• Interview with the astronomer who speculated that Oumuamua might be a sign of extraterrestrial life

    As his title indicates, Harvard astronomy department chairman Avi Loeb is an extremely credentialed astronomer. So when he asserted that an object currently passing through our solar system might just be the product of an alien intelligence – eyebrows went up. He made this argument in a scientific paper published on the 12th of this month, in the Astrophysical Journal, which is one of the top research publications in all of astronomy.

    I got wind of this paper before its official release date, and reached out to Avi. And we ended up having the longest and most in-depth interview he's given on this fascinating topic thus far. You can hear our full conversation by clicking below:

    Avi's generous availability delighted me, Because like anything connected to aliens, this story has Inevitably led to an avalanche of sound bites and clickbait.

    It's also triggered a fair amount of controversy amongst professional astronomers. The negative reactions have ranged from skepticism, to something verging on … moral outrage. But adversarial debate is one of the key mechanisms by which science advances.

    There have been periods stretching for decades when the field of astronomy was divided over some of the most basic aspects of the cosmos. Is the universe expanding? Was there, or was there not a Big Bang? Are black holes a thing – or just a theoretical toy? Great minds lined up on opposite sides of these questions for large proportions of their careers.

    Luckily we won't have to spend quite so long on the edge of our seats, because the debate Avi has triggered has a sell-by date. As we'll discuss toward the end of the interview, much of the mystery surrounding his arguments should be dispelled in a bit over three years, when a powerful new telescope comes online.

    After hearing this interview, you should be equipped to make up your own mind about you expect the new telescope to reveal (if anything). And to follow this story as it unfolds, and to debate it in an informed way, if you wish, for as long as it remains a mystery.

    If you enjoy this conversation, you might have fun checking out other episodes of my show. My full archive can be found on my site, or via your favorite podcast app by searching under the words "After On. There, you'll find deep-dive interviews with other world-class thinkers, founders, and scientists – tackling subjects including synthetic biology, cryptocurrency, astrophysics, drones, genomics, neuroscience, consciousness, privacy and government hacking, and a whole lot more.

    Image: European Southern Observatory/M. Kornmesser

  • Will the human race survive the twenty-first Century?

    My guest in this edition of the After On podcast is British Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees. And just to state the obvious? Astronomer Royal is such a cool title. And it's just one of a long list of positions and honors that Sir Martin has earned over his five decade career in astrophysics.

    That said, most of today's conversation is not about the stars. It's mostly about how we could possibly survive this century in the face of multiple "existential risks." Along with Bill Joy (who wrote a highly influential Wired cover story on the topic), Sir Martin helped kickstart this urgent conversation back in 2003, with the release of his amazing book Our Final Century? (which had the more breathless title Our Final Hour in the US).

    You can hear our full conversation by clicking below:

    Despite the interview's main thrust, I couldn't help to ask Sir Martin about two really cool deep space topics. Toward the start of the interview, we discuss the most violent events that have occurred in the universe since the big bang itself – roughly one of which detonates with ZERO warning somewhere in the observable universe, daily. It's crazy, and fascinating stuff.

    Then toward the end of the interview, we discuss a truly eerie phenomenon called fast radio bursts (FRBs). These are intensely strong radio wave sources with utterly mysterious origins. And while this will sound breathless, it's not out of the question that advanced extraterrestrials could be causing them. Now – astronomers have discovered across many mysterious celestial phenomena in the past, which now have well-understood natural explanations. The classic case is a phenomenon called pulsars (worth Googling if you're interested)

    But scientists have been puzzled by these FRBs for about about a decade, now. Whereas pulsars took about a year to figure out. And was using 1960s technology! So FRBs are … awfully strange. Now to be clear, Martin himself by no means advocates that aliens are causing them. But as the years continue to tick by without an explanation, the eeriness will grow.

    If you enjoy this conversation, you might have fun checking out other episodes of my show. My full archive can be found on my site, or via your favorite podcast app by searching under the words "After On. There, you'll find deep-dive interviews with other world-class thinkers, founders, and scientists – tackling subjects including synthetic biology, cryptocurrency, astrophysics, drones, genomics, neuroscience, consciousness, privacy & government hacking, and a whole lot more.

  • Synthetic biologist Floyd Romesberg is developing a third, artificial base pair for DNA

    For billions of years, all life on Earth – in all of its mad diversity – has been encoded in the four-letter alphabet of DNA.

    A,T,G, and C – that's all it takes. Bacteria, wasps, polar bears, ragweed, octopuses palm trees . . . Four letters is all it takes to enable the full range of life we share our planet with. To transmit the blueprints of beings and species across generations. And to write how-to guides for each of the billions of chemical reactions that occur in each of your trillions of cells, every minute.

