UC Berkeley molecular biology webcast

In the fall of 2002, MIT proudly announced its OpenCourseWare initiative. They were rightly praised at the time for putting course materials directly online and making them freely available to anyone with access to the web. I was interested in biology classes and poked around the site and came away a little disappointed. Not all the lectures were available as audio, the sound quality wasn’t good, and the lecture notes had images ripped out of every other slide along with some legal boilerplate about how copyrighted material had to be removed. In other words, wherever the lecture snipped a picture out of a textbook (which was often), they couldn’t distribute that slide to the internet masses. Taken all together, I was impressed with the notion of OpenCourseWare but not with the reality.

I forgot about open course ware for a long time, but recently found a page linking to podcast lectures from UC Berkeley. This time it was the real deal. I’m still interested in biology, so I’m watching the lectures for MCB 110: General Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. There’s audio, video, and PowerPoint slides, and the quality is very high. The slides are complete and unexpurgated. It’s a phenomenal resource. There’s just no doubt that free course material like this is going to transform lives.

I’ve since gone back and looked at MIT’s latest OpenCourseWare biology classes. I’m happy to report that now there’s plenty of good stuff there too, including video lectures in which Eric Lander, director of the Broad Institute and one of the more famous geneticists in the world, explains genetics to you. To get that delivered, at no cost, to the privacy and comfort of your sitting room, well… that’s remarkable.

Construction, models, and pre-fab houses

Modeling is the word for the new millennium. I don’t think people realize how powerful it is to have an accurate computer model of whatever it is you want to build. It frees you to simulate, iterate, and optimize your design in entirely new ways. Back ten or so years, aerospace geeks (that’s me) were excited about the fact that the Boeing 777 was being “built” entirely inside a CAD (computer-aided design) package. People are used to seeing blueprints, schematics, and design plans, but this was something else again. Not only was the aluminum skin being modeled, but also the wiring, the plumbing, the seats, the carpet, all of the thousands and thousands of parts large and small. This let the Boeing engineers make sure that everything would actually fit before it was assembled. The project was a great success, and every plane since then has been assembled in a computer long before any metal gets cut.

pipe-collision.gifA process that works with airplanes ought to work with buildings too, and so it does. The big difference is that the construction industry moves much more slowly than the aerospace industry. There’s less pressure to go high tech. But once contractors get used to working with CAD systems, the payoff will be huge. Here’s an article from Computerworld about this phenomenon: GM builds on 3-D model. The author follows the story of a factory that General Motors built, and it’s very much like the Boeing story above. Instead of printing out thousands of 2-D blueprints, they worked straight from the computer model. The computer tells you when two pipes are colliding. As a result, they were able to eliminate the costly delays that are endemic to the culture of construction.

Because collisions in 2-D projects are unavoidable, tradespeople try to get their work done first, Lemley says. When a collision occurs, everything stops while the drawings are reviewed. “You go through hundreds of drawings, and you call the architect, and they have to come down and bring a mechanical [drawing] down,” he says. That puts everyone else behind and results in expensive change orders. Building to the model eliminated the problem.

The GM project came in 5% under budget and 25% ahead of schedule. That adds up to real money on a $1.5 billion factory.

A process that works on big buildings ought to work on small ones too, and so it does. In the latest issue of Metropolis, I came across this article on bolt-together pre-fab housing: Bursting Out. Pre-fab housing conjures up images of shoddy workmanship, cheap materials, and bad taste. But in the future it will mean customized pre-cut panels delivered in an Ikea-like flat pack and quickly assembled on site. From the article:

The process borrowed heavily from industrial-design mass manufacturing. After hollowing out the solid model and developing a structural diagram based on the ribs, the architects ran commands to unfold the computer model, break up the surfaces into production-size triangles, label each piece and rib, and then organize them onto sheets for the laser cutter. This information was then run through String IT, a program used in furniture design, which “nests” it—calculating an optimum layout of the various shapes on the given dimensions of the plywood sheets to minimize waste—reducing the amount of plywood required by about 20 percent. At the laser cutter this file was run to produce 1,100 nonidentical plywood pieces, each cut, drilled, and etched to determine its location in the house. In January 2005 these arrived flat-packed in North Haven, where a team of 12 students from the architecture program at nearby Newcastle University was prepped for a fast-build process that the architects likened to a barn raising.

This technique is already proving useful in places, like post-Katrina New Orleans, where old-school house construction is too expensive and slow, too medieval to serve the needs of the community.

The first fruits of modeling are in narrow and specialized domains, but the real value comes when you start to integrate the efforts of multiple teams across multiple domains. It takes a long time to get everybody in the game, but the results can be stunning.

I’ll Eat That Book. Just Watch Me!

Don't Eat This Book: Fast Food and the Supersizing of America

Morgan Spurlock, the hefty man behind the fast food fright flick Super Size Me, has also written a companion book called Don’t Eat This Book: Fast Food and the Supersizing of America. Spurlock takes a dim view not only of corporate fast food purveyors but also of the American public’s ability to make sound dietary decisions when confronted with fancy advertising.

This drives Matt Angiulo crazy. Angiulo is an aerospace engineer who takes quite literally the old adage of Sir Francis Bacon: “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.” Angiulo is also a natural contrarian. Whereas he would no doubt leave Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book safely on the shelf, a book commanding him not to eat it is as good as a double-dog dare to do exactly that. Thus: I’ll Eat That Book. Just Watch Me!, a web site dedicated to the slow consumption of Spurlock’s book.

My friend Rob (one of the original Star Chamber gang) knows Matt’s brother and sent me the news about this fascinating site. To the email he added this

My review of his site would be: “Angiulo brings new meaning to consumerism as he literally digests the smarmy, self-righteous words of Morgan Spurlock in his postmodernist attack on Spurlock’s popular tome on so-called healthy eating.”

Every day he eats another page after reading and summarizing it for the site. No word on whether he uses liberal amounts of Miracle Whip. I’m afraid he is not a charitable reviewer. While he does swallow the arguments initially, what he does with them a few hours later is not fit reading for a family-oriented blog.

A year of full moons on Flickr

Full Moons over Flickr
Happy New Year! Not only is it a new year… a quick look out the window or at the Sky Clock reveals that there is a full moon in the sky tonight. Of course, you might not know that if you were locked in a windowless room. Suppose, for example, you were trapped in a room with nothing but a pen knife, a box of paper clips, and access to all the pictures on Flickr. Could you work out when the moon is full? If you are as clever as Jim Bumgardner you wouldn’t have any trouble at all. But since he’s the author of Flickr Hacks, I guess that’s only fair.

Bumgardner took pictures on Flickr that are tagged “full moon” and plotted them according to when they were taken (Flickr knows that because digital cameras encode it in the image). The result is this: A year of full moons. There’s another lovely image where he uses a similar approach to show the seasonal variation in sunset time: A year of sunsets.

This is an example of the informational residue that gets smeared absolutely everywhere on the web. You can learn the most fascinating things these days if you know how to scrape up the data slime. For instance, from the sunset picture mentioned above we can work out the average latitude of Flickr customers. Google Trends can also give you a sense of when the moon is full simply by watching what people search for. Not surprisingly, werewolf searches are somewhat correlated. [Bumgardner’s photos via the Kircher Society]