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October 21, 2004

'Mothers of Invention' - Updated for the 21st century


Today's Wall Street Journal features a wonderful front-page story by Rachel Zimmerman about mothers who, rather than just sit home with the kids and clean up their messes, invent things.

Things like the TP Saver, a simple $6.95 device which prevents babies and pets from unraveling toilet paper.


Well, Tamara Monosoff, the inventor, projects sales of more than $1 million next year.

Here's the story.

The Carriage Trade: Stay-at-Home Moms Get Entrepreneurial

Toilet-Paper Saver Starts Million-Dollar Business; A Pig With Four 'Tummies'

Tamara Monosoff, a former business consultant and Clinton White House staffer, quit work to stay at home when her daughter Sophia was born.

Then she found herself annoyed by the constant need to re-roll the toilet paper Sophia unraveled onto the floor.


So she invented a special latch to prevent the problem.

Now, she sells the $6.95 product to parents and pet owners.

"It's not glamorous," says Ms. Monosoff, who lives in Walnut Creek, Calif.

But it's profitable.

She projects sales of more than $1 million next year from the TP Saver and her other products, including duck and puppy shoe-stickers that help children tell left from right.

Her husband, Brad Kofoed, recently quit his job in software sales to work with her.

In March, they hired a full-time nanny.

For many women who leave the work force to care for children, motherhood is making invention a necessity.

The daily routine of child-care presents such a minefield of little problems that they turn to tinkering, and then market their brainstorms.

This month Ms. Monosoff signed a book deal to write a guide for aspiring inventor moms while she runs her company and Web site to promote other mothers' products.

This month's featured mom invented the Bellybra, an exercise girdle for pregnancy.

Betty Chin, senior vice president of merchandising at the Right Start, a children's-product retailer in Calabasas, California, says the uptick in mom inventions began in the late '90s, when a Colorado English teacher, Julie Aigner-Clark, came out with Baby Einstein videos - educational tapes for infants and toddlers on fine art, classical music and poetry.

The tapes prompted mothers around the country to make educational home movies.

This year, retail sales of Baby Einstein products, now owned by Walt Disney Co., are expected to reach $165 million.

Denise Marshall has sold more than 20,000 Mac & Cool instant cooling bowls, which she designed after so many failed attempts to get the temperature of her kids' food down fast enough.

"I was always blowing," said the former Clorox Co. mechanical engineer, who lives in Chandler, Arizona.

Doing business as "Made for Mom," Ms. Marshall has teamed up with another mother, a former insurance-company risk manager, who invented a nonspill snack cup.

A Chicago banker who had given financial advice to wealthy families for 18 years, Susan Beacham quit six years ago to become a stay-at-home mom. Instead, she saw a new market.

To teach children to make financial decisions, she designed a school curriculum on money and invented a piggy bank with four separate "tummies" to stow cash for saving, spending, donating and investing.

The pig is a brisk seller for the One Step Ahead catalog, says Andrea Galinski, One Step's merchandising manager.

She says a quarter of company sales are in goods invented by parents, mostly mothers.

Laine Caspi once worked from midnight to 8 a.m. as a suicide hotline crisis counselor in Los Angeles.

Then, during the day, she would get on her hands and knees and bark like a dog with her little boy.

"At a certain point, I realized the job was incompatible with child-rearing," she says.

So she quit in November 2001, when she was pregnant with her second child.

Then her baby carrier brought on severe back and neck aches.

In 2002, she re-engineered a more comfortable carrier and sold it from the back of her car.

Within months, a dozen other mothers joined her.

Today, the Ultimate Baby Wrap is sold at about 60 specialty stores and a number of big retailers, including Babies 'R Us online, for $39.95 to $49.95.

"I thought I would be 100% satisfied staying home with my kids," she says. "I wasn't."

Ms. Caspi now runs Parents of Invention, a company offering licensing deals to parents who have an idea or prototype but don't want to manufacture the product.

Her company is selling 11 different items, including a plastic pop-on toilet handle shaped like an alligator or hippo "to encourage flushing," a vibrating nursing pillow that fits overweight women and a key chain that dispenses antibacterial wipes.

