ramblings of an aimless mind

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Thinking big…while thinking small.

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Ever since people back home got whiff of the fact that I was doing a PhD in “Nanotechnology”, I am usually asked by eager friends and acquaintances about the latest and the greatest in the field. I always start out by saying that “nanotechnology” is in fact too generic a term for anyone to be an expert of,  and I know only a tiny little part of it, before launching into my view on all and sundry. After many a discussion and a talk to the local Rotary club, I thought maybe it would be good to post what I said as a starting point for a series on Nanotechnology. I often find that writing helps to crystallise my thoughts and understand things better, so this endeavour should be educational.

What is it? and why is it different?

A good starting point is to ask what nanotechnology is and what it encompasses. There does not seem to be a definition set in stone, but a commonly accepted (and in this case, heavily paraphrased) one is “any technology that derives its defining feature because some aspect of it is 100 nm or less in dimension“. So a bag of cement which derives some qualities (more strength, less weight etc) from the presence of 50 nm particles inside it is nanotechnology, while the Ipod Nano, however much Apple would like to claim so, is not.

Note: If you are unfamiliar with the nomenclature, a nanometer is a billionth of a meter. A human hair is roughly 50,000 nanometers. That should give a good idea of how small things are.

So what is different with nanotechnology? In the broad context, I would say nothing much is different. The same laws of physics apply as they do to micro, macro and mega-technology (if such words exist). What is different is the relative importance of each law when they act on different materials of different sizes. A good way to think about it is to conduct a thought experiment where we consider that every object is acted upon by gravity and some fictitious force that is pushing it away from the earth. Also assume that the fictitious force has a constant magnitude equal to that which gravity has on a 1kg mass. So how does this situation pan out for objects of different masses? For something human-sized (roughly 70-80Kg), gravity is about 70-80 times stronger and so dominant that the fictitious force will simply not be noticed. As we go to smaller objects, the relative strength of gravity decreases and that of the fictitious force increases. The tipping point is when the mass of the object reaches 1kg. Now both the forces exactly balance out and any object of 1kg will float in space. For objects smaller than 1kg, the fictitious force will be dominant and the the object will start shooting away from the surface of the earth, apparently by its own volition. The ability to float in empty space and shoot off against the pull of gravity may seem magical, but it is simply a change in the balance of forces that causes this apparent magic.

The balance of forces is a very simplistic example and nanotechnological phenomena involve more complicated things, but I find they almost invariably arise from this relative importance of different laws that arise due to small size or mass or specific structure. In my opinion, there are three broad categories that cause nanotechnological materials and devices to get their USP.

New materials.

One of the aspects of nanotechnology is the discovery of new materials that naturally exist at sizes small enough to merit the nanotech label. The classic examples of these are a few carbon based materials, such as carbon nanotubes (CNT), Graphene, Fullerenes etc. They arise out of the propensity of Carbon to form an immensely impressive array or structures (from coal to diamond for instance). CNTs and Graphene are being researched for applications as diverse as improving touchscreens, toughening materials, building electronics, improving battery energy storage and building space elevators.There are still issues with tractability though, and controlling these materials is not easily done.

New uses for known materials.

This is the domain of tweaking known materials such that we alter the balance of forces and tip it into doing what we would like it to.  A good example of such a case is for quantum dots, which are usually made by taking powders of known materials such as lead sulphide (PbS), Cadmium Selenide (CdSe) etc and blitzing them till they are turned into nanometre sized particles.This ultra-tiny size radically changes the properties of the particles vis-a-vis the orginal (mega-sized) powder and makes them more suitable for certain applications. This is a case of an existing material, simply being cast into a different form, so that it takes on different properties and potential applications.

Existing materials in innovation strutures.

Tweaking the balance of forces can also be accomplished by using known materials in innovative strutures rather that simply blitzing them as in the case of quantum dots. A classic example of this is the wing of a Morpho Rhetenor butterfly, a species originating from South America. The wings of this butterfly are shimmering and  brightly coloured, but surprisingly not due to the presence of a dye or any pigmentation. It is in fact due to an elaborate structure of the wing, which involves alternate layers of two different materials, each a few nanometres thick. The thickness of these layers is of a similar magnitude to the wavelengths of incident light and the resulting interaction produces the bright colours that make the butterfly so striking. An exploration into this structure is opening up a whole new area of research focussing on what is known as the “photonic bandgap” and which could have very interesting applications in the future.

