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Will someone please invent the germometer? - Arvind Narayanan's journal [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]

Will someone please invent the germometer? [Jan. 23rd, 2009|12:12 am]
Arvind Narayanan
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I'm sick—the third time in two months—and it's not the flu. Each time it's some combination of cold, sore throat, headache, and occasionally a light fever. It wouldn't even be worth mentioning, except that not knowing where I'm getting the germs from leaves me with a feeling of helplessness that's much worse than the malady.

The last time I was sick, I tried spraying clorox on my keyboard (which has 400 times as many germs as my toilet seat.) All that that accomplished was to cost me my advisor a new keyboard.

I do realize I'm grasping at straws; it could be anything. I have regular germ-swapping activity going on, to begin with. I've also been working out almost every day this month, and gym equipment is so ridden with filth that it's a wonder how anyone who touches it doesn't fall sick instantly. I sometimes eat in my car and never wipe the interior. I could go on, but I'm sure you have enough unpleasant mental images already.

What I want is a germometer. I want a little hand-held device that I can point at things and get an instant germ-count reading. I know I'm at the very bottom of the germ-paranoia spectrum, so if I want this you can be sure that most of the population will. Especially overprotective parents (and is there any other kind these days?)

I actually don't think it's hard to build one. Take a microsocope-camera and stick an Eye-Fi card into it. This lets the user automatically upload a microscopic image of a surface to a server. Now all you need on the server is an off-the-shelf image classification library trained on a bunch of germ pictures. Any webmonkey can build a snazzy user-interface to display the blown-up images along with approximate germ statistics in a satisfyingly scary manner.

If you sell germometers for $200 a pop, can you imagine any responsible parent not buying one?

Note. A microscope camera with 400x magnification is $80 on Amazon. An Eye-Fi card is $50. You can easily see bacteria at 400x. Viruses, of course, are way smaller.. maybe some day.

Edit. I'm quite aware of the problems: many infections are viral, water or air-borne. Further, detection of viable micro-organisms is hard. Nobody is even trying to do it with microphotographs; this recent paper shows it can be done by suspending the substance in a liquid crystal.

The primary benefit that I see is a feeling of control, instead of one of helplessness, which, as I alluded to in the first paragraph, I'd pay good money for. Such placebos can have an actual and significant effect on health. Have you noticed how every single ad for a diswashing liquid shows you before and after pictures of germs? Now you can see that for yourself.

The second benefit is that even if the results are unreliable, it's a good starting point to figure out what needs cleaning around the house. I mean, in spite of the studies, people don't seem to believe that their mobile phones are dirtier than anything else they come into contact with. Having visual confirmation would help greatly.
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Comments:
From: fixious
2009-01-23 07:36 am (UTC)
Wouldn't work very well for air- and water-borne germs, would it?

I can't imagine myself as a parent buying one, even if it were a tenth the price (but then I can't imagine myself as a parent, period...).
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From: bobacita
2009-01-23 07:52 am (UTC)
It could be the working out. At least, when I run long distances, my immune system weakens.
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2009-01-23 07:24 pm (UTC)
interesting. although in my case, i haven't done any serious cardio in years. turns out you can lift every day and still get fat and lazy :-)
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From: statictype.org
2009-01-23 11:36 am (UTC)
Interesting idea.

I can't imagine people randomly clicking photos of different surfaces and waiting for a reply from the server to decide whether to touch it or not. To be effective, the image recognizer would have to be in the device itself so it can scan in real-time. That way, people can just wave it around like scanning a barcode. Of course, this means, you need a CPU of some sort on the device.

Also, people are just going to buy one, find that just about every surface they encounter causes the device to start red-lining and end up not using it at all.
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2009-01-23 07:28 pm (UTC)
"To be effective, the image recognizer would have to be in the device itself so it can scan in real-time."

that's simply not possible. you need more than a cpu -- you need fairly complex machine learning algorithms running on it. and as time progresses your customers will keep finding new types surfaces on which it fails, so you're going to have to keep updating it.

"I can't imagine people randomly clicking photos of different surfaces and waiting for a reply from the server to decide whether to touch it or not."

the goal is slightly different -- it would tell you which areas in your house need cleaning. you'd use it once a day, at most.

"Also, people are just going to buy one, find that just about every surface they encounter causes the device to start red-lining and end up not using it at all."

that's where the whole machine learning thing comes in. if you train it on sufficiently many positive and negative examples, it will use subtle cues to distinguish which wormy shapes are germs and which are not.
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From: statictype.org
2009-01-24 04:20 pm (UTC)
>that's simply not possible. you need more than a cpu -- you need fairly complex machine learning algorithms running on it

Hm..., I would have thought the complexity is in the training algorithms.
The actual classification would be just applying the training data to the input. (Like how a neural network might work). So you would regularly download updated training data from the server.

Maybe I just don't understand how image classification works. Is this not the case?
(In a related note, I guess you've seen the OCR-in-greasemonkey hack..)

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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2009-01-24 08:51 pm (UTC)
perhaps i should have been clearer: you can do it, but it would make it a lot more expensive. you need a cpu, you need enough flash for a whole operating system and for the data files, and last but not least, there's the development cost. the neat thing about my proposal was that you don't need to do anything on the client that hasn't already been done.

Edit: yes, I've seen the greasemonkey hack.. haven't looked into the details yet.

