Friday, May 31, 2013

Arvind Mahankali, 13, Wins National Spelling Bee

by The Associated Press

OXON HILL, Md. (AP) — After years of heartbreakingly close calls, Arvind Mahankali conquered his nemesis, German, to become the champion speller in the English language.

The 13-year-old from Bayside Hills, N.Y., correctly spelled "knaidel," a word for a small mass of leavened dough, to win the 86th Scripps National Spelling Bee on Thursday night. The bee tested brain power, composure and, for the first time, knowledge of vocabulary.

Arvind finished in third place in both 2011 and 2012, and both times, he was eliminated on German-derived words. This time, he got one German word in the finals, and the winning word was from German-derived Yiddish, eliciting groans and laughter from the crowd. He spelled both with ease.

"The German curse has turned into a German blessing," he said.

Arvind outlasted 11 other finalists, all but one of whom had been to the National Spelling Bee before, in nearly 2 ½ hours of tense, grueling competition that was televised nationally. In one round, all nine participants spelled their words correctly.

When he was announced as the winner, Arvind looked upward at the confetti falling upon him and cracked his knuckles, his signature gesture during his bee appearances. He'll take home $30,000 in cash and prizes along with a huge cup-shaped trophy. The skinny teen, clad in a white polo shirt and wire-rimmed glasses pushed down his nose, was joined on stage at the Washington-area hall by his parents and his beaming younger brother.

An aspiring physicist who admires Albert Einstein, Arvind said he would spend more time studying physics this summer now that he's "retired" from the spelling bee.

Arvind becomes the sixth consecutive Indian-American winner and the 11th in the past 15 years, a run that began in 1999 when Nupur Lala captured the title in 1999 and was later featured in the documentary "Spellbound."

Arvind's family is originally from Hyderabad in southern India, and relatives who live there were watching live on television.

"At home, my dad used to chant Telegu poems from forward to backward and backward to forward, that kind of thing," said Arvind's father, Srinivas. "So language affinity, we value language a lot. And I love language, I love English."

Pranav Sivakumar, who like Arvind rarely appeared flustered onstage, finished second. The 13-year-old from Tower Lakes, Ill., was tripped up by "cyanophycean," a word for a blue-green alga. Sriram Hathwar, 13, of Painted Post, N.Y., finished third, and Amber Born, 14, of Marblehead, Mass., was fourth.

The field was whittled down from 42 semifinalists Thursday afternoon, with spellers advancing based on a formula that combined their scores from a computerized spelling and vocabulary test with their performance in two onstage rounds.

The vocabulary test was new. Some of the spellers liked it, some didn't, and many were in-between, praising the concept but wondering why it wasn't announced at the beginning of the school year instead of seven weeks before the national bee.

"It was kind of a different challenge," said Vismaya Kharkar, 14, of Bountiful, Utah, who finished tied for 5th place. "I've been focusing my studying on the spelling for years and years."

There were two multiple-choice vocabulary tests — one in the preliminaries and one in the semifinals — and they were administered in a quiet room away from the glare of the onstage parts of the bee. The finals were the same as always: no vocabulary, just spellers trying to avoid the doomsday bell.

There was a huge groan from the crowd when Arvind got his first German-derived word, "dehnstufe," an Indo-European long-grade vowel.

Milking the moment, he asked, "Can I have the language of origin?" before throwing his hands in the air with a wry smile.

"I had begun to be a little wary of German words, but this year I prepared German words and I studied them, so when I got German words this year, I wasn't worried," Arvind said.

He appeared to have more trouble with "galere," a word for a group of people having a marked common quality or relationship. He asked for the etymology twice — French and old Catalan — shifted his body back and forth and stroked his chin before getting it right with seconds to spare.

Amber, an aspiring comedy writer and crowd favorite, bowed out on "hallali," a huntsman's bugle call. She said, "I know, I know," when the clock told her time was running out, and she knew she had missed it, saying "That's not right" as she finished her effort.

