Sunday, November 25, 2012

Do one thing. Do it better than anyone else.

Man and Beast is a beautiful dramatization about the early life of zoologist and activist Alan Rabinowitz. In the short film, which Rabinowitz himself narrates, he describes how he overcame a childhood speech disorder and how his love of animals and science lead him to apply to graduate school and eventually become a leading expert and activist for endangered species.

MAN AND BEAST from peter simonite on Vimeo.

I don't know any scientist who wasn't into science as a kid. Yet, when you're entrenched in what feels like the unending servitude of academic research, it's easy to lose touch of what inspired you to pursue an advanced degree in science in the first place. It may also be easy to bog yourself down with anxiety and uncertainty of what might come of it, post-PhD...

Why do I always say 'you' when I mean 'me'?

Dr. Rabinowitz is the CEO of the conservation organization Panthera and has published several books and won many awards for his work protecting large cats in particular.

Watch his interview on Colbert Report. Definitely inspirational.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Kickstarter LED bulbs and why they probably suck (sorry)

This LIFX Kickstarter project got a lot of blogosphere buzz back in mid-September. In their video, the LIFX team promises a "reinvented" lightbulb -- an energy efficient LED-based bulb that you can dim and color tune via a smartphone app.

The project reached $1.3 million in donations, an order of magnitude greater than their goal of $100,000, before Kickstarter intervened and capped it. In fact, the project was the center of so much buzz and controversy, Kickstarter was forced to impose new rules on raising funds for products that don't actually exist yet.

Yet, despite skepticism they will meet their shipping goals, the Lifx was successfully funded five days ago and are still scheculed to ship in March. According to their Kickstarter updates, they plan to have their first prototype in 4-6 weeks. 

Now Kickstarter has Light by Moore's Cloud, which is kind of the same thing, only more of a dimly glowing orb than a bulb replacement. They are only $170 thousand towards their goal of $700 thousand with 30 days to go.

It leaves people wondering: has Kickstarter turned into a Skymall for vaporware?

More importantly, are these products solving a problem that exists?  Never in my life have I sat in my apartment and thought, "I wish the light in here was more purple." Plus, looking for my phone and firing up some app to adjust the lights in the room seems more annoying than just getting up and turning on a light switch. To me these products seem like gimmicky, glorified party lights.

Yet, I will admit that color tuning may be the future of lighting. We are beginning to understand the relationship of light and color and human health, and how gradual changes in color and intensity may aid the wake-sleep cycle.

Also, a wifi-enabled smart-phone gadget that demonstrates the adaptability of LEDs is great for showcasing their capabilities. And it's good news for LED makers that people are eager to get behind these projects, because it means they're willing to shell out >$50 for a tricked-out LED bulb.

Unfortunately, I'm fairly certain the Lifx bulbs will suck. I'd love for these guys to show me their spec. sheet of their final product and prove me wrong, but I'd be willing to bet they will be (a) not very bright, (b) not as energy efficient as it claims (of which they are vague about) and, (c) the quality of light it emits will be disappointing. The bulb doesn't even appear to have an option for regular warm white.

There are a metric shit ton of ways LED makers describe and measure the efficiency and quality light from an LED bulb, including the brightness, ability to render colors (skin tones look like skin tones, reds look red), and color temperature or "warmth" of the light. Researchers and developers have been working for years and spending many millions of dollars to create beautiful, warm white light from an LED bulb that is more energy efficient and as bright as a compact fluorescent and standard incandescent.

It's not an easy problem to solve. In fact, it took three years for anyone to meet the Department of Energy's guidelines for an LED-based incandescent replacement bulb. The only company to achieve those goals and win the $10 million prize was a multibillion dollar lighting company, Philips Lighting USA. The prize was awarded only one year ago and it is rumored that the prize money didn't even cover their development costs. Their award-winning (just white) bulbs hit store shelves this past April, and still cost around $30 each.

How many PhDs does it take to design a lightbulb? A LOT. (Trust me, don't get any of them started on the mechanisms behind efficiency droop.) Those of us involved in solid-state lighting research are still trying to understand basic science behind diode-emitters in order to increase lumens per watt at the chip level. At the consumer product level, reducing production costs remains the biggest challenge. And the Lifx team thought they could get away with development costs of merely $100,000? Bitch, please.

The final blow is the LED giants at Philips have just released Hue, which hit the markets in October. Like the Lifx, these bulbs can adjust color and intensity via a wifi-enabled app. They also have the benefit of ACTUALLY EXISTING. You can walk right into an Apple store today and buy it, but it will still cost you $199.

It will be interesting to follow the success of Lifx and other DIY Kickstarter LED-based projects. There's definitely room for innovation in lighting, but when it comes to consumer products it will be hard to compete with the big boys and their big budget R&D, design, production, and intellectual property lawyers.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Lasers & cats

"There are two things that everyone loves: cats and lasers."

That is all. Because I'm too busy write anything else.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Postdoctoral purgatory

Like most academics, my life is usually summed up in a PHD comic.  Like the depression that came after passing my quals, or the roller-coaster of guilt and stress whenever I go on vacation, or when I found it difficult to write my dissertation.  

Lately, I identify with this one:

Being a postdoc can definitely feel like a gray area, a world between worlds of graduate school and whatever comes after that.

The best part about being a postdoc is my dissertation is DONE. This is HUGE. Many times I find myself paralyzed by anxiety and then realize I'm thinking like a grad student. I have to remind myself, "Relax, you already have your Ph.D." If I don't want to work on a Saturday, for example, I can easily justify staying home because I'm a doctor now and I'm allowed a day off, damnit.

There are other good parts about being a postdoc for sure: larger income, conference travel, having a say in the goings-on of our research center, and mentoring and training younger grad students. All these extra responsibilities, although I enjoy them, can become demanding of my time. To put it lightly. How do full-on profs handle all this stuff? 

Yet there are bad parts about being a postdoc besides being busy, like the pressure to assume all these new responsibilities AND still be productive in my research project. And to PUBLISH. OH MY GOD. YOU GUYS. WHY HAVEN'T I PUBLISHED YET?

Whenever it gets tough, of course I start asking myself other questions. Big questions, like: What life exists beyond academia?