Thursday, September 27, 2012

Winter is Coming

By Keith McDowell

I can’t believe I read the whole thing – all five volumes and nearly 5,000 pages! For the uninitiated, I’m talking about the series A Song of Fire and Ice by George R. R. Martin, otherwise known by its television adaptation, The Game of Thrones. Am I satisfied? NO! It was a game of stubbornness and survival on my part to make it to the end, independent of the quality of the complex story lines and often one-dimensional characters. I expected at any moment to die by slicing my finger as I rabidly turned the pages to get to the next inexplicable morsel.

And gee, I can hardly wait to get trapped into reading the next volume to see how many more of my favorite characters get senselessly killed off. Don’t the good guys ever win or is the plot strategy one of random variations and mutations to achieve survival of the fittest ala evolutionary dynamics? Actually, I think it’s more about making money through creating an ever-expanding universe of characters and plot lines.

Aside from the racy nature of the television show with nudity and explicit sexual activity as a guaranteed hook to enhance audience ratings, the underlying theme of The Game of Thrones – or perhaps better said, moans and groans – is that of a feudal society blended together with fantasy and the supernatural. But mostly it’s about bad-boy behavior to achieve domination and wealth for the few over the many coupled with religious intolerance. Does that sound familiar?

Yep! Even as I write these words, Syria is morphing from a condition of genocide into a condition of civil war fed by competitor states and ideologies. Religious fanatics get upset and riot because someone challenges their beliefs by mocking their chosen prophet with a stupid video. And the threat of a worldwide pandemic continues unchecked as a new strain of SARS has been detected and HIV continues to ravage the African continent. The economic meltdown caused by excessive greed and uncontrolled financial leveraging is being refueled by a form of austerity budgeting that is guaranteed to choke innovation and economic growth. Dirty bombs, biochemical warfare, computer viruses, West Nile virus, and a host of other such scourges pummel us daily into expecting our imminent demise. Who needs the fantasy world of The Game of Thrones when we live in the real thing? Even George R. R. Martin would have trouble coming up with such plot lines.

But wait! We don’t have a rebirth of dragons or a re-emergence of blue-eyed zombies looming on the horizon to bring a metaphorical winter into our lives. Or do we?

It’s called autonomous warfare. High overhead, stealthy Predator drones silently stalk our every move, ready to unleash on the unwary a blast of fire and death from a Hellfire missile. It’s the modern equivalent of the dragon, a centerpiece of the Fire and Ice series. Talk to a few of those dead jihadist in Pakistan if you don’t believe these modern dragons are real. Or ask the Israeli’s how they feel about Iran’s reputed development of a long-range drone.

Of course, drones can be used to improve the general welfare of us all by tracking the movement of drug traffickers along the Texas border with Mexico or, better, by flying into hurricanes to provide extended real time monitoring. If we put our minds to it, who knows what benevolent uses we can find for these dragons.

But what about blue-eyed zombies? Do they live among us waiting to emerge with the coming winter? I think yes!

It’s called synthetic biology by some and is equivalent in spirit to the great advances made by chemists over the past century through the creation of a vast array of new substances and materials including plastics and a cornucopia of medicines and drugs – not to mention napalm. The game for synthetic biologists is to take DNA strands and reconnect them in various ways to produce an engineered sequence with specific attributes. Ultimately, engineered “lifeforms” will emerge. Of course, as we learn more about how to connect such synthetic biological systems to nanoscale electro-mechanical systems coupled to “intelligent” computer systems, a new construct will emerge. And exactly what is that new construct? Why it’s the modern version of the blue-eyed zombie gracing the pages of Fire and Ice.

Cynicism, no matter its form, is never a healthy lifestyle choice, but sometimes a dose of it helps us to recalibrate exactly what it is we are doing, or not doing, to ourselves. From that perspective, I’m glad I made it through the Fire and Ice series. It reminded me that feudalism and its trappings, especially as practiced in modern-day Washington DC, aren’t quite so dead as we thought and that fantasy is really in the eye of the beholder, whether it be drones as dragons or synthetic lifeforms as blue-eyed zombies.

