Tuesday, August 15, 2017

NEWS POST: Plants 'Hijacked' To Make Polio Vaccine

A close relative of tobacco has been turned into a polio vaccine "factory" Image source: JOHN INNES CENTRE
Plants have been "hijacked" to make polio vaccine in a breakthrough with the potential to transform vaccine manufacture, say scientists. The team at the John Innes Centre, in Norfolk, says the process is cheap, easy and quick.

As well as helping eliminate polio, the scientists believe their approach could help the world react to unexpected threats such as Zika virus or Ebola.

Experts said the achievement was both impressive and important. The vaccine is an "authentic mimic" of poliovirus called a virus-like particle. Outwardly it looks almost identical to poliovirus but - like the difference between a mannequin and person - it is empty on the inside. It has all the features needed to train the immune system, but none of the weapons to cause an infection.

Leafy factory
The scientists hijacked a relative of the tobacco plant's metabolism to turn its leaves into polio-vaccine "factories".

First, they needed to create new instructions for the plant to follow. The starting material was the genetic code for making the outer surface of poliovirus. It was enhanced by combining it with material from viruses that naturally infect plants.

The new instructions were then put into soil bacteria, which were used to infect tobacco.

The infection took hold, the plants read the genetic instructions and started making the virus-like particles. Infected leaves were mixed with water, blended, and the polio vaccine was extracted. The virus-like particles prevented polio in animal experiments, and an analysis of their 3D structure showed they looked almost identical to poliovirus.

An image of the virus-like particle, made by Diamond Light Source's electron bio-imaging centre. Image source: DIAMOND LIFE SOURCE
Prof George Lomonossoff, from the John Innes Centre, told the BBC News website: "They are incredibly good mimics. It's a very promising technology, I would hope we get vaccines produced in plants in the not too distant future."

The research is funded by the World Health Organization, as part of efforts to find replacements for the polio vaccine. Polio - which can cause permanent paralysis - is a thing of the past for most of the world, but the infection has not been eradicated. And using weakened poliovirus in current vaccines poses a risk of the virus regaining some of its dangerous traits - called vaccine-derived poliovirus.

Dr Andrew Macadam, principal scientist at the UK's National Institute for Biological Standards and Control, said: "Current vaccines for polio are produced from large amounts of live virus, which carries a threat of accidental escape and re-introduction. This study takes us a step closer to replacing current polio vaccines, providing us with a cheap and viable option for making virus-like particle-based vaccines."

Great potential
But this technology is not limited to polio or even just to vaccines. As long as researchers have the right sequence of genetic code, they can make a vaccine against most viruses. And they have also used plants to make antibodies like those being used in cancer therapy.

Plants are also being investigated as a new source for the winter flu jab. Currently, it is grown in chicken eggs and takes months to develop.

Prof Lomonossoff told the BBC: "In an experiment with a Canadian company, they showed you could actually identify a new strain of virus and produce a candidate vaccine in three to four weeks. It has potential for making vaccines against emerging epidemics, of course recently we had Zika and prior to that we had Ebola. It's highly responsive, and that's one of the great attractions of the technology."

The plants have the advantage of growing quickly and needing only sunlight, soil, water and carbon dioxide to grow. It means it could be a cheap and low-tech solution to vaccine development. But there are still issues to resolve, including making vaccine on a large scale.

Another issue is whether there is any risk from using plants to make the vaccine - does the tobacco-relative mean there is nicotine in the vaccine?

Dr Tarit Mukhopadhyay, a lecturer in vaccine development at University College London, said: "The initial results look impressive. "However, there are very few plant-based vaccine manufacturers and almost no licensed human vaccines that are currently produced in plants."

Denis Murphy, a professor of biotechnology at the University of South Wales, said: "This is an important achievement. The challenge is now to optimize the plant expression system and to move towards clinical trials of the new vaccine."

Culled from BBC HEALTH

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

THE JUXTAPOSITION: Creativity Is Overrated . . . Is Creativity Overrated?

Featured Image: Ivelin Radkov/Shutterstock
Creativity Is Overrated — Eliot Gattegno

Today’s creative workplaces work hard to obscure the uncreative labor that makes them run. While “creativity” is presented as the panacea for our overly cubicled society, this often leads to a narrow-minded focus on the stuff that dreams are made of — to the detriment of those keeping the company afloat.

