AM I EVERYWHERE?

Last year, I had a decidedly Jungian experience, which is odd for me as a rational scientific sort. This synchronicity event happened at a local bookstore where I was searching for an issue of a Canadian magazine called Maisonneuve, a publication nice enough to print an essay of mine. As I was looking over the rack, my eyes wandered and noticed an issue of The Believer1 , where lo and behold, I saw my name on the front cover – a very observable and clear “by DAVID NG”, written with agreeable font, and even flanked by two pretty star icons. I hurriedly flipped through the magazine to see if I could find any information on this author2 , confused that my life had perhaps become so busy that I was submitting articles without even knowing it.
Moments later, I found my copy of Maisonneuve and flushed with my first real experience in publishing, looked upon its front cover. This might seem silly but this otherwise personally important moment came with a small pang of disappointment. Although the title of my article had made the front cover, my name didn’t. Somehow, David Ng had stolen my thunder. Or was it more accurate to say that I (David Ng), stole my own thunder? Anyway, it did make me think a bit.

It also compelled me to look deeper. That and the fact that the Believer piece was simply entitled “v4.0” which lent a deterministic feel to my pursuit (how many versions of me are there)? Indeed, my name was already fraught with a few unconventional inconveniences – my surname in particular. It has, for instance, no vowels which growing up in England was an oddity that frequently confounded my grammar school teachers. Here, the phonetic pronunciation of ‘Ng’ often took the form of a caveman-like uttering. Of late, my surname has also made naming my children an activity fraught with caution. I couldn’t name my son “Bob”, “Dick” or even “Jack.”3 It would simply raise the ‘getting beat up during school’ quotient far too high.

But in this case, seeing my alter ego in print, elicited a more guttural response. As if my very essence had been trespassed upon. Almost, as if I had been cloned and not told about it. An interesting predicament no doubt and so, with the pervasiveness of media and the possibilities provided by science and technology, I was curious to see how a person’s sense of self, their very individuality, and even their fragile ego could take a beating when their name exists in other contexts4.

I started with the local phone book, and found fifteen other David Ng’s. Sixteen if you count my own unlisted information, twenty if you counted the Dave Ng’s, and possibly many more that don’t make their way to the white pages. This meant that if I was wandering the streets of Greater Vancouver, I would have at least a one in 125,000 chance of meeting another David Ng5, odds that are happily much better (and hopefully more enjoyable) than the yearly one in 800,000 chance of getting struck by lightning. Whilst looking through these addresses, I also noticed that one of them was listed as a certified general accountant and another as a doctor, a surgeon in fact. Perhaps one of these days, I might be so lucky as to stumble upon the elusive “Reserved for Dr. David Ng” parking stall. Free parking is always a good thing6.

Searching the web was where my vanity took the biggest hit. At the time of writing, a google.com search for ‘david ng’ yielded 2,290,000 hits, found in no less than 0.24 seconds. Using yahoo.com, a speedy 0.17 seconds was all that was needed to find 841,000 results. Overall, the top ten results for each of these search engines yielded some pretty insightful results and included in no particular order:

two writers (neither of which were me)
one movie star
one economics professor
one link to find David Ng at Amazon.com
one reference to William Hung of American Idol fame
one animatronic head
one anime artist
one rock collector who works with alpha, beta and gamma radiation

Personally, I ranked in at #14 with google.com, but did not even rank in the top 200 with yahoo.com. I suppose I should be happy to have at least made the top 207 with one of the major search engine.

Because of my biology background, I next decided to look for myself in an even bigger context. In nature, itself, if you’d like. You see, my name is actually one that fits the FASTA system, a language of letters used by biologists in writing out our own and every other organism’s genetic code8. Could D-a-v-i-d-N-g be found in the very fabric of our DNA, the gene products that build us, that move us, that control us? Apparently yes.