And George, could you please let one good guy survive the fire and ice?

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Why You Wascally Wabbit!

By Keith McDowell

Elmer Fudd never was fooled by Bugs Bunny’s double talk. It just seemed that way to folks not paying attention. And that brings to mind Mitt Romney and his comments about not being responsible for the 47% of Americans “who believe they are victims” – oops, he meant to say he favors small government! As Foghorn Leghorn would say, “that boy’s as sharp as a bowling ball.”

Now some of you will have a cow at this old cowboy from Texas poking fun at a presidential candidate, but I say to you: “eat more chikin!” I didn’t pick this dawg to run for president. Or as Foghorn famously said, “That dawg is strictly G.I. – gibbering idiot!”

Being an irreverent rascal myself, I’ve always enjoyed a good turn of phrase and the innovation and creativity involved in catchphrases, slogans, and infamous quotes – especially those from the characters in The Looney Tunes Show. Sadly the slices of real life embodied in those old cartoons and their characters are no longer a part of our current culture, having been thrown into the dustbin of history by political correctness and concerns about adolescent violence as a result of watching them. I guess that explains my irreverence.

The evolution of those wacky old cartoons and the good story telling of authors like Mark Twain into boring, predictable sitcoms with their stupid laugh tracks coupled with the socially responsible cartoons on the Cartoon Network just doesn’t work for me – not to mention the emergence of the polar opposite: violent computer games. I get the underlying point and accept that we must continue to move towards a higher level of civilization where responsible behavior is the norm. I have long advocated for just that end result.

But unfortunately, as Mitt Romney and the extreme right wing continue to demonstrate, the real world doesn’t work like most people want it to work. Responsible behavior has been replaced by the calculated lie; by denying the basic facts and discoveries of science, sociology, or economics; by pretending that the rich and successful got to their position in life without the help of others; and by a level of greed and avarice that transcends common sense. Is anyone surprised that a large number of Harvard students recently cheated on a take-home exam?

Viewed through the eyes of an old dog like me, the modern scene seems like an instant replay of those old Looney Tunes cartoons – especially the political drama in the presidential election. At any moment, I expect Romney to blurt out as regards his failure to fully disclose his tax returns: “Don’t you, I say, don’t you call ME a chicken – you chicken!” Even better, he should take Bugs Bunnies advice and take “that left toin at Albaquerque.”

Personally, I think modern society would benefit from a refresher course in Looney Tunes. It’s a great training ground for the real world. But you’re thinking, “Stop right there, varmint. Don’t rush me. I’m a-thinking… and my head hurts.” Well, great horny-toadies! Maybe you’re right and it’s time for me to let those little doggies git along.

And about my admonition for you to “eat more chikin,” just remember what Foghorn Leghorn said, “Ah’m a rooster, son, not a chicken! Pay at-ah say, pay attention, boy! Ah’m talkin’ to ya! Kid doesn’t listen to a word Ah say.”

“And That’s All Folks!”

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Anti-Welcome Speech

By Keith McDowell

Words matter! Take, for example, the use of the word “matter” by the physics community. We have “matter” which is the regular stuff that makes up the universe – energy excluded – and we have anti-matter and dark matter. Anti-matter is, of course, matter, but just not “matter” matter. Unfortunately, as any science fiction fan knows, anti-matter and matter annihilate each other to create a flash of energy.

But then there is the little problem of the conversion of energy into matter and vice versa. So does that mean that energy is matter? Or does it even matter that we distinguish one form of matter from another?

Syllogistic wordplay aside, we live in a world where words and their meaning make a difference – or do they? My favorite example of this antithetic conundrum is the traditional welcome speech given by an appropriately chosen dignitary or two at the beginning of a conference or meeting.

When first faced with performing said task over a decade or two ago, I panicked and spent an evening reading classic speeches and preparing a welcome speech for the ages. The next morning, no one listened to my speech as they slurped away on bad coffee delivered in Styrofoam cups covered with plastic lids and dutifully attempted to keep their eyes open in a futile effort to prepare themselves for the main attraction – the opening keynote speech.

