DIYBIO – FBI Outreach Conference, San Fransisco

Actually, we were in Walnut Creek, but it is close enough to call it San Fransisco!

As it turns out, the FBI and other defense organizations (Hello, DTRA) are pretty interested in DIYBIO.  Coming away from the conference, it seems like the FBI is  interested in exactly what you would expect: preventing bad guys (nefarious actors!) from doing Bad Things.  The Defense Threat Reduction Agency on the other hand, is interested in buying technology from people who start in “garages”, or DIY environments, to use for defense work.

The room was pretty full! I didn’t know there were this many diybiologists!  (some of these people are FBI agents/wmd coordinators.  Hard to tell the difference in this photo)

The main focus of the conference was on the interaction between law enforcement and DIY biologists.  It seems to be that the FBI is not concerned with DIY biologists, and that the FBI certainly does not view the DIYBIO “movement” as a threat.  The position of the Bureau is that local DIYBIO folks should get a hold of their local WMD coordinator,  It was also reassuring to know that the FBI hires PHD biologists and a lot of scientists to work in their WMD department- it would be nice if policy makers were just as well informed.

There was also a good discussion about the media- it turns out that both the FBI and DIYBIO folks both tend to kind of dislike the media, because as one attendee put it “They overestimate our abilities, and underestimate our ethics”.  There were some good talks given on how to engage the press in a a way that cannot be misconstrued, and how to do due diligence when someone wants to cover your space.  Rachel had an anecdote from when the BBC approached them to do a piece on the DIYBIO activities at MADLAB/MCR:

The approach that we got. we are interested in debate, is't that lovely, PCR machines, exclamation points. This is what we read: we're going to do a piece on bioterror and flu virus research. And we knew that, we knew that we were going to be portrayed as extreme. We're the only group that can kind of say these things, we weren't the right people, but we were going to be their people anyway, and it was. This is what showed up in the BBC website.. "growing concern about DIYbio.. FBI, oh there you are". Biological threat, all in the same sentence.
( quote from transcript typed by Bryan Bishop )

I thought it was very useful that we had Dan Grushkin, Rachel Turner, and Sascha Karburg -who have both done quite a bit of journalism- to tell us how the journalism works.  It is important to have both sides of the story to really understand what is going on, so DIYers can engage the press more tactfully.

Speaking of Sascha, we got to enjoy his documentary on DIYBIO at the end of the first day.  After a few years in the making, it looked pretty awesome!  I didn’t understand what they were saying most of the time, as it was in German, but the images definitely told a story.

I think that the highlight of the conference was finally seeing who was out there, and what they were up to.  If you want, you can read transcripts here, courtesey of Brian Bishop.

countries from left to right:
USA, The Netherlands (behind the benches), Finland, Denmark, Germany, Turkey

The last day we all went down to Biocurious to play with some DNA.  Biocurious walked everyone through the basic procedure for a chemical transformation, but the real highlight here was working with people from other places, and actually building a plasmid with the Genomikon kit.

Overall it was fun to meet everyone, and exciting to see what the rest of the diybio folks are up to.  I think finally meeting the European counterparts helped bring the community together.  And it was certainly good to learn that the FBI won’t be knocking on our door any time soon.

FBI-DIYBIO Outreach Workshop

I have been invited to California to the FBI-DIYBIO outreach workshop.  Day one is tomorrow.  As I sit here slurping at the last of of my large java-chip frappacino (with whipped cream) at Bryant and Mariposa, I have to say that I am pretty psyched to see Biocurious, and meet all the other DIYBIO folks to compare notes.  I will be posting my notes here on what happens!

Genomes, Environments and Traits Confrence!

Jason Bobe moderates a discussion with George Church and Geraldine Hamilton about personalized medicine microfluidic devices

Today I attended the Genomes Environments and Traits Conference.  It was awesome!  There were talks on all manner of technical breakthroughs from faster and cheaper sequencing, to single-cell sequencing (WITH 3D protein/DNA localization on the intracellular level!!!), to hackable drug delivery kits for 3rd world countries.

