Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Heroes don't exist.

I am of the opinion that the word hero is grossly over used. As evidence to support my idea, I offer this:

A bunch of people of the street gazing off into the distance, being billed as "our heroes" when all they've actually done is been lucky enough to land themselves a role on a TV game show that takes them around the world performing takes a distracted bonobo could probably accomplish with ease. If your society is attempting to call these people heroes then the word has been so devalued as to be meaningless. 

We have sporting heroes. In New Zealand, the All Blacks are regularly billed as sporting heroes.  What have they done to achieve this lofty pinnacle? They have worked hard to gain the opportunity to be played large amounts of money so that other people with more money can sell the spectacle and make some more money. That's all it is, selling the spectacle. We are sold heroes and as soon as we have bought one, another is rolled out to tempt us into buying that one as well.

Business heroes, sporting heroes, community heroes. The list goes on. Some of these people (probably not the business heroes) are undoubtedly worthy of respect for the hard work they put in and the good work that they do for the community. In the case of those who win renown saving the lives of their comrades on the battlefield in times of war or those who endanger their own lives in save others in times of disaster, heroic actions are no doubt performed. 

I don't believe heroic acts make the hero though. To declare someone a hero is to blind yourself to their flaws. And if they're human, they have flaws. Richard Feynman, world renowned physicist, Nobel prize winner, hero of physics, casual (and quite horrible sometimes) sexist1. We've had cricketing "heroes" that have been roundly condemned in the media for their off field behaviour.

Heroes are made to be looked up to, to exhibit behaviour that we can aspire to. Which is easy enough to do when you look at a single, specific behaviour of someone who has put themselves in harms way for the betterment of their fellows or excelled in some noble endeavour. Or it can be impossible to do as in the case of the heroes from the amazing race. The idea that we are going to find someone who is universally laudable in all aspects of their behaviour though, is ridiculous.

So the only place that we can find true heroes are in works of fiction. Only in fiction were all aspects of a person that aren't described don't exist. It is only in fiction where all the flaws can be removed. 

Then again, maybe I've just read to many comic books.

1. Yes there are arguments about context, i.e. his behaviour wasn't necessarily out of the ordinary for any men at the time. Doesn't mean it wasn't awful though. 

Monday, March 17, 2014

Things change.

Last night twitter delivered to me this gem : Inside The Barista Class. It's worth a read, especially for those of us who have spent some time in hospo. Near the end, it begins to talk of the relationship between hospo staff and the customers. Or rather, of the interactions between hospo staff and hospo staff and between hospo staff and various groups of customers.When the neighborhood is still rough around the edges it feels like there is a certain amount of camaraderie amongst the staff and the customers - everyone's broke, everyone is trying to get something to work, somehow. 

Rarely spoken aloud, the tendency of Greenpoint’s service class to take care of its own was one of the only outright gestures of solidarity I witnessed, the only place where a distinction was made between the server and the served
Checks for Negronis, artisanal spicy pickles, hand-roasted coffee beans, and sometimes entire locally sourced meals disappeared with a wink and a nudge reminiscent of Fight Club’s ominous waiter scene.  
I've experienced that feeling of community, something I am immensely grateful form, but as a customer and a staff member. Strangely enough it makes me wary of being overly friendly with staff of somewhere that I'm newly venturing to I think.

As the neighborhood transitions and you get new types of customers slowly appearing, things change though. I used to live, many years ago in Shoreditch in London. At the time everyone thought it was in the process of gentrification. Even then though it took me a while to figure out that the backfiring car that I heard at least once a week were actually gunshots. Last year I got the opportunity to have a wander through the old neighborhood 10 years on. It was recognizable in terms of physical structure, they way that it felt though was just ... worlds apart. The area had become affluent.

There are some who are making similar observations. In my absence the area rose as an area of start-ups bringing with them new and crazy ideas. The writer, Cory Doctorow, I think gets it right when he describes start-ups, the ideas are crazy and most of them fail, those that don't often succeeding not because of their original idea but because they've learnt something from the failure of their first idea and come up with something new. The new Shoreditch started out as a churn of ideas and people some of which ended up succeeding, most of which didn't. As it became successful though, as in Greenpoint, the area becomes a little more polish, the mainstream begins to takes notice and almost by osmosis, moves in.

