Category Archives: The Virtual World

Goodbye and Godspeed, Dear Friend

By Johna Till Johnson

Tom on father/daughter day, 2016

Earlier this week, a man who had become very dear to me and to Vlad slipped the surly bonds of earth.

Tom Marsilje, a cancer scientist, patient, and patient advocate, left this world on Tuesday November 14. I can’t write a better obituary than the one that appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer, for which he wrote a regular column.

As with Vlad, Tom’s loss is more than personal. He was a beacon of hope and optimism for all of us dealing with cancer, in no small part because he lived every possible role in that experience.

As a graduate student, he became caregiver and patient advocate for his mother, helping to get her into one of the earliest immunotherapy clinical trials (in 1999) and quadrupling her life- and health-span in the process. He went on to co-develop a breakthrough drug for lung cancer. And from the time of his diagnosis in 2012 to his death this week, he experienced the disease “from the inside”–all the while serving as a guiding light for those of us in the same situation.

The loss of that light, as much as of Tom the person, was a real blow to all of us in that world.

And because cancer will strike nearly 1 in 2 of us, and touch the lives of nearly all of us, I’m including here a Facebook post I wrote for my friends in the cancer community (and yes, I hate that there is such a thing, as much as I love the fact that through it I’ve met some of the smartest, bravest, nicest people on the planet).

Tom’s approach is not a bad way to live for any of us, cancer or no.  Life, after all, is a terminal condition.

Some thoughts on Tom, and the impact of his death on me and on us. Some background: Tom and I were friends in real life, as well as on Facebook. We visited in NY and CA. He knew and respected Vlad, and vice versa.

He coordinated closely with Vlad (neuroscientist) and Dan (Vlad’s best friend from grad school, and an immunotherapy researcher at Emory). We would literally strategize together (the four of us) about the most promising treatments. Vlad was the most skeptical (he knew the odds, and also the science).

So to me, Tom wasn’t a superhero, he was a really smart scientist with early insight into how science was turning into cures.

As we all know, he also had that incredibly contagious combination of optimism and humility. Anyone who interacted with him walked away feeling, “Heck, if it can work for Tom, it can work for me!” (or my loved one).


The fact that it did NOT work for Tom is a gut-punch to many folks. I mean, if super-hero-cape-wearing-scientist died ANYWAY, what are the chances for us ordinary folks?

I didn’t have quite that reaction, because I knew him better, and knew the science pretty well.

Here’s the thing.

Tom’s approach was spot on, and it continues to be spot on:

Step 1. Stay alive, and as healthy as you can possibly be, for as long as you can. That means: Build an exercise, nutrition, and treatment routine that works FOR YOU. That could be 5 minutes a day of yoga and a steady diet of Bic Macs to keep the weight on. You don’t have to run triathlons. Do whatever works for you.

Step 2. Take joy in every day, and every moment. Your “joy intake” is as important as what you eat, drink, and do. That new puppy might possibly have the same ability to inhibit tumor growth as the latest radiation therapy.

Step 3. Stay on top of the research. Keep leveraging your network. We are here, and we’re NOT going to stop researching for you. There is going to be an exponential explosion of new treatments over the next 5 years.

I know this. Tom knew this. Vlad knew this.

Some treatments will work amazingly.

Some will keep you alive until the next treatment.

And some will fail.

The stronger you are, the more runway you have, and the more treatments you can try.

And the more knowledge you have, the better able you are to point that runway in the right direction. That’s what Tom did.

And it DID NOT fail him!!

The science failed him, as it failed Vlad, and will continue to fail people we love (maybe even us). Until it doesn’t any more.

That’s how science works. It fails, until it doesn’t any more.

And we are so, close to the science not failing any more.

As awful as it is to say this, if you’re reading this now, you’re already ahead of Tom, because you’re 24 hours closer to that day (very soon now) when the science won’t fail us.

Why am I writing this? Because I know how devastating it is when your magic talisman for the future is lost.

