Monday, March 28, 2011

Computing and a Toothbrush?

I was hunting for something quite different (and far more serious) when I found this unusual toothbrush and it was just too intriguing to pass up. There exists this computer scientist and inventor who got into toothbrushes (among other things). I just had to read on. The CS inventor, Richard Trocino, lives in Austin, Texas one of my favorite cities and former home. That clinched it. My textbook writing project was temporarily diverted.

This toothbrush is pretty slick if you are into gadgets. A gift for the person who has it all (make a note on your holiday or birthday list). Called the OHSO, it is a refillable toothbrush with an oxygen intrusion prevention setup so that the toothpaste will never gum up (so go the marketing materials). You can put your favorite toothpaste in - I wonder if that includes a homeopathic paste made from baking soda and water."Suction technology" makes it easy to fill. That makes me want to see just how much sucking is done and what else could get sucked in.

It self dispenses in different ways depending upon if you twist the little knob or if you tilt it a certain way. There is a little window where you can peer in at the stuff to see how much paste is left. No leaking, airtight all around and with replaceable parts. I am dying to play with one of these.

I have read everything I can find and I don't see where computing technology comes into the OHSO. Unless there is a little microchip hidden in there somewhere. But you'd think they'd advertise it. I would like to take it apart and find out.

Maybe the computer science only comes in via the fact that they don't do formal advertising but rely on word of mouth and social media to generate sales.

Is this a socially useful device? There are testimonials on the site from business travelers to active duty military personnel and everyone in between swearing how much they love this toothbrush.  Clean teeth, the prevention of cavities and recessing gum lines are definitely a good thing. Keeping one's teeth is a good thing. There is something perhaps "green" in a toothbrush that might last for years. I can't tell if it is made primarily from plastic or metal. That would add or subtract from the beneficial environmental aspects. But you have to be the judge on this one.

What I really want is to approach it as a technological device and test it in every way possible, including taking it apart and putting it back together. I know I could put my research design skills to work on coming up with some very creative experiments.

Hopefully I would have better luck than the time back in my 20s when out of curiosity I took the front passenger door off my 1969 Dodge Dart and couldn't put it back on.  (the door was too heavy - those wonderful cars were tanks) I drove 20+ miles down the highway at full highway speeds without a door in order to find another pair of arms. But a toothbrush is a far cry from a solid steel car door. What could possibly go wrong? There is that suction aspect to consider I suppose. Unlike a garbage disposal however I wouldn't have to stick my hand into a dark place full of nasty sharp blades.

But really, the scientist in me hears about something this unusual and drives me to want to take an OHSO toothbrush and put it through some serious paces. Then I can find out or infer if computing plays a role in the device and if the device is socially beneficial.

If someone will provide me an OHSO I promise to take it traveling on business, into the mountains on retreat, to the dentist (just have to see what she'd say about this) and in fact I'd stick it in my pocket, take it everywhere, and brush at random intervals wherever I happened to be. I might even alternate between randomness and statistically planned brushing events.

In between taking it apart  and putting it back together.

I'll devote the full range of my assessment and evaluator experience to the task.

How about it OHSO - want to send me one? Consider it free product testing.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

A Day Without Computer Scientists Just Wouldn't Be The Same

Today I send out a thank you to the people I don't know in the computer science world who led to my having a successful day. Sometimes you just have to look at the big picture and be grateful.

I'm writing a textbook and it is deadline time. Big Deadline Time. So there have been some very long days and nights lately, and I want to thank:

The computer scientists who created word processors so that I was able to write until 4:30am last night and still have the results be legible.

The computer scientists who created Quicken so that I could fly through it early this morning and pull out the information I needed for my lunchtime meeting with my accountant even though I was a few neurons short of a full brain.

The computer scientists who created spreadsheets so that I could fly through one of mine and extract lots more data to bring with me to my accountant meeting even though I had forgotten to eat due to the missing neurons.

The computer scientists who created whatever software my accountant was using such that she was able to cheerfully do her job even though she was talking to a zombie.

The computer scientists who created the Internet and email so that I could send off my latest book chapter to my editor, after I got back from the accountant meeting, without having to try and navigate my way to a post office.

The computer scientists who invented external devices so that I can be creating a backup of all those files even as I write this.

The computer scientists who invented the computer that made all of this possible!

