The Quest for a Billion Dollar Red

This is an interesting piece in Bloomberg on Mas Subramanian, “the biggest celebrity in the uncelebrated world of pigment research,” and his quest to find a safe and stable red pigment:

The world lacks a great all-around red. Always has. We’ve made do with alternatives that could be toxic or plain gross. The gladiators smeared their faces with mercury-based vermilion. Titian painted with an arsenic-based mineral called realgar. The British army’s red coats were infused with crushed cochineal beetles. For decades, red Lego bricks contained cadmium, a carcinogen.

More than 200 natural and synthetic red pigments exist today, but each has issues with safety, stability, chromaticity, and/or opacity. Red 254, aka Ferrari red, for example, is safe and popular, but it’s also carbon-based, leaving it susceptible to fading in the rain or the heat. “If we sit out in the sun, it’s not good for us,” says Narayan Khandekar, director of Harvard’s Straus Center for Conservation & Technical Studies and curator of the Forbes Pigment Collection. “That’s the same for most organic systems.” One red is stable, nontoxic, and everlasting: iron oxide, or red ocher, the ruddy clay found in Paleolithic cave paintings. “It’s just not bright in the way that people want,” Khandekar says.

Among Subramanian’s 50+ patents is this one:

Patent No. 8,282,728 is for something potentially far more valuable than YInMn itself. In fact, it only briefly mentions “intense blue color.” Subramanian’s true invention was the crystal structure—or the atomic arrangement—of the material, called trigonal bipyramidal coordination. The manganese imparts the blueness, and by adjusting its proportion in the compound, you can lighten or darken its tint. But, as Subramanian’s jars of lilac and mossy green demonstrate, the structure is also capable of absorbing (and, conversely, reflecting) other colors. This discovery was like finding a hidden door in a bookshelf.

Below is a video of how the famous YInMn (pronounced “yin-min”), the bright blue pigment, was accidentally created in Subramanian’s lab (starts at about 3:35 in the video):

Another fact of the day: titanium dioxide accounts for almost two-thirds of the pigments produced globally; valued at about $13.2 billion, it’s responsible for the crisp whiteness of traffic lines, toothpaste, and powdered doughnuts.

Advertisements

Gary Shteyngart Goes Deep on Hedge Funds and Bitcoin

I really enjoy all that Gary Shteyngart publishes (see here and here, for example) . In his latest year-long project, Shteyngart has been researching finance, bitcoin, and has written an interesting article about Michael Novogratz for The New Yorker:

I like how Shteyngart brings his own life events into the story:

As a hungry, insecure kid growing up in eastern Queens, I remember watching the movie “Wall Street” and fantasizing about how I would look in suspenders and a contrasting collar. The men on the big screen did not have to understand themselves; the money made them understood. Although my greed had been expunged at Oberlin, and the financial crisis of 2007-08 had left me with a more or less permanent view of finance as an industry built on fraud, I found it hard to dislike some of my new acquaintances. The more intellectually vibrant ones came with backgrounds in advanced math and physics; they approached their trades like a puzzle, albeit one they were increasingly unable to solve. Others seemed to be flirting with the edges of sociopathy, or, at least, an inability to pass “Blade Runner” ’s Voight-Kampff empathy test.

Reflecting on the competitive nature from high school days:

At Stuyvesant High School, a competitive math-and-science school in Manhattan with a high proportion of first-generation immigrants, my classmates and I would get up every morning to wage battle over a hundredth of a percentile on our grade-point average; my new friends were fighting over so many basis points on their Bloomberg monitors. When we failed, we failed in front of our families, our ancestors, our future and our past.

Novogratz on Bitcoin:

He doesn’t think that cryptocurrencies will replace the dollar or the yen, but he believes that they will be a boon to countries in the developing world, where people don’t have trust in their fiat currencies, and that blockchain can revolutionize the way information is logged and shared and, in our age of data breaches, protected. “I’m good at selling the dream,” he said. “I can get onstage and get people to start saying ‘Hallelujah! Hallelujah!’ ”

Perhaps the most cogent piece of wisdom comes near the end of the piece:

After six years of exploring finance, I concluded that, despite the expertise and the intelligence on display, nobody really knows anything. 

