December 2010

In 1991, two Seattle musicians designed and patented the first novelty eyeglasses with lenses fitted inside the circles of the two numeral “9”s. It was a brilliant idea and one that lasted because every year since then has had two adjacent 9s or two adjacent 0s in it. That is, until 2010, which still almost works. But this upcoming year, 2011, begins a drought of double circles that will last until 2016.

But it turns out, the two inventors, Richard Sciafani and Peter Cicero, exited the market in 2008 (Seattle Times Dec 2008) because low-priced knock-offs (from a country that must not be named) have made the business unprofitable. Their company Brainstorm Novelties still exists though.


Richard Sciafani (left) and Peter Cicero. Photo from Seattle Times

The New Year eyewear fashion fad received attention from the Wall St. J. Dec 2010, complete with examples of how some designers have solved the 2011 single circle problem.

Oh well, hope you have your party favors, hats, firecrackers, and plastic champagne glasses ready. Happy New Year!

by George Taniwaki

A video recently posted on Real American Stories focuses on the story of Sandie Andersen, a barista at a Starbucks in Tacoma, WA. One day she learns that one of her regular customers has end-stage renal disease (ESRD) and needs a kidney transplant. She immediately decides that she will donate a kidney to her. Only one problem, she doesn’t know the customer’s name! She eventually learns the name of customer is Annamarie Ausnes and they completed their transplant in 2008. The story of this donor-recipient pair was mentioned in a May 2010 blog post.


Annamarie Ausnes and Sandie Andersen. Video still from Fox News


ABC Person of the Week. Video still from ABC

A different kind of kidney transplant chain

Sandie and Annamarie’s story has inspired another donor-recipient pair. After seeing the story about Ms. Anderson’s gift of life, Laurie Sobocinski, a nurse at GroupHealth decided she would find a way to follow the same path. The very next day, a coworker mentioned that her son-in-law Ryan Campbell, a pilot for Frontier, was looking for a donor. The two matched and the transplant was completed in April 2010.

All four met earlier this year, an event shown in the video above. Three news stories about Ryan and Laurie are shown below.


Ryan Campbell and Laurie Sobocinski. Video still from Fox News


Ryan Campbell and Laurie Sobocinski. Video still from Fox News


Laurie Sobocinski gets a free makeover. Video still from Fox News

Much thanks to Rich Bloch, a kidney patient advocate and board member for the Northwest Kidney Centers Foundation, for passing on links to the first and third videos to me. And thanks to Ryan Campbell, the recipient in the second story, for providing the links to the other three videos.

Today, Microsoft Bing announced that it would offer a free music download to the first 500,000 customers who signed up on its website. I went to Softpedia to read about it, see the screenshot below.


Bing story. Image from Softpedia

Notice the big download button above the story. I clicked on it, which led me to the following download page.


I clicked on the Download Free button, which downloads the file and opens the IE security warning dialog.


Do you notice something unusual here? The file isn’t an mp3 and the publisher isn’t Microsoft Corporation. Instead, it is an executable from some company called

Very clever. A company called SearchAle bought a Google display ad that leads people to believe that Microsoft Bing’s free music download is obtained by clicking a big button. I gotta quit clicking on big buttons like that. Though since I run on a Mac with a virtual Windows 7 machine, the worst that can happen is I ruin the VM and need to reimage it.

According to the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), there are 268 hospitals in the U.S. that have performed at least one kidney transplant in the past 10 years. Canada has about one-tenth the population of the U.S. and has about 25 transplant centers. A list of the centers is available from the Canadian Blood Services and the Canadian Association of Transplantation.

Transplant statistics for Canada are available from the Canadian Organ Replacement Register (CORR), which collects and summarizes patient and treatment center data in a manner similar to the United States Renal Data System (USRDS) and UNOS in the U.S. (U.S. live transplant data is described in a Jun 2010 blog post. The nuances of the U.S.wait list data is explored in an Apr 2010 blog post.)

