This SciAm article from last year – Tiny Biocomputers Move Closer to Reality – notes some breakthroughs edging us toward the realization of biological based computers or biocomputting. The concept is both realistic and a worthy practical goal. It is realistic in the sense that to a very large degree computers and biological systems are about moving electrons around in a predetermined way. While perusing some videos about cell function the other day I came across several, almost inevitable comments talking about the beauty, mystery and irreducible complexity of biological systems such as the cell. While I would agree that cell functions are elegant, the irony apparently escaping the commenters that the video explained the unexplainable complexity of which they refer. A carbon or hydrogen atom is the same whether it is part of a AMD processor or part of the mitochondria or a star a million light year away. The ions exchanged between gradients that signal your muscles and allow coordinated movement, again are the same if they’re in a human, an elephant or a bacteria on some yet to be discovered earth-like planet. If one can combine elements to produce a desired compound or combine compounds that shuttle electrons around to produce images on a screen then it is possible to manipulate biological systems – made of macromolecules – to perform a predetermined set of instructions, like say kill a cancer cell. Though cells are tremendously complex, it is not radically different from reverse engineering a program to see the code. Scientists encode, store and erase digital data within the DNA of Escherichia coli bacteria
“It took us three years and 750 tries to make it work, but we finally did it,” said Jerome Bonnet, PhD, of his latest research, a method for repeatedly encoding, storing and erasing digital data within the DNA of living cells.
Bonnet, a postdoctoral scholar at Stanford University, worked with graduate student Pakpoom Subsoontorn and assistant professor Drew Endy, PhD, to reapply natural enzymes adapted from bacteria to flip specific sequences of DNA back and forth at will. All three scientists work in the Department of Bioengineering, a joint effort of the School of Engineering and the School of Medicine.
In practical terms, they have devised the genetic equivalent of a binary digit — a “bit” in data parlance. “Essentially, if the DNA section points in one direction, it’s a zero. If it points the other way, it’s a one,” Subsoontorn explained.
[ ]...In the computer world, their work would form the basis of what is known as non-volatile memory — data storage that can retain information without consuming power. In biotechnology, it is known by a slightly more technical term, recombinase-mediated DNA inversion, after the enzymatic processes used to cut, flip and recombine DNA within the cell.
The team calls its device a “recombinase addressable data” module, or RAD for short. They used RAD to modify a particular section of DNA with microbes that determines how the one-celled organisms will fluoresce under ultraviolet light. The microbes glow red or green depending upon the orientation of the section of DNA. Using RAD, the engineers can flip the section back and forth at will.
Irreducible complexity is not just an anarchism, it is a meaningless phrase. Something cannot be beyond understanding if you understanding more about it every year and learn to manipulate it. Part of the motivation for the belief in complexity that is beyond human understanding is sentimentality. That part of the reason for the depth of emotional investment is sweet in its own way – a romantic ideal in the tradition of Frankenstein and similar concerns about the excesses of science. Though the other reason, the prime motivation is a misguided idea that removing the mystery removes the mystical aura of the origination of life, the promises or contract that concerns unjustified beliefs and eternal redemption and bliss for a life well lived. Back in the 15th century when Leonardo De Vinci was curious about the anatomy of human beings and thought perhaps he might actually see the human soul in his dissections of corpses, especially of newborns who had died in birth. Since the church believed the soul was mysteriously fused into the material body at birth, they worried that Leonardo might find or publish speculation that would contradict the church’s doctrine. So 1500 years later, despite knowledge of the human body down to the number of carbons in a DNA base, quite a few people still find room to inject their faith-based ideas into how the body works. Knowledge does tend to secularize beliefs over time, but it does not necessarily extinguish them.
One of the easiest ways to set about explaining who you are is to explain who you are not. As Tichi noted, for country music, this enterprise has historically taken the shape of positioning rural social values against urban mores. What intensifies this longstanding tradition, however, is a pattern I noticed about five years ago. A lot of popular country songs that valorize rural life do so, somewhat improbably, by appropriating elements of hip-hop culture and rap music—the most “urban” of all music in the American imagination. The result? In satirizing musical and lyrical gestures drawn from a genre rooted historically in African American visions of the city, the songs launch a targeted critique of urban modernity and postmodernity that inescapably, though perhaps incidentally, also targets black cultural expression. On the flip side, when pondering exactly who possesses agency in this complex transaction, one considers the perspective voiced by Michael Eric Dyson in his essay “This Dark Diction Has Become America’s Addiction.” Dyson suggests that due to the globalization of black cultural products, particularly rap music, the colonized have become the colonizer, shifting the historic balance of power towards the marginalized. So, is country music poaching, or is rap music dominating? Probably the answer is—yes.
This is part of a much longer essay that looks mostly at some of hypocritical, frequently borrowed and sometimes just plain false narratives of country music. Though like many essays it deals in generalities – even though she uses some good examples to make her point. Though that only defines country music so far. If you listen to some Willy Nelson, Johnny Cash, the Dixie Chicks, Kelly Willis, some country blues like The Cowboy Junkies or the Iris Dement video I posted the other day, there is not this false dichotomy of the virtuous country versus the sinful city. Their songs are more about personal experience interwoven with universal themes about – everything – love, justice, individuality, loss, hard times. The songs used as examples by Tipton are certainly pandering to the down home, salt of the earth, allegedly real Americans of “fly over'” country versus the city slickers. I’ve lived in fly over country and cities. people tend to be just people – they’re sinners and saints, and that can change from morning to afternoon and back again by evening regardless of them wearing overalls and a John Deere cap or a two thousand dollar suit. Sure some rappers are crude, but go out drinking with a redneck sometime. And rappers can be just as much pandering hypocrites as the country singer who lives in a two million dollar house outside Nashville. Versus rappers who talk about the hood and keeping it real who have a mansion in L.A. and a butler. This is all in keeping with the general American love of mythologizing their sub-culture – cowboys, Wall Street hedge fund managers, suburban housewives, truckers, southern writers, Jewish intellectuals from the north-east, San Francisco poets, amateur stock car racers, all high school kids. They all have their own quirks of language and handy bag of cultural references.
Charging Thunder and his dog. By Gertrude Käsebier, circa 1900. Charging Thunder was probably a member of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Käsebier took quite a few photographs of American Indians.