Lesson learned, but still committed to success, I began collecting notes on what others said and did in their welcome speeches, especially since I could not find a “how to” book on said genre. And here they are, my collected ensemble of “talking points” and tactics for a successful run-of-the-mill welcome speech.

1.     Finish before the allotted time – usually much too long – to give the illusion of being ahead of schedule since nothing ever starts on time. This makes the meeting chairperson happy.
2.     Say absolutely nothing of substance other than the word “welcome.”
3.     Thank the Chamber of Commerce (or the accident of your wonderful locality – Florida in the winter and New Hampshire in the summer) for the weather with proper blame for bad weather.
4.     Note the magnificent facility in which the conference/meeting is being held, compliments of (insert: federal earmark, gracious donor or sponsor, state funding, and so forth, but ignore random luck)
5.     Invite participants to tour the campus, meet students and faculty, and experience the unique atmosphere of your university, unlike any other on Planet Earth.
6.     If relevant and you need to take more time, mention the grand master plan for the campus and the wondrous new facilities to be built. Scale the grandeur of the presentation to fit the time slot.
7.     Make a banal remark about how important the conference topic is to (insert: world peace, the welfare of humankind, the fishing industry, or a suitable substitute).
8.     Assure the conference participants that you’ve read their agenda (be sure to hold it up for them to see that you actually have a copy) and that a great time will be had by all.
9.     And don’t forget to mention that you are going to have to dash off to another meeting (pull up your coat sleeve and examine your watch with a doleful, but disgusted look) – especially given that you have no personal intention of being bored to death over the next few minutes before quietly slipping out.

The clever ones among you might add another topic or two, but this list will carry the day for you. Trust me! I’ve tested this list on many occasions and successfully punched the time clock.

But then I’ve never been much of a conformist and more a contrarian. Punching the time clock and looking out over a sea of sleepy faces while blathering away on my canned talking points always seemed like such a waste of time. And then the epiphany occurred. What I needed was an anti-welcome speech!

No! Not a negative speech, but an anti-speech similar in nature to anti-matter. And how does one accomplish that, you ask? It goes like this.

First you announce to the audience that you want to do something different this morning. You tell them that as a scientist, you’ve made a study of the phenomena of “welcome speeches” and you want to report back to them your findings. Then you pick up the paper with the above list of talking points, adjust your glasses, and proceed to read the points to them. At appropriate moments, you pause, look up from the paper, and insert a jest or two. For example, I routinely stop after point 2 above and ask the following question: “so how am I doing so far?” It’s guaranteed to get a laugh and wake them up.

And, of course, at the end, you pause, pull up your sleeve to reveal your watch, shout “Oh, my God,” and rush off the stage.

Sadly, this strategy of giving an anti-welcome speech seems to work best with STEM folks and not with attendees from the liberal or fine arts. I’m not sure what this says about the technical community and their sense of humor.

And then there is the issue of whether this form of speech is actually a “speech” or a “meta-speech?” Hmmm, I’ll leave that issue to the philosophers among us.

In closing, I feel compelled to relate a funny, but tragic story about the anti-welcome speech. I once gave the anti-welcome speech to a group of regional chemistry department chairs. Just as I finished, the dean rushed in on “dean’s time” – meaning you always make it just in the nick of time – to give his/her welcome speech. Not having heard my critique of the said genre, he/she proceeded to give a perfect rendition, much to the amusement of the assembled chairs. Needless to say, it was a welcome-speech combo that they have never forgotten and a clear example of an anti-welcome speech annihilating a welcome speech with a burst of humor.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Building Bridges 101

By Keith McDowell

Building and maintaining bridges across rivers, creeks, and watercourses has always been a challenge for both engineers and local governments. Witness Riley Hill, one of my distant ancestors whose low bid in 1861 to construct a bridge across Caraway Creek in Randolph County, North Carolina, won him the contract. To his dismay, the bridge fell down. Of course, he tried to collect damages from the county court, but no such luck. Sad to say, but getting wet, figuratively speaking, seems to run in the family genes.