Jill Avery-Zuleeg, Michele Free and Carmela Zamora-Robertson met when they worked in the same marketing group at Apple Computer.

In the mid-'90s, they all got married and started having children.

When Ms. Avery-Zuleeg's oldest child, Tanner, was nearly three, he emerged from his room dressed, but with his clothes on backwards and inside out.

Beaming, he screamed: "I did it all by myself," and a new marketing concept was born.

Ms. Avery-Zuleeg, of Saratoga, California, recruited her former colleagues to start a line of videos, "All by Myself," to teach children independence.

They took a lighting course from friends and used their children as actors.

They have sold 80,000 of the getting-dressed tapes and 25,000 copies of a tape about children caring for pets.

These days the women work on the video business three nights a week from 9 until 1. "I'm always tired," Ms. Avery-Zuleeg says.

Writer Hilary Illick - whose play, "Eve-olution," which she co-wrote with another mom, explores the dark side of motherhood - says there are certainly some stay-at-home moms who "feel like going to mommy-and-me gymnastics class and doing potato-print drawings are fulfilling ways to spend their day."

But many others need something more tangible and are constantly worrying, "what did I do today that was worthwhile?"

Studies suggest that the number of professional women opting out to become stay-at-home moms is on the rise.


An informal Harvard Business School survey of 150 women done in 2001 found that only 38% of graduates in their child-bearing years are in the work force.

Addendum November 6, 2004: in response to the many emails I've received from mothers of invention wishing to contact Parents of Invention, here you go:

Parents of Invention
8012 Yarmouth Ave.
Reseda, CA. 91335



October 21, 2004 at 04:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (28) | TrackBack

BehindTheMedspeak: Heart attack gene identified


Eric Topol and his colleagues at the Cleveland Clinic report in a study published yesterday in Human Molecular Genetics that many more people may be genetically hard-wired to have heart attacks than previously thought.

Their new data suggest that a mutation in the gene called MEF2A may be present in 1%-2% of the general population.

For comparison, only 1% of those with a family history of breast cancer have the breast cancer gene BRCA 1.

The "heart attack gene" may be present in 1%-2% of the general population, potentially putting hundreds of thousands or even millions of individuals at risk.

Here's Sarah Treffinger's story, from today's Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Heart attack gene also hits arteries

Cleveland Clinic researchers identify three new harmful mutations

Less than a year after Cleveland Clinic researchers identified a gene that causes heart attacks, a new study shows it's possible that hundreds of thousands of people with coronary artery disease are affected by it.

The study, led by investigators Dr. Eric Topol and Qing Wang, has uncovered three new mutations in the MEF2A gene, which makes a protein important for artery wall development.

MEF2A is a regulatory gene that controls other genes responsible for proper development of the endothelium, the barrier between blood and vessels, said Wang, director of the Clinic's Center for Cardiovascular Genetics.

If the endothelium is not properly formed, it becomes susceptible to inflammation.

"It appears that it is one of the key genes for causing heart disease," said Topol, chairman of the Clinic's department of cardiovascular medicine.

Coronary artery disease is the No. 1 killer of both men and women in the United States, killing about 500,000 each year, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Eric Olson, a professor and chairman of the Department of Molecular Biology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, said, "It is possible to screen individuals for mutations in this gene that increase the risk" for coronary artery disease and heart attack.

"Given the vast amount of information on MEF2A," he said in an e-mail, "it may also be possible to develop novel therapies for correction of MEF2A deficiency."

Last November, Topol, Wang and others published a paper about a "deletion mutation" in MEF2A, which they found by studying an Iowa family plagued by coronary artery disease.

The gene was missing 21 base pairs of nucleotides, the building blocks of DNA.

Researchers found the mutation in every family member with coronary artery disease, but not in their relatives - or in 119 other, unrelated individuals - who had no evidence of heart disease.

At the time, Topol said it was unlikely that they would find the exact genetic mutation in many other families, but he believed the discovery would allow researchers to pinpoint other, more common mutations involving the same or related genes.

