Wednesday, July 27, 2005

The little b that could [be interesting]

BioIT-World has an online interview with a couple of people from Harvard's department of Systems Biology, Jeremy Gunawardena and Aneil Mallavarapu, about the Harvard Systems Bio department, what tools are needed for systems biology and the new systems bio modeling language they're developing, called 'Little b'.

From an extremely cursory glance at the materials on the website, 'b' looks like an interesting high-level framework for building models, including the ability to do things like auto-generate Matlab code [ie they're not re-inventing the wheel when it comes to pre-existing mathematical packages]. That said, I do wonder how the average biologist is going to feel about being asked to learn Lisp [which their language is based on], given that the average computer science student reacts allergically to Lisp. Then again, I suppose the target audience aren't "average" biologists [are there such people, or are all biologists above average, like the children from Lake Wobegon ;-)?], but rather computational biologists, with a presumably somewhat larger tolerance for the elaborate protocol required to communicate with the mysterious god-boxes called computers. [Are computational biologists the ultimate masochists, being willing to put up with both the pain of debugging programs and the tedium of bench work ?]

In any case, it's something I'll be keeping an eye on and will probably download and play with a bit, once it's released.

Side note:
What kind of a name is 'b' for a language ? I guess it's about as good as 'C', but at least that was a capital letter. I'm waiting for a language called "1", or "!", or maybe even "?!" [like in chess notation], as in "That last statement was either really smart or really dumb -- run-time will tell".

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Honeymoon: Matapalo and beyond

It's been exactly a month since the last installment of the Honeymoon saga, so I figured it was time to write up the next [and last, thankfully !] part of our travails. To refresh your memory: Christina and I had just fled from the second place that had disappointed our expectations, and arrived in Matapalo, of which we had fond memories from a previous vacation.

Matapalo:
The first couple of days were, if not perfect, at least better than what we'd experienced before: I got a chance to do some surfing, albeit in pretty small waves and the weather wasn't too bad ie it didn't rain all the time. However, there really was very little else to do if you weren't surfing, so we basically spent the time eating, sleeping and reading. That also got old pretty quickly, so on our third day we decided to go into Puerto Jimenez to do a bit of grocery shopping and avoid going totally insane with cabin fever.

We'd originally planned to stand by the side of the road and wait for the sporadic pickup/bus service into town, but we ended up getting a ride into town with a cabinetmaker from NY who was also in Costa Rica with his family. It turned out that he was also into motorcycles, so we spent a pleasant 30 minutes discussing the virtues of anti-lock brakes and telelever suspension that are unique to BMW motorcycles [those Germans, always overengineering things ...]. As our luck would have it, we arrived in Puerto Jimenez during siesta, so to speak -- the grocery store was closed for the next hour, so we had to sit around and wait for about an hour, sharing a bench with an older gentleman. He appeared rather interested in Christina, my presence notwithstanding, but once it was established that she didn't speak Spanish and he didn't speak English, the conversation petered out and we sat in companionable silence, waiting for the store to open.

After we'd stocked up on groceries, we walked back into the center of town [which took all of about 5 minutes, since it's a pretty small town ...] and arranged for a pickup truck to take us back to Matapalo. As we were waiting, Christina, with her unfailing instinct for finding animals, or, more specifically, animals that require some form of assistance, managed to find a puppy that was stumbling around in the street. It was a really young puppy which barely had its eyes open and was flea-ridden and generally rather mangy-looking. It didn't appear to belong to anybody, nor was its mother around, so of course Christina spent the next 10 minutes asking everybody within a 100-yard radius whether they knew who it belonged to etc, to no avail. Then came the inevitable question: "Can we take it with us ? We can't just leave it here !". Now, my attitude when it comes to stray animals [without collars] is fairly hard-nosed in that I don't feel personal responsibility to make sure they're OK; they either make it or they don't. Given that, my response was that I wanted no part of being responsible for a puppy in a foreign country, far away from anything resembling a dog pound, with no clear idea of what we would do with it when we left in 3-4 days. This combination of irresistible force [Christina's conviction that she couldn't leave the puppy] meeting immovable object [my stance that I wanted no part of it] eventually led to a frosty detente: we took the dog with us, after I made it clear that it was entirely Christina's responsibility to figure out what to do with it [our first major disagreement as a married couple -- aren't those supposed to happen after the honeymoon ?].

