February 2010


I just completed an apheresis plasma donation at the Puget Sound Blood Center. I give blood* about two to four times a year, and have been doing so regularly since I’ve been in college. I guess that makes me a member of the ten gallon club, though I don’t think I’ll ever be able to beat this guy’s record.

This is probably my last plasma donation for the next year or so, since I won’t be allowed to donate after my donor nephrectomy. I’ll miss the cookies and juice they always hand out** at the blood center. I hope the transplant center gives me lots of both. I believe they will quicken my recovery time and reduce the chances of psychological complications (see Feb 2010 blog post).

*I recently switched from donating blood to donating plasma, see Sep 2008 blog post for an explanation why.

**Does anyone know how this practice started? Every blood center and bloodmobile I’ve ever been to does this.

At the recent TED conference in Long Beach, Nathan Myrhvold, the founder of Intellectual Ventures (and former CTO of Microsoft), demonstrated a laser system that can track and kill mosquitoes. As silly as this sounds, it has potential value. First, with the falling cost of electronics, a device that could protect the doors and windows of a small building could be built for under $50. Second, when coupled with other strategies, it could reduce the death toll from malaria in Africa and Asia. You can watch a video of the system in action. The device was developed after Bill Gates, head of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, asked Mr. Myrhvold for assistance in developing creative ideas to eradicate malaria. The idea was first publicized last year.

Intellectual Ventures is a rather secretive firm. Its stated goal is to turn patents into marketable assets. It has characteristics of a hedge fund in that it doesn’t disclose its investors or the contents of its patent portfolio. It operates a large number of shell companies to disguise its purchase of patents and its licensing activities. The New York Times recently ran an article on the firm.

[Update1: A blog post by Brad Burnham, a venture capitalist, rejects Intellectual Venture’s approach.]

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More pivot charts

Also presenting at TED conference was Gary Flake, the director of Microsoft’s Live Labs. He demonstrated a data visualization technology called Pivot that is designed to help people make better use of digital information. Says Mr. Flake, “With Pivot you can swim through the data, taking little twists and turns.” A video is available here. There is also a web site, http://www.getpivot.com, where you can learn more and download the app. Unlike the pivot tables and charts that I wrote about two weeks ago, these pivot charts combine bitmap images with quantitative data. The next step will be to make each bitmap an animation.

[Update2: There is a nice review of Pivot in Tech. Rev. Feb 25.]

Rumors abound that Apple will soon announce the ability to download TV shows for $1, about half the current price. A couple of questions come to mind. First, will TV make the iPad a killer product? And second, will dropping the price of individual shows (rather than include it as part of a subscription) create a groundswell of demand for video on demand (VOD) service?

My answers to the first question is maybe. I’m not a big TV watcher nor a big novel reader, so I probably won’t get an iPad and am not the best person to predict its mass appeal. (The gadget person in our household is Susan. If it weren’t for her, I wouldn’t own an iPhone, and perhaps not even a DVD player.) My answer to the second question is a definite no.

About ten years ago, Sue and I were beta testers for an early VOD service called Intertainer to be introduced by Qwest (now renamed CenturyLink). I think we were selected because we lived across the alley from a Qwest switching station. A technician installed a 4 Mbps DSL line (back in the day when 256 kbps was considered exotic), a DSL modem, and a Gateway computer running Intertainer on Windows 98 with a 40” monitor. The monitor did not have a TV tuner, so we had 2 large monitors sitting in our living room, one to watch all of our cable TV and another to watch, well, a very small eclectic offering of more TV.

Before I discuss the problems with pay per view for TV shows, I’ll give a review of my Intertainer experience. The first problem was you had to boot up the system to watch it. Next was Windows 98’s propensity to crash, requiring you to boot again. On the plus side, Gateway had a very nice remote pointing device. It was shaped like a TV remote with a small trackball on top that you could operate with your thumb and two mouse buttons on the bottom that you could press with your forefinger. This would have worked great if it wasn’t for the awful user interface of the Intertainer app. All of the options were on a series of circular-shaped menus. It was really hard to move a thumb-operated trackball in an accurate circle.

