R&D is War [Book Review]

This book review isn’t going to take long for a few reasons.

  • This book is almost an autobiography of Clifford Spiro’s career experiences in research and development (R&D), so there’s not much technological review that I can write about
  • While I like to reduce the amount of content in the book to a few basic ideas and expectations, this book already has a “Lessons Learned” at the end of every chapter. I’ve marked each page in the book, so I can just find my favorites and rephrase them here.
  • Finally, this book is a rather smooth read, and it’s sprinkled with sarcasm. This is especially true when he references the sales (order takers) and finance (bean counters) personnel in the workforce. This is even more hilarious when it makes you realize that YOU are doing the exact same comparisons at your work.

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I picked up the book R&D is War mostly to see how excited I would get over the idea of re-pursuing a technological-based career path again. I’m currently an applications engineer (which is just a sales person that at least knows that I = V / R ….. along with a few other things). Now I’m at the point where I will not be valued based on improving my technical knowledge for the company, but more on “which customers do I know” and “how many profitable accounts have I’ve been connected with.” It wouldn’t be my preference, but that’s the life in a satellite sales office.

These personnel review meetings, which we discuss these question, make me realize that …………………. I belong somewhere else. Yeah…. that’s a nice euphemism for my internal response.

I got my PhD in microfabrication and phonics, so let’s put it to good use. I was initially scared away from R&D due the stress levels I experienced during my 5 years at MTU. However, I believe graduate school has it’s own deep pit of stress and misery that you wouldn’t find anywhere else.

Note: I will never get back into academia for personal (low levels of collaboration) and professional (academically inbred) reasons. So most of these topics will be mostly industry and slightly government lab based.

The one thing about R&D in industry, in comparison to all other business units, is that it works on the longest time scale. You can’t discern quarterly outcomes of your research like a CFO can look at sales charts. While some incremental development projects can be completed in a year, most work requires 2-5 years before they bear fruition. Thus, R&D employees tend to get the short end of the stick when it comes to company recognition [even look at Nobel peace prize winner Shuji Nakamura from Nichia in my previous book review Brilliant!]. When you invent the perfect material or product, the person that “completes the sale” tends to get the largest monetary compensation.

Another aspect in R&D is how poorly undervalued previously discovered knowledge is. While working on a project that did not turn into a success, it tends to prove useful for additional assignments. This is regardless of if any useful outcome is obtained or if “upper management decided to go in a different direction” [That was the response I got after an on-site interview after graduate school. I still like to question what that actually means ………….].

Based on Spiro’s experiences, the latter happens…… a lot. This personally makes sense, as most of the cost in developing a product or method is within the last 6-12 months getting the mass manufacturing production line up an running. Compared to the tens of millions of dollars to get a large-scale clean room line up and running that only does ONE thing, the lab time and costs are nothing in comparison. Knowledge is discovered and stored for another time.

A typical career in R&D is also not localized to only one field, where being a jack-of-all-trades can significantly help in additional positions. Spiro’s main example is using his rubber experience for light bulb coatings (after coming from coal ‘liquidizing’ and diamond ‘enhancement’).

R&D can also be volatile not just in specialties, but also in different positions at different companies. Industry will pay you well, but it will also let you go (sometimes with “nice parting gifts”). And advancement in each company will be environment dependent, so taking the effort to switch jobs (internally or externally) is sometimes ideal. This is especially true in the current world of globalization, where companies can only survive if they have an outsourced product where cheap manufacturing is the only way to create a cost-competitive product.

Let’s take light bulbs for example. Unless you are a lighting enthusiast, do you really buy lighting fixtures based on the color rendering capabilities of the source. I’m an engineer at a LED company, I still buy the cheapest $1-2 bulbs from Home Depot or Lowes (as long as they are LEDs, I’m fine with that).

At the end of the book, there are also some overall thoughts on intellectual property. The first is due to the risks for a company going global. Employees don’t just “pick up and fly to China,” so you have to employ local candidates in the area and train them, sometimes to replace your job before the company lays you off. These new employees need to know how to exactly develop and design the competitive product that you made at corporate R&D.

However, when you build sites in additional countries where IP laws are not as strict, there’s a chance that employees will just leave for other companies and utilize your “secret recipes” for their new company’s behalf. Spend millions on development, or pay someone $100,000/yr salary for the same knowledge at instant speed? Who wouldn’t do that? That’s why all job applications ask for candidates with “5+ years of experience”…………

[Ironically, all the Intel positions I’ve recently looked at were asking for 3 months. I like this approach. It basically asks a “Can we have an intelligent conversation on this topic? Yes or No?”]

Additionally, IP in the form of patents are typically a negative investment for most companies. Patents are an easy way to disclose your product research to everyone. And since they are so detailed, it’s easy for competitors to utilize and just “build off of that work” into something that is “unique” enough to sell in the market. Legal IP fights are too expensive for individual or small companies to compete in. The patent filing process also takes 2-5 years to complete as well [my patent is on year 3 right now in the filing process….], so the company should already be working on the next best thing by the time the patent is out in the public.

Bottom line: There’s a time and place for everything…….but a patent may not always be a the best option.

And that’s R&D in a nutshell….. in another nutshell.

I personally felt invigorated reading the book, and it only took a few leisure hours to finish the 160 pages of larger-than-normal text. Some people need the feedback of seeing their work go into a final product, and R&D would drive these individuals somewhat crazy. That’s one of the reasons why my manager left Yazaki to work for OSRAM OS as a sales engineer. I find myself to be the opposite. I personally wouldn’t mind working with projects that kept being ‘canned,’ as long as my diligence and hard work is appreciated.

