Thursday, March 24. 2011
Personal Health Tech Blog is designed to help individuals take greater control of their health and health care, particularly (but not exclusively) through the use of technology. We’ll cover a wide range of technology solutions: products and services that you can buy and use on your own, products and services that enable physicians to follow patients with existing health problems and risks more closely, and things that patients should know about the diagnostic tests, treatments, and implants prescribed by doctors.
Posts will include product overviews, reviews and comparisons, user feedback and tips, new product announcements, and features on companies, organizations, and individuals. From time-to-time, we’ll also present news about scientific research and emerging technologies that could lead to greater patient empowerment.
Technology is not the only source of personal empowerment, however. We’ll also cover topics including evaluating and selecting doctors and health care facilities, alternative ways to pay for health care, and circumventing hospital bureaucracy and physician protocols.
Friday, April 2. 2010
Everyone says the iPad will be a game-changer—and they are probably right. While I fervently believe that great technology can improve and enrich our lives, I must confess I have mixed feelings about the iPad.
Many people thought radio and television would bring high culture to the living rooms of average homes. They didn’t anticipate Bart Simpson, Jerry Springer, and professional wrestling. Likewise, the iPad could spur book consumption. But will eBooks exercise our minds—or merely dazzle our senses?
I fear that the iPad marks the dawn of an era dominated by interactive, multimedia books. The emphasis will be on the visual presentation rather than the ideas expressed in the text. A good analogy is the difference between a great novel and its movie version.
When I see the movie (multimedia) version of a classic novel (text), I may or may not be entertained, but I almost always end up preferring the book. When I read the book, I get to imagine many details about the characters and settings. I can savor the author’s use of language. And most important, I am the one who interprets any messages that the writer may have been trying to convey.
When I watch a movie, I don’t get to use my imagination nearly as much. I often feel I am presented with caricatures of people and time periods that were gradually revealed over the course of hundreds of pages in the book. To wit, I find myself stuck with someone else’s interpretation of the book.
Most modern educators seem to feel that interactive multimedia provides a superior learning experience. I’m not so sure. When I read non-fiction I must integrate the information with what I already know. And it is up to me to analyze the information and determine how it should be used. When I encounter an interactive multimedia presentation, I often feel that decisions about what’s important and why it’s important were made for me.
There are other reasons to be concerned. During the 1990s, Newt Gingrich proposed giving laptop computers to the poor. My fear is that he was simply ahead of his time. It’s not hard to imagine that when global eBook reader sales reach several hundred million units per year, politicians will propose giving eBook readers to every public school student in the U.S. This is a bad idea for at least two reasons. First, it’s not the proper role of government to be buying products for citizens. Second, eBooks issued by public schools could easily be used for indoctrination purposes--and probably would be.
My understanding is that if you want to play a published audio book on Amazon’s Kindle or Apple’s iPad, you must purchase the audio book separately. However, it seems inevitable that good quality text-to-speech capability will become common on these readers. If most people would rather have books read to them, that’s their choice. (Having taken Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics, I’m convinced we can take in information more rapidly with our eyes.)
But if most people prefer Aldus Huxley’s Brave New World, where does that leave the rest of us?
Thursday, April 1. 2010
One thing we can all agree on: Health care is becoming more impersonal and bureaucratic. The good news is that there are a growing number of options for taking control of your own health—whether maintaining it or managing a known medical condition. I use a small collection of devices and Web sites for both purposes.
I recently began wearing an Omron Pocket Pedometer (model HJ-720ITC). This is a simple and inexpensive device with some nice features. The unit distinguishes between the ordinary steps you take during the day and the "aerobic" steps you take when you go for a brisk walk. The unit also includes a USB port and PC software so you can upload your daily activity, not only in terms of ordinary vs. aerobic steps, but an hourly breakdown of steps taken.
The biggest benefit of a device like this is that it motivates you to do more walking. Now if only someone would come up with an easy way (preferably automated) to track calorie intake. The combination of a pedometer, bathroom weight scale, and calorie intake monitor—all with USB ports—would let you know the precise adjustments in food intake or steps needed to ensure that you burn as many or more calories per day as you take in. (I'm thinking of a kitchen scale that measures the calories—rather than weight—per plate, bowl or glass.)
