Point-of-use medical tests go extreme:  sperm tests on a smartphone

Device costs less than $5 and can accurately measure the number and speed of swimmers. Source: With racy sperm pics on a smartphone, men can easily test fertility | Ars Technica If  only Theranos could do as well!

This is just a research project. But it’s still impressive. Smartphones have elaborate sensors, computation, networking, and even databases. Adding a custom sensor modifier will bring lots of inexpensive tests, medical and otherwise.

Medicine Grand Rounds at Stanford

Yesterday I gave a Grand Rounds presentation at Stanford Med School. My title was

Craft, Standardization and Automation: Powerful yet Perilous Paradigms for Control when Lives are at Stake

Most of my talk was about the adoption of procedures (checklists) by US military aviation, during and after WW II. It has close analogies to the situation of health-care today.  Here is my short presentation.  A much longer presentation, with more examples but without discussion of medicine, is here.

Initially, I was concerned that my topic might seem too esoteric for Stanford’s medical faculty. However, their Medical Grand Rounds program covers a lot of ground. My topic was only 1.5 standard deviations away from the mean.

For more of my research on flying paradigms and how technologies evolve from crafts to sciences, please see this page.


Art to Science: in making whiskey barrels

Whiskey is aged in oak barrels, and oak wood is highly variable. But barrel-making can still become much more scientific.

“Twenty-five years ago, it was more art than science. Now we have a healthy dose of science in with the art.” Larry Combs, the general manager for Jack Daniel’s

Recently, the two companies completed the decade-long Single Oak Project, in which they made 192 barrels, each using the wood from a single log, to find what constituted the “perfect” bourbon. (Among other things, they found that wood from the bottom of a tree made for the best aging.). Computers track each stave as it moves through assembly, while sensors analyze staves for density and moisture content. Instead of guessing how much to toast a barrel, operators use lasers and infrared cameras to monitor the temperature of the wood and the precise chemical signature that the heat coaxes to the surface — all subject to the customer’s desired flavor profile.“They’ve developed technologies so that if we say we want coconut flavors, they can apply this or that process” — like applying precise amounts of heat to different parts of the wood to tease out certain flavors — “and we’ll have it,” said Charles de Pottere, the director of production and planning at Jackson Family Wines…

… Black Swan makes barrels with a honeycomb design etched on the inside, which increases surface area and reduces a whiskey’s aging time.

Their approach: learn by experimentation, and use the new knowledge for tight process control. Same approach as machining, aviation, …. And this is a 400+ year old industry. Now I just need a word that’s better than “science” to describe this approach. (See my previous post.)

Last comment: according to the article, one of the main forces driving willingness to learn was competition from superior French barrels.

Source: Packing Technology Into the Timeless Barrel – The New York Times

Help! What’s a better way to say “art versus science?”

I’ve been working with a  colleague, Don Norman, on analyzing how the field of design has changed and will evolve in an era of smart machines. Don is back at UCSD, although since he retired from here about 20 years ago, he is limited to a fractional salary We overlapped at UCSD briefly, but I never appreciated what a usefully disruptive influence he can be. Or how many books he has written over the years.

I generally refer to “art and science” as opposite ends of a spectrum of how people work and how technologies evolve. See “Art to science” as a category in this blog. “Art to science” is widely used: “Job X is a mixture of art and science.” But neither word is correct.

Instead of “art,” I now use the correct term, which is “craft.”

But Don keeps pointing out that  “science” is not correct, either. Science is very important to technology, but it is a philosophy/methods for doing research, not for normal operation. What is a better  term? I keep thinking there should be a good Greek term, and I just located  this discussion of the Greek words Techne, Praxis, and Phronesis. But none of them is correct. Of course, the Greeks were pre-industrial by 2000 years, so it’s not surprising if they had no concept for “systematic and well understood work.”

Perhaps the Romans had  a word for  describing “the military science of systematically butchering barbarians?”   Any suggestions?

How flying changed from a craft to a science: Chapter 1 available

I have just uploaded Chapter 1 of my book manuscript. It summarizes four revolutionary changes in how people flew. It outlines some themes of the full book, including People and Work and Is Science Inevitable?. And of course it includes a few gripping tales of accidents averted – or not.

Commercial aviation today is very safe and scientific. But it wasn’t always. Please send comments, anything from typos to critiques.

Over August I will put up some photographs and key tables from the full book.

Some flying still relies on personal skill

For some reason I take comfort in knowing that there are still aviation jobs that have a high degree of craft (art). According to this article, a lot of the training is by apprenticeship (copiloting), which was the only way to learn flying in the 1930s.

Most of my aviation research emphasizes how craft skills are becoming less important. And indeed there is also a lot of procedural science in mosquito spraying. But in a variety of high-variety, high-risk aviation, expertise is still key. Other examples are bush flying and low-altitude military flying.

Source: Expert Pilots Keep Disease-Carrying Mosquitoes in Check | Flying Magazine


Not your grandfather’s crop duster!

Google/Alphabet continues toward Total Person Awareness: tracking every vehicle + person.

Secretive Alphabet division aims to fix public transit in US by shifting control to Google (from The Guardian)

Documents reveal Sidewalk Labs is offering a system it calls Flow to Columbus, Ohio, to upgrade bus and parking services – and bring them under Google’s management.


The emails and documents show that Flow applies Google’s expertise in mapping, machine learning and big data to thorny urban problems such as public parking. Numerous studies have found that 30% of traffic in cities is due to drivers seeking parking.

Sidewalk said in documents that Flow would use camera-equipped vehicles,…. It would then combine data from drivers using GoogleMaps with live information from city parking meters to estimate which spaces were still free. Arriving drivers would be directed to empty spots.

Source: Secretive Alphabet division aims to fix public transit in US by shifting control to Google

Notice that this gives Google/Alphabet a legitimate reason to track every car in the downtown area. Flow can be even more helpful if they know  the destination of every car AND every traveler for the next hour.
The next logical step, a few years from now, will be to track the plans of every person in the city. For example Mary Smith normally leaves her house in the suburbs at 8:15AM to drive to her office in downtown Columbus. Today, however, she has to drop off daughter Emily (born Dec 1, 2008, social security number 043-xx-xxxx) at school, so she will leave a little early. This perturbation in normal traffic can be used to help other drivers choose the most efficient route. Add  together thousands of these, and we can add real-time re-routing of buses/ Uber cars.
For now, this sounds like science fiction.  It certainly contains the ability to improve transit efficiency and speed, and “make everyone better off.” But it comes at a price. Yet many are already comfortable with Waze tracking their drives in detail.
Tune back in 10 years from now and tell me how I did.