Rehab Robots!


“Injury” is a uselessly unspecific term. It covers a range from simple scrapes to complex concussions that mean a lifetime of suffering. Some things are generally true about injuries:

  • They’re unexpected.
  • They can happen at anyone at any age.
  • Complexity of the injury and age can prolong recovery time.

Toyota has embarked on a new program, the manufacture of robots designed to help people recover from and cope with serious injury.

As reported in PC Magazine:

Toyota wants to solve that problem with a robot rental system. The first of these was demonstrated yesterday when the company launched a walk assist system rental service. The robot is called the Welwalk WW-1

000, and it’s designed to help in the rehabilitation of anyone suffering with lower limb paralysis. While that could happen at any age, leg weakness is common following a stroke.


The initial system is designed for clinics serving large numbers of patients, but there is a vision of a home version of the robotic leg that could be an on-going help with personal mobility.

Unlike Toshiba’s disastrous flirtation with nuclear energy, Toyota is using core technology in a way that will benefit a large number of people across the globe and for which there should be substantial demand for decades to come. I’m looking forward to seeing what they do next.


  1. Matthew Humphries, “Toyota Launches Rehabilitation Robot Rental Service,” PC Magazine, 13 April 2017.

Flame retardants, household dust, and thyroid cancer


A new report from Duke University finds an explanation for increases in the frequencyth of thyroid cancer in household dust.

“Thyroid cancer is the fastest increasing cancer in the U.S., with most of the increase in new cases being papillary thyroid cancer” [PTC], said the study’s lead investigator, Julie Ann Sosa, M.D., MA, professor of surgery and medicine at Duke University School of Medicine in Durham, N.C. “Recent studies suggest that environmental factors may, in part, be responsible for this increase.” (1)

Prior studies have shown that some flame retardants used in the home and in vehicles have a similar chemical structure to thyroid hormones and can disrupt thyroid function.

The study measured the content of household dust as well as the incidence of chemicals in blood samples taken from occupants.  The study used a post facto experimental design with test and control groups.  All of the 140 participants lived in their homes for more than 11 years.

This study established that these flame retardants

  1. Appear in household dust in measurable quantities, where they can be inhaled by occupants and
  2. The level of two of them found in dust and blood samples are associated with the probability of having PTC.

The two problem chemicals identified in the study as elevating cancer risk belong to a class of chemicals, polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs).

  • Decabromodiphenyl ether (BDE-209). This is the most commonly used retardant, and appears to double the risk for thyroid cancer.
  • Tris(2-chloroethyl) phosphate (TCEP).

Participants with high levels of TCEP in their house dust were more than four times as likely to have larger, more aggressive tumors that extended beyond the thyroid, according to the study.

Participants with high levels of BDE-209 in their blood were 14 times more likely to have a version of the cancer that tends to be more aggressive.

Why should you care?  These chemicals are used as flame retardants in plastics (including TV cabinets), furniture, drapery backing, some carpets and in consumer electronics, both in home and in automobiles.  Both exposure to these chemicals and the prevalence of thyroid cancer are increasing.

Note:  This research was funded by Fred and Alice Stanback, the Duke Cancer Institute, and the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University, and not by industry sources.

What you need to consider:

  • Do you have a home air purification system? Not something that makes the air smell nice, but something that removes dust and other particles from what you breath. Maybe it’s time to invest or upgrade.
  • Read the labels on what you buy.



  1. The Endocrine Society. “Exposure to common flame retardants may raise the risk of papillary thyroid cancer.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 2 April 2017. <>.
  2. US Environmental Protection Agency, “Technical Fact Sheet — Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDEs) and Polybrominated Bophenyls (PBBs),” January 2014.
  3. Wikipedia, “Decabromodiphenyl ether.”

Internet Insecurity Revisited


Your applications encrypt your data.  You’re protected, right?ben_franklin


There are three things you need to know about the latest round of papers made public by Wikileaks:

  • The CIA (in some cases in partnership with UK’s MI5) developed ways to hack device operating systems. The devices include all types of computers and cell phones, networked TVs, car onboard systems — basically everything anyone uses that’s connected to the Internet. The operating systems affected are Windows, Android and Apple.
  • The hack allows the user to read data as it is entered (typed or oral), before it is encrypted.  Everything.
  • The hack allows users to control devices and use them for spying on device owners.
  • The CIA may have LOST CONTROL of these hacks, meaning that they are out in the public domain where others can use them.

The CIA might not care about you, but are there others who might want your bank account?

The revelations have shocked experts.

Still, the amount of smartphone vulnerabilities and exploits detailed in these documents was shocking even to experts. “It certainly seems that in the CIA toolkit there were more zero-day exploits” – an exploitable vulnerability in software not known to the manufacturer – “than we’d estimated,” Jason Healey, a director at the Atlantic Council think tank, told Wired Magazine. He added: “If the CIA has this many, we would expect the NSA to have several times more.”(3)

Early reports are that the documents published by Wikileaks appear authentic.  None of the companies involved have commented on the situation. Nor do there appear to be any patches immediately in the offing.  After all, none of the players is yet admitting that they have something to patch.

