Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

Innovation: how to foster

October 8, 2011

A nice piece from David Brooks:

Recently, a number of writers have grappled with this innovation slowdown. Michael Mandel wrote a BusinessWeek piece in 2009. Tyler Cowen wrote an influential book called “The Great Stagnation” in 2010. The science-Fiction writer Neal Stephenson has just published a piece called “Innovation Starvation” in World Policy Journal and Peter Thiel, who helped create PayPal and finance Facebook, had an essay called “The End of the Future” in National Review.

After identifying three compelling reasons/explanations, this is what he has to say:

The roots of great innovation are never just in the technology itself. They are always in the wider historical context. They require new ways of seeing. As Einstein put it, “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.”

If you want to be the next Steve Jobs and end the innovation stagnation, maybe you should start in hip-hop.

Take a look.

Link: via MR.

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Fostering innovation: some thoughts

October 4, 2011

The illusion of eliminating uncertainty from corporate decision-making is not merely a question of management style or personal preference. In the legal environment that has developed around publicly traded corporations, managers are strongly discouraged from shouldering any risks that they know about—or, in the opinion of some future jury, should have known about—even if they have a hunch that the gamble might pay off in the long run. There is no such thing as “long run” in industries driven by the next quarterly report. The possibility of some innovation making money is just that—a mere possibility that will not have time to materialize before the subpoenas from minority shareholder lawsuits begin to roll in.

Today’s belief in ineluctable certainty is the true innovation-killer of our age. In this environment, the best an audacious manager can do is to develop small improvements to existing systems—climbing the hill, as it were, toward a local maximum, trimming fat, eking out the occasional tiny innovation—like city planners painting bicycle lanes on the streets as a gesture toward solving our energy problems. Any strategy that involves crossing a valley—accepting short-term losses to reach a higher hill in the distance—will soon be brought to a halt by the demands of a system that celebrates short-term gains and tolerates stagnation, but condemns anything else as failure. In short, a world where big stuff can never get done.

Neil Stephenson, here; a nice one; hat tip to Cowen at MR. What Stephenson says is true not just for industry but for research too.

Science for public consumption

October 3, 2011

John Hawks’ post is worth quoting in its entirety:

Christie Wilcox makes a case that every lab should be doing science outreach on social media: “Social media for scientists Part 1: It’s our job, and Part 2: You do have time. Her rationale is worth spreading:

Yes, part of the solution to this problem is to invest in better education. But even assuming we do that, we are ignoring the millions of Americans who are no longer in school. We can make the next generation more scientifically literate, but we have to consider the current generations, too. Adults over age of 35 never learned about stem cells, nanotechnology or climate change in school, so they depend on the media to learn what they need to know. These are the people who vote. They are the ones whose taxes pay for scientific funding. We need to reach out to them, and to do that we need their trust.

I’m not sure social media are necessarily the best way for most labs to make an impact on the public. You may do better working with other institutions, or by going into a collective with other labs. I know that one great way to increase your lab’s profile is to get your department or program to set up a group blog, where the lab’s home page is one contributor along with other labs. Two new posts a month, as Wilcox suggests, is a good start for a single lab but won’t drive much interest; weekly or biweekly posts by a group of five labs would build much more attention.

I also came across to a book review for Randy Olson’s Don’s be such a scientist which talks about writing science for public:

I’ve just finished Randy Olson’s “Don’t be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an age of style” (after loving his article in New Scientist, “Top five tips for communicating science “). Olson is a marine biologist turned filmmaker, so knows the world of science from the inside, and from the outside perspective.This book is 75% solid gold – absolutely essential perspective for scientists who want to communicate outside of their specialism. But it is also 25% misleading and elitistic simplification. At heart, Randy Olson’s message as a populariser ends up pandering to a mistaken belief in scientific exceptionalism – that what scientists do and who scientists are is so beyond the ken of the rest of the population that it cannot be conveyed to them, that we have to use a pound of silly songs and fart jokes to make the public to swallow an ounce of important information. Sorry, Randy, but when you underestimate the public taste you end up demeaning it.

Take a look!

Technology, courage and fun

August 29, 2011

The basic personal start-up mechanism for research has to be curiosity. I find myself curious about how something works, or I observe something strange and begin to explore it. Because I am fond of symmetry, when I observe some simple symmetry, I am almost inexorably drawn into exploring it. For example, one day Don Oestreicher, who was then a graduate student, and I noticed that the number of random wires expected to cross the midsection of an N terminal printed circuit board is N/4 independent of whether the wires connect two or three terminals on the board. This comes about because although the probability of crossing is higher for wires connecting three terminals, 3/4 rather than 1/2, the number of wires is correspondingly reduced from N/2 to N/3. This simple observation led us to explore other wiring patterns, gather some data from real printed circuit boards, and eventually to publish a paper [4] called How Big Should a Printed Circuit Board Be? Follow your curiosity.

