Monthly Archives: February 2013

More Overlooked News: Even Cheaper TV’s and Batteries Lasting for Days

Open DVD driveLike many kids, I’ve always liked taking things apart – especially when it came to stuff with bulbs, circuits and whatnot. Odds were I could never put it back together again, but the idea of playing around with neat stuff like abandoned televisions, radios or other circuitry always appealed to me (have soldering gun will travel; and don’t get me started on the fun of those old Estes Rockets,…!).

Fast forward to the present day where a lab accident utilizing this very same attitude may have very well changed our future.

Late last year, researchers in UCLA led by chemist Richard Kaner were just wrapping up a means of devising an efficient method for producing high-quality sheets of the supermaterial known as graphene with a consumer-grade DVD drive (!!!!) when somebody made an accidental discovery. One of the researchers, Maher El-Kady, wired a small square of their high quality carbon sheets up to a lightbulb when something really cool happened. As it turns out, Kaner and El-Kady had stumbled upon an energy storage medium with revolutionary potential, akin to filling your smart phone with a long-lasting charge in just a couple of seconds – or charging up an electric car in a minute.

Uh, er, agh, what?!?!???

A lot happened in that last paragraph, so let’s back up now:

1) These guys developed a new manufacturing methodology for mass producing Graphene (which is not an easy thing to do under the usual process) just by using a regular DVD player to conduct a form of laser inscribing (this is roughly akin to making diamonds by using a typical steam iron);

2) In the process of making this ground breaking discovery, these guys also just stumbled upon finding a new and potentially VERY powerful means of energy storage that can be achieved not in hours, but literally minutes – if not seconds.

Ok, so what does this all mean?

Graphene is a very cool and an outstanding material. It’s used in (among other applications) flat screen TV’s, transistors, computers and electronics, structures which need a strong weight to strength ratio – i.e., airplanes, rockets, etc. – basically, a specialized material which has universal application but is not readily available to do so given the cost and effort. So now if this new process is indeed confirmed  (and apparently it has been) then we now have a way to produce these items at even LOWER costs – and using technology that is outdated (guess there’s gold in thar used DVD players after all,…).

So we’re talking about flat screen TV prices going down even lower while the picture quality would be enhanced (the cost ratio being lower now means more consumers can afford the more advanced versions). In addition, with the anticipated introduction to the general consumer of roll out screens (imagine screens as thin as tinfoil: flexible and yet strong being made of grapheme) we’re now talking about a more advanced date of introduction as well as cheaper pricing. Like those yoga mats, people will soon be able to literally roll up and take their large screen TV with them for meetings, events or just for kicks). And now the costs for making computers will drop even lower while the costs of making stronger, safer airplanes – or even cars – is now more readily possible.

The list goes on, but there’s the other crucial and potentially even more explosive aspect of this lab accident.

If the initial indicators are any sign, the time it would take to recharge an electric car utilizing this technology would literally take minutes: the same amount of time to fill up a gas / fossil fueled powered motor. So rather than having to plug your (electric car) Tesla in for several hours for a full and complete charge, we’re now talking about mere minutes – or the time it takes to fuel up at the gas station. In addition, smaller batteries made of this material / process would be able to last days while being able to charge up much more rapidly. Think cell phones, computers or other applications using batteries and lasting for days – and not mere hours – you’ll start to get the idea of what this all means.

To be sure, there’s more work to be done, but this is a very good start.

This is big; whoever funds this is going to do very well on the patent rights alone.

It makes one wonder what gave them the idea of applying electricity to the material at hand, but then again, I’d attribute it to ‘what the hell let’s see what happens if we do this?’ attitude; the very same attitude which helped bring about a lot of other neat inventions.

Not bad for a lab accident, eh?

For more on this, read the research papers for yourself:

http://www.sciencemag.org/content/335/6074/1326

http://www.nature.com/ncomms/journal/v4/n2/full/ncomms2446.html

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Things of the Past: Dying Sciences and Languages?