I don’t expect raises or external gratification to be happy. I already get paid enough to feel comfortable living life [I’m a true believer that happiness scales with pay until you reach $75,000. From there on, personal happiness is all about expectations in luxury and tastes]. I find an inner happiness when I can play with expensive ‘toys’ and feel like I own a part of the company’s knowledge. The one thing I won’t stand for is negative feedback for a ‘lack on a return on investments.’ If the company’s management understands these risks and timeline associated with R&D,  I will gladly work with them.

 

 

 

 

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Brilliant! [Book Review]

Yes!

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In the realm of available books to read, the selection of those involving an inventor’s contribution towards a technological breakthrough for the benefit of society are slim. And even most of these are written by the inventors themselves, which tend to be smeared with a level of “smugness.” It’s almost like it’s the frosting on the celebrity cake that they have created for the fruits of their labor.

I swear, the main job of celebrities is to make sure that no one forgets that they exist….. books, shows, charities. (“philanthropists”…….I’m pretty sure most people with a multi-million dollar income would donate that level of income to those in need. What else would you do with it?)

The story of this book as portrayed by Bob Johnstone, the author, is slightly different. While Shuji Nakamura (the inventor of the bright blue LED) takes the center stage in this novel, this book is written as a story on both the technological reasoning behind the inventor, the political friction that evolved from these advances, and the opportunities that have arisen thanks to the various players in the new market.

Brilliant! is the story on the creation and adaption of the efficient and commercially viable blue LED. While blue LEDs have been made in the past, the efficiency was worse than the energy guzzling incandescent bulbs based from Edison’s original invention. These previous Silicon Carbide blue LEDs were mostly used to make small icons glow in various electronic devices, which isn’t that exciting. And we’ve had red LEDs for quite a while, which had a similar impact.

Another significant factor: the shorter the wavelength (blue or purple …. for those non physicists out there), the more useful the color typically is for extended applicatinos. It’s a lot easier (and efficient) to lengthen light (from blue to red) than it is to shorten it (from red to blue).

With the realization of blue LEDs, one can use part of the blue output to create other colors, including green, yellow, and (most importantly) white.

Blue + Yellow = White

White LEDs: the new source of interior illumination (Alliterations are awesome!).

Note: Yes, you can just create an LED that either creates green or yellow light. However, there are characteristics that blue LEDs plus a converting material have over a standard LED. For example, there’s no real magical formula to create a cheap, efficient green LED; efficiency peaks at blue and red for InGaN and InGaAlP respectively, the two chemical compounds currently used for commercial LEDs. InGaAlP LEDs used for red and yellow LEDs are also more sensitive to heat than blue InGaN LEDs, which makes them less practical for high power or extreme environmental applications (bright lights in broad daylight : the best of both worlds).

This literature starts its first quarter out as a biography of Shuji and his early career at Nichia Corporation. Not wanting to leave his comfortable rural area in Japan, he gets employed straight out of college at the local phosphor company. With a strive to make something successful for the company, he ruthlessly purses R&D in various projects with not much to show from it. While initial successes were always too late to market for any significant success, strongly due the small R&D headcount of ~1 in his field, he becomes desperate. Going against management internal politics, and gambles in the development of InGaN LEDs, which seemed impractical at the time.

[I’m still hoping that room temperature superconductors become a reality in my time…..]

During that time, there was a LOT of interest in creating blue LEDs, and there were two compounds with the “energy potential” to emit blue light efficiently: InGaN and ZnSe. And due to significantly high levels of failures from large-firm companies, only a few people still stuck with InGaN technology until Shuji’s development of the ideal recipe. However, when reality hit the fan, that’s where things got complicated.

The second section talks about some of the major shifts in lighting trends. Portable, efficient lights for third world countries become a beneficial alternative to burning flammable kerosene that produced hazardous fumes inside living quarters. LED lights made post-sunset activities more efficient and safe for those in remote locations. The realization of isolated safety and warning lights for remote locations became a realizable market, which included off-shore and sunlight-rechargeable applications. The evolution of lighting as a architectural aspect and main theme also allowed more control in directional lighting and color-controllable aspects thanks to RGB LEDs (Red, Green, and Blue LED inside a single device).

Similar manufacturing methods can also be utilized in the creation of UV LEDs. This market is filled with a plethora of different applications, from curing polymer materials in manufacturing to disinfecting water and public areas (including the bathroom). Previous sources of UV sources came from high-voltage Mercury vapor bulbs, a hazardous material, which emits a broad spectrum of wavelengths. UV LEDs have a fine, tunable output spectrum of energy which allows for more control in commercial and industrial applications.

However, this story is not all unicorns and rainbows. After making Nichia THE TOP manufacturer of LEDs in the world , Nichia…….basically treated Shuji like shit. No major pay raises were given to the inventor. In addition, they sideline him to a paperwork-pushing job out of pure spite by the head management and the CEO himself.  This “assumed sacrifice” that seems well-acknowledged in Japanese culture degraded Shuji to the point where he did something that’s frowned upon in his home country; he left his first company. He took an offer to work as a researcher associate in Santa Barbara.

He turned down a $500,000 salary from CREE during the process.

Of course, he did this to try and escape possible patent infringement that could arise from working with a competitor in the LED manufacturing market. However, Nichia still decides to sue this purely academic being on fraudulent claims of “leaking company secrets to its competitors.” This was also done in parallel with Nichia’s numerous lawsuits with its competitors to keep its choke-hold monopoly on the global production of InGaN LEDs. This latter half makes sense from Nichia’s standpoint with the goal to keep as much possible revenue within its country. The rural, formerly small-sized company has a strong desire to protect (most of) its employees with job security and a flourishing local economy.

But going after its former employee with massive lawsuits and filing their own fraudulent attempts to ruin Shuji’s reputation as the sole inventor of the blue LED…….Nichia even goes to the lengths of publishing and handing out free copies of their own book, “Blue Light Emitting Diode: Invented by Nichia Corporation and Its Young Engineers” (by anonymous authors….. of course). This book portrays a false tale of the company’s dedication of technological pursuit as a whole-company discovery and not a one-man army. Angered by the excess legal battles with Nichia, Shuji files his own counter lawsuit to reclaim some of the company’s profit gained based on his invention. This amount should have been around $190 million, but it was settled at ~$8 million (half of which went to cover Shuji’s legal bills, and the rest was definitely not worth the stress).

