Archive for the 'Discovery Informatics' Category

Saving the World, One Text Message at a Time

A while back, I commented on the text-message generation. But this story caught my attention.

I have long understood that the cell phone/text message iteration of our culture is more broadly implemented in places other than our United States….indeed, countries like Japan and the European collection generally have more phone technology and use that phone technology more widely than we Americans do.

Examples (from the link above):

If you live in the United States it can be difficult to understand the role mobile phone technology plays across the globe. Here, you may use your phone for calls and messaging, perhaps for some computing lite, but likely little more. In Senegal, however, farmers are using phones to track crop prices, in Japan, writers are SMSing whole novels, and in Sweden, they’re texting to apply for instant loans. An app that lets you kill time on the subway, this is not.

Within a year and a half, half the world will use cellphones, predict analysts, and with the bulk of new users emerging from developing nations, the question of what phones can do for their owners has never before had such potentially world-changing answers.

Enter Nokia and Dean Kamen.

Kamen has recently completed a field test of two inventions that he hopes will change the world. Both are based on Stirling engine technology: one is a water purifier, the other an electrical generator. “Cancer, diabetes, all those diseases, that’s 50 percent,” says Kamen. “The other 50 percent of all disease is caused by bad water. Getting clean water to people would knock out 50 percent of all disease.”

Each purifier and generator provides enough power and water for a village; but, with one million villages in India alone, deployment is a challenge. In the past, Kamen has worked with multinational companies to launch his inventions, but the top-down approach of a big company doesn’t mesh well with the million-village scale of this project.

The developing world has a high number of cell phones per capita — the counterpoint to having very little in the way of landlines — and the idea is that software running on Nokia’s platform could be used to network and control a village’s small-scale power and water supply.

Hence the contest. Kamen is hoping to tap the expertise of mobile software developers — for instance, the three million of them enrolled in Nokia’s “Forum Nokia” community — to provide the infrastructural glue that will help get his inventions to the people who need them. Like Tim O’Reilly, Kamen hopes that developers, properly motivated, will pour some of their efforts into projects that help the world instead of endless widget toys and games.

It’s an inspiring idea.

Then there’s the revelation (already understood by pollsters) that 12% of the US population is available only through their cell phone, and that number is going to continue to go up.

Imagine a culture where everyone is available through their mobile phone/device/pda, and that important personal activities are able to accomplished via text-messaging (or whatever it evolves into), as the first link states. Mortgage applications, loan applications, voting, shopping, school, all processes and institutions that require a physical presence, a physical location, block and mortar. A truly mobile society, connected to each other not by roads and physical addresses but by ip addresses. Available all the time, from anywhere in the world.

Could it be?

HTML/CSS/XHTML (Behind the Curtain)

As a blogger, the terms above have long been familiar, but never really understood. For sure, as a user of Blogger and TypePad and WordPress I’ve had to learn a tiny bit of HTML just so I could link to the output of other bloggers. But anchor tags were about as technical as I got.

So, this semester’s load includes a class called “Internet Development”, wherein we will learn the details of html, css, xhtml, and a few other goodies like javascript that should make us functional operators and creators of websites.

One of the benefits of WordPress, Blogger, and Typepad is that non-techies (like me) can create professional looking blogs without having to master the technical details. But, like many others, I’m sure, as I have gone along there has developed a yearning for a more individualistic blog. This class will allow me that opportunity.

But, more importantly, peeking behind the curtain serves to demystify the huge world of the internet. One can appreciate the levels of sophistication of design, the simplicity of the structure of html and css, and the foresight of the masters who have created the guidelines for operating in this new world.

Math Wars…Resumed

Before I resumed my education and began this journey in Discovery Informatics, I did as much research as possible. Among those efforts was a meeting with the Assistant Chairman of the Mathematics Department. I disclosed my dream, my background, and then got to the point: Could I, at my age and with my lack of  background in math, possibly get through the DI program? His response was brief, brutal, and very honest. If you struggle with pre-calculus and algebra, you probably shouldn’t be in the program.

Fair enough. The A in algebra boosted my spirits, but the C+ in pre-calculus scared me. Then it was on to Calculus I…….a mightly battle from which I emerged scarred, and, to a certain extent, wiser.