250px-Indy_promoIn a recent article, a new and disturbing (but given today’s economic climate, perhaps not surprising) trend appears: dying disciplines / sciences. Like languages which are disappearing as the world becomes more and more ‘cosmopolitan’ and ‘interconnected’, so too are discipline’s starting to fade away – and among them, the science of archeology.

Leaving aside the loss of some pretty cool television shows on the Discovery or the Smithsonian channels, the potential loss of archeology has tremendous – and deeply disruptive – significance:

Combining insights from natural and social sciences, archaeology offers an exceptionally powerful way of understanding many of the most inscrutable aspects of our past – think of the difficulty of interpreting Stonehenge, for example, and what has now been achieved by this kind of sophisticated analysis. Archaeologists have plenty to tell us about the impact of climate change and fuel use, or the rise and decline of complex societies: they give us access, in other words, to a vast store of human experience, which is of direct relevance to some of the greatest challenges we now face.

When you think about, that’s pretty heavy stuff. What other discipline can you suggest combines various sciences – the sciences of weather, farming, energy, military to that of political, historical  and economic / financial studies? And this work is not done solely within the realm of obscure theory or some computer-driven simulation: archeology is done in the here and now about the past (you literally have to get down and dirty in archeology).

Indiana Jones aside, Archeology is not some arcane branch of science: it’s about who we are and where are we going. In military terms, there is phrase ‘five by five’ – that is, confirming that you and your colleagues are going where you are intending to go: this is because within any spacial coordinate system you need to have five points in space – four corners and a middle point showing where you presently are with a line reaching out to where you’re going. This is what archeology is all about: you gotta have those points of where you’ve been to know where you’re going – and what’s likely ahead.

So what’s the big deal? Simple:

This situation reflects a key principle of the (Browne) review: that investment in higher education should be driven by student demand, informed by information about the price and quality of courses. Archaeological science is expensive, and does not attract research funding driven by the search for economic growth. Student numbers are low, nationally, and although student satisfaction measures and price put it on a par with history and English, archaeology departments cannot attract students in the same numbers, and are finding it hard to cover their costs.

In other words, what kind of career can one reasonably expect if they become an archeology graduate? In my own personal experience, an old family friend of ours has a son who studied at the University of Washington on a full scholarship in the field of Archeology (no slacker he!). But after a while, as his studies were coming to a close, career options were severely limited. So he took advantage of another option: he traveled to Hawaii and eventually become a battalion chief for one of the fire departments on the islands (mind, this including HALO training – High Altitude Low Opening (think skydiving at several miles high) – with members of a SEAL team, a six month tour of duty with the U.S. Coast Guard in the Bearing Sea along with a whole lot of other stuff).

Not bad for a PhD in archeology, eh? But that’s the point: he’s not an archeologist. And not to knock having a good battalion fire chief, we’re down one less archeologist.

And it’s not just about archeology:

Archaeology is not alone. ‘Hard’ or ‘small’ languages are also under pressure. They too, will struggle to make their way on the basis of research grants so that the national capacity in Russian, German and Portuguese are likely to decline. As with archaeology, a standard university response will probably be to reduce costs – by concentrating on language teaching, and reducing the provision in the politics, sociology, history or literature of those societies. We might expect more degrees in, say, politics with Russian language, emphasising accurate use of the language, and many fewer which emphasise cultural understanding in the fullest sense. While this may satisfy student demand, and allow universities to continue to prosper, it would represent a significant loss to our national research capacity and knowledge base.

So what’s the big deal? If we can’t speak these languages or know these sciences anyhow, what difference does it make?

A big difference.

We ultimately are the sum of what we know and by continual learning and expanding our knowledge base, we achieve greater capacity and a stronger ability to solve what’s thrown at us. It’s worth noting that during the Italian Renaissance, at the same time that folks were inventing double entry accounting and establishing the first real international banking houses, folks also made it a point to learn to sing, dance, speak different languages and conduct art among many other skills and talents. Understand: the ability to learn is in itself a skill best acquired through the study of many things – and in this competitive world, like that of the Renaissance, this is also a very competitive world (albeit during the Renaissance, one also learned how to handle a sword, daggers and gunpowder as it was standard to be routinely assaulted or daily face the possibility of assassination – something to keep in mind whenever you think of the Renaissance as a time of a bunch of fops and wimps wearing funny clothing painting neat stuff on ceilings).