When we got back, Christina gave the dog a thorough scrubbing:



















... and then proceeded to pull a Jedi mind trick which would have astonished even Yoda: she had a conversation with Marjorie [the housekeeper at the place we were renting] that went something like this:

Christina: "Hey, Marjorie, have you ever wanted a dog for your kids ?"
Marjorie: "[Yes]"
Christina, pretty much pulling the puppy out of her pocket: "Look, I have one for you !"

... and poor Marjorie ended up with the puppy. She was actually pretty happy about it, so it wasn't like she was duped into it, but I'm sure she wasn't expecting to get a dog quite so soon after expressing interest in it.

By the fourth day, the surf was absolutely flat [it'd been flat for a couple of days, actually], so we decided to just go for a swim. I got out of the water about 50 yards away from Christina and was walking towards her when she gave a bit of a scream and started batting at the water at her knees. I figured she'd just been scared by a bit of seaweed drifting past her but when she didn't stop yelling, I realized that it wasn't that benign and ran towards her. When I got to her, she'd gotten out of the water and was looking at knees and crying, for reasons that became obvious pretty quickly: she looked like she'd been whipped across the knees, with her skin red and blistering -- she'd run right into a jelly fish. Except that this wasn't a normal jellyfish, this must have been the Ur-jellyfish, given how bad her knees looked. I picked her up and ran down the beach towards a bunch of Costa Ricans, figuring they'd know what to do about jellyfish stings. However, all they could do was goggle at poor Christina's blistering skin and say "Wow, I've never seen anything like that before !", further confirming that she'd run into one badass creature.

By now, there were a bunch of people gathered around her and a couple of them told me to pee her on her knees -- apparently, this is supposed to help reduce the irritation [though in some cases it can make it worse]. Now, I wasn't about to pee on my wife of less than 2 weeks [that'll come later, when I'm incontinent and she has to take care of me ;-)], much less in public, so I politely declined that particular bit of advice and asked for alternative suggestions. Vinegar was proposed as an alternative, so I ran off to the nearest houses, frantically asked for some vinegar and rushed back to pour it on her knees [it didn't help]. While I was gone, there was apparently an exchange on the subject of urine between an Indian couple that revealed a bit too much information:

Woman: [says something about urine]
Husband, just overhearing the word "urine": "What is it with you and urine ? Always urine, urine, urine, always telling me to drink it ..."
Woman: "no, that's what you're supposed to do for jellyfish stings"
[embarrassed silence]

[This isn't actually as, uhm, personally revealing as it sounds -- drinking urine is an old Indian therapy]

At this point, Christina had composed herself, so we went back home and put some aloe vera on her knees, which helped a bit, but not much:



































Needless to say, she didn't go in the water again during the rest of our trip.

The last couple of days in Matapalo were pretty uneventful [in other words, boring]: the surf stayed flat and we'd read all the books we'd brought along, so all there was to do was eat, sleep and sit on the balcony in between those two activities, sweating and being disgruntled:




















There are only a couple of minor things worth mentioning in connection with the last two days:

- One night, it was raining so hard on the tin roof of our house that Christina kept thinking there was a steel drum band playing somewhere out in the jungle and asking me whether I heard the music too.
- Mike Hennessy told us various stories about the Osa peninsula, like going fishing in the Corcovado National Park, setting up a tent on an island and realizing that all the little lights out in the water were the eyes of crocodiles, moving towards them; of the fellow who sucked the poison out his girlfriend's leg after she'd been bitten by a fer-de-lance and then promptly lost all his teeth [apparently the poison destroyed his gums]; the fellow who used to surf naked etc
- Seeing a video of a huge swell that had come through Matapalo a few weeks earlier, resulting in 10-15 ft waves, with Mike having a great time surfing them.

Sometime during those last two days in Matapalo, we also agreed that we had officially had an absolutely rotten honeymoon, and that we'd need to do it over.

Getting home:
Nothing else untoward happen during the rest of our time in Costa Rica: we flew back to San Jose, spent a couple more days at the Xandari [air conditioning and hot showers !] and then flew back to Seattle. We arrived in Seattle fairly late, around 11 pm and, for once, our bags had actually made it all the way from Costa Rica to Seattle with us [which was emphatically not the case the first time we went to Costa Rica: our bags were delayed both going down there and coming back], so we thought we were home free. Hah.

