I’m a Mythical Beast

And it’s not just my wife who says so.

When I’m going to take a day off from work, I email our team to let them know I’ll be out. Here’s a recent missive:

Hey y’all,

I’m planning to take Friday off as a sanity day and to strip down, don the
headdress of the fabled jackelope, and beat a drum in a sweat lodge in the
woods for a while while shuffling around the smoky fire in ritual native
american dance.

Or maybe just enjoy a book and some tacos. Either way.

Laura, one of our awesome graphic designers, responded with this:

May the spirits guide you on your journey

Sean as Jackelope

Sean as Jackelope

Truly, I work with some amazing people.

Radio Silence

Hey, Mouseketeers! Sorry for not writing more lately. While school’s in session, our weeks tend to be busy but homogeneous, and our weekends totally unpredictable, neither of which is much good for the discipline of getting things down on paper (or electrons). Here’s the latest:

  • After returning from the conference in Springfield (where I had a lovely time, thanks for asking), I took all the kids off to the Texas Renaissance Festival with my trusty brother, my cousin and her husband in tow. This worked out well, as Liam was feeling rather sick in the morning, and the other kids were able to run around with the adults while Liam and I sat quietly under trees and watched people in chain mail walk past. (“Holy cow, did you see that 10 foot tall dragon?” “Really? You dressed as the Joker to go to a RenFest?” “Please, ma’am, you’re not really equipped to be wearing that!”) About midway through the afternoon, Liam’s belly stabilized, so we were able to run around to see the Mud Show, the falconry, jousting and fireworks. Great fun! If you’d care to follow along in the photo storybook, you can do so here. The Festival runs for several more weeks, so if you’re in the area, I highly recommend a visit. Tell them Sean sent you! (They’ll act like they don’t know what you’re talking about, but don’t worry, that’s just part of the security.)
  • Last weekend was Maker Faire, which is kind of like a giant support group for people like Jason Young and me who like to build large, potentially lethal do-it-yourself projects. The three younger kids and I met up with Jason and Erin, his (far) better half, for a great day viewing art cars, making shrinky dinks out of recycled plastic, riding bicycle animals, watching robots fight to the death, learning to weave on a loom, meeting the Eepybird guys, dodging huge gouts of flame shooting from fire plugs, seeing rockets launched, crocheting handbags from used plastic grocery sacks, and more. Photos are here, and I’m editing down some of the video I got for a highlight reel, to be posted soon.
  • This morning I went and laid down some pennywhistle tracks for an album some friends are putting together. Fun to get to take that into the studio, though I always forget how exacting recording can be, even in short stints. John, the audio engineer, had 7 mics on the whistle, so I’m interested to see what sort of tone he manages to extract from that daunting array. Between that at the Thursday night Irish Sessions, I’ve been enjoying keeping a foot in the musical world even during The Patio Boys’ recent hiatus.

Other than that, it’s school, school, school! The kids report cards are trickling in for the first six weeks, and they all seem to be doing fine. Kathy’s been kicking butt and taking names at the University — the former figuratively, the latter literally, as she’s heading up a couple of student organizations for which she’s been assembling T-Shirt orders. And I’m still plowing away at the day job, leading a rag-tag fleet on a lonely quest across the galaxy to find Earth, our long-lost home planet.

Doggoneit. That’s not me.

Million-Dollar Idea

Today’s brilliant idea: novelty sonograms for expectant mothers.

For a little extra, your sonogram technician can do a “Glamour Shots” version, use a little photo editing to have your developing baby riding a surfboard, add in amusing word balloons, or (my personal favorite) make a sepia-tinted “Old West Sonogram.”

I hereby release this idea into the public domain. Go take it and make a million. Don’t say I never did anything for you.

Blasted Nonsense From The Past

Back when dinosaurs roamed the Internet and you could get a cup of coffee and a shoeshine for a nickel, before the kids all had their newfangled “Mybook” and “Facespaces” and the blink tag still seemed a pretty nifty idea, there was Brain Sausage.

Brain Sausage was an early proto-weblog, created before such things actually existed. I wrote the software for it because I wanted to learn Perl, and enlisted the aid of Robert Leahey and Chris Morris to help populate it with interesting links and a liberal dose of snarkiness. Chris also wrote a super-cool little ticker for Windows that would alert interested parties when there were new posts.

