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?
As animals, and especially visual animals at that, we have a particular experience of the light. For us it is illumination, information about our surroundings. For that purpose moonlight or even starlight will do. And for tens of millions of years, that’s all we ever saw. Somehow a few of us made it through the Permian extinction, and into the Triassic, but the ascendancy of the dinosaurs eventually forced us into the darkness of the night. Our world became dim, and our eyes went colorblind. Most mammals today see only two colors, but a few of us have re-evolved a third photoreceptor. Three colors is still inferior to the four or five or six seen by many near-surface fish, birds, reptiles, insects, and other arthropods. The stomatopods are almost biological spectroscopic imaging systems, with 12 color channels in each of their independently movable trinocular eyes. We are lesser than the eyes that never left the light. They stole the colors from us and made us hide within the night. They kept the sun for themselves, not knowing that our small and furtive ways, our burning endothermy and our fur would see us through the aftermath of the KT impact.
Continue reading Have you seen the light?
I discovered a couple of small holes in one of my my merino sweaters this morning. Moth larvae. My fault for not using camphor or some other kind of deterrant. At first, I was bummed because I thought this represented a flaw – I love wool, and especially merino, because it’s warm even when it’s wet, it wicks, it doesn’t smell, it doesn’t burn and melt like plastic, it’s durable and comfortable and not based on petrochemicals. But moths can eat it, and it can mold. It requires more care than fleece. Thinking just a little more, it occurred to me that actually, these holes are in some sense a feature, not a bug.
Continue reading The holes in my woolens