Currently, the code for DAVIDNG9 can be found only in the genetic instructions of one Thermus Aquaticus, a very old species of bacteria that have the nifty ability to grow in boiling hot environments, thereby making them an unfavorable pet choice for children. To be honest, this was actually pleasing to me, to know that DAVIDNG wasn’t literally everywhere in all manner of organisms. By contrast, the code for ELVIS is very common10. Unfortunately, my own curiosity got the better of me and I also took it upon myself to check if DAVENG11 was present in the various genomes of various organisms. Turns out, in a major knock against my individuality, DAVENG was everywhere. In fact, it can be found in the genetic code for:

Many bacteria (such as e.coli, mycobacterium, helicobacter to name a few)
Ustilago Maydis (a commonly studied agricultural fungus)
Arabidopsis (currently a favorite model system for plant research in the world)
Houseflies (currently a favorite model system for invertebrate research in the world)
Mice (currently a favorite model system for mammal research in the world)12

Needless to say, it’s a good bet that when you come down with a fever, sniff a flower, kill an annoying fly, or chase a furry rodent away, the organism you are dealing with is subtly characterize with a DAVENG in its very being. Apparently, I am everywhere.

Which leads to a silly final thought that I only think of because of my background. In some twisted respect, here is a situation where my previous offhand comment about having a clone becomes intriguing. Even more so, when one considers that I happen to be an individual who theoretically has the technical ability and the equipment access to pull it off13.

In the end, I would need to ask whether the world really needs more David Ng’s? Another one that has been created to compete with the multitude that are already out there? And ironic in that in the end, it would probably have both a virtuous and deleterious effect. Virtuous in that my own personal notoriety would surely rise, thus ensuring my own prominence in this land of David Ng’s. And yet deleterious because there is a chance, arguably a very good chance, that it would be the clone itself who attains the top spot.

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FOOTNOTES

1. Maisonneuve issue no. 9, June/July 2004 and The Believer issue no. 13, May 2004.

2. In a surreal twist of fate, since the time of writing, the author of the Believer piece and I have actually exchanged a few emails. He sounds nice, and I’ve even asked if he was interested in collaborating.

3. For some reason my friends laughed most at the prospect of naming our child “Isaac” which would be pronounced, no proclaimed “I’sa King!” For the record, my children’s names are Hannah and Ben.

4. This whole idea of uniqueness associated with a person’s name lends credence to one of my theories about why certain celebrities might name their child “Apple.” The other theory, of course, is that they lost a bet.

5. According to www.whitepages.com, there are only 87 David Ng’s in the United States. This is interesting because the same website was able to pick out most of the 15 or so David Ng’s in Vancouver, Canada, thereby giving credibility to its searching prowess. Is it possible that I happen to be living in the David Ng mecca of the world? We should start a fan club.

6. I have actually on one occasion parked in a stall reserved for “Dr. Ng” Ph.D.s are useful sometimes.

7. On the other hand, I rank no. 3 with google and no. 7 with yahoo when searching for ‘sciencegeek.’ Not sure if this is a good thing.

8. To be more precise, D-a-v-i-d-N-g can be used to look for protein sequences. Proteins are the things that DNA ultimately codes for, and Atkins aside are the things that do all the interesting things in our body.

9. Or aspartic acid-alanine-valine-isoleucine-aspartic acid-glutamine-gylcine. In all, proteins are composed of twenty different amino acids, which each have a letter designation. Basically, as long as your name doesn’t have a ‘B’,’J’,’O’,’U’,’X’ or an ‘Z’ you may exist in the genome of something or another. To do this, you can go to http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/BLAST/ and click on the ‘search for short, nearly exact matches’ in the PROTEIN subheading. In the new page, enter your name, and then hit the ‘BLAST’ button.

10. Or glutamic acid-leucine-valine-isoleucine-serine. Curiously, you can also look for ELVISISDEAD and ELVISLIVES in an attempt to rest this tired question. Unfortunately, neither of these sequence has a direct match, and so the mystery remains unsolved. I should add, in case you are the worrying sort, that there is absolutely no chance of GEORGEBUSH, CELINEDION, or ELMO occurring in the human genome.

11. Or aspartic acid-alanine-valine-glutamic acid-gluamine-glycine. Isn’t science fun?

12. No matches in the human genome, the closest being a ‘DAVIDN.’

13. Surprisingly and frighteningly, it doesn’t take much. Any American infertility clinic probably has the equipment, and technical ability to do it. In Vancouver, I know of at least two robotic microinjectors, many tissue culture facilities, and over a million wombs. It is, however, a tricky procedure best done before coffee.

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This piece was originally written in the winter of 2004, and an edited form has since appeared in The Believer. How’s that for a full circle?

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