Tag Archives: Science

Obese Texters, Back to the Future, and Scams

I make an appearance on the excellent Breakfast Club show on Radio Australia each Friday at about 01:15 GMT and some listeners have asked me post links to the stuff I talk about, so here they are.

Texting reduces obesity

If your kids are getting a little overweight, then treat them to a bit of texting. But it’s not quite how it sounds (I thought it might be something to do with the aerobic workout you get from the thumb twiddling.) No, a study by the University of North Carolina suggests that if obese kids are encouraged to keep a record of their eating habits via SMS, they are more likely to adhere to the health regimen—less TV, more exerices, less Coke—than those who just wrote down the same information. (Attrition rate was 28% against 61% for the paper diary kids and 50% for the control group.)

Part of this may be down to the fact that the kids get instant feedback via SMS on their results. So actually this is more about the interactivity of health regimes rather than the physical benefits of cellphones or texting. (Actually this whole SMS for health thing is quite a meme. Check out this conference here.)

The miracles of life in 2000—as seen from 1950

Popular Mechanics of February 1950 predicted a number of things, some of which have come true, some of which haven’t, and some of which should, if we got our act together.

What they got right

  • Highways broad without any curves
  • Doubledecked highways
  • soup and milk come in frozen bricks (but thought that cooking would be a thing of the past)
  • TV connected to the phone; but would buy stuff over the TV with store clerks holding the goods up obligingly for customers to inspect…
  • robots in factories, but controlled by punch cards
  • air travel would be frequent, but expensive because of jet fuel; rocket plane fare from Chicago to Paris would cost $5000

What they got wrong

  • Heart of the town is the airport
  • Clean as a whistle and quiet
  • Crime to burn raw coal
  • Illumnitated by electric suns on 200 ft high towers
  • A house would cost only $5000 to build
  • Houses don’t last more than 25 years
  • Wash using chemicals that shave as well.
  • Dishes dissolves in superheated water, so no washing machines
  • Plastics derived from cottonseed hulls, Jerusalem artichocks and and fruit pips
  • Clean the house by turning a hose on it; everything is synthetic fabric of waterproof plastic; drain in the middle of the floor
  • worried by mass starvation, scientists came up with food from sawdust, table linen and rayon underwear converted into sweets
  • ‘calculators’ would predict the weather
  • storms diverted
  • no one would have gone to the moon—yet…

What I wish they’d gotten right

  • Used underwear recyled into candy

Scam lady

Janella Spears, nursing administrator in a place called Sweet Home, Oregon, who practices CPR and is a reverend, has given $400,000 to scammers. She got letters from President Bush, the president of Nigeria and FBI director Robert Mueller. Wiped out husband’s retirement account, mortgaged the house and took out a lien on the family car. Everyone told her to stop but she didn’t.

This is the problem with scams; it’s very hard to accept you’ve been scammed, and so perversely it’s easier to continuing giving money in the belief that it will all come good.

Pocket Keys

A team at UCal San Diego have come up with software, called Sneakey, that can take a picture of a key and convert it to a bitting code, which is enough for a locksmith to make a new key:

  1. The user provides point locations on the target key with a reference key as a guide.
  2. The system warps the target image into the pose of the reference key and overlays markings of where the bite codes are to be found.
  3. The user specifies where the cut falls along each line and the bit depths are decoded by the system into a bitting code.

In one experiment, the Sneakey team installed a camera on their four story department building (77 feet above the ground) at an acute angle to a key sitting on a café table 195 feet away. The image captured (below) was correctly decoded.

They’ve not released the software but say it would be pretty easy to put together.

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The Predictable Human (and a Privacy Issue)

A study of mobile phone data shows that we are extraordinarily consistent about our movements. Mobile phone data, unsurprisingly, provides rich pickings for researchers since we carry one around with us all the time, and, unlike dollar bills, it’s more likely to stick with one person. But some have questioned the ethics of such a study.

The BBC reports that the study, by Albert-László Barabási and two others, shows we are much more predictable in our movements than we might think:

The whereabouts of more than 100,000 mobile phone users have been tracked in an attempt to build a comprehensive picture of human movements.

The study concludes that humans are creatures of habit, mostly visiting the same few spots time and time again.

Most people also move less than 10km on a regular basis, according to the study published in the journal Nature.