On the first day we decided to watch Lawrence of Arabia for a dollar. It’s a great movie to see on the wide-screen, and I hadn’t seen it since it was in a theater when I was a child. (Oops, I’m dating myself here.) That’s when we encountered the next problem, the quality of the video image. The Intertainer app was a full-screen window. Inside the window were all the controls and a smaller viewer window for the video. Then, since Lawrence of Arabia was a wide-screen movie, there were black bars on the top and bottom of the viewer window. All in all, the movie itself only occupied about one-fourth of the 640×480 screen.

After a half hour, the phone rang and I clicked Pause to answer the call. Except it wasn’t a pause button, it was a stop button, which reset the movie to the beginning. After the call, I discovered that there were no chapter markers in the movie, so the back and forward controls took you to the beginning and end of the movie. I tried to get the movie back to the point where we were by dragging the progress bar, but there was no elapsed time indicator, so I had no idea where I was each time I released the pointer. Also, Lawrence of Arabia is a long movie so even minor movements of the progress bar represented a jump of several minutes in the movie. After another hour of viewing it was time to go to bed, but since there is no pause button, we just gave up and turned off the computer.

The next day showed us the final problem with the Intertainer system. There was a dearth of worthwhile content. Besides Lawrence of Arabia, there were only about a dozen other movies available, none of them recent releases. There were maybe a hundred TV shows available, but none were currently running shows. In fact most were shows that had long been off the air and that we had never heard of before. One of the few shows that we had heard of was Welcome Back Kotter, which was a big hit back when I was in high school. (Yep, dating myself again.) Every show and movie was the same price, one dollar. On a cost per hour of entertainment scale and on a quality of entertainment scale, movies beat TV shows by a big margin. Who would pay $1 to see TV reruns, especially of shows you can see for free on Hulu? That’s why broadcast TV is filled with sit-coms paid by commercials, because nobody would be willing to watch this stuff on pay per view.

I eventually wrecked the Intertainer system trying to hack the proxy server settings in an attempt to break out of the walled garden to browse the web. When the beta test was over, nobody ever called to ask us what we thought of the service or whether we would be willing to pay for it. I did call Qwest and asked them how much 4 Mbps DSL service would cost. The answer was $500 per month. Geez, that and a dollar an episode will get you all the Welcome Back Kotter you’d want.

Amazingly enough, Intertainer is still in business, though it’s a shell of its former self. The company is privately held. Its main shareholders are Comcast, Intel, Microsoft, NBC, Qwest, and Sony. If you view the company’s timeline, you’ll notice that the last major milestone was a settlement to an antitrust suit against the movie studios that owned Movielink in 2006. Apparently, nothing of note has happened since then. You’d think that with their star list of investors, somebody could figure out how to get some traction. Oh well.

Incidentally, Movielink itself has disappeared. Since it was owned by the studios, it had draconian rules on how many computers could view the movie after rental (only one), how long the movies could be viewed (one day), and what software was needed to view them (only Windows Media Player 9 or later, since all the movies were protected using Microsoft’s DRM technology). Given the awful user experience it isn’t surprising the service never took off. Eventually, Blockbuster bought Movielink in 2007 in its quest to compete with Netflix. Blockbuster now streams movies through the web, but it still only works on Windows because it requires Internet Explorer.

Netflix has a VOD program at no charge for subscribers. It streams to your TV though a variety of devices including TiVo, Xbox, or some TVs. It also works on any browser and uses JavaScript and Microsoft’s Silverlight plug-in. I’m watching the first episode of Spartacus right now as I’m typing up this blog. It’s running on my Mac. Beat that Blockbuster! I am positive that Netflix will succeed in the VOD marketplace.

Pay per view isn’t completely dead though. The other major competitor in the VOD space is Vudu. Until recently, Vudu was a hardware company trying to sell VOD boxes and remote controls via mail order. Now it is a software company that licenses its service to TV manufacturers. I don’t own a Vudu-enabled TV, so I can’t review it here. An informative review of Vudu by David Pogue appeared in last week’s New York Times. I assume Vudu is working on an app for the iPad, though I wonder if Apple will allow it.

But I just don’t get it. Who wants to pay à la carte for TV entertainment? I much prefer a subscription. Netflix has all the movies I want and I don’t have to pay extra for streaming. I’ll pay for movies and HBO TV shows (since I only have basic cable and don’t get HBO), but I would never pay extra to watch broadcast TV, even if it is hi-res, wide-screen, Dolby enhanced, commercial-free, and time shifted.