Today, I walked into my Calc II class. Yes, there stood my old friend, the Assistant Chairman. He began the class with a brief slide presentation; the last dozen or so semesters of Calc I students whol earned either A, A-, or B+ in the class. Know from my Statistics classes that they represent a sample of sufficient size so that we can assume a normal distribution, aka, the bell curve, in the grade distribution. Note, too, that he did not include in his sample population those students who earned a grade less than B+ (like me). He then showed a grade distribution of those students in Calc II.

The median was a C+. There were plenty of grades worse than that (I know, and you should too, the median is the 50th percentile). Some freshman whippersnapper, fresh off his AP SAT score, and thus placed in this class, and heretofore considered by his high school classmates as a genius, stated to the professor that he would, without doubt, get an A. The prof begged to differ, stating that half of us will drop or fail, and of the rest, only 2 or 3 will get an A. Added the prof, You might get an A, and I hope you do, but numbers don’t lie.

Whatever sangfroid I might have felt disappeared completely during this exchange of data, to be replaced with that old familiar sensation….gut wrenching fear. Pulse racing, blood pressure elevated, the room suddenly became too warm and I struggled to breathe. I thought that I had trained myself to suppress these periods of anxiety (that primarily arrived just before any tests), but NO!

So the battle resumes. Visits to the math lab, visits to the professor’s office, Sundays spent studying, and anxiety like you don’t know in the days before each test (4 and a Final that is cumulative); these will be my routines this semester.

Wish me luck, I’m gonna need a lot of it……..

Not A Good Day

Like an anxious teenager, I have been planning and thinking about the first day of the semester from the moment summer school ended. Ordering books, gathering supplies, plotting parking strategies, fine tuning the schedule; yes, I have been thinking about this day for awhile.

Of the six classes I’m enrolled in, the two that I know the least about fall on Tuesday, which also happens to be the first day of this semester (why not Monday, I ask?): the Biology lab, a 3 hour humdinger that starts at 10:30 AM and rolls through the lunch hour, followed 90 minutes later by my Spanish conversation class (an option, apparently, but not for me).

As an enthusiastic, motivated student, I was parked at the locked door of the lab 15 minutes early. Gradually, the hallway collected a large number of fellow students also waiting on this class. A scientist friend of mine told me, weeks ago, that when she (as a grad student) taught the lab they did not start until the second week. I received no notice or advisement of any kind in regard to that notion, nor, apparently, did the other students. And so, 30 minutes later, we disbanded until next week. Back into the heat I went.

With 4 hours to kill, it was back to the house, back to the calculus review, and back across the river.

At 2:45 I was, again, parked in front of a locked door. So were some other students. Again, a 30 minute loiter, until, in disgust, I departed the building. 0 for 2.

After a walk from literally one end of the campus to the other, I arrived at the Spanish department. The department secretary haughtily informed this (stupid, old) man that the conversation class never meets in the first week of class. Again, in my scouring of ALL pre-class communications, schedules, et cetera, NO WHERE was this information disseminated.

These two classes apparently operate on long established customs that pre-date even my decades long, storied academic life.

Back into the heat of a now unbearable afternoon, facing yet another trudge across campus to a parking spot carefully selected so as to reduce the possibility of a neighborhood parking violation ($25, no appeal if you are a student, PERIOD!), thinking about all the time wasted by my attempt to be a good student wanting just to get the semester started on the right foot.

Instead, I got a bellyfull of frustration, a near attack of heat stroke, and wasted about 4 hours that I could have spent on calculus. Outraged, I tell ya, outraged!!!!!!

The Future?

Sometimes, in the dark of night, when the nay-sayers are gathered together on my shoulder and whispering negative thoughts in my ear, I get anxious about my future. Who wants to hire an old guy, who’s probably stubborn, who likely won’t take kindly to some 30 year old criticizing his work product, who might be a touch slower than the rest of the crew, and who most assuredly thinks his ideas are great most of the time?

Yeah, the nay-sayers can make some pretty good arguments in the throat of the night, and their continued existence is like the inevitable drip of water from the leaky faucet – a sign that there is a larger problem.

If I let them overtake me, then this might be my future…………..

Hey, wait a minute…..that don’t look so bad!

Pic via Maggies Farm.

How To Shoot Yourself in The Foot

With apologies to those who will not get the joke, and with appreciation for those of you who will, herewith a purloined bit of prose created by a frustrated programmer.

