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Goodbye Mr. Dorf

I was saddened to discover, upon checking my favorite RSS reader that Sheldon Dorf, founder of the San Diego Comic Con which I have grown fond of passed away today (Yahoo News link).

SAN DIEGO – Sheldon Dorf, who founded the world famous Comic-Con International comic book convention, has died. He was 76.

A longtime friend, Greg Koudoulian, says the Ocean Beach resident died at a San Diego hospital on Tuesday from kidney failure. He had diabetes and had been hospitalized for about a year.
Dorf, a freelance artist and comic strip letterer, founded Comic-Con in San Diego in 1970 after moving from Detroit.

Today, the convention draws 125,000 fans a year and is a major gathering for comic book fans, artists, writers and movie stars.

Koudoulian says Dorf was friends with comic greats such as Marvel artist Jack Kirby and “Peanuts” creator Charles Schulz. He says Dorf was also instrumental in helping budding artists find audiences.

Farewell, Mr. Dorf. Hopefully you enjoy yourself in the great comic book convention in the sky…

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Abacus 2.0

I’ve blogged before about the power of Wolfram Alpha, Mathematica creator Wolfram Research’s powerful online “knowledge engine” which is capable of, among other things, balancing chemical equations, looking up star charts, doing math, and even looking up medical information.

But it’s good to know that, despite the sophisticated computational engine which underlies it, Wolfram Alpha hasn’t forgotten its “ancestor” the abacus, a tool used by many cultures before the dawn of the electronics age.


Like a respectful child, Wolfram Alpha pays respects to its ancestors with a feature which allows you to see how any number would be represented in abacus form. Case in point, I entered the search string “abacus 24” into the Wolfram Alpha engine and got:


Abacus 2.0?

(Image credit – abacus)(results from Wolfram Alpha engine)

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Innovator’s Business Model

image A few weeks back, I wrote a quick overview of Clayton Christensen’s explanation for how new technologies/products can “disrupt” existing products and technologies. In a nutshell, Christensen explains that new “disruptive innovations” succeed not because they win in a head-to-head comparison with existing products (i.e. laptops versus desktops), but because they have three things:

  1. Good enough performance in one area for a certain segment of users (i.e. laptops were generally good enough to run simple productivity applications)
  2. Very strong performance on an unrelated feature which eventually will become very important for more than one small niche (i.e. laptops were portable, desktops were not, and that became very important as consumers everywhere started demanding laptops)
  3. Have the potential to improve by leveraging their industry learning curve to the point where they can compete head-to-head with an existing product (i.e. laptops now can be as fast if not faster than most desktops)

But, while most people think of Christensen’s findings as applied to product and technology shifts, this model of how innovations overtake one another can be just as easily applied to business models.

A great example of this lies in the semiconductor industry. For years, the dominant business model for semiconductor companies was the Integrated Device Manufacturer (IDM) model – a business model whereby semiconductor companies both designed and manufactured their own product. The primary benefit of this was tighter integration of design and manufacturing. Semiconductor manufacturing is highly sophisticated, requiring all sorts of specialized processes and chemicals and equipment, and there are a great deal of intricacies between one’s designs and one’s manufacturing process. Having both design and manufacturing under one roof allowed IDMs to create better products more quickly as they were able to exploit the interplays between design and manufacturing and more readily correct problems as they arose. IDMs were also able to tweak their manufacturing processes to push specific features, letting IDMs differentiate their products from their peers.

image But, a new semiconductor model emerged in the early 1990s – the fabless model. Unlike the IDM model, fabless companies don’t own their own semiconductor factories (called fabs – hence the name “fabless”) and outsource their manufacturing to either IDMs with spare manufacturing capacity or dedicated contract manufacturers called foundries (the two largest of which are based in Taiwan).

At first, the industry scoffed at the fabless model. After all, these companies could not tightly link their designs to manufacturing, had to rely on the spare capacity of IDMs (who would readily take it away if they needed it) or on foundries in Taiwan, China, and Singapore which lagged the leading IDMs in manufacturing capability by several years.

