the gene: an intimate history by siddhartha mukherjee


Hindu philosophers have long described the experience of “being” as a web—jaal. Genes form the threads of the web; the detritus that sticks is what transforms every individual web into a being. There is an exquisite precision in that mad scheme. Genes must carry out programmed responses to environments—otherwise, there would be no conserved form. But they must also leave exactly enough room for the vagaries of chance to stick. We call this intersection “fate.” We call our responses to it “choice.” An upright organism with opposable thumbs is thus built from a script, but built to go off script. We call one such unique variant of one such organism a “self.”



joi ito and barack obama in conversation with wired


Joi Ito, MIT Media Lab director, joined President Barack Obama in a far-reaching conversation about the role of technology led by Wired editor, Scott Dadich.

Here are some highlights. Note, this conversation occurred before the election.


Ito on his concerns concerning AI.

This may upset some of my students at MIT, but one of my concerns is that it’s been a predominately male gang of kids, mostly white, who are building the core computer science around AI, and they’re more comfortable talking to computers than to human beings. A lot of them feel that if they could just make that science-fiction, generalized AI, we wouldn’t have to worry about all the messy stuff like politics and society. They think machines will just figure it all out for us.

But they underestimate the difficulties, and I feel like this is the year that artificial intelligence becomes more than just a computer science problem. Everybody needs to understand that how AI behaves is important. In the Media Lab we use the term extended intelligence1. Because the question is, how do we build societal values into AI?


Obama on the government’s tech debt.

There is a whole bunch of work we have to do around getting government to be more customer friendly and making it at least as easy to file your taxes as it is to order a pizza or buy an airline ticket. Whether it’s encouraging people to vote or dislodging Big Data so that people can use it more easily or getting their forms processed online more simply—there’s a huge amount of work to drag the federal government and state governments and local governments into the 21st century. The gap between the talent in the federal government and the private sector is actually not wide at all. The technology gap, though, is massive. When I first got here I always imagined the Situation Room would be this supercool thing, like Tom Cruise in Minority Report, where he’d be moving around stuff. It’s not like that, at all. Particularly when it comes to hunting down terrorists on the other side of the globe, the movies display this omniscience that we possess somehow, and it’s—it’s just not there yet, and it has been drastically underfunded and not properly designed.


Obama on Star Trek.

I was a sucker for Star Trek when I was a kid. They were always fun to watch. What made the show lasting was it wasn’t actu­ally about technology. It was about values and relationships. Which is why it didn’t matter that the special effects were kind of cheesy and bad, right? They’d land on a planet and there are all these papier-mâché boulders. But it didn’t matter because it was really talking about a notion of a common humanity and a confidence in our ability to solve problems.

Star Trek, like any good story, says that we’re all complicated, and we’ve all got a little bit of Spock and a little bit of Kirk and a little bit of Scotty, maybe some Klingon in us, right? But that is what I mean about figuring it out. Part of figuring it out is being able to work across barriers and differences. There’s a certain faith in rationality, tempered by some humility. Which is true of the best art and true of the best science. The sense that we possess these incredible minds that we should use, and we’re still just scratching the surface, but we shouldn’t get too cocky. We should remind ourselves that there’s a lot of stuff we don’t know.


The saddest quote ever, perhaps, from Ito:

I think we’re in a golden period where people want to talk to each other. If we can make sure that the funding and the energy goes to support open sharing, there is a lot of upside. You can’t really get that good at it in a vacuum, and it’s still an international community for now.


The whole conversation is great, even if, on occasion, there’s this sinking feeling like you’re watching some once possible golden future quickly accelerate into the distant past.



  1. Extended intelligence is using machine learning to extend the abilities of human intelligence.

on friction, and the best and worst in all things

Hello, readers.

sisyphus_charcoal_concept_sketch01It’s hard to get started, and once you get going, it’s hard to stop. This is as true of writing, beginning an excercise regimen,1, or collecting bulk metadata. Also pushing a really big rock up a hill. But, anyway, enough of Sisyphus.

