Category Archives: Science and tech

How to Save a Life: Humanizing Technology

The call comes at 5:40 a.m.  “We had to start CPR.  Your dad’s heart is having ‘funny’ rhythms.”  The voice is kind.

And unconvincing. Isn’t CPR used for when a heart … stops?

By the time I get to the hospital, I hear that they had to do the whole scene familiar to millions from ER:  nurses on my dad’s chest counting, “1, 2, 3… 1, 2, 3!” and finally … the paddles and defibrillator:  “Clear!”

They bought him time.  But not much.

As if I could ever forget, it was an intense reminder that in medicine — as in technology — humanity makes all the difference.  

A quick story.

The cardiologist assigned to him in the hospital was clearly kind and very bright; I’ll call him Dr. Smaht.

Dr. Smaht explained to us that he would recommend an angioplasty for my father, despite his age; despite his other statistically complicating factors  — which he enumerated.

  • The statistical probability (by percentage) that he could die.
  • The statistical probability (by percentage) that he could need dialysis.
  • The statistical probability (by percentage) of a stroke.

Dr. Smaht concluded by saying, “obviously, there are risks, but it’s probably still worth it to at least do exploratory surgery — that’s an angiogram. Then if the contrast dye doesn’t send him into kidney failure, if it seems necessary, do an angioplasty as well.”  He waits, sure that the numbers will sway my father.  Percentages, to him, speak loudly.

But then, my father is hard of hearing.   So to speak.

My father inhales into  his oxygen tubes.  “I don’t even remember having a heart attack.”  He pauses, and looks Dr. Smaht  in the eye.  “I’m a newspaper guy.  I need a second source.  I want a second opinion.”

So I call my friend, Dr. Jay Reusch, cardiologist.  Married to my dear friend, Dr. Jane Reusch — one of the top endocrinologists in the country.

A few years ago, Jay Reusch helped my Dad deal with getting a pacemaker.  Last year, he was on the cover of Denver’s 5280 magazine*  (which for those of you who care, has been reinvigorated by former Red Herring and CMP poobah Luc Hatlestad, among others; it has blossomed in his tenure).

I gave Jay so much s**t about this.  I mean, every time I went to the grocery store, there was Jay gazing calmly at me.  I’d roll my eyes back at him.  And I know I wasn’t the only one.   We’re all thinking he’s on the cover because he’s sort of cute, and he’s a cardiologist.  AND he’s in a band (Dogs in the Yard — they’re good). 

Mea culpa.  I’m writing this post because the man saved my dad’s life.  Not just by being “a helluva cardiologist,” as my dad later called him;  but for being a good and confident enough doctor that he did not hide behind statistics. 

Where Dr. Smaht had painstakingly explained the numbers, the technical points, the statistical probabilities, Jay Reusch sat down like frickin’ Hawkeye Pierce and said:

 “Art.  If you hadn’t been in the hospital last night, you’d be dead.”

He took my Dad’s hand, waited until he had my Dad’s full attention and said loudly and calmly: 

“I’m sure you have questions.  I would too, and I’ll do my best to answer them.  Yes, there are risks.  But the benefits outweigh the risks.  I would have the surgery.”

He explained them, too.  In human terms.  My Dad said, “Well, you can’t ask for a better second opinion than that.  I’ll roll the dice.”

He came through the surgery very well.

It made me think about how often technology, designed as it is by engineers, focuses on what it does — not on why it matters. 

It is the first thing we tell our clients:  who cares besides you?  Why does this matter?  How can we put a human face on this technology?

Because if you can’t do that, you’re posing an intellectual answer to what may be a human problem. 

And that may leave the people who need you most… unwilling to roll the dice.

Thanks, Jay.

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Filed under Ethics, Science, Science and tech, Uncategorized

Science Reports Invisibility Cloak Within Reach (But Not Within Sight, Duh)

A while back the journals Science and Nature co-reported that the Invisibility Cloak is within reach, according to — oh, 657 articles at last count.   You can read the actual article here if you’re so inclined.