The bee's growing popularity is reflected in an ESPN broadcast that gets more sophisticated each year. In the semifinals, Amber got to watch herself featured on a televised promo that also aired on the jumbo screen inside the auditorium.

She then approached the microphone and, referring to herself, deadpanned: "She seemed nice."

Vanya Shivashankar, at 11 the youngest of the finalists, fell short in her bid to become the first sibling of a previous winner to triumph. Her sister, Kavya, won in 2009. Vanya finished tied for 5th after misspelling "zenaida," which means a type of pigeon.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times
A staff member at Beth Israel Medical Center in Manhattan using a hand sanitizer.

Published: May 28, 2013 

At North Shore University Hospital on Long Island, motion sensors, like those used for burglar alarms, go off every time someone enters an intensive care room. The sensor triggers a video camera, which transmits its images halfway around the world to India, where workers are checking to see if doctors and nurses are performing a critical procedure: washing their hands.

This Big Brother-ish approach is one of a panoply of efforts to promote a basic tenet of infection prevention, hand-washing, or as it is more clinically known in the hospital industry, hand-hygiene. With drug-resistant superbugs on the rise, according to a recent report by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and with hospital-acquired infections costing $30 billion and leading to nearly 100,000 patient deaths a year, hospitals are willing to try almost anything to reduce the risk of transmission.

Studies have shown that without encouragement, hospital workers wash their hands as little as 30 percent of the time that they interact with patients. So in addition to the video snooping, hospitals across the country are training hand-washing coaches, handing out rewards like free pizza and coffee coupons, and admonishing with “red cards.” They are using radio-frequency ID chips that note when a doctor has passed by a sink, and undercover monitors, who blend in with the other white coats, to watch whether their colleagues are washing their hands for the requisite 15 seconds, as long as it takes to sing the “Happy Birthday” song.

All this effort is to coax workers into using more soap and water, or alcohol-based sanitizers like Purell.

“This is not a quick fix; this is a war,” said Dr. Bruce Farber, chief of infectious disease at North Shore.

But the incentive to do something is strong: under new federal rules, hospitals will lose Medicare money when patients get preventable infections.

One puzzle is why health care workers are so bad at it. Among the explanations studies have offered are complaints about dry skin, the pressures of an emergency environment, the tedium of hand washing and resistance to authority (doctors, who have the most authority, tend to be the most resistant, studies have found).

“There are still staff out there who say, ‘How dare they!’ ” said Elaine Larson, a professor in Columbia University’s school of nursing who has made a career out of studying hand-washing.

Philip Liang, who founded a company, General Sensing, that outfits hospital workers with electronic badges that track hand-washing, attributes low compliance to “high cognitive load.”

“Nurses have to remember hundreds — thousands — of procedures,” Mr. Liang said. “Take out the catheter; change four medications. It’s really easy to forget the basic tasks. You’re really concentrating on what’s difficult, not on what’s simple.”

His company uses a technology similar to Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. The badge communicates with a sensor on every sanitizer and soap dispenser, and with a beacon behind the patient’s bed. If the wearer’s hands are not cleaned, the badge vibrates, like a cellphone, so that the health care worker is reminded but not humiliated in front of the patient.

Just waving one’s hands under the dispenser is not enough. “We know if you took a swig of soap,” Mr. Liang said.

The program uses a frequent-flier model to reward workers with incentives, sometimes cash bonuses, the more they wash their hands.

Gojo Industries, which manufactures the ubiquitous Purell, has also developed technology that can be snapped into any of its soap or sanitizer dispensers to track hand-hygiene.

At North Shore, the video monitoring program, run by a company called Arrowsight, has been adapted from the meat industry, where cameras track whether workers who skin animals — the hide can contaminate the meat — wash their hands, knives and electric cutters.

Adam Aronson, the chief executive of Arrowsight, said he was inspired to go from slaughterhouses to hospitals by his father, Dr. Mark Aronson, vice chairman for quality at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston and a professor at Harvard Medical School.