This is fascinating stuff, and perhaps not unexpected. But appended to the Nature news article on the study are two signed comments by readers alleging that the authors of the study didn’t follow correct ethical procedure. Someone calling themselves John McHaffie says

What is particularly disturbing about this study is something that the Nature news article failed to reveal: that Barabasi himself said he did not check with any ethics panel. And this for an action that is, in fact illegal in the United States. Disgusting lack of ethics, I’d say. And the statement from his co-author Hidalgo isn’t much better: “We’re not trying to do evil things. We’re trying to make the world a little better”. The old “trust me, I know better” argument. Maybe this two should take a basic graduate-level ethics course.

I’ve not yet confirmed it, but it’s likely to be John G. McHaffie of the University of Wake Forest. Another commenter, Dan Williams, calls for a federal investigation of the school involved in the study.

I don’t have access to the original Nature article, so I can’t explore this further right now. But the Nature news item itself says that “Barabási and his colleagues teamed up with a mobile-phone company (unidentified to protect customers’ privacy), who provided them with anonymized data on which transmitter towers had handled the calls and texts for 100,000 individuals over the course of 6 months.”

This is clearly gold. The article suggests that others have long sought to get their hands on mobile phone data. It quotes Dirk Brockmann of Northwestern University in Illinois, as saying that he had not been able to expand a study he did using dollar bills because of privacy issues:

Strict data-protection laws prevented Brockmann from carrying out his own version of the mobile-phone study in Germany, where he was based until recently. Mobile-phone data have the potential to reveal information about where individuals live and work. “I’ve been trying to get my hands on mobile-phone data but it isn’t possible,” he says.

Privacy issues aside, the study is fascinating, and could be useful in monitoring disease outbreaks or traffic forecasting. (I wrote about one using Bluetooth a couple of days ago.) And how about riots? Unrest? Shoppers?

BBC NEWS | Science/Nature | Mobile phones expose human habits

A Beginner’s Guide to Scanning

(This is the text of my weekly Loose Wire Service column, written mostly for newcomers to personal technology, and syndicated to newspapers like The Jakarta Post. Editors interested in carrying the service please feel free to email me.)

image

A lot of folk ask me whether they should buy a scanner: those things that take bits of paper, or photographs, and turn them into files your computer can use.

Frankly, I’m surprised by this (not the taking and turning, but the asking). Why would people not have a scanner? I have four.

Well, five, actually, if you include that little business card scanner sitting in a drawer somewhere. OK, six. I bought a backup scanner once in case all my other scanners eloped. I scan every piece of paper that I can.

I scan whole books I want to read on my computer. I scan coworkers who pass me in the corridor. The truth is that scanners can save you lots of time, space and pain. But I readily accept that my passion for scanning may not have won you over.

First off, don’t get your hopes up. Twelve years ago I bought a scanner that, lulled by the pictures on the box of pages flying into my computer, I thought would rid me of a ridiculous four-drawer filing cabinet full of stuff I had been lugging around Asia.

I was to be disappointed. Scanners won’t digitize everything paper, I learned, and sometimes they will but will take so long the task won’t be finished in your lifetime. No, scanners won’t make you paperless, but they may lighten your load.

So, the second task is to figure out what there is you have to scan, and then get the right scanner for the job. There are flatbed scanners, which look a bit like the tops of photocopiers, which scan one loose sheet of paper at a time. (You can sometimes buy sheet feeders that, well, feed the sheets in, to some of these units.)

These can be cheap: Less than US$100 will buy you a quality Canon device. These are good, and do the job well. They’re fine if you’ve got the odd document or photo to scan, or the odd chapter in a book you want to store on your computer.

But they’re not good if you’ve got lots of stuff. For this, I’d recommend something like the Fujitsu ScanSnap. I have one of the basic models (5110EOX, selling for $300 to $650), which looks a bit like a small fax machine, and it’s still going strong after three years of heavy-duty scanning.

You can only scan single sheets into it — none of the flatbed/photocopier option — but it will scan pages fast, front and back, without you having to do anything other than press a button. The pages are scanned direct to a common file format called PDF.

I love my ScanSnap. I will scan all incoming business mail — bills, receipts, statements, letters of eviction — which means I need keep no formal paperwork except the odd will or letter from Aunt Maude that has sentimental value. The ScanSnap can also handle business cards, which it can scan more or less directly into Microsoft Outlook.

Neither of these options is particularly portable. If you scan and you travel, you may want to consider a small portable scanner. NeatReceipts has two scanners that make more sense if you move around: one a thin, long device that looks more like a truncheon or night stick, and one a small, cigarette box-sized business card scanner.