Invisibility Cloak as demonstrated by Infinity Labs

Invisibility Cloak as demonstrated by Infinity Labs

And reading this, I realized it was time to pay tribute to my Uncle George Sutton.

Back to Uncle George in a moment.   About these invisibility cloaks…

At the risk of being a “me too” blogger — and let me state up front that I had to buy separate copies of the Harry Potter books so that we would not fight over them — can I just wonder aloud whether we would be so excited if we’d never had the term, “invisibility cloak” introduced into the recent popular lexicon in 64 languages?

Don’t get me wrong; I think this is way cool.  Scientifically speaking, it’s the sort of thing that should give us all goosebumps — the kind where you don’t know whether they’re good or bad.

(If you ever read H.G. Wells’ Invisible Man, you’ll know he imagined invisibility as a double-edged sword.)  But scientifically only, I’m astonished that scientists can now bend light and waves so that it renders something “invisible.”

Here’s the thing: we’re always doing this.  From the Flying Carpet in Ali Baba to the Phazer in Star Trek to the light saber in Star Wars.  Pick an iconic fantasy item, and someone will say, “we’re that much closer to it!”  And suckers like yours truly — and apparently 657 other people at last count — will write about it, share links about it, talk about it — because it doesn’t just capture the imagination… it captures the imagination in such a way that we’ve already got the picture in our heads.   Dramatic.  Poetic.  Astonishing.

Which brings me back, briefly I promise, to George P. Sutton.

You know those jokes, “you don’t have to be a rocket scientist?”  Well he is a rocket scientist.

And a bit of a fun-sucker, if the truth be told.  When I was six, one of my sisters and I visited him in Los Angeles.  He took us to Disneyland which was, for my six year-old self, something like what they say it is:  a dream come true.

Until my Uncle George, took me on the Matterhorn.  Speaking loudly and precisely (the better to be heard over the machinery), told me:  “This is achieved by very tightly engineered hydraulics.  And ball bearings!  You see, they exert pressure to lift the carts just so…:”

I listened.  It made no sense to me.  But suddenly I was no longer imagining myself zooming up the Matterhorn (where somehow, bizarrely, I would have a view of Flying Dumbos); no, I was on a Triumph of Modern Engineering.

I listened politely; I’m related to him.  Most people, I think, just want the illusion — that’s what they came for.  Whether it’s to Disneyland, or to a website — “Don’t bore me with the details, I just want to be one step closer to my invisibility cloak!” — they don’t necessarily want to know how to create; just to consume.

Which is why I must pay tribute to Uncle George.  Besides being a bit of a fun-sucker, he is also an exceptionally kind, witty, thoughtful human being — not to mention brilliant.   He is 86 and currently re-writing his book on rocket propulsion for the 18th time.

Put it this way.  Without the Uncle Georges of the world, there would be no Matterhorns.  And certainly no Invisibility Cloaks.

So maybe I didn’t get it as a six year-old, but I get it now.  Thanks, Uncle George.  For everything.

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Filed under Random Weirdness, Science, Science and tech

Does Google Make Us Stupid? Let me count the ways

Much has been made about a piece in the Atlantic — a good piece, mind you — where Nicholas Carr posits that Google specifically, and search in general, is making us stupid.

Basically, he points out that we are no longer able to handle large blocks of text; we are losing our powers of recall and concentration — that our brains are actually changing.  He wonders if we may in fact be getting… stupid.

I’m thinking he’s right. Not only are we stupid — we’re stupid about being stupid. We don’t know what to do when information isn’t delivered to us.

On second thought, cancel that “we.” Make it “many people.”  Specifically, many people who might — or might not — be my children.

Recently, my youngest had to finish a paper on the Renaissance, and the Internet was down. He was stymied. Panicked. The grade, as far as he was concerned, was already in the toilet.

I had to point out that probably, he could use this thing — made of paper — called a book. I said, “before there was wikipedia there was an encyclopedia.” He protested that a book was so… primitive.  It couldn’t possibly be up to speed.

“I need the latest information, Mom!”

