USA : SID 2010 – Ebook readers get chromatic

See that lovely color e-reader in the top picture?  That’s our prototype!  A bunch of guys in my office spent a week hunched over that with a flock of laptops hitched to it, writing new software to improve the color addressing.  Didn’t they do a smashing job?  I wish they’d snapped the shot of the even more impressive red and blue parrot, but the duck is very respectable.

In other news, we are currently grappling with the logistical impossibility of being forbidden to remove laboratory notebooks from the building, despite the fact that the laboratory is moving to a DIFFERENT building.  I think we may need to call in the physicists to help with this one.

Also, I may be moving to WordPress.  Livejournal development has lagged to almost nothing, and I'm really starting to like WordPress's tools and options.  One click uploaded my entire LJ plus comments, tags, the works into my WordPress blog.  You can find and follow it here.  I haven't decided finally, but I'm leaning heavily in that direction.

How curious

Before I officially changed my name on our lease to my married name, the reception desk at our apartment complex was scrupulously careful to send my package notifications to me, and my husband's to him. Never the twain shall meet. Now that I've put my married name on the lease, however, we both get notifications for all the packages we receive. This will make for an interesting Christmas shopping adventure, I think.

Cultural Delights

I am continually amazed at and amused by the unfailing politeness of my British colleagues. Where one of the American researchers might say "that book is a piece of crap," the Britons will instead say, "that book is the most useless work of reference it is possible to construct." American: "You screwed up my meeting by attending that worthless webinar. Did you learn anything useful?" British: "You spent the afternoon inconveniencing my meeting while attending that rather questionable webinar. Since you are now an expert, can you suggest what language I should use to describe this concept in my invention disclosure?" They are masters of the ruthlessly cutting insult delivered in the mildest and most benign manner, which my snarky sense of humor just adores.


Rand Paul Fires Back at Critics of Civil Rights Act Comments - ABC News

In all honesty, I find the mess they've got in Kentucky completely hilarious.  In a startling case of laxity, the media did not crucify Mr. Paul for his ultra-libertarian views.  He, for example, believes that the government has no right to tell a business that it must serve people of all races.  His belief is that business will naturally do so for economic reasons, but the government has no right to force them.  Not surprisingly, there are a lot of people taking a very large exception to this kind of thinking.  Mr. Paul, predictably, is blaming the "liberal media" and "democratic talking heads" for the sudden, unflattering attention.

Frankly, I think so-called Libertarians are really anything but.  Mr. Paul, for example, wants to make it illegal for a woman to have an abortion, including in cases of rape, incest, or mortal danger.  How is this consistent with the government-stay-out-of-my-business philosophy of the libertarian position?  Furthermore, he stands opposed to legal same-gender marriage.  He talks a good game by saying he's only opposed to it insofar as the government requires it be recognized.  So as long as there are no laws protecting gay marriage, so long as there are no laws requiring the recognition of gay marriage as equal in civil and legal standing to heterosexual marriage, then Rand Paul is completely okay with it.  (riiiiight.)

Basically, the Tea Party darling is showing himself to be no different from any other conservative republican - he believes the government should legislate people's differentness.  Force everyone to conform to a conservative moralistic ideal, and marginalize those who cannot become white, male, Protestant, upper-middle class, gainfully employed, not disabled, not elderly, etc.  For the fortunate people who can conform, they want the government to let them do whatever they want, whenever they want, to whomever they want.  Otherwise, you're out of luck.  Rand Paul is possibly even worse on this score than the standard-issue social conservative, and he's made no apologies for it up to this point.  Now that he's squarely in the national crosshairs, however, he's busy blaming everybody for picking on him and for being great big meanies.  Welcome to the big leagues, Rand Paul.  Hope you enjoy your stay, however (mercifully) brief it will be.


Under the category of Really Cool Science

I think this writing's been on the wall for a while.  It was a matter of when, not if.  But the first synthetic biology experiments have been completed, and were apparently successful.  Follow the link for a writeup at Scientific American:

Man-made Genetic Instructions Yield Living Cells for the First Time: Scientific American

So the big issue here, certain to create all manner of fuss and to-do in religious circles, is that a team of ordinary human scientists were able to build a bacterial genome from scratch by pulling gene sequences out of a genome database, synthesizing the DNA, and then injecting it into a cell that could accept it.  In biological terms, they built the genome of Mycoplasma mycoides via standard chemical synthesis, stitched it together and amplified it in engineered yeast and E. coli cells, and then injected the complete genome into an enucleated Mycoplasma capricolum cell, which went on to behave as an M. mycoides cell as per its synthetic instructions.

Why is this important?

