Monday, June 25, 2012

Hi ho, hi ho, it's off to DC we go...

As a scientist, one of the things I do fairly frequently is make pilgrimages to Washington D.C.  Or more typically, not to D.C. proper, but just next door to Arlington, where all the funding agencies I work with have their offices, there to talk to program managers, attend PI meetings, sit on review panels, whatever.

This trip, though, I'm rather more nervous and keyed up about than usual, though, because tomorrow morning we're going to be talking about demand shaping and the Zome/ColorPower project in front of the Federal Smart Grid Task Force.  They've asked us to give a half hour presentation on these wild and disruptive technologies that we're bringing to the table, and so the Zome CTO & I will be there to present a story of Truth and Beauty (or at least our versions thereof) to representatives of a dozen or so key federal agencies.

What makes me happy is that I'm feeling really solid about our technology and our impact story.
What makes me nervous is that I've never presented to this level of Federal official before, let alone a whole gang of them all at once.
What makes me excited is that this could be a really useful step forward in bringing the whole distributed demand response project into reality...

Well, onward into the breach, dear friends!  It's wouldn't be science if I got to be too comfortable...

Monday, June 18, 2012

Underserved Diseases

I've been reading a lot about underserved diseases recently, as part of the work I'm doing on the our CCM project. CCM is a DARPA program that's working on synthetic biology approaches to human medical problems, and one of the things the program manager has been very clear about is that he want to make sure what we do is actually aimed at solving real disease problems faced by the military. Not by coincidence, it seems that a lot of the things the military is worried about are widespread diseases in the developing world: that's where our soldiers tend to end up, and when they live there, they suffer the same things that the rest of the people living there do.

So I guess that's got me thinking a lot about the whole larger issues of society and medical care. You see, a lot of these diseases are on the WHO's list of "underserved diseases," meaning that they don't get a lot of funding relative to the number of people who suffer from them. Just why that is, I don't know the medical funding world enough to judge, but I'd guess it's no coincidence that a lot of the people who suffer from them are very poor.

The amazing thing, too, is how many of these diseases could be seriously mitigated just by improving public health facilities, or infrastructure, or other relatively simple actions that become not so simple when you need to carry them out on a national or regional scale. I remember my own experiences in Kolkata, visiting my in-laws. Both my wife and I were struck down and hospitalized by a nasty viral gastroenteritis, and we were never really well again until we got back to the US: every time one of us was getting better, the other picked up another round of something that just pounded on our weakened immune systems again. How, why? It was simply that all of the infrastructure we take for granted was not there in Kolkata, and it was so hard to maintain a clear chain of provenance on anything we consumed. After we arrived home, we opened up a big "Infrastructure" coffee-table book I've got and read with fascination about how clean water is actually assured here in the US. Something so simple that we take so much for granted turned simply magical in the wake of that experience.

So... now here I am, as a researcher, thinking about these things again, from a different angle. These problems are so big, so infrastructural: what am I realistically like to accomplish? Well, not much. At least, not soon. I'm not a doctor, I'm not a disease specialist. What business do I have looking at these problems at all?

What I am, though, is a computer scientist, and one with (I think) a good understanding of complex systems, emergent interactions, and automated reasoning. I'm not going to cure any of these diseases myself. But with the techniques we're working on, and the new tools that I and my colleagues can provide, maybe we can make it a lot easier to study and attack these diseases... and that might turn out to make a big difference somewhere down the line.

And maybe even to those folks in the developing world who really need it. I was fascinated to learn, a little while back, that one of the big things that the US military does in places like Afghanistan is to provide health care to people in the villages that troops visit. From a cold realpolitik view it can be viewed as a sort of trade: I heal your sick child, you're more likely to be on my side in some future conflict. But at the same time, I don't really care about the motivation: the basic human diplomacy of health care still brings tears to my eyes... we all deserve to have people and institutions that care for our health, and it's a damned shame so many are underserved. I just have to do my damnedest to make sure the resources that I'm being given to help are being used as best we can...

Monday, June 11, 2012

Meanwhile, on the west coast...

While I was off at the Spatial Computing Workshop, my colleagues Aaron Adler and Fusun Yaman were representing the synthetic biology side of my work over at IWBDA - the International Workshop on Bio-Design Automation.  

We had two entries there this year.  The one presented by Aaron summarized the results of the TASBE project (short form: we made an end-to-end tool-chain for putting computer programs in living cells and it worked, though there's a lot of work needed for it to be practical.  Fusun presented the other (accepted as a poster), which has our preliminary results on designing cell-state detectors using the miRNA sensors being developed in Ron Weiss's lab.

I tried to have my cake and eat it too at least to some extent by dialing into the SBOL workshop, since I really *need* that standard to be able to support the designs emitted by our BioCompiler.  Alas, however, the quality of internet service was not enough for Skype to believe that I was actually typing the numbers of the dial-in conference code, and I could only get updates via IM (thank you so much to Mandy!)

I wonder if I got volunteered for any organizer duties while I wasn't looking...

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

The Spatial Computing Workshop has come and gone

Yesterday was the 2012 edition of the Spatial Computing Workshop, which I helped get started 5 years ago.  Next year, I will probably not be an organizer, and that will be a damned good thing.

The spatial computing community is small, if you count by the number of people who self-identify as researchers working in spatial computing, but it's becoming nicely coherent and starting to produce some nice results.  At yesterday's meeting, we had people coming from radically different fields all speaking the same language, and I think a growing sense of the shared set of problems that we all face.  At the heart of the work that everybody is doing is this problem of how to get good, robust, collective behavior out of the systems we deal with, all embedded in the messy, geometrical world.  And by God, there's actually a sense of progress!

Amongst the many highlights, from my own highly biased point of view:
  • Stefan Dulman's group has Proto at the heart of a design toolchain for architecture, where they've managed to build a "chart programming" GUI that the artistic types they work with may actually find usable, as well as a nice real-time OS layer underneath.  Experiments on architects begin next week...
  • Ulrik Schultz gave one of the wonderfully humble robotics talks that I've come to expect from him or Kasper Stoy.  It's so much more interesting from a research point of view to see the struggles in robotics as well as the parts that work well---and it makes me appreciate the programming language work they're doing much more to understand just how many hardware and communication problems it has to cope with.
  • Matt Duckham gave a talk on the view from the Spatial Information Systems community, where nearly every slide also contained critical commentary copied from the acid comments that the reviewers gave his paper.

About that last... one of the interesting things that I've noticed about the spatial computing community is that there's a very particular style to the reviewing.  Reviewers often seem come into a review with guns blazing, smashing away at a paper with every possible critique and concern, leaving nothing but rubble and scorched earth behind, oceans rising as earthquakes devour the land.  And the final judgement after all this fire and storm? "A good contribution deserving of publication.  Accept."  You know what?  I like that and think it's a good thing.  Strong scientific critique helps all of us produce better research---I never want to be submitting to an echo chamber of all likeminded individuals.  Yet that critique should be constructive, and judgement of a work made simply based on whether it is a contribution to the field.  I like how the community tends to review, and I really liked how Matt made the critique an integral part of his own presentation.

For my own part, we contributed one reviewed paper and one informal overview talk:
I will leave it to others to judge the worthiness of our own contributions.

All told, however, between the formal program and all the informal discussion surrounding it, I'm feeling seriously psyched about spatial computing, and happy there's enough other enthusiastic people that I can pass the torch and let go on organizing for next year.