Some writers see a bright side in these revelations: the decision to hack operating systems means that data encryption tools work.  That may or may not be true.  We don’t know what is still to be revealed.

Security problems aren’t under control or going away.

“Anybody who thinks that the Manning and Snowden problems were one-offs is just dead wrong,’’ said Joel Brenner, former head of U.S. counterintelligence at the office of the Director of National Intelligence. “Ben Franklin said three people can keep a secret if two of them are dead. If secrets are shared on systems in which thousands of people have access to them, that may really not be a secret anymore. This problem is not going away, and it’s a condition of our existence.’’(4)

I’ve said that nothing on the Internet is private, but this takes that statement to an entirely new level.  Nothing you type or speak into an Internet connected device is private. 

Ben Franklin was indeed a very wise man.


  1. Sharon Profis and Sean Hollister, “WikiLeaks and how the CIA sees your WhatsApp messages, explained,” CNet, 7 March 2017.
  2. Jose Pagliery, “Wikileaks claims to reveal how CIA hacks TVs and phones all over the world,” CNN Tech, 7 March 2017.
  3. Trevor Timm, “WikiLeaks says the CIA can use your TV to spy on you. But there’s good news,” The Guardian, 7 March 2017.
  4. Devlin Barrett, “FBI prepares for new hunt for WikiLeaks’ source,” The Washington Post, 7 March 2017.

Self-Driving Cars that Aren’t


The promise of technology and the reality aren’t necessarily the same thing.

Self-driving vehicles have received a lot of media attention in recent months. There are test programs involving self-driving taxis, consumer vehicles, and even tractor trailers. The notion of technology that limits the harm caused by human fatigue and distracted driving is attractive.(1)

However, we have several recent examples of failures in that technology. A recent race on a closed track in Brazil ended with a crash.(2,3)  A Tesla driver was killed when his car ran into a tractor trailer.

Google, an early advocate of self-driving technology, stopped publishing statistics on accidents involving these cars earlier this year.(4)

Mearian writing in Computer World argues that driving conditions vary broadly, that unusual driving conditions happen, and that it is virtually impossible to write computer code that could anticipate every possible situation.

For that reason, there will be a need for a vehicle in an emergency to revert to human control. In turn, the human driver has to be awake and alert to the situation and able to take immediate control of the vehicle. The change in control has to happen in a second.  There’s no time for someone to set aside a computer or wake up from a nap.

I had wondered how a self-driving vehicle could identify a flooded underpass. Right now, it seems it can’t. 

If you need a driver for a self-driving vehicle, what’s the financial benefit of investing in self-driving technology? Doubtless there will be improvements in sensor and in AI technology in the future that might make a truly driverless car possible.  Not now. Not soon.

The other issue to resolve is liability when accidents occur. When a driverless car is in an accident, who is responsible for damages — the owner or the software company? In the absence of legislation, the courts will have to decide.


  1. Adrienne LaFrance, “Self-Driving Cars Could Save 300,000 Lives Per Decade in America,” The Atlantic, 29 September 2015.
  2. Brett Williams, “The first ever self-driving car race ended in a crash,” Mashable, 21 February 2017.
  3. Jon Fingas, “Self-driving car race finishes with a crash,” engaget, 19 February 2017.
  4. Alison Grizwold, “Uber’s self-driving cars are already getting into scrapes on the streets of Pittsburgh,”, 4 October 2016.
  5. Steve Kovach, “Google quietly stopped publishing monthly accident reports for its self driving cars,” Business Insider, 18 January 2017.
  6. Lucas Mearian, “Here’s why self-driving cars may never really be self-driving,” Computer World, 23 February 2017.

The Radiation Legacy of WWII


Radiation is a part of American life.  Everyone gets some.  A few “lucky” ones get a lot  more.

North St. Louis County, Missouri, is peppered with sites identified by the US Army Corp of Engineers as radioactive.  It’s the legacy of uranium processing for nuclear arms programs in World War II.  Uranium waste was dumped into a landfill near the St. Louis airport (Lambert Field).  However, the area is subject to flooding by Coldwater Creek, and that has spread radioactive material to parks and yards across North County.

The result: North County has been turned into a cancer hotspot, and shown in the map below.  Some of the cancers seen in this area are extraordinarily cancer_cases_1242rare.

Coldwater Creek drains into the Missouri River above the juncture with the Mississippi River, and just above the intake for drinking water for the City of St. Louis.

There have been a number of law suits file over the last 6 years, with some thrown out by various judges and some still active.

OK, that’s known, at least to local residents.  Whether it has had an impact on tourism or on convention traffic isn’t known.

