Author Archive: Jim Razinha

Jim is a husband of more than 27 years, father of four home-schooled sons (26, 23, 16 and 14), engineer delighting in virtually all things technical, with more than a passing interest in history, religions, arts, most sciences (particularly physics) and skepticism.

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Nothing positive about this ratio

| July 23, 2013 | Reply
Nothing positive about this ratio

The one (academic) thing I remember most from my undergraduate days is my Thermodynamics professor Dr. Will Sutton’s mantra: “Check your sources. Check your sources. Check your sources.” Makes perfect sense and I took that as a universal given but after reading a few PhD dissertations recently, I was wondering if it applies to the soft sciences.

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Cluttered = Smart

| May 24, 2013 | 1 Reply

For some people, “Attention Deficit Disorder” (ADD) can be a real problem. I’ve got it and I don’t view it as a “disorder”, even though as I’ve written, my particular flavor of ADD can sometimes throw up a speed bump. Anyway, now I can point to some science on scatter-brains.

I recently finished Steven Johnson’s Where Good Things Come From: The Natural History of Innovation – a recommended read, by the way. In his chapter on Serendipity, Johnson talks about Robert Thatcher’s 2007 study in which he looked at phase-lock (when neurons are firing at the same frequency) and noise (when they are not synchronized) in brains of children by performing EEGs and then giving them IQ tests. The study has the inspiring title of “Intelligence and EEG Phase Reset: A Two Compartmental Model of Phase Shift and Lock” if you are really adventurous, masochistic, or really like reading academic papers. I guess I’ll go with the first descriptor – I read it and I’m really glad I’m not into research.

For those who want to cut to the chase, Thatcher found that:

Phase shift duration (40 – 90 msec) was positively related to intelligence and the phase lock duration (100 – 800 msec) was negatively related to intelligence.

In layman’s terms, the more disorganized the brain, the smarter someone is. The noise appears to be necessary to help the brain find new connections between neurons.

Celebrate disorder!

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More food producing problems

| July 17, 2012 | 1 Reply
More food producing problems

Per the National Climate Data Center, the drought in the continental U.S. is the worst in 56 years. As growing your own food is apparently a big issue (Be careful that you don’t piss off your neighbors by living sustainably), expect some seriously jacked prices…while the big boys rake in record profits.

NPR had a segment today on the drought and they talked to a small farmer in Ohio about her crop. Ms. Bryn Bird raises sweet corn. Listen to the segment. At just after the two minute point, she calmly says she’s looking at a $30-40,000 loss this year. And because sweet corn is not a commodity, she can’t get crop insurance!

According to the NY Times, politics is killing the Farm Bill overhaul, but as it stands,

…farmers who grow corn, wheat, soybeans, cotton and other crops receive about $5 billion in direct payments.

$5 billion…whether they grow crops or not…and that’s not even the insurance subsidies. Now, the new bill is supposed to eliminate those direct payments, but the House elephants are divided, so it won’t happen until after the election. I always thought something was wrong with paying people not to grow crops, and I’m not sure how much of the current or future farm bill goes to that specifically, but the U.S. supposedly spent

$7.4 billion last year on federal crop and revenue insurance premium subsidies for farmers.

…and at a minimum, $90 B over the next ten years for insurance premium subsidies.

Meanwhile, the small, real food producers absorb not inconsiderable losses because they can’t get insurance for such unsexy crops as sweet corn. It’s okay to be outraged now.

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For want of a half penny, a future was lost…

| March 13, 2012 | 4 Replies
For want of a half penny, a future was lost…

Yesterday, my son shared the video below – Neil deGrasse Tyson’s “We Stopped Dreaming (Episode 1)”. It took me back to childhood memories when I was inspired to be a scientist. I remember watching the Apollo launches. I think I remember listening to the Gemini 4 space walk – I was four, and my father recorded it on reel-to-reel, but I don’t remember him ever replaying it. I remember staying up late and falling asleep…thankfully to be awoken by my mother just before Apollo 11 landed on the moon. …Skylab, …the test flight of the Space Shuttle Enterprise.

Years later, I left behind aspirations of a science career (practicalities…how much money does the average physicist make anyway?) for one of engineering, but the love of space, cosmology, NASA…all still with me…which is why what Neil deGrasse Tyson is saying in this video saddens me all the more.

I worry that decisions Congress makes doesn’t [sic] factor in the consequences of those decisions on tomorrow.

