Archive for the 'Engineering' category

Pseudonymity and Google.

In case you haven't been following recent developments with the much-hyped Google+ (hailed by social media mavens as in position to replace both Facebook and Twitter), you may not have heard the news (e.g., in the linked ZDnet article by Violet Blue) that Google unceremoniously deleted "[a] striking number of Google+ accounts", many apparently owing to the requirement that people with Google+ accounts must be registered under their "real names".

A follow-up from Violet Blue notes that the real-name policy is not being enforced uniformly (e.g., Lady Gaga's profile is still intact), and that the disabling of accounts that seems to have started July 22 or so was notable in that there were no notifications sent to users ahead of time that their accounts would be disabled (or why). Moreover, there seem to be at least a few cases where people deemed out of compliance with the real-name policy loss access not only to Google+ but also to other Google products like Gmail and Google Docs.

There are plenty of posts kicking around the blogosphere in response to this, pointing out legitimate reasons people might have for not using their "real name" online. (In the past, I wrote such a post myself.) You should definitely read what SciCurious has to say on the matter, since she explains it very persuasively.

There are those who argue that a real-name policy is the only effective deterrent to bad online behavior, but I have yet to see convincing evidence that this is so. You'd be hard-pressed to find a better citizen of the blogosphere than SciCurious, and "SciCurious" is not the name on her birth certificate or driver's license. However, I'd argue that "SciCurious" is her real name in the blogosphere, given that it is connected to a vast catalog of blog posts, comments, interviews, and other traces that convey a reliable picture of the kind of person she is. Meanwhile, there are people using their legal names online who feel free to encourage violence against others. Is it more civil because they're not using pseudonyms to applaud car-bombs?

Google, being a private company, is of course free to set its own terms of service (although enforcing them consistently would be preferable). That means it can set the rules to require people who want the service to sign up using their legal names. However, unless they are going to require that you submit documentation to verify that the name you are using is your legal name (as, apparently they have from some folks trying to get their Google+ accounts back) it strikes me that the safest default assumption is that everyone is signing up with an assumed name. How do you know that Paul Butterfield is Paul Butterfield if he's not scanning his passport for you, or that Janet D. Stemwedel isn't a totally made-up name?

The truth is, you don't.

And if Google wants to get so far into its users' business that they do know who we all officially are, that's going to be enough of an overreach that a bunch of people drift off to Yahoo or Hotmail or some other company that isn't quite so desperate for a total information dossier.

All of this is disappointing, since Google+ looks like it might be a spiffy little product. But if it can't get out of beta without Google burning through the good reputation it had with netizens, pseudonymous or not, who were most likely to embrace it, Google+ may have all the success and longevity of Google Buzz and Google Wave.

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Practical chemical engineering.

It's day two of my training course, and as I contemplate my mug of decaf, I am suddenly flashing back to a question that was rumored to be part of the chemical engineering qualifying exam in my chemistry graduate program. As it's an intriguing problem, I thought I'd share it here:

In the dead of winter, a professor sends his grad student out into the cold to fetch him a hot beverage from the cafe. "Coffee with two creams, and make sure it's HOT when it gets to me!" the professor barks.

Shivering from fear as much as cold, the grad student procures a 12-ounce styrofoam cup of hot coffee and two little containers (maybe 20 mL each) of half and half at the cafe. To maximize the temperature of the coffee when it is delivered to the prof, should he add the half and half to the coffee before he walks it through the cold or after?

Feel free to work together on this problem, and please show your work in the comments.

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Anatomy of a scientific fraud: an interview with Eugenie Samuel Reich.

Eugenie Samuel Reich is a reporter whose work in the Boston Globe, Nature, and New Scientist will be well-known to those with an interest in scientific conduct (and misconduct). In Plastic Fantastic: How the Biggest Fraud in Physics Shook the Scientific World, she turns her skills as an investigative reporter to writing a book-length exploration of Jan Hendrik Schön's frauds at Bell Labs, providing a detailed picture of the conditions that made it possible for him to get away with his fraud as long as he did.
Eugenie Samuel Reich agreed to answer some questions about Plastic Fantastic and the Schön case. My questions, and her answers, after the jump.

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Book review: Plastic Fantastic: How the Biggest Fraud in Physics Shook the Scientific World.

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Plastic Fantastic: How the Biggest Fraud in Physics Shook the Scientific World
by Eugenie Samuel Reich
New York: Palgrave Macmillan
2009

The scientific enterprise is built on trust and accountability. Scientists are accountable both to the world they are trying to describe and to their fellow scientists, with whom they are working to build a reliable body of knowledge. And, given the magnitude of the task, they must be able to trust the other scientists engaged in this knowledge-building activity.
When scientists commit fraud, they are breaking trust with their fellow scientists and failing to be accountable to their phenomena or their scientific community. Once a fraud has been revealed, it is easy enough to flag it as pathological science and its perpetrator as a pathological scientist. The larger question, though, is how fraud is detected by the scientific community -- and what conditions allow fraud to go unnoticed.
In Plastic Fantastic: How the Biggest Fraud in Physics Shook the Scientific World, Eugenie Samuel Reich explores the scientific career of fraudster Jan Hendrik Schön, piecing together the mechanics of how he fooled the scientific community and considering the motivations that may have driven him. Beyond this portrait of a single pathological scientist, though, the book considers the responses of Schön's mentors, colleagues, and supervisors, of journal editors and referees, of the communities of physicists and engineers. What emerges is a picture that challenges the widely held idea that science can be counted on to be self-correcting.

