Tag Archives: Fast Company

Elsevier and Google; scientific publishing

Due to my interest in communication,  I have from time to time commented or drawn attention to developments in publishing (scientific and otherwise) and ebooks. Earlier this month, Google announced the launch of its ebook store and now Elsevier, a major publisher of scientific, technical, and medical information, has announced that it will be using Google’s ebook store as a new distribution channel. From the Dec. 10, 2010 news item on Nanowerk,

Elsevier, the world-leading publisher of scientific, technical and medical information products and services, announced today that it is participating in the recently launched Google eBooks store by including a large selection of Elsevier’s eBook titles. Elsevier regards Google eBooks as a valuable new distribution channel to increase reach and accessibility of its scientific and professional ebook content in the United States.

“Selling a substantial part of our Science & Technology ebooks through Google eBooks will significantly add to the reach and accessibility of our content,” said Suzanne BeDell, Managing Director of Science & Technology Books at Elsevier. “The platform contains one of the largest ebook collections in the world and is compatible with a wide range of devices such as laptops, smartphones, e-readers and tablets. We are therefore confident that our partnership with Google will prove an important step in reaching our objective to provide universal access to scientific content.”

Presumably ‘adding accessibility’ as BeDell puts it means that the books will be significantly cheaper. (I still remember the shock I experienced at discovering the costs of academic texts. Years later, I am still recovering.)

I’m not sure that buyers will own the ebooks. It is possible for an ebook to be removed without notice if you buy from Amazon as I noted in my Sept. 10, 2010 posting, part 2 of a 3 part series on e-readers.)

If you’re interested in the Google part of the story, here’s an article by E. B. Boyd for Fast Company,

If you stroll on over to your corner bookstore this week and ask the person behind the counter about Google’s new ebookstore, which launches today, you probably won’t be greeted with the kind of teeth-gnashing that has accompanied other digital developments, like Amazon’s online bookstore or the advent of proprietary e-readers. Instead, you might actually be greeted with some excitement and delight. That’s because Google is taking a different approach to selling e-books than Amazon or Barnes & Noble. Rather than create a closed system that leaves others out in the cold, Google is actually partnering with independent bookstores to sell its wares–and share the profits.

There are a few reasons Google is going a different way. The ebookstore emerged from the Google Books program, which didn’t start out as a potential revenue stream. Instead, the company’s book-scanning project was simply a program to help the company fulfill its mission to make all of the world’s information accessible. Since so much information is contained in books, the company wanted to make sure that if you were using Google Search to look for a particular topic, it would be able to point you to books containing information about that topic, in addition to relevant web pages. Then, as Google Books began partnering with publishers and contemplating a program to sell books in addition to just making them searchable, it made a philosophical decision that brick-and-mortar bookstores are critical to the literary ecosystem. “A huge amount of books are bought because people go into a physical bookstore and say, ‘Hey, I want this, I want that,’” Google Books engineering director Dan Clancy told an audience at the Computer History Museum last year.

Here’s a response from some of the bookstore owners (from the article),

Bookstores seem to be cautiously optimistic about the Google program. A person who answered the phone at St. Mark’s Bookshop in New York said, “We’re looking forward to it,” before referring Fast Company to the ABA. “We’re really pleased,” said Mark LaFramboise, a buyer at Washington D.C.’s Politics and Prose. “We’ve been waiting for this for a long time.”

Darin Sennett, director of strategic partnerships at the famous Powell’s book shop in Portland, Oregon, is particularly excited about Google’s technological model. The Kindle, the Nook, and the Sony eReader all use the traditional approach to e-books: They sell DRM-protected files that customers download to devices and which must be read with specific e-reading software. Google, however, is using the cloud. Its e-books will be stored on Google servers, and readers who’ve purchased them will access their books via a browser. [emphasis mine] Unlike in the Kindle system, where Kindle e-books can only be read on Kindle devices, Google e-books will be able to be read on any device that has a browser. Until now, independent bookstores have been effectively shut out of devices like the iPad and smartphones (which are emerging as many customers’ reading platforms of choice) because the e-books available from other distributors were either not compatible with those devices or the formatting was so clunky as to make them effectively unreadable.

Certainly, this sounds a lot better from the bookseller’s and reader’s perspectives. I’m glad to see that people at one of my favourite bookstores (Powell’s) is so enthusiastic but I do note that the books are stored on Google’s servers, which means they can be removed or even altered quite easily. On the plus side, the books can be downloaded in either PDF or ePub format. All in all, bravo!

Phylo and crowdsourcing science by Canadian researchers

Alex Kawrykow and Gary Roumanis from McGill University (Montréal, Québec) have launched Phylo, a genetics game that anyone can play but is actually genetic research. From the article by Neal Ungerleider at the Fast Company website,

The new project, Phylo, was launched by a team at Montreal’s McGill University on November 29. Players are allowed to recognize and sort human genetic code that’s displayed in a Tetris-like format. Phylo, which runs in Flash, allows users to parse random genetic codes or to tackle DNA patterns related to real diseases. In a random game, a user found himself assigned to DNA portions linked to exudative vitreoretinopathy 4 and vesicoureteral reflux 2.

Players choose from a variety of categories such as digestive system diseases, heart diseases, brain diseases and cancer. All the DNA portions in the game are linked to different diseases. Once completed, they are analyzed and stored in a database; McGill intends to use players’ results in the game to optimize future genetic research.

