Friday, December 14, 2007

Great minds think alike I guess

Great post from Seth Godin about Whole Foods and this whole eco-movement thing:

A trip to the Whole Foods Market used to be really fun. It's an amusement park for food, a place where the lights are bright, the vegetables are fresh, the potato chips apparently guilt free.

Sometime in the last year, it feels to me, the story changed.

The mantra of "less" which is a natural offshoot of carbon-footprint thinking, combined with the mantra of "less" which is a natural offshoot of overfishing, combined with... have made shopping in a store like this a contest over who can have less impact.

So, here's a can of tuna, but maybe that's not okay because it's a can and it's tuna.

And here's an avocado, but maybe that's not okay because it came a long way in a truck.

And on and on.

For me, local and organic is a treat. I feel great doing it and I'm happy to invest the time to go to the Union Square market. I wonder, though, about how long the legs on that story are. If we're going to make people feel guilty when they spend money, pretty soon they're going to start ignoring the story that makes them feel guilty.

Do you remember when you were a kid and you were supposed to clean your plate when eating because somehow that was going to help some starving kid in China? That story didn't last so long.

I'm more and more convinced that the best hope for the eco movement is to tell a story of efficiency and growth and ingenuity. More is easy to sell. Less almost never is.

Bold emphasis is mine...

Efficiency, growth and ingenuity... certainly things you've read on here, right?

The future (and present) of science

Science, chemistry in particular, is a very interesting world to be involved in, academically and professionally. Actually, I hate the word interesting, too vague. Allow me to start over...

Chemistry is pretty bad ass for the most part. The classes are fascinating if you pay attention and you understand the implications, the implications are important because chemistry, plainly put, is involved in every single thing you experience every second of your life, and practically every experience you have in a research environment has the potential to be novel.

When I started my undergrad research project at SDSU in metal-organic frameworks, I was immediately struck by the open-source nature of the chemistry community. This was something I experienced in my position at Johnson & Johnson but had never seen first hand. For those of you outside of this world that I am just now getting acclimated to, here's exactly how chemistry works:

The skeleton (in this case meaning underlaying framework) is one or a group of very smart people. These are the PhDs and the post docs (those who have continued their formal research after a doctorate degree has been achieved) and they are the heart of any lab environment. They are the brain and kidneys too and, while we're at it, probably the lungs and DNA and hemoglobin as well. I'm really getting out of hand with these anatomical metaphors and probably losing a little focus as well. Keep in mind I'm just now trying to recover from an intense two weeks preparing for final exams. I'm recovering by working a 10 hour day if that makes any sense.

What I'm trying to say is that chemistry is nothing without some serious brain power hanging around. What is interesting about PhDs and professors and so on is that they are not the main workers (most work damn hard, don't get me wrong), they are the directors, the conductors if you will. I would venture a guess that if you're not involved in chemistry that you might think it's all about mixing colorful liquids to get colorful solids that save the world. The real work is done researching and problem solving OUTside of the lab. Let me be clear: the mixing and heating and solvating and freezing and separating and roto-vapping and analyzing are what all of the research is for but, without a plan, the scientific foot-work is useless.

You might be surprised if you knew how much time people spent in front of a computer or notebook doing any number of (somewhat) tedious tasks: recording results, calculating molarity and yield, summarizing information, setting up presentations, and, the major time sink, researching the NEXT STEP. Doing this research can be massively frustrating and, for the time being, is a very medieval (almost spelled that right first time around) system. I guess it might seem a bit ridiculous to call building molecules in a software program and searching through countless records accessed through this crazy thing called the interweb 'medieval' but, to someone who deals with "optimizing web experiences," it's a PITA.

What we do in chemistry is start with a problem, gather as much information as we can, and then just poke at solutions until we find an answer. The first time you start doing this, you're struck by how inefficient the whole process is. Just to start working might take an hour or more of baking glassware and pumping equipment into the "airbox:"

The point I'm meaning to address through this long, ridiculous ramble is that the scientific process for chemistry has come a LONG, LONG way and is almost incomprehensible in terms of its complexity and capacity but there is A LOT of room for improvement. The biggest/best change I could suggest (from my very novice POV) is a vast improvement in the sharing and exchange of information. Right now, we search through existing successful chemical procedures in the form of academic papers which may or may not be clear, free, safe, in English, capable of producing a usable yield, or incredibly expensive. The person who wrote the report may of may not be alive, still reachable, or even willing to answer any questions. They also might be wary of competition for grant money or fame and fortune (and groupies, of course). Here's an example of, basically, what we use to direct our research...
Click here and select "Full Screen" to view it better...

It is, of course, amazing that so much information is available on-line to academic institutions but using it is a drawn-out, frustrating hunt-and-peck activity that can go on for hours or days. The question is, how do you take work that people have, potentially, spent their whole lives accumulating, work that exists in many different forms, published or not?

Science, in a lot of ways, is a very open environment that wants, more than anything, the simple pleasure of accomplishment. Scientific advancements are also the source of a fantastic amount of money and will be as long as sentient beings are mucking about. So what is the middle ground? How can I retain sovereignty over work I've done while giving back to the system that made this work possible? I certainly don't have the answer to that question and I think that no one truly does.

Personally, I'm a fan of things being as open as possible. That's why I blog, plain and simple. That's also why I help people around me with anything I'm good at. I would be much happier in a world with more incorporation, more community, more open-source everything and less chances to be fantastically rich, less copyright laws , and less restriction altogether. "What about the work you do?!!" If everything I did needed to have a clear, upfront monetary value, I would be A LOT LESS BUSY. I certainly wouldn't blog, I wouldn't read, and I would be hard-pressed to stay as diligent in school as I have been. I am truly a fan of open information and will always contribute with that sentiment in mind.