While most of it has been lost to history at this point, I was amused/delighted/horrified to discover that the good folks at archive.org had actually preserved a few pages. The logo, sadly, appears to be lost, either by the vagaries of the program that collected the information or by the good judgement of a censor somewhere. But here are a few bits that historians, masochists, and the easily amused might enjoy having a look at:

A few other horrors I pulled from the archive:

Sci-Fi Future: Bioengineering

On one of our recent dates, Kathy and I had stopped by the local pet store to browse around a bit. While passing by the fish, I noticed tank full of fish that were even more brightly colored than the usual tropicals. When asked, a salesperson explained to me that they were GloFish: zebra fish that had been genetically engineered to include a fluorescing protein created by a jellyfish gene. Originally created with an eye toward detecting toxic chemical spills, they are even more eye-catching than the photos show.

The next day, I was listening to an episode of WNYC’s excellent Radio Lab program where they discussed some young bioengineers who got tired of having to smell E. Coli, which is notoriously poopie-scented, all day in their lab. They began by introducing wintergreen genes, and soon had minty-fresh E. Coli in their lab. They then went a step further by having the bacteria start producing a banana smell when full grown, so that the scientists could tell if a culture was ready for experimentation with the merest whiff.

And of course, we’ve had genetically modified foods on our supermarket shelves since the early 1990s. Various GM varieties are more disease and pest-resistant than their unmodified counterparts, have higher yields, last longer without added preservatives, and have their vitamin content boosted.

So, in many ways, it seems like we’re at the dawn of a golden age of bioengineering. We’re able to improve on naturally grown foods, we can engineer unpleasant characteristics out of experimental organisms, and we can even tailor our pets to make them more interesting and fun. What’s not to like?

Quite a bit, as it turns out. Lots of people have concerns about bioengineering, and wonder if it may be a Pandora’s Box we might wish closed again once we have pried out its secrets. A few points to consider:

GloFish are patented just like a mechanical invention would be. From their FAQ:

Because fluorescent fish are unique, their sale is covered by a substantial number of patents and pending patent applications. The providers of GloFish® fluorescent fish, 5-D Tropical and Segrest Farms, are the only distributors that have the necessary licenses to produce and market fluorescent fish within the United States. The production of fluorescent fish by any other party, or the sale of any fluorescent fish not originally distributed by 5-D Tropical or Segrest Farms, is strictly prohibited.

The fact that this patent was granted to cover not just a mechanical device or invention, but a form of life, seems like a pretty big leap. (And allows them to charge an order of magnitude more for these GloFish than for their unmodified brethren.) What do we do with patent and copyright law as we plow into this new area of human endeavor? Consider, for example, an excerpt from this article:

If you could duplicate a person other than yourself, who would it be?

This is not a hypothetical question. Human cloning, may allow you to do
that, with or without the clonee’s consent. Once human cloning technology is available all you’ll need is the desired DNA, and that can be very easily obtained: It is called DNA piracy. The ease of stealing DNA for cloning purposes raises the following question: how is the law going to protect my genes and what legal remedies are afforded in such a case.

DNA Copyright Institution Inc., a privately held corporation in San
Francisco, proposes a solution. It promises copyright protection to your
genetic profile for only $1,500. The visionary DNA Copyright institute,
founded by Andre Crump, is trying to persuade celebrities to use its
services to strengthen their legal position should anyone decide to clone
them against their will.

Yep, the folks out in California are already planning for what happens if you get a strand of Cindy Crawford’s hair and decide to make your own Cindy clone using the DNA therein. More troubling, is it possible for corporations to copyright certain genetic sequences? And if so, can they then bring action for infringement against people who have those sequences in their own genome naturally? There are lots of lines to be drawn here, and it’s not always at all clear where they should be scribed.

Once we have the technology, is is OK to genetically engineer Multiple Sclerosis out of our babies? If so, what else can we change while our kids are still on the drawing board? Can we then choose eye color, hair color, and attractiveness? Could we add a few inches of height to give our kid a psychological advantage? Could we add a few more inches to give them an advantage in basketball? Should our modified basketball player be in the same league as non-modified players, or should there be a GMNBA?

And what of biodiversity? Artificial genes from GM crops can “leak” into the wild population. Even without GM, lots of farms have moved to monocultures — the planting of only the single highest-yield variety of their crop. This tendency would likely be exaggerated further if GM crops showed even better yields than their naturally occurring counterparts. This monoculture farming means that an entire crop can be wiped out by a disease to which it happens to be susceptible. Ironically, it also results in having access to less raw genetic material as the less popular strains are bred out of existence.

