Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Google Health: A Quick Hands-On Look


Now that Google Health has finally launched, I took a quick peek at it while Mark was taking notes at today’s Google Factory Tour presentation. It’s been a long time coming, but at first glance it looks like it will be a strong competitor to existing personal health sites such as Microsoft’s HealthVault (which launched last October), Revolution Health, or Aetna’s SmartSource (via a partnership with Healthline).

The big competition here is between Google Health and Microsoft’s HealthVault. (Revolution Health is more of an information portal at this point, and who is going to trust their health insurance company?). Whereas HealthVault’s strengths seem to lie in tying together different health information silos on the back end, Google Health is focusing more initially on the consumer side. It is trying to do an end-run around the health establishment by trying to get consumers to manually load their own medical information into their profiles. HealthVault allows this as well, but seems to have stronger partnerships with back-end health data providers. Google will no doubt tackle the existing health data silos as it proceeds. It really has no choice if it wants to organize the world’s health information.

To gain consumer acceptance, Google promises never to advertise on Google Health (although ads in related searches should be fair game) and that people’s personal health information will never appear in search results (one would hope not). Members can add their doctors to their Gmail contacts and APis are n the works.

In order for Google Health to be of much use, you need to tell it about your health history by creating a personal medical profile. It is easy enough to get started. You tell it your age, weight, medical conditions, medications, allergies, and so on. It provides guided keyword suggestions, so that when you type in a symptom, for instance, you get a list of health terms.

But the key is importing your medical record in there. That is going to be a huge hurdle in terms of people feeling comfortable giving that sort of data to Google in the first place, and then simply getting the data in an electronic form from their doctors.

Google Health lists only eight partners so far from which it can import medical records, and half of them only cover drugs (Medco, Walgreens, RXAmerica, and Longs Drug Stores). The others are Quest Diagnostics (for lab tests), MinuteClinic from CVS Caremark, and two hospitals: the Cleveland Clinic, and Beth Isreal Deaconness Medical Center.

Even if your doctor sent you a file with your complete medical record, it is not clear that you could upload it (although you could enter it by hand). It also does not let you import data directly from medical devices, a feature that Microsoft’s HealthVault does have.

Google has also created specific in-depth pages for hundreds of health topics. When you enter a condition into your profile, there is a reference link to one of these pages where you can do more research. These are really helpful. They give a summary of the symptoms, treatment, causes, and prevention of different conditions; illustrations where appropriate, as well as links to related news, Google Groups, and search trends. Here is one for “Sciatica,”for instance.

Google Health also lets you link your profile to a number of other online health services. These include (medication scheduler), a heart attack risk calculator, iHealth,, MyDailyApple (daily health news), MyMedicalRecords,com, and NoMoreClipboard. If Google Health wants to be the central repository of your online health profile, it needs to allow you to share your profile with as many other services as possible. You are able to grant different levels of permission to each service.

HealthVault has its own list of partner sites (American Heart Association, CapMed, HealthMedia, Healthy Circles, Kryptiq, Peaksware, Pure Wellness,Sound Health Soultions, US Wellness, Podfitness, MyVitalStatistics, Limeade, and Active Health).

Google is planning to open up APIs to Google health to make it easy for other partners to tap into its health platform. And make no mistake about it. That is what this is: a platform. Health apps anyone?

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Schools, businesses must adapt to 'thumb generation,' study says

Classrooms need to adapt to serve students who are plugged in online as never before, and corporations will need to adjust to the "thumb generation" and its thirst for connectivity and numerous computing devices, a new report says.

"Generation Y is wired with all 10 fingers," says Jonathan Spira, CEO and chief analyst of consulting firm Basex, which published the report "Technologies to Teach the Thumb Generation" (fee required).

"Young people are immersed in technology in a way that is different from earlier generations who grew up with calculators or even Apple II Plus computers. Their ability to access information is far greater than ever before, and their bandwidth, from a technology perspective, is greater than ever before.," Spira says. The modern classroom needs to adapt into a "next-generation learning space" to serve the needs of students, the study says.

Companies also will have to adapt as Gen Y students begin to flood the workplace over the next three to five years demanding business conducted in an online, multitasking, interactive style, Spira says. He says a recent Gen Y opinion piece in CIO Magazine (a Network World sister publication) summed it up nicely with the observation, "Don't give me your tired old enterprise apps." Far from being the blathering of a spoiled and self-important student, Spira says, the message is clear that the availability of cutting-edge, high-tech tools will directly correspond to productive and happy employees.

The Basex study says the place to start is in classrooms. They should be equipped with such high-tech tools as classroom-capture systems, which digitally record lectures and material to be accessed later, and interactive white boards, which change the flow of information from a push model (teacher to student) to a pull model.

