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The Engineer's Notebook

The Engineer's Notebook is a shared blog for entries that don't fit into a specific CR4 blog. Topics may range from grammar to physics and could be research or or an individual's thoughts - like you'd jot down in a well-used notebook.

Toilet Seat Covers and You

Posted March 25, 2017 12:00 AM by M-ReeD
Pathfinder Tags: Bacteria Toilet Seats

Before I start, I’d like to apologize for yet another toilet-centric blog post.

Your college roommate; your high-school best friend; your mother; your school nurse; no matter which of these germophobes influenced your thoughts on bathroom etiquette, they were wrong. You cannot catch an STD—or anything else— from sitting directly on an unprotected toilet seat.

In fact, according to public health experts, the safety net used by frequenters of public restrooms has been deemed ineffective and, oddly, less hygienic than (pardon me) bare-assing it. In fact, placing something between your buttocks and the toilet seat may even hasten the spread of germs.

Using a toilet seat cover may make matters worse by offering up more surface area for germs to multiply. Also, the microscopic bacteria can travel through holes in the absorbent paper. If there was real cause for concern, the paper of the toilet seat cover would not offer any layer of protection.

Toilet seats are designed in such a way as to prevent the clinging of germs. So much so that one study suggests that a toilet seat might be cleaner than a kitchen sink. Germs, however, will cling to toilet paper and toilet seat covers.

Toilet paper from the roll in a bathroom stall offers very little in the way of protection. In fact, the bigger issue with toilet paper might be the “fecal plumes” that collect on the roll after the toilet has been flushed. Using toilet paper as a barrier between your behind and the seat will expose you to the contaminated fecal plumes from a flush. The bacteria that settle on those surface areas are more likely to contaminate your hands than your tush.

As always, the biggest threat in any bathroom comes from users not washing their hands.

So go ahead, throw caution to the wind and park your behind down on that Starbucks toilet seat. Just don’t sit in their sink. And, for the love of god, wash your hands!

Image credit:

Will Conley / CC BY-SA 2.0

21 comments; last comment on 03/27/2017
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Innovation, Part II: What Makes an Innovative Individual?

Posted March 24, 2017 3:00 PM by MaggieMc

On Wednesday, I told you about a paper in Vol. 18 of Technology and Innovation, written by Victor Poirier and a whole slew of his colleagues, specifically the process of innovation that they outlined. However, the deeper you get into the process, the more you realize that all individuals are not equally equipped to proceed along that path.

So, what skills do you need to be innovative? And how can you develop those skills?

When we consider of our favorite geniuses and creative minds (e.g. Albert Einstein or Sigmund Freud), we’ll find that they have certain things in common; namely that they come from locales separate from their respective “centers of excellence,” they gain dominance in their domains in an average of ten years, and then they move to their center of excellence in order to interact with the other great minds in their fields.

Unsurprisingly, those factors aren’t very easy to replicate in ourselves, regardless of how ambitious we are. Luckily, Poirier and his colleagues provided us with a much less circumstantial list of characteristics of innovators:

  1. They are abstract thinkers and superb problem solvers.
  2. They have depth of knowledge in one subject, and a breadth of knowledge across others.
  3. They want to fill the gaps in their knowledge base.
  4. They have strong intrinsic motivation and they find inner satisfaction in working for the greater good.
  5. They are creative and imaginative.
  6. They have an innate and insatiable curiosity.
  7. They take risks because they aren’t afraid of failure; they’re challenged by it.
  8. They have a positive outlook that allows them to be receptive to new possibilities.
  9. They combine persistence and passion into a desire for excellence.
  10. They have a dissatisfaction with settling for the way things already are.
  11. They are open-minded and are capable of considering limitless possibilities.
  12. They appreciate cross-fertilization, and understand the benefits of an outside discipline’s perspective on their ideas.
  13. They communicate their ideas and concepts in a clear and precise fashion.
  14. They have an excellent sense of timing, understanding when to present a given idea.

This laundry-list of interlocking skills is rather daunting to consider, but it’s qualified by the fact that “innovators can also have any combination of these traits, but some of the traits and characteristics may be thought of as being more conducive to innovation than others.”

As I read about each of these traits, I couldn’t help but evaluate my own skills on those terms—an interesting exercise to say the least.

