Monday, October 29, 2012

The Bloodless Corpse

I knew that he was dead, tucked into a fetal position, stuffed under the instructor’s station at the front of room LAS 327.  I saw the tiny gray holes.  My spine chilled.  I left the room to call dispatch.  Later, the other patrollers in Safety thought I got out of the room because of the body, but it wasn’t that.  I knew that there was a vampire on campus. 

The medical examiner did not report the wounds – most likely for the same reason I did not mention them in my incident report.  The cause of death remained open. 

The school turned edgy, even in the daytime.  At night, people hurried to their cars in groups.

The sheriff lent us two deputies “to re-establish a sense of safety.”  Each walked halls during the day, and cruised the parking lots from 5:00 PM until 10:30 PM.  Our own patrols changed to a buddy system – at least in theory.  Typically, we hit the doors, split up, made our checklists, and met on the way out.  Some of the patrollers did not like it.  Long used to being on their own, they would take off and meet up a couple of buildings later.  It was all right with me.  I take a lot in stride at my age.  Campus safety patrol was the second job in the fourth career in 35 years.  The student’s death was hard– he looked like a nice kid – but I was not shocked.

What kept me awake was the vampire.  A man who does not believe in God cannot believe in the Devil.  I argued with myself, but no sophistry could contradict the observation.  That immutable empirical fact demanded its own logic.

After two weeks, campus life settled into a surreal imitation of itself.  Until someone was arrested and charged, we all waited for the next one.

When I saw her on the east third floor of the life sciences building, everything about her said “victim” – shoulders slightly dropped and pulled in, head down watching her shoes, backpack too heavy with books.  And she was being followed by Death.  The smell was not the pain of fetal pigs and dissected rats from the biology labs, or even cadavers from the biology core.  But it was.  It was in the air.  “Miss!” I called. “Miss!”  When she turned around, I knew that Death was inside her.  Her reptile stare lacked even the pleasure of a meal.  I wanted to be hers.  She was twenty feet away when I whispered, “Take me.” 

She flew to me in a stride, gripped me to her, her talons in my back, her hand grabbing my hair, pulling my head to bare my neck.  My hand leapt to my shirt pocket, yanked out the pencil and stabbed it into her heart, pressing the shaft home, my hand flat against her cold breast. 

Her eyes lit up with shock, then horror, … disbelief … hatred – and then release.  She died in my arms.  There was no blood.

Saturday, October 27, 2012


For most of the history of life sciences, major discoveries were made in labs less sophisticated than today’s kitchens … Laser meat thermometers. Handheld blenders. Microwave ovens. Ziploc bags. A steady supply of electricity, clean water, and refrigeration.

Biopunk: DIY Scientists Hack the Software of Life by Marcus Wohlsen (Current Penguin, 2011) does for the next generation of homebrew science what Steven Levy’s Hacker’s Heroes of the Computer Revolution did for the previous transformation from a world based on industrial manufacturing to one dependent on information services.  The next revolution will transform our inherited legacies into self-made potentials.
Book cover showing schematics of microscopic particles

Each of us is an individual.  Individualism is not an abstract political idea.  It is a biological fact.  The consequences of genetic individualism serve as one large motivator for many of the innovators and inventors spotlighted in this book.  Many of the biohackers who build labs in kitchens, closets, and garages, seek to get beyond the medicines for mass populations, to discover the origins of individual problems and find the one exactly right solution for that person. 

A point not made explicitly by Wohsen or Levy but fundamental to them both – and in reply to Pres. Barack Obama and Prof. Elizabeth Warren on the question of who built what: invention comes from individuals. Even with Wikipedia and Google, we do not share a collective mind.  Someone had to invent the shovel before “we” could build roads.  Not everyone employed in a government laboratory – or for a pharmaceutical firm – innovates invents, creates, or discovers.  As both Wohlsen and Levy demonstrate, those new ideas and processes come from outside the norm, beyond the expected, without approval or permission – or even funding. 