In that scenario, students can use the devices they know and trust to take a more active -- and hopefully more effective -- role in processing and retaining information. "Students are showing up to classroom with devices that have a screen, and given the way material is being pushed out to them, that screen is not being optimized," Spira says.

The lessons of the classroom also will come home to roost in corporations, Spira says. "This is not a question of upending the organization. It is thinking about retention and what makes employees happy," he says. The end game is better productivity.

Just as the current generation of new employees influenced the adoption of such technologies as instant messaging, the Gen Y generation -- which the Basex report defines as those born from 1981 to 2000 -- will help define the importance of social-networking tools in the enterprise over the next three to five years, Spira says.

"There is a lot of business strategy you can derive from this and you need to not stick your head in the sand," Spira says. "Companies need to educate themselves on this [technology evolution]." That education will include security and employee training on the proper use of the technology in a business setting.

"For a typical organization, you can't say, 'next week we are going to change our tired old enterprise apps for 50,000 users.' That takes several years, but since it does take time, you need to take lessons from this Gen Y group and run with it," he says.

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7 Pleasurable Ways to Improve Your Reading Ability

soldier-reading-a-book.jpg“There is a total incompatibility between the joy of reading, a vagabond experience, and the experience of reading in order to answer questions, and explain what you understood.” - Rubem Alves, Brazilian educator.

What is most likely to influence your success at school or at a job? The ability to read well. And that goes for your kids too. The declining literacy of our society has been a major concern of educators for a while now, and yet things are not getting better. One reason might be a failure to recognize that reading and literacy are personal skills, best acquired when associated with pleasure.

In most cases, how well we learn to read will depend largely on our exposure to language as children. If we hear people around us talking about a wide variety of subjects as children, we naturally pick up the words and phrases they use. If we pick up a lot of words, we will have an advantage when we start reading, and we will learn to read better. This, in turn, helps us to acquire more words, leaving the poor readers, who know few words, further and further behind. The literacy divide usually begins early in life, and can only be overcome by lots of reading later in life.

Much of the traditional advice to struggling readers, these days, seems to involve developing “cognitive strategies”. In this approach, readers are asked to focus more, to think, to be curious and ask questions, to analyze, to predict, to infer, and to monitor their understanding, or worse still to answer questions on their comprehension of what they have read. In other words they are asked to become self-conscious readers.I do not agree with this approach.

Here are my seven strategies for reading improvement.

1. Read about things that interest you. If you are interested in what you are reading about, the words will come alive, and you will be motivated to understand. You will feel satisfaction in accomplishing a task that you enjoy, and which you consider meaningful. The more you read, the better you will become at reading. Just get started and it will become a habit, as long as you are interested in what you are reading.

2. Read material that is at your level, or just a little difficult for you. Read material that you find easy to read, or just a little challenging. Looking up many unknown words in a conventional dictionary is tedious, and the results of the dictionary search quickly forgotten. It is better to stay within your comfort zone and keep reading. Soon you will be able to take on more difficult content.

3. Learn to read in depth, stay on the same subject for a while. If you are familiar with the subject you are reading about, you will understand better. Do not just read short articles. Commit to books. Stay with one author for at least one book. If the subject matter is new to you, you should even try to read a few different books or articles about the same subject, before you move on. This way you will meet the same vocabulary and ideas often, helping you to learn. You will also be able to get deeper into the subject and your reading confidence will grow.

4. If you have trouble reading, listen first. Many great works of literature were written to be read out loud. Learn to appreciate the art of the narrator. Listen to audio books or audio files of the material that you are reading. This will help make difficult content seem more familiar. If you can hear the new words and phrases that you are reading, you will have an easier time understanding and remembering them. Hearing the rhythm of someone reading a text will help your own reading.

5. Let your imagination get involved. Good readers get engrossed in their reading and let it trigger their imagination. Learn to enjoy your reading without asking too many questions or analyzing too much. It will just spoil the sensual enjoyment of the reading experience. You do not need to predict or analyze. Just enjoy and look forward to absorbing the information, ideas and thoughts expressed by the writer.

6. Don’t worry about what you don’t understand. Most of your reading should be for pleasure. You can enjoy reading without understanding all of what you read. You may even understand some things in your own personal way. Neither you nor a teacher needs to “monitor” your understanding. Learn to enjoy reading, even while feeling that you do not fully understand or remember what you have read.

7. Recognize that the key is to read a lot. You may develop a system for keeping track of new words that you encounter in your reading, using lists, or Flash Cards, or other memory systems available on the Internet or elsewhere. However, the main growth in your vocabulary and reading skill will come just from reading as much as you can. So learn to enjoy reading and read a lot. Keep reading, and you will become a better reader.

