Searching for Genetic Answers to the Autism Puzzle

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I was pleased to read this morning that Google has formed a loose association with Autism Speaks to allow the scientific community better access to the massive amounts of genetic data around the condition. Essentially Google will house and apply data analysis tools to about 10,000 entirely sequenced genomes of sufferers of the disease. It’s a terrific idea to use the staggering large data storage and crunching power which Google has access to, to house and research the one million Gigabytes of data which that much DNA represents. Research in genomic medicine is intensely data driven. Way back in the late middle ages I graduated with a degree in Genetics with a strong focus on what was the molecular biology of that early era. To think that in the thirty years since then (jeez is it really 30!) we have come as far as we have is amazing at so many levels.

The researchers have a mammoth task on their hands. Many diseases typically have a complex mixture of genetic and environmental causes.  Some are incredibly closely linked to very small areas of the genome…down to a single base pair error in some cases. Diseases as complex as Autism (with its famous ‘spectrum’ of manifestation) are typically caused by the interaction of multiple genetic and sometimes environmental factors. For example I have Asthma but I’m fine if I stay away from cats and some pollen. Tracking down exactly which combination of needles in haystacks is causing the problem then trying to figure out what therapy might impact it is a staggeringly difficult task. We have to hope that they have the same kind of success seen by French researchers recently where they found a relatively simple gene mutation which causes a break in a key enzyme pathway which is directly linked to Alzheimer’s. If they can fix that simple break maybe we can prevent that horrible disease.

This isn’t Google’s first venture into DNA. They were one of the original investors in 23 and Me a company founded by Sergey Brin’s clever sister. They allow you to have your own DNA mapped for the purposes of ancestry research. It also used to include data on markers for potential genetically based diseases but the FDA nixed that a year or more back ‘pending investigation’. I actually had mine done recently and it turns out that (much to my surprise) in addition to the bulk of by DNA being boringly British in origin…I’m also over 25% viking. Apparently this is a very common thing with us Brits…guess what costume I’m going in for the next Halloween party.

One last thought…if it takes the power and majesty of Google and the entire scientific community to come together to start to try to figure out the causes of autism…just where in the proverbial hell does a retired playboy bunny like Jennifer McCarthy (a dumb blond formerly married to formerly funny guy Jim Carrey)  get off telling parents who lack the time or attention span to check the facts, not to get their children vaccinated against deadly childhood diseases like measles because “vaccinations cause autism”. No dummy…vaccinations save children’s lives. The 1998 “research” which sent this blond idiot off on her damaging quest to harm our children was essentially falsified and has been subsequently completely retracted. There is no scientific link.  If we have seen a rise in autism it is much more likely ’caused’ by better diagnosis and early detection than by completely unrelated vaccinations. Her stupefying arrogance and ignorance powered by her D list celebrity and the sad gullibility of many parents has led to the re-emergence in this country of a disease only doctors over 60 will have ever seen outside of textbooks. This isn’t “The View” it’s science. I sincerely hope that much in the same way that those reptiles from the Westboro Baptist Church picketed the funerals of service men so the parents of children who were needlessly killed by this superstitious tomfoolery will invite Ms McCarthy to attend their children’s funerals.

Still Trying to be Forgotten

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I have just returned from a breakneck week in Europe (UK and France) and it’s always interesting to see the world through those that perspective. There are so many profound differences…it goes well beyond the entire continent is about to go World Cup crazy while we politely ignore the entire event.  In several discussions with both industry folk and ‘civilians’ there was a real resentment around the whole ‘right to be forgotten’ issue. Since the European ruling of a few weeks back Google has received over 40,000 requests to have information about various folk deleted from the index because that information is either “outdated or inaccurate.” The mere fact that a good number of these requests are reportedly from drug dealers, corrupt politicians and convicted child molesters did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm of several folk I talked to about this topic. There is a feeling that Google has appointed itself judge, jury and executioner of our information age and it appears to be fairly widely resented. The review process is also shaping up to be controversial. The legal ruling was so broadly drawn and vague this was bound to happen. The first draft appears to be a star chamber of Google folk and third party experts who will sit in judgement on these issues…this arrangement already has privacy advocates up in arms. The scale the task is also daunting…at only 15 minutes per review it would take more than six years for a single panel to review the initial case load. Who pays for the process hasn’t been mentioned anywhere.