Alas, our obsession shows no signs of stopping. In 2000, we read books promising that the “corporate winners of the next century” will be businesses that use “every scrap of creative talent they possess;” by 2013, we were breathlessly devouring articles about “12 weird things that tech companies do to encourage employee creativity;” and last year, we saw the launch of a perfume meant to inspire creativity itself.

But are we worshiping a false god? Much of what passes for “creative” in the workplace seems suspiciously surface-level (beanbag chairs at work, unlimited sushi lunches and the like.). Though it might change the floor plan of the office, it doesn’t seem to do much to change work, particularly from lower-level employees.

When employees actually sit down to their workstations (or tote a laptop to the conversation pit), are they really letting their imaginations run free? Or are they focusing on specific, concrete tasks necessary for the operation of the company? Usually it’s the latter: After all, someone has to debug code and manage spreadsheets. Smart managers and executives should recognize that no amount of creativity can replace the less glamorous (and sometimes rote) work it takes to make their companies function. Let’s start celebrating the non-creative, too.

Creativity is a serious investment
Take a look at some of the most incredibly “creative” products of our time and you’ll see that creativity isn’t so much a flash of lightning as it is a long, lonely trudge. Look at Pixar, whose films are consistently praised for their vision, humor and heart — not to mention their mind-blowing animation. But these clearly creative products take 4-7 years to complete, and the process is incredibly arduous, as each project must go from sketch, to storyboard, to modeling process, to layout process, to — you get the idea.

Almost any creative project has an incredible amount of training and effort behind it, no matter how instantaneous it may seem — from the master jazz musician improvising “in the moment” (something he couldn’t do without lifelong practice) to the radio show This American Life, which sounds like “friends swapping stories around a campfire” but takes months to bring each seemingly spontaneous conversation to life. This sort of time to create isn’t usually something that companies can afford to give their workers without significant investment. But investing in creatives is absolutely worth it, right? Not necessarily.

“Bohemians” don’t pay the bills
In an era where some companies are hiring splashy “internet kids” off of Reddit and Instagram, it has become trendy to consider “creativity” a credential in its own right. But the evidence simply doesn’t back this up. A study in Economic Geography found that workers’ education level, not their creativity, creates most of the productivity gains associated with the so-called “creative class.” “Bohemians” (as the researchers call creative people without a college education) actually contribute less than uncreative, but educated people on the whole. While exceptions clearly exist, it’s generally education, not creativity, that really makes the difference in performance.

Managers could have learned this lesson from the creatives themselves. The iconic author Haruki Murakami provides a great example of how important training is to the creative life. His memoir “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running” is essentially one long extended metaphor comparing long-distance running to writing novels. He  argues that for artists, “focus and endurance” are almost as important as talent — and far more achievable, “since they can be acquired and sharpened through training.” To Murakami, creativity is only a starting point — to bring his or her projects to fruition, the real creative needs training and an unstoppable work ethic.

The message is clear: Don’t let a potential hire’s impeccable Instagram profile overshadow his uninspired resume. For most jobs, employers need people who are qualified first and creative second, not the other way around. And be sure they’re willing to help implement their groundbreaking ideas with plenty of hard work.

Creativity requires control
Companies that want to encourage employee creativity over other useful qualities may face difficult trade-offs down the line. A study in the journal Accounting, Organizations and Society discovered that the more a company relies on employee creativity, the more control the company needs to exert over potential dysfunctional behavior. Otherwise, employees can become so focused on individual tasks that they lose sight of team and company goals. It’s no surprise that many companies limit “creativity” to beanbag chairs — dealing with hyper-focused creatives who aren’t meeting company deadlines is too much trouble.

Even at Google — the guiding light of the creativity-in-the-workplace movement — certain much-revered creative practices have apparently become unsustainable. Remember their mythical policy that employees can spend 20 percent of their time (an entire workday per week!) on a self-directed project — a policy that led to the invention of Gmail? Former Google employee and current Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer tore down the curtain when she declared, “I’ve got to tell you the dirty little secret of Google’s 20% time. It’s really 120% time.”

