Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Sugar, Fat, You, Your Bacteria, And Measuring It All

From a User Experience point of view, the problem with dieting is that the delay between cause and effect. If being hungry for a little while immediately showed an effect in fat stores, we'd all be sporting six-packs as we be able to regulate losing fat effectively. It also would be very likely that being lean would not be so desirable for being too easy to attain.

Right now the diet pendulum has swung back from fat being the enemy, and the new diets are focussing on sugar. While touting different benefits and restrictions, the basic thinking behind the low-sugar diets is that consuming certain simple carbohydrates create insulin spikes, and those are what wreak havoc with the body, from shunting energy directly into fat cells to contributing to metabolic syndrome.

But what food create these insulin spikes? As far as we know, the amount of sugar, or simple carbohydrates, in relationship to things like fiber, protein, or fat in every food changes how the body responds. This is expressed in a crude scale for every individual food called the Glycemic Index, tested by giving some under controlled circumstances to a group of people and measuring their blood glucose--and then repeat for every food.

A few problems with that:
  1. The GIs are all tested in isolation from each-other, while we usually eat a bunch of foods together, so we can't really predict the actual spike from the ingredients in a meal.
  2. The glucose spike actually does not fully correlate with the insulin spike, which is what we actually want to lower.
  3. And worst: turns out glucose spikes are highly individual, as the same meals create very different spikes in different people.
Number 3 is what everyone who has family members of very different body composition always suspected: some people really can eat the same foods as others and not get fat. Thoughts are that our gut flora (part of the microbiome) plays a role, but there's not enough real data on that.

That scientific study on individual spikes was done with a technology called Continuous Glucose Monitoring, developed specifically for diabetics. It consists of sticking a long, thin needle through your skin (you may not want to do a Google image search) and leaving it there for days on end connected to a little box stuck to your skin that displays the body glucose data. The more recent version don't connect to a display but beam the data to a display. CGMs help diabetics significantly to regulate their blood sugar, as the continuous readings give a lot better insight into their bodies which allows them to dose and time their insulin better.

CGMs have been unwieldy, expensive, and unpleasant; sticking a long needle in your abdomen is not fun, even for diabetics who understand the benefits. The NHS here in the UK will not pay for it, or only make it available for two weeks or so at a time, as the cost-benefit ratio was not quite there. But technology doesn't stop, and CGMs just got a whole lot cheaper and easier to use.

Recently I met someone who is using a new system that makes inserting the sensor easy and far less invasive, and makes doing the read-outs much easier: you just hold a reader the size of a phone to the sensor and you get the last few hours of continuous data that you can then view in charts and graphs. It looks like the data is locked inside that reader, but the techs I was with already found out it uses NFC to communicate, so I doubt it will take long before other NFC-enabled computers like phones will be able to read body sensor out and then allow users to slice, dice and upload the data. Most importantly, the system is a lot more affordable than what was previously on the market, and seems at most 10% less accurate than the gold standard. Running costs seem to be under £60 per sensor that can last up to two weeks. That's not cheap, but a lot cheaper than previous systems.

At this level of cost, measuring your glucose actually becomes cost effective for fitness-oriented people who are serious about quantifying something about themselves that is far more fundamental for body composition than steps and runs, even if you did it for only a month. Combine the readings with photographs of everything that you eat, and you can make an individual analysis of how you react to foods. In a month you can do plenty of experiments with your standard diet, low-carb days, low-fat days, weekends and holiday eating, favourite restaurants, or individual foods and dishes to get more insight into how your body responds. This kind of insight would make the effects of food real and measurable for an individual, but also not have to overly restrict themselves as current diets that block out whole food groups do. It is easy to see how a trainer or nutritionist could set themselves up with a reader and offer two weeks or a month of exploratory monitoring as a service to multiple clients.

The next step would be to then for a lot of people to upload that data and look for patterns, possibly exploding a lot of food myths or creating whole new ways of categorizing people into the different ways they metabolize food (and guaranteed finding out some of those classic GI measurements were plain wrong, or not holding up for large populations). A company could offer itself as a GI testing service for new foods, sending its test panel a new product and asking them to upload their glucose data for a period before, during, and after consumption, to possibly create a new seal of approval. We'll also then find out everything is really Not That Simple, and that many other factors, like our gut bacteria, make nutrition quite hard to grasp on an individual level--and then companies will try to make that quantifiable too.