Google has made no secret of their objection to this process so it’s unlikely that they will be turning cartwheels to make if either fast or painless. However in the final analysis it may not actually improve matters for those seeking to be forgotten. In cases where Google has been required to remove copyright infringed content under the digital Millenium Copyright Act they have always posted a clear note to that effect, often with pointers to sites where that ‘censorship’ process is discussed in more detail. Given that Google.com in the  US is unaffected by this ruling where they are required to remove content about someone on one of their European properties it’s highly likely that they will simply leave a great big red flag in the results set to the effect that “We are sorry, but had to remove juicy information from these results under the “right to be forgotten” rulling.. but if you want to look at what we had to remove click here to see the uncensored results at Google.com” I can hardly imagine a more reliable way of sending the searcher to exactly the information which some body would like to be forgotten.

Google vs. Tiananmen Square

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Way back in 2010 Google officially pulled out of China citing claims that it just couldn’t stand the constant harping and demands for from the Chinese government. It’s an emotion many of us in the divorced 50% of the population can sympathize with. You might think that would be that for Google and China but not so. The Chinese people have continued to adopt a plethora of Google tools and toys like GMail and Picasa….and of course search. Given that China has proved its self completely able to hack into pretty much anything or anywhere it wants to it makes you wonder why they continue to tolerate this leakage of information into China and what would happen if they really turned against it…now we know.

June 6th marks the 25th anniversary of that spectacular celebration of freedom and broad-mindedness also known as The Tienanmen Square Massacre. Each year around this time Chinese celebrates by playing an extra vigorous game of Whack a Mole with its people by shutting down as much access to the outside world as it can. In previous years they have done a pretty good job of it…this year on the 25th anniversary they have tried extra hard. What’s the result?…well if you use Google, Yahoo or any of their tools or toys you are pretty much out of luck, This time The Chinese government has used what they have learned in hacking into US companies to really stick it to their own people. The shut off is apparently close to 100%.

This points to a couple of things worth thinking about; first if anyone in China has access nowadays to information from the outside world it is apparently with the knowledge and tacit acceptance of the government…and second… they can take it away when ever they want to.

Catching Up in the Jobs “Race”

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Google has just released data on the ethnic and gender background of the people who inhabit the Googleplex…and Shockingly it turns out that they are mostly white guys….by a large margin 60% white 70% male. The second largest (30%) ethnicity claimed is Asian which includes people in many cases imported directly from the Indian subcontinent. If you are lucky enough to ever visit the Google Plex the evidence of your own eyes will confirm the data….it is dazzlingly white and male with a very strong Indian/Asian component.  Indeed Google serves some of the best Indian food you will find anywhere in their cafeteria.

 My company has a healthy mixture of folk. We are based in SoCal (as opposed to Silicon Valley) so we are lucky enough to have a wider range of employees..but a quick headcount reveals broadly similar data. Like Google it’s not that we try to hire in any particular direction but we can only employ people who apply and are qualified for the work at hand. If the graduates in computer science and math are predominantly white or Asian males that’s going to wash through in the employment demographics. It’s an industry wide problem and not one that is amenable to immediate correction.

We aren’t the first industry to be plagued by this kind of problem. For example a generation ago the medical profession was overwhelmingly male now it’s much more balanced; in 2012 47.3% of people entering medical school were female. The tech industry focused around Silicon Valley is a much more recent industry than medicine. The high profile, high value jobs it’s famous for have really only been around for 20 years…if that.  Before the tech boom the same math and computer graduates would have ended up spread over IT and education and been unremarked…another white nerdy math professor….no big deal.  Now that our industry regularly mints billionaires barely old enough to rent cars it looks a lot more dramatic…but it’s really more a quirk of fate rather than an evil plot. I expect this to level out probably even faster than medicine.