In recent years, Google has reportedly been moving away from the 20 percent time idea altogether and prioritizing top-down innovation instead — projects approved by managers, etc. Some have argued that this attempt to control innovation will damage Google’s much-praised culture of rag-tag, free-floating creativity. It’s a difficult dance, the one between magic and matter. Uncontrolled creativity can result in employees losing sight of company goals; controlled creativity, you could argue, is no creativity at all.

None of this is to say creativity has no value in the workplace at all. Someone has to dream up the next Gmail, just like someone has to manage spreadsheets and answer phones. But creativity shouldn’t be thought of as the be-all end-all, a fast and poetic track to success.

Today, when hiring, smart companies should be looking for diversity not just in age, gender and race, but also personality types — creative versus non-creative, introverts versus extroverts, flights-of-fancy innovators versus boots-on-the-ground implementors. Take Slack Technologies: An interesting mix of artistic types (a co-founder with a philosophy degree, for example) and engineers has contributed to the success of the company and its ubiquitous collaborative work software.

The trick is ensuring that all employees — not just the exciting, colorful thinkers — are valued, celebrated for what they contribute to the company, its products and its culture. Why even draw the line between creative and non-creative? Surface effects shouldn’t be valued over work like engineering — arguably some of the most exciting and creative work that our age has produced. By focusing too much on creativity, managers could very well find themselves with a workplace full of creative sound and fury, implementing nothing.

Eliot Gattegno is a Clinical Professor of Business and Arts at NYU Shanghai, where he teaches in the Program on Creativity and Innovation. Previously, he was the director and founder of the Center for Innovation, Design, and Entrepreneurship at The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shenzhen, and a professor at the CUHK Business School.

Image credit/source: Lidor Wyssocky/Seempli
Is Creativity Overrated? — Lidor Wyssocky 

Some argue that Creativity is overrated. If anything it is underrated. Here's why...

I must be honest with you. While I don't mind a good passionate discussion well just about any topic, I don't really like to argue with articles, or more accurately with their authors. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but I like to see and hear whoever it is I talk with. But there are times when I can't just read an article and leave it as is. I find myself arguing with it inside my head. And sometimes, when that happens, I feel I have to respond. In a sense, Eliot Gattegno's article "Creativity is Overrated" is an excellent article, not because I agree with the author's opinions, but simply because it has driven me to respond.

So let's start with the bottom line of my view: Creativity is not overrated. If anything it is underrated. Here's why...

What is Creativity
To evaluate something or say that it is overrated, you must first define it. Unfortunately, Eliot Gattegno does not bother to define Creativity in his article, so I will go for the definition I use. It might seem like a simplistic definition at first, but I think that's exactly why it is so powerful.

Creativity is the ability to see things differently. The beauty in this broad definition is that it is so easy to apply it to almost any context. What Gattegno refers to as Creativity is, in fact, a very specific application or interpretation of creativity (judging from the examples he lists). It is merely a fraction of human creativity. And, dare I say, not necessarily the important fraction in the context of this discussion.

So, once we define Creativity as the ability to see things differently, we can move on to the first issue: Creativity is not just for a few "chosen ones."

Creativity for All
I must admit that when I first read the article, I felt a certain unease. The author's claim is basically that not everyone can be creative, so let's give all these valuable colleagues who simply "don't have it" a big hug and let them know they are important to the organization. Of course, they are! But why are we labeling anyone as "non-creative"?

If Creativity is all about seeing things differently, finding new ways to interpret or apply what seems to be very obvious and concrete, and imagining (yes! imagining!) a better-unexpected alternative, I've got news for you: Anyone can do it! And anyone should, for their personal benefit as well as for the benefit of the company.

We are all born with the ability to see things differently, imagine, and invent. We are practicing it fluently when we are young children. Unfortunately, for many of us, this ability quickly deteriorate with time because we are not expected to use it (in school, and later in work). But we can regain this ability, redevelop it, and master it with ongoing practice.

So instead of "celebrating the non-creative," let's set a clear goal: we can all be more creative. Just like we can all improve our physical fitness, even if only a few of us will make it to the Olympics.