This reminds me of Foldit (mentioned in my Aug. 6, 2010 posting) another multiplayer online biology-type game; that time the focus was protein folding. As Ungerleider notes in his article, gaming is being used in education, advertising, and media. I’ll add this,  it’s also being used for military training.

I was interested to note that the McGill game was made possible by these agencies,

* Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada
* McGill School of Computer Science
* McGill Centre for Bioinformatics
* McGill Computational Structural Biology Group

On a side note, there’s another biology-type game called Phylo, it’s a trading card game designed by David Ng, a professor at the University of British Columbia. From the Phylo, trade card game About page,

What is this phylo thing? (Some interesting but relatively specific FAQs here)

Well, it’s an online initiative aimed at creating a Pokemon card type resource but with real creatures on display in full “artistic” wonder. Not only that – but we plan to have the scientific community weigh in to determine the content on such cards, as well as folks who love gaming to try and design interesting ways to use the cards. Then to top it all off, members of the teacher community will participate to see whether these cards have educational merit. Best of all, the hope is that this will all occur in a non-commercial-open-access-open-source-because-basically-this-is-good-for-you-your-children-and-your-planet sort of way.

The Phylo, trading card game is in Beta (for those not familiar with the term beta, it means the game is still being tested, so there may be ‘bugs’).

It’s nice to be able to report on some innovative Canadian crowdsourcing science.

Rare earths, China, and Nanosys

There’s been some discussion recently about rare earths in the light of tensions between China and Japan. Here’s a brief description of rare earths for anyone who’s not certain what they are, from the Wikipedia essay on rare earths,

… rare earth elements or rare earth metals are a collection of seventeen chemical elements in the periodic table, namely scandium, yttrium, and the fifteen lanthanides.

Despite their name, rare earth elements (with the exception of the highly unstable promethium) are relatively plentiful in the Earth’s crust, with cerium being the 25th most abundant element at 68 parts per million (similar to copper). However, because of their geochemical properties, rare earth elements are not often found in concentrated and economically exploitable forms, generally called rare earth minerals. It was the very scarcity of these minerals (previously called “earths”) that led to the term “rare earth”

Here’s what started the tensions (from the NY Times article by Keith Bradsher),

Chinese customs officials abruptly halted the processing of paperwork for shipments bound for Japan on Sept. 21 [2010]. The shipments were halted during an acrimonious dispute over Japan’s detention of a Chinese fishing trawler that rammed two Japanese coast guard vessels two weeks earlier near islands long controlled by Japan but claimed by China.

Here’s why they’re so important,

Rare earths are vital to the production of a wide range of industrial products, including automobiles, glass, oil refining, computers, smartphones, wind turbines and flat-screen televisions. The military needs them for missiles, sonar systems and the range finders of tanks.

Here are some of the consequences of the ban,

Many factories in China assemble products that require high-tech components from Japan that use rare earths. Some of these factories, which employ large numbers of workers in China, have begun running low on components as Japanese suppliers ran short on some of the more obscure rare earths needed to manufacture them, two rare earth industry executives said.

Electronics industries have been affected, particularly camera manufacturers, leading to a desperate scramble for raw materials that has even included buying tons of obscure rare earth compounds from corporate stockpiles in Europe and airlifting them to Japan.

All 32 of the authorized rare earth exporters in China have refused to increase their shipments to other countries during the unannounced ban on shipments to Japan, making it difficult for Japanese traders to obtain supplies indirectly.

As a result of the blocked shipments, some rare earths now cost up to 10 times as much outside China as inside; the Chinese government has started a vigorous campaign to prevent this from leading to smuggling.

Brasher’s article is very interesting and I do recommend reading all of it.

There has been one other consequence to this concern over a dependency on China’s rare earths (excerpted from the Nov. 23, 2010 article by Ariel Schwartz on Fast Company),

There’s just one problem: The metals are only found in high concentrations in a few sites in China, the U.S., and Australia–and China has threatened to stop exporting its supply. But instead of expanding rare earth metal mines, what if we look for more sustainable replacements?

Enter Nanosys, a company that offers process-ready materials for the LED and energy-storage markets, among other things. Nanosys has been thinking about rare earth material shortages for years, which is why the company manufactures synthetic phosphors out of common materials–not the rare earth materials (i.e. yttrium) usually used in phosphors.

“We make a semiconductor phosphor that employs a nanomaterial called a quantum dot,” explains Nanosys CEO Jason Hartlove. “It’s made out of indium phosphide and phosphorous, and the synthesis process is all in the lab. There’s no heavy metal mining, no destructive mining practices.”

Nanosys’s QuantumRail LED backlighting device is made out of quantum dots, which can purportedly generate brighter and richer colors than their rare earth metal counterparts–all while delivering a higher efficiency and lower cost.

I don’t know how close they are to producing these quantum dots in industrial quantities but the appeal of a process that lessens dependency on resources that have to be mined and/or be used to apply political pressure is undeniable. If you’re interested, you can visit the Nanosys website here.

(They talk about ‘architected’ materials. I view that word with the same enthusiasm I have for ‘impactful’. These people should never be allowed to invent another word, ever again.)

UNESCO, science, and nanotechnology?