Worth the read if you enjoy Shteyngart’s writing and/or are curious about the evolution of bitcoin and what some hedge fund managers are trying to do in the space.

Cal Newport on Social Internet vs. Social Media

I’ve been following Cal Newport for a number of years online. Cal Newport has a polarizing stance in that he is NOT on any social media channels (he even wrote a New York Times piece titled “Quit Social Media. Your Career May Depend on It” illuminating his view.)

In two of his most recent posts, Cal Newport outlines the distinction between social internet and social media. “On Social Media and Its Discontents,” Newport explains:

There’s a distinction between the social internet and social media.

The social internet describes the general ways in which the global communication network and open protocols known as “the internet” enable good things like connecting people, spreading information, and supporting expression and activism.

Social media, by contrast, describes the attempt to privatize these capabilities by large companies within the newly emerged algorithmic attention economy, a particularly virulent strain of the attention sector that leverages personal data and sophisticated algorithms to ruthlessly siphon users’ cognitive capital.

I support the social internet. I’m incredibly wary of social media.

Continuing:

If we fail to distinguish the social internet from social media, we’ll proceed by attempting to reform social media through better self-regulation and legislative controls — an approach I believe to be insufficient on its own.

On the other hand, if we recognize that the benefits of the social internet can exist outside the increasingly authoritarian confines of the algorithmic attention economy, we can explore attempts to replace social media with better alternatives.

In my opinion, any vision of a better future for the internet must include this latter conversation.

Cal Newport then offers a couple of suggestions on how social internet can be implemented, including a social protocol built on the blockchain.

In a subsequent post, Cal Newport offers two solutions on how to embrace the social internet today. The first option is to slow down (in other words, practice slow social media consumption):

  • Only use a given social media service if it provides valuable benefits that would be hard to replace. Use these services only for these purposes.

  • Delete all social media apps from your phone. (Few serious uses for social media require that you can access it wherever you are throughout the day.) Instead, access social media through a web browser on your laptop or desktop, once or twice a week.

  • When logged onto a social media service, don’t click “like” or follow links unrelated to your specific, high-value purposes — these activities mainly serve the social media conglomerate’s attempts to package you into data slivers that they can sell to the highest bidder.

The second option, perhaps even more important, is to own your domain. If you want to connect and express yourself online, the best way to do so is to own your own website. Cal Newport admits that owning your own domain is…

“harder than simply setting up a Twitter handle and letting the clever hashtags fly, but it’s immensely more satisfying to produce things when you’re not a data point in some Silicon Valley revenue report.

It’s also, however, humbling.”

The challenge, of course, is that if you start blogging and offering your thoughts online, it is increasingly difficult to find or build an audience. However, if you have something substantial to offer by sharing your thoughts online, eventually people online will find you and they will respond with much greater authenticity than what you could ever get via immaterial Facebook or Instagram “likes”. Just consider how much more effort it would take for someone to write a thoughtful comment or an email to a post that has resonated with the reader.

###

Related reading: Cal Newport on building a remarkable career.

Paul Ford on Bitcoin

Paul Ford has written an entertaining essay on Bloomberg, in which he shares his thoughts on Bitcoin:

Whenever I hear people talk about Bitcoin’s limitless future, I think about Dow 100,000. I first saw it in the old Borders bookshop at the World Trade Center. A few years later, the store was destroyed, and the book title was a sad joke. The markets lost interest in tech for years. Today all the Borders are gone, too.

I loved this sentence:

Consider Bitcoin a grand middle finger.

Ford’s view on how monetization can possibly happen:

Here’s what I finally figured out, 25 years in: What Silicon Valley loves most isn’t the products, or the platforms underneath them, but markets. “Figure out the business model later” was the call of the early commercial internet. The way you monetize vast swaths of humanity is by creating products that people use a lot—perhaps a search engine such as Google or a social network like Facebook. You build big transactional web platforms beneath them that provide amazing things, like search results or news feeds ranked by relevance, and then beneath all that you build marketplaces for advertising—a true moneymaking machine. If you happen to create an honest-to-god marketplace, you can get unbelievably rich.

###

Also worth reading is Paul Ford’s 2015 Bloomberg piece on “What is Code?”

