You are standing by a silo with brushed-metal walls. Its door is ajar . . .

I’ve been thinking some about my next laptop. I already have a great personal laptop, but I am thinking that I should buy one for work. I would then move work off the personal machine and keep the two on separate tracks. The tablet PC that is my personal machine will still be great for teaching – the writing surface means I can annotate talks in real-time. For work, though, I would like to off-load data analysis to a business machine.

This has made me think about what my needs are for the business of physics. First, there is data analysis. Any modern machine will have the chops to do this. Second, there is communication. Any modern machine can run the tools of communication – primarily, a web browser. Third, there is travel. This is where distinctions become more stark. The difference between a 3lb and a 7lb notebook adds up when you feel the shoulder or back pain developing during travel. Fourth is battery life. This is related to travel; on a plane, I sometimes need to survive 8-12 hours. A 4-hour battery is fine, as long as I can buy two and swap them in and out as needed.

For the first time in a long time, I started thinking about use cases involving Apple hardware. Jodi purchased a MacBook Air to replace her old, power-pc Macbook Pro. The Air is the height of design simplicity and portability. I knew I could install VirtualBox and run Ubuntu Linux and Windows. Ubuntu would give me the desktop I want, without having to install Linux as the primary OS. Windows gives me the Microsoft Office tools I need for SMU business. Mac OSX gives me the tools I want to edit photos, video and music.

Jodi let me give this a try. She gave me an account, and I installed Virtualbox. I created a virtual machine for Ubuntu 9.04 and installed the OS. The first annoyance I encountered was the memory allotment for the VM. Since the Air only has 2Gb of RAM, and since you should not give more than 50% to the VM, I could only give 1Gb of RAM to Ubuntu. This seemed woefully inadequate.

The natural next step was to see if I could add more memory to the Air, should I purchase one. I cannot. Quite apart from the fact that replacing/swapping the battery on this will be impossible without surrendering it to Apple, you cannot change the amount of memory in the Air. 2Gb is the only choice. Of course, this is the feature of the Apple silo. You are locked into a set of predefined choices. In the truest sense of “The Matrix: Reloaded,” this hardware is the illusion of choice. I’ve come to realize that Apple is WYSIWYM – “What you see is what you meant.”

So I started thinking outside the silo. I looked again at articles on the lightest  laptops. The Air scores lots of points, but not on hardware features. It wins on aethetics and weight. The Lenovo X300 series weighs almost as much, gets the same battery life, but can be loaded with a much better processor and 4Gb of RAM. The price is nearly the same, the protection plans nearly the same, and the aesthetics much lower. But, I can make Linux my primary OS, install a Windows VM, and have everything I want except photo, music, and video editing tools that don’t suck.

So after spending some time in the doorway of the silo, I’m not going any further. I’ll be looking toward a Lenovo or a Lifebook. The Air just isn’t what I need in a computer.

Kill me; I’m on Facebook

It finally happened: I setup a Facebook page.

http://www.facebook.com/stephen.sekula

Don’t get excited. My primary means of communication, listed in order of their important to me, are still: face-to-face, phone, IM, e-mail, and social networking. That means that I won’t be spending every waking hour on Facebook, so please don’t get sad if I don’t friend you right away. I plan to keep my Facebooking to the weekends right now.

As an open-source guy (not a fanatic), I’m leery about putting a lot of information and content in the hands of some company. My blogs shall remain here, my photos shall remain here, etc. After all, what’s the point of running your own domain if you won’t stick to your guns?

Like all things, this is an experiment. Largely, it’s a means to an end. Since a great deal of communication takes place on Facebook these days, I want to make sure I have that avenue open in case I need it for research, or keeping in touch with students.

That said, my sister has already gone and put graffiti all over my Wall. Bad sister! No biscuit.

Our little corner of the world

Jodi and I went to SMU today to do some work on our grant proposals. This happens to also be moving-in weekend, though our end of campus was not at all busy. The science buildings are located on the north end of the SMU campus, behind and to the east of Dallas Hall. The residences are nearby, but apparently all of the moving-in weekend activities were well-contained.

I work in Fondren Science, which houses several departments including chemistry and physics. The whole campus is beautiful, and this end is no exception. Wherever I’ve worked or gone to school for the last 15 years, the sciences tend to be in less pleasant parts of campus. SMU certainly has the best science buildings, mixed with sidewalks, grass, and trees, of any place I’ve worked. While the laboratory facilities themselves still have a way to go to rival Stanford, MIT, Yale, or other schools, the existing buildings with their modern classrooms, labs, and (for physics) renovated offices are a good start.

