Apr 28, 2008

Pics From Jordan

After weeks of struggling with Share on Ovi and many other responsabilities, I managed to get 196 pictures of my trip to Jordan up on Flickr and Share on Ovi. Flickr doesn't give me an immediate option to embed a slideshow of my channels to a blog, something totally stupid, whereas Share on Ovi has the option placed somewhere where you can't miss it. Plus they give 3 layout options: ticker, slideshow and Grid. It's small but meaningful things like this that make me love Share on Ovi so much, and prefer it to Flickr. So here they are, my pictures from Jordan.

Day 1 - Leaving Lebanon, through Syria and to Jordan. Madaba church, Mount Nebo and Amman.

Day 2 - Leaving Amman to Petra, then Ram Valley and night in Aqaba.

Day 3 - Boat trip in Aqaba, then off to the Dead Sea, Jordan river to see the Baptism site, and night in Amman's Kanabaya lounge.

Day 4 - Off to Jarach, then back to Lebanon.


Apr 25, 2008

Mobiles & Medicine - The Sum Of All Elements

Today, I continue my series of comparisons between the medical and the mobile fields. I had previously talked about the fact that not everything is under control in both worlds, and that no matter how perfect an object is built, something at some point can and will go wrong.

I just returned from a Medical Ethics exam today, and one of the questions asked was related to a statement made by Pope Benedict XVI about the biomedical sciences. The exam was in French, but basically what the Pope meant to say was that biomedical sciences should be used for the good of humanity, because if they didn't have the benefit of the human kind as a goal, they would be cold and heartless science. We were asked to reflect on this opinion as pharmacists, as well as give examples of how biomedical sciences can at some point hurt humanity or a human.

In my paper, starting my thinking process from the "cold and heartless science" affirmation, i set out to compare medicine with arithmetics. I didn't go into details there, but I will here. Our constant tendency, in the medical field is to take book sentences and research results wholeheartedly. When we are presented with "disease x" we always tend to give "cure a" because it's written somewhere, and we sure don't know better than those illustrate scientists. When we are presented with "disease y" we will give "cure b", for the same reason. The tricky part comes when we have "disease x + disease y" in the same person. What do we do? First, we try to find research about those 2 diseases occuring together, the reasons behind it, as well as that "written somewhere" treatment scheme. If this search result comes out blank, we're left to pray that we're going to make the right decision. Sometimes, we will give "cure a + cure b" after making sure that both medicines aren't incompatible ; other times we will give "cure a or cure b" if we know for a certain reason that curing one disease will help the other ; and some other times, we will go totally blunt and give "cure c" which is something that might work on both, not quite ideally, but it does.

See, medicine is a lot more complicated than simple math, two illnesses together can be equal to the sum of each one individually, but it can be more or less than that sum, it can also be an indication of a totally different illness. If I have chronic dyspnea, it might be asthma or COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). If I have oedema, it might be renal failure. If I have both, we could treat them separately but we should investigate an underlying heart failure that didn't manifest itself. This is explained by the complexity of the human body, that I wrote about in my first post of the series, but it can also be explained by another arithmetics comparison.

How do you define a Human Being? Is it a mix of flesh, bones, muscles, nerves, blood, liquids? No. We are more than the sum of all of our elements. Now we may not know exactly what is the other abstract entity that adds up to the body in the equation. Some will call it the soul, others the spirit, others what we refer to as the heart, others will also add society or religion and what it teaches us, others will say that unconscious acts has got a piece of the cake, too, and many many more. For what it's worth, I believe it's all of that and a little bit more too. The physical dimension of the human, which is the body, is just the smallest entity in the equation. We might be perfectly healthy, yet feel pain or sick ; we might also be deep down into some disease and yet feel perfectly fit. Why? Simply, because we're more than just organs!

Now let's go back to the mobile field. One thing we notice, that is too darn obvious, is that a mobile is not "alive". Does that mean that it misses that sum of abstract elements that we added to the body? Well, I've never seen a mobile move by itself, so there goes your answer. When something goes wrong in one piece of the equipment, it will show up, because there's nothing there governing the process and trying to conceal it. A whole mobile device is equal to the sum of its elements, and that's why it doesn't play on you those tricky games that the body does.

This is what seriously differentiates health sciences from engineering sciences: the predictability factor. When there's a problem in the fuse in some piece of electronics, you know that changing it will solve the problem, it's predictable. When there's a health problem in a patient, you might give the perfect cure, the one you have used for years to treat this same disease, yet a couple of patients will not respond or will respond in a different manner, it's unpredictable. This has been the aim of the whole genetics field so far, to find patterns that will help making health evolutions more predictable in humans. The "oh, you have gene X, then you are likely to have disease Y around age Z" as well as the "oh, you have gene A, then you will respond in manner B to treatment C" seem to be what we are looking for, making things as predictable with the human body as they are with any other piece of equipment we have. We will succeed in removing a lot of variables in the equation, but will we even be close to remove them all? No. Because we're more than the sum of our elements.