Which brings me to the important bit of scanning: What happens to the document once it’s scanned. Most software simply converts a physical thing to a digital thing, but to make the text that is on that physical thing something you can edit, search or add to, you need to run more software over it called optical character recognition, or OCR.

This software – which usually comes included with the scanner — basically looks at the patterns in the image of your document that the scanning software has created and tries to figure out the letters.

OCR software nowadays is remarkably accurate, so long as you give it good, clean documents to start with. Don’t expect your spidery handwriting or a smudged and heavily annotated tome from the Dark Ages to come out 100 percent accurate.

NeatReceipts doesn’t just specialize in digitizing and organizing your receipts: The smaller device handles business cards too. But for most jobs, you’d be better off with something like Paperport, which will handle all the OCR for you and also help you organize your documents into folders.

Bottom line? Scanning stuff is a very useful way to keep your desk clear and to be able to find stuff. But you have to be disciplined about it, and get a rather perverse joy out of watching paper disappear into a roller.

And be prepared to be regarded by co-workers, friends and family as a bit of a freak.

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The Jakarta Post – The Journal of Indonesia Today

CAPTCHA Gets Useful

Captcha1

An excellent example of something that leverages a tool that already exists and makes it useful — CAPTCHA forms. AP writes from Pittsburgh:

Researchers estimate that about 60 million of those nonsensical jumbles are solved everyday around the world, taking an average of about 10 seconds each to decipher and type in.

Instead of wasting time typing in random letters and numbers, Carnegie Mellon researchers have come up with a way for people to type in snippets of books to put their time to good use, confirm they are not machines and help speed up the process of getting searchable texts online.

”Humanity is wasting 150,000 hours every day on these,” said Luis von Ahn, an assistant professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon. He helped develop the CAPTCHAs about seven years ago. ”Is there any way in which we can use this human time for something good for humanity, do 10 seconds of useful work for humanity?”

The project, reCAPTCHA, is using people’s deciphering to go through those books being digitized by the Internet Archive that can’t be converted using ordinary OCR, where the results come out like this:

Captcha2

Those words are sent to CAPTCHAs and then the results fed back into the scanning engine. Here’s the neat bit, though, as explained on the website:

But if a computer can’t read such a CAPTCHA, how does the system know the correct answer to the puzzle? Here’s how: Each new word that cannot be read correctly by OCR is given to a user in conjunction with another word for which the answer is already known. The user is then asked to read both words. If they solve the one for which the answer is known, the system assumes their answer is correct for the new one. The system then gives the new image to a number of other people to determine, with higher confidence, whether the original answer was correct.

Which I think is kind of neat: the only problems might occur if people know this and mess the system by getting one right and the other wrong. But how do they know which one?

How to Pack Right

Here’s a piece I wrote for the latest issue of DestinAsian magazine on travel strategies for uncertain times (I have a regular column called Tech Travel in the travel magazine):

The way we travel will continue to change, and we will need to adapt to it, especially when it comes to the technology that tethers us to the office or to loved ones. And, in case any of you are grumbling about carry-on restrictions, or the long snaking lines for airport security checks, or the difficulty of arriving looking fresh and gorgeous at our destination when we’re not allowed to carry moisturizer, makeup, or hair gel onto the plane, I would offer this: There are ways around all these problems.

Among the tips I offer are checking in bulkier gadgets, so long as they’re well protected, shipping luggage ahead of time, ordering smaller versions of toiletries and other necessities and having them sent straight to your hotel. The bottom line, at least with technology:

And when it comes to technology, remember that everything to do with gadgets is replaceable except the data—whether it’s documents or holiday snaps. So before you pack—back up. However long the queues, and however miserable the humiliations inflicted upon you by security measures, you’ll know at least the important stuff is safe.

I’m aware when I write these stories that there must be a lot more tips that I could offer that I just don’t hear about. I would love to hear from you if you have any. There was a good one in a recent Fortune issue quoting a guy called Dean Burri, who keeps his ties flat by putting them in folders, customizing jacket and coat pockets for tickets and sewing Velcro between shirt buttons to stop them from wrinkling.

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Translate This

I’m a sucker for this kind of thing: Translator Boomerang (thanks, Satya), which translates from English into a foreign language and then back again, just for laughs, really (I suppose one could say something pompous about how this reflects the difficulty of translation etc.):

Google Translator Boomerang is a silly little program that uses the Google Translation engine to translate your english text to foreign languages and then back again into english, for some amusing results.

