Lobbying 2.0

The grief that people give the term “lobbyist” is justly deserved. Too often companies use lobbyists and other political action committees to threaten politicians and undermine democracy. They try to win influence by using the power of their cash rather than the power of their ideas.

But “lobbying” doesn’t have to be this way. In recent months, I’ve gotten to know the incredibly bright people in Google’s Washington DC office. Though Google certainly engages in some traditional lobbying activities, what makes their public policy team impressive is that they are re-imagining what it means for a technology company to influence government.

Google’s Policy Innovations

Rather than just hosting swanky dinners and donating strategically to select politicians, Google actively engages in collaborative projects that help the government function better. These pro-bono activities draw upon Google’s talents. For example, here are a few creative projects that Google has done to assist the government:

  • Polling Station Finder. Unfortunately, the databases that contain information about where citizens should go to vote are extremely fragmented. So Google helped unify these databases into a single tool that makes it easy for anybody in the country to find their appropriate polling station.
  • Agency Website Search. If you’ve ever visited a federal website, you know that their search functionality is often a disaster. Google is working with agencies to make their websites more easily searchable. Furthermore, by (anonymously) sharing government-related search trends from Google’s own website, Google is helping agencies redesign their sites to better match what people are actually looking for.
  • Public Health Monitoring. Google claims that it can predict flu outbreaks more quickly than the government. The idea is that people often search for “flu symptoms” on Google several days before going to a doctor. Therefore, Google can know of flu outbreaks days, if not weeks, prior to the CDC’s hospital-based monitoring systems. By sharing these flu trends publicly, Google helps the CDC better mobilize a public health response.

Projects like these are a win-win-win for citizens, the government, and for Google. Citizens get a better functioning government. The government gets more efficient and more knowledgeable about technology. And Google builds ties with key people in the government. The next time there is some contentious policy issue to settle, you can be sure that Google will have friends in government who will look out for them.

Lessons for Other Tech Heavyweights

Right now, Google seems to be the sole pioneer in employing this “Lobbying 2.0″ approach. Most other technology companies (such as HP) just hire old-school lobbyists to influence the government, or old-school salespeople to sell their wares to the government. I want to see this change. Every technology company out there could learn from Google’s example.

Facebook: why aren’t you working with every single member of Congress to create better Fan pages? How awesome would it be if every member of Congress posted all their floor speeches, committee questions, and voting records to their Facebook feed. It would be a 21st century replacement for CSPAN. It would truly be a killer app for representative democracy.

Or Microsoft: why weren’t you the one to create something as groundbreaking as Sunlight Labs? You still make some of the best tools out there for software development, so why not give some of them away to developers who are helping to make government more transparent? It would help open up the government, and expose people to your innovative platforms.

So if you are a technology company, I have some simple advice. First, fire half your lobbyists. Then put those funds towards Lobbying 2.0 projects. Not only will it help your bottom line, but it will reinvigorate our democracy.

Privacy Protection Via Misinformation

The New York Times has a very informative (and scary) article giving an overview of how statistical data mining of information from social networks can compromise people’s private information.

The basic idea is this: an attacker collects information from the public internet (e.g., Facebook updates, Amazon wishlists, Flickr photos, etc.) and then trains various data mining algorithms to de-anonymize the information and estimate sensitive information. Researchers have shown, in principle, how these techniques can be used to estimate birthdays, social security numbers, and pretty much anything else you’d need to compromise people’s most sensitive accounts.

As someone who has long been concerned about the protection of personal information in the digital age, I was trying to think of an antidote to these privacy-violating data mining techniques. My idea is this: Spread as much misinformation as possible about yourself on the internet. That way, when would-be attackers try to infer your sensitive information, they are more likely to get the wrong answer.

So without further adieu, here is my most personal information, which may or may not be accurate:

  • Full Name: Samidh Mohan Chakrabarti
  • Place of Birth: Cambridge, Massachusetts
  • Date of Birth: March 18, 1979
  • Social Security Number: xxx-xx-3820
  • Mother’s Maiden Name: Gupta
  • Current Zip Code: 10021

Of course, if this is to be the only instance of this information on the web, it will be easy for a statistical algorithm to know this data is spurious. Therefore, I shall try to consistently sprinkle it across the web periodically.

