Viral marketing

Molecular biology is moving quickly from cartoons to pictures to movies. It used to be that the cell illustrations in biology textbooks were either blurry, grainy micrographs or fanciful, cartoonish diagrams. But pictures based on accurate knowledge of protein structure are becoming more common, and now we are moving into the realm of time with accurate movies of cellular phenomena. It’s a good time to be alive. The most entertaining recent movie short from the bacterial world is this terrific thriller from a lab at Purdue: “T4: the Tiny Terminator”. This animation is an accurate portrayal of the baseplate mechanism for a virus that attacks a bacterium. This is a film of what you would actually see if you could see things that can’t be seen. Here’s the page (look for the movie link in the upper left, or simply download it here): Virus makes its movie screen debut.

I’ve always thought the images of phage-like viruses attacking bacteria had a frightening, sinister aspect. Bacteriophages have these nasty buglike legs and bloated icosohedral bellies, and they squat on the bacterial membrane like pestilent, bloodhungry mosquitos and disgorge their lethal payload. Nevertheless they are, after all, simply a parcel of a few specialized molecules. Even so, this new animation, mesmerizing in the extreme, does nothing to dispel a palpable sense of malevolence. The great gift of modern molecular biology is that it can now begin to show mechanically how we are manifestations of the improbable molecules that make up viruses and cells. Are they sinister? Are we? If we are capable of evil, then so are they. Or, coming at it from the other direction, if we refuse to acknowledge their potential to be sinister, then we must deny ourselves that same privilege. We’re all playing the same game.

Corn on the cob

This is my daughter Carolyn going to town on a piece of corn. The picture was taken by Rob (a.k.a. the Coffee Czar). I posted this directly from Flickr as an experiment. Looks like it worked.

I’m pretty well sold on this idea of stitching together an online existence from a patchwork of well-tuned tools from places like Movable Type, Flickr, and Bloglines.

Want a Gmail address?

Send me an email if you want a Gmail account. I’ve got one to give away, and the first person to send me a note (to, naturally) is welcome to it. [NOTE: I’ve given away my last Gmail account] I’ve been very happy with it so far. They have redesigned the flow of filing email in a way that is likely to become the norm going forward. Actually, I have no idea if this invention was theirs to begin with (maybe it’s another Xerox PARC fumble), but the key innovation is that you just archive everything and then you search for what you need later. No agonizing over whether you should file it carefully or throw it away… just file it. If you need it, it shouldn’t be too hard to find it again. It’s not perfect, but it’s loads better than Hotmail.

Plus, if you get your account now, you might just snag your favorite username. I did.

Perpetual novelty

One of the problems that has faced the aimless web surfer since the web came into being is this one: where do you start? You have a little time, and you have a vague desire to see something new and cool. What then? Back at the beginning, there was the NCSA What’s New list maintained on the UIUC web site (wherein you can even see the original Star Chamber link there from 1996). But the web kept getting bigger and more tangled, “cool sites of the day” generally weren’t, and it was hard to know which way to turn.

Blogs and RSS feeds have changed all that. Using Bloglines and, I feel confident that I can get on the computer at any time night or day and find limitless amounts of stuff that fascinates, amuses, and disturbs. Limitless amounts of high quality, interesting content. It’s almost disturbing, like driving way too fast. For instance, here’s a gem I found on a few days ago. For the love of God, don’t follow the link: WEBoggle. It’s a simple word game, but it’ll suck the time of day right out of you if you don’t tie yourself to the mast and keep on sailing.

It was in this spirit of bewildering richness that I created the page Signal2Noise several years ago.

The problem isn’t noise
The problem is signal
Take away the idiots
You’ll be plagued by the clever.

A problem worth having, but bewildering all the same.

Mobissimo = travel Google

The era of the travel agent is nearing its end. If you fly much, you’re probably used to using Orbitz or Expedia by now. Maybe you still check in with a travel agent just to make sure you’re not missing a better deal, because after all, Orbitz and Expedia are looking for your business. So they won’t refer you to a site that won’t earn them a little something on the side. But suppose there were a site like Google (or Froogle, to be more precise) that just pointed the way to the best possible deal and then stepped out of the way. There would no longer be a conflict of interest regarding the real rock-bottom flights about there. That’s the idea behind Mobissimo.
As an article on put it:

The new sites aim to address what they see as shortcomings of the major online travel agents. For example, most of the fast-growing discount airlines like JetBlue and Southwest Airlines don’t show up on the big travel sites at all. Other discount carriers like Spirit Airlines sometimes offer promotional fares only via their own sites.

Mobissimo also recently won the coveted President-with-the-Coolest-Name award for its CEO Svetlozar Nestorov.

Incidentally, as I learned in this MSNBC article, buying a package flight-and-lodging deal might keep you coming back to the major sites regardless of innovations like Mobissimo. Package deals allow hotel owners, for example, to move expiring rooms at shockingly low rates and then hide their desperation by pairing the travel with the lodging. Nobody wants to stay at a desperate hotel, but everybody wants a good deal.