It’s funny how you can forget that acronyms are in fact abbreviations and that UNESCO, which I associate with children and culture [ETA Nov. 29, 2010: I appear to have briefly conflated this organization with UNICEF which focuses on children], stands for United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. [emphasis mine] I was reminded of the science part of their mandate with the recent news of a new award. From the Nov. 4, 2010 news item on Azonano,

The first UNESCO Medals “For contributions to the development of nanoscience and nanotechnologies” were awarded on 2 November at Paris headquarters to two laureates: Russian Academician Zhores Ivanovich Alferov, winner of the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physics; and Chunli Bai, Professor of Chemistry at the Laboratory of Molecular Nanostructure and Nanotechnology in Beijing and Executive Vice-President of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

The information (accompanied by a photograph featuring Irina Bokova [UNESCO Director-General] and Zhores Alferov [recipient able to attend in person])  is also available as a news item on the Nanowerk website. The reason this new medal/award has been established isn’t entirely clearly to me despite this description (from the news items),

The Medal was established at the initiative of the International Commission responsible for developing the Nanoscience and Nanotechnologies theme for the Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems (EOLSS)* published by UNESCO and EOLSS Publishers. This initiative was supported by the Russian Federation’s Permanent Delegation to UNESCO. The EOLSS constitutes one of the world’s biggest web-based archives as a trans-disciplinary science base for sustainable development.

Yesterday (November 10, 2010), UNESCO released its UNESCO Science Report; The Current Status of Science Around the World for 2010. This is the fifth report in the series with the next most recent report in the series being released in 2005. From the UNESCO website page for the report,

Europe, Japan and the USA (the Triad) may still dominate research and development (R&D) but they are increasingly being challenged by the emerging economies and above all by China. This is just one of the findings of the UNESCO Science Report 2010, which is being launched at UNESCO headquarters in Paris today [Nov. 10, 2010].

Written by a team of independent experts who are each covering the country or region from which they hail, the UNESCO Science Report 2010 analyses the trends and developments that have shaped scientific research, innovation and higher education over the past five years, including the impact of the current global economic recession, which has hit the Triad harder than either Brazil, China or India. The report depicts an increasingly competitive environment, one in which the flow of information, knowledge, personnel and investment has become a two-way traffic. Both China and India, for instance, are using their newfound economic might to invest in high-tech companies in Europe and elsewhere to acquire technological expertise overnight. Other large emerging economies are also spending more on research and development than before, among them Brazil, Mexico, South Africa and Turkey.

If more countries are participating in science, we are also seeing a shift in global influence. China is a hair’s breadth away from counting more researchers than either the USA or the European Union, for instance, and now publishes more scientific articles than Japan.

Even countries with a lesser scientific capacity are finding that they can acquire, adopt and sometimes even transform existing technology and thereby ‘leapfrog’ over certain costly investments, such as infrastructure like land lines for telephones. Technological progress is allowing these countries to produce more knowledge and participate more actively than before in international networks and research partnerships with countries in both North and South. This trend is fostering a democratization of science worldwide. In turn, science diplomacy is becoming a key instrument of peace-building and sustainable development in international relations.

I found the report thanks to Jenara Nerenberg’s article, USA to Soon Trail Developing Countries in R&D, Asia on the Rise: UNESCO Report, on the Fast Company website,

The United States has decreased its research and development (R&D) prowess and is increasingly threatened by the scientific capabilities and innovations of developing countries like India and China, indicates a UNESCO report released today. The UNESCO Science Report reveals that Asia has increased its global share of R&D to 32%, up from 27% in 2002, and the global share of R&D out of the EU, Japan, and the U.S. combined has decreased from 83% to 76%, though they remain the leader in number of yearly patents initiated.

The news is in line with recent Fast Company reporting about the decline of America’s competitiveness and dwindling quality of math and science education, as well as emerging “South-South” collaborations between India and African nations, especially in infrastructure development and vaccine research.The changing trends point to the ever-increasing role of India and China and to some extent South Africa in providing the world with leading scientific and technological discoveries.

Canada is also covered in the report. The author, Paul Dufour, is a Canadian science policy expert as per this contributor biography on The Mark website,

Mr. Dufour was most recently based at Natural Resources Canada, on executive interchange from the Canadian-based International Development Research Centre. He was previously the interim Executive Director at the former Office of the National Science Advisor in the federal Government advising on international S&T matters and broad questions of R&D directions for the country. He has a rich experience in addressing the interaction between science and international relations, especially in the context of research capacity with the developing world.

He has travelled extensively; he lectures regularly on science policy; he has authored numerous articles on international S&T relations and Canadian innovation policy. He is series co-editor of the Cartermill Guides to World Science and past North American editor to Outlook on Science Policy.

I have glanced through the report and it notes that Canada provides excellent support and gets correspondingly good results for academic science and that the practice of science research in the industrial sector is poorly supported by Canadian business interests (sometimes termed as a lack of business innovation). Happily, he does discuss the poverty of ‘science culture’  in Canada, albeit briefly,

Developing a science culture

In addition to the pursuit of priority-setting and the examination of its appropriate place in shaping future public policy and investment in innovation and R&D, other debates are emerging. These are centred on improving the science culture and outreach in the country, including by augmenting the participation of women and the Aboriginal population in the knowledge society (Dufour, 2009). Women account for 47% of the labour force and 57% of university graduates but only 20% of doctoral degrees awarded in science and engineering. Some of the responsibility for Canada’s deteriorating appreciation of the value of knowledge centres on its lack of a science culture in its widest form, both in the political realm and among certain segments of the population and research community. There is an antagonism here between what some have termed a ‘politically clueless research community versus a scientifically illiterate political class’. A Science Media Centre has been proposed to improve science communication within the media. Efforts are also under way at various science centres and museums across the country to strengthen public understanding. Events include a National Science and Technology Week and a major physics festival organized by the Perimeter Institute. Some provinces, especially in Quebec, have long-standing traditions and tools in support of science outreach, given the promotion of science in the French language. Overall, however, the science culture gap remains. The scientific communities must share some of the responsibility for this. Often poorly organized, with limited means of outreach and inadequate communication tools, the research lobbies are increasingly faced with having to make a better case for why the future of the country lies with more, rather than less, research and technology – innovation in its broadest sense.