You can help me in this effort. Tomorrow, be sure to wish me a happy birthday!

Endnote: My friend Anand Sarwate, who is a brilliant electrical engineering postdoc at UCSD, now focuses his research on privacy. (You can think of privacy as a very complex signal processing problem.) He writes regularly on this topic, so be sure to check out his excellent blog.

Cooking as Coding

If it is not already obvious, one of my favorite hobbies is cooking. Recently, as I was toiling away on a seafood risotto, I had a realization: cooking is a form of coding. People might enjoy cooking for many of the same reasons people enjoy coding. If you think about it, the similarities between these two activities are striking:

  • Fundamentally Creative. When you cook, you are engaged in a fundamentally creative task. You are using your hands and your skills to build something. This is no different than when you sit down to code; you are the master of your food (or program’s) destiny.
  • Scientific Basis. Cooking is not a realm of mysterious alchemy. It is based upon rigorous principles of chemistry and physics. To create a delicious meal, you need to obey those scientific principles. When you write code, you similarly ought to understand the computer science and mathematics that underlies your work.
  • Real-Time Debugging. Coders love to constantly test and debug in real-time. They like to quickly write a function, test it out, and revise it as needed. The same is true in cooking. Debugging consists of sticking your spoon in and having a taste. Then you adjust your ingredients or technique as necessary.
  • Open-Source Documentation. Within both cooking and coding, there is a beautiful culture of sharing knowledge. Cookbooks, of course, are a form of open documentation. More importantly, ask most anyone for a recipe of something they’ve made, and they oblige. Both cooks and hackers take a pride in their creations and love to share their code/recipes.
  • Black-Box Abstraction. Meals can be modularized into constituent parts. For example, a pie consists of a crust and filling. To make a pie more easily, you can use an off-the-shelf crust, even if you don’t know how it was made. This black-box abstraction resonates well with a programmer’s instinct to reduce complexity through modularization.
  • Instant Gratification. This might be the most important attribute. In many fields of engineering, you have to wait a long time to see the results of your work (e.g., building a bridge). The fact that coders can quickly play with their creations is what attracted many of them to computer science in the first place. Cooks get to enjoy this exact same kind of instant gratification. A chef’s code is edible!

Given the vibrant similarities between cooking and coding, I would love to see software engineers have a stronger influence on the discipline of cooking. Beyond the gizmos of molecular gastronomy, here are a few more cultural ways engineers could improve cuisine:

  • More science-based culinary training. With the exception of Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking, very few (cook)books teach much about the science of food. As a result, very few people really understand the science behind cooking. This inhibits their creativity in the kitchen. Instead, it’d be wonderful to see more cooking texts that teach science– from the physiology of taste, to the chemistry of ingredients, to the thermodynamics of heat transfer.
  • More innovative recipe templates. The canonical recipe template (e.g., opening notes, ingredient list, prep instructions) is out of date. There is a lot of room to innovate on how we articulate recipes. There are, for example, better ways of visualizing parallel activities, or incorporating video demonstrations of standard techniques. Recipes need to come into the 21st century.
  • More knowledge of reverse-engineering. Whenever coders come across a new piece of technology, they try to figure out how it works. They are masters of reverse-engineering. People are often the same way when they enjoy new dishes at restaurants. By learning a more rigorous methodology for reverse-engineering meals, people could greatly enhance their cooking technique.

Can you think of other ways the culture of computer science can enhance the culinary world? Given that software engineers revel in both the artistic and technical demands of the creative process, I think that geeks are bound to make fantastic contributions to the culinary arts.

The Practice of Synthetic Biology

This is the second blog post in my series on Synthetic Biology. My first post was about the promise of synthetic biology (i.e., what makes the field so fascinating). This second post is about the “practice” of synthetic biology (i.e., my experience in toying around with some of the critical tools in the field).

As an unapologetic hacker, I believe the only way you can truly understand a technology is by playing around with it. (MBA’s beware!). By sharing my experiences, I hope people will better understand the revolution that is taking place in synthetic biology– and the implications that has for human health and well-being. So here is my rough guide to getting your feet wet in synthetic biology:

Step 1: Set an objective

One way to think of synthetic biology is that you are programming a microscopic living factory to produce some kind of substance or behavior. So the first step is obviously setting an objective. Do you want your creation to shimmer? To produce butanol? To detect radiation?