[Update1: Vudu already has an iPhone app; it was released over a year ago. However, it only allows you to select movies to play on your Vudu-enabled television. You cannot use it to view shows on the iPhone or iPad.]

[Update2: Walmart just confirmed that it plans to buy Vudu for an undisclosed sum, possibly $100 million.]

[Update3: The New York Times has an analysis of the network’s fear of letting Apple sell shows for $1.]

[Update4: Qwest has been acquired by and renamed CenturyLink.]

Ever since I got an iPhone 3GS last year (thanks Sue!) I’ve quit using my digital camera. My digital camera is nice, but I was always forgetting to pack it. And since I only used it occasionally, the battery was usually dead. The iPhone is just much more convenient. It’s always in my pocket and it’s always charged. Many of the photos in this blog are shot using it.

However, I’ve been really disappointed in the quality of my pictures. The iPhone has a decent 3 megapixel CMS sensor, but the camera has almost no controls (typical Apple minimalism). Those who know me will know that I’m a pretty picky photographer (I worked in advertising for several years). Sure, there are a lot of photo retouching programs available on the iTunes App Store. But I’m too cheap to buy them all and even if they were free, I’m too lazy to try them all and figure out which ones are the best.

Luckily, Ben Long in CreativePro Dec 2009 has a great review of low-cost apps that you can use on your iPhone to fix those snapshots right up before emailing or posting them.

The most useful of the bunch is CodeGoo’s Camera Genius ($1.99, the article states incorrectly that it is $.99). It is a replacement for the built-in camera app in the iPhone. (You did know that the camera was mostly software, not just a piece of hardware, right?) It works well, as described in the article. I now use it exclusively when taking pictures. I have the zoom, antishake, big button, and guides feature turned on. The antishake feature takes a little getting used to, but it definitely eliminates the blur caused by unsteady hands. My only gripe is that the Camera Manual feature doesn’t actually contain instructions for using Camera Genius, it’s mostly just a bunch of pretty photos along with general tips on taking good pictures.

Perfect Photo from MacPhun ($.99) works as described in the article, but it’s definitely for experts only. It has high-end filters like denoise, sharpen, HLS, exposure, and color temperature. However, the iPhone is a really underpowered computer and applying changes takes a long time. Also, it would be nice to have some automation assistance in setting the white point for color temperature. And while Camera Genius at least has some help, Perfect Photo has none. Again, it’s geared toward photography buffs.

I also have a couple UI complaints. The screen shows your picture with a cropping bounding box in front. However, it’s hard to reliably select either the picture or the cropping box to resize or move either. Another limitation is that although you use your fingers to rotate the cropping bounding box, it won’t work on the picture. To rotate the picture, you have to dig through the controls to find it (it is under Alignment, not Rotate/Flip), and use a slider bar rather than the more familiar gesture. (My guess is they hid picture rotation to reduce computer processing requirements and extend battery life, but it’s still clumsy.) My suggestions for improvement is a button that lets you pin the picture or bounding box to the screen (allowing you to manipulate the other one without worrying that you’ll accidentally move the first). Then make the picture rotatable and the cropping box nonrotatable, and reduce the number of hidden controls.

PS Mobile from Adobe Systems (free) is a mess. All the controls are modal, meaning you have to select the rotate tool before you can actually use your fingers to rotate the picture. There is no need for this extra step. The app also includes a wide variety of filters and special effects that are interesting, but not really my taste. I expected more from Adobe, the makers of Photoshop. But maybe they decided they didn’t want to compete in the sub $10 app space.

Finally, my favorite photo app is Autostitch (Cloudburst Research $1.99). It creates 2D panorama shots (which means it adjusts for the distortion in both the horizontal and vertical directions), The coolest part is that you don’t need to take pictures in any particular order. Just stand still and shoot as many pictures as you want in any direction, left, right, up, down. The app figures out how to match up the images to create the mosaic. The technology is based on research from the University of British Columbia. An example of a panorama, made from 27 shots taken in my backyard, is shown below. (Yep, just a typical sunny day in Seattle.)

