Smartphones on the cheap

Here's a quick digression from global health that I thought might be interesting to to tech-minded folks. nsnippets, a fascinating link blog (found via Blattman) has a post called "China's 65 dollar smartphones" that caught my attention, because I (sort of) have one of these phones. That post is highlighting a  Technology Review piece: "Here's where they make China's cheap Android smartphones." And here's more on even cheaper phones.

Before moving to Ethiopia I was stuck in a Tmobile contract that was poor value for money with a glitchy phone. Since I'm only back in the US for about 5 months finishing my last semester of grad school I resolved to get an unlocked phone that I could use in the US or abroad, on whatever network I liked, and at a grad student price. I bought one on Amazon from "China Global Inc." and shipped by some third party directly from China. The exact model isn't available anymore but you can find similar phones by searching on Amazon for "Unlocked Quad Band Dual Sim Android 4.0 OS." It gets some incredible double-take reactions because it looks almost exactly like an iPhone in front, but on the back it has the Android logo and just says "Smartphone":

It cost just $135, and I use a $30/month prepaid plan (also Tmobile) with 100 minutes of talk (which is about right for my usage), unlimited text, and unlimited data -- and I'm not locked in at all. My annual cost for this Android smartphone: $495. If you buy an iPhone 5 on Verizon your annual costs are, depending on your contract, in the $920 to $1400 range! I'm sure for some the differences between what I have and a brand new iPhone 5 with 4G (my phone is 3G) are worth $500-1000 annually, but it works for texting, email, search, Twitter, music, games, and so forth -- everything I want.

I can't imagine that everyone with the latest smartphone actually 'needs it' -- in the sense that if they knew there were good alternatives they would think the difference is worth the value. American phone plans are generally incredibly overpriced, leaving you stuck in a cycle of buying premium products -- which are nice -- but ironically being locked into keeping them until they're well past premium.  I think what is happening is that as long as most of your friends have high-priced phones with expensive contracts, that's the norm and the price seems less absurd.

mHealth resources

MHealth (ie, mobile health) is all the rage in some public health circles; using mobile technology like phones to collect data, to send reminders for antenatal appointments, etc. I'll be honest that I didn't invest a ton of energy in reading about various mhealth initiatives the last two years while taking classes because a) some of it seems overhyped and b) being a young, tech-savvy health professional I was mildly worried about getting pigeonholed into that work and chose to concentrate more on general methodology and tools. But now that my work involves mhealth (somewhat peripherally for now) I'm paying more attention. Here are two good resources that came across my radar recently:

  • William Philbrick of mHealth Alliance has put together a useful report called "mHealth and MNCH: State of the Evidence" (PDF). It summarizes what the research to date on mobile health technology says about maternal, newborn, and child health. Most helpfully, I think, it outlines a few areas where there's not much need for further duplicative research, and other areas where there has been little or no research at all. This is good reading even if you're not particularly interested in mHealth, as the study notes that the mHealth community is fairly close and doesn't always do the best job of disseminating results to the broader global health industry.
  • I first saw the link above via my friend and Hopkins classmate Nadi, who sent it out to the mHealth Student Group on Google Groups. Lots of other good links and discussion on that group, so join up!

The state of mHealth

Amanda Glassman of the Center for Global Development and Vicky Hausman of Dalberg Global Development Advisors write about the "elusive power of mHealth" (ie, mobile phones and technology for global health efforts, a hot field):

Yet despite these successes, mHealth remains in its infancy, with many of the characteristics and issues typical of young industries.  The majority of deployments are still small-scale pilots, so much so that it’s been said there are more pilots in mHealth than there are in the US Air Force.   In many of these pilots, the evidence base that would enable decision-making and prioritization for further investment is missing.  Finally, mHealth tools are not always clearly linked to health systems’ needs and priorities, at times leaving solutions in search of a problem rather than products and services designed with end-user preferences and needs in mind.

Their five recommendations for moving forward:

  1. Invest in the evidence base.
  2. Align on standards and systems.
  3. Ground mobile and information and communications technology (ICT) strategies in country-level realities, needs and opportunities.
  4. Share learnings and best practices.
  5. Build a coalition of global health funders to improve coordination.

