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How Bitcoins are related to AIDS Research

27 Sep
This is yet another reason why geeks will rule the world.
According to the Sydney Morning Herald, gamers have solved the structure of an enzyme of an AIDS-like retrovirus that had thwarted scientists for a decade.   With this solution, researchers can develop drugs that target areas of these enzymes (i.e. ‘finding a cure’ for AIDS).   Said scientists’ computers were unable to determine the structures of the amino acids that made up this disease’s enzymes, as computers’ spatial reasoning skills are not yet as advanced as humans’.    (via the Daily What)
In this case, people were asked to help solve the retrovirus enzyme’s structure through playing a  game called Foldit, where gamers competed to determine the amino acid structures in a puzzle-like approach. “To the astonishment of the scientists, the gamers produced an accurate model of the enzyme in just three weeks,” SMH reported.  The gamers won this game so quickly that they were given actual scientific citation credit in the research paper.   This may have been ‘the first time’ that gamers have solved a ‘long-standing scientific problem’. It makes me proud to be a geek, and I’m sure we’ll see more research like this in the future.
Harnessing the power of geeks reminds me of the old screen-saver program, SETI@Home.  Have any of you used it?  The goal was to find alien life by using distributed computing to analyze of packages of radio noise collected from space.  This program was an early attempt by the University of California at Berkley, and was renowned for being able to utilize downtime on computers.  I don’t think it ever worked, and it sounds like the program might be shut down this year.  However, I do remember that I got a digital certificate for my work, and I was able to ‘donate’ my computer’s computation hours toward my High School’s total.  I don’t know if it got my school any prizes or recognition for the effort, but it was worth a try.
District Geek

But I got a shiny certificate!

I believe there are screen-savers that still work on solving problems like finding a cure for cancer and calculating prime numbers to the bazillionth digit.  I’m not sure how much effort is going toward such work nowadays, as it seems computation power can yield profit, as shown through Bitcoin mining.  Called the future ‘digital currency’ by some, Bitcoins are a new form of digital cash that can be used to purchase goods or services.  They can also exchanged with other real and virtual currencies, such as the US dollar and the Linden Dollar.  Bitcoins can -only- be generated through winning a race to process blocks of ‘Bitcoin transaction logs’ which verify Bitcoin purchase, ultimately rewarding the processor with 50 of their own Bitcoins for the effort.  Unlike Seti@Home, these packages are so complex that it would take years for a home PC to solve one block.  Instead, massive computer farms are dedicated to ‘mining’ Bitcoins.
Ok, it’s an 8-bit coin

I italicized -only- above because this process for ‘minting’ Bitcoins is under scrutiny; there is no centralized authority for this currency.  Instead, Bitcoin is underwritten by a peer-to-peer network akin to file-sharing services like BitTorrent, with certificates and public-key encryptions that are signed during transactions ‘to prevent duplication’.  Those blocks of transaction logs that are used to generate more Bitcoins are the only way to verify if the Bitcoins themselves are forged. (Thanks to the Economist.) However, Bitcoin currency exchange systems can be hacked, and many are unsure whether it is worth investing in.  Do any of you mine or trade Bitcoins?  If so, how has the experience been?

UPDATE 9/29: Thank you to all those that commented on this post.  My research on Bitcoins security had holes, and I hope that the edits to the above section correctly address these issues.  Also, now you can buy ‘real Bitcoins‘!

 Tangential economic musing aside, the progress made by gamers and tech geeks alike is impressive.   We’re kicking ass and solving the world’s problems, one win at a time.  Game on.


Day of Many Sci-Fi Holidays

25 May


  1. Geek Pride Day!
  2. Star Wars anniversary day
  3. Towel Day
  4. Wear the Lilac Day (Terry Pratchett)… omg I read Disc World in High School and I feel so old

Pick one and start partying!

If I Could Talk to the Animals….

10 May
Remember the NBC television show SeaQuest DSV? (That’s Deep Submergence Vehicle, if your memory’s a bit foggy.)  Back in the nineties, this sci-fi show had a brief spell, thanks to the success of Quantum Leap.  SeaQuest, along with Earth 2, was full of hard science and relational drama.  Unfortunately, both of these shows ended poorly with no real closure whatsoever.  Anyways, in SeaQuest, Captain Bridger befriended a Dolphin that they named Darwin.  He is treated as another member of the crew, as the dolphin was able to communicate to the crew through the assistance of a ‘vo-corder’.  I never figured out how it worked, but it was some future device that made the dolphin speak English via a robotic voice.

"Y halo thar!" (via Wikipedia)

Now, scientists are working on a ‘reverse vo-corder’, which a diver can use to communicate with dolphins in their own tongue.  The program will be able to broadcast a selected phrase from human language as dolphin-ese via an underwater pimped out speaker.  This device is called the ‘Cetacean Hearing and Telemetry (CHAT)’.  Clever.  According to Popular Science, “Ultimately, the goal is to serve as a sort of Rosetta stone for dolphins, deciphering the fundamental units of dolphin language.”
Is this step one in SeaQuest?  Who knows.  I do think that dolphins are about as smart as Douglas Adams made them out to be, so hopefully someday we’ll finally figure out what it is that they are actually saying.  Let’s just hope it’s not “So long and thanks for all the fish”.