Archive for September, 2004

Emerging Technologies That Will Change the World

Thursday, September 30th, 2004
Woz and Kari
Apple Co-Founder Steve Wozniak and deCODE Genetics CEO Kari Stefensson

Today’s plenary panel session at the MIT Technology Review conference brought together a diverse group of inventors to talk about emerging technologies that will change the world. First we heard from Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple. Woz gave an animated talk about the importance of simplicity in new technologies.

“We all want computers to be simple,” he said, but software keeps getting more and more complicated, which in turn discourages us from learning new programs. In other words, why move on to the next generation of software when you’re just getting comfortable with the last generation?

“When I was young, I had a great transistor radio, and it was neat and easy, and it was portable,” he said, describing an ideally simple technology. “And all my life I’ve favored products that came in that category…. I just don’t like products that are – ugh! – rigid and fixed. If you can’t throw it out the window, don’t trust it.”

For Wozniak, his own easy-going personality made a significant impact on his approach to building new technologies. “Being lazy was one of the keys in all of my [computer] designs,” he explained. Use less parts, keep it simple. And if you can cut down on the number of parts in an invention, “maybe you can create something that the masses can afford and use.”

When he and Steve Jobs were developing the first Apple computers, he realized that computers had to be affordable if they were to stimulate the market. So designing them as elegantly and efficiently as possible made good business sense. “That’s where the cutting of parts and of chips came in,” he said. “So it was trying to think out the whole product and the whole price. Every cent you save is another cent of profit you can make.”

Woz noted that simplifying and streamlining processes applies to ICT services as well. He marveled at Philadelphia’s plans to connect the entire city with wireless Internet access. “Oh my gosh!” he exclaimed. “You take out all the accounting procedures, you can cut the cost of it per person down to nothing, making it really efficient. If only the government could do that!”

Wrapping up his talk with comments on the role of technology in education, he said, “We’ve got a lot of computers being used, but it’s more important to inspire the kid than deliver the right content. And the more human a computer seems, the more it attracts kids. But true artificial intelligence in educational software in which a program *really* understands a kid’s personality is a long way off.”

Following Woz’s remarks, Kari Stefansson of deCODE Genetics talked about his company’s ambitious, effort to collect DNA samples from all of Iceland to develop a new generation of pharmaceuticals.

“I come from a family of storytellers,” Stefansson began. “My father was a writer, my grandfather a storyteller. And if you look at human genetics, you get to pry into the history of man. And one of the basic instruments we’re using is the genealogy of the nation. We have the genealogy of the entire nation going back 1100 years in time.”

Beyond the medical advancements that could be achieved through such an effort, Stefansson was able to use the DNA data to confirm the oral traditions regarding Iceland’s collective family tree. “There was a book written 1000 years ago called the Book of Settlement, in which the Vikings and their slaves settled down into Iceland,” he explained. Based on their DNA sampling, they discovered that about 75% of the Y chromosome DNA samples – the DNA passed down from father to son – indeed contained Norwegian origins. Additionally, when they examined the nation’s mitochondrial DNA – passed down from mother to child – the results suggested many of Iceland’s ancestral mothers came from the British Isles. “So when the Vikings went to England, took all of their pretty women and brought them to Iceland.”

Returning to the topic of how his work relates to medical innovation, Stefansson continued, “The basic unit of all life isn’t an atom or a molecule. It’s bits of information written in G’s and T’s and A’s and C’s”: the four protein combinations that string together in a helix to form our DNA. By analyzing the DNA of the entire nation of Iceland, deCODE Genetics has begun to test several new drugs that specifically work to address illnesses, like heart disease, that can be passed down from parent to child.

“We have isolated quite a few genes predisposed to common diseases,” he said. “We isolated a gene that’s connected to myocardial infraction.” They’re now in the second phase of a clinical trial of a medicine based on this information.

“Genetics hold certain promise,” he concluded. “It will change the way we do medicine.”

——–

“We are in the golden age of invention,” began Edward Jung of Intellectual Ventures. “From the inventor’s perspective, this is a great time to be an inventor.” Most people, he said, think of the 20th century as the golden age of invention, particularly due to the advances in science and biology, and the change in markets that allowed companies to embrace innovation rapidly. “But the need for invention hasn’t diminished; in fact it’s increased.”

“You can look any one of those [inventions] that happened over the last 100 years, and now they’re changing fundamentally,” he continued. “Cameras, radio, surgery, cars, transistors, airplanes, are all going through monumental change due to the fast pace of innovation. But now the ability to innovate goes beyond where most companies are willing to take risks,” which leaves the inventors to take the lead.

A new generation of invention is taking hold worldwide, Jung said. “I’m amazed about the unprecedented freedom in the ability to innovate.” For example, after decades of stifling intellectual creativity, China is now booming with innovation.

“Bringing a product to market is much more efficient now than it was 50 or 100 years ago.” With the new generation of inventors, “Companies will find it hard to contain them.” The Dean Kamens of the world are able to bring their ideas to market by attracting their own financing directly, becoming entrepreneurs in their own right.

