Sunday, August 31, 2008


After posting about Adam Savage's elegy for American science, it got me thinking.

I'm an amateur scientist, but I'm a professional designer and engineer. I think about design all the time and read just about every magazine or book there is on the subject. I can bemoan the same thing about American design and ingenuity.

They were once the very best in the world. While other countries may build amazing things, they would always turn to the American design and engineering firms to actually get the job done. That's no longer the case.

I can pick out any area, any focus, and the number of excellent submissions coming out of America has nearly disappeared. While there are many publications that focus on the American market, the international magazines rarely feature our country. China's new creative class is showing us how it's done, and even Europe has left us behind.

I can't even remember the last time I heard something great about an American architect. Of the 11 Pritzker Prizes for architecture handed out from its inception in 1979 to 1989, a US architect won it 6 times. From 1990 to 2008, and likely 2009, we've won it twice. And one of those years was a win by dark horse candidate Thom Mayne.

And what about American industrial design, or consumer products, or clothing? We were fairly well-represented in the IDEA awards, but those skew American because, duh, they're sponsored by BusinessWeek. And even there, of the seven design schools represented, only one was from the US. We've got Apple, but we know their language. They did the original iPod and then, six years later, the iPhone. The MacBook Air was a breakthrough only to Apple fanatics.

I think one of our major problems is exactly what these major, entrenched companies adore, our draconian and ridiculous patent and copyright system. If a company dares innovate or break new ground, they are undoubtedly sued. Apple has been sued near countless times, and Nintendo with their innovative Wii, has of course been sued. I could go on and on and ON about our patent system basically needing to be shot, but the website TechDirt explains why our system is broken apparently beyond repair in much better fashion. When your reward for breaking ground is a lawsuit, there's not much motivation to do anything.

And yet, the East Asian market (which our American companies do nothing but bitch about as a no-mans-land of piracy, lax IP laws, and terrible, uninventive, outlaws who do nothing but steal our ingenious, American ideas) is exploding on the international scene.

Yep. Oh, and back to that list of design schools: Samsung Design Membership (Korea), Hong Ik University (Korea), Seoul National (Korea), Hanyang University (Korea), Royal College of Art (United Kingdom), University of Wuppertal (Germany). Those sad, wannabe schools of design. Stealing all of our ideas and winning awards with them. Tragic.

Another grand example, and by grand, I mean GRAND. Where are all the new buildings being built? Where are all the limits being pushed? Where do the structures look like they sprang from an imagination unhindered by reality? Oh right. Dubai. And China. And Taiwan. And Russia. Hell, even South America. Just not here.

I think a lot of that has to do with how expensive the US has gotten. It's SO pricey to do anything here, nobody is bothering anymore. We have unionized workers who get paid $40 an hour to lay brick (nothing against bricklayers, it's quite a skill). The other countries may have poor workers' rights laws, but boy do they get stuff done. There has to be a middle ground.

Or insurance costs. It costs more to insure an architecture firm, the construction, and everyone involved in the US than in any other country on Earth. You can be sued because your idea is cool, sued if idea takes off, and sued if your idea fails. Big surprise no one wants to do anything in our fucked-up country, anymore.


Adam Savage, the more energetic, ADD-addled member of the Mythbusters pair (I don't count their trio of doofuses as real Mythbusters) recently penned a short article for Popular Mechanics about how to save science education.

It's a quick read, so go do that, I'll pee, and when we come back we can talk about it.

Ok. While I support his drive to make science better in American schools, I think he's picking out a bad apple from a bad bushel and focusing on it. Yes, science is taking quite a hit in America, but that's because education on the whole is taking a hit.

He laments that "one of the first things to go when educational budgets get slashed is science supplies." But I think that's a bit like complaining how firefighters don't rescue the pets first when the house is on fire. The real problem is that the house is on fire. I like that he bluntly states "By all means throw money at the problem!" He's totally right. While many aspects of our school system are inefficient, the need for more money is without doubt. Politicians speak a god game about children being our most valuable asset, and education is critical. But when the time comes to actually do something about it, they push through a laughable reform like "No Child Left Behind" and then cut funding across the board because they all know that petroleum is actually more important than our kids.

I also can't complain about my own experiences in science classes. True, my teachers pretty much single-handedly funded the experiments, but experiment we did. It was interesting that surface tension experiments were some of the very first I ever did in High School. Hell, we even built robots out of TI-86 calculators and motors the teacher had ripped out of dead VCR's.

His last point is important, namely, celebrate mistakes. Our schools, and NCLB only exacerbates this problem, are obsessed with the avoidance of mistakes. When education is based entirely on standardized tests, which Adam laments earlier in the article, mistakes are anathema. Because if you make a mistake, you get the answer wrong, you fail, and your school gets its budget cut.

Obviously, though, this only scratches the surface of our country's educational problems. We have so many I am of the mind that it is dead, and is merely decaying. As Adam points out, "by 2010, Asia will have 90 percent of the world’s Ph.D. scientists and engineers." Our schools are dying. Crumbling under the weight of inadequate funding, an antiquated psychosocial design, and a populous that, really, doesn't care. You may say you care, but when was the last time you voted for someone who said they were going to raise taxes.

