Bits & Genes

March 14, 2017 • #

As I started The Gene, I was assuming it’d be framed as a history of genetics. There’s a significant amount of history on the discoveries made the last few centuries as scientists gained an understanding of how hereditary traits are encoded and transmitted. But my favorite parts of the narrative are when Mukherjee seeks to look at the gene as the fundamental building block, making comparisons to bits and atoms.

It reminded me of another book I’d like to revisit: James Gleick’s The Information. That book is to bits what The Gene was to genetics. Claude Shannon’s information theory shares so many parallels with genetics: both required technology to see nanoscopic things, rested on huge amounts of prior knowledge in physics, chemistry, and mathematics, and involved breaking down building blocks into ever more tiny requisite parts. Nearly all of our understanding of each of these sciences was gained since about 1950. We’re only just figuring out the fundamentals of both, and the potential for engineering them to our whims — through advancements in computing and AI on one end and gene splicing and gene therapy on the other. Genes are biological information. So I wonder what the next few decades will look like as the two disciplines start to converge.

Form Defining Function

February 16, 2017 • #

I’m currently reading Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Gene, a history of the building block of living things. A great read, the right mix of history and discussion of future possibilities like gene manipulation, splicing, and cloning (good or bad).

This bit struck me about the construction of anything, not just living organisms. It’s not the parts, but the relationship between parts that gives a structure its function:

A boat is not made of planks, it’s the relationship between planks. If you hammer a hundred strips on top of each other you get a wall, side to side you get a deck. Only a particular configuration, relationship, and order makes a boat.

Humans and worms have the about the same number of genes (about 20,000), and yet only one of these organisms is capable of painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. This suggests that the number of genes is largely unimportant to the physiological complexity of the organism.

Think about this with genes, bits, or atoms. It’s the same with all building blocks — the right pieces are nothing without the right relationships.

Books of 2016

January 18, 2017 • #

I haven’t done a book roundup in a couple of years. This year was more fiction than non-fiction, and my near-term list will probably continue that trend.

Books of 2016

Annals of the Former World, John McPhee. 1998.

Top of the list for sure was this epic work from John McPhee. I wrote about this one in detail earlier this year. It’s a natural history of North America, told in 4 parts as McPhee travels with renowned geologists across the continent along I-80. Each part features a distinct aspect of geology — the Nevada basin and range, plate tectonics, glaciation and the Ice Age, Rocky Mountain uplifts, erosion in Appalachia, and the volcanism of Yellowstone. It’s an awesome example of narrative non-fiction to explore esoteric subject matter like geology. Couldn’t recommend it highly enough.

Altered Carbon and Broken Angels, Richard K. Morgan. 2002, 2003.

Westworld captured the zeitgeist of TV over the fall of last year. Its timing is just right to capitalize on the paranoia and unknown of what is now no longer science fiction: the development of artificial intelligence we now encounter in everyday life. While Morgan’s Altered Carbon isn’t really about AI specifically (though AIs feature heavily as characters), there are concepts he was writing about in Carbon that fit right in with much of the science as presented in Westworld.

Bay City in Altered Carbon

Morgan wrote a trilogy featuring his antihero protagonist Takeshi Kovacs, a super-trained mercenary soldier in a 25th century future. A foundational concept of this universe is that humans have developed the ability to digitize human consciousness. With mind decoupled from body, people have their consciousness stored in “cortical stacks” installed at the base of their brain, meaning they can transfer between bodies, a process known as “resleeving”.

I’ve read the first two parts of the trilogy so far. Altered Carbon is a hard-boiled detective novel with Kovacs on Earth to help solve the murder of a billionaire “meth” (a “methuselah” is someone rich enough to live forever, endlessly resleeved). Broken Angels is a war novel with Kovacs caught in the midst of a war between a mercenary army and rebel extremists, all the while attempting a heist of an alien spacecraft. I loved both of these books and am already reading part 3. As a fan of William Gibson’s work, I could feel the influence of Neuromancer in style and substance in Morgan’s writing. The novels are chock full of originality and, like all great sci-fi, full of cool technology and political intrigue.

The Pine Barrens, John McPhee. 1978.

Pine Barrens

Another one from McPhee, this one a shorter work about the New Jersey Pine Barrens — a classic example of what makes his writing so compelling. He’s the only non-fiction writer I’ve ever read who could take such a seemingly-bland geography and its inhabitants and create a book that I couldn’t put down. He strikes just the right balance of building characters out of his subjects, describing the uniqueness of the geography, and conveying the importance of the people and places.

