Pause for station identification

gears-William-WarbyAs I am sort of feeling my brain starting to reactivate my writing muscles, I thought now would be a good time for a station identification. No need to panic. I’ve done this before. This is my 10th pause for station identification on this site since the first one in March 2005 (and #10 seemed like an interesting milestone to point out).

Me
Hello. My name is Charlie Schick. I am Senior Director, Healthcare, at Atigeo. I started there in a biz dev and sales role, but the role morphed into a client exec role and then into a product leadership role – stepping in where I’m needed, where I can best apply my skills, to keep the gears turning. One of the coolest offerings I am working on is building a catalog of healthcare and cyber data as part of our platform to enrich analytics and build new insight using external data. I’ll be giving talks about this throughout the year, it seems. But I’m not sure I’ll be posting much about it here, though, so feel free to ping me for more info.

Prior to Atigeo, I was at IBM, Nokia, and Boston Children’s Hospital in various roles in research, product development, sales consulting, and customer-focused go-to-market activities. During this time, I’ve designed and launched web and mobile products; provided internet, social media, and content strategy consulting; written numerous articles for online and print publications; published several biomedical research papers in leading journals; and co-authored a book on advanced phone systems. 

Biologist at heart
Oh, and I am a bio-nerd, mostly validated by my PhD in molecular and cellular biology from UMass Amherst. My bio-nerdiness is expressed in my love of certain fermented foods (I am a fermentos) and in my interest in the practical use of microbes in food, health, and interesting products. For the last few years, I have posted many things on this site and on Twitter around this fascinating topic.

And I enjoy being surrounded by PhDs at work (though the others have much more impressive PhDs, and our chief scientist has two, from MIT, no less).

Thinking and speaking and helping
This background should give you an idea of my interests and why I say what I say. Therefore, it should not be surprising that I share this experience, advising healthcare start-ups on mobile, marketing, and analytics. If you’re interested in knowing more about this, feel free to invite me to lunch or beer.

I also regularly speak in front of large audiences, sharing my experience and interests through various forms of media and design, and in the office of CxOs. Send me a note if you want to know more.

And of course, my standard disclaimer (riffing off of an ancient Cringely disclaimer)
Everything I write here on this site is an expression of my own opinions, NOT of my employer, Atigeo. If these were the opinions of Atigeo, the site would be called ‘Atigeo something’ and, for sure, the writing and design would be much more professional. Likewise, I am an intensely trained professional writer :-P, so don’t expect to find any confidential secret corporate mumbo-jumbo being revealed here. Everything I write here is public info or readily found via any decent search engine or easily deduced by someone who has an understanding of the industry.

If you have ideas that you think I might be interested in please contact me, Charlie Schick, at firstname.lastname@atigeo.com, for Atigeo-related matters; via my profile on LinkedIn; or via @molecularist on Twitter.

Image from William Warby

Thoughts on “The age of indie fitness apps is over”

I officially left the mobile world back in ’09. But, of course, since then, we’ve seen the meteoric rise of the iPhone, folks getting the idea of mobile apps, and a wave of small companies realizing the value of merging GPS, mobile, and tracking – I didn’t get too far.

As a not-so-clueless observer (here’s an article I wrote in July ’06 of the exploration I was doing around this topic), I have had an interest in the apps these small companies created. In the past many years, I’ve tested many of these apps and use two on a regular basis – Nike Running and Moves.

One thing I am excited about is I feel like we’re still in a Cambrian Explosion, a crazy boom of multiple experimentations that promises to reveal the patterns that will go and evolve and dominate. The industry needs to be able to sample the total possibility-space of the intersection of mobile, sensors, and activity (such as fitness). And, as with the Cambrian Explosion, there will be many dead ends, many patterns that will die and fail, genetic exchange of ideas that die in one place but live on in another.

One interesting thread in the last few years is the gobbling up of leading fitness apps by major brands. Lauren Goode, of The Verge, wrote an interesting article on this trend. She characterizes it as the “end of the indie fitness app“. My favorite line refers to the burnishing these brands are getting when buying a well-known fitness app brand.

It’s your favorite indie rock album being used in commercials for Target.

She also points out the slow creep of assimilation these brands are experiencing, but I don’t think it’s all that evil that “your runner’s high is getting monetized”. In then end, money has to be made, and some things are best as part of a multi-layered offering, each helping the other (some day ask me about my billion dollar bookmark business example).

