Here’s a spoken word version of the keynote I gave at Biofabricate 2017.
To learn more about why you need a bio strategy, click here.
Here’s a spoken word version of the keynote I gave at Biofabricate 2017.
To learn more about why you need a bio strategy, click here.
Teenage Engineering is a Swedish manufacturer of synthesizers and audio gear. For my birthday, Tomás and Felix, my youngest sons, gave me a Pocket Operator Arcade. It’s a calculator-sized, AAA-battery powered synthesizer. Pre-programmed with 16 video game sounds, 16 prebuilt patterns, and 16 sound effects, the Arcade is a simple, elegant sound maker. I’m using it for chiptunes-making (and time wasting!). It was the perfect, sweetest birthday present.
Question: What will be the synthetic biology equivalent of a PO-20?
Hemingway Editor. I usually jot these three by fives on an actual notecard, then transfer them to Hemingway for editing. Hemingway shows me what sentences are hard to read, reminds me not to write in passive voice. Plus, it tells me how readable my prose is. Usually, I aim for 6th grade but given the long, biology-related words I use, I’m usually happy for 12th.
The morning had started off lazy and cold. The cloud cover blanket kept Kristen, Alejandro, Felix in bed sound asleep until almost ten. Tomás and I rose around 7. Anya the cat had woken me, asking for breakfast, and I had things to read, pages to write, coffee to brew, breakfast to cook.
Once everyone was up and had eaten, had gotten over the late hour, and the fact that we weren’t going to hike a HiZgh Peak — too wet, too muddy — we decided to hike a pond, a mile and a half each way, on the east side of Schroon Lake.
So, after lunch, we boarded the Odyssey and drove to the trail head.
The first few steps were filled with questions: Would it start raining? How long would it take to get here? Alejandro lead us, I followed. Tomás behind me. Felix and Kristen bringing up the rear.
The trail followed a small stream under a dark tree cover, under an even darker grey sky. With each step, my senses became more receptive we — The moss on the rocks looked greener, the fallen leafs oranges and growns glowed brighter.
Soon I reached a swampy clearing, a frequent feature of the Adirondack hikes, a large treeless area circled by trees that couldn’t survive in the wet, too wet.
A few more minutes and we reached the lake where we sat and kept shushing each other to listen, focus on the stillness. A small insect crawled on the surface of the water. A bird sang and flew over a distant rock far in the water.
How could we have chosen to stay indoors when our bodies needed the exercise and our minds needed to disconnect from the day? Needed to reconnect with nature?
The few minutes of stillness, of connecting with our joyous surroundings gave us a feeling that would refresh and recharge us for the rest of the day. I felt blessed to have a few minutes away, to share the walk with my family, and to savor those moments.
The view at the end of the trail was terrific: Spectacle Lake reflecting the dark grey cloud-filled sky, the surrounding dense green forest interrupted by small explosions of fiery reds, burning oranges, and scorching yellows – the first hints of foliage, a reminder of fall’s arrival.
That was the day’s destination. Late afternoon.
[Found these observations on two 3x5s in Let My People Go Surfing. Probably wrote those early Fall 2016.]
Vertical skateboarding was borne of drought and creativity.
In 1976 and 1977, Southern California suffered an extreme drought.
The water shortages were so extreme that agricultural activities in some parts of the Central Valley were ceased.
Reservoirs ran dry.
Homeowners drained their swimming pools.
Fires raged. Homes were abandoned.
At the time, skateboarders had just started riding wooden boards with urethane wheels.
Those wheels were more forgiving on rough surfaces and allowed the flow-y carving turns that mimicked the motions that surfers make when riding waves.
Somewhere in Southern California, a group of kids looked at those pools and saw possibility.
C.R. Stecyk III, founder of Zephyr Surfboards and Skateboards, co-author of Dogtown and Z-boys, said:
“Two hundred years of American technology has unwittingly created a massive cement playground of unlimited potential. but it was the minds of 11 year olds that could see that potential.”
When I want to look at skateboarders riding empty pools right now, I head over to Ozzie Ausband’s Blue Tile Obsession.
Ausband and his band of Southern California skateboarders (including legend, Tony Alva, one of the original pool riders) detail their exploits in words and high-resolution images.
Sometimes, they drive hours to find pools that were bulldozed.
Sometimes, they invest hours draining a pool, shoveling debris, sweeping and preparing the pool for riding.
The reward is the bowl, the experience, and the vicarious excitement you, as a visitor gets.
Pedro Paramo is the book I’ve most given away. It’s a thin, easy to read, very influential novel. It will haunt you.
The second book I’ve most given away is Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk.
Through a series of alternating interviews, PKM traces the history of punk. From New York to Detroit to New York and London.
Picture New York City in the mid-1970s. Gritty. Dirty. DangerousThe City was on the verge of bankruptcy.
In contrast, rock ‘n’ roll in the mid-1970s is bloated and growing fatter.
On the East Side of Manhattan (on 47th Street to be exact), Andy Warhol’s factory births The Velvet Underground.