The Most Popular Course on Coursera

From the New York Times, a profile of the most popular course on Coursera, about learning how to learn. The remarkable thing is that the videos for the course were created in Dr. Barbara Oakley’s basement :

This is where they put together “Learning How to Learn,” taken by more than 1.8 million students from 200 countries, the most ever on Coursera. The course provides practical advice on tackling daunting subjects and on beating procrastination, and the lessons engagingly blend neuroscience and common sense.

Dr. Barbara Oakley has an interesting technique:

She illustrates her concepts with goofy animations: There are surfing zombies, metabolic vampires and an “octopus of attention.” Hammy editing tricks may have Dr. Oakley moving out of the frame to the right and popping up on the left, or cringing away from an animated, disembodied head that she has put on the screen to discuss a property of the brain.

The four elements of good learning, if you don’t want to take the entire course, are summarized:

FOCUS/DON’T The brain has two modes of thinking that Dr. Oakley simplifies as “focused,” in which learners concentrate on the material, and “diffuse,” a neural resting state in which consolidation occurs — that is, the new information can settle into the brain. (Cognitive scientists talk about task-positive networks and default-mode networks, respectively, in describing the two states.) In diffuse mode, connections between bits of information, and unexpected insights, can occur. That’s why it’s helpful to take a brief break after a burst of focused work.

TAKE A BREAK To accomplish those periods of focused and diffuse-mode thinking, Dr. Oakley recommends what is known as the Pomodoro Technique, developed by one Francesco Cirillo. Set a kitchen timer for a 25-minute stretch of focused work, followed by a brief reward, which includes a break for diffuse reflection. (“Pomodoro” is Italian for tomato — some timers look like tomatoes.) The reward — listening to a song, taking a walk, anything to enter a relaxed state — takes your mind off the task at hand. Precisely because you’re not thinking about the task, the brain can subconsciously consolidate the new knowledge. Dr. Oakley compares this process to “a librarian filing books away on shelves for later retrieval.”

 

PRACTICE “Chunking” is the process of creating a neural pattern that can be reactivated when needed. It might be an equation or a phrase in French or a guitar chord. Research shows that having a mental library of well-practiced neural chunks is necessary for developing expertise.

KNOW THYSELF Dr. Oakley urges her students to understand that people learn in different ways. Those who have “racecar brains” snap up information; those with “hiker brains” take longer to assimilate information but, like a hiker, perceive more details along the way. Recognizing the advantages and disadvantages, she says, is the first step in learning how to approach unfamiliar material.

Coursera is pretty great. I am currently taking a Machine Learning course in my spare time, and have added a couple of other courses in data visualization and artificial intelligence to my learning queue.

An Algorithm and 7 Million Unique Nutella Jars

Earlier this year, Milan-based design agency Ogilvy & Mather partnered with Nutella manufacturer Ferrero to unveil its “Nutella Unica” jars. The agency created an algorithm that generated 7 million unique variants of Nutella jars, from an assemblage of various patterns and colors. Ferrero sold these jars in Italy throughout the month of February; each of the 7 million unique jars sold out in a month.

Here’s a brief video of the manufacturing process showing the unique designs:

A 30-second spot in Italy highlighting these unique jars:

Due to the success of the campaign in Italy, Ogilvy & Mather and Ferrero have decided to sell these jars elsewhere in continental Europe, beginning with France.

It will be cool to see the unique jars make it to the United States. Also, from a coding/machine learning perspective, it would be really neat to see the source code/implementation of this algorithm.

 

For Want of an Oxford Comma, a Court Case Decided

The importance of the Oxford Comma prevails again! This time, it has helped win a court case:

Maine’s law says the following activities do not qualify for overtime pay: “The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of: (1) Agricultural produce; (2) Meat and fish products; and (3) Perishable foods.”

The drivers claimed the lack of a comma between “shipment” and “or distribution” meant the legislation applied only to the single activity of “packing”, rather than to “packing” and “distribution” as two separate activities. (They are correct!)

And because drivers distribute the goods, but do not pack them, they argued they were therefore eligible for overtime pay – backdated over several years. The court sided with the drivers.

Judge Barron, in the opening statement, wrote: “For want of a comma, we have this case.”

An amazing victory for the drivers and grammar nerds everywhere.