An Open Letter to Wake The Dead Coffee House

Hi Julie,

I saw the other day that some folks in the neighborhood are petitioning to have your beer & wine license revoked, due to a perceived negative impact on the neighborhood. As a resident of the same neighborhood, I wanted you to know that I’m against that action for a variety of reasons.

I’m a big proponent of walkable neighborhoods, since more foot traffic means less car traffic, less pollution, and better health. Our neighborhood, unfortunately, is not a particularly walkable one. Until Wake the Dead opened, there was no place to be able to meet friends, enjoy a drink, or get a bit to eat within reasonable distance. Having the shop within a few blocks of our home has been a boon to our family, as we all enjoy going by regularly — usually on foot.

When our family visited England a few years ago, we fell in love with the pub culture there. The opportunity to bring the whole family and for the adults to have a beer and a sandwich while the kids played was terrific, and somewhat unique for us, since so few places in the U.S. combine those pleasures. Since our return to San Marcos after that trip, we were delighted to see Tantra open, which brought that same spirit (albeit with a patchouli-scented style) to San Marcos. We were further thrilled when Wake the Dead opened down the street, as it brought more of that open, inviting atmosphere to our city, this time within walking distance of our house!

So it’s a rare week indeed when some of our family isn’t down there. My wife and I enjoy slipping down the road for a quiet place and a cuppa or a brew. My 13 year old daughter loves to go down and have a frappe with one of her friends. My 10 year old will happily while away a half hour taking on any willing opponents at ping-pong. And, of course, we come visit frequently for the Irish music session and for movies.

I’m honestly a bit baffled by the hostility some of our neighbors have shown, since each time I know of that concerns about noise levels, handicapped access, etc. have been brought to you, you’ve been receptive to the concerns. Further, none of the issues the neighbors cite seem to have much to do with the beer & wine license, so it surprises me that they would come out so strongly against that particularly. And while I certainly don’t want people driving drunk through our neighborhood (or at all), it is my experience that those who want to get sloshed aren’t likely to seek out a coffee shop for that purpose.

So, in summary, I do hope the shop remains open and busy for many years to come. It is currently one of my favorite features of our neighborhood, and I would be inclined to pay more for any house with a coffee shop of its quality within walking distance.

Best wishes,
Sean McMains
940 239 4202

Robocars!

I’ve been intrigued by Personal Rapid Transit since 2002. I’ve gone so far as to do some software modeling and simulation of a PRT system for San Marcos (with a station right by my house, natch), and those of you unfortunate enough to live near me have probably been regaled by my excited blathering on the subject from time to time. (“Good goshamighty, why won’t he be quiet? Shut up! SHUT UP! He won’t stop. Ok, I’m going to my happy place now. Thinking about unicorns and cheesecake. Mmmmmm…cheesecake.”)

But as of today, I’m no longer a fan.

The reason? Not any particular deficiency on PRT’s part. It’s still quicker, more efficient, and generally much more desirable than private cars or other public transit options.

But today, I discovered Robocars.

What are Robocars? Cars that can drive themselves. DARPA’s Grand Challenge in 2004 and 2005 showed that autonomous vehicles were a technological possibility. The 2007 Urban Challenge demonstrated that they could function on normal roadways, dealing with traffic laws, other vehicles, and pedestrians along the way.

Once you have vehicles that can drive themselves, a fleet of them (run by, say, a taxi company) offers nearly all of PRT’s advantages without its drawbacks. Consider these improvements on the PRT concept:

  • Robocars operate on existing roadways. There’s no need for a dedicated infrastructure like PRT’s.
  • If a Robocar breaks down, it can easily be moved out of the way like a car. It wouldn’t block an entire monorail line like a failed PRT tram would.
  • Implementation of Robocars would not need a huge initial investment from a central government, but can be introduced one at a time, just like automobiles. It can therefore happen as gradually or rapidly as the market dictates.
  • By communicating with traffic lights and ensuring optimum travel speeds, Robocars could be nearly as efficient as a PRT system.
  • One can have personal ownership of a Robocar if one wishes.
  • Robocars remain useful as you move out of urban areas.

Robocars, like PRT, offer even more advantages over traditional cars and transit systems: fuel efficiency, convenience, safety, flexibility, and the ability to both enjoy a private space and to do other things while in transit.

See Brad Templeton’s Introduction to the idea for an overview of what it’s all about, or for a glimpse into the possibilities, read his fictional account of what a week with Robocars might look like.

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.

Catalog Choice

Just a quick post to point out Catalog Choice, a service to allow you to opt-out of receiving paper catalogs in the mail that don’t interest you. You get less junk mail, the catalog companies don’t spend money sending catalogs that just end up in the trash, and trees get a stay of execution. Win-win, baby!

While you’re there, be sure to check out the Environmental Facts section of their site. The statistics are staggering: 8 million tons of trees per year go to catalog printing alone.