The Real Point of Calico

"We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people."

- President John F. Kennedy, “Moon Speech”
  Rice University, September 12th 1962

Much of the coverage of Calico, the Google-backed venture to extend human longevity, has focused, sometimes skeptically, on the end goal. People are asking: can anyone - even Google - really defeat aging? 

That question misses the point. 

Larry Page has referred to Calico as “moonshot thinking around healthcare and biotechnology”, and that metaphor is no accident. The original moonshot did achieve its end goal. But, equally importantly, it triggered a wave of basic R&D that transformed the technology landscape. 

The huge budgets ($25 billion, or well over $100 billion in today’s dollars) spent on the Apollo program in the 1960s had three complementary benefits beyond the direct achievement of landing a human on the moon:

  1. R&D Infrastructure. The Apollo program funded the construction of research facilities, such as the Johnson Space Center and the Center for Space Research at MIT, that are still in use 50 years later. The resources and disciplines developed during the Apollo program are still yielding important scientific discoveries.
  2. Spinoff Technologies. The Apollo program, and the space shuttle program that followed it, created a great many technologies that to this day impact our lives in myriad ways.  Particularly notable are the huge advances in computing and telecommunication.
  3. Promoting Science. The Apollo program drove a public fascination with science that lasted a generation. It unabashedly placed technology on a pedestal, and promoted the causes of rational thinking and scientific discovery.

A biomedical “moonshot” program like Calico could drive similar benefits, albeit on a smaller scale, given the more modest budgets. Promoting basic R&D in biochemistry, robotics and other sciences may yield spinoff technologies that will benefit our lives and capture our imagination, regardless of whether it actually achieves a large increase in human longevity.

A “failure” of Calico may still be a huge success, and we should weight the merits of this new venture just as much by the supposedly ancillary benefits as by the progress towards the end goal.

Fittingly, the venture of extending life has this in common with life itself: the true purpose is not the destination but the journey.

Big Data Demystified

It’s often the case that the true value of a startup lies not with its technology, or even with its user base, but with its data. When millions of people use your service every day, you almost can’t help gathering large amounts of interesting data about what they do. For example:

  • Google knows what people search for, and which results they click on.
  • Foursquare knows what people are looking for nearby, and where they end up going.
  • Uber knows where people need rides, and where those rides take them. 

It doesn’t take much to see the value of this data: Google can rank the results people actually click on higher in future searches, Foursquare can use check-ins to make better, more personalized recommendations, and Uber can use ride data to predict demand and ensure an adequate supply of cars at needed locations.

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The Google Crashers: A Review of The Internship

I wouldn’t normally see a Frat Pack comedy in theaters. That’s what mainscreen entertainment on United Airlines flights is for. But as a Google alum, I was curious to watch the The Internship. So I went to see it this weekend, with a group of current and former Googlers. Spoiler alert: It’s terrible

[Update 7/1/2013: Since BI decided to link to this post, and at least one person who worked on the movie took offense, I’ve revisited this and have some clarifications.

I regret the use of the word ‘terrible’. From a craft perspective the movie is actually very well-made. The BI writer is correct in saying that my objections pertain to sociology, not moviemaking. But when the movie mocks ‘my people’ as laughable stereotypes, I take that personally.

There is PLENTY to poke fun at in Silicon Valley. Our inflated sense of self-importance, for one. In fact, the best moment of the movie is when Max Minghella’s character, assembling his rival team, asks an intern:

- “Where did you go to school?”
"The University of-"
- “No”. 

That had the ring of truth to it. It was a deft poke at Google’s (former?) obsession with academic excellence. 

But the movie made too few forays down that path, and instead went mostly for stereotype-pandering, especially of women. If you’re offended by my review then I’m sorry, but I’m also offended by your movie…
]

To an ex-Googler the movie may be mildly entertaining. Not because it’s particularly funny, but as an extended game of “spot the cafeteria”. And I don’t mind the obvious nonsense, such as the Hunger Games-like intern job competition, or the apparent lack of any distinction between different roles at a company. I can stomach those as fictions necessary to create a story. No, what makes The Internship excruciating is the lazy pandering to every imaginable Silicon Valley stereotype. 

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In Praise of Intelligent Design

The human digestive system is wondrous. Complex organs and glands process a wide variety of foods, channeling energy and nutrients into the bloodstream while diverting waste out. We each walk around with an amazing little factory inside us.