Moving back to the present, it’s interesting to note during the 1980’s the demand for arabic speakers was very limited: due to budget cuts, there was little demand for arabic speakers, save for some oil / energy companies or obscure scholastic positions. In fact, the U.S. State Department had very fewer fluent arabic speakers in these years. Enter 9/11 and viola! The demand explodes. But we’ve been behind the curve for some time; had we a greater pool of arabic speakers, chances are we could’ve prevented a lot of bloodshed and chaos (not to mention attain a greater understanding and appreciation of the Arabic culture that could foster better future relations).

Bottom line is you can’t read a book unless you start at the beginning; it doesn’t work when you start in the middle. And it’s no different when you walk into a boardroom session, not know what’s been going on before you walk in, and start to give a speech without any sense of reference; in fact, it can be downright awkward.

In today’s world, we’re increasingly facing big and ugly challenges – climate changes, growing conflicts over diminishing resources, rising social unrest – the list goes on. We cannot dismiss the past on the assumption of ‘been there, done that’ as there are many challenges we face now that were similarly faced in the past. Knowing our past is little different from when a professional undergoes intensive training: sure, it may not be the real thing, but when the building starts to collapse or when the shit hits the fan, those who are trained and have a deeper knowledge base are far more likely to survive and overcome a situation.

As the old saying goes, ‘those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it‘.

But here’s another quote truly worth remembering and sharing:

We must welcome the future, remembering that soon it will be the past; and we must respect the past, remembering that it was once all that was humanly possible.

George Santayana has a good point.

For more about this subject, here’s a good article worth reading:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/higher-education-network/blog/2013/feb/19/archaeology-funding-student-decline-future

Libraries: The New Frontier

libraryThe times are a changing and among those changes are the notion of what makes a library a library – and how they are able to impact us more than ever before.

Libraries ain’t just about a place to do your school homework – and this is demonstrated in what’s taking place in Arizona:

Arizona State is planning in the next few months to roll out a network of co-working business incubators inside public libraries, starting with a pilot in the downtown Civic Center Library in Scottsdale. The university is calling the plan, ambitiously, the Alexandria Network.

Libraries as incubators?

Consider: it makes perfect sense. Where else can you go and draw upon resources  to develop business plans, seek out possible funding sources, lay out building plans  and/or system schematics, develop new potential business contacts / networks or enroll in job / skills training?

As the folks in Arizona explained:

One of the world’s first and most famous libraries, in Alexandria, Egypt, was frequently home some 2,000 years ago to the self-starters and self-employed of that era. “When you look back in history, they had philosophers and mathematicians and all sorts of folks who would get together and solve the problems of their time,” says Tracy Lea, the venture manager with Arizona State University’s economic development and community engagement arm. “We kind of look at it as the first template for the university. They had lecture halls, gathering spaces. They had co-working spaces.”

Makes perfect sense – in fact, why didn’t anyone see this before? Now, rather than just a place where one can go and read or check out some books, libraries are playing an ever more growing important role in today’s world. Libraries are now resource centers; places to go where folks can get the tools, resources and skill they need to start a business, learn a trade or develop a new product.

Libraries are invaluable engines of social and economic growth:

Libraries also provide a perfect venue to expand the concept of start-up accelerators beyond the renovated warehouses and stylish offices of “innovation districts.” They offer a more familiar entry-point for potential entrepreneurs less likely to walk into a traditional start-up incubator (or an ASU – Arizona State University – office, for that matter). Public libraries long ago democratized access to knowledge; now they could do the same in a start-up economy.

On a more practical level, what this also implies is that libraries now need to turn to other funding sources to meet their needs. As reported in the past, libraries nationwide are facing major cuts – with some local governments even shutting down their libraries outright (as was done in Camden, New Jersey nearly two years ago). With the new definition and roles of libraries, now would be a good time for librarians to come together and reach out to local / area businesses and obtain funding not through the usual means, but rather through grant funding from the federal Commerce Department, local Chambers of Commerce, various foundations and the like.