I think the first time I saw this phenomenon described was in William Gibson's Bridge trilogy where the San Francisco Bay bridge had been damaged, closed and then occupied by an interstitial community - a wild, unregulated place that new ideas come from. They are, almost by definition unstable - eventually either dieing or more likely producing sufficient success stories that they get taken over. Strangely enough - there is also a school of thought that maintains that areas like these are necessary, it's where new ideas that the mainstream either can't conceive of  or would have great difficulty in passing through entrenched power structures are conceived of.

It's sort of sad really. It means that I'll have to keep moving because these sorts of areas are, for me at least, the best places to live in.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Things you don't think about.

There's a fair number of people (I think/hope) that realize that the word computer was actually a job title for a person - a person that sits in an office somewhere and does the menial adding/subtracting/multiplying of numbers. In the early-mid 20th century the computer became a thing, a machine.
Though it would have been earlier if Babbage had bloody well got off his perfectionist arse and just built his damn computing engine instead of perpetually refining the designs.

Even before the first mechanical computers were built though, we had our first programmer - a woman by the name of Ada Lovelace, who we can very safely, I think, put into the category of extremely clever person. The human computers were around for a bit longer though. As best as I can gather, it was a mostly a position for males at the beginning of their careers. That changed round the late 19th/early 20th century when it became a job available to women with mathematics degrees.

Then in the 20th century, we get the invention of electrical computers. At which point, everyone should be introduced to Kay McNulty, Betty Snyder, Marlyn Wescoff, Ruth Lichterman, Betty Jean Jennings, and Fran Bilas, the programmers of ENIAC, which was pretty much the first electronic, general computer ever built. Yup, both the person who invented programming and the first programmers of electrical computers where all women. And for quite some time after that, right up to the 1960's and 1970's, computing was thought to be a suitable profession for young women (if they weren't going to be teachers or nurses).

So computing has over the years gone from being a male profession, to one that a female one and back again. Which, if it wasn't patently obvious before (which it was if you're the sort of person who pays attention), demonstrates that it's a cultural thing rather than anything to do with ability that has the industry largely dominated by men these days. 
I don't know how many people actually stop and think about the history of the profession though. It's a nice way, in computing at least, to challenge assumptions that people probably don't even realize that they're making.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Just in case.

This has been out since yesterday and should hopefully have been seen by everyone who's going to vote in the Auckland local body elections. Just in case you haven't though, go here. It's a scorecard for the candidates for Mayor and Auckland Councillors. Sadly it doesn't go down to the level of community boards, but that would have been a huge task. we should be grateful to the folks of Generation Zero for even this.

For the record, I tend to pretty much agree with the political outlook of Generation Zero in as much as I think intensification, transport, sustainability, climate change and the like are all important, things that our politicians should at least have some form of plan for.

I'm told by the one person I know with the gumption to stand in the local body elections that Peter Haynes responses didn't do justice to his actual positions - i.e. that his ideas align more towards the Generation Zero ideals than would otherwise be indicated with his grade.

The one ranking on this that surprised me was that of Penny Bright in the Mayoral contest. I don't know much of her apart from the fact that she is an activist, generally speaking, on the left of the political spectrum. I can only presume that she didn't think Generation Zero were sufficiently important to respond properly to. Quite surprised.

Monday, September 23, 2013

It's easy. [waves hand's in the general direction of away]

So I've recently had a little setback wherein the samples I've gathered and been attempting to process for the past several months (nine, start to finish if I'm counting correctly) aren't fit for purpose. I can get perfectly good RNA out of them, but not RNA that is sufficiently good for sequencing.

Unfortunate really given that that's the entire basis of the data for my PhD. And that I need a good time course of host/pathogen sequence data around which to build my models. No worries! apparently. Just go and get some datasets from other studies that have been published and use them to build your models! This has been suggested to me several times over the past year or two. Each time I've dutifully gone off and looked for some of these magical published datasets. I've even gone searching a few times when no one has suggested it.

The only difference I found last time I went searching was that I actually found a relevant study with published data. I use the singular deliberately there. One. This one, if anyone is particularly interested.

There are institutions like NCBI that are collecting a large amount of data. Sequence data, protein structure data, metabolomic data. There are 13 databses focused on RNA listed by Wikipedia, but most of them are specialised on specific subsets of RNA - not the transcriptome in it's entirety. One thing I think we forget though is that even though we're collecting large amounts of data, the amount of data generated by biologists in last decade or two is significantly larger. Which means that even if there are people working on similar topics, there's a decent chance that the data is either a) difficult to find or b) hasn't been published in the first place*.