The private sector is also struggling to be more effective in articulating its own needs and concerns over the lack of necessary resources and strategic vision. (p. 74, print & PDF)

I have a few nits to pick but not the time to do it. If you are interested, this chapter on Canada’s science provides a good overview of the national situation and how that compares globally.

Canadian R & D funding review and intellectual property as the Coalition for Action on Innovation in Canada

Rob Annan at the Don’t leave Canada behind blog has issued kudos along with some measured comments about the government’s Oct. 14, 2010 announcement of an expert panel to discuss ideas for greater Canadian business innovation and to review Canada’s research and development (R&D) funding for business,

“Through this panel, our government is taking action to improve its support for innovation and to ensure that investments are effective for Canadian businesses and workers,” said Minister of State Goodyear. “We are committed to helping Canadian businesses acquire the tools they need to grow and create new jobs; this panel will help achieve that goal.”

“Canadian business spends less per capita on research and development, innovation and commercialization than most other industrialized countries, despite the Government of Canada investing more than $7 billion annually to encourage business R&D,” said Minister Blackburn [Jean-Pierre Blackburn, Minister of Veteran Affairs and Minister of State Agriculture (Quebec)]. “This review will help provide recommendations on how the government can bolster Canadian businesses, create jobs and bring new ideas into the market place for the benefit of all Canadians.”

The panel will conduct a comprehensive review of all existing federal support for business R&D to see how this support could be enhanced to make sure federal investments are effective and delivering maximum results for Canadians.

The Research and Development Review Expert Panel is composed of six eminent Canadians chosen for their experience in business, academia and government as well as their knowledge of R&D and innovation practices and policies.

The panel’s chair, Thomas Jenkins, is Executive Chairman and Chief Strategy Officer of Open Text. The other panel members are Dr. Bev Dahlby of the University of Alberta, Dr. Arvind Gupta of the University of British Columbia, Mrs. Monique F. Leroux of the Desjardins Group, Dr. David Naylor of the University of Toronto and Mrs. Nobina Robinson of Polytechnics Canada.

I’m not familiar with anyone on the panel although I have heard of Open Text and the Desjardins Group.

Rob notes, a type of research which has been excluded from the review, in his Oct. 15, 2010 posting,

So, basic research funding through the tricouncil will be untouched by the review. Which is good, since that isn’t where the problems in our innovation pipeline are to be found (there may well be all sorts of problems with basic research funding, but that’s a task for another panel…). It’s in effective knowledge transfer and business R&D where the problems seem to lie. [emphases mine]

As per Don’t leave Canada behind, a group of business people headed up by John Manley and Paul Lucas, Coalition for Action on Innovation in Canada, announced on October 14, 2010 (the same day as the expert panel was announced) a plan with recommendations to achieve the same goals. (You can download the plan from here.) From Rob’s posting,

A coalition of Canadian business leaders and high-profile academic administrators is working to frame the discussion. The blue-chip membership released a set of recommendations yesterday (the timing not coincidental) for how it wants the government to act. My sense is that their plan includes too much of “more of the same” recommendations – expanding SRED, expanding tax credits for innovation investment – rather than any really innovative ideas.

Like Rob, I too took a very quick look at the plan. I agree that there’s a lot of the ‘same old, same old’ recommendations and what popped out for me was the insistence on this,

Adopt the world’s strongest intellectual property regime.

A robust climate for innovation is only possible if Canada’s regulatory processes encourage the development and launch of innovative products and if our laws ensure that inventors and those who invest in their ideas can fairly reap the rewards of their work. Canada should aim for a reputation as the best place in the world in which to research, develop and bring to market new products and processes. To achieve that goal, it is imperative that Canada seize current opportunities to improve its protection of intellectual property and thereby create a more attractive environment for investment in innovation. Beyond legal and regulatory changes, businesses need consistent, timely and relevant treatment of intellectual property developed at post-secondary institutions. IP policies at institutions and granting agencies, including those dealing with disclosure and licensing, must facilitate collaborative research and encourage innovation. The business and academic sectors should launch a national dialogue aimed at creating a clear and consistent framework for IP agreements between individual companies and institutions.

The word ‘strongest’ in these contexts tends to be a synonym for control by whichever interest holds the patent. Heavy (strong?) control over IP (intellectual property) will mean less innovation and competition. Take for example India and its anti-retroviral drugs (my posting of Oct. 1, 2010 featuring an excerpt from Jenara Nerenberg’s article on the Fast Company website),

… The massive, low-cost ARV [anti-retrovirus] production industry in India has been made possible by the country’s patent laws. “Indian laws did not grant patents on a product, but only on a process to make it, which helped its drug firms to make cheaper versions and improved formulations using alternative methods,” SciDev.net reports.

But not everyone in the world sees those laissez faire patent laws as a good thing. India is in ongoing discussions with the World Trade Organization and the EU, but there is fear that increased patent requirements may dismantle the country’s thriving ARV production industry.

Note the difference between ‘strong’ and ‘laissez faire’ and the results in India. Personally, I’d like to see the world’s most balanced and flexible IP regime.  If you have ideas about what you’d like to see considered in the review or recommendations of your own, check out Rob’s blog and contribute to his comments section where you’ll find some of my comments (once they’re moderated).