To cultivate these innovative traits, the authors speak first of working against the idea that inspiration is solely a spontaneous occurrence, instead shifting the focus to the idea that inspiration can be worked toward and innovative skills can be grown. In addition, the authors suggest a high level of individual involvement and independence, as well as “the ability to confront failure and grapple with ill-defined problems.”

Gaining skills comes much more easily to most people than changing our thinking. Learning to accept contrary ideas—for example that failures are not necessarily failures—is not an easy task. Then again, neither is innovation.

Image credit: Bashaier Said

7 comments; last comment on 03/25/2017
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Innovation, Part I: What Does It Really Look Like?

Posted March 22, 2017 3:00 PM by MaggieMc

Perhaps I wasn’t paying proper attention before, but it seems that more and more we’re becoming obsessed with the idea of innovation. To be an innovator is to secure one’s position at a company. In fact, companies are increasingly creating “formal innovation roles” with names like Chief Innovation Officer, Innovation Manager, Innovation Director, or VP of Innovation. We even give awards for innovation. So much pressure is placed on innovation and the pace of progress, but we don’t always stop to consider what innovation really looks like.

Innovation, I learned as I wrote this blog, is in the top 1% of “lookups” at Merriam-Webster online—potentially due to what Victor Poirier and his co-authors describe as “the centrality of innovation to current educational and business efforts,” in a recent essay featured in Technology and Innovation, a journal published by the National Academy of Inventors.

The authors attribute more to innovation than Merriam-Webster, highlighting the idea that innovations must have societal value. This characteristic of innovation is what makes innovative thinking “critical to our everyday lives, regardless of individual interests and passions.”

After researching many opinions on innovation, the authors describe the process as stemming from a kind of fragmented inspiration, coalescing into a more complete concept, then moving the idea forward into society.

Fortunately or unfortunately, innovation doesn’t occur in a bubble. A lot has to happen for innovation to function properly—and a lot of it is dependent on the environment and the individual’s method of thinking.

When considering society and the environment’s influence on innovation, the authors rely on the ideas of Steven Johnson, which, conveniently, are summarized in the video I’ve included below. Pay specific attention to the idea of “the slow hunch” and the value of external discussion and feedback, because these ideas begin to fill in some of the gaps in the process Poirier and his co-authors describe.

With the addition of Johnson’s ideas, the path to innovation becomes more complicated, but also more complete, as the importance of collaboration is stressed. More often than not, innovation is not the product of a single individual, they need support from other areas, the innovative group draws on a multitude of different skills, and they eventually come up with a complete idea.

One piece essential to innovation that wasn’t mentioned in the process or the video is the idea of error. Error is an easy idea to understand, and it’s equally easy to devalue or dismiss. No one likes to admit we make mistakes, but some of our mistakes, or misguided hunches, propel us into the best ideas—once we’ve gone back to the drawing board.

With the length of the process, the inevitability of error, and the difficulty of achieving the right timing for a given innovation, it’s no wonder we prize innovative individuals. Especially because the most innovative individuals embody this process, they don’t necessarily consider it—they simply act in accordance with their intuition.

So, then, what makes an innovative individual?

Find out on Friday!

33 comments; last comment on 03/24/2017
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Organic Labeling

Posted March 18, 2017 12:00 AM by M-ReeD
Pathfinder Tags: diet Farming food organic pesticides

People subscribing to an all-organic lifestyle will be the first to tell you all about the benefits associated with the diet: improved overall health and wellness, exposure to more nutrients, reduced pesticide exposure, support of local farms and businesses, no antibiotic exposure, no preservatives, etc.

Essentially, living this lifestyle might entitle you to make self-satisfying claims about an all-organic diet. (Stop telling us what to do, Gwyneth Paltrow!)

However, living an organic lifestyle will not, as it turns out, save you or the planet, according to a recent study conducted by researchers from the University of British Columbia.

Because the word “organic” is automatically associated with words like “natural” and “fresh,” we assume that we are doing something beneficial for our health and the planet by ingesting these superior products. But there is a subtext to organic labels. A subtext that might upset super-humans believing their body-temples haven’t ingested anything that isn’t “natural.”

