Weekly Head Voices #5: Google Docs, Bad Netbook Karma, Cold does not cause cold.

It’s been a terribly quiet week blog-wise, but I did make that promise four weeks ago, and, seeing that I want to be a columnist when I grow up (hint hint employers of columnists) and those guys and girls simply HAVE to think up something interesting every single week, I too am going to do my best to add sweetness to the shortness that you see before you.

Speaking of shortness, I did get some off-blog (yes, face-to-face!) feedback on the previous edition of the WHV. Said (highly appreciated) feedback concerned the length of these posts, more specifically, that there was too much of it. It’s important to remember that I in fact do write these things with the chronically time-challenged in mind. One of the measures I take is to bold the most important themes in each paragraph, so that one can easily skip on to the next paragraph if the mentioned theme does not take one’s fancy. This week, I’m going even further by employing section headings! As always, please feel free to skip paragraphs and sections.

Before jumping in, I give you the traditional WHV photo, this time of my little Weber doing its thing (thanks to some crucial material supplied by my friendly neighbour) on the most brilliant of all South African celebrations: National Braai day!

My humble little Weber on NBD 2009.

My humble little Weber on NBD 2009.

Geeky Google Docs love affair

Google Docs is Google’s fantastic attempt (well, it was initially developed by Writely, which was soon assimilated by and has since been happily functioning inside of The Google Supermind) at an office suite. The whole thing, including Documents, Spreadsheets, and Presentations, runs in your web browser. This means that you always have access to your stuff from anywhere, and you never have to install any extra software. With the offline functionality, you can continue working even without an internet connection.

This was already pretty neat, but then they had to go and make it even neater. In my line of business, one of the coolest features is the fact that you can concurrently edit the same document with any number of collaborators. I’ve written research proposals together with colleagues before, where at a number of occasions we were actually editing the same paragraph of text from two different cities, and Docs didn’t break a sweat merging our edits in real-time. This functionality also eliminates the very irritating “Could you send me the latest version of the proposal” emails, the subsequent waiting and then the infuriating expired time window when the latest version finally arrives in the email.

A recent feature which is admittedly less impressive to the public at large, but made my geek heart miss several beats, was the built-in equation editor. Imagine my surprise when I tried this out for the first time and realised that it is in fact a real-time LaTeX math typesetter: You type your incredibly complex formula in standard LaTeX, and Google Docs shows the typeset math updated in real-time. This is even useful if you’re NOT using Google Docs but just want to fine-tune the formulas in your LaTeX article.  Check the screenshot below:

Screenshot of Google Docs equation editor.

Screenshot of Google Docs equation editor.

90% of MS Office users probably don’t use more than 10% of its functionality. Google Docs covers this 10% more than adequately, but without the complexity, the platform lock-in and the cost. Next time you’re considering emailing someone a Word document or Powerpoint, have a look at Google Docs first!

Netbook Bad Karma

On an extra partition, my netbook (Asus 1005HA-H, the computer I’m currently in love with) has the absolute latest development version of the Ubuntu Karmic Koala (9.10 – will be released at the end of October) Netbook Remix. Linux distributions, and especially Ubuntu, have been making great progress recently on state of the art hardware. On this netbook, suspend to ram for example works out of the box, which is quite an achievement for Linux-kind. However, whereas battery life under the bundled Windows with the Asus Super Hybrid Engine (don’t laugh, to me it sounds like some knid of giant fighting robot power source) is an astounding 9+ hours, under Linux it’s a quite disappointing 4 or 5 hours. One very obvious factor is the CPU running at 1GHz at idle under Linux and 850MHz at idle under Windows.

Even installing and configuring the latest eeepc acpi utilities, including kernel module, from the testing repository at StatUX http://www.statux.org/content?page=repo, although enabling bunches of hotkeys, didn’t solve the battery problem. The CPU was still running at 1GHz.

I’m curious to see what the case will be at Karmic release, preferably with the stock Ubuntu Netbook Remix and not too much user fiddling. I’m considering writing a short review at that time, hopefully less critical than my previous attempt with Ubuntu Feisty beta (7.04) on my HP laptop.

Brand new Visual Data Analysis lecture block

For the past 4 years, I have been taking care of the Medical Visualisation parts (2 lecture blocks) of the TU Delft master-level Data Visualisation course (IN4086). Since the beginning of this year, I also give my very own dedicated 5 ECTS Medical Visualisation course (IN4307), which I have designed with the sole purpose of producing MedVis NINJAS. I take great joy in corrupting promising young minds with my special brand of evil science. :)

In a very recent development, it seems that I will now also be taking care of the Visual Data Analysis block of the general Data Visualisation course. I somehow blurted this out during a recent meeting, and now have the privilege of designing this one from scratch too.

This is quite interesting, because visual data analysis, or visual analytics as it’s sometimes called (urgh), is primarily associated with Information Visualisation, and being a MedVis fanatic I’m supposed to be a Scientific Visualisation guy. To cut a long story short, InfoVis and SciVis are two sub-fields in the broader field of Visualisation, but the communities behind them might as well come from different planets, in spite of the best efforts of some of my colleagues to unify everything. In any case, it turns out that we (when I say “we” I mean Jorik) have been secretly publishing suspiciously infovis-friendly articles the past few years. Look:

I find this a very interesting and gratifying development. An increasing number of my research collaborations in the medical research field are also benefiting from visual data analysis techniques. Keeping in mind the clichéd but no less real data explosion, we, as visualisation people, can greatly increase our value to the client. The forthcoming Visual Data Analysis lecture block I’m designing is just one step in the evolution of our science.

The End, my friend, also of your common cold misconceptions.

Pressing Ctrl-Shift-C in this Google Doc draft (how’s that for subtle product placement?), I can see that I’ve once again passed the 1000 word mark (1200 to be more precise).


I had even more planned, but instead I’ll conclude with a hopefully useful snippet of information, especially in the light of the coming winter. Many people I run into still somehow believe that there’s a causal relationship between being cold, as in going outside in cold weather, and getting a cold, as in sneezing and having a running nose. Well, I’m here to tell you that it’s an age-old myth. A myth I say! See this quote from the Wikipedia article on the common cold (emphasis mine):

An ancient belief still common today claims that a cold can be “caught” by prolonged exposure to cold weather such as rain or winter conditions, which is where the disease got its name.[9] Although common colds are seasonal, with more occurring during winter, experiments so far have failed to produce evidence that short-term exposure to cold weather or direct chilling increases susceptibility to infection, implying that the seasonal variation is instead due to a change in behaviors such as increased time spent indoors at close proximity to others.[6][10][11][12][13]

Just to ram that point home: Going outside in the cold, or being exposed to cold weather or direct chilling, very probably does not increase your chances of catching the common cold! Similar to this is the work on influenza. It turns out that there’s a link between the flu and absolute humidity: The lower the humidity, the higher the chance of getting the flu. It’s quite probable that you catch the flu virus not from going outside in winter, but from staying inside your heated and hence slightly drier home.  Chalk one up for all the kids getting told, unfairly and without scientific basis, to dress up before going out or risk getting ill.

On that rebellious note, have a super duper week!  (… and please do your thing in the comments below …)