“You need the latest information… on the Renaissance? Believe me, it hasn’t changed that much.” The Internet’s chief attraction is they can play games or watch YouTube videos while theoretically doing homework. No wonder we have the collective attention span of a paper plate.

He was uncertain, but I showed him how to open… the… Big Encyclopedia Book… to… the … right… letter. R=Renaissance. See?”

He was impressed. “They have pictures, too?”

I think he was expecting stone tablets.

And that’s not the only way we’re getting stupid. Like Nicholas Carr, I am finding myself less patient with long stretches of text unless it’s really interesting, beautifully written, or informative. This is a huge change for me; I read constantly. Constantly!

I recently tried to re-read “Atlas Shrugged,” because I remembered liking it as a teenager and thought my middle son would like it. OMG. Here’s this 1000-page book, with speeches that last — I am not making this up — for 50 pages or more. I kept popping in and out of paragraphs, saying, “yeah, yeah — get on with it! Get to the point!”

Now I’m quite sure that Ayn Rand fully intended everyone to read every word.

I couldn’t do it. Maybe *she* was stupid. Or maybe I am, for ever thinking I liked a book with 50-page speeches in the first place.

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Filed under Parenting, Science and tech, Teenagers

CONFIRMED: Craving is Better than Getting (?!)

Scientific American today is citing a new article, in which UCLA scientist Joshua Freedman claims to prove that a monkey feels maximal reward when he is actually getting a grape — but just before he eats it — rather than when he actually eats it.

And apparently there are other studies confirming what SciAm calls “this trend in brainpower” — that the mind controls how we anticipate the future, more than the reality itself.

(Okay, time for a plug here: read Stumbling On Happiness, if you haven’t already, for a pretty damned interesting look at how our imaginations and minds can limit happiness, and where we actually find it vs. where we think we will).

I can’t decide whether this should be news.

Hello, UCLA scientists, did you ever shop for a big “event,” like prom or a wedding?  Or wedding night, for that matter?  Wait, this is men I’m talking to here.  Not to stereotype, but there must be a comparison: have you ever anticipated great seats to a ballgame, or a date with someone incredibly special/hot/smart, etc?  There must be some kind of scientific algorithm for when the actual pleasure equals the anticipated pleasure.  Anticipation is at least half the fun:


Where x= anticipation, x>most of the times it never works out.

It’s all in the expectations.  In fact, I often have the best time when I have no expectations.  When I go see a movie I know nothing about.  Or find a restaurant that turns out to be great, but I didn’t expect it to be a Michelin 4-star.

When I first joined The Hoffman Agency, their excellent CFO, Leon Hunt, gave this great talk on expectation management and I’ve never forgotten it.  He just said very simply that everything we do hinges on the expectations we set.  That doesn’t mean we should go around lowering the bar, telling people — “hey, don’t expect too much ’cause I’ll disappoint ya.”

It probably does mean, don’t tell a tiny start-up with no customers in its first round of funding, that they’re going to get an above-the-fold story in the WSJ, or be featured right away in TechCrunch.

But mostly it means: be accurate, so that people know what reward to anticipate — they’re not anticipating a grape when all you have this time around is a raisin, know what I mean?

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Filed under Science, Science and tech

It’s not your imagination: Organic Milk Tastes Sweeter, Keeps Longer

Some of you may know that my DH works for a natural grocers chain — oh yeah, and that I give him a certain amount of grief about it, too (See: Baby Mama and its hilariously fictitious “Round Earth” natural foods chain).

But y’know, some of the coolest developments in technology are coming from people determined to change what we’ve done for the last century or so, just because it’s not working out so well for our or the planet’s wellbeing.  And today I came across a cool little article in Scientific American — that organic milk keeps fresher longer than non-organic milk because it uses a different sterilization technology, called UTH, instead of pasteurization.  Why?  Because there’s fewer organic farms, and thus the trucks have to travel longer to take the milk farther.  Also — the process used for organic milk doesn’t translate well to cheese.

Who knew?

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Filed under Science, Science and tech