Beauty provides another form of personal encouragement for me. Some of the products of research are just pretty, although mathematicians prefer to use the word “elegant.” The simplicity of E=MC2, the elegance of information theory, and the power of an undecidability proof are examples. I got interested in asynchronous circuits by discovering a very simple form of first in first out (FIFO) storage that has rather complete symmetry [1,8]. It simply amazes me that my simple and symmetric circuit can “know” which way to pass data forward. The beauty itself piques my curiosity and flatters my pride.

Simplicity is to be valued in research results. Many students ask, “How long should my thesis be?” It would be better for them to ask, “How short can it be?” The best work is always simply expressed. If you find something simple to explore, do not turn it aside as trivial, especially if it appears to be new. In a very real sense, research is a form of play in which ideas are our toys and our objective is the creation of new castles from the old building block set. The courage to do research comes in part from our attraction to the simplicity and beauty of our creations.

I, for one, am and will always remain a practicing technologist. When denied my minimum daily adult dose of technology, I get grouchy. I believe that technology is fun, especially when computers are involved, a sort of grand game or puzzle with ever so neat parts to fit together. I have turned down several lucrative administrative jobs because they would deny me that fun. If the technology you do isn’t fun for you, you may wish to seek other employment. Without the fun, none of us would go on.

I tried to capture the spirit of research as a game in my paper about our walking robot [2]. Unfortunately, the editors removed from my paper all of the personal comments, the little poem about the robot by Claude Shannon, the pranks and jokes, and in short, the fun. The only fun they left was the title: Footprints in the Asphalt. All too often, technical reports are dull third person descriptions of something far away and impersonal. Technology is not far away and impersonal. It’s here, it’s intensely personal, and it’s great fun.

That is the last section of Ivan Sutherland’s Technology and Courage, a must-read piece. Link via Relevant History.

Plastic currency notes

April 18, 2010

Thanks to an email alert from a colleague, I learnt about the essay by Prof. David Solomon titled Australia’s Plastic Banknotes: Fighting Counterfeit Currency:

Worlds first banknote printed on clear plastic film and using optically variable devices (OVDs) was issued in Australia in 1988 after twenty years of research and development. In the course of this, a great deal of technical as well as logistic issues had to be solved.

A must-read and fascinating piece! Here is the press release from Wiley.

Tail went — Knife came – Dum Dum Dum

October 15, 2009

வாலு போச்சி கதஂதி வந்தது டும்டும்டும் was one of our favourite stories from our grandma. Nicholas Carr describes a similar situation in the communications industry:

After email took hold in offices, you always had a few doofus laggards who continued to rely on the phone and voicemail. They were widely despised: synchronous dinosaurs lumbering through the pleasant pastures of asynchronous Internet communication.But email also did something else, the consequences of which we didn’t fully foresee. It dramatically reduced the transaction costs of personal communication. You had to think at least a little bit before placing a phone call, not just because it might cost you a few cents but because you knew you were going to interrupt the other person. Is this really necessary, or can it wait? Email removed that calculation from the equation. Everything was worth an email. (As direct marketers and spammers also soon discovered.) And there was the wonderful CC field and the even more wonderful Reply All button. Broadcasting, cumbersome with the phone, became easy with email.

Goodbye voicemail hell. Welcome to email hell.

Some math-y links

July 7, 2009

All the following are from Notices of AMS (and, pdf):

  1. Solving Sudoku puzzles — paper and pencil algorithm
  2. TeX family in 2009
  3. LaTeX — breaking free!
  4. Mathematical models in science and engineering
  5. A special issue on formal proof
  6. Last poem of James Clark Maxwell (This one is a real gem!)

Have fun!

Creep in concrete, shear induced melting, and temporal lenses

July 2, 2009

Few papers from the latest PNAS:

[1] Nanogranular origin of concrete creep

M Vandamme and F-J Ulm

Concrete, the solid that forms at room temperature from mixing Portland cement with water, sand, and aggregates, suffers from time-dependent deformation under load. This creep occurs at a rate that deteriorates the durability and truncates the lifespan of concrete structures. However, despite decades of research, the origin of concrete creep remains unknown. Here, we measure the in situ creep behavior of calcium–silicate–hydrates (C–S–H), the nano-meter sized particles that form the fundamental building block of Portland cement concrete. We show that C–S–H exhibits a logarithmic creep that depends only on the packing of 3 structurally distinct but compositionally similar C–S–H forms: low density, high density, ultra-high density. We demonstrate that the creep rate (≈1/t) is likely due to the rearrangement of nanoscale particles around limit packing densities following the free-volume dynamics theory of granular physics. These findings could lead to a new basis for nanoengineering concrete materials and structures with minimal creep rates monitored by packing density distributions of nanoscale particles, and predicted by nanoscale creep measurements in some minute time, which are as exact as macroscopic creep tests carried out over years.