While we were gone, we'd hired a cat sitter to come in and check on our cats every day. We'd used her before and she was quite good -- we came home to happy cats and a little note saying that she'd played with them every day etc. This time, we came home to a pile of notes, with a chronology like this:

Day X: "Noticed that there was nothing in their litter boxes, but didn't think much about it"
Day X+1: "Next day, still nothing, so I thought they might be constipated, so I gave them castor oil" [or something like that]
Day X+2: "Still nothing, so I went looking around the house to see whether they'd been using something other than their litter boxes, but couldn't find anything"
Day X+3: "Decided to go look in your bedroom and, well, I found their litterbox ..."

Those little f!ckers [yes, I still have strong feelings about this] had been using our bed as their litterbox for a few days. Apparently, they were "upset" that we were gone. Vindictive bastards.

The poor catsitter tried to do just about everything to fix it -- she washed our sheets and comforter multiple times, scrubbed our mattress, put it outside to dry etc, but it was no good. It still all stank of cat urine, so we spent our first night back at home, after our ever-so-excellent honeymoon, sleeping on our futon mattress.

And that, my friends, officially completes our instructive tale of woe on how not to have a honeymoon.

PS: Christina's knees took about 4 weeks to heal; at one point, they would itch so badly that she'd scrub them with a hairbrush. She had scars for about 6 months. We ended up getting rid of everything except the bedframe [mattress, box springs, sheets etc] because there was no way to get rid of the smell of cat urine.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Longhorn: awaited with bated breath

... even by websites dedicated to motorcycle racing [read the text at the bottom of the image].

Or, should I say "being made fun of even by websites dedicated to motorcycle racing" ?

What's your mental stack capacity ?

[Warning: programming language geekery, probably best to ignore]

You learn something new every day, whether you want to or not: yesterday, I had to figure out how to programmatically modify a dynamically-generated Postscript file to do something fairly simple: show a particular bit of text in red, and another bit in blue. Initially, I figured this would be pretty simple and that Postscript would turn out to be a lot like HTML ie throw in a few angle brackets and you're done.

Of course, nothing is ever that simple. Postscript turns out to be an actual programming language/environment, with a 900-page reference manual. And, to make matters worse, it's not a straightforward imperative programming language, like C, Python etc -- it's a stack-based language, like those damn Reverse Polish Notation [RPN] calculators. In other words, instead of writing the [to me, at least] straightforward "3 + 4", you write "3 4 +". It's basically a programming language invented by Yoda -- hard it is to understand, to write harder even.

The "operator in an ass-backwards place" bit isn't that bad, it's the stack that really gets you, because it means that when you're trying to understand a Postscript program, you have to mentally keep track of what's on the stack so you can understand what values a given operation is being applied to and what gets put back on the stack. In other words, there are always "hidden" variables that you need to keep track of and that aren't obvious from just looking at a given line of code. For a program of even medium complexity, that gets intractable pretty quickly, so I had to resort to the time-tested method of understanding a program: 'print' statements scattered liberally throughout the code. At least the nice folks at Adobe were kind enough to include a command in the language that dumps the entire stack ...

I'm sure there are good computer science reasons for inventing a stack-based language [at least, I hope there are] but I can't for the life of me think of any [probably because I'm one of those heathen "systems" guys]. I suspect they're mostly reasons like "elegance" and "provability" ie stuff that nobody who is actually trying to use the language to perform a real-world task is likely to care much about. Then again, Adobe has done pretty well with Postscript, so there must be something to it that I just haven't understood based on 3 hours of exposure to the language ...

Monday, July 18, 2005

If you're not anti-dragon, you must be pro-dragon

The NYT Magazine has an article on the "Framing Wars" ie "How to phrase things in a way that gives people the idea you want them to have" and how the Democrats have apparently/supposedly recently adopted this tactic [Republicans have apparently been doing it for a while], with some success.

As usual, the Daily Show already had a spoof covering this idea [involving Steven Colbert, of course] in which he argues that the Democrats should adopt an "anti-dragon" platform because dragons are undeniably bad, stealing maidens, burning villages etc and hence, anybody who opposes the "anti-dragon" platform must be "pro-dragon" and a bad person. Failing that, he suggests, the Democrats should adopt a different platform, like, say, the Republican one.