What would a day be like without computer science? I shudder at the thought.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Computing has an Important Role to Play in Earthquake Preparedness and Response

When devastation as large as that currently happening in Japan occurs, it can be hard to know what to say or do. If you are like me, you have been reading the news daily (or more often), caught up in a mix of complicated reactions. This morning for example I watched computer generated weather simulations of possible flow patterns of radioactive contamination (via the BBC).  As the simulation looped over and over I couldn't help but be transfixed by one large multicolored plume as it slid like a mutant amoeba over Southern California. Right here in other words. The colors registered different levels of radiation. Computers generated those simulations and unsettling as they were, I'm glad to be able to see them. It is better to have knowledge from a reliable source than no knowledge, even when that knowledge is based on probabilities and a great deal of the unknown.

I was very grateful for computer science when the recent earthquake struck New Zealand. A friend lives in Christchurch and it was only a matter of a few nerve wracking days before a brief post appeared on Facebook telling all of us that she was ok - no doubt considerably freaked out, but ok. Thank you to the computer scientist creators of social networking.

The situation was very different in 2004 when the tsunami hit Sri Lanka and someone I know was very near the coast. It was over a week before we learned that he and his family were alive. There was no email access, no smart phones, no Facebook page, nothing but waiting and telephone calls to the US State Department (who were terrific by the way). The computing communication infrastructure either was not there to start with or had been completely disabled by the dual natural disasters of earthquake and tsunami.

Watching the developing situation in Japan, the triple disasters unfolding as nuclear contamination possibilities are added to realities of earthquake and tsumani, watching the weather models, I was reminded of the researchers around the world who work full time developing models of earthquake simulation and  who perform seismic hazard analysis. They work on these models so that we can know as much as possible about what can happen, how it can happen, how we can best prepare, where to erect buildings and other structures and how to protect them as best we can.

Developing 3-D and 4-D maps and models are classic computing problems of large scale data analysis: selecting and applying the "best" constraints, knowing that the model you develop will depend upon choices about possible epicenter (location of the earth directly above the underground origin of the earthquake), focal depth (how deep the origin is), magnitude (amount of energy released) and possible paths the seismic waves may follow. There are innumerable factors to include or leave out of this type of model such as local and regional variations, ground type, land masses, rock type...just for starters. It is all about improving probabilities and predictions.

The paths of seismic waves are not always what one might expect. For example, one reason Los Angeles gets hit so hard by some earthquakes on the famous San Andreas fault is because there is a natural "funnel" that directs ground motion directly into the city from a section of the fault well east of the city. Complex modeling and a solid knowledge of the land revealed this important information. 

You have to know your hardware, firmware and software; you have to know how to work with the latest and most sophisticated networks of high performance computing. Operating system, algorithm and programming language optimization. Databases to hold all those data and sophisticated networks to link the distributed grids of computers.

If you have an interest in earth science and scientific computing (you don't need expertise in both - this is where collaboration between fields comes in) then here is an area where you can work to make a difference in people's lives.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Cultural Anthropology Meets Computing

Often we think about Interdisciplinary Computer Science (or in a broader context Computing) as involving another science, mathematics or engineering. This makes sense as a starting point because the commonalities between fields are most obvious and it is easier to envision a true partnership where each field contributes equally to an activity.

However we need to go beyond the STEM disciplines and bravely consider the relationships that can be formed with the arts, humanities, social sciences. These areas are beginning to be considered. There are interesting explorations underway such as a recently completed NSF funded project bringing together journalism and computational thinking in K-12.

What about Anthropology? Not long ago I started a conversation with a cultural anthropologist who has been working at the intersection of computing and anthropology for many years. Arlene Atherton works in an area she calls Visual Linguistics. Many of her projects over the past two decades have involved evaluation of internet media (for example web pages, educational materials) from a perspective of different cultural perceptions. She takes into consideration two areas: what she calls the "human universal", i.e. those things that cognitively and physically we can all do as human beings, and "the unique" those aspects outside of intelligence or cognition, human aspects that derive from culture and manifest themselves in visual perception. Arlene has studied "traditional" anthropological groups, meaning from an outsiders perspective (mine in this case) ethnic, racial, stage of development. In addition she has looked at differences in other areas such as generational: Gen X, Gen Y, Boomers etc.

Arlene got me thinking about the role of interdisciplinary computing and anthroplogy and I want to try and lay out some ideas of what each field has to offer the other using her work as a jumping off point.

When I first heard the term "visual linguistics" the definition that popped to mind was: "what my eyes tell my ears". In other words what I see leads to what I *hear* i.e. perceive. When I shared my phrase with her, Arlene suggested this wording: "Visual Translations of Image Language".

