Thursday, November 9, 2017

What's in a Word? Crapsule


It's possible that the microbiome, that collection of bacteria that live in our bodies (mostly the gut), may have as much influence on our health as our genetic makeup. After all, there are more than 150 times as many genes in those organisms as there are in our own genome. An imbalance in the microbiome, known as disbiosis, has been linked to many conditions, ranging from inflammatory bowel disease to autism, to patients' responses to certain cancer treatments. 

The first successful treatment relating to the microbiome was the use of faecal microbial transplants to treat C. difficile (brought on by overuse of antibiotics). FMT, as it is known, is exactly what it sounds like. And when you encapsulate those FMTs, they're called crapsules. And there's your word of the day. Read The Economist for more information.

Other Posts on Words

Monday, August 28, 2017

Harvey: Once-in-500-years-storm

In my recent post about the Dutch approach to preparing for storms and floods, I mentioned that their goal was to be ready for a once-in-a-thousand-years storm. We were told on a tour that America's goal is to be ready for a once-in-a-hundred-years storm. Since Harvey is being described as a once-in-500-years storm, it's not surprising Houston wasn't ready for it. I wonder if the Dutch would have coped?

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The E-mail Larry Page Should Have Written to James Damore

James Damore's infamous memo objecting to Google's attempts to recruit women - and thus discriminating against men, he claims - has generated a tsunami of response. It's the latest skirmish in the recent publicity around the discrimination and harassment women face in the tech industry.

The Economist took it upon themselves to pen the response to Damore's memo that Larry Page should have written rather than firing him. I liked it. Read it here.

This hit home for me, since I recently wrote a post about the negative stereotyping of women in tech. Read that post here.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Monday, July 31, 2017

Letting Go of What You Know To Prepare for a Once-in-a-Thousand-Years Storm

Trust Mark Twain to hit the nail on the head in his inimitably folksy way. Sometimes what you know never was true; sometimes it used to be true but conditions have changed and it's no longer true. But confirmation bias keeps us clinging to those beliefs even in the face of new information. We pay attention to any signals or data that support our belief and firmly disregard anything that challenges those beliefs. Furthermore, as Kathryn Schulz puts it in her book Being Wrong, "But the point is not that we are bad at saying "I don't know" (a fact she has just spent some pages illustrating). The point is that we are bad at knowing we don't know."

We can see this unwillingness to let go in emotionally-laden politics. We can see it in companies that persevere with business models that are clearly no longer tenable. You might think of Kodak, where digital photography was invented, refusing to acknowledge the assault on their film-based business model.  

Then, there's the Netherlands. As far back as the Iron Age, people in the Netherlands have been building dikes of ever increasing sophistication. This is not surprising in a country with a quarter of its land below sea level and fully one half is less than one meter above sea level. Building dikes to keep out the water or to reclaim land is part of their national DNA. Yet the Dutch have abandoned dike building as their main defence against devastating storms and floods and generally rising sea levels. They've let go of what they know - at least as the only solution.

A 1953 flood, when a major storm coincided with a high spring tide in the middle of the night, resulted in the loss of 1,836 people mostly over the space of a few hours (Katrina's death toll was 1833). This was their wake-up call.  They initiated Delta Works, a project to protect the Netherlands against a once-in-a-1,000-years storm. (As a reference point, Katrina was a once-in-hundred-years-storm and Hurricane Harvey has been described as a once-in-a-500-years storm.)

1  As a reference point, here is a photo of traditional dikes along a river and lower lying land from a recent trip to the Netherlands. (Also worth nothing is the fact that there are two bike lanes but only one lane for cars).

After the 1953 storm, the Dutch concluded that they just couldn't build the river dikes high enough for full protection. And besides it would be much too expensive. They had to stop the water before it reached the rivers. They still use sand dunes as a natural barrier along the sea shore. These large dunes needed to be reinforced annually, a significant task to dump the sand all kilometres of coastline. But the Dutch are so clever. They observed where sand was distributed naturally by tides and currents and concluded they could simply dump sand in a few strategic places and let nature distribute it where needed.

To protect further against the sea, they first built two dams south of Rotterdam. But this approach was problematic. Where once there had been a gradual change from salt water to fresh water, now there are two totally separated ecosystems on either side of the dam. The types of fish the fishermen used to fish disappeared. Solid dams were clearly not the answer.

