Posts Tagged ‘Google


the universe: it scales

In a recent post I listed books that really made an impression on me over the past couple of decades. They all had one thing in common: they all addressed parts of the scientific challenge of understanding the world from its most fundamental forces at the infinitely small-scale of sub-subatomic particles all the way up to the vastness of the outer fringe of the universe.

The trick is, regardless of where phenomena fall on the space/time scales, they observe laws and constants that are consistent with one another. Science, as a cardinal principle, rejects the notion that some phenomena work in ways that contradict phenomena on a greater or lesser scale.

That’s not to say that there aren’t some knowledge gaps in that concept. Some ssubatomic particles are still being sought by pushing smashing energies to new thresholds at the recently fired-up Large Hadron Collider (LHC). The goal of the LHC  is: “To smash protons moving at 99.999999% of the speed of light into each other and so recreate conditions a fraction of a second after the big bang.” The most minute fragments of matter and energy that come from these head-on collisions are consistent with the awesome images seen with other science tools like the cosmic gaze of the Hubble Space Telescope.

But the most fascinating thing for me is the very, very special scale of size and energy that has produced — at least here on Earth — the most complex processes of matter and energy we know of. We call it life. Even one cell is a more complex, subtle configuration of matter than any non-living entity. But life’s working processes are consistent with all the rest of natural forces smaller or greater in the universal scale. The universe permits complexity at all levels, but the greatest complexity evidently is reserved for a relatively narrow band of size (from macromolecules to the largest mammals) and of energy (from bacteria living in sub-surface lakes in Antarctica to the ecosystems of “smoker” vents of volcanic gas deep in mid-oceanic ridges).

Another reason this is fascinating is that the 21st century is seeing an intense examination of the size range of the constituents of living organisms. Physicists are making the most exquisitely sensitive measurements ever done of forces within atoms and molecules. Those measures and the incredible instruments that do them are not only providing insight about how the complex molecules of life operate (e.g., protein folding and mechanics) but we are on the verge of practical application in nano-scale devices previously considered the unfettered dreams of science fiction. For the last decade proofs of concept in nanotechnology have been making huge strides. Now attention is turning to the practical production of useful devices for medicine and electronics.

Since the industrial revolution we have mastered the control of vast energy to transform gross matter for what we needed. We’ve marveled at river-changing dams, skyscrapers, equipment that scrapes out hundreds of tons of earth in one pass, and rockets with thousands of tons of thrust. Now it will be our time to marvel at things way below our range of vision but that do things we’ve not experienced before. Mastery of the minute details of life processes will likely have greater transformational effect in the centuries to come than anything that has gone before.


My self-tracking: the prequel

I mentioned a few weeks ago that I’m doing my thing with adopting a permanent exercise and diet regimen. (Who isn’t?) This program has evolved. Starting back in July 2009 I wanted to get on a self-improvement track. At the same time I was getting interested in what I think is a very significant trend: health 2.0, participatory medicine, e-medicine or whatever else people are calling it.

I started by setting up accounts in both Google Health and HealthVault. Neither is very suitable for what I wanted to do: keep track of my exercise and diet. Both are designed to enable people to set up computer accessible versions of the records their doctor or health provider has. Fortunately I’ve been in good health most of my life, and I don’t have any complicated records of disease episodes or conditions to put in there — even if I wanted to. I say “if I wanted to” because it became apparent that getting records into these PHR (personal health record) systems either requires hooking-up with a limited number of providers, using go-betweens, or just getting your paper records and manually transferring everything in. It didn’t seem worth it in my case.

However, I discovered that HealthVault offers the option of linking your medical records account up to the MSN Health & Fitness site. Health & Fitness is specifically for recording exercise and food consumption. The data and graphs are then accessible in HealthVault.

Good idea, I thought, so I started recording what I was doing in the fitness form. The Health & Fitness recording system calls for you to make a daily exercise and diet plan. Then you keep track of what you actually eat and do for exercise that day and enter it at day’s end. The program then compares your goals with what you really did. That was a problem for me because I never know what I’m going to eat, and I wasn’t embarking on such a controlled diet routine that I was going to control it by, say, preparing and packing my lunch to the office. So, for me, the food consumption planning was useless.

Also, the interface for diet planning and recording is poor. You can search for a food or drink and select from alphabetical drop-down menus. But no matter how many times you have the same thing there’s no way to get a shortcut to your commonly consumed items. Finally, the exercise planning and recording is set up around running or gym workouts. All I wanted to focus on was walking. Believe me, I’m way beyond the six-pack-abs stage.

After about three or four days I realized this wasn’t going to be something I wanted to do for weeks much less years. There was way too much “paperwork” involved through an interface that wasn’t very helpful. Indeed, I ran smack into what I think is a very common obstacle for getting people engaged with health routines: doing the manual labor of keeping track of your progress. There are notorious hurdles in the way of people keeping up sustained health routines, and this is a big one.

I realized pretty quickly that I needed a better way of gathering my data. Coincidentally my cell phone contract was up for renewal, and I latched on to what I hoped (or rationalized) would be a big step forward in convenience of recordkeeping: the iPhone. That was the next phase on my self-tracking saga, and I’ll go into using a smartphone in more detail in the next installment.

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