The Velvets play a stripped down version of rock ‘n’ roll mixed with avant garde sounds. They sing about mature subject matter: bondage, transvestites, and scoring drugs.
They go on to inspire many bands.
Halfway across the country, Detroit births the MC5 and The Stooges.
The MC5 are known for their aggressive, provocative, loud performances, which contrast hippie, flower-power bands.
The Stooges‘ Iggy Pop’s over-the-top performances earn him the moniker, “Godfather of Punk.”
The stage for punk is set long before it arrives at CBGBs, a club on the Bowery. 
New York births The New York Dolls, Blondie, the Dead Boys, the Patti Smith Group, the Ramones, and Talking Heads.
PKM’s cast of characters is extensive AND exhausting: Warhol, David Bowie, David Byrne, Debbie Harry, Malcolm McClaren, Iggy Pop, Dee Dee and Joey Ramone, Lou Reed, and Patti Smith, plus actors (Jim Belushi!), authors, artists, band members and poets.
All of them speaking in their own voices.
Explaining how bands were formed, who always had drugs, who knew how to play music, who didn’t.
To me, the book is an important lesson in making a scene.
By that I don’t mean “create a public display or disturbance” or “complain noisily and display bad behavior” (though punks did both).
I mean surround yourself with people who inspire you, help each other, do great work, perform together, and rinse and repeat.
Some of the people in PKM had talent. Others didn’t. Some used a lot of drugs. There were fights and stolen loves.
You might not want to be friends with several. Many of their stories are tragic. People died.
Yet, they came together to create something awesome.
By the dawn of the seventies, the philosophy was that you couldn’t do anything without a lot of money. So my philosophy was back to, “Fuck you, we don’t care if we can’t play and don’t have very good instruments. We’re still doing it because we think you’re a bunch of cunts.” – Malcolm McClaren
You can read this book straight through and enjoy the hell out of it.
You could also read it as a science fiction novel and enjoy it in a different way.
In my humble opinion, PKM is the book you read BEFORE Jessica’s Livingston’s Founders at Work: Stories of Startups Early Days, though the subject matter and format are different.
Livingston’s book (which I still come across on startup founders’ desks) is about changing business; McNeil and McCain’s book is about changing culture.
Updated 4/7/2108 to include footnotes.
 New York City today is nothing compared to what it was in the mid-1970s. Even in the late-1980s, when I first visited, New York still had an edge. Today, New York City is a sanatized shopping mall.
 I was lucky enough to see a few bands at CBGBs: Sonic Youth, The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black, Sham 69 (where EVERYONE knew EVERY song and sang aloud), Atari Teenage Riot, Bikini Kill, Batmobile, and a show that featured a who’s who of the California bands I’d seen live in L.A.: Circle Jerks, D.I., and 45 Grave. Today, CBGBs site houses a John Varvatos shoe store. R.I.P.
 The Blondie image is one of my favorites and it’s from band member Chris Stein who you can follow on Instagram.
 The Los Angeles (or West Coast) version of this book is Marc Spitz’ We’ve Got the Neutron Bomb. Sadly, it doesn’t come close to being as exciting or exhaustive or definitive as PKM.
When I speak with non-technical, non-biotech audiences, I’m always looking for a place where we can start the conversation. These days, it’s with brewing.
Most people, remember, know little-to-nothing about the way biology is impacting their lives.
Most people, I believe, want to know.
So these days, I start the conversation with beer and wine.
Both involve taking ingredients that have little value on their own. But add biology, shake or stir, wait a while, and you end up with beer or bourbon or mezcal or wine.
Plus, every culture has a tradition of fermentation so most people can relate.
Last week, Bloomberg ran a story titled, In the Future, There Will Be a Distillery on Every Corner.
The article points out that breweries and distilleries were among the manufacturing industries creating the most jobs.
In fact, they were the number 2 manufacturing industries with the most job growth. (Plastic products (!) were number one – let’s do something about that.)
Over the past decade, the brewing, distilling and wine-making industries have seen an explosion of new entrants.
Consumers looking for unique products and professionals looking for fulfilling jobs are driving growth.
The article makes another important point: craftsmanship is making a comeback in the US.
I see this as a biotechnology story, a distributed biological manufacturing story, and an important story about creating jobs.
If I can get someone to understand the brewing story, I can start talking about breweries as bio-reactors, factories where we use biology to create even more valuable products.
I talk about Ginkgo Bioworks building the micro-organisms that will enable the transition from brewing to bioprocessing.
As my final example, I like to tell the story of Stanford professor Christine Smolke and her team. They genetically engineered yeast to produce opioids.
In doing so, they have the potential to improve access to painkillers in places where they are unavailable.
How do you explain biotechnology?
What $100 purchase in the past 6 months has positively impacted your life?*
A bottle of Pilot Iroshizuku Chiku-rin Bamboo Forest green ink.
I’ve used green ink in my Lamy 2000 on-off over the years but I’d never tried one of Pilot’s.
Over the years I’ve used inks from Lamy, Mount Blanc, Parker, Pelikan, and Waterman.
Often, I buy based on the bottle – I’m a sucker for good packaging.
But most of the greens I had used were dark kelly greens.
