Working at a university is, I think, good for my sense of perspective and a good antidote for the occasional work-a-day ennui.

Yesterday I was thinking of last fall, when I was hurrying through an Engineering building to catch a bus and I passed a student observing (not driving) a small, silent four-rotored helicopter. That's what they're doing these days. Autonomic helicoptors.

But I was thinking of that student yesterday, when I went to watch a bit of a competitive program the University has hosted for a number of years. On an indoor field I watched two teams of robots, oversized roombas sucking up soccer balls, bumping over barriers and each other, spitting them into goals. These weren't undergrad projects: they were designed, built, and driven by high-school teams. The round I watched, the red team had much more agile and powerful soccer-bots. They handily won 8-1. Spectators cheered and held up big signs saying "Go 1148!"

Yesterday was a symposium for the final projects of the inaugural graduating class of nanotechnology engineers on campus, a program which will soon get its Quantum Nano Building, considerably larger than the name might suggest. At this nanotech symposium, one particular project caught my eye: carbon nanotubes absorbing IR radiation. See, night-vision goggles are apparently foiled by nano-tube-embedded fibers. They demoed a cotton mitt, one side treated; the one side is invisible to night-vision goggles, and the other side you can see the hand inside the glove.

While this property of carbon nanotubes has apparently been known for a while, these undergrads came up with a way to use them... safely. The poster ended with a cheerful message: "SAFETY CONCERNS: though industry is still wary of using CNTs in commercial products, there are a number of experiments that show the safety of CNTs [...]" and I thought, oh swell.

They continue by saying that IF the nanotubes are tightly bound to a substrate (say, cotton, which they claim it binds to easily), it will be safe. So they won't go loose in the environment and cause cancer or who-knows-what reactions with materials. Because we don't know, yet, because they cause all sorts of unpredictable reactions at quantum levels.

I think this is a different realm of "not ready for prime-time" than autonomous helicopters.

The nano building is one of five large construction projects on campus at the moment. The Quantum Nano building will be the biggest addition, shiny reflective glass next to the 60's-era ugly brick Brutalist Math and Computer building, once upon a time the most exciting thing happening on campus. It contained one big IBM computer. The biggest in Canada, in '67.

Yesterday I mentioned the symposium to a coworker's son, who is writing a school report on nanotechnology. He enthusiastically went down with notebook and pencil to take notes. And five years from now, he might possibly be studying nanotechnology in that building.

Heaven knows what they will be demoing in the hallways.


Thursday, 29 October 2009 08:59 pm
ARPANET, it is claimed, was born on October 29, 1969, and the first message sent was supposed to be "login", but it crashed before they got to "g."

I learned this in today's Globe and Mail, which comes to me on large sheets of bleached paper printed with soy inks. Yeah- woah.

ARPA, Advanced Research Projects Agency, became DARPA, a Defense projects agency, the year before I was born. It was the parent agency responsible for GPS, Gallium Arsenide integrated circuits, and of course for the Internet.

They are also responsible for stealth bombers and the mechanical elephants that ravaged Vietnam and led America to military victory oh wait maybe not.

Some months ago, I read an opinion piece (I wish I remember where) claiming that DARPA held [edited to clarify] distinction among US government agencies for successfully funding innovative R&D for over 50 years. DARPA goes for high-risk/high-reward projects, with flat hierarchy, tiny labour pool (fewer than 150 employees), and a distributed development model. "Cool," thought I, "if only they cloned the model for non-military agencies."

This evening (in [ profile] googleblog) I learned of ARPA-E, which hopes to have the same success in the Energy sector. Visiting his friends at Google Headquarters, the US Energy Secretary announced $150 million in grants, high-gamble projects in projects like energy storage, carbon capture, fuels, and desalination.

[Checks watch]

C'mon folks, it's been two days already.

(ARPA-E was actually created in 2007, but it didn't get kicked into gear until it got its first budget in Obama's first few weeks on the job.)

[Checks watch]

C'MON already!

updatey thing

Tuesday, 27 October 2009 11:14 pm
The last week has seen me:

* startle Neil Stephenson [1]
* have an annoying contact lens incident [2]
* apply the necessary teachable-moment to a kid outside my workplace who was messing around with my bike when I left the office
* meet Stewart Brand
* watch a superconducting toy train, a sort-of real quantum computer and a really pretty 3-d movie which was narrated by Stephen Hawking [3]
* document the activities of the zombies at City Hall. Well, the zombies attracted to City Hall by a certain video. This was surprisingly fun.
* play with a working reprap, a supposedly self-replicating machine. [4]
* be part of creating and solving various problems; technical, social; problems of planning and problems of execution. Be pleased with some outcomes. Be exhausted at work, but not too exhausted.
* see [ profile] melted_snowball off on his trip to Japan. Missing him a lot.
* not get enough sleep. Not get the rounds of bugs that are sweeping my workplace. Now if I can just get my flu shots before I have any flu symptoms, I'll be even happier.
* feel simultaneously lonely and not like talking to people. Sometimes I wish I were wired to be more social.
* spending quality time with Rover.