Here’s some food for thought in the form of a thought about friction which, strictly speaking, you can’t eat and so I’m not entirely sure why we metaphor our thoughts, or minds, as things with teeth. Though, well, I do like the image.2

Ben Thompson, writer of the Stratechery blog, wrote about his idea of FRICTION, or, more specifically, the current decline of it in so many areas of life. Mostly brought about by The Internet.

The Internet being a force for change on the scale of The Industrial Revolution, what rolled out changes over centuries and also war and trouble and people having hot water and cars and stuff.

His focus, in the article:

(1) How a frictionless Apple App Store actully makes it hard for developers to develop sustainable business because, whereas, at one time, it was really hard to get your product out there and so only a few did and those few garnered the bulk of the attention of consumers, now, the barrier to entry being low, there’s so much more competition that it’s harder for any app to stand out.

(2) How, while the bulk collection of meta-data may not be an entirely new tool in the law enforcement toolbox, the frictionless ease of such data collection brought about by moore’s law and ubiquitous cell networks has so increased the scale of such activities that it is worrisome.

(3) How the occasionally frictionlessness of the contemporary job market, allows some lucky folk, like Ben Thompson, to pick up and leave their home and work from anywhere, at the same time it allows some less lucky folk to be left unemployed at home as their employer, and their job, picks up and goes elsewhere.

Ben’s conclusion resonated with my paradoxical heart which, generally and simultaneously, sees the best and worst in all things.

Count me with those who believe the Internet is on par with the industrial revolution, the full impact of which stretched over centuries. And it wasn’t all good. Like today, the industrial revolution included a period of time that saw many lose their jobs and a massive surge in inequality. It also lifted millions of others out of sustenance farming. Then again, it also propagated slavery, particularly in North America. The industrial revolution led to new monetary systems, and it created robber barons. Modern democracies sprouted from the industrial revolution, and so did fascism and communism. The quality of life of millions and millions was unimaginably improved, and millions and millions died in two unimaginably terrible wars.

Change is guaranteed, but the type of change is not; never is that more true than today. See, friction makes everything harder, both the good we can do, but also the unimaginably terrible. In our zeal to reduce friction and our eagerness to celebrate the good, we ought not lose sight of the potential bad.

We are creating the future, and “better” does not win by default.

True facts.

Happy Wednesday, readers.


  1. As, I suppose, the lady in the gym today might attest that I am []

hyperbolic surfaces

Hello, readers.

The Guardian wrote about a collection of Jillian Tamaki called SuperMutant Magic Academy which, by the end of reading the title, you probably know whether you should take a look at it or not and the answer is of course you should in case you were still wondering which I don’t know what to do with you if that’s the case.

In essence, this is a book about raging hormones – think existential crises, black moods, impossible crushes and extreme lethargy – that just happens to come with a little magic on the side. (One character is too lazy to get up off the sofa and grab his wand, for all that he’s longing to use it to conjure up some nachos and guacamole.)


In the 21st century, only corporations get to own property and we’re their tenants

Also. Also.

I listened to THE GRANDEUR AND LIMITS OF SCIENCE on the walk to The British Library. It’s the episode of On Being wherein Krista Tippet talks to my new favorite person in the world Margaret Wertheim. I’m not sure why I bother to point out that this is my current favorite person in the world as though there are other worlds with other people which might result in my having different favorite people on different worlds and now that I think about it there’s a certain One Direction-al logic to it.

Wertheim writes, and acts, to place the worlds of math and physics in the context of their role in the world of experience (culture, crochet, what have you). She’s published books: Pythagoras’ Trousers: God, Physics, and the Gender Wars and The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace: A History of Space from Dante to the Internet, to name two. She started an institute called the Institute for Figuring, whose acronym (IFF) recalls the logic of if and only if and works to bring the aesthetic dimensions of science and mathematics to people. She gave a TED talk: The beautiful math of coral, about the beauty of coral and hyperbolic space and how that can best be understood through crochet.

About cyberspace.

Well, you know we do so much online. We’re in chat rooms. We’re in video games. I think generations of people bought up experiencing literally a sense of themselves existing or being and acting in a virtual universe. I think that generation will not accept pure materialism. And I think this is the great revolution of the cyber era, of the Internet era. The coming into being of virtual realities is representing that reality is not just matter in motion through physical space. And I think that’s absolutely wonderful.