But, the key to Christensen’s disruptive innovation model is not that the “new” is necessarily better than the “old,” but that it is good enough on one dimension and great on other, more important dimensions. So, while fabless companies were at first unable to keep up in terms of bleeding edge manufacturing technology with the dominant IDMs, the fabless model had a significant cost advantage (due to fabless companies not needing to build and operate expensive fabs) and strategic advantage, as their management could focus their resources and attention on building the best designs rather than also worrying about running a smooth manufacturing setup.

The result? Fabless companies like Xilinx, NVIDIA, Qualcomm, and Broadcom took the semiconductor industry by storm, growing rapidly and bringing their allies, the foundries, along with them to achieve technological parity with the leading IDMs. This model has been so successful that, today, much of the semiconductor space is either fabless or pursuing a fab-lite model (where they outsource significant volumes to foundries, while holding on to a few fabs only for certain products), and TSMC, the world’s largest foundry, is considered to be on par in manufacturing technology with the last few leading IDMs (i.e. Intel and Samsung). This gap has been closed so impressively, in fact, that former IDM-technology leaders like Texas Instruments and Fujitsu have now decided to rely on TSMC for their most advanced manufacturing technology.

To use Christensen’s logic: the fabless model was “good enough” on manufacturing technology for a niche of semiconductor companies, but great in terms of cost. This cost advantage helped the fabless companies and their allies, the foundries, to quickly move up the learning curve and advance in technological capability to the point where they disrupted the old IDM business model.

This type of disruptive business model innovation is not limited to imagethe semiconductor industry. A couple of weeks ago The Economist ran a great series of articles on the mobile phone “ecosystem” in emerging markets. The entire time while I was reading it, I was struck by the numerous ways in which the rise of the mobile phone in emerging markets was creating disruptive business models. One in particular caught my eye as something which was very similar to the fabless semiconductor model story: the so-called “Indian model” of managing a mobile phone network.

Traditional Western/Japanese mobile phone carriers like AT&T and Verizon set up very expensive networks using equipment that they purchase from telecommunications equipment providers like Nokia-Siemens, Alcatel-Lucent, and Ericsson. (In theory,) the carriers are able to invest heavily in their own networks to roll out new services and new coverage because they own their own networks and because they are able to charge customers, on average, ~$50/month. These investments (in theory) produce better networks and services which reinforce their ability to charge premium dollar on a per customer basis.

In emerging markets, this is much harder to pull off since customers don’t have enough money to pay $50/month. The “Indian model”, which began in emerging countries like India, is a way for carriers in  low-cost countries to adapt to the cost constraints imposed by the inability of customers to pay high $50/month bills, and is generally thought to consist of two pieces. The first involves having multiple carriers share large swaths of network infrastructure, something which many Western carriers shied away from due to intellectual property fears and questions of who would pay for maintenance/traffic/etc. Another plank of the “Indian model” is to outsource network management to equipment providers (Ericsson helped to pioneer this model, in much the same way that the foundries helped the first fabless companies take off) — again, something traditional carrier shied away from given the lack of control a firm would have over its own infrastructure and services.

Just as in the fabless semiconductor company case, this low-cost network management business model has many risks, but it has enabled carriers in India, Africa, and Latin America to focus on getting and retaining customers, rather than building expensive networks. The result? We’re starting to see some Western carriers adopt “Indian model” style innovations. One of the most prominent examples of this is Sprint’s deal to outsource its day-to-day network operations to Ericsson! Is this a sign that the “Indian model” might disrupt the traditional carrier model? Only time will tell, but I wouldn’t be surprised.

(Image credit) (Image credit – Foundry market share) (Image credit – mobile users via Economist)


USB H4x0rz

Back when I was still posting on Xhibiting, I was especially fond of interesting USB gadgets. Well, my good friend Anthony pointed me to this interesting gadget that he found out about through Engadget which takes my USB fascination to a whole new level:


The product is from Thumbs Up! and apparently, after plugging it into someone’s computer, will erratically turn on and off the caps lock, type out random text, and make random mouse movement. Better, still:

“Handily, the Prankster features a time delay setting, so that after installing it, you can make your getaway safely before it starts misbehaving.”

Glad to see they were thinking ahead. Thankfully, this is meant more to be a nuisance than a security risk, as its designed not to hit “Enter” or open/close files:

“The Prankster is highly annoying, but it’ll never activate the ‘enter’ key or close or save documents, so it’s mostly mischievous, not super-dangerous.”