But it’s a fair thing to point out – user beware.

Health
Of course, where I keep bumping into this fusion of the mobile lifestyle, sensors, and activity is in healthcare (not just fitness or activity tracking, but wellness and behavior as well). Fitness tracking is one thing, but, as Lauren points out, we’re now “carrying around pocket computers [storing] our health information [at high] levels of granularity.”

Ponder that. Do we have to take into consideration that popular app we use will someday belong to Google, or Under Armor, or CVS?

No more indie feeling, indeed.

Thoughts?

Tired Words from Wired: “Unicorns and Other Things We Must Stop Talking About in 2016”

It’s been a long time since I posted one of my “Tired Words” posts, where I point out a word that has been over-used, mis-used, and ab-used.

But today I cannot resist adding here some else’s list of Tired Words. It’s a nice brief article (link below). Here are the tired words Wired author, Jessi Hempel, pointed out:

  • Unicorns [CS: Yes! And I’ve heard deca-corn for $10B valuations – gah.]
  • The Sharing Economy [CS: Hm, doesn’t bug me. But the Jessi’s comment will make is clear to you why this is DOA.]
  • “Smart” anything [CS: Oy vey. Indeed.]
  • Wearables [CS: I never really liked this word. Why  can’t we say shirt, watch, glasses, whatever. So what if they have wee computers in them? They are still shirt, watch, glasses, whatever – except “smart”. No, wait, that’s not what meant (see above).]
  • The Bubble [CS: Bubble schmubble. Somedays I think we have nothing to talk about and need to sensationalize things. Bubble or no, it don’t matter to moi. Biz is always a challenge.]

BONUS!: Funny thing is Marissa Mayer made it on this list; mostly to point out that Yahoo is not so much a Tired Word but a Tired Company and irrelevant at that, so no need to even bother talking about it. As the Jessi says, “Move along. There’s nothing to see here.”

Source: Unicorns and Other Things We Must Stop Talking About in 2016

“Settings are for geeks”

control panelAs far back as I can remember, I’ve fiddled with the settings. Computers, lab instruments, routers, phones – a chief selling point was how much access I had to settings and how much could be customized.

I recall that during my “Cloud” project at Nokia, the folks at IDEO used to say “Settings are for geeks,” in that only the geeks really cared about settings and modified anything. The corollary is that the settings out of the box need to be spot on for most folks.

Spot the non-geek
And you can tell who are the folks who don’t mess with settings. They are the ones who:
– have wifi routers with crazy SSIDs and passwords
– use the annoying Nokia, ATT, TMobile, Verizon, Apple ring tones
– use the goofy Galaxy, Apple, Samsung signature in their email sent from their phones
– have MyHD or UNTITLED named hard drives or generic bluetooth device names

Recently, I was talking to someone, who shall remain nameless, about his wifi router and he was wondering why my router name and password were so usable. I not only told him why, but mentioned that one time last year at his house, I helped his daughter move his wifi router to be in a better spot in the house (enough to amaze him) and decided not to change the name and password because I knew it was too much at one time. Perhaps next time I’m at his place?

Yes, I change settings
For me, changing settings is partly to make something fit how I want to use it, especially if the manufacturer tries to brand me with a ring tone or email signature – how dare they. But, also, it’s to make things work in a human way – I always set router, hard drive, and bluetooth device names. I have always made my own ring tones. I even change the settings in my car.

Though, once set up, I usually don’t fiddle with them. I’m not that fickle to keep tweaking settings. Once set, I’m usually fine for a long time.

Am I alone?
What I don’t know is how prevalent this is. I suppose if you are reading this, you’re like me. But when I look around my office and family and friends, I feel quite alone in this. It’s almost become a sort of parlor trick to tell people what I did when they do a double-take and ask “How did you do that?”

I suppose really we should make sure that the out-of-box settings are most respectful of the user and that, much like the iOS “Hello” set up, we guide the user in personalization steps. Though I doubt the manufacturers will make it easy to remove annoying branding.

Oh, well.

Are you a setting geek like me?

Image by Les Chatfield

Blindspot: OMG – how much time has humanity wasted with spinning hard drives?

I got my first computer with a solid-state drive (SSD) last year. For me, the biggest thing I noticed was the fast boot time.

