MSP48 [] How Stuff Works [CRISPR <> Blockchain]

Original Images: Pixabay. Glitched @ Kulturpop.

Original Images: Pixabay. Glitched @ Kulturpop.

MSP48 [] How Stuff Works [CRISPR <> Blockchain]

Today Matt & Jeff go back to basics to look at CRISPR and the Blockchain and ask: What are they and how do they work? 



Here on MSP, Matt and I are often asked how stuff works. Usually, people aren’t asking for a technical explanation, complete with mathematical expressions, on the precise reasons that a black hole has so much mass. I can tell you if you tweet me…


Matt! this is the last time I let you write the intro. I’m sorry folks I can tell you a lot of things about black holes but you’ll need an astrophysicist for the maths.


We talk about a lot of complicated subjects on this show, and we take it for granted that people understand the broad strokes of what we’re talking about. In case you don’t always know what Matt is talking about – and let’s face it, who does? – we’re going to go into the background of some. Yes, it’s time to decrypt his tomb and ask Matt Armitage to Mattsplain.


You’re looking very decomposed today. Why’s that?

·      I don't really spend much time in this temporal reality.


Of course you don’t. You spend most of your time propping up a bar and practising your lies. Why don’t you tell us about black holes?

·      You are a little bit grumpy this morning, aren’t you? They aren't lies so much as alternative truths

·      As for the black holes, It’s really very straightforward.

·      You look at the velocity of the light coming from a dying star.

·      Then you account for the friction of gravity, and the density of the planet’s gasses 

·      The you account for how they multiply as the star is pulled into the hole and the matter is compressed.


Did you just make that up?

·      Yes. I’m very good at pretending to know what I’m talking about.

·      Usually, if I'm speaking it's a fairly good indication that I'm lying.


Once again. An episode with very few expectations. Where would you like to start today?

·      Gosh. It sounds like I've knocked all of the hope out of you.

·      Should we start with CRISPR?

·      We’ve been talking about genetic modification an awful lot on the show recently.

·      Editing out the genes that create certain diseases, all conditions or hacking your body to try and create enhancements.

·      And then on the show we keep saying that tools like crisper actually incredibly cheap.


If you don’t really understand what CRISPR is, then it doesn’t really matter how expensive it is or isn’t?

·      Precisely. I’m sure a lot of people think that CRISPR is the part of the fridge where you store leafy vegetables.

·      And you wouldn’t be wrong.

·      It’s not the best analogy but we can use CRISPR to extend the life of things. 


Why not tell everyone what it means?

·      It’s quite incredible what we take for granted, isn’t it?

·      We use this terminology all the time, and it’s become part of our lexicon, yet how many of us know what those initials stand for, other than sounding cool and futuristic?


It does sound like a Silicon Valley start up…

·      Yes, it’s something you can imagine a Valley Bro saying. 

·      I’d like to get CRISPR with her, or something more obscene.

·      Maybe it’s in Judge Kavanaugh’s yearbook.

·      But it sounds much less Valley Bro and a lot more science when you spell it out:

·      Clustered Regularly Insterspaced Palindromic Repeats.

·      Which actually makes less sense than calling it CRISPR. It’s one of those times knowing what it means takes you further away from understanding what it means.


But that doesn’t mean people don’t want to know how it works…

·      Before we talk too much how it works, let’s talk more about what it is. 

·      Because often show we just zip straight into things and assume that people know what Crispr and what it does.

·      Crispr is like a scalpel for DNA.

·      It’s really elegant. It’s a protein that has the ability to cut bits out of a gene sequence.

·      And it has homing properties, so you can target it at the right place.

·      The last thing you want, is a gene editing tool that acts like a drunk surgeon and amputates left leg rather than your right.

·      These tools only work when the correct sequences are edited in very precise ways.


How did we figure this stuff out?

·      It’s very similar to the way our bodies fight viruses.

·      When viruses invade the body, they takeover cells and multiply until that cell bursts.

·      Certain bacteria in our body have evolved to use DNA snipping proteins – the one typically used in CRISPR is an enzyme called Cas-9 – although there are other Cas enzymes that have different properties that scientists are also using for genetic modification purposes – that actively fight the virus, chopping it to pieces before it has time to destroy the cell.

·      What was even more important was figuring out that bodies actually keep a copy of the virus on file.

