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I want to know what I should know about GMO

I don’t know what to think at this point. I’m obviously a big organic-eating back slapping liberal like the rest of my cronies in fair Berkeley. My wife and I grow vegetables in our back yard and do our best to eat food that was grown and processed in natural, sustainable ways. We compost, we recycle, and we teach our kids the importance and impact of all of these things. I watched Fresh and Food, Inc. this year and read Fast Food Nation years ago, nodding vigorously through all of them.

I’m also a big tech geek and do my best to keep up, and maybe even develop, things that help our society make the next great leap forward. I helped develop the original Netscape browser which helped the internet explode and ripped control of computer networks from Microsoft, handing it to the masses. I’m working on doing the same with open, public data right now at Freebase. I do believe that science and technology are bettering our society as a whole and that the risks and drawbacks far outweigh the rewards. I think they are making the world a more equitable place and giving more choices to more individuals than ever before, and I think this is a good thing.

So when it comes to GMO food, I’m a little confused. On the one hand, the notion of actually modifying the genetics of an organization at a cellular level seems like some kind of creepy science. On the other hand, this is just science improving the quality of life, driving down the costs of basic human sustenance. It’s just a logical extension of breeding crops for various traits, right? Some years ago I read one or two random articles (I think one was in Harpers, can’t remember what else I read) that had me thinking that on the whole, GMO food is bad. The science behind it can’t begin to address the massive complexity of our ecosystem. Further, the politics and policy behind patents on organisms, the limits that Big Agra puts on farmers for seed retention, and the notion of GMO as a way to reduce genetic diversity are really bad.

But with all the hubub recently about GMO + Organic and the Obama administration’s interest in the food system has given me a chance to at least try to reevaluate my position. The problem comes when I watch video’s like this Bill Nye video (In three parts: one, two, three) that I found via this Civil Eats Article on GMO food. I love Bill Nye. I think he makes science really cool and fascinating and I can’t wait until my kids are old enough to watch him. But this video is incredibly biased against GMO while trying to appear like he’s showing both sides. The worst part is that most of the anti-GMO bits are either morally heavy, substance free (“But isn’t genetic modification just creepy? Should we really be messing with organisms like this?”) or just fear mongering (dramatic enactments of monster food killing people, theoretical implications that haven’t actually happened, etc)

One argument I’ve heard (that got Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack booed) is that GMOs can be used for good – to feed the world! The counter argument I’ve heard to that is that basically we have enough food, that it’s really a distribution problem – that the GMO-to-feed-the-world is a lot of bunk. What I wonder though, is if it’s really a “distribution problem” why can’t we find ways to grow food near the people that need it? The bay area has lots of self-proclaimed locavores who aspire to eat food grown within 50-150 miles from them, but why then do we need to ship food from one side of africa to the other? What if one solution to that is GMO crops that crow in climates that currently don’t support human-food agriculture? What if it would take 500 years to breed the equivalent crop?

So I don’t know. I think next up I’m going to watch a bunch of Long Now talks: Organically Grown and Genetically Engineered, Rethinking Green, and Michael Pollan’s Deep Agriculture to see if I can gain any more insight.

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SF Food Carts, twitter, and street food

Last week I was sitting in the public space atrium at Mission & 2nd st in San Francisco huddled over my laptop trying to get some work done, and who should roll in but Carte415. Thanks to some in-the-know co-workers and twitter, I’ve been following this summer’s explosion of foodie-friendly food carts rolling around San Francisco but up until that moment, I hadn’t actually seen one.

When I first started hearing about these carts, it was really all about word-of-twitter for finding these folks – there were few online resources and you had to just know. Personally that kind of thing drives me nuts – mostly because I wasn’t in-the-know. While there’s something exciting about knowing these little out-of-the-way places, it feels a little like a high school clique. On top of that, I have a friend who has been wanting to do what I consider a fairly original independent food thing for a while – he started an LLC, rented some kitchen space, but didn’t really get beyond the stages of trying recipes. He lost steam because he couldn’t figure out a good market for his food.

..and he wasn’t even aware of the whole food cart scene! So in the interest of promoting openness and transparency in the foodie scene, I present my list of favorite food carts, most of which I haven’t visited because I don’t live in the mission.

  • cremebruleecart – one of the originals, he gets the top of my list because Heather and I tried and failed to find him once on a friday night (our timing was off) and Heather’s favorite dessert is Creme Brulee. Mostly around Dolores Park, but goes to lots of special events
  • carte415 – Looks like fancy organic sandwiches and salads. My cheapo go-to for sandwiches is the Toaster Oven – their sandwiches are actually pretty good but I feel a little guilty going there because it’s a chain – so any chance of getting reasonably cheap organic sandwiches has got me excited. Going there today.
  • chowdermobile – Seems like this guy has been trying to get into SF forever. Not sure what the holdup is but I really, really want some good clam chowder… he seems to go up and down the penninsula.
  • littleskillett – ok, this isn’t a cart, and is only this low on the list because I have been there, a few times even. They make some pretty amazing fried chicken but the best thing I had was this crazy pile of pulled-pork and other fixins on top of grits. Plus, they have Blue Bottle coffee to prevent post-chicken food coma. The reason they fit into this list is because they serve out of a counter in an alley and you eat on the loading dock. So it’s still street food because you’re sitting on the street, quite literally.