Biohacker Kay Aull’s father was found to have hemochromatosis: his body absorbs too much iron. It is a genetic defect. She carries the gene, also.  Kay Aull verified this by building her own laboratory test in her kitchen for under $100. 

Like the replication and mutation of DNA itself, Wohlsen tells the essentially the same story about very different people working in their own ways on problems they find interesting.  They hack processes on the cheap to replicates that for which industry and government laboratories pay catalog prices in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.  Meredith Patterson built her own “LavaAmp” thermocycler for polymerase chain reactions. J. Chris Anderson, Raymond McCauley, Anne Wojcicki, Linda Avery, Aubrey deGrey, Guido Nuñez-Mujica, and a dozen others have their own hacks, their own missions.

And they rely on commercial labs as needed.  In fact, the wet lab as a marketable service is one aspect of this new revolution.  In addition, the biohackers have conferences and meet-ups of their own, while they also attend mainstream events.  Many have advanced university degrees; some dropped out of college to pursue biohacking.  Many of them know each other, just as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs crossed paths in Albuquerque. 

This is a global phenomenon.  Wohlsen tells of the cotton farmers of the Gujarat state of India who arguably captured and then remarketed a Monsanto product, Bt Cotton, now known variously as BesT Cotton, Navbharat 151, etc.  Moore’s Law for computers found a generation every 18 months.  Biology trims a few months off of that. 

Biohackers also eschew the secrecy that surrounds genetics research.  Billions of dollars are at stake.  Competition is fierce.  Corporations have every incentive to keep their knowledge base proprietary, secret, and then when announced, locked in patents.  But this retards progress.  Despite the claim that patents “promote the Progress of Science and the useful Arts” (Art. I. sec. 8. of the Constitution), the historical evidence is that openness works much better.  Biohackers share information.

You cannot have heroes without villains.  The bad guys hang out in the halls of Congress.  Bart Stupak represented northern Michigan which is still Paul Bunyan country; he is now retired and working as a lobbyist.  Stupak called frontline genetic research "snake oil."  Henry Waxman still speaks for Beverely Hills.  They led and lead the gang that would crush biohacking with new federal laws.  Those laws would prevent you from resequencing your own DNA to fix your own problems. 

Unfortunately – something of modern trend in books like this – the notes are in the back; and lack direct references such as numbers or asterisks in text, but are listed by page number and key phrase. 
This book is an excellent introduction to the open community of biopunks and gene hackers.  Wohlsen provides websites, citations, and other supporting documentation. If you are looking for a biohacker conference or website, or want to join a meet-up, this is a good overview of the culture, its arts and industries.

Disruptive Diagnostics and the Business of Science
Austin Biobash November 2012
Austin Biobash February 2013
Bob Swanson and Genentech
Fertile Hybrids Challenge Darwin

Saturday, October 20, 2012

She's Such a Geek!

“What does it feel like to be a female in a male-dominated industry? I have nothing to compare the experience to, having never been a female in a female-dominated industry or a male in any industry at all.” – Devin Kyle Grayson.

She’s Such a Geek! Women Write About Science, Technology, & Other Nerdy Stuff, edited by Annalee Newitz and Charlie Anders (Seal Press, Avalon Publishing, 2006) delivers 24 autobiographical vignettes about growing up, working, and living as a woman noted for, and often defined by, her relationship to one or more STEM studies: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.  The editors (who also contributed) selected these stories from among 200 entries. 
Annalee Newitz and Charlie Anders, editors.

The editors note that in 2001, “56% of bachelor degrees in science and engineering went to women, but women hold only 25 percent of jobs in science and engineering. More women than men are graduating in the sciences but a hostile job market and chilly graduate programs are keeping them from achieving their goals.” 

That correlates well with blind studies reported on this blog, October 2  showing that in university science laboratories, even women managers discriminate against women applicants.  Moreover the male attitudes that have not changed include a deeper problem of condescension, the old-fashioned gentleman’s insistence on protecting a woman from physical work and physical risk.  (“The Dress,” by Diana Husmann.)

Nonetheless, the plural of anecdote is not data; and the plurality of anecdotes here may call the data into question.  Each story is unique.  Draw your own generalizations. 