·      DNA and RNA are a bit like our operating systems.


Really, you’re comparing the human body to smartphones?

·      If it makes It easier for people to understand.

·      When we see the operating system of our phone, we don’t see that it consists of thousands or millions or billions of lines of code.

·      Consequently, we tend not to think of ourselves in that way either.

·      We have this sense of self and consciousness that gives us an identity and the sense that we’re unique.


And that’s not real? Our sense of individuality is a myth?

·      That’s a whole other topic. What is consciousness? Which we may cover in a few weeks if I can fit it in.

·      Going back to the phones, you and your friend might have the same model, but when you pick one up you instantly knows which is hers and which is yours. 

·      Just like those phones, in terms of data, we’re all remarkably similar. 

·      The personalisation comes from those tiny elements, Like how you arrange the apps on the homescreen or the kind of protective case you put it in.

·      And that’s us. Each human it’s practically identical to every other human, but those minute differences have a huge impact.

·      It’s why it’s hard to believe, as an averagely decent human being, that Donald Trump is the same species as me.


So, DNA and RNA are the codes that we run on?

·      It’s not for nothing that we say computers are infected by viruses.

·      When we get ill our Data is being corrupted.

·      It’s not that we’re like the machines, it’s that the machines are like us.

·      We’ve taken analogies from our biology to explain them. And that’s possibly why we expect machine intelligence to be like our own, which is something I’ll say more about later in the show.


How does CRISPR, Cas-9, actually work?

·      Go back to that name. 

·      Clustered Regularly Insterspaced Palindromic Repeats.

·      The gene sequences encoded in our DNA and RNA are essentially a series of letters. 

·      I think I probably should have started with ‘what are DNA and RNA?’ but we’re too far gone now.

·      If you’re not sure and you’re listening to us on podcast you cn help me cheat, hit pause and Wiki DNA and RNA.

·      [Pause}

·      Ok, you’re back. I hope that didn’t take too long. 

·      Let’s pretend that I explained what DNA and RNA are. 


Binary for the body?

·      Nice one. Yes, let’s leave it at that.

·      Binary only has a one and a zero, in DNA and RNA there are a few more characters, and those characters are essentially the ingredients for proteins.

·      So, If you can imagine a string of binary and how computer processes that information, try and imagine the information in our body being coded and processed in that way.


Let’s go way back to viruses.

·      As I mentioned, our body already has its own CRISPR to fight viruses.

·      So if you think about the antivirus software on your computer, essentially it’s checking every file on the system against a huge database of known viruses and malware.

·      And that information is encoded into the DNA and RNA.


So, it’s a bit like cut and paste?

·      Yes. Scientists are able to recreate those surgical proteins.

·      Like you can do with a Word document, you can highlight part of a sentence, in this case a gene sequence, and you can delete it, add a few more words, or characters.

·      Move it about.

·      When you move words around in a sentence, or sentences around in a paragraph, you change the meaning.

·      So you can knock a gene out, build in a redundancy, replace it or enhance it.


Which is why CRISPR isn’t just relevant to people?

·      Like we talked about on episode 46, the Dark Side of Evolution, we can edit genes to enhance yeasts, create algae that functions as bio-fuel. 

·      Crops that are more resistant to fluctuations in weather and climate.

·      We’re only scratching the surface of what this technology can do.

·      And that’s without discussing the ethics of what we should do with it.


One thing that we often hear in the media: what makes CRISPR so cheap and easy to use?

·      DNA research used to require sophisticated lab facilities, technicians with years of experience huge amounts of money to run everything.

·      You can buy an RNA fragments for as little as US$10 and The chemicals and enzymes you’ll need will set you back another $30 or so, probably less now, and you’re all set.

·      As for the how, there are plenty of videos on YouTube double get you started editing jeans in your garage or spare room.

·      Whether you should be doing that is a totally different question, which is something we covered a little on Episodes 41 and 46.


When we come back. More code. This time, the ever confusing blockchain.




This is part of your promise from episode 45 that we would start talking about cryptocurrencies and blockchain…

·      Have you ever known me to be anything except a man of my word?


I don’t even know where to begin with that one. I could write a dissertation and I wouldn’t even begin to answer that question. CRISPR really is easier to comprehend than that question.


You chaired a panel on blockchain a few weeks ago, I remember?