And yes, I do expect the people who are debugging a piece of code or working on some Excel sheet to be creative. I do expect them to imagine (and then try to apply) new ways to do their tasks. Or redefine their tasks altogether. That is exactly how organizations improve, become more effective, and achieve their goals. Any company that doesn't expect its employees to do that is doomed. Doing the same things in the same methods is a sure recipe for becoming irrelevant.

And that is not the task of "the dreamers." It's everyone's task. Sure, the dreamers might come up with the big idea for a new never-done-this-before product. But that product will never reach its launch day if everyone else will just do the same thing they've been doing for years. Everyone needs to innovate in their scope and level.

And don't expect this to be easy!

Creativity is not Easy
Next, Gattegno claims that we are caught up in an illusion that creativity is easy while in fact, it takes huge effort and resources which you might not be able to afford.

Surprisingly, I agree! Of course, creativity is a serious investment, especially if you want it to be part of the company's DNA. And maybe some companies think they can't afford that. I'm willing to bet some companies think can't afford developing the skills of their employees. Some companies believe they can't afford investing in reasonable workstations. And the list goes on. The fact that developing and practicing Creativity is a serious investment does not suggest that it is not an essential one.

Investing in Creativity (at all levels) is probably the best investment there is, simply because it is an enabler for so many things. If you really invest in developing a culture of creativity and the skills that enable it, you are going to be ready to whatever your next challenge is. As simple as that.

Imagine a team of people who are masters in seeing things differently facing a problem. Imagine how they examine it, think of it, come up with surprising ideas from other domains. Now imagine a team of people who were expected to do the same thing using the same method for the past five years. Which team do you want with you for your next big challenge?

Creativity Enhances Productivity
Which bring us to the last argument in Gattegno's article: people with higher education contribute more to organizations than creative people. Wait, what? I have to admit I stared at this statement for quite some time trying to understand its logic: why are creativity and education being compared as if they are mutually exclusive?

Creativity does not come at the expense of education, skills, motivation or any other aspect you would normally take into account when hiring people. If anything, Creativity feeds by these aspects and enhances them at the same time.

Creativity is like the spice that makes the difference between a dull dish and an amazing one. No spice in the world can replace good ingredients. But great ingredients with zero spices are not likely to result in a dish you would remember.

When applied to all levels of the organization, Creativity enhances productivity. The idea that to get things done you have to put Creativity aside is a nothing less than dangerous. Are we destined to do more of the same to be productive? Can any company survive by doing more of the same for too long? I think the answers to these questions are clear.

But unfortunately, in many (if not most) organizations the answers to these questions are not that clear. Which brings me to the bottom line.

Bring Creativity to the Front
Creativity is definitely not overrated. Individuals and organizations will flourish when Creativity is applied at all levels. Anyone can develop and master Creativity. It is never an easy task. It sure does require serious investment, but almost anything with a significant long-term benefit does. Creativity does not contradict productivity. It enhances it.

But all these arguments are really not the key issue. Creativity is not overrated simply because in practice it is underrated!

Many companies talk about Creativity. Innovation is a great buzzword, and so it found its way to the mission statement of most organizations. But in practice, most companies still don't invest in Creativity on a daily basis. Most companies would still prefer short term results over long term investments in soft skills such as imagination. Many companies might nurture a few selected Creative employees but fail to develop a culture of Creativity throughout the organization. So how can one argue that Creativity is overrated?

The companies most likely to thrive are the ones with Creativity flowing in their organizational veins. These companies will not be affected by the argument that Creativity is overrated. If you are leading any other company, you can certainly use any of the arguments in Gattegno's article to reinforce your approach. That would be the easy thing to do.

Alternatively, you can stop for a moment and think. You can challenge these arguments and try doing something different. You can start investing in Creativity as if your company's life depends on it. If you do that seriously, with real intent, you won't need to read any article to know the value of Creativity. It won't be over- or under-rated. It will just be part of your DNA. And when this happens you will find out that anything is possible. Literally.

Lidor Wyssocky Column:The Creativity Game Igniting Creativity

Lidor Wyssocky is a fine-art photographer and the creator of seempli - a revolutionary platform for igniting creativity and imagination in everything you do. Lidor’s visual artworks, which are focused on the things hundreds and thousands of people pass by in the street every day, led him to create seempli to inspire people to practice creative observation on a daily basis.

