CDC Says Flu Vaccine Has 48% Effectiveness This Season

nurse giving a vaccine to a girl

CDC finds that the flu vaccine is 48 percent effective this season.

The United States Center for Disease Control and Prevention has issued a new report which states that the flu vaccine has only a 48 percent rate of efficiency in combating the flu virus during this season of the disease.

The current flu season, which is still expected to continue for a few more weeks, has been marked by the predominance of the influenza A (H3N2) strain of the virus. Experts initially estimated that the efficiency of the flu vaccine in combating that particular strain of the virus was just 43 percent compared to the 73 percent effectiveness of the vaccine against the influenza B virus strain.  However, the report found that overall protection of the vaccine was rated to be at 48 percent.

The CDC report is based on data collected between November 28 and February 4 from more than 3,100 adults and children who were part of the Influenza Vaccine Effectiveness Network.  The CDC has routinely used data from this network to estimate the effectiveness of a vaccine during a particular season of the virus.

Previous CDC reports revealed that during the2015-2016 flu season, the flu vaccine was 47 percent effective in combating the virus, while the 2014-2015 season saw a major decline in the effectiveness of the virus, to just 19 percent.

According to the scientists, the low effectiveness rate from two years ago was caused by the predominant state of the H3N2 virus strain, for which that current vaccine was not well suited. Fortunately, researchers were able to correctly anticipate that the same strain will remain predominant during this season, which allowed to develop a vaccine which was better suited to combat the virus.

In a separate but related report, the CDC revealed that the US saw an increase in the activity of the flu virus in the middle of December, and remained high until early February. Researchers expect that that flu season will continue for a few more weeks, but it will begin to drop in activity. The increased activity of the virus led strength to the recommendation of doctors to get vaccinated.

What do you think about the report’s findings? Have you received a flu vaccine this season?

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Human Activity Changes Climate 170 Times Faster than Nature

Planet Earth

Human activity has 170 times more impact on climate change than nature.

Climate Change is recognized by almost the entire world as a real and dangerous threat, but not many specific details were known regarding how much does human activity does increase the effects of climate change, although it is considered its main cause.

For the first time, scientists were able to develop a mathematical equation which they believe can accurately describe the impact that human activity has on the planet’s climate. Using this equation, the researchers were able to determine that our activity speeds up climate change by a factor of 170 times than the natural process.

The equation used to determine the impact of human activity was published in The Anthropocene Review, and developed by a team of researchers led by Will Steffen, an expert in climate change and a professor at the Australian National University.

Steffen, together with his colleagues and co-researcher, Owen Gaffney, from the Stockholm Resilience Center, developed what they are calling the “Anthropocene Equation” in order to determine the price impact of human activity on climate change. Their work serves as a strong argument against any climate change deniers claiming that the climate changes independent of our activity as a way to downplay any responsibility we have to address the issue.

In their study, the researchers note that while for the overwhelming part of our planet’s history, approximately 4.5 billion years, astronomical and various geophysical factors had the most influence on Earth. However, just in the past six decades, human activity led increasingly rapid change in climate leading to the period known as the Anthropocene. Human activity now rivals and even supersedes some of the forces of nature in shaping in the planet.

According to the scientists, the equation was developed by obtaining a clear picture of the rate of changes in the life-support system of the planet which includes aspects like the overall atmosphere, oceans, wetlands, forests, ice sheets, as well as the diversity of life. In their equation, scientists believe that current geophysical and astronomical forces tend to be zero due to their slow nature or incredible rarity, which have less impact than the overall human activity.

What do you think about the study’s findings?

Image source: Wikipedia

Google DeepMind AI Agents Faced Off In A Competition

ai agents

Google DeepMind researchers studied two competing AI agents to see how they would react to “social dilemmas”.

Google DeepMind researchers have been studying an ages-old problem. The behavior of two competing entities. Only they have taken the issue one step further. And had two AI agents face each other. Their purpose? To see how they would react.

The field of artificial intelligence has been marking a progress. The area has greatly evolved in recent years. And as it is, most expect artificial intelligence or AI to become a common occurrence.