Elon Musk: Inventing the Future, Ashlee Vance. 2012.

I don’t read many outright biographies because I think they tend to be too long and focus on too many aspects of the subject I don’t care about. There’s a tendency to put too much emphasis on microscopic events in youth as extremely formative of future goals, decisions, and career moves. This one on super-magnate Elon Musk did a good job spending the majority of the time on Musk’s professional career and steps to where he is now: CEO or otherwise chief influencer of a half dozen companies and initiatives. As a creator of things, I like learning about the step-by-step processes people (or companies) take to reach goals in the face of detractors. In Musk’s case, no one else sets goals and chews away at them like him. “We need to get to Mars to save humanity” is about as Big as it gets when it comes to goal setting.

The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon, Brad Stone. 2013.

Amazon is my favorite company to follow in the tech space these days. Apple and Google do big, cool stuff, but they can’t touch Amazon in disrupting and transforming Old World “physical” industries. From shipping, warehousing, and logistics to datacenter management and (now) artificial intelligence, they’re an awesome example of how taking the long view on a business strategy can win you the market, if you can weather the storms along the way. Somehow Jeff Bezos has been able to woo shareholders into letting him bet big on what seem like insane new ventures with all of Amazon’s earnings each year. It’s part biography and part corporate history, well-researched and thorough in telling the whole story from start to finish.

Stories of Your Life and Others, Ted Chiang. 2002

Stories of Your Life and Others

This collection is 8 diverse works from Ted Chiang, science fiction author and short story specialist. My favorite thing about this collection (I’ve never read any of his work before this) is how wildly different each piece is, and how original they are. Of the 8 pieces, each one of them is one-of-a-kind. Sci-fi tends to be derivative of itself and accretive. It’s rare that I read a sci-fi work where I don’t say “Oh, this is sort of like insert novel here”. First is “Tower of Babylon”, a literalized retelling of the Tower of Babel myth. The fascinating “Seventy-Two Letters” tells of two scientists who discover true names for creating human life. Then there’s “Story of Your Life”, a personal narrative of a linguist telling her daughter’s life story, after her perception of time is changed when she learns an alien language1. That last one’s a tear-jerker.

If you’re looking for something off the beaten path of sci-fi and thought-provoking, check this one out.

Reamde, Neal Stephenson. 2011.

I’ve read a few of Stephenson’s other works, which are always good for an outlandish, mind-bending story. This one fits into the more traditional “technothriller” class, his take on Tom Clancy. Even though it’s a traditionally plotting thriller, he packs it dense with the trademark Stephenson flair. Who else could mix an MMORPG video game, Chinese hackers, Russian mafia, and Islamic terrorists into a single intertwining story?

Countdown to Zero Day, Kim Zetter. 2014.

This is an excellent account of Stuxnet, the computer worm built to sabotage the Iranian nuclear program. The whole story is a terrifying look at the dark side of technology when connected systems are exploited. Not only is it possible to compromise sensitive information at scale, attackers can now effect changes in the physical world by exploiting flaws in industrial control systems. The “Internet of Things” certainly presents an exciting future where any object can be connected to the web, but Stuxnet demonstrates what happens when those connections are twisted with malicious intent.

The Exile Kiss, George Alec Effinger. 1991.

Marid Audran series

A few years back I read parts 1 and 2 of this series, and Exile wraps it up. In the same vein as Altered Carbon or Neuromancer, this series follows Marîd Audran, a hustler and enforcer in an organized crime syndicate. Effinger’s world shows a future where the Middle East is the world’s economic powerhouse, with the West in decline. Audran is framed for the murder of a police officer and stranded with his crime boss in the open desert of the Empty Quarter, and recruit the assistance of a Bedouin tribe to return and exact revenge. A fantastically original work of “cyberpunk” fiction. Read the whole series.

The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution, Francis Fukuyama. 2011.

Out of character for me, this was the only history book I read all year, but it was a great one. Fukuyama traces human institutions and social structures from the prehistoric all the way through to modernity, along the way analyzing the aspects that made societies form the way that they did. It’s fascinating to see the influence of geography, religion, biology, and cultural development on how government institutions developed over time. I found the time he spends discussing state structures in China and rule of law in India to be the most interesting bits of this book, since those subjects are largely invisible in civics education in the West. How someone can research and write something so extensive, I have no idea. There’s a second part called Political Order and Political Decay that I’m interested in reading this year.

