Paris besieged

The Fall of Paris

This is the first of Horne’s trilogy about Franco-German mischief; the other two are about the World Wars. I hadn’t realized how much the Franco-Prussian war set up World War I. If the French are to be chastised for their harsh terms at Versailles in 1918, then the Prussians must answer for what they squeezed out of Paris in 1871. The triumphant unification of Germany actually happened at Versailles even as France was on the verge of surrender. The subsequent removal of so much territory in Alsace and Lorraine virtually guaranteed future conflict. Even an unphilosophical reader must feel a certain poignancy when pondering the endless misery that was being sown for future generations. Furthermore, the Paris Commune that followed the capitulation taught Karl Marx important lessons that were later applied with great success by Lenin. I didn’t know much about French nineteenth century history, but this weird little war is so singular it makes a compelling read.

Computer phages

The similarities between the computer viruses and “real” biological viruses are getting more profound all the time. There’s already a good case to be made for the fact that the Internet is a true ecological space, a virtual hothouse inhabited by rapidly mutating organisms. Just this week CNET reported on a worm that sleeps to avoid detection. That is, it has a virulent phase when it causes mischief and a quiescent phase when it lays low to avoid being seen.

This struck me as remarkably similar to the behavior of the much studied lambda phage, a virus that infests hapless E. coli bacteria. Under certain conditions (look here for a full explanation) the wily phage goes into hiding in the bacterium’s DNA, where it waits for a trigger to make it nasty again. So we have the same pattern of virulence and quiescence. Are virus authors actively copying Mother Nature? I doubt it. But a sound evolutionary idea is a sound evolutionary idea. What else can we conclude from reviewing several billion years worth of biology? This: viruses are not likely to go away anytime soon.

Fast DNA duplication

The New Scientist reports on a novel DNA duplication technique called helicase-dependent amplification, or HDA, that promises to speed up and simplify the process required to duplicate (amplify) small amounts of DNA so that you do useful stuff with it. If this works out, DNA-based technologies will start to invade our lives in more and more obvious ways. Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) is the current technique used for identifying trace amounts of DNA. PCR was worth a Nobel prize back in the day, but it’s time to turn up the heat.

Crime forensics will benefit dramatically when DNA testing becomes as easy as dusting for fingerprints. And diagnostics for viral infections will become commonplace. Doctors have always been able to culture bacteria (like strep) to see if you have the infection in question, but you can’t really culture viruses. Because of this, viruses are almost always diagnosed by elimination. But something like HDA makes it easy to “just look” and see if the virus is present. The porn industry already uses PCR to test for HIV. HDA may permit cheap diagnostics for various strains of flu and the common cold. This in turn may let us prescribe less antibiotics; you don’t need an antibiotic if I can tell you for sure that you’ve got a virus.

This all underscores one of the main reasons I’m optimistic for rapid progress in molecular biology. What we’re trying to understand, the living cell, is a already a competent information processing system. We just need to learn how to talk to it. Don’t blow up the natives and pick through their remains trying to divine their thoughts. Just walk up and ask.

Competitive Scrabble

Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive ScrabblePlayers

A good read, filled with an obligingly weird cast of characters. There is something deeply appealing about a bruising, trash-talking pro tour for Scrabble heads. The author, Stefan Fatsis, goes native and eventually becomes an expert player himself as he tells his story. I like the part where he’s talking to the former world champ, Joel Sherman, who’s complaining that Scrabble should be more popular than chess, because it’s more accessible. Millions of people could watch, he whines. “Watch what?” replies Fatsis, “watch you play TREHALA, and then run for their dictionaries?” (Rambles reference: April 27, 2002)

Bureau de change ici

Suppose your Rodian character in the online game Star Wars Galaxies has banked a small fortune of 10 million credits. But you’re also playing an impoverished pauper of a halfling in Everquest. If only there were a way to distribute Star Wars largesse to the Everquest needy. This is exactly the problem that
IGE’s Virtual Exchange solves. Using the exchange, your halfling is in line for a tidy windfall of 136,000 platinum pieces. I can already picture Sally Struthers pleading with wealthy Wookiees to feed the homeless children in distant Ultima Online. 400 credits a day is all it takes!

It’s a good idea to join these worlds, but it’s not clear how the exchange rate is set (the site’s FAQ is still empty). It sure doesn’t look like an open market sets the rate, which can only mean that there must be a black market somewhere. Can you buy game money on eBay? Yes you can. I just found someone offering 200,000 platinum pieces for 100 honest-to-goodness British pounds. No bids, though. One million Galaxies credits can be had on eBay for around $20. Assuming these prices are reasonable, that suggests an exchange rate of around 49 credits/platinum piece, as opposed to the “official” rate of around 83 credits/plat. Those lousy Everquest border guards are robbing you blind! They’re as bad as the North Koreans!

I’m sure it won’t be long before we have serious money changing hands in a truly open market for fantasy world money. That’s the funny thing about money. If you think it’s real, it’s real.

A game called Nash

I’m reading Sylvia Nasar’s A Beautiful Mind, the biography of the schizophrenic Nobel Prize winner John Nash, and I’ve just reached a point where, as a graduate student at Princeton, he invents a little game to illustrate game theory. This game, which captivates the math department, is called Nash in honor of the creator. It later was sold commercially under the name Hex. Hex is very similar to a game called Twixt that I remember playing as a kid. The idea is to build a chain from one side of the board to the other while simultaneously preventing your opponent from doing the same.

I went searching for it on the web and found several places where you can play it in the privacy and comfort of your own browser. Here’s a good one: MazeWorks – Hex

Incidentally, John Nash is still alive despite the fact that his best-selling biography was written years ago. Here is his home page at Princeton. He doesn’t appear to be much of an HTML hack, but you can find presentations he’s given in the last few months if you poke around. And Princeton is good enough to keep his 32 page Nobelworthy thesis available for ready download. Here it is. It’s a big PDF scan of the original, complete with typos and handwritten Greek letters. We don’t need no stinking TeX.