For myself, I see that the private sector rewards what the university does not. (See “The Making of a Synchotron Geek,” by Corie Ralston, and “Suzy the Computer versus Dr. Sexy,” by Suzanne E. Franks, and “Geek Interrupted” by Jean Shreve.)  Small universities and liberal arts colleges appreciate what Big Name Research Institutions do not.  (“Professor in a Circuit Board Corset,” by Ellen Speritus.)  Life often takes you places you did not imagine when your focus was on the SATs.  (“Job Security,” by Kirsten Abkemeier, “Universe: the Sequel,” by Aomaya Shields, and “All Our Boys go to the IT Industry in America,” by Roopa Ramamoorthi.) 

Yet within each of these 24 narratives are many more commonalities and differences, any of which could be used to draw thin conclusions or question broad generalizations.  That, to me, is the ultimate lesson here: statistics about populations hide the realities of individuals.  

Be that as it may, within the complex array is a core reality: “Females have made up nearly half of the science classes I’ve taken ever since [high school], right up through graduate school.” But although 40% of her peers are women only two of the grads and post docs who deliver seminars are women. “Here’s what really made me feel awful: I didn’t notice this lack of women speakers for over a year. … If I’ve interacted with women working in science across the world, across cultures, and religions, how could I fail to notice their absence right here at home?”   The answer(s) might be highly nuanced.

My wife is not the girl I married.
This story opens with her on vacation with family friends for her thirtieth birthday. They ask about her work. (Doctorate studying nucleosomal proteins).  They ask if she has a boyfriend. (No.) “It’s because you’re too smart.” (“Sex and the Single (Woman) Biologist,” Nina Simone Dudnik.)  Of course, this theme repeats in several other stories: boys don’t like girls who are too smart; or the ones who do are other nerds in engineering; sometimes even they do not.  Even so, this cannot unify all of the narratives because several of the women are lesbians; and others simply are not challenged or perplexed by their relationships with men - whether professional or romantic (or both).

Four biographies come under the rubric "Geek Interrupted" including an eponymous entry by Jean Shreve.  Here, too, is a core reality that cannot explain more.  Kristin Abkemeier's passion for art granted higher status to her physics until she worked for a dysfunctional company that ultimately (as we say) "extended her opportunities."  She closes with this: "As I sat down and began my own drawing, I smiled. I'd seen these shapes before in many physics problems I'd solved. their symmetries representing repeating cells or wires or atomic nuclei.  But today, those shapes were the building blocks of my new life as an artist."  (Actually, in that, she is not alone.  Several others in this anthology also embrace fine arts.)  Elizabeth Severson drew an undergraduate advisor who did not help her plan for graduate school and from the subtext Severson had some other problems.  The final tally finds her at an insurance company.  "I'll always be a math geek because I'll always be proud of what I learned and excited to learn more,  and I'll always want to share that pride and excitement with anyone who'll stand still long enough to listen."  Aomawa Shields was on a trajectory for a doctorate in astronomy until she hit a neutron star of a professor who told her that she should consider another career... which she did... and then by another path, she returned to blend in her passion for acting and skills with computers to work at the Spitzer Space Telescope.

The last seven sketches come from the far side of STEM and the mainstream of nerd: gaming and comics.  Perhaps even more than the others, these offer multidimensional projections of gifted, talented, and motivated (read:  driven) people. 

Quinn Norton (“Dreaming in Unison”) discovered that sleeping with several members of her guild only gave them all a reason to ask her to leave.  But she found a LARP (live action role playing) club.  As “Chaot” the vampire, running the streets, she thought she heard her playmates.  She climbed a tree to a second story garage where two families stood by their cars, children running about while the grown-ups reviewed the movie from which they had just come.  She leapt the barrier.
“I, in all my weirdness, appeared out of nowhere and walked quickly by them.   The parents never noticed me, but the kids did. They looked at where I’d come from, and then at me. They crouched closer to their parents and clutched one another. I looked over at them, opened my eyes wide, and gave them a slightly snarled smile.
“They followed me with their eyes as I walked down the stairs. They never saw Quinn; they never even saw Quinn playing Chaot.  All they ever saw or knew was Chaot, mad vampire, coming from and going to nowhere.  With a mysterious grin, Chaot had given the lie to the boring world their parents described, where everything stays the same in the dark as it does in the light.”

