Meat shooting and Google baiting

If you don’t read the comments here, you may have missed the wonderful thing that Mary Beth did last week. After a brief discussion here about how all knowledge is a web search away once you remember to formulate the question, she went out and researched a topic that had mystified her for many years: the Meat Shoot.

Suppose you see a sign in front of a VFW hall that says “Meat Shoot, March 21st.” Here’s what I want to know: is that effective advertising or not? Is the VFW hall making a fair assumption that anyone who wants to come to a meat shoot already knows what one is? The good news is that it hardly matters anymore, because Mary Beth went and made a Meat Shoot entry in the Wikipedia, thereby making it that much easier for the casual meat shoot passerby to become informed. And just to show how much Google loves Wikipedia, as of this writing (and less than a week after the article was created), Mary Beth’s meat shoot article is in sixth place on the Google search for meat shoot.

Can you feel the Great Brain getting smarter? The synapses at the meat shoot neuron just got a little stronger, and gosh darn it, it makes me proud to be alive.

The edges of knowledge: Wikipedia tailings and dross

One of the nice things about Wikipedia is the fact that you can go to it for information about new cultural trends. Want to know what a flash mob is? How about Leetspeak… what’s that? Wikipedia can tell you, with reasonable accuracy and long before more sober references chime in. Still, even Wikipedia has its limits. As you approach the cultural hinterland where barbarians be, the Wikipedian frontier guards regularly eject submitted material.

For example, the other day I noticed that was breathlessly promoting an interview with Vanna Bonta in which she talks about the “emerging genre of Quantum Fiction, exemplified by her controversial book Flight: A Quantum Fiction Novel.” Vanna Bonta? Quantum fiction? It all sounded pretty bogus to me. Fortunately I knew where to turn for the latest word on hot young memes: Wikipedia. Alas, quantum fiction missed the cut, being too wacky by half. But not for lack of trying. Another search revealed a Wikipedia quantum fiction article appearing in… the Wikipedia Knowledge Dump (a.k.a.

WikiDumper isn’t proud. It lives off the picked over remains of Wikipedia fare. The editor is the thoroughly eccentric writer and fractal artist Cliff Pickover. He subtitles WikiDumper as “The Official Appreciation Page for the Best of the Wikipedia Rejects.” To which he adds: One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.

So now you know where to learn about Quantum Fiction. And Fractomancy, a fractal-based form of divination that was invented by, ahem, Cliff Pickover. And… there’s really no other way to say this… human cheese.

The age of organic knowledge

If you’ve never edited a Wikipedia article, I recommend the experience. Suppose, while skimming through an article, you notice a misspelled word, stray comma, or grammatical peccadillo. Hop in there and fix it! It gives you a surprisingly warm rush. For a very small effort, you’ve made the world a better place.

Here’s the funny thing about our Modern Age: we are manufacturing legions of aimless web-addled click monkeys… but we’re also putting them to work. It takes so little effort to improve a wiki that they grow with manic speed. There has never been a better time to have attention deficit disorder. Which is a good thing because… because… where was I? Oh because there have never been more of us. Web sites that harness collective intelligence, even when it appears in tiny bursts, are working wonders.

I propose that the quantity of effort required to put a single character, one byte, into a working public document be called a “wik”. Never before in history has a wik been worth so much.

It used to be that in order to create informational value, which is to say something that would prove useful to other people, you had to write a book, or at least a news or magazine article. Writing like that requires research, extended periods of concentration, attention to detail. Very high wik counts. Word processing software helps, but mostly it saves you from the drudgery that comes after the hard work of thinking up the words. But web sites like the Wikipedia do something altogether new. In chemical terms, you might say that they lower the activation energy required for information fixing. A wiki acts as a sort of thermodynamic ratchet, enfranchising swarms of the easily distracted, people who would never add a book to a library. Let’s say a novel is half a megawik. Even a short blog post is a kilowik. But the Wikipedia, like a vast unfolding sunlit tree, rewards even one humble wik.

Information is encoded energy. These knowledge harvesting systems are like miniature windmills that capture the tiny breezes generated when one person walks past another. By analogy, consider that the energy that drives nearly all the life on earth is harvested one photon at a time by molecules of chlorophyll, each one quietly jostled by a visiting sunbeam. In this sense, we are living in the age of organic knowledge.

So get in there and do your wikworth.

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!’.”

Encarta goes wiki

I find this both astonishing and inevitable: From Corante’s Many2Many blog I learn that Microsoft is stealing a page from Wikipedia. It’s making some of the articles in its Encarta dictionary (which is a very profitable enterprise) open for editing.

What’s astonishing is that this happened so fast. Predictably, some people are crying out that it’s a Wikipedia rip-off. But that’s not really the point. Just because Columbus got to the New World first doesn’t mean nobody else should make the trip. I actually give some credit to Microsoft for having the cojones to jump into this format. For its part, Encyclopedia Britannica (er… Encyclopaedia Britannica) would rather fly into the side of a mountain than admit this is a reasonable practice.

What’s inevitable here is the new process: learning from your readers is the coming thing, and to avoid it solely because of its zany Wikipedia legacy is foolish and ultimately self-destructive. This is the way content is going to work in the future, and I credit Encarta for seeing that coming.