Sunday, February 27, 2011

Thank You!

Thank you all for the encouragement over the last few months as I've worked on Toyota's Ideas for Good challenge.  All my ideas have now been submitted for the judges (and world) to see.  And thank you for your patience with all the recent posts as the final deadline loomsed.  Hopefully you all took away some good ideas yourselves and created some intriguing submissions as well.

There is one last idea that came up during my final push that I didn't get a chance to blog about, but feel free to take inspiration yourself from it as you finish the race yourselves:
  • Walking on Robotic Legs: Walking is a difficult task for robots and artificial limbs to perform.  The movements of over 200 tendons, muscles and ligaments in the leg and foot, as well as the upper body muscles that maintain balance, are too big to recreate with current technology.   So we need to reduce the number of components to a level that can be manufactured within the size of a normal human leg.  THUMS can help by randomly and selectively eliminating certain real muscles in simulations and testing the result on walking stability.  THUMS can also show only the muscles used in a potential artificial limb design and compare the result to actual THUMS simulation runs.  All will lead to better robotic limbs for people relying on prosthetics due to injury.
So thank you once again for the encouragement and I hope your submissions have benefited from my work here on the blog.  Now we just wait for the results.  May the best ideas win!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Final Post (for now) on Ideas for Good

There's nothing like a looming deadline to get those creative juices flowing.  So I've added two more draft submissions below for you to peruse and comment on, or for you to build on with your own innovative entries.  We're here to help each other and create the very best ideas we can.
  • Improve Motorcycle Training and Rider Safety: Many states and countries require motorcycle for training to gain a license, and each year over 400,000 Americans enroll in Motorcycle Training Courses and learn to ride a bike for the first time. All to address the over 4,000 riders who die each year in accidents.  To improve training and save more lives, I propose reversing the Advanced Parking Guidance System so it moves forward on a closed course while navigating fake traffic obstacles. Like training wheels, the system would steer around trouble areas while the driver only worries about staying upright and in control.  Over time the driver will gain confidence and will drive the course themselves while keeping the system only in case of emergencies. 
  • Improving Crane Safety: Industrial tower cranes and shipyard gantries are powerful pieces of equipment that require the gentlest touch to use.  While soaring above skyscrapers and seaports in high winds, operators must handle multiple controls with both hands while simultaneously watching their swinging load. I propose adding a heads-up Touch Tracer display in cockpits so operators can see exactly which controls they are using.  Combined with a birds-eye view and cameras projecting cargo close-ups operators get the complete picture.   A leading cause of crane accidents is operator error; with cranes lifting over 30 tons and costing millions of dollars each, preventing even the smallest accident is important.
  • Training Faster and Stronger Olympians: Olympic athletes train for years to be faster and stronger than their competition and learn the best possible technique.  To  maximize their performance, THUMS could be adapted to better understand the body mechanics of various sports and teach athletes the best way to compete. Athletic motions like lifting weights, pitching baseballs, or throwing javelins can be analyzed to find the perfect technique that maximizes the bodies' muscles as a whole.  It can also identify key muscles required to compete in sports like rowing or biking, and helping athletes isolate them for training.  It also makes the Olympics safer.  By understanding every motion trainers can teach athletes how to reduce injuries and prolong their careers.
Do these sound good to you?  Let me know in the comments below.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Adding Cranes to our "Ideas for Good"

We're down to six days left until the submission deadline.  I'm still eager to hear your comments on yesterday's draft submission before sending it in, but in the meantime I want to continue with the new idea we started discussing -- using the Touch Tracer display in heavy cranes and other construction equipment.  It's a new idea so first we need to write a statement of need (visit our previous posting on the brainstorming rules).

This is the third idea to pass the Statement of Need phase and I'm hoping to draft a full submission for tomorrow.  So let me know what you think in the comments below.  Every extra set of eyes helps!

Monday, February 21, 2011

Continuing the "Ideas for Good" Push...

Just one more week to go!  The Toyota "Ideas for Good" challenge closes for entries next Sunday so we need to keep improving our submissions and take a last look for new ideas.  I've got more for everyone to think about, but more on that at the bottom. 