    This was true for the dinosaurs. It was true for the earliest bacterium. It was indeed true for every critter we're aware of, going clear back to the common ancestor of all Earthly life. All living beings operated from that four-letter alphabet. Until just a few years ago. When Scripps Chemistry Professor Floyd Romesberg added two new letters to it.

    Floyd and I get deep into his research, the science behind it, and the amazing things work like his could one day enable in the new episode of the After On podcast, which you can hear by clicking below:

    If you can't tell a nucleotide from an amino acid, or DNA from tRNA, fear not – we have you covered in this conversation. No prior knowledge is assumed, and all essential terms are plainly defined on a just-in-time basis.

    Also – just as important – please don't worry if cellular biology is your full-time job (like, if you're a ribosome, or something). We cover those basics for the non-experts in just two brief stretches, which are maybe six minutes long combined. And I'll warn you as we enter those sections, so experts can skip ahead if they like.

    Image: Shutterstock/vchal

  • Interview with Stewart Brand on the 50th anniversary of the Whole Earth Catalog

    Many people have equated Stewart Brand to the mythical "World's Most Interesting Man," who was featured for years in those Dos Equis commercials. Enough people that the comparison's a bit of a cliché. But like many clichés, there is something to it.

    Stewart was among the most culturally catalytic people in the turbulent years of the late 1960s – although back then, he did a lot of his catalyzing behind the scenes. He went on to become a rather visible founding figure of the environmental movement of the early 70s. Later, he created one of the earliest and most influential online communities, which he named The Well. He convened history's first hacker's conference, then later co-founded one of the world's premiere centers of truly long-term thinking. He's still running that today, and is also helping the renowned bioengineer and genomicist George Church resurrect extinct species, like the wooly mammoth.

    If this makes you think Stewart might be something of a historic figure, you're not alone. He showed up for his interview at my apartment with a production crew, who were filming a documentary about his life. Meanwhile John Markoff – who for decades at the NYT was among the world's most influential and well-regarded tech journalists – is writing a biography about Stewart.

    For the same reasons that Stewart attracts this sort of attention, I'm taking an unusual approach to this episode. Rather than focusing solely on a single deep and complex aspect of his work, Stewart and I speak broadly about the sweep of his experiences, and the unique perspective they've given him on technology, the environment, and our prospects of navigating the coming century.

    The interview is right here:

    If you enjoy this interview, please consider checking out The After On Podcast. I publish new episodes every month – and my archive features dozens of unhurried conversations with world-class thinkers, founders, and scientists. Their fields include neuroscience, synthetic biology, quantum computing, space archaeology (seriously – it's a thing!) and much more.

    Image: Door of Perception

  • The crazy range of medical developments vying to extend or radically improve our lives

    I don't know anyone with a broader purview on the crazy range of medical developments that are vying to extend or radically improve our lives than Daniel Kraft. Daniel is a physician-scientist, an entrepreneur, and also a healthcare futurist. He founded and runs the annual Exponential Medicine conference, which is one of the largest truly cross-disciplinary gatherings of life science researchers and innovators in the world. He also founded and runs the medical faculty at Singularity University – a truly unique academic institution, which could only have sprouted from the soil of Silicon Valley.

    When Daniel does a presentation, he's the opposite of that speaker we've all seen who does everything possible to pad their words and their slides to fill their up time. With Daniel, I always feel like there's an entire presentation lurking behind each & every slide he puts up on the screen. He just has so much surface area, because those two very complementary jobs of his put him in touch with hundreds of startups and researchers every year. Daniel is particularly deep in medical devices – ranging from consumer-grade gear to tools that only turn up in research hospitals. And as an oncologist, he's of course deeply informed about cancer.

    We discuss all of this in the new episode of the After On podcast, which you can hear by clicking below:

    If you enjoy this episode and would like to check out some of its 26 siblings, head on over to my site. Or, you can click here to get it in iTunes or Apple's Podcasts app; or just type the words After On into your favorite podcast player. You'll find episodes connected genomics, synthetic biology, neuroscience, consciousness, robotics, privacy & government hacking, cryptocurrency, astrophysics, drones, and a whole lot more.

    Image: Shutterstock/Oleksandr Derevianko

  • Depression: the psychedelic cure

    George Goldsmith and Katya Malievskaia are a married couple whose startup – Compass Pathways – will soon launch the largest triple-blind clinical trial ever of a psychedelic drug. The drug is psilocybin, which is the active ingredient in psychedelic mushrooms. And the condition is treatment-resistant depression. This awful malady plagues over a hundred million people worldwide. And as the term "treatment-resistant" implies, it lacks a cure.

    Now, if that sounds a bit implausible, consider who George and Katya have drawn to their company. Their Board of Directors includes Thomas Lonngren, who spent ten years running Europe's equivalent of the FDA (the European Medicines Agency). Also on their board is the former Chief Medical Officer of Bristol Meyers Squibb – one of the world's largest pharmaceutical companies. Plus, they've raised roughly $20 million for their company from some extremely savvy investors.

