Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Anita Borg Scholar

Remember that Google scholarship I told you about back in November? It was the Anita Borg Memorial Scholarship that was to be awarded to Canadian students for the first time. Well, I have been waiting to let you all know how I fared, but wanted to let Google post about it officially first.

Now that they have, I can tell you that I am a finalist, and am excitedly getting ready to head to New York, New York tomorrow morning (getting to the airport at 5am, ugh) for an all-expenses paid retreat with the other scholarship finalists and winners, as well as Googlers. One person I'm really looking forward to meeting is my contact for the Google Ambassador Program, since she happens to work at the New York office.

I will, of course, be posting much about the trip, including lots of photos!

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Mini-Course: Udpated Look

Thanks to some of the comments I've received on my previous design, I was motivated to work on the "look" of my mini-course a little longer. This is what I came up with. I would love to know what you think, though I probably won't be able to do any major changes at this stage (unless this attempt proves disastrous!). Also, I forgot to mention last time that the title of a set of slides will go in the white space under the main heading.

Mini-Course: Outline

As the start of my mini-course on computer science and games designed specifically for girls draws ever nearer, I have been excitedly finishing up an outline with my course's contents. I have a lot of detail written out, but just wanted to share a brief outline for now. Note that one of the reasons for organizing things the way I did is to ensure there is a good level of variety between videos and activities, and not too much "lecturing" in a row. Furthermore, about two or three hours a day will be spent working on an actual game using Game Maker.

Without further ado, here it is!

Computer Science and Games: Not Just for Boys!

Part I: Games and Computer Science
  • Introduction
  • Computer Science and Games
  • Not Just for Boys
  • Preview of Course
Part II: Game Design
  • What is a Game?
  • Key Components
  • Introduction to Game Maker
  • Design Process 1: Concept Stage
  • Design Process 2: The Elaboration Stage
  • Design Process 3: The Tuning Stage
  • Starting Your Own Concept
  • Game Worlds
  • Gameplay
  • Other Topics You Can Learn About
  • Refining Your Concept
Part III: Usability and Design
  • Why Good Design Matters
  • Principles of Good Design
  • How to Learn About Your Users
  • This is Computer Science?
  • User Experience for Games
Part IV: Graphics
  • Vector vs. Raster
  • 3D Objects in the Computer
  • 3D Objects on a 2D Screen
  • Other 3D Graphics Concepts
  • 3D Graphics Demo
  • Alice
Part V: Audio
  • Using Audacity
  • Challenges With Game Audio
Part VI: Artificial Intelligence
  • Why AI Is Important For Games
  • Examples of AI in Games
  • Using Finite State Machines

Monday, April 28, 2008

Mini-Course: The "Look"

Here's a bit of a teaser for my upcoming mini-course. It defines the "look" I'm giving to my slides and notes and such. What do you think? Will the 13 year old girls like it?

(I should note that I would have made the controller in the background lighter, but I know the projector I will be using doesn't display light gray very well, so I just wanted to ensure it actually showed up!)

WISE and Balancing Research and Life

The next year or so is going to be an exciting one for the Women in Science and Engineering here at Carleton University. That's right, there's a new branch of WISE Ottawa in town! Thanks to a group of enthusiastic women who see a bright future for females in our field, the Carleton branch of WISE is in the process of being reformed, and already has a few great events under its belt.

There's a lot of work to do this summer, like finding a way to brand ourselves with a fresh new logo, and finishing up a new website, but things are looking really good. We had a couple of talks during the winter semester, including one with Google door prizes and delicious food. I'd like to focus on that one for the rest of this post.

The poster for our April event can still be found here. Our guest speaker was Kamilla Run Johannsdottir, PhD., and she spoke about her experiences with balancing life in research with family.

I know that I personally found this talk very interesting and informative. Being recently married and hoping to have kids before I'm 30, I really wanted to know when the best time was according to someone who has already done it.