I’d settled into using Noodler’s blacks and blues for several years, but the last bottle of Air-Corp Blue-Black was disappointing. Not the ink itself – the color.
Neither blue nor black. It wasn’t dark enough.
So, I started looking for green ink.
I don’t remember where I first saw that Bamboo Green, but again, I was smitten by the beautiful bottle and the bamboo imagery.
I ordered a bottle on Amazon. It cost $17.99.
The experience starts the moment you open the box. The bottle is beautiful and there’s a thin grey string tied around the neck. It’s a little detail but part of the experience.
I filled my Lamy and started writing, I realized this was very special ink. It flows perfectly and is very luxurious.
The color is a lighter yellow-green. A color that reminds me of sunlight flowing through fresh bamboo leaves.
Though $17.99 might seem like a ridiculous amount to spend on a bottle of ink, every time I write a line with this ink, I smile a bit.
Isn’t that what it’s all about?
I will be buying Pilot inks again in the future.
[*This is one of Tim Ferriss’ 17 Questions]
This is my tenth 3×5. Let me know what you think in the comments.
Hagrid, Hogwarts’ groundskeeper, always wanted a pet dragon.
[Alert: Spoilers ahead.]
He mentions it in passing early in Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone.
Later, he goes on to win a huge black dragon egg from “some stranger during a game of cards.”
He reads Dragon Breeding for Pleasure and Profit and heats his prize egg in the heart of his hut’s fire.
When it hatches, the dragon looks like a “crumpled black umbrella… skinny jet body, long snout, wide nostrils, stubs of horns and bulging orange eyes.”
“It sneezed. A couple of sparks flew out of its snout.
The dragon is a Norwegian Ridgeback (“…them’s rare, those…”).
Hagrid names it Norbert and feeds it chicken blood and brandy.
Thing is: Dragons are illegal.
They also grow fast.
Harry, Hermione, and Ron worry for Hagrid.
J.K. Rowling’s genius shines in this chapter (the 14th) of the first Harry Potter Book. Harry, Hermione and Ron are in the throes of exams.
The dragon arrives as the book’s main mystery nears its climax.
Hagrid reveals both his stubborn character and tenderness.
As Norbert grows bigger, tensions rise.
The kids have to figure out how to help Hagrid get rid of Norbert without getting in trouble. This involves Ron’s brother, Charlie. “The one studying dragons in Romania.”
It involves midnight wanderings under the cloak of invisibility.
And it involves dodging Malfoy and Hogwarts teachers.
I wish I could give away the rest. For that, you’ll have to read the book yourself.
“You’re into Devo?” he asked. “Aren’t you?”
His tone mocking.
As if there was something wrong with it.
Because for him, Yeah. Devo was too mainstream. Fake alternative. He was above that, and what he thought they stood for.
“Of course I am,” I answered, thinking, Whatanasshole. “How could you not be?”
Because at the time there was no voice for the weird.
Used to be you were walking down the street, looked too weird, too punk, someone’d stick their head out of their car window and yell, “DEVO!”
It was the catch-all for anyone, anything so weird it still didn’t have a definition.
But Devo has been having a great time since the late-1970s. Laughing all the way to the bank probably because they’re still touring and their influence is widespread. It’s more than likely you heard something today that was touched by Devo and their commercial music spin-off Mutato Muzika.
So, How did Devo influence you?
This week I’ve been thinking a lot about this MIT Technology Review article on writing the yeast genome. The article profiles NYU’s Jef Boeke, one of the founders and leaders of Genome Project write (GP-write). Writing a genome, which is still expensive, will drive advances across many fields (I’ve written about this project in the past and predicted – incorrectly – that the scientists would be finished by the end of last year.)
Healthcare is broken. It’s expensive, eats up a significant part of our gross domestic product, and entering the healthcare system is no fun. Just think about the forms you have to fill out every time you visit a new doctor. The news that Apple is creating medical clinics for its employees (and to test new products) is very very interesting. If you believe that Apple was instrumental in designing technology that is easier to use (and I do), then for sure they will create a healthcare experience that many of us will crave.
 Colored scanning electron micrograph of lab-grown baker’s yeast.
Organism or microbe design is an emerging industry.
It’s analogous to the semi-conductor industry. Companies design and manufacture the semi-conductors found in computers, phones, cars, and televisions.
Today, end-users rarely make semi-conductors themselves. They hire the expertise and apply what is manufactured to create a product.
Organism design companies are reprograming yeast and bacteria to produce useful molecules. Those molecules are used in consumer goods, foods, medicines and industrial products.
Perhaps the best known organism company is Boston’s Ginkgo Bioworks. Sarah Zhang profiled the company this week in an article I enjoyed in The Atlantic. (We featured co-founder Jason Kelly and creative director Christina Agapakis in What’s Your Bio Strategy?)
Minecraft Chemistry. A couple of week’s ago, Microsoft added a Chemistry Set to its popular game. Since there are about 55 million people worldwide playing (and some 122 million games sold) that’s a lot of potential exposure to chemistry and crafting. What does the synthetic biology expansion kit look like?