Dogs in jail

Saw this on the newstand yesterday in Smithsonian magazine. It was the most heart-warming thing I’ve read in a long time: let prison inmates train seeing-eye dogs. The training is intensive and extremely expensive (if you don’t have prisoners do it for you). At the same time, the inmates are cynical, detached, and hardened to just about anything that humans can throw at them. But working with dogs cuts right through that. It’s a great story about people helping dogs and dogs helping people. Only a few paragraphs of the story are available as HTML (New Leash on Life) but you can read the whole thing here as a PDF file.

Rude visitors

If you visit this site regularly, you may have noticed that every now and then lurid, bizarre, or simply commercial but inappropriate comments get posted here (personal favorite: “I don’t really think your thoughts are right. Maybe you need a loan?”). It’s comment spam, designed to increase the Google rating of some tasteless URL. My site has been receiving a marked increase in spam comment postings for the last month or so. Sometimes three or four get through, and once in a while several hundred get through, but mostly they get rejected, thanks to Jay Allen’s Blacklist plugin. Here’s a plot of the spam activity over the last month.


These are all comments that got blocked by Jay Allen’s wonderful software. Notice that when it gets bad, I’m getting more than 300 spam comments a day, usually in bursts during which I get two or three a second. It’s so offensive that it’s easy to take it personally. Those bastards are trying to take me down. But really, it’s not personal at all. I appear on a list somewhere in China or Russia or wherever, and so I come in for my share of punishment along with all the other spam-smeared Movable Type sites out there.

It makes me wonder about the economic aspects of this arms race. They have an infinite supply of email addresses; these are free, of course. But they have to pay to get domain names. I can block new domain names easily, but they can register new ones quickly. I am currently blocking 22 variations on Texas Hold’em poker domains! Is their increased Google rating really worth registering all those domains? The cost to them is small but real. The cost to me is a few minutes of annoyance every week. Who wins?

Making bookmarks matter

Very soon after I started using bookmarks back at the dawn of time (ca. 1995) I found them too tedious to be worth the trouble. I spent lots of time categorizing them, but very little time actually using them. It took me a little while using a blog to realize that my blog is the answer that eluded me with bookmarks. I use my blog mostly as an extended outboard memory. It helps me refine what I think about a site, add some notes, and then store it in a searchable zone where I can easily find it again. I’ve made use of this site retrieval aspect of blogging again and again. Blogging is what bookmarking should have been.

Most of the time.

But there are still plenty of interesting sites that don’t warrant even a paragraph. There aren’t enough hours in the day to make blogworthy notes about bookmarkworthy sites. Some sort of bookmarkish approach is still needed. But what? A recent NY Times article discussed this topic: What’s Next: Now Where Was I? New Ways to Revisit Web Sites. Recently, though, I’ve become enamored with, the social bookmarking service with the absurd name. I resisted for a long time solely because of the ridiculous name, but eventually peer pressure got the better of me. Don’t make the same mistake I did. Hold your nose and dive right in. It’s a very good service, and one that benefits much from its community-oriented aspect. What is Clay Shirky bookmarking? This: What does Jon Udell have to say about Bloglines? And finally, this is me:

Web as platform

Jason Kottke makes some good observations about “Web as platform”. He’s sharpening ideas that I’ve been pondering a lot over the last few weeks. There’s been a real blossoming of activity related to linking, leveraging, and cross-feeding blogs, wikis, and web services of all kinds, almost a Cambrian explosion of activity. And it’s becoming clearer how all these disparate pieces can fit together into a whole. Give his little essay a read.

Google tanks?

Google’s IPO has been getting consistently bad press in the last few weeks. “Don’t expect much,” we’re told. “They won’t actually do very well,” we’re told. “Competition is much worse than we originally believed, the economy isn’t doing very well, and you know what? those two founder guys are smarty-pants jerks.”

This is all a little unusual, given that we’re used to seeing high tech IPOs being pitched with something more like insanely irrational exuberance. What gives? Here’s a good article that explains at least some of the reasons behind the bad press: Jubak’s Journal (MSN Money). It turns out that the investment bankers who usually profit by making sunny predictions for IPOs won’t be coming in for their typical unfair share of cash with Google, so they’re taking their PR machine and going home. It just underscores, once again, that you can’t expect people, especially investment bankers, to give up their fat cash cows without a fight. Just ask them. They’ll tell you a good story about how they not only deserve all that money, but they’re actually providing a valuable service to the economy.

I think this situation is all to the good. We don’t need another bubbly frothy tech IPO, so if Google tanks on its own merits, fine. On the other hand, it’s great to see the old system being punctured, so if Google takes off, that’s great too. As the Economist puts it:

Google plans to bypass the traditional way IPOs are sold. It will establish the share price in part through an auction, rather than by relying solely on highly paid investment banks to set it. That last bit is welcome news. The traditional way of floating a company is neither very efficient nor sufficiently transparent.

Every time innovations in financial markets take money away from bankers, you would swear the sky was going to fall. Hasn’t happened yet.