I’ve been dreading Tom’s death less for the loss of the unique and beautiful soul that he is, and more for the fact that I’m afraid it will emotionally devastate so many people that I love, because they will lose hope.

And it does devastate people. I can’t fix that.

The only thing I can say is… following the three steps above is what Tom did, and what he’d want all of us to do.

And what, in my considered opinion as a scientist and engineer, is what is most likely to result in the CURE of everyone dealing with this awful disease.

And a permanent cure is NOT an unrealistic hope for people dealing with this disease. A long shot, yes. But It’s out there, and very, very close.

I know Tom is fighting for all of us, still.

But I Saw It on the Internet…

By Vladimir Brezina

The Internet instantaneously connects many millions of people in all parts of the world into a vast network. And just like a natural ecosystem, it can serve up unexpected storms at any moment.

Recently we experienced a minor storm.

One day, Wind Against Current began to get thousands of hits on this old picture:

Two suns over New Jersey

Over a day and a half, there were over 10,000 hits.

And they all came from a country where until then we hadn’t had many readers: Malaysia.

Johna said, “It’s an attack!” But closer inspection (for which WordPress has quite good tools) showed that all the hits came from a number of websites (such as this one) that published and republished a post that included our picture (and linked back to our blog, which was very nice of them!).

Things became clearer when we saw that many other Malaysian visitors came after searching for “2 suns” or something similar. And I had just happened to title this picture “Two suns over New Jersey”…

Some time later we received the following message from a stranger: “Your pic is making round on FB [Facebook] with Following details – “TWO SUNS AT A TIME in USA——The Miracle Has Happened Today USA And CANADA Saw Two Suns. This Is Called As Hunters Moon. Due To Change Of Orbit The Sun Sets And Moon Rises At the Same Time With Both Being Opposite To Each Other At A Particular Angle Or Degree Moon Reflects The Sun So Bright That It Almost Feel Like Another Sun…. Effects Stay For Couple Of Days…”

The stranger who sent us this message added: “LOL”. LOL indeed. Needless to say, this makes no sense whatever, and our picture just shows the sun’s rays reflected off the glass wall of a building…

But now we have some small insight into how the sausages of the Internet are made!

Two MacArthur Geniuses

By Johna Till Johnson

I don’t normally pay a lot of attention to the MacArthur Genius awards. The name alone annoys me, because it’s simultaneously elitist and undefined.  What makes artist X a “genius” while her peers are merely “talented”? And how can we be sure that out of all the talented people in the universe, the committee has miraculously selected the 12, or 20, that are talented enough to be considered geniuses?

But I do like the notion of awarding creative people a big chunk of change—this year, it was $625,000 over a period of five years—with no constraints. And I also think it’s cool that the awards are so broad-ranging. They go to poets, activists, artists, musicians… and even the occasional scientist, mathematician, or engineer.

Which brings me to this year’s awards. I was overjoyed to see the award given to two people in particular.  One was Craig Gentry, a cryptography researcher at IBM’s T. J. Watson research center, who’s done groundbreaking work in the area of homomorphic encryption.

Craig Gentry

Craig Gentry

Homomorphic encryption is, in some respects, the holy grail of encryption, because it enables machines to process encrypted data without ever decrypting it. That doesn’t sound like much, but consider: Today, if your email is stored on Google’s servers, it’s fully accessible to Google (which has been known to turn it over to the NSA).

It’s fully accessible because you need Google to do useful things for you (like sort the mail into folders). With homomorphic encryption, you could keep your mail entirely encrypted without giving up any of the functionality (such as folder-sorting). But Google would have no idea what you named your folders, or what was in your email—and the NSA couldn’t read it, either.

Now imagine that instead of ordinary email, we’re talking about medical or financial records—and you can see the benefit.

The issue at the moment is that the computational horsepower required to make homomorphic encryption is immense, so only starting to become practical in real-world applications. But Craig was among the first to show it was theoretically possible. And he did it incredibly elegantly, using a Zeno’s-paradox-like approach that started with “somewhat homomorphic” encryption that iteratively refined itself to become “fully homomorphic”.

