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 )

Shared Links for Apr 8th

  • The secret, social lives of bacteria – Cooperative behavior between bacteria, both inter and intra species, coordinated via chemical messages. Behavior like "should we make light?" and "should we kill the host now?". Scary, awesome, and a beautiful system to investigate with algorithmic game theory! (tagged: cooperation biology technology bacteria science )
  • Computational Legal Studies – More people using machines to understand politics. A whole new class of dual use technology. Propaganda or transparency? Manipulation or clarity? Unauthorized social networking. (tagged: transparency technology government law )
  • Public Private Investment Partnerships a la Enron – Giving banks the ability to both buy and sell into the toxic asset markets being set up under PPIP is a recipe for market gaming in the tradition of Enron, as outlined in this example. Great, a trillion dollar Enron! (tagged: finance bailout economics policy enron ppip banks )
  • The New Nostradamus – Bruce Bueno de Mesquita uses large game theory simulations to try and predict the outcomes of complex negotiations involving many parties, both economic and political. Sounds interesting. Also sounds a little bit like bullshit. But apparently the CIA did a prospective trial (no backtesting bias) and found that the models made accurate predictions something like 90% of the time, when the analysts providing the inputs to the model made wrong predictions. Not so surprising that computers are better at synthesizing massive logical datasets into an outcome. The hard part seems like it would be getting the right inputs, and also trusting that people behave rationally, and (perhaps) know what's good for them. (tagged: economics politics science math prediction gametheory technology )
  • Ice Shelf Instability Backgrounder – A good backgrounder from last summer on the Wilkins Ice Shelf (which has just collapsed), and shelf dynamics in general, with links to the relevant literature. None of this is quite as sudden and shocking as the media reports have made it out to be. (tagged: climate antarctica ice shelf )

Have you seen the light?

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?

Shared Links for Mar 11th

  • The Missing $1,000,000 Tax Bracket – There's a fair amount of debate over what the "top marginal tax rate" should be, but it's infrequently noted that there's actually vastly more variation in the income threshold at which that rate becomes applicable. In inflation adjusted dollars, it's fluctuated between around $80,000 (Regan) and $80,000,000 (!) during the Depression. Ignoring this while debating the highest income tax rate is kind of absurd. (tagged: usa tax policy )
  • True Traffic Tales – Ah, bikes and cars living harmoniously together. (tagged: cartoon bicycle transportation )
  • Evangelical Climate Initiative – A Christian take on climate change, given its reality, what is the appropriate response for a conscientious person of faith? From my point of view as an atheist, it's not so important what other peoples' motivations are for taking action, as long as they take action. I'm curious how this has been received by the evangelical movement. (tagged: religion climate science christian green )
  • Sailfish Cooperating to Hunt Sardines – I had no idea sailfish were so colorful (and changeable), let alone this cooperative. Glad National Geographic still exists, even if our maps no longer have "Terra Incognita" on them (tagged: fish cooperation nature )
  • Communicating the Second Premise: Whether Obama or Bush, Values Drive Science Policy Decisions – A good look at the division between science facts/findings and science policy in the context of stem cell research and Bush's vs. Obama's take on it. Facts alone do not imply any "shoulds". We need values to tell us what's right or wrong. Sometimes those values are so obvious we don't even think about them, and sometimes they're not, especially when new and poorly understood technology is involved. (tagged: science policy obama bush stemcells biology )

The holes in my woolens

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

Shared Links for Mar 6th

Shared Links for Feb 28th