AI computer agents or simply AI agents are given their own task. They could come help manage day-to-day systems. For example, the traffic light succession. Or they may be used for more complex procedures.

But what could happen if their tasks conflict with another AI’s? What would be their reactions? That is what they Google DeepMind researchers set out to determine.

Research results were revealed earlier this week. They were published on February 09. And the research paper was titled as follows. “Multi-agent Reinforcement Learning in Sequential Social Dilemmas”. Google DeepMind researchers also offered additional details in a blog post. This was released on the official project page.

The research team decided to test out the following. They sought to analyze the reaction of the two AI agents in a “social dilemma”. A series of such events was used.

A “social dilemma” is a generic term. It is used in situations in which an individual can profit if they are selfish. Or when both parties loose if they are being selfish.

Google’s DeepMind tests were somewhat more simple than that. They placed the AI agents in quite basic video games. Gathering and Wolfpack were used. According to the releases, the study results were interesting. But perhaps not surprising.

Just like humans, the AI agents had a context-dependent behavior. They were seen to be more antagonistic or cooperative. And all in accordance with the situation.

In Gathering, for example, they played along nicely. But only whilst the apple stocks were high. As they started dwindling, the AI agents started zapping one another. And research also noted the following. A “cleverer” AI was also introduced in the game. And this latter decided that zapping was the way to go from the very beginning.

In contrast, Wolfpack revealed a different result. The cleverer the AI, the more it collaborated with the others. This is because learning to work together needs more computational power. But it will also help track and also herd the game prey.

The computational requirements could also theoretically explain the more aggressive behavior. Zapping is considered a more challenging task. Especially when compared to apple gathering. And the zapping actions also take up more power, when compared to the other.

As such, what were the study results? As in life, it all depends on the context. And most importantly, on the rules. The AI agents based their behavior on the rules they were offered. For Gathering, the zapping rules offered a higher reward. As such, the AI chose this path.

In contrast, in Wolfpack, the rules were more rewarding when they are collaborating. As such, the AI agents chose to work together. The bottom line for following studies?

Scientists will be faced with a future challenge. They will have to make sure that the AI agents know the rules. And also that these are the right ones.

Google’s DeepMind team stated as follows in their blog post. This research could help them better understand multi-agent AI systems. And also determine how to better control them. As it is, most such systems will depend on a continuous cooperation.

More details on both the study and the games involved can be found in the official Google DeepMind blog post. The research paper can also be found in the same location.

Image Source: Pixabay

Madagascar Gecko Species Sheds Its Scales to Evade Predators

gecko shedding scales

A new gecko species shed its scale to evade predators.

Most animals use some sort of natural camouflage to avoid predators, thanks to the characteristics of their skin or fur. However, a new gecko species from Madagascar has a unique way of escaping its predators by shedding its scales.

The newly discovered Madagascar gecko species, called Geckolepis, is the first new species to be discovered in the last 75 years. The lizards have large scale similar to those of fish. However, what makes them fascinating is the ability to shed them when they come in contact with high levels of friction such as a predator’s mouth or even a scientist’s hand.

By removing its scales, the new gecko species basically becomes naked and remains so for a few weeks until they regenerate. The scientific community was aware of the existence of such gecko species for around 150 years. However, they have proven quite difficult to study. Nonetheless, the researchers persevered and were able to study them in detail and the mechanism that triggers the shedding of their scales.

The official name of gecko species, Geckolepis megalepis, revealed in a study published in the journal PeerJ, on Tuesday. This species of gecko has the largest scales among its other members of the genus.  According to the lead author of the study, Mark Scherz, a herpetology researchers from Germany, the gecko is able to escape from predators more easily due to the size of its scales. Gecko species with smaller scales have a much harder time evading predators.

Despite the excitement of the discovery of a new species of gecko, the animals are only threatened by the increased human activity on the island, which has led to major deforestation. The geckos live in small and fragmented regions on the island, and their survival depends on the preservation of its environment.

For their study, the researchers were able to capture three gecko specimens in the northern region of Madagascar known as the Ankarana Reserve. They were able to classify as an entirely new species after an extensive analysis of its size, shape, scales distribution, and other distinguishing features of its skeleton. They also discovered that regenerating the lost scales, comes at a high metabolic cost for the gecko.

