EN123 WRIT assignments for 2013

Benefits of being in a WRIT class:
You the EN123 student will be able to reference your passing EN123 as evidence that you're meeting the Brown University writing requirement.

You will receive individual writing criticism from Prof Daniels who
* won an award from the Wright Institute for his essay, "The Slow Corrosion of Oedipus Robot," describing his life as a graduate student at UC Berkeley.
* won an award from the American Society for Engineering Education for his essay on "Improving Digital Circuit Design Teaching."
had published by John Wiley & Sons a 615 page textbook, Digital Design From Zero to One, which contains not one instance of the words "very" or "interesting" or "easy" or "difficult."
See what's on Prof. Daniels' bookshelf...

 To qualify as a WRIT course every student who passes the course must have submitted at least two written works that were critiqued by the instructor and revised by the student.

In 2013 we present you with several choices for writing assignment topics, described below. There is nothing about what you will write that requires you to be technically correct...you may be speculative, humorous, ironic...or you can if you wish be dryly correct in technical details.

In general, technical writing often describes a graphic--a figure caption as it were, of: a schematic, a picture of a machine, a graph of real data or a mathematical simulation, a video of dynamics, a SolidWorks 3D rendering, a drawing of a dissection, a chemical formula, or a listing of amino acids in a protein are examples.

In each essay you write I am interested to see at least one metaphor/simile/analogy. In particular, use the words "like" or "as" as they would appear in a simile. "It's like shaving with an axe" for example... Perhaps consult one of the writing books I have on my shelf, As One Mad With Wine And Other Similes, E. Sommer & M. Sommer (1991) Visible Ink Press, Detroit. Contains 8000 similes.

I am interested to see you think about the verbs you use, and how precisely they are conveying your thoughts...

Double space and print out your essay (giving it a title) and hand me a copy at your convenience. I will mark up your essay and return it to you for revision. At length revise your essay; print it out and hand me your revised copy; I will make (in most cases) a judgment about your revisions that will allow me to sign your scorecard and give you credit for the assignment. In a few cases I may conclude you misunderstood my crit and we can agree that you take into account a corrected view of my opinion of your writing.

For 2013, for ABET, I will want both your marked-up original and the revised essay.

Allow at least one day before you can expect my markup of your writing.

Deadlines and submission rates: Submit only one WRIT per week. The first WRIT essay must be submitted before Halloween or attention will be drawn to the fact that you haven't done so. After Thanksgiving points for WRITs will be half of normal value.

You must hand in your WRIT to JDD in person, double spaced for editing remarks. At the top of the first page put DRAFT. Basically you will want to fill up front and back of a page double spaced... JDD will hand your WRIT back to you in person, or leave it in a box on the black table in 095... You will receive credit for the WRIT when you return a (reasonable) revised version (marked REVISED), along with the marked up original.

If you write more than 2 double spaced pages, keep going to 4; I will divide it into Part 1 and Part 2 and you will have submitted 2 WRITs by the back door...

Keep in mind that my portfolio here is to make suggestions for improving your writing, so even if you are one of the 5% of students I encounter who write as well as I do, I will look for changes I would like to see...

What I read every weekend: A column by Joe Queenan in the WSJ. Sometimes he comments about technology, mostly he's entertaining, and shows good use of comparative language. (example)

Keep in mind: If I'm going to end up reading 75 500 word essays, I'd like to come across some stretches of "technical fun..."

11/4/13: NEW! WRIT0
Two stories in the llast week from the New York Times bring to our attention transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) as a procedure to enhance mental or motor skills--A quick trip to the "focused," "in the zone" state that is at the peak of the Yerkes-Dodson curve! The relevant websites are


As I said when I recalled my own 9v. battery + potentiometer experiment as a UG at Berkeley, I didn't notice much in the way of improved "creativity" or "less need for sleep." Perhaps my ground electrode was just in the wrong place.

Read over the two articles linked above and comment in your essay on whether you think the claims about tDCS are legitimate...believable. What about tDCS in animal studies? How are electrodes attached to the scalp? How can a 9v. battery deliver 1mA of DC current?

Keep in mind your fellow student Ignacio, from Madrid, whose slides I borrowed for my "electrodes" lecture, as a resource.


From a certain point of view, kidney hemodialysis hasn't changed much since it was invented in the 1950's. The cellophane-like filter that allows urea and other undesirable chemicals to be removed from blood still has a difficult time with some molecules, like phosphate. To supplement hemodialysis itself, patients are frequently asked to take binders with meals to help reduce phosphate levels. See the links below for a couple reviews of phosphate issues in hemodialysis:

Write an essay of more than 300 and less than 800 words speculating on what could be another way to deal with phosphate buildup in patients with partial or total kidney failure. Your speculations need not be technically correct or complete...here we are wanting to look at your thought processes put into prose to build a coherent argument about some possible new way--however fanciful or expensive--to reduce phosphate levels.