“When you have a lot of invention going on, you really have to go about encouraging invention as well: to inspire them to invent and take risk… To dare to dream big…”

The session concluded with a presentation by J. Craig Venter, president of the Center for the Advancement of Genomics. Genome sequencing has revolutionized biology in ways that were previously thought impossible, he explained. “When I was doing my graduate work, I was told it’d be difficult to do anything new in biology, since everything we needed to know was already known,” Venter said. Apparently, his professors never imagined the scientific tidal wave in DNA research that would become known as genomics.

Advances in technology, along with the ever-decreasing cost of DNA sequencing, have allowed genomic research to progress at a furious pace. “I spent 10 years trying to find one gene, and now we have systems in which we can discover hundreds of thousands of genes an hour, millions a day,” Venter continued. “It’s only nine years since we sequenced the first genome, yet we’re now seeing a continuous exponential expansion…. We’ve done hundreds of genomes, from plants, to insects, the dog genome.. ..This is continuing to go on.”

His latest venture is the Ocean Microbial Genomic Survey (http://www.sorcerer2expedition.org), a scientific maritime adventure following the path of Charles Darwin’s ship around the world, surveying microbes in the water every 200 miles. The survey has been an equal mix of scientific discovery and political wrangling, as they’ve had to negotiate with national governments just to be allowed to take barrels of ocean water in their sovereign waters. This proved to be a major challenge in the Caribbean, where various nations claim overlapping sovereignty over particular stretches of ocean. “Because we’ve found so many genes, all these countries want to file patents on them, because they think they’ll find some value.”

To date, this research has surveyed 2.5 billion base pairs of DNA, equaling five million new genes from 7,000 species. Now, their expedition has arrived in Australia and is headed to Africa by way of the Indian Ocean.

Venter’s work has already reached the point where they can create artificial single-cell organisms. Soon they’ll be able to create multi-cell species. The fiction of Jurassic Park may not be so fictional after all – though Venter said such advances should be applied to preserving endangered species rather than reviving long-lost ones.

“Biology and computing will start to merge,” Venter concluded. “In the future we’ll design computers in which their design is driven by biology and DNA.”

Fostering Competitiveness Through Innovation

Thursday, September 30th, 2004
Donofrio and Clough
IBM Vice President Nick Donofrio (left) and Georgia Tech President G. Wayne Clough (right)

The opening session of day two of the MIT Technology Review conference, Georgia Tech President G. Wayne Clough and IBM Vice President Nick Donofrio gave a joint talk on the National Innovation Initiative, sponsored by the National Council on Competitiveness.

Formed in the mid 1980s, the council works to promote policies to encourage economic competitiveness. The council is comprised of 15 leaders from industry and academia, with approximately 200 experts advising them. “If the US is going to maintain its edge,” he said, “it needs to rethink its assets…. Today we have nothing we can take for granted… We need to look for new ways of doing business. We need to make sure that good companies seeking to build good jobs in the US… are given the tools to compete.”

“Innovation occurs at the intersection of invention and insight. It’s about the application of invention – the fusion of new developments and new approaches to solve problems,” Clough continued, quoting co-chair Sam Palmisano.

Describing the work of the council, Clough explained, “The objective is to build an actionable agenda that can be enacted over the next few years that will make a difference… no matter who is elected in the upcoming election…. ” Additionally, “Our products must have access to international markets in a fair way” as other countries introduce their own innovations. And it’s not just a matter of building our economy at the expense of other nations. “For the US to succeed… other countries have to be winners as well,” he noted.

Nick Donofrio of IBM took the stage following Clough’s remarks. “It’s really a unique time for the United States,” he said. “I think you need to put that in context; many countries around the world are working very hard on innovation.” The Netherlands, China and Australia, to name a few, have put forward aggressive initiatives to foster innovation. “We’re seeing challenges emerging from developing countries, from India and China, and from a resurging European Union. …It’s not just a cyclical change.”

“They are quickly replicating the historical advantages that have made the United States a place of innovation,” Donofrio continued. According to research commissioned by IBM, 91 million jobs will be created globally over the next 10 years, with 5.4million created this year; for the US, this will translate to 19.4 million jobs.

“But the question Americans are asking is where these jobs will be…. Many Americans see outsourcing as a threat, not as an opportunity.” Donofrio, however, offered a more positive outlook. “Every nation and every region will choose its own path and all of us will have a stake in the outcome. … Global prosperity will bring stability.” He continued, “How can we in the United States complain about other countries striving to raise the standard of living for their own people? We should be cheering them on.”

Donofrio noted that it’s common in policy discourse to confuse the roles of innovation and invention in our economy. “Innovation in this context, is not necessarily invention… Invention is the creation of something that did not exist before – a new thought, a new technology, a new idea. But how many of those inventions truly make a difference in our lives. Invention does not guarantee value. It is the application of invention… to solve real problems. That is the strength of invention.”

“By the nature of innovation in the 21st century, we have a new thought,” he continued. Today’s model is a dynamic one. In the past we built to forecast demand. To day we must work to build on-demand. We have to think in an interdepartmental, collaborative way… across boundaries, finding intersections between them: how can I make a product better? What does the customer value most? What features will spawn new value down the road?”

