Saturday, September 27, 2008


Another Saturday is gone as every weekend that goes by. But this one was pretty different and deserving some talking. The day started with the Computer Science
Symposium on campus. My main reason to be there was to present a poster about my own work. The first part of the symposium was a lot of fun and then I was really glad a couple of people got interested about my work and genuinely spent time listening about what I was saying. It is usually hard to find people that like exactly what you like but I felt like I got their attention even if just for a while. It made my day.
After dinner I went to this party where I was supposed to bartend. I never did it before and that made me feel that no matter how it turned it was going to be
fun. And I was right. I spent four hours straight serving wine and beer for people with little pauses. There were always people in line. What is fun is to end up interacting with all this different people that otherwise would have little interest to come to talk to you. This way instead they basically have no other
choice other than to come. And some are really interesting. Some look at you with fun expressions and since they are either drunk or going to be, it is ok to
make a little bit fun of them. They don't mind. During the day it might be inappropriate but in this case it is totally cool.
As the party went on I started noticing the same people returning over and over again to get more beer and wine. There was actually nothing else to serve. Everybody looks different. There is the guy that is very friendly and will actually start dance for me when I ask it as a price for getting served, there is the guy that looks completely depressed and I wonder if it is the right thing to do to serve him more alcohol. I do it nevertheless.
Among the interesting people that I met there was one of my ex students and my ex instructor of climbing that seemed interested in coming to dance salsa after I promised that I would teach her some moves. My neighbors were there too. Somehow they get to know about all the parties in town.
Overall I am really glad I agreed to bartend for the party. I am usually the kind of guy that eventually gets bored at parties. This way I actually got to have some fun and it made me feel good to serve so many people in a single day. I got served many times so this was my first way to return the favor. Well, almost, since I was paid well.
If I had the chance, I would definitely do it again.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008


When we look at each other we are all human beings. We can do things that no other animals can do. At the same time each one of us can do just a few of the things that people can do. We are all the the same but we are also so different. For many reasons, of course, but a good chunk of that reason relies on what variations are written on our DNA. Most of those variations, and from a mathematical entropy point of view I really mean a large percentage, can actually be read nowadays. What is even more true is that from this month, actually since last week, it has become extremely cheap, just $399.
Well, I confess, I could not resist. Maybe just to see the contempt on the faces of the people that will wonder how I could have taken such a despicable choice. Right now I am really looking forward to that. But the main reason is definitely pure curiosity. This means entering a new level of consciousness of ourselves. Even if so far most of what we can read we also cannot understand, the small parts that we do understand are already telling a lot. What am I talking about?
First of all, I know that a fourth of me is Greek but for the rest I only know that I am Italian. What does that mean? Not much, since Italian people are actually a messy mix. Is there anything in my DNA that will tell me more about that? Maybe not, but that is already an answer. This overall is already worth it a lot to me. But the real fun is around what each individual SNP being read in my DNA is going to tell. If you like Wikipedia then get ready for the new internet hit, that is, SNPedia. It is already there and it is growing. It aims at organizing all information that can be extracted from SNP data. Right now there are a lot of fun ones, from the SNP that increases your chances to get Alzeheimer to the one that apparently boosts your intelligence.
Many will say, and 23andMe will warn you, that some of what you can read might be knowledge that you would have never wanted and there will be no turning back. The Alzeheimer SNP is the best example. Who would want to know that his brain will slowly die?
I guess I am taking a risk since my paternal grandmother did suffer of a severe brain degeneration and if that was transmitted to my dad or not I guess I will never know unless I found out that I am affected as well. Overall I have only 25% chances. But would that make me really worried? I guess I would still live most of my life with the hope there will be some kind of solution.
Also, my belief is that if there is something that really will make my life a nightmare then it is my duty to make sure I will not transmit that. So if I ever decide to have children then I would never want them to feel the same. Therefore I would need to know that piece of information nevertheless, no matter how painful that could be.
But my belief is that there is nothing too scary written in my DNA and knowing that my mothernal grandparents are both healthy and they have both surpassed the average expected life makes even a little bit more comfortable.
Going back to what really makes me curios I can name a few things. Well, first of all, why am I so skinny and why do I seem to be unable to build up any fat whatsoever? I am sure one gene will not answer the question but a bit of truth would be appreciated. Why have I never developed any cavities even if I have never cleaned my teeth more than once a day? Am I eventually going to get completely bald? Am I resistant to HIV? What do the SNPs say about the fiber composition of my muscles? Why do I have no need for eyeglasses at all? Am I more susceptible than the average to develop lung cancer? And so much more.
It is hard to tell how many things will be known next year because a lot of studies are being developed right now. The more people will be statistically analyzed the more will be known. The only limit will be achieved when everybody on this planet will be genotyped.
Yes, everybody, and with me that means one less to go. Because once I send my sample of saliva I will enter the statistics pool, so if I have a trait I am curios about and nothing is known about it so far, then by giving my data I am providing my own little piece of evidence. Wait a minute. So maybe I should be paid to get my DNA analyzed. Well, this might be stretching it a little bit too much but it is indeed a do ut des thing to do. And knowing that 23andMe is owned in part by Google makes me feel even better about where my money go. That is, the right place.
I want to finish giving my personal opinion. I like to think that our brain and our body are two very distinct things that need each other to exist. Since our brain starts interacting with the world, it starts a journey that is an evolution of its own that stops only with our death. Our body, on the contrary, evolves really little. Natural selection shaped it for a long time, but its journey is about over now. We all need our body in our journey and it would be nice if we could keep it functional. I think this is a new effective way to do that. I really would not want to miss it.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Where do great ideas come from?

