Spamalot

Sometimes, life is more fun when one’s email spam filters are just a wee bit leaky*.

Dear Sir/madam,

I would like to purchase a large quantity of goods with good quality from your company.Kindly get back to me with a price list I wait for your immediate response.

If I had any belief that there was someone on the other end of this metaphorical (but also kind of literal) line:

Dear Sir/Madam,

I regret to inform you that we sell very few goods and that they are of embarassingly poor quality. We charge a flate rate of one billion dollars.

*There is also the whole false positive/false negative issue. If you don’t want significant false positives (ie, missing an email about an important meeting), then you usually have to live with a few negatives (see above).

Protein Folding

I am contractually obligated to discuss the basics, the very basic basics, of protein folding with my class over the next week or so. This strip from Randall Munroe’s xkcd will be appearing in the lecture.

xkcd by Randall Munroe (CC BY-NC 2.5)

I will be watching closely for looks of recognition, which will allow me to evaluate how cool my students are. You decide which direction the “cool” runs on that one.

The Art of Science: Claire Moynihan’s Beautiful Bugs

Dragonfly by Claire Moynihan, Mixed Media, 2012

Dragonfly Ball by Claire Moynihan, Mixed Media, 2012

British textile artist Claire Moynihan riffs on traditional insect collections with her “bug balls” – tiny hand-embroideries of insects on felted wool balls. Moynihan uses a variety of embroidery techniques and materials which allow her to produce highly dimensional effects. She then mounts the balls in cases like old-fashioned entomological collections – or perhaps boxes of candies. She exhibits her work at art fairs and through Byard Art in Cambridge, England.

Claire Moynihan, Moth Balls II, Mixed Media, 2013

Claire Moynihan, Moth Balls II, Mixed Media, 2013

Pristine Beauty

MBanks-002_m

…the artworks have a pristine beauty, but warn of a polluted future.
-Mark Jenkins writing about Voyage of Discovery in the Washington Post

Can science fiction cure our innovation starvation?

Over at Pacific Standard this week, I look at Arizona State University’s fascinating Project Hieroglyph – a project to inspire us to think big with science fiction. The project, inspired in part by Neal Stephenson, just put out an excellent anthology of SF edited by Ed Finn and Kathryn Cramer, featuring thought experiments worked out as SF stories.

In the preface to the anthology, Stephenson looks back at the great technological achievements of the mid-20th century, notably the Apollo program, and worries that we are no longer a society that can get big things done. We’re unwilling to think big, attempt truly ground-breaking ideas, or solve society’s biggest problems. We need to unshackle our imaginations, and SF can help us do that.

You can read my response at Pacific Standard, but here’s the tl/dr version:

Scientists and engineers have plenty of imagination. What they don’t always have are the incentives and support to take big intellectual risks. Making the case that we should tackle big ideas that might fail is Project Hieroglyph’s most valuable contribution. Neal Stephenson writes that “the vast and radical innovations of the mid-twentieth century took place in a world that, in retrospect, looks insanely dangerous and unstable.” Pursuing insanely dangerous ideas—like nuclear weapons—is probably not the best way to build a better society. But risking failure is critical in science and technology. Unfortunately, failure is expensive, and the lack of money is probably the best explanation for why our society isn’t “executing the big stuff” that Stephenson wants to see. Scientists facing increasingly poor career prospects become risk-averse. Venture capitalists who complain that they only have 140 characters instead of flying cars are nevertheless hesitant to fund the expensive and risky development of technology that could be genuinely transformative. We certainly need imagination in science, and we should tell inspiring stories about big ideas. But to realize those ideas, we have to pay for them.

Thoughts?