Crucial MX100 CT512MX100SSD1 2.5" 512GB SATA III MLC Internal Solid State Drive (SSD)My daughter got a computer with an SSD last Christmas. The biggest thing for her was the battery life.

Fast boot and longer battery life were not enough to make me think SSDs were anything special.

Then I took my wife’s 2009 laptop and swapped out the hard drive for an SSD. Not only did she see faster boot times, but everything else was incredibly zippy compared to the slow down the old laptop was experiencing.

Which got me thinking: How much time has humanity wasted waiting for hard drives to deliver data? These hard drives with spinning platters have made us wait for machines to boot, given us the spinning balls of Waiting for Godot, and our reading and writing to them has moseyed for decades as the computers they were in far outstripped their speed.

What would happen if all the computers in the world switched to SSDs?

Oh, my.

Will Clinton push for university accountability for student loans?

Image from Politico

This presidential election cycle will likely continue the growing discussion around higher-ed, loans, and student debt.

I’ve been trying to parse out what folks are saying and proposing. One thing I’m concerned with is the difference in interest that students pay versus what banks pay when borrowing from the government. It would be nice if the banks paid a higher interest rate than students. Don’t you think?

I’m also on the look out for anything that leaves the universities themselves off the hook. If the universities do not have skin in the game, then anything we do will look like a government subsidy for universities to keep jacking up the tuition costs. For example, I think eligibility for loans should be tied to payback and performance. That is, graduation rates, employment rates, and payback rates of students should reflect back on the school they attended. Make this transparent and schools will be negatively impacted for poor performance. They will work to make sure students graduate, get jobs, and payback the loans.

The good news is that this kind of thinking is part of the discussion, so I will be tracking this thread closely. See the comment below in a Politico article related to Clinton’s new higher-ed proposal. The article references Obama’s push for accountability in for-profit schools.

He also questioned why if Clinton is interested in getting all schools to provide a quality education she doesn’t endorse gainful employment standards for all sectors of education. The regulation requires career training programs to track their graduates’ performance in the workforce and eventually will cut off funding for those that fall short. [Source: Hillary Clinton’s $350 billion plan to kill college debt]

Is OpenTrons the Makerbot of biotech? In some ways.

OTWhen I was a molecular biologist, folks used to ask me what I did. I used to say, “Squirt things into tubes and wait.” OpenTrons takes that drudgery out of liquid handling for the usual molecular biology techniques (and would have saved me the last 20+years of tennis elbow).

HAXLR8R, a hardware accelerator program, got, rightfully, excited with OpenTrons (see tweet, upper right). OpenTrons is a really nifty $2000 liquid handling robot (accessories are extra), geared towards biotech.

And OpenTrons will do more than just accelerate molecular biology liquid handling steps. Software-controlled, it will also allow scientists to do more and experiment with variations they normally would not have done manually. That’s really helpful, if you’ve ever had to constrain your experiment due to manual processes.

If I had the money, I’d buy one in a heartbeat. I can think of a ton of experiments I’d do if one of these were in my house.

Makerbot?
At one level, I don’t want to be a spoilsport with this exciting crowd-funded liquid handling robot. But at the same time, I do want to add some perspective that perhaps those who are not in the field might not have.

I can see why folks looking at OpenTrons might think Makerbot – the software-controlled motion of the pipette, dropping things in precise places, moving things around.

But when you are done with all the to-and-fro, Makerbot leaves you with a finished product. In contrast, with OpenTrons, there are many other steps after all the liquid handling before you get to any finished product in molecular biology, for example, transforming bacteria, plating, and so forth – yet more manual steps.

Robots rule
Yes, parts of the molecular biology workflow can be robotized. But right now, OpenTrons only does one part. To give you an idea, there are colony picking robots and plasmid construct building robots (which you could potentially turn OpenTrons into), but there are still many other steps that I have no idea if they’ve been automated or can be.

To me, with things like OpenPCR and OpenTrons changing the cost and construction of molecular biology machinery, the hardware and automation will become more accessible, not only to users, but to tinkerers who will string them together in more interesting ways.

So, while OpenTrons is not Makerbot in terms of finished product, it is a kissing cousin in terms of making more accessible what was once expensive and complex machinery.

And for that, HAXLR8R is rightfully excited in the Markerbot comparison.

Now go pledge to OpenTrons at Kickstarter. Closes November 30th, 2014.