Even so, to cover themselves morally (and possibly legally?), they note:

“However, it probably shouldn’t be used on computers that control nuclear reactors, security systems for genetically recreated dinosaur parks and/or zombie experimentation units, captured alien spacecraft or freezers packed with delicious ice cream.”

And all only for 20 British pounds!

(Image source – Thumbs Up)

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Businesses need to see the trends that will affect their performance, whether they be technical trends, business model trends, or economic trends. One trend which I haven’t seen as many companies factor in (although you see many governments talking about it) is age demographics.

Here is a very cool graph on how US population demographics will evolve over time as taken from the Calculated Risk blog (HT: Jeff L). In particular, I find the “Baby Boom” bulge (the wave of youngsters that came of age beginning from 1950-1970) moving towards the right to be very illuminating:


It highlights a trend which Japan is only beginning to grapple with – the “graying” of the American population that comes with the Baby Boomers becoming older. If Japan is any indication, that means the US will see a few things:

  • Rise in pension/Social Security costs and payments for care for the elderly
  • Decline in average wages as fewer lower-paid and younger workers replace more retiring higher-paid workers
  • Socio-economic changes that come from a smaller working-class population which needs to support a larger elderly population
  • Change in the political system as a balance will be sought between a growing importance in the elderly vote and the need for governments/companies to change the pension/healthcare payment balance and the ability of medical science to extend the workable years for elderly individuals
  • Change in business world as the elderly become more tech-savvy and become a more significant piece of the consumer population

If I were a business-owner looking at the long-term, I’d be looking long and hard at this list, and making investments into understanding how to convert these broad social/economic/political trends into insights which I can use to create a competitive advantage. For instance, if I were working in corporate strategy at Facebook, I’d be thinking of:

  • ways to make the site more attractive for the new generation of tech-savvy elderly
  • how to make my social network asset more valuable for elderly users (e.g. ways to make it easier to connect with old friends or family, ways to create mentoring relationships between older, more experience users and younger, less experienced ones, etc)
  • how to get useful ads that the elderly are more likely to pay attention to

Any other ideas on how things will change because of the demographic shift, and how businesses might adapt to them?

(Image credit)

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Wolfram|Alpha reaches out to students

In educational circles, there’s always a philosophical debate between those educators who favor allowing their students to use tools like TI-89’s or computer algebra-capable software like Mathematica and those who don’t, with those favoring their use citing the ability of the tools to expand the scope of the curriculum, and with those opposed worried about the tools supplanting the instincts that long practice engenders.

I personally am in favor of using such tools, as they allow a classroom to extend beyond simply learning how to do basic procedures to looking at real-world problems which are far harder and far more interesting than the simple “toy problems” which classrooms requiring all work to be done “old school” are limited to. But, even I have to say that the latest blog post by Wolfram|Alpha makes this supporter of new technical tools in classrooms a little wary.

Over on the Bench Press blog, we’ve posted a couple of times on the power of the new “computational knowledge engine” Wolfram|Alpha (brought to you by the makers of Mathematica) and its ability to help provide contextual medical and astronomical information, in addition to answers to sophisticated Mathematica queries.

Now, this should raise the eyebrows of any teacher who finds him/herself wondering if his/her students are “cheating” with computer algebra systems. And, what will raise their eyebrows even further is Wolfram’s latest post entitled, “College is Hard. Wolfram|Alpha makes it easier.

I kid you not. Have problems balancing equations in chemistry? Just have Wolfram|Alpha do it:


Need to calculate a Taylor Series? Have Wolfram|Alpha do it:


I find myself asking – why didn’t I have this when I was in college?

(Image credits – Wolfram|Alpha blog)

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Ed Glaeser Advice on Storytime for Kids

Ed Glaeser was an economics professor of mine in college. He proudly called his class “boot camp” for economists and noted that while his class reviews always said that his class was “too difficult and too fast”, he never planned to change it.

When I found out that he wrote a piece for the New York Time’s Economix blog on how to stir in economics lessons to childhood fairy tales, I was intrigued:

“If you are an economics-minded parent of young children, like me, then you may also have spent long hours wondering how to teach economics to your toddlers. Luckily, much-loved children stories can be made far more delightful with a healthy dose of supply-and-demand charts. Many such tales already include their own hidden economic messages that only need to be exposed to bring edification and enjoyment to the under-5 set.”


