Allen J. Hall

Materials Science & Engineering, Productivity, and Life


Posts dealing with life-motivations.

Adaptive Lenses

altered_image_adspecsEvery once in a while a simple solution gracefully solves a problem that affects a large number of people. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it’s wonderful to see the results. This is the type of thing most scientist hope to experience at least once in their careers. I think most of us at one point in time have hoped: “please let me improve the world in some small way to make life easier for some people.”

I have to admit as a scientist I love to see graceful solutions to any problem. Prof. Josh Silver at the University of Oxford has come up with just such a brilliant simple solution that any scientist who understands index of refraction will say: “Ahhh… yes!” about. Prof. Silver has made plastic glasses with adaptive lenses for third world countries. In third world countries to get glasses right now you have to either already know (by magic) your prescription, or try and somehow happen across an optometrist (and you thought it was just about affording a roof over your head!). Unfortunately, optometrists don’t grow on trees in third world countries, and so you’re pretty much out of luck.

Enter the “dial a prescription” solution of Prof. Josh Silver’s. With his glasses you simply turn a few dials which push plungers in or out of a syringe attached to each lens. These syringes hold a fluid which has the same index of refraction as a polymer film which flexes under pressure (positive and negative pressure). This pressure of course will bow out or bow in the surface of the “lens” (which is fixed on the edges to a certain thickness). How to know your prescription? Simple- is it clearer or not? [Much like the old A or B, A or B, A or B, 1 or 2, 1 or 2 hassle we all go through at the optometrist's office- but cut out all that binary testing... just dial it in or out- bam, there's your prescription- in fact, it's fractions of diopters even- so it's much more analog than the current system.] Pure brilliance. Such a simple problem to a complex issue.

The impact to those who can’t see? Huge! I suggest it’s almost as huge as teaching someone how to farm. People are illiterate because they can’t see things clearly enough to learn how to read or write. Prof. Silver’s solution has the possibility of changing all of that.

So, my hat is off to him as a scientist- excellent work, and much needed work!!

Here are some links to the adaptive lenses:

And here are some talks that highlight these new adjustable lens glasses:

If you’ve been moved by this simple idea, consider sending a donation to them to help support vision for those around the developing world: Donate.


NY-PBS Captures The Struggle Of The Graduate Student

It’s not often that someone goes about deciding to make a film about graduate studies. It just so happens that Thirteen (PBS-NY) has done just that. Their film “Naturally Obsessed: The Making Of A Scientist” is quite an excellent snap-shot of the struggle of graduate students to get their PhD degree and accomplish something very difficult. Of course each of our struggles is unique. We are all dealing with our own situations, with our own fields (some not even in laboratories- the horror- is that real science? hahahah).

Speaking of our own struggles, what most of the public often does not get a feel for is the absolute devotion, almost to insanity, towards finding the solutions we are looking for. Many of the comments by the graduate’s spouses touched home for me. In each of the graduates followed in this film I saw bits of myself. One thing however, that is different, is the struggle for the specific protein structure. Often that struggle is a lot less well-defined. In this situation, you either get the structure of AMPK or you don’t. I guess it’s a lot like their attempts at creating crystals. Sure, you get crystals, but if they don’t have a periodic structure, you’ll never get diffraction. In my situation, the variables in our studies are very difficult to control, and so often one doubts one’s work solely on the question of reproducibility. Many scientists struggle with this same situation. People think that doing things like “measuring temperature” is a very easy thing. In reality, it is a very very difficult thing. Especially in a vacuum. :) That question just arose the other day in discussing our science with a new undergraduate assistant. As we talked more and more on the difficulties of measuring temperature we all saw his eyes grow larger in wonder. The simplest of problems can often be the most difficult. How accurate do you need to measure it? What standard will you use? Do you believe your thermocouple, your thermometer, or your pyrometer? What if the emissivity of the surface changes? :)

This is the life of a scientist. And the film below attempts to capture the lives and struggles of a few graduate students who are hoping for a career in science. It’s a struggle. But, you have heard me say that enough. ;) To learn more about it I strongly suggest you watch this film. For the graduate student, I warn you: you’ll see yourself in this. For those who aren’t scientists: this may end up being a comedy, and I kindly refer you to Marg Simpson’s commentary on graduate students posted earlier in this blog.

My congratulations to Thirteen for doing such an excellent job on this one hour film. They didn’t have a lot of time to share with you everything regarding our struggles and achievements, but they distilled it quite well in the time available.

Benjamin Zander on a life of Abundance

The more I hear Benjamin Zander (Wikipedia) speak, the more I realize how he can lead a group of people to make beautiful music (Boston Philharmonic). To start your Monday off right, I strongly suggest you watch this lecture of Zander’s at Pop Tech this year.

