Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Distractions -- there's an app for that

Today I finally gave in to temptation & developed a Hello World application for my Droid. Okay, developed is a gross overstatement -- I successfully followed a recipe. But, it take a while to install the SDK & its plugin for the Eclipse environment plus the necessary device driver so I can debug stuff on my phone.

Since I purchased my Droid in November the idea of writing something for it has periodically tempted me. Indeed, one attraction of Scala (which I've done little with for weeks) was that it can be used to write Android apps, though it definitely means a new layer of comlexity. This week's caving in had two drivers.

First, Google last week announced a novice "you can write an app even if you can't program" tool called AppInventor. I rushed to try it out, only to find that they hadn't actually made it available but only a registration form. Supposedly they'll get back to you, but they haven't yet. Perhaps it's because I'm not an educator -- the form has lots of fields tilted at educators.

The second trigger is that an Android book I had requested came in at the library. Now, it's for a few versions back of the OS -- but certainly okay for a start (trying to keep public library collections current on technical stuff is a quixotic task in my opinion, though I do enjoy the fruits of the effort). So that was my train reading this mornign & it got me stoked. The book is certainly not much more than a starting springboard -- I'm debating buying one called "Advanced Android Programming" (or something close to that) or whether just to sponge off on-line resources.

The big question is what to do next. The general challenge is choosing between apps that don't do anything particularly sophisticated but are clearly doable vs. more interesting apps that might be a bit to take on -- especially given the challenge of operating a simulator for a device very unlike my laptop (accelerometers! GPS!). I have a bunch of ideas for silly games or demos, most of which shouldn't be too hard -- and then one concept that could be somewhat cool but also really pushing the envelope on difficulty.

It would be nice to come up with something practical for my work, but right now I haven't many ideas in that area. Given that most of the datasets I work with now are enormous, it's hard to see any point to trying to access them via phone. A tiny browser for the UCSC genome database has some appeal, but that's sounding a bit ambitious.

If I were still back at Codon Devices, I could definitely see some app opportunities, either to demo "tech cred" or really useful. For example, at one point we were developing (though an outsource vendor) a drag-and-drop gene design interface. The full version probably wouldn't be very app appropriate, but something along those lines could be envisioned -- call up any protein out of Entrez & have it codon optimized with appopropriate constraints & sent to the quoting system. In our terminal phase, it would have been very handy to have a phone app to browse metabolic databases such as KEGG or BioCyc.

That thought has suggested what I would develop if I were back in school. There is a certain amount of simple rote memorization that is either demanded or turns out to expedite later studies. For example, I really do feel you need to memorize the single letter IUPAC codes for nucleotides and amino acids. I remember having to memorize amino acid structures and the Krebs cycle and glycolysis and all sorts of organic synthesis reactions and so forth. I often devised either decks of flash cards or study sheets, which I would look at while standing in line for the cafeteria or other bits of solitary time. Some of those decks were a bit sophisticated -- for the pathways I remember making both compound-centric and reaction-centric cards for the same pathways. That sort of flashcard app could be quite valuable -- and perhaps even profitable if you could get students to try it out. I can't quite see myself committing to such a business, even as a side-line, so I'm okay with suggesting it here.


Jagganatha said...

your MassGenomics
Medical genomics in the post-genome era, seems the only one with some pratical interess

Anonymous said...

Hi Keith,
There's an android app for that:

It even keeps track of which cards you make a mistake on and increases the frequency you'll see that card again.