A Tool That Shrinks Your Bills

Question: How does Billshrink work?

Peter Pham: So far today we have a couple things. One is Billshrink lets you save money on your wireless cell phone plan. What we found is about 80 percent of Americans overpay for their cell phone bill. On average it's about $300 a year, so it's about $25 a month that most people are overpaying on their cell phone. That's just a function of mostly confusing products and kind of services that are out there; it's really hard to understand what you're getting and more importantly what you're actually utilizing. I don't know if you've flipped through a cell phone bill lately; it's a pretty complicated and most people are really, really scared of overages so they typically tend to overpay and buy more than they actually need.

So that's one. Two is credit cards. Credit cards are very popular on our website as well. A lot of people have the same credit card since college or their first credit card, 10 years later, 15 years later, without recognizing the fact that putting a different credit card and a better credit card in their wallet can save them up to a $1,000 a year or in the case of people who actually pay off their credit card every month it can actually pay you an extra $1,000 a month and getting you better points and bonuses and the way you earn a reward, the program.

Gas prices are the third thing we have and that's just a function of where you live and where you work. What we do is route that commute, between point A and point B, and find every single gas station along that routes including figuring out what kind of car you drive to look at your gas mileage, so that you can understand whether or not it's worth driving out of your way.

The last one was actually topical, which is savings accounts. We actually launched a tool on our site that allows people to find the right savings accounts and CD based on your needs. So how much money do you have, how much are you putting away every month, how much do you need access to. What kind of features? Do you need check writing or direct deposit? We actually converged over 100,000 ATM locations so that we can figure out locally which banking product's right for you and which ones to keep liquid and illiquid versus savings and CDs.

Question: How does the credit card portion of the website work?

Peter Pham: It starts with a few simple questions. So do you pay off your credit card every month? Yes or no. If it's a no, it's really how much you owe, how much you are spending every month, and how much you are paying off. The way we look at it is let's try to find you a credit card that's going to cost you the least amount of money. Of course if you're not paying off your credit card every month there is some sort of interest rates and maybe even fees if you're paying late -- making late payments. So our perspective is to find you a card that's right for your spending patterns. If you do pay off your credit card every month, it's where do you spend most of your money, how much are you spending, what's your credit and what type of lifestyle do you have in terms of how do you want to redeem. Do you want airfare, hotels? Are you a Continental or United frequent flyer? Do you only stay in Hiltons or Hyatts or Starwoods? Do you want cash back?

Those are the type of things that we look at. What we did was we calculated all the reward programs that exist over hundreds of different credit cards and broken it down to very simple terms and dollar amounts so that every person can then simply understand what the value of a credit card is based on their actual spending patterns.

Recorded on November 4, 2009

Peter Pham created a website that helps people save on credit cards, wireless plans, and gas.

To boost your self-esteem, write about chapters of your life

If you're lacking confidence and feel like you could benefit from an ego boost, try writing your life story.

Personal Growth

In truth, so much of what happens to us in life is random – we are pawns at the mercy of Lady Luck. To take ownership of our experiences and exert a feeling of control over our future, we tell stories about ourselves that weave meaning and continuity into our personal identity.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Ashes of cat named Pikachu to be launched into space

A space memorial company plans to launch the ashes of "Pikachu," a well-loved Tabby, into space.

GoFundMe/Steve Munt
Culture & Religion
  • Steve Munt, Pikachu's owner, created a GoFundMe page to raise money for the mission.
  • If all goes according to plan, Pikachu will be the second cat to enter space, the first being a French feline named Felicette.
  • It might seem frivolous, but the cat-lovers commenting on Munt's GoFundMe page would likely disagree.
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