That's just what happened in the latest study, posted Wednesday on the Web site of the journal Human Molecular Genetics.

The study included 207 coronary artery disease patients and a control group of 191 people.

Researchers detected the three mutations in four of the patients, but none in the control group.

The results suggest that as many as 1.93 percent of people with coronary artery disease may carry a MEF2A mutation.

But the authors cautioned that is a "preliminary" estimate.

They noted the sample size was small and the patient group was limited to men 55 or younger and women 60 or younger at the disease's onset.

That group included individuals with a history of such risk factors as diabetes, hypertension and smoking.

They also explained that carriers of the first mutation discovered last year appear to have a more severe form of coronary artery disease than those with the newly identified mutations.

The team concluded that genetic testing for MEF2A mutations may prove useful in diagnosing patients at increased risk of coronary artery disease.

"If such patients can be identified, aggressive lifestyle improvement and pharmacologic strategies may be implemented early to offset the risk," they wrote.

Topol talked about testing options during this week's Medical Innovation Summit at the Clinic.

He told reporters that he and others hope to establish a "gene panel" that would screen for a variety of genes, including MEF2A mutations and ApoE4, a cholesterol-transporting gene.

They're still working out details, but Topol said the test should be made available for patients seeking a genetic assessment by the end of this year or in early 2005.

October 21, 2004 at 02:37 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Experts' Experts: How to buy - and care for - fresh produce


"Experts' Experts" is a new feature of bookofjoe.

The Financial Times used to have a weekly column with this same title, but they dropped it last year.

That feature was the thing I most liked about the newspaper once I started buying it at the newstand semi-regularly; it led to my subscribing.

Now I don't miss the column, since I've grown to like the paper and its excellent stable of writers very much. But I digress.

Today we feature Edmund LaMacchia, national produce coordinator for Whole Foods Market.

Here's what the pro has to say about produce.

1) Shop for fruits and vegetables on Friday afternoons or Saturdays. That's when the produce is freshest, as the stores gear up for weekend shoppers.

2) After you get home, spend some time "processing" the produce. Wash and dry lettuce (picking out the rotten leaves); blanche some of the vegetables to make it more likely you'll eat them during the next week, when you're busy.

3) Avoid very unripe produce. Look for crisp vegetables (asparagus stalks, for example, should stand straight) and weighty fruits (melons should be soft on the non-stem side).

4) To test for ripeness on delicate items like avocados or nectarines, cup them in your hand and press lightly - this avoids finger bruises.

5) Never put tomatoes in the refrigerator - it ruins their texture.

6) Ripen drupes - i.e. fruit with pits (plums, peaches, cherries and their ilk) - at around 65° - any cooler and the fruit will become rubbery.

Hmm. Maybe I should start another feature called "Word of the Day," huh?

I mean - come on - "drupe?"

[via Stephanie Clifford in the Wall Street Journal]

October 21, 2004 at 02:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

BehindTheMedspeak: Eliminate the middleman - get your donated kidney from the Internet


UNOS should be scared.

Very scared.

What's UNOS?

The United Network for Organ Sharing, which up to now has had monopoly power over all organs donated from the dead.

But they've been a dismal failure at increasing the scarce number of organs available for transplant.

And now, just as Amazon disemboweled the bookstore industry, MatchingDonors.com, a website created earlier this year to match donors and patients for a fee, is set to do the same to UNOS.

A lot of highly-paid, useless administrators there are updating their resumes as you read this. But I digress.

Bob Hickey, a 58-year-old man from Edwards, Colorado, had been on the UNOS list, waiting for a kidney transplant, for five years.

He finally decided he'd had enough of waiting for UNOS to deliver, so he paid $295 a month to be listed on MatchingDonors.com.

He received his new kidney yesterday from 32-year-old Robert Smitty of Chattanooga, Tennessee, whom he'd made contact with through the website as designed.

Why do I have such contempt for UNOS?

Because they've failed in their mission.

In most countries in Europe, your consent to be an organ donor is automatically given - so-called "implied consent" - unless you've specifically opted out on your driver's license.