[1] I saw Neil Stephenson speak twice last week; afterwards, I thanked him for providing fun role-models for geeky people everywhere. I offered that I was occasionally inspired by Sangemon, the "hero" of Zodiac, whose style of bicycling in Boston traffic was over-the-top assertive. Neil looked a bit nervous at this- "I hope you do that safely." I laughed. Anyway, he was very polite.

[2] on second thought, I won't describe it. Not fun. [5]

[3] The toy train zoomed around a magnetic track. The "train" contained a super-chilled magnet and it was propelled by a shove from the demo-guy. The "quantum computer" was very poorly explained by a volunteer docent but it had an oscilloscope readout with a squiggle. And a plexiglass and metal assembly. Sorry, but that's all I got. I found my favourite part of the video, animated by NCSA - flying from the western spiral arm to the center of our galaxy. This was the most effective use of 3D I've yet seen.

[4] This evening I went off to the local nascent "hack lab" (clubhouse for tinkerers, more or less). I brought my arduino and stepper-motor. But I spent a lot of the time there socializing, playing with other peoples' toys [6], and such. It's a cool space, and my life isn't compatible with spending much time there, but I'm glad to see it exists.

[5] but my optometrist's office is 5 minutes walk from my office; and they gave me a new lens to replace the one that was stuck in my eye. Oops, I wasn't going to describe it. Well there you go.

[6] the reprap was a surprise to see in person- by the end of the evening, it was working, and it did "print" a plastic part used to make itself. Re-reading, I had forgotten they only produce 60% of their own parts- yes it's a toy, but it's a fairly cool toy.

I'm missing some stuff in this update, but that's what I get for not posting frequently enough.

Talk: Stewart Brand

Saturday, 24 October 2009 05:37 pm
I just attended a thought-provoking talk by Stewart Brand, on the topic of his latest book, Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto. In capsule form: the formerly back-to-the-land ecologist makes a strong argument for pro-city, pro-nuclear power, pro-genetically modified food, and pro-geoengineering strategies for mitigating the damage we're currently doing to our planet.

I took a few notes, but I recommend anyone with interest to watch the talk, as it is already up on the web; it's approx. 45 minutes for the talk, 15 minutes of questions. (you'll want to fast-forward to the 2-minute mark).

Things he said which struck me as interesting, though I've done no follow-up research:

- The Darfur war can be argued to be rooted in an environmental catastrophe- they ran out of water; which I knew. But he then showed a map of the Himalayas; its glaciers provide much of the water for Pakistan, through India. Hm.

- 2009 was the first time 50% of the world's population live in cities. Projection of the world's ten largest cities in 2015: only one, NYC, is in the West.

- Discussing new immigrants to cities India; "As an environmentalist, I don't want to stand in their way."

- "Megatons to Megawatts"- 10% of energy in the US is currently generated by energy from decommissioned Soviet nuclear warheads. He thinks this as one of the most amazing swords-to-plowshares stories of our time.

- Environmentalists who know the most are the most strident about the dangers. On nuclear power, those who know the most are least strident.

- 4th generation nuclear power reactors are now commercially viable; these include "microreactors" which are self-contained capsules, many designs are meltdown-proof, and one could easily power a small city. One prototype he likes uses thorium as the reactant, which is 3-4 times more abundant than uranium and produces several orders of magnitude less long-lived radioactive waste. Watch this space.

- There is now an undyed blue rose; a GM product with genes from petunias. You can buy them in Japan for $20 a stem.

- Geoengineering may be the most effective means to lower global temperatures- introducing particles into the stratosphere has been happening for Earth's entire history. When Mt. Pinatubo blew, it lowered temperatures 3 degrees for a year; and biologists talk about "Pinatubo cubs"- a population boom of polar bears from that winter.


I'm curious what people think of his talk, and what struck you from it. I will probably read his new book.

I realize how much impact his older works have had on me. To begin with, The Whole Earth Catalog probably had big impact on my parents; some of the designs he talked about were things they tried (solar water heating, back-to-the-land-ism). I might be lucky I didn't grow up in a yurt. But I spent a long while reading the Whole Earth Catalog as a kid, and his book on the MIT Media Lab did strongly shape my high-school plans for what I wanted to study. I also realize that the flavour of much of his writing- an imperative to improve one's life with better tools; an environmentalism based on the latest science; and elements of hippie collectivism- have stuck with me. Of course not only through him as a source, but I think he does rightly hold a title of "visionary."

Also, idiosyncratic crazy guy, who puts arrows all over his annotations, but whatever.
[ profile] melted_snowball and I went to see the Met production of Doctor Atomic, a John Adams opera set just before the first atom bomb test at Los Alamos.

It was at our local Cineplex, which made for a surreal "brave the hordes of afternoon children's matinees to sit down and see the Metropolitan Operahouse live in front of me in High Definition video." d. saw a Britten opera (Peter Grimes) in the same theatres, earlier this year, but this was new for me.

I consider myself a poor opera watcher- I've never gotten into the form, partly because it's so darn expensive, and watching opera on video has just never turned my crank. This experience was neat. Probably not as neat as seeing it front-row-centre at the Met, but it was a fine afternoon activity (instead of a weekend NYC trip such as [ profile] bats22's experience last month.)

