Forget Good vs. Evil: Manage Your Talent to Create Added Value

“The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads. That sucks”, says Jeff Hammerbacher, the researcher who laid the foundation for facebook’s precision advertising model. A similar sentiment is found in the 2001 artwork “Designers, stay away from corporations that want you to lie for them”, by British designer Jonathan Barnbrook and one of the signators of the First Things First Manifesto 2000 - a call for designers’ problem-solving skills to be put to worthwhile use. 


It’s easy to take Hammerbacher and Barnbrook’s statements and start an argument for the need for good in design and the evils of consumerism. However, the comments and the manifesto itself are not the result of some kind of moral decay creeping into the design profession but of a disproportionate distribution of creative power.

Instead of taking side in the value/value-free design argument from a moral perspective, we can look at it from an economic one. At all times, no matter what we do, we work with limited resources. Be it money, time, inspiration or brain-power, we simply can’t invest them in everything. Our individual choices will distribute these resources in a way that will cause only certain products, campaigns, companies and ideas to grow and produce a certain kind of value. 

There is nothing wrong with selling dog biscuits or designer clothes. It’s not that big corporations with tempting advertising budgets are evil, they are simply not as important, and the value they create is not as needed. In the context of the “unprecedented environmental, social and cultural crises that demand our attention”, their products and services can't be a priority. And our creative resources should be allocated accordingly.  

Design students should not only be taught how to perfect their “problem-solving skills” but also how and why to invest them in the highest value added projects. This added value may appear in the form of stronger communities, cleaner environment, life-changing technologies, healthier lifestyles, better education, a sense of purpose, and personal satisfaction. It is very important for designers to learn to take it into account when deciding where to allocate their personal creative capital. Because it is a limited resource.

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Why "nuclear pasta" is the strongest material in the universe

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Accretion disk surrounding a neutron star. Credit: NASA
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Superman is known as the "Man of Steel" for his strength and indestructibility. But the discovery of a new material that's 10 billion times harder to break than steel begs the question—is it time for a new superhero known as "Nuclear Pasta"? That's the name of the substance that a team of researchers thinks is the strongest known material in the universe.

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The competition between forces from protons and neutrons inside a neutron star create super-dense shapes that look like long cylinders or flat planes, referred to as "spaghetti" and "lasagna," respectively. That's also where we get the overall name of nuclear pasta.

Caplan & Horowitz/arXiv

Diagrams illustrating the different types of so-called nuclear pasta.

The researchers' computer simulations needed 2 million hours of processor time before completion, which would be, according to a press release from McGill University, "the equivalent of 250 years on a laptop with a single good GPU." Fortunately, the researchers had access to a supercomputer, although it still took a couple of years. The scientists' simulations consisted of stretching and deforming the nuclear pasta to see how it behaved and what it would take to break it.

While they were able to discover just how strong nuclear pasta seems to be, no one is holding their breath that we'll be sending out missions to mine this substance any time soon. Instead, the discovery has other significant applications.

One of the study's co-authors, Matthew Caplan, a postdoctoral research fellow at McGill University, said the neutron stars would be "a hundred trillion times denser than anything on earth." Understanding what's inside them would be valuable for astronomers because now only the outer layer of such starts can be observed.

"A lot of interesting physics is going on here under extreme conditions and so understanding the physical properties of a neutron star is a way for scientists to test their theories and models," Caplan added. "With this result, many problems need to be revisited. How large a mountain can you build on a neutron star before the crust breaks and it collapses? What will it look like? And most importantly, how can astronomers observe it?"

Another possibility worth studying is that, due to its instability, nuclear pasta might generate gravitational waves. It may be possible to observe them at some point here on Earth by utilizing very sensitive equipment.

The team of scientists also included A. S. Schneider from California Institute of Technology and C. J. Horowitz from Indiana University.

Check out the study "The elasticity of nuclear pasta," published in Physical Review Letters.


How a huge, underwater wall could save melting Antarctic glaciers

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Image: NASA
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An "unthinkable" engineering project

"If [glacial geoengineering] works there then we would expect it to work on less challenging glaciers as well," the authors wrote in the study.

One approach involves using sand or gravel to build artificial mounds on the seafloor that would help support the glacier and hopefully allow it to regrow. In another strategy, an underwater wall would be built to prevent warm waters from eating away at the glacier's base.

The most effective design, according to the team's computer simulations, would be a miles-long and very tall wall, or "artificial sill," that serves as a "continuous barrier" across the length of the glacier, providing it both physical support and protection from warm waters. Although the study authors suggested this option is currently beyond any engineering feat humans have attempted, it was shown to be the most effective solution in preventing the glacier from collapsing.

Source: Wolovick et al.

An example of the proposed geoengineering project. By blocking off the warm water that would otherwise eat away at the glacier's base, further sea level rise might be preventable.

But other, more feasible options could also be effective. For example, building a smaller wall that blocks about 50% of warm water from reaching the glacier would have about a 70% chance of preventing a runaway collapse, while constructing a series of isolated, 1,000-foot-tall columns on the seafloor as supports had about a 30% chance of success.

Still, the authors note that the frigid waters of the Antarctica present unprecedently challenging conditions for such an ambitious geoengineering project. They were also sure to caution that their encouraging results shouldn't be seen as reasons to neglect other measures that would cut global emissions or otherwise combat climate change.

"There are dishonest elements of society that will try to use our research to argue against the necessity of emissions' reductions. Our research does not in any way support that interpretation," they wrote.

"The more carbon we emit, the less likely it becomes that the ice sheets will survive in the long term at anything close to their present volume."

A 2015 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine illustrates the potentially devastating effects of ice-shelf melting in western Antarctica.

"As the oceans and atmosphere warm, melting of ice shelves in key areas around the edges of the Antarctic ice sheet could trigger a runaway collapse process known as Marine Ice Sheet Instability. If this were to occur, the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) could potentially contribute 2 to 4 meters (6.5 to 13 feet) of global sea level rise within just a few centuries."