My own experience occurred on the evening of 2 December 2009 following a reception with the British Ambassador at the famed British Embassy Ambassador’s residence in Washington DC. Flanked by over 100 other guests, all dressed in their best business attire, my contingent emerged onto Massachusetts Avenue Northwest into an absolute downpour reminiscent of the biblical deluge. Competition for hailing a passing taxi was fierce as each party established territorial rights for a segment of the curb. Few were deterred from their aggressive behavior by the tidal waves of water splashed on the sidewalks by fast-moving traffic. And almost no one had any raingear or umbrellas.

Mercifully, after some thirty minutes or more of being fully baptized in the waters of Washington DC, a taxi picked up our intrepid crew and delivered us dripping wet to our hotel, unfazed by our grand adventure and eager for the morning to arrive. After all, we were endowed with the entrepreneurial spirit to succeed no matter the hardships. And what better venue to display that spirit than at the Annual University Startups Conference hosted by the National Council of Entrepreneurial Tech Transfer (NCET2).

For me, the next morning began with my welcome speech since The University of Texas System was co-sponsoring the conference along with the University of Maryland. Little did the audience know that my shoes were still damp and stayed that way for the better part of the first day. Somehow the hotel hair dryer just didn’t get the job done.

Unlike many conferences, the annual NCET2 meeting in Washington is closely akin to an old fashioned Gospel revival meeting where saints and sinners come together to experience the entrepreneurial spirit. Led by the irrepressible and effervescent Tony Stanco, the director of NCET2, the conference proceeds as a sequence of fast-paced speeches and panels where “being there” is more important than what one says. It’s the ultimate networking experience among the big-time players as over 400 venture capitalists, startup entrepreneurs, university administrators, economic development specialists, federal SBIR managers, and a host of other characters gather to be seen. It’s the quintessential epitome of building bridges between and among a smorgasbord of people. And it’s all for the purpose of stimulating and accelerating the university startup enterprise.

But NCET2 is more than just an entity hosting a conference. According to its website and literature, “NCET2 connects investors, economic development organizations, public and private funds, and tech transfer professionals in building communities of innovation at universities.” Furthermore, “NCET2 promotes best practices in the creation and funding of university startups by supporting entrepreneurship and providing entrepreneurial education.”

Along with its annual conference, NCET2 has a number of activities designed to achieve its goals. These activities are collected and accessed under the umbrella Internet website Research Commercialization and SBIR Center. There are three principal components:

1.     Webinars, Online-advanced Courses and Workshops: These educational “how-to” sessions provide advanced training in “SBIRs, government research funding, university-industry partnerships, research commercialization, intellectual property, product development and early-stage funding.”
2.     University Technology Showcase Webinar Series: These webinars permit universities to showcase “ripe-for-partnership programs” to a network of decision-makers.
3.     Faculty Startup Program: This activity is designed to assist faculty and recently graduated students in the business of starting up a company.

Two features of the NCET2 website are notable. First, there is a listing of university commercialization activities with appropriate hyperlinks. These links serve as a one-stop-shopping tool to enhance networking and connectivity of all the players in the university startup enterprise. Second is a University Startup Map. This zoom-capable map of the globe displays a “balloon” for each startup in the database appropriately anchored to its location. When “clicked,” the balloon yields the name of the company. While the use of such “dashboard” features and technologies is still experimental with respect to their efficacy for enhancing entrepreneurship and communities of innovation in the innovation marketplace, it is an important step in the right direction to connect the dots.

Are we building through important entities such as NCET2 the proverbial bridge to nowhere or a bridge too far? Or is it a bridge over troubled water destined to fall down? Whatever the case may be, it is certain that an entrepreneurial bridge must be built, hopefully without the outcome in the movie The Bridge on the River Kwai. And next time, I’ll take an umbrella!

[Note: the image was copied from the University of Cincinnati Library.]