stevenmansour's blog

Kinect and Wiimote and Nanotech Construction Kit (with video)

Combination of 3D video from Kinect with background removal and computer-generated imagery from a 3D application:

This is pretty amazing to a hardware / UI geek such as myself, and another example of how low-cost gaming applications can be leveraged - now and in the near future - to build fantastically useful science research tools.

Can you think of any other ways you could use a similar <$200 tool in your own field for research or training purposes?

Jon Stewart on Climategate

Established scientists who "hide" inconvenient data are on the same level as pseudoscientists, IMHO.

BusinessWeek: "How Science Can Create Millions of New Jobs"

 Video from BusinessWeek:

It seems a bit optimistic to me to claim that "within a few years, the US economy will be capable of generating the high-value jobs required for economic recovery" simply by increasing public-private partnerships. This sounds like the kind of paradigm shift that the entrenched U.S. economy will find very difficult to accept.

Is science out of control?

Dr. David Levy musing about whether scientists should have a say in how their research gets used:


What do you think?

  • Should scientists have a say in how their research gets used in society and the world at large?
  • Will the rapid pace of technological advance bring about cataclysmic events for the human race?
  • Finally, are robots going to annihilate us? ;)

Open Access vs. Peer Review (or, Debate vs. Propaganda)

Via Nature:

Nature has learned, a group of big scientific publishers has hired the pit bull to take on the free-information movement, which campaigns for scientific results to be made freely available. Some traditional journals, which depend on subscription charges, say that open-access journals and public databases of scientific papers such as the National Institutes of Health's (NIH's) PubMed Central, threaten their livelihoods.

While the debate between the merits and pitfalls of Open Access and Peer Review rages on, those with the greatest economic stake in its outcome are pulling no punches in trying to ensure their survival.

What the big journals fail to mention is that open access is not meant as a subsitute for peer review, but as a companion to it. Open Access - essentially free online access to scholarly papers - is meant to complement peer review. In fact, the most succesful open access journals still use some form or another of peer review in their process. Indeed, current methods of achieving open access still use one form or another of peer review.

And what of peer review itself? While conceptually it is supposed to serve the needs of the scientific community (and therefore, by extension, the whole of humanity), there's evidence to prove that it has been responsible for more than its share of problems as well:

It has been suggested that peer review is an inherently
conservative process, that encourages the emergence of
self-serving cliques of reviewers, who are more likely to
review each others’ grant proposals and publications
favourably than those submitted by researchers from
outside the group
. This could have a number of
consequences. For instance, it may:

  • discourage researchers from moving into new fields in
    which they have no track record;

  • make it difficult for junior researchers to obtain grants
    or publish their research;

  • present difficulties for multidisciplinary work, since
    peer review committees that do not contain individuals
    qualified to judge all aspects of a proposal may be less
    likely to approve the funding;

  • result in the funding/publication of ‘safe’ research that
    fits neatly into the conventional wisdom and work
    against innovative, ‘risky’ or unconventional ideas.

Peer review can be relatively slow and inefficient both for
funding and publication. Reasons for this may include:

  • failure of referees to keep to deadlines -reviewers are
    commonly given 3-4 weeks to complete and submit
    reviews, but typically only 50% keep to this deadline;

  • inconsistency between referees often means that more
    must be sought, thus slowing the process;

  • recruiting and retaining referees is increasingly difficult
    (acceptance rates are typically as low as 50%);

  • the lengthy time taken for editors and funding bodies
    to reach a decision regarding the fate of an application
    (sometimes up to six months).

The real issue is - as always - a threat to the profit margins of established corporations who are unable or unwilling to adapt to the evolving scientific ecosystem. Even the AAP (Association of American Publishers) themselves are very blunt about it:

"We're like any firm under siege," says Barbara Meredith, a vice-president at the organization. "It's common to hire a PR firm when you're under siege." She says the AAP needs to counter messages from groups such as the Public Library of Science (PLoS), an open-access publisher and prominent advocate of free access to information

It bears repeating that this isn't a debate at all between Open Access and Peer Review. "Peer Review", by nature, is an essential part of scholarly editing and screening and will likely be present in one form or another for years to come. The debate is whether it will continue to be monopolized, commercialized and hoarded for personal and monetary gain by certain publishers, instead of serving to promote the quality and dissemination of scientific articles as it should.

Open Access is the natural evolution of scientific information availability on the world-wide web, and provides access to quality scientific publications to a much, much wider audience. Combined with a structurally sound, reformed peer review process, it can form the basis for a viable, self-sustaining, highly mobile, agile scientific publishing and dissemination platform - Peer-Reviewed Open Access (PROA). As young scientists, you are called on to do the Lion's share of the work to ensure the development of the protocols, standards and resources around this platform... but you are also those who stand to gain the most from it.

Concordantly, by engaging "pitbull" PR firms to spread FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt) about Open Access, corporate scientific publishing firms are basically the moral equivalent of a child kicking at the waves as the ocean comes to bring down his sandcastle.

Wikipedia articles on Peer Review and Open Access.

Another viewpoint on the debate.

A periodic table of visualization methods

This is a very clever "periodic table" listing different visualization methods.

You can mouse over each "visualization element" to see an example of each one.

It also distinguishes between different visualization categories: data visualization, information, concepts, strategies, metaphors and compound visualization.

This could be a very useful neat little tool to help explain to someone the differences between two visualization methods, or to learn about new ones.