Finally, what happens when the bioengineers who may have more malevolent intent start fooling around with this stuff? Freeman Dyson, the futurist who conceived that trusty science fiction chestnut the Dyson Sphere, talks about children having access to home genetic engineering kits. This sounds like great fun as long as kids are just making unicorns or, as South Park would have it, a monkey with five butts.

But what happens when we start bioengineering weapons? Little Timmy could toss together a few genes from bird flu, the cold, SARS, bubonic plague, and a dash of smallpox, mix well, and viola! Instant highly-virulent superweapon! Take it further: engineer it to attack specific racial traits, and you could have a Final Solution that would cause history’s atrocities to look wan and insignificant.

It seems that we have discovered a very powerful tool here. As with all powerful tools, it enables us to accomplish amazing things that were previously impossible, but also has the potential to cause irreparable damage if used irresponsibly. Thus, while our enthusiasm here may tempt us to rush in to a Brave New GM World, I think it’s vital that we approach this new territory with caution. Pay attention to these discussions, befriend a bioethicist, and encourage our lawmakers to take these issues seriously. Our children and their unicorns are depending on us.

Sundries

A few goings-on of late that bear mentioning:

  • Liam has started playing Little League baseball. It’s a load of fun, and significantly more action-packed than Major League, since stealing bases is allowed and the boys aren’t so hot at catching the ball. During the last game, which due to time limits was only 4 innings long, the final score was 13-15. I got drafted to do scorekeeping, so got to learn what those little sheets that my friend Robert Leahey used to have around the house are actually for. The worst moment in the recent game, however, was when a stray foul ball from an adjacent field abruptly appeared and whacked Liam in the face. He was OK after a 15 minute sit-down and some ice, and his enthusiasm for the game continues unabated.
  • Daniel Priest and I got together for a visit this weekend. After much dithering over what we would do, we eventually decided to watch Nick Cage’s movie Next. Not, mind you, because it looked particularly good, but because it was one of the titles for which there was a download available on RiffTrax. “What,” I (for rhetorical purposes) hear you asking, “are RiffTrax?” Well, consider that Mike Nelson, who spearheads the site, was the host of Mystery Science Theater 3000 for many a year, and you can take a pretty good guess. They’re basically MP3s you can buy to play along with a movie and thereby provide a steady stream of jokes at the movie’s expense. I hadn’t tried one before, but found it great fun. Mike still has a razor wit, and is complemented nicely by different foils for various movies. (Weird Al Yankovic is a guest for Jurassic Park.) Great fun, and heartily recommended.

Waving Hands

Last night, Kathy and I went to see Keith Wann, a stand-up comic, at the Texas State student center. The interesting thing about Keith is that, though he himself is able to hear, he was born to deaf parents and has lived a fair portion of his life in deaf culture. He performs using American Sign Language with his wife providing a spoken translation for those in the audience who aren’t fluent in that form of communication.

It was fascinating to watch how this played out for this crowd. They greeted him by holding their hands up and shaking them — the applause of the deaf community. He then went on for 90 energetic minutes, running around the stage, recounting stories of his childhood with deaf parents, his straddling of the hearing and deaf world, and making affectionate fun of ASL students. It was great to see how he blended together the signed and brief spoken bits of his monologue and how both the deaf and hearing portions of the audience responded to him. Here’s a representative bit that gives a good idea of his schtick:

The show was lots of fun; I do recommend going to see him if you happen to have an opportunity.

Two Heroes

Two people that I have found myself looking up to lately:

  • There’s an 91 year old woman who volunteers at the Hays County Food Bank. While I will likely consider it a fairly major accomplishment to keep my nose hair well groomed and those darn kids off my lawn when I’m that age, she’s out there mixing it up with college-aged volunteers, schlepping around 30 pound boxes of food with the best of them. I am in awe of this beautiful, leathery lady.
  • Yahoo posted a piece on Jonathan Coulton, who quit his job as a software engineer at age 36 to write and perform music. I already loved his songs, and now I love his story, though I’d best be careful not to read too many articles of this sort lest I be tempted to go do something downright irresponsible. Be sure to catch the video.

Thanks for the inspiration, folks.

Birthday Sculpture

For her friend Michael’s birthday, Emily made these casts of her hand spelling out “LOVE”, mounted them on a board, and gave them individual paint jobs. It has now assumed a place of honor in his room next to the audio-animatronic Gene Simmons action figure.

Spectacular work, Em!