27Images

27PanoramaSmall

Photo by George Taniwaki

The process is surprisingly fast and seeing the end result is a lot of fun. Also notice how well it adjusts the brightness and contrast of the various shots. I only have one usability complaint. The method for picking photos to include in the panorama can lead to errors. You select pictures individually from an upper preview window and drag-copy them to a lower window. If the number of photos to include is large, you can accidentally miss some pictures or select some multiple times. It would be better to have a single window with a check box (or highlight ring) selection method.

For the past few weeks I’ve been using a beta version of Excel 2010 x64 running on Windows 7 x64. Doesn’t everybody? Well, everybody where I work here in Redmond does.

In addition, I’ve been using a great new business intelligence tool called PowerPivot. PowerPivot is an Excel add-in (built using the .NET Framework, for those who care) that provides a way to connect Excel to one or more SQL Server databases (and other large data warehouses) and generate pivot tables and charts. Normally, I wouldn’t be able to discuss new products prior to release, but a beta of PowerPivot has been publicly available for some time.

Prior to the introduction of PowerPivot, most people using Excel pivot tables were confined to reading data stored in spreadsheets or Access databases. This limited their usefulness since corporate data is rarely stored in these formats. You could try to connect to a large SQL Server or Oracle database using an ODC file, but I’ve always had trouble getting it to work.

The other alternative was to work directly in the SQL Server database and learn an entirely new workflow to create pivot tables. I’m a lot less comfortable using SQL Server than I am with Excel. If you’ve been intimidated by the idea of writing your own queries using T-SQL, creating your own OLAP cubes using SQL analytical services, and creating tables and charts using SQL reporting services, then PowerPivot is the tool for you. (On the other hand, if you are intimidated by the idea of using pivot tables in Excel, then unfortunately you are still out of luck.)

When you launch Excel after installing PowerPivot a new ribbon labeled PowerPivot appears on the far right.

PowerPivotRibbon

PowerPivot ribbon in Excel

Clicking on the first button of the ribbon will open a PowerPivot window which has its own two ribbons labeled Home and Design. Starting from the Design ribbon, you can import data from a database or report and create a pivot table by clicking a few buttons and filling in some fields. Really, it is that simple.

PowerPivotWindowDesign

Home ribbon in PowerPivot window

PowerPivotWindowHome

Design ribbon in PowerPivot window

If you want to try out PowerPivot, you can download it from here. You will first need to download Office 2010 Beta from here. and if you don’t have your own data warehouse, you can get sample data from here. If all this downloading is too much work for you, you can run the demo on Microsoft Virtual Lab.

And if you are the ambitious type, there is even a contest at http://www.exceleratorsquiz.com/challenge.html

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PowerPivot is a big step up from my first exposure to desktop cross-tabulation software. Over ten years ago, as a market research consultant, I worked on a software project called Polk Marketing Workbench. It was also an Excel add-in. But it was written in VB6 and was slow. It was also buggy and frequently hung or crashed. When that happened on Windows 98, it required rebooting, which made the experience even more agonizing. We were actually selling this tool to our clients, but as you can imagine, customer satisfaction was really low.

by George Taniwaki

Today, I have made my sixth visit to the University of Washington Medical Center as part of my evaluation as a nondirected living kidney donor. Today’s visit is an interview with the transplant program psychiatrist, Wayne Bentham. Like all the other doctors and surgeons I have met, he is also a professor at the medical school.

Wayne Bentham. Photo from UWMC

Dr. Bentham asked me questions very similar to those I was asked at my interview with the social worker (see Sep 2009 blog post). My answers were the same as then and so the interview went smoothly. It was over in less than 30 minutes. His interview is the last of four interviews required prior to my kidney donation. (Besides the psychiatrist and social worker, my other interviews were with a transplant program nephrologist and the surgeon).

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The first comprehensive guidelines for the psychosocial evaluation of all living donors (related, stranger, or nondirected) were published in the Amer. J. Transpl. May 2007. In an editorial in the Oct 2007 issue of the same journal, Dr. C. L. Davis, the director of the kidney and pancreas transplant program at UWMC, emphasized the need for uniform standards for the evaluation of live donors. Her concern is driven by two articles in the same issue that report the results from a survey of 132 transplant centers (about half of all centers in the U.S.). The first report revealed a wide range of practices and a wide range of psychological criteria used for screening live donors. The other report showed a wide range of medical criteria used for screening donors.

