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?

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


Cow, goat, sheep, alpaca, camel, or buffalo? Which milk do you like?


I thoroughly enjoy making yogurt. But, of course, most yogurt is made of cow’s milk.

I was able to find some goat and sheep milk yogurts in my local store. They were good. Interestingly, the sheep milk yogurt had the stronger flavour, which made it better to cook with than to have cereal or fruits with. And, of note, both yogurts had the same consistency as cow milk yogurt due to fancy thickeners and food production techniques of commercial products.

I also was able to find goat milk in my local store, with which I made a batch of yogurt. The consistency was different from my cow milk home-made yogurt, a bit more runny, but more cohesive. Though I think this is partly due to my production technique, which I have since improved.

In my past few batches of cow milk yogurt, I’ve improved my temperature control and have been getting a consistent product that I like. So now I am bent on doing another batch of goat milk yogurt to see if I can improve the consistency (I’ve been looking for wholesalers nearby). Also, I’ll probably use a starter from goat yogurt, rather than my usual cow milk yogurt starter, in case there are some differences in the strains that produce the better goat yogurt.

There’s more
I’ve also been pondering milk from other animals. For example, I was talking to an alpaca breeder. I got all excited and asked if he had any milk. He laughed and told me that when you try to milk an alpaca, she’s not too happy and actually lays down.

So no milk there.

And today, while reading up on difference between goat and cow milk, I stumbled on a nice article on camel and buffalo milk. Go read the article, as it has a nice cultural discussion of the different milks.

I’ve also reproduced below a really great table she had comparing different milks (no sheep, though).

What different milks have you had?


Higher than buffalo or camel milk
Higher than buffalo or camel milk
Lower cholesterol than cow or goat milk
Lower cholesterol than cow or goat milk
Vitamins and minerals
Higher fat and protein than human milk
Low in B6 and B12, higher in calcium than cow milk
Similar to cow’s milk, although higher in calcium
3 times higher in vitamin C than cow’s milk, 10 times higher in iron but less vitamin A and B2
4 %
Cross reactivity of milk protein
Casein antibody cross-reactivity with goat and cow. 2-3% infants allergic to milk proteins.
Similar casein structure to human milk and different from cow. Those allergic to cow milk might also be allergic to goat milk in about 25% of the cases
Some protein antibody cross-reactivity with goat and cow. One case of Buffalo milk tolerance when allergic to cow milk
Little or no cross-reactivity between cow and camel milk proteins. This indicates that those allergic to cow milk can drink camel milk.
7-8 %
Fat characteristic
Needs to be homogenized otherwise fat rises to the top, large fat molecules have a tendency to clump
Larger number of small fat molecules than cow milk, Smaller softer curd, no cream formation. Does not contain agglutinin, so the fat molecules do not clump together. Believed to be the reason why it is easier to digest. more essential fatty acids such as linoleic and arachnodonic, and higher medium chain fatty acids
Smaller molecules which don’t clump together like in cow’s milk. Contains lower levels of agglutinin compared to cow’s milk but has similar digestibility.
Does not contain enough agglutinin and therefore fat molecules do not clump together. Size of the fat molecules are similar to cows
Butter, cheese making
Contains agglutinin, fat separates easily, butter made by churning, cheese is made using rennet
Lacks agglutinin, difficult to make butter by churning, many soft goat cheeses are made without rennet
Traditionally used to make mozzarella in Italy, better color and texture, yogurt is thick and creamy
Does not contain sufficient agglutinin for efficient cream separation. Butter is made using a centrifuge. Cheese produced using camel rennet, vegetable rennet has been used with limited success. Easily made into yogurt
Good source of calcium and vitamin D
More easily digested because of smaller fat size and distribution characteristics. It is also alkaline. Better tolerated with those with lactose intolerance.
Low in cholesterol, good source of nutrients such as calcium and other vitamins and minerals
Used to treat type 1 diabetes (contains insulin like molecules), strengthens cellular immune response, high in lactoferrin, which has antimicrobial activity, reduces allergic response in children
Linked to milk allergies and intolerance ranging from atopic dermatitis, diarrhea, and constipation.
Not appropriate for those who have severe lactose intolerance, although usually tolerated better than cow’s milk
Contains lactose so may be a problem with those suffering with lactose intolerance
Contains lactose so may be a problem with those suffering with lactose intolerance, although better tolerated than cow’s milk
Flavor can be strong in comparison
Similar to cow milk
Sweeter than other milks


A New Kind of Stalking

There wasn’t much to it: be a waiter at a catered government event, or an usher at a Hollywood red carpet gala, or a bouncer at a big music show, and have a pocket full of sterile wipes to surreptitiously swab drinking glasses, surfaces, and hands.

