March 29, 2020 12:53 +0000  |  Science and Nature Star Trek 0

I've been thinking a lot about tricorders lately. If you weren't raised on Star Trek though, you'd be forgiven for not knowing what that is. In Star Trek Land, it's a common trope that a problem is presented: a sick patient, an alien power source, or a strange new world. In all cases, our heroes use a "tricorder" (a hand-held "scanning" device) to detect what they're looking for: a pathogen, fuel, or life signs. It's a convenient device to further the story and add some jargon to make things sound sci-fi: "I'm reading elevated levels of dilithium captain" etc.

For our present day however, the need for a tricorder is becoming more and more apparent. We're seeing massive advancements in data routing, warehousing, processing and machine learning, but very little on the collection of that data. Some of the most advanced ML outfits in the world are using limited data sets as their input: user-provided data, or simple computer vision are the most common sources. The result of course is that all of the power afforded us by these new technologies is limited by the kind of data we can feed them.

A lot of people have been saying that the Next Big Advance in technology will have to come in energy storage -- and they're probably right, but I think it's reasonable to say that following close behind will have to be sensor technology like portable, high-resolution infrared spectroscopy. Something that can identify the makeup of objects so we can make decisions around what to do with the thing we're scanning.

Imagine a world where you can determine, in a fraction of a second, what something is made of. Suddenly waste reclaimation can be automated: breaking down plastics, fabrics, circuit boards into fragments the size of a grain of sand to be reused, composted, or melted down without the need for human intervention. We can feed breath samples into a sensor, and combine the data collected with the billions of other samples to use machine learning to quickly and cheaply diagnose someone with a disease.

These are the two cases that've been bouncing around my head for ages, and there are bound to be more. We're only beginning to understand the potential for all of our new-found data-driven technologies, but what we do know is that they work best with large, high-quality data sets, and that their ability to give us answers to important questions depends on our ability to collect that data for them.

When the WHO declared Covid-19 a pandemic, I started to think about how we could automate, speed-up, and distribute testing and so far, my research has lead me to two interesting places:

So far as I can tell, neither source has considered combining their findings with ML, so I'm going to send some emails. Perhaps it's finally time for our own tricorder.

December 10, 2009 23:58 +0000  |  Science and Nature Seattle Society & Culture Technology Work [at] Play 4

Way back in September, I went on a "professional development" trip down to Seattle, Americaland for a conference called Gnomedex. The official line on the shindig is that it's all about "human circuitry", the ways in which society interacts with technology and what comes out of it all. The whole thing sounded rather interesting, so I convinced my employer to send me down there on their dime. However, as part of the deal, I had to "report back" on my experiences there... a job I've neglected 'till now. So, in an effort to fill that reporting gap, while simultaneously rejuvenating my slowly staling blog I'm going to post it all here:

General Impressions

I'll get these out of the way so you know whether you want to keep reading or not. I know that the title sounds rather interesting for the sociology-types, tech-nerds, and those that dabble in either but really Gnomedex can be summed up in one sentence: 300 people in a room for 10 hours talking about Twitter. That's it kids, if you're looking for a broader meaning or more interesting conference, Gnomedex isn't it. In fact, if you're a technical type (as I am), I'd go so far as to say that you should avoid this event like the plague.

For starters, the whole thing is a single-track, meaning that at any given time, there's one presentation happening and if it's more boring than watching paint dry, your only alternative is to step out into the hall and socialise with the herds of marketing people trading business cards and dropping names. For many though, this single-track focus is a feature and not a bug. The assumption being that everyone is collectively participating via Twitter during the presentation, people are constantly posting little 140character quips about the talk, and tagging everything #Gnomedex.

A neat experiment in social engineering to be sure... or at least it would be if the technology would cooperate. Internet connectivity was flaky at best, and when you could get online, sites aggregating the #Gnomedex hash-tag were freezing up, crashing out or just not responding. Behold: the future of monolithic service architecture. Look upon it and be unimpressed.

The conference also has a very cliquey feel to it, with the majority of people attending returning from previous years, most everyone knows everyone from the last time they were here. Much like Vancouver, Seattle seems to have a rather tight-knit community of social media junkies that really get off on this sort of thing. I'm sure it's nice for them, to have the opportunity to see in-person, those with whom they've been tweeting back and forth for a year, but for someone like myself, in from out of town to learn something... no fun.

