Sunday, May 21, 2006

In The Not Too Distant Past . . . .

Oh, how we easily take things for granted.

We sit smugly in our own little world in front of a comfortably small machine that speedily and unobtrusively transports us to the vast frontiers of cyberspace, in matters of seconds. And oh, we can say, in nanoseconds.

A machine that in its tiny physical parameters can list really stupendous capabilities and powers – a processor that boasts of speeds of over 3Ghz, storing processed information in random memory of over 1Gig, and permanently storing files of any format or flavor into a hard drive with a capacity of over 200Gigs, and whatever new-fangled bells and whistles we have accessorized it with.

We of course, do not necessarily gloat over this prized possession because we know there are out there machines that can run circles on our own. Machines that may have multiple processors, or even multiple-core processors, and even faster and larger memory chips, and multiple, faster, and larger hard drives.

But we have reasons to take these for granted – because they are now quite commonplace, and relatively cheap for the typical consumer to hanker for and acquire.

But in the not too distant past, the world was a lot more primitive, coarse, and snail-like in motion. And we do not mean centuries or eons past. What about in the early 80’s?

In 1982, working for a first-class hotel in downtown San Francisco, one had the opportunity to work in EDP (Electronic Data Processing) and toy around with a mini-computer the size of a small refrigerator. It was the heart of a network connected via co-axial cable with nodes attached to dumb terminals. The computer itself (named Four Phase and made by a company named Datahost) had two spinning drives, one live and the other back-up. Anyway, measuring against current technology, it was so old one hardly remembers much about it.

Then by 1985 came the IBM System 3x (34, 36, 38), technically marketed as mini-computers though larger than the previous one, measuring at least like a big commercial-size freezer. And the tandem printer measuring and weighing just a little bit less. Still networked via co-axial cable with nodes attached to dumb terminals. But at this stage, progress signs were already evident, with the use of sub-systems on a token-ring model with exchanges of data coming from outside via circuit-switched phone lines, with registered speeds of 4-6 MHz.

In late 1994, hotel management decided to try IBM’s newest but mysterious and incredibly small and squat machine labeled the AS400 (Application System). Unfortunately, its introduction and marketing was at the cusp of the breakout of the personal computer as the machine of choice for business. Thus, we never really had time to get acquainted with the black console, which if located on the floor required back-stretching motions to operate its buttons and view its tiny console screen.

But backtracking a bit, in 1981, IBM launched its first Personal Computer and in the process coining the word, PC. x286, x386, x486 – terms most probably now lost in current-day tech-jargon. But it will be decent to remember that a computer with an x486 processor powered the original Mars rover that did many of that wonderful stuff for earthbound operators, doing so many millions of miles away. Is this the same rover that to this date continues to receive commands from earth stations? I can’t say.

But by 1993, the first Intel Pentium chips had been launched with initial processor speed of 60-66 MHz. and quickly progressing to 90-100-160 MHz.

And quickly by 1995, the PC had already firmly established itself as a business tool, and faster and more efficient network models were very well into their seamless integration with the PC. Thus, we had our auspicious introduction to the Server/Workstation model via Ethernet, using the then popular server operating system, the Windows NT 3.1, in tandem with Windows 95 for the deployed workstations.

But even well into the start of the new millennium, our server PCs were still running with single processors at speeds of no faster than 400Mhz and we had workstations running at 200Mhz , with a good number still chugging along at 160Mhz.

But the following years up to the current one we have witnessed the remarkable explosion in processor speed that had most everybody worshipping Moore’s law on its evolution.

Now thinking and planning beyond the physical limits imposed by nature on silicon, people in the industry are now talking about nanotechnology – venturing and striking into the molecular or atomic level of matter.

Are we now approaching what has been projected and termed by some scientists as Singularity? – An exponentially expanding future from an exponentially shrinking technology.

Who can say? Another projection for Brave New World Revisited 2x?

Genocide, Genetics, Genome, And Genealogy

At no time in man’s short history of civilized living has he arrived at the same breakneck speed that he has exhibited in this current attempt to decimate and annihilate his own kind, with such unparalleled magnitude and barbaric ferocity. Societies now talk about wiping out of the map entire countries, and even civilizations, if and when given the opportunity. Never has man except now been so enamored with barbaric violence that beheadings and executions taped and nonchalantly played on media have become commonplace.

Any reasonable earthman may be impelled to surmise that any similarly-gifted alien chancing upon this beautiful-looking “pale blue dot”, a puny resident of the universe’s Milky Way, might be stultified in grave wonder when he takes a closer look and realizes that its inhabitants are locked in mortal self-assured mutual destruction. Appearing too eager to drive down the inexorable path of self-annihilation.

But what is not easily discernible is that this same species is a hopeful one. Infused in his nature as one of his emergency passions, he is eternally and inveterately hopeful, regardless of the countless vicissitudes confronting him. At times maybe reacting out of fear, but definitely as part of the inborn instinct of self-survival.

Thus, amidst all these troubling developments, a good many humans continue on with the task of finding ways and means to improve the common lot of humankind. People searching and discovering novel ways to extend the life of man, improve his cognitive skills, assist in his dominion over creation, and overall, improving how he can experience life.

One such global endeavor is the tracking and recording of the human genome, man’s complete set of genetic information which includes his DNA and RNA. Already scores of organizations are thick in the progress of tracking down to the gene level certain common diseases and predispositions that man has been plagued with, with the earnest hope of finding not only cures for them, but eventually of preventing their onset by learning about genomes in a family’s genealogy and looking for possible prevention on that level.

Thus the study of one’s family history, or genealogy, usually borne out of curiosity has taken on more profound dimensions and is now being engaged as an integral component in this big joust to combat human diseases.

As one intermittently preoccupied with my own family’s genealogy, this new development certainly buoys one’s spirits to concoct grandiose dreams of someday seeing this little hobby or avocation take on an exalted place as one of man’s critical tools in his deep strides toward improving his species’ progeny.

And what is happening in Iceland today shows the extent and promise that this project brings.

And this island nation, tucked close to the icy North Pole, is most unique and apropos in many ways, for precisely this kind of project.

It is a small nation with population of only 275,000. And its public health system has been most thorough and meticulous keeping individual medical records since 1915.

About 80% of the present population can trace their lineage, all the way back 1200 years ago, when a few hundred Vikings and some Celts settled in the island. Thus, genealogy has been an integral part of family culture and tradition.

Being a rather geographically isolated place, there has not been much migration to the island since the first settlement, making the population as homogeneous as one can get. And because of this isolation outside disasters such as famine and plagues have been precluded from adding new genetic input into the local gene pool.

Homogeneity is believed to be a big help in studying genetic disorders in populations, rather than just on individuals since it is further claimed that change or mutation over time occurs in populations not in individuals.

All these factors pooled together have made possible the following development.

Started in 2000, the government now has created a centralized national health database of all the Icelandic peoples' genealogical, genetic, and personal medical information. Thus, family histories are included in this database. It was the initial intent of Parliament to gather genetic data of all Icelanders to facilitate the identification of genetic traits and inherited diseases with the ultimate purpose of finding drugs to arrest such diseases at the gene level.

deCODE, the company contracted by the government to undertake this study, hopes to market to interested parties whatever important and useful information may be derived, including but not limited to pharmaceutical companies and health care providers