Friday, October 12, 2012

Money is Speech

For over 2000 years, money has been a medium – sometimes the medium – of communication, especially political speech.  The German Democratic Republic honored Karl Marx on its 100 DM notes from 1971 until 1990.  On the other hand, the privately-owned Clydesdale Bank of Scotland issued a ₤50 note celebrating Adam Smith. 
In Bahrain, the half-dinar coins featuring the Pearl Monument have disappeared from circulation, as the government denies repression of dissidents.
Bahraini Half-Dinar (
In the Roman republic and empire, coins were common instruments of communication.  Julius Caesar boosted his political career by advertising his priesthood on the coins he and his allies issued.  The “Ides of March” denarius of Caesar’s assassin, Marcus Junius Brutus, is highly sought at auction today.  Over 2000 years ago, money was political speech in a life and death struggle for power.

Ides of March Denarius. Harlan J. Berk. Wildwinds.
The coins and paper of the American colonies, states, and central governments carried a host of political messages, from “Mind Your Business” to “We Are One.” 
In the 1790s, British merchants met the need for small change with an astronomical array of tokens.  They advertised their shops, touted their towns and made bold political statements.

  In 1794, the shoemaker, Thomas Hardy, was the secretary to the London Corresponding Society.  His outspoken support for the French Revolution – including his association with a play called "La Guillotine: or, George’s Head" brought him from his shop at 161 Fleet Street to Old Bailey Prison on charges of sedition.  He was acquitted by his peers; and his lawyers struck a token to celebrate their skill and his good fortune.  Today, it is catalogued as Dalton and Hamer Middlesex 204, and you can own one in uncirculated grade for about $150. 
Much Gratitude Brings Servitude
We Were Born Free and Will Never Be Slaves
Another British merchant token from the same time showed a spaniel: “Gratitude brings servitude,” it warns. We were born free and will not be slaves.”
            The abolition of slavery was one of the many topics in the popular series of “Hard Times Tokens” from the Jacksonian Era.  “Am I not a Man and a Brother” was first a British merchant token and then it and “Am I not a Woman and a Sister” were remade as American tokens. Other partisans heralded or lampooned Jackson – bluntly cartooned as a jackass – Webster, Van Buren, and Benton.  Such tokens are easiest to find in circulated grades because for ten years they were passed from hand to hand in daily commerce. 
            Civil War tokens fall into two broad categories: store cards and politicals.  These private issues filled a gap in commerce and carried strong messages.  Perhaps the most famous political token of the Civil War shows an American flag: “If anyone dares to tear it down, shoot him on the spot” 
That American federal government money now carries the message, “In God We Trust” comes from this same period.  It appeared first on the two-cent coins of 1863, then, on the Silver Certificates of 1954, as a thrust against the godless communists of the USSR.  Among the other political messages on our coins today are Liberty and E Pluribus Unum, with a slew of others courtesy of the 50 State Quarter Program.  Any denomination of current American paper money carries about 20 different phrases, sentences, and word sets.
Stored-value electronic card with non-political message
For over 30 years, privately-issued silver art bars have broadcast a wide array of political messages, starting with Watergate and continuing to the Clinton Impeachment and current war the on terrorism. 
According to University of Texas scholar, Denise Schmandt-Besserat, writing evolved from the use of clay tokens to keep track of livestock, beer, and other farm goods.  The tokens go back to 7500 BCE.  Eventually, the tokens were impressed on clay containers into which the tokens themselves were stored.  Cuneiform writing evolved about 3500 BCE from these symbols.  The oldest known writing on clay tablets are inventory lists and promises to pay.  The oldest known epic, the Gilgamesh, is dated to 1000 years later.  All of this is explained in How Writing Came About by Denise Schmandt-Besserat, which can be ordered from the University of Texas Press for less than $20. 