And there’s one other thing I like about Craig: He writes really, really well. His Stanford University PhD thesis, which you can find here, is a joy to read. I don’t mind ploughing through dense scientific papers—but I really appreciate it when someone writes gracefully and well.

Yitang Zhang

Yitang Zhang

Another one of this year’s “geniuses” is Yitang Zhang, who is a number theorist at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. Yitang (who I’ve read goes by “Tom”) recently proved the “bounded gaps” conjecture about prime numbers.

Slate’s Jordan Ellenberg (who’s a mathematics professor at the University of Wisconsin) does a much better job explaining what this is and why it matters than I could do. I urge you to read his writeup here.

Suffice it to say that Tom cracked a really, really hard problem in one of the most demanding areas of mathematics. And he’s apparently a really nice, funny, down-to-earth guy, as described in this University of New Hampshire Magazine article.

But that’s not all: Tom is 57—and has done much of his most creative work in the past 10 years (ie from his late 40s onwards).

Mathematics is a field as notorious as gymnastics or ballet for having a youthful peak–the joke among mathematicians is that anyone over 30 is washed up. Gauss, one of the most famous mathematicians ever, did his most significant work by the age of 22—a fact pointed out by my overly gleeful number theory professor when I was 21 or so.

So it’s great to see someone not only doing great things, but doing them at the relatively “advanced” age of 57.

I’m sure the other 19 MacArthur Fellows have done equally great work in their fields. But seeing the awards go to these two made me happy—and I wanted to share my joy with you!

Featured Blog: MJF Images

By Vladimir Brezina

One of the pleasures of blogging is seeing what your fellow bloggers are up to. Some blogs are quite spectacular. We’ve long wanted to start a series of posts featuring those blogs, the blogs that we particularly admire. So, here goes!

There’s a particular reason just now (read on!) to start our series with MJF Images. It’s a landscape and nature photography blog by Michael Flaherty. But it’s a photography blog with a difference:

Instead of a strict focus on photo how-to, gear and the like, I pass on knowledge about the places and people pictured. That means tips and recommendations from an experienced adventure traveler. It also means learning about the geology, nature, wildlife and cultural history of the photo destinations, all from a long-time teacher & earth scientist. And since I am a working photographer as well, I’ll pass on ways you can successfully capture the atmosphere of a place or the essence of a person or animal.

Michael tells you about his favorite photo locations (many of them in the American Pacific Northwest, where he is based) and how to get there. He tells you about the best angles, the best light and time of day. And yes, he does tell you,  in his Friday Foto Talk posts, how to use photographic techniques—both equipment and elements of composition—to capture the scene in front of you the way you imagine it in your mind’s eye. I myself have certainly learned a lot from a careful reading of Michael’s posts!

And of course, the blog, and the associated galleries, are full of beautiful images. Here is just one (reproduced with Michael’s permission):


Michael has been photographing, seriously, for about five years now. His aim is to become a professional photographer. It’s not a matter of photographic quality—his photos are already there—but, as usual, of supporting himself through photography. (Many of his photos are for sale.)

But just about a month ago, disaster struck. In scrambling about for the best shot, a momentary lapse—and his camera, a year-old Canon 5D III, tumbled down a waterfall. Although, at some risk to himself, Michael was able to retrieve it, it was waterlogged and totalled.

It was his one and only good-quality camera. In an instant, a whole promising career gone? No. Michael started an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign to get back on his feet. Contributors get a choice of Michael’s photos, as well as his forthcoming e-book, “a comprehensive look at the art of nature photography”.

The campaign is doing well—but it could do better.

So, take a look at Michael’s photos, and, if the spirit moves you, do help him get back to what he does so well!

Book Review: From Pigeons to Tweets

By Johna Till Johnson

From Pigeons to TweetsFrom Pigeons to Tweets: A General Who Led Dramatic Changes in Military Communications, by Clarence E. McKnight and Hank H. Cox. History Publishing Company, Palisades, New York, 2013.