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Postcards from the Maker Faire.

Jun 01 2009 Published by under Engineering, Environment, Personal, Pop culture

On Saturday, the Free-Ride family went to the Maker Faire.
The place was abuzz with things to do and see and hear (and taste and feel), so we'll just give you the snapshot.

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Movie review: Orphans of Apollo.

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I've mentioned before that I grew up in a family that was fairly captivated by the U.S. space program, especially the Apollo program that brought humans to the Moon. But as impressive as those manned missions to the Moon were, what did the Apollo program accomplish? Where are our moon-bases?
Orphans of Apollo, a documentary film by Michael Potter, explores what one group of space exploration enthusiasts did when NASA's commitment to the space age seemed to falter. By the mid-1970s, the Apollo program that put Americans on the moon was done, with two planned Apollo missions cancelled. The U.S. had beaten the U.S.S.R. to the moon and brought back some moon rocks for study but what, really, had been accomplished? Had the moon landings left a lasting impact on human culture that was more than superficial?
The impact was anything but superficial on a generation of kids whose imagination was captured by the Apollo program. As these kids grew up, dreaming of a human future in space, NASA's visions and priorities shifted. This generation that assumed space travel and exploration almost as an American birthright felt orphaned by the American space agency.
But, as Orphans of Apollo tells it, a group of them found each other and started figuring out how to get a foothold in space. If NASA couldn't establish colonies on the moon or manned space stations, maybe the private sector could.

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A tremendous Luddite celebrates Ada Lovelace Day.

Today is Ada Lovelace Day.
Regular readers of this blog may recall that I am a tremendous Luddite. Obviously, this should not be taken to mean I am against all technological advances across the board (as here I am, typing on a computer, preparing a post that will be published using blogging software on the internet). Rather, I am suspicious of technological advances that seem to arise without much thought about how they influence the experience of the humans interacting with them, and of "improvements" that would require me to sink a bunch of time into learning new commands or operating instructions while producing at best a marginal improvement over the outcome I get from the technology I already know.
That is to say, my own inclination is to view technologies not as ends in themselves but as tools which, depending on how they are deployed, can enhance our lives or can make them harder.
The original Luddites were part of a workers' movement in England in the early 19th century. The technologies these Luddites were against included the mechanical knitting machines and looms that shifted textile production from the hands of skilled knitters and weavers to a relatively unskilled labor force tending to the machines. In the current economic climate, it's not too hard to see what the Luddites were worried about: even if the Industrial Revolution technologies didn't result in an overall decrease in jobs (since you'd need workers to tend the machines), there would be no reason to assume that the owners of textile factories would be interested in retraining the skilled knitters and weavers already in existence to be the machine-tenders. And net stability (even increase) in the number of jobs can be cold comfort when your job goes away.

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Book review: Wired for War.

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Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century
by P.W. Singer
New York: Penguin
2009

For some reason, collectively humans seem to have a hard time seeing around corners to anticipate the shape our future will take. Of those of us who remember email as a newish thing, I suspect most of us had no idea how much of our waking lives would come to be consumed by it. And surely I am not the only one who attended a lab meeting in which a visiting scholar mentioned a speculative project to build something called the World Wide Web and wondered aloud whether anything would come of it.
In the realm of foreign conflicts, our shared expectations also seem to land some distance from reality, as missions that are declared "accomplished" (or all but) stretch on with no clear end in sight.
In Wired for War, Brookings Institution senior fellow P.W. SInger asks us to try to peer around some important corners to anticipate the future of robotics in our conflicts and in our lives more broadly. The consequences of not doing so, he warns, may have significant impacts on policy, law, ethics, and our understanding of ourselves and our relation to our fellow humans.

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Edible (and sustainable) construction in a lean year.

You may remember that last year we were inspired by Bake for a Change to dabble in "green" gingerbread construction. As 2008 draws to a close, the challenge has been issued once again to make a house both good enough to eat and eco-friendly enough to heat (or cool, etc.).
The rules are the same as they were last year:

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'Stop snitching' as part of the engineering student ethos.

Once again, I'm teaching the relatively new ethics module in "Introduction to Engineering". Today was the discussion of what kinds of ethics might reasonably govern an engineering student's behavior, and how these might be important on the road to becoming a competent grown-up engineer.
So of course, we talked about cheating.

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