The last general note I'll make here is that the event was a big hit with the big corporations. Micros~1 was out in force, pushing Bing like crazy, Starbucks was pushing their new instant coffee, and Amazon was trying to look all edgy by posting some Java code on a wall and asking people to attempt to "solve" it. The only problem? They didn't have anyone on-site that actually understood the code.

Talk: Thingiverse & Makerbot

The coolest part of the conference was generously scheduled at the start. The Makerbot is the future of product distribution. Here's how it works:

  1. You buy a makerbot machine
  2. You download a model file of what you want
  3. The makerbot "prints" it.

Often referred to as a "3D printer", the makerbot will make you anything you want (of a reasonable size) out of ABS plastic. Just keep it supplied with low-cost spools of plastic and feed in whatever 3D model you can find online and *poof* you have one. Potential uses include the practical: the little plastic knob on the A/C unit that broke off last week, to the functional: ornate boxes or jewellery, to the fun & crazy: a 1:1 scale model of Darth Vader's helmet, or Walt Disney's head. Really cool stuff, and lots of potential. The machines sell for just under $750/each, but are produced in batches so they might not be able to ship you one right away until they've filled the order for the batch.

I want one so hardcore.

The premise sounded like a good idea, but someone really should have vetted the presenter. is a nifty video game that has you folding proteins. The idea is that protein folding (Wikipedia) is such a complex process that relying on computers to do the work just isn't practical. However, the scientific community just doesn't have the manpower to do it all manually. So instead, they made a video game that lets non-nerds use natural human understanding to do the job. Fold a protein and experience the joys of flashing lights, bouncing things and celebratory music. Rinse, repeat. It may sound silly, but this tactic is a growing field out there because it works.

Unfortunately, the presenter was 99% scientist, 1% people-person. The presentation was dry, boring, way, way, way over-technical and few people, if anyone in the room had any inkling as to what he was talking about.

Full video of the presentation can be found here.


This presentation was done by an ex-spammer, about the tactics his former industry of choice use to do that which we despise. Some of the more interesting tactics included:

  • Paying $50 to a student for her login so they could spam an entire .edu domain from her account.
  • Hacking sites to insert code that would redirect people to another spam site, or just pay the site owner to do it for them.
  • Comment spam (posting "comments" on blog posts all over the web that tell you about the awesome power of Viagra)
  • Using tools like "autopligg" to spam with spam.
  • Creating new blog sites using content from other people's sites (they access your RSS feed) and then riddle the copied site with ads.


This guy has what he thinks is a brilliant idea: bring the concept of brevity out of Twitter and into in-person presentations. Take a topic, any topic and talk about it for no more than 5 minutes with 20 slides, at 15 seconds/slide. We sat through about 5 or 10 of these. Uninteresting and uninformative. Seriously people, this is not a good idea, it's just a way to pretend that you can be informed on something while simultaneously not knowing anything about anything.

My Cancer is Social

Drew Olanoff has Cancer, and he's dealing with it by sharing his experiences with the world. For just over 30minutes, Drew talked about what it was like for him to be hit by the news, how it affected him and his family and how reaching out to his online social community (many of the members of which were in the audience) has helped him cope. He's since created a site called Blame Drew's Cancer as a way to make light of, and deal with his situation and there's been a rather large outpouring of support.

There was a lot of hugging, and touchy-feelyness which I obviously didn't identify with, but as a social outsider looking in on the process, I found the whole thing rather fascinating.

Full video of the presentation can be found here.

Frank Eliason - A Twitter Top 10 List with Humour

A Twitter success story. Frank worked at Comcast in support and decided that it might be a good idea to run a Twitter account for the company, so he set one up. Then, he started noticing people bitching out the company for one reason or another, so he responded with something to the effect of: "ok, I'll get right on that" and went about fixing it. The result: a spike in customer satisfaction and stuff got done.

For the purposes of the presentation, he put together a top ten list of reasons why a company should get on board with Twitter and I'm not going to re-post it here. It's already on the Gnomedex blog.

Full video of the presentation can be found here.