However, St. Louis was only one processing center,  There were five others:

  • Tanawanda, New York (on the Niagara River upstream from Niagara Falls)
  • Deepwater, New Jersey (on the Delaware River across from Wilmington, Delaware)
  • Canonsburg, Pennsylvania (south of Pittsburgh)
  • Oak Ridge, Tennessee (near Knoxville)
  • Cleveland, Ohio (on Lake Erie)

There are radiation issues in all of these communities.  In many cases, the coverage is old enough that current residents may not even be aware of the problem.  A 2006 article labeled Canonsburg as “the most radioactive town in America.”

That said, some level of radioactivity exists in all areas of the US.  The map below is from a civilian volunteer monitoring program (the Radiation Network).  Unfortunately, none of the civilian volunteers appear to be focusing on historical problem sites.



Knowledge is safety.  The more you know about where you live and where your kids play, the better you can try to protect yourself and them.





If I Didn’t Have to Deal with Comcast, this Would Be Funny


This is from PC Magazine, dateline 7 January 2017.

Financial news site 24/7 Wall St. this week released a report identifying “12 companies hated by customers, employees, and the general public.” Their findings are based on consumer satisfaction surveys and worker reviews.

Comcast topped the list, boasting a “significantly worse” score than the Internet and subscription TV service industry averages, according to 24/7 Wall St. In J.D. Power’s rating of major wireline services, the firm received the worst scores in cost to consumer, performance, billing, and reliability.

Clients are understandably perturbed: The Federal Communications Commission in the fall fined Comcast for $2.3 million over allegations the cable company charged customers for services they never authorized.

My own experience:

  • I’ve had upwards of 30 services visits, all for problems with Comcast connections outside my home
  • I spent 23 hours one week with Comcast phone support trying to get a defective modem to work.
  • On some cable TV channels, the top 20% of the screen is displayed upside down and backwards.  Ever seen a basketball shot in the shape of a “W”?

Of course, raising tone-deafness to an art form, when you call in with a service problem, you get a recorded message about signing up for a pay-per-view event.  (They may have corrected that recently, but it has been annoying for years.  No, I’m not going to buy anything else from you if my basic service isn’t working.)

Decades after Deming, companies are supposed to know that

  • It’s cheaper to sell to happy current customers than replace ones who leave
  • Frequent repair calls is a drag on profits.  Prevention is cheaper. Cutting corners is expensive.

Apparently, the executive suite at Comcast hasn’t read Deming.  The folks at Verizon probably hope they never do.

I actually feel bad, because I know some good people (not executives) who work for Comcast.  They get to cope with the mess the leaders create.


Body cams


ben_franklinBen Franklin said, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

Police body cams can save lives and lawsuits.  There’s remarkable evidence from field trials supporting that claim:

In 2006, police officers in the United Kingdom tested body cameras and found that the technology enhanced the collection of hard-to-refute evidence and resulted in fewer cases going to trial. In 2012, a similar field test took place with the Rialto, Calif., Police Department. The 12-month experiment randomly tested body cameras on officers during their shifts. The cops used cameras from Taser International, which were water resistant, captured video in full color and had a battery life of 12 hours. The test results were startling: When the cameras were turned on, use of force by officers dropped 60 percent and complaints against the police fell nearly 90 percent. [Newcombe]

635902870224132893-bodycamHowever, technology changes, and new technology raises new issues with these devices.

A new (and relatively shoddy) report from the Department of Justice confirms that some body cameras used by police have facial recognition technology as well as some ability to detect weapons on an individual.  There is no comment on the accuracy of either technology.  We know that police radar guns have a statistical measurement error, but what’s the equivalent for facial recognition?

That changes the interaction between police and civilians.

It makes perfect sense that an officer would want to know if an individual he is approaching is a known criminal or potentially dangerous.  Certainly, the officer would want to know if the civilian is armed. Heck, I’d like to know that.

If the camera can provide that information, it makes no sense that a body cam would ever be disabled on initial approach to a suspect.  In shootings where the body cam is reported to have been non-working, that becomes more suspicious.  What officer would want to go on patrol with a key piece of equipment out of service?

The body cam raises issues for civilians with permits to carry concealed weapons.  If the officer knows someone is armed, will they approach the civilian differently?  Treat the civilian more like a criminal?  Would that raise the risk of the civilian being shot?

Obviously, protestors lose their anonymity.  Any protestor — whether it’s a protest over a shooting, taxes, firing of a school teacher or flag burning — will be identifiable if in range of a body cam.  There will be an electronic record of those so identified.  How will that record be used?  There are no regulations on that today, as protest is in theory a public act.  Could you lose a job because you participated in a protest?

What controls are there on the use of body cams by private detectives and civilians, or their placement on drones?

If an officer leaves the scene of a domestic violence complaint without making an arrest or report, is there still an electronic record?  Could that record be accessed for use in any subsequent court actions?

Lot’s of questions with no answers as yet.