Cultural Anthropology (CA for short) can offer Computing: a new way of thinking about the design and evaluation of online anything.  CA can bring to the table differences in how cultures (traditionally defined or otherwise) choose to use text and graphics - percentages of each, placement, meaning of text and graphics relative to one another in different placements. What messages are sent and perceived to different groups by the same page? User Interface design can become more explicitly culturally aware, especially as advances in technology lead to the greater embedding of text, graphics, and live media. These perspectives will benefit education, marketing, global politics and communication and much more.

Computer Science (computing) can offer Cultural Anthropology: the knowledge of how to make real the desired effects for online media. We have the knowledge of how to bring complex graphics to life in the most efficient, resource saving, and robust way. We can determine or discover the best structural designs and algorithms to take advantage of complex data streaming and networking technology even as we develop it. We can develop the tools and artifacts to leverage culturally different needs such that they will be effective yet transparent to the user. We can address the inevitable new needs for online security and privacy that arise in sensitive environments. I could go on. But what I am proposing is that in addition to the items listed above and others that you can think of, we can pull it all together technically, make all the pieces fit seamlessly, taking advantage of the latest advances across our field.

What other non STEM fields can you think of where we can work together like this?

Thursday, March 10, 2011

International Women's Day Spawns Important "Science Magazine" Post

I have a "new and different" blog post in the wings that I hope to post tomorrow - I am waiting for confirmation of some information I'm very excited about.

Meanwhile, I want to reference an interesting blog entry in the Science Careers Blog (part of Science Magazine online) posted yesterday as part of acknowledgment of International Women's Day.

The post discusses the significant positive improvement in retention of women when applied contexts, in particular real world social contexts are presented as an integral part of computer science coursework. Given that this is Science Magazine, there is more to the post than unsupported opinion and commentary. I quote a few lines:

" "The faculty initially did not think that the students who dropped out could hack it," Huang said. "But, on closer examination... they found that women had lost interest because they did not see what algorithms were good for or why they needed to learn how to design a variety of complicated algorithms." The faculty decided to focus the first session of the course on how algorithms may be used to help social causes. [my added emphasis]" Once this began, the retention rate for women increased so much so that now all professors spend the first class introducing their courses by discussing the applied relevance of the material that will be presented," she added. "I admit, I was really relieved to find that the women could hack it." "

(I wonder if there was an intended play on words there. Probably not.)

The post goes on to report that the male students did not respond in the same way. Interesting, however a very intelligent response followed:

"Assuming that men and women continue to have predominantly different interests in how their research is applied later in life, here's my thought: There are differences between individuals of the same gender of course, but couldn't women scientists use these differences to find a niche for themselves that their male colleagues may not necessarily have thought of? It is still difficult for women to work in male-dominated fields in many ways, but the culture has changed drastically in the last several decades and there is now more space for new ideas and individuality."

All I can say is YES. There is space. There will continue to be more space. I happen to think that there may have always been space for new ideas and individuality but that it was not sufficiently recognized or acknowledged or supported. I am so glad to see this recognition coming along. I am even more glad to see research in support of the notion that including social relevance in computing coursework is good for the computing field itself.

Computing faculty, what do you think in reaction to this?

Full Science Careers Blog Post:

Friday, March 4, 2011

Zen and the Art of CT Scan Investigation

"Because we put emphasis on some particular point, we always have trouble. We should accept things just as they are". (Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind p. 120)

Yesterday I described my "plan" for learning first hand about the digital imaging equipment I have been studying for one of my projects. My plan turned out to be easier said than done - this was definitely not Grey's Anatomy. The staff were politely but determinedly cycling people in and out of the CT room as fast as they possibly could. Before I even had my bag picked up off the counter and had found my necklace they had wheeled the next guy in.

My attempts to be politely inquisitive met with only modest success. I started with a simple question "Is it blue?" Ok, probably not quite so inane (I hope), but the idea was to ask a very friendly and innocent sounding question (although a real question) about whether or not the contrast IV liquid was colored. How else might one get contrast? I was imagining all these colorful images on the imaging machines, because I have seen so many of them in my research. Very high resolution pictures of multicolored body parts with swoops and curves. Sometimes rotatable in 3D and able to be zoomed in and out and entered and exited in fly-by mode. So I figured blue was a likely color, not occurring naturally in the body - at least as far as I know.