A cursory comparison of Canadian and U.S. data shows very similar trends. In 2009, 1,181 kidney transplants were performed in Canada of which 725 were from deceased donors. About 120 were pre-emptive. The transplant rate is lower in Canada than in the U.S., but the live donor rates are similar.

There were 5,431 new cases of ESRD reported in 2008, the latest year data is available. There were an estimated 36,638 people living with end-stage renal disease (ESRD) at the end of 2008, an increase of 57% since 1999. Of these, 21,754 were on dialysis and 14,884 were living with a functioning kidney transplant. However, as a proportion of the population, the transplant waiting list is much smaller in Canada than in the U.S. There were 2,383 patients on the active list in Canada at the end of 2008 and 753 “on hold” (which I presume is similar to “inactive” in the U.S.).

Like the U.S., diabetes is the leading cause of ESRD in Canada, identified in 35% of new cases in 2008, followed by renal vascular disease at 18%. Also like the U.S., the proportion of older patients is growing, with 53% of those who initiated renal replacement therapy being age 65 and older in 2008, compared to 49% in 1999.

Living donor paired exchange

Recently, Canadian Blood Services has created a Living Donor Paired Exchange (LDPE). (For an explanation of paired exchanges, see this Mar 2010 blog post.) It began operating as a pilot program covering three provinces in January 2009. The other provinces joined afterwards and it became a nationwide program in October of this year. So far 185 donor/recipient pairs have been registered and 57 kidney transplants have been facilitated. However, very few matches have been made through the exchange. Of the 57 transplants facilitated so far, 45 have been from nondirected donors and only 12 have been swaps or chains.

The LDPE conducted its first nationwide match run on November 30, resulting in 16 matches (I don’t know how many are nondirected donations and how many are swaps or chains). The surgeries scheduled in the weeks ahead. In addition to going Canada-wide, the registry announced some other milestones, including:

  • the first LDPE surgeries performed in the province of Nova Scotia;
  • the first patients in Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador receiving transplants;
  • matches and transplants for highly sensitized (difficult-to-match) patients; and
  • first instance where kidneys were shipped as part of a living donor exchange from one Canadian center to another, demonstrating that transporting the kidney rather than the donor is feasible in some circumstances.

Paul Shay, National Executive Director of The Kidney Foundation of Canada explains why the LDPE is important.

“A transplant is generally the preferred treatment for people whose kidneys have failed but far too many patients are dying while waiting. Each kidney transplant saves the health care system up to $40,000 annually.  The 57 transplants that have happened as a result of this registry will save the system millions of dollars and improve the quality of life of the transplant recipients beyond any monetary value.”

The concept of a national registry for LDPE was proposed by the Canadian Society for Transplantation and the Canadian Council for Donation and Transplantation (merged with Canadian Blood Services). It was developed, implemented, and is currently operated by Canadian Blood Services. Two more registries, the national organ urgent wait list and a registry for highly sensitized (difficult-to-match) kidney patients are now in development and are planned for roll-out in 2011.

Yesterday’s New York Times has an incredibly detailed and sad story about the final hours onboard the Deepwater Horizon drilling vessel.


Deepwater Horizon drilling vessel prior to capsizing and sinking. Photo from NY Times

I wrote about the disaster and the role poor risk management played in it in two Jun 2010 blog posts.

Google Books is a project sponsored by search engine giant Google to scan the pages of every book available, convert the scans to text using OCR, and make the resulting text corpus searchable. Not withstanding any remaining copyright disputes surrounding the project, Google has reached an agreement with most of the major copyright holders (authors and the publishers that represent them) around the world. So far, Google has scanned over 15 million books, most of which are no longer in print or commercially available. This database is a treasure trove for history scholars.

Last week, Google released a new statistics tool for the Google Books project called the Ngram Viewer. It it simple to use. You simply enter a list of words or phrases separated by a comma (each called an n-gram and is case-sensitive), the language (American English and British English can be searched separately), the date range (starting from 1500 to 2008, though the number of books is sparse before 1780 which makes the early data very spiky), and the amount of moving average smoothing to apply (long trends are easier to see with smoothing, but the individual yearly data is lost).

