Archives for: November 2009
A long time ago I preceptored with a naturopath who was fond of having his handouts typeset by a local printer. He was an older style ‘nature-cure’ type healer, and his handouts contained some very far out stuff. When I asked him why he went to the great expense of having a printer typeset his advice, he replied that ‘when people see something in print, especially a format that they know is not homemade, they take it more seriously.’
Twenty years later we now would appear to know better. The easy availability of laser printers and desktop publishing software can make any would-be Hemingway look the part. Of course there is a price to pay for the ubiquity of it all. Nice-looking documents have become the very essence of banality and reader confidence further eroded by the inclusion of misspellings, bad punctuation and terrible font choices.
Many readers will remember that absolute reverence by which one beheld the evening news in our childhood. Walter Cronkite and The Huntley–Brinkley Report not only acted the part of impartial newscasters; they looked it as well.
In the arts we have recently seen the emergence of a new kind of artist. The conventional record labels, having seen their profits eroded by downloading and lack of consumer interest, can only play by the numbers and hope for another Britney Spears or similar mega-mediocrity. The industry crowns artless (but safe and cute) adolescents “American Idols” when in fact they have demonstrated no skills beyond what one would expect from a decent karaoke bar singer.
Composers and musicians who actually do have something to say have opted instead to release material direct to the public, often with a payment-optional policy. Although this would appear to be financial suicide, surprisingly, many of these ventures have been economically successful.
Have been re-reading Vivian Perlis' great book Charles Ives Remembered: An Oral history. I’ve drawn much comfort from Ives over the years; certainly through his music, but also with many of the corollaries between his life and my own. Our homes are within ten miles of each other, and we both shared the benefits (and challenges) of being the sons of men who were themselves way ahead of their time.
Ives was a musical genius, anticipating the serialism of Schoenberg and many other elements of modern music, such as microtones, by many decades. Unfortunately, this placed him squarely in the path of the conventional musical minds of his time. What frustration he must have felt reading reviews of his work, where instead of seeing the horizon line of a new art, the reviewer merely saw an amateur composer who just wrote down the wrong notes!
Ives had no patience for these people. On top of one review, he simply scribbled the phrase ‘rot and worse.’ To Ives, these were just mediocre minds, steeped in the traditions of the past. Problem was, they taught in the conservatories, wrote the reviews and set the standards.
"Stop being such a God-damned sissy! Why can't you stand up before fine strong music like this and use your ears like a man?"
- At a 1931 concert when a man booed during one his friend Carl Ruggles's works
Three decades ago Steward Brand said ‘information wants to be free.’ Brand’s WELL (Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link) was a precursor of the Internet, the greatest source of unfiltered information in human history.
When information is free, people get to choose what they want to hear and read about. When it is filtered, news organizations, corporations, professional societies and political parties choose it for them.
Years ago doctors would never think of explaining their premises and motives. To whom? The village blacksmith? What does he know of chemistry? Now consumers can harness the power of the Internet to research their health issues to any depth they desire. Yet most doctors still function in filter mode, thinking that the deck is still stacked in their favor.
Doctors have to learn about everything. A patient has to just learn about what is wrong with himself. You would be surprised by the speed in which a motivated patient can become a virtual expert in their condition.
In my vision of the future we will all become our own ‘aggregators,’ selecting information sources from an abundance of highly specific and single purpose ‘channels.’ Once aggregated into our lives, all these channels will fuse into a Multiverse of realities shared between like-minded individuals.
For example, you’re currently on the ‘Peter D’Adamo Channel.’
This will not stop filtering. Evidence suggests that we all filter out information that we disagree with. In True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society, Farhad Manjoo cites an experiment in which smokers and non-smokers could vary the amount of interference in static filled recordings of speeches. When smokers heard a speech about smoking and cancer risk, they did not try to improve the clarity of the recording. But they did push the button to get a clearer version of the recording when a speech was playing that said that there was no link between smoking and cancer. In non-smokers the exact opposite was true.