Edited at 2009-01-24 09:43 pm (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: floopilot
2009-01-23 03:26 pm (UTC)
Viruses, of course, are way smaller.. maybe some day

that perhaps is a problem :) given most colds and those kind of will-you-incapacitated-for-a-few-days-but-not-kill-you infections are viral
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2009-01-23 08:20 pm (UTC)
yes. edited the post to explain why i think it's still something you'd want to have.
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From: skittish_derby
2009-01-23 04:41 pm (UTC)
hmm... contrary to popular belief, not all parents would buy it. lol. i am a mother of a 10-month-old daughter and i let her eat off the floor and she has never been sick. there is simply no need to worry about stuff like that. germs are everywhere and, in most cases, our bodies have already been introduced to them, especially ones in our homes.

one of the theories that have been going around recently is that our fear of germs might have started allergies to things like peanuts to spring up all over the place. when our bodies don't have anything to fight with, they invent things to fight.

sorry to intrude. i am a friend of descartes and kinda bored.

<3
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2009-01-23 08:13 pm (UTC)
"i am a mother of a 10-month-old daughter and i let her eat off the floor and she has never been sick."

see, i was raised in india and that's how i see it. one of the things that's hard for me to get used to in america even after 5 years is how scared people are of trivial things.

"there is simply no need to worry about stuff like that."

most of the time, yes. but if you're falling sick very often it would be good to know if there is something you can do to prevent it.

"sorry to intrude. i am a friend of descartes and kinda bored."

on the contrary, my journal is mostly public, and i'm happy to see new people commenting :-)
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From: skittish_derby
2009-01-24 02:32 am (UTC)
i can understand if you were getting sick a lot. you must be around people all the time.

me(jessica) and my daughter(hazel) are homebodies. we like being at home.

nice to meet you too.

<3
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2009-01-24 08:49 pm (UTC)
"you must be around people all the time."

only at the gym.

that reminds me of people who refuse to shake hands either because of their religion or because they're worried about germs. someone did a study of such people and found they had 1/3 fewer infections in their lives :-) i don't think being sick 1/3 less is worth being anti-social, but interesting nonetheless.

Edited at 2009-01-24 08:50 pm (UTC)
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From: skittish_derby
2009-01-24 10:23 pm (UTC)
haha... i wonder how in the world they did a study like that. lol.

i watched bullshit the other month (that really interesting show with penn and teller) and they were testing how many germs are on toilet seats and on people's hands and butts. the results showed that it would be safer if in society we bumped butts to greet instead of kissing or shaking hands.

lol... but again, i don't really worry about it. i get a flu shot every year and am vaccinated. i am sure that if i were infected with anything else, my body would know what to do.


<3

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[User Picture]From: smriti
2009-01-23 05:00 pm (UTC)
Relax, it _is_ the flu season (I know you said it's not the flu, but anyway). Here's a speculation: it is also the new semester season: when a lot of students return from traveling overseas carrying with them different strains of viruses (this is just a theory). Have you checked if it's bacterial i.e. tried antibiotics at all?
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2009-01-23 08:18 pm (UTC)
i have the same symptoms as last time, when the doctor told me to alternate ibuprofen and acetaminophen, so i'm just going to do that again.
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From: shazow
2009-01-23 05:21 pm (UTC)
As cool as having a tricorder would be, you're underestimating the difficulty of visual object recognition. I used to work at a company that did visual search and image recongition and things like recognizing specific elements of an image and classifying them is incredibly difficult and unreliable. Consider all the different scenarios: infinite backdrop textures, non-harmful particules like dust, all the different types of germs that don't look similarly, etc.
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2009-01-23 08:20 pm (UTC)
you're right. i'm not in fact claiming that you can recognize germs accurately. i've edited the post to clarify what i mean.
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From: upen
2009-01-25 12:21 am (UTC)
I suspect it is the gym. I have been unwell for a month now and it is probably the only place both of us visit regularly.

"I've also been working out almost every day this month"
I found that going to gym when sick with upper respiratory problems makes the symptoms worse. Try cutting back a little.

"turns out you can lift every day and still get fat and lazy :-)"
Haha, glad to know it's not just me having this problem.

I (try to) use this procedure (http://healthyhorns.utexas.edu/handwashing.html) when I use the restroom now. Does anyone know if there exists any similar procedure for say using gym machines?

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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2009-01-25 01:02 am (UTC)
"I found that going to gym when sick with upper respiratory problems makes the symptoms worse. Try cutting back a little."

oh, i didn't mean i've been working out when sick. i haven't.

i always found those hand-washing instructions hilarious. i think they're playing a joke on us. "push the start button with your elbow" .. LOL. seriously, i'd rather be sick!
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2009-01-27 07:06 am (UTC)
well, yeah, it is the flu season.

wait.. aren't you in the southern hemisphere? it's not your flu season now. did it actually turn out to be the flu?

"I wouldn't buy it either, unless there's an Ebola going around."

there go my plans for world-domination :( you people need to stop being so rational and start getting paranoid!
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From: akkartik
2009-03-16 03:51 am (UTC)

Cascades happen

When I was at UT I once fell ill four times in six months -- but it was after five years without once falling ill at UT. My theory is that one illness makes you more prone to others for at least six months. So be careful.
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