Category: Technology

Sayonara… Fitbit. It’s Not Me. It’s You.

It was in early 2016 when, on account of my birthday, I got a Fitbit device. The model was Charge HR, which promised to track my steps, distance walked, floors climbed and so forth, as well as continuously track my heart rate throughout the day and make a note of my sleep pattern (a function I wanted because of my sleep apnea). It would also sync with my iPhone via the Fitbit app, and a neat bonus was vibrating call notifications on the device, even when my iPhone was on silent. It had a clock face option showing date and time, which meant I didn’t have to wear a watch any more.

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The hands that tinker with nuts and bolts behind research (a fantastic Nature News feature)

I was alerted this morning – via Malcolm Campbell – to an excellent news feature on Nature News – titled: “Not Your Average Technician” – on four individuals who are engaged in behind-the-scenes jobs, which nevertheless support the scientific and technological research work of many in more visible fields.

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A Fighting Note To Begin The Year

A new calendar year begins! Hope that the year ahead brings happiness, accomplishments and contentment to you, dear readers, and to your families and friends. I don’t do new year resolutions – I find them pointless – but I hope to be a little more regular with my writing this year, and wish for your continued readership and kind patronage.

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Brilliant UK student builds PCR machine by hand to test a mutation

The things that I learn from Twitter! This is rather interesting: a bright teenager from West Yorkshire, UK, got tired of hearing that his ginger haired brother wasn’t his biological sibling. So, he did what teen-aged school students would normally do – kidding! – he built a PCR machine, by hand, utilizing electronic components scavenged from an old VCR (who knew those were still around!). He used that home-spun PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) machine to amplify cheek cell DNA from his brother, and sent off the amplified specimen to a laboratory to be analyzed; the results, as he expected, showed his brother to indeed have a specific mutation in the gene for melanocortin 1 receptor (MC1R), which renders his hair color ginger.

As perhaps characteristic of ‘science by press release’, the Sun UK article which mentioned this was quite light in terms of scientific information. For example, I have no clue how he extracted the DNA from the cheek swab, what enzymes/primers he used for the amplification reaction, or whether the lab tested the DNA for only the mutation or if it was also a full sibling test. Nevertheless, the feat was quite impressive, and most certainly, massive plaudits to the youngster for his engineering skills and good understanding of biology.

However, there are three germane questions that concern me a bit. I want the best for this bright and industrious student, and therefore, these questions are best considered right at the outset, so that there is no adverse situation later, that hampers his education and training. The questions have to do with:

  1. Privacy: The student used his brother’s DNA to extract a medical information (about the presence or absence of the mutation). I don’t know about the UK, but in the US such a use would generally be covered under HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996), as well as possibly other Federal regulations. Of course, HIPAA doesn’t apply to individuals, but it would presumably apply to the laboratory which analyzed the DNA for the mutation. Now, under the provisions of HIPAA, the protected health information (PHI) may be disclosed to the individual to whom the information directly pertains (in this case, the brother); it also may be disclosed for the purpose of research (which this use seems to qualify as), but only in a manner approved by an institutional review board or privacy board. These rules may not apply to the young folks, but I wonder if the Sun UK, which publicly disclosed the presence of the MC1R mutation in the brother, has obtained the required permissions. (Once again, I confess to my ignorance of the privacy process in the UK.)
  2. Ethics: I wonder if there exists a mechanism for handling genetic information of this kind, in this kind of a situation. What if one of the aspects of the test results indeed showed that the brothers were not biological siblings – in that event, who would handle the ethical quandaries arising out of such information? To me, a worse ethical dilemma would arise out of the fact that individuals carrying MR1C polymorphisms may be at a higher risk for melanomas; now that this information is public for the brother, what if he is refused healthcare coverage for being high-risk for certain cancers?
  3. Intellectual Property: For better or for worse, the PCR was patented, and by March 2006, these foundational (a.k.a. early process) patents expired for both the US and Europe. However, patent battles associated with components of the in vitro PCR process (as well as modifications of the basic process, such as Real Time PCR) continue intermittently. Moreover, there appear to be some currently valid patents for various components of the PCR machine (US Patent Office links here and here). There are now guidances available on the internet for building Open Source PCR machines. In addition, a 2006 study on the impact of patent protections on PCR found that one of the reasons why PCR was such a celebrated and widely used tools despite heavy protections was a policy of “rational forbearance” from suing researchers for patent infringement by the companies which held those patents; there is no reason to consider/fear that the said magnanimity on part of these companies would wane. Nevertheless, it is always a good practice to familiarize oneself with these intellectual property matters.

In the final synthesis, my raising these questions is not intended to dampen the spirit of this remarkable youth, or diminish his significant achievement in any way. However, in an increasingly complex world, it is also important to be trained in recognizing the possible consequences of one’s actions, and acting accordingly. I wish this student all the very best; he is truly an inspiration to many of his age and beyond.

Android n00b with a spanking new ASUS Eepad Transformer Prime

This entry is decidedly going to be rather different than the others. So… This one time, at band camp… I was angling for an Android device for the longest time in a Mac/PC household. Having played with my wife’s iPad2, I wanted the device in a Tablet form factor. I have always had a soft spot for ASUS as a technology company, and the specs of the ASUS Transformer Prime TF-201 looked highly promising; so, armed with the tax return, I took the plunge. Newegg.com of the US (bless its soul!) delivered the device in three days flat, and having charged it the mandatory 8+ hours, I am now playing with it.