Creationists use complex biological systems like these to argue for the existence of a divine creator. They say that no evolutionary process could have created something so marvelous. And it does indeed seem miraculous. Rather, they claim, these have to be the product of ‘intelligent design’ (ID).

However, on closer inspection, the digestive system does exhibit some puzzling design choices. For example, the digestive and respiratory systems share an entrance: Every bite of food we eat passes perilously close to the trachea, stopped only by the epiglottis contracting when we swallow. And indeed, thousands of people choke to death every year in the US. Doesn’t sound very intelligent at all, does it? 

Biological ‘hacks’ like the epiglottis betray the fact that it is not, after all, intelligently designed. Rather, it’s the result of blind evolution by natural selection.

From Biology to Software

Why am I going on about the digestive system? Because software systems, like biological ones, involve large, complex designs built up from small simple ‘cells’. And so software design too can either be evolved or ‘intelligent’ (*). 

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10 Tech Concepts Everyone Should Know

If you work in the tech industry then your daily conversations are littered with tech terms. You’ll probably have at least a vague idea of what these mean, but if you’re not in a technical role it’s sometimes hard to put these concepts and buzzwords in precise context.

In this post I’ll briefly explain ten basic terms that engineers use every day. Whatever your role in the tech industry, you’ll benefit from knowing exactly what these mean.

Brevity will require me to leave many important details out. If you’d like me to elaborate further, or if there are other concepts you’d like explained, let me know! I’ll be happy to write another post in this vein in the future.

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Is a CS Degree Worth It?

As ReadWrite noted recently, learning how to code has never been hotter. Tech-education startups like Treehouse and Codeacademy are booming; Non-profits such as code.org are working to make programming education available in schools; Informal workshops abound, and more and more non-engineering tech industry insiders are getting in on the action.

Anyone with access to the internet now has within reach an incredible array of informal programming education resources, including many specifically targeted at women (a demographic still underrepresented in CS departments). With that, and the availability of simple web application frameworks such as Ruby on Rails, you  can learn to create basic but real webapps in just a few weeks. What was once the province of the nerdy few is now available to many. 

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CS101 part 6: Operating Systems pt. 2


My previous CS101 post explained what operating systems are, and what services they provide. This post offers a quick tour through some basic operating systems concepts, and explains in more detail how the OS provides certain services.

I’ll describe in turn how the OS manages each of the four basic resources: CPU, disk, memory and network. You’ll probably have heard of some of the concepts before, but not known exactly what they referred to. So now you’ll know!

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CS101 part 5: Operating Systems (pt. 1)

It’s been a while, but CS101 now resumes… 

In a previous post I mentioned that modern computer systems consist of layer upon layer of increasingly complex building blocks. In this post I’ll talk briefly about the most basic of these building blocks: the operating system. 

An operating system (OS) is a piece of software that provides a set of common services to all the other software running on a computer. These services primarily involve managing shared resources, notably CPU, disk, memory and network. 

Two classes of OS dominate the desktop world: Microsoft Windows, and UNIX-like OSes. UNIX was an OS originally developed over 40 years ago at Bell Labs. It inspired a host of descendants, and its design lives on to this day, including in popular OSes such as Linux, FreeBSD and Mac OS X.

Why are OS services important? For two main reasons: interface and coordination.

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April Foolishness

A few weeks ago @shanley published this post about the superficiality of what passes for “company culture” in much of Silicon Valley. 

In the spirit of the April fool’s day grinch, I’m going to add another one: Culture is not about telling semi-clever lies on your corporate blog once a year.

Every year, come April 1st, dozens of tech companies, from Google down to the smallest startups, post oh-so-hilarious faux press releases about some obviously absurd product move or feature launch. You can imagine the self-satisfied giggles at the brainstorming sessions in the marketing department. The trouble is, no one else is really laughing. 

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Men, It’s On Us Now

The Adria Richards/PyCon/SendGrid affair has made me sick to my stomach. Any decent human being should be outraged and sad at how low so many people in the wider tech world can sink.

I’m not going to express an opinion on the original incident. How far out of line were those guys? Did Adria overreact? Could she have handled it better? I don’t know, I wasn’t there, and it doesn’t matter any more.

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