Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Swine Flu Epidemic: An Artist and Scientist's View

I have been following the recent H1N1 swine flu outbreak with interest because I work at a company that makes flu vaccines. It's been covered in a few art communities because of creative things people have done in response to international news. This got me thinking about the relationship between people and news, and how people, as a whole, respond to current events.

Searching keywords on twitter (as depicted in xkcd, above) is a great way to visualize how reactions to current events unfold in real-time. I have seen, both on- and off-line, that much of the response to this influenza outbreak is dependent on what people know about the virus, but understanding does not always yield the same outcome.

Since I have done a lot of research with the virus, I have a much better understanding of the current epidemic than a lot of people, and sometimes forget that most people still don't understand the nature of the disease. I've seen comments along the lines of "I don't eat pork, so I won't catch the flu," and today a co-worker told me how surprised she was when her brother commented on how he'll never catch the swine flu because he "doesn't sleep with pigs."

That's not how the flu works! Are you informed?

Swine Flew: Creative T-shirt design by Skyskraper

Influenza, like a number of respiratory viruses, depend on host-to-host interactions to spread. That is, it relies on people to pass it on to other people. There are different influenza viruses that infect different animals (birds, pigs, horses, dogs, ferrets), but for the most part a given variant will only infect one species of animal. Each year, the human flu strains mutate to bypass our immune system's resistance to last year's strain, and sometimes we get a virus that is transmissible between humans and pigs (or sometimes birds). In this recent case from Mexico, the virus contains pig-specific proteins, which are unlike anything we (as a population) have been infected with before, so we are poorly-protected against the new strain. So even if you had the flu shot this year, you won't be protected against the current H1N1 swine flu.

Now that you have a rough idea why the swine flu is dangerous, it's important to remember that the best way to contain influenza is to avoid crowds and people-to-people contact.

What scares me about diseases like this is how quickly it spreads and kills. A few months ago, I stumbled upon this website and read their entire collection of personal accounts of the 1918 and 1957 pandemics. After hearing about the new swine flu last week, the first thing that came to mind was how many of the stories there mentioned how a person would come down with the bug one afternoon and was dead by morning.

Will this strain be as devastating as the 1918 Spanish flu? From the data we have so far, it doesn't seem as virulent. Although the epidemic is currently not yet fully contained, the government is doing its part impede its spread, and cyberspace continues to provide information... or sometimes misinformation.

Here's an interesting video on how tragedies and natural disasters are used to manipulate the public into obedience. Their remedy? Stay informed!

If you'd like to ask me a question about the flu virus, I'll do my best to answer in the comments section. Thanks for reading!

Related links:

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Tesla Model S

My favorite thing about Tesla Motors? It's a progressive car company that goes against the pressures of selfish and manipulative big-oil corporations and produces only high-quality, long-lasting, and green(er) all-electric vehicles. They recently unveiled their second production car, the all-electric Model S. It's not the super sexy sports car that the Tesla Roadster is, but it's much more reasonably priced ($50k after a $7,500 tax break—half the price of the Roadster) and family-friendly.

So why electric? Battery-powered electric vehicles are a cleaner alternative to those that run on petrol-based fuel. Pollution from oil-powered motors has burdened this planet tremendously up until now, and will continue to cause problems for us, our children, and our biosphere for centuries to come, unless we do something about it. Advancing technologies and the development of greener technologies over the recent years show us that there are people and companies out there who still value our planet's future.

How is the performance? Any auto enthusiast will tell you that no matter how pretty a car looks on the outside, the engine needs to perform up to par. The Model S has a single-speed transmission that will go from 0 to 60 in 5.5 seconds.

Electric vehicles (EVs) like the Teslas don't even have traditional engines that need to constantly run to power the car. They take the energy from rechargeable batteries as needed to accelerate. The Model S has interchangeable battery packs for 160-mile, 230-mile, or 300-miles ranges in one charge (depending how much you want to spend).

EVs are more efficient and have much fewer parts that need to be maintained, repaired, or replaced than with traditional combustion engines. I don't know about you, but I hate taking time and money to get maintenance for my car. With an EV, all you need to do is take it in every 5,000 miles to get the tires rotated and the windshield fluid refilled. (According to Wikipedia, Toyota Prius vehicles have been known to go over 180,000 miles without ever needing a battery replacement.)