Hacker Journalism (Mark Glaser)

Far and away the most disappointing presentation of the conference, though admittedly this is due in part to the rather low expectations I had for the other talks. If anything, this one suffers from a poor choice of title. Rather than "Hacker Journalism", he could have properly adjusted my expectations with something like "Data Reporting with a Purpose" or something.

Glaser's position was simple: journalism is a way of presenting data in a way that helps people understand it, so hacker journalism is using one's mad it-skillz to take big blobs of data and turn them in to non-nerd-friendly graphs and maps. He asked the audience to make suggestions for data mash-ups with maps and/or pie charts etc and then went on to demo a few examples of similar work already out there. One that I make a note of was the Obameter, a graphing app that takes stock of the promises made, kept, and ignored during the course of President Obama's administration. Neat stuff.

Unfortunately, Glaser has a tendency to throw around the term "hacker" in all kinds of contexts 'till the meaning is really quite gone. I get the impression that he thinks that anyone who can use Yahoo pipes is a hacker, or someone who can use Google Maps to draw something nifty should also wear such a title.

In the end, the talk was more about how maps + stats = mash-ups = awesome, and not so much about front-line independent journalism. As this was the presentation to which I was most looking forward, I was rather disappointed.

NerdCraft (Beth Goza)

As cute and fun as this was, I really don't understand how this presentation made it into the event. There was nothing technical or really even social about it, rather Goza talked at length about the subculture of nerd crafters, people who knit, sew, and crochet all kinds of stuff, from sci-fi characters, to katamari costumes. Some of the stuff she had was crazy:

  • Crochet Star Wars characters
  • A knitted panel of the entire first level of Super Mario Brothers (wo baby, awesome)
  • Some crazy person knitted/crocheted a life-size Ferrari
  • A little crochet Hellboy
  • And DnD dice!

All-in-all, I'm not convinced that her presentation was appropriate for the event, but it was a nice break from the rest of it.

Full video of the presentation can be found here. You should check this one out, it's fun :-)

Audience vs. Impact (Giant Ant Media (@giantantmedia))

There to talk to us about what works in social media was the couple that started Giant Ant Media. They opened with some examples of where they started: making 2min flicks about fart jokes, and followed this with what they were doing now, a documentary about youth in Africa called Bongo. The focus of the talk though was really about how to cultivate an online community. Find what both you and your users love and do it. Don't lie, or try to misrepresent yourself because your audience can smell it. Just focus on honesty in production, be it blogging or richer media and all will be good.

Full video of the presentation can be found here.


The conference was long, and really not much fun, but I salvaged a few nuggets of wisdom from the whole ordeal, my favourite of which was this:

The difference between knowledge and expertise is trust. Knowledge can be acquired, but unrecognised, isn't much use to anyone, while expertise is given by others who offer you their own credibility in praise of your knowledge. In the knowledge economy, this is kind of a big deal.

...and I think that that's where I'll close this one out. Next year, maybe my employer will send someone more marketing-friendly. Nerds really don't belong at Gnomedex.

January 28, 2009 21:40 +0000  |  Media Science and Nature 4

The Discovery Channel commissioned this commercial from a company called 72 and Sunny and it's been bouncing around the internet lately. I thought I'd share 'cause it's pretty cool. However, since their embed code seems insistent on forcing an annoying autoplay "feature", I've taken it off my site. Here's a link if you're interested :-)

June 06, 2008 21:49 +0000  |  Science and Nature 1

Via OneGoodMove, Joshua Klein gives a Ted Talk on the possibilities of working with nature to achieve a common goal. Ten minutes of really fascinating science:

February 21, 2008 00:11 +0000  |  Christians Religion Science and Nature 3

In the category of "our species is doomed", I offer the results of a science fair sponsored by a Baptist Church. This anti-science fair had a series of winners, among which was this gem:

2nd Place: "Women Were Designed For Homemaking"

Jonathan Goode (grade 7) applied findings from many fields of science to support his conclusion that God designed women for homemaking: physics shows that women have a lower center of gravity than men, making them more suited to carrying groceries and laundry baskets; biology shows that women were designed to carry un-born babies in their wombs and to feed born babies milk, making them the natural choice for child rearing; social sciences show that the wages for women workers are lower than for normal workers, meaning that they are unable to work as well and thus earn equal pay; and exegetics shows that God created Eve as a companion for Adam, not as a co-worker.