“We must approach innovation in terms of customer value… Do we have the right methods of bringing partnerships together? Are we investing in the physical sciences? Do we have the right policies? Are we encouraging governments around the world to embrace open standards? Are we protecting our intellectual property while at the same time promote collaboration and open standards? It is imperative for the nations of the world to develop a cohesive strategy for innovation.”

In order for the US to maintain and increase its competitiveness, the US must do more to encourage young people to pursue studies in science, technology, engineering and math. Despite the fact that science and technology has always played a great role in country’s economy, college students’ interest in the sciences has either stayed flat or even declined. We must develop a new generation of young people with a range of skills, both technical and nontechnical. “One certainty is that the innovators of the future are those who will bridge the gaps between innovation, business and human relations.” Many of these new leaders, he said, will come from the US, but that does not mean we should discourage leadership coming from abroad. “We want to benefit from the diversity of talent from all over the world… The fact of the matter is that smart people live all over the world.”

Regarding federal investment in innovation, Donofrio asked, “Is government investing in the industries and disciplines… or is it locked in supporting antiquated industries, stifling innovation and development?” To succeed, he explained, we must work to make sure that the government stays ahead of the curve and recognizes the need to implement policies to foster growing industries and invest in new research areas.

“We want, as a team, to apply innovation to America’s greatest challenges and opportunities, whether its energy, education, healthcare or how we grow new markets,” he concluded. “The responsibility, for all of us, must be shared: by business, by academia, by the public sector…. We need to make innovation is at the heart of the national agenda.”

Morning Warm-Up at MIT

Thursday, September 30th, 2004

It’s 8am right now at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium; in 30 minutes or so, the second day of the MIT Technology Review will commence. I’m settling into the auditorium, front and center – mainly for the access to the electricity outlets at the bottom of the stage rather than for the stellar view. Conference attendees are slowly settling into their seats, wiping that last crumb of blueberry scone from their chin and getting a quick skim of their newspaper.

Behind the curtain on a stage, a piano tech slowly works his way up the scale of the keyboard, tuning each key for a performance that will take place at the end of the day.

“I thought I was at a tech conference, not a Ligeti performance,” said a British gentleman sitting next to me.

“Isn’t John Cage dead?” another Brit behind me said a moment or two later. (I was tempted to make a reference to Bartok’s Music For Strings, Percussion & Celesta but I bit my tongue, deciding this little 20th century classical music trivia contest must come to an end before someone got hurt.)

We’ve got an interesting day ahead of us. First, we‚ll hear from the president of Georgia Tech University, who will discuss the National Council on Competitiveness‚ National Innovation Initiative. Following that, General Motors Chairman and CEO Richard Wagoner will give today’s keynote. Personally, I’m most excited about a roundtable discussion entitled “Emerging Technologies that Will Change the World: The Inventor View.” Among the experts appearing during that panel are Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple Computer and Wheels of Zeus; Kari Stefansson of Iceland’s deCODE Genetics; and J. Craig Ventner of the Center for the Advancement of Genomics. Given my lifelong love affair with Apple (not to mention admiration for Woz’s work in the classroom) and keen interest in genetics, I’ve got high hopes for that session.

Tim Berners-Lee: Weaving a Semantic Web

Wednesday, September 29th, 2004
Bob Metcalfe and Tim Berners-Lee
3Com founder Bob Metcalfe (left) chats with Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee (right) at the MIT Technology Review conference. From Andy’s Camera Phone Blog.

The MIT Technology Review Emerging Technologies Conference opened today with a keynote by Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web. Promising “a one-hour talk in 30 minutes,” Berners-Lee gave an animated, rapid-fire presentation — more like a 90-minute talk in 30 minutes — about his latest initiative, the Semantic Web.

Berners-Lee’s early remarks focused on his development of the Web. “Making the Web was really simple because there was already this morass of things being developed on the Internet,” including protocols such as TCP/IP and other standards. “All I had to do on top of that to create the Web was to create a single global space, which some people said was rather arrogant…. HTTP was a new scheme for the Web… and the idea was that it would minimally constraining.” And HTML, the language he created to drive the Web, would be “the cloth on which a tapestry would be made – the jewels, the colors…”

Based on this fast-growing morass of websites and the interactions between them, what’s come out of it? Dot-com companies that have come and gone, new ways of thinking – and more recently, wikis and blogs. “The original thing I wanted to do was make it a collaborative medium, a place where we can all meet and read and write…. Collaborative things are exciting, and the fact people are doing wikis and blogs shows they’re [embracing] its creative side.”

But from the very beginning of the Web, Berners-Lee had hoped that he would be able to incorporate descriptive information into the Web’s fundamental design, but for various reasons it didn’t make the cut. “One thing I wanted to put in the original design was the ‘typing’ of links,” he said. For example, let’s say you link your website to another site. At the moment, the hyperlink connecting them contains very little information: just an address to get to the other website’s content. But Berners-Lee’s idea was to include “metadata” with each hyperlink to describe the relationship between the two sites. For example: do the people linking their two websites know each other personally, professionally, or not at all? If they’re colleagues, how are they working together, and in what fields? Where are they working?

