Synthetic Genomics

Craig Venter has finally gone public with his latest venture, synthetic genomics, inc. Just as with the synthetic biology company Codon Devices, there’s not much specific information about what they plan to do, but the non-specific version of the story is that they want to make (!) a simple bacterium by subtracting circuitry from it, and then reprogram it to do useful things, like making hydrogen for your fuel-cell roadster.

As wacky as it all sounds, I’m a believer. Humans currently use extraordinarily energy-intensive processes to build things, process that also generate greenhouse gases. A lot of what we melt, burn, and grind into useful products can be grown quietly at room temperature. For instance, the process for making computer chips begins with heating silicon up to 1600 degrees F so that a giant single crystal of silicon can be grown. A sea urchin, on the other hand, sitting in cold seawater and working with whatever materials float by, manufactures its sharp spines by growing single crystals of calcite. Calcite is not silicon, but still! As Laurie Gower, an expert on biomaterials at the University of Florida in Gainesville, says:

The real goal of biomimetic engineering is learning how to draw on nature’s ideas. If you could take any material and learn how to mould it or shape it in this way, you could gain far more control over its optical, electronic or mechanical properties.

Programmable biological material generation. It won’t happen tomorrow, but it’s already in the mail.

Paper, pixels, and the news

This is definitely cool, but I can’t decide if it’s simply cool in a retro backwards-looking kind of way. PressDisplay lets you read 225 newspapers from 55 countries as though you had the actual paper spread in front of you. They’ve got a nifty interface that lets you flip through paper, almost to the point of including the virtual coffee stain circles from your coffee cup. I’m betting that most of the 225 newpapers included here already have web sites, which means that PressDisplay is not only competing with these web sites; it’s also saying that the old newspaper format that evolved across a hundred years of smearing ink on big pieces of paper is still the best, even when viewed on a small pixelated screen (albeit with the help of some magic cyber-shoehorns). Fascinating, but ultimately you have to conclude it’s for print junkies and not people who simply need the news. It’s as if Google Maps included crease lines and made it hard to fold up your map and put it away. PressDisplay is betting on the wrong horse. Call me back if they’re still here in two years.

Mathematical sculpture

Bathsheba Grossman is a sculptor who sculpts with a computer. She makes mathematical models of 3-D objects that never were, and then prints them in three dimensions using new solid printers. In every age, artists are enabled by technology, and a new age is dawning for sculptors like Grossman. Two things are new here. First, her subjects are sculpted by computer in a virtual studio. Second, although she also makes large commissioned works like thousands of sculptors before her, she also has the capability to “print” lots of small copies of popular pieces, just as a print maker can run off dozens of prints from a wood block. The picture at the left (called a Soliton) is one of her sculptures that I bought. The small models are relatively inexpensive, because she prints them in batches using direct metal printing.

I was showing off my Soliton sculpture at work, and someone pointed me to another artist doing similar work, Helaman Ferguson. Grossman also has some excellent links to both technical resources and other mathematical sculptors on this page.

Which side of the road?

The British drive on the left; Americans drive on the right. Simple enough. Since you can’t drive directly from here to there, you don’t have to worry about switching in mid-road somewhere. The Channel Tunnel goes from England to France (where they drive on the right), but you don’t actually drive through the tunnel, so no lane-switching problems ensue. If you look at a list of all the places in the world where they drive on the left, you’ll see that it’s a fair indication of the former extent of the British Empire. Islands like New Zealand and Sri Lanka, like England itself, can be self-contained zones of left-driving. But what about India? Left-driving India is connected by the Eurasian landmass to right-driving France. If you get in a car in Hyderabad and drive to Marseilles, somewhere you have to switch. What is that like?

I found the answer on an excellent site called Which side of the road do they drive on? Put together by Brian Lucas, it even has a world map that reveals the thing I was curious to see: there are enormous frontiers between countries that drive on opposite sides. At the Khyber Pass on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, for example, you have to switch sides. What are these border crossings like? Lucas is kind enough to have compiled some answers.

It’s so satisfying to be puzzled about an obscure topic and find an extensively documented well-maintained web page about that very thing.

Self-publishing comes of age

One of my favorite books of all time, Apollo: The Race to the Moon by Charles Murray and Catherine Cox, went out of print soon after it was published in 1989. A friend of mine happened to own a copy, but when I went to buy one for myself, only expensive collectors’ editions could be had. Recently the book was finally picked up again by South Mountain Books. The publishers of South Mountain Books were… Charles Murray and Catherine Cox. This book had rave reviews and a core of dedicated fans, but because of its position down the long tail of all books, no publisher would take it until the authors themselves took on the job. Go buy it now.

Most happily, publishing your own book isn’t so hard anymore. Murray and Cox may have a few more resources at their disposal, but you can use It’s hard to beat their value proposition: just-in-time vanity press. No need for expensive set ups and big speculative print runs. Lulu lets you publish and sell your book on a print-only-as-needed basis. Charge whatever you want; as long as you cover your per-book costs, the rest is yours to keep.