    As you'll learn from our conversation, Katya & George are both deeply experienced in medical research. They're perhaps even more plugged into drug approval process, and have designed their trial in consultation with the top drug regulators of multiple countries. The full interview is right here:

    As you'll learn from our interview, they have a very personal grudge against treatment-resistant depression, because of the way it afflicted someone very dear to them. We'll talk about Katya and George's backgrounds & motivations, as well as the trial they're architecting, and their company Compass Pathways. We'll also discuss the long clinical history certain psychedelics and other recreational drugs have had, and the major promise several of them are now showing against a diversity of afflictions.

    Image: Kichigin/Shutterstock

  • The astounding present and dizzying future of synthetic biology

    George Church's Harvard lab is one of the most celebrated fonts of innovation in the world of life sciences. George's earliest work on the Human Genome Project arguably pre-dated the actual start of that project. Subsequently, he's been involved in the creation of almost a hundred companies – 22 of which he co-founded.

    Much of George's most recent and celebrated work has been with a transformationally powerful gene-editing technique called CRISPR, which he co-invented. George and I discuss CRISPR and its jarring ramifications throughout this week's edition of the After on Podcast. You can listen to our interview by searching "After On" in your favorite podcast app, or by clicking right here:

    Our conversation begins with a higher-level survey of the field — one which cleanly and clearly defines CRISPR by placing it into a broader, and also a quite fascinating framework. We cover four topics, which I'll now define up-front for you, so as to make the interview more accessible.

    We begin by discussing genetic sequencing. "Sequencing" is a fancy (and rather cool way) of saying, "reading." Your genome is about three billion characters long. It's written in a limited alphabet, of just four letters: A, G, C, and T. And if someone sequences your genome, it simply means they've read it. They haven't modified it in any way. They haven't have cloned you. They've just gotten a readout (kind of like determining your blood type — only a few billions times more complicated).

    George and I next discuss gene editing. As the word suggests, editing the genome of a person, bacterium, or virus involves changing some of its letters. This can significantly change an organism's function — perhaps causing a small critter to produce something useful, like a medicine, or a biofuel. Or, perhaps someday giving people or animals superpowers.

    CRISPR is a form of editing. But it's not the first one. It's the tenth one — in a lineage that goes back decades. CRISPR's better than most editing techniques at many things. But it's not better than all techniques at all things. And it's definitely not the last form of editing. There's massive headroom for improvement in genetic editing, and CRISPR will be superseded many times by more powerful approaches in the future.

    The third thing we discuss is DNA synthesis. Specifically, the creation of relatively small, customized units called "oligos." These are short sequences of DNA, which typically run from a couple dozen letters to a couple hundred letters long. That's obviously tiny in relation to your 3-billion-letter genome. It's also tiny in relation to bacterial genomes, which often range in the millions of letters; Or viral genomes which often range in the 100,000's. Oligos are building blocks, which are made to order in specialized labs. Like sequencing, DNA synthesis has gotten radically cheaper in recent decades, and continues to get cheaper every year.

    Our fourth topic is DNA assembly. This is the process of stringing those oligos together into long strands. In theory, there's nothing to stop scientists from linking several million oligos into a strand as long as a human genome. But practice, errors creep into the process — both as the underlying oligos lengthen from dozens to hundreds of letters, and as the number of oligo links in a final assembly rise. As a practical matter, things start getting tricky well before 100,000 letters, and the days of a fully synthesized, error-free, human-length genome are still many years off.

    So that's the table of contents of the first half of our interview: Sequencing, editing, synthesis, and assembly. With those foundations in place, George and I then talk about the astounding things that this integrated set of rapidly improving, and mutual reinforcing fields are enabling. Please join us!

  • Rodney Brooks on the present and future of robotics & AI

    Rodney Brooks is the father of the Roomba, the founder of iRobot, and the creator of both the Baxter and Sawyer product lines from Rethink Robotics. He's arguably the world's most accomplished roboticist. And if he's not – and I personally can't think of who could challenge him for that crown – he's definitely the top roboticist to be profiled in an Errol Morris documentary (1997's Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control).

    When Rodney left Australia for the region that would later become known as Silicon Valley, there were quite literally 3 mobile robots of consequence on the entire planet. Years later, he founded a company which has since brought tens of millions of these critters into the world. His products have saved countless lives. They have also liberated thousands of acres of carpeting from dust crumbs, dog hair, and other detritus.

    Amazingly, Rodney's tenure and credentials are every bit as significant in a second high tech field: artificial intelligence. He founded the leading developer of AI coding tools throughout the 80s and early 90s. And somehow he squeezed his robotics and AI entrepreneurship in while building a storied academic career – largely at MIT, where he spent a decade running one of the two largest and most prominent AI centers in the world.

