Saturday, March 30, 2013

Making the web pay, one cent at a time

The internet has killed arts & media funding, just as we need more of it. What to do?

What do we want an economy for? Isn't it to give us more of what we want, and less of what we don't? But somehow through the last few decades, our collective aims have devolved into providing the financial gambling industry more money and keeping the poor down. It doesn't have to be that way.

We are a very rich country with lots of unemployed people. More and more of our basic needs are filled ever more efficiently. Wouldn't you think that arts and other forms of culture would be a bigger part of our lives than they currently are? Yes, there are industries of film, TV, and music, but they are being hammered by the disappearance of their gatekeeper functions, replaced by the wide-open, share-everything internet.

One would think that one form of employment we could all agree on is the performing, teaching, and propagation of music and other arts- some of the most positive experiences possible. But ironically, just as digital technology made spreading music and visual art (and recipes, and cranky opinions) easier than ever, the same process has rendered it economically perilous. When there is no gatekeeper, no restrictions, no scarcity, there is no income, by the typical business model. The same applies to the news media, likewise being destroyed by free information.

Music hasn't become less culturally important or desirable, but it has become markedly less profitable. The only franchise really left is live performance, which has undeniable scarcity.

Other countries make much more generous government-sponsored provision for the arts. Yet in the US, the measly amount sent to the National Endowment for the Arts and the public broadcasters is perpetually under threat from what Bobby Jindal calls "the stupid party". Certainly one option is to expand those avenues for funding.

But I think a more powerful way is to finally implement a concept that has been knocking around the internet for a long time- micropayments. If every download, every listen, every view, and every complete pageview were worth a cent, then the economics of our media lives would be transformed.

Bob Cringely recently wrote a post about how the economics of his own blog were just not working out. Even with 10 million page views on a typical posting, his ad rates are miserable. When was the last time you clicked on an internet ad? But if each of his readers contributed one cent after reading a full posting, he would be rolling in money, at very little individual cost to his readership. Heck, even I could earn a couple of beers out of such a scheme!

We have been addled by the advertising model of media funding. It is an appalling way to conduct our media lives in aesthetic terms, and inefficient, and has empowered some of the most socially destructive actors, culturally and politically (think of all those greenwashing ads by oil companies). Even public broadcasting is being gradually eroded by its exposure to advertising, since its model of having its viewers/listeners pay voluntarily (after relentless hectoring) doesn't work very well either.

If a heavy web surfer looks at, say, 200 sites per day, and reads fully, say fifty pages per day, that amounts to fifty cents spent. Add to that thirty songs listened to and ten videos watched, and it all adds up to a dollar, which seems like a very acceptable cost structure to the user.

Likewise, hooking up iTunes to a micropayment scheme on a per-play basis could fully unleash the internet for music, allowing all music to be open everywhere, and paid on the basis of actual use and enjoyment. The same for Youtube. Viral videos would be paid in appropriate fashion, by the masses who enjoy them.

So, rather than complicated and imprecise pay walls as they currently exist, a much better solution would be to reconstruct the internet on a broad micropayment foundation. Providers would choose whether to demand standard micropayments for their content (and thus be part of a very low-threshold paywall). Users would be blocked from those sites if they had not enabled an overall micropayment system on their browser with an associated account. If the rate is set low enough, i.e. one cent, I think it would be a no-brainer for everyone to participate. I think that the buy-in would be rapid and universal, and would transform our media landscape.

One benefit would be that advertising would be subject to new pressures. If providers only get paid after a user reads their post fully (scrolling down to the end, or paging to the end, or watching to the end), then having ads which clutter up the page and slow down readers would be selected against, and would only survive if they paid more than the users being turned away. Multi-page posts might be a thing of the past, among many other sins of design.

It is time to take back the internet for its users, and away from the corporations that are muddying its waters while inadvertantly bleeding so many other industries dry. Micropayments did not take off at the beginning of the internet, since the network was so small, and advertising seemed an easier method. But now might be a better time to bring that idea back.