And given the well-established role of libraries, libraries offer a true cost-effective return on any investment – something for any funding entity to seriously consider.

Libraries are not just about books: they’re about information and the conveying and distributing of information in ways that are effective.

Libraries are now, more than ever before, invaluable community resources that could very well help establish and maintain economic and social development for the 21st century.

For more about what’s going on in Arizona, check out this link: http://www.theatlanticcities.com/jobs-and-economy/2013/02/why-libraries-should-be-next-great-startup-incubators/4733/

Good Education Creates Great Communities

bildeRecently, I signed on as a volunteer Operations Officer for a rather remarkable school. The school is called CERN (Center for Educational Resource Network), and it’s based in what is arguably one of the most dangerous and economically depressed cities in the country – Camden. CERN’s neighborhood is rife with gang activity – among them, the Latin Kings and Bloods. It is also a city where it has one of the highest crime and homicide rates of any urban center, regardless of country or locality.

And yet, standing in the CERN classrooms, you’ll find that there’s no shooting, no knifing, fighting, hollering or mayhem. Gang members from different associations sit in the same classrooms, doing their homework. Rather than violence, the rooms are abuzz with another sort of activity: students pounding away at their computer keyboards, reading their assignments, writing their essays or conversing with their colleagues as though it’s no big deal.

Like a real school should be.

“Here at CERN, we have a rule: ‘you don’t fight, you write'” as Angel Cordero, the Executive Director of CERN explained.

Founded in January 3, 2007, as a computer-based learning center serving between 20 to 30 high school level students, CERN has grown rather fast: in the past year it graduated over 400 students (and this apparently is a small year, as in prior graduations they’ve reached as high as over 800 students).

Leaving all this aside, what makes CERN stand out is its model approach: among other aspects of its programs, CERN works closely with job placement services and training schools; this is a very important point to consider – and here’s why.

There is a growing disconnect between what schools teach and what the workplace expects and needs. As reported in a McKinsey survey in December 2012 it was determined that only 42 percent of employers think students are prepared for work while 72 percent of educational institutions do. In another related recent GE survey, C-suite execs said linking schools with business was one of their top priorities.

To put it another way, 58 percent of employers do not think that schools are preparing students for the workplace while 72 percent of educational institutions think that they indeed are.

Can anyone say serious disconnect?

It begs one to ask: what is the purpose of all these conferences and seminars (with some in such cool locales as Hawaii – http://cait.hpu.edu/cait-staff-attend-google-apps-summit/)? Doesn’t anyone talk to each other? Apparently not – but with schools as CERN (and there are others as well) increasingly, the art of teaching is closely linked to the art of listening – i.e., listening to what employers need and want, what the students seek and are willing to learn – and making sure the two meet.

There are other schools out there that are making headway (and this despite the best efforts of some folks who are often critical or suspicious of these non-public school alternatives) but in CERN’s case, the Camden public school system is facing (conservatively) a drop out rate of approximately 60%: in other words, only 4 out of 10 students graduates from the Camden school system – and of those graduates, many still fail remedial reading and mathematical skills.

Mind you, the McKinsey report which raises these very issues of the disconnect between jobs and education didn’t just appear in some liberal-minded / soppy think tank: it came from that stalwart of capitalism, Forbes magazine. A good, solid education ain’t just soppy liberalism: it’s about having a good, strong solid american economy. Period.

And please, avoid couching this subject into the old, hackneyed argument of urban schools versus non-urban schools: it’s really all about the future as our nation’s labor force is going to increasingly draw upon those areas where schools are seriously lacking. Want to have a viable, taxpaying middle class in America? Think better schools because good education leads to stronger economic growth and social possibilities  – and given that the workforce draw is going to rest increasingly upon those population segments traditionally lacking in education, you can kiss the American Dream goodbye: no middle class means a poor national future for us all and unless we recognize this, chances are we’re going to see – within our lifetimes – our nation fall from being a First World order to a Third World country.