Scientists vs. Engineers

Lately, I've been thinking more and more about the dichotomy between scientists and engineers. While similar in many ways, scientists and engineers have proven to be very different in terms of adaptability, use of resources, and application of theories. While these and other differences are essential to both groups, I can't help but feel that both scientists and engineers would stand to gain much from opening up dialogue with each other a bit more.

I myself studied civil engineering here in Montreal, though I later abandoned that career choice because, well it was a career choice, not a personal choice. In other words, it seemed like a good idea because I could get a decent job afterwards, with a decent starting salary. That's the reason so many of us do what we do in this capital-driven economic system we've built(indeed, we're programmed to think this way from a very young age), but in the end, it seemed like an awfully shallow reason to become an engineer, scientist or anything, really.

How many scientists here became scientists because they *really* love science? How many of us really grew up loving science itself, and knew from an early age that this is really what we wanted to do, regardless of the career path / job opportunities?

And how many of us followed a scientific career path because it would provide us with a comfortable living, a good salary, and a secure future? Or for some other superficial reason, such as going into a "well-respected" field, or making our parents proud?

One of the most important differences between a pure science versus an engineering degree is that there is a career path from an undergraduate degree in engineering. Engineering graduates are qualified to pursue their professional license. Not so in science, where one typically requires graduate work to be employable in that field.

Science primarily involves using experimentation to uncover new things about the physical world, while engineering is about applying that scientific knowledge to create useful products and services for society. While science is firmly rooted in research, engineering relies on both research and design. Both disciplines require a strong knowledge of scientific theory, math and computing.1

While both engineers and scientists know how to "tinker" with things, it seems to me that engineers like to tinker with everything around them that they don't yet fully understand, while scientists prefer to restrict their exploration to topics that fall within their own scientific grasp. A good example of this is the Internet - most engineers I know are much more web-savvy than most scientists I know. They both had the same starting point, but it's the engineer who was quicker at asking questions, figuring things out, not only trying to understand the "how" of the way things like blogging, wikis, distributed social networks, etc. work, but also figuring out the "why". These engineers seem to understand the importance of sharing and the value of open information, where the general attitude I've gotten back with my years of working with the global scientific community has been one of "This is my research, this is my information, etc.

Also - and this might have something to do with the aforementioned understanding of social networks - engineers accept the fact that they are just a very small part of a much larger system. When I think of engineers, the visual that appears in my head is one of mechanical engineers working in teams, of computer engineers spread across the world working on an open-source project, or of civil or mining engineers together on a surveying mission. When I imagine scientists, I see a lone elder man with a white beard surrounded by flasks, or - at best - a sterile lab with people in lab coats, completely quiet, each staring down their own microscope.

These are, of course, hilariously inaccurate caricatures. But it's undeniable that science has been - and still is - a much more rigid and impenetrable topic, while engineers have been quick to assimilate with the technology that's around them. Scientists seem to accept to use this technology - without trying to understand it - only if it serves in their field of research.

Scientists want to understand the theories behind something and they're willing to use tools when necessary to get to the core of why/how. Engineers want to build things and they're willing to use theory when it will help the construction.


The scientist vs. engineer relation is simple, without one, the other could not exist. No scientist can get a thing done, without a half-way descent machinist, (whether it be programming, or actually maching of instruments) Engineers on the other hand, must use every bit of applicable theory, whether it be from pure nature, or academic elitists, to produce something of value. Fuller's edict was "If it works, then it is beautiful." I believe functionality is the key to beauty as well, as functionality is a trait that is quantitative, as well as qualitative. That is where raw science and engineering form a unity, in pure functionality. It is their most common bond, and strongest.2

As for me, well after I left engineering I registered as an independent student, which is a status I retain to this day. I take courses that interest me because I want to learn more about them, things like psychology, languages, history, philosophy, and some science and engineering classes. I sit in on classes sometimes even when I'm not enrolled in them. With the absence of the usual pressure about grades and studying, I retain so much more from every course than I used to when I was "a student".

There are probably enough credits for a degree (or two) in there somewhere, but I'm not interested in even pursuing that right now. I find that the most fascinating thinking often occurs in the cracks between topics (a great example of this is the remarkable symbiosis we see in interdisciplinary science), not at their summits, so I try to build (myself, my work and my "research") horizontally, not vertically. Finding out how to apply existing ideas to areas where innovation is needed is more valuable to me than constantly trying to push the boundaries and discover "the next big thing" in a selected topic.

You've achieved success in your field when you don't know whether what you're doing is work or play. -- Warren Beatty

Does that make me an engineer or a scientist? Probably neither.

Or maybe a "mad scientist"...

  1. 1. From Queens University
  2. 2. From

The Mother-Child Network is looking for Champions!

The Mother-Child Health International Research Network, a nascent partner and affiliate of WAYS, is actively looking for young scientists working or studying in a field relevant to Mother-Child health research - be it nutritional, perinatal or other - to act as volunteer "Champions" for the network, create content such as blog entries, and recruit other members.

Once we have selected an adequate amount of Champions from different geographic areas, we will constitute an international committee from the positive responders with the eventual plan to organize an actual face-to-face meeting at a later date. In addition to the meetings, we can offer the oppurtunity to be a full member of an international network with some very interesting links all over the globe.

In return, applicants are expected to post at least one blog entry or event per week which relates to their research, work, or ethics in Mother-Child Health, in addition to commenting on each other's posts and recruiting collegues to register on the network.

The preferred methods to apply for the position are to register an account on the Mother-Child network and then either leave a comment on this post with your username, or to contact me through my profile page on the Mother-Child site.

An alternate, less desirable method is to email me directly.

More details are available here.