  • And playing music is good for your health.
  • Another thing we could do if congress weren't constipated.
  • And yet another thing- super easy taxes.
  • Corruption is pervasive- "rent", in economist's lingo.
  • Workers being abused and killed- what century are we living in?
  • What's a free market?
  • The mortgage actors were irrational, not rational.
  • Evolution, feelings, love, and pain.
  • Religion- kicking the addiction.
  • A rough road out of Afghanistan.
  • Economics graph of the week. Median income is the lowest it has been in a decade or more. So while corporate profits are at an all time high, and jobs are trickling back, it looks like those jobs don't pay very well. More on the same...

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Mammals, rising from the ashes

Yes, placental mammals diversified after the KT boundary

The asteroid hypothesis for dinosaur extinction hit the world of paleontology like a meteor, and has been a constant source of amazement, nitpicking, and doubt since. The fossil record is patchy, so even if dinosaurs really died out at the cretaceous/tertiary (K/T) boundary formed by this impact in the geological layers, not all species would have representatives neatly recovered right below the boundary, but not above. The record would present a more sporadic view of some dying out earlier, depending on their general abundance. But over time it has become increasingly certain that the impact was indeed cataclysmic, and while some groups of dinosaurs were in decline beforehand, most gave up the ghost right at the boundary.

Example of the K/T boundary, from Starkville New Mexico. One signature is a high level of the element iridium, common in asteroids. 

Likewise for their thankful successors- the mammals- there have been long-standing disputes about when the major classes originated, especially the diversified descendents of the placental mammals- whether most of them were already present as the dinosaurs strode the earth, and what they really gained from the asteroid impact.

A couple of years ago, a thorough molecular study placed the the divergence of placental mammals into its major lineages, like bats, whales, primates, herbivores, etc, well before the K/T impact boundary, at least 100 million years ago.

An older mammalian phylogeny made from molecular evidence. Note the K/T boundary marked by the shaded boundary at ~66 million years ago, which was recently honed to just a 100,000 year window- 66.043 ± 0.043 Ma. This tree has most major lineages splitting well prior to that boundary.

But recently a paper came out that used both classical anatomical/cladistic methods and molecular methods to revise the story back to what had been thought for quite a long time- that placental mammals split into their various modern subgroups only after, but relatively soon after, the K/T impact. Within five million years, as these authors have it. At this time, there was a vast explosion of lineages that led to all the modern types we know and love, and others that went extinct. In comparison, very few major lineages separated in the last forty million years.

Unfortunately, their phylogenetic tree diagram is such an overstuffed mess as to be unpresentable. But just scrunch the one above in the horizontal scale, and you pretty much get the idea, although both groups agree that the split between marsupial and placental mammals happened much farther back- about 180 million years ago. The divergence between the two views is remarkable, and comes from the interesting fact that the molecular "clock" doesn't tick very evenly.

Molecular phylogenetics uses comparisons of protein sequences. You can have your pick over a wide spectrum of sequences, from genes like immune system components that change very quickly, (in an evolutionary sense), to others like histones or ribosomes that change very slowly. So you have your choice of clocks ticking at different speeds. With modern sequencing technology, it is relatively easy to collect data for your selected proteins from many species, and crunch then computationally to align the sequences and judge their divergence.

It is very quantitative in a way, and thus attractive over the old ways of comparing the slow change of tooth shapes over a fossil series, or skull shapes, or ear bones, or ankle bone shapes, etc. But there is a catch- that the only sequences we have are modern, so we have an enormous and perilous estimate to make when we want to translate a sequence divergence into a divergence in actual biological history. (And this isn't the only catch- there are a blizzard of possible mathematical techniques and associated theories/models available for the basic alignment comparisons and other steps, which have taken a long time to shake out.)

These estimates are calibrated using divergence times of well-understood fossils that track reasonably well to species we are familiar with in sequence terms (say, sheep and horses). But this calibration becomes rapidly more hazy as we go back in time, combining the uncertainty of the winding sequence history since divergence with the uncertainty of the fossil record. So it is easiest to stick closer to home (i.e. recent evolutionary times) and project those "calibration" clock rates back to more ancient events mathematically.

However it is apparent that evolution is not a constant process, and that especially during periods of promiscuous evolutionary radiation, sequence variation (as reified in founded linages) may speed up, causing a molecular-only analysis to cast events substantially farther back in time than they really occurred. We also know that different lineages have different evolutionary rates at non-radiating times, making simple calibration rather perilous. The only way is to put more weight on studying the fossil record, which is what these current authors seem to have done.