He was surprised he was the only one who actually did this.

And the product possibilities boggled the mind – people would pay for anything, even if they couldn’t see it.

Yet, there must have been pent up demand: his website, which started just as a simple price list, had been found on Day One through a wide range of creative search terms.

Who was he to judge the eccentricities of others? He was just fulfilling a need, though in a nebulous zone of legality thicker than a Victorian London fog. On the other hand, the ethics were quite clear: yeah, quite clearly unethical.

Upon returning home, he’d put the wipes in the freezer to wait until the next morning when he could process them to extract the illicit information using his collection of gizmos purchased on eBay, homemade reagents, and countless tubes, tips, and tricks.

The extracted samples would be shipped off to some no-name cheap sequencing house somewhere in the world only to return as a link to a file on a free online genomics analysis platform.

Then the fun began as he processed and concatenated the correct files to stitch together large stretches of some celebrity’s genome.

He’d often send out the sequences again to some synthesis house so that people could buy tubes of celebrity DNA – they couldn’t even frakkin’ see any of it!

Though he could charge more if he sold a specific gene – for Brad Pitt’s eye color, Jennifer Lawrence’s hair style, Obama’s skin color, or Adam Levine’s vocal cord genes.

No, these folks know nothing of the truth of genetics. Though, if they knew enough to check, it’d be a true related gene or sets of genes.

Then there’s the real money for those who want an organ. Hard to make, but oh so worth the effort. For example, once his Irish friend sent him some DNA from Ozzy Osbourne and paid for a liver. Who knows what he did with it.

The ultimate, though, was the couple who gave him gobs of money for a Jennifer Connelly embryo.

Even he was freaked out when he delivered it to the couple at a fertility clinic. Took him a few months before he resumed his genomic paparazzi activities. But money was so good, the competition non-existent, and the authorities so clueless, why stop?


[Inspired by @onetruecathal]

A Brush with Infinity

While she ascribed her confusion to the speed with which things unfolded, perhaps she really just refused to admit what she experienced.

Granted, part of her reluctance to admit anything was also due to realizing she was incontrovertably idiotic for taking that shortcut down that dark alley.

Yes, a dark alley.

Yes, someone followed her into it.

Yes, he caught up with her, grabbed her bag, knife in hand as they struggled.

Then, THUMP, something, something immense, landed on her assailant. With one long arm the large being – was it wearing overalls? – lifted up her assailant and with its other long arm swung a, a large monkey-wrench?, across her assailant’s jaw, numerous teeth clattering against a nearby brick building wall like so many spat Chiclets. And in one motion the being swept up the assailant’s knife, impaled one of his hands onto the nearest utility pole, turned to her and, before she could react, threw her over its shoulder.

She fell into a face-full of fragrant fur with a hint of denim and light machine oil as the being thump-thump-bump-clanked in a quadruped gallop towards the brightly lit end of the alley.

At the edge of the light it holstered its giant monkey-wrench into a loop in its overalls, and, with both hands, set her down gingerly. She was face to face with it – him – in all his simian largeness.

She most remembers his dark brown eyes, reflecting the safety of the light behind her, as he frowned and nodded a “You should know better,” with a touch of “I might not be there next time,” before spinning her towards the light.

As what transpired began to sink in, she couldn’t help but turn back to watch as he thump-thump-bump-bump galloped away into the darkness of the alley and vanished.

[inspired by Infinity Monkey]

[another IM story of mine in comments of above image]

Changes in Aetna’s online offerings: what the impact?

I find Aetna to be a leader in using online tools to increase member engagement in their health (with the interest to lower costs, of course). One interesting online service they had was CarePass, which, as I recall, was adding features and, I thought, was growing to be central to all of Aetna’s online offerings. I used to use it as a great example of what payers should be doing to become more consumer-centric.

Aetna to shut down CarePass by the end of the year
“One of the primary ways that Aetna is improving health care is through the increased use of innovative technology,” the spokesperson wrote. “We are consistently creating technology-based solutions that make it easier for consumers to navigate the health care system and get the most out of their health benefits. While we are continually developing these solutions, we also need to evaluate our investments to ensure that we are providing the most value to our members.”

While it’s always sad to see the demise of an interesting attempt at an online mobile health service, it’s important to be able to iterate and experiment to truly find what folks want. And they are not getting rid of iTriage. They purchased iTriage a few years ago. I think CarePass was growing from within Aetna.

