What’s happening to the sharks?

In the continuing series of strange animal vs. animal YouTube videos, here is one from the Seattle Aquarium. Poor little octopus. Sitting defenseless in a tank full of sharks. Poor little guy.

I suppose that if sharks made their own version of a movie like Jaws, it would be called Eight Legs. “Just when you thought it was safe to swim close to the coral…”

Heat map mashups: how do you feel about the rent?

I happened to spot these items in the same week, and it seemed a fairly obvious leap to mash them even further. Item number one is a heat map of rent and room availability in San Francisco: CraigStats. This is something that Zillow has been doing for a while, but CraigStats contains detailed information about renting (as opposed to buying with Zillow). So that’s all relatively interesting, but not exactly new.

But then I came across item number two: the BioMapping Project. What they’re doing is measuring your galvanic skin response, which is to say how sweaty you are, along with your GPS coordinates, all while you’re strolling around a neighborhood. It’s more art than science, but the intriguing premise is that you can generate some sort of aggregate emotion map of a neighborhood. Where do people get stressed out? Where are they relaxed? Here’s the data for the San Francisco emotion map.

Now you can imagine throwing these two maps together and you might get a sense for how the rent correlates with the stress level. It’s easy to guess that low-rent areas might give you the heebie-jeebies, but there might be some kind of bimodal distribution… I don’t know about you, but super-wealthy areas give me the creeps. Throw in a crime map and an ambient display on the end of your GPS-enabled walking stick, and you’ve built yourself an automatic Spidey-Sense. “On second thought, my dear, let us not stroll slowly through the Tenderloin District. I sense there’s mischief afoot.”

(via O’Reilly Radar)

Freeman Dyson’s biotech future

Freeman Dyson, the physicist, provocateur, and one-time colleague of Richard Feynman, has written a piece for the New York Review of Books called Our Biotech Future, and boy is it a doozy. This is no timid prediction about curing the common cold or even avoiding the next plague. It’s a full-on embrace of a bio-kaleidoscopic future. I’m not sure if he’s playing the I’m-old-and-I’ll-say-whatever-I-want card or if he’s always been this wild-eyed, but here’s a good sample quote:

The final step in the domestication of biotechnology will be biotech games, designed like computer games for children down to kindergarten age but played with real eggs and seeds rather than with images on a screen. Playing such games, kids will acquire an intimate feeling for the organisms that they are growing. The winner could be the kid whose seed grows the prickliest cactus, or the kid whose egg hatches the cutest dinosaur. These games will be messy and possibly dangerous.

You bet they will, Freeman! But that won’t stop us, right? Hey Mrs. Patterson! Billy’s cheating off my Ornithopsis genome!

Honestly, I admire him for writing this, and I admire the New York Review of Books for printing it. They must be taking bets in the editorial offices on how many letters this is going to draw. Someone needs to be talking like this, because the future of biotech is going to be a lot weirder than most people realize.

Things get really interesting when Dyson starts to compare the last few billion years of genomic evolution to evil proprietary software practices, as contrasted with a pre-Darwinian (and upcoming post-Darwinian) era of open-source horizontal gene transfer. For this last reference, he cites some fascinating papers by biologist Carl Woese. It’s wacky at times, but thoroughly thought provoking.

Unfortunately I don’t have time for further speculation… I’ve got to go tune the thagomizer on my dwarf stegosaur.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma

I can happily recommend Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, although it did strike me as longer than it needed to be. The book, about our food economy, features reporting, analysis, and some self-indulgent introspection. I enjoyed the reporting, in which he details trips into the heart of America’s industrial food-making machine. I was surprised, for example, to learn that corn is not good cow food. It fattens them up nicely, but their gut, having been built for grass, is distressed and gassy as a result. “Corn-fed beef” sounds so rich; I had always pictured cows somehow luxuriating in their corn-based diet. Instead, they are standing shoulder-to-shoulder in their own waste with a painful case of the frothy burps.

I found Pollan’s analysis less satisfying and more left-leaning than it needed to be. The facts he reports about our food economy, if taken at face value, are devastating enough, but he puts a political gloss on it that is sometimes irritating. For instance, he describes global capitalistic markets as an evil influence on food economies and the environment. By contrast, he describes a few enlightened organic farmers who are having small successes battling this malign force. But hey, it’s all capitalism. Markets learn and markets change. When organic practices become more widespread, as I’m sure they must over the long term, it will be because of a change in global markets. Ironically, it is precisely books like Mr. Pollan’s that educate readers, which is to say the market, about the true costs incurred by government-subsidized corn and confined animal feeding operations. Pollan also displays the annoying habit common among idealists of attacking the moral flaw in otherwise sound improvements to the status quo. Thus modern “industrial organic” practices aren’t free from sin. They may not use pesticides, but the labor-intensive practices of organic farming still require liberal amounts of petrochemicals to run machinery and transport the product. They still employ poor and easily exploited immigrants. Well, of course they do. But surely half a loaf is better than no loaf at all. Make the gains you can this year, and we’ll improve on them next year.

But overall, it’s a worthwhile and eye-opening read. It was worth it just for the part about Joel Salatin’s eccentric and endearing Polyface Farm. And it’s already changed some of my purchasing habits.

China makes, the world takes

The Atlantic has a great article by James Fallows this month called China Makes, the World Takes. Unfortunately it’s behind a subscription wall. But there is a free slideshow narrated by Fallows which pretty much gives you the gist of the article. In a nutshell: China’s manufacturing output is stupefyingly vast, but not only that, the Chinese work hard, they work fast, they’re more modern than you think, and they’re smarter than you are. So quit whining and be gracious when they zoom by… it’ll do you a world of good in the future. Among other observations, Fallows calls out this telling fact about our mutual trade. The Chinese send us almost every manufactured item you care to name. In return, we send those same ships back filled with… scrap metal and scrap paper. Which one is the developed economy?

The narrated slideshow was a nice touch. It’s fun watching newspapers and magazines branch out into other media. You can watch wacky videos at the New York Times and listen to audio dispatches from the Washington Post. Maybe they’ll have some fun as they slide into oblivion.