Saturday, January 24, 2009

Why I Love the Caltech Y

I recently was invited to give a talk at my alma mater, Caltech. The talk was hosted by the Caltech Y, as well as by the local chapter of NetImpact and the alumni association, as part of their Social Activism Speaker Series (SASS). I was particularly thrilled that Martin Luther King was an earlier speaker hosted by the Y in the area of social activism! Not that I'll ever be in that league! It's just an honor to be in a talk series where the brochure features MLK.

One of the board members from the Y, Gunilla Hastrup, heard me waxing eloquent about why I loved the Y as a student and why I still do. And, I agreed to write up why I am so enthusiastic.

The Y used to be part of the YMCA but severed the formal connection long ago. It doesn't have a pool or a gym, but it does provide Caltech students, staff and faculty with a vibrant link to the outside world. Caltech is such an intense place; it's helpful to get some perspective. As a student, I loved Decompression, which was and is still held during every Finals Week, where you can relax (decompress) after taking one of your finals or to carbo-load before more studying or taking the next final (because of Caltech's Honor System, which was heavily weighted to take home timed tests, I ended up taking most of my finals from 11 pm to 2 am). The Y also organized hikes and other recreational activities. I was particularly fond of the talk series, where important policy makers and leaders would come to Caltech and talk to 15 or 20 people at the Y and drink Mountain Chablis! I remember sitting in a small group with the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Most of all, the Caltech Y was my starting point for social involvement. I joined the ExComm, which was the student programming committee, which worked with the actual Board of Directors to chart the course for the Y during the year. It was my first volunteer board service, and little did I guess at the time that I was destined to be a social sector leader and sit on nonprofit boards! Like many college students, I knew I wanted to be engaged in society, and the Y offered multiple avenues for exploring that interest.

The morning after my talk (which went over well), I had another example of where the Y is going. The leadership of the Y (including the ED, Athena Castro) was interested in exploring how to get Caltech students and faculty more involved in social and humanitarian science and technology work. They had just take a group of students to Washington DC to meet Caltech alums working in science policy, but they want to go further. So, I sat down at breakfast with a group of campus leaders. The professor I sat next to was retired, but I remembered him. Fred Shair had been my faculty interviewing back in 1976 when Caltech interviewed most serious prospective students with faculty who would fly out to your town and talk to you. It was great, and a reminder of what makes Caltech great as one of the only top universities that is tiny numerically. I got to know quite a number of faculty personally, and it made a world of difference to me in my education and frankly, my formation from a youth to an engineer eager to make a positive mark on the world.

So, that's why I love the Caltech Y: it makes an incredible difference to a group of intensely bright and powerful technologists, exposing them to the larger context of the society, which ultimately an institution like Caltech exists to serve.

Monday, January 12, 2009

The New Bookshare has Launched!

Over the weekend just ended we successfully launched the completely rebuilt Bookshare website. The original Bookshare website and service was created over seven years ago, and has served us well. But, our new Bookshare for Education project with its likely prospect of increasing our student users one hundredfold meant we needed a rebuild. I'm also excited about our new logo!
Bookshare logo with spray of book pages and Bookshare in red
The new features built in are too many for me to list in a short blog post, but our team has prepared a brief on the new Accessibility and Ease of Use features. Big news includes:
  • Many new accessibility features
  • Brand new talking software from HumanWare and Don Johnston
  • High quality text-to-speech
  • Extensive features for schools to manage student memberships, including an easy way for a school to recommend a student gets their own personal membership (their own unlimited use library card)
  • Expanded and enhanced volunteer functions to make adding new books easier
  • Replacing our proprietary compression software with password-protected standard zip compression
I'm very proud of our team in their ability to conceive of and execute on this project. It's been an all-Benetech effort to make this possible. The new website makes it possible for us to pick up the pace of innovation even more, because it will be much easier to add enhancements to this new modern design.

The goal of the new Bookshare is make it easier to deliver on our mission objectives. I expect that the new Bookshare will be used in most schools in the U.S. in the next few years. We're dedicated to making sure that lack of access to books is no longer a barrier to success for print-disabled students!

Friday, January 09, 2009

Ice911: a new take on solving the climate crisis

I'm always interested in fresh approaches to social problems. The global climate crisis is one that is engaging a lot of creative brainpower.

I've been tracking local researcher Leslie Field and her Ice911 concept for more than a year. It's still in stealth mode, but I got Leslie's permission to blog about it. Leslie was motivated by seeing An Inconvenient Truth to think about a new way to help reduce global warming.

What I like about her idea is that it's both simple and clever at the same time. The idea is to cover portions of the Arctic Ocean with removable, reflective covers: sort of an artificial icecap. One of the problems we've seen is the unfortunate feedback loop of loss of polar ice packs, which leads to more open ocean instead of ice cover which leads to more heat absorbed from the sun, which results in more loss of polar ice cover. map of polar ice extent in the 1950s and projected into the 2050s
The panels interlock somewhat alike to a jigsaw, and there's secret sauce and magic in the materials. But, I don't need to know about that part (and if I did I couldn't share it).

I've seen very elaborate projects to reduce the amount of sunlight on the earth. As a space nut, I've been interested in ideas to put up mirrors in orbit to reduce solar radiation hitting the earth by 1 or 2 percent. I'm guessing that Ice911 is likely to be cheaper, and easier to reverse if there are unintended consequences.

My guess is that we'll need lots of different approaches to the climate crisis that range from reducing energy usage to countering warming. I'm looking forward to seeing if Ice911 is going to be a valuable piece of the puzzle!

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Happy Bicentennial, Louis Braille

Today is Louis Braille's 200th birthday, and there's been a great deal of coverage for the inventor of the premier reading system for the blind. The former British Home Secretary, David Blunkett, published a piece for the BBC called Why Braille is brilliant today.

The National Federation of the Blind is organizing events around the country to celebrate his birthday and the invention of Braille.
Hindi BrailleIt helps blind people all over the world, as this recent sample of Hindi Braille demonstrates.

We're very proud at about our support of Braille. We believe that digital Braille displays combined with Bookshare really make Braille much more practical. What power when you can carry around an entire library of Braille books that weights only two pounds!