After all, the "only thing" (a nearly incomprehensibly huge thing, but it's still only one thing) the researchers did was make the genome.  Cytoplasm, cell membrane, and cell wall were all "naturally made," a "brainless" cell waiting for instructions.  BUT.  Upon provision of the necessary "brain," the cell carried on with all the necessary functions of life, making proteins and even reproducing like any other naturally occurring bacterium.  That totally mundane thing - a cell that lived - is perhaps the largest achievement ever to hit the annals of biology.  Why?  That team of researchers proved that life is not, in fact, an irreducibly complex, metaphysical thing that is solely the province of God.  They were able to take something totally man-made and use it to make something live.  The implications of that cannot be overstated.

Should they have done it?  I'm inclined to think so.  They went to great lengths to establish sensible protocols - they watermarked their synthetic dna so that it's distinguishable from the natural equivalent, for example, and the PI has been very vocal about demanding ethical discussions as the technology has progressed.  Better to have a group like this do it than a pack of bioterrorists.  There are so many things that we will have to be careful of going forward - the bioweapons potential of this technology is enormous, but the positive potential is just as large.  It's a brave new world, and I'm terribly interested to see where we go next.

Random office hilarity

Colleague 1: My wife and I can't seem to agree where to go on vacation.
Colleague 2: You should go to Bora-Bora.
Colleague 1: Is that really a country? Or is it, I dunno, a cave complex in Afghanistan somewhere?
Office: *blink*


Office hilarity

So, I have a new job.  Right before I started working here, there was a lab fire.  This has led to a sudden INTENSE focus on safety.  We don't even cross the hall without doing a risk analysis just now.  One of the potential hazards that was brought up in the aftermath was the daisy-chaining of power strips in the office areas.  So the guys I share an office with (8 PhD chemists, physicists, and engineers) had the brilliant idea that they would just get REALLY LONG power strips (like six feet long with 30 plugs apiece) to eliminate the daisy chain problem while maintaining a sufficient number of outlets to run all our computers, equipment, the fish tank, etc.  My desk is wedged into a corner, so it's actually on its own (non-daisy-chained) power strip.  The rest of them, however, spent a goodly amount of Friday morning under their desks trying to get everything sorted out, and the dialog was hilarious.  Names changed to protect the guilty.

Tom: I think this'll work; I'll just plug all of these things into this small power strip, and we can use it to pull the cords through the gap between the desks.  Hey maybe we should mount them up somehow, maybe to the underside of the desks, given the tendency of this building to flood when it rains.
Bill:  Hm.  Maybe we could run them on top of the desks, in the gap or something.
Tom: Ooh hey that's a good idea.
Sanjiv: Do you guys REALLY want all 60 cables that will run to these strips ON the desks?  With all of the papers and notebooks and...
Tom: Good point.  Maybe not such a hot idea.
Bill:  We can just run them along the floor for now.
Tom:  Right.  We can mount them up later and call it a "process improvement."
Sanjiv:  And have a committee and a dozen meetings and a stack of process improvement paperwork.  Hey, we could call ourselves "Development" then!
Tom:  Zing!  (We have a mild interlab rivalry with the Development guys and tease them unmercifully about their overly legislated processes.)
Bill:  <Under the desks>  Okay, I think I see how we can divide everything up in a way that makes sense.  I'll just plug this and these and these others into here...
Eric:  WTF?
Tom:  Oops, did we just unplug your computer?
Eric:  Yes?
Bill:  Impossible.  I'm not anywhere near Eric's desk.
Tom:  Wait, but Eric's computer is plugged into that powerstrip that we daisy chained off of the strip under my desk.
Bill:  What?!  What's Eric's computer doing plugged in under your desk?  Sorry, man.
Sanjiv:  I needed the plugs under his desk for the workstation on my desk, because half the plugs under MY desk are running YOUR equipment.
Bill:  ...  This is why we need 30-plug powerstrips.


How curious

I've been finding more and more of my childhood and high school acquaintances on Facebook, and I'm rather surprised that the majority of them are still living in and around the city where we all grew up.  There's a fairly decent concentration in DC, a couple in NYC, but everybody largely stayed pretty close to home.  I'm not sure what to make of that.  It's a city that's not in a good position economically.  It's biggest employers are in real trouble and have laid off significant numbers of the highly educated people that used to fill their research laboratories.  I guess I'm not sure why they (my classmates) stayed.

It's not a bad city.  It doesn't have a high (comparatively) crime rate, and it's a good place to raise a family.  Or it was, anyway, in its heyday.  We all came out of a really good high school; upwards of 70% of the students went to college.  There's nothing stopping them from going anywhere.  I guess I'm just a little mystified that (maybe?) living very close to family trumped other opportunities.  I mean, I'm all in favor of living near family - that's important.  I dunno, I guess I just have the view that living within reasonable driving distance of family is close enough.  My parents have never pressured me to stay close to home; they've always encouraged me to pursue whatever opportunities I have access to.  I've never really felt tied to a place, I suppose.  I suffer from inertia just as much as the next person - once I'm planted somewhere, I prefer to stay there rather than go through the hassle of relocating.  But I don't feel any loyalty to a geographical location, I guess.