There is a fourth quarter of the book, but it’s more of a continuation of the second quarter in terms of emerging markets and lighting trends. I found myself skimming over this section due to the boring aspects of “famous people” finding more “novel business models.”

Despite the last quarter of the novel, I found the book a very entertaining read. It expressed a lot of the technical areas that both explained the complications realized during the history of the blue LED, but also the technical reasoning why specific methods or models were used. There is discussion on the “snow” that can occur in the semiconductor crystal growth chambers (MOCVD). The selection of growth processes and substrate issues involved in LED fabrication are also brought up. All of these technical topics are not expressed in academic detail but enough that even the uneducated reader can understand and comprehend.

I even learned a few new things, as some aspects in technology (such as selection of growth methods) are not easily found in textbooks or scholarly papers without a fight.

Oh yeah, the book also does have a few images showing various players in the book.

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Programming the Universe [Book Review]

I noticed that while I’m at work, I tend to get disappointed whenever I see a PowerPoint slide without a picture. There’s something magical about being able to connect a theory, statement, or an idea to a visual symbol. And my laziness to actually take pictures of my books at memorable sections has been in stark contrast to my preferences. This is something that I want to fix from now. Hopefully, I’ll also take photos of my books before I throw their “protective coverings” away (like in the book below).

But I found out that I can skip a few steps using the WordPress App. I can take a picture on my phone and upload it to my website, skipping a few steps along the way. Thank you website!

Well, on to the actual book review: Programming the Universe.

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The title does state most of what you would find within the book. It’s not necessarily about actually programming the universe (surprise), but the methodology in which one COULD simulate physics, life, and the underlying forces of nature.

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That’s the easy answer, though. The book goes deep into the idea of what information is, how to define it at the quantum level, and how quantum information can be used for unique computational methods (possibly being able to outperform conventional computers in the future). An actual summary the book in two words: “Quantum Computing.” That’s the short answer that may need some explanation (hence the book review).

If you are vaguely familiar with quantum mechanics, you have probably heard a bunch of weird quotes, which are theoretically true. I could walk through the wall because a small part of me exists on the other side. A bouncing ball in your hand could pop out of existence and reappear nearby. The reasoning behind these thought experiments is that, deep down, everything exists as a “wave.” The smaller the unit, the larger an area its wave-like nature is in size. This wave, in theory, is “the probably of where that item’s existence is at any specific moment.”

Electrons are funny “particles,” if that’s an accurate way to state them. If given multiple paths to travel, it will take them all at the same time [The same thing goes for photons, atoms, etc.]  Unless it decides to interact with something else, it stays like a wave until doing so. But when it does, all the energy in a wave “collapses” on a very specific location (which is pseudo-randomly chosen based the shape of it’s wave). That’s why we got pixels on old CRT TVs (remember those bulky displays?). The electron beam didn’t make a broad splash but typically hit a phosphor screen at a specified spot.

It’s also the reason why electrons exist in orbitals around the atom, instead of falling straight towards the positive nucleus like a meteor in the night sky. The wave “wraps” around the nucleus with a minimal energy level looking like a marble. Excited levels of the electron wave look like ripples in water; the more excited the particle is, the choppier the water appears.

The main line is that individual quantum objects, or qubits, (electrons and atoms included) act as waves until we “disturb” them. The neat thing about waves is that we can add multiple types of waves on top of each other, a term called “superposition” in quantum mechanics. Just like multiple notes played on a piano, multiple waves can exist in a single qubit (quantum bit), and they can be used for computations simultaneously.

The quantum computer, in theory, involves taking a bunch of qubits (particles or otherwise) and exciting them with their initial superposition of initial quantum states (lasers or Electromagnetic fields). Then these qubits will interact with each other and over a brief time will “collapse” into the final answer when “measured.” …..I think……

Unfortunately, the author Seth Lloyd, doesn’t relay many of the technical details on HOW to build a quantum computer (I mean, he helped build one). There’s a decent amount of theory involving the types of waves that can be used. This included atomic nuclear spins, electron excitation levels, and currents in superconducting rings. There’s a little bit of talk on interactions between lasers and atoms. However, this entire section only takes up 21 pages. And for a 200+ page document about quantum computing, wouldn’t you think it would be a larger chunk of the literature?

For example, there’s one page that talks about superconducting loops: Josephson junctions. I would have probably just skimmed this section, but I recently learned about them by browsing my Modern Physics textbook a few weeks ago. In superconductors, there’s a phenomenon call Cooper pairs (not mentioned), where the electrons all interact with each other in-sync and result in a single “wave” of electrons. Being a wave, the electron flow can go both clockwise AND counterclockwise simultaneously (which is briefly mentioned). By applying a magnetic field, the electrons can start to “spin” as desired (zero resistance means an indefinite flow of current without a voltage drop in the loop) within the circle and can the final results can be measured using an applied voltage (also not mentioned). In a nutshell, the book basically says that it was difficult to prove these devices initially, and then it was possible…… I mean, c’mon!

Being a quantum physicist in the mechanical engineering department at MIT, the author’s writing (and possibly most of his works) also seem to be more philosophical rather than technical. The first 100 pages (which doesn’t even touch the topic of quantum physics yet), is more of a pursuit of the terminology of bits, information, and the energy tied to the computation of data. There’s also an entire chapter in the back of the book on the topic of defining complexity (he currently has 30+ different measures of it)……

But seriously, I was definitely looking towards obtaining more technical information on this potential future technology. Not on how the universe is going to die, and on how we could live forever as a supreme being as large as the universe, fed off the scarce potential energy at the expanding edges of the universe and slow our internal processing down to the point where internal thoughts would take decades to compute……….. And that’s the last chapter?