The fabulous wealth and opportunity our industry represents will attract the best talent and I’d expect that talent to reflect the gene pool pretty quickly. Women will catch up perhaps in a couple of graduation cycles and minorities will catch up as fast as their societal challenges allow.  It’s always been tougher for a very smart kid born into poverty to achieve the same things people dealt a better hand expect as their birthright….but it can be done and I look forward to that brave new and much more diverse world.

Google and Apple Squeezing into the Home Security Market

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Home security is big business. It’s worth in the region of $25Bn per year projected to grow to north of $35Bn by 2017. It’s also an industry ripe for technological enrichment, as our homes get smarter it makes sense that our home security systems get smarter too. My home security is a 100lb American bulldog called Hedwig…we also happen to have ADT installed…but I have to believe Hedwig is a more effective deterrent albeit probably not as smart as some of the new home systems. It looks like Google is planning a move further into home security through Nest, its recent $3.2 billion acquisition that has put a high-tech twist on thermostats and smoke alarms. The company is considering buying the connected camera startup Dropcam.

Dropcam’s main product is a camera that saves its footage to the cloud, letting users check the recordings anytime and anywhere. The startup recently bolstered its security offering with improved video analysis technology and waterproof Tabs, which can detect motion in areas you couldn’t place a camera. Last year it announced a $30 million round of venture funding.

An expansion into home security would be in keeping with Nest’s mission of rethinking household technology for the 21st century. “Safety shouldn’t be annoying,” Nest CEO Tony Fadell told The Verge last year when unveiling the Protect smoke detector. ”We’re about reinventing unloved categories.” That’s a mission that Dropcam’s investors got behind, with Kleiner Perkins’ Trae Vassallo saying last year that “Dropcam can do for surveillance cameras what Nest did for the thermostat.”

Apple is set to make its own play for the connected home next month, according to a report in the Financial Times. Cupertino will reportedly offer a platform for third-party vendors to hook into the iPhone, allowing it to control lighting, security systems, and more. Apple is said to consider privacy an advantage over Google, which leverages user data for advertising revenue and recently told the SEC it could serve ads on “refrigerators, car dashboards, thermostats” in the future — though it later denied any connection with the Nest acquisition. The iOS smart home software may be announced at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference on June 2nd.

Solar Panel Roadways: Lighting the Future Ahead?

 

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I haven’t had an electricity bill in nearly two years.  Each month our household is more or less net neutral…on a good month we are actually net contributors to the national grid. This is possible because I live in sunny SoCal and I have solar power. Two years after being proposed as an alternative power for many homes and businesses, US electrical engineer Scott Brusaw’s system of solar powered roads is in the second prototype stage, which could lead to wide spread use. Scott’s idea is to cover highways and other roadways with photo-voltaic panels that would collect energy and feed it into a decentralized power grid. If successful, these panels could generate enough energy to power the entire country. It’s an interesting perhaps genius idea with several barriers to entry.  Solar is pretty big here in SoCal, I inherited mine with the house so I didn’t have to put up the capital directly. If I had it would likely have cost enough that I’d be looking at a twenty year payback. Photo voltaic is expensive to manufacture….scaling the current technology up in such a grand way is a very impressive idea.

As a kid in the 1960s, before most people had even heard of solar power, Scott Brusaw imagined “electric roads.” Almost five decades and two government-funded prototypes later, the electrical engineer from Ohio is on his way to raising $1 million to start producing solar panels for our streets and highways. Not to power the light, mind you—to function as streets and highways. Soon you may be driving on solar panels that power the buildings you’re passing by. One million bucks isn’t going to get anyone much past a Ted Talk…let alone re-engineer our infrastructure.  It’s barely enough to buy the horse to tilt at windmills with…even if the windmills were actually generating wind energy at the time.

“We can use these panels to create roads, parking lots, tarmacs—anything under the sun,” Brusaw says. “All of the current asphalt and concrete currently soaking up the sun can be covered with our technology to turn that sunlight into clean, renewable electricity.”