Let's get to issues with our current ideas first.  The ideas for Adapting Solar-Powered Ventilation Systems to livestock and horse trailers has brought up two issues we need to address.  One is from a kind commenter who noted seeing something similar in an actual Toyota commercial.  While looking for it online the closest I saw were some submitted ideas for refrigerated trucks and didn't see the exact idea.  Maybe that's just my poor googling skills.  But either way it needs to be creatively differentiated in any submission to oversome this potential obstacle.  There is also the rule from Toyota that ideas can't be used in the automotive industry, including "cars, car manufacturing, or car sales".  I still think this idea sits outside those parameters and is eligible but we must be certain to address that when crafting the submission.

That being said I'd like to draft two submissions to get things started.  Hopefully you have some thoughts on how to improve these or even encourage you to submit a similar idea.  And it let's us draft first and review later so we can edit it with fresh eyes (as the judges certainly will).

  • Solar-Powered Horse Trailer Cooling: There are nearly 10 million horses in the US and many travel short distances to local trailheads and county fairs, and long distances for horse show competitions.  But these trips can expose horses to dangerous temperature swings since very few horse trailers are air-conditioned/heated, and those that are rely on power from gasoline engines.  There are also many laws on the humane transport of horses.  So I propose adding solar-powered ventilation to horse trailers to keep the interior temperature-controlled while on the road.  Rest stops on hot days can also be tough on animals but can be mitigated through solar cooling.  This could also be used on trailers transporting livestock or even circus animals!
  • Touch Tracers in Schools: Each year over 10 million elementary school children learn handwriting, and schools could use the Touch Tracer Display technology to provide teachers new tools to improve the learning process.  Students would practice writing at their desks on an adapted Touch Tracer pad that would transmit the writing real-time to a monitor on the teacher's desk (or to a mobile tablet).  Teachers would watch their own displays and identify which students need personal assistance.  It would also be useful for teaching children with developmental or learning disabilities (such as dyslexia) by identifying the key obstacles these students must overcome and for researchers to better understand the fine-motor development process in children.

Finally, my new idea is adapting the Touch Tracer Display technology to construction equipment and industrial displays.  In construction, tall crane operators would receive a heads-up visual display of the controls they are pushing while watching heavy steel being lifted or a buildng be carefully demolished.  Although operators may be hundreds of feet in the air the loads they are moving may have only inches of clearance.  So providing a heads-up display would help them maintain tighter control over their movements and prevent costly accidents. 

Alternatively, industrial control rooms could connect the instrument controls used by machine operators to screens veiweable by other workers.  For highly dangerous operations this would allow colleagues to beter coordinate their actions and prevent accidents.

So those are today's thoughts.  But I'm also interested in what you think.  I'm eager to hear your thoughts on my submissions and am happy to help you with any ideas you are developing.  So add to the comments below and let's help each other win this contest!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Statements of Need for our Toyota Entries

The Toyota "Ideas for Good" contest ends in two weeks so it's time to finish the brainstorming, roll up our sleeves, and get to work.  Of the ideas we've brainstormed I chose these three to put together statements of need.  They seemed the most promising and worth the extra effort.  I should also add this statement of need exercise helped me eliminate many ideas that just weren't very compelling.  So that should help focus our efforts too.
  • Incorporate the Solar Powered Ventilation System to Horse (or livestock) Trailers: There are approximately 10.5 million horses in the United States, which are used primarily for recreation and entertainment. These horses travel locally and cross-county, and are responsible for generating over $40 billion per year in spending.  But long trips and even rest stops can expose horses to wide variations in temperature (for standard horse trailers) or use up extra energy for air-conditioned trailers.  There are also many State and Federal laws on the humane transport of horses.  So additional comfort improvements may also improve compliance by transporters.
  • Adapt the Touch Tracer Display Technology for Teaching Handwriting: Every year over 10 million elementary school children learn handwriting, and can use the Touch Tracer Display technology to practice their letters and get immediate feedback on their success. It could be especially useful for children with developmental or learning disabilities (such as dyslexia or dysgraphia).  On a similar note, researchers could also the technolgoy to understand the fine-motor learning process in children. 
  • Use the Parking Guidance System to Teach Motorcycle Safety: There are over 6 million motorcycles registered in the US, and each year over 400,000  Americans enroll in Motorcycle Training Courses and learn to ride a bike for the first time.  Many countries require motorcycle for training to gain a license, and many states have incorporated safety school requirements in their license requirements.  All this training helps address the over 4,000 riders who die each year in accidents.  Hopefully this technology will improve driver training and awareness and keep future riders alive.
Finally, as an added bonus I checked the Ideas for Good sharing site Gallery of Submitted Ideas and none of these ideas have been added yet.  So we're still in the hunt with original ideas!  All we need is a little extra push with your own ideas in the comments below, so I'm interested to hear what you think.  And hey, feel free to use these ideas yourself and add your own spin...I'm just trying to help us all have fun with it.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