·      And it was great. Because I got to talk to people to understand blockchain, people who are actually using it in their businesses and people who was searching how other companies are using blockchain technology.

·      And I would like to say a sincere thank you to Shah Mohd Ali at MDEC, Prof Mahendhiran Nair at Monash University and Zhikry Kholil at Incitement for educating me and giving me a lot of the information I’m about to share with you.


What’s the first mistake that people make?

·      That bitcoin and blockchain are the same thing.

·      Bitcoin is a crypto currency, or if you prefer, a money substitute. 

·      We talked about that a little on Episode 45

·      Whereas Blockchain is the infrastructure that a cryptocurrency, or any other blockchain solution runs on.


Like the foundations?

·      The foundations. Exactly that.

·      Let’s go back to our smartphone analogy.

·      You can Think about bitcoin or crypto currencies as an app.

·      The operating system of your phone powers that app and allows it to run so you can use it.

·      In this case the operating system is the block chain.

·      So, a blockchain is essentially a piece of software that allows specific apps, programs or routines to run on it.


Which is what?

·      This is the bit where most people’s eyes tend to glaze over.

·      Watching is often described as a distributed ledger.

·      This is possibly not the most exciting way to describe anything.

·      Normally, when we think about information in the digital space, we tend to think about that information as being stored in a database.

·      And usually, that database is centrally located and it’s owned by someone and you don’t have access to that database unless the owner grants you access.


Some databases seem to be quite public. Facebook’s user database, for example.

·      I think that’s probably another show in and of itself. Let’s not go there.

·      We will get to some of the things that you can use Block chain for in a little while.

·      Let’s stick with the currency for a minute. 

·      Let’s say you buy something with my new cryptocurrency KulturKoin – that’s two Ks btw.

·      1 Koin will cost you USD1,000 at a rate I made up this morning. 

·      Every time you make a purchase with KulturKoin, the information about that money transfer is added to the database and passed on.


So the database is actually included in the transaction?

·      Yes, it’s public. Now the database might be really enormous, so you may only have a recent part of it, but it includes all the movements of that Koin up until that point.

·      And more importantly, all the other Koins. 

·      That’s what the distributed part means.

·      All the participants in the chain can see the information.


That’s something that I think confuses some people. Is there a Blockchain or are there multiple Blockchains?

·      Multiple. There are loads of blockchain systems.

·      Companies competing with different systems and builds for specific purposes.

·      Let’s say you buy one off the shelf, to run inventory management in a car servicing business.

·      Or, if you want a sexier application, a spy agency might decide to run its spies on the blockchain.

·      It’s up to the person or company that operates it to decide who has access to it.


One of the other misconceptions about blockchain, currencies like Bitcoin especially, is that they are secretive. When you talk about the Dark Web and cybercriminals, it’s not long before cryptocurrencies get mentioned.

·      There’s a fair bit to unpack here. So I’ll try and be a bit methodical.

·      Actually, the blockchain is about promoting transparency. 

·      I’m not going to jump too far into the details of it, because I want to dedicate another show to talking about what Blockchain, So I thought we’d cover how it works today and what it can do on another show.

·      Where it gets a little complicated is in how you define that word transparency.


Like you said earlier with KulturKoin, transparent so that everyone can see all the transactions.

·      This is a bit like that Mark Zuckerberg before Congress thing.

·      When Facebook talks about privacy, their definition is very different from the one that the politicians had.  

·      So, transparent doesn’t mean that everyone in the whole wide world gets to see it.

·      I can go and pull up a bitcoin log even though I don’t have a bitcoin account because the currency has committed to being open to all.


Not everyone is as open?

·      No. When you buy or build a blockchain system, you get to choose who can access it and the levels of access privilege that individual users have

·      For example, the banking sector is excited about block chain because it can be used to speed up transactions, reduce costs and settle inter-bank debts.

·      It’s still sometimes hard to believe but when we send money from a bank in one country to another bank in a different country, there a loads of complicated international multilateral agreements that slow your money down.

·      Agreements between countries on exchange rates. Agreements between banks on how to settle those debts. Trusted guarantors. 

·      In an age where you can send an email to much anyone on the planet in seconds, it’s really weird that it takes it can take money days and days to make that same journey.

·      Even though that money is travelling electronically as well.