Next door to Fondren is the Dedman Life Sciences building, housing departments such as biology. Together, Fondren and Dedman form  a corner at the northeast edge of the main campus. Dallas Hall, a main administrative and classroom building, is the impressive domed building shown below. This is also the headquarters of Dedman College, which contains the sciences as one cluster out of of many more departments.

This coming week is the first week of classes, starting on Wednesday. Jodi will teach her first two classes this week; her course this semester is a Cosmology class for advanced undergraduates. I’m excited and nervous for her, since I won’t be teaching until second semester. We also have convocation on Tuesday, the traditional and formal kickoff to the new year welcoming new students. For Jodi and I, this will be preceded by our first faculty meeting.

On top of all of this, we are finalizing our Early Career Award applications so we can present them to the Research office for completion of our application package. Both of us have a lot of work to do before these applications are in the right shape, but it has to get done because the deadline is Sept. 1.

Now begins the real effort of faculty life, as we rush into meetings and teaching, grants and hiring, recruiting and researching.

Thoughts on a healthcare cooperative system

Now that the public option for national healthcare seems to be on the table as a negotiating point, a new idea (championed by Republicans) has emerged as a compromise: health care cooperatives. These are organizations that unite healthcare consumers with their hospitals and doctors to spread the risk through a diverse pool of members, lowering overall healthcare costs, and providing negotiating power to its members. One model that has been put forth is Group Health Cooperative in the Puget Sound region of Washington State [1]. The Newshour also provided some information about what it means to be a healthcare cooperative [2].

All of this got me thinking about the national healthcare debate, and since I love compromise so much (it’s an art, really), I decided to weigh in on this discussion. I love the idea of a cooperative that empowers its members and provides a huge lever arm in negotiating healthcare costs. So here is my proposal for a cooperative healthcare system.

I propose a national healthcare cooperative, or NHC. The NHC is an organization, governed by a board of trustees, that can be opted into by any person anywhere in the U.S. In order to provide enough negotiating power, a cooperative needs at least 1/2 million members, but with over 300 million U.S. citizens it should be no problem to find at least 1/2 million people interested in doing this.

A cooperative is governed by a board of trustees, elected by members of the cooperative. As GHC says of itself, “Today it is one of the few health care organizations in the country governed by consumers. Its 11-member Board of Trustees — all health-plan members elected by other members — work closely with management and medical staff to ensure that the organization’s policies and direction put the needs of patients first.” I propose we also have a board of trustees for the NHC, a group of elected members put there by the consumers in the cooperative. In fact, given the diversity of consumers in different regions of states and the nation as a whole, it’s important that views from each region be represented fairly, by population of the cooperative, on the board. It makes sense to divide states into districts, based on population, and allow each district to elect a member to the board.

The election process should be governed by a charter, a constitution that briefly outlines the terms of service of board members, the election process, etc. I propose that the NHC have a national charter that so describes the procedure of electing the board members, as well as the rights of the consumers in the cooperative.

Once we have the NHC framework and board established, we can then determine the membership by a census every decade or so. The census will update the size of the membership, giving solid demographic information for use in leveraging companies when providing drugs, etc.  Of course, the NHC shall be a non-profit organization; apart from the salaries of the bureaucrats who will be needed to run the system and those of the board members (which shall be modest by proportion to their service to the nation), any profit over cost shall be returned to the consumers in the form of health credits or healtch cost breaks – perhaps in the form of a yearly check, right around tax time to make everybody feel good.

In fact, this NHC idea is not far from Kent Conrad’s proposal, which briefly says, ” . . . he has proposed a system in which the government would offer seed money (he’s suggested $6 billion) . . . to  form the co-ops. Eventually the co-ops would have to become self-supporting with premiums paid by members . . . the cooperative . . .  might be a national entity with state-level affiliates.”

I can certainly see an easy mechanism of yearly collection by which NHC members pay into the cooperative for the benefit of all members.

I know, I’m being snarky. But seriously, don’t we already have an elected board at the nation level who can direct a bureaucracy to negotiate on behalf of its members to reduce healthcare costs? Don’t we already have a governments, of the people and by the people . . . er . . . consumers?

[1] http://www.ghc.org/about_gh/co-op_overview/index.jhtml

[2] http://www.pbs.org/newshour/updates/health/july-dec09/coop_08-17.html