Kamilla had her kids after getting her PhD, largely based on when she actually got married and therefore had the opportunity. She had decided to work a couple of years in a full time position before having her first child. A large part of this decision came from the fact that the first few years as a professor can be very stressful and demanding. Apparently newbies often have to work very hard to impress their superiors with their performance in order to prove themselves. This makes it difficult to have the flexibility required when you are the mother of a young child.

Kamilla's talk was very good, especially because she promoted an excellent discussion session afterwards. From this, I think I concluded that, since I do have to opportunity, the best time to have kids would be after courses and comprehensives during the PhD, but before the end when the thesis needs to be defended. Apparently, even the part-time hours available to work on the thesis are enough to get by during that period. It was relieving and encouraging to get this kind of information, even though it may not apply when the time comes.

As usual, we served food at this event, thanks to the Faculty of Engineering and the Google Ambassador program. In addition, both Google and the Carleton Bookstore were very generous and provided us with some goodies to give away as door prizes.

At the end of the evening, we facilitated some discussion to get feedback on how the girls liked our events and what they'd like to see in the future. Some of the ideas included having a summer get together to play Frisbee or soccer, talks on public speaking, talks for elementary and high school students, a mentoring program, frosh week events, financial help in attending conferences for women in the field, advice on transitioning from high school to university, and a few talks focussed on industry. Like I said, the coming year should be really exciting, so stay tuned!

Friday, April 25, 2008

The Power of a Blog

I have to say that I am both surprised and impressed at the power a simple blog such as mine can possess. After all, I write as a hobby, not for any kind of gain, financial or otherwise. Yet the exposure my posts have brought seems to be opening many opportunities!

For example, when I wrote about having some fun with accelerometers, somebody from Kionix (the company that makes the devices we used in class) contacted me and wanted to know if I'd like my own accelerometer to play with. Well, sure - why not!

Then I posted a comment on a story I saw on reddit about my mini-course. Count 'em: not one, but two people followed my link and liked what I was doing enough to write me an email! The first person was highly involved in the movement to get more women interested in computing, and the second was a researcher in computer science education. I think both will be excellent contacts for some future projects I've been cooking up in my mind.

And just a couple of days ago, I received a fairly random phone call from somebody at school. Apparently they had read my post about the Donor Dinner I attended and really liked what I wrote. Enough that those in charge of preparing the donor report for 2007 want to include some of my text in the final version of the publication! What's more, they want to use a photo of me to go with it. I will be having a little photo shoot this Wednesday.

Every time something like this happens I get really excited, which makes the time spent writing worth it. If you write a blog but aren't sure that people actually read it, just keep at it. You might be surprised to learn who's had a look!

Thursday, April 24, 2008

OSS Extravaganza

I decided to take a short break between coding and paper writing tonight, and work on setting up my "new" laptop (I bought Christian's old Alienware off of him after he mistakenly thought his cat destroyed it and bought a new one). I have both Windows and Ubuntu installed, though at the moment I am spending more time in Windows. I had some of my basic favorite programs installed already, so I went on an open source software rampage.

Some of the packages I downloaded I've used before (such as Inkscape, of course). But I also picked up some that I always wanted to try but never got around to, like Blender and Scribus. Just for fun, here's a full list of what I've got so far. Let me know if I've missed anything you deem to be essential.
I have to say that the world of free and open source software was pretty foreign to me before last year's Google Summer of Code. I didn't realize how high the quality of the software was! I also had a somewhat poor impression of the community from a few fanatics I ran into at school. It's nice to have learned that most people are pretty nice and normal -- as far as geeks go at least ;).

Monday, April 21, 2008

A Change in (Summer) Plans

I just received the unfortunate email from Google telling me I wasn't accepted into Summer of Code this year. I feel a little bit bad that 25% more students were accepted this year over last, yet I still didn't get in. The python head tracking project just didn't fit into their number of slots, and it's possible that the head honchos didn't see the benefit the work could have to the community. I know that there may not have been a mentor for me at Inkscape, and I did mention that I was going to be trying to contribute over the next while whether I got in on GSoC or not.