The opera?

I *loved* the set: we first see the periodic table projected on the curtain; which goes translucent to show a rough mountain landscape made of suspended fabric, and metal junk dangled from the ceiling. The curtain goes up, and two three-story walls come in from either side- each with pictures projected in a 7x3 grid. The grid elements turn out to be window-shade curtains, which are raised to show people working in individual cubbyholes, sitting at tiny desks doing math. And there we have the setting of much of the first act; the scientists at Los Alamos stressing over their as-of-yet unproven (and decidedly scary) atomic bomb.

The music was neat- staccato, rhythmic- d. said it sounded too much like a film score, but I liked it, admittedly not as much as his orchestral work (indeed I don't think I know any Adams by the sound of it other than that linked piece. More to explore!)

I feel poorly qualified to judge the performers; I didn't see any faults, certainly.

The only false note in the opera, I felt, was the very end. The program describes the conclusion as: "the triggering circuits begin to fire. 'Zero minus one.' There is an eerie silence."

They ended the opera with a bright light behind the stage, lighting up the metal junk and the suspended fabric mountains. This didn't feel eerie; it felt like an attempt to evoke a nuclear blast, and it fell short.

There were wonderful eerie moments- in the second act as the scientists are revealed turned every-which-way in their cubbies, many upside-down and looking like they got scattered like toys. Then, minutes later, the top row of scientists are replaced by other figures, which I won't describe in case it's a spoiler.

The best background info I found was an annotated synopsis by The Exploratorium, though it's a few steps to find on the site ("enter site" -> skip intro -> "annotated synopsis"). Lots of depth there- the Muriel Rukeyser piece they used for Oppenheimer's wife Kitty's soliloquy (Easter Eve 1945) is set just months before the events in the opera, with the narrator exhausted of war...

Anyhow. Glad we went. Now I think I see a dog who needs a walk...!
I finished the audio-book version of Stumbling on Happiness on the drive back from my parents' place.

I wrote about Daniel Gilbert last August when he was interviewed on Tapestry, the CBC radio program on faith and spirituality (and so did d., which I link to from that post). Re-reading my impressions at the time, I conclude his book made a much better impression on me than it appears his radio-interview and TED lecture did. In no small part because he was able to set out his arguments completely, not constrained to 30 or 20 minutes. (Good gawd, he sounds strident and pressed for time in the TED talk.)

I took out of the library both his book and the unabridged audio version (read by Gilbert). The book copy was recalled so I only read a few chapters in print. I recommend either, or both. It made a fine accompaniment to driving many hours on the 401.

The book is pleasantly engaging, with a very accessible style that I only occasionally wish had been more terse. He mixes in with his psychology research a smattering of jokes I actually found funny- occasionally laugh-out-loud funny.

I'm torn on how much I'd like to say about the content. Others will have written better than I can. I think Gilbert writes most effectively about unexpected psych research results. For example (and this isn't an exhaustive list of the good stuff, it's just off the top of my head) :

* People overestimate their emotional reactions to future events. Our psychological "immune system" kicks in when awful things happen, making them feel... bad, but not as bad as you'd expect them to.

* However, the psychological immune system won't kick in under a certain threshhold. So a slightly bad event can fester in your mind worse than a really bad event.

* We, obviously, edit our memories; and we do so in a way to self-validate our beliefs. The fascinating thing to me is that we also edit our predictions of our feelings from before-hand, so we can self-validate the way we ended up feeling. "We remember feeling the way we thought we would feel, whether we felt like that or not." We're really a mess when it comes to accurately remembering feelings, and Gilbert mentions a few "emotional blind-spots" which consistently trip us up.

I liked this interview with him; it gives a fair sense of his writing style.

Something else I appreciate: when I got to the end, I wished I had a study group to help hash out my thoughts on the book. It turns out, and I think I read this last year, that Gilbert posted a study guide to go along with the Harvard frosh class he teaches based on the book. I can probably get access to most of the articles he cites.

So I'm pondering whether to try and find a dozen other people who just read this book and see what we might do with it.
Natural selection is so cool. The Dec. 24 issue of the Economist has a neat article about humans' shift from hunting to agriculture; how it was in a sense a desperation move as they hunted the big game to extinction. Such as the rhinoceroses in France. 30,000 years ago. That's... amazingly recent. When they ran out of rhinos, they went on to elk and bison. When they ran out of bison, agriculture seemed like a good idea. OK, I'm bastardizing the story a bit, but it makes a fun story that way. I'd link to the article, but the Economist didn't put it on their website.

On Thursday, [ profile] the_infamous_j showed me Gankutsuou. It's a sci-fi anime in 24 episodes retelling The Count of Monte Christo. After watching two episodes and reading up in Wikipedia, I want to read the (English translation of the) original. I may come back and watch the anime- it's got a different perspective, starting the story with the young aristocrat Albert and his friend Franz, piecing together the Count's story in flashback in a much less sympathetic fashion. Other interesting bits I learned from yon wonderful time-sucker wikipedia: two other stories whose plots were heavily borrowed from CoMC: Sweeney Todd (which I know some of you liked) and Stars My Destination (by one of my favourite old sci-fi authors, Alfred Bester).