The biggest challenge Brusaw faced was engineering a case to protect the fragile solar cells. He began by researching the technology used in black boxes for airplanes and ended up using thick hardened glass. It sounds fragile, but after impact resistance and traction testing, it has proved able to handle trucks weighing several times the legal limit. A prototype solar parking lot in Sandpoint, Idaho, has been successful as well.

It may take some time to see them on highways, though. Neil Fromer, executive director of the Resnick Sustainability Institute at the California Institute of Technology, says installing solar power on large structures will take a lot of testing and paperwork.

“The tremendous amount of solar energy that hits the earth’s surface in an hour is enough to power the planet for a year,” Fromer explains. “So when you think about renewable energy in the long term, solar is a huge part of that.” Considering that pavement covers as much as half of many U.S. cities, a lot of electricity could be generated by covering it all with solar panels.

Brusaw’s project could have a huge impact, especially if it overcomes the many challenges to getting it out into the real world.

“I think this is pretty cool, and I don’t want to sound too pessimistic about it,” Fromer says. “It’s really just a question of integrating solar energy into our existing electrical system. Roads are great surfaces to try it…. Technology innovation always helps.”

Google Buying Word Lens to Boost Google Translate

 

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Back in 2010, a company called Quest Visual debuted an app called Word Lens. It hardly seemed possible, but the app translated a number of different languages in real time using just the smartphone’s camera. Currently, users can translate between English and Portuguese, German, Italian, French, Russian, and Spanish.

It’s easy to see why Google would want to own it — its stated mission is to make all the world’s information searchable in any language — and Google Translate generally does this quite well, at least for web pages.

With Word Lens, iPhone users can translate the world. Apple even featured the app in its recent “Powerful” television ad for the iPhone 5s, and it’s obvious why. Even better, it doesn’t require a connection to the internet, which is another benefit for business travelers.

Being a great translation app doesn’t come without some struggles. Word Lens has trouble with particularly stylized text or handwriting, and the translations will make occasional mistakes. However, most of the time, it will at least get the point across.

The app is currently free to download from the App Store, and is also available on the Google Play Store on the Android market. The translations are available via an in-app purchase, though they are also currently free.

YouTube Dipping Its Toe Into the Video Game Streaming Industry

 

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Google’s YouTube is close to securing a $1 billion buyout of live streaming service Twitch, and has been chosen as the best suitor over many competing companies such as Microsoft.

Twitch is said to believe that Google can help the company become what it wants to be — the definitive platform for watching and streaming live video gaming. The company raised $20 million from investors in 2013 and is likely to turn a profit this year. But capital isn’t enough to allow Twitch to scale its technology and infrastructure to keep pace with its growth. It had plenty of offers from venture capitalists looking to give it more money, said the person, but what it needs is a partner that can help it handle massive amounts of live and user-generated video on a global scale.

Despite not being well known beyond gaming circles, Twitch already pushes more traffic during its peak hours than titans like Facebook and Amazon. ”To be quite honest, we can’t keep up with the growth,” Twitch marketing VP Matt DiPietro has stated. Microsoft and others have made serious approaches to Twitch, but YouTube was deemed the better fit. It’s unlikely that the gamer-friendly Twitch would have wanted any part of a deal that would tie the service to Xbox, as it’s embedded in Sony’s rival PlayStation console as well.

YouTube has been interested in testing the game-streaming waters by introducing an API at last year’s Game Developers Conference, but the effort never got much traction in the community — it only opened live streaming capability to all in December. Twitch, meanwhile, has huge mindshare among the video game audience, as evidenced by its role as the streaming platform for all major e-sports tournaments, giving it command over a lucrative advertising demographic. The proposed deal can be compared to Facebook’s $1 billion acquisition of Instagram back in 2012, where an established giant snapped up a fast-growing startup it saw as a potential competitive threat.

