May 12th, 2012 at 9:50 pm (Research, Society)
I’ve been impressed with what folks have been able to do at Kickstarter, raising funds to create a product they believe in. In contrast to venture capital or other business investors, Kickstarter contributors are consumers; a vote to support your startup process is a vote for your product. This seems to work well on both sides: consumers get a low-risk way to “shop” for innovative products, and inventors can simultaneously raise funds and test the waters in terms of demand.
So I was intrigued when I came across a Kickstarter-like site… for scientific research projects.
iAMscientist allows researchers to post descriptions of their projects, and interested members of the wider community can pledge funds to support them. Goodbye to lengthy, dense proposals to agencies such as the NSF, NASA, or NIH! Rather than getting your project funded by review from your scientific peers, you instead pitch it to woo the general public.
I can see merits in exposing the public to new ideas, and getting them personally involved in a way that’s just not possible when the projects are paid for by their tax dollars. But can this actually work? It’s not clear to me that people will be as excited about supporting research as they would be about, say, an e-paper watch.
So what interested me most was what these researchers had come up with in terms of “rewards” for donations, since they lack a tangible product. What is it about what I do, day-to-day, that could be commoditized anyway? The rewards for Bridging Scales in Biology From Atoms to Organisms include a signed thank-you letter, a signed preprint of the resulting scientific paper, a personal lab tour or seminar, acknowledgement in the paper, and patent options. Wow! It had never occurred to me that my autograph on a paper I wrote could be of value. :) And it’s interesting how some of these things (like a lab tour) are things you would expect as a matter of course, if you were to visit, as a researcher yourself. I guess that access is something the general public might be willing to pay for—or at least, that’s Dr. Shakhnovich’s assumption!
My favorite is the reward offered for a $64,000 donation by Dr. Pollack, the chair of the Computer Science department at Brandeis University, for his GOLEM project:
$64000: Endow the lab email and web server.
Half the donation will go to to the research and the other half will endow a permanent fund in the university endowment to provide $3200 per year to maintain and upgrade a server — in perpetuity — upon which my lab will host its website “www.Yourname.Brandeis.edu”. I will personally adopt a new email address thusly: “Pollack@Yourname.brandeis.edu”, and I send and receive a LOT of email!
What are you waiting for? Get out there and support science!
May 3rd, 2012 at 10:40 am (Finances, Planets, Society)
The new NASA budget isn’t looking good, and Planetary Science in particular is taking a ***20%*** cut, most of which cuts Mars funding!
In a move that’s equal parts desperation and brilliance, the community is rallying to put on a nationwide Planetary Exploration Car Wash & Bake Sale on June 9. Each local organizer will send a check with the proceeds to Congress, requesting them to apply it to increase the planetary science budget.
If your car doesn’t need washing or you’re watching your waistline, check out this AAS site for information on how to contact congressfolk and a list of useful “talking points.” If you care about the future of planetary exploration, make your voice heard!
April 7th, 2012 at 4:55 pm (Computers, History, Society, Technology)
There was a time before the Internet—and it wasn’t that long ago. Consider excerpts of this 1984 article from the Whole Earth Catalog, titled “Telecommunicating”:
Someday everybody will communicate by computer, according to an emerging army of dreamers.
Less expensive than national networks are local bulletin boards [...] To give an example of the bulletin boards’ power; David Hughes of Colorado Springs entered onto his computer bulletin board the text of a pernicious city council bill outlawing professional work at home. Instead of tracking the bill down at City Hall, residents could dial in at their convenience and read the bill at home. Within a week, Hughes had gathered enough angry readers to storm the next city council meeting and influence council members to defeat the measure.
Programs are finally emerging that treat telecommunicating as a human activity instead of a technical obstacle course.
So much so that we don’t even use the term “telecommunicating” at all. We’re just communicating.
NPR’s Science Friday broadcast an episode in 1993 called “The Future of the Internet” that is well worth the listen. The episode itself made history by being broadcast on the Internet, instead of just by radio. Today, the topics and the way they are covered sound so… quaint. Compuserve! WAIS?
The opinions being expressed are enthusiastic, sometimes prescient, and other times (from today’s perspective) naive. “I found a complete archive of jokes on the Internet in under an hour!” “The magic number is 64,000 bits per second.”
Ira: “Let’s make it clear to everyone listening that you’re not on a telephone, are you?”
Caller Tom: “No, I’m sitting in front of a workstation, with a microphone…”
I did like the discussion of “information anxiety” (they had that back then too? ;) ) over the “glut” of information available (from the 420 different databases WAIS was indexing. Oh, my word.).
“One of the things we’re doing is learning how to ignore information, and that’s one of the most important things the Internet will let you do. [...] You want your machine to be working for you … finding the right stuff. There’s just way too much out there already. So going and filtering through, searching, finding just the issues that you care about — your machine is starting to know a lot about you. It knows what you like, what you don’t like, what you’ve read, what you didn’t read.”