“When we put one link to another, a human being knows what that link may mean, but a machine doesn’t,” he said. But this idea of embedding large amounts of machine-readable metadata into HTML didn’t make it into the original Web standard. Now, he’s trying to change that, with an initiative called the Semantic Web.

“The Semantic Web looks at integrating data across the Web,” Berners-Lee said. As the World Wide Web Consortium explains, “The Web can reach its full potential only if it becomes a place where data can be shared and processed by automated tools as well as by people. For the Web to scale, tomorrow’s programs must be able to share and process data even when these programs have been designed totally independently. The Semantic Web is a vision: the idea of having data on the web defined and linked in a way that it can be used by machines not just for display purposes, but for automation, integration and reuse of data across various applications.”

For the Semantic Web to function properly, websites would be designed in ways fundamentally different to traditional HTML. For example, in traditional HTML, if I wanted to assign a page a particular color, I would simply include a bit of code stating exactly what that color should be. Color=Red, basically. But with the Semantic Web, you wouldn’t do this. Rather, you’d tell the website to go to a URL that defines a universal standard of what that color looks like. So instead of coding a webpage to say “Color=Red,” you’d say something like “Color=http://internationalcolorstandardsite.org/colors/red/v2” and your website would know to connect to this site to identify the color. This would hold true for all data you include in your website: color, people, zipcodes, images, etc. Data would all be connected to URLs containing descriptive information about that data. Information would not be static or absolute; instead it’s “an abstract concept” that gets sucked up from another website explaining exactly how to define it.

An early example of the Semantic Web in action is the Creative Commons initiative, which gives content publishers a simple way of clarifying how their content may be used by others. The Creative Commons team has created a collection of copyright licenses, each stating whether a person’s content can be used for commercial or noncommercial purposes, can be redistributed or edited, with or without the owner’s permission, etc. The system is very flexible, so a person may personalize their license with different combinations of these elements. When a content publisher, like a blogger, places a Creative Commons license on their website, they do so by adding a piece of code to their site’s HTML that refers to their personalized license. This code is made of a collection of URLs, each of which defines a particular element of the license, such as the content’s redistribution policy. So when search engines and other automated tools pick up that blogger’s website, they’ll access these URLs and “understand” your copyright policy as you intended it.

Easy? Maybe not. But Berners-Lee is confident in his vision. “The Web is a tangle, your life is a tangle – get used to it.”

Berners-Lee sees the Semantic Web having a range of uses. Online information will connect seamlessly because of the common concepts they share. “That’s what it’s all about – connecting things,” he said. The Semantic Web will help artificial intelligence projects, online translators and other technologies that require access to large amounts of descriptive data to work properly. Berners-Lee also offered a real-world example. “Sometimes, in an emergency, like when a virus breaks out, you need to correlate data between a number of databases,” he said. The Semantic Web, he explained, will make this much easier.

It’s also helping build powerful social networking tools — friend-of-a-friend networks in which people write a little bit about themselves as metadata, and connections get formed based on this information. “Who knows what sort of Google will be built on top of this stuff,” Berners-Lee wondered. Computers will be able to browse the Web and find what we’re looking for based on what they know about our needs and the descriptive metadata they find on relevant websites. “A human being browse the Web? That will be a little old fashioned,” he joked.

Berners-Lee noted that the success of the Semantic Web will depend on royalty-free technical standards. “Standards must be royalty free” to foster innovation and encourage the growth of new markets. “It is very important that we make sure we are not tripped up” by proprietary standards, he said. “With so many ridiculous patents out there, there’s always the threat” that an “underwater patent will torpedo innovation.”

Following his speech, Berners-Lee took questions from the audience, moderated by Ethernet inventor and 3Com co-founder Bob Metcalfe. Berners-Lee said the Web was originally a “play project” that his bosses at Switzerland’s CERN laboratory let him explore in his spare time. The structure of CERN, with its many groups of researchers working independently, influenced the structure of the Web. “Because it was a lab, it acted more like a web in itself,” so coming up with a virtual web for CERN staff to share information with each other made a lot of sense.

Once he developed the idea, he started to promote it through Internet discussion groups, though not necessarily the groups frequented by fellow scientists. “Hypertext wasn’t considered ‘real’ computing, so I sent it out to alternative news groups,” he said. Some people like the University of Illinois’ Marc Andreesen embraced the idea and ran with it; he went on to found Netscape.

Others were less supportive because they didn’t like the technical structure behind it. “Why do I have to use your horrible angle brackets?” they would say to him.

“Do you remember the names of these people?” Metcalfe asked rather mischievously. Berners-Lee laughed and waved off the question.

Despite being the inventor of the Web, Berners-Lee didn’t patent the standard, allowing others to build upon it — and profit on it. “Some people have said, ‘Isn’t it a shame all these commercial things came about?’” he noted. “But most people wanted a commercial browser.” The private sector helped spread the Web beyond the confines of research and academia. The MarcAndreesens of the world contributed a lot to the adoption of the Webm making it commercially viable, he noted. Berners-Lee added that he still uses Netscape, despite its fall in popularity, on a Mac with the OS X operating system, and has started playing with Mozilla’s new open source Firefox browser as well.

