Book ’em, Danno!

According to the UCSC Genome Browser in Santa Cruz, California, the first ten nucleotides of the first (biggest) chromosome in the human genome are TATAACACAA. Pretty cool, eh? But then again, so what? We spend billions of tax dollars, and all you can tell us is “TATA, ACACAA”? The next big trick is understanding what all those genome letters are trying to tell us. For instance, the annotations for the sequence TATAACACAA tell us that it’s part of a repeating sequence called a LINE, so we can safely conclude that it doesn’t code for blue eyes or snorting laughs. In a lot of ways, getting the genome is the easy part. Annotation is hard.

If you want to understand the mouse genome, a good place to go is FANTOM, the Japanese site devoted to the functional annotation of the mouse (FANTOM, get it?). This is a good illustration of the next step in squeezing value out of a genome. Annotations are attached to the genome that not only tell you where the genes are, but what their molecular function is and what cellular components they influence, among other things.

Now here’s the fun part: FANTOM has gotten so many requests for their cloned genes that they can’t keep up. The old way to send DNA samples, mailing them in vials packed in dry ice, was too expensive and slow. So they decided to cook the DNA samples for 60,000 genes straight into the pages of a book. Read about it here on the GNN site: A Novel Way to Send DNA. They’re trying a shorter run of a few genes in the journal Genome Research. If you want a sample of the DNA, just get out the scissors and snip it straight into a beaker. Too bad you can’t download it… but can you fax it?

Bye bye bling bling

My secret source deep inside the music industry dropped me a note today with the latest Edison Media Research report on how crappy life is for the recording industry (read more about it here). The report details survey results from a thousand people age 12 and up who were asked to respond to statements like “There is nothing morally wrong about downloading music for free from the Internet”. The news is bad, but not quite as horrible as last year. Whether it will keep getting not-quite-as-bad until it is actually good is another matter. But, as they say in the medical business, all bleeding eventually stops. Heh heh.

The big problem is that music sales are down down down… but why? Do people care less about music these days? Are bands worse now than ever before? Or are people just downloading files like horny MP3 monkeys? Answers: no, not really, and yes they are. So what’s the not-so-bad part? Guilt is making a comeback. Only 60% of teenagers think there’s nothing wrong with freeloading. As opposed to 74% last year. And why not pick up that song for free? All recording artists are rich. I saw it on TV!

[Respondents aged] 12 to 24 buy into the media’s “bling bling” portrayal of the music industry. Half believe that all recording artists and record label employees are rich, live in big houses, and drive expensive cars.

There’s irony for you: MTV is a media virus that hyper-glorifies the music business even as it sows the seeds that will destroy it.

eBay assistants

Mom and Dad just came for a visit to see the new baby. Mom was just telling me about this phenomenon: for a healthy percentage, someone will come to your house and clean out your attic for you, sell what they can, and then give you a check. No muss, no fuss, and if you were never going to get around to it anyway, it’s hard to argue too much about the margin. Here’s the article in the NY Times: No Time for EBay? Here Come the Agents.

I don’t have many antiques, but I’ve got tons of books, some of which I’d be happy to pass back into the book ecosystem for little or no money. After all, it’s a sin to throw a book away, and not many places are interested in taking books off your hands. I’ve thought about listing all the books I’m done with on (now a wholly-owned subsidiary of eBay), but it’s way too much trouble. This smells like an opportunity for an enterprising teenager, if not an outright entrepreneur. For instance, because of some business strategy seminar I went to at work, I’ve got a copy of Competing for the Future by Hamel and Prahalad. Sell that sucker on and you can clear as much as $0.75. After paying eBay its share, you’d have a good fraction of a subsidized hot school lunch.

Apparently eBay has been so successful generating more business for itself that prices are coming down as attics and basements all over the world are being flushed into the daylight. There are now liquid markets and stable prices for more weird crap than ever before in the history of mankind. At this very instant, I have my pick of 45 different Hemingray #42 glass insulators (I’m partial to the blue green Hemingray #42). Better sell all your weird crap before I sell mine and drive the prices down even further.

Popularity contest

In the New York Times magazine there’s an article about how you can become a temporary autistic savant by zapping your brain with electromagnetic pulses. It’s an interesting topic, and my son is autistic, so I mailed it to my wife. Then I noticed, below the “E-Mail This Article” icon, there was a “Most E-Mailed Articles” icon. It leads to the
Top 25 Most E-Mailed Articles From the New York Times page. And whaddya know, the piece I picked was today’s most emailed article. I felt strangely validated.

I’ve become a big fan of these lists. I used to eschew them as pointless popularity contests, representing something faddish and frothy, but not worth tapping into. But I’ve come to believe they save me a lot of time. The key thing here is that they are based on what people do rather than what they say they do. It’s entertaining to look at the top list of emailed items and say not only “hey, this is interesting” but also “I wonder why this topic is so popular?” I’m sure the editors and reporters feel the same way. Wouldn’t you be the proud young Jason Blair to realize your article was the most emailed piece that week?

We do the same thing with our MATLAB Central web site: we list the most popular files on the assumption it is a useful guideline for future visitors to see where past visitors went. Yahoo has a Most Emailed Photos list which is almost always either sexy, gory, or bizarro in some way. They have an Editor’s Pick list too, full of well-chosen well-taken photos, but who wants to see that? Show me what the people want to see! That’s the enduring appeal of pop culture: if the thing in question it isn’t interesting in itself, then it’s interesting to consider why it’s interesting to so many other people. Somebody must be reading all those Louis L’Amour books.