You can read the details here. If you're a student who's interested in mHealth, you should join this Google Group.

Save Google Reader

Update 2: (1 pm EST 11/2) now up to 13,745 signatures with some love from Mashable and Weibo. Those signatures include many from Chinese and Iranian users upset about the loss of the ability to securely and horizontally share items outside of social networks like Google+ that are blocked in Iran and China. Sidenote: who came up with the term "Sharebros"? Ugh -- it's gendered and conjures images of obnoxious popped collars -- can everyone stop using the term please?

Also annoyed by Google Reader changes: Tyler Cowen and Brian Shih (who used to work at Google). Austin Frakt links to a script that fixes many of the aesthetic problems.

Update: (9 pm EST 10/26) up to 7,383 signatures, with links from TechCrunch and Andrew Sullivan. As those two posts note, a bunch of Iranian activists are quite upset over the pending removal of social features from Google Reader, as it allows them to share news and commentary horizontally even after the source websites are blocked (and other social networks are blocked). I had no idea about all that when I set up this petition. My original thought was that Google should add features to Plus rather than taking them away from Reader, and not try and force us over, just because as a user I was annoyed. But now it seems there's an even better reason they should retain the social functions within Google Reader itself.  Hundreds if not thousands of the early signatures came from Iranians -- you can see petition results here.

save the whales! and/or fail whaleFor those who don't use Google Reader, you probably know it as just another RSS feed reader, so this post may not interest you at all.

For those of us who do use it it can be a major part of our daily routines. Last year I posted an "information flow audit" where I critiqued what and how much I read, along with how I prioritize information -- all of which is done through Reader. Needless to say, I'm a heavy user. I think it's the Google service I use most -- more than search, and even more than GMail.

So I'm apprehensive about this announcement on the Google Reader blog (which I of course found through Reader) regarding upcoming changes to the service:

As a result of these changes, we also think it's important to clean things up a bit. Many of Reader's social features will soon be available via Google+, so in a week's time we'll be retiring things like friending, following and shared link blogs inside of Reader.

We think the end result is better than what's available today, and you can sign up for Google+ right now to start prepping Reader-specific circles. We recognize, however, that some of you may feel like the product is no longer for you.

Basically, Google wants us all to use Google+, and it seems Reader is destined to go the way of other niche services like Buzz and Wave. In the likely misguided hope that Reader's vocal users can make Google rethink this decision to push us towards Google+, or that they'll at least keep an old version of Reader available indefinitely, I put together a brief petition in response. You can sign here or below:


Some other reactions I've seen so far -- ranging from agnostic to angry -- include:

Weekend meanderings: rockets, Apollo 13 and development

Outer space and rockets were what first sparked my interested in science. My 4th and 5th grade GT teacher, Wanda Holland, taught a summer model rocketry camp for 5th grade science students in my hometown in Arkansas. I went to the camp, fell in love with rockets, and built so many in the next year that Mrs. Holland invited me back as an "assistant" the next year. I kept assisting, then co-teaching the camp through 9th grade and along the way acquired an immense knowledge of mostly useless trivia about astronomy and rocket science. By the time I reached 9th grade I had a collection of hundreds of rockets -- including multiple stage rockets, gliders, scale models, and onboard cameras. I even remember asking a friend once why he would spend money on clothes when he could buy another rocket kit. Needless to say, I was cool. At some point in high school I discovered interests in travel, in playing guitar, in cars, and in girls. Rocketry slowly fell by the wayside. In 10th grade I was building a greater-than-full-scale model of the AIM-9 Sidewinder missile in the family garage (the real thing is 9 feet tall, mine would have been 14'). I had already done the composite reinforcement on the main airframe body tubes when I calculated out how much the construction supplies, avionics, and solid fuel motors would cost, and I realized it would take much more money than my part-time job as a grocery bagger would provide. Then good fortune struck: I won $500 in a regional grocery bagging competition (seriously) which would have let me complete the rocket and buy the fuel to fly it once. But by that point my priorities had shifted and I chose to use it towards a trip to Ghana. That decision is one of many small steps that led me from wanting to be a rocket scientist or astronaut to an interest in global health. The experiences I had in Ghana, and later in Zambia and South Africa, led me to my current interests, and rockets have been a sideshow ever since.