As you can tell, I’m not really thrilled about this book. I fell asleep a lot reading it, hoping it would get more interesting. Yes, I did learn a few things, and cemented many more concepts I’m already aware of. But I don’t see myself recommending this book. I bought this book at a used bookstore in an airport (that I approve of!), and I was determined to finish it. The 3.7 rating on Amazon helps confirm my level of “excitement” towards this work.

I also have to say something about large numbers in a book. It’s one thing to put them in a text book, as if something you would reference or use in a computation. But almost every 5-6 pages, the author says something outrageous and attaches a number to it. Like 10^91 or 0.5^1024 or something outrageous. I’ve seen this done before in previous books, but it’s only happened like 2-5 times total in most, not >50 times (a possible exaggeration). There’s something distracting about these numbers, as if they have an importance that requires me to remember them. I have to force myself to step back and tell myself “It’s just a crazy large number, what’s the real idea that I want to take away from this paragraph!”

And they all are. 10^91, the number of bits in the universe? No one can fathom such a number! Yeah, sure it’s not as big as 10^122, the number of computations that a cosmological computer could have performed since the big bang….. but both numbers are still psychologically indistinguishable to a normal reader. It’s kind of like my rant over random people and quotes in my book review of “American Nations;” save the gritty details for the textbooks, please?

But …….. if you’re really into monkey-based analogies, this may be the book for you:

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The Push [Book Rant]

Being stuck on an airplane, though not the most glamorous of moments, never really pushed my limits. I used to bring along my portable gaming systems and grind them out for hours on end. And now, I’ve decided to feel more “productive” rather than get lost in a virtual reality building upon virtual digits: levels, gold coins, and achievements. However, I find that airplanes are now equipped with many forms of distraction, now that everyone has 1-2 screens in front them. Currently, half of them are playing your classic “cheesy” modern films that I can never relate to.

During that time, I finished reading a book: The Push. It’s not the type of book that I would personally buy. I received it as a gift from my sister’s long-term boyfriend. He has had a longer history in rock climbing, and I’ve been successfully going to the local rock climbing gym multiple times a week. Today, I drove straight from the gym to the airport; Planet Rock has become my second home at this point.

Additionally, and also unexpectedly, this is going to be a longer-than-average “book review.” I have a lot I would like to say……

Being in Michigan, there’s really no good outdoor climbing opportunities available without driving > 5 hours southwest to the Appalachians. This literature fills in that lack of mental awareness on the outdoor rock climber’s lifestyle and the pains that accompany it. And Tommy Caldwell, the author, does this to the extreme, basically since birth. It always helps if you have a strong role-model for a father which you can follow in his footsteps, if you so choose. I have never felt the urge to take up dairy farming, that in which my parents have successfully done from almost nothing. I scraped enough cow manure in my lifetime.

Thus, this is a story of someone being “all in.” Literally. No education, no backup plan, no nothing.

After high school, he pursued a career in rock climbing. He lived in his van for multiple years, driving to locations to build his portfolio of personal fame while driving back home occasionally to raid his parent’s cabinets for food. Months consisted of minimal monetary backing, while living frugal and finding pleasantries in a thrift lifestyle, preferably where money wasn’t required. Hiking trails and visiting local libraries come to mind.

And in terms of most full-time athletes, fame is required to bring in free gear, sponsorships for paid tours, slideshow and video appearances, and eventually grants to write novels. But it takes years for a consistent sponsor-supported income, almost decades for Tommy due to the low popularity of rock climbing compared to your more “modern” TV-sponsored sports. Through most of his life, Tommy’s income is on the level of what a janitor would make.

But……..

It is not only is it the price you pay to do what you love, but it also allows you to enjoy a lifestyle that sharply deviates from a normal schedule. Three months tours of Europe, with most (major) expenses paid. A close, but global set of contacts that open up unique doors in culture and communication. All the while, however, there is lurking shadow of what could happen that could end it all. And very abruptly.

Personally, I have a hard time defending these extreme acts of pushing the human’s limit. And it’s not just rock climbing, but anything requiring years of training. Olympics included. In order to achieve these heights, that individual requires a team for support: coach(es), therapists, dieticians, sponsors. And this is done while sacrificing those closest to you. All for something that has no real societal value beyond some form of what-if trivia and “entertainment.” And in order for there to be superstars, as I’ve learned in the business world, the sacrifices of others need to create the ridiculous momentum required.

But there’s something to say about having a goal to live for. I don’t think it should take up ALL of your time, however, but having a deep strive is what makes one an individual. In this day and age, you see so many people spiritually die. They have no strive to learn or improve. They stay static, monotone, in the forms that bring instant pleasure without any resistance: food, sex, and sleep included.

I will see this especially in couples, where the weaker link can become an anchor in the relationship as a whole. Neither can agree on a direction and thus succumb not even the hanging fruit. I see them go on their 15 minute walks with their tiny puppies (a common appearance in my apartment complex).

Note: I’m NOT a pet person. Personally, animals should either be left in the wild or (sparingly) served on a dinner plate.

In addition, developing a skill or talent gives you perseverance and a positive outlook on life. Your time feels worth living. It develops an attractiveness (for both genders) that irradiates a social boost to those close around you. You don’t have to be famous to enjoy life or to become a good example.

Looking back, especially after reading this book, I don’t real any personal goal deep enough that spiritually drives me forward. I am decent at guitar, and I am proud that I can play and sing along to Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah.” I can do some rad yo-yo tricks while I continue to improve my finger and palm grinds. And I can enjoy biking trails for hours, with butt pains being my limiting factor.