With the closing of CarePass, what happens to the data and users? What’s the impact on the pioneering users, too? And is Aetna the right place to iterate and experiment? Does closing CarePass dampen the futures of other similar online services?

What do you think?


Siri and my car: When a new tech highlights limitation of old tech

icon_siriI’ve had a iPhone for a few years now and am definitely a heavy Siri user. I’ve learned her way, how to speak with her, and get her to do the things I need her to do (for the most part – I still can’t seem to get her to schedule anything in my calendar).

I also use Siri when I can’t access the phone, such as when running or when driving.

When I’m running, I have the Apple headset and Siri works perhaps even better than without a headset.

But when I’m the car, Siri can be quite frustrating. Y’see, the microphone in the car was never designed for voice recognition.

Unless you played with editing audio or perhaps were into computer telephony, you might not realize that not all audio channels are the same. Or perhaps you  have – the degraded sound quality on radio talk shows is due to the telephone not delivering a broad enough bandwidth to deliver good sound. Indeed, the standard phone system was designed to carry the minimum amount of sound to be intelligible.

When Skype came out, folks were shocked at the sound quality – Skype was sending the maximum bandwidth to provide the best sound possible.

Back to my car
My car microphone seems to also be designed to provide the minimum bandwidth necessary for a phone call. It doesn’t try to be the best microphone because the phone system has such narrow bandwidth. Hence, when I use it, it’s quite difficult for Siri to understand me.

So my suggestion to car manufacturers: Siri (and Google Now and Cortana) need excellent sound input to optimally work. DON’T SKIMP ON CAR MICROPHONES!

Any body else want to weigh in?

Posting mobile photos like it’s 2005

I haven’t looked at my Lifeblog archive in a long time. Without the software, it’s just a deep tree of folders holding all sorts of media over many years.

For some reason, last night, I took a peek, flipping through old photos and text messages from another time. Sigh, that Nokia is no more.

But I found some screen shots (with a date and URL) of how we would post from Lifeblog.

Blogging from my phone
I don’t want to go into the interesting origin story of Lifeblog and my brief time with it, but, as the name suggests, blogging was a key feature. And not just any blogging, blogging from the phone.

Before Lifeblog, there were some hacks to get photos online. But with Lifeblog, or so it became, it was easy to compose a photo-centric post from your phone (thanks to the genius of the engineers on our team and at Six Apart). The Six Apart folks even made cool templates to showcase the photo posts.

Screen shots!

And in case you’re wondering, here’s what’s left of the post, the template long lost after many digital migrations.

A trip to the archives
These images were used to teach folks how to post. And there was also a post to teach folks how to put their settings in. How quaint!

What a time! As a team, we were breaking all sorts of ground. It was the closest I got to start-up mentality at Nokia.

Alas, Lifeblog never reached it’s potential, never got fully baked, faded away in neglect.

And folks like Apple and Instagram made it all look new again.

[Now back to my therapist after opening up these and a ton of related old cobwebbed memories I should know better than to disturb.]

Image from the launch website (found in this post of mine)

What to do with so many layers of technological sediment?

junkheapMuch to my wife’s frustration, I have a habit of holding on to old tech.

So what’s in my basement?

A 1987 Mac II (16-bit 68020 chip!) with a 40MB drive and 5MB RAM (yes, I bought an extra 4MB). It also has a 8-bit card (color!) for the 8-bit Mac Monitor I have as well. Alas, the Laser Printer disappeared. I think my wife “quietly” discarded it (that mo’fo’ was heavy!).

An old Syquest drive – for huge 45MB disks. SCSI, too. [I think I have a Zip drive down there as well.]

I have two 1997 MacBook 3200c laptops. Color, 2GB drive, and a trackpad that is better than anything Toshiba or Lenovo have created since. I think I still have the Zip expansion cartridge for one of them.

I have a 1999 Blueberry iMac. It was our first DVD player and we watched movies on the 13″ screen for years.

Somehow I ended up with a Tangerine iBook, the one with the handle and scallop shape. What was Apple smoking?

The last of the inactive computers is a busted up MacBook G5.

Counting as a living fossil, my daughter uses my old 2007 MacBook, Black, 13″, every day. Yes, she’ll get a new one – in about 18 months, when she’s almost done with high school.

Last time I organized things, I also found a bunch of different generation of digital cameras, starting with the QuickTake from 1997, through various megapixels – 1.x, 2.x, 3.x. I also have a camcorder from 1995 – yes, tape!

I’d been thinking of what to do with all of this. It’s be a shame to landfill them like Atari did (read this great story for the reference).