The Three Little Pigs,” for example, is more than just a story about the value of better building materials. Like a whole host of fairy tales (“The Ant and the Grasshopper,” or “The Goose with the Golden Egg”), it teaches that sensible investment can yield high returns.”

He gives  few other examples which led me to wonder, why is Glaeser so interested in fairy tales? Apparently, its because his first paper was on Cinderella:

“The first thing I ever published in an academic journal was “The Cinderella Paradox Resolved,” which purported to make sense of the odd fact that Cinderella’s parents invested in only two of their three siblings, despite the fact that standard economics pushes toward more equitable arrangements.

The story itself explains this fact with “The Wicked Stepmother Hypothesis,” a reasonable but excessively straightforward explanation of the decision to ignore Cinderella. I offered a distinctly less plausible explanation. The marriage market in Cinderella’s country was a tournament, where marrying the prince carried high rewards and everyone else was a mouse, pumpkin, etc.

In a first-past-the-post race, it often makes sense to lavish investment on only one or two competitors, which makes the stepmother’s behavior entirely rational. Of course, the stepmother did choose to back the wrong horse, but that just makes her unwise, not wicked.

As I explain this logic to my children, they respond with the glazed and distinctly annoyed looks that conveys to me their inner joy. I am sure that you will get the same reaction.”

So, do I take advice from Glaeser on how to raise my kids? On the one hand, he is an intelligent, wealthy, well-dressed man (always wore 3-piece suits if my memory serves me), who smokes a cigar. On the other hand, he was giving our class a lecture on the Slutsky Equation while his wife was in labor (probably with one of the kids who had to listen to this “re-telling” of Cinderella)…

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Capillary Calendar

This little gem of an idea was shared to me via Google Reader by my friend Cat of Pizza Diavola. Spanish designer Oscar Diaz took the usually boring concept of a calendar and came up with a way to really make it pop.
Through the power of capillary action (for you laypeople, what allows paper towels to soak up water), Diaz has created a calendar which slowly sucks up paint as the days in a month go by. The result? One hell of a calendar:
The full calendar has colors which “relate to a “color temperature scale”, each month having a color related to our perception of the weather on that month. The colors range from dark blue in December to three shades of green in spring or orange and red in the summer.”
It is apparently on display until October 11th at the Circulo de Bellas Artas in Madrid.
(Image credit)

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The Essays of the Oracle of Omaha

image I recently finished reading The Essays of Warren Buffett: Lessons for Corporate America, a great collection of some of multibillionaire Warren Buffett’s greatest writings on business as collected and introduced by Lawrence Cunningham, and would highly recommend it to anyone who wants to know a bit more about investing or business or both.

The book is organized into 8 “chapters”, with each chapter containing a series of excerpts from Warren Buffett’s writings, which as far as I can tell are mostly from the annual reports that Warren Buffett prepares for his company Berkshire Hathaway (I wonder if he writes personal financial reports…). The chapters discuss Buffett’s views on a number of topics, ranging from corporate governance to mergers and acquisitions to accounting to discussions of how investing should work.

Reading the book will give you an interesting look at the mind of one of the most successful investors of all time, but while I valued that insight, I think I was most impressed by three things:

  1. I was amazed at how approachable and “folksy” Buffett’s writings are. Instead of relying on complex jargon and consultant-speak, he speaks in plain English, oftentimes using funny analogies or stories (and sometimes even Biblical/literary parables) or extremely nerdy puns to make very simple points. Case in point, to explain the irrationality of some companies who seem to always pursue that “one magical acquisition” which will take them to success, Buffet writes:

    “In the past, I’ve observed that many acquisition-hungry managers were apparently mesmerized by their childhood reading of the story about the frog-kissing princess. Remembering her success, they pay dearly for the right to kiss corporate toads, expecting wondrous transfigurations. Initially, disappointing results only deepen their desire to round up new toads. Ultimately, even the most optimistic manager must face reality. Standing knee-deep in unresponsive toads, he then announces an enormous ‘restructuring charge’. In this corporate equivalent of a Head Start program, the CEO receives the education, but the stockholders pay the tuition.”