The biggest activities that I enjoy doing are reading/writing (including this blog) and backpacking. I have done some wonderful weekend backpacking trips that still bring senses of independence and comfort. Additionally, I do miss the R&D lifestyle that I lived back in grad school, despite the financial limitations. Bringing papers home to read, working on expensive machinery in the clean room. Skills that not many people can say they have experienced.

And now……I’m a PowerPoint engineer for a sales office in metro Detroit.

However, I don’t find myself running home to/from work in anticipation to improve any one of these skills. While I do try to keep an active lifestyle, I still feel myself dying in a sense of personal creativity. Ever since I have gotten divorced, my expertise has improved over these multiple factors. But was it due to the massive amounts of free that that have opened up for me? Do I find myself scattered over too many interests in pursuit of the next personal distraction? Or is it from my developed emotional dependence on my spouse’s happiness. I despised soda, but I would still buy her Coke from the grocery store.

Tommy has also had his spells with relationships and divorce. Like how Kristina and I heavily pursued our efforts in grad school, we always talked about where we’d live and what our kid’s names would be once we’ve completed our education hurdles. Likewise, there was this strange sense of dependence that Tom had for his first wife, Beth, during his 20’s that I found quite relatable; always trying to put your partner’s feelings first, turning into this mental machine of emotional dependence. At least Tommy had climbing afterwards. I found myself becoming dependent on the next woman in my life, and now I’m stranded. This habit and current living location, things I hope I break before I decide to marry again (if the opportunity arises).

The book also has a hidden topic on the topic of selfishness. Where do you draw the line between putting everything aside for your personal fulfillment and public fame? While Tommy and Beth both led a lifestyle of professional rock climbing ……………..

I can’t finish that last paragraph. In truth, I don’t know why they divorced. And I don’t feel like hypothesizing. Just like in my story, there are theories that Kristina left me for someone that reminded her more of home. Or maybe she needed someone to take care of. Nonetheless, I (would like to) believe that it is actually for the best. For the both of us. If the topic arises, I tend to say, “My divorce has been the best and worst thing that has ever happened to me.”

I read this book at almost a rate of 100 pages/day (~4 days in total). My hands are now tinted with black and gold from the hardcover’s cheap paint job. But it’s a story in which I was surprised at the depth one person can go; chaining yourself to the same wall for weeks just to study which peppercorn-shaped knobs will hold your weight…..

Oh yeah, I totally forgot to go into what this book is actually about! But I did warn you, this is a book rant, not a review.

In Yosemite, there is a ledge called El Capitan, or El Cap for short. There are many possible routes on the wall, but some are known to be impassible. One of those thought accordingly was the Dawn Wall. Basically it looked like a flat piece of vertical rock; there wasn’t much to hold onto. So the only way to climb such a route was with assistance, being pulled up to help reduce some of your own personal weight to complete the climbs.

Nowadays, most people want to “free climb” their routes. This involved being able to pull your own body weight without fail between sections, or pitches in rock climbing jargon. If you fall during a pitch, you start at that pitch’s beginning (not at the very bottom of the wall) and try again. If you are doing 10-20 pitches on a wall, you are going to be sleeping on the wall for a few nights. The Dawn Wall took >15 days.

Note: In free climbing, participants still use ropes for protection. There is also the practice of “free soloing,” where if you fall….you die. Basically, don’t do it unless you both want instant fame AND you nothing else to live for. Bottom line: DON’T DO IT!

So after seven years, on-and-off, of studying the wall and almost memorizing it move-by-move, Tommy and his climbing partner, Kevin, spent almost three weeks on the wall to successfully free climb each pitch in succession without leaving. Something thought impossible before. But after inflamed tendons, continuously bloody fingers, and nerve wrecking expectations, it was done. In December! They could have died from falling ice ……. but fortunately didn’t.

This is one of the stories in which someone has succeeded. The novel is littered with trials faith, endurance, and patience. Social isolation, monetary limits, emotional terror and confusion, broken physical limits, marital stress, and a loss of an index finger. But remember, many others have tried to live this this lifestyle and have nothing to prove for it. Others will never be even able to tell the tale of failure; some of the author’s friends die in this story. Just like anyone can die in a car crash, any climber can suffer the fate of a weak hold, avalanches of rock and ice, and “widowmakers.”

Nevertheless, the book has helped me cement my personal new year’s resolution: “Find a lifestyle worth living for, personally, and start rolling in that direction.” This year may be a little weird, and I may end up burning a few bridges along the way. Regardless, I feel it as a necessary step towards obtaining self-fulfillment. I’m done feeding off of a desire for social acceptance; true friends will accept me regardless of my ambitions.

How Innovation Really Works [Book Review]

Happy New Year!

And with the beginning of 2018, it’s time for a new book review.

And like new year’s resolutions, we like to get straight to the point (and finish early). Not going to lie, reading this book felt like going through a “dumbed-down” version of a dissertation. It had the many qualities that you would find in such a document (and in this order):

  • What has happened in the past, and why it doesn’t work?
  • What did I do to help fix this problem?
  • What did I find? What were the results?
  • Look….. equations!
  • Conclusionss in each section AND in the conclusion chapter.

I was a little worried at first, because it kind of had a similar feel to a previous book I reviewed, “Life at the speed of light.” But this book stayed on target, and I was not disappointed in the book’s material. Additionally, the book was, ironically for this type of book, mentally engaging. Half of the chapters are based off of misconceptions that most readers would consider “strong” before reading this book. Concepts were challenged based off of a common sense mentality and discussed the reasoning behind why some methods worked and others just made things worse.

Spoiler alert:  The chapter titles did spoil half of the surprise on which practices were inefficient.

This book is about Research and Development (R&D), and how best to optimize it (from a corporate standpoint). To stay strong, most industrial corporations must stay ahead of (or at least keep up with) the wave of technological progression. If it doesn’t keep up, no one buys your stuff and the company economically dies.

So companies give smart people LOTS of money and hope for the best. That’s the cool part about R&D in general.