As with every measurement, humans will try to game them for their own ends, either to make their food products seem 'healthier', or cheat on their own diets that they should stick to, or many other ways. But for many motivated people there now is a new tool to create a more direct feedback loop and get more insight into how what they eat makes them achieve, look, and feel.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Software Sucks

I bought a Nexus 7 Tablet 2 years ago. It runs Android. Google kept pushing updates to it to make it better and more secure, going through versions like Kitkat and Lollipop and maybe Marshmallow as well, I don't know, and I don't really care. What I care about was how it suddenly slowed down. Like totally slowed down; it would take a full minute for an email to open after I tapped the notification. It would take so long for apps to switch out that Android would ask me if Android should shut them down. It became unusable.

I found the tools to flash (which means replace) new Operating Systems on it, like older versions of Android, and other ones based on Google's work. It requires things called unlocking, reflashing bootloaders, flashing onto SD cards, booting into recovery mode.

I tried clean and fresh Android, pure stock version. Stayed unusable. I finally got Cyanogen on it, version 12 to be exact, as the latest version, 13, was unusable in the same way as stock. Version 12 seems to work, and I have my tablet back to do some Twitter and Facebook and watch a video.

I am not a hacker or maker of any kind, really, I just know my way around google and a Terminal and flashing tools. I used my experience I had built up getting a degree in Software Engineering and being a coder for a living for a decade. And all I could think was, here's a product that I paid good money for, and within three years it was unusable. Because of the manufacturer. Who what, didn't care? Didn't notice?

Yes I fixed it, but how are average consumers supposed to?

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Everything Is Crap So Why Not Driverless Cars?

Tuesday I attended a fabulous unconference What Are We Going To Do About Artificial Intelligence? where we split into smaller groups and discussed AI from different angles. It was attended by technologists, futurologists, designers, product managers, and other disciplines. In the discussions, which I flitted between some, these damn driverless cars kept coming up.

Yes, shared autonomous cars would revolutionise everything about how we live. And we did see a future where people would be penalized for wanting to drive themselves, and I figured rental companies would be the ones to insist on going full driverless first to reduce their liability. We spoke how networked autonomous cars could manage their flow so fast speed limits would become meaningless, but also how it could mean you could be hijacked easily, like by the police.

A really good representation of driverless cars, and their government hijacking (well, except for some ridiculous wall-crawling and lack of respect for physics when you jump between them) can be seen in the Spielberg film Minority Report.

This speed and distribution only works if all cars are in the network, so the transition will be interesting. When there's few or a moderate amount of autonomous cars, because they will follow the rules, including speed limits (even if Google now says they will let the cars drive 10 km/h over), and will stop first, a lot of people will outrun and outmaneuver the autonomous cars, making them a secondary choice. Yes, a lot of drivers are dicks, just look at how many people will drive in the wake of an emergency vehicle to get a leg up the fine drivers who did cede the road. But once there are enough autonomous cars that are networked, human-driven cars will simply not be able to keep up with the efficiency gains, and they will be rapidly removed from the flow, either by commerce or legislation.

Another set of ideas about autonomous cars is described in the quite prescient Nature's End, where humans could authorise their autonomous vehicle to break speed limits and run through traffic lights by authorising the payment of the fine on the spot. It is not a far jump from that to see a revenue opportunity in our real world for municipalities or toll roads to let people willing to pay go faster or first through a light. It will stratify the car experience beyond just what you drive, now including also how well you get there.

If it all works, of course. And there's my problem with all these scenarios.

I will totally believe that a bunch of autonomous cars surrounded by Google engineers or Tesla engineers work perfectly fine right now. I will totally believe that a $60.000 car will switch lanes under certain conditions if you tell it to when it still has that new smell. But right now I have a 3 year old tablet that can no longer switch from one application to another, or have an acceptable battery life, thanks to Google. I had a two-year old iPod that stuttered playing music sometimes, failing at arguably its primary function. My friend Mike tells me how his car mid-traffic-jam suddenly decided the car doors were open and then closed and spun into a locking / unlocking cycle trying to control it. I have a laptop running one of the longest worked-on Operating System codebases known to man and it will spontaneously freeze and reboot when playing a video.

Getting 1 item right is hard. Getting the next 100 right is easier. Getting 1000 right is a breeze if you have manufacturing down. But getting millions of software/hardware combos out, and working reliably for a decade? Good frickin' luck. Think of your smartphone, your smart TV, your set-top box, your cable box, your games console, for a moment: have they been smooth and easy to operate? Have they stopped working while you were using them? Did you ever switch them on to do something and then be stopped because of a "Mandatory Update" that required 20 minutes?

Software cars won't be any different. Enjoy.