 

I think it’s dead, Jim: When large companies kill small ones

I can think of many reasons a large company might buy a smaller one, only to kill them. For example:

  • Perhaps it was a smaller competitor causing the larger company a headache
  • Perhaps the smaller had created something that the larger was struggling to build but was failing and needed more time
  • Perhaps the larger wanted to hire a particular person in the smaller
  • Perhaps the larger was genuinely interested (at least a team at the larger was) and, after acquisition, the larger just couldn’t be bothered.

Bring out your dead
Indeed, I’ve seen permutations of all of these. Here are some that stick out:

Twango – In 2006, Nokia wanted to be a media company. While it had the time and chops to create a photo service of their own (and the opportunity to bet on Flickr), they spent many months wooing an obscure Seattle-based photo sharing company. When the service was finally purchased, Nokia’s touch of death* worked as the service never really was updated or properly integrated into the Nokia portfolio, and, things were so exciting, I don’t recall any of the original employees sticking around past 6 months. The service languished in neglect for a long time before it was finally shot.

Dopplr and Plazes – Two well-loved darlings of the digerati. Plazes might have been an acquisition to get good mappers in Berlin, where the city, due to the acquisition of Gate5 (which I think also had connections to Plazes), was becoming (and still is) the heart of Nokia location services. Dopplr, for me, was an acquisition to hire one of the co-founders. The value of the service and other employees and founders were incidental, I feel, and relocated to Berlin and disappeared. Both services had a modest, but influential and engaged user base. They were leaders in how location and social networking could be. But neither was updated after acquisition and soon were both closed down.

Jaiku – OK, so I’m not pooping on Nokia here. Jaiku (which Nokia indeed turned down) was quite disruptive with their Twitter competitor. It could have been a contender. And Google must have seen that. But Google did nothing with it, didn’t integrate it into anything, and let it die of neglect. It could be they wanted the co-founders. But it wasn’t clear that, once at Google, they were able to make an impact. Of course, neither are at Google any more.

OK, so these four were ones that I knew the co-founders. The next one, and the main reason for this rant, I wish I could ask what the founders were thinking.

Oh, the places you’ll go!
Moves – Moves is hands-down the best tracking app I have used. It quietly watches your GPS tack and gives you a nice view of where you’ve been, let’s you name things, and provides some basic stats. The key to me was the constant GPS tracking, so I don’t have to think. I browse the data often, reviewing the history of what I’ve done, trails I’ve walked, and streets I’ve run. And it knows when I’m biking, cycling, walking, or in a vehicle. There is nothing out there like it.

Sure, it’s had its hiccups as Apple tweaks iOS, M7 came online, and so forth.

Earlier this year, for some reason, it was acquired by Facebook. I have no idea why. The thought is that Facebook wants to get into trackers (who doesn’t?) and this was a good way in.

BUT, there has been no integration into Facebook properties (except the privacy policy), there has been no mention or promotion of it since, and WORSE there have been no updates.

Painfully, the app is failing more often since iOS8 came out. All the support lines are dead, even the founders don’t respond over Twitter.

I think it’s dead, Jim.

What’s a boy to do?
I’ve been trying to find a replacement for Moves, shook my fist at the big “f” mutely staring at me, tried different channels to find a human behind the app.

No luck.

Yet again, larger buys smaller and kills it.

And they don’t give a hoot about us.

True, not all acquisitions are so wasteful, but it sure hurts when it’s a favorite.
*OK, so I have no idea how Nokia found Twango. It really wasn’t a good service (I never used it beyond for work). Nokia could have done better. So perhaps that contributed to it’s decline. Nonehteless, Nokia seemed to have a touch of death with their acquisitions. I can’t recall many successful acquisitions during this period except NavTeq, an acquisition that ended saving the company, though not the mobile part. And NavTeq probably survived because they were independent for so long.

Spam robot cut-up fiction

cut-up flowerIn one of my meanders through the web this weekend, I was reading about Jack Kerouac, which led to William S Burroughs, which led to Burroughs’ cut-up technique.

Cut-up is when the author takes existing text, cuts it into pieces of words or stretches, and rearranges them into a new piece. It’s like sampling, but with words.

Sure, we do cut-up all the time online, and isn’t plagiarism a sort of non-credited cut-up? But I think the point is that the pieces, the seams, are visible, the cut-up technique, explicit, is what gives the energy and expectation of the new mix.

I’ve been thinking how such technique could exist online. [If there are any web geniuses out there who want to play with this with me, I have some ideas.]

