Thursday, January 21, 2010


Several days ago I volunteered on a relief mission to Haiti that brought in nearly 20,000 lbs of supplies. While the trip was brief, I did travel into the city of Port-au-Prince to deliver medical supplies to a key hospital and witnessed the devastation first hand.

Upon arrival at the airport, the first thing you see is the sheer scale of the relief effort. Numerous C-17s and other cargo planes are continually flying in and out, offloading vast amounts of supplies. Dozens of military helicopters are simultaneously in operation on a scale far beyond anything I have ever seen. Thousands of military and civilian personnel are active from the US, UN, Haiti, and relief organizations.

Driving into the heart of the capital city the need for such scale becomes apparent. Because the airport is farther from the epicenter, the damage you first see appears relatively minor -- cracks in buildings, damaged walls, and littered streets. But soon the sheer magnitude of the devastation becomes difficult to comprehend. Many entire buildings have been reduced to rubble. Makeshift tent camps dominate plazas and parks. Perhaps the most haunting are the buildings that have partially failed but not entirely collapsed. The National Palace stands a surreal site with tilted domes and crumbling walls. Other government buildings are completely leveled.

The vast majority of the former buildings in the hospital I visited are too damaged to be safe. The remaining two buildings that are being used to care for patients show their own signs of compromise. Yet heroic volunteers are able to serve over 1000 patients with a wide variety of serious injuries. They are short on supplies and only recently got electric power so they have light which allows them to work at night.

However, the real heroes are the people of Haiti. Despite tremendous challenge and suffering, they still show an incredible strength of spirit and resilience to the harshest of conditions. Seeing the people firsthand left me with a vastly different impression than I had going in based on news reports. Instead of roving gangs of violent criminals, I found people caring for the wounded and providing critical supplies to those most in need. Instead of people weeping of despair, I saw people busy rebuilding their lives in the most challenging of environments.

Yet immense challenges do remain and it is a race around the clock to prevent suffering, untreated injury, and loss of life. I believe there are several key factors that could tilt the odds dramatically. First, while there is tremendous relief effort from the US, UN, Haiti, and NGOs, the coordination and organization between these remains unclear. It is critical to have top level command and control across the entire breadth of efforts in order to maximize effectiveness.

Second, it is necessary to scale up the provisioning of shelter, food, water, sanitation, and health care by at least an order of magnitude. As much as it has difficult associations, I believe the best way to accomplish this is large scale temporary tent camps to house hundreds of thousands of people. I believe these should be near the airport or other facilities to which supplies can be readily delivered.

Lastly, there are several categories of people who should be evacuated out of Haiti to other countries (notably the US) where there is far more capacity to provide care. This includes those who are severely injured as well as orphaned children. While each of us is a citizen of a particular country, we are all citizens of the world. The responsibility falls on all of us to lend a hand when a tragedy of this magnitude befalls some of us.

Photos from my trip are here. Note they may be difficult to look at:

In the past two days, we have posted fresh high resolution imagery in Google Maps which I hope will be valuable to aid workers:

The main Google crisis response page for the Haiti earthquake is here and has numerous resources including how you can help:

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Journey of a lifetime

In everyone's life, there are moments that they know will change their future forever. I had such a moment thirty years ago today but at the time I could never have imagined the magnitude of the impact. That was the day my family first arrived in the United States.

The journey to get here was challenging. Just applying to leave the Soviet Union branded us with a scarlet letter -- my father lost his job and we received visits from the police. However, after nine months in this status we were able to make our way to Austria and then France where we stayed for four months waiting for our American visas. With few real possessions and no steady income, times were hard but there were people who helped us all along the way. Finally, we landed in New York on October 25th, 1979. Thanks to many organizations and individuals, we were able to start life anew in this land.

It is impossible for me to overstate the opportunity this country has given me. In many ways, the fortune I have enjoyed with Google exemplifies the American dream, but to me that is just the tip of the iceberg. Reflecting upon my life, I have many basic freedoms that my parents did not -- the ability to pursue my interests in school and university, the choices in jobs, the freedom to live in the place of my choosing, and ultimately the ability to pursue my own enterprise.

There are too many people and organizations for me to properly thank in this post but I would like to highlight a few:

HIAS - - provided help all along the way with logistics and expenses as they have for millions of jews.
Casip Cojasor - - provided assistance during our stay in France.
IHES - - provided housing and a research stipend for my father.
Jewish Federation DC - - helped to settle us in the US.
University of Maryland - provided employment and a new community of friends.

To these organizations and many individuals who helped us, my sincerest gratitude.

PS Please see a related article today in the New York Times.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Remembering Rajeev

It has been a long time since I have updated this blog. In fact, I have been doing some research for what I thought would be my next post.