[2] Melting and crystallization of colloidal hard-sphere suspensions under shear

Y L Wu et al

Shear-induced melting and crystallization were investigated by confocal microscopy in concentrated colloidal suspensions of hard-sphere-like particles. Both silica and polymethylmethacrylate suspensions were sheared with a constant rate in either a countertranslating parallel plate shear cell or a counterrotating cone-plate shear cell. These instruments make it possible to track particles undergoing shear for extended periods of time in a plane of zero velocity. Although on large scales, the flow profile deviated from linearity, the crystal flowed in an aligned sliding layer structure at low shear rates. Higher shear rates caused the crystal to shear melt, but, contrary to expectations, the transition was not sudden. Instead, although the overall order decreased with shear rate, this was due to an increase in the nucleation of localized domains that temporarily lost and regained their ordered structure. Even at shear rates that were considered to have melted the crystal as a whole, ordered regions kept showing up at times, giving rise to very large fluctuations in 2D bond-orientational order parameters. Low shear rates induced initially disordered suspensions to crystallize. This time, the order parameter increased gradually in time without large fluctuations, indicating that shear-induced crystallization of hard spheres does not proceed via a nucleation and growth mechanism. We conclude that the dynamics of melting and crystallization under shear differ dramatically from their counterparts in quiescent suspensions.

[3] Temporal lenses for attosecond and femtosecond electron pulses

S A Hilbert et al

Here, we describe the “temporal lens” concept that can be used for the focus and magnification of ultrashort electron packets in the time domain. The temporal lenses are created by appropriately synthesizing optical pulses that interact with electrons through the ponderomotive force. With such an arrangement, a temporal lens equation with a form identical to that of conventional light optics is derived. The analog of ray diagrams, but for electrons, are constructed to help the visualization of the process of compressing electron packets. It is shown that such temporal lenses not only compensate for electron pulse broadening due to velocity dispersion but also allow compression of the packets to durations much shorter than their initial widths. With these capabilities, ultrafast electron diffraction and microscopy can be extended to new domains,and, just as importantly, electron pulses can be delivered directly on an ultrafast techniques target specimen.

Microwave smelting

June 29, 2009

Tyler Cowen:

And how did he smelt the iron ore into steel? He used a microwave.

On the necessity of politics and values in science

June 17, 2009

Marcy Darnovsky in Democracy:

It is not “anti-science” or illegitimate to bring political values to bear on science policy–even when it’s Bush or his religious supporters doing it. To suppress scientific evidence or distort research findings because they are politically inconvenient, to disregard expert advice and relevant technical information–these practices are anti-science, and the Bush Administration made a habit of them. But to consider social and ethical values in the course of crafting policy is not only appropriate, but necessary. And disagreement about social and ethical values, or about how to apply them, is a necessary aspect of democratic political contestation.

Progressives were correct both to attack the Bush Administration’s “anti-science” conduct and to oppose the fundamentalist right’s influence on its science policy decisions. But they took a wrong turn when they blurred the two. Intense animus against religious conservatives’ bioethical beliefs, coupled with extreme enthusiasm about stem-cell research, led many progressives toward positions that implicitly or explicitly ruled social values out of order in science policy.

Carried to an extreme, which it sometimes was, this meant that some progressives came to discount the importance of regulation and oversight of scientific practice and applications; overlooked conflicts of interest and corporate encroachments in science-related activities; and shortchanged the need for broad public discussion of the social and moral implications of science policy. Surely this is the wrong approach to a progressive politics of science.

Our job, now that we’re not fighting a rearguard action every day, is to determine the appropriate relationship between science and politics, and between science and state. The task is particularly urgent with regard to fast-evolving human biotechnologies: cloning for research and reproduction; sex selection and “designer babies”; race-specific drugs; “personalized genomics”; and markets in kidneys, eggs, and wombs. These emerging or proposed applications have been catapulted into public awareness by technical and commercial developments over the past decade, and can be referred to as “biopolitics.”

The birth of this kind of biopolitics was unfortunately timed. It coincided with the partisan polarization of recent years, which drowned out thoughtful deliberation about anything with a connection to the politics of reproduction, including many human biotechnologies. But genetic and reproductive biotechnologies raise political challenges that go beyond embryos. They pose questions about social justice and the common good, about democratic accountability and sensible regulation. Some of them present social predicaments that are unprecedented in human experience.

These are the questions we must ponder: How will human biotechnologies reshape our sense of ourselves, our relationships, the shape and feel of the world we occupy together? Who will profit, who will lose, and who will survive in the biotech age? Celebrity scientists, biotech entrepreneurs, pharmaceutical companies? Attractive college students whose eggs are in demand? Poor villagers in developing countries who sell their kidneys or rent their wombs? People with Down syndrome? Techno-utopian ideologues who think human improvement depends on biological “enhancements” rather than social change? What rules will govern human biotech practices, and who will enforce them?

A good one!