There's also an interesting bit of political insight [or an example of political knavery, if you will], in the NYT article, namely that sometimes it's actually a very conscious decision not to offer a different solution than the one being criticized:

"[...] In this way, Democrats had decided to follow the example of Bill Kristol, the Republican strategist who had urged his party (shrewdly, as it turned out) to refrain from proposing any alternatives to Clinton's doomed health-care plan in 1993. ''The minute we introduce a plan, we have to solve the problem'' is how one senior Democratic aide explained it to me. ''We are the minority party. It's not our job to fix things.''

Obviously that's not a long-term solution, nor a way to win an election, but I can certainly see how it can work in the short term. In any case, I thought it was a reasonably thought-provoking article.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Home, sweet home, where the wild orca roam

[Note: in the style of National Geographic, this is mostly a photo essay, with not a whole lot of connecting text. There are, however, no pictures of naked natives with plates in their lips. Sorry.]

As I briefly alluded to earlier, Christina and I recently went back to Seattle for a week and got a full dose of the good old Pacific Northwest:

We went to the weekly Farmer's Market [or, rather, one of the several Farmer's Markets] on Bainbridge Island, which was populated by the usual folks one finds at a Farmer's Market in the PNW: everybody was wearing the "Seattle Tuxedo" [fleece], a fellow was selling free-range cows [you had to buy a whole cow, and sign up a year in advance because, well, cows need time to grow ...], there were people selling art work that was heavy on orcas and wolves [never understood the wolf bit -- as far as I know, there aren't a whole lot of wolves in the PNW] etc. Christina got a few great shots of some of the flower bouquets that were on sale:
































Speaking of Bainbridge Island [which is where Christina's parents live], it reminded both of us of a Norman Rockwell painting, in terms of how "wholesome" it is -- it's a small community of about 20K people, the neighbors tend to know each other, it has great views of Mount Rainier, the Cascades and the Olympics, it's lushly wooded, very clean etc. In fact, it's so ideal that it was just voted the 2nd best place to live in the US by CNN. I guess it's a testament to how sensitized Christina and I have become to quality-of-life issues that we actually noticed this ourselves -- when we lived in Seattle, we didn't think nearly as highly of Bainbridge as we do now.

One of the tricky bits about trips like this is trying to see everybody you'd like to see -- there are always too many people and not enough time. Rather than go insane trying to set up individual dinners, lunches etc with people, we adopted a batch-oriented approach and asked everybody we wanted to see to meet us at a popular watering hole in Seattle called the Garage. That worked out reasonably well, even though a lot of people were out of town. It was very nice to hang out again with all our old friends in a relaxed atmosphere -- we fit right back in, almost as if no time had passed, even though some people had apparently managed to acquire a criminal record in the past year:


















Our visit to Seattle coincided with our 2nd wedding anniversary, which we celebrated by having a picnic on a Bainbridge beach, inscribing a symbol of our union on a log with raspberry juice and taking some goofy pictures:


























We spent a lot of time with family [on Christina's side, obviously], which was nice, especially since I don't get to see my side of the family very much [other than my brother's occasional forays up to Boston from Philly, which has been a benefit of moving to Boston ...]. Part of that time was spent trying to contain the boundless energy of Chloe, my [very cute] 6-year old niece; an easy way of getting her to sit still for a bit was to take pictures of her, so we did that, liberally:






























In more of the "this is what having kids is like" vein, we also got a full-on introduction to the rigors [and joys] of having 2 small kids when we visited our friends Lori and Paul, who have a 2-year old daughter [Claire] and a 4-month old son [William]. My only hope is that we'll build up the necessary endurance when we have to, because otherwise we're in trouble -- spending just a day with Lori and Paul, and not even having to do any of the childcare, left me exhausted. On the flip side, I can see why little moments, captured in pictures like these, can make it all worth it:




































Our visit with Lori and Paul also illustrated that, should we ever need to rebuild civilization after a nuclear holocaust, software engineers will not be very useful, because we're lost when it comes to mechanical things: after Paul [a former MS VP] and I spent about 45 minutes trying to put together a children's bicycle for our client [Chloe] according to the supplied specification and failed to convince her that a rear wheel and chain that stayed on the sprocket were an unnecessary feature, we finally told her that her project required skills that were beneath us, and was too low-margin, and that she should outsource it to the local bike shop:













Other highlights from the trip include:

- going to check out our house and seeing that our renters are keeping it in immaculate shape
- getting to ride a motorcycle again, since our friends Geoffrey, Ted and Paul kindly allowed me to have a few zoom-zoom moments on their respective motorcycles
- great weather: Seattle rolled out the "welcome home" carpet for us, with 70-degree, non-humid, sunny weather for pretty much our entire trip

And that was pretty much our entire trip. The main take-away: we need to get back to Seattle ASAP [bet you weren't expecting that ;-)].