Blood pressure of a human is normally taken by a nurse who inflates a pressure cuff on the patient's upper arm until no pulse can be detected with a stethoscope on the lower arm. She the nurse then opens a valve to slowly lower the pressure and listen for return of pulse. From observing a pressure meter when the pulse returns she concludes what the patient's systolic and diastolic pressures are, in mm Hg. A typical reading is 120/80. OK, so it's a cumbersome process...

Write an essay about how you think a blood pressure cuff could be calibrated. We want the calibration to as realistic as possible with regard to how the cuff is used. Note you will be worried about how the pressure is measured as a function of blood flowing (or not) as detected by a sound-measuring device like a stethoscope.

As another example of a biomedical device needing calibration, consider the "forensic breathalyzer" which must be calibrated to read out correctly the percentage of alcohol in the bloodstream. There carefully measured sources of 1% to 30% EtOH in vapor must be "blown" into the breathalyzer and repeated tries must result in the same correct answer each time. Defense attorneys for drunk drivers often question the accuracy of the breathalyzer used to charge someone with a DUI offense.

Again, speculate on what might be a calibration setup, and go into as much detail as you care to, regarding the calibration of a blood pressure cuff.

other topic choices:

Here is a link to a recent NYT front page story about the cost of saline infusions in a hospital setting. The reporter tries to be matter-of-fact in her detailing of the seemingly high cost of saline bags for infusing, compared to the actual cost of 0.9% NaCl sterile salty water.

Write an essay on your reaction to the facts of the article as presented. Consider issues of secrecy and confidentiality.

Can you think of any technical or economic "fix" for this particular issue? Should patients be allowed to buy low-cost saline bags and bring such bags to the hospital with them? Should the government supply saline bags to hospitals "free of charge" and not allow any markup on bills to insurance companies?

Will Obamacare bring down the cost of saline bags?

MOHS dermatological procedure and need for better pathology reporting. In a MOHS a dermatologist tries to remove a skin cancer tumor--but no more--from a patient. The surgeon at first excises what she thinks is the minimum amount of tissue that includes all of the tumor. Standing by is a pathologist who freezes and sections the tissue, accounting for its orientation in the skin of the patient. The pathologist looks at the margin of the excision for signs (perhaps by staining) that there are no cancer cells=> all of the tumor has been removed. If the pathologist sees irregular cells at the margin, the surgeon goes back to the patient and cuts out another ring of tissue to be examined by the pathologist. When the pathologist finally reports that no more cancerous cells (squamous or basal) can be seen at the margin, the surgery is finished (save for calling in a plastic surgeon to do his best restoring normal appearance to the area of skin operated on.

The problem is that the pathology procedure takes so long: an hour or so to freeze, section on a microtome, and move onto slides, and perhaps stain... then look through the microscope for tell-tale signs. Your essay: speculate on how the inspection of the surgical margin can be sped up. Think of a possible new way to to tell if the skin tissue removed contains all of the cancerous cells.

Apocryphal story: The Smart endoscope: In colonoscopy an endoscope is guided up the colon--the descending colon, the transverse colon and the ascending colon. The endoscope has a fiber optic light and camera to allow the gastroenterologist to look for signs of colon cancer. Fine. The problem: The "dumb" endoscopes commonly employed have a hard time making the 90 deg turn from descending to transverse colon. Pain ensues. Anesthesia is called for.

Along come two mechanical engineers who had made a robotic snake. They realize that the "smart snake" could turn the 90 deg corner of the colon by having its "snake segments" sense that joints needs to rotate and change direction so the segments march around the corner painlessly.

A few years (and 50 employees) of work result in exactly what was hoped for. The "smart snake" received preliminary approval from the FDA because of a small clinical trial. The Smart Snake marketing team then went out to sell their device to gastroenterologists who run the colonoscopy outpatient centers. One benefit of the smart snake: less anesthesia needed--just mild sedation. One marketing agent got excited and went around telling the GI docs, "It's so easy even a nurse can use it!" One GI finally said, "Well then what am I supposed to do?" and was told that the device would mean more colonoscopies per day, or some such thing.

Result: At a gastroenterology conference word went around about the "nurse could do it" remark and no one ordered the smart snake for their practice. After more futile attempts to sell the snake, the company laid off engineers, then within a year went out of business.

Apropos of the story above google "Robots vs Anesthesiologists" and read about J&J's automated anesthesia machine for colonoscopy procedures, and the strong protests being lodged by the American Society of Anesthesiologists. (handout from Sept 26 WSJ will be distributed).
more here

Your challenge: write about what you think of the story presented here, what the company could have done different from the start... Say how you think new technology should be "sold" to practicing physicians.

WRIT Zilla: Otherwise, you may have come across, or worked on, some piece of biomedical instrumentation or technology that you would like to enlighten me about. Just think of a good title and 2 pages of writing, double spaced.