A fellow student applied for Inkscape to work on SVG Fonts. It turned out that his work was going to overlap with my plans of continuing font specification support. I changed my application last minute to include some other text improvements since I was pretty flexible, and his application was a lot harder to change. I don't actually know if this student got accepted, but my guess is that he did, given how desired his proposed work is. I'm hoping to be able to contribute to the conversation about the font specification side of things.

More than anything, I take this as a sign (some things are just meant to be, or not!). I will have much more time to work on my thesis now, and as a result I might be able to finish my Masters work early, allowing me to start on a PhD project while riding out the Masters funding. Furthermore, I should be able to keep a regular work-day schedule, opening up evenings and weekends for fun. It's been a while since I've really been able to do that, and to be honest, I'm really looking forward to it!

Finally, congratulations to everyone who made it into GSoC this year, and best of luck!

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

One More Week of Fun

Well, I have a tonne to write about, but school has taken over! I'm in the last week of crunch-time for a while, I hope, since this marks the end of my Masters coursework and the beginning of thesis work. I have yet to finish one assignment, one implementation, one presentation and paper on said implementation, and one survey paper.

On the bright side, my software engineering credit in Foundations of Programming Languages officially finished today with a final exam I had little time to study for (but that went pretty well). I also put behind me another big stress last night by testing for my black belt in ITF Taekwon Do. I was pretty worried about it, given that I had little time to prepare for that either. Luckily, I have always made a point of attending each class no matter how hard school got. The exercise and mental break is rather beneficial. The short story is that the test went well and I passed!

A lot of things have just happened or will be happening soon, so I expect there will be a flurry of activity here starting in about a week. As a teaser, I have news about the latest women's event we put on, work on my mini-course, more thoughts on the street-view mapping system idea, hopefully something for Summer of Code, and a very special scholarship. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Telemedicine's Role in the Future of Health Care

Telemedicine is, quite simply, the use of telecommunications in clinical medicine, where medical information is exchanged for the purposes of consulting, or for remote procedures and examinations. It can obviously break down barriers related to geographical location, but it can also help alleviate some of the pressures of time by allowing a specialist to attend to several hospitals in one day. I would like to argue that it may be able to play a valuable role in the (not so distant) future of health care.

According to some, the first telemedicine application was a transmission between West Chester and Philadelphia in 1948. Radiological images were shared via telephone over a distance of 24 miles. Fast forward to today and find the well established Ontario Telemedicine Network as one of many that pop up in search results.

So telemedicine is definitely taking root. This means that at least some progress toward overcoming the challenges surrounding its use must have been made:
  • Cost. This one is the most obvious. I suspect this is less of an issue now that the price of technology (especially bandwidth) has decreased so much over the years. Still, we tend to always want to come up with something bigger, better, faster; the costs can't be falling too quickly as we move ahead like this.
  • Evaluation. We need a good way to evaluate the quality of health care that is achieved from using telemedicine. Are patients faring better, and if so, how much? Enough to justify the cost?
  • Digitization. Patient records are not only on paper, but often scattered about several hospitals or doctor's offices. For telemedicine to realize its full potential, these records should be consolidated into one electronic database.
  • Security. Digital patient records obviously need to be kept secure and confidential.
  • Legalities. Consider problems like this one: Suppose there is a physician licensed to practice in, say, Ontario, but not British Columbia (I don't even know if that is how it works here in Canada, but bear with me anyway). She works from her office in Ontario, but treats a patient in B.C. with the help of telemedicine. Is this legal?
  • HCI. In many cases, patients would be required to interact directly with technologies they may not be familiar with. Designing devices that are easy enough for, say, seniors to use comfortably in their homes is certainly a challenge.
  • Telecommunications. While things have improved dramatically in this regard since that first telemedicine communication in the 40's, we still can't push high quality video and audio across the country in real time.
Let's turn our attention for a moment to a place where many (or all) of these challenges are much greater than they would be here in the developed world. In the late 1990's, South Africa had less than 50 doctors per 100,000 people, and less than 6 per in Central African Republic [source]. The potential good telemedicine could do is obvious.