If UNOS had lobbied the way they should have, there wouldn't be this nonsense about filling out a form to donate your organs.

And families wouldn't be able to revoke your stated consent - as happens quite often, illegally - after you were dead.

You GO MatchingDonors.com!

October 21, 2004 at 01:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

BehindTheMedspeak: 'You're dumb as a plant'


A new report, published today in Nature magazine by the International Human Genome Sequencing Consortium, gives evidence for why that might be.

Turns out humans have about 25,000 genes, about the same number as small flowering plants or pufferfish.

This radical downsizing of the human genome - up to now it was thought we had around 30,000-40,000 genes - makes us more or less run-of-the-mill in terms of numbers.

As Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute at the National Institutes of Health said, "We humans don't look very impressive in the competition."

Just goes to show it's what you do with what you have that matters.

Here's Nicholas Wade's story about the new findings, from today's New York Times.

Human Gene Total Falls Below 25,000

A new and perhaps final report from the international consortium of laboratories that decoded the human genome has revised the estimated number of human genes sharply downward.

About 20,000 human genes have been identified, and up to 5,000 more may await discovery, the group is reporting today in the journal Nature.

This tally is considerably less than the 30,000 or so predicted by the consortium and its commercial rival, Celera, when they first described their draft genome sequences in February 2001.

The 30,000 figure was itself a surprising downgrade from the 100,000 human genes commonly said to exist as recently as five years ago, before the exact sequence of DNA units in the genome was decoded.

Coincidentally, French researchers are reporting in the same issue of Nature that they have decoded the genome of a biologically important fish, the spotted green pufferfish.

They say it has 20,000 to 25,000 genes, the identical range now estimated for humans.


How can it be that humans, seen by some as the apotheosis of creation, have the same number of genes?

The question is the more pressing because genes are subject to a rigorous "use it or lose it" rule.

Those not vital to an organism are quickly rendered useless by mutations.

Also, the human brain seems particularly dependent on genetic complexity, because about half of all human genes are active in brain tissue.

From the fishes' point of view, the problem may seem rather less acute.

Their large number of genes "may relate to the fact that fish today are one of the most successful families of vertebrate on earth," Dr. Hugues Roest Crollius of the French team said.

Along with Dr. Jean Weissenbach and colleagues, Dr. Crollius is reporting that sometime after 450 million years ago, when the ancestors of people and pufferfish took separate evolutionary paths, the puffer and most other fish doubled up their genome in some freak cellular accident.

Though some duplicate genes were shed, many were put to alternative uses, giving fish a special evolutionary advantage.

Humans have enjoyed no such doubling in the last half billion years, Dr. Crollius said.

People presumably overcame the relative poverty of their genetic patrimony by other means.

"Clearly, the complexity of the nervous system must derive from some other feature than the gene count," said Dr. Francis S. Collins, director of the federal agency that supports genome decoding in the United States.

One such feature is alternative splicing, the mechanism through which a single gene can generate several kinds of protein by selecting different combinations of the same set of building blocks.

More alternative splicing occurs in human cells than in those of lower animals like flies and worms, Dr. Crollius said.

Another way in which humans may get more out of their genes is through more sophisticated control.

Cells have a small set of regulatory genes that control the activity of all the other genes.

Although the main human genes have recognizable counterparts in fish, the regulatory genes seem to be different, Dr. Collins said.

Presumably human regulatory genes are more sophisticated and can construct greatly more complex structures like the human brain.

The lower number of human genes "doesn't disturb me in a conceptual way at all," Dr. Richard Axel, a biologist at Columbia, said.

Through alternative splicing and regulatory control, a few thousand genes can make trillions of combinations of proteins.

So starting with 20,000 or 30,000 genes makes no great difference to the complexity of what the cell's machinery can generate, Dr. Axel said.

At the time of its first report, the consortium that decoded the human genome had failed to close 147,821 gaps in the DNA sequence of the 24 pairs of human chromosomes.

These gaps, stretches of DNA resistant to the usual sequencing methods, have now been reduced to just 341.