Image source: Frank Glaw

New Balance RunIQ Smartwatch Is Now Available

RunIQ Smartwatch

New Balance RunIQ smartwatch is now available on online retailers.

Despite the claims of analysts that the smartwatch market is in decline, established companies, as well as less-known firms, continue to unveil new devices each year. Among these is New Balance, which has announced that its new RunIQ smartwatch is now available.

The smartwatch was first announced at the Consumers Electronics Show 2017 which gained a moderate amount of attention from consumers despite the countless number of similar devices. This was mainly due to its tag, claiming that the smartwatch is made by runners for runners.

The RunIQ fitness smartwatch, for those who want more functionality than that of a fitness tracker, was developed by New Balance in collaboration with a number of other companies like Intel, Strava, and Google, which garnered the interest of many users, curious about what the device can bring to the table.

The RunIQ does not disappoint if you are mainly going to use the smartwatch for its fitness functions as it includes everything that a runner might need during a training or just a casual run. The device comes with a heart-rate sensor, built-in GPS, as well as an interval function. For those interested in more advanced functions, you should know that the smartwatch also includes several trackers for pace, distance, and course.

The RunIQ has a water-resistant body, in which you can find an Intel Atom Z34XX CPU, as well as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi functionality similar to all other smartwatches. The design of the watch is also sports oriented, as it features a strap which allows your skin to breathe and sweat thanks to the gaps inside it. However, the watch can still be worn throughout the day casually, not only during exercises.

New Balance included three physical buttons on the side of the device. One button opens the RunIQ app, the second one is used as the home button, while the last one can be used for various functions like music control or lap change.

The watch will run at first on Android Wear 1.5, but it will very likely be upgraded to Android Wear 2.0 once the OS will be released.  The watch costs $299 and it’s currently only available on the New Balance website.

What do you think about the new RunIQ smartwatch?

Image credit: New Balance

Brain-Stimulating Activities Help Older People Stay Sharp

brain-stimulating activities

Brain-stimulating activities are the ones that can help seniors defeat the aging process.

Our brain needs to be stimulated every day if we want to decline the aging process. Although it might seem easy when you are young, the older you get the harder it is to keep your mind sharp. Brain-stimulating activities are the ones that can help seniors defeat the aging process.

A new study showed that older people who engage in brain-stimulating activities like using the computers are less likely to develop mild cognitive impairment in more than 4 years. Mild cognitive impairment is a medical condition that it is developed at an older age. People who develop MCI experience a decline in thinking skills and memory.

Despite the fact that they suffer from memory loss or decline of thinking skills, people who developed MCI are able to so their activities. Researchers from the Mayo Clinic mentioned that it is important to engage in brain-stimulating activities even when we are older because it helps us decline the risk of developing MCI.

There are many studies which focused on this topic but none of these studies followed the patients in the long run. This research was a long one that analyzed older people for a longer period of time. This way it is easier for researchers to see if these brain-stimulating activities have an effect on reducing the risk of MCI.

In order to conduct this study, researchers analyzed more than 2,000 elderly people. These people were from Minnesota and they had an average age of 77. Before starting the study the researchers tested all the participants to see if they have any cognitive problems. After that, the researchers made the same tests every 15 months.

Due to the fact that they repeated the same tests, it was easier for the researchers to see what changed in that period of time. The findings showed that the participants who engaged in a brain-stimulating activity at least once a week were 30% less likely to develop mild cognitive impairment during this study.

The researchers were not able to find out the reason for which these activities help seniors reduce the risk of MCI. This is why they mentioned that they are going to make more studies focusing on this topic.

What is your opinion about this study? Do you think that brain-stimulating activities can reduce the risk of MCI?

Image source: Pixabay

Hawaii Bill Seeks to Implement Full Renewable Transportation

white electric car

Hawaii has a new bill for 100 percent renewable transportation by 2045.

The state of Hawaii of the United States is one of the most progressive ones when it comes to environmental protection policies. The state legislature has introduced a new bill which seeks to implement complete renewable transportation by 2045.

