Changes of Scenery

In the fall, I’ll be starting a Ph.D. program in Materials Science and Engineering. I’m excited about it. I don’t yet have any real idea what research project I’ll be working on, but Marco Rolandi’s group is doing some very interesting things at the interface between microfabrication and materials engineering. That’s the exact realm I’m interested in, so I’d say his group looks promising.

What else looks promising: Seattle’s public transportation infrastructure. I’ve already planned out a path for us to get from thee airport to our hotel and from our hotel to our new apartment the next day, and they’re both very straightforward and painless routes. Easier than driving in Dallas!

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A Handful of Thoughts on Nanotechnology

Have you heard of the chemical industry? It has developed mostly since World War II to a little fanfare from a few places, but its effects on life in the developed world have gone mostly unremarked-upon. It is because of this development (some might call it a revolution) that we have useful plastics. Ponder plastics for a moment.

The chemical revolution gave us not just useful plastics, but our entire modern approach to domestic problem-solving: buy chemicals! Practically all household cleaning products, most personal hygiene products, and even the modern pharmaceutical industry all spring directly from the chemical revolution. Chemistry has solved a whole host of problems we never knew were solvable: our clothes no longer have to come out of the dryer hard and scratchy, or even electrically charged; malodorous organic molecules no longer need be left to float freely in the air, assaulting our nostrils; washing our hair no longer must leave it dry and frizzy. Our societal mastery of molecular reactions has given us a vast toolbox from which to draw as we attempt to improve our lifestyles.

The least that nanotechnology has to offer would put it on the same scale as chemistry with regard to its effect on our lifestyles. Nanotechnology, like chemistry, is a vast toolbox from which we will be able to draw when we seek solutions to our problems. Like chemistry, nanotechnology will give rise to new classes of structural materials, new approaches to medicine, and new ways of controlling our environment. Nanotechnology’s fundamental limits have often been argued, but even by the most conservative estimate the field could bring about just as much change as did chemistry.

The most that nanotechnology has to offer would put it closer to the scale of the industrial revolution. I leave you to ponder that thought for a while.

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Put the Brakes on $4 per Gallon Gasoline at the Pump!

Repost from Facebook, which explains the more casual tone:

(I stole my title from David Vitter, whose strategy was “Drill more wells in the Gulf of Mexico!!!!”)

You want my opinion on how to end our dependence on foreign oil? Eliminate the volatility of energy prices stimulate our high-tech sector? Impose a gasoline tax to pin the price to $4 per gallon. Use the proceeds to create an emergency fund to subsidize gas in the event that the price ever rises over $4, then give put the rest into the existing DoE grant structure for R&D in renewable (solar, not biofuel) energy.

Why $4 per gallon? As far as I know, prices have been that high only once before – summer of 2008, I believe. When they got that high, demand actually started to drop a little. So setting the price there might begin to reduce demand, but not enough to grind our economy to a halt. If we set it too much lower, we might not break even. But at $4 per gallon it’s easy to compute the cost of a tank, gas stations can take down their signs, and everyone’s happy. Right?

Why use the existing DoE grant structure? Because our need for investment in renewable energy infrastructure needs to be completely independent of this “taxidy” (that’s a portmanteua of the words “tax” and “subsidy” in case you were wondering) program. If our DoE programs aren’t good enough, we need to fix them before we start pouring all this money in, because the money that’s being distributed through there now needs to be handled just as wisely. This should also prevent a lot of the political fighting over how the money will be used.

Why not biofuels? Because they’re not sustainable, folks. Corn-based ethanol, by most measures, requires more energy to produce than you get back from burning it. That’s right, its thermodynamic efficiency is negative. But its political efficiency is impressive, because Iowa is a swing state or something like that. Or because Monsanto has a powerful lobbying arm. . . Other biofuels may be more efficient than corn, and noncompetitive with our food supply, but they still can’t really compete with solar energy. Solar energy won’t power our cars any time soon, but once we have a cheap, stable electrical supply, getting the energy into the cars won’t be nearly as difficult. Trust me on this; I know a lot more about emerging technologies at the fundamental level than you do (assuming you’re a politician reading this note.)

That’s the plan, and it should work until gas prices level out near or over $4 per gallon. At that time it shouldn’t be too difficult to pass a rate hike to the existing program. Now we just need to elect a congress with the political will to enact this legislation. Here’s a hint: David Vitter has got to go.