Apart from the applicability of that to just about any of the current Congress’s decisions, he’s dead right in this specific instance. We are not funding science. We are not encouraging and developing engineers. We are failing in educating our young people, not only in the technical fields, but in general.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) compares 15 year olds in 65 industrial countries. From the 2009 report:

The OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a collaborative effort among OECD member countries to measure how well 15-year-old students approaching the end of compulsory schooling are prepared to meet the challenges of today’s knowledge societies. The assessment is forward-looking: rather than focusing on the extent to which these students have mastered a specific school curriculum, it looks at their ability to use their knowledge and skills to meet real-life challenges. This orientation reflects a change in curricular goals and objectives, which are increasingly concerned with what students can do with what they learn at school.

“…to meet real-life challenges.” Care to guess how the U.S.A. fared in the latest, 2009, assessment? You can see here for yourself, but I’ll spoil it:

  • Reading – 17th (out of 65)
  • Mathematics –31st (significantly below the average)
  • Science – 23rd

We fail. We fail across the board. We fail where it matters. I’m not sure how we will fare in the 2012 PISA, but I seriously doubt we’ll improve. Our system doesn’t support it anymore.

Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum, in their book “That Used to Be us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back”, quote Matt Miller, one of the authors of a 2009 McKinsey & Company report titled The Economic Impact of the Achievement Gap in America’s Schools, who said

They [American students] are being prepared for $12-an-hour jobs – not $40 to $50 an hour.”

I don’t know what the answer is. I admit a selfish cop out – we home educate our children – so I don’t think often on what can or should be done; we’ve taken responsibility for preparing our children ourselves. Still, one simple solution seems to be to promote science, math and engineering.

And we start doing that by not cutting NASA’s budget.

Fat chance. How much would YOU pay for the universe?

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What really motivates us

| February 2, 2012 | 1 Reply
What really motivates us

A lot of businesses (and government organizations) are faced with the problem of how to motivate employees in general, and in difficult economic times in particular. I read Daniel Pink’s Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us last night and had one of those face-palm “wow” moments. I can’t call it an epiphany because it came from the book, but I can say that something “clicked.”

Dan Pink summarizes his observations:

When it comes to motivation, there’s a gap between what science knows and what business does. Our current business operating system which is built around external, carrot-and-stick motivators doesn’t work and often does harm. We need an upgrade. And the science shows the way. This new approach has three essential elements:
(1) Autonomy: the desire to direct our own lives;
(2) Mastery: the urge to get better and better at something that matters; and
(3) Purpose: the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.

Pink spoke on this at TEDGlobal in 2009.

I recommend the book to anyone in a management (I prefer “leadership”) position.

As his subtitle suggests, you may be surprised.

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A Different Way to Look at Art

| December 28, 2011 | 1 Reply
A Different Way to Look at Art

My wife (an artist) posted Ursus Wehrli’s TEDTalk on her Facebook page yesterday.
She said, “This is great! My engineer hubby should appreciate this!”

Well, he certainly does. I particularly liked Wehrli’s takes on Jasper Johns and Jackson Pollack.

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The future of books?

| October 6, 2011 | 19 Replies
The future of books?

I read an interesting article today by Salon contributor Paul Lafarge on Why the book’s future never happened. Lafarge was referring to hypertext fiction, a non-linear “literature” that apparently was ahead of its time. When technology caught up, the genre was OBE (overcome by events ) and made obsolete like a four track tape (my father had a player and about 15 tape…superseded almost immediately by the eight track) by the Internet. Or maybe not. Read the article and decide for yourself.

I investigated a little hypertext fiction and found it to be quite irritating. Perhaps it was only the non-linearity … when I read fiction, I like it to flow (do not confuse “flow” with “stream of consciousness”). But I don’t think so. The links in the examples I saw seemed to be only links for the sake of linking…adding no value to the story, no continuation of the context. Bizarre plot devices are usually not received well anyway, so my annoyance with the hypertext genre of fiction is not surprising. I did find some of the comments to Lafarge’s article informative, so I encourage you to drill down.

I don’t know if hypertext is the future of fiction, but electronic books seem to be. I love printed books – clearly, as I/we own more than 5500 of them. But I recently (late to the game as always) inherited my wife’s iPad after she bought an iPad 2 and have discovered the convenience of electronic books. I read a few on my iPhone, but the seven or so page flicks to read a single page of printed text tends to tedium. A few folks I know have Kindles or Nooks that they like (my wife uses the Kindle app on her iPad), but I’m pleased to have an ebook reader and the other features of the tablet. I can take a few moments at any point of the day to read a couple of pages or sit down and read an entire book without having to carry the hard copy…unless I want to. I miss Borders, and hope other chains don’t die, but I’m liking the technological alternative.

