How to Make Computers that Everyone Can Use; The Global “Dear Pandemic” Project; Reducing Wildfires Ignited by Power Grids

Explore the Unknown!


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5 May 2021


Hi WN@TL Fans,


In 1970 I delivered the Dixon Evening Telegraph daily newspaper to about 50 customers on Route 51, including to three customers who worked at the Commonwealth Edison business office at the corner of First Street and College Avenue.  That’s the first place I ever saw a computer, or at least, a computer terminal.  The terminals looked like a small TV with a keyboard attached.  The monitor projected only text and only in yellow-green letters on a dark background.


Patricia Hochstetter, one of my customers, explained to me that the brains of the computer weren’t in the terminal;  the brains and the database were in a mainframe computer in Chicago, and the terminals placed in ComEd offices all over northern Illinois used phone lines to connect to the mainframe.

Ad for Octopeeper from 1969


Fifty years ago, the decision to ditch punchcard input & paper printout and instead switch to a keyboard & a videoscreen formed a pretty cool new way to interact with a computer.  Later came an astonishing stream of innovations:  the laptop, icons, the mouse, drag & drop, the touchscreen, and voice command.  In part to increase accessibility for people who can’t see or hear, in recent decades the designers of computers and cell phones have built in hardware & software to make it easier to tailor the way we drive our devices.


And yet, as a parent of a 16 year old and a 13 year old who have no memory of life before the iPhone and who both quickly give me free advice on how to run my computer or adjust my phone, I can attest that the technology often outstrips my grasp of the features.


It’d be great to have new computer systems that might bypass the need for me to have a teenager to provide a guiding hand.

On May 5 Gregg Vanderheiden of the University of Maryland will share insights into “How to Make Computers that Everyone Can Use, including Seniors Who Can’t or Won’t.” 


Description:  Our society is rapidly incorporating digital interfaces into all aspects of our lives. Those who cannot access and use digital technologies will not be able to participate in the society that is evolving.  Yet many cannot due to barriers related to disability, literacy, digital affinity or age.


COVID has highlighted the importance and the barriers here.  Solutions for some people exist but are buried in the device’s “Settings,” hard to find and difficult to understand and use. Other strategies exist but are not readily available.


Morphic is a new open-source approach that combines personalization, layering and other strategies to simplify both computers and the presentation and operation of features intended to help simplify their use. The combination seeks to make features more discoverable, lower the cognitive load needed to explore and employ them, and have them show up automatically on any computer the individual encounters. It also seeks to stabilize the interfaces experienced.


It has potential to help the elderly, people with disabilities, and those you just struggle with computers.  The Morphic software and tools will be described, demonstrated and made available to all participants (and anyone they care for).


Bio:   Dr. Vanderheiden is the Director of the Trace R&D Center and Professor in the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland. He has been active in the field of technology and disability for 50 years and was a pioneer in the field of Augmentative Communication (a term originating from his writings), assistive technology and computer access. Access features developed by Dr. Vanderheiden and the Trace Center team can be found in every computer and mobile device internationally (Windows, MacOS, iOS and Linux).


Dr Vanderheiden was selected as part of the team designing the first digital talking book machines for the Library of Congress talking book service – and carried out extensive exploration and testing of approaches in senior living facilities.   He is a past President and Fellow of RESNA, a Founding Fellow of the American Institute of Medical and Biological Engineering (AIMBE) and Fellow in the Human Factors and Ergonomics society. He has been a long-time leader in the area of web accessibility, creating the first set of Web Accessibility guidelines in 1995 and serving as co-editor and co-chairing the WCAG Working Group from its inception through 2013.


At the 6th World Wide Web Conference, he was the third annual recipient of the Yuri Rubinsky Memorial World Wide Web Award, following Vint Cerf and Doug Engelbart. His most recent work has focused on development of a Global Public Inclusive Infrastructure (GPII) – and proposing a completely different way to approach accessibility for next-next generation ICT.





On May 12 Malia Jones of the Applied Population Lab and co-founder &  editor-in-chief of the “Dear Pandemic” Project will be here to tell us more about the origins, work and future of this group of epidemiologists, physicians and other health care providers.  As the Dear Pandemic website headlines: “It’s a Pandemic.  You Need Answers.”   The group provides insights and analysis in persuasive ways to people looking for guidance on how to deal with covid, its treatments, the ways to reduce its spread, and the vaccines to reduce the likelihood of disease and infection.  Last week Dear Pandemic folks introduced the term “Pandexit” to describe the coming phase of as the pandemic levels out and falls off, the Deity willing and the creek don’t rise (and the variants remain relatively pliant).


Bio:  Dr. Malia Jones is an interdisciplinary researcher working at the intersection of infectious disease and social epidemiology, demography, and geography. She is an Associate Scientist in Health Geography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Applied Population Laboratory, where her work focuses on how the places we spend time affect our health, especially spatial clustering of infectious disease and vaccines. She is also the co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of Dear Pandemic.


Her current research program is funded by the National Institutes for Allergies and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). She received a MPH and a PhD in Public Health at UCLA, and completed postdoctoral training at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine. Her work has been published in journals including the American Journal of Public Health, Health Affairs, and Demography. She is a maker, a mom to two boys, and she loves David Bowie.




On May 19 Professor Line Roald of the Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering will be here to speak on “How to Reduce the Risk of Wildfire Ignition from Power Grids.”


Description: Even the best run grid is not completely fault-free, meaning that there will occasionally be sparks from power lines. In situations with high wildfire risk, this means that utilities are caught in a really hard position: Should they turn off the power grid and face public outrage (and possible fines) for power outages? Or should they keep power on, facing potential financial liability of starting a fire?

In the presentation, we will discuss how a power grid ignites wildfires, what electric utilities can do to prevent it and how this may cause power outages to customers. I will present our recent research on how to minimize both wildfire risk and power outages in situations with high wildfire risk, which begins to answer the question of how to find the right trade-off between the two.

Bio: Line Roald is an Assistant Professor and Grainger Institute Fellow in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering in University of Wisconsin—Madison. She received her Ph.D. degree in Electrical Engineering (2016) from ETH Zurich, Switzerland and was a post-doctoral fellow at Los Alamos National Laboratory. She is the recipient of an NSF CAREER award and the UW Madison ECE Outstanding Graduate Mentoring award. Her research interests center around modeling and optimization of energy systems, with a particular focus on managing uncertainty and risk from renewable energy variability and component failures.




Remember, we now meet by Zoom, since we can’t gather all in one room.


Hope to see you soon at Wednesday Nite @ The Lab!


Tom Zinnen
Biotechnology Center & Division of Extension, Wisconsin 4-H