If you’ve ever played an instrument before, you definitely need to watch this video. We get to see Zander teach a young Cellist how to play a piece by Bach, and at the same time learn why the Abundance Mentality is critical to our own playing (work). He explains mostly by showing in this talk: you’ll notice his own abundance of joy come out throughout his discussion, and in his responses to the difficulty of helping this clearly gifted student get more out of his playing.

@ Yahoo! Video

Can’t forget the hat-tip to Tango at DesignVerb (a great blog!)

For more of Zander’s discussion on Classical Music with heart, see his TED talk given in February of this year.

SMS Spam – 83960

This post is not exactly the status quo for this blog, but I wanted to share with you two things. First, that there are some wonderful companies out there that are very helpful. Second, that sometimes spammers do anything they can to spam.

I’ve been receiving a few SMS messages from number 83960 that were pretty much junk, nothing useful there at all, and I wasn’t sure what was going on. Perhaps it’s a company I recently decided to try out (beta software for phone productivity applications), or perhaps it’s a spammer. My bet right now is a spammer.

This is a tale of amazing customer service, and what the real skinny on 83960 is… (read more by clicking through below)

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Happiness and Meditation (quick one for Michele)…

This is a quick post for Michele. A sort of aggregated post. I’ll have to add more in the future regarding where this comes from. Essentially, I’ve been intrigued in the past few years by the work going in conjunction with the Mind and Life institute. This institute is trying to bring about collaboration between Buddhist practitioners and Science Researchers. I myself am not Buddhist, but appreciate some of their intellectual pursuits.

Mattieu Ricard getting his EEG

In particular, I came across the work of Matthieu Ricard (who’s called the Happiest Man On Earth- what a title… must have serious responsibilities!). Videos for you after the link…
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Some thoughts on Productivity: my history and interests…

I find myself in the strange position of starting a new blog on a new site.  More professionally focused, less fluff if possible, to the point, more easily read; all these things come to mind when I think about what I’m wanting to do here.  Ultimately, it’s all about content and helping others with similar interests find possible solutions to what they are working through.  Having already discussed many items regarding productivity in the past, I’m finding I may be covering old ground anew.  But, I finally have a home here, and so I have to sweep away the cobwebs, polish the floor, find my furniture, and get things started.  This, an opportunity to start fresh, and tell you my thoughts on productivity approaches, and what has worked for me, and how I (like everyone) struggle with various aspects of pushing myself to success. (Read about the two books that have influenced my thoughts on productivity the most after the jump…)
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Making today a good day.

(written on Saturday)

Last night’s shindig has me quite tired today.  I think I haven’t slept too well, and yet there was so much to do, I couldn’t let myself waste the whole day.  The sun is shining outside like it hasn’t in ages.  Chel and I headed out to snag this summer’s plants (mostly flowers and a few tomatoes etc.).  A much previously discussed and needed chore.

Today, even though I had lack of sleep, I found it to be a joy, not a chore.  Starting last night I put out a recipe for blueberry pancakes, prepped the blueberries, and prepared for the AM.  We finally actually made pancakes together (America’s Test Kitchen BlueBerry Pancakes).  They hit the spot completely- wonderful batter, melted butter and a hearty helping of Maple Syrup.  I decided to forgo putting them all together before eating, so we ate standing up beside the griddle.  It was uncouth, for sure, but it was exactly what was needed after poor sleep.  The smile shaped up on Chel’s face after that (guess sugar in the AM is a good thing), and we planned our day- Farmer’s Market, then to FS to pick up flowers.

That’s what we did, and the smile on her face picking out various plants for the containers on the back porch told me that despite my extreme tiredness, it was more than worth the struggle to have her in a great mood.  We accidentally got the owner with our questions about planting, etc., and she was more than kind paying attention to us with our silly questions.  I apologized for taking her time up with small things and she said: “Well, that’s what got me here today… helping folks like you enjoy planting.”  (paraphrased)

So, now it’s off to snag some soil and mix up the cool new polyacrilamide crystals into it to help the direct-sunlight containers.  That reminds me, I need to do a bit of research on polyacrilamides- wondering if they’re just drying out hydrogels and selling them dry…

Sorry for the mundane post, but I figured a story would be better for the first go than another Hello World.  ;)

I hope to have a lot more useful items up on the blog soon.  Thank you for stopping in for a quick read!


ps- Today was a day I realized that some days you can Make good days just by your choices in actions and care for others.  Sure, I could have stayed in bed, but I now have a happy gal on my hands, and just that is helping my own day totally rock.  [Not to mention our back porch is looking excellent!]

A Quick Introduction...

I'm a graduate student (PhD Candidate) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

I've studied and researched in two fields of Materials Science and Engineering (Polymers and Semiconductors). My interests are as diverse as my musical tastes and I usually have my hand in some crazy project during my free time.

I'm available for consulting and have access to a world-renown materials research user-facility supported by the D.O.E. If you would like to know more, please contact me.

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