The Bank of England also commemorated Adam Smith on a ₤20 issue.  Founded in 1694, the Bank was nationalized in 1946, but achieved nominal independence in 1997.  Its governors and directors are appointed by the crown, making it much like the American Federal Reserve, a nominally private entity with close government supervision.  What would Adam Smith or Karl Marx have said about that?

Accounting for Civilization  (Babylonian clay tokens and the origin of writing)
Debt: the seed of civilization (Further reflections on accounting)
When Writing Met Art (The structure of contracts ordered the narrative of art.)

Capitalist Culture (The business of coffee in Cairo 1600 AD)
Workers' Paradise Promised an End to Money (May Day!)
Valentine's Day: Love and Money (Contraceptives and Heart Shapes)

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The 1% are the Atlases

The disappearance of the middle class is a direct consequence of failed economic policies enforced by bad laws.  Regulations (first) and taxes (second) destroyed the manufacturing industries. Desperate for productivity, firms seek and reward the best managers.  But they cannot work miracles.

America moved forward on information technology.  Computering is wholly unregulated, though the incomes are taxed.  But computers are only one sector.  Genetics is stalled.  Spaceflight is marginal.  Robotics is stuck.

Just like physics, to the extent that economics actually describes reality, the facts cannot be evaded without consequence.  Machinery needs motive power. Engines need fuel.  Friction must be reduced and worn parts must be replaced by preventive maintenance.  Most of all, no engine design solves all problems.  Therefore, innovation and invention – innovators and inventors - are the prime movers.  To pretend otherwise is to beg for disaster, which is where we are headed.

On the nearly-free enterprise blog, OrgTheory, from almost-rational sociologists, is a current topic spinning nonsense about the “income gap” caused by the salaries of top managers.  Idiocy is easy to find, for instance, at Huffington Post (which, in fact, delivers the marketable facts of your session to its parent AOL, a ironic and just consequence, like profits on Che Guevara t-shirts).  I single out OrgTheory because they usually exemplify good thinking about new ideas in sociology.  But sociology never shrugged off its Marxist chains.  So, sociologists labor under a burden of false assumptions and wrongful conclusions.  

The problem is not that top salaries have increased, but that the middle class has disappeared into the working poor. They were crushed by the regulations and taxes that destroyed the businesses that employed them – and made impossible other new firms offering inventions, innovations, creations, and developments which never happened. 

The Congressional Budget Office statistics are unarguable. The top quintile earns 50% of the income and pays nearly 70% of the taxes.  The broad middle class – 60% of the workers in quintiles 2, 3, and 4 – earn only 45% of the gross income and pay only 33% of the taxes., with the 4th quintile accounting for more than the lower two. The top 1% earns 15% of all incomes and pays almost 30% (28.9%) of all federal taxes.  The richest carry twice their fair share.

We are killing the goose that lays the golden eggs.

The wealthy have proved that they are accomplished at creating and managing wealth.  We know that the government is neither.  The government does not create wealth. The government does not manage wealth.  Those are not its purposes.  If it has any function at all, government is defensive and remediatory: we look to power for justice and protection.  Even “infrastructure” is not its purpose.  President Obama pointed to highways when he told innovators and creators, “you did not build that.”  But like Bastiat’s broken window, the highways are only visible events that mask the unseen.  When the highways were built, cell phones and the internet were possible.  But AT&T was the “Ma Bell” monopoly.  Car phones were exotic luxuries; even answering machines were rare.  Private highways – the Lincoln Highway; the Dixie Highway – were created; tollroads and turnpikes did exist.  Then taxways called “freeways” prevented innovation in public transportation.  The construction of the superhighways – and the support they gave to the automotive industry – actually derailed innovation and invention by draining capital into less productive channels.