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Cracking the Whip

Last fall I went on a mission trip to the other end of the state with a group of twenty or thirty people. We traveled in a convoy of about six or seven cars. On the way back I was driving at the rear of the convoy, and I noticed that I was frequently falling behind and having to drive ten or fifteen mph over the speed limit to catch up. At one point, the car in front of me was pulled over for speeding while trying to catch up with the preceding car, and later in the trip a tire on my car blew out in the same situation. I wasn’t happy.

Being a good engineer, I put my mind to the problem to figure out why it was happening. The lead car driver swore he wasn’t speeding, but the cars in the back definitely were.

The phenomenon involved is similar to cracking a whip. If the second car falls behind at all, it will have to speed up slightly to catch up with the leading car. It will start pulling ahead of the third car, which will then have to speed up even more to catch the second car. As this pattern is repeated down line, the cars in the back suddenly find themselves falling behind and having to go much faster than the average speed of the convoy in order to close the distance. It’s an emergent behavior of the convoy system as individual drivers try to make decisions about driving while following the rules of the convoy :”keep the car in front of you in sight.”

If the whip-cracking phenomenon is a result of the convoy rules, it can be ameliorated by changing the rules. I propose two techniques for solving the problem: an elegant solution and a practical solution.

The Elegant Solution:
Subtract half the number of cars in the convoy from the speed limit. The resulting number is the maximum speed of the leading car. Each subsequent car is allowed to drive 1 unit (mph or kph) faster than the car preceding it. If all cars follow their speed limits under all but the most extreme circumstances, each car will be able to catch up with the car in front of it (albeit slowly) while keeping the maximum speed of the last car within a reasonable range of the legal speed limit.
A convoy of 10 cars is driving on an interstate with a legal speed limit of 70 mph. The lead car drives no faster than 65, car 2 66, car 3 67, and so on so that the 10th car drives no faster than 75. The average speed of the convoy is 65 mph, and as any car falls behind they can catch up with the car ahead of them by driving 1 mph faster.

The Practical Solution:
Use cruise control! If any cars do not have cruise control, put them at the back of the convoy. Emphasize strongly to all drivers that they should set cruise control at the legal speed limit and LEAVE IT ALONE!

I haven’t tested either of these methods yet, but I intend to in a few weeks as I travel with another convoy.

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Mix-and-Match Careers, or How to Find Work in the New Economy

Richard Florida has been writing for The Atlantic for at least several months now (I started reading in April or May, so I can’t reference anything earlier) about his ideas: the Creative Class and its influence on cities and regions in the new economy, and how the new economy will replace the old. He’s got a lot of interesting ideas; you should read a sampling of his articles. His latest is about projected job growth in metro regions across the nation, correlating projections to a few characteristics of the regions. The highest R^2 value (strongest correlation) he finds is for the inverse relationship between projected job growth and percentage of residents in the “working class.”

“This suggests that the structural forces that are reshaping the U.S. economy from an industrial to a more idea, knowledge, and human capital driven post-industrial economic system will continue to deepen. “

If you’ve read anything by Florida, this is no news. Consider it required background for the rest of this post. The recession didn’t usher in the knowledge economy, but it is striking a death blow to the product economy.

Another recent article from The Atlantic, this one by Derek Thompson, enumerates four interrelated crises that are keeping unemployment at a 50+ year high. Point II is that businesses, uncertain about their economics future, are unwilling to commit to hiring new full-time employees, so they make up their labor shortage with contract work, consultants and part-timers. The result is that contract work is in less of a shortage than full-time, salaried positions. Anecdotally, I’ve heard my brother has been turning away web design contracts lately because he has enough work.

I don’t expect this trend to reverse when the economy picks back up. Companies needing creative workers could probably actually benefit from a high employee turnover, because it would bring in a steady stream of fresh ideas. Contracting out work instead of hiring full time employees would give companies an advantage of being able to change the composition of their workforce quickly and easily by hiring different contractors. If an online service needs designers and developers at the beginning, content creators and support staff after launch, and more developers to expand, they don’t have to hire and lay off in cycles. Instead they can just contract out everything. Thompson had actually written about this trend several months ago, so go read his article on the rise of part-timers for more explanation.

