DNA Data Storage Breakthrough, Shakespeare Lives… Sort of

Scientists at the European Bioinformatics Institute have created a DNA information storage and retrieval system — think “organic hard drive” — and tested it by uploading sonnets, sound clips and how-to’s. But not just any old bits from the Wikimedia Commons …

The information stored on hundreds of thousands of strands of of DNA, according to ExtremeTech

…consisted of a .txt file of all of Shakespeare’s sonnets, a 26-second clip of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, a .jpeg of the Bioinformatics Institute, a .pdf of Watson and Crick’s paper that detailed DNA structure, and a file that explains the actual encoding process being used…

The files were downloaded from the Internet and encoded into DNA into an organic form — as it was put in manner reminiscent of Douglas Adams — “the size of a rather small piece of dust.”

When that churl Death my bones with dust shall cover

Uh, no, they effectively rendered the works of Shakespeare, King, Watson and Crick into the lorem ipsum of bioinformatics. True, they had to put something in there but the question that gets me is how do you choose? Of all the works of humankind, how does one choose that with which to make history?

Sounds of EarthThis kind of situation has come up before. Carl Sagan led the the team at Cornell that decided what to include on the Voyager Golden Record, which was subsequently loaded onto the two Voyager spacecraft as a sort of “message in a bottle” to those beings with record players living outside the Milky Way.

Mozart, Stravinsky, Blind Willie Johnson, Chuck Berry and naturally a bit of the old Ludwig Van made the cut. Given that both Voyagers left our solar system last year, it?s time to crank the tunes since the copyright holders of the recordings included on the disc only allowed their use outside of our solar system (somewhere Lawrence Lessig is shaking his head).

Would you want your creative work crammed into DNA or shot into space? Would you care about copyright? Would it violate Amazon’s Kindle Select program?

Hearkening back on the lorem ipsum notion, I’m half compelled to write a novel specifically to be used by the scientific community should they ever need to weave 60,000 words of finely crafted prose into the very fabric of life as we know it or shoot some into space in search of life as we don’t know it yet. Either way, it’s a fair stab at literary immortality.

Says Thomas Paine: “When we are planning for posterity, we ought to remember that virtue is not hereditary.”

But the contents of your DNA drive, well, they just might be.

This Literary Life

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20 years ago, I had the dumb luck to order Dutch cartoonist and columnist Peter Van Straaten’s This Literary Life from the Daedalus Books catalog. At the time, I felt a wee bit pretentious having a collection of pen-and-ink cartoons about the “trials and tribulations of the literati” conspicuously atop the coffe table. Two decades hence, however, I’m glad for my aspirational tastes for it’s a real treasure.

The one-panel cartoons offer an unflinching if occasionally sentimental look at writing life in a manner that’s as affirming as it is darkly comic. Despite the fact that Van Straaten wrote and drew This Literary Life eons before Amazon, Kindle and ebooks existed, the essential quandaries he explores are timeless. Moreover, it’s in keeping with Van Straaten’s sad luck sensibility that you can presently obtain your own edition of This Literary Life on Amazon for a penny. And, for the sake of full disclosure, I get a cut of that penny if you buy the book from the link above. Sigh.

The Upper Middle Brow and Me

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Critic and self-appointed cultural watchdog Dwight Macdonald made a career decrying what he perceived as mid-century America’s susceptibility to well-packaged middlebrow culture. Especially that which disguised itself as art and consumed with high-minded self-congratulation, like so much Vitamin Water.

“It pretends to respect the standards of High Culture while in fact it waters them down and vulgarizes them,” he wrote in his work Masscult and Midcult: Essays Against the American Grain (here’s a pdf of it nicked from a university). Recently republished in 2011, Macdonald’s observations have since made cameos in the cultural conversation, including a recent citation by William Deresiewic, who updates Macdonald’s taxonomy in Upper Middle Brow: The culture of the creative class, published in the American Scholar.

As Deresiewiczi writes:

“But now I wonder if there’s also something new. Not middlebrow, not highbrow (we still don’t have an avant-garde to speak of), but halfway in between. Call it upper middle brow. The new form is infinitely subtler than Midcult. It is post- rather than pre-ironic, its sentimentality hidden by a veil of cool. It is edgy, clever, knowing, stylish, and formally inventive. It is Jonathan Lethem, Wes Anderson, Lost in Translation, Girls, Stewart/Colbert, The New Yorker, This American Life and the whole empire of quirk, and the films that should have won the Oscars (the films you’re not sure whether to call films or movies).” Continue reading “The Upper Middle Brow and Me”

Inaugural Doggerel: President Obama’s Inauguration, Take 2 or Is it 3?

Inauguration TimeThe official website for Monday’s 57th Presidential Inauguration has a list of “prohibited items” that is 18 prohibited items long. Number seven on the list – after such predictable no-no’s as guns, knives, mace and, included with odd specificity, the “Leatherman” pocket multi-tool – there is the issue of “thermoses and coolers.” This, I believe, is code for “no coffee or beer,” the two beverages those with adult ADHD require to get through an endurance test like the inauguration.
Perhaps this sounds unpatriotic, or even like a substance dependence issue, but for the life of me it’s near to impossible to listen to people talking for more than half an hour without the ramrod of caffeine propping up my consciousness. I begin to nod off, drift, or sometimes just float away. If I manage to stay seated, awake and upright, about half an hour later I grow aggravated and annoyed with whomever’s talking (particularly if it’s me) unless bottles start arriving. Continue reading “Inaugural Doggerel: President Obama’s Inauguration, Take 2 or Is it 3?”

Dear Ms. Lonelyhearts

Ms. LonelyheartsBefore Sugar, there was Dear Abby and before Dear Abby there was the patron saint of advice columnists, Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts. Upon her passing and in tribute to Pauline Phillips, who wrote the original Dear Abby column before turning it over to her daughter in 2002, below is Jonathan Lethem’s intro to West’s novel, the opening lines of which read something like a template for Phillips’ 46-year gig:

The Miss Lonelyhearts of The New York Post-Dispatch (Are-you-in-trouble? –Do-you-need-advice?–Write-to-Miss-Lonelyhearts-and-she-will-help-you) sat at his desk and stared at a piece of white cardboard. On it a prayer had been printed by Shrike, the feature editor. Continue reading “Dear Ms. Lonelyhearts”