Monday, June 29, 2009

Weekend Links

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Attacking Disease with Your Computer - Stanford's Folding@Home

Stanford University is operating the "Folding@Home" distributed computing system to try to develop a better understanding of how proteins fold, or misfold. This may sound extremely esoteric, but as their disease FAQ points-out, this understanding is relevant to Alzheimer's, Huntington's, cancers associated with malfunctions of the p53 protein, Osteogenesis imperfecta, and the development of antibiotics.

The existence of this project is old news to a lot of us—it's been going on since 2001 at least—but it stands to reason that most of the Internet community is still unaware of it, so I wanted to give it a plug in case it happens to be news to anyone reading this. Having lost one friend to cancer this year, and watching another one fighting it, the cancer-related work of this project has acquired new meaning for me.

Anyone with a Macintosh, Linux, or Windows machine can download and run the Folding@Home software, as can owners of PlayStation 3 game consoles, and begin contributing your computer's spare time to shed light on the aforementioned diseases, and many other problems.

As a technological aside, here's hoping that they produce a client that will use the OpenCL technology in Apple's forthcoming Snow Leopard operating system (Mac OS X 10.6) to harness the power of the GPUs in Macintoshes (something that the project has thus far neglected, as, indeed, they neglected to ever take advantage of the multi-CPU PowerPC Macs).

Monday, June 22, 2009

Weekend Links

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Apollo: Through the Eyes of the Astronauts

I just received my copy of Apollo: Through the Eyes of the Astronauts. Haven't read it yet, but I ordered it for the pictures, not the reading, and I am suitably impressed. One could easily wish the book were twice, or four, or ten, times as long, but, well, wow.

I can still clearly remember a day in elementary school when one of the moon missions was due to launch, and I pleaded with the teacher to let us watch the launch on television – to no avail. I still find that situation unfathomable, and I'm not sure I ever did get to watch a launch live.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Weekend Links

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Weekend Links

Friday, June 5, 2009

Grandpa Johnson, the Inventor of Fat-Free Bacon

Bacon lovers in the audience may find the title too good to be true, but fat-free bacon was invented, and it was my grandpa who did it.

I've never found a good excuse for telling this story in writing (though my good friend Jay Lake's occasional bacon references have tempted me), and, as you'll find out soon enough, it deserves a better story teller than I, but since nobody else is ever likely to record these facts, the duty seems to fall to me.

My Grandpa Johnson died when I was three, so I was told, and thus memory provides me not a single recollection of him. But I remember being told at least two things about him. The first was that he wrote a book, and one that was published, no less. Even as a kid that amazed me and made him stand-out from all the other members of my family as the only person who'd ever done anything that really mattered. I mean, a book. He wrote one. Someone published it. He added something very concrete to the sum of human knowledge, for it was a volume of facts, rather than fiction. That has never ceased to impress me. (Had it been fiction, I'd still have been impressed that he'd added something concrete to human culture, but then the rest of this story probably never would have happened.)

The book was Animals in the American Economy by John A. Sims & Leslie E. Johnson. (ISBN 0813802458.) I was told as a kid that the co-author was the man who'd finished the book after grandpa had unexpectedly dropped dead. So, if there was ever a promotional tour, sadly, grandpa missed it, along with any chance of a shot at the best seller list. I am assured that life is not fair, albeit usually by the people who are making it unfair, but this must surely constitute some independent proof of that assertion.

The second thing I was told about Grandpa Johnson was that he'd inventend fat-free bacon.

If it should seem surprising that he, of all the grandpas that the world has ever created, should choose that particular book to write, or that he should be the one to set out to create fat-free bacon, it may be helpful to know that he was Head of Animal Husbandry at South Dakota State College, and, ultimately, Head of the Department of Animal Husbandry at Iowa State College. Because of his latter affiliation, I was dumbstruck many years ago when I searched for him on the Internet and found that he had a web page – dead for 25 years when the Web was invented, but he still had a web page. Neat trick. For a man who could pull that off, presumably a book was no problem. Fat-free bacon was another story, however.

The invention of fat-free bacon was handed-down in family legend, and if the legend was ever rich in detail, those details didn't manage to penetrate my young skull. Nonetheless, I choose to believe in the invention, (1) because it's a good story, and (2) because his resumé says he was just the man for the job. Which is to say that he was a man with both the means and the inclination to breed swine. And none of that "let's just mate a few pigs to get a few more" sort of swine breeding, but controlled breeding, with the resources of a state college at his disposal. Which state college that was, will have to remain a matter for historians.

Historians aside, I was assured by family legend that grandpa bred generation after generation of swine in his determined quest for the culinary holy grail of fat-free bacon. And after years of breeding just the right sow and whatever-they-call-a-male-pig, his program of old-school genetic engineering was at last a success. He had one of the resulting pigs slaughtered and the hog belly cured. Once that was done, he presumably went home proudly to present the slab of bacon to his good wife for cutting and cooking. The family gathered—surely this is the sort of thing for which families cannot help but gather—and, I imagine, sat anxiously around the dinner table listening to it cook, and hungering for the first taste of the bacon to which human civilization had been leading. Soon, I expect, a plate of the sizzling miracle meat was placed before them on the dinner table and quickly portioned-out to everyone.

And that's pretty much where this combination of speculation and family legend ends. For, by all accounts, the bacon was terrible; unpleasantly dry for a start, and I recall nothing good being said about the flavor.*

A technical success, but a practical failure, the bacon project was abandoned there and then, I was told. And so it was that that thread in the weave of the 13,000 year history of the pig was abruptly cut, and its dangling end vanished into the mists of time. Until now.

Know ye, History, that Leslie Eckroat Johnson invented fat-free bacon, and tremble.

* How this bacon differed from back bacon, which is naturally relatively low in fat, yet tasty, I do not know. Perhaps it was the difference between being "low in fat" and truly "fat free" that was crucial.