Robots, pain, and dance

There was a time many years ago when I knew and interacted with a lot of dancers (mostly in the modern genre) and they often talked about pain. It seems to be a feature of any field where you push your body, e.g., sports, dance, combat, etc. This is somewhat unrelated to the post I’d planned on robots and pain but, this morning I found some information on robots and dance in addition to the previous material on pain and that old memory about dancers and pain popped up out of nowhere.

The article which started this ball rolling in the first place is by Kit Eaton for Fast Company and is titled, Why Robots Are Learning Our Pain Threshold (from the article),

How do you teach a robot how not to hurt humans? Train one to hit someone in an experiment, to find our pain limit. Sounds infinitely sensible, doesn’t it? Until you remember your dystopian sci-fi and consider the implications. [emphasis mine]

The robot experiments are taking place at the lab of Professor Borut Povse in Slovenia. (Yes, he is probably well aware that he sounds like a Bond villain.) He’s been thinking about the future of human-machine interactions, when our daily lives involve working much more closely with robots than we do now. …

Povse spotted a key problem with this scenario: Machines don’t know how much energy in any given impact would result in pain to a person. Or to put it in laymen’s terms, robots don’t know their own strength. Hence he came up with an experiment to solve the problem. Somewhere in Solvenia there’s a robot punching volunteers at a variety of energies, with blunt or sharper “hammers,” so it can work out where the pain threshold is.

The plan is to use the data to inform the design of robots that will operate in close proximity to humans, so that they don’t make sudden movements with too much energy.

As Eaton goes on to note, robots could also be used to hurt/torture in very precise ways that could evade detection. These ethical issues are raised in the article with a suggestion that ethical issues around another ‘robotic programme’, the Predator drone programme (Predator drones are remotely controlled, unmanned planes) have not been handled as well as they could be. Eaton specifically cites an article by Jane Mayer for The New Yorker Magaine (The Predator War; What are the risks of the C.I.A.’s covert drone program?). If you’re interested in these kinds of issues please do read the article. As I don’t want to copy Mayer’s entire piece into this posting I’m going to focus on the pragmatic aspects of the problems  discussed (from the article),

David Kilcullen, a counter-insurgency warfare expert who has advised General David Petraeus in Iraq, has said that the propaganda costs of drone attacks have been disastrously high. Militants have used the drone strikes to denounce the Zardari government—a shaky and unpopular regime—as little more than an American puppet. A study that Kilcullen co-wrote for the Center for New American Security, a think tank, argues, “Every one of these dead non-combatants represents an alienated family, a new revenge feud, and more recruits for a militant movement that has grown exponentially even as drone strikes have increased.” His co-writer, Andrew Exum, a former Army Ranger who has advised General Stanley McChrystal in Afghanistan, told me, “Neither Kilcullen nor I is a fundamentalist—we’re not saying drones are not part of the strategy. But we are saying that right now they are part of the problem. If we use tactics that are killing people’s brothers and sons, not to mention their sisters and wives, we can work at cross-purposes with insuring that the tribal population doesn’t side with the militants. Using the Predator is a tactic, not a strategy.”

Exum says that he’s worried by the remote-control nature of Predator warfare. “As a military person, I put myself in the shoes of someone in FATA”—Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas—“and there’s something about pilotless drones that doesn’t strike me as an honorable way of warfare,” he said. [emphasis mine] “As a classics major, I have a classical sense of what it means to be a warrior.” An Iraq combat veteran who helped design much of the military’s doctrine for using unmanned drones also has qualms. He said, “There’s something important about putting your own sons and daughters at risk when you choose to wage war as a nation. We risk losing that flesh-and-blood investment if we go too far down this road.”

It seems to me that from a practical perspective, the use of drones (according to the military strategists quoted in the article) is turning neutral parties into hostile parties at a greater rate than standard warfare tactics would accomplish. At least one of these advisors is also implying that the morale of the parties using the drones is at risk if the means of warfare (the drones) are viewed as less than honourable.

On a possibly less disturbing note, Kit Eaton has another Fast Company article, Robots Dance Their Way Into Uncanny Valley, Next Stop: Your Heart, about a recent demonstration of the HRP-C4 robot. From the article,

Now rewind it, squint a little, and watch again: You’ll almost be able to mistake the ‘bot for one of the real dancers on the stage. Uncanny valley, ladies and gentlemen–HRP4C is busy dancing her way in here, and if the trend continues we can imagine future HRPx units dancing out the other side with a realism and finesse that may even be enough to move you emotionally if you saw them performing live.

Here’s one of the videos available (you can find at least one more on YouTube) but this gives you the best grasp of the ‘uncanny valley’,

For those who like definitions, here’s one for ‘uncanny valley’ from a Wikipedia essay,

The uncanny valley is a hypothesis regarding the field of robotics.[2] The theory holds that when robots and other facsimiles of humans look and act almost like actual humans, it causes a response of revulsion among human observers. The “valley” in question is a dip in a proposed graph of the positivity of human reaction as a function of a robot’s lifelikeness.

I think that’s enough for robots and disturbing thoughts about ethics and ‘uncanny valleys’.

