en español: El Innovador de Texas
ERCOT Needs Oversight
In February, members of the Texas House of Representatives asked my office to review the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT). ERCOT is responsible for the overall reliable operation of the state’s power grid. My overview was conducted in the wake of the indictment of five ERCOT employees accused of organized criminal activity.
My staff found ERCOT to be an organization that is still high risk of future financial misconduct unless substantive changes are made to hold ERCOT accountable to the consumers who ultimately bear the cost of any fraud or mismanagement. Further, while the appropriate authorities are currently investigating $2 million in alleged fraud, I cannot assert that all fraud has been uncovered.
We reviewed thousands of pages of ERCOT documents and interviewed ERCOT executives, staff, board members, staff from the Attorney General’s Office, the Department of Public Safety, the Public Utility Commission, the State Auditor’s Office, the Sunset Commission, and other consultants and fraud experts to gather their opinions on ERCOT activities.
ERCOT is a quasi non-governmental organization having critical public responsibilities. ERCOT is susceptible to fraud for two reasons: its guaranteed funding through ratepayers means it does not face market pressure to control costs, and its non-profit status allows it to operate without traditional government agency controls.
Our review found examples of expenditures, such as meeting, entertainment, and reimbursement expenses, that do not appear to be reasonable and necessary to ERCOT’s mission. Our review also found that the contracting processes that allowed fraud in the first place still have not been fixed.
Our recommendations to the Legislature included creating a Fraud and Oversight Task Force to further examine ERCOT operations, and requiring ERCOT to fully implement new comprehensive contracting practices and consult and abide by the statewide Contract Management Guide. Legislation to enact these recommendations failed in the last days of the legislative session.
As the state’s chief fiscal officer, I am charged with the duty and responsibility of managing and supervising all of the state’s fiscal concerns. ERCOT, like all public entities, must be accountable to Texas’ citizens.
The risks at ERCOT and its importance to the daily lives of millions of Texans are too great for us to rely only on the hope of reform. We must act now to ensure that it happens.
Carole Keeton Strayhorn
Sweatin’ to the Xbox
Playing video games doesn’t have to mean no exercise for kids or adults, thanks to the GamerCycle, a device developed by Austin-based company XMAT.
XMAT co-founder Bob Day came up with the GamerCycle concept while watching one of his children play a video game. Day thought he could solve a problem and make a little money, too.
“My 11-year-old was sitting there playing a game, and I thought it’d be great if he could get some exercise while doing that,” Day said.
GamerCycle acts as a conduit between a video game system and a television. The player must pedal a bicycle—at least 28 revolutions per minute—in order to keep sending the video signal to the screen.
“Basically, you’re interrupting the video signal at the bike, and the user is responsible for sending it on to the TV,” Day said. “The tension is adjustable if you want more of a workout.”
Day tested the prototype, built in August 2003, on several of his neighbors before he developed a final version.
For more information, contact Bob Day,
Grow new teeth
People with missing or damaged teeth might be able to grow new ones.
Dentists presented several approaches using stem cells and tooth tissue engineering at the March 2005 meeting of the International Association for Dental Research in Baltimore, Md.
A team of scientists including Dr. Rena N. D’Souza and Dr. John Craemer at the University of Texas Dental Branch at Houston, shared research on bioengineering human tooth implants. In their pilot study, the researchers extracted molars from test patients and removed a third of the molars’ root tips, including soft tissue with root-forming cells. They placed the root tip cells in polyethylene glycol, a biodegradable scaffold material, and let the cells attach to the scaffold.
Some of the cells penetrated the scaffold and grew. The researchers said the study showed a potential application for tooth replacement therapy, but that more experiments are needed. The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, part of the National Institutes of Health, and the Whittaker Foundation supported the research.
D’Souza said these techniques might help people whose teeth are damaged or decayed from cavities or who have lost teeth.
For more information, contact Dr. Rena N. D’Souza,
A laugh a day
Fifteen minutes of laughter a day may help prevent heart disease, according to separate studies conducted by researchers at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and Duke University.
In the Maryland study, healthy volunteers watched either a humorous or stressful movie while researchers monitored their blood vessels. The study found that the inner lining of the blood vessels, or endothelium, expanded or dilated in response to the volunteers’ emotions.
Blood flow of volunteers watching the stressful movie was reduced 35 percent, while blood flow of those watching the humorous movie increased 22 percent.
“The magnitude of change we saw in the endothelium is similar to the benefit we might see with aerobic activity, but without the aches, pains and muscle tension associated with exercise,” said Dr. Michael Miller, director of preventative cardiology at the University of Maryland Medical Center. “We don’t recommend that you laugh and not exercise, but we do recommend that you try to laugh on a regular basis. Thirty minutes of exercise three times a week and 15 minutes of laughter on a daily basis is probably good for the vascular system.”
On the flip side, heart failure patients who suffered from major depression were twice as likely to die or be re-admitted to the hospital, according to the Duke study, which tracked 1,005 heart patients and tested them for depression.