Saturday, December 26. 2009
An article in the U.K. Daily Mail describes a brain implant that appears to give paralysis victims the ability to speak. Instead of using the body’s normal neural speech pathway—from the brain to the lungs, vocal chords, tongue, and mouth—the brain implant developed by a team at Boston University enables patients, through training and practice, to actuate and control an electronic speech synthesizer.
Is this a mind reading machine? The current brain implant doesn’t vocalize random thoughts. The article provides few details, but I suspect that the patient must do much more than just think of the words. We are still a long way from a mind reading machine.
But this research suggests some interesting and even troubling possibilities.
No doubt this is just the beginning of an effort that will ultimately give many paralysis victims the ability to speak. Consider the parallel with John Gibbon’s invention of the heart-lung bypass machine. Gibbon started by developing a heart-lung bypass machine that worked with cats; he chose cats because their blood oxygenation requirements are relatively modest. Then he moved up to dogs. After nearly 20 years of research, Gibbon built a machine capable of bypassing the heart and lungs of a human long enough for surgeons to operate on the heart.
As brain-computer interface (BCI) chips evolve, they will not only enable paralysis victims to speak through synthesizers, they will permit them to move robotic limbs. It stands to reason that as BCI chips evolve even further it will become possible to translate verbal thoughts into spoken thoughts. Let’s hope that this technology is never used for sinister purposes such as mind control.
There is another possibility that many will find troubling. If you think today's young people spend too much time online, consider this. What if some individuals choose to get brain implants so they can connect to cyberspace directly? Imagine being able to surf the Web in your mind. Or Web sites that let you choose tonight’s dream.
Tuesday, October 13. 2009
I and my 16-year old son just passed the amateur radio Extra Class license examination. The exam consists of 50 multiple choice questions covering topics including FCC rules, electrical principles, components, circuits, measurements, protocols, antennas, and radio propagation. We spent about two months working our way through the ARRL Extra Class License Manual—and it paid off.
It might seem like amateur (“ham”) radio is a dying hobby. Once upon a time, hams were privileged to make mobile phone calls. Now everyone has cell phones. In the old days, hams communicated around the world using shortwave radio. Now everyone has the Internet. When I earned my first license in the 1960s, hams had to learn the Morse code. In 2007, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) eliminated Morse code proficiency requirements.
Despite these seismic technological and cultural changes, amateur radio has managed to survive. Why? First and foremost, the ham radio community is a bastion of acceptance, camaraderie, and public service. (You may meet better dressed people, but you probably won’t meet nicer people.) Second, the hobby has evolved in step with technology. Personal computers, digital transmission, the Internet, and space communications are now thriving aspects of amateur radio.
PSK31, one of the new digital modes, permits text chat between amateur radio operators worldwide. It uses just 31.25 Hertz of bandwidth, so several PSK31 channels can fit within a conventional (single sideband) voice channel. Hams can start using PSK31 by connecting a PC’s sound card to the microphone input of a high frequency (HF) transceiver and downloading the appropriate software.
Echolink enables amateur radio operators to communicate through the Internet using voice over IP. Hams may make contacts either directly through their PCs or via a VHF or UHF radio to an Internet-connected PC. The Internet Radio Linking Project (IRLP) connects amateur radio stations via the Internet using voice over IP. Using these two systems in tandem, amateur radio operators can communicate worldwide from almost anywhere.
Hams can also communicate via OSCAR (Orbiting Satellite Carrying Amateur Radio) and with the International Space Station (ISS). While a sophisticated antenna capable of tracking orbiting stations is preferable, it’s possible to (briefly) contact an orbiting station with just a handheld radio.
According to the International Amateur Radio Union, there are currently about 3 million amateur radio operators worldwide. The number of hams in the U.S. has more than doubled since 1970. However, not all of the news is good. The number of hams in the U.S. has been slowly declining in recent years, and the U.S. ham population appears to be aging.
I suspect that in the future amateur radio will enjoy the support of two different types of participants. One group will concentrate on keeping the old radio arts alive: Morse code, antenna design and construction, and so forth. The other group will continue to integrate amateur radio with the latest technologies to create new and unique capabilities such as echolink and IRLP.
Tuesday, December 23. 2008
I’m always intrigued when someone finds a novel aspect of something mundane. Almost every household in the U.S. has one or more TVs, and the average American watches more than four hours per day. But how many people know that it is possible to receive stations hundreds of miles away with an ordinary TV?