Schools are ground zero for the future: we’d better make damned sure we’re meeting our goals otherwise everything goes to hell.

For more on CERN, check out the website: http://www.cerncamden.org

For more on the McKinsey report, check out this link: http://www.forbes.com/sites/joshbersin/2012/12/10/growing-gap-between-what-business-needs-and-what-education-provides/

Skating on Thin Ice: Technology, The Stock Market and The Law

Abacus_1

One day back in 1987, a broker with a background in software decided to (literally) hook up his computer to that of a Nasdaq terminal, thus forever transforming the way Wall Street does business. So successful was this development that SEC regulators and other business entities were convinced that a bank of traders were working behind the scenes, and it wasn’t until later when the full power of computer trading became appreciated.

Fast forward to the present time: now, like onto Moore’s Law, computer trading is starting to hit some major walls.

Trading – whether in Wall Street, Singapore, the SSE Composite (China Stock Market) Russian, Turkish, the Borse – it’s about speed: hear the words being shouted out, watch the numbers fly and the trade slips go fast. And now with data processing, it’s much, much faster.

But how fast can fast go? It’s an inherently loaded question because just as firms seek the fastest and greatest processing speeds, the seconds are dwindling literally into multi-milliseconds. The ROI (Return On Investment) on such systems are increasingly becoming ludicrously stretched thin: how much would you be willing to spend for a system that shaves off .00001 of your trades? Some would argue that such cost savings are cumulative: a .00001 here and a .00001 there adds up to real time and money – right?

But it’s more than just speed: it’s also about algorithms. The trick now is to sense trends and trade patterns: seeing where a particular market segment is going – say, futures, pork bellies or commodities – and viola! you make your play. As the great Wayne Gretsky would say, “a winner does not skate to where the puck is, but rather to where the puck is going.”

But the inventor of the computer trading, one Thomas Peterffy, is now no longer sure. As he stated in an interview on NPR (http://www.npr.org/blogs/money/2012/08/21/159373388/episode-396-a-father-of-high-speed-trading-thinks-we-should-slow-down), gains from faster speeds are now uncertain and must be balanced against the inherent risks involved: faster trading means the potential for going into the wall at higher rates of speed – and far greater losses.

High speed trading does have its risks. And surprise! Regulation is not keeping up. But what is to be done? In a new paper, “Process, Responsibility and Myron’s Law”, an economist, Paul Romer, argues that we need to start paying attention to the dynamics of how new rules are developed and referred to Myron’s Law – that is, given enough time, any particular tax code will end up collecting zero revenue, as loopholes are discovered and exploited. Laws must adapt to changing conditions and tools, else they fail to do their duty.

Romer’s solution? Simple – and effective (and to be certain, rational business types will be open to its approach).

Keep it simple.

Unlike adapting the approach of, say, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) which has a painfully detailed and somewhat contradictory rule, 1926.1052(c)(3), about the height of stair-rails (as but one example) we compare this approach to that of the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) which simply requires planes to be airworthy to the satisfaction of its inspectors. Romer argues financial regulations resemble the OHSA’s rule 1926.1052(c)(3) more closely than the FAA’s “airworthy” principle – and that this is a problem. With the addition of new technology (and it only promises to get more complicated as time goes on) financial regulations as they presently stand are not going to be truly effective.

Another case in point is that of GE (General Electric): using their dedicated staff of professional tax attorneys GE was, back around 2009, on the hook for federal taxes approximately $12,000 – and this from a firm worth billions. All perfectly legal.

As the Roman historian Tacitus said, “corrupt is the land with many laws” – the point being that the more laws that are on the books, the more likely you’re going to have loopholes and deals made to avoid those laws. The same will go for computer trading and the general stock market; unless these issues are addressed now it’s only going to get more sticky and complicated, with the ever-rising potential for crashes and financial failures which will only make the recent crash seem like a mere holiday in comparison.

See the puck go flying across the ice and into the stands,…