How was the Weather?

Most citizen science weather projects fit into two categories.  There are the highly passive distributed computing weather projects that ask people to model climate change on their computers.  This is very useful and important work but isn't as interactive or satisfying as one would hope.  The other type asks for direct observations from citizen scientists using their own weather equipment.  While interesting and interactive it can also get pricey, and is not for everyone.  In the sweet spot in between lies the OldWeather project.

OldWeather is another Zooniverse project that combines simplicity of learning and scientific rigor with an engaging science experience.  The project utillizes the thousands of weather readings taken by sailors of the UK Royal Navy to better understand world (and ocean) weather between 1900-1940.  This data set even includes data from uninhabited parts of the world (such as Antarctica) where no other data exists.  Not only does this help us understand weather patterns 100 years ago but is useful for creating, and testing, climate models for tomorrow. 

Project scientists have imaged log books from nearly 250 Royal Navy ships and asks your help digitizing the data.  Just follow the handy guides to record the handwritten data that a computer can't read but a human like you can.  This will provide the data, location, and weather conditions encountered all those years ago.

An added bonus of this site is learning about the ships and gaining insight into the daily events of each voyage.  You can pick a ship and track its progress across the sea as you move through the days.  The program even adds representations of the weather you're in the middle of transcribing.  So even if your just reading naval logs the project designers do a great job of keeping things interesting.

Getting Started is Easy:
  1. Visit OldWeather: Home and click "Get Started" to sign in with your existing Zooniverse profile.  If you have not previously registered for another of their projects all it takes is your name, e-mail address, and a password to sign up.
  2. View the OldWeather: Tutorial web page including the videos and explanatory text.  All it takes is five minutes to understand the simple user interface.
  3. Review the OldWeather: Vessels web page to find a ship you want to follow.  It doesn't really matter scientifically or impact the project, but helps build a connection to the men (and women) who lived on the vessel and meticulously recorded the data for posterity.
  4. Click on the Transcribe Logs button, get out your glasses, and have fun!
For you fans of weather projects I highly recommend this project as a way to round out your experience.  Transcribe the data from yesteryear, use your own equipment to find today's weather, and  develop models to figure out tomorrow's.  The best part is you can do them all in the same night!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Earth Speaks. Is Anyone Listening?

Scientists have been listening for signals of intelligent life for decades and we haven't heard anything yet.  But when we do, what should humanity say back?  EarthSpeaks hopes to start answering that question.

All the EarthSpeaks team asks is for people to upload a phrase, picture, or sound they believe should be sent if we ever do make contact.  By collecting entries from across the globe a wide variety of perspectives can be obtained to better understand not just what can be said, but also how it may be understood or even misunderstood.  After all, we don't want create any cosmic faux pas!
Another important aspect is keyword tagging descriptions of each to identify common themes amongst the messages.  These too can be analyzed to understand the overall message people are attempting to communicate and not just the actual words (or images or sounds).  Fortunately, all they are asking is for less than five minutes of your time.

