Biohacking and the things humans do

The past two years I’ve been trying to read up on synthetic biology. Back when podcasts was a niche and geeky thing I was listening to Changesurfer Radio, which is a transhumanist radioshow which focuses on issues surrounding bioethics and human improvement, and the host Dr J often brought in interesting people to interview and generally gave a broad view of the state of art biotech and its implications. Recently though, and especially since the advent of CRISPR cas9, biohacking has received a lot more attention and seems on the verge of blooming into the next 3D-printer type geeky endeavour.

Since I’m studying alongside work I get access to all kinds of fun databases, but even without university access there is a ton of material available for lay folk who’d like to keep up. O’Reilly has the BioCoder quarterly and recently published the book BioBuilder which I’m going through at the moment – and even though I’m nowhere near being able to synthetic DNA, I’m on my way to building my own PCR machine and at least potentially dabble in genetic manipulation.

Right now, I’m mostly trying to learn to analyse biological things. Which means playing around with the microscope, staining things and doing sections – basically following the outlines in Illustrated Guide to Home Biology Experiments in my own meandering way. What I’m lacking is a clear goal beyond just learning things and following instructions – I guess an idea will pop into my tiny head sooner or later, but without a clear goal everything becomes a gimmick or toy. There aren’t that many biohackers in Gothenburg that I know of, but having a group of people all learning and experimenting together would be swell.

Apart from the practicalities, with synthetic biology looming as a real DIY possibility sooner rather than later, questions of ethics become important. As opposed to autonomous killer robots – where it’s mostly governments which have access to the technology and make decisions on the ethics – biological systems are self-replicating and potentially have reprecussions which scale exponentially, so whatever discussions we’re to have about ethics ought to start now before someone inadvertently or misguidedly creates an invasive species or kill all crops…

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Genetic information is some powerful stuff: It can countermand information that’s been passed down through a family, provide a clue to lost relatives, and even offer unexpected insights into one’s origins. But did you ever think that genetic information could be used as an access control? Stumbling around GitHub, I came across this bit of code: Genetic Access Control. Now, budding young racist coders can check out your 23andMe page before they allow you into their website!

→ SD Times Blog, Alex Handy: Using DNA for access control

Across the country, no two community biolabs are alike, and neither are their members. “It’s a real eclectic mix of people,” says Tom Burkett, founder of a brand-new community lab in downtown Baltimore that has already attracted molecular biology graduate students, artists, computer scientists, retirees, and more. “There are a lot of people who are really interested in biotechnology for lots of different reasons, but it wasn’t previously accessible to them.”

→ The Scientist, Megan Scudellari: Biology Hacklabs

Obviously, as Richard Dawkins stressed, there is a difference between suggesting that a fetus ought to be aborted and saying of a child that it ought never to have been born. The latter would be downright vile. Dawkins’ point was this. Systematically deselecting new people with Down’s syndrome shouldn’t concern those already among us. We should be allowed to discuss this possibility without offending anyone. My concern, though, is that this distinction might not be as sharp as Dawkins imagines. Is it possible for someone to contemplate a screening program where the consequence (if not objective) is that these children are no longer born without showing a degrading attitude towards such children?

→ Orienteringsforsøk, Vidar Halgunset: Slow corruption

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At age sixteen he fell in with a gang of pickpockets with a particular hustle called “dummy chucking”—street slang for feigning a fit. Clegg had found his calling. Soon, he was traveling the English countryside, chucking dummies while an accomplice picked the pockets of curious onlookers. He chucked dummies in churches and at funerals; arrested, he “chucked a beautiful dummy” in court and was released. Later, convicted of a stabbing and destined for solitary confinement at Milbank, he chucked a dummy and was transferred to the more pleasant airs of Chatham. He chucked again and was sent to Woking, then Dartmoor, Parkhurst, all along the way chucking himself into lighter labor and more benign treatments, until he landed a daily prescription of a pint of porter “to keep up his strength.”

→ Laphams quarterly, Daniel Mason: Rogue Wounds

In my view, the main reason for the uneven management sex ratio is our inability to discern between confidence and competence. That is, because we (people in general) commonly misinterpret displays of confidence as a sign of competence, we are fooled into believing that men are better leaders than women. In other words, when it comes to leadership, the only advantage that men have over women (e.g., from Argentina to Norway and the USA to Japan) is the fact that manifestations of hubris — often masked as charisma or charm — are commonly mistaken for leadership potential, and that these occur much more frequently in men than in women.