The more exciting part for me personally was running into all kinds of DIYBiologists.  It was awesome to finally meet them in person!  Ellen Jorgensen from GeneSpace was there, as well as Joseph Jackson from BioCurious, and (obviously) Jason Bobe from the Personal Genome Project.  There were also some people from the BOSSLAB group there (woo! not sure if they want to be mentioned by name).  I even found somebody from Olins’ neighbor college, Wellesley, and I spotted at least one Babson Jacket in the crowd.

Anyways, this conference got me more excited about biology and science, and this summer at BOSSLAB.

Mini-Maker Faire @ Cambridge Science Festival!

Really bad photo. I apologize…

I was at the mini-maker faire today representing DIYBIO Boston, and all I got was this really bad photo…

Just kidding!  I also talked to a bunch of AWESOME MAKERS and excited participants.  I even got to help Gui and Molly of Artisans Asylum lift a giant motorized barbers chair onto a truck, and see a bunch of <6 year olds run dyes from M&Ms in agarose gels.

If you are looking for my bio work because you met me at the festival, click here to see the things I have done with biology.

Lockpicking Saves the Day (or foozeball table)

My first lockpick, which I did not use for this.

Last Friday, a terrible thing happened in the first floor lounge of West Hall at Olin College.  The foozeball table, known and loved by many, was flipped.  While most furniture is unharmed by this kind of tomfoolery, the foozeball table (as I now know) has a bunch of wooden chutes inside that direct balls from the goals to the ball return.  One of these had been dislodged, and people could no longer get the balls out!  On no!

The chutes in question

Fortunately, this was actually part of the design of the table.  The explanation we came up with was that at commercial foozeball-halls, the ball return is disabled so that the owners can sell balls.  The whole table acts like a giant hinged box to hold the balls, until the owner comes by with the key and retrieves them.


Using my friends hook and tension wrench, I had both wafer tumblers picked in a jiffy.  The ramp was re-lodged, tested, and the balls were retrieved.  While the ethics of lockpicking on locks in use is somewhat grey, I feel like it was justified.  Normally the rules for picking are are:

“Do not pick locks you do not own or have explicit permission to pick.  Never pick a lock that are in use”

But this time it was a lock that the students owned (and I was being asked to pick), and by being in use it was obstructing the use of the table.  I also had sufficient skill and knowledge of the working of the lock to pick it without damaging it.

Yay using lockpicking for good!

TOOOL Boston Meeting: Pick Locks; Get Loot

Swag from TOOOL Boston meeting

This past weekend I decided to go to a meeting hosted by The Open Organization Of Lockpickers, or TOOOL.  I have been involved in lockpicking and collecting locks since I was about 10.  My initial fascination was with the master locks that secured everyones lockers; the first lock I tried to pick was on the back of my school combination lock.  All the locks at school had two modes of entry; one combination entry method for students, and a small pin-tumbler lock in the back so janitors/administration can get in.  Of course everyones lock is compromised if someone tears down their lock and gets at those key cuts, and then makes their own key, so try not to use these if you can avoid it.

Anyways, this meeting was relaxed, with picks and locks on the table while squelchtone gave a presentation on many many kinds of locks and various methods for picking them.  While informative, I had heard most of it before.  However when the crowd was polled for volunteers for a little bit of competitive picking, I jumped on the opportunity.  As I was handcuffed, I felt a competitive rush that I hadn’t felt since my last swim meet.  In a few minutes I had picked my master padlock and quikset deadbolt, and shimmed my way out of the handcuffs I was in, rendering me the winner.  As the two other folks struggled out of their bindings, I learned that I would be receiving a set of HPC picks, a handcuff key, and all the locks I had just picked.  Yay!  Second and third place got some practice locks and lockpicking CDs to help beef up their skills.