Berners-Lee also described how his work on the Web has changed over the years from being a sole endeavor to a distributed effort with lots of contributors. He waxed nostalgically over the days when he could make all the decisions himself, acknowledging the challenges of achieving consensus in distributed group projects. “If you take little groups, they form their own little cultures. And when you get these groups together, they don’t share their ideas, and have different values towards how things should be built…. This takes a lot more energy than figuring out how to do it yourself…. Making consensus, communicating with other people is hard work.”

“I had the luxury to do this myself… with nobody there to object,” he continued. “But now we’re doing things … where there are lot of people interested in getting involved. … If you want to do something, do it yourself.”

As a final question, Metcalfe asked Berners-Lee about his thoughts on the Web as an educational tool. “I’d like to see lots of curricula like the MIT Open Courseware initiative being picked up by K-12,” he said. “The tricky thing is that when you try to put down things like encyclopedia articles, like Wikipedia (which he earlier referred to as “The Font of All Knowledge”) . You really need to keep education materials sown together. So I’d love to see a student be able to fly through this courseware, maybe in 3-D, following his or her interests. I know it takes a huge amount of efforts to keep these things up to date, but I’d [even] like to see teachers help contribute to it.”

“Students can work together [on the Web] when they can interact with simulations, with teachers, but particularly with each other,” he concluded. “And for that we need lots of tools, lots of standards, lots of technology… There’s lots of work to do out there.”

Live in Cambridge: Tim Berners-Lee on the Web in Education

Wednesday, September 29th, 2004

Right now I’m blogging from the MIT Technology Review Emerging Tech
Conference in Cambridge, and we’ve just heard from Tim Berners-Lee,
inventor of the World Wide Web. Tim gave a rapid-fire 30-minute talk
about the semantic web, and then had a one-on-one conversation with Bob
Metcalfe, inventor of Ethernet and co-founder of 3Com. I’ll post an
extended blog entry about Tim’s presentation, but for now I wanted to
share a quote he gave on the role of the Web in education:

What I’d like to see happen: I’d like to see lots of curricula like the
MIT open courseware initiative being picked up by K-12…. The tricky
thing is that when you try to put down things like encyclopedia
articles, like Wikipedia, you really need to keep education materials
sown together. So I’d love to see a student be able to fly through this
courseware, maybe in 3-D, following his or her interests. I know it
takes a huge amount of efforts to keep these things [like Wikipedia and
the Open Courseware Project] up to date, and I’d like to see teachers
help contribute to it….

Students can work together when they can interact with simulations, with
teachers, but particularly with each other. And for that we need lots of
tools, lots of standards, lots of technology… There’s lots of work to do
out there…. -andy

Feeling Vertigo on Yom Kippur

Tuesday, September 28th, 2004

Bono singsYom Kippur started about 15 hours ago, and so far, my fast is holding fast. I’ve managed to make it through these 24 hours of atonement and will power for most of the last 10 years or so, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed this year will be the same. Susanne is being merciful as well, and plans to get lunch outside of the apartment so I won’t have to torture myself needlessly.

Meanwhile, today is also my dad’s birthday, and he’s getting to spend it evacuating from a hurricane for the fourth time in six weeks. They’ve battened down the hatches, sealed the storm shutters, and left Indialantic for higher ground. The latest NOAA forecast has the storm increasing to a Category 3 hurricane before slamming into southern Brevard County. It’s Frances all over again — except this is a bigger storm. Hold on to your hats.

Despite the dire forecast on a fast day, I’m taking solace in the fact that the local radio stations have finally started playing Vertigo, the new single from the forthcoming U2 album, “How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.” The song is reminiscent of their Achtung Baby days – a nostalgic era for me, since I was luck enough to be in Dublin the day of its release back in November 1991.

“Vertigo” seems timed to honor the recent passing of Johnny Ramone (not to mention 2/3rds of the rest of the band in recent years). The single has a great four-chord post-punk riff, along with typical U2 ambient guitar noise. This is definitely an Edge-centric song — The Edge almost sounds like he’s striving for Pete Townsend greatness at certain points in the track. More power to him — it’s about time the band got consistently good again.

The Edge at a U2 concert

Happy Yom Kippur, everyone… -andy

New DNA Study Suggests Men Got Around

Tuesday, September 28th, 2004

A new DNA study by population geneticist Michael Hammer suggests that half as many men as women have contributed to the world’s gene pool since the dawn of humanity.

Hammer and his research partners examined the DNA of three geographically separated groups — the Khoisan of southern Africa, the Khalks of Mongolia and the highlanders of Papua New Guinea. More specifically, they looked at each group’s Y chromosome DNA, inherited from father to son, and their mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), inherited from mother to child. The test results showed that over the millennia, a very small group of men contributed their DNA to these populations, compared with a much larger group of women. In other words, there was more genetic diversity amongst the mtDNA inherited from their mothers than the Y chromosomes they inherited from their fathers.