The total size of the human genome is 3.08 billion units of DNA, the consortium now estimates.

Besides the 341 gaps, a special structural DNA at the center and tips of each chromosome continues to defy current sequencing.

The international consortium, principally laboratories in Britain and the United States, with contributions from China, France, Germany and Japan, spent $300 million to prepare the draft sequence of the human genome.

Trying to fill the gaps and other finishing work has taken $320 million more, Dr. Collins said.

The article today is probably the final report on the genome as a whole, he said, although work continues on specific aspects.

Closing the remaining 341 gaps is a research project for the future.

Celera's version of the human genome was not taken beyond the draft stage, in part because the company had difficulty finding subscribers when the government, believing that access to the human genome should be free, was making the consortium's work available free.

Celera's novel sequencing, however, has now become standard in decoding other genomes.

"Celera proved that the whole genome shotgun technique is both technically feasible and provides a dramatic cost-saving over the clone-by-clone approach," the consortium's method, Dr. Lincoln Stein of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in Laurel Hollow, N.Y., writes in Nature.

October 21, 2004 at 12:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

TV-B-Gone - Good news, bad news


The good news is that the device exists.

I want one yesterday.

It's a $14.99 keychain-size gadget that does only one thing: wirelessly turns off every TV in the room.

Every time I go to PromptCare for this or that test, I have to sit in that dreadful waiting room full of people hacking and coughing and trying to infect me with their resident microorganisms.

Adding insult to injury is having to listen to that damned TV blaring garbage into the room.


With my new TV-B-Gone, one silent, surreptitious button press, and I'm in heaven a.k.a. silence.

The bad news: I just went to the website to buy one, and it says "Available on this website next week."


Because that notice is dated October 14, 2004.

So today, and all this week, is "Next week."

But there's no TV-B-Gone for sale.

Dare I utter the dreaded V-word?


Just like the idiotstick book publishers whose newest offerings get rave reviews, but won't be published for a month or two.

The author writhes in pain reading the glowing encomiums, knowing that the prospective reader, who would've loved to have purchased the book today, will long since have moved on by the time it hits the stores.


TV-B-Gone was written up in this morning's Wall Street Journal, and thousands of people will go the website to buy one, only to have the same experience I just did.

Oh, well.

October 21, 2004 at 11:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

BehindTheMedspeak: Exercise ball alternative for active sitting in a conservative environment


As you well know, I am a fervent advocate of "active sitting" - that is, using an exercise ball so that you and your back unconsciously make constant microadjustments, thus preventing the gradual, insidious loss of spinal disc tone and back muscle strength.


Many of you, I realize, do not sit in your pjs all day by yourself but, rather, wear power suits and shoes, sit in fancy offices at macha and macho desks, and generally play the game as it needs to be played.

Numerous times over the past few months, you've told me you'd love to sit on an exercise ball at work, but it just won't pass muster with your fellow traders, attorneys, and other high-powered officemates.


So, I'm bringing you the next best thing to the ball: the Air Wedge (pictured at the very top of this post), from the same company that makes the ball.


It costs a bit more ($29.95 v $23.95 for the ball) but it's much less obtrusive.

It's a wedge-shaped rubber object that you inflate by mouth (easily, not like a balloon) to the desired degree of firmness, then place on the seat of your chair.


The sitting surface is pebbled for air circulation and comfort.

If even this is too "odd," you can cover it with the fabric of your choice and make it completely invisible.


I've used one for years when I can't sit on my ball - I take my Air Wedge to depositions, for example - and have been very happy with it.

October 21, 2004 at 10:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack



Many musicians buy their sheet music as digital files rather than driving to the store.

This website offers a new shopping option.

You can browse and buy sheet music by genre, artist, theme or even degree of playing difficulty.

The site is a joint venture between Yamaha Digital Music Interactive and the Sibelius Group, a music software company.

For $4 a song, musicians get sheet music in a multimedia format that allows three printouts.

Using free software from Sibelius, you can also rearrange the song and view the score graphically, showing finger positions and notes on a keyboard or guitar fretboard.

October 21, 2004 at 09:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

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