That’s all I have for now, there are a few more I’m curious about like kitchenettesf, chezspencergo, and SexySoupCart, but they’ll have to wait until I’ve exhausted the above list.

(If you’re looking for more, you can look at the folks I’m following on twitter.)

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2700 San Pablo filing for bankruptcy?

Check out this article in the Berkeley Daily Planet: San Pablo Condo Project Defaults, Forced Sale Scheduled. I live very close to this building, and the building is, sort of, a big improvement from the abandoned gas station that was on this lot previously. But ever since it’s been finished, all of the storefronts and street-level live/work spaces have been unoccupied.
About a year ago this building was being finished, and 3 more projects were in the works: 2747 San Pablo (a huge 40+ unit building where there is already a business), 2748 San Pablo (a 20-23 unit building where Clay of the Land used to be) and another one adjacent to the one at 2700 San Pablo (I can’t find the link now, where there used to be a car dealership)

Now all these projects seem to be on hold. New businesses have sprung up in the latter lots using the existing buildings. I must admit I’m pretty disappointed with how the whole thing turned out.

I am actually a bit in favor of some actual development along this corridor because the vacant lots and failing businesses were of questionable value to the neighborhood. (The used care dealership was just full of broken down cars, I always wondered who actually went there to buy a car, because the cars never seemed to change) But with this housing downturn we may be heading back where it was before…

And now I just found this: San Pablo Condos Top ZAB’s Agenda – looks like some nearby projects are still going forward. Huh.

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Tramp mode rocks

ok, it’s been a while since my last post, but I’m going to try starting up again.

I just want to rave about “tramp mode” in emacs. If you haven’t yet seen this, it allows you to load up files from a machine that you have ssh access to. Accessing it is super-easy. Rather than C-x C-f to load a local file path, just enter the file path as ssh://userid@host:/path/

After that everything you save will be saved over ssh/scp. Brilliant.

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Welcome back..

Ok, so it’s been well over a year since I last updated this blog. I’ve had numerous things to say, but the ideas always come to me on the bus, or in the shower, or somewhere else where I don’t have access to a keyboard. I’m going to once again try to revitalize this blog with some actual comments and insights. First up, I’ve got an entry about development in Berkeley.

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Building a graph-based model of metadata

I have had some success building an in-memory graph of my iTunes database, in Python. I discovered some rather interesting things about my collection in the process and I’ve started thinking about a way to use this information to cleanly chunk the data.

In my graph, nodes are represented by Python tuples that refer to the metadata culled from the song list. For example, there is a node for (‘Artist’, ‘U2′) and another for (‘Genre’, ‘Rock’). I keep track of the relationship between these nodes with a weight that comes from the number of songs that have both of these pieces of metadata.

So for example there is a line between (‘Artist’, ‘U2′) and (‘Genre’, ‘Rock’) which has a weight of 15, because their new album is categorized as ‘Rock’ – though songs from the album October are categorized as ‘Rock/Pop’

When I combine all the different pieces of metadata in my collection I get a whopping 1589 different facets, represented by nodes in my graph. But whats more interesting is that about 1500 of these nodes are connected, and the other 90 or so are divided into about 30 different individual chunks of 3-4 facets each. I tried to visualize this with GraphViz but the data was just too big.

But this got me thinking more about how to chunk the graph. It was really surprising that so many of the nodes were connected, but really what matters to me is knowing which nodes are the most connected. This means that I could start dropping lines (connections) between nodes where the weight is just 1… or 2, or whatever number yields an appropriately chunked graph. Hopefully that will break up the large cluster of facets into smaller, more usable clusters.

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A graph based model for chunking

Factor Analysis seems very promising, but I was thinking a lot about a presentation given by Mimi Yin at OSAF. In particular the Venn diagrams which showed items as existing in a number of collections based on the attributes of the item. These collections may or may not really exist in real life, but their virtual existence is important.
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An exploration: Chunking using Factor Analysis

I’ve been developing my ideas about chunking as I’ve been writing. My faith that there is structure expressed by facets keeps me believing that there is a way to extract this structure.

Last year I read (most of) The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen J Gould. Aside from being a fantastic book, its last chapter on Factor Analysis has been floating around in my head for quite some time. I think this could be one way to extract the kind of chunks I am looking for.
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What to chunk

So in my previous post, I talked about the need for chunking large datasets. The problem I discussed is that it is very difficult to browse large datasets in small enough pieces, and find what you want.

I should mention that in this context, browsing is different from searching. Searching is looking for something very specific (i.e. ‘Desire by U2′) and browsing is when you don’t know exactly what you want, but can narrow it down through a series of small decisions. Browsing is also a more appropriate mechanism for devices, where you don’t want to try typing in a search term on a small keypad with your thumb.

So how do you, at a software level, provide the minimal set of choices to the user to allow them to find what they’re looking for most of the time? This is the core concept behind “chunking.”
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Chunking large datasets

My wife and I have a collection of about 45G of MP3s. This was a long effort to rip all of our CDs over the course of a few months. All the files are stored on a linux box, but managed with iTunes. This is some 10,000 songs, by many different artists, in many genres.

Recently we purchased a Linksys Wireless Music System so that we could play music in our bedroom. The concept is pretty cool: its a WiFi radio – it uses UPnP to find music collections on your network, and then you can browse and stream them to the radio. It has a remote control and a little LCD display so you don’t even have to think about the fact that these are MP3s off on some Linux box. Good idea, huh? Not quite…
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