But how much money is enough……and how should it get invested? Do you invest most of it in research OR development? Where should R&D take place? Should it be internally conducted? Or should you just buy it from someone else and not even bother setting up a lab?

How Innovation Really Works, written by Anne Knott, dives into these questinos. And no, it wasn’t her PhD dissertation work re-written into a book format. [It was “Do Managers Matter?” (I haven’t found a free copy to read yet)]. And the main tool that she uses to determine R&D efficiency is RQ (research quotient), a unit-less measurement that was founded by the author of this book over 10+ years of research and evaluation.

RQ also trademarked……in case you were wondering.

To calculate a company’s RQ score, years of financial data are required. Harvesting the fruits of R&D labor typically occurs after years of effort, so ~5 years minimum of data are required for an accurate “estimation” of a company’s performance.  Consequently, a company’s stock prices (also required) are correlated with a company’s RQ score. This correlated time lag between these two values is taken into account into calculating a company’s RQ value. This information is then applied to a regression analysis to observe the impact of R&D funding has on company performance in the following equation:

Output ~ [R&D Budget]^(RQ) x [Capital/Labor/Advertising/Etc.]

Also for normalization purposes (and ease understanding), the values are adjusted to read similar to the IQ scale in determining a human’s “cognitive skills,” with an average score of a 100 for all companies.

RQ is not necessarily independent on HOW MUCH money the R&D budget is. Sometimes investing more into development can improve the sector’s potential. Alternatively, RQ can fall drastically if too much money is allocated due to inefficient monetary allocation. But the major player that impacts RQ are the corporation’s internal practices. Below are a list of some major factors:

  • The number of patents filed is NOT a strong measurement of R&D performance. Most companies only patent for legal protection and leverage, while keeping many “crucial” discoveries as internal secrets hidden from the public (and thus hard to measure externally).
  • A major shift in corporate practice has been the “external allocation” of technological advances. Unfortunately, this work is filled with proof demonstrating that this trend is detrimental to a company’s financial potential, but sometimes necessary if time is of the essence. Once intellectual property has been purchased (which is NEVER cheap), the company still has to spend internal R&D resources to build up it’s understanding and incorporation into current procedures, which is basically redoing the work that was previously done by others. As stated by the author, “outsourced R&D had an RQ of zero!”
  • Companies tend to be split between having a single R&D headquarters vs. multiple field-specific sites. While it looks good on paper, the latter method reduces the potential to network between business segments to combine multiple distinct ideas into novel products. Additionally, the concept of R&D “silos” has the additional disadvantage of multiple groups working on the same problem, possibly leading to competitive vs. collaborative efforts (or even worse, not even knowing that the problem has already been solved internally).
  • R&D efforts can be split between research AND development tasks (companies mostly do r&D, with a strong emphasis on development). It can also be divided between incremental and radical innovation. Radical work involves more “fancy” topics including fusion science, gene editing, and other “start-up” ideas. But incremental works are the major game changers for large companies, allowing manufacturing costs to be reduced and product specifications to be improved.

These ideas, and many others, can better be explained by the RQ methodology. It gives R&D and upper management a clearer windows to observe which practices improve a company’s competitive edge and how efficiently it does so. It also lays out the reasoning why this method is superior to previous methods of innovation ranking, including patent potential, total factor productivity (TFP), and Innovation Premium (IP).

The one slightly-obvious detrimental aspect to this book’s appeal is it’s portrayal on RQ; it’s too positive. Just like in the dissertation model, it’s almost a long advertisement for the author’s personal “invention” (for lack of a better word at the moment). Like it’s a tool that can be bought for consulting purposes.

Not surprisingly, this is what you get when you do a quick Google search on RQ ……..

RQ_Website.PNG

 

But the book still doesn’t state ANY methods of WHY it could possibly not work, or at least the possible limitations in this measurement. It lists some, but then right away “proves” that’s not the case with RQ.

Everything has some sort of weakness or limitation. Heroes can (and will) die. Corporate expansion plans can become disastrous if projected growth does not occur. Scientific theories are only applicable if certain caveats are ignored [From my experience, anything with the term nonlinear is always the exception rather than the rule]. And this RQ has got to have some limitation, with examples out there to prove them. While the concept is quite convincing, I can’t fully believe in the methodology until I have both sides of the story.

 

 

Side Rant: Leia should have died in space during that last movie. It would have made the movie more believable.

American Nations [Book Review]

Quick background story on how I started reading this book:

When you go the rock climbing gym 3-5 times/week, you get to know and befriend the staff there (while they prowl around for “noobs” and making sure no one falls to their deaths). Turns out that working at the gym is quite social, so many typically prefer isolated activities outside of work, including reading.

This is actually the opposite problem I have; I want to get out more and socialize. Unfortunately, this is harder to do than convincing your book to be read…..

So while I talked about Antifragile, one of the staff mentioned this book as an enjoyable read. So I bought it online that night and started reading in two days. Bet you can’t guess where I bought it from…….

Needless to say ………….. I got tricked into reading a history book.

But it’s a very engaging read, at least for the first hundred or so pages. There’s this subtle transition as it goes from “theory” to “detail” where I started finding myself glossing over the subsequent paragraphs hunting for gems knowledge that I found plentiful shallow to the cover’s surface. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

American Nations. As you can tell, it talks about the nations in America, specifically in North America. While most people would think these nations are Canada, the USA, and Mexico, that’s actually false due to the technical definition of nation (for those in the social sciences). The United States is a “state,” a political entity with a government, a flag, a postal code….you get the idea. In contrast, a “nation” is an area with a sense of culture and social identity. And these nations can cross “state” borders, with the strong example being the American-Hispanic culture found along both sides of the US-Mexico border.

