Monthly Archives: March 2006

Ten emerging technologies

… from the great innovation machine, also known as MIT. Do take a look at the latest issue of Technology Review.

The technolgies include nanomedicine and nanobiomechanics. In fact, the latter describes the work of Prof. Subra Suresh of MIT’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering.

… [Since] 2003, Suresh’s laboratory has spent more and more time applying nanomeasurement techniques to living cells. He’s now among a pioneering group of materials scientists who work closely with microbiologists and medical researchers to learn more about how our cells react to tiny forces and how their physical form is affected by disease. “We bring to the table expertise in measuring the strength of materials at the smallest of scales,” says Suresh.

One of Suresh’s recent studies measured mechanical differences between healthy red blood cells and cells infected with malaria parasites. Suresh and his collaborators knew that infected blood cells become more rigid, losing the ability to reduce their width from eight micrometers down to two or three micrometers, which they need to do to slip through capillaries. Rigid cells, on the other hand, can clog capillaries and cause cerebral hemorrhages. Though others had tried to determine exactly how rigid malarial cells become, Suresh’s instruments were able to bring greater accuracy to the measurements. Using optical tweezers, which employ intensely focused laser light to exert a tiny force on objects attached to cells, Suresh and his collaborators showed that red blood cells infected with malaria become 10 times stiffer than healthy cells — three to four times stiffer than was previously estimated.

Prof. Suresh’s publications are here.

Another interesting case

In this NYTimes story, Kenneth Chang reports on a paper being withdrawn by the leader of the group that did the experiments:

A Columbia University chemistry professor has retracted two papers and part of a third published in a leading journal after experiments performed by a graduate student could not be reproduced.

The senior author of all three papers, which were published in 2004 and 2005 in The Journal of the American Chemical Society, was Prof. Dalibor Sames; the graduate student, listed as an author on each, was Bengu Sezen, who left the university after getting her doctorate last year.

Chang further reports that there is an internal review ordered by Columbia University.

Two days later, Chang catches up with the ex-graduate student who did the experiments, and whose results are under a cloud:

The former student, Bengu Sezen, who finished her doctorate last year and left the university, said in an e-mail message on Thursday that she had not known of any controversy about the papers until a reporter asked her about it.

Dr. Sezen said that before the papers were published, other scientists in the group successfully performed the same experiments, even when she was not in the laboratory.

All of this sounds quite murky, and I guess we will just have to wait for more details to emerge.

The Economist on open source projects

To get a sense of just how powerful the open-source method can be, consider the Firefox web browser. Over the last three years it has crept up on mighty Microsoft to claim a market share of around 14% in America and 20% in parts of Europe. Firefox is really a phoenix: its code was created from the ashes of Netscape, which was acquired by AOL in 1998 when it was clear that it had lost the “browser war� to Microsoft. Today, the Mozilla Foundation manages the code and employs a dozen full-time developers.

From that core group, the open-source method lets a series of concentric circles form. First, there are around 400 contributors trusted to offer code into the source tree, usually after a two-stage review. Farther out, thousands of people submit software patches to be sized up (a useful way to establish yourself as new programming talent). An even larger ring includes the tens of thousands of people who download the full source code each week to scrutinise bits of it. Finally, more than 500,000 people use test versions of forthcoming releases (one-fifth of them take the time to report problems in bug reports).

From this story in the Economist; this part of the story is about how an organizational structure has emerged in open source software development process. It made you go ‘huh?’, didn’t it? I mean, is it so surprising that there must be an organization for a project — even if it is open source — to be effective? If you read a bit further, you know why it’s surprising: the Economist started with some strange preconceptions about open source projects:

One reason why open source is proving so successful is because its processes are not as quirky as they may first seem.

A little later, a Harvard professor is quoted:

“These are not anarchistic things when you look at successful open-source projects -— there is real structure, real checks and balances, and real leadership taking place�.

Quirky? Anarchistic? If you set up an open source project with these adjectives, then pretty much everything you are going to say later is going to look amazing. And, guess what? The rest of the story does indeed tell you that it’s all quite amazing.

Since it’s all quite amazing, the Economist has to de-mystify the process for its core readers. Thus, it makes the curious claim that the organizational structures in open source projects are not all that different from those in traditional businesses.

In order to succeed, open-source projects have adopted management practices similar to those of the companies they vie to outdo.

This claim is quite a stretch; I mean, which company has to worry about managing hundreds of thousands of workers volunteers who give their time and effort for free?

Because it starts with a ‘quirky’ premise, the Economist ends up saying stuff that just doesn’t make sense. Such as this one:

The contributors are typically motivated less by altruism than by self-interest.

Given its ideological lenses, the Economist cannot pretend to understand something as strange as ‘altruism’. While it is true that people at the top levels of the open-source pyramid do get paid for their work, there are scores that don’t. Also, by the very nature of their participation, only a small fraction of volunteers can expect to get showered with peer recognition, the other currency that’s quite famous in open source literature. Yet, projects such as FireFox do attract so many volunteers. So, statements such as “contributors are … motivated less by altruism than by self-interest” show up, more than anything else, the cluelessness of the folks who wrote this Economist story. Indeed, the rest of the story has very little to back up this strange and sneaky claim.

In spite of these problems, the Economist story has some interesting stuff about how open source projects are similar to ‘traditional businesses’ when it comes to making money. There are quite a few companies that have sprung up around open source software, and they do earn real money. MySQL, for example. Did you know that this database software is used by Yahoo! and Google? The story also talks about some interesting companies that are exploring the use of the open source concept to realms other than software.