Hacking Everything

Wired article I read a few months ago was interesting for its incongruity: it was all about a group of Parisians working underground to keep the city in the same aesthetic condition as ever. That includes rebuilding the Pantheon’s 19th century clock tower.

The most intriguing thing about the whole article was (besides the exploits of the group, of course) how fittingly the word “hacker” could be applied to these people. They go where they’re not allowed, they are each part of an elite community that’s obsessed with what they do, and they want to make something, somewhere, better than it is.

I thought of that article when I read two frankly awesome articles in PopSci the past few weeks. One is The Boy Who Played With Fusion which, as astonishing as it sounds, is about a 14 year old, the youngest person to ever accomplish nuclear fusion. In his garage. Experimenting with his grandmother’s radioactive urine. The boy isn’t only off-the-charts intelligent, he’s also possessed by the desire to build a portable, efficient reactor that would create isotopes for use during cancer treatment.

Something similar leaped out at me when I was reading Guess What’s Cooking in the Garage. Even besides the sheer joy of problem-solving, of hacking your way to an answer by collecting whatever’s lying around re-purposing it… there’s the potential to solve a local problem using inexpensive materials. Meredith Patternson and her friends, for instance, want to engineer a biochemical tool that will detect melamine. Perhaps in the future, as this sort of technology becomes ubiquitous, someone in a country deprived of enough electricity and fuel could engineer a biofuel-producing organism that would power small electric vehicles. Kids could get to school faster, anything could be turned into an emergency vehicle in the case of an accident.

I’m not saying everything that’s a hacker solution has to be driven by a sense of altruism and brotherhood. But the idea behind the hacker mentality, as far as I can understand it, is to identify an everyday problem and then solve it with technology, especially if it requires you to boostrap your way into it.

Throwing money at a problem is one way of doing it. But the other, more interesting way is to apply intelligence — and a hell of a lot of dogged perseverance.

These articles make me think of the early days of APIs, where a proprietary software would expose some parts of its functionality to developers so that they can build applications based on the platform. Now you’ve got iPhone and Facebook applications and the list is growing. What if gene manipulation and controlled nuclear reactions are really the prototypes of a new kind of app atmosphere?

What else could be hacked in the future? Now that we’ve got the physical and the biological fields represented (more or less) what about the chemical? Perhaps some of that’s already been done, but unfortunately the only examples I can think of are meth labs and homemade bombs. But maybe there are solutions that are more subtle than that — perhaps manipulations of proteins to create specific lock-and-key systems that plug into receptors of the body.

Actually, protein folding is a fascinating field in its own right and something I’ve written about in a Daily Roundup post the beginning of this month. The even more interesting part about the field is that some of it is being crowdsourced: there’s FoldIt, which invites players to solve complex protein folding problems as part of a game.

Ultimately, in a manner similar to that of the increasingly cheaper DIY PCR machines (which help to generate a large enough volume of DNA for analysis by replicating it), the general public might be able to get its hands on… spectroscopy machines? Protein analysis software?

And then hacking would really take off.


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