    Rodney is my guest in this week's edition of the After on Podcast. You can listen to our interview by searching "After On" in your favorite podcast app, or by clicking right here:

    As you'll hear, Rodney diverges from fashionable narratives on several tech-related topics. They include super AI risk; the extent to which jobs will be imperiled by automation (he's more worried about a labor shortage than a job shortage); and the timeline of the rise of self-driving cars (this being intersection of his two domains of foundational expertise: robotics and AI).

    Few can match the breadth, depth, and duration of Rodney's purview on the tech industry – which makes for a truly fascinating conversation.

    Image: Jeff Green/Rethink Robotics – Rethink Robotics, CC BY 4.0, Link

  • Why neuroscientist David Eagleman thinks we live in the past

    When David Eagleman was a kid, he and his friends infiltrated a nearby construction site. Soon enough, he was tumbling three stories to the ground. The fall seemed to take an eternity! But years later, he did the math in a high school physics class, and realized that it lasted a smidgen more than a half second.

    Later still, he landed a gig as a neuroscience professor and started investigating this phenomenon. His experiments involved hurling test subjects off a 150-foot tower in Dallas (yes, there was a net), and probing their perception of time during the fall. His conclusion: time doesn't actually slow; it just seems too – because when our lives seem imperiled, an extra track of memory is laid down by the amygdala (the part of the brain whose duties include freaking out). When survivors look back, a higher density of memory is misinterpreted as a longer interval of memory – creating the illusion that time slowed during the frightening incident.

    David Eagleman is my guest in this week's edition of the After on Podcast, and you can hear our hour-long conversation by searching “After On” in your favorite podcast app, or by clicking right here:

    David's insights into our experience of time go far beyond the amygdala’s trick of making our worst moments seem to last forever. Among other things, he believes that we quite literally “live in the past” by a few moments, due to the brain’s trick of stitching together a cacophony of asynchronous input into a unified story. His rationale and evidence for this is fascinating, and too complex to lay out in a short article. So if this interests you, please consider listening to our interview.

    In it, we also discuss the phenomenon of “sensory substitution.” This is what enables those who lose access to one sense to develop high acuity in other senses (blind people who develop extraordinary powers of hearing, for instance).

    Three years ago, David left academia to develop hardware to leverage this phenomenon into the creation of new senses for humans. These could include magnetoperception, which many birds use to navigate; or electroperception, which sharks (and other critters) use to track their prey. It might also enable the creation of entirely synthetic senses – like an ambient awareness of developments throughout a factory, or in a market.

    David and I discuss his TED talk in our interview, and it’s definitely worth watching.

    Photo: Kris Krüg/Flickr, Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

  • On tumors, MRIs and telepathy: Mary Lou Jepsen on the future of devices that could read images from our brains

    Mary Lou Jepsen was finishing her PhD work in holography at Brown University when she started getting sick. Really sick. After a year of steady decline, she was living in a wheel chair and covered in sores. When she could no longer do simple subtraction in her head, she called it quits. She basically went home to die.

    That was when a generous professor sprung for an MRI. It revealed a brain tumor – one which had probably afflicted her more subtly since childhood. Shortly after a successful operation, she was firing on all cylinders. Within six months, she completed her Ph.D. and cofounded her first startup. She has since started two more companies; worked in the top engineering echelons of Intel, Google, and Facebook; served briefly as a professor at MIT; and cofounded the One Laptop Per Child initiative.

    Impelled by her searing personal experience, Mary Lou is now honing a technology which, she believes, will revolutionize high-end medical imaging. Accessing this is problematic enough in the US, with its 50 MRI machines per million people. But there are just two machines per million Mexicans, and poorer countries may have just one system in the capital city – if that. And with scans averaging about $2,700, even lavishly-insured Americans might be inadequately monitored. MRIs are more effective than mammograms at detecting certain types of breast cancer, for instance. But expense precludes their use as frontline diagnostics.

    Mary Lou believes her technology will be 99.9% cheaper than MRIs (that's an actual estimate, not a euphemism); radically smaller (the size of a ski cap, not a bedroom); and that its resolution will exceed that of MRIs by a factor of a billion. Yes, that's an actual "b," not a typo. And the really cool thing? Her creation might also enable telepathy.

    If your mind rebels at the scale of these claims, reread Mary Lou's credentials, then give my interview with her a listen. You can hear it by searching "After On" in your favorite podcast app, or by clicking right here:

    Mary Lou based her technology on insights gleaned over years in the flashy, but depopulated field of holography. She learned that when light scatters, it's not a random process – and in certain cases, it's a reversible one. Translucence scatters light. And though our bodies are opaque to most visible light (and transparent to X-rays and other frequencies), anyone who's pressed a flashlight to a palm knows that a red glow of translucence emits from the other side.