  1. If this sounds familiar, it was adapted into the 2016 film “Arrival”. 

Canvas podcast series on Workflow

November 30, 2016 • #

If you’re a podcast listener and an iOS user of productivity apps, you should subscribe to the Canvas podcast. Hosted by Federico Vittici (of MacStories) and Fraser Spiers, these guys know all there is about making the iPad into a tool for getting real work done.

They’ve been doing a series on Workflow, the powerful app for iOS task automation. I love this app and use it a ton for a few simple, yet repetitive everyday tasks from my phone.

Hopefully they continue the series with additional stuff on how they’re using Workflow to tie together processes for iPad-based work.

Podcast Rotation, 2016

April 19, 2016 • #

My podcast subscription library keeps growing. It’s been a while since I’ve shared anything about what I’m listening to regularly in my rotation. If I’m not listening to audiobooks, I’m keeping up with my podcast stream. Writing down this update of what I subscribe to is actually eye-opening. If I’d have guessed ahead of time, I’d have said I have about half this many subscriptions.

Here’s my current library as of early 2016, 36 feeds strong. I’ve broken it up by category, roughly organized in terms of my listening priority. For anyone wondering, there are only a handful I listen to every episode of, most I pick and choose as new shows are released. I listen to everything in Overcast.

Business & Technology

  • Exponent - One of my current favorites in the rotation, a show about tech business hosted by Ben Thompson. It’s his opportunity to expound on his writing on Stratechery. Membership to his Daily Update is worth every penny, and the podcast is a great side dish to the blog.
  • a16z Podcast - From Andreesen-Horowitz, the VC firm, covering trends in the tech business space. Always has excellent interviews, and their position in Silicon Valley gives them access to insightful guests. I always like their focus on startups in the enterprise space.
  • Track Changes - This is a newly-launched show from the guys at Postlight, Paul Ford and Rich Ziade. I’ve been reading Paul’s blog for years, and this show is a hilarious, enjoyable extension of the topics he’s always paid attention to in his writing.
  • Accidental Tech Podcast - One of the few I’ve heard every episode of. Marco Arment (developer of Overcast), Casey Liss, and John Siracusa talking about technology news, mostly. Can get pretty geeky, but they always have great discussion on what’s current in tech.
  • The Talk Show - Been reading Daring Fireball for years. This is the place to get the audio accompaniment to the blog.
  • Slack Variety Pack - Everyone uses Slack now. They launched this show which is a fun combination of interviews, stories, and discussions about teamwork in office environments.
  • Inside Intercom - Intercom is a platform for product support and marketing, but they’ve got a great blog that covers a lot on product development and business.
  • Product Hunt - Just recently subscribed to this one. The Product Hunt team talks to founders, investors, and product managers.

Geek Stuff

  • StarTalk Radio - Neil DeGrasse-Tyson and special guests talk about science, space, physics, and more.
  • Idle Thumbs - One of the few I’ve subscribed to since episode 1, the only show I listen to about games. I don’t even play video games at all anymore, but I still listen to Idle Thumbs every week.
  • Debug - Rene Ritchie and Guy English interview tech luminaries about software development. Often gets way deep on some detailed tech.
  • Reconcilable Differences - Merlin Mann and John Siracusa
  • Canvas - Federico Vittici’s podcast about mobile productivity. He’s the ultimate resource on the topic, uses his iPad for everything. His MacStories blog is also excellent.
  • Upgrade - A general technology news show with Jason Snell (formerly of MacWorld, now SixColors) and Myke Hurley.
  • Mac Power Users - Hosted by David Sparks and Katie Floyd with a rotation of guests and topics on Apple technology productivity.
  • Back to Work - Merlin Mann and Dan Benjamin on productivity, work, and communication. And a bunch of other extraneous topics. Always a fun listen.
  • The Incomparable - One of the only geek culture shows I listen to. Roundtable discussions of movies, TV shows, and books.
  • Under the Radar - A show about mostly iOS development with Marco Arment and David Smith.