I'm rambling.  I suppose, in the final analysis, I wonder what it's like, to feel so tied to place you were raised that you never leave, even if it might be wiser to do so.

Old hurts

I've found a lot of my childhood classmates on Facebook, and they've taken to posting up pictures from that period - birthday parties and the like.  I think I begin to understand why my mother never encouraged me to have birthday parties.

I'm not in any of the pictures.  I'm the only one of us who's not in any of the pictures.

I'm sure none of them would've come even if I'd had a party and invited them.  And it really shouldn't matter.  It's so very long ago that it shouldn't even be on my radar.  Kids will be kids and that's an end to it.  But seeing those old photos brings it all back, and the hurt is just as fresh as it was then.  I missed so much.  Sometimes, I wish I hadn't been the "brainy girl."  I wish I hadn't been blessed with intelligence that made me different.  I wish they hadn't hated me so for my differentness.

And even still, it affects me.  I don't make friends easily.  Oh sure, I'm pleasant enough to be around, but it's rare for me to trust anyone with friendship.  I remember too well overhearing snide, stinging conversations when they laughed together about how they were pretending to be my friends so I would help them with their homework.  I remember the horrible things they said about me when they thought I couldn't hear them.  It makes me somewhat anti-social - I dislike large social gatherings and will generally find any excuse I can muster in order to avoid them.  My wedding day, while it was the happiest day of my life, was the most horrible also.  I was the center of attention all day, and I hated it.  I hated the thought that everyone was watching, passing judgment, and finding me lacking, just like when I was a child.

It shouldn't matter.  I shouldn't let it matter.  But it still matters, and deep down, I'm still that horribly lonely little girl who never got invited to a birthday party.

On figure skating

First of all, congratulations to Evan Lysacek on bringing home the Men's Figure Skating gold for the US!  I watched video of his and Plushenko's performances, and it was very close.  Plushenko had some more difficult elements in his program, but Lysacek was better on the execution of the elements in his program.  The morning after, there's a lot of chatter out there.  There's some praise for Lysacek, his artistry, and his technical excellence, there's a lot of outrage on behalf of sixth-place finisher Johnny Weir, and there's some bitterness on Plushenko's behalf, that his greater degree of athleticism (despite a flawed technical delivery) should've won him the gold.  Elvis Stojko, former Olympic silver medalist for Canada, posted a blistering attack on the new figure skating scoring system, claimed that figure skating is dead, and decided that hockey is now preferable to the men's "ice dance" event.

Mind you, I'm no figure skater.  The extent of my experience on skates is, more years ago than I would like to admit, wobbling unsteadily around the perimeter of a municipal ice rink within easy reach of the wall to prevent spills.  With that disclaimer, I have to say I disagree with Mr. Stojko.  So much of figure skating anymore has been quad jump this and triple axel that.  That's great and all; it's wonderful to see skating athletes pushing the envelope of what's possible on the ice.  However, this is not what figure skating has historically been about.  Before the flashy costumes, choreographed routines, and aerial acrobatics, figure skating was all about precision and technical accuracy.  Until 1968, the major focus of figure skating was the compulsory figures, which were judged by the shape and accuracy of the skater's trace on the ice.  After 1968, the sport became steadily more focused on showmanship in the short program and free skate. 

The new scoring system used in the 2010 Games was designed to minimize subjectivity in judging, which was highlighted in the last Winter Games.  One of the pairs judges admitted to buckling to pressure to rank the Russian pair first despite a pretty clear victory by the Canadian pair.  The result was the current, more complicated, and more technical scoring system.  Difficult elements are worth more, and each element is scored on several technical criteria (jumps take off from the correct edge, spins go a certain number of full rotations, etc.).  This new system takes the sport in a direction that somewhat emphasizes technical superiority over both artistry (a la Johnny Weir) and brute athleticism.  Think of it as more archery than shotput.  If this is the intent of TPTB in figure skating, then it worked.  I think it's a good direction for the sport, and it's a way to rein it in a little while giving it a more focused direction.  Then again, perhaps it's time to think about splitting the sport like Gymnastics.  Athletic gymnastics is all about the flips, jumps, vault, beam, etc., while rhythmic gymnastics is all about artistry, flexibility and dexterity.  Maybe figure skating is due for a similar split, sort of like ice dancing vs. pairs skating.  In any case, using the new scoring system, I think the best guy won last night.  Props to him.


The Threadspinner
How many threads do you weave to make a life? These are mine.

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