The other possibility that springs to mind is that there just haven't been many experiments of the sort that I am doing that have been done. One of the things that I have slowly gotten used to over the past year or two is the realisation that a lot of the work that I assume is fairly basic for understanding biological systems just hasn't been done. There's so much of it, it's only been possible to study whole systems as a whole fairly recently and there's a distinct lack of  both money and people to do the work. So when I go out looking for host/pathogen sequence data in plants, even though the conventional wisdom that seems to have seeped into the scientific mindset is that there is plenty of data out there, I find one useful example. 

So much to do, so little time (and money).

*Approaches like that proposed by the DNA Digest group will I think be quite useful in opening up access to the masses of data that's been backed up and then then not used on thousands of servers around the world. Fingers crossed.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Superb idea.

There were a few good talks on day 3 - I didn't get a chance to write about any of them yesterday because it was almost straight from the conference to the conference dinner and then home late. On the plus side, a couple of late nights appears to have got rid of the jet lag. Now I'm just tired.

The best talk thou, was a surprise. Literally, the speaker, Chris Voigt, hadn't told anyone what he was going to be talking about. In the end, he was talking about the nitrogen fixing system in plants. Or at least in some of them.

Some who know me, know that I'm liable to occasionally go on a rant about growth and sustainability. As in we're growing, we're not going to stop it,  it we need to control it and grow sustainably, especially when talking about feeding the word. Screw organics, it's a badly defined industry that isn't necessarily sustainable. Or even necessarily good for the environment. On the other hand, some of the industrial level farming that we currently do is not sustainable. Referring particularly to the large amounts of fertiliser that we produce and use. Why do we use so much? A lot of the plants that we grow for food, like grains etc, need nitrogen and they get it from the soil. They don't fix nitrogen out of the air. Some crops do, like legumes. Solution? Gt everyone to eat more beans. Good luck with that.

Another option, take the nitrogen fixing gene complex out of a plant that has it and put it into some of the plants that don't. Bam, there goes our need for large amounts of fertiliser. It's not that simple though, the complex of genes that regulate the nitrogen fixing process are, to be frank a mess. Evolution does't necessarily find the optimal solution, it finds a solution that works.

So Voigt's group took the complex out of Klebsellia - a bacteria that fixes nitrogen and have been re-factoring it. Re-factoring being a software engineering turn for taking something that doesn't work on a new platform, stripping it right back and building it back up again. It's a fairly complex system of 16 genes that are very much prone to stop working when there are minor changes in translation levels. They stripped out all the regulatory elements, even made a whole bunch of neutral mutations in the codon codes to remove any internal regulation and started modelling and experimenting with re-writing the regulatory process so that they would have a robust system that they can then put the whole shebang into a new system and get nitrogen fixation where previously, there was none.

And they've done it. They've gone from the base Klebsellia fixation system, essentially re-written it and put it into E. coli. It doesn't operate at the same efficiency (about 70% atm) but it does work. So a while before it gets put into plants and solves our fertiliser problems. Good idea though. And the work that they done to figure out how to control a specific system is quite frankly, superb.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Talk of the day

Definitely goes to one Soren Vedal. And not just because he gave one of the two talks that came in under time - seriously, is it me or a cultural thing or something else entirely that makes me hate it when speakers go over time? It's not that they haven't know for several months how long their talk should be and haven't had time to practice. It wasn't terribly problematic today, but still.

Anyway. The talk was in the session about temporal phenomena on a biological time scale. It communicated a system level concept, cleanly and efficiently in an engaging manner.

Suppose you had a population of bacteria. At the population level (definitely not the individual level) it makes sense to sacrifice some of your, less fit populace, so that there are more resources for the better adapted to survive. This being a basic trade off called hedging your bets.

This can be improved upon though. When bacteria divide, they don't divide evenly. A disproportionate amount of any damage that a bacteria may have suffered is shunted off into one of the two offspring. This results in one bacteria in better shape and more able to reproduce than another. Which in the longer term means taking less time to replicate and the proportion of undamaged cells increases. More environmental pressure exacerbates this effect. It is basically diverting you damage that a population suffers off to into a redundant evolutionary side track and out of the population. The average damage goes down and the population growth rate also slowly increases. Which is better than static bet hedging.

And all backed up with experiments that fit the predicted patterns.

Nice theory. Nice system. Well communicated.