Links for the week of February 26th, 2010

If you want to follow my shared links in real time instead of as a weekly digest, head over to Delicious. You can search them there easily too.
Continue reading Links for the week of February 26th, 2010

How inevitable is synthetic biology?

I love watching talks and seminars online.  It is in so many ways superior to watching them in person.  You can pause the talk to discuss it with your friends out loud, or to look something up online.  You can skip the boring introduction.  You can stop watching the talk if it’s lame, and try another one, and keep trying until you find a good one.  Maybe best of all, there are vastly more talks available online than even at a large and diverse institution.  The one plausible weakness is the lack of interactivity – you can’t ask questions.  But it turns out that the Q&A part of most public talks (and even departmental colloquia) kind of suck.  You can mitigate this weakness by watching the talk with other people who are thoughtful and intelligent, and talking to them about it during and after.

Rene, Michelle and I sat down last night and watched this excellent debate between Drew Endy from Stanford/MIT and Jim Thomas, put on by The Long Now Foundation.  The formal presentation/debate portion is an hour long, and is followed by another hour of discussion.  Endy is in favor of an open source type model for synthetic biology, with the technology being available to basically anyone.  Thomas thinks it should be controlled, and kept out of the hands of potentially dangerous actors: the military, the corporate oligarchy, etc.  Their positions are of course more subtle and well thought out than that, but you can only fit so much into a nutshell.

Continue reading How inevitable is synthetic biology?

Shared Links for Apr 30th

  • Transparency means nothing without justice – Government transparency is necessary, but not sufficient. If police violence is recorded and publicized, and nobody cares, it doesn't matter. This is in come sense emblematic of the coup in western propaganda. You don't need to control the media as the Soviets did or the Chinese do, if your population is comfortable enough not to care what's happening out there to someone else, and if their voting patterns are firmly tied to other issues (especially social issues like abortion), the idea of a democratic revolt becomes fairly abstract. I think this where a lot of the government's fear of economic recessions comes from. When people are out of work, or even hungry, suddenly they become a lot more excitable. (tagged: transparency law police politics technology internet )
  • Condensing steam without water – Concentrating solar thermal power stations are ultimately designed to run a steam turbine, just like a gas-fired power plant. That means they need water (to turn into steam). Problematically, most such plants use water as a condensing coolant (70% of Caltech's water usage is as coolant for our 14MW worth of gas-fired power)… which is going to be hard to come by in the desert, where CSP will be built. Thankfully, there's a way to recondense steam without using a water coolant – but it does require a huge cooling tower. Not so great in Pasadena, but probably fine in the Mojave, next to acres and acres of mirrors. (tagged: solar energy technology sustainability green electricity water )
  • Rousing a Latent Defense Mechanism to Fight HIV – It turns out there is a gene in humans that produces a protein which inhibits infection by HIV, but it has a mutation – a premature stop codon – which prevents it from being effectively synthesized. This mutation doesn't exist in most Old World monkeys (and that's apparently why they can't get HIV). Undoing the mutation allows the protein to be synthesized, and grants HIV immunity to human cells. I imagine that undoing bad mutations like this, and our inability to synthesize vitamin C, might be the first place we see human germ-line engineering outside of disease avoidance (preventing e.g. cystic fibrosis). Really, these mutations are hard to distinguish from genetic diseases – they're just diseases that we, as a species, have learned to live with. (tagged: genetic engineering hiv aids biology science research plos medicine )
  • Anna in the Middle East – Anna Baltzer is a Jewish American who got a Fulbright fellowship to live in the West Bank in 2005, and document the experiences of Palestinians. She's been giving presentations about it ever since. Some parts of her presentation are available via YouTube too. From the 15 minutes I watched she seemed like a level headed critic. She's speaking in Boulder and Denver in May. (tagged: israel palestine politics fulbright peace war )
  • Twitter + Stimulus = Humans are Gullible – A wonderful demonstration of the power of the confirmatory bias. Twitter is the perfect platform for the injection of random falsehoods. Too short for citations. Instantaneous distribution. Make sure your followers are predisposed to agree with what you say, and you can get them to believe just about anything – within that constraint. Too bad the author seems to think this only applies to conservatives. (tagged: politics twitter statistics propaganda )