    Things get more translucent – and more interesting – with the invisible light of the near-infrared spectrum. Flood someone in near-infrared light, and a tiny minority of rays will pass through unimpeded, like X-rays (this is known as "ballistic light"). The other rays will scatter in ways that Mary Lou says can be reversed, using phase conjugation – a transformation associated with holography. And this, she maintains, can let smartphone-grade sensors grab enough data to reconstruct 3D images of the intervening tissue, displaying details clear down to the micron scale.

    Here's where telepathy comes in. Neurons range from 4 to 100 microns in diameter. This makes them invisible to MRIs, CAT scans, PET scans – pretty much anything other than a scalpel and a microscope. But Mary Lou's technology could monitor them, if it delivers on its maximum promise. Add some clever machine learning, and the system could closely infer what those neurons are contemplating.

    Even with its billion-times-lousier resolution, today's technology can pull off some wicked mindreading tricks. UC Berkeley's Jack Gallant built a system that generates grainy images of what people are seeing just by reading real-time fMRI data from their brains. The catch is that to calibrate the system, subjects first have to spend hundreds of hours watching YouTube videos in a claustrophobic MRI tube (the things grad students do for their professors…).

    But clunkiness and hassles tend to melt in the face of billion-X improvements. And Gallant's work is already plenty eerie, as you can see at timestamp 6:16 of Mary Lou's TED talk from a few years back. This doesn't necessarily mean a cap made of infrared LCDs and sensors will pull an HDTV-quality signal straight from your visual cortex. But Mary Lou sees no reason why it cannot, someday. And her company, Open Water, plans to demonstrate its technology later this year.

    Might all this raise an ethical issue or two? To quote a one-time would-be VP, yooooou betcha! Indeed, Mary Lou decided to leave Facebook and develop her technology independently, so as to enable an open discussion of its ethical ramifications long before shipping the 1.0 version. This just isn't possible in a large-company setting of skunk works and NDAs.

    Facebook skeptics may be relieved that Mary Lou's mind-reading rig is not part of that company's IP. But don't rest too easy. Last year, Berkeley telepathist Jack Gallant was recruited by Facebook to work on its "typing by brain" project.

    Photo by Kenneth C. ZirkelOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

  • If Aubrey de Grey is right, you could live forever

    I first met Aubrey de Grey over ten years ago, when he presented at a conference I attended. And his core message blew my mind. It was — and remains — that it should soon lie within technology's reach to eliminate the scourge of human aging. Not merely to arrest it — but even to reverse it. We discuss all of this and more right here:

    People have been making these sorts of claims from time immemorial. But they usually have a service, some goop, or a religion to sell, and Aubrey's peddling none of the above. The charlatans also typically lack Aubrey's professional validation — which include a Cambridge Ph.D, any number of academic publications, and dozens of scientists pursuing his agenda with full or partial funding from the organization that he founded and runs.

    Aubrey is charmingly indignant about the lack of urgency most of humanity has about ending aging. He attributes this to a mindset he calls the "Pro-aging Trance," which we discuss in detail at the start of our interview. Its roots include the instinctive conviction most of us have that death and mortality are immutable realities. To which Aubrey would reply that many instinctive convictions — such as belief in an Earth-centered universe, or the impossibility of human flight — have gone the way of the dodo bird. And he would of course add that there's no reason for us to go that way ourselves.

    Aubrey maintains that while life itself is — for now — unfathomably complex, as are most disease states, virtually everything that causes us to age and die stems from seven discrete categories of damage, which steadily accrue throughout our lives. And vitally, we don't need to fully understand this damage in order to fix it. So by all means, he argues, let's start fixing! He lists seven major repair vectors, which he believes can collectively end aging. We discuss two in detail in our interview, and I survey the other five in my concluding remarks.

    One final note: when you hear about a research program like Aubrey's, it is not unreasonable to ask, is this guy nuts? Personally, I like Aubrey, I loved his book (which we also discuss), and I sure hope he's right about everything, because I quite enjoy being alive! But I categorically lack the background necessary to assess his claims scientifically. In light of that, as well as the pro-Aubrey biases I just confessed to, I was careful to vet him as a guest with multiple scientists who are familiar with his work — most of whom also specialize in aging and its attendant diseases.

    The strong consensus from this informal advisory group is that Aubrey is the real deal. He's viewed as being extremely smart, entirely serious, and not even slightly bonkers. Now, that doesn't mean a majority or even a large minority of scientists agree that defeating aging during the next few decades is largely a matter of adequate funding. That's still a rather fringe viewpoint. But it's a viewpoint a scientist can now espouse and retain the respect of his peers – which I doubt was the case until quite recently. No doubt Aubrey's own work has had something to do with that.

    Image of Aubrey de Grey by SENS Foundation/Flickr, Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

  • John Hodgman and others read the After On audiobook

    Over the past couple of weeks, I ran two unusual episodes of the After On Podcast, both of them connected to … After On!