Characters on the skull used by the authors to compare fossil mammals for lineage membership determination- just an example of the methods used to establish relatedness among real fossils, in contrast and comparison with molecular relationships.

This issue of the wayward molecular clock applies even more strongly to the advent of eukaryotes, estimates of which range from less than 1 to 2 billion years ago. The revolutionary nature of this transition can hardly be overemphasized, generating the enormous and enormously complex eukaryotic cell out of the symbiosis of two or more bacterial cells. Many new systems arose denovo (meiosis, nuclei, intermediate filaments, goli and endoplasmic reticulum). It also involved a long gestation in evolutionary obscurity, followed by an astonishing radiation to a multitude of forms most various, including all animals.

So evolution remains a story in progress, with a fair amount of its history still shrouded in misty uncertainty, and only gradually coming into focus as more data come in and are more carefully analyzed.

The green line is projected labor force, given population growth and proportion employed during good (more or less!) conditions prior to 2008. The blue line is actual labor force participation in real numbers. The gap stands at about 12 million people. What could 12 million people be doing for us?

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Invasion of the stone cold killers

How one virus docks and enters.

These are wonderful times in biology. Advances in technology make routine what was before extremely arduous or impossible. An example is the study of structures at atomic and near-atomic scales. The data bank of biological atomic structures- of proteins, mostly, but also of DNA and RNAs- has ~90,000 entries, including increasingly complicated and large structures.

Combining atomic structures (deduced from X-ray crystallography, typically) with more gross-level imaging by electron microscopy has become possible as well. A recent paper described the large-scale structure of a bacterial virus as it docks and then injects its payload of DNA. Quite reminiscent of a space landing craft, really!

Example images of viral docking, in three stages. Stage A, the virus is positioned on the surface. Stage B, it has inserted its syringe-like channel. Stage C, its head is empty, after all its DNA has entered the cell. Note that this is not to scale- these cells are not full-size E. coli, but mini-ized vesicles derived from them.

This paper clarified the first parts of this docking story, showing where the tail fibers are at different stages of infection, at reasonably high resolution. The method was a lot of electron microscopy at the highest possible resolution, of hundreds of viruses, which were then averaged together to form smoothed-out pictures of higher resolution that any single one alone.

Averaged image of T7 viruses, showing its tail, internal core, and tail fibers around the outside (C is the view from bottom). In A, a viral mutant was used that has no tail fibers.

This virus (the T7 bacteriophage, well-studied in molecular terms) first detects and binds to a bacterial cell (the usual lab specimen of E. coli) using its tail fibers, shown in yellow:

Schematic interpretation of the data, with tail fibers in tucked position, and the detailed structure of the end of the tail fiber, which binds specifically to bacterial surface LPS, superimposed at scale.

These yellow spokes are the landing gear, nicely tucked up against the body of the virus, which is a sort of ordered crystal of coat proteins enclosing a DNA cargo (of only 39937 nucleotides). One oddity is that, while there are six tail fibers, the body of the virus is an icosahedron with five-fold symmetry. So the fibers can't be very tightly bound to the body. The ends of these fibers seem free enough to bind their receptors whether tucked against the virus body or extended out. They bind a common and large molecule on the surface of bacteria like E. coli, called lipopolysaccharide, or LPS. This binding is very loose, however, so the virus can roll around a bit before settling down on its target.

Once a fiber binds, it flips out into an extended shape, and other fibers can then bind and flip out as well. When all six have bound, the virus is well-attached to the ill-fated bacterium, and is also properly positioned for the next step, which is the descent of the central (red) channel and injection of the viral DNA.

Data and schematics of T7 in the docked position, before and after tail insertion. OM is the bacterial outer membrane, IM is the bacterial inner membrane. PG is the peptidoglycan cell wall layer between the two membranes.

What happens next is a little more mysterious. The binding of the tail fibers to the bacterial surface- even all six- does not seem to signal the viral core to fire its payload. The central red tail does not seem to have a specific receptor that it binds to or recognizes either, as far as I can read. Rather, it seems to expose enzymes perhaps like lysozyme, that begin to degrade the bacterial surface. This results in a little indentation of the surface (see the image above). At some point, a large core complex of proteins inside the virus bodies is signalled to come out, forming a pore that spans both the outer and inner bacterial envelopes / membranes (parts C & D, above).