While rocketry hasn't been my primary interest in years, I still try and keep up with my rocket blog, especially when I get around to flying one of my own projects. The old urge to be an astronaut, still strikes now and then. I was a bit bummed that I didn't make it down to the last ever Space Shuttle launch since I always told myself I'd make it to one of them. So this weekend I indulged myself by re-watching Apollo 13, one of my all-time favorite movies.

Apollo 13 holds up surprisingly well 16 years after its release. The casting, the acting, the writing -- it's all excellent. The special effects hold up well too. The soundtrack fits the movie perfectly, especially the triumphant horn riffs during the launch sequence (which I used to watch over and over for hours when I was in junior high). The movie manages to sneak in a surprising amount of jargon, but it works because it's a compelling human interest story focusing on the astronauts and their families. And director Ron Howard managed to infuse the movie with considerable suspense despite everyone knowing how it ends.

Since this is a blog (mostly) about international health and development, I feel it's my duty to draw a few extremely tenuous connections between space flight, this movie, and my current interests:

  • Computers are older than I often think. I mean, they're relatively new in the grand scheme of things, but in my head I often date the importance of the computer to the wide availability of the personal computer. The first Apple home computer I had access to in the early 90s had an operating system contained entirely on a floppy disk, and a separate drive for another floppy disk on which you could load programs and files. Computers have come a long way since then, but even that little Apple was an incredible advance over the computers of the NASA era. Still, they were good enough to take us to the moon in the 1960s. Though you do get the distinct impression that Lovell sure could have used a USB thumb drive to transfer the 'main operating program' from the command module to the LEM at the height of the crisis.
  • Organization as technology. Part of my summer reading is Charles Kenny's optimistic take on global development, Getting Better. In an early section describing the history of theories of economic development, Kenny discusses how some economists have argued that institutions are as important for development as any given technology. Example institutions include specialization of labor, "double-entry bookkeeping, just-in-time management systems," etc. There's an early scene in Apollo 13 where Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks) is giving a tour of the massive Vehicle Assembly Building and describes astronauts as only the most visible part of a massive system. Having just read about institutions -- and economists' attempts to predict national growth rates -- I couldn't help but think of the massive specialization of labor that allowed us to go the Moon. One of the delights of being a hobby rocketeer is that you can do it all, at least the fun parts, yourself. But real NASA engineers are part of massive systems that work together to do much more than any individual could. That's one reason that disasters like Columbia and Challenger are almost always ultimately traceable to problems in how those systems of people work together, rather than a single failure in materials or a single mistake by an individual. The question "what caused the Challenger disaster?" can be answered on as many different levels as "what sparked the recession?"
  • Why did we win the space race? Relatedly, if economists or engineers had tried to predict who would win the race to the Moon in 1950 or 1960, there would have been any number of reasons to pick the Soviets over the Americans. Both sides had natural resources, large numbers of engineers, and rocket scientists poached from the Germans after World War II. While we got the better German, the Soviets had an early lead in rocket development. Then the 60s were particularly rough for the Soviet rocket program (see the Nedelin catastrophe). Arguments abound as to why the US eventually got to the Moon first, but my impression is that US institutions, and especially the engineering systems (not just the particular technological fixes) developed by the US played a significant role.
  • Rubella. Astronaut Ken Mattingly (Gary Sinise) was supposed to be on Apollo 13, but he was exposed to a virus and bumped to the flight lest he become sick on his back to the Moon -- his removal from the flight set the stage for Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon) to take the third spot just 72 hrs before launch. In the movie they just say "measles," but in reality it was German measles -- a synonym for rubella. The other astronauts had natural immunity because they had had rubella as kids, but Mattingly hadn't, so he got bumped. The rubella vaccine (see graph at right) wasn't introduced until the 1960s, so Mattingly's kids would have gotten the vaccine, but he hadn't. Oops. Rubella is also one of the few vaccines not developed my Maurice Hilleman. OK, that's a slight exaggeration, but Hilleman did invent vaccines for eight diseases: measles, mumps, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, chickenpox, meningitis, pneumonia and Haemophilus influenzae bacteria. Incredible.


