Good Byes are never easy

On Saturday I had a going away party in Eindhoven. I’m moving back to Austin tomorrow. I have made some absolutely amazing friends. Friends that have expanded what I think about the world, how the world works and about countries that I never thought I’d make friends from.

It’s been an interesting experience. First living with 7 roommates from all over the world. Walk down stairs and understanding nothing because everyone is speaking Spanish or Urdu. I would then go to class and during the breaks or after class I’d be surrounded by Dutch. With all this going on you’d think I would have done a better job picking up the languages. I know a bit of Dutch, enough to say simple things like “Ik spreek geen Nederlands” or “Spreek je Engels.” Dutch is a hard language to learn because, well it’s a hard language and because nearly the entire country is fluent in English to a level that I can have an in depth discussion about nearly anything.

My friend Greg was telling me that there’s something of a psychological theory related to how Ex-pats adjust to an area they live in. He says that it’s like a parabola. You start out really excited and happy, everything is new and you’re learning a lot. Eventually, the things that were new and interesting become frustrating and just different enough to make it desirable to go home or to be surrounded by people from your culture. It’s easy to understand why there are enclaves of people from the same culture. My Colombian and Mexican friends had the similarity of their languages and a few people that bridged their cultures. I didn’t have anyone from my culture that I was close with, and seeing the closeness of my friends it some times made it even harder because I was essentially adapting to two different cultures at the same time.

During this time, I had to do some growing and try to figure out how to deal with it. I of course continued to throw myself into the two cultures by hanging out with my Dutch friends and my Latin American friends during my first year here. Eventually, after hitting bottom you begin to adjust and accept things are different and figure out ways to work within the system. Things definitely got easier when Brian and Greg moved over here as they are from the US.

I’ve learned so much while being here. Through my education, from my friends from different cultures and just being in a totally different type of place. I’ve learned that I can adapt to truly different and stressful situations. It made me appreciate what I have back in Austin and I think that I’ll be a better friend and husband than I would have been otherwise. I’m more patient and less prone to say rash things. I think that I’ve grown a lot and I can’t help but say it’s because of the support of my friends here and Davianne back home.

Good byes are hard, especially when you know how much of an impact on your life your friends have made. I’d like to thank you all for being in my life and I look forward to continuing to keep in touch. Hopefully I’ll see you in the US and the next time I come to Europe. I also look forward to visiting your countries too!

Denouncing Rush

My friend sent me this email. If women’s rights matter to you, then please read on.
Sandra Fluke is a classmate of mine.  You may have heard of her.  She’s an inspiring woman who worked with victims of domestic violence before coming to law school on a public interest scholarship.  She is the woman who was supposed to testify before congress on birth control but was blocked by republicans.  This was the congressional hearing about birth control in which no woman was allowed to testify.  The statement she had planned to make was later publicized.  Rush Limbaugh completely misrepresented it, called her a slut, and demanded that she post sex tapes online.
Even if you do not believe that birth control should be accessible for contraceptive reasons, or even life-saving medical reasons, I hope you do find it unacceptable for Limbaugh to defame a woman and lie about her testimony. Limbaugh is attempting to bully women out of speaking and create positive publicity for himself. Sign this petition if you want it to backfire on him.  http://dccc.org/pages/denounce-rush
Please forward this to anyone you think would be interested in signing.

Biting the hands that feeds it

Yesterday I read an article which explained that a Republican Congressman berated the head of the National Science Foundation for high gas prices. This is pretty distressing because it shows a clear lack of understanding of the goals of the NSF, the role of industry in innovation, consumers and the policies the Republican party and the US government has in place in regard to fuel usage.

First of all, the NSF is an organization that funds cutting edge research that expands the frontier of science. The goal is not to pick winners at that early of a stage. Picking a technology specifically to reduce the cost of fuel would be that. The goal is to pick the best ideas in a broad range of topics and fund several ideas within the same topic to get competing technologies and research groups. They groups can look at the same problem with a different perspective and lead to very different results, which together could lead to a huge break through (if they each don’t get their own break through or the same one). The goal is to create variety. I’m sure there are tons of projects that are focused on creating alternative fuels and increasing the efficiency of our combustion engines. However, the research isn’t going to be commercializable for 10 to 15 years. That’s just how long it takes. The research we’re funding today will be driving our economy through the next decade. 
If the Congressman wants a better target to go after, he should look to the car companies. There has been research for a large number of years on engine technology, however not all of it has been used to actually improve efficiency. Some times it’s used to increase the power of the vehicle. They do this because that’s what the consumer wants. Americans love their big powerful cars. There’s no reason why my mother in-law NEEDS to drive the extended Tahoe, but she does – she feels safer in her “Battle wagon.” However, the vehicle gets very low gas mileage, which of course is a double whammy when the prices increase. Huge tank and high prices make it expensive. The more gas the vehicle uses the higher the prices will be going. In Europe the gas prices Americans are complaining about are absurdly low. In the Netherlands it’s something like $8/gallon, around $3 of that is in taxes. However, in those countries there are much more fuel efficient vehicles because they have to be. Many of those countries don’t really want people to be driving.
The same car manufacturers that complain about putting minimum fuel economy standards on cars are able to meet higher standards in Europe. The US government could easily play a role in increasing the standards for new vehicles. They may not be doing enough. Continually increasing the standards with higher gas prices will increase the incentives for manufacturing those vehicles. Especially if the US government provides a customer for those cars. This would ensure that the car companies will be able to sell a minimum number of the vehicles without fear of a complete flop of the technology. 