Apr 2, 2008

Mobiles & Medicine - Everything Is Under Control

One of the first things you learn when you go deeper into medicine studies is how incredibly tight and organized everything is inside the human body. It's not just the hormone that stimulates a function, but it's also the mediator that induces the hormone's secretion, and the peptide that causes the mediator to act, and the enzyme that activates the peptide, and the gene promoter that causes the enzyme to be produced. It's also the other hormone that stimulates an opposite function to the first one, and ... well we can go as far as life itself to explain some of these things.

The other thing you learn is how much control is behind every one of the smallest reactions inside your body. The simplest of examples is that if you eat anything that contains sugars after fasting, your pancreas will produce insulin so that your liver starts stocking the sugar instead of releasing it into the bloodstream, but also so that your muscles, brain and other organs start using this sugar. Each of these is an incredibly long list of reactions, with many others running in the background, and all being regulated by the smallest details.

In short, after contemplating the human body's function, you always come out with one conclusion: it's incredible how the smallest of things get added up, in an everlasting series of cycles and processes, to make a perfectly functioning entity. Everything is regulated, be it upwards or downwards, and even the tiniest piece has its place in the puzzle. In the end, it all comes down to one final goal: Life.

I have always wondered about the analogies between medicine and mobiles, two domains which take the vast majority of my time. Why have I come to love both of them, even though, on the surface there is no resemblance whatsoever between them? Then I came to the observation of the details. I guess I am fascinated by the amount of organization and regulation that governs in both instances.

Take for example the sheer act of taking a picture with your handset. Visibly, you're only opening the camera lens cover and pressing a button. You then view the picture, press back, and close the camera shutter. This is all the interaction it takes from your side. Now think about all every process that happens in the background during these 5 to 10 seconds: the lens cover clicking into place when opened so that it launches the camera application, the amount of genius going behind the fact that what's in front of your lens is projected on the screen, the capturing moment with each pixel being memorized and put in its right place on the screen, and then being saved with a thousand others on that incredibly small MicroSD card you could swallow without noticing, followed by the camera application shutting down the moment the lens cover is closed back. Think of all the 0 and 1 in the background, the electricity circulating on the boards, in the most complicated circuits, the coding scripts being executed. Think of the relations between everything that happens and that you can't see with your eyes compared to the small amount that finally pops on the screen.


I know that the comparison between medicine and mobiles doesn't stand a chance now. But as years go by, these small devices, barely the size of our hand palms are getting more complex, more detailed, with more and more processes of the smallest importance running in every millisecond.

Over the years, engineers and scientists have thrived to reach the level of perfection and togetherness that is seen in the human body. Why do you think the most enticing of all gadgets are robots? Why do you think that each time a new development in the robot-world is made, we stand in front of it in astonishment? Why do you think movies like AI (Artificial Intelligence) were made? Two reasons. First, is that deep inside, the final aim of an engineer (and Human for that matter) is perfection, and the most detailed model of perfection is us. Second is because we have long wanted to explain how we truly function, because our biggest mystery lies within us.

Is there any doubt that in 10 years, mobiles will become even more developed than they are now? No. Is there any doubt that in 20 years a mobile prototype will have learned to regulate itself, to control itself, to clean itself figuratively (software-wise) and literally (hardware-wise)? No. Is there any doubt that in 30 years mobiles will be made from live particles, that can interact with the environment? No (look at the Nokia Morph Concept).

One question remains, is there any doubt that no matter how far into the future we delve, anything built by us will have flaws, bugs, problems, issues? No. It's not a matter of belief or not, it's a matter of facts.

Let's go back to medicine for a while and take the human body, our model of perfect function, as an example. It doesn't matter how well everything is built and regulated, something at some point can and will go wrong.

Most of the time, the body knows and corrects the error, because it's "intelligent" and it has learned to distinguish the error and to correct it. As an example, I will take the process of cell duplication. Our cells multiply all the time, to regenerate newer and younger ones, leaving the others to die. During this transformation process, a letter in our genetic language (which is made of 4 letters, ATCG, that's all) may be misread and mis-copied: It's not a simple xerox process! The body has its way of knowing the original copy from the new one it just made, and hence can and will correct the mistake.

But one in every million times, the body won't notice the mistake, and we will end up with something called a "mutation". If this happens in the germinal cells (read: ovule or sperm cells), the error will be transmitted to the next generation. Sometimes, this will just lead to a different eye color, or skin structure, but sometimes it affects a very delicate function and causes an illness. And that's how genetic diseases are born (in a very simplistic explanation).

So, is everything under control? No. Even in the most complex structures known to us, everything isn't under control. Archaic changes and modifications of a template always occur. A gadget, handset, piece of electronics,..., might be amazingly functioning now, but no one could assure you that it wouldn't stop in the next second. Bugs, as we call them now, are and will always be an issue we face, be it with our mobiles or within our body. So we'd better accept the facts as they are, than keep moaning about it for the next millenium.

Some people might explain this by the tendency of the universe to chaos. See, the Earth and our existence are a huge exception to the theory that everything tends naturally to go to chaos, and that organization is by itself a state of chaos. I don't know how I would explain it, because no, I am not looking for the answer to everything. Life would be dull if I knew it all, wouldn't it?