A small group of people have turned picking up signals from distant TV stations into a sport. It’s called TV DXing. (“DX” stands for “distant.”) Many TV DXers are amateur (ham) radio operators; some also hunt distant AM and FM radio stations. There is even a Worldwide TV-FM DX Association. The record for VHF reception is over 10,000 miles (when a British TV station was received in Australia); UHF DX distances are much shorter.
Successful TV DXing is mainly a matter of knowing when (time of year/time of day) and where (over-the-air channels) to look. It is possible to receive TV stations from other cities using a “rabbit ears” antenna. However, a directional rooftop antenna with a rotor will do even better. There are also plug-in cards that add analog and even digital TV reception to PCs, making it easy to capture, store, and share images from distant stations.
Here are some screen shots provided by St. Louis area TV DXer Eric Bueneman (amateur radio callsign NØUIH):
What makes TV DXing possible? The FCC assigned the VHF and UHF bands to FM radio and television because signals at these frequencies normally do not travel long distances. However, certain atmospheric conditions enable the signals to travel much further than usual. The three main sources of DX propagation are sporadic E, tropospheric ducting, and meteor burst.
Sporadic E propagation occurs when signals reflect off patches of highly ionized gas in the E layer of the ionosphere. It is less common than skywave propagation, which accounts for worldwide shortwave reception, but it affects higher frequencies.
Tropospheric ducting is the result of atmospheric temperature inversion and causes signals to bend (refract). It is most common in the summer and fall and typically enables signals to tunnel through the atmosphere up to 800 miles.
Meteor burst occurs when signals bounce off ionized gas trails left by meteors. Tiny meteors collide with the earth's atmosphere almost constantly. Propagation may last from as little as a fraction of a second up to several minutes. (Believe it or not, during the early 1990s at least one company offered meteor burst communications for long-haul truck fleets.)
The conversion to digital TV will affect TV DXing. Say good bye to TV channels 52-69, which are being reallocated to other services. DXers should be able to capture more perfect or near-perfect video frames, but digital transmission (which tends to be an all-or-nothing affair) is more intolerant of multipath propagation.
I believe the FCC’s forced march to digital TV could be a big problem for consumers using “rabbit ears” antennas for local reception, and that will be the subject of my next post.
Sunday, October 19. 2008
The microscope has long been the telescope’s poor cousin. Both tools were invented at almost the same time (around 1600). The telescope had urgent applications (spotting land and ships); was more easily perfected (optically); and was soon revealing the cosmos’ secrets. The microscope enlarged things already in hand but severely distorted them. For two centuries, the microscope was more of a novelty item than a practical instrument.
Now the microscope is poised to illuminate normal and abnormal life processes like never before.
Sure, the microscope has been used for biology research since the days of Robert Hooke and Antony Leeuwenhoek. However, it wasn’t very reliable until Joseph Jackson Lister (father of the famous Joseph Lister) developed a formula for minimizing spherical and chromatic aberration—eliminating dependence on trial and error techniques. Within about a century the wavelength of visible light became the limiting factor for achieving greater resolution.
Scientists developed ultraviolet and electron microscopes to get around the wavelength limitations of visible light. But humans can’t see UV light, so it was used to produce fluorescence (which could be seen) or images on photographic film. The electron microscope, which also relied on film for many years, had the further disadvantage that special specimen preparation was required.
There have been two big changes recently. The marriage of the microscope and digital camera (with real-time display) now permits one instrument to span infrared to visible light to ultraviolet. And electron microscope makers such as FEI Company are exploiting vitrification to avoid the water crystallization that has traditionally plagued the freezing of biological specimens.
Combine vitrification and 3D/4D digital image processing and you have the prospect of, for example, observing intricate cellular processes first hand and even automating genome sequencing. The electron microscope becomes something analogous to a CT scanner—except this scanner can see down to individual atoms. The possibilities downstream are mind boggling.
Tuesday, July 22. 2008
Once again, a Palestinian gainfully employed by Israel has gone on a rampage trying to kill as many civilians as possible regardless of age, sex, infirmity, or beliefs. (An article including videos of the two attacks can be found here.) Is there any way to stop bulldozer attacks? Yes, there are simple and effective technological solutions.
One is called geo-fencing. Bulldozers can be equipped with GPS receivers and programmed to only allow the machines to be operated within specific geographic boundaries. The moment a bulldozer is driven beyond those boundaries its engine is shut down. GPS technology has been used quite effectively to thwart truck thieves—primarily by enabling law enforcement to determine their exact whereabouts—and geo-fencing has been proposed in the U.S. for all trucks carrying hazardous materials, ensuring they only follow permitted routes.