Several prominent scholars and the Google Books team have published a new paper that’s generating a lot of buzz (Google pun intended). The paper is in Science (available here) and (update) here's the abstract:

We constructed a corpus of digitized texts containing about 4% of all books ever printed. Analysis of this corpus enables us to investigate cultural trends quantitatively. We survey the vast terrain of "culturomics", focusing on linguistic and cultural phenomena that were reflected in the English language between 1800 and 2000. We show how this approach can provide insights about fields as diverse as lexicography, the evolution of grammar, collective memory, the adoption of technology, the pursuit of fame, censorship, and historical epidemiology. "Culturomics" extends the boundaries of rigorous quantitative inquiry to a wide array of new phenomena spanning the social sciences and the humanities.

It’s readable, thought-provoking, and touches on many fields of study, so I imagine it will be widely read and cited. Others have noted many of the highlights, so here are some brief bulleted thoughts:

  • The authors don’t explore the possible selection bias in their study. They note that the corpus of books they studied includes 4% of all published books. They specifically chose works that scanned better and have better metadata (author, date of publication, etc), so it seems quite likely that these works differ systematically from those that were scanned and not chosen, and differ even more from those not yet scanned. Will the conclusions hold up when new books are added? Since many of the results were based on random subsets of the books (or n-grams) they studied, will those results hold up when other scholars try and recreate them with separate randomly chosen subsets?
  • Speaking of metadata, I would love to see an analysis of social networks amongst authors and how that impacts word usage. If someone had a listing of, say, several hundred authors from one time period, and some measure of how well they knew each other, and combined that information with an analysis of their works, you might get some sense of how “original” various authors were, and whether originality is even important in becoming famous.
  • The authors are obviously going for a big splash and make several statements that are a bit provocative and likely to be quoted. It will be great to see these challenged and discussed in subsequent publications. One example that is quotable but may not be fully supported by the data they present: “We are forgetting our past faster with each passing year.” But is the frequency with which a year (their example is 1951) appears in books actually representative of collective forgetting?
  • I love the word plays. An example: “For instance, we found “found” (frequency: 5x10^-4) 200,000 times more often than we finded “finded.” In contrast, “dwelt” (frequency: 1x10^-5) dwelt in our data only 60 times as often as “dwelled” dwelled.”
  • The “n-grams” studied here (a collection of letters separate from others by spaces, which could be words, numbers, or typos) are too short for a study of copying and plagiarism, but similar approaches could yield insight into the commonality of copying or borrowing throughout history.

Information flow audit

Over the last year I've become increasingly interested in intentionally shaping my information intake. We have access to much more material than we can ever process, from breaking news, blogs, books and magazines. That's been true since the advent of the printing press, but the internet has accelerated that process exponentially.  Just randomly clicking on whatever catches my eye isn't enough; I want a process that helps me prioritize so that I have both a solid grounding in what's going on in the world -- news, politics, science, international development -- but still gives me time to get more in-depth. It's a constant struggle where intellectual curiosity is both your friend and your enemy. This post is my first attempt to audit my personal information flow. For the most part, I'm excluding things my friends recommend (by email or through Facebook), which typically go to the top of my reading queue. And I don't yet have a very systematic process for selecting which books to read. I do keep a list of books I want to read in a Google doc. When someone recommends a book, I add it to this list, and then when I want to buy or borrow a book, I'll usually scan the list to ensure I'm not forgetting something that I want to read more. Also, since I'm a grad student, readings for school - classes, seminars, and a work-study project - are taking an increasing amount of my brainspace, but I don't have much control over that.

That excludes a good deal of reading, but still leaves a lot in, mostly websites and blogs. My RSS reader of choice is Google Reader, and I use it a lot. Some stats for the last 30 days:

That's a lot of reading! Of course, not everything "read" was covered very thoroughly -- it's more likely an indication that I either read it, or saw enough of it to deem in uninteresting and worth of being marked read. Reader also informs me that since June 19, 2007, when I started using Reader, I've read a total of 61,602 items.