The only constraint, aside from your imagination, is that your goal must be attainable using a cell’s biological machinery. In more technical terms, it must be feasible by translating DNA into proteins (which may in turn interact with each other and their environment in complex ways).

Step 2: Select your BioBricks

Recall from my first article that the fundamental tool you will use in synthetic biology is Tom Knight and Drew Endy’s BioBricks, which are “open source” DNA snippets that each have one specific function and can be recombined with each other. The Lego analogy is apt; you create designs by linking together these bricks.

First familiarize yourself with the directory of BioBricks. There are all kinds of bricks, just as there are all kinds legos. There are timers, sensors, switches, reporters, generators, and so forth. Think clearly about what functions you need your bio-machine to perform and read everything you can about the BioBricks necessary to code for those functions. This is very similar to what software engineers need to do when reading the documentation for a standard library or API.

Browsing Documentation of a BioBrick:

Browsing a BioBrick

Step 3: Design a Novel BioBrick (advanced!)

Sometimes, to do something truly interesting, you’ll need to design a brand new BioBrick. This is beyond the scope of this discussion, so let’s defer discussion of this topic. But fear not. Just like you don’t need to know assembly code when writing software code, you don’t really need to know how to design a novel BioBrick to do interesting beginner’s projects in synthetic biology.

Step 4: Synthesize a DNA Fragment

Once you’ve selected your BioBricks and decided how they should be organized (i.e., what order they should be chained in your DNA fragment), it’ll be time to actually synthesize the physical DNA segment. That segment is essentially the “program” that your biological organism will execute.

Start by selecting an online provider who will manufacture the DNA strand for you. In my case, I used a service called Mr. Gene. Using the web, you literally copy and paste your desired DNA sequence into a form. In a few weeks, they send you a little DNA sample that codes your sequence. The process is so insanely simple that it deserves a couple of screen shots.

(Copy…) Reviewing the DNA Sequence of the BioBrick:

Reviewing a BioBrick DNA Sequence

(… And Paste!) Ordering the DNA Sequence Online:

Ordering a DNA Sequence Online

Let’s pause here for a moment and reflect on how mind-blowing this is. Do you need further proof that biology has truly become an information science? Just as it is easy to write computer code, you can now write biological code. You just read some documentation, cut/paste the relevant sequences into a form on the web, and you get the code for a biological machine delivered in the mail.

The cost is relatively low, too. Currently, it only costs 39 cents per base pair. The way the technology is progressing, it won’t be too long before it is only a penny per base pair. Eventually, you may not even need to outsource the synthesis of the DNA fragment. Someday, you’ll be able to buy a little breadbox-size device that’ll let you make DNA at home.

Step 5: Insert DNA into Organism

Okay, given that this is biology, not everything can be done on the computer. The penultimate step requires some “wet” work. You need to take the DNA fragment and insert it into an organism, such as E. coli. None of this is particularly challenging. Most high school biology labs have all the equipment necessary to complete this step– such as pipettes, petri dishes, restriction enzymes, and a few other reagents. After an afternoon of training, anybody can become fluent in the techniques necessary to get novel DNA into bacterial organism.

Step 6: Test, Iterate, and Share!

Due to my background in engineering, I can’t finish this mini-tutorial without insisting that you thoroughly test your creation. Perhaps you will think of ways to tweak your design and improve its functionality. So keep iterating and testing!

In the spirit of the Registry of Standard Parts (and the open source movement), I also insist that you document your creation and share it with the world. You were able to create your machine quickly and easily because of other people’s hard work, so it’s only fair that you contribute back to the community.

Reflections on Revolutions

I wanted to walk you through the entire process of creating a synthetic biological organism in order to illustrate one thing: it is ridiculously simple. The barriers to entry, and therefore the barriers to innovation, have been obliterated.

This is truly the beginning of a revolution. Just as the web revolution enabled a generation of software hackers innovating from their garages, the garage innovators of the next couple of decades will be biology hackers. Who knows what marvelous things are in store?