Unfortunately, life does not always give you the luxury to plan what may be close to your heart next. It is with great sadness that I write about the passing of my teacher and good friend Professor Rajeev Motwani. But I would rather not dwell on the sorrow of his death and instead celebrate his life.

Officially, Rajeev was not my advisor, and yet he played just as big a role in my research, education, and professional development. In addition to being a brilliant computer scientist, Rajeev was a very kind and amicable person and his door was always open. No matter what was going on with my life or work, I could always stop by his office for an interesting conversation and a friendly smile.

When my interest turned to data mining, Rajeev helped to coordinate a regular meeting group on the subject. Even though I was just one of hundreds of graduate students in the department, he always made the time and effort to help. Later, when Larry and I began to work together on the research that would lead to Google, Rajeev was there to support us and guide us through challenges, both technical and organizational.

Eventually, as Google emerged from Stanford, Rajeev remained a friend and advisor as he has with many people and startups since. Of all the faculty at Stanford, it is with Rajeev that I have stayed the closest and I will miss him dearly. Yet his legacy and personality live on in the students, projects, and companies he has touched. Today, whenever you use a piece of technology, there is a good chance a little bit of Rajeev Motwani is behind it.

Thursday, September 18, 2008


For more than 20 years, my mother has worked with computers at NASA. So, when she developed a pain in her hands the diagnosis seemed easy -- Repetitive Stress Injury. Except that it wasn't so easy. As her mysterious symptoms progressed it varied -- RSI, fibromyalgia (unexplained pain), Lyme Disease, and so forth. It was only after visits to many specialists over a number of years that the diagnosis settled -- Parkinson's Disease. Since there is no clear test for Parkinson's -- it is defined by its symptoms -- we only grew certain as those symptoms developed and as her medications began to alleviate them.

My mother had always been haunted by Parkinson's because her aunt had suffered from it. I had often reasoned with her that since Parkinson's is not hereditary (there is not a strong correlation of Parkinson's incidence among close relatives), she had little to fear.

In 2004, my wife, Anne, introduced me to her future cofounders in 23andMe as they were studying the genetics of Parkinson's Disease. As with my mother's fear, I was skeptical about the study. I reasoned that if there was much to be learned about Parkinson's in the genome, there would have to be a high percentage of inherited cases. In fact, I appeared to be right in that this particular study did not bear immediate fruit.

Nonetheless, there are some cases of familial Parkinson's but they are quite rare. Over the past few years researchers have been honing in on the genes that are responsible for those cases. One gene that stands out in those studies is LRRK2. There is one particular mutation of the LRRK2 gene -- known as G2019S -- that, while rare even among people with the disease, accounts, in some ethnic groups, for a substantial proportion of familial Parkinson's.

As a customer of 23andMe, I have always been excited about the product. I have found what pieces of DNA I share with various relatives. I checked whether other Brins were related. I explored my various gene journals -- learning, for instance, that I have one copy of the fast twitch muscle fiber. I also looked over the health related entries and found that my genetic risk for most diseases is modestly lower than average but for a few diseases it is modestly higher.

Because there are only a small number of genes which are known to have a very substantial effect on health (e.g. 10 times the average risk), I felt the possibility of discovering something very important to my health was just a hypothetical exercise. So, when my wife asked me to look up G2019S in my raw data (23andMe scientists had had the forethought to include it on their chip), I viewed it mostly as entertainment.

But, of course, I learned something very important to me -- I carry the G2019S mutation and when my mother checked her account, she saw she carries it too.

The exact implications of this are not entirely clear. Early studies tend to have small samples with various selection biases. Nonetheless it is clear that I have a markedly higher chance of developing Parkinson's in my lifetime than the average person. In fact, it is somewhere between 20% to 80% depending on the study and how you measure. At the same time, research into LRRK2 looks intriguing (both for LRRK2 carriers and potentially for others).

This leaves me in a rather unique position. I know early in my life something I am substantially predisposed to. I now have the opportunity to adjust my life to reduce those odds (e.g. there is evidence that exercise may be protective against Parkinson's). I also have the opportunity to perform and support research into this disease long before it may affect me. And, regardless of my own health it can help my family members as well as others.

I feel fortunate to be in this position. Until the fountain of youth is discovered, all of us will have some conditions in our old age only we don't know what they will be. I have a better guess than almost anyone else for what ills may be mine -- and I have decades to prepare for it.

For more information on Parkinson's Disease see these organizations I have supported and worked with: Michael J. Fox Foundation, The Parkinson's Institute
Welcome to my personal blog. While Google is a play on googol, too is a play on the much smaller number - two. It also means "in addition", as this blog reflects my life outside of work.