So there we have it, my three tier classification of nanotechnology. This is just an introduction, so that the post is long enough to provide information while being short enough to maintain interest. I will examine more detail in further posts as I learn new stuff, which may be tomorrow, the day after, or never, depending on what I am upto otherwise. :)

Written by clueso

February 28, 2012 at 7:34 am

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Education unchained?

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Some time ago, I blogged about my idea of an education system that separated exams from learning and thereby allowed students to have more liberty in choosing how to get the classroom component of their education while earning their desired qualification. Today I learnt of MIT’s new fully automated course on circuits and electronics. MIT have run the open courseware project for a while now, but it was more of a reference point, where people could sample the lecture notes that MIT uses, but do not get credit for reading the notes or completing the exercises. This course however, offers a certificate for completion, which means that any person, anywhere in the world can now gain an MIT recognition of his/her skills from the comfort of their home.

Arguably, if this course gets a large enough market, someone may start a coaching class to help students understand the material. That would in essence be the separation of the classroom teaching component of education from the exam component, akin to what my old post suggested. Maybe those bright sparks at MIT were reading my blog, though I have my doubts about that.

A fully automated course is nevertheless something noteworthy. I am especially interested in how they handled the lab component. Do they purely use circuit simulators? do they plan to extend the idea in the future where there are accredited venues where students can go to complete the labs? Will the exams be purely multiple choice questions or have they devised a way to have computers grade exam papers? I have enrolled for it, so hopefully sometime in June (when the course ends), I will be able to proudly claim to have a certificate from MIT and also be able to report on my experiences.

While this new development has me excited about the direction education can take in this century,  I can think of a few undesirable implications of rolling out multiple courses or entire degrees through this avenue. Someday soon, I will put those thoughts down too.

Written by clueso

February 14, 2012 at 8:15 am

Pun my soul!!

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I am a huge fan of puns. They can be delightful little buggers, completely undeserving of that accusation of them being the lowest form of wit. It takes sharpish minds and good command of language to create and understand one so I cannot see what is not to like.

Here are a few. I would love to claim them as my own but I ripped them off an email that reached me from the depths of the internet.

1. The fattest knight at King Arthur’s round table was Sir Cumference.
He acquired his size from too much pi.

2. I thought I saw an eye doctor on an Alaskan island,
but it turned out to be an optical Aleutian .

3. She was only a whiskey maker,
but he loved her still.

4. A rubber band pistol was confiscated from algebra class,
because it was a weapon of math disruption.

5. No matter how much you push the envelope, it’ll still be stationery.

6. A dog gave birth to puppies near the road and was cited for littering.

7. A grenade thrown into a kitchen in France would result in Linoleum Blownapart.

8. Two silk worms had a race.
They ended up in a tie.

9.Kings worry about a receding heir-line.

10. Time flies like an arrow.
Fruit flies like a banana.
11. Atheism is a non-prophet organization.
12. Two hats were hanging on a hat rack in the hallway.
One hat said to the other: ‘You stay here; I’ll go on a head.’
13. I wondered why the baseball kept getting bigger.
Then it hit me.
14. A sign on the lawn at a drug rehab center
said: ‘Keep off the Grass.’
15. The midget fortune-teller who escaped from
prison was a small medium at large.
16. The soldier who survived mustard gas and
pepper spray is now a seasoned veteran.
17. A backward poet writes inverse.
18. In a democracy it’s your vote that counts.
In feudalism it’s your count that votes.
19. When cannibals ate a missionary,
they got a taste of religion.
20. If you jumped off the bridge in Paris ,
you’d be in Seine .
21. A vulture boards an airplane, carrying two dead raccoons.
The stewardess looks at him and says,
‘I’m sorry, sir, only one carrion allowed per passenger.’
22. Two fish swim into a concrete wall.
One turns to the other and says ‘Dam!’
23. Two Eskimos sitting in a kayak were chilly, so they lit a fire in the craft.
Unsurprisingly it sank, proving once again that
you can’t have your kayak and heat it too.
24. Two hydrogen atoms meet. One says, ‘I’ve lost my electron.’
The other says ‘Are you sure?’ The first replies, ‘Yes, I’m positive.’
25. Did you hear about the Buddhist who refused Novocain
during a root canal? His goal: transcend dental medication.
26. There was the person who sent ten puns to friends,
with the hope that at least one of the puns would make them laugh.
No pun in ten did.