Graphene, the Nobel Prize, and levitating frogs

As you may have heard, two  scientists (Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov) who performed groundbreaking research on graphene [Nov. 29, 2010: I corrected this entry Nov. 26, 2010 which originally stated that these researchers discovered graphene] have been awarded the 2010 Nobel Prize for Physics. In honour of their award, the journal, Nature Materials, is giving free access to  a 2007 article authored by the scientists. From the news item on Nanowerk,

The 2007 landmark article in Nature Materials “The rise of graphene” by the just announced winners of the 2010 Nobel prize in physics, Andre Geim and Kosta Novoselov, has now been made available as a free access article.


Graphene is a rapidly rising star on the horizon of materials science and condensed-matter physics. This strictly two-dimensional material exhibits exceptionally high crystal and electronic quality, and, despite its short history, has already revealed a cornucopia of new physics and potential applications, which are briefly discussed here.

Here’s a description of the scientists and their work from the BBC News article by Paul Rincon,

Prof Geim, 51, is a Dutch national while Dr Novoselov, 36, holds British and Russian citizenship. Both are natives of Russia and started their careers in physics there.

The Nobels are valued at 10m Swedish kronor (£900,000; 1m euros; $1.5m).

They first worked together in the Netherlands before moving to the UK. They were based at the University of Manchester when they published their groundbreaking research paper on graphene in October 2004.

Dr Novoselov is among the youngest winners of a prize that normally goes to scientists with decades of experience.

Graphene is a form of carbon. It is a flat layer of carbon atoms tightly packed into a two-dimensional honeycomb arrangement.

Because it is so thin, it is also practically transparent. As a conductor of electricity it performs as well as copper, and as a conductor of heat it outperforms all other known materials.

The unusual electronic, mechanical and chemical properties of graphene at the molecular scale promise ultra-fast transistors for electronics.

Some scientists have predicted that graphene could one day replace silicon – which is the current material of choice for transistors.

It could also yield incredibly strong, flexible and stable materials and find applications in transparent touch screens or solar cells.

Geim and Novoselov first isolated fine sheets of graphene from the graphite which is widely used in pencils.

A layer of graphite 1mm thick actually consists of three million layers of graphene stacked on top of one another.

The technique that Geim and Novoselov used to create the first graphene sheets both amuses and fascinates me (from the article by Kit Eaton on the Fast Company website),

The two scientists came up with the technique that first resulted in samples of graphene–peeling individual atoms-deep sheets of the material from a bigger block of pure graphite. The science here seems almost foolishly simple, but it took a lot of lateral thinking to dream up, and then some serious science to investigate: Geim and Novoselo literally “ripped” single sheets off the graphite by using regular adhesive tape. Once they’d confirmed they had grabbed micro-flakes of the material, Geim and Novoselo were responsible for some of the very early experiments into the material’s properties. Novel stuff indeed, but perhaps not so unexpected from a scientist (Geim) who the Nobel Committe notes once managed to make a frog levitate in a magnetic field.

I’ll get to the levitating frog in a minute but first the bit about using regular adhesive tape to peel off single sheets only atoms thick of graphite from a larger block of the stuff reminds me of how scientists at Northwestern University are using shrinky dinks (a child’s craft material) to create large scale nanopatterns cheaply (my Aug. 16, 2010 posting).

It’s reassuring to me that despite all of the high tech equipment that costs the earth, scientists still use fairly mundane, inexpensive objects to do some incredibly sophisticated work. The other thing I find reassuring is that Novoselov probably was not voted ‘most likely to be awarded a Nobel Prize’. Interestingly, Novoselov’s partner, Geim, was not welcomed into a physics career with open arms. From the news item on physoorg.com,

Konstantin Novoselov, the Russian-born physicist who shared this year’s Nobel prize, struggled with physics as a student and was awarded a handful of B grades, his university said Wednesday.

The Moscow Physics and Technology University (MFTI) posted report cards on its website for Novoselov, who at 36 won the Nobel prize for physics with his research partner Andre Geim.

The reports reveal that he gained a handful of B grades in his term reports for theoretical and applied physics from 1991 to 1994.

He was also not strong on physical education — a compulsory subject at Russian universities — gaining B grades. And while he now lives in Britain, he once gained a C grade for English.

The university also revealed documents on Nobel prize winner Geim, who studied at the same university from 1976 to 1982. His brilliant academic career was only marred by a few B-grades for Marxist political economy and English.

Geim was turned down when he applied first to another Moscow university specialising in engineering and physics, and worked as a machinist at a factory making electrical instruments for eight months.

Given the increasing emphasis on marks, in Canadian universities at least, I noticed that Novoselov was not a straight-A student. As for Geim, it seems the fact that his father was German posed a problem. (You can find more details in the physorg.com article.)

As for levitating frogs, I first found this information in particle physicist Jon Butterworth’s October 5, 2010 posting on his Guardian blog,

Geim is also well known (or as his web page puts it “notorious”) for levitating frogs. This is a demonstration of the peculiar fact that all materials have some magnetism, albeit very weak in most cases, and that if you put them in a high enough magnetic field you can see the effects – and make them fly.

Why frogs? Well, no frogs were harmed in the experiments. But also, magnetism is a hugely important topic in physics that can seem a little dry to students …

I hunted down a video of the levitating frog on youtube,

As a particle physicist, Butterworth notes that the graphene work is outside his area of expertise so if you’re looking for a good, general explanation with some science detail added in for good measure, I’d suggest reading his succinct description.