The American government invested monumental resources in a cold war against a hollow empire that never knew a successful harvest.  Every jet fighter, bomber, missile, and submarine represented one more utopian promise from 1900 never to be fulfilled.  Public education Kindergarten through College still consists of one person lecturing to a passive array of listeners – and we wonder why it failed. We speak of “cancer” the way 19th century people did of “miasma” and “consumption.” Meanwhile latter age neo-primitives protest for laws against genetically-modified plants and animals. We do not fly to work in personal aircars, vacation on the Moon, or transship freight from highspeed rail to dirigible airships.  The missing innovations were the unseens of Bastiat’s unbroken windows.  

From the vantage point of the Wright Brothers, Robert Goddard, Thomas Edison and Nicola Tesla – or Jules Verne and H. G. Wells – we should be colonizing the asteroids by now, enjoying median IQs of 150, and inventing new art forms for 3-D displays.  Instead, we still wear colored glasses like they did in 1955 to watch remakes of 1955 cinemas, because engines of innovation and invention were stopped by the sands and sugars of regulation and taxation.

The wealth of the 1% came from the computer revolution.  It was the only sector of the economy not regulated because its very nature literally mystified the legislators.  They could not regulate what they could not understand, gratefully.  With Moore’s law racing ahead of all the other laws, computering is the only train on the track.

Make no mistake: it was not Al Gore or even his science advisor Dr. Michael Nelson who built the Internet.  It was hackers and hobbyists who built the first consumer modems and wrote the cyclic redundancy check programs for them to let ordinary people in their homes use the voice-grade landlines while the government-backed AT&T Bell monopoly wanted to charge “business rates” for data grade lines.  As BBSes were spreading, local Bell operating companies were lobbying for laws against them, seeking government-sanctioned permission to offer the only dial-up information services.  That did not happen.  They did not build that.  And we have some thin blanket of prosperity against the chill of regulation and taxation.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

You Only Have to be Better to be Equal

She’s Such a Geek: Women Write about Science, Technology, and other Nerdy  Stuff, Annalee Newitz and Charlie Anders, eds., (Seal Press, 2006) is an anthology of autobiographical vignettes.  In each, you meet a woman.  Some are introduced as girls.  One enters when she was a man.  Overall, each found fun, validation, achievement, intellectual challenge and social challenge in her attraction for science, technology, engineering or mathematics.  Generalizations are not easy.  These are 24 insightful essays from a field of over 200 entries.  As a guy myself, I do not get much chance to spend all the time I want with two dozen female nerds.  This is highly recommended.

Over on Prof. Mark Perry’s blog, Carpe Diem (now with the American Enterprise Institute) are numbers about the huge gender gap in the SATs, the Scholastic Aptitude Tests that figure so largely in college admissions.  The reality of the gap is unarguable. So are the social policy implications.  On the almost-free market blog, OrgTheory, is a link about gender bias in science research hiring.  Even women who head labs preferentially hire and pay men in excess of women with equal qualifications. 

The full depth and breadth of prejudices active in our society is astonishing and disappointing.  While Asians tend to score higher on SATs than Caucasians, they need to: the averages are that an Asian needs to be 140 points higher to get into the same college program as a non-Asian.  The fear is that we will have “too many” in college, as 100 years ago Ivy League WASPS worried about having too many Jews and limited their enrollment, despite their qualifications.
 After California forbade state universities to consider race in admissions, the percentage of Asian students at the University of California at Berkeley rose from 37 percent to 44 percent. At the California Institute of Technology, which similarly doesn't look at race, more than one-third of students are Asian.

Asian-American students who enrolled at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina in 2001 and 2002 scored 1457 out of 1600 on the math and reading portion of the SAT, compared to 1416 for whites, 1347 for Hispanics and 1275 for blacks, according to a 2011 study co-authored by Duke economist Peter Arcidiacono. Read here: Asians are the New Jews

Incidentally, SAT scores are at a 40-year low.  (Washington Post here.) But do not blame public education.  Soviet agriculture almost worked.  Maybe this experiment just needs to run a little longer, too… 

The widest policy implication is that our culture is collectivized to the point where individual achievement is difficult to perceive.  Should we adopt numbers in place of names?