And a bank doesn’t want everyone to be able to see all the transactions?

·      No, they would probably only want certain people within other banks they transact with to have access to that information. 

·      So it’s transparent in the sense that it reduces barriers and speeds up the transactions and the main actors can see how, where and when that money has moved at any point.

·      If you think about a national currency being built on blockchain, it might be that only employees of the Central Bank would have access to the information in the ledger.

·      It could be used as a form of financial surveillance.

·      So, we have to be careful about how we use words like transparent.


And what about the cybercrime aspect?

·      Currencies like Bitcoin are attractive because they aren’t centrally controlled rather than because they guarantee anonymity.

·      Where it gets confusing is that both the public and some of the criminals think that makes it secret.

·      I’m sure there are plenty of people embroiled in the 1MDB scandal who were wishing that money hadn’t been denominated in USD and used US exchanges, attracted the attention of the US Treasury and Justice departments in the process.

·      For example, you could peer through the bitcoin ledger and see that a certain coin or fragment of a coin was used on a blackmarket site at a certain date and time.

·      You can also see identifiers of the buyer and seller.


Then why is it so hard to track criminals down?

·      That’s what separates the real crims from the amateurs.

·      For a forensic accountant it’s a matter of minutes or hours to identify most people from a transaction.



·      Because of the e-wallet. Money goes from one place to another.

·      It has a start point and a destination. It may move on from there, but it has to land somewhere and each time it leaves a digital fingerprint.

·      Most of us sign up for that e-wallet with an email address.

·      Obviously, really organised criminals have a whole money laundering machine behind them which is where it’s hard, the same as it is with any dark money, not just digital cash.

·      And most people, at some point, want to change that digital cash into a real world currency like USD or RM.

·      And to do that you need a currency exchange, where you leave yet another digital trail, because that RM then has to go somewhere.


Can’t you just do a CRISPR and re-edit your version of the ledger and add money to your own account?

·      You can but nothing will happen.

·      Because there are multiple versions of the ledger, your attempts to rewrite it will simply be over-written as false. 

·      Because there’s a reconciliation mechanism built in and all the other versions of the ledger show the money as being somewhere else.

·      So, it’s a bit like writing USD$10 on a blank sheet of paper and claiming it’s money. It isn’t.


I know we’re going to come back to this but let’s end with this. Why do people get so excited about blockchain?

·       I know. It can sound like an esoteric accounting tool.

·       It can be. But it’s so much more. So yes, we will come back to this.

·       You can use blockchain to verify elections.

o  All the votes are tallied and carried in the chain. 

o  Results are very hard to falsify.

o  And the information travels really fast, so we can get the results faster.

·       In music and film and the arts, blockchain can be used to protect copyright.

o  Artists can sell their work directly without needing third parties.

o  The ledger attached to the work provides a tracking mechanism for royalties and payments and can also help to identify where fraud or illegal sharing is taking place, because an illegally shared copy of the work could identify where the ledger was broken and identify the source of that breach.

·       It can be used in CSR. 

o  Sometimes it can be hard to track how money in charities is spent.

o  Blockchain can make that transparent, either publicly or to donors, depending on how it’s set up.

o  It makes it much harder for money to be misappropriated or misspent. 

o  It makes sure that both agencies and donors are acting ethically and legally.

·       It can be used to bring people out of the dark economy

o  Blockchain could simplify banking services and make them more accessible.

o  That can empower people in the informal employment sector.

o  They can get access to regulatory protections. It becomes harder for employers to short-change them or to delay payments.

o  So it brings exploited people out of the informal sector and normalises them, giving them access to the kind of financial services and transactions we take for granted.


·      Before I go, I’m going to do a quick plug for myself. 

·      If you’re free head down to the Cooler Lumpur festival at Publika this weekend.

·      I’m on a couple of panels, both at Publika’s Black Box. 

·      At 6pm I’ll be a guest with Malaysian music legend and journalist Daryl Goh on a panel called Where Have All Our Record Shops Gone? I think that’s probably self-explanatory.

·      At 7.30 I’ll be moderating a discussion called Hear Me Now! The Power of Voice in a Digital Age, where we’ll be talking about radio, and podcasting and the power of storytelling.

·      Head over to for more details.

·      Come and say hello. Heckle me if it makes you happy. And whatever you do, don’t try to reach me on Twitter.