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en español: El Innovador de Texas

May 2004

One Heartbroken Grandma

My recent investigation into the state’s foster care system turned this One Tough Grandma into One Heartbroken Grandma.

I am calling for a massive overhaul of the foster care system in a special report, Forgotten Children, which details a widespread crisis in the Texas foster care system.

They are everybody’s children and nobody’s children. They are the forgotten children. Some of them find homes with caring foster parents, or in treatment centers with experienced and caring providers, and some do not.

Some have been sexually, physically and emotionally abused while in the system; some have run away and joined the ranks of the missing. A few have even died at the hands of those entrusted with their care.

I am appalled at the conditions too many of our foster children must endure.

I challenge any defender of the status quo to put their child or grandchild in some of the places I’ve seen for one day, much less for a lifetime.

We must raise the bar on quality, make the foster care system more accountable, ensure the health and safety of all foster care children, and provide a brighter future for foster children.

Fortunately, I did find facilities that treat children well.

In each and every instance where children were getting the best care, the caregivers are working closely and openly with the community. Each facility needs that close relationship and support from the communities they serve. Otherwise, the children suffer.

Any society can be judged by how it treats its weakest members. My investigation shows that Texas can and must be judged harshly.

I will monitor changes made–or not made–as a result of this special report, and for the sake of our forgotten children, I will report back to the people of Texas in six weeks and six months and as long as it takes to fix this broken system and save all of our children.

Carole Keeton Strayhorn
Carole Keeton Strayhorn
Texas Comptroller


Energy-saving sodas

Austin Energy

The city of Austin is saving energy and keeping its Diet Cokes colder with devices called Vending Misers. The city is installing 4,400 of the machines around town through a grant from the Pubic Utility Commission.

Austin Energy Program Manager Paul Lustig said each device can save about $350 a year by switching vending machines off when no one is around.

“That’s a very conservative estimate,” he said. “They can save at least a third in energy costs, more like 40 percent, really. Basically, the vending machine goes to sleep. If the Vending Miser detects someone nearby, it will turn the machine back on.”

State agencies and businesses around Austin, including H-E-B grocery stores, are using the machines in what Lustig said is the largest such program in Texas. He says the machines are also for sale from the manufacturer, Denver-based USA Technologies.

Oddly enough, Lustig said beverages come out colder after a Vending Miser has turned a vending machine off.

“Cokes turn out to be one degree colder,” he said. “There are fans inside a vending machine that circulate cold air, but they also circulate warm air from the compressor and the motor.”

With the machinery off, the warm air rises above the drinks, lowering their temperature, he said.

For more information, contact Paul Lustig,
paul.lustig@austinenergy.com, 512-974-3548

Kid-friendly browsing

Kiwe

Kids have a safe portal to explore the Internet, thanks to an Austin company’s education-based Internet browser—Kids Internet World Explorer (KIWE). The company, MyKIWE.com, introduced KIWE in 1998 and sells the product mainly to libraries and schools, said Eddie Williams, one of KIWE’s designers.

Interested users can get KIWE through its Web site, www.mykiwe.com, and, for $49.95 per year, download the program to their home computer. Whenever someone launches KIWE—which operates in English, Spanish and Italian—it acts as a portal to the home server.

KIWE has more than 500,000 kid-friendly sites available to browse. That number often changes as the company checks the sites’ content and links to other sites, Williams said.

“A site must not allow the child to exit out of the site and link to another,” Williams said. “That way, a parent can have their child use it and go fix dinner or whatever and not worry about it.”

Williams said KIWE is certified by the Children’s Internet Protection Act. There are about 325,000 KIWE licenses, and the company averages an 87 percent retention rate on licenses.

For more information, contact Eddie Williams,
info@mykiwe.com, 512-314-5493

The roboceptionist

robot

Carnegie Mellon University has a new receptionist who’s helpful, dedicated—and computerized.

“Valerie” greets visitors to Newell-Simon Hall, home of the university’s School of Computer Science. The virtual receptionist resembles a drum mated with a computer monitor bearing an animated image of a human face. The university calls Valerie the world’s first robot receptionist with a personality.

A laser scanner allows the robot to detect motion, welcome visitors and offer them assistance. Visitors can ask Valerie a variety of questions about the campus through a keyboard. Making her special, however, is her personality—the right questions prompt her to gossip about her boss and discuss her dreams of a singing career. Listeners also may overhear her talking on the phone with friends and her mother, or rather “motherboard.”

The School of Computer Science and the School of Drama collaborated to script Valerie’s remarks and develop her personality traits.

Valerie’s abilities are limited—she can’t recognize human speech and can’t recognize individuals unless they swipe an identification card. But the team behind Valerie hopes to continue improving her, ultimately providing her with speech and facial recognition capabilities.

For more information, contact Reid G. Simmons,
Robotics Institute, Carnegie Mellon University, reids@cs.cmu.edu

Liquid body armor

MIT

A flip of the switch may protect soldiers from bullets. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are working with the U.S. Army to develop bulletproof vests that react to magnetic force.

