What’s in a name?

Are you ordinary or odd? And how does that make you feel? My friend Jay Czarnecki (you remember Rambles regular Jay by now) has an unusual name. At least in this country he has an unusual name. But this spring, for his 40th birthday, he decided to go to a place where his name is not at all unusual. It’s easy to see how edifying this can be, this swimming upstream, salmon-like, to see where our names spawned. I know a woman whose last name is Myslik, and she described how wonderful it was to visit Prague and flip through the phonebook. “Look!” she recalled saying, “Pages and pages of people like me!” Her name, at that moment, gave her the peculiar pleasure of being ordinary. As for Jay, his last name goes beyond ordinary; it is heroic. But I’ll let him tell the story.

Continue reading “What’s in a name?”

The power of us

The Power Of Us is a nice Business Week article about how companies can tap into their user communities. The punchline is: no matter how big your company is, there are always more people outside of it than inside of it. If you can get all those outside people to help you out, even a little bit, some amazing things can happen. At the same time, it’s a little unnerving giving the Great Unwashed the keys to your house. Is Open Source a friend or a threat? If you can’t find some way to befriend it, you’re in for some real trouble. John Q. Public is a jerk, but he’s rich, and he’s got a few really good ideas. As the irrepressible Jeff Bezos says, “You invite the community in, and you get all this help.” Here’s an extended quote from the article. I like the image of using social graces to turn windmills.

Yochai Benkler, a Yale Law School professor who studies the economics of networks, thinks such online cooperation is spurring a new mode of production beyond the two classic pillars of economics, the firm and the market. “Peer production,” as he calls work such as open-source software, file-sharing, and Amazon.com Inc.’s millions of customer product reviews, creates value with neither conventional corporate oversight nor market incentives such as payment. “The economic role of social behavior is increasing,” he says. “Things that would normally just dissipate in the air as social gestures become economic products.”

The first synthetic biology company

Codon Devices may be the world’s first true synthetic biology company. What is synthetic biology? Is it artificial life? No. The name is misleading, but it really refers to the idea of bringing a design-based engineering approach to biology: take well-understood biological mechanisms (protein synthesis, biochemical pathways) and bend them to create new desired end products. What differentiates it from earlier biotech approaches is the unprecedented degree of biological understanding. Milk, for example, is economically useful and chemically complex, but milking a cow doesn’t require a degree in molecular biology. We merely harvest what nature presents. Suppose, however, you wanted that cow’s milk to contain large amounts of a specific vaccine. That would mean introducing altogether new biochemical pathways inside the cow: synthetic biology. If you could pull off a trick like that reliably, you’d be onto something big. That big something is what Codon Devices is shooting for. As Drew Endy, one of the founders, observes, “The scope of material I can work with is not limited to the set of things that we inherit from nature.”

Codon Devices has assembled a biotech Who’s Who list for its founders and advisors, along with money from storied venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. So they’re off to a good start. In my googling, I came across this page about Codon from Drew Endy’s lab at MIT which was embedded in a wiki called the Endipedia. In the wiki, you can learn things like how to operate a microfluidic chemostat, and the favorite slogan to describe synthetic biology: “Making life better, one part at a time.” A blog entry from another researcher puts it this way: “Every time I mention my research to lay people I elicit two widely different responses: It’s either ‘Wow, that’s so cool!’ or ‘MY GOD, you’ll kill us all!’.”

Enter the Homogecene Epoch

Out of Eden: An Odyssey of Ecological Invasion

“I have seen the future, and it lives in Miami,” says Alan Burdick of Discover magazine. Burdick, author of the recently released book Out of Eden : An Odyssey of Ecological Invasion, excerpted parts of the book for Discover in May’s The Truth About Invasive Species. Unfortunately the entire article is unavailable online, but here’s the gist: don’t worry so much about the importation of alien species. You can kill off species by killing them (pollution, habitat destruction), but it’s hard to kill them simply by mixing them together. Burdick’s comment about Miami concerns the fact that south Florida is the epicenter of a vast unplanned experiment: what happens when you dump hundreds of exotic plant and animal species into an unsuspecting and perhaps fragile ecosystem? Conventional ecological wisdom has been to predict disaster, but as always, nature surprises.

Man is a very efficient biological mixing agent, churning together everything he touches, sometimes on purpose, sometimes not. The spectacular examples (hordes of hungry rabbits devouring Australia, proliferating Zebra mussels in the Great Lakes, bird-eradicating snakes on Guam) are just a fraction of the biological chaos launched during this great era of human commerce, which some scientist have dubbed the Homogecene. Burdick has two messages for us: there’s no stopping it, and it’s not as disruptive as originally suspected. The ecological chaos of the Homogecene is real, but it’s surprisingly hard to put your finger on what the bad part is.

The intrusion of judgmental, xenophobic language into invasion science is particularly interesting. The whole notion of invasive species and the pristine habitats they ravage is built on the flawed idea of ecological stasis, that there was once a Golden Age in which God’s happy creatures dwelt together in harmony. Burdick deconstructs the loaded language used by some of the scientists: opportunistic aliens attack and destroy hapless natives. Natives? Since when? We all came from somewhere, and we’re all headed someplace else. It’s only a matter of when you baseline your time horizon. I’ve been a native of this chair for a good half hour, but now it’s time for me to go invade the bedroom. Good night.