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

A picture worth a thousand words

Christina's post almost says it all. I'll have some more to say about our Seattle trip later, though.

MotoGP, baby

I just came back from watching the greatest motorcycle show on Earth [in my opinion]: the first MotoGP race in the US in over 10 years. A bit of explanation is probably in order for those of you who aren't motorcycle fiends: the MotoGP class is the Formula-1 of motorcycle racing -- the most advanced bikes, made from the trickest bits that factory money can buy, ridden by insane men at crazy speeds [210+ mph]. MotoGP events in Europe regularly draw crowds of over 50,000 people, especially in bike-crazy countries like Italy and Spain [it doesn't hurt that some of the top riders are Italian and Spanish ...]. There hasn't been a GP race in the US since 1994, for reasons that aren't entirely clear to me, but this year the sponsors, the people who own the series and racetrack managers etc finally managed to put together a deal that saw the MotoGP class come to Laguna Seca, California. I got to attend this festival of two-wheeled speed courtesy of my boy Brandon, as a birthday present.

We got to the track on Saturday just around the start of the first practice session for the MotoGP class, and I finally got to hear and see a MotoGP bike at full throttle. It is simply amazing how loud these things are; from the bit of motorcycle racing that I did as a hobby, I've developed a reasonable tolerance for the sound of superbikes [a class of bikes exemplified by bikes like this and that] at full throttle, but MotoGP machines make superbikes sound like a whisper. The noise pretty much had me reeling and I would have speedily put a large distance between myself and something that obnoxiously loud if I hadn't been glued to the spot, entranced by watching them whizz by. Eventually, the trance wore off, mostly because their practice session ended, and we wandered off to try to find me some earplugs. There were no earplugs to be found, but there was, of course, plenty of other overpriced merchandise, mostly T-shirts with fairly juvenile pictures and slogans on them, catering to the mostly young, male, entranced-by-fast-loud-shiny-things crowd [like me ;-)]. Now, I'm all for the occasional juvenile T-shirt [that's actually one of the tamer ones], but, c'mon, at least get your grammar right -- slogans like "Chick's with Slick's" made me want to grab the vendor by the collar and urge on them the necessity of figuring out the difference between the possessive and plural "s" ending.

On Sunday, we got a somewhat later start and ran smack into what happens when you have 50,000+ people trying to get to the same few square miles with only 3 access roads: insane traffic, starting a couple of miles from the track. After spending 45 minutes going 0.2 of a mile, we decided to just park the car and walk the rest of the way, something Brandon had suggested earlier. At the time he suggested it, though, we were at the bottom of a hill with a 16% slope, I'd just had breakfast and I really didn't feel like trying to keep up with a freshly-minted Ironman going up a hill of that sort, especially given my current lab-rat-somewhat-out-of-shape-man status. Once we got to the top of that hill, I was much more willing to entertain the idea and so we hoofed it the rest of the way [which turned out to be a huge timesaver both getting in and out after the race].

The first race was the Superstock race, which allowed me to fine-tune my picture taking. Here's what a freight train of bikes, just after the race start, looks like:














[click for bigger picture]

The Superstock race also gave us a front-row seat to a pretty spectacular crash: Tommy Hayden, the fellow on the green bike who is in second place in the picture above, did something a bit silly later in the race, ran out of racetrack in exactly the spot above, ended up running off the track and crashing. It was a grisly-looking crash -- the bike buried its front wheel in the sand and tossed him off and he ragdolled a good 30-40 yards, bouncing all over the place. In a true testament to the amount of punishment the human body can endure, however, all that happened was that he broke his hand [and raced again later in the afternoon. These boys are tough].

Further attesting to the fact that the MotoGP race was a big deal, celebrities started arriving during the lunch break, like this fellow:














[In case you can't tell, that's Brad Pitt.] His appearance provoked a lot of [male] conversations that went like this:

"Dude, Brad Pitt is here !"
"Did he bring Angelina Jolie with him ?"
"No, doesn't look like it ..."
"Then I don't really give a damn that he's here. Let me know if Angelina shows up ..."