Art in spam
I’ve always been fascinated by some spam that use clever text to mask their nefarious origins. Indeed, at one point, I was collecting from: names that combined interesting words into interesting fictitious names.

Below, though, is one that came in today, which, in my cut-up-alert state, stood out as a great example of random cut-up of online text. I’ve looked for the sources of some of the sentences (with typos), to give the idea of the extent of the cut-up (revealed with a strict Google search). In some cases, the specific text suggests a pedigree of cut-up across the web. Cool.

I do suppose I’m opening myself up to more spam, as I wonder if the specificity of this email is encoded in the arrangement of the sentences. Interesting, though.

October 28, 2014
Issue #325

God in love, and considered the the Holy Spirit as the center of contemplation.She spends a lot of time with her but she fails in coming closer to Sunny.EDT, in which a group of nude women talked and posed in a sexually suggestive manner. The board of trustees is a quintessential aspect of this theatre. Jim’s and Pam’s daughter CC. TV stations across the United States. The Ministry ended a period of political instability, when Britain had struggled in the war. Assigned divisions can be put by someone else that knows where they are assigned. The flight was launched on July 26, 2005, and returned on August 9, 2005. Mutational analysis of the ST7 gene in human myeloid tumor cell lines. CEDA formulates the annual intercollegiate policy debate topic used in tournament competition throughout the nation. Kartik is once again given a task by the Rakshana. Accumulation of premutagenic DNA lesions in mice defective in removal of oxidative base damage. It can simulate accidental or continuous releases from stationary or mobile point sources. During her childhood she sometimes showed a silent, childish religiousness. Museum for the Macedonian Struggle collection items 1. Humor Comic Strip Award for the strip in 1974. Its subjects range over a wide period of time and include all sports. Timo Sarpaneva narrated his family heritage as that of craftsmen. Ingushetia in February 2005. Photo taken from Hotbank Crags. Model of historical imperial palace in Edo white. Quality can vary widely, depending on a number of factors. His time with the doctor cemented his decision to leave soccer and pursue medicine full time. Each CFR event is contested over five days, featuring six rounds. Just below it on the roughly 200 metres contour shelf lies the Harvelin Park housing estate.CU Places West Campus Irving Cut 2. Some of them slowly integrated into colonial society. In the northeast parlor, the tripartite window is similarly recessed and flanked by pilasters. Cortijo Y Su Combo recording of the song Saoco. Streetjazz Festival is one of the largest amateur music festivals in Japan. Coauthor Claire Martin composed the music for this play. This vast sector encompassing approximately 7,300 businesses and employ more than 145,000 people. He soon became besotted with her, and ignored Chrissie’s repeated attempts to rebuke him. Group B and the losers of heats in Group A were seeded. I hear a whispering that they can find no presumptions of evil. He ends up telling his ex wife he loves her, but is ultimately killed by the witch doctor. For each of these products, a national sales department was formed with regional offices established in strategic locations. Fallon will go first, informing his men of each move. Art International, Switzerland, Vol XLI, May 1988, pp. The gang prepares for the annual art contest. She was an actress and voice actor between 1938 and 1962. Cuneo was buried in the St. Commissioned officers are typically assigned as leaders in a given field with a general title such as infantry officer.Every thought, feeling, perception, or memory you may have causes a modification, or ripple, in the mind. By order of President Lyndon Johnson, dependents of U. Still others were tradesmen making deliveries of merchandise. The completed DRF always includes the 3 components of DRF. This includes four that have seating capacity of 254 students. West Pakistani army units were concentrated. After talking Reggie out of killing herself, George admits that Rube was right all along. The young disciple of Puti Laozu. Thompson’s funeral was held in the same parish on 13 December 1634. South Africa, a first for a South African wrestling promotion since the 1980s wrestling boom. Justice administrators, will contact