Innovation, Science and Money II

In my last blog I discussed some of the budgetary cuts occurring in the US and how these cuts are going to impact the future of science. I want to spend some time explaining why this is the case. I mentioned something called Path Dependency, what do I mean by this? Well it’s a pretty simple concept, once you start down a policy path your choices are constrained by your previous choices and the results based on those choices.

This type of path dependency can be seen in scientific and technological changes. For example, if a piece of technology has three parts each one can be improved independently. If each one can be changed in one direction, from a 0 to a 1 each change could impact how likely a specific technology would be selected by consumers. Each change could lead to a local optimal, and could prevent the technology from becoming a global optimal. Additionally, these changes over time, with further research, could lead to radical different technologies. This happening from changing a single feature from on or off. Basically, it’s an evolutionary process.

Policy works the same way. There’s a paper written by Mustar et al (2008) that discusses the policy choices in France and the UK. The objective of the paper was to investigate the impact of policy choices on the creating of academic spin-offs. Some of the results lead to additional technology incubators in the UK and in France. However, the number of academic spin-offs in France actually decreased, however in the UK they increased significantly.

These differences came about because of previous policy choices. For example, France has laws related to civil servants and starting a new company. In France all professors are considered civil servants, so there is a history of professors not starting companies. There’s a lack of culture for entrepreneurship in France for increasing the number of academic spin-offs.

This is what I meant by path dependencies. Decreasing the amount of money going into meaningful academic research will have an impact in other ways. In the US there has been an increased push for increasing the number of companies being started. Scientific research can be turned into new companies through academic spin-offs. Decreasing the funding at two of the biggest funding agencies will decrease the number of academic spin-offs.

References:
Mustar et al 2008 http://www.springerlink.com/content/68282r1460889062/

Innovation, Science and Money

The death of Steve Jobs has really shaken the technology community. It has really made people do a lot of thinking about innovation and the impact of technology based companies on the economy. The Economist notes that the American work force is on the decline and the high tech companies aren’t making up enough jobs. That now companies like Apple and Google employ less than a third of what companies like GM used to employ. These high tech companies don’t need as many employees. Additionally, it’s a different type of work force that are required in the US. Apple outsources manufacturing because they are really concerned with driving down the cost of manufacturing and maximize profits. This is good business.

In a long article by Peter Thiel, co-founder of Pay Pal and a venture capitalist, he discusses what he calls the end of the future. Where he claims that we’ve been in an innovation slow down since the 70’s. He also argues that scientists and technologists aren’t living up to the claims they are making. He argues that in a lot of ways we’ve been technologically stagnant. Politicians have been making the same promises on energy since the 70’s and that we’ve been slowing down are rate of increase of production for food barely keeping up with population growth. I think that he does make some good points, but he definitely goes a bit over the top with his statements. He’s looking at things only within the national and regional context and is ignoring the fact that there have been cultural changes that have driven a change in how companies innovate.

Historically, companies don’t find value in doing basic research. If you look at the history of research labs within industry, they hire researchers to do incremental and radical innovation. However, this research is carried out within a scientific paradigm which was created in basic research.

In fact we’ve seen a decrease in the amount of R&D being spent by companies. This has lead to some of the stagnation in innovation that Thiel mentions. To combat this and to reduce the risk borne by the company they have been doing more and more contract research with universities and have increase the amount of money they spend with universities.

Thiel also mentions that the government might be able to help but doesn’t see it ever going to happen when you have to justify the expense by cutting something else. Since he’s a libertarian he feels that the budget must be balanced. However, our politicians are cutting budgets to the largest scientific funding agencies in the US. My wife sent me an email with some of the funding cuts, National Science Foundation is getting cut by 2.3%, in fact it’s 14% below the budget requested by the administration. The National Institute for Standards and Technology’s budget is getting cut by 9.3%. Both of these agencies create a large number of jobs. It’s been shown that one research job creates several other jobs. Cutting these budgets will reduce the amount of research which can be conducted. This will impact the number of researchers, impact the quality of education at universities and slow down the ability for universities and firms to exploit new research.

It typically takes 10 years for research to be monetizable. Cutting funding now impacts employment now and future employment. In fact, these changes will have a long term lasting impact. These choices create a path dependency within our society. Without proper funding we’ll be passed by some one that feels research is paramount.