She said smart things about god.

So what is my beliefs? And I’d like to put it this way: I don’t know that I believe in the existence of God in the Catholic sense. But my favorite book is the Divine Comedy. And at the end of the Divine Comedy, Dante pierces the skin of the universe and comes face to face with the love that moves the sun and the other stars. I believe that there is a love that moves the sun and the other stars. I believe in Dante’s vision. And so, in some sense, perhaps I could be said to believe in God. And I think part of the problem with the concept of, “Are you an atheist or not?” is that our conception of what divinity means has become so trivialized and banal that I think it’s almost impossible to answer the question without dogma.

About particles and waves.

Yes. Physics, for the past century, had this dualistic way of describing the world. One in terms of waves, which is usually conceived of as a continuous phenomena. And one in terms of particles, which is usually conceived of as a discrete or sort of digitized phenomena. And so quantum mechanics gives us the particle, as it were, discrete description. And general relativity gives us the wavelike, continuous description. And general relativity operates at the cosmological scale. And quantum mechanics operates so brilliantly at the subatomic scale. And these two theories don’t currently mathematically mesh. So the great hope of physics for the last 80 or so years has been, “Can we find a unifying framework that will combine general relativity and quantum mechanics into one mathematical synthesis?” And some people believe that that’s what string theory can be. And it’s often — when contemporary physicists write about the world, they talk about this as being a fundamental problem for reality. But it’s not a fundamental problem for reality. It’s a fundamental problem for human beings. The universe is just getting on with it.

One of the things that occurred to me while listening is how this is one of the places I live. In this particle/wave world in which depending on how you ask the question, I might answer in one or another or a third way. And thinking about the word “live” the thing I thought was that I really enjoy traveling between different worlds of thought in the way I enjoy traveling between different countries. Restless in body and mind. Descartes would probably say it that way. But with more words about stuff.

Happy travels, readers.



things you know but don’t know how to live with

Hello, readers.

It’s Tuesday.

Sometimes you read a book to remind yourself of something you already know but don’t know how to live with.

Several years ago, possibly on several Tuesdays, you could find me curled up in a comfy chair located near the back of a Barnes & Noble’s. I didn’t have very much money. The chair was very soft and very near a great many books. I used to sit in that chair and read books the library didn’t have. And also write.

One of the books I read in that chair was EATING ANIMALS by Jonathan Safran Foer.

The thing I knew but didn’t know how to live with was two things.

1) Animals for to be eaten were, and are, generally treated in a way that I didn’t support.
2) The system of factory farming pollutes and that didn’t seem too good either.

After reading Foer’s book, I decided to commit to being vegetarian. I could have committed to meatless mondays, or meatless weekends, or any number of things that might cut back on my consumption of meat. But, well, I didn’t choose those other things. I chose the first.

Two days ago, I bought CLIMATE CHANGED by Philippe Squarzoni. It’s a brilliant walk through the science of climate change framed through Squarzoni’s own life and his own love of stories, particularly films.

After I finish this book, I don’t know what I’ll do.

Sometimes I wonder how much of the money we raise to fight malaria and other such things is money that only exists because of the present state of things.

Sometimes I wonder if climate change is a movie we came in half-way through and the ending’s already set.

No one wants to deprive themselves of things.

The thing I know but don’t know how to live with is two things.

1) The present state of things can’t last.
2) Something has to change.

Vague. True.

That is my mood at the moment.

Vague and true.

In less than a month, I’m flying back to the U.S. to visit love and sort out bureaucracy. Maybe buy a new phone with a more awesome camera. These things will bring joy to my life.

No one wants to deprive themselves of things is a thing that Squarzoni says in CLIMATE CHANGED, and it’s true.

I grew up inside of the evolution of global warming discussion from possible to definite to denied to omgisittoolate? It’s always seemed real and just another thing for humanity to handle. Which we definitely would. Because clearly we’ve lasted this long. But. Well.

I wonder how much energy it takes to post a blog?

Happy Tuesday, readers.