the target’s family, friends, neighbors, and employer to alert them to the website posting. Dic had 23 tackles, 3. Although the feathers are black, the scapular feathers produce a purple iridescence when they reflect sunlight. Rounded surfaces will often have some portion of the surface normal to the Radar source.The decree stated that the territory of Tlaxcala and the Federal District would become a part of the Department of Mexico. No freighter version of this model was developed by Boeing. Midway on 28 February. Japan by telling them that the proper procedures are being undertaken. The original staff consisted of seven data collectors. The C code is compiled into a shared object that will be used by the Verilog simulator. Stepdance judges prefer sliding motions with the feet and graceful movements that seem to slip across the floor. Arthur Andersen states that it destroyed Enron documents. The music video was directed by Jon Small and premiered in early 1993. References to the game date back as far as the 17th century, and it was quite popular at the start of the 20th century. Refurbished by LH Services at Barton under Needwood, England, and returned to Adelaide Yard on 14 December 2008. However, the Canadian climate needs to be taken into account for every structure. Poor People’s Radio, Inc. Jennifer that she has been drafted into the organization as a result of her registration.Ukraine and other republics dramatically declined. There were 347 housing units at an average density of 143. Ayala was shot dead trying to escape, shortly before evidence emerged that belatedly proved his innocence. The image on the cover is significant because it parodies a famous landmark. Wisconsin Family Action, July 23, 2009. He gave concerts in the U. Dugdale Society Occasional Papers, no. Lanois destroyed a dobro in a fit of rage. Clarke, Charles and Mary Clarke. All applicants are asked to answer a series of questions pertaining to their health. The CHILDES database includes a rich variety of computerized transcripts from language learners. Bud involves Lou in an experiment of a mad scientist who convinces Lou that he is indestructible. Mir Docking Cone Placement and Module Movements. However, this one has taken to Edie and continually follows her around.Both of the images clearly mention that they were made in 2009. Two shadow creatures that bicker constantly. So I played for John Philip Shenale, talked him through my vision, and he really got it. Some households in rural or suburban parts of the UK can opt for a wind turbine with inverter to supplement local grid power. I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud. The Problem with Villains which debuted at the 2009 Scream Literary Festival’s comics and graphic novels event. Leo Radeljak was charged with involuntary manslaughter, but during the trial he was acquitted of all charges. So Ami is obsessed in cleaning their trailer. Tatsuo is employed at a bank. The discal spot is minute and white. The stone is now in the Carlisle Museum. Its name commemorates Dr. Added See Also wikis. A prince and his wife defect after communists try to force him to denounce the West in a speech. April 9, 1928, at the age of 92. Sky EPG slot bought by Sony Entertainment Television. In April 1997, Abco purchased Venus II’s patent along with all manufacturing and marketing rights. Lang on the cover. Of Britannia and close friend of Nikolai Dante. Gaming Club devoted to the CM series. There are 7 species worldwide and 3 species which occur in Belarus. Only matches listed as full internationals by FIFA are included. Females are dark brown, also with the black and white borders. Construction, which was planned to take14 years, started on 14 October 1967. Tuesday, 21 April 1936. The decree stated that the territory of Tlaxcala and the Federal District would become a part of the Department of Mexico. As it was Australia made 293, setting England 356 to win in just over four hours. All the rebels were killed. It uses light and heavy machineguns, assault rifles, mortars, explosives, and rockets. SCHIP much farther than its original intent. Steaua with a perfect header inside the box. Left Shence Army, holding Li Xun’s head high in front of the procession, escorted Wang Ya, Wang Fan, Luo, and Guo Xingyu. And what we believe consciously is in large part driven by these unconscious beliefs. A busy attorney might take 50 to 100 cases a year. As king, he planned to liquidate his relatives who were acting as pretenders of his throne.