Author's interpretation of the docking and insertion sequence. The DNA enters quite slowly, actually, taking several minutes and happening in three stages, pulled successively by viral proteins/internal pressure, then the host RNA polymerase, and lastly the RNA polymerase encoded by T7 itself.

An interesting aspect of what happens next is that the viral DNA doesn't just shoot into to the bacterial cell. It carries sequences that would be susceptible to one of the bacteria's defense mechanisms- the so-called "restriction" enzymes that cut foreign DNA. So the virus feeds in just a little of its DNA, (850 nucleotides), protecting it with special proteins. That DNA holds three promoters, which attract the resident bacterial RNA polymerase, which through its action of transcription physically pulls more of the viral DNA into the cell. One of these genes is a specific inhibitor of bacterial restriction enzymes. Later on, after T7's own RNA polymerase is transcribed and synthesized, (and after many host proteins have been destroyed), it comes back to pull the rest of the viral DNA into the cell at a speedier rate. The whole cycle of infection can be done within half an hour.

A diabolical mechanism, to be sure. But viruses like this one are being considered as next-generation antibiotics, to take up the slack after our penicillin-related antibiotics wear out due to overuse and evolved resistance. So don't be surprised if you end up swallowing some of these viruses as medicine someday.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Socialism with English characteristics

Can't we all live together?

I've been watching the first few episodes of Downton Abbey, and honestly, it reminds me of Glee, with its machine-gunned melodrama. One is left in a tizzy trying to follow it all. But one plot line in episode 4 was intriguing, where the head housekeeper Mrs. Hughes entertains a marriage proposal from an old flame, a widowed farmer from Scotland. She says no, with reluctance and some wistfulness for the freedoms he offered.

But she does live in a castle, after all- not a bad spot, even if one is downstairs in service. It made me think about the ecosystem the show portrays, vs the pioneer homesteading ethic we so commonly hold in the US, madly rushing into debt and overwork to stake our claim on a single-family home, proudly isolated from the rest of humanity.

The Edwardian estate was a communal living arrangement, with a large population cheek-by-jowl, all serving each other's needs. Washing was done, meals cooked, grounds kept, bills and employees paid. Very few communal living schemes have had such durability, certainly not more idealistic ones forsaking hierarchy in the name of communism or socialism.

The right/Republican end of the human temperament spectrum certainly has an important point to make in this respect, that hierarchy is an essential part of the human condition, putting the order into "the social order", putting each member in a place with a known role, from which they hopefully have a structured route for ascent depending on luck and talent, as evaluated by other members of the collective.

The conceptual revolutions of the enlightenment, and finally Marxism, began to see this hierarchy as intrinsically oppressive. As a matter of humanity, no person had the right to order others around, or to be fussed and dressed by a simpering valet- certainly not by birth. The capitalist and estate proprietor was seen not as the orchestrator of a complex community that provided roles and sustenance for all its members, but a parasite who skimmed off profits and labor-value from the powerless worker-bees who, if only they could shake off the chains of a socially programmed hierarchy, could earn their full value and enjoy a life of personal freedom.

But sometimes that life is less rich than one within the communal hive, however constricted. Even if the servants get only a fraction of the good food, and rudimentary dormitories, even if they experience the daily sting of inequality, they have other creature comforts and social comforts that might well make up for it. Some of our greatest literature has arisen out of the complex communities of the estate. (Though admittedly, rarely from downstairs.)

In our day, the corporation is perhaps the most dominant social community, leaving its members to a freely atomized personal life, even as it imposes hierarchy of a very traditional sort on their daily working lives. The recent dustup over Yahoo's renunciation of telecommuting touches on the heart of this power structure- how closely should the corporation dominate its slice of our lives?

Is this modern division of work and "life" the final solution, or will the future bring other modes of social organization? Work is a central human value, so even if we don't need to do anything- once robots take care of all our mundane needs- we will still live in hierarchies of some kind, and work to make each other's lives better, in some, hopefully higher, more artistic, more humane, way. Perhaps that is what Marcel Proust saw in his fin de si├Ęcle time, running from one Parisian Salon to the next, scrambling up the social ladder with no greater goal than to be loved.