Getting Started is Easy:
  1. Visit the Earth Speaks web page and click over to the login screen.
  2. Register to use the site by providing your name, country, zip code and age.  Since everyone's entries are actually considered research on people (which is regulated), you will also need to eelctronically "sign" the consent form.
  3. Click on Submit Message to identify the type of message you wish to send (text, audio, or image). 
  4. Enter your text in the appropriate field or attach the image/audio file you wish to use.  You will also be asked for some keywords that best describe your message.
  5. That's it.  Go sign up, be creative, and have fun!
A tip of the hat  goes to science editor Alan Boyle whose article brought it to our attention.  So do him a favor and check it out the full article yourself.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Book Review - The Man Who Loved China

Welcome to the OpenScientist Book-of-the-Month club.  Up first, "The Man Who Loved China", a biography of amateur China and science historian Joseph Needham.

Over the years author Simon Winchester has shown himself an expert in telling the stories of the exciting but eccentric people who have risen from obscurity to make lasting contributions to modern science.  In "The Professor and the Madman" he chronicled the works of Dr. William Minor, a U.S. Army surgeon and amateur linguist whose love of language allowed him to be one of the foremost citizen contributors to the original Oxford English Dictionary.  All this despite being locked up in an asylum the entire time.  Winchester similarly tells the story of surveyor William Smith in "The Map that Changed the World", a man whose insights and private passion for geology led him to create the first geological map of England and to collect a large fossil collection to support the burgeoning theory of evolution.  The author now sets his sights on another worthy man.

To Winchester, Joseph Needham is a man whose ambition and knowledge are exceeded only by his passion.  This manifests in his personal life through passions for women (including his one-time student and long-time mistress Lu Gwei-djen), worker's rights, and public nude bathing.  But all these passions pale to the excitement he felt for the Chinese people and the centuries of technological development that even most Chinese failed to grasp.  It was this passion for China and it's technological development brought him acclaim from far and wide. In time even his Chinese History colleagues would swallow their pride and recognize the giant strides the amateur Needham had made in the field.

In the following selection (page 69), Winchester describes the joy Needham felt as he began to grasp the importance of his search:

"Needham was making discoveries about China that very few -- whether Chinese or foreigners -- had ever managed to make before.  As a result, he was becoming ever more convinced.  With no more than just a little inquiry he -- a biochemist! an amateur! -- was finding out things about China that the Chinese themselves didn't know, and that even the most revered members of the small corps d'elite of Chinese scholars in the West didn't know either.  He was in consequence coming to the very firm conclusion that the book about which he and Gwei-djen had spoken so many times truly deserved to be more than just a vague notion.  It needed to be written, if for no other reason than to establish once and for all a just and proper reputation for China."
Once the discoveries began Needham spent increasing amounts of time in China traveling throughout the country.  As an English ambassador trying to help Chinese academics during the Japanese occupation by Japan, he met Chinese scientists, archaeologists, and historians who were able to give him pieces of the puzzle.  But even that had never fully grasped the bigger picture of China's advancement compared to the West.  Over the years he found numerous examples of eastern scientists being far ahead of the west, including discoveries of the compass (lodestone navigation), building of suspension bridges, woodblock printing, early cameras (camera obscura) and the seed drill. 

After years of collection it was finally time to put it all together.  Over the next 50 years he and his colleagues would write the 27 (and counting) volume tome "Science and Civilisation in China".  It continues being written to this day, based on the notes and collections obtained all those years ago.  And while a new generation is writing on his behalf his legacy will always be enshrined, much the way he always imagined it would.  On page 220 Winchester writes:
The public remembrance of great scientists, [Needham] concluded, could endure well beyond that of people whom mere accident of birth had made famous in their lifetimes.  This had been the case with Leonardo.  Perhaps, he suggested, it might one day be the same for him.
In Winchester's hands, Needham comes across as a man who let his passion for science and discovery drive him and who never let someone tell him he did not have the credentials for discovery.  It was his very "amateur" status, in fact, that allowed him to see what many others could not.  That may be his greatest legacy, and both Winchester and Needham look to us to fulfill it.

