After many years of blogging, and consistent with my desire to move toward retirement, we have ended the Insights blog. Thanks to Doug Bedell for his years of blog support.

Technology Tracking Us Down

Posted on April 29, 2010
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It’s getting so that technology can follow you anywhere, sometimes with adverse consequences for the follower.

The Lower Merion School District outside Philadelphia, one of Pennsylvania’s, if not the nation’s, finest school districts, is in expensive legal trouble for using LANrev asset-tracking software surreptitiously in hopes of turning up missing school-issued laptop computers. When activated by district personnel, the software took 56,000 or more photos of students in their homes and bedrooms from the webcams on their laptops, unknown to the kids themselves or their parents. When the district allegedly stonewalled on what  its IT people were doing, a couple of parents filed a lawsuit that’s likely to cost the Lower Merion schools a bundle.

Ireland’s Aer Lingus airline isn’t monitoring passengers any more than they’re being scrutinized by security people these days, but it’s turning their seats into onboard, online shopping malls. A news release from GuestLogix, Inc., says that, with a multi-year Aer Lingus deal, it’s now providing its onboard credit-card-propelled shopping service  to “35 percent of global airline passenger traffic.”

There you are, high above the clouds, and the urge strikes to buy a new pair of cufflinks. No problem; a sales device is at hand. (We thought on a recent flight we were asked to keep cell phones and other such electronic equipment turned off, but maybe that was just on takeoff and landing.)

We’re wondering if we’ll come to a point at which society will say, in some manner, “Just because we can do it, doesn’t mean we will do it. That sort of thinking might make some technologist friends jittery, but some of the devices they’re coming up with are making us a little queasy. – Doug Bedell

Attention Should Be Paid, Because It’s Appreciated

Posted on April 25, 2010
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Our attention was drawn to two stories in the Sunday papers on means of paying attention to others, once you recognize that paying attention is important. For teenagers with electronic devices and lots of friends, that’s a no brainer. For busy doctors, however, paying attention to patients in an effective manner while spending as little time with them as necessary make take some – attention.

Ivey Dejesus in The Patriot-News, covering Central Pennsylvania, writes that, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, kids from eight to 18 plugged into electronic media spend 53 hours a week “texting, e-mailing, tweeting, posting on Facebook, catching a favorite show on or playing ‘Dungeon Hunter.'”  That amounts to an average of seven hours and 38 minutes a day. With multitasking on their media, it comes to more in terms of content created or controlled.

Dejesus adds that cell phone texting “has become the preferred mode of communication among teens,” according to the Pew Center.

Parents don’t get as upset over their kids’ fixation on electronic media as you might think. That’s because the odds are increased that they at least know where the kids are, or can call them on their cell phones to find out. Some parents buy GPS-type family locator phone plans to help them keep track of  their kids. And some even call them when they’re in school, at a math class for instance, definitely not cool.

When we were growing up, model railroads, chemistry sets, bikes or dolls were the thing. We tended to stay close to home because meeting and dating the opposite sex was sometimes more than a little trying. Then, of course, along came television, and we spent hours glued to the tube.

Having kids in constant touch through texting or other forms of computer communication can presumably be a good thing because it makes forming relationships easier and more conversational, and that’s healthy. Some kids, of course, use unfortunate texting judgment in the photos they share, but educational campaigns are catching up with those misguided practices.

So let the kids be connected; maybe it will translate into a better connected country and society when they grow up.

Doctors should already know the value of paying heed to their patients and how to accomplish that in their brief encounters with them. Many do, but how many of them realize it’s best to sit with a patient rather than stand before them?  Supposedly mannerisms that communicate well are taught in medical schools, but  doctors get too busy to remember what they may feel are pretty subtle distinctions.

Not really so, reports Alan Bavley for the McClatchy newspapers in The Lebanon (Pa.) Daily News. Researchers at the University of Kansas Hospital in Kansas City, Kan., have found that doctors who sit with their patients get “significantly higher marks for satisfaction,” and actually spend less time with their patients than those who stand while they discuss health issues with them.