Using seempli Lidor works with individuals, teams, and organizations seeking to develop, master, and apply creativity. Find out more at https://seempli.com

Originally published (POST 1) on TECHCRUNCH and (POST 2) on THE CREATIVITY POST 

Sunday, August 06, 2017

NEWS POSTS: China's Web Users Fear Losing Tools To Bypass 'Great Firewall'

Tech giants Apple and Amazon, too, have moved to limit their customers' access to VPNs in China in what has been seen as a voluntary move to get ahead of the impending crackdown. Apple's removal of software allowing internet users to skirt China's "Great Firewall" from its app store in the country, the company confirmed has sparked criticism it is bowing to Beijing's tightening web censorship

Enterprising internet users in China fear the tools they use to tunnel through the country's "Great Firewall" may soon disappear, as Beijing tightens its grip on the web.

Tens of millions of people are estimated to use Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) to bypass Chinese internet restrictions -- getting access to blocked websites such as Facebook and Twitter. Beijing has for years turned a blind eye to these holes in its Great Firewall, but recent events suggest the virtual tunnels may soon be bricked up.

In January China's Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) announced it would be banning the use of unlicensed providers of the services. In the months since the rule's announcement, rumours have swirled that a crackdown was coming, but there was little clarity on what exactly the rule meant and how, or even if, it would be implemented.

In the past few weeks, however, omens of significant tightening seem to be everywhere.

Several luxury hotels in Beijing have said they will stop using the tools, which once provided unfiltered Internet as a convenience to their customers.

On Thursday, a cloud service provider in the capital notified users that it would practise shutting down and reporting VPN providers on the orders of Beijing's Public Security bureau. Tech giants Apple and Amazon, too, have moved to limit their customers' access to the tools in China in what has been seen as a voluntary move to get ahead of the impending crackdown.

On Sunday, Apple said it was removing a number of the programmes from its app store, while Amazon's Chinese partner said that customers would no longer be allowed to use "illegal" VPNs on its cloud service.

"There have been many rounds of government murmurings about VPN crackdowns, and foreign and Chinese businesses had grown used to only minor or temporary restrictions," said Graham Webster, a senior researcher scholar at Yale Law School.

But "this time appears different."

'You cannot lock the heart'
For now, however, it still remains unclear who will be able to access VPNs and under what circumstances, a situation that has left both companies and regular users on tenterhooks. Ordinary people have reacted to the new rules with a mixture of annoyance and quiet defiance.

"You've blocked the last way to watch US TV dramas, as well as my Facebook friends!" one user of China's Twitter-like Weibo platform said after the Apple announcement.

"You can lock my cellphone, but you cannot lock my heart."

Firms are casting around for information about the developments and have expressed alarm at the potential impact on the way they do business.

In a statement, the European Chamber of Commerce told AFP it "has not seen any updated official document concerning restrictions on VPN use by companies," adding that in a recent survey of its members almost half expressed concern that the "continued strengthening of measures to tighten Internet control and access are having an even bigger negative impact on their companies".

"Our members' success depends on instantaneous access to information worldwide, and the ability to freely communicate with affiliates, suppliers and customers around the world," William Zarit, Chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in China said in a statement to AFP. "Recent regulatory developments, including limiting VPN use, have created uncertainty for cross-border data communication."

Apple has come under fire for bowing to the rules, but in an earnings call Tuesday CEO Tim Cook said the firm had to follow local laws. He said Apple was "hopeful that over time the restrictions we're seeing are lessened, because innovation really requires freedom to collaborate and communicate".

'Tighten Internet control'
Analysts said that Beijing was likely not looking to choke off VPNS completely, but was instead seeking to control them more tightly. James Gong, an expert on Chinese cyber law at Herbert Smith Freehills, said that the regulations are not targeted at companies.

The government can "shut things down, but that's not their purpose," he said.

Instead "they want to drive all the traffic through the network operators so all of the connections will be transparent to them".