“Nobody would do a free test — they talked about Big Brother, patient privacy — nobody wanted to touch it,” Mr. Aronson said.

He finally got a trial at a small surgery center in Macon, Ga., and in 2008, North Shore also agreed to a trial in its intensive care unit. The medical center at the University of California, San Francisco, is also using Arrowsight’s video system, and Mr. Aronson said eight more hospitals in the United States, Britain, the Netherlands and Pakistan had agreed to test the cameras.

North Shore’s study, published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases, found that during a 16-week preliminary period when workers were being filmed but were not informed of the results, hand-hygiene rates were less than 10 percent. When they started getting reports on their filmed behavior, through electronic scoreboards and e-mails, the rates rose to 88 percent. The hospital kept the system, but because of the expense, it has limited it to the intensive care unit, where the payoff is greatest because the patients are sickest. 

To get a passing score, workers have to wash their hands within 10 seconds of entering a patient’s room. Only workers who stay in the room for at least a minute are counted, and the quality of their washing is not rated. Scores for each shift are broadcast on hallway scoreboards, which read “Great Shift” for those that top 90 percent compliance.

Technology is not the only means of coercion. The Greater New York Hospital Association, a trade group, and the health care workers union, 1199 S.E.I.U., train employees to be “infection coaches” for other employees.

In a technique borrowed from soccer, hospital workers hand red cards to colleagues who do not wash, said Dr. Brian Koll, chief of infection prevention for Beth Israel Medical Center in Manhattan, who trains coaches. (Unlike soccer players, however, workers do not have to leave.) “It’s a way to communicate in a nonconfrontational way that also builds teamwork,” Dr. Koll said.

“You do not want to say, ‘You did not wash your hands.’ ”

Doctors, nurses and others at Beth Israel who consistently refuse to wash their hands may be forced to take a four-hour remedial infection prevention course, Dr. Koll said. But to turn that into something positive, they are then asked to teach infection prevention to others.

Dr. Koll said that he was not aware of malpractice suits based on hand-washing, but that hand-washing compliance rates often become part of the information used when suing hospitals for infections.

A hospital in the Bronx gave out tickets — sort of like traffic tickets — to workers who did not wash their hands, he said. “That did not work in our institution,” he said. “People made it a negative connotation.” Beth Israel finds that positive reinforcement works better, Dr. Koll said.

Like other hospitals, Beth Israel also uses what it calls secret shoppers — staff members, often medical students, in white coats whose job is to observe whether people are washing their hands. Beth Israel gives high-scoring workers gold stars to wear on their lapels, “hokey as this sounds,” he said; after five gold stars they get a platinum star, or perhaps a coupon for free coffee. “Health care workers like caffeine,” Dr. Koll said.

There are buttons saying, “Ask me if I’ve washed my hands,” and Dr. Koll said that patients’ families did ask because they understood the risks. Especially in pediatrics, he said, “parents do not have a problem at all asking.”

To avoid slogan fatigue, Beth Israel has at least five buttons, including “Got Gel?” and “Hand Hygiene First.”

Dr. Larson, the hand-washing expert, supports the electronic systems being developed, but says none are perfect yet. “People learn to game the system,” she said. “There was one system where the monitoring was waist high, and they learned to crawl under that. Or there are people who will swipe their badges and turn on the water, but not wash their hands. It’s just amazing.”

 Excerpt from: The New York Times

Plants revived after 400 years in ice

Resilience could make them ideal pioneers on Mars

Posted: May 28, 2013 3:28 PM ET

Last Updated: May 28, 2013 4:02 PM ET

The plant samples from the glacier were sprinkled onto Petri dishes and stuck in a growth chamber. Eleven of them grew.

The plant samples from the glacier were sprinkled onto Petri dishes and stuck in a growth chamber. Eleven of them grew. (Catherine La Farge/University of Alberta)

Plants that managed to re-grow after centuries buried under Arctic glaciers could prove useful for would-be pioneers hoping to explore life on other planets, research from a team of Canadian scientists has found.