Thirdly, from [ profile] epi_lj: The Complete New Yorker on DVD has dropped in price from $100 to $39.99. That's cool enough- $40 is a very fair price- but if you order with coupon-code 'WINTER25' it's $29.99. Wow. I'm going to buy a copy for my parents; perhaps then they will throw out the great big stacks of the magazines in their house?... Yeah, it's unlikely, but I suppose I can hope. ;)

And now maybe my brain will quiet down a bit and let me get to sleep; though I won't complain, because the evening was pretty great. Not the least of which: for dinner d. made duck burritos and lemon bars. Yum!

Human evolution

Tuesday, 11 December 2007 08:11 pm
Conventional wisdom is that human natural selection has dropped off and evolution is slow in modern humans, because there's fewer selective pressures. By analysis of Haplotype Mapping project data, UW-Madison anthropologist John Hawks says that's backwards- we've been evolving 100 times faster over the last 5,000 years than any previous period in human history.

The researchers found evidence of recent selection on approximately 1,800 genes, or 7 percent of all human genes.


Genetic changes are now being driven by major changes in human culture. One good example is lactase, the gene that helps people digest milk. This gene normally declines and stops activity about the time one becomes a teenager, Hawks says. But northern Europeans developed a variation of the gene that allowed them to drink milk their whole lives — a relatively new adaptation that is directly tied to the advance of domestic farming and use of milk as an agricultural product.

The biggest new pathway for selection relates to disease resistance, Hawks says. As people starting living in much larger groups and settling in one place roughly 10,000 years ago, epidemic diseases such as malaria, smallpox and cholera began to dramatically shift mortality patterns in people. Malaria is one of the clearest examples, Hawks says, given that there are now more than two dozen identified genetic adaptations that relate to malaria resistance, including an entirely new blood type known as the Duffy blood type.

Another recently discovered gene, CCR5, originated about 4,000 years ago and now exists in about 10 percent of the European population. It was discovered recently because it makes people resistant to HIV/AIDS. But its original value might have come from obstructing the pathway for smallpox.

Seen via [ profile] gmsv_feed.

(And hey! I can follow this article; some of [ profile] melted_snowball's explanations of what he does for a living may have rubbed off on me after all.)

Biometric fingerprint data's not as secure as you might hope. Not only can it be foiled by a gelatin cast of your finger, or even a digital photo of your fingerprint turned into a geletin cast of your finger, but apparently the numeric conversion of your finger's data, stored in the biometric database, or on your ID card, or what have you, can be translated back into your fingerprint according to a paper by mathematicians at MSU. Check that link for details- and a MythBusters episode where they make a gelatin fingerprint and go around foiling locks with it.

(As it happens, my cousin Simon is a sociologist who writes about the unreliability of forensic fingerprinting. It's a neat topic!)

Thanks to [ profile] rhythmaning for pointing to the article and reminding me about Ben Goldacre's blog / Guardian column, [ profile] bad_science. I used to read his column, back before RSS feeds. :)

Speaking of awful security, I can't imagine how angry I would be if my data (or my children's) were on those lost CDs in the UK post. Angry and scared, most likely.

Indeed, I wonder who's stupid enough to send around unencrypted CDs by the non-registerd postal service here in North America.
Sunday morning: Quaker Meeting at Central Philly. Lovely seeing our friends C. and K. again. Lots of familiar faces. After Meeting, the announcements went on long enough that d. had to run off to his conference. I stayed behind for lunch with C. and K. and chatted about how their committees are set up (yes, that's interesting to a Quaker geek. :) C. and I also talked about how she's coming to Toronto in two weeks, and while it's unlikely, perhaps I could go down for an evening session she's leading. After warm g'byes, I went off to wander my afternoon away.

I walked up the Franklin Parkway, stopping in a Catholic Basilica (gloomy and slightly creepy, to be honest- not a reaction I usually get from big churches!), past the Free Library (closed), a quick stop at the Rodin Museum long enough to look at their outdoor casts of The Thinker and The Gates of Hell. (Their literature made claims about being the originals- what kind of false advertising are they trying to get away with? I mean, even if I hadn't paid attention when the paper had articles a few years ago about Rodin authenticity claims and counter-claims- are they just assuming people won't care that there are many "originals"?)

My real destionation was the Fairmount Water Works, billed as North America's first municipal water works. Those civic-minded 18th-century Philadelphians!

It's a neat story. Nobody had ever built a steam-powered water pump big enough for a city, but it was clear that Philadelphia needed help before the turn of the 18th century. Philly had been the country's largest city, but yellow fever epidemics were convincing the planners they really had to do something about potable water.

Their first steam-engine designs worked great for a decade, then blew up twice. They redesigned, dammed the Schuylkill, and used water-wheels to pump the city's water to a reservoir. The water works went from a money-sucking boondoggle to the most profitable business in the city, and became one of the leading city tourist attractions for most of a century.

