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Month: May 2010

Who owns you (and your genes)?

This is a trailer for an upcoming documentary on gene patenting everyone should watch.

‘Over the last 20 years, the United States Patent and Trademark Office has been issuing patents to universities and private companies on raw human genes. One company or university is given a legal monopoly over a molecule that is inside every human being and many other animals. This documentary explores the legal, ethical, and clinical ramifications of human gene patenting.’

The principal author is Dr David Koepsell who takes a libertarian approach against the notion of intellectual property. Below is a video of his argument against IP from an ethical perspective.

De Revolutionibus

I am currently reading Paolo Rossi’s The Birth of Modern Science [available here]. The chapter on Copernicus discusses his De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium from 1543, which is today seen as the revolutionary work that established the heliocentric system and forever removed the earth from the center of the universe. Rossi however demonstrates how un-revolutionary Copernicus’ work in fact was, not only in terms of style and format – which were based entirely on Ptolemy’s Almagest from 1400 years earlier, but also in terms of argumentation. Virtually all of Copernicus’s arguments existed in one form or another before him, and some of them were in fact Ptolemy’s – most important of all being the argument on the uniform and regular circular motion of heavenly bodies. Fascinatingly, Copernicus argued that his work is important because it explains Ptolemean astronomy better than its author did – and the concept of circular motion across heavenly spheres was crucial for that. Apparently Johannes Kepler commented that Copernicus had interpreted Ptolemy rather than nature when he wrote his treatise (deducing from authority was a very Medieval approach to science, and the fact that the greatest scientific achievement of the Renaissance was achieved in that way is a damning comment on the notion of the Renaissance as a negation of scholasticism).

Copernicus never went as far as Giordano Bruno and suggest an infinite universe, populated by bodies in irregular motion. Rather, the revolutionary aspect of Copernicus’s work was in using the very same facts as everyone else, to propose a previously unsought direction disguised as an improvement on the dogma. It’s hard to get more unintentionally subversive than that. From the perspective of scientific advancement, the fascinating observation here is that a revolutionary jump was achieved thanks to a proposal asking many more questions than it could answer, rather than delivering a coherent theory to substitute the previous one. For example, Copernicus’s position on the earth’s rotation led directly to the need to explain gravity (now that the earth was not the center of a spherical universe), which in turn led to Newton.

This realization is interesting, because it questions, as so many other examples, the image of science as a monolithic coherent discipline engaged in an ever-forward progress. The move, if there is any move at all, is never forward, but more sideways-backwards-sideways until a new way to question the obvious emerges somewhere on the periphery.

Of course, it never hurts to ruffle a few feathers in the process – apparently Martin Luther fumed against ‘that fool astronomer who claims that the earth moves’.

Cloud computing and secret gardens

Charlie Stross has a great piece on his site commenting Apple’s strategy with the iPad and Steve Jobs’s vicious antipathy towards any cross-platform apps not originating from Apple. Plenty of material to discuss there, but for me the interesting part is [1] the notion that cloud computing is going to displace the PC in a controlled walled-garden way. By walled-garden I mean a total-control platform like iTunes – or anything else from that nightmarish company for that matter. I suspect that Stross is right, at least when it comes to Apple – their strategy after all is easy to deduce, but I just don’t see how walled-garden platform is going to dominate the cloud-space when you consider the relentless pressure for interoperability applied by a constantly emerging market. One could argue that Microsoft’s success with the PC platform has been solely due to their complete openness to hardware and third-party soft. Google seem to go down a similar path and if anything it is their already developing cloud platform that would probably dominate the early decade of cloud computing. Stross sums it up nicely:

‘Because you won’t have a “computer” in the current sense of the word. You’ll just be surrounded by a swarm of devices that give you access to your data whenever and however you need it.’

Apple’s and their ilk ‘success’ would be to maintain the cult by porting to a cloud platform, but the sheer necessity of total interoperability related to broad market penetration will prevent them from dominating the cloud. Finally, the comparison between Apple and BMW/Mercedes ‘high-end’ cars doesn’t work for me – I see Jobs’s cult as a Saab.

The horror, the horror

Haven’t been able to post for a while due to plenty of boring work – the worst combination. The flaneur spirit crumbles when faced with repetitive and intellectually unchallenging tasks. However, meanwhile in the real world the Greece fiasco turned into farce, and The Economist captured that just brilliantly in their May 1 issue, with Angela Merkel appearing as a natural in the Colonel Kurtz role on the cover below.

While the Greeks were burning banks, and keeping in line with the Apocalyptic theme, the Euro almost collapsed with the beginning of this week:

May the 6th was an interesting day in that context, because while the euro was heading for the Acropolis gold broke above 1200:

And, what a curious coincidence, something even stranger happened on that same day:


The financial markets had a 20 minute period of complete collapse, which the media immediately explained as a human error (haha). Other, less imbecile explanations are to be found here and here. I find it fascinating how in a highly leveraged complex system a relatively small event (sorry Greece) can cause tremendous and unpredictable repercussions which apart from forming a somewhat black swan, cause system-wide readjustments. This again comes to show that [1] in a complex networked environment the notion of periphery is meaningless, [2] connectivity acts as a magnifying glass for network events, [3] the longer structural instabilities are ignored/covered up, the bigger the eventual ripple-effects of the collapse.

Interesting weeks ahead.