As the author of an article entitled Telemedicine in Africa: potential, problems, priorities puts it: "Up and running and paid for, it would be wonderful, of course. One envisages a novel form of continuing education for medical personnel, new possibilities for long-distance consultation with specialists, rapid image-rich exchanges of knowledge and ideas." The article then goes on to outline all the reasons why this probably isn't possible, or even the right thing to do right now, citing the more fundamental needs for potable water, reliable electricity, and basic education.

Still, I have read articles (like this one) that have shown successful applications of telemedicine on a smaller scale. For instance, a project in Mozambique made use of low-cost teleradiology equipment and a digital microwave transmission link between two hospitals. This allowed patients to have specialists to examine their radiological images from a distance. So I do have hope that the technology of telemedicine could help improve the lives of many Africans, even now.

Now that I've tugged on your heart strings a bit, let's bring our attention back home again. Here in Canada, many residents are concerned about unreasonably long wait times. Sure, politicians continue to say they are working to improve the situation, but things just seem to keep getting worse. Since allowing some private health care clinics take the load off the public system isn't an option for many, and since the baby boomers are rapidly reaching retirement age, we need some new ideas. Here's where I think telemedicine could help.

One of the reasons for the problem is the shortage of health care workers. Telemedicine may help alleviate the pressure by enabling those we have to see more patients in a given span of time. Instead of traveling between hospitals and even cities, specialists could work from one central location and consult patients via video conferencing. Patients could visit satellite clinics in their own hometown with somebody trained to use the equipment and collect data needed.

The shortage of hospital beds seems to be another large problem. If patients that need relatively minimal monitoring are taking up space in hospitals, perhaps they and their monitoring could be moved to the home. The OTN has a whole section on Telehomecare, showing that it's possible to bring equipment to the patient even today.

I'm sure this is just the beginning of the potential uses of telemedicine might have in tomorrow's world. I know I will be watching its progress as I age, with hope that it might play a role in improving our health care situation.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Mini-Course: Take-Home Notes

I realized that I had promised updates about my mini-course for girls (Computer Science and Games: Not Just For Boys!) as I worked on it. Progress is definitely being made as far as developing the actual course content and activities. I have been working on a detailed outline and have more than half of this done. One thing I really hope to have time to do is to create some form of 'notes' the students can take home.

My original vision was to design a set of printable notes in a magazine format that pre-teen girls would relate to. This thought came to me as I read Danica McKellar's book Math Doesn't Suck. This handy guide to middle school math was targeted at the same age group that is signed up for my course, and contains fun things like horoscopes and personality quizzes. It was printed in novel format, while I imagined a more colorful format with fewer words, but the inspiration is definitely there.

Later I decided that this might: (a) be too much work to design in the limited time I had, especially considering that I also have to make PowerPoint slides and basic handouts for activities; and (b) cost too much to print nicely enough to make it worthwhile. So back to square one.

A great idea hit me while I was working on my outline. I was noting that I wanted to show the students some open source software like Inkscape and Blender, which they could use in creating sprites for their games for example, when I realized that a CD full of useful software and a set of notes would be perfect!

I don't want to write a fancy program, but I want to make it look like I almost did. So what I'm thinking of doing is creating some simple webpages with links to the various software (latest versions on the CD), links to useful webpages for learning about computer science and games, and pages of the notes from class. But I would like to put these web pages into a Windows GUI to sort of hide the fact they are webpages. Done right, this could work very well from a visual standpoint.

Like I said, this very much depends on time constraints, because the next few weeks will be spent working on final projects and exams as well as the mini-course. But if I can pull it off, this should be a really nice souvenir for the students to take home in addition to the games they work on during the week.

Inkscape Author

The newest release of Inkscape - 0.46 - is out, and I am excited to be an official author! This marks the very first piece of software that has actually listed my name in the about window (past companies I worked at didn't have an author's list). It's a good feeling.

(My name is third from the top. It's out of alphabetical order because it was originally under my maiden name Banaszkiewicz.)