The Academy of Psychosomatic Medicine held a special interest group session on transplantation during its 2011 conference. Most of the content dealt with issues related to working with transplant recipients as  shown in the figure below.

TransplantPsych

Slide from the preconference course on Transplant Psychiatry Review. Image from APM

I also found two articles describing the psychological evaluation of nondirected donors. They are L. Kranenburg, et al. in Psychol Med Feb 2008 and R. Leo et al. in Psychosomatics Nov 2003, both require subscription to access.

For more information on how transplant hospitals evaluate living donors, visit the web sites for Transplant Living and materials prepared by UNOS.

For more information on becoming a kidney donor, see my Kidney donor guide.

I’ve recently started an assignment with the Microsoft Surface group. They produce a cool product that requires some deep thinking about human-computer interaction design. What, you say, you don’t own and use a surface computer yet or haven’t even seen one yet? Well, you will, trust me.

Surface

A first-generation surface computing device. Photo from Microsoft

A surface computer consists of a large (usually over 30-inch diagonal) touch-sensitive display that interprets hand gestures. Think of the computer that Tom Cruise’s character, John Anderton, used in the movie Minority Report. You interact with the display directly without a mouse or keyboard.

There are several companies working on surface computing technology, though I think Microsoft is the only one with a product on the market. Microsoft’s surface device is a tabletop design which allows users to approach it from any direction, which means there is no inherent up direction to the display. It can detect up to 50 contact points, meaning multiple people can interact with it simultaneously.

So besides finding criminals before they commit crimes, what can you do with a computer that doesn’t have a mouse or keyboard? For some ideas, watch this news clip on YouTube. And this parody on YouTube.

If you own an iPhone or other small touchscreen device, you probably have noticed that if you make gestures with more than two fingers, or if you use your thumbs instead or your fingers, the gestures sometimes don’t get picked up. That’s because the screen uses capacitive sensing. If there are too many points of contact or if they are too close together, the signals that tells the computer what’s going on get too weak.

Thus, to support multiple touch, the Microsoft surface computer doesn’t use a touch sensitive LCD panel. Instead, the surface is just a sheet of translucent plastic. Hidden underneath the tabletop (and taking up a large amount of space) are several infrared cameras that detect objects contacting the surface. Also hidden in the box is a video projector that projects the display onto the tabletop. This makes the device pretty expensive (over $10,000 according to some sources) and heavy (over 75 lb), so the market is limited to stationary commercial use, like hotels and electronics retailers. However, given the constant drop in price and size for anything electronic, in a few years surface computers will be coming to schools, homes, and the workplace.

There are lots of companies developing lower cost (but not quite yet low-cost) touch sensitive displays. One is Displax of Portugal. Fast Company reports that the firm has developed a thin-film that can be overlaid on any surface and can detect up to 16 contacts simultaneously. One blogger has already posted a comparison between Displax and Surface.

Another firm, Flat Frog of Sweden, has just raised €12.5 million to commercialize its 40” LCD multi-touch monitors. It uses planar scatter detection to recognize more than 20 simultaneous touches. CrunchGear calls it a worthy rival to Surface.

[Update: VentureBeat reports today that Displax doesn’t make the touch sensitive film mentioned above, only the controller. The film is made by Visual Planet of the UK.]

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On a related note, my friend Bruce McArthur sent me a video of a different kind of display. It has a spherical surface with two wide-angle projectors inside. It can be used to display interactive maps and other 3D data. One example is an animation showing worldwide airline traffic for a single day. You can imagine what the original data was. A series of tables with flight numbers, departure times, airports of origin, arrival times, and airports of destination. Pretty boring stuff, right? But when combined with a map showing daylight and darkness, it makes for a fascinating display. A flat projection version of the video is posted on YouTube and is pretty cool. Now imagine this on a 3D globe that eliminates the apparent speed and distance distortion of transpolar route flights. Really cool.

This interactive globe, called the Orbitarium, was produced by ARC Science Simulations for the Swiss Science Center Technorama. In addition to the airline simulation, they also have simulations for plate tectonics, weather, global warming, and others, some of which are featured in a video on Vimeo (check out the touchscreen computer panel) and on YouTube. A complete list of available content is posted in a PDF.

Omni

The Orbitarium in action. Photo from ARC Science Simulations

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