3  Further south, at Oosterschelde, a different approach was taken in the 70s: to build gates that 
stay in a raised position normally but would be lowered during a storm. This allows the fish - and their predators the fishermen - to pass through freely. An excellent movie at the visitors' centre at Ooseterschelde describes how huge piers were placed on the ocean floor, sitting on ‘mattresses’ made of material filled with rocks to form a firm foundation. The mattresses were laid by being uncoiled off huge rollers on the back of special boats. The piers were built on shore on a huge dry dock, then towed out to sea after the dry dock was submerged. Then each pier was lifted off the dock and precisely placed on the mattress floor between the piers.  Lastly, a road  was laid on top.
The solution of gates that could be raised and lowered between fairly closely set piers wouldn't work at the mouth of the Rotterdam port. Once the largest ports in the world, Rotterdam is now surpassed by ports in Asia, but it’s still impressive. The day before, with many kilometres of piers b (numbered from 1 to 9900), that seem to stretch endlessly off the main road. 

The problem of protecting Rotterdam from the sea was difficult. Proposals were invited for techniques to close off the mouth of the river as required in the case of big storms, but leave it open for shipping. The winning proposal involved two huge arms (the size and twice the weight of two Eiffel Towers) which are swung in from either side of the estuary to close it off completely if there is a risk of the water level rising 3 metres in Rotterdam. It's designed to protect Rotterdam in the case of seas rising five meters above normal! You can see the scale of the arms that support the barrier from the picture of me standing by them.

These massive blocks of concrete are swung in by equally massive ball bearings, which can move in several directions, like shoulder joints. They have to move sideways to swing the barrier across the channel, an exercise which takes half an hour. Then the ball bearings have to be able to move up and down, as the concrete wall is filled with water and descends to fit on the concrete block on the bottom over an hour and a half. Here's a diagram from the New York Times article showing how everything fits together.

The system is tested once a year, and various disaster scenarios  each year. This bottom block gathers a metre of sediment every year. As the barrier slowly descends, the water is compressed and gathers speed and washes away the sediment. This is the reason for the slow descent. Brilliant.

This amazing piece of engineering was completed in 1997 after 6 years of construction, on time and on budget. Equally amazing. All the pieces were build in Holland, except for the massive ball bearings, which were made by Skoda in Czech Republic. The Canadian software firm CGI provided the software to control the barrier (a CGI employee told me this, but I have not independently verified).

The risk of flooding is assessed every ten minutes to check water levels and the risk of a big storm. When the software was designed in 1997, it took ten minutes to complete the calculations! Today the calculations complete in seconds, but the Dutch have not felt the need to do the calculation more often. When there is a risk, a warning is sent out to all ships with four hours notice so that they can determine if they have time to get past the barrier before closing. (Tug boats are on standby to haul ships away if there is a risk they’ll get caught as the barrier closes). At two hours, the decision to close becomes irrevocable and the countdown starts.

Having completed all these projects, the Dutch still didn't feel they had enough protection against flooding in an era of climate change and the inexorable rise in sea levels. So they had to overturn all their past thinking again. If you can't keep the water out, then you have to learn to live with it. So you start projects with another approach to the problem and brand them Room for the River. That's another radical change in thinking. They are building catchment areas for when, not if, there is flooding. Some of these catchment areas are lakes designed to overflow, some are used as recreational areas, some even as parking lots. It's another stage in the remarkable evolution of their thinking.

The Dutch have turned their preoccupation with water into an exportable expertise.The Dutch have consulted on water management for a long time; in fact, long ago, they helped the English drain the fens. And they are consulting around the world about this approach today (as described in this wonderful New York Times article). Toronto has also adopted the Dutch 'Live with the Water' approach in dealing with the threat of flooding of the Don River, as described here. Let's hope their expertise helps save many shores threatened by rising sea levels.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Who Killed the Ridiculous Senate Healthcare Bill - McCain or Women?

Three Republicans broke ranks to kill the Republican Healthcare bill very early this morning. McCain is being acclaimed as a hero, as indeed he is. Bravo for him.

Let's not forget the women who withstood intense pressure and threats and voted their conscience. And they came out against the bill early so they drew a lot of fire. Bravo for the women.

  • Two out of five Republican women voted against the bill. That's 40%.
  • One man out of 47 Republican men voted against the bill. That's 2%.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Netherlands June 2017

I usually keep a travel diary for trips. The one for our upcoming trip to the Netherlands can be found here. Short trip - should be short diary.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The 'Mom Test'

Coinbase allows people to buy and sell digital currencies and exchange them with fiat currency. For most people, digital currency can be confusing and intimidating. Coinbase is out to change that and make it simple. On Bloomberg TV yesterday, Adam White of Coinbase, to explain how simple their system is, described it as having passed the 'Mom test.'