The tech looked at me like I was a bit loony and I had to explain that I wanted to know how this liquid was going to provide the contrast to enable the CT scan to better read my head. I said I had an interest in digital imaging equipment in medicine - now trying another approach. She still wasn't interested in my line of inquiry. Eventually I managed to get the information that no, it was not colored, it worked by expanding the blood vessels so that they would stand out better. By the time I had gotten that far I had been jabbed and was being injected and she was out of there. So much for asking about the CT machine. It was 4:45 pm on a Friday and they probably just wanted to go home.

When I first walked in the room I had realized the people (at least 3) sitting behind the glass wall were back there to protect themselves from the radiation I was about to get blasted with and it was going to be impossible to ask them about their viewing equipment and software or to ask to see my scan. Rats. Foiled again.

However, another opportunity presented itself. Shortly after the first tech left, another one came in and said he was there to check the IV because sometimes it didn't ... do something or other right. Whatever it was, it sounded a bit fishy to me. Anyway, he was a bit more talkative and didn't give me any funny looks. He stood there for a minute or two seeming to stare at nothing much and suddenly ...  I started getting really warm and it felt like liquid was flowing all over starting at shoulder level and migrating all the way down to my toes. Not only that, it felt like a lot of liquid was pooling in all sorts of strange places. So I said "What is it doing?" And he asked if I was getting warm, said that was normal, did I feel ok otherwise and that's all he said. He continued staring calmly at apparently nothing for another few moments. So I  contemplated warmness and expanding blood vessels and wondered if I'd soon be leaking out of previously unknown pores. Then they told me (for the second time) I had to close my eyes. Darn it. No more watching what was going on.

Not long after, a bit of whirring and movement later, we were finished. The second guy came back and told me he had also been out there to make sure I didn't start vomiting! Now that explained all the questions about food and drug allergies and the "no eating for 4 hours prior" requirement and why he had so quietly stood there and asked me ever so casually if I felt ok!

"When we inhale the air comes into the inner world, when we exhale the air goes to the outer world...actually there is just one world...our throat is like a swinging door" (p. 29)

So while I felt like I might be developing new porousness I also concentrated on not moving my head because I had been told that if I moved my head or opened my eyes we'd have to do it all over again (meaning I get zapped with lots more x-rays). This was a hard task being the patient/researcher!

More so because I have a head cold and my sinuses are blocked and my nose wants to run and I periodically want to sneeze know...all those things that go with having a nasty head cold and are exaggerated when lying on your back where it can all congeal into one gloppy spot in your head.

So I not not worry about what is going on in your nose.... or the back of your zen. Getting into the zen of it all. Or as Spock would have said "I became one with the CT machine". In goes the breath, out goes the breath.

I do have one clear success to report from the original "plan". It was very very easy to ask for a copy of my scan. Back at the front desk I checked off about 3 boxes on a sheet of paper and was told I could either wait 30 minutes or they'd mail it to me. Figuring it would be more than 30 minutes I opted for the mail route. They said it would go out Monday! No one batted an eye at my request! So, hopefully soon, I will have my own digital copy of my head scan.

Wait a minute. Not "hopefully".

"Perhaps". Non-attachment.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

A CT Scan as an Opportunity to Get Personal

As those of you know who have been following these postings regularly, I have written frequently about issues related to medicine - from medical informatics to digital imaging. I am working on several projects in this arena and sucking up as much information as I can get. There will be more to come because recently I have been digging into issues related to electronic health records. Fascinating stuff - although reading congressional legislation as officially posted in the Federal Register and elsewhere takes stamina and many lattes.

Tomorrow I am going to conduct a little investigation / experiment because an opportunity fell into my lap. This experiment relates to digital imaging and medical records.

I am going to have a CT scan. Nothing serious (unless they find a screw loose in my head) but they will be injecting me with dye to get a better view of my head - the object of interest. Not one to miss out on an opportunity, I am going to do several things:

I am going to see how much I can talk to the radiology techs about their equipment. Let's hope I get a happy chatty tech.

I am going to see if I can convince them (perhaps by tossing around well placed vocabulary they would not expect your typical patient to have) to let me in on some of their experiences with the imaging and storage systems.

I am going to try and get them to let me look at my scan, although I know from experience that they will clam up completely if I ask any questions about what I'm looking at. Nonetheless I will see how far I can get.

Finally, I am going to ask at the front desk what the procedure is for obtaining a digital copy of my scan. I know that legally my records are mine to ask for. I also know from a few experiences in the past that for some reason it can be very hard to get records. One gets run around in circles and stalled in all sorts of ways. In case any of my current medical personnel are reading this, I rush to note that these previous experiences were at a different medical facility in a different state.

Stay tuned. This could be interesting