Goats, spider silk, and silkworms

A few years ago (2008), I attended the Cascadia Nanotech Symposium organized by the now defunct, Nanotech BC (British Columbia, Canada) and heard Dr. Frank Ko speak. He is a Canada Research Chair at the University of British Columbia (UBC) who leads the Advanced Fibrous Materials Laboratory and, in his talk, he mentioned that he had added spider genes to goats with the intention of easing the process of spinning goat’s milk thereby exploiting spider silk’s properties.

I’m never especially comfortable about mixing genes between species that, as far as I know, would never have occasion to mingle their genetic material together. It’s a little too close to ‘The Isle of Dr. Moreau’ (Victor Hugo’s novel which I have never read but have heard about). But there were people who had some similar concerns about electricity, which I take for granted, violating the natural order of things as per Carolyn Marvin’s book, When old technologies were new. Consequently, I’m willing to think about it but not terribly happy to do it.

Getting back to spider silk and Dr. Ko’s work, he and others are very interested in exploiting the strength inherent in spider silk. Here’s a description of that strength from an article by David Zax on Fast Company,

Oftentimes, nature is better at building stuff than we are. Spider silk is an example. The tiny threads spun by our eight-legged friends has a tensile strength comparable to high-grade steel. If humans could harness the spider and turn it into a manufacturing agent, the industrial and commercial potentials could be immense. One problem, though: Spidey hasn’t been cooperating. Spiders just don’t spin the stuff in great quantities, and there is no commercially viable way of mass-producing spider silk.

In looking at Dr. Ko’s webpage I see that adding a spider gene to goats may have been his solution to the problem of producing more spider silk (and perhaps other issues as well),

An internationally recognized expert in 3-D complex fiber architecture for structural toughening of composites Professor Ko’s pioneering work on the development of continuous nanocomposite fibrils by co-electrospinning has provided a new pathway to connect nanomaterials to macrostructural design. With an objective to understand the structural basis for the outstanding combination of strength and toughness in spider silk Professor Ko has played a leading role in the study of nanocomposite fibrils from recombinant spider silk. It was demonstrated that 10X increase in strength and 5X increase in modulus were attainable with the addition of 1-3 weight % of carbon nanotube to the recombinant spider silk. Research has been extended to various filler geometry that include graphite nanoplatelet (GNP); nanoparticles such as nanodiamonds and various functional particles.

Zax’s article highlights a different approach to producing greater quantities of spider silk,

There is, however, already a silkworm industry, which yields most of the silk–less strong than the spider’s–that we’re familiar with. A few scientists got a bright idea: what if you could make the silkworm, which is already equipped for industry, spin spider silk?

Notre Dame, the University of Wyoming, and Kraig Biocraft Laboratories, Inc. joined heads, and recently announced that they had succeeded in genetically engineering silkworms so that they produce artificial spider silks. Several biologists teamed up to splice certain DNA from spiders into the genomes of silkworms. The altered silkworms now spin cocoons that are a mixture of silkworm silk and spider silk. Though the tensile strength of the altered silk still falls well short of that of pure spider silk, it’s a step in the right direction.

I can certainly see benefits to this but I sometimes wonder if humans have enough humility and foresight as we embark on ever more subtle manipulations of life.

ETA October 29, 2010: If you are interested in the goat/spider issue, take a look at Andrew Manard’s October 27, 2010 posting on his 2020 Science blog. He’s running a poll on the question,

… why not take the gene responsible for making spider silk, and splice it into a goat [to produce more spider silk]?

Be sure to take a look at the comments, if you’re interested in the history of the technique, which apparently stretches back to the 1950s!

Patents and innovation; should Canada take its cue from India?

Anti-retroviral drugs are invaluable therapy for  AIDS patients and the world is dependent on India for a cheap supply of the drugs. According to an article (Indian Trade Agreements Could Choke AIDS Drug Lifeline) by Jenara Nerenberg on the Fast Company website, this access could be jeopardized,

India is the primary supplier of anti-retroviral (ARVs) AIDS drugs in middle and low-income countries. And a report from the Journal of the International AIDS Society reveals just how catastrophic it would be if somehow that supply were to get cut off due to political, trade, or disaster-related causes: In some countries, up to 90% of children with AIDS are dependent on India’s cheap, generic drugs.

… The massive, low-cost ARV production industry in India has been made possible by the country’s patent laws. “Indian laws did not grant patents on a product, but only on a process to make it, which helped its drug firms to make cheaper versions and improved formulations using alternative methods,” SciDev.net reports. [emphasis mine]

But not everyone in the world sees those laissez faire patent laws as a good thing. India is in ongoing discussions with the World Trade Organization and the EU, but there is fear that increased patent requirements may dismantle the country’s thriving ARV production industry.

Interesting that a demand to patent products would mean less competition. If India’s experience with anti-retroviral drugs is any indicator, while patenting products gives you more patents (handy when countries are comparing scientific leadership by measuring the number of patents [amongst other criteria] that have been filed) patenting a process leads to more competition or should we call it innovation.

If there’s interest in innovation/competition (something the Canadian politicians and government agencies are very concerned about stimulating) then, I think Canada should look to India and its experience with anti-retroviral drugs for inspiration.

E-readers: musings on publishing and the word (part 3 of 3)

Let’s add a comment from a writer, notably William Gibson in an interview with the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) prior to the launch of his latest book, Zero History.

William Gibson in a Sept.6, 2010 interview with Steven Kurutz for the WSJ blog, Speakeasy,

Will you mourn the loss of the physical book if eBooks become the dominant format?

