Synth bio makes SciAm

Synthetic biology is the subject of a feature story in Scientific American. Happily, it’s being made available for free on their website: Synthetic Life. They get up close and personal with synthetic biology rock stars Ron Weiss (Princeton) and Drew Endy (MIT). The article has a good summary quote about synthetic biology.

This nascent field has three major goals: One, learn about life by building it, rather than by tearing it apart. Two, make genetic engineering worthy of its name–a discipline that continuously improves by standardizing its previous creations and recombining them to make new and more sophisticated systems. And three, stretch the boundaries of life and of machines until the two overlap to yield truly programmable organisms.

If you want to see what synthetic biology “looks like”, look at this project page for one of the MIT classes that’s designing an organism. It looks like a science fiction mishmash of electrical engineering and biology, but it’s a real DNA “circuit”.

I find this extremely exciting, but it doesn’t surprise me that it gives a lot of people the creeps. However you feel about it now, you’re going to have to get used to it, because it’s the leading edge of something really big. Sophocles once said that nothing vast enters the life of mortals without a curse. But he’s been dead for 2400 years, so how smart could he be?

MATLAB wizards do battle

Our latest MATLAB Programming Contest is nearing completion. Since this is an election year, the puzzle this time (“Gerrymander”) is to divide a state into electoral districts of equal population. If you want to see real gerrymandering in action, look at this: 107th Congressional Districts. Dallas/Ft. Worth is particularly interesting.

Matt has done almost all the heavy lifting for the contest this time. Way to go, Matt! Check out the cool statistics page he’s put together. Be sure and tune in for the exciting 5 PM finale tomorrow afternoon.

Matt and I gave a presentation about the contest at IBM Watson Research Center in Cambridge last January. Based on that talk, there was enough interest to get me invited to write an article about the contest for CHI interactions magazine. Here’s the link, but you need an ACM membership to read the whole thing: In praise of tweaking: a wiki-like programming contest.

Crohn Banished by Diet of Worms

Your body evolved in an environment that was vastly filthier than the one you now inhabit. As a result, living with all this good hygiene can actually cause real problems in cases where your body has come to depend on filth. Your gut expects to manage large numbers of parasitic whipworms, for example, and, for the sophisticated readers of this weblog anyway, this just isn’t the case. For people with inflammatory bowel diseases (IBDs), like Crohn’s disease, the gut is violently wrestling with an opponent that never showed up. Or that’s the theory proposed by gastroenterologist Joel Weinstock.

Weinstock had a brilliantly testable idea: feed IBD sufferers a diet of worms. The clinical results, as reported in this New Scientist article, are nothing short of astonishing. Seventy of the hundred Crohn’s sufferers in the study experienced complete remission of the symptoms. If this all holds up, you will soon be able to order a “drinkable concoction containing thousands of pig whipworm eggs” (this from the same company, no lie, that brings you quality medicinal maggots and leeches).

I sense an exciting new high-concept juice bar business opportunity. The “Old McDonald” will be a lightly frothed blend of wheat grass and pig whipworms that can be spooned right out of the barnyard.

Scary retouch magic

Francis found this one a while back. A digital artist named Greg Apodaca is not only a talented photo manipulation artist, he also happens to be great at putting together a site that effectively gives away his magic tricks. Like any good magician, however, he can confidently show you what he does, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be able to do it yourself. Look at his Digital Portfolio page. They’re all fascinating little studies, but the ones with people in them are the most remarkable. Look at the pictures of the women at the far right and far left of the second row. For a really disturbing treat, move the mouse back and forth quickly over the image so you get a grotesque little animation.

People like Greg are manufacturing what your notion of beauty is. The women in glamor magazines don’t exist; they are built in tiny digital factories by a variety of skilled artificers. The raw materials for this process may be real women, but the desire-inducing finished product can only exist in the ether. Does that make us happier or more miserable?

Chernobyl, revisited

I commented on this back in March, but the woman behind the site has since revisited it and added a lot of stuff. Whether or not you saw it the first time around, go back and look at it again. GHOST TOWN is a first person account of what it’s like to drive through (on a motorcycle at high speed) the radioactive wasteland around Chernobyl in Belarus.

Correct forms of address

Let us say, speaking speculatively, that the Earl of Withington (who is also Viscount Munthorpe and has the family name of Grisham) is coming over to your place for beer and poker night Tuesday next. You grab the nearest Mont Blanc pen and your best cotton bond stationery to begin an invitation… but how to address him? Correct Forms of Address is the site for you. You might have dashed yourself upon the rocks of social self-destruction by referring to The Right Honble. The Earl of Withington as simply “The Honble. Earl of Withington” or “My Dear Viscount” or, heaven forbid, “My Main Man Earl.”