This would suggest, with each passing generation, a small group of men managed to impregnate multiple women. Additionally, the reseachers found that male DNA traveled over greater distances than the female DNA, conjuring images of randy sailors on shore leave, or mysterious jet-setting men with attractive foreign accents making the rounds. More likely, they suggest, it means that women have similar criteria for what they find as suitable mates, and only a subset of men in any given generation managed to fit this criteria, so these guys took advantage of it.

I find the results fascinating, not only because it’ll provide great fodder for late-night TV comics, but because the research results contrast to what was found in a similar study on Jewish populations. In that study, researchers found a rather different effect: that far fewer women have contributed their DNA to the modern Jewish population than ancient non-Jewish women did for modern non-Jewish populations. According to that research, published two years ago in the American Journal of Human Genetics, there is strikingly less mtDNA genetic diversity amongst Jewish populations than there is compared with the mtDNA found in surrounding non-Jewish communities. In fact, the study even suggests that as few as eight different sources of particular mtDNA mutations — ie, eight different women if you go back far enough — contributed mtDNA to these modern Jewish populations. This wouldn’t mean that those eight women had a lot of children with different fathers and their female children did the same, but it suggests that at some point in Jewish history, there was a population bottleneck, and survivors with these eight mtDNA patterns managed to survive the bottleneck more successfully than others. Perhaps more men survived the bottleneck than women, as well.

This probably won’t mean much to most of you, but I’m totally fascinated by this stuff. Four years ago I was one of the first guys able to get access to commercial DNA testing to participate in Professor Hammer’s research, particularly in the area of Jewish males inheriting what’s known in the popular press as the Cohen gene. Hammer discovered that a majority of Jewish males brought up to believe an oral tradition that their ancestors were heriditary high priests (Cohens) at the Temple of Solomon shared a common Y chromosome pattern dating from the biblical period. Meanwhile, Jewish males who were raised to believe they descended from other patrilineal lines were far less likely to carry this gene. The Torah says that the children of Aaron, Moses’ brother, became the high priests of the temple, and passed it down to their sons, and Hammer’s research was the first to suggest that there may be some truth to this. I was raised to believe my family came from the high priests, and indeed, my DNA test confirmed I carry the Cohen gene.

Meanwhile, my mtDNA, which I inherited from my mother, carries a pattern found less commonly in Jewish populations, and even rarer in European populations (For those of you keeping score, my mtDNA pattern, abbreviated as 126c 362c, is part of a family of mtDNA patterns called the Pre-HV1 Haplotype, in case someone asks you.) Interestingly, this mtDNA pattern of mine pops up with high frequency amongst Bedouin Arabs, Yemenis, Ethiopians and even Nubians. The only part of Europe that finds this mtDNA in any significant number is southern Spain, which of course was once dominated by an Arab population. Does this mean one of my ancestor’s on my mother’s side was really a Bedouin or an Ethiopian and married into a Jewish family? Maybe, but not necessarily. It’s more likely that the pattern first appeared in a female ancestor of mine thousands of years before Jews or Israelites became a specific ethnic group, perhaps somewhere in the Arabian peninsula around 20,000 years ago, and eventually their descendents formed one of the tribes that became the first clans of Israelites. Unfortunately, there’s no paper trail, so there’s no way we’ll ever really know. Makes for great cocktail conversation, though…. -andy

New Creative Commons License “Frees Creativity Across the Digital Divide”

Tuesday, September 21st, 2004

Interesting news from the folks who run the Creative Commons initiative: they’ve just announced a Developing Nations Copyright License that can be used by content developers to encourage free use of their content in the developing world. As I reported last December from the World Summit on the Information Society, Lawrence Lessig and his colleagues have been developing this idea “so content may be tagged as being freely available for people in the developing world.” Thanks to the work of Jamie Love, they now have the first release of the license, which became available last week.

So what’s the big deal about this copyright license stuff? Well, it’s a big deal to two groups of people: people who create content and people who want to use content. For people who create content, copyright licenses are a way of protecting their work, making sure that the work is used in ways that are acceptable to them — picture songwriters, authors, filmmakers, bloggers, anyone who likes to follow their creative muse. And for people who want to use content – pretty much everyone in the known universe — a copyright license tells them when they’re using someone’s content in a fair, reasonable way. So if I’m a guy creating a website about dolphins and I find a nice picture of a bottlenose dolphin in someone’s website, the polite thing to do would be to find out from them if I’ve got permission to use it. Not to mention the fact I could get sued if I took the picture from someone who sells pictures of dolphins for a living.

Creative Commons makes all of this easier by creating a user-friendly way for content producers to assign a copyright license to their work. For example, if you look on the left-hand side of my blog’s homepage, you’ll see a button saying that my blog is published under a Creative Commons license that allows anyone to republish my stuff as long as it’s for noncommercial purposes and that they pass along the same copyright privileges I’ve set up for myself. Anyone who’s got content they’d like to share publicly while preserving their ownership of it can go to Creativecommons.org and design a license for themselves — a bit of computer code they insert on their website. Once you’ve placed it on your website, everyone who visits your site will have access to an easy-to-read explanation of the license, plus a legal deed written for all you lawyers out there. Even better, the computer code added to the Web page means that your license can be read by search engines and the like, so they’ll note the copyright status for your content.