Okay, I know I have weird tastes in reading material. But when I picked up “From Pigeons to Tweets”, I didn’t expect what I actually got.

The subtitle is “A General Who Led Dramatic Changes in Military Communications”, and the author is Lt. Gen. Clarence E. McKnight Jr. (along with journalist Hank H. Cox).

Given that, plus the relatively staid promotional blurbs from a range of military luminaries, I was expecting a dry treatise on the history of military communications technology.

That would have been interesting enough. I’m fascinated by military technology in general, and military communications technology in particular. (I told you I have weird tastes!)

What I got was (in part) a rollicking and thoroughly absorbing memoir by a man who rose to the highest ranks of the U.S. Army’s Signal Corps (the branch that focuses on communications technology) and who had a reputation for hands-on effectiveness in setting up communications systems. (“McKnight could communicate from Hell,” says one of his colleagues—as a compliment.)

Continue reading

One Year of Wind Against Current

By Vladimir Brezina and Johna Till Johnson

It’s hard to believe that a whole year has gone by since we published  our first post on May 9, 2011.

We have to credit Tugster with the idea. He’d asked us for a guest post about a kayaker’s-eye view on maritime traffic and life on the water. We still haven’t written that one (one day soon, Will, we promise!).

But we pondered the idea…  And meanwhile, Vlad kept taking photos, and Johna kept writing essays, until the idea of a blog was born.

Blogs are harder than they look, as anyone who writes on a regular basis knows well.

Continue reading

Beauty and Censorship

By Johna Till Johnson (with Vladimir Brezina)

Shortly after I landed in Cleveland this morning, I drove by a sight that made me gasp with excitement: The Detroit Superior Bridge. Despite the name, it’s actually in Cleveland, and was built in 1914-1918.

Why am I so excited? Regular readers of this blog might recall that I love the shape of the Hell Gate Bridge, and its sister the Bayonne Bridge. And the Detroit Superior Bridge has the identical double arches, although it’s more than a decade older than the other two.

It’s like discovering an older half-sibling you never knew existed—and learning she’s not only beautiful, but graceful and accomplished, and living in a city you’d never have expected.

You might also notice that the above link is to, rather than Wikipedia. Why? Today (Wednesday, January 18), Wikipedia has joined other sites around the Web in a blackout protesting the proposed SOPA /PIPA antipiracy bills currently in front of the U.S. Congress.

If you’ve somehow missed the controversy, here it is in a nutshell: SOPA/PIPA (the acronyms stand for Stop Online Piracy Act, the House version, and Protect IP Act, the Senate version) is intended to protect against online piracy by granting broad new powers to the U.S. Government when it comes to blocking access to sites that deliver pirated content.

That all sounds good, and you’d expect that I, as a founder of a business based on intellectual property, not to mention a regular recreational blogger, would be strongly in favor of strengthening protections against  piracy—as, in fact, I am.

But SOPA/PIPA goes too far—way, way too far. There is plenty to hate about these two proposals, but the main issue is that, should they pass, the government could shut down sites that have not been proven to deliver pirated content.

Instead, all that’s required is an allegation.

That’s wrong for all sorts of reasons, starting with the fact that in a free country, I shouldn’t be able to stop you from exercising your rights by alleging that mine have been violated. A court of law has to agree with me that my assessment of the situation is, in fact, accurate.

Moreover, consider the potential for abuse: How long before, say, Americans United for Life and the National Abortion Rights League begin accusing each other of posting pirated content? About a New York nanosecond.

Sure, the bills’ drafters say that the laws aren’t intended to be used that way, that they’re primarily focused on offshore sites, yadda yadda yadda blah blah blah.

The reality is that, regardless of intention, the  proposed legislation can easily be abused. And even if used properly, it’s far too broad and needs to be re-thought from the ground up.

By all means, let’s protect intellectual property. But doing it with vague laws that introduce worrying new powers is the wrong way to go about it.

If you agree with us, please write your Congresscritters and advise them to do the right thing when it comes to SOPA/PIPA: Vote ’em down.