Cruise around this helpful site long enough and you will soon be deciphering jawbreakers like this.

He was the Most Noble Adolphus Gillespie Vernon Ware, Duke of Sale and Marquis of Ormesby; Earl of Sale; Baron Ware of Thame; Baron Ware of Stoven; and Baron Ware of Rufford…

I love jargon, and I especially love the patient, helpful people who enjoy explaining it. Nevertheless, when you come across a site like this, you’d like to think that it is actively maintained by an impeccably dressed Englishwoman, not a Trekkie lawyer who lives with her parents in Sour Lake, Texas (that’s her, first row, third from the left). Then again, fascination with form tends to congregate at the edges of the empire.

Are you happy? Are you 42?

The Guardian has a good article on the up-and-coming science of Happy Studies… or rather the study of happiness. It’s easy to make fun of, but it sure seems like important work. The sub-head for the article sums up the modern happiness paradox well:

Most of us are healthier and wealthier than ever before, yet an increasing number claim to be unhappy. Is it the stress of modern life? Or are we simply losing our capacity for joy?

One way, it develops, to optimize your happiness is to avoid dangerous questions like “How close are you to your optimal happiness levels?” In other words, just enjoy your drab, wretched life. It’s really for the best that you not see the blazing sunshine of bliss that daily drenches your well-adjusted friends and neighbors. Or as the article quotes John Stuart Mill, “Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so.” Most intriguingly of all, one researcher finds a happiness trough at age 42 (I prefer to think of it as a misery peak, but hey, I’ve always been an optimist).

“People start out in life pretty certain that they’re going to end up like David Beckham or win the Nobel Prize,” says Oswald. “Then, after a few years, they discover it’s quite tough out there – not just in their careers, but in life. Unsurprisingly, their happiness drops.” The good news is that the downer doesn’t last. According to Oswald, if you trace the trajectory of most peoples’ happiness over time it resembles a J-curve. People typically record high satisfaction levels in their early twenties. These then fall steadily towards middle age, before troughing at around 42. Most of us then grow steadily happier as we get older, with those in their sixties expressing the highest satisfaction levels of all – as long, that is, as they stay healthy.

The moral of the story is, when you go through your mid-life crisis, don’t wreck your health. Your happier, older self will thank you.

Hydrogen + Electricity = Hydricity

Geoffrey Ballard is getting the hero treatment these days for his pioneering work on the hydrogen fuel cell. His eponymous company is leading the world in practical solutions to fuel cell power generation. More recently, Ballard has joined an outfit called General Hydrogen “to fulfill his vision of a hydrogen economy,” according to the company’s web site. He’s promoting an intriguing vision of a virtuous cycle of freely convertible hydrogen and electricity. One problem with our electric grid these days is that there aren’t good “batteries” for storing up excess electrical generation capacity. For instance, windmills turn whenever the wind blows, but not necessarily when the electricity can be sold. Use that electricity to make hydrogen, and then you have the ability recover it as electricity whenever you like.

Ballard is appealing because of the methodical way he goes about solving practical commercial problems. I found a good interview with Ballard, and although you might suspect he’s green to the bone, in fact he acknowledges that if you leave oil behind, you have to fill in the deficit with nuclear power. Otherwise there just aren’t enough kilowatts to go around.

The Mailinator

Want a quick and anonymous email address at no hassle? Send a note to Now go to the Mailinator site and enter the email address fizzbin and you’ll see the email you just sent. No password, no privacy, no problem. Any account name will work. Try it!

Mailinator was invented as a sort of tax dodge. Go to a site that gives you something for free, and it’s very likely that they’ll demand your email address so they can market to you later (that’s the tax). They’ll demand a working address by making you click through the email they send you. Mailinator avoids this problem by displaying (insecurely, by the way) any mail to anyone. And if Mailinator gets spammed as a result, well, that was the whole idea. If you always retrieve your email within an hour or so of receiving it, Mailinator can function as a perfectly reasonable free email service.

It’s hard to outsmart the web.


If you haven’t seen it yet, take a spin past newsmap, a news visualization program. It’s designed to take advantage of the space-dividing treemap algorithm made popular by SmartMoney’s Map of the Market. The big idea is that the amount of ink a story is getting in the national press is reflected by the amount of area dedicated to that story in newsmap interface. It’s a nice idea because we are in desperate need of landscape views of our shared information space.

Huge amounts of information won’t wreck our brains or make us babble incoherently. It’s just that we’ll be inefficient and stressed-out until we solve this problem of taking it all in. What we need is some altitude.