The interpretive center did a great job: the half-hour movie had fairly good video of how the different turbines worked, and they spent a while talking about water pollution, and how the success of the water works led to such city growth that they'd totally fouled the Schuykill by 1900. ...Now, the site is restored to its former grandeur (I didn't cross the river to see it from the other side, though). It's a restaurant (which looked too well-dressed for me in shorts and a teeshirt) and an interpretive center (which, obviously enough, I recommend!)

Then, d. and I met up at the hotel, went to the airport, took our flight, and got home just a bit after 10. I was so glad to sleep in my own bed!
Oh, you, Timex. Radium watches were manufactured and sold by Timex up until the '50s, and they still will sometimes light up a Geiger counter even if they don't glow at night.

Timex Indiglo watches, on the other hand, excites a phosphor (zinc sulphide atoms) using a high-voltage field through a thin conductive indium tin oxide layer. Unfortunately, wikipedia and howstuffworks lack enough detail on how the physical process works, which is what I was aiming for when I did this googling. Time to call in the experts. (hey, lightjen!)

But the neat thing about Indiglo, that I will perhaps remember for my next McGuyver moment, is this: it uses a 100:1 transformer to generate enough voltage over the watch face, 150 volts AC. I didn't know that, and it's even probably less dangerous for my wrist than radioactive paint.

A brief diversion down memory lane: the song Puff the Magic Dragon holds up so much better than the cartoon version, which I remember being deeply affecting when I saw it on TV. At age 4. I'll stick with my memories, thanks. I was confused about the colours being all wrong in the cartoon, until I realized that I had seen it in black and white.

I wish that my camara-phone would take photos like this:

Instead of like this:

The former is what the free astronomy program Stellarium says the moon looked like at 10:30 last night, and y'know, it was more or less accurate, save the remarkable colours. The latter, well, it got the colours. And, being phone-sized, doesn't quite have room for any optical zoom. Oh well.

Finally, my sweetie makes an awesome fishcake with apple ginger chutney.

On Happiness

Monday, 6 August 2007 10:48 am
[ profile] melted_snowball was writing about Daniel Gilbert's interview on Tapestry about happiness.

Gilbert says: paraplegics are just as happy as lottery winners. People raising children are less happy than people who do not have children. These may be true in some sense, and Gilbert does have interesting things to say. [ profile] melted_snowball disagrees with his premise, that by comparing people against each other, you can find a meaningful "average happiness" that is useful for measuring quality of life.

I'd like to disagree with something else: his slippery definition of happiness.

I've not read his book yet, and I hope to as soon as the public library tells me a copy is free; and I'm willing to change my opinion after I've seen the book. But [ profile] lilibet pointed me toward his TED talk that suggests people manufacture happiness- they tend toward a baseline "happiness"; they imagine the past as if they were closer to their current level of happiness; they don't predict their future happiness at all well (such as whether more income will make them happier.) What is this "happiness" as Gilbert defines it in these two clips?

Getting what you want.

Contrasted with, say, being foiled in what you want by an experimenter. At least as far as I can tell. That's not "happiness," that's... satisfaction? Lack of dissonance? If that's the definition he's actually using, I don't think it's useful at all. Optimizing for getting what you want won't make the world happier, it'll make it spoiled.

I'm likely over-reacting to Gilbert's pop-science presentation of his argument; if so, I hope his (er, pop-sci) book will make it somewhat clearer what he's measuring. And tomorrow at work I'll take a look at his paper, Affective Forecasting: Knowing What to Want, which is stuck behind a journal's firewall. The joy of University library access!)

While looking around online, I found the work of John Helliwell, an Economist at the University of British Columbia, and his definitions seem quite a bit more nuanced; they're based around happiness and well being.

A basic assumption in economics is that people want to maximize their utility, or well-being, and economists have long assumed per-capita income and wealth to be reasonable measures of this. However, recent research in psychology shows many additional factors boost people's sense of well-being as much as, if not more than, their monetary worth.

Among these factors is what many refer to as social capital, or "the networks and norms that facilitate collaborative action," according to Dr. Helliwell. These include civic engagement — participation in community organizations, for example — and social interactions like those with friends and family. Other factors linked to well-being are trust (in society in general and in specific domains like the police, government, neighbours and co-workers), employment (whether paid or not), good health, a stable family and effective, high-quality government.

Income does have an effect on well-being up to a certain point, but this effect diminishes at higher income levels. What matters more is relative income — people are less happy when they think that those around them have a higher income than they do. Age, too, affects well-being, with both younger and older people happier than those in their middle years (40 to 50 years old). Dr. Helliwell is not sure what accounts for this, but hypothesizes it may be related to issues of work-life balance.

Of interest to academics is that education doesn't seem to affect well-being directly. Dr. Helliwell hastens to add, however, that it does affect well-being indirectly through factors such as income, health and civic engagement — variables that are all known to be correlated with education.

I think I will work my way through Helliwell's paper on well-being and social capital while I'm waiting for Gilbert's book to show up at the library. As far as I've read, it seems quite a bit more satisfyingly rigorous.

[Edit to add: Many of Gilbert's papers are available on his website, I just didn't read the pale-gray text at the top which said to click on the orange bullet-point to download each paper. Heh.

