"computing" entries

Biohacking: The next great wave of innovation

The hacker culture that launched the computing revolution is now taking root in the bio space.

Genspace and Biocurious logosI’ve been following synthetic biology for the past year or so, and we’re about to see some big changes. Synthetic bio seems to be now where the computer industry was in the late 1970s: still nascent, but about to explode. The hacker culture that drove the development of the personal computer, and that continues to drive technical progress, is forming anew among biohackers.

Computers certainly existed in the ’60s and ’70s, but they were rare, and operated by “professionals” rather than enthusiasts. But an important change took place in the mid-’70s: computing became the domain of amateurs and hobbyists. I read recently that the personal computer revolution started when Steve Wozniak built his own computer in 1975. That’s not quite true, though. Woz was certainly a key player, but he was also part of a club. More important, Silicon Valley’s Homebrew Computer Club wasn’t the only one. At roughly the same time, a friend of mine was building his own computer in a dorm room. And hundreds of people, scattered throughout the U.S. and the rest of the world, were doing the same thing. The revolution wasn’t the result of one person: it was the result of many, all moving in the same direction.

Biohacking has the same kind of momentum. It is breaking out of the confines of academia and research laboratories. There are two significant biohacking hackerspaces in the U.S., GenSpace in New York and BioCurious in California, and more are getting started. Making glowing bacteria (the biological equivalent of “Hello, World!”) is on the curriculum in high school AP bio classes. iGem is an annual competition to build “biological robots.” A grassroots biohacking community is developing, much as it did in computing. That community is transforming biology from a purely professional activity, requiring lab coats, expensive equipment, and other accoutrements, to something that hobbyists and artists can do.

As part of this transformation, the community is navigating the transition from extremely low-level tools to higher-level constructs that are easier to work with. When I first leaned to program on a PDP-8, you had to start the computer by loading a sequence of 13 binary numbers through switches on the front panel. Early microcomputers weren’t much better, but by the time of the first Apples, things had changed. DNA is similar to machine language (except it’s in base four, rather than binary), and in principle hacking DNA isn’t much different from hacking machine code. But synthetic biologists are currently working on the notion of “standard biological parts,” or genetic sequences that enable a cell to perform certain standardized tasks. Standardized parts will give practitioners the ability to work in a “higher level language.” In short, synthetic biology is going through the same transition in usability that computing saw in the ’70s and ’80s. Read more…

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Four short links: 29 August 2012

Four short links: 29 August 2012

NeoVictorian Computing, Participatory Budgeting, Micro Thrusters, and Geopositioning Accuracy

  1. NeoVictorian Computing (Mark Bernstein) — read this! I think we all woke up one day to find ourselves living in the software factory. The floor is hard, from time to time it gets very cold at night, and they say the factory is going to close and move somewhere else. […] The Arts & Crafts movement failed in consumer goods, but it could succeed in software. (via James Governor)
  2. Participatory Budgetingresearch shows participation is more effective than penalties in taxation compliance. Participation is more effective than penalties in almost everything.
  3. MIT-Developed Microthrustersa flat, compact square — much like a computer chip — covered with 500 microscopic tips that, when stimulated with voltage, emit tiny beams of ions. Together, the array of spiky tips creates a small puff of charged particles that can help propel a shoebox-sized satellite forward. You say satellite, but it’s only a matter of time until this powers a DIY RC rocket with a camera payload. (via Hacker News)
  4. Yelp Checkins to Measure Geopositioning Accuracy Across PhonesBy analyzing millions of data points, we can easily see how, on average, different platforms perform. iPhones consistently have the most accurate positioning, with a fairly small accuracy radius. Android phones are often inaccurate, but reliably reported that inaccuracy. And finally, iPods using Wi-Fi positioning proved the least accurate and usually reported incorrect accuracy radii.
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Dennis Ritchie's legacy of elegantly useful tools

We need more people who share Dennis Ritchie's spirit.

"UNIX is basically a simple operating system, but you have to be a genius to understand the simplicity," Dennis Ritchie once said. It's true, and we need more geniuses who share his spirit.

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Dennis Ritchie Day

On 10/30/11 let's remember the contributions of computing pioneer Dennis Ritchie.

I don't have the convening power of a governor, but for those of us around the world who care, I hereby declare this Sunday, October 30 to be Dennis Ritchie Day.

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"Revolution in the Valley," revisited

Andy Hertzfeld on the Macintosh's early days and its long-term legacy.

With "Revolution in the Valley" making its paperback debut and the work of Steve Jobs fresh in people's minds, we checked in with Andy Hertzfeld to discuss the legacy of the first Macintosh.

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Grumpy old men, the "Inmates" and margins

iPad, iPhone and the future of computing

As the iPad descends upon us, it is fair to ask, "Is this the beginning of the end, or the end of the beginning?" Depending upon whom you ask, the conclusions vary widely. The yin and yang of openness vs. integrated raises a fundamental question that underscores the battle being fought in the simmering industry battle between Apple and Google.

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The iPad and computing's middle ground

How much computing happens between the phone and the laptop? We'll see.

The iPad doesn't quite achieve full-fledged "embedded" status, but Marc Hedlund says it does move computers and networks closer to activities that so far have been difficult to reach. One simple example: Phil Schiller's demo of the iWork spreadsheet app, Numbers, in the iPad launch keynote showed a spreadsheet tracking a local soccer team. It's a great demo. Would you carry a laptop around a soccer field?

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