The author, Colin Woodard, writes about the main nations that are present in North America. He sections the continent off into 11 different zones, each with cultural cores and levels of diffusion between each other. While you can find individuals in each nation that don’t represent these descriptions, he argues that the area as a whole plays a larger role on the nation’s identity, goals, and actions. And despite the massive waves of immigration that the continent has undergone over the last five centuries, these nations are strongly influenced by the initial settlers for each region. When new settlers arrive in an already founded nation, they assimilate to their new local culture instead of altering it.

Thus, when one argues about how our current political system is gridlocked between two completely different arguing parties, we must do what us Americans are really good at doing. Blaming someone else!

And in this case, it’s our ancestors.

Over half of these nations were taking root by the late 18th century. The Spanish Armada had infiltrated Central America and spread northward into Texas, New Mexico, and California. Settlers from Barbados have invested in their traditional southern farming lifestyles in South Carolina and Georgia. Noble Englishmen with their aristocratic nature started sporting the wilds in Virginia and growing tobacco. The Quakers initially started in Pennsylvania and soon spread westward with their strong background in farm land management. The Dutch founded a major trading post, New Amsterdam (now New York City), and stayed near the ocean. The Irish skipped the coastline altogether and went straight into the mountains to live in isolation. And the “Yankees” landed in the Boston area after landing the Mayflower around Cape Cod, MA.

These nations are currently known as El Norte, the Deep South, Tidewater, the Midlands, New Netherlands, Greater Appalachia, and Yakeedom respectively. While they are all in close proximity to one another, the cultures that inhabited them all had strongly contrasting ideas on how life for everyone should be lived. The Deep South comes from a background of brutal slave lords, which believed in strong caste systems and selective individual superiority. Yankeedom forced governmental regulations which enforce personal sacrifices (mostly taxes) for the greater good of the entire society. And the Midlands and Greater Appalachia….. kind of just wanted to be left alone, with the latter group being a lot more resentful and trigger-happy towards acts of violence.

As the US spread westward as a state, each nation also had a desire to expand their beliefs and, as a result, their influence on the state’s governmental actions. The book goes into more detail on how each nation reacted during the revolution, the US civil war, the numerous US/Mexico conflicts, and the industrial revolution.

In particular, the industrial revolution opened up the Far West and the Left Coast nations and accelerated their own sense of identity. The Left Coast was a hybrid between El Norte and Yankeedom that occurred due to the isolation present from the original colonies thanks to the inhabitable Far West region that wasn’t efficiently inhabited until the invention of the rail road. Any image that pictures the Wild West is a close approximation to the development of the Far West nation.

For visual reference, a nice map of the current regions can be found in the link below:

https://jaymans.wordpress.com/american-nations-series/

I found myself going through a lot of “Oh…..that’s why!” moments while reading this book. For example, New York City is the bustling commerce/fashion hub it is today because it was The Original multi-cultural trading port of the western world that embraced a strong level of diversity acceptance and tolerance from the very start of the nation.

Additionally, the first quarter of the book was completely about the people, their lifestyles and hardships, and the cultural ideals they wanted to live. Unless you were poor and desperate, one needed a strong sense of mental strength to drag their family halfway around the world and settle in an unknown territory, possibly full of harmful locals, Native and European descents alike. But for those that persevered, their sense of cultural identity stuck!

But in order to fill up the last 3/4 of the book, it involves filling you in on what happened between then and now. And with each nation being involved in all of the continents struggles one way or another, the author has to bounce back and forth between these nations one-paragraph-at-a-time. This by itself can be a little jostling at times for the reader.

Personally, I think I could have been fine without the multiple pages worth of quotes from each nation’s locals and political leaders. I find the use of names of individuals mentally disengaging, especially if they are only going to appear once or twice in the entire novel. It’s one thing to associate multiple items and events to a single person (like a biography). In contrast, you get nothing when you describe an event with a bunch of names.

One of the main reason why people in general are bad at remembering names is because names don’t mean anything by themselves. They have to be tied to a mental idea or emotion to have value. Unless they are found very attractive, people have no unconscious motivation to remember the names of people they just met.  So when George Cabot comes into the picture……..why would I care what he says?!

Bottom line. Skip the quotes. Turn them in more engaging sentences and cite them later.

And yes, I know Colin already does this in his novel. And it’s actually done quite well! So all I would have preferred is to just cut the excess. That way, my mind doesn’t have to filter through the book for what I really enjoy reading.

Even if the book would have been shorter, sometimes less (physically) is more (appealing). Kind of like body weight; there’s a healthy medium that an author should strive to achieve.

Bottom line #2: Good book. The first half of the book was well worth the $15 I spent on this soft cover novel. I just wish the second half the book was just as addicting as the first section.

 

 

A Crack in Creation [Book Review]

So if you have you been listening to some of the most hyped up scientific discoveries in the last decade, you have probably heard of CRISPR (no E) and it’s potential in gene editing technology. And as you can guess, this book is on that technology. The book gives you a good description on the technology, how it works, and its application in the first half. Then it continues with an ethical conversation on its possible portfolio of applications in the second half. This section, personally, was almost overly-detailed to the point of me losing interest in the subject……….but I’ll get to that.

But first the fun part: the technology.

CRISPR (cluster regularly inter-spaced short palindromic repeats). I actually have no idea what “palindromic” means, but we don’t really have to. It just means that there’s a sequence of identical sequence of repeated genes in the genome. They are never spaced throughout the gene, just in a designated section.  And between these sequences are copies of viral DNA. It’s basically a library that the genome references when it needs to identify what is “foreign DNA” (typically viruses).

How do we apply these CRISPR genes for gene editing?

…………………

………………..

We don’t. I don’t know why we keep calling it CRISPR, but here’s probably the reason:

The cell as a whole manufacture proteins of various functions and types. Mostly any action that a cell can do is dependent on the functionality of some sort of protein (or in most cases, A LOT of proteins). And the cell’s self-defense system is one of them. Specific proteins will create unique “tags” of DNA from the CRISPR genes, and other proteins will utilize these “tags” to hunt down matching DNA and cut it up.