  • Temperament, politics, and social order, continued...
  • Suicide bombings OK.. or not OK?
  • Afghanistan- the good news.
  • As markets go up, labor keeps getting screwed.
  • In Japan, finally the prospect of an exit to normality, via more spending.
  • We, too, need a fiscal kick in the pants.
  • Our libraries, our homeless shelters.
  • Economic quote of the week, from Friedrich Hayek, on equilibrium methods and assumptions in economics:
"The assumption of a perfect market then means nothing less than that all the members of the community, even if they are not supposed to be strictly omniscient, are at least supposed to know automatically all that is relevant for their decisions. It seems that that skeleton in our cupboard, the 'economic man', whom we have exorcised with prayer and fasting, has returned through the back door in the form of a quasi-omniscient individual.
The statement that, if people know everything, they are in equilibrium is true simply because that is how we define equilibrium."
"Clearly there is here a problem of the Division of Knowledge which is quite analogous to, and at least as important as, the problem of the division of labour. But while the latter has been one of the main subjects of investigation ever since the beginning of our science, the former has been as completely neglected, although it seems to me to be the really central problem of economics as a social science."

Saturday, March 2, 2013

What's next for Apple?


With Apple being the most valuable company, more or less, one has to wonder how it can top its previous tricks. Bob Cringely asked this question, and got me thinking.

Honestly, it is hard to expect any growth at all. Given its already enormous size, the most likely path goes down, not up towards a future where Apple would become lord and master of the business world.

Nevertheless, what could be next? How can they top their megahits of iPod, iPhone, and iPad? They have made a science of striking a consumer category ripe for computer-i-zation with a fully-formed solution that transcends what others have imagined and melds design, computerization, and cloud services into all-too convenient ecosystems. As an example of bad timing, Apple first offered a tablet computer way back in 1993- the Newton. It was an amazing achievement, but far before its time. At which point Steve Jobs finally pulled the trigger a second time, and the iPad arrived.

What other area of our lives are ripe for this kind of treatment? Where have nascent computer-consumer interfaces been lurking, ready to inspire an Apple-style invasion and makeover?

I think it is robots. Admittedly, invading this area would be extremely ambitious, involving far more moving parts than Apple is used to dealing with. But the field seems to be in a perfect state. There is an active industrial sector with usable, worked-out technologies. There is a nascent consumer sector, in a few specialized niches- cleaning and telepresence robots (which are even based on the iPad). Autonomous cars seem to be imminent as well.

The potential is clearly very high. Just as desktop computers took over areas of our lives and previously separate jobs that no one imagined, (secretaries, music production, guitar hero, postal service, phone calling), so robots will doubtless work their way into innumerable areas of our lives, limited only by their intelligence and design.

For running a household, the electrical revolution has left a great deal undone. Compared to having a house full of servants, having a washing machine leaves quite a little to be desired. So does having a microwave, compared to having a cook. So does having a vacuum cleaner, compared to having a maid. Could robots bridge this gap between dumb machinery and true service?

It is going to be a very long road, but with real uses already here, it is the kind of market that may be ready for exploitation, and for unimaginable growth.

Could robots take over these tasks without also taking over and ruling the world? I think so, given that we design them. But in any case, it is a world we are headed towards, and Apple would be well-positioned to help design it.

  • Oh, robots do interpretive dance, too.
  • Is the thrill gone at Apple?
  • Henry Ford- another visionary / megalomaniac, building the future.
  • Telecommuting rocks.
  • Christian martyrs: a mess of legend.
  • Christian church- right or wrong, the tribe is most important.
  • IBM, Circa 1970's-80's. "Every IBM employee’s ambition is apparently to become a manager, and the company helps them out in this area by making management the company’s single biggest business." Also ... how the world ended up using the "quick and dirty operating system".
  • Why priests? ... indeed.
  • The sequester ... is what it's like being ruled by the stupid party.
  • Solow on debt. And some MMT corrections.
  • Economics graph of the week- sectoral balances in the US, since 1952. Note how the household sector was in a highly usual deficit since roughly 1998, up till the crisis.