Saturday, June 9, 2018

Zone for the walk of life

I tried to walk across a street, in a small town once. There was so much traffic, I waited so long some friends drove by and asked if my car broke down. I said “no, you’ve never seen anyone walk across the street before have you?” We don’t walk enough in America. Our high tech fitness trackers tell us 5,900 steps a day. 10,000 is recommended for health. I’m a medical data scientist, I work on high tech medicine. But a simple thing like walking is healthy. Walking regularly reduces sick days, boosts immunity, and reduces death. My grandmother walked to the grocery store several times a week and lived to 94. She walked because she had safe, pleasant, sidewalks and places to walk to, weaving walking into the fabric of life. Few neighborhoods have places to walk to because of single use zoning. By design our homes, offices, and shopping are all separated and connected by traffic clogged roads - weaving sitting in traffic into the fabric of our lives. We don’t walk more because it’s dangerous. 13 pedestrians and climbing are killed by cars a day in America. Our own zoning laws stop us from building more good places to walk; the few places left are expensive. My grandmother’s home, by the grocery, with the sidewalk, costs well over $2 million dollars now. Having places to walk to would be nice, but America is already built around driving. You can usually walk your dog around the block so maybe it’s not that bad. And it’s too expensive to change now. It is that bad and we can’t afford not to change. Our life spans have been dropping the last two years despite spending 18% of all money in America on healthcare. Death rates are up among younger and poorer people. The causes are lifestyle and environment related: obesity, heart disease, air pollution, traffic accidents, and type 2 diabetes. Now 9% of American adults have diabetes and we spend $250 billion dollars a year on treatment. Another 40% of adults are prediabetic. Many will get type 2 diabetes skyrocketing spending. We can’t spend our way to health, but we can walk there. How can we build walking back into the fabric of our lives? First change zoning. The state of Massachusetts provides compact, mixed use, walkable, zoning guidelines in it’s Transit Oriented Development toolkit that put businesses, homes, and trains within walking range. It’s up to each town to adopt the guidelines - few do. California is trying a statewide approach proposing compact, walkable zoning near all transit stations - which has failed. There’s lots of resistance from homeowners to new walkable development because any new development has meant more soul crushing traffic. New development doesn’t have to mean more traffic. Think of classic walking downtowns in Boston, San Francisco, and Barcelona. I rented a flat in Barcelona for vacation. We could walk to restaurants and markets. We go on vacation to walk around town. We also walk when it’s built in. I lived in an apartment on a bike path near Boston and I walked across the world. I walked to the subway, road to airport then flew to Korea and Japan and back, all without getting in a car. I also cycled to work daily for 18 months in Japan. I got so fit I had six pack abs - never to be seen again once I came back to America. We’ve tried spending our way to health. It’s not working. Now we need to tell our local and state governments to rezone for compact, mixed, use, walkable development. Then we can start physically building walking into the fabric of life so future generations can walk their way to health.

Monday, April 2, 2018


Math like science is a kind of art. Parabola and sphere drawn with VTK.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Building beautiful places

Think of a beautiful city or town or part of a city you’d go to on vacation? Paris, Barcelona, Kyoto, Japan, Boston’s Faneuil Hall area. Smaller towns like Rockport, MA.

What’s common about the places we’re thinking of?

They’re almost all old. And they’re lively places you walk around and experience up close.

Do you want to use an old cell phone? Old TV? old computer? old airplane? Why are we getting better at making just about everything except cities and towns?

Some people say the world hasn’t built a beautiful city in 100 years.

We even know how to build lively, beautiful places. Urban designers looked at and measured favorite cities and towns to figure out the rules for beautiful cities. They have local character, Barcelona, Kyoto and Boston’s Faneuil Hall area are distinctly different but all nice places. They’re compact enough to walk around and for using trains or buses. On the most lively streets the buildings are about two times taller than the width of the street. There are plazas up to 30 yards across so people can hail each other from the other side. Living, working, shopping, and eating are mixed together keeping the places lively throughout the day.

If we know how to build attractive, lively, towns why don’t we? We mostly build for cars now - not people. It seems functional but traffic clogged roads, parking lots, aren’t beautiful or lively.

Not building many new vacation like destinations makes them rare and expensive. They also tend to be tourist trap like toys and lack the schools, grocery stores, and offices for the real business of living. When you need to buy milk you drive to a grocery store in a strip mall.

Does building lively attractive places matter? Doesn’t living in a functional place and going on vacation to resort destinations work?

No. We’re not building enough new homes in places that have jobs, like Cambridge and Boston, because homeowners are blocking more development. Why?? because new development is often ugly and draws traffic - which often lowers nearby house prices. (The bane of homeowners.) We call this opposition to new development NIMBYism, Not in My Back-Yard and it’s skyrocketing home prices.

Boston metro median is over $425,000 and rising 8-10% a year. The places with good schools and close to work can be over $900,000. America has about 325 million people and Earth 7 billion, more than ever before, so we obviously need more homes by jobs.

We need to develop lively, walkable, healthy, transit centered places made for real living THAT people, even homeowners, will enjoy. This will help overcome the opposition to new development.

Building more homes and controlling prices in thriving places opens up opportunities to more people. People can come to work and pull themselves out of poverty. Young people could come and start careers. Investors and entrepreneurs would have money left over since it’s not sunk into houses, to build new businesses.

The Massachusetts state government has a transit oriented development program with incentives that encourage lively, walkable, train station centered development. We’re not seeing lots of this development because developers and homeowners are so used to car-centered development they don’t know anything else. Developers build for cars and homeowners resist all development.

New development done well can make our neighborhoods livelier, more useful, more enjoyable and enrich our lives -- in health and in wealth and open up opportunities for everyone.



Monday, December 19, 2016

Robust to the future of medical imaging

Machine learning can make medical image feature detection, annotation, segmentation, and classification much more robust to changes in the lab and clinic. Traditional deterministic image processing uses fixed pipelines of filters to denoise, simplify, and enhance. The deterministic filter pipelines are designed by experts in image processing who have spent time looking closely at the images, understanding the imaging system that took the images and understanding the goals of the imaging. Also any deterministic feature extraction process will always look at finite number of image features - even if that number is in the hundreds. What happens when looking at a new condition or disease that affects new never before examined features? What happens when the imaging process changed? When a dye is changed? When a MRI pulse sequence is changed? The deterministic pipeline fails in these cases and the pipeline itself has to be changed - meaning rewriting the program to some degree. Machine learning image processing systems only need retraining instead of rewriting making them more robust to future imaging and medical advancements and new areas of research.

Gene editing to see what happens when ...

CRISPR gene editing can increase understanding how diseases happen even before it can be used for treating diseases. CRISPR gene editing is new enough that testing and regulation will take so time before CRISPR gene editing is used in treatments at the doctors office. That won't stop CRISPR from making an impact on medicine soon. Gene editing is already building model organisms of disease - cell lines, lab animals such as mice, that mimic a disease helping researchers understand a disease. Gene editing also lets researchers change a gene to see what happens when something is changed. This transforms genetics and biology from observing genetic variation from the wild to experimenting with genes. Our understanding of the biology will increase rapidly and a deeper understanding of life and disease will let us develop new treatments whether the treatments are gene editing based or not.

Precision medicine even better than personalized

Precision medicine is even better than personalized medicine. We want treatments to work for as many people as possible. Personalized medicine tries to find who a treatment works for and what treatment works for a patient - a worthy goal. Precision medicine seeks to understand why and how a treatment worked or failed. From the why and how the treatment could be improved to work better from a broader, less personalized group of patients.