Paul Triolo, head of global technology at the Eurasia Group, said he believes that the ultimate goal is not to cut off all VPNs but to "get visibility on (their) use so that they know what is going in and out and can turn off selectively if they want to or need to".

In a statement to AFP last month, MIIT explained that under the new rules, companies will only be allowed to rent VPN services from "telecommunications operators that have set up an international communications entry and exit office in accordance with the law".

Previously released MIIT regulations state that only state-owned telecoms can set up the offices, effectively guaranteeing that all licensed VPNs are operated by the state.

A representative from state-owned telecom China Unicom confirmed to AFP that it was legally allowed to rent VPN services to businesses, as long as they provide proof of registration in China.

"It's highly unlikely that all VPN access would be eliminated," Yale's Webster said, but added in the future the software might be increasingly "expensive and government-controlled".

Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, shakes hands with Apple CEO Tim Cook, right, during a gathering of CEOs and other executives at Microsoft's main campus in 2015
Apple's China Problem Highlights Conundrum For Tech Sector
Apple's decision to bow to Chinese officials by removing apps to sidestep online censorship underscores the dilemma faced by US tech companies seeking to uphold principles while expanding their business.

The iPhone maker is the latest from Silicon Valley to face a conundrum in balancing their value for human rights and free expression against a government intent on controlling online content. Apple this week acknowledged it had removed applications for so-called VPNs or virtual private networks, despite objections.

"We would rather not remove the apps, but like in other countries, we obey the laws where we do business," Apple chief Tim Cook said during an earnings call. "We are hopeful that over time, the restrictions we are seeing are loosened, because innovation really requires freedom to collaborate and communicate, and I know that is a major focus there."

The prospect of Apple scoring a hit with a 10th-anniversary iPhone model in the months ahead appeared to outweigh backlash from online rights activists who criticized the world's most valuable technology company for not standing up for online freedom.

"There is a belief that millennials really want companies to be more active in protecting people's rights and free speech," Silicon Valley analyst Rob Enderle of Enderle Group told AFP.

"There is obviously no connection between the rhetoric and buying behavior at this point."

Chinese internet users have for years sought to get around the so-called "Great Firewall" restrictions, including blocks on Facebook and Twitter, by using foreign VPN services.

"If other companies follow Apple's lead, it could soon be much harder for people in China to access information freely online," Amnesty International said in a blog post. "Businesses have a responsibility to respect international human rights law... We would have expected a more robust stance from Apple, a company that prides itself on being a privacy champion."

Under pressure
Cook maintained that the App Store in China remained stocked with VPN apps, including creations from developers outside that country. A commercial VPN securely relays internet communications through a private channel, hiding it from locals networks and, potentially, censors.

"This wasn't a choice they really wanted to make, and I'm not sure what they could have done about it," analyst Enderle said of Apple.

"They are not doing well in China, and ticking off the leaders would certainly not help."

Apple and Chinese censors will ultimately "face a barrage of pressures" from each other and from technology users in China, US-based internet rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) said in an online post.

"If Apple makes too great a stand against China's laws, it could be thrown out of the country," Eva Galperin and Amul Kalia of the EFF said in post. "But if China pushes its censorship system too hard, it will have to face the growing frustrations of its own elite."

They reasoned that there was hope the crackdown on VPNs in China would recede when the political climate there improves.

Android upside?
There is a history of US internet stars being humbled in China.

Yahoo a decade ago wound up having to make amends after going along with Chinese officials demanding help some identifying pro-democracy advocates who used Yahoo online message boards.

Microsoft has been doing business in China for some 20 years, staying within guidelines set by the government.

Seven years ago, Google pulled its search engine out of mainland China in a rare stand against censors and for internet privacy. "Google stood up and left, and now they aren't a power in China," Enderle said of the cost of the move.

However, the removal of VPN applications in China by Apple could ramp up the popularity of iPhone rivals powered by Google-backed Android software that lets people get apps from unofficial marketplaces.

Apple's business model which requires users to install only approved applications, ironically, makes it easier for a regime like China to exert control, analysts point out.

Galperin and Kalia of the EFF said the Apple policy "creates a single chokepoint for free expression and privacy."

Originally published (STORY 1) and (STORY 2) on AFP/DAILY MAIL UK