  2. I was impressed at how consistent Buffett has been. It’s rare to find a politician, let alone a businessman, who has had the consistency of values and strategy that Buffett has had. You can take any essay from any chapter of this book, regardless of when it’s from, and, other than mentions of specific years or specific political/cultural references, you would not be able to tell what year that essay had been written. His core message and beliefs on corporate governance, mergers & acquisitions, and especially his investment philosophy have not changed.
  3. I was especially impressed at Buffett’s humility. Most executives seem to always desperately crave the spotlight and credit for positive things which have little to do with them and to deflect blame for things which are. I can’t fault them for that, as their salaries and jobs are highly dependent on the perception that they are capable stewards who do not make mistakes. But, Buffett takes a different approach. In many an essay about Berkshire Hathaway’s success, Buffett attributes the credit to the managers of the businesses Berkshire owns, oftentimes noting that his job is only to pick good businesses to own and that it is the managers and the businesses themselves that drive success. In essays about Buffett’s missteps, he freely owns up to them. In multiple essays, he has owned up to holding on to his textile business for too long or not exiting General Re’s derivatives business fast enough. Buffett even goes so far as to explain mistakes that he had made which nobody outside of Berkshire’s leadership team would know about (i.e. investment opportunities he could have made but passed on).

While I definitely learned a great deal about business and how Buffett thinks of the market, I think the most important learning that I took away from the book is what Buffett calls the “Noah principle”, and it is something I will aim to try to adhere to for the rest of my life:

“Predicting rain doesn’t count, building arks does.”

(Image credit – Book cover from Amazon)

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Fractions — my only weakness

No, they’re not my weakness. But apparently they are in Truro, MA, where a town which seems to have skimped on its basic math finds themselves besieged by fractions (HT: Neil Saunders’ Friendfeed):

In a vote of 136 to 70, voters passed a new time limit on how quickly a cottage colony, cabin colony, motel or hotel can be converted to condominiums. The new limit requires that those properties be in operation for three years before being converted to condominiums.

The exact count of the vote — 136 to 70 —had town officials hitting their calculators yesterday. The zoning measure needed a two-thirds vote to pass. A calculation by town accountant Trudy Brazil indicated that 136 votes are two-thirds of 206 total votes, said Town Clerk Cynthia Slade.

Brazil said she used the calculation of .66 multiplied by 206 to obtain the number.

But using .6666 — a more accurate version of two-thirds — the affirmative vote needed to be 137 instead of 136, according to an anonymous caller to town hall and to the Times.

Slade said that she called several of her colleagues to see how they calculate a two-thirds vote, and the answer varied widely. In Provincetown, Town Clerk Doug Johnstone uses .66. But Johnstone said he’d never had a close vote where it might matter.

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It was a dark and stormy night in the data center

One of my favorite aspects of Charles Schulz’s Peanuts are Snoopy’s attempts at novel-writing and his classic opening sentence:

It was a dark and stormy night…

This was, of course, immediately followed by some comically ingenious sentence which made it immediately obvious that Snoopy, although quite creative (and talented! how many dogs do you know who can use a typewriter?) would probably never realize his dream of being a published beagle.

Well, Snoopy, you shouldn’t give up, because bizarre story settings actually do get published! Popular mystery author Michael Connelly not only convinced a publisher that he could write a mystery novel set in a data center (about a killer who actually works in a data center), but convinced enough people to read it that it’s now ranked #3 on the New York Times’ Best Seller list (at least as of June 18th, 2009).

Cloud Computing/Data Center blog Data Center Knowledge has an interesting interview with Connelly on his use of some of the most mysterious and unusual settings to ever grace a novel:

Data Center Knowedge: What led you to choose a colocation center as the workplace for Wesley Carver?

Michael Connelly: [My researcher] sent me a link to a video tour of a colocation center. I was impressed by all the security and hardware, how the center was located underground and how it was protected from forces of nature as well as electronic intrusion. It was a fortress and these sort of things always interest me because it always comes down to people, who you have inside the fortress is the most important thing.

Interestingly enough (although I haven’t read it yet), the novel relies on a few real-life technical features in many data centers including cutting edge fire suppression systems, VESDA smoke detection systems, and man traps. Very impressive, considering how few people know what goes on in data centers (which is a shame as data centers are a driving force in the web/computing space, and are massive contributors to jobs in under-developed areas and local energy concerns).

