Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Antediluvian Information Technology

1. One book that changed your life

When I was in the elementary school, I had an MSX computer. It was comparable to Commodore 64 in memory and functionality, but it was made by Microsoft and never became as popular.
Anyway, it had a 20-page getting started manual, which was written in clear Finnish and contained some of the most basic BASIC commands. It was my first touch to programming, being simple enough to be understoon without human guidance, which wasn't available anyway. There was also a 100 - 200 pages long reference manual, also in Finnish, which listed all BASIC commands. Without those books, I wouldn't have learned to code, so you could say that they changed my life.

2. One book that you have read more than once

Asimov's Foundation trilogy. A relative brought it to our house by chance, and it was my first touch to science fiction. Before that I had read Enid Blyton and comparable books, and science fiction was much better compared to those.

Somehow, I skipped the youth books almost entirely, since I didn't have any source that would have recommended specific authors to me. There was one exception though: I heard Steissi by Teija Niemi mentioned by a girl in our class. It turned out to be written in slang, and the events took place in Helsinki railway station. The 200 pages were turbocharged with drama and sexual and violent action. The picture it painted about young people was that a boy becomes a man only when he beats up his alcoholist father, and a girl becomes a woman only after trying prostitution. It was very captivating, and I read it in one session.

Matti probably meaned this kinds of books, when he ctiticized the fact that he was made to read books that advocated bad habits (the fucker has deleted the article, so I can't link to it). My opinion is a bit different. Firstly, if you want to induce a habit of reading to people who don't have that habit, then turbocharged action books that appeal to our biological interests in sex and violence are probably the correct way to go. Those who have more refined tastes also know how to satisfy them themselves. Secondly, although I spent most of my time in front of computer at the time, some people in our class were actually having wilder lifestyles. Once in a geography lesson, when Estonia was mentioned, a boy shouted that he had visited an Estonian prostitute. The boy had severe difficulties in concetrating on anything. I'm not sure but I remember hearing that his father was an alcoholic. Later, he started a relationship with a girl in the same school, and they sometimes showed their affection quite openly in hallways.

Thirdly, the suggestion for Steissi came from peers rather than by top-to-bottom channels. So it was hardly an ideological statement by the establishment on the only correct youth lifestyle. However, some of the official choices did reflected the same line, for example the gang violence book Run, Baby, Run by Nicholas Cruz.

3. One book that you would want on a desert island

Someting that requires concentration and repeated readings to be understood. Something that is useful but too dry to be read in normal conditions without a very good reason, like a test in one week.
Knight's: Mathematical Statistics is one option.

4. One book that made you giddy

Alan Sokal's prank is more funny than anything I have read on paper, so I'll skip this.

5. One book that wrecked you with sobs

Carrie by Stephen King is the only one that has ever had that effect.

6. One book that you wish had been written

Social Construction of Software Development by Peter Berger, Alistair Cockburn and Peter Naur.

7. One book you wish had never been written

Pressman: Software Engineering. It is very thick and the author leaves the task of summarizing the essentials to the reader. In a course in TAY (Project Work) it was presented as the authorative text of software development. Presenting a 2000-page tome that doesn't event get into subject matter in the first 100 pages for an audience where most people probably don't know quick-reading techniques is a sure way to breed rabid anti-intellectualism ("I don't read books, since they are useless").

8. One book you?re currently reading

None. Well, I have Venäjän Historia in toilet, where I read it 2 pages a day.

9. One book you?ve been meaning to read

Should read something about microeconomics. I bought a 40 years old Textbook of Economic Theory from a sale, and I've read 1/3 of it. Newer textbooks seem to contain pretty much the same material, which is good - it means that the information will stay relevant also in the future.

Saturday, August 05, 2006


Was drinking yesterday with Tommi and his philosopher buddies. One of them was a girl named Essi, who worked in some EU-funded information society assessment project.

She told that in Sweden, the recipe system has been digitalized. The doctor sends the recipe information to a database, and at the drug store the drug clerk fetches the information from the database.

One obvious advantage of this kind of system is that it produces a big data set that allows data mining - supposing that privacy concerns don't prevent experts from mining it. Half Sigma demonstrates in his writings just how much information you can mine from a good data set. He also compares his findings to real research, and often finds that the results are the same. I'd guess that good data sets and proper data mining could considerably increase the productivity of researchers in some areas.

One obvious candidate for digitalization are the patient records. Earlier, I thought that privacy concerns were the main concern here, but Essi told that not only doctors but also the staff has access to relevant records. Therefore, the patient records can't be very confidential. So, it's just data; why can't they digitalize it? What's the problem, damnit?

If I were a dictator, all health-related information would be put to a big database. This would include not only patient records, but also all research data sets. Then, a public interface would be created to the database. This interface would allow anyone to make simple database queries to find out about numbers and correlations between various factors.

Privacy concerns would be addressed by putting a lower limit to the amount of cases. For example, if some query returns less than 20 matches, the results would not be shown for privacy reasons. If the database contained 5 million people, the restriction wouldn't be that harsh.

This kind of database would help researchers in quick testing of hypotheses. For example, this research tells about a parasite T. gondii that spreads from cats to humans and may cause schizophrenia. If some earlier research had tested the presence and absence of T. gondii for whatever reasons and this information was saved to the database, then a simple correlation between T. gondii and schizophrenia could be computed. This wouldn't replace the actual research - feeding antipsychotic drugs to rats that have T. gondii - but it would enable better justifications before any expensive animal tests are done. Database queries are damn cheap.

More bang for buck in medical research would speed up the achievement of SENS, so anyone appreciating longer life should agree.