Although vests used now are made of lightweight cloth, such as Kevlar, they can be hot, bulky and stiff. MIT and Army researchers want to change this with a field-responsive fluid that absorbs energy for use in body armor, said Gareth McKinley, an MIT mechanical engineer.

Full of tiny iron particles, the fluid lines up and forms a stiff solid when magnetic force is applied, McKinley said. The solution changes back into a liquid when magnetic force is removed.

McKinley said the technology and finished product are still five to 10 years away, but researchers hope to one day replace the magnets with electrical currents that soldiers could turn on and off when needed.

For more information, contact Gareth McKinley,
gareth@mit.edu

By a hair

hair

People who may be less than honest about how much alcohol they drink may soon be given away—by their hair.

A new range of tests developed by the University of Basel in Switzerland and other universities around the world can reveal how much a person has drunk over the past few days, weeks or even months.

The tests look for chemicals produced in the body as the body processes alcohol, said Dr. Friedrich Wurst, a psychiatrist at the University of Basel.

Alcohol itself disappears from the body within hours of consumption, but chemicals called fatty acid ethyl esters (FAEEs) appear in the blood within hours after someone has a drink, and are eventually stored in a person’s hair, Wurst said.

In a study in 2003, Wurst and other scientists monitored 18 clinical alcoholics, 10 social drinkers and 10 teetotalers. Their research showed FAEE levels in human hair could distinguish between light and heavy drinkers.

Another test detects phosphatidyl ethanol, which lasts for up to three weeks in the blood of people who have previously consumed alcohol regularly, or more than three beers a day. “We found no false negatives,” said Wurst.

Wurst said the tests could one day be used by airlines to determine whether pilots have been drinking, or used by police after a traffic accident to find out whether the people involved had been drinking when the accident occurred.

For more information, contact Dr. Friedrich Wurst,
friedrich.wurst@pukbasel.ch, or
www.alcalc.oupjournals.org/cgi/content/abstract/39/1/33

Trash talking

trash

Berliners who throw their garbage into trashcans instead of onto the streets of Germany’s capital city will soon be graciously thanked—by the trash cans.

The city’s sanitation service will install trash cans beginning in 2004 that contain devices that say “thank you” when residents throw garbage into the cans.

City spokesman Bernd Mueller said the cans, which the sanitation service will initially place at heavily visited sites, such as the city’s main train station, encourage people in a humorous and nice way to dispose of their trash properly, rather than littering.

The solar-powered cans can say “thank you” in three languages. If people respond positively, the city could program the cans to sing. Mueller said the city plans to market the cans to other cities in Germany.

For more information, contact the
German Embassy Press Department,
www.germany-info.org, 202-298-4251

Hope for diabetics

diabetics

Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., have successfully transplanted cells from the developing pancreases of pig embryos into diabetic rats. The pig cells produced their own insulin, and the rats’ blood glucose levels returned to normal.

The outcome of the experiments surprised the doctors conducting the test because the rats did not receive immune suppression drugs, which are usually needed to prevent the rejection of transplants from one species of animal to another. Moreover, the transplanted pig cells continued to produce insulin for the rest of the rats’ lives.

If the same process works in humans, it could mean a potential cure for diabetes, said Dr. Marc Hammerman, the Washington University professor who led the research study.

Hammerman plans to test the process on primates by the end of 2004. If they are successful, human trials would be the next step, he said.

For more information, contact Michael C. Purdy,
purdy@wustl.edu, 314-286-0122


A World of Innovation


HOUSTON

A new device developed by Houston-based Always On Wireless Inc. allows dial-up Internet users to go wireless. A small device, called WiFlyer, plugs into a phone line and creates a hot spot of up to 300 feet where multiple users can link to the Internet via laptop computers. Shipments for WiFlyer will begin in July 2004. Each device will cost $150.

For more information, contact Rudy Prince,
rudy@alwaysonwireless.com

CALIFORNIA

Microengineers at the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA) have developed a silicon robot the width of a human hair that uses legs powered by heart muscle from rats. It is the first time muscle tissue has been used to propel a micro-machine, the scientists said.

Carlo Montemagno, the UCLA microengineer whose team is developing the “musclebots,” said he wants to use the technology to develop muscle-based nerve stimulators that would let paralyzed people breathe without a ventilator. According to NASA, which is funding the research, musclebots could one day help repair spacecraft by plugging holes made by tiny meteorites.

For more information, contact Carlo Montemagno,
cdm@seas.ucla.edu, 310-794-7270

PENNSYLVANIA

Move over, Mighty Mouse! Laboratory rats at the University of Pennsylvania injected with a virus carrying the gene for an insulin-like growth factor experienced a 15 to 30 percent increase in muscle growth. Doctors could use the approach to treat the elderly and those with muscular dystrophy, a muscle-wasting disorder. Lee Sweeney, professor and chairman of physiology, said human trials would not begin for several years.

For more information, contact Lee Sweeney,
lsweeney@mail.med.upenn.edu


Editor: Karen Hudgins

Contributing to this issue: Angela Freeman, Magdalena Hamner, Ann Holdsworth, Greg Mt.Joy, Edd Patton, Clint Shields, Suzanne Staton, Pam Wagner and Bruce Wright