Anyhow, both of the articles I've just read (the one I noted above about Affective Forecasting, and one called "How Happy Was I?") used self-reporting of happiness on a numerical scale. I wonder whether I'm just biased, or is this discovery making me unhappy?..]
The world's first CT scanner was designed and built from 1967-1972 by Godfrey Hounsfield, who worked for a lab at Electric and Musical Industries, otherwise known as EMI.

EMI Labs was diversified; they worked on radar and guided missiles during WWII and Britian's first transistor computer in the 50s. But by the late 60s, their profit center was clearly pop music, though they didn't sell off their dev labs.

...Meaning that development of the first CT scanner was funded by profits almost entirely from the Beatles.

EnerGuide Audit

Monday, 12 March 2007 10:16 am
Thanks to a heads-up last month by [ profile] nobodyhere & [ profile] psychedelicbike, this morning we got our house re-assessed by the local energy-audit services. This is the twilight days of the federal grant which reimburses homeowners for energy upgrades, and we squeaked in for a small (but worthwhile) cash savings.

Surprises: our old score (from the first assessment, four years ago) went down, due to a few evaluation criteria changes in the intervening four years. The old score went from 49 to 45, which worked to our advantage in terms of the grant: a tidy $378.00. That's actually more than I expected, because all we've done in the interim is insulating. In the balance, I guess I'm not surprised by our new EnerGuide score, which is... 50.

Oh, and according to them, our retrofits are estimated to reduce our energy needs by 13%, and reduce CO2 emissions by 1.5 tonnes per year. Go, us.

He recommended wall insulation in the basement (which continues to look prohibitively expensive, but he claims could save us 25-50% of our energy needs), caulking around the basement headers to reduce air leakage (which I suppose I could do myself, if slowly), a better seal on the attic-access door in our bedroom, outlet covers (the childproof kind) throughout the house to reduce air leaks, and lastly, replacing windows, as a lower priority item. I sort of take issue with their low priority for windows: their claim is that you don't see so much of an improvement replacing them; they will continue to radiate a fair bit of heat. He joked that they could rename their program "The don't bother replacing windows program." But in our case, I think we are leaking a lot of air around the windows, which are metal and slide horizontally. We can't add storms, we can't even easily put up the shrink-wrap stuff, due to the window design.

Still, their list of recommendations is shorter than it was the last time, since we've done all of the weatherstripping and insulating they recommended for the main and 2nd floor. And the house is warmer and less drafty than it was beforehand.

At the end I chatted with the assessor about their work. They've been around longer than the federal grant program, and they don't see their amount of work going down too much after the program ends. There will be a new grant program from the Conservatives, which should start up soon. From the looks of it, the new program will cost the consumer more at the outset, and get them a bigger grant afterward, so it's a shell-game that hurts people who can't lay out $300 upfront. Why is this a good idea? Only in that it improves the odds that people will sign up for the reassessments, I suppose.

...Now for this morning's second bit of fun, I'm waiting for Urban Wildlife to show up and (ideally) install a temporary Skunk Exclusion Barrier.
The recent UN report on climate change released in Paris last week seems to be affecting Canadian politics much more strongly than those in the US, though I was interested to see that the NYT article on that report is currently their most emailed and blogged story. But not so for a few other papers I just looked at, namely the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and the LA Times. (Chosen somewhat unscientifically).

It's frustrating that this seems to be an "elitist issue" as much as ever in the US; and the Associated Press seems to be casting the report as a French statement, highlighting Chirac's statements, when the Canadian papers (Globe and Mail, Toronto Star) are casting it as an international coalition of scientists, as it seems to be from looking at the actual report.

Anyway, the environtment and advance notice about this report has been front-and-centre on the Globe and Mail for the last two weeks, and according to their reader polls, Canadians have plunked Climate Change at (or near) the top of their list of governmental priorities. This has made for an interesting political football, since the current minority government was elected on a platform of not particularly caring about the environment, including proposing to pull out of the Kyoto Agreement, and now Harper is scared of not looking green enough.

I liked an article I read in yesterday's Globe and Mail. It showed up in the Business section of all places. I think the author hit the essentials that politicians should consider, for the near and long term.

I would love to send something like the following to federal, provincial, and local representatives. (A major problem is that I can't vote here at all, so the first paragraph is disingenuous, at least for the time being).


Yesterday's Globe and Mail had an article by Eric Reguly with five suggestions for a Canadian response to climate change. These are great ideas, and I would sincerely like to be able to vote for whoever was able to make all of them happen.

  • The first point is essentially that increasing gas taxes would be political suicide. Instead, mandate increased product standards. We should be using the technology we have. Mandated standards would push development of better technologies.

    The remaining four points are excerpts from the article:

  • Rail, not roads: Canada was built on the railway. It's time to recreate it. Shipping by truck emits five to eight times as much greenhouse gas per tonne of freight than rail. Shifting the freight onto rail for medium- to long-haul routes would work wonders for the environment, for highway safety and for infrastructure maintenance budgets; it is trucks, not cars, that do the most damage to roads.