This kind of publication will change the world as surely as Gutenberg did. Even so, it’s only half of the print-on-demand problem. Lulu addresses books that have never existed before. We still need good solutions for the Apollos out there, the orphaned books that have gone out of print.

Chris Lydon returns to radio

Interesting things afoot in radio these days. Boston folks may remember talkshow host Christopher Lydon from his old show “The Connection” (which still exists, only without him). He feuded with his host station WBUR and was shown the door. He has wandered in the wilderness for a few years, maintaining a part-time blog at Harvard Law School, but now another Boston station, WGBH, has given him a new show called Open Source. The show, which embraces the blogospherical world of information tech, is naturally available as a podcast, and is featured at Apple’s iTunes site.

I learned all this from ITConversations guru Doug Kaye on his Blogarithms site. In this post he observes that, while the old-school thing to do is encourage your local NPR affiliate to pick up the show, internet podcasts mean that he doesn’t care anymore about his local radio station. It’s no longer in the loop; already it’s fading into dim obsolescence. Ouch!

I find this attitude interesting because I’m sure Lydon only got the show because of an old-school radio deal. He gets a nice studio, fancy equipment, syndicated distribution, stuff that costs real money. We haven’t yet reached the point where it’s easy to do something this elaborate from your basement. And yet the podcasts new radio proclaims are slicing through old radio’s Achille’s tendon. Still, Doug Kaye knows whereof he speaks, sitting as he does atop one of new radio’s prosperous properties. I don’t think anybody knows where the money is going to come from, but Chris Lydon is having fun on the air again, and that’s good news to me.

Radio nostalgia from South Africa

One of the standard birthday gifts you can get for someone, particularly as they start to get a little, er, older, is a scrapbook of what happened the year they were born, or a fake newspaper of events that happened on the day they were born. But really, who cares what was going on when you were born? You don’t remember any of it. It don’t signify.

What I really want is a service that can provide an uninterrupted hour of music from WKZL, FM 107.5 from about 1982. I want it with commercials, DJ chatter, and everything. Or maybe two hours of Sunday night TV from 1977, including Disney and Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom hosted by Marlin Perkins. I would pay good money for that, because I was old enough to remember it.

My friend Roy has found exactly what I’m describing, only it’s from where he grew up: South Africa. Someone is assembling podcasts of old radio shows from the Capital 604 station, some going as far back as 1981. Want to know what the weather was like along the eastern Cape coast on October 1st, 1984? Listen to this. Capital 604 was hugely popular because they had good music, good DJs, and perhaps most of all because they were the first truly independent radio station in South Africa, operating with relative impunity from the hinterlands of the independent black homeland Transkei. Since it shut down some years ago, and since it is so fondly remembered by so many who grew up in South Africa during the 70s and 80s, people are pooling their old recordings of the station and making them available via podcast.

Anybody out there want to dig up some old WKZL tapes?

Talkr reads blogs for you

Talkr (their tagline is “Letting blogs speak for themselves”) is a site that lets you listen to popular blogs being read to you. The catch is that it’s not a person reading, but a computer. If your idea of computer-generated voice is the Speak & Spell toy from the 1980s, you can be forgiven for thinking Talkr is a terrible idea. But the speech synthesis here is surprisingly good. Listen to some of the free blogs they have on this page (they have dozens more that you have to pay to listen to). I enjoy reading the Many2Many blog, and the audio version is remarkably uncrappy. It’s not good enough yet for me to make it part of my information diet, but clearly they’re improving fast. Text-to-speech synthesis is a big deal; I’m sure it will start to show up all over the place now that it’s acceptably good.

Road rage averted

I just got back from a week’s vacation on the beaches of North Carolina, and no sooner had I squeezed my family into a Boston cab at Logan airport than a right-of-way squabble broke out. My driver, who turned out to be an affable Nigerian gentleman, was trying to work left into a lane owned by a vocal local who was in turn working right to pick someone up. Everyone was held up by a big bus in front of us both. Our interchange went something like this.

MR. CABBIE: <beep beep> (gesticulating to be let across to the left)
MR. DRIVER: [screaming] Go f**k yourself! You should’ve come in behind me!
MR. CABBIE: Where are you going? You shouldn’t be there! [i.e. stuck behind the bus holding up the traffic]
MR. DRIVER: F**k you, a**hole!
MR. CABBIE: [picking up cell phone] Okay, I can call the police and have them make you move.
[Note: I can attest that this next part actually happened.]
MR. DRIVER: [slight pause] Say you’re sorry.
MR. CABBIE: [without hesitating] I’m sorry.

The confrontation ended instantly, and within seconds we were scooting along on our way home. Brilliant! My faith in humanity was restored. My driver grinned broadly as we dropped into the Ted Williams tunnel: “I will say I’m sorry ten times. It doesn’t cost me anything!” We should all be so wise.