Unfortunately, hospital rooms aren’t designed for physician sitting – chairs are often stuffed with belongings or visitors. A doctor may have to sit on the foot of the bed, but he or she probably should. It’s a better communication locale than standing.

When patients were asked to estimate the time a given doctor spent with them, Bavley reports, “those who got a standing visit said three minutes, 44 seconds, while those who got a sitting visit said five minutes, 14 seconds – a significantly longer time.”  Actually, the doctor “spent one minute and 28 seconds with patients when he stood and one minute, four seconds when he sat,” not a statisically significant difference but a fascinating one. (The researcher was outside the rooms with a stopwatch.)

When people feel that attention is being paid to them, they tend to give more credit for the gesture than the time actually spent.  “The doctor took the time to sit and listen,” one said. “He sat down long enough to get all of my questions answered.”

But note that he actually spent less time on average when he was sitting.

To treat others enthusiastically, as kids do with their electronic devices, or caringly as empathetic doctors do when they sit with a patient, is to pay them attention in a manner that’s appreciated in given circumstances. Pay attention to that, folks. – Doug Bedell

An Underwater Robot Powered by Temperature Differences

Posted on April 20, 2010
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We wrote a while back about industrial robots that are gaining amazing dexterity in their arms and fingers. Now here’s word  of robotic vehicles that can roam underwater powered entirely by the natural temperature differences at different ocean depths.

Couple mobile underwater robots with reach and grasp and you have new exploratory possibilities for sure.

NASA, the U.S. Navy and university researchers have demonstrated “the first robotic underwater vehicle to be powered entirely by the natural temperature differences found in varying depths of the ocean.”

The new technology is functioning on an undersea robot called the Sounding Oceanographic Lagrangrian Observer Thermal RECharging (SOLO-TREC). It’s envisioned to be useful for indefinite monitoring of the oceans for climate and marine animal studies as well as exploration and, of course, surveillance. (James Bond, get back into your wet suit!)

SOLO-TREC, in fact, sounds like the fabled perpetual motion machine, but it really isn’t that. “People have long dreamed of a machine that produces more energy than it consumes and runs indefinitely,” Jack Jones, a NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) principal engineer in Pasadena, Calif. and SOLO-TREC co-principal investigator, said in a statement.

“While not a true perpetual motion machine, since we actually consume some environmental energy, the prototype system demonstrated by JPL and its partners can continuously monitor the ocean without a limit on its lifetime imposed by energy supply,” Jones said.

SOLO-TREC was recently tested for three months 100 miles southwest of Honolulu, Hawaii. It’s a technological wonder that promises to give us far-ranging access to the oceans. – Doug Bedell

Miniaturization at the ‘Indy 500’

Posted on April 2, 2010
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Two months and it will be “Indy 500” time again. That’s a day for celebrating not only driving skill and sportsmanship but also high technology.

And not just all that goes into the high-speed Indy cars themselves.  Here, for instance, is an example of miniaturization that’s likely to get the the ear of an Indy car driver – get into the ear of an Indy driver, that is.

IndyCar Driver Earpieces don’t just protect a driver’s ears from the piercing roar of the cars. They contain speakers that allow the driver to communicate with his pit crew. And they include “multi-axis accelerometers” for accumulating information that, in the event of a wreck, can help determine the impact forces the driver endured.

All that at the end of a cable that goes into your ear (if you’re an Indy car driver). There may be even more impressive examples of miniaturization, but these Indy earpieces are surely examples of technological ingenuity at its best.

To get you in the mood for this year’s Memorial Day “500”, here’s a video of the “closest Indy car race ever,” not from the Indianapolis speedway, as it happened but from the Chicagoland speedway in 2003. – Doug Bedell

Closest Indy Car Race Ever

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