How to Shoot Yourself in the Foot:

You locate the Gun class, but discover that the Bullet class is abstract, so you extend it and write the missing part of the implementation. Then you implement the ShootAble interface for your foot, and recompile the Foot class. The interface lets the bullet call the doDamage method on the Foot, so the Foot can damage itself in the most effective way. Now you run the program, and call the doShoot method on the instance of the Gun class. First the Gun creates an instance of Bullet, which calls the doFire method on the Gun. The Gun calls the hit(Bullet) method on the Foot, and the instance of Bullet is passed to the Foot. But this causes an IllegalHitByBullet exception to be thrown, and you die.

MS-SQL Server
MS-SQL Server’s gun comes pre-loaded with an unlimited supply of Teflon coated bullets, and it only has two discernible features: the muzzle and the trigger. If that wasn’t enough, MS-SQL Server also puts the gun in your hand, applies local anesthetic to the skin of your forefinger and stitches it to the gun’s trigger. Meanwhile, another process has set up a spinal block to numb your lower body. It will then proceeded to surgically remove your foot, cryogenically freeze it for preservation, and attach it to the muzzle of the gun so that no matter where you aim, you will shoot your foot. In order to avoid shooting yourself in the foot, you need to unstitch your trigger finger, remove your foot from the muzzle of the gun, and have it surgically reattached. Then you probably want to get some crutches and go out to buy a book on SQL Server Performance Tuning.

The Lowering of the Larynx

I love my small school. Here’s another reason: My professor for the second semester of Spanish also teaches linguistics. If I took this class during the regular school year I would not have a snowball’s chance in hell of having her as my teacher. She only teaches Spanish majors taking high level courses, who have an interest in linguistics.

So today, while explaining the past imperfect indicative, or simply, the imperfect tense, and walking us through the conjugation of the various forms, one of the students had some trouble with pronunciation. Or to be clear, your scribe stumbled badly while trying to say trabajábamos (we used to work… kidding!).

This led to a brief explanation about the role of the larynx in speech; who knew that the human larynx drops as we age, and that the dropping creates our ability to speak. And who knew that until the larynx drops, at a young age, the baby cannot choke…..the raised larynx acts to block food and water from the windpipe.

The details of this fascinating bit of infovoration* can be found here. A teaser:

The larynx works like a valve, opening and closing to let air pass. When it is shut, food can pass into the esophagus at no risk to the lungs. The best place for such a seal is right at the top of the trachea so that no food or drink accidentally goes even a little ways down it, but humans have a second use for the valve. We work it like a musical instrument shaping the sounds made by passing air as we speak. The musical valve works best if we pull it a bit down into the trachea so that the air wave shaped by the larynx can resonate before leaving the mouth.

At birth the human larynx is in the normal, animal location, enabling babies to nurse without risk of choking. The larynx typically begins to move lower at about three months of age and reaches its final position by age four. People familiar with children’s speech will notice that the start of the relocation is also when infants start to coo. The end is about the time the children finally become clearly intelligible to well-meaning strangers. The lowered larynx lets humans produce a much wider variety of sounds, particularly vowel sounds, than apes can generate.

I’m not sure I would have picked up that bit tasty morsel during the regular semester when my professor would be trying to teach 4 sections of unruly, disinterested freshman the rudiments of Espanol.

*Infovoration – Product which is consumed by an infovore

“Life’s hard, son. It’s harder when you’re stupid.” — The Duke.

Education is a companion which no misfortune can depress, no crime can destroy, no enemy can alienate,no despotism can enslave. At home, a friend, abroad, an introduction, in solitude a solace and in society an ornament.It chastens vice, it guides virtue, it gives at once grace and government to genius. Without it, what is man? A splendid slave, a reasoning savage. - Joseph Addison
The term informavore (also spelled informivore) characterizes an organism that consumes information. It is meant to be a description of human behavior in modern information society, in comparison to omnivore, as a description of humans consuming food. George A. Miller [1] coined the term in 1983 as an analogy to how organisms survive by consuming negative entropy (as suggested by Erwin Schrödinger [2]). Miller states, "Just as the body survives by ingesting negative entropy, so the mind survives by ingesting information. In a very general sense, all higher organisms are informavores." - Wikipedia

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