Written by clueso

July 20, 2011 at 6:35 am

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IT’s Life

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“IT’s Life” is the title of a cartoon series I used to run while not having much to do in a previous job. I ultimately ended it when I switched jobs and had to actually work. By fortunate circumstance, I got hold of what I think are most of the drawings from that time and in a blatant act of self promotion, decided to publish them on the web.

The whole series can be downloaded from here. Hope you enjoy them, despite the atrocious artwork. Comments, especially favourable ones, are welcome. As for unfavourable comments, may be you could reconsider? It does make things a lot easier you know…

Written by clueso

May 16, 2011 at 10:19 am

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Tennis Humour

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I read this joke in a comment on a youtube video of last night’s Rome ATP final, where Djokovic did the impossible by dethroning Nadal.

Son: Mom, I want to play tennis like Novak Djokovic!
Mom: So does Nadal son, so does Nadal.

It was pretty good methinks :)

Written by clueso

May 16, 2011 at 9:40 am

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Signing petitions for Anna Hazare

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Today I read two emails and two facebook updates asking me to sign a petition to the Indian government supporting Anna Hazare’s fast unto death against corruption. I did add my signature, but as I looked on with amazement at the swelling list of signatories, I started wondering how useful this whole act will be.

Consider a hypothetical case where a man regularly beats his wife. His neighbours decide to petition him saying “Dear Mr. Wife-beater, Please stop beating your wife. We want to have a neighbourhood free of wife-beating”. Will such a petition stop him? I seriously doubt it. More likely that he will tear the letter up and probably vent his anger at his intrusive neighbours by beating his wife some more. Now suppose the petition had said “Dear Mr Wife-beater, We know you beat your wife. Stop it now or we will report you to the police.” This would have probably made the wife beater think about how efficient the police force is, how serious his neighbours are and whether it is worth the risk of continuing his practice of beating his wife. If the petition said “Mr. Wife-beater, Stop beating your wife or the next time you step out of your house, all of us will kick the s**t out of you.”, he would probably reform the fastest, because he perceives the most danger (personal injury) coming from those with the grievance (neighbours) instead of an agent far removed (the police).

The most powerful component of a petition is therefore the consequences that arise from ignoring it. If there are no consequences, the petition might as well be toilet paper. So what dire consequences can the citizens of India threaten their government with? For all its faults, the Indian political setup offers Indians the extremely potent weapon of voting their politicians out of power. I have met many intelligent, educated, well-intentioned Indians who complain bitterly about the corruption and state of affairs in India and get eerily close to cardiac arrest during their fervent discourse. However, an overwhelming majority among these have never voted in their lives and don’t have plans to vote in the future. Those most capable of shouldering responsibility for long term decisions are therefore eschewing it, while those least suited are turned into king makers. I may be (horribly)wrong, but I will stick my neck out and say that a significant percentage of the petition signatories will lie in this category of non (conscientious) voters. We therefore have a toothless petition whose only function is to create the illusion of action.

Most of the non voters are extremely cynical of the voting process due to the well cultivated vote banks etc., but then there is no reason to be optimistic about petitions as well. Choosing to petition rather than vote is like being given a choice of cruise missiles or a teaspoon to fight a war and choosing the teaspoon. Breaking vote banks will take a while, but it is a better and more noble goal to focus effort on. Maybe a citizen driven vote bank, as proposed by Atanu Dey is the answer, but it hinges on the assumption that all voters capable of taking the long-term view make it a point to vote.