Medical tourists and stem cells

I recently read an article about the latest stem cell breakthrough in South Korea and it resonated with something I read about some months ago: medical tourism. Medical tourism is the practice of traveling to a cheap country with excellent doctors, typically India, in order to get uninsured medical procedures done. Tech Central Station and Yale Global both have good articles about the topic. The bottom line is that, if you’re uninsured for a given operation, it can cost as much as two thirds less to do it in India even when you take air travel and recuperation time into account. As both wealth and medical expenses continue to mount in the West, medical tourism is bound to take off. The trends all point in the right direction, and besides, isn’t your doctor already Indian? Or maybe she’s Chinese?

What struck me recently is how therapeutic stem cell research fits perfectly into this picture. You might travel to another country simply because a procedure is cheaper there, but you might do it because it is illegal and considered morally reprehensible where you come from. That is, if you have the means to save your child’s life through the magic of stem cells, then you you will fly to find them wherever they can be found.

House Republican leader Tom DeLay has made his position on stem cells clear. “An embryo,” he said, “is a person, a distinct internally directed, self-integrating human organism.” Korean researchers, however, don’t give a goddamn about Tom Delay’s opinion on stem cell research (aside from perhaps being grateful for the extra business he sends their way). And when, years from now, you need stem cells to treat your withering Parkinsonism, it will be cheap and pleasant to fly to Korea to get them. Think of all the morally upright American institutions you’ll fly over to get there. And I wouldn’t be at all surprised if, while you’re over there, you see an aging and palsied Tom Delay getting a stem cell boost of his own.

My handy Sudoku-solving applet

What is a Sudoku? A Sudoku (as explained here in the Wikipedia) is a number/logic puzzle that involves placing the numbers 1 through 9 on a 9-by-9 grid such that no number appears twice on the same row, column, or specially marked 3-by-3 box. Perhaps the real puzzle is why it should have become such a pop sensation in places from Hong Kong to New Zealand to the UK. Here is some coverage of the story from the BBC and Guardian. Nevertheless, a phenomenon it certainly is, and I am not one to shrink from hopping on the bandwagon.

I have been interested in brushing up on my Java skills, and this Sudoku craze has given something good to chew on. With that in mind, I have created Sudoku Satori, the Sudoku solving assistant. Try it out and let me know what you think. It’s in a pretty rudimentary state right now, but it sure works when it comes to solving these puzzles. It’s a simple matter to have the computer solve the puzzle for you. What this tool does is help you see the patterns so you can understand and solve the puzzle (hence the satori part).

Opportunity rover is free at last

For those of you who missed the recent drama on Mars, for something like a month, the rover named Opportunity has been stuck in the mud, or rather in a fine powdery rover-swallowing dust. So for five weeks it’s been sending back picture after pathetic picture like this. Fortunately it had already been on the planet for more than a year, so the mainstream press paid it almost no attention. But imagine what a drag it would have been to roll off the lander straight into soupy quicksand. At last, however, it’s out of the sand trap and on the move once more.

One of the entertaining things about the Mars rovers is that the latest pictures are posted immediately, so you can put together the story even before the JPL press release. So I had been going to the rover site regularly to see if they were making progress. Similarly, I was watching a few months ago as the Spirit rover struggled up a mountain looking for a view of the far side (also known as the view from Larry’s Lookout). Why did the bear go over the mountain? To see this. It’s not the most gorgeous picture, but it’s the first one that offered a glimpse of the world on the far side of the range. Every bear that went over a mountain knows that thrill. It was exciting to watch over the laboring rover’s shoulder, undistracted by public relations staff. We were given a virtual version of what cavers call “booty scooping”, which is to say, being the first to lay eyes on territory never before beheld by man.

Before we leave Mars for the day, take a look at this picture.
From orbit you can actually see the tracks left behind by Spirit as it climbs. Think about this: right now, there are two robots built by humans crawling around on the surface of Mars. Robots. On Mars.

That thought makes me happy.

Shirky’s ontology speech

Clay Shirky has posted the full text of his Ontology is Overrated talk. I mentioned this before, but now that the full text is up (including the illustrations from the PowerPoint presentation), it’s worth a read. Here is an example he brings out from the old Dewey Decimal System, which I sure remember from my school libraries growing up.

Dewey, 200: Religion
210 Natural theology
220 Bible
230 Christian theology
240 Christian moral & devotional theology
250 Christian orders & local church
260 Christian social theology
270 Christian church history
280 Christian sects & denominations
290 Other religions

The one sentence summary of the talk is the title of part two of his talk: “The Only Group That Can Categorize Everything Is Everybody.”

Nabeel’s Geoogle: where are your results?

Some blogs just go on and on about stuff that other people create, but occasionally you find a blog, like my friend Nabeel’s, where he doesn’t say too much, but every now and then he actually makes something. As it happens, Nabeel has stitched together a few services (most notably Google Maps) so that he can show you where the information you’re looking for is found. He calls it Geoogle. He starts with Yahoo to find a list of sites that match your search, then uses reverse domain lookup to find the servers address, followed by a web service that resolves addresses into latitude and longitude, which he can finally pour onto a lovely Google map. Got that? Not surprisingly, all the Boston hits are based in Boston. The string “Nabeel”, however, doesn’t return any pointing to the author of the site. His site may become so popular that he claims the top Nabeel spot after a while.

Well done, Nabeel!