Big Brother is Organizing You

 

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Intellectually I understand that we have essentially surrendered our privacy rights in exchange for the cool stuff we get online, however a couple of examples have crossed my digital world recently which illustrate just how pervasive this is becoming. The first happened a couple of days back when I booked a favorite local restaurant for six people at 7pm. At about 6 that evening my iphone coughed politely and a message came up on the home screen to the effect that in current traffic it will take 18 minutes to get to the restaurant so be sure to leave by 6.40 to get there on time. What’s impressive is that I didn’t interact with Google at all in the booking process and set no alarms or reminders. I had booked through Open Table and received the usual email confirmation…which was read by Google (I never opened it) who figured out where both the restaurant and I were and given traffic how long the journey would take. That’s awfully impressive….a bit creepy but still impressive.

What is slightly more creepy is that we are planning a trip to London and Paris in a few weeks. My lovely wife and I booked the travel and hotels through my Orbitz account, we booked separate components through the same account but from different laptops. The confirmation emails went to my email address only. What’s impressive is that we are now both being bombarded with hotel offers for Paris on our separate email and Facebook accounts. Neither of us have mentioned anything about this trip on Facebook at all. Clearly what’s happening is a sophisticated combination cookie delivery and cross platform retargeting.  The fact that we didn’t use Google to search for any travel components makes it even more impressive. Should this level of passive tracking and targeting bother us?…probably not, it’s something between neat and weird but (in my mind anyway) not actually invasive. The utility afforded by the fact that Google (your virtual butler) will let you know when to leave for the airport and even have your boarding pass ready without you asking is undeniably cool…but at least for now I don’t think I want to ride to the airport in one of their self driving cars.

Don’t You…Forget About Me…

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As an avid search watcher I realize that most of the stuff which interests entertains or enrages me is of only passing interest to the real world, however yesterday Google lost a case at the highest level in the EU courts….and this may impact a whole bunch of the real world.  The case stems from the complaint of a Spanish man that Google linked his name to an old story in a spanish newspaper about him having his property auctioned off to pay a tax debt. The man in question argued that it was old news and he shouldn’t be continually punished by his name being linked to this resolved item….the European Court of Justice agreed….you have the right “to be forgotten.” They held that the data may “appear to be inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant or excessive … in the light of the time that had elapsed.” Essentially anyone resident in the EU can now ask any search engine to erase links to data about them under that definition.

As I look at that definition I have no idea how that ruling could be operated in the real world.  Who gets to decide…and on what criteria?  I guess it’s all cool and very european but how exactly do we deliver on that requirement? Back in the day when I worked for one of the big search engines and had to deal with this kind of stuff we had a simple hard and fast rule. We never responded or acted upon any request to remove data from our index unless we were requested to do so by a court of competent jurisdiction. The rationale was that we were protected by the Digital Millenium Copyright Act and if we responded to one we would have to respond to them all. We indexed publically available content we did not pass judgement on the veracity or timeliness of that content…if you had a problem with that take it up with the website which published that data, if they deleted it we would inevitably delete the link. This new ruling greases exactly that slippery slope and working out the bugs in this strange new world is going to be a nightmare.

The problem is simple, the moment this ruling goes into effect the search engines are going to be deluged with requests to essentially expunge the permanent online records of potentially millions of people. I have no idea how the engines will respond to those requests but you can be pretty sure that the moment a request doesn’t go the way of choice for the complainer the lawsuits will start to fly. The EU has a higher bar than we do in terms of frivolous lawsuits but it’s going to happen. Also, since the engines are firmly headquartered in the US I can hear the class action lawyers sharpening their pencils to find a way to take a run at them on their home turf.

This ruling puts an unfair and unrealistic burden on the search engines. A much simpler solution would have been to make it the responsibility of the person with the problem to resolve the problem with the original publisher of the information…if it’s an old or no longer relevant story maybe they will remove it….maybe not, but making the search engines responsible for that kind of judgement is impractical.  One solution open to them is to simply not index content from those countries or perhaps not display that kind of content on the local versions of their search.  That would essentially force anyone in the EU to go to Google.com rather than Google.es/fr/de etc to get search results.  Neither solution makes any sense, but if the legal burden of defending all the cases which will spin out of this mess (and Google defends everything all the way in every court) either of those worse case scenarios could well happen.