Brad was, of course, being given the royal treatment, getting to meet all the MotoGP racers, something denied us mere mortals. This, in turn, led to to the general consensus that it'd be hilarious if he were to walk into Valentino Rossi's trailer unannounced and Valentino greeted him with "And who the f!ck are you ? Get out of my trailer !" [Valentino Rossi is the undisputed star of MotoGP -- he's 26, has won 6 world championships, has thoroughly dominated the premier class for the last 4 years, and does it all while being a merry prankster, often staging elaborate jokes after races, like riding around with an inflatable doll on the back of his bike. He's probably the single biggest reason for the current interest in MotoGP worldwide.]

Other, lesser, luminaries also showed up, including Matt Leblanc, Orlando Jones and Adrien Brody. Orlando Jones got to do something I'd pay a lot of money for, if I had any at the moment: ride [on the back of] a MotoGP bike. At each MotoGP race, assorted VIPs get to ride on the back of a Ducati GP bike that's been modified to be a 2-seater, ridden by Randy Mamola, a former GP racer, and this time, Orlando was one of the lucky ones. Watching Mamola ride, it was clear that he was taking it pretty easy -- not braking too hard, not really getting his knee down in the corner, not getting on the gas all the way etc. Even with all that, though, all three people who got a ride with him got off the bike and started jumping around and gesticulating like little children, with a huge grin on their faces. That's a feeling I can totally empathize with -- few things are as much fun as getting to go fast round corners on a motorcycle.

The MotoGP race finally got under way:









































It ended up being a decent race, though the outcome was never seriously in doubt: Nicky Hayden [the guy in the lead in the first picture], a young American rider [the younger brother of Tommy, the fellow who crashed earlier] had dominated the qualifying session, led from the first lap and was never seriously challenged for the lead. His win was a pretty momentous occasion, in some ways -- it was the first time in a looong time that an American had won a MotoGP race, it was Nicky's first MotoGP win, and it was at his "home" racetrack, at the first MotoGP race on American soil in a while. Needless to say, he was pretty damn happy about it.

And that, so to speak, was the 2005 Laguna Seca MotoGP event. Other random bits and pieces:

- If you ever have the chance to go to Salinas, CA: don't. It is a barren wasteland. The only food we were able to find was either fast food [ie Wendy's, Jack in the Box etc] or the next step above that, chain restaurant food [Applebee's, Outback etc]. Couple that with the general lack of vibrancy of the area and you have a place that doesn't have much going for it.
- If you ever go to one of these events, spring for the more expensive tickets. We had tickets that gave us access to something called the "Flagroom", which was a tent in which they served breakfast and lunch, had free drinks, places to sit and clean rest rooms nearby. These little things make a big difference when the alternative is having to compete with 50,000 other people for these sorts of amenities.
- Why do men take pictures with umbrella girls ? It's not like you can proudly show them to your significant other [at least not without wishing you hadn't] ... are they aiming for fond memories of "Hey, there's me with that girl whose -job- it was to take pictures with strange men and smile. I think she really liked me, though" ?
- MotoGP riders are really small. Like, 120-pounds-when-wet-and-wearing-all-their-gear small. You'd think with a machine that puts out 220 hp and weighs about 300 lbs, weight wouldn't be that big an issue, but I guess every little bit counts.
- The racing world is reasonably small. Even in the insane mass of people, we managed to run into several people we knew from the racing/motorcycle scene in Seattle.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

The evil that men do ... can work out pretty well.

In keeping with the current spike of interest in Africa, the German magazine "Der Spiegel" has an article [in English] on the subject of aid to Africa which points out some of the problems with just throwing money at the problem and hoping it'll go away. Interesting read overall.

The article ends with a little bit about the fact that Bill Gates' charitable organization demands that projects they're funding show results or they stop the cash flow [something that's usually missing from other aid projects], which made me think of something else: suppose we accept, for the sake of argument, that Bill's money is ill-gotten, the result of [illegally] crushing little companies [which I personally don't believe is the case]. I'd argue that, given what he's doing with it through the Gates Foundation, that money is being better spent than it would otherwise have been. Personally, I'd rather have $1.5 billion dollars spent on research into infectious diseases than have a few more Silicon Valley millionaires running around gushing about their latest streaming-video-blog-podcasting-social-networking software start-up that's, you know, going to totally change the world ... for about 3 weeks. Getting that kind of money pumped into medical research, by somebody who is serious about demanding results for it, is worth a few steam-rolled [browser ...] companies in my opinion.