As Thompson points out in that older article, the idea of accepting various contracts instead of a full-time career can be appealing to twenty-somethings. I see it as imperative that college students and recent grads, or anyone else starting a career anytime soon, give up on the idea of finding fulfillment in a 9-5 job with a salary and benefits. You may be able to find one of those if you search enough antique stores, but they are unlikely to give the creative class the experience that we seek. In the words of Aesop Rock, “we the American working population hate the nine to five day in, day out when we’d rather be supporting ourselves by being paid to perfect the pastimes that we have harbored based solely on the fact that it makes us smile if it sounds dope.” We don’t want a career, we want a life.

I expect that to find success in the new economy, creative workers will need to adopt an entrepreneurial spirit and treat themselves as a one-person company selling a service: their own skills. This approach will give creatives the opportunity to apply their creativity to a variety of problems, limited only by their own ability to market themselves. If you can convince a client that you are qualified to do the work, you can do whatever work you want. This mix-and-match approach is very appealing to me, and I expect it is appealing to many of my creative friends who have no idea which sort of “career” they should look for because they are skilled at and interested in so many different things. Another free anecdote: My wife exemplifies this crippling diversity of skills; her blog is about the five careers she wished she could follow.

Creatives, develop your skills. Discover how they can be used to benefit others, because the whole point of this thing we call a “job” is to allow others to support you in exchange for a service with which you can provide them. Learn how to market yourself. And don’t let anyone try to tie you down to doing one thing for eight hours a day, five days a week.

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Or, as Eric Drexler calls it, “bloggy blogging.”

First, new layout:
I changed the layout using Blogger’s new(ish) template designer. I’m still not really doing any design, per se, because I have enough web designer friends to know that I’m not a web designer. But at least it looks different, and perhaps a little more interesting now.

Second, update on Idea a Day:
I kept the idea journal for two or three weeks, which was long enough to get me back into the habit of having ideas, capturing them, and trying to develop them at least enough to put them into words. It was also long enough to realize that an idea a day is way to often to expect good ideas that could actually be realized. It was a good exercise, though.

Third, some thoughts on someone else’s big idea:
There’s an article in The Atlantic this issue about economist Paul Romer’s plan for neo-colonial charter cities, administered by developed nations using land in the poorest countries on earth, as a way to pull people out of poverty by giving them economic opportunities. In Romer’s view of the world (which seems to be pretty enlightened, considering how influential he was as an economist and how successful as an entrepreneur) what separates rich countries from poor countries is not geography but rules. If the rules of rich countries were instituted in poor ones, the result would be the creation of wealth. I had seen Romer give this talk at TED a while ago, and was fascinated by the idea. I’m currently reading “Confusion,” the second volume of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, which focuses mostly on the role of commerce in ushering in the modern age during the end of the 17th century. While the importance of commerce in wealth creation is now almost a trope, it’s worth remembering that it wasn’t (and isn’t) always considered so important. The rules Romer talks about are mostly rules to encourage free trade. It’s worth pointing out that most of the criticism aimed at his charter cities questions the likelihood of their social and political success, but Romer’s goal was never to develop “ideal” or utopian cities. The only goal of his charter city plan is to provide economic opportunities in otherwise dead economies, thereby giving populations a chance to pull themselves out of poverty by moving to the cities. He makes it very clear that the way for the population of the city to address shortcomings of the political (or by extension, social) shortcomings of their charter city is to simply leave and go somewhere else. He’s emphatically not saying that these cities will become desirable places to live comparable to London or Zurich. He’s merely saying it will be a whole lot better there than living in a slum in a city whose economy is crushed by ineffective policies.

Fourth, upcoming posts (if I get around to them):
I’ve been thinking a lot about urban development lately, often inspired by a feature in the last issue of The Atlantic (hey, it’s a good magazine) on the future of the American City. I’ve been applying a lot of those ideas to Ruston, Louisiana, which has been going through a big planning and development push over the past couple of years. I’ll try to blog about it in the coming days or weeks.

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Idea a Day

I decided today that I’m going to start keeping an idea journal. My goal is to write down one idea every day as a creative exercise. They don’t have to be especially well-formulated, though they should be practical in some manner. We’ll see how it goes; if it goes well, I may start a separate blog for the ideas.

Today’s idea: crowdsourced financing for independent musicians to record their music.

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