The last part is the significant aspect of the whole CRISPR system: the protein that utilizes a tag to cut up DNA. We just want that protein, typically known as Cas9 (Crisper ASsociated protein #9).

We don’t need the CRISPR genes, just the Cas9 proteins that attach to the tags created from other Cas proteins.

Jennifer, both the author of this book and “finder” of the Cas9 protein’s potential, initially noticed that for Cas9 to function naturally it needed two pairs of genetic code to function: the strand to bind to the virus DNA and the second to bind to the protein itself. Natural selection wasn’t efficient enough to just make one gene strand that could do both…….so that’s what her team and the following major publication demonstrated:

1 protein + 1 gene strand = 1 precise cut

It’s not 100% precise, but it’s pretty darn close compared to the previous technologies available. And since we can just have bacteria make more of the protein, it’s dirt cheap (relatively to biochemistry standards, that is). And if you make two types of Cas9-encoded proteins, you can cut two locations and remove a subsection of DNA from the system.

Note that Cas9 doesn’t fix anything; it just cuts DNA. If you want to add DNA to the genome, it gets a little more sketchy. We don’t have any specific biochemical tools that say “put x gene in y location.” Scientists just utilize the cell’s own DNA repair mechanism (more proteins) to either stitch the genes (either referencing a floating template gene, the partner chromosomal pair, or just haphazardly) back together. So some genetic diseases are easier to cure than others, in the case of adding vs. deleting genetic information.

Note: I don’t know if it’s a field yet, but I love the idea of “protein engineering.” Currently, we just see what mother nature already makes, and we research what else we can do with these products. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could use quantum biological physics to build a protein model from scratch to do X, and just inject DNA into a protein to manufacture the desired “artificial” molecule? That’s the scientific breakthrough that I am waiting for!

And that’s how Cas9 (CRISPR technology) works. Part II is about integration. Which starts out technical, but drags out into being ethical.

Cas9 has already been used on a lot of applications, though most of them have only been in research labs. Food, animals, human cells. Finding a target gene and cutting it. If you want to add genes, you inject the cells with template genes for the body to use as a repair blueprint. And that’s how you replace an A with a G (or a lot more than that). It’s a lot easier to do when there are less cells, like a sample of bone marrow or a single germ (egg/sperm) cell.

The coolest method of implication that the book talked about is the gene drive. For a gene drive to work, the newly implemented gene also codes for the Cas9 protein and “gene tags” itself! If one chromosome has this gene, it creates the Cas9 protein and ensures the paired chromosome also undergoes the same edit. This guarantees that its offspring/kids/baby kittens will get one of those genes during reproduction, edits the other parent’s inherited genes, and the cycle continues until the entire population inherits the “driven gene(s).” This is one way to kill the mosquito population: female sterility. The males can still inherit the gene and produce with the unaffected females until there’s no more fertile females left….. and the whole population just collapses! We just need to make one mosquito with the gene drive and let it free!

And that brings us to the ethical issues. A technology so easily accessible, financially and technically (there’s simple lab kits available now). Could it be used to target a specific ethnicity with a specific genetic trait? Would a single edited creature bring the downfall to a major staple in the food chain (or food web if you prefer)? Does this bring into similar disputes against GMO (genetically modified organisms) and its human-consumed products?

This book goes on for ~50 pages of continuous questions, details on international meetings, social opinions, and related technological disputes. A major lash back on the technology was when a group in China (it would be China) did the first Cas9 edits on a fertilized human egg cell [Yes, it passed China’s ethical standard boards, and the cells wouldn’t develop anyway due to an intended flaw in the genome. But in the name of Science, anything goes ……. I guess]. A lot of questions, and not a lot of answers. Whatever answers we do have are very opinionated and dependent on our upbringings, beliefs, and possibly our current mood.

Just like politics…..

But you can never tell what is good until it actually happens. You can’t make a statement until you have data on the subject. And that’s the scary part; we may overshoot the technological harm an idea might bring BEFORE we can detect and the situation becomes irreversible.

But Jennifer (the author) also brings up her own, and quite compelling, opinions for the utilization of the Cas9 protein. While this procedure does cause an artificial edit in the gene, it is far more controlled and occurs significantly less than what occurs naturally in your own body. There’s random breaks, radiation edits, chromosomal twists and recombinations, and even “jumping genes” that move on purpose (please don’t ask me why). And while there may be some ethical dilemmas that we face, the main drive behind this technology is overall positive (mostly for mankind; not for the mosquitoes). And there may be a time where we ask ourselves if it’s ethical NOT to edit an embryos genome so it can live a happy, healthy, and self-fulfilling lifestyle!

There’s also an underlying fact that I truly appreciate the author bringing up within the last chapter. The technology behind CRISPR was not something that was a direct action to discover a specific tool. No one said, “I want a better gene editing tool”……research, research, research……..”Eureka, I’ve done it!” CRISPR has been known for a long time now, and the discovery of the proteins that utilize it have been known (but their underlying reactions and workings were not). Jennifer didn’t even know much about CRISPR until someone approached her and asked if they could use her genomic expertise to help solve their questions on these CRISPR associated proteins. So while Jennifer and her team did publish the first paper on the understanding and application of the Cas9 protein, a lot of additional thanks have to be given to those that enabled her research group to go in that direction.

In the end, research is about discovering an area and seeing what comes up. Sometimes it gives you lemonade, sometimes it gives you lemons. But I’ll tell you what… most of the time it just gives you lumps of rocks. And it’s hard being a scientist for that reason.

A big thank you to all researchers out there in the world! Even though most of you don’t find things as “awesome” as the Cas9 protein, we at least know that those areas don’t contain any groundbreaking technology. And it’s all thanks to you [and trust me, I’ve been there].

 

Also……..F#@k mosquitoes.