You could, of course, argue that Bill would probably have had that kind of money to give away even without killing off so many competing companies. While that is probably true, my bigger point, reinforced by hyperbole ;-), is that the folks who think Bill is evil aren't taking into account all the good he's doing in areas outside technology. Given the way he's going, I think he's on his way to becoming something to global health like what Howard Hughes and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute have been/continue to be to biological research, namely a huge enabler. That may well end up being a much more enduring and important legacy than "The 'Soft".

[This message has been brought to you by the "Shills for Bill" program, and lack of sleep. Thank you for tuning in.]

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

The next frontier in spam: pseudo-science

Well, it had to happen sometime -- after various entreaties for me to "get in t0uch w1th h0t wet teens waiting for U !", "l0w3r ur mortgage !", "get BIGGER !" and supply my bank account so an ex-minister in the Nigerian government can transfer $18.5 million into it, the spammers have discovered my vice -- science. How else can you explain this email, which landed in my inbox, and that of a few hundred other MIT folks [judging from the To: list]:

Subject: Perpetual Motion Machine

My name is [omitted] and I was wondering, if Gravity is a constant and pulls things down, and Capillary Action is also a constant and pulls things up...can we create a machine that would harness these forces? If so, then the machine would by default be a perpetual machine.
In an enclosed, vacuumed Plexiglas container...a liquid would be used to rotate a generator as it falls. And either capillary tubes or fibers would carry the liquid back up to a retainer pool that would discharge the liquid and repeat the cycle. I realize that one drop of water does not make an ocean, but enough drops over time would. If we use nanotechnology to miniaturize these machines, the compounded effect would have potential.
The United States Patent Office forbids granting a patent to a Perpetual Motion Machine, because you can not get something out of nothing. But since the two forces already exist, all we would be doing is harnessing them. I would then call it the GRAVITY HARNESSING MACHINE.
If you could cut all the trees of the world and put the sap in a pool, it would be a big pool. And if all that sap traveled up the trees against gravity, then the trees are already gravity harnessing machines.I just want to generate electricity using the scheme that nature already uses.Please let me know what you think about this

Thank You

I guess, strictly speaking, this fellow isn't a spammer, since he actually used a real email address, which links him to the Helene Fuld College of Nursing. They might want to reconsider their admission policy -- anybody who thinks that you can get around the laws of nature by simply saying "No, it's not a perpetual motion machine, it's a GRAVITY HARNESSING MACHINE, so it'll work" probably has a pretty cavalier relationship to science and is not somebody who should be let loose in a hospital. Scenarios along the lines of "No, it's not an infectious bacterium that can kill you, it's a NANOTECHNOLOGICAL GLUCOSE-CONSUMING MACHINE that will make you as strong as the Hulk!" come to mind.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Science FAQ

As part of Science magazine's 125th anniversary, they have a [free] news feature that is going to be looking at the "125 big questions that face scientific inquiry over the next quarter century". The top 25 questions are up, together with short essays on each of them. What struck me most about the questions is that only about 10 of them are in the non-biological sciences, like chemistry, physics, astronomy and geology etc; the rest are all questions about biology. That's a huge preponderance of biological questions, relative to the other sciences.

I wonder whether that's due to the fact that many other sciences may have reached the "good enough/don't care" state, as in "Our knowledge here is good enough that the average person doesn't care about most of the research going on in it". My impression is that it's a lot easier to convince a random person you meet on the street that research in aging/immunology/consciousness/just about anything in biology is important than it is to convince them of the importance of research in physics, or astronomy etc [even if that's only because biologists can always pull out the "... and this could lead us towards a cure for cancer/cellulite/your-favorite-disease-or-problem" argument on just about any research topic ...]. The immediate, every-day impact just isn't quite the same. While you may argue that research directions should not be determined by Joe Q. Public's desires [a sentiment I agree with, for the most part], I think it's inevitable that those desires will start to play a larger and larger role, especially as some sciences get to the point where it becomes harder and harder to articulate the practical benefits of their cutting-edge research. Ultimately, politicians control a lot of the purse strings, and since they're generally not scientists and need to satisfy their constituents, their viewpoint will have a lot in common with that of Joe Q. Public, leading to further pressure towards short-term/immediate-impact work.