This goal joins the currently implemented target of having all the energy utilities in Hawaii coming from renewable sources also by 2045. The renewable transportation bill is being supported by the Blue Planet Foundation. Jeff Mikulina, the director of the organization, has stated that Hawaii needs to develop a proper vision for its future of transportation, as currently, the majority of fossil fuels go to the transportation industry.

The new renewable transportation bill would not require that the residents of the state discard their fossil fuel-powered cars, at least not yet. This sentiment was emphasized by Representative Chris Lee, the chairman of the Energy and Environment house committee.

Nonetheless, the bill proposes a somewhat ambitious goal, especially in a state where out of an estimated 1 million cars on the road, there are only around 5,000 electric cars. Unfortunately, Hawaii is not a big enough market to decide the trends of the auto industry and, as such, the state is somewhat dependent on the decision they make. Therefore, the new renewable transportation bill does not impose a strict mandate, just a relative goal.

Some of the details of the bill are still being worked out since its introduction into the state legislature. It remains to be seen if it will pass or not, as Hawaii seems keen on becoming a trend setter for renewable energy despite the fact that new US president favors more conventional sources of energy.

In addition to the transportation bill, lawmakers have also introduced a new bill which seeks to increase the required number of charging stations across the state. Currently, there is only one station for every 100 parking spaces. This bill could help incentivize more residents to purchase electric cars, as they would have more charging options.

The renewable transportation bill is also supported by local auto dealerships, but the move to electric cars will require a massive marketing campaign in order to convince residents about its benefits.

Image source: Wikimedia

Science Created The First Stable Semisynthetic Organism

dna stable semisynthetic organism

A team of scientists managed to create the first stable semisynthetic organism which is a breakthrough in the area.

A team of scientists managed to create the first stable semisynthetic organism, an achievement based on many years of work and which could open up many new paths.

Three years ago, a team of researchers reported a breakthrough. They presented the first organism with 6 bases. The genetic base of all the DNA-based life forms is based on four bases. These are A, T, G, and C. Or more exactly, adenine and thymine. And also guanine and cytosine.

In 2014, the scientists presented an organism that had 6 bases. Four of them, the aforementioned ones, were natural. The other two were artificial. They were titled X and Y.

The research team is part of the La Jolla, California Scripps Research Institute. They were led by Floyd Romesberg. At the time, the researchers were able to incorporate their new base pair. This was introduced into an E. coli bacterium. Still, the ensuing organism did not maintain the pair. It was eliminated during the division process.

The X and Y were slowly dropped. And the extra information they left behind was limited. Even though the DNA was modified, the data was left incomplete.

Now, Romesberg and his team beat the process. They were able to create the first stable semisynthetic organism. This is also a modified bacterium.

A research paper on the matter was released earlier this week. It was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Available online since January 23, it is titled as follows. “A semisynthetic organism engineered for the stable expansion of the genetic alphabet”.

The stable semisynthetic organism was seen to be able to retain its synthetic base. They have remained in the DNA after the division process. This modified bacterium is based on three pairs. They are A-T, C-G, and the new X-Y.

Romesberg went to offer some details. According to him, the first semisynthetic organism had an unstable genome. This latter has to be stable throughout the lifespan. And not just for a day.

This first stable semisynthetic organism is able to do so. It has managed to maintain its extra information. As such, Romesberg declared that they have made it more life-like.

Researchers used a nucleotide transporter. This helped them create the modified bacterium. With help from the transporter, the semisynthetic organism was able to hold on to the X-Y pair. As it was maintained, the added pair was also copied. And it then distributed across the cell membrane.

CRISPR-Cas9 was used in order to test the results. This is a gene-editing tool. With it, the scientists analyzed the now stable semisynthetic organism.

They looked for cells containing the synthetic base. Such cells could have been marked as foreign. Because of this, the organism would have destroyed them.

For the moment, the added synthetic bases just exist. The stable semisynthetic organism has no utility for them. This fact has been specifically programmed. First of all, the scientists meant to determine if the bases could just survive.

It remains to be seen if the microbes will be imbued with the power to read the added code. Or when they may be determined to do so. According to the researchers, the current organism is a breakthrough in itself.

