if those results are wrong, or a practical vaccine can't be developed? There may be hope for treatment in the form of an "inverse vaccine:"
The inverse vaccine, described in Nature Biomedical Engineering, takes advantage of how the liver naturally marks molecules from broken-down cells with "do not attack" flags to prevent autoimmune reactions to cells that die by natural processes. PME researchers coupled an antigen -- a molecule being attacked by the immune system -- with a molecule resembling a fragment of an aged cell that the liver would recognize as friend, rather than foe. The team showed how the vaccine could successfully stop the autoimmune reaction associated with a multiple-sclerosis-like disease.

"In the past, we showed that we could use this approach to prevent autoimmunity," said Jeffrey Hubbell, the Eugene Bell Professor in Tissue Engineering and lead author of the new paper. "But what is so exciting about this work is that we have shown that we can treat diseases like multiple sclerosis after there is already ongoing inflammation, which is more useful in a real-world context." [link omitted]
This is exciting news, and not just for those suffering from MS.

-- CAV

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