I wish we could say we’ve solved that problem now! Even with RSS feeds, collaborative filtering, and various learning systems, I still feel inundated by all there is to read, and without a good solution for sorting and prioritizing it. Email alone…!
August 14th, 2011 at 12:14 pm (Reflection, Society)
Have we trained ourselves out of thinking about big ideas?
That’s the thesis behind a recent NYT editorial titled “The Elusive Big Idea” by Neal Gabler. While much has been written about the decline of attention spans and the distractions created by social media and the general motion towards shorter sound bytes at the expense of longer, thoughtful analysis, this article takes such criticism a step further.
“[W]e are living in an increasingly post-idea world,” writes Gabler. By “post-idea” he means a deliberate choice not to think! He argues that we’ve come to focus on collecting knowledge and given up on actually thinking about it.
“We are inundated with so much information that we wouldn’t have time to process it even if we wanted to, and most of us don’t want to.”
Information overload is not a new concept, but Gabler’s sketch of a society in which we are not only overwhelmed with information but we deliberately choose to continue glutting ourselves on it instead of taking the time to carefully chew over what we already have disturbs me in the way that only an idea with a kernel of truth can. Every time I glance at my RSS feed, I get that exact feeling: there is too much information, too much that is new and interesting and that I want to read, and nowhere near enough time to really think about it. This observation is exactly one of the reasons that I have this blog: a chance to stop and think about something, not just skim and nod and move onto the next nugget. This goes beyond a missed opportunity for reflection and increased insight. If Gabler is right, it could be habit-forming. Is there no room today for a Thoreau, an Emerson, a Twain? If they did appear, would they be systematically ignored, their essays too long, their ideas too musing, their observations demanding too much of the limited time any reader can bear to spend on any single source?
Gabler hints at the impact such a shift in priorities can have for society. How can we find space and time to incubate the next Big Ideas? How can we recognize and pay attention to these insights when they don’t fit into 140 characters? We have more people alive today than ever before, more thinking capacity at the ready — if we choose to engage it. This isn’t just about being an intellectual, engaging in some elite snobbery; it’s the chance to choose between cultivating what is new and exciting and valuable, the unique outcome of human cognitive capabilities, versus drowning in a vast, passive sea of trivia and unending distraction.
I thank Mr. Gabler for his timely essay and for giving me the inspiration to indulge in a moment of reflection myself. I’ve repeatedly come across advice about journaling in a work context, just taking 5-10 minutes every day to write down the thoughts bubbling in the back of your head. Every time I’ve made time to do this, I’ve had new ideas pop up or crystallize or point the way to some new direction. I won’t claim that these qualify as Big Ideas, but maybe they can guide the way. This is an activity I already hoped to indulge in more regularly during my sabbatical. After reading this essay, I’m all the more motivated to create a new habit, one dedicated against the post-idea slump.
July 4th, 2011 at 9:49 am (Music, Society)
An A note is a vibration at 440 Hz — but it wasn’t always so. Prior to 1939, musical conventions varied by location, which must have caused some interesting results if musicians from different areas tried to play together (the A note is commonly used for tuning, the set point from which all other notes are created). In 1939, an international treaty was signed fixing A on 440 Hz, not only to enable musicians to play together, but to standardize the creation of musical instruments. A clarinet creates notes based on its length, so its physical construction is influenced by the standard frequency chosen for A.
This standard, the basis of music tuning, is an example of a convenient yet arbitrary choice for a constant reference value. Some values we use commonly are dictated by physics: in free fall towards the Earth, objects accelerate at 9.8 m/s^2; the location of 0 latitude is the equator. But others, like the location of 0 longitude, are more like the A note. While the equator is defined by the spin axis of the planet, there’s no physical reason to prefer one location over another to serve as the reference point for longitude calculations. It is, however, awfully convenient for us all to agree on the same location!
Our temperature scales fall somewhere in between. The establishment of 0 or 100 degrees is arbitrary, but an effort was made to associate them with physical phenomena, like ice freezing or water boiling. The length of the meter (also arbitrary) was originally set to be “one ten-millionth of the distance from the Earth’s equator to the North Pole (at sea level)” in an attempt to tie it to a physical property, but since 1983 it has been instead defined as the distance light travels in a vacuum in 1/299,792,458 of a second (!). But that’s really just convenience too, since light travels at 299,792,458 m/s… too bad we didn’t just decide that light travels at 300,000,000 m/s and get the length of the meter from there! I imagine that any such change would be a nightmare to implement, though.
These values influence our everyday life: how much gas in a gallon? How much flour in a cup? How many atoms in a mole? It can be useful therefore to know which ones were derived from physical constraints and which ones were obtained from consensus!