As a mathematician, most of what constitutes my work is having new ideas and then formalize them and write them down so that they can be shared among other people. An idea per se is a very abstract object. Sometimes it can be a very simple concept but the details to talk about it might make it look very complicated.
When we do recognize great ideas, maybe from a book, from a paper or from talking to someone, we feel that spark of genius in it. The question comes often. Where do great ideas come from? Well, I wished more of that was taught in class. We attend tens of classes in college and graduate school but the only thing we learn is about other people ideas and not about the process that lead them to develop them. Learning this might be a very painful process.
In general, the person that is supposed to teach you that should be your advisor. Although your advisor might not be good at that or simple might not realize the importance of teaching that. Or maybe for every person is different and it is just not something that can be taught. To some extent, you have to find your own way.
My advisor told me that his way to come up with something interesting. When he was in graduate school he was at looking at data and examples and trying to figure out what you could do or might want to do with it. Many papers he wrote came out of this process. So he decided to do the same with me. Mainly, he gave me large datasets and told me to go and play.
Yes, to play, because playing is were ideas come out from. And playing also means to have fun because if you are not having fun then you are not playing.
And indeed I have been playing recently with this massive dataset of genotype data from nine related individuals and this week I feel I really nailed down a cool idea. Now it will take at least two weeks to shape an algorithm to make it work and probably at least a month to write a paper about it and hopefully convince other people about how cool it is.
I spent today a lot of time trying to find out papers through Google scholar that might relate to what just came to my mind but I couldn't find any, yet. That makes me really excited since it motivates me even more to pursue this 100%. But ultimately, in my case, where this idea came from and why has nobody thought about it before?
I have spent many weeks now looking at the data over and over again, seeing what information was lying there, testing algorithms, seeing how they run and why they don't run well sometimes. Confusion added up to confusion until I realized that there was a simple solution lying ahead. Well, simple as compared to the level of mess that had been building up in my head recently. Now my goal is to share with other people and I guess they will judge how simple it is. All ideas look simple to the person that first thinks of them.
Now I have got to go. I feel like I have found my little gold mine and there is a lot of work to do. In this case it also means that there is a lot of fun to go through. I haven't been so excited since the days when I realized that my polynomial factoring algorithm was factoring some special kind of polynomials faster than any other algorithm ever devised for that purpose. I am feeling that my office is the place where the most exciting stuff is going on, even if there is just me there. With my little dream that I might put down something interesting and there might be smart people willing to listen to me because I have something smart to say.
I have known myself for a quite awhile now. That, basically, is really all that I want.