Which brings me to the article that I stumbled upon (yes, that was definitely one hell of an introduction). From the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Microsoft is partnering with several universities to create open-access Web sites where chemists, freely and easily, can find details about molecules and atoms. That’s the report today from Peter Murray-Rust of the chemistry department at the University of Cambridge, in his blog.

Murray-Rust notes that Microsoft has financed and developed a software design called Object Re-Use and Exchange “which sees the future as composed of a large number of interoperating repositories rather than monolithic databases.” Using it, he continues, will allow bench chemists and undergraduates to browse libraries of molecular structures to get information they need for research and publications, rather than being restricted to whatever database to which they happen to have a password.

“We shall also be ‘scraping’ (ugly word) any material we can legally access,” Murray-Rust writes.

Partners in the program, besides Cambridge and Microsoft, include Penn State University, Cornell, Los Alamos National Laboratory, and the PubChem project, a free database of molecular structures hosted by the National Institutes of Health

We will, hopefully, see this more and more as time goes on. As Google keeps making uncopyrighted work available for free and science opens up further and further, people will see the benefits that don't have an intrinsic dollar value.

The best part about this is that the ones who create the information (students, professors, etc) are FAR more likely to be the ones who want the information shared (compared to executives, deans, etc.). Though the universities where the work was done have some kind of claim over the knowledge, it is ultimately up to the scientist whether that information goes anywhere. They can share it clandestinely, talk about it whenever they want, and help 'competing' researchers take that next step. The information always belongs to the holder, no matter how many copyright laws there are.

Here's another example of a push for professors to share their research (also from the Chronicle):
Dan Cohen, director of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, wants scholars to stop keeping their research materials to themselves. Just about every academic has notes, photographs, digital scans of research documents, and plenty of other data on their hard drives, he says, but they rarely share anything beyond what makes it into their final books or journal articles. Why not upload such material to a shared online database for other scholars to draw from?

The center announced yesterday that it will work with the nonprofit Internet Archive to create just such a database — and to build tools to make it easy for professors to add their personal research files. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation awarded $514,000 to the center to support the effort, and gave more than $700,000 more to the Internet Archive for the project as well.

Mr. Cohen said that the key to his plan was ease of use. Many professors are using the Zotero software already, he said, and the upload will take place with just a few clicks. Plus, adding materials might enhance a scholar’s reputation, since his or her name will remain attached to the contribution. Materials in the archive should be easy enough to find, since the Internet Archive, where the materials will be posted, is already popular online.

Open it up, folks, let your information out. Your value, monetary or otherwise, is based largely on your future potential, not your past body of work. Your past body of work serves as a possible indicator of your future potential. Get out there and share what you have, no matter what it is. Everyone will benefit, yourself the most.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The magic of statistical mechanics

The software that likely went into this (unless it's a big pile of pseudo-science) is probably a sight to behold. From the NY Times:

The company employs what it calls a “package flow” software program, which among other hyper-efficient practices involving the packing and sorting of its cargo, maps out routes for every one of its drivers, drastically reducing the number of left-hand turns they make (taking into consideration, of course, those instances where not to make the left-hand turn would result in a ridiculously circuitous route).

Last year, according to Heather Robinson, a U.P.S. spokeswoman, the software helped the company shave 28.5 million miles off its delivery routes, which has resulted in savings of roughly three million gallons of gas and has reduced CO2 emissions by 31,000 metric tons. So what can Brown do for you? We can’t speak to how good or bad they are in the parcel-delivery world, but they won’t be clogging up the left-hand lane while they do their business.

That's what I'm talking about!

The act of going green comes in many different shapes and sizes (only one color, of course). It ranges from altering your life completely to eliminate/drastically lessen your impact on your surrounding environment all the way to doing something that benefits both yourself and the environment. At this stage in the game, people should at least be CONSIDERING their impact on energy, water and waste. For one, it is just the right thing to do (see John Locke and his ideas on Limits to Accumulation... I would argue that overuse [waste] falls under the same heading as spoilage do to over accumulation). For another, it could lead to savings and quality of life improvements you never thought about.

Gold star to UPS for finding a very interesting way to save money and use less gas!

Tuesday, December 11, 2007


Try typing "" into your address bar... sweet huh?

Monday, December 10, 2007


Politics, as a rule, usually just make my head spin and my tummy hurt but I found a nice, succinct collection of presidential opinions on major issues.

It really brings everything together and makes you think very big picture. I think a lot of people pick one issue and make that the way they vote (*cough* stem cells *cough*). I think, if you are a rational person, it would be hard to look at this long list and only pick one issue.

Keep it real out there ;)

Odd categorization

Want to pick a fuel efficient car? The government site seems to have a few options for you here. Best of the best for those who don't like clicking on links for themselves?


Toyota Prius with 48 city and 45 highway

Runners up:

Honda Civic Hybrid with 40 city and 45 highway
Toyota Yaris with 29 city and 36 highway
Toyota Corolla with 28 city and 37 highway
Honda Fit with 28 city and 34 highway
Nissan Versa with 26 city and 31 highway

What was the surprise of this site? The MPG for the following may not be surprising but their categories are... odd car categories
Since when is a giant Bentley coupe called a mini compact?