What's with all that space? Since electric cars have smaller engines, the area under the hood is just a cosmetic big vacant space. The Model S has its trunk in the front, so there is extra room in the back for more seating (for a total of 7 passengers). I was most impressed with this little factoid: the cabin can fit a mountain bike with its wheels still on, a surfboard, and a 50-inch TV—all at the same time. How spacious! I had no idea that taking out the engine of the car would free up so much space. The dashboard also comes with a 17-inch touchscreen monitor that connects to the Internet via wireless 3G. No buttons touchscreen? This is how modern technology should be implemented. (You can find a list of the rest of its features over at Autoblog.)

And I love how the entire roof is transparent! It's like the front and back windshields extended to connect with one another. I can imagine myself in a parking lot somewhere just to watch rain splatter on top of the car. Or maybe stargazing when it's cold.

The Model S side-by-side with the Tesla Roadster

Will I really save the planet by driving an EV? If not for the lower cost of operating the vehicle in the long run, having a lower environmental impact is the best reason for going electric. Of course, there's no thing as zero environmental impact, especially when it comes to mass-production automobiles. But even with the energy it takes to make the batteries, EVs are zero emission vehicles, are much more efficient in utilizing the energy, and are driving the market to develop better technology for the future.

If all-electric cars are better for the customer, better for the planet, and better for advancing technological research, then why aren't there more of them on the road?

I recently watched the documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? (IMDb), which shocked and angered me to see how power-hungry big corporations are. They banished the electric car even though it was cheaper to produce, was more environmentally friendly, and highly desired by consumers. Why? The auto industry is tied to the oil industry, and electric cars do not benefit oil companies. Instead of putting out efficient clean-air cars, they decided to market Hummers and the like, driving gas prices up and the economy to the ground.

I believe that when people are aware of and understand the facts, they will, on average, make the choices that benefit everyone. Large corporations have been manipulating the market for decades by misleading the public by with skewed information. Now, with the expansion of the Internet and other news sources, it looks like information is slowly being brought back into the hands of the people.

In the third grade, I remember a music teacher who came in once a week and taught us a song about the electric car and how amazing it (the technology) was. Growing up, I often wondered why I had never seen an electric car out on the road, even though the technology had been developed and highly praised.

Seeing companies like Tesla break the mold and bring back the electric vehicle really warms my heart. The development of cars like the Model S shows that there still are people who care to invest in technologies and the environment.

As designers, we are all responsible for one important task: to improve the quality of life. I think cars like the Model S will be much better for posterity than gas-guzzlers, don't you?

The question is, should we be producing all these cars (electric or not) in the first place?

Related links:

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Watercolor Wednesday 8

Hey there, readers! This week I've been fussing around with mixing watercolors with other mediums. This page was the result of trying to use gouache paint along with the standard watercolors. It was also the result of falling asleep on a bus and waking up with the thought "lumberjacks are HILARIOUS! I will draw them."

Here's a series of mini-paintings, all mysteriously facing the same direction. I think next time I use pen on a painting I'll use a sepia tone instead of black.

Lastly, an uncomfortable man-carrot. When I was a wee lass, I felt compelled to obsessively draw anthropomorphic food. I drew reams of comics about the denizens of a fridge. Thankfully I've moved onto, well, other obsessions, but I still think vegetables are adorable. If they had cheeks, I'd pinch them!

Monday, April 13, 2009

Reuben Margolin's Kinetic Sculptures

Here is an interesting art project I found last week that I thought I'd share with you:

The human perception of beauty is deeply rooted in symmetry and geometric shapes. I think most people would agree that proportions and shapes are very important in the construction of a painting or in the layout of a photo. Take, for example, the proportions described in the Vitruvian Man or the golden ratios built into the Parthenon, and we can see how our appreciation for mathematical principles is at least centuries old.

Reuben Margolin's kinetic sculptures are made with math-dependent precision yet are incredibly fluid, organic, and beautiful. I am impressed at the amount of patience required and the time spent preparing each piece. This type of artwork also reminds me how a lot of art ties back to our appreciation of nature, where a lot of mathematical principles are prominent.

Related links:

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Watercolor Wednesday 7

In preparation for a somewhat complicated painting, I whipped out my sketchbook and got down to some serious doodling. This one's going to (in theory) be on different layers of paper, perhaps even different kinds of paper! Pictured here are the sketches for the layout, with some notes on the layering, and some unrelated doodles of critters and an outlandish rock carving. An owl with antlers? BALDERDASH AND POPPYCOCK!

Finally, here's a quick painting I did last night while mulling over some designs for bird-monsters. I did it a bit too hurriedly and so the color is muddy in some places and just plain weird looking in others, but overall I'm happy with it as an experiment of sorts.