    The novel, that is. The podcast began as a DVD-extras-like supplement to it — eight episodes diving deep into science, tech, and sociological issues that I could only explore so much without completely derailing the book's storyline (I'll make no claims about partial derailments). I later decided to continue making the podcast because it's too much fun to give up.

    Most of my episodes are based upon in-depth interviews with world-class experts. But these last two are built around excerpts from the audiobook. This may sound like a lazy man's response to the holidays (because of course it is). Still, I rank them among my finest episodes, as they feature magnificent performances from seven brilliant people — some of whom will be familiar to a decent chunk of Boing Boing readers.

    Both episodes are designed to be spoiler-free, and also perfectly standalone — in that you don't have to know anything about the novel to fully parse and enjoy them. You may want to start with the second episode, as it includes the most voices (six of the seven):

    Although most of the novel is in a traditional narrative form, about a quarter of it is built from unusual media types. For instance, part of the story unfolds via 20 Amazon reviews. Part is told via excerpts from a mysterious second novel (a truly dreadful one. Hopefully hilariously so). There are also posts from multiple bloggers; tweets, texts and emails; and articles that I attribute to various sources.

    In this episode, the brilliant actor, comedian, and podcaster John Hodgman reads three of the Amazon reviews. Creator and star of The Guild (and all-around geek heroine) Felicia Day reads a post by an anonymous blogger named NetGrrrl. And podcasting stalwart Tom Merritt is the voice the New York Times.

    You'll also hear the single most odious press release in tech history (read by Broadway actress January LaVoy), as well as pieces attributed to the Wall Street Journal and Ars Technica (both read by voice actor Sean Kenin), and the demonically paranoid WhistleBlowings blog (read by YouTuber Jesse Cox). It's a cavalcade of both creepiness and comedy, and I believe every snippet will provoke a laugh, a shudder, or both.

    The other episode is easier to explain – it's the first 70-ish minutes of the book, and it's right here:

    It's mostly read by January LaVoy, but there are also three excerpts from that ghastly external novel. These are read with true comedic brilliance by Patrick Rothfuss. Yes, that Patrick Rothfuss – the fantasy writer and author of The Name of the Wind, among other brilliant works. Patrick has a wickedly stentorian voice which he dusts off from time to time, and I knew it would be perfect for my novel-within-a-novel (which, if I wrote the whole of it, rather than just the excerpts, would be the single worst science fiction novel of all time. I'm fully convinced of that).

    I hope you enjoy these!

  • Cryptocurrency: From Basic Definitions to Expert Issues in One Interview

    You'd have to be living in some kind of a news blackout not to have heard chatter about cryptocurrencies recently. The granddaddy of 'em all – BitCoin – has appreciated roughly 2000% over the past twelve months. This puts the total value of all BitCoin close $300B, making it more valuable than roughly 490 of the companies in the Fortune 500 – and far more valuable than any of the banks that were deemed too big to fail during the financial crisis.

    So what in the world is going on here? As with all large markets, nobody fully knows. But my interviewee in today's podcast, Fred Ehrsam, knows this area better than almost anyone. In 2012, he co-founded Coinbase, which is by far the world's largest consumer-friendly service for storing and trading cryptocurrencies (though its users include many large nonconsumers as well).

    Although our interview is a spontaneous conversation, Fred and I both put methodical thought into sequencing our topics, as well as the level of depth that we treat each with. The result is a robust introduction for who know nothing about cryptocurrencies, which can also truly fire the neurons of experts in this field. Will AI's start running on the block chain? Could a full-fledged Uber, Lyft, or AirBnB competitor exist as a cloud-based Smart Contract? And how might the emergence of Ethereum stand in certain a line of historic events that stretches back before the Bronze Age?

    Those who don't yet know what a blockchain or a smart contract are should be able to follow the entire conversation, clear through to its complex and rather mindbending conclusions, just by listening carefully (although probably not on 2x speed!). In fact, even if you have only the vaguest conception of cryptocurrencies, parsing all of this could bring you close to a top-percentile understanding of them. You can hear it by searching "After On" in your favorite podcast app, or by clicking right here:

    Because Fred is so generous and patient in his baseline explanations (for which I'm hugely grateful), stone-cold crypto experts may want to enter the interview around the half-hour mark. That said, I thought I fully grokked the stuff at the start of the episode myself – but talking it through with Fred brought up all kinds of intriguing nuances. So it may be worth a listen for anyone.

    A quick point of disclosure: I hold a cryptocurrency position myself as an investor. I don't believe that influenced this interview in any way. But I should point this out anyway, because who really knows what lurks in the subconscious? Also, I can – strangely enough – guarantee that my holdings did not influence my decision to conduct this interview. Because when I first reached out to Fred last month, I was under the false impression that I had long since sold my cryptocurrency. The background research I did for this interview revealed that I'd actually failed to sell it (which is fine, as it turns out).