In Filters Against Folly Garrett Hardin writes about our so-called free enterprise system:
"What is the free enterprise system? Calling the system a 'profit system' is misleading, because it is truly a 'profit-and-loss system' as far as the competitors are concerned. The general public wins because competition ensures low prices. Unfortunately, the truth is not always so simple. A comprehensive history of great business fortunes would show a disconcertingly large number that were made in a quite different way: the enterpriser devised a silent way to commonize costs while continuing to privatize the profits -- but don't tell anyone. This has been a formula for success for centuries."
Truth be told, the last few years have been a painful, if eye-opening education in the reality of rent-seeking, the corruption (intellectual, spiritual and economic) that results when learning is wedded to bureaucratic authority and income. Competing with rent-seekers can be a wearying and scarifying experience and a note like Stephan's does a lot to reassure me, a least a wee bit, that I am not some type of evil lunatic.
'Many years have you have been snubbed and even mocked, your theories debased and reviled. People seem to offhandedly wave away the world of discovery you have achieved like an odd odor in the air. It would seem that tremendous psychological forces are interacting in peoples minds when it comes to change, specifically in terms of attaining concrete understanding of health. You scare people, they are not ready for the truth.
-Stephan (comment on one of my prior blogs)
Rent-seeking can take many forms. There was the time a major manufacturer of ephedra-driven diet pills, fronted by a now-deceased somnambulist reality TV star, advised me via FAX that they had been awarded the patent for developing supplements based on blood type and unless I 'played ball' with them, they would issue a cease and desist order. Investigating the patent quickly disclosed that the source material used in their application was in fact my first book. They were, in essence, using me again me. We rolled the patent back, but only at great expense. But what about people who can't afford to fight back against the well-heeled?
Maybe I’m just a libertarian (or just an aging hippy) but I would opt for choosing my own filters --versus having information filtered for me—- especially when the filtering is being done by individuals and organizations that I do not trust and for which I have no respect.
If you rob Peter to pay Paul, you've already got half the vote.'
Growing up in Brooklyn I remember many exciting and fun filled trips to Manhattan --or as anyone from Brooklyn calls it, “The City.” One of the features I always looked forward to seeing was a huge advertisement for a paint company that featured a can of paint pouring itself over a globe of the world, its byline proclaiming “We Cover the Earth with Our Paints.”
Excepting the obvious question as to why anyone would ever want to cover the world in it, paint is not a bad metaphor for how most scientists viewed inheritance before Mendel, it being a sort of “blended essence” --a mix of the features of both mom and dad, much like how we might combine white and black paints to make gray. In the late 1800s Charles Darwin proposed a mechanism of inheritance by means of gemmules, imaginary granules or atoms which are continually being thrown off from every cell or unit, and circulate freely throughout the system. Yet Mendel’s research showed that it was nothing of the sort; being in fact much more digital, like how a computer makes all sorts of interesting stuff out of what are essentially zeros and ones. Mendel’s theory nixed that notion completely, although after a while things started to be observed that appeared to indicate that genetics wasn’t all that black and white, on and off after all, but I’ll save that for a later story.
I’ve married a blue eyed woman, and have two daughters. The first daughter has brown eyes just like me. Simple enough: My brown-eyed alleles squash my wife's blue-eyed ones. However, my second daughter has greenish-hazel eyes, much lighter than mine or her sister, but certainly not bright blue like those of my wife, so it would seem like a little blending is going on over there after all. Eye color is not a simple dominant-recessive trait, although knuckle hair and tongue rolling are. The eye color trait is what geneticists call polygenic, which simply means that it is not decided by one single gene. In order to account for my younger child’s green-hazel eyes, we have to add other factors to the mix.