After that I got to see some awesome stuff, ranging from custom picks by ratyoke, ray, and ln21, to a really rare prototype lock (one of two!) that was produced for the US military.

This was definitely fun, and I will hopefully be able to attend more TOOOL meetings.  If you are wondering if TOOOL boston is active, it is, and you should definitely go.

Adventure: Dawn Mine at Dusk

You can’t tell, but there is an underground waterfall behind us.

After the Kelsey mine trek, I expected my adventure to Dawn mine to be a light hike, followed by the exploration of a small mine.  It is in the well hiked Millard Canyon, just outside of the suburbs surrounding LA to the north.  It is not even a long hike- the trip report I found here pegs it at a 5 miles round trip.  This was supposed to be a trip to test the mettle of a new potential adventurer, Chloe, for a canceled adventure to the Allison mine.

View of LA from Millard cyn Trail

The team this time was Chloe, the ever-reliable Hardee, and myself.  We began the adventure by purchasing an ANF adventure parking pass at Turners, and heading up lake street to Millard Canyon.  Upon arrival, at about 3:00 PM, the car had some trouble turning off its engine, but once that was sorted we started our hike by heading out on the East road from the first parking lot.  This led us along the crest of a hill that offered superb views of LA and the surrounding cities.  We followed this path and it wrapped around a hill to our right and descended into the valley floor.  Once we hit the rangers cabin, we descended into the river bed and the adventure began in earnest.  We were careful to take note of and remember warning sign that was posted on a large tree in the river bed near the cabin; this would be a waypoint for us on the way back, in case we did not see the cabin.

The Falls!

We continued up the rocky riverbed until we hit a fork.  A high path that looked like a river bank led off to the left, while the other plunged back down into the bed and continued up a rocky tributary.  We decided to go left here and visit Saucer Canyon Falls, which were nice.  We saw some people who had climbed up pretty high. We will definitely be back to climb up them someday!

Captain Crazypants leads the way

Before we returned to the main path, we met a dog (we assumed it belonged to the folks who were up on the falls), who we nicknamed capt. Crazypants.  Hardee had some jerky on him, and the dog would not leave him alone!  As we left, the captain followed us.  At first, we hoped he would go back to his owners, but it quickly became clear that he was leading us to the mine, and not the other way around.  There were also a lot of spray-painted arrows that went in the direction of the mine.

Hardee gets ready to traverse some rocks. Note arrows

We continued up the rocky streamed, doing our best to follow the instructions on Dans hiking pages.  We were looking, in particular for the point where “If you miss the trail you’ll find yourself climbing over and through the granite maze until the massive rocks forbid you to climb any further”.  Fortunately, we never found it and continued up the trail mostly through the riverbed, trying to skirt around spots of still or flowing water, and trying to stick to the more easily traversable river banks.

The captain going the wrong way.

By the time we got past these rocks, we were pretty tired, and the sun was starting to set.  We increased our pace, but our minds were wearied by the unknown length of the road ahead.  Captain Crazypants helped keep our spirits aloft, and kept leading the way.  The sun started to set as we entered a forested portion of the streambed.

The suns last rays illuminate a faraway peak

We were concerned about the sun going down, but we pressed on and eventually found the lower entrance to the mine.  There were many false-positives along the way, but the remains of some kind of steam engine give away the path to the entrance.

Large beams and steam engine on the way to the entrance.  Crazypants is still doggedly leading the way.

More spraypaint indicates exactly where the entrance is, hidden behind a boulder

Once at the entrance, we did a quick check of our lighting equipment.  I personally regret that we only had one light/person.  It just goes to show you that you always need to be over-prepared, even for hikes that seem like they should be easy.  The entrance was flooded, so Hardee and I switched to fivefingers and flip-flops (respectively) and Chloe decided to brave it in her shoes.  As we scouted out the entrance, Crazypants balked at the idea of even getting close to the entrance, and ran off, never to be seen (by us) again.  We miss you Crazypants.

