Monday, 25 March 2013

Dipping my toes in again

I think I'd like to start blogging again. Or I guess start blogging period - I never really got started last time. I intend to write more essay-like posts in the future, but to ease myself in let's just start with a more mundane thought-dump. So, without further ado, here's what I've been doing or thinking about lately.

1. Sciencing

Thanks to some hard work by me and a few very careless reviewers, my paper on dye-sensitized solar cells was accepted for publication recently. I've been working on this project for almost two years now, so to have something get published came as a huge relief - and was also really cool, in a holy-crap-I-do-science kind of way. You can read the abstract on the linked page, but the actual paper is behind a paywall (I'm sure you're devastated). It's not going to change the world or anything, but if things work out it does stand a good chance of generating some interest in my sub-sub-sub-field, which is really all I can ask for. With any luck I'll be presenting this work at a conference in San Diego in August, which has the potential to be a cool experience, and who knows, may even be useful. In the meantime, I'm moving on to another project on organic solar cells - one that doesn't appear to be as promising, if early results are any indication.

Incidentally, if any of my science-doing friends are reading this and have been meaning to learn Latex (as I put off doing for many years), I would highly recommend a program called Lyx. It's basically a Latex front end with almost no learning curve - you write the document, it writes the Latex markup behind the scenes. Mostly it just allows you to do your thing without having to write \cite all the time or whatever. Very useful.

2. Community is back, and it kind of sucks

Well, that's probably too harsh. More like, Community is back and it's only kind of okay now. As some of you may know, Community is my favourite show on television currently, so I awaited it's long-delayed season four with great anticipation. Now, five episodes in, I think it's safe to say there's been a marked decline in quality. Much has been made of the departure of creator and show-runner Dan Harmon, and while I'm not normally a subscriber to the auteur theory, I think it's pretty clear that in this case Harmon really was the heart of the show. Which isn't to say things would be perfect had he stayed - after all, season three had its own set of flaws, and many shows start to decline after four seasons, new showrunner or no. But I still feel safe in saying that a Harmon-run Community wouldn't have gone this long without surprising me in some way or another. Say what you will about Community, at its best it was different from anything else on TV, and you never knew what kind of episode you were going to get each week.

Anyway, I still like the characters, and the show still manages to get some laughs out of me, so I'll keep watching for now. And who knows, maybe they'll recapture some of that insane magic they had. But I have stopped hoping for a season five with any great zeal.

3. New computer, and it's kind of awesome

I have to say, I am unreasonably excited about my new laptop purchase. On friday I picked up a Samsung Series 9, basically a Macbook Air equivalent for Windows. Loving it so far. Performance seems excellent (seriously, solid state drives are just the bee's knees), and it is almost comically thin. Very light too, which is great for toting it around. For many years I've only had a desktop, and it served me well, but the lure of portability finally proved too much. I will miss having two large monitors to work with, though.

Also, in a surprising turn of events, after two days of using Windows 8 I'm really liking it. Wouldn't have called that, based on what I had read about it. So far the impression I get is essentially that Windows 8 = Windows 7 + start screen. And I like the start screen. Hence, I like Windows 8. Which isn't to say it's perfect or anything - there's a few things here and there that annoy me. But if given a chance to downgrade to Windows 7, I wouldn't take it.

4. Got Netflix, and it's definitely awesome

With nothing to do last night, Amy and I decided to sign up for Netflix. This was going to happen at some point anyway, what with their having exclusive rights to the new Arrested Development episodes and all, so there seemed no point in delaying. Anyway, I guess everyone but me already knew this, but apparently Netflix is amazing? I don't think I really got at a gut level how awesome it would be to have instant access to a bunch of streaming movies and TV shows. You just see something you want to watch, click on it, and there it is. It really removes any kind of barrier to entrance, which is a big thing for me. It's sort of similar to a kindle in that regard - before I got my kindle, roughly 30-40% of the books I read were ones I had already read, some of them many times. Since getting my kindle? None. I have not reread a single book in that time, and I attribute that to having near-instant access to an online store where I can download whatever book I want. Sure, before the kindle I could have gone to the book store whenever I wanted, and you can say that such a small thing shouldn't have stopped me from reading anything I wanted to. But the empirical fact - the way it turned out in actual real life - was that I usually didn't. Small barriers stop you from doing more than you think. There's probably a productivity lesson here - remove trivial inconveniences for things you want yourself to do? - but I think in this case the end result will simply be me wasting a bunch of time watching TV.

5. Cold fusion - maybe real?

There seems to be something of a renaissance in the field of cold fusion lately, a branch of physics long derided as pathological or pseudoscientific. There's been a few popular articles popping up, but I draw your attention in particular to this paper, published recently at a conference in California (granted, not peer-reviewed as far as I know). It reports direct evidence of transmutation of elements at low temperatures. This paper is noteworthy for several reasons:

a) The work was done at a university and funded by Toyota, a company not generally known for supporting crackpots.
b) The work is a replication of an experiment performed at another university, and that experiment was funded by Mitsubishi. I repeat: an experiment involving low-temperature transmutation of elements has been replicated.
c) Most importantly, unlike many cold fusion experiments, this one involves elemental transmutation instead of calorimetry. One of the most frequent charges laid against cold fusion experimenters is that their "proof" usually amounts to small quantities of excess heat, which could simply be ascribed to the difficulties of calorimetry. And this is a very reasonable point - calorimetry is hard, or so I gather, and many cold fusion researchers are essentially working out of their own basement. However, detecting elements is a very different story - there's tons of different ways to do it, and it's all very cut and dried. Either you find an element, or you don't. In this case, they put in Cesium, and they found Praseodymium. Case closed. I don't really see any plausible way to ascribe that to experimental error (although if any experimentalist reading this has a more informed opinion, I'd love to hear it). At this point I think you'd almost have to posit active fraud if you want to disbelieve these results.

Anyway, with all that being said I'm still somewhat skeptical. But I do count this paper as strong evidence for the reality of the effect - not necessarily definitive evidence, but strong. Mostly I'm just posting this so if cold fusion pans out and saves the world in ten years, I can say I totally called it.

That's all for today. Stay in school kids.

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