  • There isn't a road built on the planet that cured traffic congestion. They're highly skilled at achieving the opposite. Keep the maintenance budget and axe the capital budgets for construction. In the latest fiscal year alone, Ontario's construction budget was $1.4-billion, up from $1-billion in 2002. Imagine if that money were put into public transportation.

  • Insulate homes: Mr. Harper's Tories killed the EnerGuide program, which paid for home energy audits and reimbursed owners for the cost of better insulation, more efficient furnaces and the like. Realizing their mistake, they have just launched a program inspired by EnerGuide. But it's not ambitious. An ambitious program would retrofit all of Canada's 1.6 million or so low-income households. At, say, $5,000 a pop, the bill would come to about $8-billion.

  • Kill ethanol: In Canada and the United States, ethanol, the fuel additive made from corn, consumes vast amounts of taxpayer subsidies. If ethanol were the miracle cure for greenhouse gas emissions from transportation fuels, the expense might be worthwhile. But, at best, the environmental benefits are inconclusive. It would be far better to divert Canada's hundreds of millions of dollars of ethanol subsidies to technologies of proven environmental benefit.


    I can't say I disagree with any of these, and I'm glad to see them appearing in the Business section of the more conservative national paper. [ETA: hm, not sure why I just thought the G&M was more conservative than the Post. Must've been thinking of the Star? Donno.]

    The complete article is behind the globe and mail's paid subscriber wall. The rest of the article is mostly lightweight. But give a shout if you want a copy.

    I wish I thought the Canadian government were sincere about making real change. But, even more, I wish that citizens in both the US and Canada had the political will to elect politicians to make real change. I don't think that's there yet really, in either country. (In a month, will climate change be replaced here by Quebec as the biggest issue facing the nation? Or US relations? Sigh.)
Two pieces of interesting bike research, and one nutjob:

Seen via a comment elsewhere via [ profile] signsoflife: points to research showing that flashing bike lights may draw people's eyes to them, causing car drivers to steer involuntarily into them. What a pain. Googling "the moth effect" suggests there's evidence that it affects different people differently, and I'm on the fence about switching my tail-light to solid-red instead of flashing. Needs more research.

Another bike-related bit, a researcher at the University of Bath has found that bicyclists who wear helmets are crowded by cars, more so than bare-headed bicyclists. That's what we get for looking more competent.

Speaking of competence, via The Journal of Improbable Research, "proof" that soy is making kids gay. I can't follow his leap from isoflavones to super-strong estrogen, but maybe that's what makes him a NUTJOB.
[Argh. This phantom post is courtesy "Session-Saver", the firefox 1.5 plugin which restores tabs when my browser crashes. It helpfully loaded the page which last night contained my latest LJ post. Thank you firefox.

I do have two discoveries I just learned at the optometrist. So I'll reuse this post for those.

The first: if you get headaches when the atmospheric pressure changes, coffee might help. It does for me, and it does for the optometrist. She explained why: she thinks it's because coffee is a vasodilator. I'm a bit suspicious, because a quick googling didn't prove it, but it didn't disprove it either.

The second: [ profile] melted_snowball, [ profile] kraig, and I have been. Don't read this until after you've been debriefed."> behind a cut in case anyone here is part of the same optometry study [ profile] melted_snowball, [ profile] kraig, and I have been.

Sorry for that, I don't want to be accused of foiling a research study. :)

The second is that my research-study lenses are... progressive bifocals. With a value of +1, which is somewhat low for bifocals.

The research study is trying to describe how people between 30-45 who use computers all day, get eye-strain; we don't have an inability to focus close-up, as with older people who get bifocals, but it's more work for our eyes.

The research lenses are supposed to ease the strain, and also have some other properties that are supposed to minimize the distortion on the sides of the lenses.

It's funny that I described the lenses in my first post about them, as if they were bifocals. Also, I had a suspicion the second set of research lenses were placebos, and they were.

Anyway, here's to fewer headaches, a free pair of glasses, and most of all, to *science*. Yay, science.
Read more... )

interview (1 of 2)

Thursday, 2 November 2006 04:49 pm
Right, we're due for an update.

This morning Dan's mom left after two nights at our place. It was a good visit. I'll probably have more to say on it later.

Bright and early, I had the first half of the interview for the University position I mentioned. The title's "Software Technologist" for the Kinesiology Department. The HR person ran out of qualifying questions really quickly, making for a super-short interview. The additional information she could tell me about the position was very interesting and positive as far as I'm concerned. I think I'm good for this job. :)

Over the last few days I've learned a bit about kinesiology: it's a science that seems to be rooted in biomechanics, or how people move, based on the constraints of the human body. Kinesiology includes anatomy and physiology and has applications into ergonomics, physical therapy and other fields. It's, frankly, a field I'd never have approached, as itself.

This position, though, looks great: writing and maintaining software to interface with hardware interfaces in labs; plus advising people on Matlab, CAD, LabView and a mish-mosh of other 2d/3d modeling software; and maintaining computers for students and faculty. You know what? I could do this. I've used most of the software they're concerned with, when I was an engineering student; I like playing with hardware interfaces, and helping researchers figure out how to sample tricky data sounds like a dream.