I find one feature of the ebook reader I’ve settled on particularly useful. When I read a book to learn something, I like to make notes but too often never go back to them, as I’m reading new books and making more notes. With the electronic version, I can highlight the text or drop a bookmark and the reader keeps track of them for me. I’ve reloaded a couple of books I deleted after reading when I discovered that…embarrassing, as I’m usually pretty savvy with those things, but it hadn’t occurred to me that I could use the technology to even more of my advantage.

So, I’m not going to call myself a convert because I will always treasure the feel of paper in hand, but I foresee continuing to enjoy the benefits of electronic versions of books. I just wish my various apps I like to use could each see the others’ books. I like the some of the features of one, some of another, but iTunes and the brilliance (snort) of the iOS folks forces me to load multiple copies of a book to each app if I want to read it in more than one. Not the only flaw that annoys me, but one that pertains to this post…

Happy reading. However you manage it.

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What makes a poem a poem?

| September 13, 2011 | 15 Replies
What makes a poem a poem?

A few weeks ago, I found a treasure at a used bookstore: a copy of Tom Peters’s 1997 book “The Circle of Innovation” – with an extra treasure – the signature of the author). The book is filled with quotes to punctuate Peters’s themes. One in particular resonated with me:

Expose yourself to the best things humans have done and then try to bring those things into what you are doing.

– Steve Jobs [pre-iPod, pre-iPhone, pre-iPad]

Brilliant.

Jobs was talking about art, poetry, history. Peters tied the quote to the Mac (I have all three of the above gadgets, but I’ve sampled the Mac Kool-Aid and the lingering cyanide taste was too much for me) and the mixing of artists with engineers to create the Mac and its operating system. Despite that, it’s still brilliant.

It struck a chord because I’ve recently gotten a baptism by immersion in the art world. Now that we’ve stopped moving and have established a presence here in North Texas, my wife last year took her art from “interests” to “profession”. Since then it’s been a whirlwind of new and different – for her and me. In that short time, she’s explored a variety of media (requiring reconfiguration of the garage – uh, studio – several times) and done things she never dreamed of being able to do. Shameless plug here: check out her website and you’ll understand the multiple reconfigs I’ve had to facilitate (drill deep – there is a lot there and all produced in just the last year and a half.) Collateral to this evolution, this spring she was elected president of one of the art associations she joined and just two weeks ago became the publisher of a fine art engagement book. Now she’s attending exhibition openings and receptions to support the artists of the association, network with sponsors of the book, scout out art for the book, and simply enjoy the art. And unless I have something more pressing, I am also going to these openings. We went to two last Friday night and have another tomorrow night.

…more…

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I want to work with Thomas Heatherwick

| August 22, 2011 | Reply
I want to work with Thomas Heatherwick

I have worked with architects, engineers and contractors for nearly 20 years, managing the design and construction of all manner of facilities. As more than 18 of those years were in the public sector (15+ federal – military, 3+ municipal), function over form was unfortunately a primary design consideration. Where form did come into play, it was usually a more decorative stone face instead of some brick. Too often, I was working with budgets set down four to five or more years earlier, and in some cases with unchangeable scopes of work – the military construction (MILCON) program is rather rigid in that respect to ensure what is authorized is built (getting permission and funding for one thing but building another is verbotten). You can imagine that the crystal ball gets a little foggy out that far. And, by the time you get the funding to design and build, the budgets are usually too little to do what is needed, requiring creative scope cutting to get the most product for the buck. And that is why almost no federal, and very few municipal buildings are anything other than sterile designs that serve a functional and nearly never a visual need.

So you can probably see why architect Thomas Heatherwick, and his firm Heatherwick Studio are such a treat for me. His designs are visually stunning, incredibly creative and are slap-the-forehead wake-ups to what we should be able to do at no more cost than traditional design. I was amazed at the very innovative solution to a common construction requirement (no spoiler…it’s at the 4 minute point in the video), and even more amazed at the focus of his talk: the British contribution to the 2010 Shanghai Expo, the Seed Cathedral. Imagine deliberately designing a building with 60,000 penetrations…and then making it work.

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