The Ngram Viewer is the best time series graphing toy I’ve seen.

There have been lots of stories in the press showing interesting trends in the popularity of certain words and phrases in books. For instance, Jennifer Valentino-DeVries of the Wall St. J. shows that Merry Christmas beats Happy Holidays by a big margin.


Merry Christmas vs Happy Holidays, Image from Google labs

Slate’s Tom Scocca has been posting an Ngram of the Day on the site comparing the frequency of words like shopping vs salvation and television vs the Bible. He even does a comparison between words and shows the year in which the two cross in popularity. For instance, anxiety passes shame in 1942.


anxiety vs. shame. Image from Google labs

Here’s a couple charts I created for the n-grams “independence” and “rebellion” in U.S. and British English. I have no idea what conclusions to draw from this data, but it is just begs for an explanation based on unfounded speculation. There is a spike in both words in U.S. books in the 1770s, but no spike in British literature. Independence becomes more popular than rebellion in books from both countries after about 1820. The word rebellion has a spike again in the U.S. from 1860 to 1870. The absolute occurrence of both words are similar in the two countries starting around 1900. Independence shows a spike from 1940 to 1942 and another spike around 1968 to 1970.



independence vs. rebellion, British (top) vs. American (bottom). Images from Google labs.

For the truly hardcore programmer, the n-gram datasets are available for download from Google. Their use is covered under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

The next step is for Google to add its Ngram Viewer toolkit to its Public Data Explorer visualization tool (see Mar 2010 blog post) to allow animations and drill down. I can hardly wait.

[Update: I rescaled the first two graphs to normalized the time spans.]

The team occupying the offices next to mine is working on robots. Because the work is proprietary, I can’t reveal the details of what they are building. Plus I’m not sure what they are doing, but it looks like fun.

So instead, I’ve done some searches on the web for stories on self-propelled computing devices and found several interesting applications.

Building your own robots

The two most popular platforms for building robots are Lego Mindstorms and the iRobot Create platform. There are several open source development environments for writing controllers for robots such as TeamBots and ARIA. But of course, I am most familiar with Microsoft Robotic Developer Studio. A few sample projects using Lego Mindstorms and MSRDS is available at Coding4Fun.

LegoMindstorms   iRobotCreate

Lego Mindstorms (image from Lego) and iRobot Create (image from Wikipedia)

Creating maps using mobile sensors

Microsoft recently released a motion capture sensor for its Xbox video game console. The device, known as Kinect, uses a combination of an infrared distance sensor, two video cameras, and motion capture software to generate a 3D image of a person’s body. The data are then transmitted to the Xbox console. The Kinect has a USB port and can be attached to any computing device. Some researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s personal robotics lab have mated the Kinect with an iRobot Create platform to create a mobile device that can generate a map of its surroundings in real-time. The robot also responds to hand signals. Check out the YouTube video (sorry no sound). The next step is to add the ability for the robot to fetch a ball and bark.


Playing fetch with an iRobot and Kinect . Video by MIT

Portable video conferencing device

Ever since the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey was released, the promise of convenient video conferencing has been just that, a promise. There are several video conferencing devices at work, but they are rarely used because you can’t really see what’s going on in the other side of the meeting. On occasion I try to use Skype to set up a video conference, but it never works quite right. I guess I’m just an incompetent Luddite. Oh well.

But a company called HeadThere wants to try another tactic. Rather than making video conferencing a way to bring a room to you, it wants to take you to the room. It has a robot called the Giraffe that consists of a monitor that sits on top of a 5-foot stalk. The monitor displays the face of the remote participant. Meanwhile, the remote participant can rotate the monitor and tilt it, which also directs the camera, speaker, and microphone. The remote user can also move the robot around as shown in the video below. (The video is over 8 minutes long, but you get the idea within the first 30 seconds).


HeadThere mobile telepresence robot. Video still from HeadThere

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