So now comes along this new Developing Nations license. What this license means is that you, as a content producer, can differentiate how your content gets used by others based on whether they live in a developed or developing country. By creating a Developing Nations license for your website — or for your video, song, photo collection, what have you — you grant anyone living in one of the qualifying countries the right to copy, distribute, display and perform your work, as well as make derivative works (ie, works based on your original content), as long as they give you credit for the work, and pass along the same license rules if they redistribute it. So if a person from Uganda visits your website, they can use this license to copy your work freely, redistribute it, etc, while someone from the United States would need to get your permission first.

I’ve been wondering since last December when this new license would come out, and am really curious to see how it gets used. Will content owners embrace the idea? Will Internet users in less-developed countries take advantage of it? In some of the discussions on the Creative Commons website, some people have described the idea as “paternalistic” and “throwing scraps to those third world types…” Others are cynical from the perspective that people with Internet access in the developing world are already “elites” within their nations and don’t need this kind of assistance. I think these positions insult both the thousands of people who use Creative Commons licenses and don’t see their work as “scraps,” and are eager to work with people from the rest of the world who have an interest in accessing a greater diversity of knowledge and creating new knowledge in the process.

Perhaps I’m just being naive, but I’m hopeful about this new license. Only time will tell to see if it’s used in ways that are truly beneficial to promoting knowledge sharing and development.

Meanwhile, below is a list of countries that don’t qualify for getting access to content through the Developing Nations license:

Andorra, Aruba, Australia, Austria, Bahamas, Bahrain, Belgium, Bermuda, Brunei, Canada, Cayman Islands, Channel Islands, Cyprus, Denmark, Faeroe Islands, Finland, France, French Polynesia, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, Greenland, Guam, Iceland, Ireland, Isle of Man, Israel, Italy, Japan, Kuwait, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Macao, Malta, Monaco, Netherlands, Netherlands
Antilles, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Puerto Rico, Qatar, San Marino, Singapore, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, United States, US Virgin Islands

The list comes from the World Bank’s list of high-income economies, which the Creative Commons folks are using as the basis for saying who can’t take advantage of the license. If you’re residing in any other country not listed here, you can take advantage of the rights defined by the Developing Nations License.

Have any interesting examples of how this license might be put to good use? I’d love to hear about it…. -andy

Breaking News: Man Stalls Boston Traffic Chasing Squirrel; One Woman Reportedly Injured

Sunday, September 19th, 2004

File this under “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished”: Last night we spent the better part of the evening waiting around in a hospital emergency room because Susanne got bit by a squirrel. How, you may ask?

It all started with me insisting that we spend a cold, rainy afternoon at the movies seeing The Bourne Supremacy, just to see if it was actually better than the first Bourne movie, as many critics had said. (It was.) The movie wrapped up just before 6pm, so we planned to walk home, feed the cats, then walk down to Jamaica Plain to go to an Ethiopian restaurant.

As we walked past the Landmark Center back to Brookline, Susanne and I noticed a young squirrel darting through traffic. We held our breath and cringed as it ran under two cars, clearly about to be smushed, then miraculously emerged unscathed. It reached the curb and tried to climb up, but it was too small, so it turned around, running frantically back into traffic.

Being the animal lovers we are, there was no way we could have kept walking and let the poor creature become another roadkill statistic, so I ran into the oncoming traffic and waved the cars to a stop. I then chased after the squirrel, trying to give it a bit of an instinctive push to jump over the curb. (How arrogant of me — like the squirrel would be motivated to jump to safety more by me chasing it than a two-ton SUV.)

The squirrel was literally caught in a loop, running towards the curb, then cutting a U-turn to the left back into traffic, until reaching the next curb and making another left-handed turn. Meanwhile, I chased after it as cars honked and screeched to a halt, some ignoring both me and the squirrel and pressing forward down the road. Meanwhile, two other men joined my rescue effort: a middle-aged man who stood on one curb, trying to catch the squirrel each time I chased it his way, and a young Arab man who tossed me his jacket so I could try to trap it and pick it up safely.

I threw down his jacket several times, but the squirrel darted out each time. All of this went on for at least five minutes, as I ran in counterclockwise circles 20 or 30 times across the busy two-lane road, heaving in the cold air, praying I wouldn’t pass out and crush the squirrel.

Eventually, the squirrel got as tired as I was, and three of us — Susanne, the Arab man and I – cornered it. The next thing I knew I saw Susanne lurching upward, while the squirrel flew through the air into the grass in front of me. I chased it further into the grass so it would head away from the street, then turned to Susanne and our rescue partner. Susanne was clutching her hand, with a drop of blood running down her palm.

“He bit me,” she said, examining her hand. Apparently, when we cornered the little beast, she grabbed it and tossed it; in the process, the squirrel curled around her hand, gave her a nip and sunk in its claws as a parting gift, leaving three pin-prick holes on her knuckles and a bloody gash on the inside of her hand.

We walked back to our apartment wondering what to do next. The chances of this young squirrel having rabies seemed remote, especially since it did its damnedest to keep away from us, but why take a chance? I called one of the local emergency rooms and asked a nurse if we should come in now, or make an appointment with her doctor for first thing Monday. The nurse suggested we come in immediately.

