Good Reads: Mars mission, gene patents, cellphone tracking, 'absurd' start-ups, Netflix streamlines

This week's round-up of Good Reads includes a company that aims to turn a Mars colony into reality television, attempts to patent human genes, cellphone users' real feelings about privacy, and a smart focus by Netflix.

Mars, as captured by the Hubble Space Telescope.

Dutch entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp says he will establish a human colony on Mars within 10 years. The technology already exists, he says, but current missions have the wrong business model. Don’t copy space agencies, he says. Copy the Olympics. 

“The 2012 Olympics in London had revenues of $4 billion for an event that lasted only three weeks,” explains Casey Johnston of Ars Technica. Why? Because people wanted to tune in and see what humans are capable of. “[Mr.] Lansdorp stated that by the time the mission launches the settlers to Mars in 2023, four billion people will be connected to the Internet. Thus, a massive audience is equipped to watch the journey and see how the colonizers’ time on Mars unfolds.”

In other words, Lansdorp plans to fund a Mars colony by turning it into a reality TV show. His organization, Mars One, is accepting applications for the first wave of astronauts. Lansdorp plans for a second voyage to depart in 2025, just in time for Season 2.

Patents for human genes

The Supreme Court heard arguments in April over whether companies should be able to patent human genes. The biotechnology firm Myriad Genetics in Salt Lake City currently holds patents for BRCA1 and BRCA2, two human genes that doctors have linked to breast and ovarian cancer. Because of these patents, Myriad is the only company that may create tests to detect mutations in those genes.

The legal issue here comes down to how the court defines genes. If it decides that genes are “products of nature,” then they cannot be patented. “But Myriad’s patents do not cover the genes as they occur in living cells,” writes The Economist. “Rather, they cover isolated forms of the genes ... snipped from the genome and chemically modified to make them analysable in a laboratory.” The company says it spent $500 million creating viable tests for the BRCA pair. That investment and others from the $92 billion biotechnology industry deserve to be protected by patents, argues Myriad.

Companies that track your phone

Cellphone companies have an unprecedented ability to track the behavior of subscribers. Through phone data, carriers know where people go, how long they stay, and what applications they use while there. “This data is under lock and key no more,” writes Jessica Leber in MIT Technology Review. “Under pressure to seek new revenue streams, a growing number of mobile carriers are now carefully mining, packaging, and repurposing their subscriber data to create powerful statistics about how people are moving about the real world.”

Verizon Wireless, America’s largest carrier, changed its privacy policy in 2011 to give itself permission to sell anonymous data to businesses, city planners, and marketers. For example, Verizon determined that there were three times as many fans in the stands from Baltimore at this year’s Super Bowl than fans from San Francisco. (The Ravens won, too.)

Data-tracking firm AirSage has signed its own deals with two major US carriers to monitor and look for patterns among the activities of about one-third of all Americans. AirSage does not know the identities of the millions of people it follows, but it can track their movements to within 100 yards. 

While these new practices raise many privacy concerns, Ms. Leber writes, “Research and experience suggest that in practice most people don’t mind, or don’t care as much as they think they do about privacy.”

Who would have believed it?

Revolutionary ideas can sound pretty dumb at first. On the website Quora, serial tech entrepreneur Michael Wolfe distilled a list of start-ups down to their absurd-sounding essence:

Twitter – it is like email, SMS, or RSS. Except it does a lot less. It will be used mostly by geeks at first, followed by Britney Spears and Charlie Sheen.

PayPal – people will use their insecure AOL and Yahoo email addresses to pay each other real money, backed by a non-bank with a cute name run by 20-somethings.”

Google – we are building the world’s 20th search engine at a time when most of the others have been abandoned as being commoditized money losers. We’ll strip out all of the ad-supported news and portal features so you won’t be distracted from using the free search stuff.”

Netflix narrows its focus

Netflix’s transformation from rental service to Web video empire has taken many years and many business deals to pull off. “When Netflix first got into the streaming video business, it went to movie studios and TV networks and bought whatever they were selling,” writes Peter Kafka of All Things D. “It didn’t have a choice. Things are different now.” Netflix says that it will not renew its sweeping contract with TV giant Viacom. Instead, Netflix will cut deals for only the Viacom shows that it knows viewers want to see. (Think more quality dramas and fewer old reality shows.)

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