→ A.V. Club, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic: Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?

“If someone was uploading animal abuse, a lot of the time it was the person who did it. He was proud of that,” Rob says. “And seeing it from the eyes of someone who was proud to do the fucked-up thing, rather than news reporting on the fucked-up thing—it just hurts you so much harder, for some reason. It just gives you a much darker view of humanity.”

→ Wired, Adrian Chen: The Laborers Who Keep Dick Pics and Beheadings Out of Your Facebook Feed

Today, despite his hospital treatment, Jean Paul still bleeds when he walks. Like many victims, the wounds are such that he’s supposed to restrict his diet to soft foods such as bananas, which are expensive, and Jean Paul can only afford maize and millet. His brother keeps asking what’s wrong with him. “I don’t want to tell him,” says Jean Paul. “I fear he will say: ‘Now, my brother is not a man.'”

The Observer, Will Store: The rape of men: the darkest secret of war

MateuszBiohacking and the things humans do

And returning to the course

So, the “Drawing with a chainsaw” course went well. Together with the course participants we worked through the weekend and produced some big prints. It’s fun to work on such a large scale, but quite exhausting to ink full sized plywood sheets.

Apart from DWACS the rest of spring, summer and fall has passed by like so many blurry trees seen from a tram window. I don’t know what happened, but it feels as though I spaced out for a while. I’ve been trying to learn some chemistry, I have my first steady job ever, and this winter is supposed to be dedicated to biology and some electronics projects.

I took a course called biology for philosophers at the uni – I love how higher education is free in this country – and have been dillentanting my way through biology books, trying to learn how to use the microscope and do stains and PCR and such. I’m learning a lot but not producing much – I lack a context in which to work, and since I don’t have an inner auteur which needs expressing there isn’t an impulse to create stuff.

Maybe part of my apathy is the political climate of Sweden. The third largest political party in Sweden is a racist one, and they’ve gotten free reigns to set the framework of public discourse for the past years. A while back I complained that instead of dealing with issues of global solidarity, women rights and global warming, we’ve now set the clock back far enough that we’re facing the reemergence of fascism. It’s utterly depressing and I don’t know what to do about it. I guess what I ought not to do is just whine…

MateuszAnd returning to the course

Staying the course

Together with Eric Saline I’m holding a course at KKV GBG in less than a months time. It’s called Drawing with a chainsaw and we’re going to do huge relief prints using non-traditional tools. Like for example, chainsaws. We’re cutting the boards here in Gothenburg, and then we’re trucking them up to KKV Bohuslän where we’ll use their giant press to make the prints – ought to be exciting! I made a video for this, and since it’s done on company time I can’t very well use it in lieu of my own projects here on the blog, but whatevs.

MateuszStaying the course

Project week 4: Glue, bugs everywhere!

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I didn’t get the drone promo video done yet, but I did glue another 20 packages, so if you’re feeling to order a whole bunch of drone pins I’m ready for you! Apart from that, it’s time to get seedling started for the growing season, and while Sara was looking over the tomatoes which are poking out through the dirt she also found some aphids among our other plants and went on to exterminate them. But before doing that, she thought to identify the species and so we set the microscope up and had a peek. We’re no closer to identifying it than we were before, but we saw that it had wings and to Saras horror they didn’t die quickly in the acetone we used to wet mount them, but rather squirmed and wiggled their poor little legs pityingly.

So Monday evening ends with a fascination for how complex and diverse life is all around us, and a silent prayer of thanks that we most likely won’t be killed by acetone poisoning. As always, remember that it can always get worse.

MateuszProject week 4: Glue, bugs everywhere!

Fucking Werewolf Asso at Musikens Hus, March 2015

The video above is last weeks project – an edited version of the video I shot at Fucking Werewolf Asso’s gig at Musikens Hus a couple of weeks ago. It’s not my tightest edit, and the audio quality is so-so considering I used the built in microphones, but I figure one has to support good local bands so there you go.

