Saturday, January 30, 2010

Tech review: mifi, my new best friend

I have had my mifi for 2 months now and I love having my own portable wifi in my pocket. The only improvement I would make would be to increase the battery life , but since I have a power inverter permanently wired into my van and can recharge as I drive, this is less of an issue. For those not blessed with handy husbands, a car charger would be a great new accesory. Moving to a standard miniA USB charge interface would be even more efficient.

How do I love my mifi? Let me name the ways:

1) It allowed me to stay connected to the Internet and the office, even while onsite with a customer who had locked down Internet without a guestnet.

2) It has given me and extra 2 hours of working web time on days I ride to the office. 2-3 days per week I ride along with my husband to spend the day working in the office instead of from my home office. Although I can do email on my blackberry, any type of web research, document work or design review were too painful. With my mifi and my iPod touch, I have significantly increased the productivity of those 90 minute drives.

3) It allows me and the kids to continue playing games on the iPod touch on the road during the long visitation switch drive, and other road trips

4) It let me keep working at the office the other day, even when our local network went down. When your only phone is VOIP, the network is critical.

I find that I use my mifi almost every day, how do you use yours?

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Brief and shining moments of joy

This morning at the tail end of dawn, I was driving my daughter to practise. As we looked to the west, an immense moon hung barely above the horizon. It stretched high into the sky and glowed luminously, making it suddenly apparent why centuries of people were convinced it was a source of magic. In the next 20 seconds, something even more amazing happened - the moon disappeared before our eyes. It was not stolen by aliens nor did it suddenly dip below the horizon. It was merely a matter of the sun rising just enough to flood the sky with light and drown out the moonlight, making it in essence invisible.

As I sat in the car, staring at the same spot in the sky, I was reminded that like the moon that was still invisibly hanging above the horizon, there are often moments of beauty and joy in our life that can too easily get washed out by the bright glaring noise of everyday life.

Take a moment, look carefully and see the joy and amazement that pops up unexpectedly in your day today. What did you see that surprised or delighted you?

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Slime Mold Splendor- System inspirations

As a grad student, I was TA for a developmental biology class (it was, for a while, my PhD target). Almost all of the aspects of the lab excited and fascinated me, but I was especially taken by the slime mold. It remains one of my favorite organisms ever.

Back in 2000, when I first saw Javaspaces demonstrated at the JavaOne conference, I immediately got excited and started babbling to fellow geeks about how the ultimate design for a self discovery middleware/messaging system would be modeled after slime mold. They are the perfect model for small message/self discovery systems. They mostly looked at me like I was slightly insane.

I love that others are now using slime mold as a model for networks, and have mathematically mapped the algorithms of slime mold network forming. Time for us to realize that we are not always discovering brand new things, but are just describing things that much simpler organisms discovered millenia ago. I think I want that algorithm... there is a next generation self assembling messaging system buried in it.

What biolgical inspirations drive your designs??

Friday, January 15, 2010

Science Suffers while Salaries are Safe??

When I am considering supporting any organization, one of the first things I want to know is what their overhead percentage is. In other words, for every dollar I donate, how much is going to the actual work that organization does and how much is paying for mail, computers and the Director's salary. There is huge market pressure to get these overhead costs as low as possible in every non-profit organization out there. If I get an answer back from a charity that says they are "wasting" more than 20-25% of my donation on overhead, I walk away. Lots of people do.
Our government does not have the same sense of fiscal responsibility that we as individuals do. The federal and state governments frequently sponsor research at universities. This is a very good thing. Universities have something called indirect costs, which they deduct from incoming grants (grants less than 20-25K are usually immune). Indirect costs are the same thing as overhead. This is money the tax payers are donating for scientific research in the form of grants that never actually goes to research. Indirect Costs are not new. They were an issue in the 80s when I was in grad school, and probably before that. Time magazine even wrote an expose on indirect costs back in 1991. If the indirect costs were reasonable, I would have no complaint. Every group has to pay some basic bills. But the indirect costs at universities ranges from 50-70%!!
That means if a brilliant researcher is donated 1 million dollars by the tax payers in the form of an NSF grant, he will actually receive only a half a million dollars or less. This is NOT the sort of organization I would normally donate money to. Agencies can refuse to pay indirect costs, and most universities have policies in place for how to deal with this. ( you can see an example for the University of California).
In this time of fiscal trouble, it seems wrong to me that our tax dollars are willingly being donated not to the source we thought they were, but to pay the 150-400K salaries of deans and others at Universities.
If we agree as a nation that we need to subsidize Public Institutions of Higher Education, I am in agreement with that- and we do. But there needs to be transparency in how and where that money is being spent.

If universities are facing increasing deficits because of decreasing enrollment and higher costs, they should be getting creative about cost cutting and savings, not sitting down and negotiating higher Indirect Cost rates with Federal funding agencies, like many recently have. Scientific research and innovation are the things that will continue to make us strong- the government should be looking for ways to funnel more money in that direction, not less.