The results of the study, published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggest the land plants that form the foundations of many ecosystems are surprisingly resilient and may be a useful tool for the people who have already announced plans to set up a human colony on Mars, researchers said.

A team of biologists from the University of Alberta travelled to Ellesmere Island in the Canadian Arctic in order to survey plant life exposed by the retreat of the Teardrop Glacier.

Lead researcher Catherine La Farge said the giant ice mass has been shrinking by between three and four metres a year since 2004, exposing larger swaths of plant life for scientists to analyze.

La Farge and her team focused their research on bryophytes, a general term given to ecological building blocks like mosses and other non-vascular plants.

Almost perfectly preserved

La Farge said researchers were first struck by the fact that bryophytes had been almost perfectly preserved despite the vast quantities of ice that settled over them centuries earlier.

The plants had been buried during the Little Ice Age under the Ellesmere Island's Teardrop Glacier, shown with graduate student David Wilkie for scale.  

The plants had been buried during the Little Ice Age under the Ellesmere Island's Teardrop Glacier, shown with graduate student David Wilkie for scale. (Catherine La Farge/University of Alberta)

"We were sort of blown away by the biomass of intact communities being exhumed from the rapidly retreating glaciers," La Farge said in a telephone interview from Edmonton.

Those intact communities — which were entombed by the glacier some time between 1550 and 1850 — showed early signs of being dormant rather than dead, La Farge said. Many of the plants that surfaced still had a greenish tinge despite their time below the ice.

It wasn't long, however, before the team observed bright green stems emerging from the recently exposed samples.

Such signs suggested the plants had the potential to begin re-growing, but La Farge and her team required more evidence.

They collected 140 samples from the island and brought them back to Edmonton in 2009 to see if they could thrive outside their natural environment.

"All we did was we took the material, we ground it up, sprinkled it onto a Petri dish and stuck it in the growth chamber to see what would happen," she said. "We had no idea if it would work, we just wanted to make sure that what we were seeing in the samples coming out from under the glacier . . . was that possible."

The tests yielded 11 cultures from seven specimens, La Farge said, adding the results hold intriguing implications for those interested in survival under harsh conditions.

Bryophytes are one of the most basic forms of land plants, she said, adding mosses and similar species are essential for the growth of more advanced types of plant life.

Ideal Mars pioneers

The resilience of bryophytes suggests they may be ideal as trial balloons for researchers exploring the prospect of survival beyond earth, she said. The notion — once the foundation for science fiction plots — has gained popular traction since a Dutch entrepreneur launched the Mars One project. The privately funded initiative aims to send a handful of people on a one-way trip to Mars by 2023. At least 35 Canadians have expressed interest in being among the first to try to colonize the Red Planet.

La Farge said sending bryophyte samples ahead of time may be an effective way to test the viability of the plan.

"We're not really dealing with a moonscape on the Arctic, but we're definitely under pretty extreme conditions," she said. "We now talk about people . . . wanting to go to Mars and starting a whole new world out there. If you were going to send any kind of plant up there to see whether it could survive, bryophytes would probably be one of your key systems to try."

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Madrasi heart for Pakistani Madrassa teacher

24th May 2013 08:08 AM 
The heart of a 36-year-old accident victim from Chennai now beats in the chest of a Pakistani, who narrowly escaped the claws of death. In a rare occurrence, the Pakistani managed to fly across, get admitted to a hospital in Chennai and receive a donor heart a day or two before doctors at Fortis Malar Hospital would have given up on his ailing body.

Moulana Mohammed Zubair Ashmi (41), a teacher at a madrassa in the small town of Tehsil Kharian (Gujarat district of Pakistan), had a heart that was pumping blood with only 10 per cent efficiency — well below the average 60 per cent required. In addition, his kidneys were shutting down and his urine output was minimal, apart from which his liver was ravaged by Hepatitis C.

“I don’t think I would have made it, really,” admits the thin, bearded man candidly, looking back on his near-death experience.