FWA has changed their sound a bit lately. They’ve gone from being a drummy 8bit screamfest, to a more mainstream hardcore band. As far as hardcore music goes they’re quite good, and the keyboard blipblop is still there (albeit drown out by a constant guitar) so it’s still fun to listen to, but some of the more playful stuff is missing. I might be damaged from listening to the earlier stuff too much, but I do hope that they continue to experiment and get the audience and recognition they deserve.

MateuszFucking Werewolf Asso at Musikens Hus, March 2015

Project week 3: A gift

Audience at a gig of Fucking Werewolf Asso in March 2015, at Musikens hus Göteborg

I’m rediscovering the joys and perils of video editing. At work, I did en edit of the woodwork course I participated in last weekend (Take a look here: https://vimeo.com/122758580) and shot a promo for Drawing with a chainsaw, a course I’m offering with Eric Saline where we still need to rustle up more participants. (That edit isn’t done yet)

Privately, I went to a gig with Fucking Werewolf Asso and tried out my new Nikon P7800 and was reminded of the value of external microphones; I used only the built in ones, and it’s inadvisable to stand in front of PA speakers if you can’t set levels manually. I’d hoped that I’d have a video done by tonights deadline, but alas. Ought to be done this week though, so although delayed I’m still doing something else for next Monday.

I’ve never been one for good timing when it comes to my projects, but I really should get the drone promo done before the discussion about the Swedish-Saudi weapon deals dies down completely. Not that the deals with Saudi Arabia are much more offensive than the ones we have with other dictatorships, but still. So although timing has never been my forte I should give it a shot – after all, mine is a project about the democratic control over technology, and it’s rather fitting that I slot that into the tail-end of the discussion of selling surveillance equipment and clandestine weapon factory projects.

MateuszProject week 3: A gift

PROJECT WEEK 2: Head of wood

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The past week past in a blur; Friday through Sunday i spend in the KKV woodshop, taking a course in how to use all the tools without losing any fingers. We were six people who all made boxes of some sort, and I decided on making a small box for microscope glass slides. Of course, being a smartarse I wanted to make my box with parallelogram sides, which quickly had me revisiting grade school math in order to calculate angles and such. It’s surprising how difficult it is to hold more than one number or idea in ones head when you’re at the same time learning new machinery!

At the end of each day I was exhausted and had probably gained weight from all the dust I’d inhaled. I’m pretty sure that if I’d dried and flatten all mucus and snot, I’d have a respectable piece of veneer. Sort of like those goats who eat and shit whole coffee beans, or the guy who brewed beer from yeast cultured from his own beard: Nasal veneer.

The finished box came out crooked and is unusable – most likely I hadn’t used the planer correctly on the first day, but it wasn’t apparent until I started gluing the parts together. It felt reminiscent of when I brought my mom a 2kg turned coffee cup from “clay day” at school – look ma, I made this all by my selfs! But more practically, I now at least know how to use most of the machines in the woodshop, so feel slightly more comfortable in taking on building projects.

A couple of years ago, when I got a largish grant and had more money than sense, I considered subscribing to wood. You’d get samples sent to you a couple of times a year, and you were also encouraged to exchange wood with other members so that you’d get a feel for different qualities from all around the world. I didn’t go through with it then, and probably won’t do it now, but I’m definitely eager to learn more about it now. So you shouldn’t be surprised if you see me fondling wood with a joyful expression.

MateuszPROJECT WEEK 2: Head of wood

Project week 1: Weak

The first weeks ambition was to glue together 50 more packages for the drone project and do a marketing video. The packages got done, but the video has to wait as I’ve spend most of the week either sleeping or blowing my nose in a delirium – whatever bug is going around jumped onto my face and wouldn’t let go, so it’s not until today that I’m able to walk more or less in a straight line. But I did get some filming done, so there’s that at least.

So the last weeks task continues this week as well. We’ll see how that goes, since Friday through Sunday I’m taking a woodworking course at KKV which I’ve been looking forwards to. I’ll finally learn to use more than the bandsaw and belt sander, and seeing as we’re still not completely unpacked since our move around Christmas, we could really use some shelving and tables and such – which I ought to be able to build with no problems whatsoever once I’ve finished the course.