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[Update: And 30 minutes later, I received another with a totally different set of sentences.]

Image by Roxanna Salceda

Ebola exposes chinks in our techno-optimistic armor

Ebola_virionsIf you’re a bio-nerd like me, you’ve known about Ebola for a very long time. You knew it was trouble from the get-go and wondered how it would unfold should it get widespread.

Well, now we know.

But as things have unfolded, I see three things that I feel expose our techno-optimism for what it is: talk.

Instant vaccines
A few years ago, there were serious concerns about swine and avian flus going nuts on the scale of the 1918 man vs virus massacre. Synthetic biology was having a hey-day as, my anti-hero, Craig Venter, and his team, created life forms and turned genes into Legos.

One of the promises of synthetic biology was the rapid production of vaccines. Venter joined forces with vaccine juggernaut, Novartis, to accelerate the production of new vaccines. The hope was that, as diseases emerged, we could build vaccines in a week to save us from pandemics. And, since this was the rosy future, we would email the code anywhere, to bioreplicators, to get the vaccine where it needed to be.

OK. So we’re months into the whole Ebola epidemic (or at least, months since everyone outside of Africa started freaking out about it). In the same vein as “It’s the future, where’s my jet pack?”, I say: “It’s the synthetic biology future, where’s my personalized vaccine?” I’ll be kinder: “Where’s the instant Ebola vaccine?”

Yup. We still have a way to go. We’ll have to pass on this epidemic, and do it the old skool way.

Basic(s of) public health
Thankfully, folks my age and younger don’t have first hand knowledge of the viral scourges of yesteryear (which, I feel, were really just before I was born in the 60s). But viruses have a way to remind us that we’re slacking on basic vaccination: measles and whooping cough, for example, are making a come-back, once more. This should not be happening in 2014.

Also, we’d like to think that we’re more aware of viral infections: awareness in day care, awareness at home and in the streets, and awareness in the hospital. Heck, at a minimum, you’d think that hospitals don’t need to have some gruesome virus waved in front of their face to initiate proper infectious disease protocols. You’d think such habits were ingrained anyway, since hospitals are trying to control all sorts of hospital acquired bacterial infections (practically the only bacterial infections that still kill).

For example, swine and avian flu were doing a brisk business in the previous decade, and there was a concerted public health effort to nip the seasonal swells in the bud. Indeed, I remember working at Children’s Boston where they restricted access to patients, made all employees get vaccinated, installed hand sanitizers everywhere, and upped awareness of symptoms and potential outcomes.

The annoying thing is that some people complained after that there was no outbreak. Of course, stupid, because we took precautions and instituted good infectious disease protocols.

So, what the heck happened with Ebola here in the US? My understanding is that part of the reason it’s on a rampage in Africa is precisely due to poor public health infrastructure (in the hospitals) and understanding (with the public).

I will have to think the best, that Texas Presbyterian has had top notch infectious disease protocols in place and that the two nurses who were infected were due to the amazing ability of the virus to circumvent such protections and protocol.

I have to.

But then why do I keep hearing stories of staff going on plane and boat trips?

True, it shouldn’t be an issue if there were good protocols in place and the infection was contained. But if one patient caused two more infections in caregivers, might all staff members be a bit concerned?

Bio-errorism
Which leads me to the third case where Ebola makes us look silly.

The concern has spread to panic. A Maine teacher who visited Dallas was (sort-of) quarantined and banned from going back to her school. A man in the UK pulled his daughter out of school because she wasn’t allowed to wear a face mask. And now, the uninformed are calling for a travel ban.

For the past 10+ years, the US has been able to maintain a constant list of fears rotating through everyone’s minds. And the government has been well oiled to use all these fears to pump money into think tanks and contractors to develop systems to counter the sum of all our fears.

Bio-terrorism is one of these fears. I can’t help to think of the billions poured into research and plans to prepare for a bio-terrorism event. For example, what if someone were to infect someone with Ebola?

So where is all this bio-terrorism preparation in these Ebola days? From what I can tell, while the CDC has been great, I don’t see any mobilization on the part of the bio-terrorism folks. OK, so this is not a bio-terrorist attack, but, really, all the protocols, actions, and preparation should be as applicable to this Ebola event as if it were from some malicious element. The virus really doesn’t care who set it off.

But I can be OK with that.

The part though that I can say all the bio-terrorism effort has not helped is in educating the public what to do. Which ties back to the panic. Many folks have no idea how Ebola spreads.

And Ebola might be the best thing to happen to all the politicians and their asinine campaigns during these mid-term elections. Folks are so worried about Ebola (or at least it seems from the news) that no one will turn out to vote – partly because they usually don’t care, but now because there’s a menace out there.

As this great Forbes article on travel ban modeling says:

Calls for a travel ban illustrate that there’s yet another battle to be won over Ebola: explaining how the disease spreads between populations.

The humble virus this way comes
We think we’re so smart we can whip up vaccines and send them over the internet to save the masses. We think we’re the acme of our civilization with clean streets, advanced medicine, and disease-free living. We think we’ve thought of every scenario that could haunt our nightmares and have spent billions in materials and minds to prepare us.

And then seven genes, encoded in RNA, wrapped in a protein package of less than a micron, decides to take advantage of humans and go about its business of replicating, to remind us: eh, things aren’t as advanced as we think they are.

Life is still a battle and we need to tone down the techno-optimism and tone up the grunt work to save thousands of lives.

 

Ebola family photo via Wikimedia