Unfortunately not all reading is just for pleasure. When you are reading a textbook or manual, or report or other material that have to read for school or work, you may need to underline, take notes, and read some parts over again, in order to retain what you are reading. However, if you have developed the habit of reading for pleasure, you will find that the cognitive techniques you need will come naturally, and that you will understand a lot better than before.

Steve Kaufmann is a former Canadian diplomat, who has had his own company in the international trade of forest products for over 20 years. Steve founded The Linguist Institute Ltd. in 2002 to develop a new approach to language learning using the web. The new LingQ system for learning multiple languages is now available in Beta. Steve speaks nine languages fluently and is currently learning Russian using LingQ. Steve maintains a blog on language learning.

Image from

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MythBusters Hack Go-Kart in Extreme Electric vs. Gas Test

To test the advantages of gas versus electric propulsion, the MythBusters tear apart a perfectly good gasoline-powered go-kart and transform it into a tire-smoking machine that's fast—and clean. Check out behind-the-scenes action and test results, then learn more about the electric advantage from Jamie Hyneman.

The challenge: Convert a gas go-kart to electric to find out if the quieter, cleaner—and heavier—electric version can outgun its internal-combustion counterpart. Here, Jamie Hyneman (right) attaches the sprocket to the 25-hp brushed DC motor while Adam Savage installs a throttle potentiometer.

Published in the June 2008 issue.

Redneck or Refined: Deer Butt Art

Recently I received one of those annoying email forwards that included a list of things that tell you “you might be a redneck if …” This particular edition contained some links that led me to something I’ve never seen before and will be perfectly fine if I never see again: deer butt art.

Apparently, adding a Styrofoam mannequin head into the ass of a freshly killed deer carcass is all the rage in the redneck art genre right now. The result is a taxidermy ass face, or occasionally a stylish new doorbell. But the real challenge of creating award-winning ass art is manipulating the anus into a believable mouth—a smile, a frown, or perhaps the occasional mouth of indifference.

Although the artist(s) who created these pieces below gets an A+ for craftsmanship—anyone who has to tie off an asshole to keep the crap off their art is a master craftsperson in my book—I could never have one of these things hanging in my house. There’s just no might about it—if you own or make deer butt art, you are most definitely a redneck.

Photo sources: Craft Tips by Don Burleson, Rampant Techpress, Assquatch

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30 Awesome Websites for Adverturous Urban Explorers: Urbex Forums, Photos and More

[Abandoned Factory via Noctophotographer on Flickr]

Ever wonder what is inside that dark tunnel or deserted structure you pass on your way to work every day? There are a vast number of spooky and surreal abandoned buildings that populate even the densest countries, states and cities. Organized into helpful categories here are thirty must-bookmark resources for would-be urban explorers around the world. In addition to those listed below (right-click on the screenshots to jump), sites like DarkRoastedBlend and LookAtThis have entire categories dedicated to abandoned places and vehicles also worth exploring.

[Introduction to Urban Exploration - The Best Sites to Start With]

Opacity is a great place to start developing a taste for the allure of abandonments. Tom Kirsch, the site’s creator and primary photographer, has traveled the world photographing deserted buildings. Some of the images are enhanced and retouched for effect and the results are very compelling. Not all of the locations are named to protect the integrity of the abandonments but for visual inspiration the site is unparalleled.

Infiltration is one of the oldest and most respected urban exploration websites around. The site’s founder has since passed away but back issues of their zine are still available for purchase as well as images and stories from past explorations and on-site forums. The site’s creator also wrote one of the definitive books on urban exploration - purchase at your own risk!

28 Days Later is definitely one of the most active urban exploration forums on the web and is focused mainly on British building infiltration. Explorations are divided into category by building type including tall structures, military installations, recreational facilities, underground sites and international (non-UK) sites. Many explorers upload stories as well as images of their adventures at various urban and rural locations.

UER is another very useful urbex forum that is structured somewhat differently from 28 Days Later. There is a single dedicated section for photography with other sections relating to tools and tutorials, new urban explorers, general urban exploration information and terms and locations related to urbex. Best of all: UER has threads based on geographical location to help people connect and share urbex info regionally.

Flickr has many collectives dedicated to different kinds of abandonment imagery, including the above-linked Urban Abandonments group. The group consists of over 200 members and over 2,000 images and shows a broad range of photographic possibilities in color as well as black-and-white, retouched and shot as-is, that demonstrate the various approaches different explorers take to shooting their subjects.

Wikipedia is of course a good place to start looking for information on many subjects but has a particularly well-rounded article on urban exploration. A number of useful books are listed as well as the appearances of abandonments in prominent films and television. Also included are links to related subjects like caving, parkour and ghost towns as well as various urbex categories like draining and exploring active buildings.