I am not suggesting that Anna Hazare is wasting his time. His act is commendable. He is investing time and effort and undergoing physical hardship for something that will probably not benefit him personally to a large extent. He has my respect. Anyone who joined him in the fast or attended a meeting in his support or is a conscientious voter also has my respect. They are signalling their desire to act and that they are willing to give up money, time or comfort to push their case against corruption. If I were a corrupt politician, I would be mildly worried. Anyone whose only contribution to Indian politics has been signing the odd online petition by filling an email address into a website and pressing “send” need to reconsider their position. Unless they plan to vote regularly and conscientiously and hold the government’s feet to the fire, Anna Hazare’s work is pointless and no number of online petitions will change that fact.

Written by clueso

April 8, 2011 at 12:54 am

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Privatised education vs. Mobile Telephony

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Proponents of the free market and private profit driven schools and universities often cite mobile telephony as an example of how markets cost effectively produce high quality service. While the success of private enterprise is undeniably true for mobile telephony, I am a bit sceptical about how well it will translate to a market of privatised education.

My first doubt emerges after considering the components required to service these two markets. Mobile telephony is extremely automated. When someone makes a call or sends a text message, the next human contact in that transaction will probably be the recipient. Everything in between is done by computers/electronics, with no qualms about working 24/7, no need of pay or vacations and who can be replaced, with no serious financial or legal consequences, in 5 minutes if things go wrong. Education on the other hand, relies primarily on smart, driven human beings to perform the role of good teachers. While technology is making inroads, the primary drivers are still humans who are disproportionately responsible (compared to technology) for the success or failure of the system. Juxtaposed with computers, humans are poor workers. They have to be paid, become less productive with long hours, tend to be on the lookout for better career options, demand vacations etc. Consequently it is more expensive and risky to hire and retain them and no amount of privatisation of education will be able to match the success of mobile telephony in lowering costs while maintaining standards.

A second doubt arises from what economists call the price elasticity of demand (PED) which is simply the change in demand of a particular product/service per unit change in its price. Many factors affect PED but a crucial one is the availability of substitutes. In this light, as long as schools remain tied to physical infrastucture, a school building for instance, mobile telephony will always have a higher PED than education. Being in direct competition with other communication methods such as fixed line telephony, instant messaging and email, mobile companies are aware that if prices go up beyond a certain threshold, customers can and will shift to other communication technologies without batting an eyelid. It would take extraordinary cartel building skills to raise prices of ALL forms of communication and hence this will probably never happen.

On the other hand, it is extremely difficult to switch schools. The children attending school will not like to leave old friends behind. The new school may not have the sports/music facilities the child enjoys using. It may be inconvenient to travel to. The school timings may not match work schedules very well. Parents may find part of the curriculum distasteful. The ties to physical infrastructure and the presence of human relationships result in a significantly lower PED for schools and parents may be willing to put up with higher prices/poor service just to avoid these complications. The inability or lack of desire to change will mean that the market will never be as efficient as that for mobile telephony.

The barrier to entry for education is also significantly higher than mobile telephony, again due its physical nature. A “good” school needs a building, maybe some sports fields, possibly computers and science labs. Some music and arts facilities will be nice. “Good” teachers have to be found and recruited. Mobile operators may have to bid for air spectrum and put up some mobile towers and control centres, which is the only physical infrastructure. In today’s world, where the trend is towards separate infrastructure management and service provision, mobile operators may be able to lease air spectrum and physical assets from an infrastructure provider, while schools cannot really share classrooms very efficiently. It is therefore much easier for a new mobile operator to enter an inefficient market than it is for a new school to do so. Obviously this results in a more efficient mobile telephony market.

While I think the example of mobile telephony to promote the virtues of a free market in education is unsuitable, it is hard to debate that a shift to privately run, profit driven schools will not lead to an improvement in standards compared to schools under government control with tightly prescribed rules. Profit driven schools will accomplish what most profit driven frameworks do; high inequality with an average level better than the idealistic scenarios. It would be good to have schools run as charities or non profit organisations, so that they can maintain comparatively lower running costs and maybe allocate more funds for deserving and needy students. Tight government control with rules trickling down from some education minister to a classroom hundreds of miles away does not inspire confidence at all.

Written by clueso

March 19, 2011 at 1:14 am

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