Also, with the connections to ergonomics and software, I could possibly start taking classes in Human Computer Interaction, something I've had in the back of my mind for a while. Lest that seem like it's out of left field, I've always had an interest in making computer interfaces more sensible, useful, and educational; it's just been sidelined by... y'know... paid work. The mac UI stuff I've been thinking about recently has brought me back to that a bit, even though it's had little to do with my day-job. And I think it's really funny that a monochrome mac interface I used in 1995 for simulating circuits, which was written with this programming system called "LabView", might help me get a job today.

...I just checked and my undergraduate advisor is now in charge of the HCI lab, re-using the course numbers from when I was there and it was called the "Interactive Media Group".
da: (bit)

There was a talk at the University last Wednesday afternoon with Ben Shneiderman of UMD Human Computer Interaction Lab

In short: pretty graphs and charts, but is it science?  On the other hand, does that matter?  I think yes it does matter, as long as the goal is to improve the sciences, as these folks are; instead of producing art qua art.

Schneiderman's lab has done a lot of work over the last 20-odd years developing new computer interfaces and visualization tools, including  the reasonably-popular Treemap visualizations.  They are interested in helping people "use vision to think".

A goal of his group is the methodic and scientific analysis of interface design. Controlled studies, scientific proof that their interfaces make it faster for people to do their work.  Amusingly, at the end of the talk, he admitted how difficult that is to do, especially since learning new interfaces goes very slowly for their subjects, and how in practice they're using case-studies and very little science.  Sigh.

He also said that they aren't following up with research subjects as often as they should.  One of their commercial products, Spotfire, is used in all top 25 drug-discovery companies, he says. But: they have little idea how it's used, in practice; only that customers are willing to pay $ 1k / seat / yr for licenses. 

Spotfire itself appears to be an interesting way to visualize complicated data.  There's a "demo" that gets into specifics of the user-interface at about the 1-minute mark.  (Warning, music and annoying marketroid speech.)  It would be awesome if other software used these same tools, such as Excel.  I liked their slider with drag-bars on both ends, and how quickly they produced result graphics (they say they produce output in 100ms on data with 1 million elements).

He showed some of the sorts of charts they provide in Spotfire, and how they compare. He briefly showed off an academic comparison of information visualization environments they put together, called Olive (network diagramming tools, 1-d/2-d/3-d environments, temporal, etc.)

A diversion with treemaps, including a demo of an itunes interface using treemaps which is pretty cool.

He demoed one of their time-series interfaces, TimeSearcher (downloadable for Windows) which lets the user select multiple "interesting" regions of line-charts to weed the overall-interesting ones from many-thousands of total pieces of data.  It was quite slick-looking, since he was talking about the Dow Jones averages and showing how to find underpriced stocks. 

He demoed a program called hierarchical clustering explorer (downloadable) for the task of finding features in many-variable data.  One big fraction of the screen is occupied by a "dendogram view" which I didn't understand terribly well in the 2-minute description. However: another chunk of the interface was devoted to comparing any pair out of a large number of variables, and I think that worked well for its intentions. 

He demoed with 14 variables.  You can compare any two in a 14x13 triangle, where clicking one of the boxes in the triangle brings up a scatterplot of the two variables.  Taking that a step further, you can choose a basis for comparison, such as correlation, and it will highlight all of the squares in the triangle which are "interesting" according to that basis.  They can do "correlation", "quadratics", "exponential", "least square error", and they're working on "uniformity".  He said it does interesting things to find outliers, which even finds outliers which are close to a clump.

I spoke to dan about this, and he brought up a large blind-spot; which I've verified from the software's website: this apparently does nothing with statistics.  A large fraction of science is the annoying task of determining whether the results could have been due to chance, and as far as I can tell, statistics are indeed a weakness for this tool.  (In a bit of brainstorming with dan, I think this could possibly be improved if they were willing to make this interface act more cleanly as a middle-layer between statistics tools and a database.  They said that they want to do that, but to really serve that role, instead of a menu of simplistic stats tools, it should be able to do chi-square tests, zeta tests, and so on.  But: I expect they've considered this; and I don't think my opinion is terribly informed on the matter.)

Interesting problems Shneiderman said they did solve: fitting 30 thousand pieces of visual data on the screen in an understandable arrangement; and design so selecting data in any view will affect the selections in all the other views.  Also, they decided to not use a heavy-weight database; they're using in-memory caches with linear data structures, and copies of the data for each bit that's currently visible in the interface so it doesn't get bogged down.  That was a bit of a surprise to me; I'd think a SQL db would be fast enough.

Finally, they discussed network data.  He says, and I agree, that nodes and lines can be a difficult means to understand relationships and communication.  There's often too much data obscuring the relationships, and positioning is usually arbitrary (where it will fit, or cause the least number of lines to overlap).  His group proposes "network visualization with semantic substrates" where the layout of the nodes is meaningful, and the user has control over what sort of links are visible.  A project they worked on has a goal that: every node is visible along with its in/out edges.  Every edge allows you to find the source and destination.  If you can't do that, a lot of visual cues are wasted.

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