Endnote: Each time I write about synthetic biology, I can’t help but feel a need to mention the public policy implications. When we hack DNA like this, are we playing God? (My perspective: Yes, but that’s what we humans do whenever we alter the environment.) The more important message to understand is that it will soon not just be academic scientists in laboratories who are “playing God”, but also people in their garages. In the end, with pragmatic regulation, the benefits humanity will see from innovations in synthetic biology will be unquestionably worthwhile.

iFridge: A Dock for Mounting Your iPad to Your Fridge

The iPad would make the ideal kitchen computer. Mounted on the fridge, away from all the grime of the countertop, it would be an outstanding central hub for recipes, music, family photos, calendars, and weather/news alerts.

Inspired by a project I completed earlier this year, where I mounted an old laptop to my fridge, I came up with an idea: Why not create a dock that clips to the iPad and magnetically mounts it to a fridge? It would be a true iFridge!

Design Principles

I was excited enough by this idea to enlist the help of my friend Dan Lockton. Dan was a classmate of mine at Cambridge and he is a brilliant and thoughtful designer. With his help, we came up with the following criteria to inform the design:

* Low cost. As this is merely a plastic accessory for the iPad, we wanted to keep costs as low as possible so as many people as possible could enjoy the benefits.

* Heavy duty. People will be spending hundreds of dollars on an iPad. We figured they wouldn’t trust their device to a clip that felt very flimsy. It had to be secure.

* Versatile. Fridge doors are of varying curvature and profile, so we opted to make it a 2-layer design. The rear layer allows for curvature flexibility and vibration insulation.

Conceptual Drawings

Dan took these principles and put together a preliminary design. Though there is a lot of room for improvement of the design, we think it is an excellent starting point! Here are the rough CAD renderings illustrating the concept:

Making it (for) Real

Initially, I thought we might be able to finance this project ourselves and do the first manufacturing run based upon pre-orders. Silly me. Turns out that manufacturing is more expensive than I thought. Using a custom part estimator tool, we priced out what our preliminary design would cost. For a production run of 10,000 units, it turns out that it would cost around $10 per unit. To put it mildly, that is more pocket change than we can spare.

Rather than letting this idea die, I’ve decided to make it part of my iWant series, which are ideas that I am sharing with the world in the hopes that someone will make them real.

I believe the most promising possibility for carrying forward this project is to submit it as an idea to the Quirky community. For those of you who aren’t familiar, Quirky is a community of designers that collaboratively create physical products. Once the community finishes the design, Quirky manufactures and sells the most promising items. Revenues are shared with all the people who contributed to the design. I think the iFridge would be a perfect project for Quirky. Submitting an idea to Quirky costs $100. Perhaps there is someone out there willing to donate that sum so that we can submit this project to Quirky? Anybody? Anybody?

Market Opportunity

One final word before putting a bow on this idea. I predict that the market opportunity for an iFridge dock is immense. While you could make a little bit of money just selling the accessory itself, I think there is a more interesting business model out there:

Consider the fact that the kitchen (and the fridge in particular) is the most valuable piece of advertising real estate in the entire house. If you can get an iPad on the fridge, and provide an iPad app with live content from the web that people find valuable, you will have just created an ideal network of domestic billboards.

So rather than sell the iFridge dock for money, it might be smarter to give them away at substantial discounts (perhaps even free), and instead build your revenues based upon usage of your iPad app. To encourage downloads of the app, include the app’s logo on the iFridge dock as well as on the iFridge’s packaging. If you must charge for your app, perhaps include a coupon/discount with the iFridge, or vice-versa. Either way the goal should be the same: use the iFridge as the hook, and monetize instead based upon app usage.

This should be a no-brainer for cooking websites like Epicurious. Epi, if you are out there, get in touch and we’ll talk! Beyond the cooking sites, there are bound to be other enterprising developers who have ideas for useful kitchen computing apps. For those folks, consider supporting the iFridge; it could help you unleash a wave of kitchen innovation.

Update: We’re now collecting donations for this project! Please donate to help us cover Quirky’s submission fees.

Update 2: We succeeded in raising enough donations to submit this concept to Quirky! Given that 7 different people contributed, clearly there is market demand for this product. Keep your fingers crossed that the community chooses to make this product a reality….