[Urban Exploration Websites Organized by Continent and Country]

Europe: Urban Travel has an incredibly well-organized database of their adventures in building infiltration and photography from all over mainland Europe at dozens of locations. You can browse by building type or country and dig back through years of archived images. This is definitely a site to visit and revisit. There is also a very active Flickr group dedicated to European Urban Exploration.

United Kingdom: Urbex UK has been featured in a number of national and international publications as an outstanding collection of urban explorations and building infiltrations that feature rich images, stories and other background information including maps and building plans.

Australia: Sleepy City is an ever-evolving collection of one man’s adventures in urban exploration around the world but in particular his encounters with interesting abandonments in his home country of Australia. His main focus is on buildings but he also covers abandoned cars, subways, sewers, bridges and more.

Russia: Abandoned dot RU features very raw, rough-and-ready images from various unfinished and abandoned building sites located around Russia. There is little attempt to glorify or even explain these ruins - viewers are given a full tour and it is at visitor discretion to assess the meaning of each location.

[Urban Exploration Websites Organized by State and City]

Pennsylvania: Forgotten Pennsylvania covers some of the most famous American abandonments, like the town of Centralia, as well as lesser-known deserted roads, towns and building complexes. The team of two is comprised of a storyteller and a photographer and is a very ‘real’ intro to PA abandonments a reader can relate to.

Ohio: Ohio Trespassers documents a variety of urban explorations in the Ohio region (a few dozen) in great detail accompanied by piecemeal histories of the sites being discussed. The emphasis is definitely on the stories rather than the locations but for anyone considering infiltrations in Ohio this is a good introductory guide.

Florida: Flurbex is a Florida urbex forum unfortunately only accessible to members. Different people have differing philosophies on how publicly to discuss urban exploration and many err on the side of caution to prevent authorities from cracking down on urban explorers and/or to prevent locations from being overrun by ‘tourist’ visitors.

Indiana: Lost Indiana is a great resource of Indianan history focusing on abandoned or otherwise ‘quiet’ places like cemeteries. The site goes into great detail regarding the history and changes to specific sites including periodic status updates when locations are further demolished or otherwise altered.

Detroit: Forgotten Michigan focuses on the abandonments of Detroit - one of the most deserted major cities in the world. Detroit’s population has dropped by about a half over the last half-century and the result is, of course, a great many urban abandonments and sites dedicated to Detroit abandonments also including Detroit Ruins and Detroit Yes.

New York City: The LTV Squad is an intrepid team of New York City explorers who document everything from subway tunnels to abandoned military complexes in the greater NYC area. While they don’t feature very many sites the ones they do show the great variety of sites available even in a dense urban region.

London: Derelict London features a vast assortment of oddities around London not limited to deserted buildings. The site showcases waterways, cafes, shops, pools, murals and even has a section dedicated to toilets.

[Specialty Urbex Sites and Assorted Other Resources]

Legends of America focuses on a more specific period and region of abandonments: deserted buildings and ghost towns of the American West. There are some images to accompany the locations but best of all this provides a kind of road map for people who wish to explore this period of American history.

English Russia is a great website for non-Russian readers who seek abandonments and other Russian oddities translated into (albeit sometimes broken) English. The site has shipwrecks, auto yards, deserted buildings and other strange things from the former USSR with brief explanations and descriptions.

Dead Malls is, as the name suggests, a site that has collected pictures, links and information on abandoned malls all over the United States. Some of the histories are brief but many contain links to more info and images on other sites. This functions quite well as a ‘directory’ for this strange abandoned building type.

Defunct Parks is one of many sites dedicated to abandoned amusement parks of the United States. However, it is one of few sites that has information on a number of different parks around the country and goes into great detail including historical photographs and lists of rides the parks once had - a true encyclopedic database with arguably too much information at times but thorough for those who want to know.

Lost America features a hodge-podge of colorful photographs of everything from decommissioned military equipment and complex to roadside attractions and abandoned buildings. The common thread that runs through most of the images is the eerie artificially colored lights the photographer sets up on the sites.

Web Aperture has a solid introductory guide to photographing abandoned houses which is a good place to start if you want to take pictures of abandonments you plan to visit.

Old Retired Vehicles is yet another Flickr group dedicated to a particular kind of abandoned object. If that group catches your fancy you might want to also see the Old Cars group.

The International Registry of Sunken Ships is one of a number of sites dedicated to a very different set of abandoned objects. Though these sites are often old and not always extremely easy to navigate many of them, like Ocean Treasures, provide maps and information about shipwrecks around the world.

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