Here’s how it mangles “How are things going? I imagine you’re having an interesting day” (yes, I know it wasn’t that imaginative; it’s early), from Korean and back into English:

How live I you am sending the day when there is this fun imagine the thing

Meanwhile “Dude, where’s my car” returns from Chinese as “My car at a later”. Exactly.

The Problem With Surveys

I love BBC World, the satellite news channel, and I love offering feedback (rarely welcome, as readers will know). In the hope of satisfying both passions I joined the BBC World Panel where “users are invited to register and record their comments online and to take part in regular surveys and questionnaires specifically on viewing and programming issues.”

The surveys are handled by a company called eDigital Research which claims to be

unique in our field as we combine an in-depth research background with a thorough understanding of developing and managing Internet websites. Our propriety research programmes are developed in-house by our experienced team of developers allowing us to develop bespoke client programmes and react to the immediacy of the Internet. We are able to translate complex market research data into concise management reports that highlight key business issues effecting the ROI. 

With all due respect to eDigital, which also trades as eMysteryShopper, eCustomerOpinions, eGlobalPanel and ePollingStation, all this language sounds tired and out of date. “The immediacy of the Internet”? What does that mean, exactly? The Internet is a huge bunch of people. That’s what the Internet is. For sure the Internet is “immediate” but it’s not just about being fast, it’s about connecting to customers, listeners, surveyees, whatever. (And what are “propriety programmes”? Do they mean proprietary, as in “something exclusively owned by someone, often with connotations that it is exclusive and cannot be used by other parties without negotiations” or propriety, a noun meaning “correct or appropriate behavior”. Both kind of make sense here, which perhaps illustrates the poor use of language here.)

Anyway, as I was filling out yet another BBC survey this morning I realised how old this kind of approach is. The survey in question was just like the other surveys I’ve done in this series: They are composed of questions and either multiple choice answers, or ordering selections from drop down menus, all of which are time-consuming for the user without ever really zooming in on the user’s real priorities. This is the kind of thing:

Bbc1

(The numbers go up to 10.) There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this, but it also needs to reflect the way the Internet has changed the way consumers interact with companies, and the expectation (however unevenly reflected) that their voices be heard beyond choosing a few options that don’t necessarily capture the flavor of their attitude towards the product. This kind of multiple choice thing is fine in quick surveys for busy shoppers outside supermarkets, but not in a survey of volunteers who have deliberately set aside time to offer feedback.

Then, the equation should be quite different. The surveyor should be asking “How can I vacuum up as much of the rainbow of this user’s attitudes and thoughts about the service/product in question before they go to breakfast?. Sifting through their thoughts may take me longer, but the quality and usefulness of that freeform feedback is going to be much more valuable to the client than simply a few PowerPoint graphs.”

This lack of effort to gain access to the user’s real feelings towards the product/service is reflected in the final question, a broad one (without a question mark, oddly) but with only a small box for the user to type in their response:

  Bbc2

As you can see, I went on at length about my passion for English soccer, and my ideas for how BBC World could expand its coverage without having to fork out big bucks for actual soccer footage. But I also, knowing from previous experience that as far as I know respondents to these BBC World surveys never hear back from the surveyors, however much extra feedback we type into the freeform text boxes. added this final comment:

One last thing: communicate with your respondents. This survey is too Old Thinking. Start a conversation with your viewers that doesn’t just involve us clicking multiple choice boxes. Email your respondents with follow-up questions, engage us as human beings. Some of us love BBC World and want to see it do well. But throwing our considered responses to your surveys into a deafening silence is not the best way to engage or keep your viewers. Nowadays the market is a conversation. Use it. And use us.

How should someone do this? I would say the BBC Viewer’s panel should be just that: a panel of selected viewers (chosen, perhaps, for the quality of their freeform feedback), overseen by a panel leader who maintains a blog, throwing out occasional gems from viewers’ responses and updating viewers on the progress of the changes being wrought in response to these surveys. This morning’s survey, for example, was initiated by an email with the intriguing paragraph:

Because of the costs involved, there are many problems showing clips of sports on news channels. Should BBC World show only what it can, or would you like to see a rolling results show on the channel? Whatever you think, and even if you aren’t a sports fan, we’d like to know what you think.

Off to a good start. But that’s just the beginning. Use blogs, use discussion forums, use blog comments, use a Wiki, use Skype, use whatever it takes to find out, to really find out, what your viewers want from you. Let them guide the discussion, not a market research company with spelling issues.