But at the same time I do not think any of it has any significance or that there are collectors looking for such forgotten tech.

What do you do with all your old tech? Do you hold on to it? Bin it? Find a needy historical museum?

Image from article on Atari dump archeology

PS I also have a ’86 Benz that is ready for the scrap heap. As you can tell, “what to do with old stuff” is on my mind!

Pause for station identification

11316234075_1793c8fbb0_zTime for my periodic pause for station identification.

Hello, folks. My name is Charlie Schick. I am Director, Business Development, Healthcare, at Atigeo. I just started at Atigeo (June 2014) and am excited to help them take their xPatterns Platform to the next level. My move to Atigeo is very much a “money where your mouth is” kinda move. I’ve known these folks and their product for a while and now want to get more deeply involved.

Prior to that, I was a sales consultant with IBM, using my industry expertise to talk science and healthcare and cavort with care providers and research scientists, all while working for an amazing tech leader. And prior to that I worked at Boston Children’s Hospital, and at Nokia, in Finland.

I also advise 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.

Practical microbiology (and then some)
Throughout my life, I have dabbled in many things – building things from bio-molecules to web publications to communities. I am always happy getting deep into the tech (bio or otherwise) and getting my hands dirty and tinkering. In the past few years, I’ve returned to my first love – biology – and have been studying the practical uses of microbiology, such as probiotics, functional foods, physiology, and the like (just see the things I’ve been posting and commenting on here on this site and on Twitter).

My latest kick is 1 gal brewing to rapidly iterate recipes.

Thinking and speaking
Alas, I have a wide range of interests (see my About page) and I have a very active family, so I’m more of a thinker than a doer. I suppose one day I’ll pair with the right doer for my thinking and we’ll have a blast. Until then, I’ll keep writing and fermenting foods.

Also, as a recognized thought leader, I convert complex concepts into easily understandable stories. And I regularly unfold these stories in front of large audiences, 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 Cringley)
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.

TV: Morsels vs Streams

For a long time I’ve been thinking about the morselization of the web – the break down of the mogul-minded content consumption of the early media world into the fragmentation of our media experience of the last decade.

When I lived in Finland, I mostly did not have a TV (only had it for FIFA World Cup games), listened to radio only in the car, subscribed to the Economist (only print pub I read), rented movies from a store and then from iTunes, was very much online for news and connections to friends and family. So, by nature, my interaction with media was fragmented, episodic.

When I returned to the US, the change to this mix was that I signed up for cable (for sports and Comedy Central, mostly), but insisted on a DVR. This meant that our interaction with TV continued to be in morsels selected and controlled by me and on my time.

Continuous drivel
Needless to say, with so many years away from old skool TV, I no longer have the complacency to let TV producers decide when I should watch something (though I am forgiving of sports broadcasts).

And what really bugs me are the all-day news programs, like CNN or CNBC, who need to fill huge chunks of hours (up to the max 1440 minutes, even) of streaming video with something. Anything.

Visiting my parents is frustrating, as my father is wedded to his news shows, starting at 4pm going to midnight. As my mother says, “When it comes to ‘Last word with Lawrence O’Donnell,’ his last word should just be ‘Good night’ as everything that can be said has already been said.”

My father loves to visit me, though: he can watch his programs when he wants to and we can pause and discuss what’s been said, fast forward through commercials, even rewind to hear commentary again. He gets it that the experience is his to choose.

Airports, the last bastion of CNN
CNN is the offender that I keep coming back to. After years of feeding the beast, the best they can offer is vapid commentary. What could fit in an hour gets extended to the whole day. And it is delivered as if there is always someone watching.*


The future of TV is on-demand, morsels, episodic viewing.

Netflix has it right – just release the whole season at once and let folks decide how to watch it – either 22 episodes at a go, or over man weeks, or next year. Oh, and you didn’t miss anything of the first season, just watch it before you start the second season. YOU are in control!

The realization
The whole point of this brain wave was not to state the obvious: The future of TV is on-demand, morsels, episodic viewing. But, I couldn’t figure out why TV like CNN and the evening news have been bugging me.

They bug me because their content and delivery are premised that we are passive consumers of a continuous stream of video that we need to adjust our lives to.

Nope, we are in control, get to decide what we want and when and how.

CNN will remain the butt of Jon Stewart’s jokes for as long as the ignore this.



*My daughter was telling me last night that at the Correspondent’s Dinner, Obama cracked a joke that MSNBC (or was it CNN?) was overwhelmed with the audience at the Dinner, as it was the largest audience they’ve ever seen. Good one.