Oh, and to the uninitiated who don’t realize how bizarre and amazing data centers can be, check out this video of a data center in Stockholm built in what looks like a supervillain’s fortified hideout. As it was built in the Cold War, it is even said to be able to withstand a direct nuclear assault!

Now, can we make the next James Bond movie in a Google data center?

(Image credit)

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One Man’s Sewage

image image … is another man’s gold.

Every investor dreams to find something that nobody wants (and hence are willing to part with cheaply) and be able to turn it into something that everyone wants (and hence something you can sell for a lot). Well, a prefecture in Japan stumbled on just that. From the always amusing Reuter’s Oddly Enough:

A sewage treatment facility in central Japan has recorded a higher gold yield from sludge than can be found at some of the world’s best mines. An official in Nagano prefecture, northwest of Tokyo, said the high percentage of gold found at the Suwa facility was probably due to the large number of precision equipment manufacturers in the vicinity that use the yellow metal. The facility recently recorded finding 1,890 grammes of gold per tonne of ash from incinerated sludge.

That is a far higher gold content than Japan’s Hishikari Mine, one of the world’s top gold mines, owned by Sumitomo Metal Mining Co Ltd, which contains 20-40 grammes of the precious metal per tonne of ore.

(Image credit – gold) (Image credit – sewage)

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Universal perspective

I recently made a post over at Bench Press on a series of images which really helps to give some perspective on just how large the universe is:
imageBreathtaking, isn’t it? For more gorgeous pictures (and a sense of just how small you are in the grand scale of things), check out the post at the Bench Press blog.

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image A week or two ago, I had a conversation with a couple of coworkers about the use of blogs/social media to gather information about subjects (and hence justify why I spend so many hours on Google Reader). They were fairly skeptical of the ability of blogs to do the same job that the New York Times or the Economist did.

Although we didn’t settle the debate (it takes time to convince the uninitiated), I had three basic responses:

  1. Speed – Services like Twitter are now so fast that there is even some talk about leveraging Twitter as an early warning system/communication system for disasters. And, Wikipedia is now so ubiquitous that one can find informative updates within hours of major events.
  2. Insight – As I’ve alluded to before, news agencies don’t provide insight or analysis. They relay talking points and soundbytes. They wrap it up with fancy marketing “wrapping paper.” But they don’t provide useful insight. Blogs provide insightful commentary and background — things that are out of scope or out of the reach for many traditional news sources.
  3. Reputation – One issue my coworkers had was that nobody was regulating what bloggers said. “Why should you trust what a blogger has to say?” I replied, “Why should you trust what the New York Times is saying?” The answer, of course, is to only read blogs which you trust. “But how do you know who to trust?” You don’t. But, while you might not know if you can trust a single random journalist from a single newspaper, thanks to the power of blogging, I can quickly read blog entries by Ezra Klein, Greg Mankiw, Megan McArdle, and Tyler Cowen and not only get four insightful accounts (often with sources for me to get more information) from people I trust more than a random economics reporter for a newspaper, but compare their accounts and perspectives to formulate my own informed opinion. Not so easy to do with even a newspaper editorial section. (Disclaimer: I actually do read a fair amount of the Financial Times, Bloomberg, New York Times, and the Economist – because those four publications have achieved the reputation hurdle for me)

Oh, did I say three? I forgot the fourth and most important: its not like the traditional media aren’t using Twitter/Wikipedia/blogs to do their own research: (HT: PhysOrg)

An Irish student’s fake quote on the Wikipedia online encyclopaedia has been used in newspaper obituaries around the world, the Irish Times reported.

Shane Fitzgerald, 22, a final-year student studying sociology and economics at University College Dublin, told the newspaper he placed the quote on the website as an experiment when doing research on globalisation.

Fitzgerald told the newspaper he picked Wikipedia because it was something a lot of journalists look at and it can be edited by anyone.

“I didn’t expect it to go that far. I expected it to be in blogs and sites, but on mainstream quality papers? I was very surprised about,” he said.