For more information, contact Bill Seiler,
University of Maryland School of Medicine, 410-328-8919,
or Robert Merritt, Duke University, 919-684-4148
Throw out the Neosporin and Band-Aids. The best way to help a wound heal might be using maggots.
Following approval for use as medical devices in the United States and England, a University of York study aims to prove the usefulness of maggots in cleaning infected wounds and speeding up the healing process. The three-year study will consist of 600 patients across Britain. A third of the patients will be treated with loose maggots, held in place by a bandage dressing.
Another third will be treated with maggots in a gauze bag, and the last third will be treated with hydrogel, a standard wound-cleaning therapy.
York professors assure patients that the sterilized maggots will not burrow into healthy flesh. The maggots only are interested in unhealthy tissue, said Pauline Raynor, the professor conducting the study.
According to the University of York, Napoleon’s battle surgeon used maggots, and surgeons used them during the American Civil War.
For more information, contact Dr. Pauline Raynor,
Tomorrow’s soldiers may be able to fend off attacks with guided projectiles, thanks to a team of engineering students at the University of Alabama at Huntsville (UAH).
The concept, called LP4, involves a 40 millimeter round that can be fired by existing Army weaponry. While the LP4 resembles conventional ammo, it contains a complex array of electronics, including an onboard computer and two spinning motors that can change its trajectory. The shell receives guidance information from ground-based radar. The motors provide electricity for its electronic systems and impart a spin to the round that adds to its lethal effect upon impact.
The LP4 project was a response to an Army competition calling for a round offering a greater than 90 percent probability of hitting a moving target traveling at up to 1,800 kilometers per hour (about 1,100 miles per hour), even in stiff winds at a distance of up to 2,000 meters (1.2 miles). The Army, General Dynamics and the American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics funded the project.
According to the UAH project team, LP4 meets all of the Army’s specifications. In addition, it is built with off-the-shelf electronic components, making it relatively economical.
For more information, contact Dr. Bob Frederick,
University of Alabama at Huntsville, email@example.com
Cream and sugar?
A drug called caffeinol that combines caffeine and alcohol, a sort of medicinal Irish coffee, may reduce the brain damage caused by strokes, according to researchers at the University of Texas Medical School at Houston (UT-Houston).
Dr. James Grotta, director of the stroke program at UT-Houston, said a dose of caffeinol contains the amount of caffeine in three to four cups of coffee and the amount of alcohol in one or two glasses of wine. Animal trials showed that brain damage was reduced by as much as 80 percent when caffeinol was administered within three hours after a stroke.
After concluding caffeinol was safe for humans, UT-Houston doctors added it to the stroke treatment regimen at Memorial Hermann Hospital, the university’s main hospital partner. This regimen also includes the clot-busting drug known as tPA combined with ultrasound technology, Grotta said.
Treatment also can include medically induced hypothermia, which reduces stroke damage. During this treatment, a patient arriving at the hospital within three hours of the onset of a stroke immediately receives a dose of tPA, followed by caffeinol. Doctors then lower the patient’s body temperature to 34.5 degrees to induce hypothermia. Results have been promising, Grotta said.
For more information, contact the UT-Houston Stroke Treatment Team,
Fuzzy bits are faster
Turns out accuracy may not always be a good thing with computer hardware. A researcher at the Georgia Institute of Technology is making computer chips faster and more energy-efficient by making them less accurate.
The technique hinges on probabilistic bits (PBITs), which are like typical computer bits that take either a 1 or 0 value, except PBITs only have a certain value within a given probability, according to Krishna Palem, director of Georgia Tech’s Center for Research in Embedded Systems and Technology.
Most computer chips expend a lot of energy determining the precise value of a bit. Georgia Tech researchers predict that if they use a less precise approach, it could make chips 100 times faster and more efficient for voice recognition programs, such as those used in cell phones, and other applications.
For more information, contact Krishna Palem,
The Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., is testing a machine that recycles astronauts’ sweat into drinking water purer than any found in a tap.
It could be two years before NASA can use the water system, which is about the size of two refrigerators, on the International Space Station. Simpler versions will soon be used on Earth.
The Georgia-based charity group Concern for Kids is working with the company Novation/Haas to develop a system that uses technology from the NASA system for nations that lack reliable water supplies. Deployment of this system is planned for June 2005.
A University of Illinois at Chicago study of traditional medicinal herbs found that Andrographis paniculata slashed the number of colds experienced by a group of children by 50 percent. Other popular folk remedies, such as echinacea and garlic, yielded little evidence of a medicinal effect.
For more information, contact Dr. Gail Mahady,
Lovers of the snooze bar have a new enemy: Clocky. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology developed a roving alarm clock that finds a new hiding spot and waits to go off again when the snooze bar is pressed. Clocky is covered with carpet, Velcro and foam and has wheels so it can roll off a nightstand and seek out its next port of call, forcing its owner to get out of bed and shut it off.
For more information, contact Gauri Nanda,
Editor: Karen Hudgins
Contributing to this issue: Angela Freeman, Magdalena Hamner, Ann Holdsworth, Greg Mt.Joy, Edd Patton, Clint Shields, Suzanne Staton, and Bruce Wright