ASUS Eepad Transformer Prime TF-201
The device was highly chic. Lightweight, thin, with a bright display, the TF-201 seemed, for the most part, pretty fast, as I’d expect it to be with the 1.3GHz Tegra3 dual core processor and 1GB of RAM. It came with the Ice Cream Sandwich flavor of Android (v.4.0.3), the next gen Android OS optimized for Tablets. The device connected to my home network without any hassle, and I quickly updated the firmware to the latest one, as well as the apps. The Android Marketplace was a pleasure to use, no less convenient than the iTunes store, but with an awesome feature – you purchase a paid app, and play with it. If it doesn’t suit your purpose, you can return it within 15 minutes to get a FULL refund. This is Google doing a store function right, unlike other vendors. (Yes, I am looking at you, Apple!!)

The ability to play flash-based content within the browser is a great plus, making for a much better web experience. The big sprawling keyboard that ASUS has customized from the stock Android one is very nice. With its big keys and intelligent layout of the keys, it is easy to use, and also supports the SWYPE gestures (typing by rubbing the appropriate letters in a word in sequence without lifting the finger). Without going into the vexatious autocorrect business, it provides good suggestions on a top row while typing, which helps.

I figured out how to make groups from icons (same as in iOS, it appears; drag and drop). I downloaded and installed the EEPad PC Suite (from ASUS Support) in my Windows 7 PC, which installed all the necessary USB drivers for connecting the Tablet to the PC via USB. It offers a choice to connect as a camera or as a portable file storage device, each with slightly different functions.

However, being an Android newbie, I was kinda expecting troubles with it. I just didn’t realize how much.

  1. The EEPad PC Suite that I installed in my Windows PC; I found it to be v-e-r-y slow, at least for file functions, like copying or moving.
  2. The stock browser that came with the TF-201 seemed nice. It had nice tabs, and worked pretty much like Chrome. But then I started realizing the major drawbacks. (i) It is generally rather slow. (ii) Even when I am accessing Gmail through the web interface, upon opening the compose menu and tapping the cursor into a text field (such as the ‘to’ field or the message body), the keyboard wouldn’t appear. This has happened to me several times in a row. I stopped the process, started it again, but to no avail whatsoever. And this is just one of the issues with the stock browser.
  3. In fact, the keyboard, albeit nice and big, is somehow not quite as responsive as the cramped and small keyboard of the iDevices. For many apps, there is a noticeable lag, both in its appearance and in its performance.
  4. The stock ASUS email app is… weird to say the least. I configured it to access my Gmail, Yahoo mail and Hotmail accounts. I was happy using the stock email app, until I realized everytime I was sending a message from Gmail using the email app, it created a label called ‘Imap/sent’ in my Gmail account. If I moved a message to the Spam account, it would create a label called ‘Imap/spam’; if I deleted a message, it showed up in my Gmail account with an ‘Imap/trash’ label, but is not actually deleted. None of this, incidentally, ever happened with the iOS5 email client on my iPhone 4S or my wife’s iPad2.
  5. The TF-201 is already showing noticably weird glitches, time lags, performance issues. Particularly vexing has been the clock issue. There are four clocks that show time. (i) The system time in settings. (ii) Clock in the taskbar (right bottom corner). (iii) Clock that shows up at the right top corner of the pop up menu when the taskbar is tapped. And (iv) an analog Clock widget on my homescreen. The system time (in the settings) shows the correct time. However, all the three other clocks shows completely different and arbitrary times. Check the screenshot composite that shows all of the above 4 clocks.
    time display issues with Transformer Prime
  6. The non-inclusion of a good unicode-compliant non-English Foreign Language font is cramping my style, because I use such fonts often. It’s particularly odd, since the use of this font works out rather well even in Google’s Chromebook CR-48. Not so in the TF-201, where somehow even Google’s own Transliteration IME doesn’t work. From reading at various fora, I find that this is an impossible proposition, unless I root the device and install a compatible unicode-compliant foreign language font.
  7. The apps that I was used to in the iOS platform behave slightly differently in Android, and not in a good way. For instance, the individual webmail apps (Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail) didn’t perform as expected in the Android platform. Each of them had some design issues that made them inconvenient to use. The Yahoo mail, strangely, has no means to delete a message once I am reading the message. I have to get back to the message list in order to select the message and then delete it. It was not like this in the iOS.
  8. The Prime, sadly, doesn’t support 5GHz wireless signal. My Netgear router (dual band) does G at 2.4GHz and N at 5GHz, with two different SSIDs for each band. The Prime sees only the 2.4GHz. In addition, the Wi-fi signal drops inexplicably even when I am sitting at the same spot and not doing anything online. It keeps fluctuating when the wi-fi is actually in use. I can’t understand why.
  9. In the ASUS task manager, apps that I am not using show up when I wake the device up from sleep. Apps such as Twitter, Facebook, Keyboard, Google+, Gallery, Calendar etc.) show up, even when I haven’t used them at all; for instance, I have never opened Google+ or the Calendar on my device, and yet they show up in the task manager as running.

These problems have been so bad (especially when the comparison with iOS jumps naturally to my mind) that I am tempted to return the TF-201. A part of me wants to try rooting it and installing custom ROMs (customized and more efficient Operating Systems available from the thriving and wonderful Android community) and stuff to see if it would solve my worries. But then I probably cannot return it any more to Newegg. The process of rooting (for which ASUS has provided the tool) is supposed to invalidate the warranty, and the device is considered ‘modified’. ASUS will not even send me periodic updates for a modified device.

I have written to ASUS Tech support. If necessary, I shall call them. A lot depends on the next couple of weeks, since Newegg allows 30 days for returns. Let’s see what happens.


Views expressed in this post are exclusively mine and mine alone. It doesn’t constitute any endorsement or approbation whatsoever of the products/websites described herein by any other entity, including Nature Group of Publishers.