Reincarnating an Old Laptop as a Fridge Computer

My wife and I are heavy users of laptops in the kitchen. We frequently choose recipes from the web, and then refer to them on our laptops when cooking. The problem is that when our laptops are on the counter, they take up valuable space and they can get awfully dirty. Being an certified MIT computer science nerd, I wondered, is there a better way?

I set out to take an old laptop that we no longer use and give it a new life as a fridge-mounted kitchen computer. I nicknamed it the iFridge. It worked like a charm! Have a look at the picture below. We use our iFridge not only to look up recipes on Epicurious, but we also stream Pandora, and have a few weather/news widgets to keep us up-to-date.

For those interested in more technical details in case you want to do-it-yourself, here is a rough step-by-step:

  • Started with an old Compaq Evo n410c. It was so old it couldn’t run any recent version of Windows. Basically, it was waiting for the junkyard. However, it had the benefit of being a very slim device.
  • Installed Ubuntu Linux. There was a lot of fiddling necessary with the kernel to get it to support the non-standard WiFi card that is built into the laptop, but I’ll spare you those details. The good new is that with Linux, this laptop is quite zippy!
  • Installed Firefox. The goal was to have the device be completely “cloud-powered” so I’d never have to worry about updating miscellaneous software. I also installed the SpeedDial extension to enable quick launches from the Firefox home screen.
  • Configured SpeedDial with shortcuts to Epicurious, AllRecipes, and MyRecipes. Also added shortcuts to Pandora and Hulu (there’s nothing like watching the Daily Show to kill time while waiting for water to boil). Also configured a couple weather and news widgets.
  • Mounted the laptop to the fridge. Since our fridge door isn’t magnetic (oddly enough), I opted to use a sling design to mount the laptop. I used two interlinked ribbons, one that went around the top edge of the door, and the other which went around the waist of the laptop. Due to the subtle curve of the fridge door, the laptop actually hugs the door quite tightly. Even when the fridge is opened or closed! Lastly, I concealed the power cord underneath the ribbon and traced it around the hinge towards the outlet. That way you can’t even see the cord and it doesn’t interfere with the motion of the door.
  • Enjoyed! Our iFridge has undoubtedly changed the way we cook in the kitchen. We have all the internet’s food knowledge (as well as its entertainment) on demand and in a convenient spot.

I urge everybody out there who has an old laptop to consider reincarnating their device as an iFridge.

Why Philosophers Make Formidable Entrepreneurs

In my many meetings with fellow tech entrepreneurs, I’ve noticed that very few actually have a technology background. Even more surprising, I’ve found that a disproportionate number of them (especially the successful ones) majored in philosophy in college. It got me thinking, why is it that so many excellent tech entrepreneurs were originally philosophers?

Just to name a few of these folks so you get the picture, there’s Amol Sarva (Peek), Ken Reisman (TLists), Damon Horowitz (Aardvark), Patrick Byrne (Overstock), Josh Snyder (Treeline Labs), and of course Chris Dixon (Hunch). And that’s just off the top of my head!

Quite an impressive bunch! I’ve come up with a few hypotheses on how philosophy training makes entrepreneurs like these so formidable:

  • Philosophers seek to structure the world. So when confronted with all of the uncertainty and turbulence of a startup, they are able to structure a sensible plan that their teams can execute.
  • Philosophers are deeply analytical. Rather than run their businesses on pure gut instinct, they look for evidence. By applying their analytical powers, they are able to reduce business risk.
  • Philosophers strive to find deeper truths. To hire the best people for your team, you need a compelling vision. Philosophers try to identify these deeper truths, and they articulate them to attract the best talent.
  • Philosophers like to argue. Intense debate is a central feature of most philosophy classes. This gives philosophers an abundance of confidence in their points of view, which helps them raise money from investors.
  • Philosophers aren’t afraid of risk. After all, they chose to study philosophy in school! Anybody who goes into a field knowing there are no job opportunities must love taking a gamble.

Reading over my list, I almost wish I had studied philosophy as an undergrad! If you are still in school and want to be a tech entrepreneur, maybe it’s time to head on over to the philosophy department….


Welcome to the blog of Samidh Chakrabarti, which revolves around the topic of innovation (from technology to entrepreneurship to policy), sprinkled with ample doses of et cetera.

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