Susanne washed her hand while I fed the cats, then we walked across the Riverway to the Beth Israel Deaconness Medical Center. The nurse at the triage desk was expecting us, and examined Susanne without too much of a wait. We then had to wait a little longer before being brought into a private examination room.

We waited in that uncomfortable room, with nothing but a gurney and a rotating stool to sit on, for the next three hours, until another nurse, resident and attending physician were able to see us. As time passed we got to know the guy in the room next to ours — Keith, an incoming freshman at a local college, who cut his hand opening a can of soup at 3am the previous night, then closed it up with tape so he could go to bed. Poor guy eventually found out he’d have to come back several times over the next week because the wound had become infected and would require IV antibiotics and a hand surgeon. Perhaps it was an omen — another hand injury, a preventable one at that. I cringed at the possibilities.

The nurse and doctors were all rather cynical about our good deed — “That’ll teach you from doing that again,” said the resident. In the meantime, we waited and waited.

“I can’t believe this,” Susanne said at one point, shaking her head and grimacing.

“This feels like a Curb Your Enthusiasm episode,” I replied.

“I can see Larry David’s wife yelling at Larry to rescue the poor squirrel off the highway,” Susanne replied, laughing.

By 10pm, the attending physician examined Susanne, bringing along a fascinating sheet of Massachusetts rabies data. For example, did you know that of the five alpaca bites reported in the last 10 years, none of them came back rabid, while the one chinchilla bite, sadly, came back with the Old Yeller Syndrome? Or that it’s better to get bit by a muskrat, opossum, bison, chipmunk, llama, seal, porcupine, sheep or ferret — none of which have tested positive for rabies — than a cow, woodchuck, coyote, otter, pig, raccoon, skunk, bat or fox — all of which have been linked to rabies cases? Even the four bear bites came back negative for rabies — though I think if you’ve gotten bit by a bear, you’ve got bigger problems than rabies to worry about.

But the most important statistic we learned was this: of the 1,167 squirrels tested after biting humans in Massachusetts over a 10-year period, none had come back positive for rabies. Zero. Zip. Nada. So the attending physician gave us a copy of the data sheet as a consolation prize and sent us on our merry way, without giving Susanne even a bandage, let alone a rabies shot.

By now it was approaching 11pm and we still hadn’t had dinner, so we persevered to go to the Ethiopian restaurant, where we enjoyed a small feast as a group of talkative Ethiopian men sat at the bar, drinking Cointreau while watching Florida play Tennessee. Not exactly the evening we’d expected…. -andy

Our New Friend, The Roomba

Friday, September 17th, 2004

roomba and winnie
Yesterday afternoon, it finally arrived: our first robot. Having grown up watching the Jetsons, I wondered how old I would be before I’d have my own Rosie the Robot, doing the dishes, cleaning the floors and dusting the china cabinet. For now, of course, I’ll have to keep waiting for that particular image of mechanical bliss to enter my life, but my new friend Roomba will tie me over quite well until that time comes.

For those of you who haven’t heard about the Roomba, it’s a stout, flying saucer-like robot vacuum. Created by a group of Cambridge whiz kids who’d previously contracted with the U.S. military to make mine sweeping robots, the Roomba is the mine sweeper’s peaceful, chore-loving cousin. The Roomba first came out at least a year ago, and the reviews were mixed: great idea, but it didn’t vacuum very well and had a habit of breaking. But now, several generations later, the latest addition to the Roomba dynasty has gotten hardier for the task, with a bigger dustbin and a stronger vacuum.

Our Roomba arrived yesterday, so we put it to the test. After a few hours’ charging, I put it in the center of the room and activated it. The little Roomba came alive, sweeping in a clockwise spiral motion. Our cats, Winston and Dizzy, immediately took notice; Susanne and I poured ourselves a glass of wine and waited to see what would happen next.

The Roomba soon banged into our coffee table — not a problem. Like a pinball hitting an electric wall, it careened off the table at an angle, heading in another direction. It managed to bang into every piece of furniture in our living room, but all the while it computed the size of the space. Soon, it began sweeping in long strokes across the floor, hugging the walls and the furniture, weaving its way through each room. All the while, our cats stalked our little motorized friend, Winston apparently more suspicious of its intentions than Dizzy. Winnie would maintain a reasonable distance, watching it alertly, while dizzy would occasionally forget it was coming right at him, leading to a couple of humorous, but harmless robot-feline collisions.

Considering the amount of cat hair we seem to have lying around because of the boys, the Roomba did a fine job vacuuming it up. Occasionally it would stumble upon a dust bunny in a corner, then would either drag it until it stuck on the carpet or blow it up in the air, but otherwise it managed to vacuum up what is was supposed to. It even picked up the bits of kibble that the cats had flicked across the kitchen floor. I was most impressed by its ability to go where no man had gone before — under our sofa and entertainment center, sucking up huge gobs of dust that had accumulated over months on end.

All and all, I think we’re going to get along with our Roomba just fine. I just wonder when our cats will get brave enough to pounce it…. -andy