By the way, I was going to say that what I really wanted was an RSS feed for the NY Times most-emailed list. But once the thought occurred to me, it didn’t take me 15 seconds to find out it already existed:

Mars or Bust

If all goes well (and that’s a big “if” considering our Martian track record) there will be six active missions on and around Mars next year. A pair of identical Mars rovers, significantly bigger than the Sojourner rover from several years ago, will land on the planet. One of these just recently took off, and the other will take off soon. Wish them luck…

NASA is obviously a good place to go when you want to learn about space missions, but I have been very impressed with These guys launched their site in the middle of the dot-com frenzy, and I remember thinking at the time that it was an unlikely way to make money. Happily, though, they’re still in business, and they have some really good material. For instance, you can visit their Mars rover page or check out the nifty 3-D pictures of the surface of the sun. I particularly enjoyed a philosophical discussion about how colors are applied to Hubble Space Telescope pictures: Coloring the Universe: Why Reality is a Gray Area in Astronomy. What would Mars look like if you were really there? It’s a fair question. Maybe you will go there someday. But what would the Eagle Nebula look like if you were there? It’s a much trickier question to answer. For starters, what does it mean to be “there” when there is the Eagle Nebula? From the article:

The quintessential Hubble photograph is a 1995 image of the popular Eagle Nebula, also known as M16 or the Pillars of Creation. The soaring structures had one of their red emissions converted to green — by the astronomers who took the picture — in order to highlight scientific detail. In “reality,” no green was detected coming from the Pillars. Interestingly, all Hubble images are created with black-and-white cameras. Ones and zeros are sent to Earth. Color is dropped in later with the popular Photoshop program.

For a good demonstration of this, look at this image of the Hourglass Nebula and tell me the Photoshop expert who got their hands on it wasn’t trying to make it look like a giant eyeball. It’s a beautiful and compelling image, but how much of it is marketing?

Where Are You?

On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog, but soon they’ll know exactly where your doghouse is. Despite the mysterious whereless possibilities of cyberspace, it turns out that not only do websites want to know where you are, you want to tell other people where you are too. This New York Times article on Online Locator Software talks about how commercial content providers want to know your surfing address for the same reason TV broadcasters do: markets behave geographically. That’s not so surprising, but wouldn’t you expect people to want to hide behind the location-free anonymity of the web? Not so. The GeoURL server allows websites to attach themselves to physical locations on the globe, and it’s quite popular. Only today, fifty people added themselves to the list, and there are more than 12,000 sites catalogued so far. Cyberspace permits rootlessness, but the humans that inhabit cyberspace crave roots. When I look at the logs for my site, I want to know the same thing: where are you? Australia? Germany? Canada? Next door? Does it matter? Yes it does. I have spent a long time, for example, reading through kuro5hin’s Roll Call posting. kuro5hin is a popular site, and the roll call post just asks people to say who they are. The results are fascinating.

So who are you? And where are you? For the record, this blog comes to you from Watertown, Massachusetts, USA, just outside of Boston. Anyway, remember, you leave a lot more footprints than you think wherever you go, and they all lead straight back to your door. Hope that’s okay with you, $BLOG_VISITOR_NAME.

Ambient display = art

Here’s another nifty ambient data display, though not commercial yet. Take an illustration, say a calming tropical beach scene, and then tie elements of the picture to incoming data streams. As we read on the Technology Research News website:

The dedicated information screen in Stasko’s office displays a beach theme. A sailboat moves from left to right between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. to keep time. The type of clouds in the sky reflect the weather in Pennsylvania where his parents live. A large seagull shows the Dow Jones performance: minus 200 points is the left edge of the screen and plus 200 is the right. Mousing over elements in the image makes small text balloons pop up to display, for instance, “42 degrees.” When Stasko gets email from his wife, a towel appears on the beach chair.

It may sound a little silly now, but I’m certain there will be lots of this kind of thing in the near future. Then again, just imagine how puzzled your co-workers would be if you jumped up and yelled “Oh my God! Look where that sea gull is!” and ran out of the office.

RSS: I get it now

This new baby gig is making it hard to stay up late and blog, but I finally got around to trying out some RSS syndication software, and I can now safely say that I get it. I knew it was useful… it made sense, but I hadn’t really experienced how valuable it was until I tried it myself.

If you’ve never heard of RSS before, it’s really simple. I mean, it’s REALLY really simple, because RSS stands for Really Simply Syndication. That is, it’s a way for a site, any site, to provide a freeze-dried condensed version of what’s happened recently. I have one here at Take a look at it to see what it looks like. It’s just an abbreviated XML version of my latest posts. But if you subscribe to the RSS feeds for a lot of interesting sites, it changes how you look at the web.

A few eons ago, during the Great Dot-Com Era, there were a number of companies trying to create “MyPage” personal newspaper sites ( is the only I can recall right now). They all failed. But the idea wasn’t fundamentally flawed. Something was off about the timing and the approach. RSS might change that. I use an RSS aggregator called Aggie (there are lots of others; see the bottom of this page). It works very well, and it lets me scan in one document the (new) daily content from a number of blogs, newspapers, and magazine sites. It’s a faster way to sift through lots of information, and it finally starts to deliver on the promise of the personalized newspaper.