And making them read the code could open up a new path. It may help create protein currently unavailable in nature. As such, new medicine and drugs could be developed.

More research on the matter is nonetheless needed. Presently, the researchers pointed out the following fact. The study can be considered the foundation for future research and discoveries.

Image Source: Flickr

Google Maps Adds Parking Indicator

Google Maps on a phone

Google Maps beta users report a parking indicator feature.

Google Maps is one of the most appreciated services in the world as it has facilitated the travel experiences of many users. But Google is not resting on its laurels and seems to always on the lookout for new features to add which will improve the quality of their app.

The newest feature to come to Google Maps seems to be a parking indicator. As many drivers know, trying to find parking in a crowded location can be frustrating and time-consuming. It seems that the prayers of drivers were finally answered as Google has launched a parking availability alerts to the beta version of the Google Maps app.

The feature was first hinted back in August 2016, when Android Police discovered several code strings in a teardown of the v9.34 beta app. However, only now has Google started to launch the new feature for a limited number of beta users for the 9.44 version.

According to reports from those users, the function of parking indicator feature for Google Maps is quite self-explanatory. It will issue alerts to users regarding how hard it will be to find a parking space in certain locations at a certain time. The app will offer specific details regarding the levels of parking congestion such as severe, hard, medium, and easy. It will also include a description for each level.

Users which were fortunate enough to get access to new parking feature will see a small “P” icon next to the driving duration estimate of the GPS mode of Google Maps. The level of parking congestion will be easily determined by the color of the icon. For example, if parking is limited the P icon will become red.

As useful as the new feature may be for drivers, at this point, it is unclear how and in which location Google will make the determinations regarding parking congestion.  Apps that provide similar functionality like Parker, obtain their information by tapping into smart meters in garages or streets. Other systems use motion sensors, car-tracking cameras, GPS and other technologies to determine the traffic and parking congestion.

Furthermore, it is unclear when the general release of the future will occur, but it should be in the near future provided the beta test irons out all the bugs quickly.

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Bacon, Nutella, And Other Foods Increase The Risk Of Cancer

A sandwich with bacon

Stay healthy by replacing Nutella with fruits.

Recent research has shown that not just Nutella, but many other foods and beverages influence the risk of cancer among Americans. According to Michael Greger, the NutritionFacts founder, many chronic diseases are influenced by two primary factors: lifestyle and diet.

More precisely, both account for 80 percent of the source of any severe condition. The researchers discovered in recent years that many widely-popular foods could lead to cancer and several other potentially deadly conditions.

Based on the latest findings, it looks like palm oil contains a carcinogenic contaminant. This edible oil is used in Nutella and other foods. Last year, the WHO officials announced that processed meats, such as ham, bacon, and hot dogs, can lead to colorectal cancer.

Plus, red meat might also influence this risk. Another group of experts came to the conclusion that alcohol can lead to seven types of cancers. According to the scientists, the highest cancer prevalence is among heavy drinkers.

However, people who consume moderate and low amounts of alcohol are also at risk. According to registered dietitian Angie Murad, although many studies link certain foods to cancer, it doesn’t necessarily mean that consuming them is bad altogether.

Plus, many people get confused, and they no longer know what foods they should avoid. Therefore, Murad believes that Americans should improve their lifestyle and adopt healthier dietary habits.

She also says that based on the WHO statistics, our average lifetime likelihood of developing colon cancer is just five percent. Plus, there are other factors which might contribute to the development of this condition, including the overall quality of our eating style and genetics.

Nevertheless, Murad notes that even if bacon is not an unhealthy food, it becomes dangerous if we consume it on a daily basis. She underlines that people who want to prevent chronic diseases and cancer should be careful with all their lifestyle decisions, not just with some particular foods which might be related to cancer.

As such, she recommends people to be more physically active during the day. Also, Americans shouldn’t focus on consuming starches and meat, but on whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and other healthy foods.

Achieving a healthy weight is not hard as long as you make the right decisions regarding your lifestyle and diet excepting the people who have a chronic disease or metabolic disorders which prevent them from losing weight.

Image Source:S Media