An even simpler solution is radio-fencing, widely used to keep dogs from straying outside their yards. In the bulldozer application, a low-power transmitter can be set up at the construction site. The bulldozer’s engine is automatically disabled whenever the machine strays beyond the transmitter’s range. This technology also allows management to manually disable bulldozers during breaks, emergencies, or after hours.
The cost of these solutions is easily justified. Bulldozers are expensive mobile assets, and they should be tracked for that reason alone. As we have seen, they can also be used by terrorists to cause numerous casualties and immense property damage.
Like all anti-terrorist technologies, these solutions can be circumvented. Terrorists could disable engine shut-down circuits. Or they could develop gadgets that fool the system by generating false signals. But there are numerous ways to make this very difficult. At some point, the terrorists will give up on bulldozers, and look for other opportunities to ply their murderous and destructive trade.
Monday, April 21. 2008
Much has been written about the future technology depicted in Star Trek and its sequels. Another TV series (Danger Man) and its follow-on (The Prisoner) are also notable for their fascinating portrayal of advanced technology.
This post will focus on the technology from Danger Man, a.k.a. Secret Agent. Later, I will write a longer essay on the technology and socio-political context of The Prisoner.
Danger Man was produced in the UK during the early 1960s. It’s about the global adventures of a Cold War era British secret agent, John Drake, who is played by Patrick McGoohan. Though Danger Man is not set in the future, Drake frequently uses technology that we assume is withheld from the public for cost and/or national security reasons.
The Prisoner was filmed in the fairytale coastal town of Portmeirion, Wales in the late 1960s. It’s about a secret agent (again played by Patrick McGoohan) who resigns only to be kidnapped and imprisoned in “The Village.” McGoohan’s character is known thereafter as “Number Six.” Unlike Danger Man, The Prisoner is clearly science fiction, often featuring bizarre mind control technology. Though McGoohan denied that Number Six was John Drake that was probably for legal reasons; McGoohan himself resigned from Danger Man to produce The Prisoner.
I’m a fan of the two series for several reasons. The producers were unafraid to present the struggle for individual liberty as a battle between good and evil. However, the characters were often complex, and the dialogue was generally intelligent. Though most episodes contained violence, it was usually in the form of fistfights; John Drake and Number Six relied mainly on their wits and almost never on deadly weapons. Danger Man dramatizes Cold War espionage; The Prisoner shows how the mass media and even democratic institutions could be manipulated to take away our freedoms.
The technology in Danger Man consisted mainly of advanced spy tools. The gadgets performed familiar functions such as eavesdropping and tracking—but their performance and small size exceeded what was possible in the 1960s and in some cases even today.
Danger Man gadgets included a battery-powered shaver with built-in tape recorder; a self-adhesive, thimble-size telephone bug requiring no direct connections; a cigarette lighter with concealed camera; and a cigarette lighter that doubled as a two-way radio. There was also a thimble-size location beacon and a larger compatible electronic compass. Gadgets and microfilm were often hidden in shoes, pencils, briefcases, and canes. Drake almost always operated alone but sometimes rigged up noise- and smoke-making devices to create the illusion of a SWAT team at just the right moment.
The smallness of the eavesdropping, tracking, and two-way radio devices would not seem impressive were it not for their extraordinary range and reliability. Today there are cell phones not much bigger than John Drake’s cigarette lighter that can perform all of these tasks plus take pictures and even short videos. However, cell phones require extensive infrastructure support.
Somehow, Drake is able to eavesdrop on conversations and track individuals using concealed devices with little room for batteries and presumably no Global Positioning System satellites, no mobile phone networks, and no external antennas. All of this was envisioned at a time when simple integrated circuits were just coming to market.
Danger Man correctly predicted the further enhancement of devices for recording and communicating. Understandably, it failed to anticipate digital electronics, which has made audio tape and photographic film essentially obsolete.
The ideals and optimism of Danger Man are reflected not only in its story lines and its hero’s personal integrity, but the assumption that free and open societies are more likely to gain and hold technological leadership. The series is as enjoyable today as it was in the 1960s—perhaps more so. It challenges the modern entertainment industry view that sophistication and moral goodness are mutually exclusive.
But arguably the best thing about Danger Man is that it set high standards for its sequel, The Prisoner.
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