But that's just my opinion.  What did you think of the book?  Have you read any other books you think I'd enjoy?  Please share your comments below.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Getting Hooked on the (World Computing) Grid

As promised, below is a listing of the distributed computing projects the World Community Grid is hoping you will join.  The various projects are focused on solving important problems in public health, disease, and alternative energy research.  You don't need to help with them all, but volunteering computer time to just one or two of these projects is always appreciated. 
  • Computing for Clean Water: Creating a high-technology but ultra-cheap method for cleaning dirty water requires careful understanding of how water flows through the filter.  This project examines the molecular dynamics of water flowing through nanotubes, thought to be one of the more promising ways to a highly-effective, cost-efficient water filtration system of the future.
  • Help Fight Childhood Cancer: Help test over 3 million potential drugs that can bind and block three specific proteins involved in neuroblastoma, one of the more common types of childhood cancer.
  • Help Conquer Cancer:  To better understand proteins involved in cancer formation and growth scientists first need to isolate and crystallize them as a way to understand their shape.  Crystallizing is the tricky part and requires millions of attempts (by robots) to find just the right conditions to cause crystallization.  This project analyzes images of each cystallization attempt to determine how well each worked and decide the best way to improve the process.
  • FightAIDS@Home: Help scientists stop the AIDS virus from maturing inside infected cells by searching for drugs that perfectly cling to and de-activate part of the AIDS virus called HIV Protease. 
  • The Clean Energy Project (Phase II): This project first attempted to increase the efficiency of solar cells by identifying organic molecules that best collect, store and transfer energy from the sun. By testing a massive number of potential candidates through distributed mathematical modeling scientists hoped to greatly increase solar cell efficiencies and test the best ways to manufacture them. Now that many candidates have been discovered Phase II will look to further narrow the candidate pool by performing detailed calculations at the quantum mechanical level.
  • Discovering Dengue Drugs - Together (Phase II); The project's first phase tested nearly 3 million "small drug-like molecules" to find ones that can successfully stop Dengue, West Nile, and other viruses from replicating inside infected cells.  Phase II is narrowing down the most promising drug candidates from Phase I to the most effective replication blockers, and thus the best candidates for future drugs. 
  • Help Cure Muscular Dystrophy (Phase II): The project's first phase aimed to understand how 168 different human proteins interact with each other and their biological environment.  With that complete the project is looking to understand interactions for 2200 more proteins.  Many of these are associated with Muscular Dystrophy and other neuromuscular diseases, so understanding these proteins is vital to understanding the disease.
  • Human Proteome Folding (Phase II): The project's first phase successfully characterized the basic structure of a number of both natural human proteins as well as some (dangerous) pathogen proteins.  The second phase aims to understand them in even greater detail and better understand how the protein actually functions.
Getting Started is Easy:
  1. Review the sites above to find the projects of most interest to you.
  2. Visit and click the "Join Today" button.  All you need is a username, e-mail, and password to sign up.
  3. Download the project software on the Download web page and allow it to install on your computer.
  4. Launch the program, sign in with your username and password.
  5. Click on "New Project" and attach yourself to the projects that most interest you.  You can also sign onto the World Community Grid: My Projects page to control which projects to work on.
  6. That's all there is to it.  Let your computer do all the work while you go outside (play with the kids, read a book, whatever your heart desires) and have fun!
Is there anything I missed?  Just let me know in the comments below.

Monday, February 7, 2011

World Community Grid - What are your Thoughts?

Last week I talked about the satisfaction obtained by joining Distributed Computing projects that borrow your computer's help to solve computationally-massive problems.  I also put up a new page on the site devoted strictly to Distributed Computing projects so they can all be accessed in one place.

Since then I've also been looking some more projects from the World Community Grid.  Initiated by IBM, partner organizations team up to utilize the network's volunteers for public health, disease, and alternative energy research.  They have already completed a number of initial projects and continue to grow with the following (still active projects). 
I will have more on these in a few days, but for the time being check 'em out and let me know what you think. I'd love to include your thoughts in the next big posting!