How many times have I heard male technology executives describe their software as 'so easy even my Mom could use it'? Too many to count. You get a twofer with such a remark, offending both women and older people. This time, something snapped. So I wrote an irate email to Coinbase. 

I'm writing about Adam White's recent appearance on Bloomberg TV. He referred to the 'Mom Test'. This expression is totally offensive. Mr. White should be ashamed of himself.

Tech executives (almost always men) typically describe an application as so easy to use 'that even my mom could use it'. No one could get away with saying something was so easy to use that 'even a black person could use it', or 'even a gay person could use it'. What makes men think it's acceptable to make such a derogatory statement about women? There are countless households (including mine) where the resident tech is the female in the house. 

Statements such as Mr. White's also fly in the face of sincere and concerted efforts to attract girls and women to STEM, where there is a shortage of talent. What young girl would think she's capable of a successful career in STEM when such comments float around the ether (pun intended).

Lib Gibson
a tech pioneer who has been using email since 1970, who led global networked application development in the 80s, who was CEO of a mobile data company in the 80's, who launched Canada's largest ISP in the 90s, who ran Canada's largest Internet company in the 90's and 00's and who currently serves on various high tech boards of directors

(Pardon those last phrases. I was pretty sensitive about being labelled as a dumb old woman!)

To my amazement, almost immediately I received an email from Adam, followed by a phone call today. Adam is a very pleasant young man and he was most apologetic about his words. I started out upset with him and ended up an admirer.

Adam said Coinbase was very dedicated to diversity in their work place, pointed out that his own mother, an engineer, was the techie in his own home, and explained that he meant no offence. Basically he seemed puzzled about what made him use this phrase - he usually describes the Dad Test. (That's only a onefer as you only insult older people.)

Adam acknowledged that his careless statement was wrong, and that it contributed to the stereotyping of women as non-technical - not to mention older people. He said he was grateful to have it pointed out and would change his language in the future. It just shows how deeply the stereotype is embedded, if a well-meaning young man like Adam can use an offensive phrase so nonchalantly. I've challenged this kind of language often, but never received such a fulsome apology and commitment to behaving differently. We women should make sure we never let such remarks pass without commenting on them.

Adam and I had a discussion about what phrase he could use instead of Mom Test, and the best we could think of was "it's so easy that anyone can use it". Not as good a sound bite as the Mom Test. Any ideas out there for a better catch-phrase?

Thursday, April 27, 2017

The Last Men in Aleppo

A city under attack. Devastation everywhere. People struggling to live in the brutality of war. Eyes  looking ever upward in fear of the next attack. Courageous volunteer Syrian White Hats working to free survivors from the rubble. A charismatic central character, Khaled, a big burly guy with a big burly personality. World Cinema Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. No wonder I expected a lot of this Hot Docs movie.

The Last Men in Aleppo was moving - and horrifying. For an hour and 40 minutes, one felt as if one were living in the ravaged city of Aleppo, worse than the words of news reports can convey, as people struggle to live in bombed-out buildings, and fear to take their children to a playground.

Yet, as a movie, it was rather unsatisfying. Essentially, the sequence was: Russian planes arrive. Bombs drop. The White Hat team rushes headlong into danger as fast as their rattletrap truck will go. They work with excavators, shovels, pickaxes and hands to rescue people. Sometimes they find a survivor. More often they find dead bodies, or dead body parts. Not enough body bags to handle the dead. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

The repetition of the same scenario dulled its impact. What elicited gasps in the audience at the start drew only silence as the movie progressed. Granted, the scenario was interspersed with  a few scenes of the men discussing again and again the eternal question, whether to leave Aleppo or not. But it's their city, and the camps in Turkey are not a very pleasant alternative. So they stay. The eternal discussion underlined the trap they were in and the hopelessness of their situation. The movie is leavened by some charming scenes of Khaled with his captivating little daughter (the only time we see a female in the movie, except in one crowd scene), and his quixotic purchase of some tropical fish for his rebuilt fountain and pond. But essentially it was rather repetitive.

The movie ends with a horrific body blow, as we see Khaled's body laid out on a plank. The shovels and pick axes are put to work digging his grave. A brave man who lost his life while he worked as a White Hat.