Flooded entrance. Note the hinge on the frame.

As we made our way in, we noticed a lot of wood in the entrance.  I was originally concerned, as it looked like shoring, which would indicate that the miners thought it was unstable.  I breathed a sigh of relief when I looked a little closer and realized that the tops of the posts were not touching anything, and that there were heavily corroded hinges in the frame.  It looked like a gate that had been installed and removed some time ago, according to the LA goldmines website.

It turns out you can make it past the entryway and into the mine proper by carefully walking on the partially submerged wooden beams in entry; the caveat is that they sometimes move, but we were careful and managed to get over them dryly.

Possible passage to an upper level, from the ceiling of the first level.

The first floor of the mine today consists of two main tunnels branching out from the vaulted ceiling directly after the entry.  There are stories and maps of an upper level, but we did not have the time or equipment to explore that area, although we did see passages leading upwards.

To the left, there is a long, rather echo-y passage with several alcoves along its length.  By the time we reached the end of the winding passage, we were proceeding at a brisk walk.  It may have been the underground waterfall in the distance, but I felt like I heard a low rumble as we walked along, and that scared me.  After turning around, we observed a short moment of darkness where we all turned off our lights.  This did not last long, as the darkness is terrifying, and Chloe decided it was time for lights again.

The PIT.

After reaching the main area again, we set out to explore the other passage.  To do this, we had to navigate a thin ledge on the edge of a huge pool of water,  reputed to be 55-80 feet deep.  Scary, and very full of very cold water.  I hypothesize that it was originally another mineshaft, but later they ran into water and it flooded.  Someday, somebody should build an ROV and see what there is to see down there!  Hmm.  Somebody interested in mines, who is an engineer would be perfect for this project!

The way is not shut, but it is certainly wet!

The source of the water

After not falling into the water, we were rewarded with a sort walk to one of the most amazing things I have seen; an underground waterall.  It is pretty clear here that there was a dam built to prevent flooding of all the tunnels when somebody started tunneling up, and hit some kind of aquifer or spring.  This flooded the rest of the tunnel ahead and up-stream of the dam, which we decided not to explore because the water was VERY COLD.  Instead, we gawked at the waterfall, and took pictures of ourselves.

Chloe managing to not get wet.

With the obligatory MySpace photos out of the way, we continued to be amazing and not fall into the pit of frigid water.  We crept back to the main room and carefully exfiltrated the mine, again being careful not to get wet.  Once outside, we changed back to our normal shoes, had a swig or two of water, and snacked a bit.  It was really dusk in the canyon now, and we began our retreat with our flashlights on, proceeding at a safe, comfortable pace.  I was somewhat unsettled by the prospect of a night hike, but there were really no other options.

Socks! Socks! Socks!  Smartwool socks are the BEST!

Suddenly, it was very dark.  Here Chloe is illuminated in a small pool of light from her flashlight, and Hardee can be recognized by his headlamp.

The rest of the trip was spent in darkness, with the only illumination being that from our headlights, as the dim glow of the moon did not penetrate well into the bottom of the canyon.  It is amazing how big the canyon felt in the darkness.

Watch out for drops!

Chloe Points out some especially treacherous parts of the trail.

After many stream crossings, sort climbs down boulders, and a few instances of tripping and almost falling, we arrived back at the fork.  Here we proceeded to climb about 6 feet back up to the riverbank, and headed back to where we had come from.  Upon finding the marked tree and the steep slope next to the cabin, we ascended out of the canyon floor and back onto the trail.  Feeling that we were almost done, we increased our pace, especially when we noticed a pair of glowing eyes on the cliff above us.

Los Angeles at night.

Just before returning to the car, we cleared the canyon that had been obstructing our view of the glittering lights of the Los Angeles basin.  It was truly a fitting end to the adventure to rise out of the darkness and be reminded that the lights of civilization were still burning strong.  After appreciating this for a moment, we headed in the home-hat direction.