  • The promise and peril of reading your genome in 2017 (or for that matter, 2018)

    Imagine that a folded note before you reveals — definitively — whether an excruciating, protracted neurological death lies a decade into your future. Should you look?

    Do so, and you could be rid of the grim uncertainty. Or, you could be fated to live and die with an awful truth. One which will haunt you, but also let you shape your remaining years with a foreknowledge most of us lack.

    This is a terrible quandary no one should face. But one person in 10,000 carries a genetic vulnerability to a gruesome affliction called Huntington's Disease. You almost certainly do not. But for those with a family history of Huntington's, the odds can be as high as 50/50. And in certain genetic configurations, the disease has 100% "penetrance" – meaning that all who carry the mutation are doomed. This makes the results of a Huntington's test as close to an iron-clad prediction as genetics ever gets.

    Before the test was created, a remarkably high percentage of people with family histories said they'd take it if given the chance. But once the test was available, roughly 90% of those people changed their minds. This makes it nigh impossible to know what we ourselves would do if faced with that choice.

    But all of us will face a version of that choice very soon – albeit a far less stark, and radically more ambiguous version. And roughly 0.000% of us are in a position to make that choice in an adequately-informed and emotionally-prepared manner. The choice is whether to have our full genomes read, and to learn of the innumerable consequences and uncertainties that lie therein.

    My guest, Robert Green, has spent more time thinking about this than almost anyone, and our interview delves to the core of this intensely fraught and personal decision. You can hear it by searching "After On" in your favorite podcast app, or by clicking right here:

    Robert has many affiliations: he directs the Genomes2People research program, is a medical geneticist at Brigham & Women's Hospital, is a Professor at Harvard Medical School, and an Associate at the Broad Institute. In all of these guises, he investigates the consequences of accessing personal genetic knowledge. Some believe this information can be – quite literally – toxic. As in, akin to ingesting a substance whose package flies the Jolly Roger. Others find that viewpoint offensively paternalistic. Robert's own perspective is deeply nuanced and (an overused word, which nonetheless applies perfectly here) wise.

    This stems from sharing the most devastating, the most exhilarating, and the most ambiguous genetic news imaginable with countless patients and families over the years. And the happy outcomes are at least as dramatic as the tragic ones. Our interview discusses a newborn whose full genome was sequenced as part of tiny experimental project. Robert's team learned that she had a mild version exotic genetic condition, which might have cost her many IQ points or resulted in future seizures. But by discovering this so early, they were able to resolve the problem – painlessly and risklessly – with a simple vitamin supplement. Had that newborn been in the 99.999% majority who are not genetically analyzed, she could have been hobbled in a way that neither she nor her family would have ever suspected.

    For now, heroic outcomes like this are as rare as tragedies like Huntington's disease. But both will become far more common as millions, then billions of genomes are gradually read and matched to health histories. Already, Robert estimates that 15-20% of us carry an identifiable genetic predisposition to one of several thousand rare disease. Individually, each of these conditions is exceedingly rare – but collectively, they're far more common than blue eyes or left-handedness. Very few have the 100% penetrance of certain Huntington's variations. But in many cases, carriers will endure a "fragment" of the disease at some stage of life.

    How many? And what behaviors, supplements, or incantations would improve or worsen the odds? In almost all case, we have absolutely no idea. For now. Our understanding of innumerable genetic realities will emerge relentlessly, yet slowly, from the murk, like the details of a coastline approached in heavy fog.

    As for right now, you could have your full genome read tomorrow for a thousand-ish bucks. Even with the best interpretation services (which would cost far more) you'd probably learn of hundreds of low-penetrance tendencies. Ones which will interact with your environment and lifestyle in unknowably complex ways. That said, you might stumble upon a death sentence. Or, a life-saving or -enhancing fact like that lucky newborn.

    Over the coming decade, the actionable information we glean from our genomes will rise exponentially, even as the cost of accessing it drops precipitously. How precipitously? Well, just fourteen years ago, it cost three billion dollars and took thirteen years to read a single human genome – the very procedure you could get done for a thousand-ish bucks tomorrow afternoon.

    The cost of having you genome read will soon reach $0.00, as countless parties will gladly do it for free in exchange for getting your data. You should think very carefully before entering that bargain. But whoever pays for the actual sequencing, full genomic data will soon be as widespread as cholesterol readings.

    My podcast is anything but a self-help program, so it's exceedingly rare for me to urge people to listen to it for direct personal benefit. But this is a rare episode that I believe offers almost anyone intensely relevant wisdom, for themselves and all of their genetic relatives. So I do hope you find time for it.

