January 31, 2009
Crowdsourcing to Africa
It's a high honor to be slashdotted, so congrats to my friend and colleague Nathan for being featured yesterday:
Technology Review has an article about a startup that wants to build a business out of crowd-sourcing the developing world. The company, called txteagle, seems to be interested mainly in using local knowledge to translate information into less common languages. The Finnish cell-phone company Nokia is a partner in the project, and CEO Nathan Eagle says that it provides a good example of a Western company that could benefit from txteagle workers. Eagle explains that Nokia is interested in 'software localization,' or translating its software for specific regions of a country. 'In Kenya, there are over 60 unique, fundamentally different languages,' he says. 'You're lucky to get a phone with a Swahili interface, but even that might be somebody's third language. Nokia would love to have phones for everyone's mother tongues, but it has no idea how to translate words like "address book" into all of these languages.'
Nathan and I have chatted several times about txteagle. The basic idea is similar to Amazon's Mechanical Turk, but rather than crowdsource any task to anyone with a computer, txteagle is focused on simple tasks that can be done on a cell phone. The tasks will still be those that require a human-style intelligence (that is, a task like image recognition or language translation that requires semantic knowledge of human culture and preferences), but being able to do them on a mobile phone limits their complexity to some degree.
January 30, 2009
Running the Numbers
Running the Numbers looks at contemporary American culture through the austere lens of statistics. Each image portrays a specific quantity of something: fifteen million sheets of office paper (five minutes of paper use); 106,000 aluminum cans (thirty seconds of can consumption) and so on. My hope is that images representing these quantities might have a different effect than the raw numbers alone, such as we find daily in articles and books. Statistics can feel abstract and anesthetizing, making it difficult to connect with and make meaning of 3.6 million SUV sales in one year, for example, or 2.3 million Americans in prison, or 32,000 breast augmentation surgeries in the U.S. every month.
This project visually examines these vast and bizarre measures of our society, in large intricately detailed prints assembled from thousands of smaller photographs. Employing themes such as the near versus the far, and the one versus the many, I hope to raise some questions about the roles and responsibililties of the individual in a society that is increasingly enormous, incomprehensible, and overwhelming.
~chris jordan, Seattle, 2008
Here's the piece entitled "Plastic Cups, 2008":
Depicts one million plastic cups, the number used on airline flights in the US every six hours.
Tip to Sabine.
January 28, 2009
This reminds me of a frustrating conversation I once had with a gentleman on an airplane. He was convinced by the obnoxiously popular idea that everything happens for a reason, and believed that there was no such thing as a coincidence. Unsurprisingly, he was extremely delighted when he discovered, after we'd been chatting for 10 minutes or so inside the terminal, that our seats on the plane were directly across the aisle from each other.
I also like the fact that this video (around 4:20) quotes and discusses The Infinite Monkey Theorem and the results of an experiment conducted in England to test what actually happens when Macaque monkeys are given typewriters. I like this fact because a print out of the corresponding Wikipedia page (which the narrator in the video has clearly read) has been posted on my office door for over a year now, with the results of the experiment highlighted. Coincidentally, my current office mate studies Macaque monkeys, although sadly she was not involved in the experiment.
January 26, 2009
The right place for science
Dennis Overbye has a very nice little essay in the Science Times this week on the restoration of science to its rightful place in society, and on the common themes that make both science and democracy function. Here's a blurb:
Science is not a monument of received Truth but something that people do to look for truth.
That endeavor, which has transformed the world in the last few centuries, does indeed teach values. Those values, among others, are honesty, doubt, respect for evidence, openness, accountability and tolerance and indeed hunger for opposing points of view. These are the unabashedly pragmatic working principles that guide the buzzing, testing, poking, probing, argumentative, gossiping, gadgety, joking, dreaming and tendentious cloud of activity — the writer and biologist Lewis Thomas once likened it to an anthill — that is slowly and thoroughly penetrating every nook and cranny of the world.
Nobody appeared in a cloud of smoke and taught scientists these virtues. This behavior simply evolved because it worked.