(Image Credit)

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Everything You Want to Know About Antigen Processing

It’s been a while since I’ve worked in a lab, but I remembered always being fascinated by the “tell all” posters which were on the lab walls which laid out everything in a cell/system pertaining to a specific concept in biology. What appealed to me about them is that they conveyed a the complex and interconnected pieces which only together made life work. It was very awe-inspiring (as well as a quick cheat sheet when I had to pretend like I knew what I was researching).

It’s been a while since I’d seen one, but thankfully, Ian York of Michigan State University and blogger at Immunology blog Mystery Rays from Outer Space linked to a new poster from Nature which reviews what is currently know about antigen processing/presentation (translation: how our cells recognize hostile bacteria/viruses/fungi/etc and alert the immune system to them).

Check it out:



(Credit – Nature Reviews Immunology)

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Swine flu 101

image Given the extreme panic that some people have in response to the news on the swine flu outbreak, I was going to post a quick set of common questions & answers on Swine Flu, but found that the amazing David Bradley over at Science Base has already done that.
I’ve copied and pasted most of Bradley’s FAQ below, but the two key takeaways are:

  1. You DON’T need to avoid eating pork (big misconception about bird flu was also that eating chicken could give you bird flu – that won’t happen, and neither will eating pork cause swine flu)
  2. This is not some government engineered super-disease – scientists have suspected that if bird flu ever fully jumped into humans it would do so via pigs, because bird and human viruses both infect pigs – allowing those viruses to trade genes with each other. At the end of the day, viruses mutate – call it nature, God, fate, or plain statistics – but there’s no reason to suspect this is some sort of bioweapon.

And, without further ado:

What is swine flu?
Swine flu is a type A influenza virus present in pigs. Human infection is usually uncommon except among people who work and live closely with pigs.

What is unusual about the present strain?
The new strain is a hybrid of swine, human and avian flu viruses and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says it can spread from human to human but the level of virulence is not yet clear.

What are the symptoms?
Symptoms are similar to regular human flu: fever and chills, a cough, sore throat, aching limbs, headaches, and general malaise. However, there are reports of swine flu also causing diarrhoea and vomiting. Pneumonia and respiratory failure can occur leading to death as also happens in regular human flu, which kills thousands of people every year.

Are there any drugs to treat swine flu?
Oseltamivir (Tamiflu) and zanamivir (Relenza) are the possible pharmaceutical frontline defence and are proving effective in treating patients diagnosed early enough. There is no vaccine.

Has the disease spread to the USA?
Cases in California, Texas, and Kansas, have already been confirmed and tests are being carried out on students at a school in New York.

How can we prevent the spread of swine flu?
People at risk should cover their mouth when they cough. They should regularly wash their hands with an alcohol-based cleaner and and avoid close contact with the sick. Patients with the disease should stay at home. There is no need to avoid eating pork.

Will there be a global flu epidemic?
“We do not know whether this swine flu virus or some other influenza virus will lead to the next pandemic,” says, Richard Besser, acting director of the CDC, “However, scientists around the world continue to monitor the virus and take its threat seriously.”

What does H1N1 mean?
The “H” refers to the viral hemagglutinin protein, and the “N” refers to the neuraminidase protein (enzyme). There are H1N2, H3N1, H3N2, and H2N3 strains of swine flu endemic in pig populations.

Why pigs?
Influenza viruses can exist endemically in pigs as well as birds and other species. The current strain of interest, swine flu, is endemic in pig populations in Mexico but has now spread to people.

Recent news?
It’s recently been reported that the swine flu virus is not a combination of genes from avian, human, and swine influenza viruses, but of multiple strains of swine influenza (which probably picked up a mutation allowing them to infect humans).

Please, don’t validate what is supposed to be a parody of human stupidity on the internet:image
(Image credit) (Image credit – XKCD)

EDIT: to reflect reports that suggest Swine Flu is not a composite of avian, human, and swine influenza, but a composite of three swine strains.

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It’s just a little bit of G-T-C-A…

I may never run another molecular biology reaction in my life, but if I do, I will probably push my lab to buy a PCR machine from Bio-Rad .

First, my college roommate and Benchpress-partner Eric pointed me to this amazing video a couple of months ago:

Flash forward a few months and Eric points me to the sequel (no you’re not seeing things, I said “sequel”):

Now come on, Roche. Let’s see some more competition!

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