  • Music Piracy: The Extraterrestrial Threat

    I'm taking a week off from producing a full podcast, and am instead presenting what I hope will be a fun Thanksgiving road-trip accompaniment.

    It's an audibobook excerpt. But since it's the very start of that audiobook – and as it's read by the flat-out brilliant comedian/actor John Hodgman – there's no need to hear the rest of the thing to enjoy this standalone hour-plus of playfulness. In other words, this is truly not intended as an advert for a long-ago book! But if you find the nature of the content awkward, by all means skip it. Otherwise, you can hear it by searching "After On" in your favorite podcast app, or by clicking right here:

    The excerpt is from my novel Year Zero. Which was, of course, a literary exercise. But it was also a sort of primal scream therapy – intended to purge the demons still haunting me after years of imploring the music industry to allow me to launch the Rhapsody music service, which was the main product of a company I founded called Listen.com.

    For those who don't go back that far, Rhapsody was the first online music service to get full-catalog licenses from all of the major labels, as well as hundreds of indies (before even Apple). We were also the forerunner to Spotify, in that we were the world's first unlimited on-demand streaming music service. Eventually, RealNetworks bought us out, then later sold half of the service to MTV. More recently, in a strange, ironic twist, Rhapsody was renamed … Napster.

    For those interested in the birth of online music, and/or in copyright-related lunacy, I discuss those matters in a brief intro and longer outro to the excerpt. Or you can skip that, and just listen to the tale of a vast, alien civilization. One so into American pop music that they accidentally commit the biggest copyright infringement since the dawn of time – thereby bankrupting the entire universe. Yup. That is seriously the premise my first novel. And here's a fun little trailer that we put together back when it debuted:

    Though it's (obviously) a highly playful story, Year Zero is also a serious critique of things that I deem badly broken about intellectual property law. For some context, I discussed a particularly odious law, which also features in the book, in this TED talk a few years back (it's brief and will hopefully make you laugh).

    If you enjoy listening to Hodgman tackle this madness a tenth as much as I do, this episode should be an hour-and-change well spent. Enjoy!

  • An hour with Ev Williams: founder of Medium, Twitter, and Blogger

    As I say at the start of our interview, Ev has founded an almost unreasonably long list of companies – and the three listed above each had huge impacts on the Internet, and on digital culture.

    A remarkably coherent theme connects these companies – as well as a fourth one, which didn't really get off the ground. Each has brought people a global platform for spreading thoughts, opinions and more. Ranging from the succinct and casual chirps of Twitter, to the long-form, Spartan pages of Medium. All are discussed in our conversation, which you can hear by searching "After On" in your favorite podcast app, or by clicking right here:

    One of the Internet's great early promises was the radical democratization of communication through digital tools. And that's a promise it has largely delivered on, with significant help from Ev's products. But Ev didn't come to his life's work as an idealist with a cogent vision, but rather as an entrepreneur testing out his umpteenth product idea. The one that finally caught on happened to be in this realm. It was blogger.com, which Ev described to me in a prior conversation as "a hunch, which turned into a side project, which turned into the real thing." 

    That Real Thing was – basically – the very phenomenon of blogging. Which Ev's side project popularized, helped shape, and arguably even named. A few years later, Ev and a new crew of co-founders kind of half stumbled upon Twitter's revolutionary model as well.

    But there was nothing inadvertent about Medium, which had as coherent a founding vision as any startup I've known. One it remains intensely loyal to. When he launched it five years ago, Ev described Medium as "a beautiful space for reading or writing – and little else." Those words still fit. As do idealistic goals that Ev also enunciated on launch day, like creating a more informed citizenry, and increasing depth of understanding.

    Folks as prominent as presidents and anonymous as the stranger down the street publish 100,000 posts each week on Medium – virtually all of them far longer and deeper than Twitter's 140-character blasts (and yes – more than the new 280 character blasts as well). Medium posts appear not on disconnected blogs, but in a networked hive of writing, whose algorithms seek to surface the most personally-relevant articles to its tens of millions of readers.

    Like Chris Anderson of TED, who was my guest last week, Ev has spent many hours reflecting on the dire state of discourse online, and how to elevate it. But he's not running a not-for-profit. Indeed, Medium recently started pursuing a model which could be as huge and disruptive within its domain as Netflix has been to TV and film, or as Uber and Lyft have been to transportation-on-demand. That statement may be surprising, even to careful observers of Medium – and I'm not even sure if Ev himself would make it.

    But for now, Medium has a long way to go to deliver on Ev's goals, and its first half-decade has not been a perfectly smooth ride. The company has shifted its model more than once, and recently went through a significant layoff, which Ev describes as the hardest thing he's ever intentionally done. But Medium has ample reserves in the bank. It's nowhere near the brink – and as you're about to learn, Ev has a decent track record for reviving companies that have actually pitched over the brink, and into the abyss beyond.