This sounds pretty good, doesn't it? And I think it's basically true (although not necessarily in the way we might naively expect) that aspects of science are pervading almost every part of modern life and thought. One thing that I've found particularly bizarre in recent years is the media's promotion of words like "Why" and "How" to a pole position in their headlines. For instance, Time Magazine now routinely blasts "How such and such happens" across its front page, suggesting that within its pages, definitive answers for the mysteries of life will be revealed. To me, this apes the way scientists often talk, and capitalizes on society's susceptibility to that kind of language. If science weren't such a dominant force in our society, this kind of tactic would surely not sell magazines...
January 20, 2009
At the risk of sounding understated, today's events were very exciting. Congratulations President Obama!
January 16, 2009
January 07, 2009
Carl Zimmer is one of my favorite science writers. And while I was in the Peruvian Amazon over the holidays, I enjoyed reading his book on parasites Parasite Rex. This way, if I managed to pick up malaria while I was there, at least I'd now know what a beautifully well adapted parasite I would have swimming in my veins.
But this post isn't about parasites, or even about Carl Zimmer. It's about hijacking bacteria to do things we humans care about. Zimmer's most recent book Microcosm is about E. coli and the things that scientists have learned about how cells work (and thus all of biology). And one of the things we've learned is how to manipulate E. coli to manufacture proteins or other molecules desired by humans. For science, this kind of reprogramming is incredibly useful and allows a skilled scientist to probe the inner workings of the cell even more deeply. This potential helped the idea gain the label "breakthrough of the year" in the last issue in 2008 of Science magazine.
This idea of engineering bacteria to do useful things for humanity, of course, is not a new one. I first encountered it almost 20 years ago in John Brunner's 1968 novel Stand on Zanzibar in a scene where a secret agent, standing over the inflatable rubber raft he just used to surreptitiously enter a foreign country, empties a vial of bacterium onto the raft that is specially engineering to eat the rubber. As visions of the future go, this kind of vision, in which humans use biology to perform magic-like feats, is in stark contrast to the future envisioned by Isaac Asimov's short stories on robots. Asimov foresaw a world dominated by, basically, advanced mechanical engineering. His robots were made of metal and other inorganic materials and humanity performed magic-like feats by understanding physics and computation.
Which is the more likely future? Both, I'd say, but in some respects, I think there's greater potential in the biological one and there are already people who are making that future a reality. Enter our favorite biological hacker Craig Venter. Zimmer writes in a piece (here) for Yale Environment 360 about Venter's efforts to new apply his interest in reprogramming bacteria in the direction of mass-producing alternative fuels.
The idea is to take ordinary bacteria and their cellular machinery for producing organic molecules (perhaps even simple hydrocarbons), and reprogram or augment them with new metabolic pathways that convert cheap and abundant organic material (sugar, sewage, whatever) into fuel like gasoline or diesel. That is, we would use most of the highly precise and relatively efficient machinery that evolution has produced to accomplish other tasks, and adapt it slightly for human purposes. The ideal result from this kind of technology would be to take photosynthetic organisms, such as algae, and have them suck CO2 and H2O out of the atmosphere to directly produce fuel. (As opposed to use other photosynthetic organisms like corn or sugarcane to produce an intermediate than can be eventually converted into fuel, as is the case for ethanol.) This would essentially use solar power to drive in reverse the chemical reactions that run the internal combustion engine, and would have effectively zero CO2 emissions. In fact, this direct approach to synthesizing biofuels using microbes is exactly what Venter is now doing.
The devil, of course, is in the details. If these microbe-based methods end up being anything like current methods of producing ethanol for fuel, they could end up being worse for the environment than fossil fuels. And there's also some concern about what might happen if these human-altered microbes escaped into the wild (just as there's concern about genetically modified food stocks jumping into wild populations). That being said, I doubt there's much to be worried about on that point. Wild populations have very different evolutionary pressures than domesticated stocks do, and evolution is likely to weed out human-inserted genes unless they're actually useful in the wild. For instance, cows are the product of a long chain of human-guided evolution and are completely dependent on humans for their survival now. If humans were to disappear, cows would not last long in the wild. Similarly, humans have, for a very long time now, already been using genetically-altered microbes to produce something we like, i.e., yogurt, without much danger to wild populations.
From microbe-based synthesis of useful materials, it's a short jump to microbe-mediated degradation of materials. Here, I recall an intriguing story about a high school student's science project that yielded some promising results for evolving (through human-guided selection) a bacteria that eats certain kinds of plastic. Maybe we're not actually that far from realizing certain parts of Brunner's vision for the future. Who knows what reprogramming will let us do next?