It doesn’t fill me with quite the degree of horror and sorrow that it seems to fill many of my friends. For one thing, I don’t think that physical books will cease to be produced. But the ecological impact of book manufacture and traditional book marketing –- I think that should really be considered. We have this industry in which we cut down trees to make the paper that we then use enormous amounts of electricity to turn into books that weigh a great deal and are then shipped enormous distances to point-of-sale retail. Often times they are remained or returned, using double the carbon footprint. And more electricity is used to pulp them and turn them into more books. If you look at it from a purely ecological point of view, it’s crazy.

Gibson goes on to suggest that the perfect scenario would feature bookstores displaying one copy of each book being offered for sale. Prospective readers would be able to view the book and purchase their own copy through a print-on-demand system. He does not speculate about any possible role for e-books.

For a contrasting approach from writers, let’s take Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear and other members of the Mongoliad novel/project which is being written/conducted online.  I’m inferring from the publicity and written material on the Mongoliad website that these writers, artists, and others are experimenting with new business and storytelling models in the face of a rapidly changing publishing and reading environment. I’ve posted about Mongoliad here (Sept.7,2010) and here (May 31,2010).

Edward Picot at The Hyperliterature Exchange has written a substantive essay, It’s Literature Jim… but not as we know i: Publishing and the Digital Revolution, which explores this topic from the perspective of someone who’s been heavily involved in the debate for many years. From the Picot essay,

It seems we may finally be reaching the point where ebooks are going to pose a genuine challenge to print-and-paper. Amazon have just announced that Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has become the first ebook to sell more than a million copies; and also that they are now selling more copies of ebooks than books in hardcover. [emphasis mine]

As for more proof as to how much things are changing, the folks who produce the Oxford English Dictionary (the 20 volume version) have announced that the 1989 edition may have been the last print edition. From Dan Nosowitz’s article on the Fast Company website,

The Oxford English Dictionary, currently a 20 volume, 750-pound monstrosity, has been the authoritative word on the words of the English language for 126 years. The OED3, the first new edition since 1989, may also be the first to forgo print entirely, reports the AP.

Nigel Portwood, chief executive of the Oxford University Press (isn’t that the perfect name for him?), says online revenue has been so high that it is highly unlikely that the third edition of the OED will be physically printed. The full 20-volume set costs $995 at Amazon, and of course it requires supplementals regularly to account for valuable words like “bootylicious.”

Meanwhile the Shifted Librarian weighs in by comparing her Kindle experience with a print book in a September 7, 2010 posting,

I knew my desire to share con­tent was the prime dri­ver of the for­mat I was choos­ing, but I didn’t real­ize how quickly it was shift­ing in the oppo­site direc­tion. I now want to share one-to-many, not one-to-one, and I just don’t have the time or resources to tran­scribe every­thing I want to share. It makes me sad to look at that long list of print books I’ve read over the past year that I likely won’t share here because I can’t copy and paste.

Jenny (The Shifted Librarian) ends her essay with this,

Of course, your mileage may vary, but I think I’ve finally crossed over to the ebook side. I’ll have to go to book­stores and the library just to touch new books for old time’s sake. Only time will tell if there’s a “fea­ture” of print books that can draw me back. My rea­sons for con­vert­ing are def­i­nitely an edge case, and I haven’t been a heavy user of print resources in libraries in quite some time, but I can’t help but won­der how this type of shift will affect libraries. I see more and more eread­ers on my com­mute every day.

I was on the bus today and was struck by how many people were reading books and newspapers but I’m not drawing any serious conclusions from my informal survey. I think the lack of e-books, tablets and their ilk may be a consequence of the Canadian market where we tend to get digital devices after they’ve been on the US market for a while and when we get them, we pay more.

Despite all the discussion about e-books and tablets, I think what it comes down to is whether or not people are going to continue reading and, if we do , whether we”ll be reading the same way. Personally, I think there’ll be less reading. After all, literacy isn’t a given and with more and more icons (e.g., signage in airports, pedestrian walk signals, your software programmes, etc.) taking the place that once was occupied by written words then, why would we need to learn to read? In the last year, I’ve seen science journal abstracts (which used to be text only) that are graphical, i.e.,  text illustrated with images.  Plus there’s been a resurgence of radio online and other audio products (rap, spoken word poets, podcasts, etc.) which hints at a greater investment in oral culture in the future.

These occurrences and others suggest to me that a massive change is underway. If you need any more proof, there’s Arthur Sulzburger Jr.’s admission at the recent International Newsroom Summit held in London England (from the Sept.8, 2010 article by Steve Huff in the New York Observer Daily Transom),

During a talk at the International Newsroom Summit held in London, Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. admitted that “we will stop printing the New York Times sometime in the future,” but, said Sulzberger, that date is “TBD.”

In the foreseeable future, we might need to read (although we may find ourselves moving to a more orally-based culture) but not as extensively as before. We won’t spend quite as much time learning to read and will better use the training time to learn about such topics as physics or coding computers or something. Knowledge, scientific and otherwise, is going to be transmitted and received via many channels and I don’t believe that the written word will be as privileged as it is today.

In the meantime, there are any number of avenues for writers and readers to pursue. One that I find personally fascinating is the subculture of literary tattoos (from The Word Made Flesh [Thanks to @ruthseeley for tweeting about the website.]),

It says “It rained for four years, eleven months and two days.” in portuguese. The illustration and phrase are from “100 years of solitude” by G.G. Márquez. That book means a lot to me. This picture was takes the same day i got the tattoo, so it’s a little bloody. It was very cold that day.

Given that I live in an area known for its rainy weather, this particular tattoo was a no-brainer choice.