Culture & Stories

  • 99% Invisible - Roman Mars hosts short and sweet episodes on architecture, cities, and infrastructure design.
  • Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History - Dan Carlin’s multi-episode series about different historical periods.
  • Here’s the Thing - Hosted by Alec Baldwin, an interview show with artists, politicians, public figures.
  • Radiolab - My personal favorite in this category. Audio documentaries about technology and science.
  • This American Life - A staple for years, probably for most podcast listeners.
  • Serial - A spinoff of This American Life. Longform stories told week by week, like a radio version of a TV miniseries.

News & Current Events

  • Intelligence Squared U.S. Debates - Debate show covering many diverse, complex topics.
  • PRI’s The World - The only general news show I listen to, only occasionally.
  • FiveThirtyEight Elections - I’ve gotten addicted to this lately during this wild election year. Nate Silver and FiveThirtyEight crew on politics.
  • The Loopcast - The best show on security / international relations issues. Always great guests and informed discussion.

Sports

  • Effectively Wild - The daily podcast from Baseball Prospectus. I have no idea how these guys do a show every day, and it’s always worth listening to for baseball fans.
  • Howler Radio - The podcast associated with the quarterly soccer magazine, Howler. George Quraishi with guests, players, coaches.
  • Hot Takedown - FiveThirtyEight’s sports show.

Miscellaneous Others

  • Causality - A show that analyzes the causes and effects of disasters and accidents. Hosted by John Chidgey.
  • What’s The Point? - Another FiveThirtyEight show, this time stories about data.
  • Modern Woodworkers Association Podcast - A chance to get ideas about potential woodworking projects, even though I spend hardly anytime on this hobby. This keeps the dream alive.
  • Designer Notes - A show in the Idle Thumbs catalog. Interviews with game designers.
  • Liftoff - Jason Snell and Stephen Hackett. A show about space, aerospace news, physics, and more.

Until I put this list together and saw the feed URLs, I had no idea how many were hosted on Soundcloud these days.

For anyone masochistic enough to subscribe to all these shows in one mouse click (or finger tap), here’s my feed list OPML file.

Nine Months

April 15, 2016 • #

I haven’t written anything yet about becoming a dad. Let this be the first post of (hopefully) many chronicling the experience.

My daughter Elyse was born in July of 2015. She’s nine months old now, and doing fantastic. But this post isn’t really about what’s happened with her so far, that’s for my private journal. This is about my personal experiences so far with fatherhood.

When we decided to try for a baby I was excited, as excited as you can be when you have no idea what’s in front of you. I’m now a firm believer that no first-time parent has a clue what they’re in for at that stage, regardless of the endless stream of advice from all sources leading up to the day your kid is born. You can endlessly attempt to imagine what it’ll be like — the big changes, the joy, the long nights, the hundreds of things you won’t be able to do anymore. But the day your baby shows up it all gets erased and you just do it.

To be sure, the hard parts are hard. The conscious decision to have a child should mean you’re okay with forfeiting your personal time, some or all of your sleep schedule, and adding a pile of constant worry for the health and safety of someone who needs you 24/7. Knowing all those things ahead of time doesn’t help much in preparation; it’s still hard. It takes incredible energy to commit to doing things right. I’d also add that the definition of what’s right is completely unclear at points, no matter what sources of advice you have. Should the baby be making that sound? Why is she crying differently now? She sounds raspy… what should we do? These moments happen all the time, especially in the first few months, and you have to get good at rolling with it and figuring it out. Colette and I have always relied on self-sufficiency and solved our own problems and still, not easy.

Elyse and her cousin

With all the strain a baby puts on various parts of your life, there are, of course, the good parts. And the good parts are really good.

I love coming home in the evening after work to a huge smile and squealing laughter when I walk in the door. I take her on runs to get her out of the house to give Colette time to spend alone or to get out of the house on her own. We make the occasional trip to the hardware store to shop for house projects (“baby-in-carrier” is a great look when you’re in the plywood section). I spend mornings with her on the weekends to (try to) let Colette sleep in. We make coffee, play in her room, and watch the early soccer matches. We take her everywhere with us and try to maximize the social time she gets out and about. It helps us keep our own sanity, but also gets her used to being around others for when she’s eventually playing with other kids.

Elyse is small both in weight and length, but she’s been alert and active since the first few weeks. She could hold her head up pretty well after a few months, started trying to stand up by herself around five months, and now cruises around our living room and her bedroom all over the place at eight. She’s inches away from taking her first solo steps.