“Inshallah, I am here now,” he adds in Urdu-tinted Hindi. Though his doctors in Lahore agreed they could do little for him surgically, they made the long-distance call to Dr K R Balakrishnan, in Chennai, that saved his life.A long process ensued to get Zubair to Chennai, after which several medical obstacles were overcome to give him his new heart.

Zubair is recovering remarkably fast. Expected to return to Pakistan in a month, he says he feels just as much at home here in Chennai. “There is no difference between India and Pakistan... They love me a lot more here, since I am Pakistani,” he says.

Excerpt from: The New Indian Express

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Yesterday afternoon, a monster tornado struck Moore, Oklahoma, near Oklahoma City. The twister, with winds of at least 200 mph, traveled for 20 miles, leaving a two-mile-wide path of destruction, flattening homes, smashing vehicles, and killing at least 24 people, including nine children.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Thesis throws light on agriculture practices in Telangana

11th May 2013 11:38 AM 
The change in agricultural practices in the Telangana region and the quagmire of debt and distress as studied by Dr Vamsicharan Vakulabhranam received recognition for the first-ever Amartya Sen Award for 2012, instituted by the Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR).

His doctoral thesis on ‘Immiserizing growth: globalization and agrarian change in Telangana, South India between 1985 and 2000’ at University of Massachusetts examines the relationship between liberalization and agrarian distress in the region.

The faculty member at the University of Hyderabad sums up the findings of his study which could not be carried in full in this paper previously:
The four strands of work that have been cited by the ICSSR selection panel for this award are: the work on agrarian distress in the context of Telangana region of Andhra Pradesh in the 1990s, the structure and logic of rising inequality in India and China since the 1990s, the deeper relation between economic development and inequality by analysing the Asian experience, and the work on strengthening commons and cooperatives, as alternatives to the present system.

“I started my work on agrarian distress in the Telangana region from year 2000 for my Ph.D thesis at the University of Massachusetts. I spent more than a year in four villages in Warangal and Mahbubnagar districts to make sense of the growing distress phenomenon and the sudden occurrence of the tragic farmer suicide phenomenon since 1998.

“I found through data analyses that Telangana agriculture was going through two major paradoxes in the 1990s. First, it was witnessing what I called immiserizing growth, ie, agricultural output was growing rapidly even as the entire agricultural community was going through consumption declines. How is this possible? Second, in the 1970s and 1980s (especially after 1983), Telangana farmers shifted to non-foodgrain crops (such as cotton) even as the prices of non-food crops were rising relative to food crops during that period. But in the 1990s, even as non-food crop prices began to decline vis-a-vis food prices, still Telangana farmers were growing more non-food crops.

I termed this as anomalous supply response. On the surface, Telangana farmers were not behaving rationally. “In reality, Telangana farmers were forced to behave the way they did because of a whole host of factors. First, agricultural liberalization had reduced prices of output for farmers (because of an agricultural recession worldwide) even as cut downs in subsidies increased the input prices. This is the “ price scissors” effect. Second, with liberalization policies, the institutional credit (e.g. from banks) had not grown proportionately with the rising needs of farmers.

Third, Telangana farmers had to dig a lot of tubewells at a great private cost for their irrigation needs since they did not have much access to canal irrigation. Fourth, the Green Revolution technologies (HYV seeds, Chemical fertilizers tubewell irrigation) that were imported into Telangana region were beginning to show diminishing returns. As a result, Telangana farmers had to rely heavily on informal moneylender-merchants (who were also largely from the Telangana region) who began to dictate the cropping pattern through a crop collateral. “As the moneylendermerchants demanded a cropping pattern that was oriented towards non-food crops, Telangana farmers were forced to comply.

As Telangana farmers were forced by the market intermediaries to grow more non-food crops even as the prices were declining, they had to pay out a bigger part of their output for their loans. This explains the two tragic paradoxes. So, these tragic paradoxes and the suicide phenomenon were products of agricultural liberalization policies, slowing productivity of green revolution technologies and irrigation related discrimination to the Telangana region.