As always, America will respond when things get really bad, and they're not really bad, yet.

Friday, August 22, 2008


Here's something I've thought about quite a bit, and I've never had a chance to pose it to any theoretical physicists I come across.

What would happen if you had a disc, say, 10 million miles across, and you spun it. The further out you go, the faster the disc travels, so what happens at the point where the spin speed would exceed the speed of light?

Would the atoms merely separate? I assume the consistency of the disc would have to be broken in some way.

Any thoughts, oh internet?

Friday, August 15, 2008

Take my Planet, Please.

The great debate about Pluto has, amazingly, remained far hotter than its humble subject ever since it was demoted from full planet status. So, basically, we've had a two year argument about semantics where very intelligent people made fun of other very intelligent people. After which they got blasted at the local pub while arguing how many angels fit on the head of a pin and who had the biggest hands.

I make fun, I know. Now, it must be known that a good definition is a good thing. It would be nice to know what planets, exactly, are. Unfortunately, when you are attempting to define things on a spectrum, as opposed to distinct characteristics, things get squiffy, as we can plainly see.

I was initially opposed to the demotion, and in a sense I still am. Considering the world's astronomers were unable to really define a planet, I saw no reason to eliminate one of the nine we were all taught. I still see little reason for the demotion since a succinct, formal definition of a planet doesn't seem very important to me.

I think it's pretty easy to simply call them planetary bodies and then create arbitrary categories within the spectrum. Say, large bodies are more than five times earth's diameter, etc. The categories themselves are unimportant. I also have a problem with the only aspect of the new definition that is mentioned, namely that a planet is a body large enough to generate a gravity field that squeezes the material into a spherical shape. I have a problem with that because it is physically possible for a planet to be a cube. It's unlikely, but there's nothing specifically preventing that from occurring. So what happens if we discover an object that is the size of earth but more cubic than spherical? It's not a planet?

I like my own definition of a planet. If it is directly orbiting a star and is big enough where we can walk on it without floating off into a very lonely and depressing death, it's a planetary body. If we float off into to space, it's not.

The Great (and Sometimes Serious) Debate About Pluto

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

You Randy Girl

I was thinking about how Ayn Rand's ideas about government only existing to protect individual rights sounds a lot like my idea that it only exists to protect freedom.

I think Ayn Rand was an idiot, in many ways. First, she supported laissez faire economics. Not some sanitized version, either, REAL laissez faire where you can do just about anything. I can't believe she actually felt this way, considering the consequences of an unregulated economy were apparent during her lifetime, she died in 1982.

Also, she was very interested in the protection of defined rights, such as right to property, transaction, etc. I don't see the right to have shit a fundamental right. If anything, a world of no scarcity would result in no ownership, which would be ideal. All we need is a Star Trek replicator.

I also think that the government's charge is protecting liberty, and that's it. Property doesn't have anything to do with it. If the elimination of property could result in greater freedom in some other way, I'd fully support it. In fact, the idea that government's three important tasks as life, liberty, and our crap just seems odd. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is fine! Three abstract concepts as opposed to two abstract concepts and our crap.

Yes, if your crap is material to maintaining life, liberty and happiness, like it is today, then it's important to protect it. But base an entire government and philosophical system on an idea that could be obsolete in a few years is silly.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Government Who?

I've mentioned this before, but I like to stick on subjects like some kind of tumor.

I don't think government is important, and it gets progressively less important as the population under its purview increases. I know it is important, but not in the way people think. Government is important in the sense that it is the framework in which society functions. Government is not the society itself, but merely a section of the society with controlling functionality. I take the idea that government exists for the people to the extreme by saying that the actual existence of government is almost inconsequential since most of what people would and would not do they would be done in the absence of government.

For example, how often does the average person interact with the Federal government aside from paying income tax? They don't. Maybe join the army, or something, but little else. Our interactions with government increase as you go further down the hierarchy. Eventually, people start interacting frequently, but it becomes more of a group effort to solve problems than a classic idea of government.

It's not the most well-formulated idea, but I can back it up with an argument of absence. What is absent? An efficient, honest government. All governments, everywhere, are corrupt. Obviously, the degree of corruption is unknown, but it's obviously there because every now and then, we lift up the rock a little and are forever surprised at the nasty stuff we find. You'd think we'd get used to it.

But the world is getting better. More people have more money and food, technology is advancing, the environment is better (When's the last time you heard of a river catching on fire?) people are more equal, and we have more channels than ever(!). How is this possible if government sucks? Government is unimportant, that's how. It exists to keep people who feel important entertained. That's why government's subject matter never changes. They argue about the exact same stuff year after year, generation after generation. Government never actually gets anything done.

I know I'm using an odd definition of government, perhaps a better term would be politics, I'm not sure. Government is important, to be sure. The system is needed, but I think the system springs naturally from human nature. It sort of codifies that rule set needed from things like economy to work, but people treat it as much more than that. It becomes ideological, and financial, and all about change and straight talk. It all leads to absolutely nothing, but people harp on about it nonetheless until they die.