As a side note, I’ve started up another ongoing project which is continuing in a brisk-ish pace: Read All The Books! I have way too many books which have served no purpose other than to line my walls, so I’m foreswearing any new book purchases until I’ve thinned out the current stock. The goal is to read three books I already own before reading something new. I read somewhere that a proficient reader will have read 5000 books in their lifetime, and if I include my digital collection I’ve amassed way past that number already. It’s time to start reading instead of just skimming, and it’s time to realise that some of the books I’ve been puttin off might not deserve my attention but ought to be discarded. So any book I don’t believe I’ll want to keep for reference or a future re-read, I’ll give away or toss. I started in on the third book in as many weeks today – a speed reading manual – and will post a short summery of the other two shortly. Anytime now. Really soon.

MateuszProject week 1: Weak

2015: Ideas and ambitions

I’ve been working at KKV GBG for a couple of months now, and have enough spare time that I feasibly could get stuff done on the side. Last years attempt to post one thing a week went well for the first couple of months, but then sunk into the mire of pretexts and excuses. I still think it was a Good Thing™ as I actually got stuff done and some new ideas, but seeing as I abandoned it half-way through, I’ll modify it a bit. Starting in March I’ll reinstate the “one thing per week” thing, but will allow myself to work on larger projects as well.

I’ve been bouncing around a couple largeish ideas around for a while, so I’m going to divide them up into discreet parts – actionable things, in GTD parlance – and use the blog to log the progress. This would also allow the work to take new paths, and not make me procrastinate because I’ve grown tired of the original plans.

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The first thing I’ll do is finish glueing the drone packaging and do a marketing video for them – I still have a bunch of the pins left (you can buy them here: drönainteminkompis.se) but haven’t completed the packaging. Each little box takes up to half an hour to finish, and I’ve been putting it off until I’ve had a backlog of orders, but if I’m to let this project go I have to finish it properly, so that will be my task for this weekend, with a deadline of 8th of March. Go me.

Mateusz2015: Ideas and ambitions

Are we drone yet? Yes!

So, what started as a one week project (three weeks, max!) is just now coming to fruition. The drone pins have been delivered for some time, and I’ve just worked on getting the packaging right. The drone design took far less time than the packaging, and by now I’ve probably spent as much money as on the pins themselves, not counting the ten or so days doing package design and iteration.

It’s great fun and I’ve gotten to learn how to use the laser cutter here at KKV GBG but boy oh boy do all the little things add up. The last bit that needs doing is setting up the webshop, and that is all but done. Some typos need correcting and some images fiddled with before I’m happy with it, but any moment now you can buy the pins here: www.dronainteminkompis.se.

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Dröna inte min kompis pin

One interesting aspect of the project is that I get to decide what I want to charge for these pins, and I’m reminded of my experiments with pricing when doing serigraphy a couple of years ago and exhibiting at Marstrand. It all comes down to how not to price yourself out of the market, but also not below the threshold when it looks as if you’re not taking yourself seriously enough. It’s fascinating stuff, art pricing, and these pins are another opportunity to toy around with it.

I have 300 copies of the pins, and since 50 or so will be retained as trades / QC & loss / artist copies, I’m putting 250 copies in numbered boxes and offering them for sale at 200 SEK a pop. Since my rent isn’t dependent on if I manage to sell these or not (although it certainly wouldn’t harm my equity) I’m not particularly inclined to dump the price all that much, so we’ll see what will come out of it. Also, after a brief discussion with the Skatteverket (IRS) it was decided that a print run of 250 copies are too many to qualify as “art” and that value added tax is to be applied to these things, so that’s 25% out of whatever price I charge.

In order for the project to result in something more than just my pet project, I’ve contacted the Swedish peace-organisation Svenska Freds & Skiljedomsföreningen who are the only ones in Sweden trying to bringing attention to drones and their use. Before doing this project I wasn’t aware of that Sweden is taking part in developing two military drones, and it’s just that kind of information which needs to get out there before their use becomes so ubiquitous as to be unquestionable. Therefore, I’ve set it up that if you donate 200 SEK or more to Svenska Freds, you get to buy a pin from me for 50 SEK, which is more or less at cost.

I like the project; The pins turned out well and the packaging looks the way I want it. Going into the new year, with new resolutions and ambitions, I’m hoping to be a bit wiser and not underestimate how much work surrounds even small, innocuous ideas such as this.

MateuszAre we drone yet? Yes!