Over time I've tried to get more organized and disciplined, so that now I prioritize items as follows:

1. Highest priority: friends' shared items. Google Reader tells me I currently follow 80 people, which means any items they choose to "share" in Reader will show up in my feed. However, only about a third of those people post regularly (more than monthly?) and I think on average I have about 10-15 items shared by friends in any given day. Maybe a third of these items are from feeds that I'm already subscribed too. The others give me a healthy - though small - dose of freshness (because I wouldn't normally find those items), especially in terms of pop culture.

2. Next priority: aggregators. This has been the most important and difficult category to refine. I'm trying to locate RSS feeds that give an extremely broad overview of news and commentary, but keeping the total number of items to be read reasonable. In other words, if I read the aggregators category and nothing else, I feel satisfied that I'm getting a good overview of everything that's going on. Right now this includes Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish, NYTime's home page feed, Long Form, and Jason Kottke. Sullivan writes original content and has an army of blogger underlings who help him highlight other memes; they also helpfully highlight and summarize debates raging within the blogosphere. I used to have the NYTimes, Washington Post, BBC, and Al Jazeera, but I found that a) it was impossible to cover all of that material on a regular basis, b) there was substantial, non-helpful overlap, and c) if something is really important, it will likely be mentioned by Sullivan or Kottke (or other blogs listed below). Long Form aggregates great long-form journalism, a genre I really enjoy; for more on how it got started, the Observer has a feature. And finally, Kottke is a true aggregator, writing little original material but linking to what he describes as "the liberal arts 2.0."

As you can see, I spend the bulk of my Reader time on the aggregators, reading 952 + 738 + 98 + 89 = 1877 articles from those four feeds, out of a total of 3659 articles (51.3% of my online reading).

3. Lower priority: specifics. I have a number of folders for more specific interests, listed in bold below. With few exceptions, these folders have one or two feeds that are popular and frequently updated and a long tail of rarely updated, more obscure items. I won't list the contents of each folder here, but if you're interested just ask. My Rocketry folder illustrates one of the wonders of RSS feeds is that you can keep track of websites and blogs that may only update weekly, or monthly, or annually, without worrying about looking up all of their URL's. This lets me keep up with general rocketry news through Rocketry Planet as well as the very high quality but infrequently-updated rocket blog by Greg Smith. Friends and Trumans contains personal and travel blogs by and about friends of mine or Truman Scholars. Hopkins and Public Health includes public health blogs (there are surprisingly few that I find very compelling, especially compared to fields like international development or politics) and job listings. Some good ones include Aetiology and Karen Grepin.  Other categories include: Grad Students and Research, Baltimore (I had a DC folder when I lived there, but follow DC local news mostly through my friends' shared items now), Gender (including the always-great Sociological Images), Humor, Science, Politics, Uncategorizable, Arkansas and Harding (my alma mater), Atheism and Religion, Bloggers, Development, International Relations, and Tech. I can and probably should re-categorize the blogs from scratch, as many of those categories used to have more items but have been cut down recently.

Pros and Cons

My current "information flow" has several pros: I get a wide swath of internet news and writing, even if I just read my top few items. I've gotten the aggregators down to a level where I can read all of them 90% of the time, which feels about right. I also rarely see something in the news, or hear about a debate or trend in a magazine, that slipped through this primary filter.

On the downside, the longer tail of information is more difficult to handle. Even after months of working to eliminate it, there's a lot of overlap -- especially in certain categories like international development, where a few bloggers link to and post about the same things -- that I think I can eliminate.

And then there's confirmation bias. I follow one or two conservative friends on Reader, and find their shared items (especially a friend named Adam's) to be a breath of fresh air, even though I often disagree. How to go about finding more high-quality material to challenge myself with is an ongoing problem -- suggestions welcome.

I'd love to hear about how you organize and prioritize your online (or offline) reading. What solutions have you come up with? What did you try that didn't work? I'm sure there are other as obsessed with this as I am.