In order for a product to be labeled organic by the USDA, only 95% of the ingredients must be strictly organic, leaving room for a small percentage of non-organic materials to slip their way into our systems. Farmers are allowed to treat organic crops with natural pesticides, some being as dangerous as the synthetic pesticides used to treat conventionally-grown crops. (See copper sulfate, popular among organic farmers.)

Also interesting is that there is very little evidence to support the claims that eating organically will imbue you with special health benefits over someone existing on a non-organic diet.

In addition to the labeling issues, organic foods are more likely to give food poisoning (ASAP Science) with 10% containing traces of E. coli (food poisoning bacteria). There is also a higher incidence of food recall with organic foods (1% of all food is recalled with 7% of that being organic).

Ultimately, despite the hidden issues concerning organic food labeling, organic foods are 47% more expensive than conventional foods. Not exactly a practical diet suited for the masses.

Why is an organic diet more expensive than a traditional diet? The study—which looked across 17 critical factors for farming, including: yield, impact on climate change, farmer livelihood, and consumer health—found that organic farming uses more land to produce the same yield as conventional farms. Not only is this more costly, it also leads to increased greenhouse gases and water shortages.

While I am not arguing that everyone give up their organic diets—after all, there are benefits to organic farming, the most obvious being that consumers have more control and knowledge over how their food is produced—I am simply suggesting that the next time a smug, Paltrow-esqe organic super-human self-righteously insists that they are healthier than you, you might point them to this blog—or to the more reliable literature out there that poses the argument far more eloquently.

Are you swayed by organic labels?

15 comments; last comment on 03/21/2017
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Wikipedia Bots Have Been Silently Battling For A Decade

Posted March 16, 2017 3:51 PM by Hannes
Pathfinder Tags: AI crawler wikipedia

I still remember the day a physics-major friend in college told me to “Look it up on Wikipedia” in 2005. It was the first I’d heard of the site, and after my first visit it quickly became a daily staple in my life. Wikipedia can be a panacea or kryptonite for the intellectually curious, depending on their need for productivity elsewhere. The English version currently has almost 5.5 million articles, and Wikipedia is available in nearly 300 languages. For a free, open-edit reference, studies have shown it to be pretty much as authoritative as other major dictionaries.

One of Wikipedia’s biggest drawbacks is that its editors rely on the procrastination principle of waiting for a problem to arise before solving it. Some amount of time therefore passes between a problem and solution, and during that time any number of users could read libelous, misspelled, or incorrect information. To shorten this time and help keep up with small editing tasks on the millions of articles they oversee, Wikipedia contributors often create automated editor bots. Bots typically perform menial tasks such as keeping links current, adding links to current Wikipedia pages, and undoing obvious vandalism as quickly as possible.

According to recent research, they also “fight” much more often than Wikipedia users witness. Researchers at Oxford and the Alan Turing Institute in London examined the editing histories in over a dozen Wikipedia language editions, noting when a bot undid another’s prior changes. Some of these back-and-forth interactions continued for years. The open-access study, published in late February, described how even relatively “dumb” bots like those programmed to detect Wikipedia errors can engage in surprisingly complex “social” behavior when employed in large numbers.

According to the study, these interactions may help to guide AI design for applications as diverse as social media, cybersecurity, and autonomous vehicles. But the authors are quick to admit that Wikipedia might not be the ideal environment for studying bot-on-bot interaction. Given Wikipedia’s totally bottom-up editing structure, any of its human editors can create editor bots, and there is no formal coordination between editors, so their bots can easily contradict each other.

One of the pitfalls of AI research is the tendency to assign human behaviors to automated ones. It’s easy to say that bots are “fighting” when in reality they’re following their own programming in contradictory ways. Even so, the research data found that there may be a cultural component involved. The English-language Wikipedia bots reverted other bots about 105 times over a ten-year period. German Wikipedia bots reverted significantly less (an average of 24 times), while Portuguese bots reverted significantly more (185 times). Because bots are human-created it only makes sense that they’d take on the characteristics of their human programmers.

Bot-on-bot research is becoming more common, and a surprising number of studies found that interactions often result in conflict, whether between Wikipedia editor bots or “socializing” chatbots. It might not be as fun as watching real robot combat, but it’s amazing to think that behind Wikipedia is an unseen virtual battleground of editor bots, fighting to provide accurate information.

Image credit: Cyberspace Law Centre

20 comments; last comment on 03/23/2017
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