My wife is pure Irish on her mother’s side and a mix of Slovakian and Hungarian on her father’s. Hungarians have the highest percentage of green eyes of any population, close to 20%, so something in my wife’s blue-eyed world (the blue-eyed allele of her Hungarian father) produced a variant that refused to role over and die, but instead made alliances with other genes --including a recently discovered one that may go back to the Neanderthals--- that slips green eyes and red hair in between things, ultimately producing my younger daughter’s wonderful green eyes. Given that, you'd think I'd get the tongue rolling gene and she the knuckle hair, but alas, the results are quite opposite.
Many traits are polygenic, and when when added to the tremendously under-appreciated epigenetic effects on gene expression, explain why we have never found a single gene for diabetes, or cancer or Alzheimer’s disease. If it were that simple, we’d have had the answers to these questions already.
Another type of inheritance is very close to my heart. The allele (the set of alternate genes for any trait) for type O blood is recessive to the alleles for type B and type A. Again using my family as an example, biologically I am type A blood and my wife is type O. My daughters are both type A blood, so we know that they must have received a type O allele from mom and a type A allele from me. Their genotype for ABO blood type is A/o (recessive alleles are usually depicted in lower case, dominant in capitals, and genetic things are usually rendered in italics).
If I was instead type B blood and had provided a type B allele, the children would have type B, as type B is dominant to type O as well.
But here is where things get interesting. What happens if you were to receive one type A allele and one type B allele? Why, you would be blood type AB! The reason behind this is that although both B and A clobber O, they strike a tentative truce between themselves and split the kingdom and declare a dual monarchy. This is called co-dominance. There are not many instances of co-dominance in genetics, and ABO inheritance is almost always given as the example.
You may well ask why, if type O is recessive to types A and B, why hasn’t it disappeared, leaving only A and B to slug it out, and eventually producing a world of only type AB people? The reasons and proofs for this are mathematical, so I won’t bore you with them, but suffice it to say that if a population is large enough, and the individuals in that population tend to mate randomly, and there are no other major influences (such as one type being more resistant to an infectious disease), after one generation the gene pool will stabilize and reach a sort of equilibrium.
Since there is such a huge amount of o allele in the human population (so much so, in fact, that even though it is the recessive allele, individuals with type O blood constitute the majority of most populations around the world) it will keep propagating itself, whereas the type you’d have though would be replacing everyone else by now, AB, comprises at best about 2% of the population.
Most people probably have a negative concept of mutation, spawned by a slew of admittedly great science fiction. However, it might surprise you to learn that that vast majority of mutations, at least the ones that get incorporated into our genetic heritage, are not lethal and often don’t do very much at all. For example, let’s again turn to our trusty blood types. As we will explore in more later on in this book, genes are chunks of DNA that do things, like code for specific proteins. Although DNA is an incredibly long molecule (if all the DNA in all your cells was unwound and placed end to end it would produce a string capable of reaching to the sun and back several times) it is composed of a simple string of four repeating nucleotides abbreviated A,T,C and G. The sequence of these four repeating nucleotides is what contains the instructions for the protein.
The difference between having the gene for type A blood or type B blood is a variation of a mere seven letters out of the total of 1,062 that make up the entire gene. We even know exactly where they differ: letters number 523, 700, 793 and 800. If you are type A blood, you have C,G,C,G in these locations, whereas if you are type B blood you have G,A,A,C there instead. Yet however slight this difference is, it is enough to cause a major problem if you were to receive the wrong blood in a transfusion. These are called point mutations because they are a simple one-letter misspelling in a gene, unless as in the case of blood type it is a consistent variation that is inheritable, in which case it is called a polymorphism.
The type O gene mutation is even more interesting. It derives from a frame shift mutation. If you are type O you may be surprised to discover that rather than having a difference of letters, like A and B, you're just missing one letter, number 258, entirely.
So hopefully by now you are comfortable with the notion that mutations are just part of life, unless of course you are unfortunate enough to have gotten a lethal one (and there are many) which probably would never have allowed you to get so far in life as to be able to read this blog. Many, if not most, of these mutations are spontaneously terminated while the sufferer is still an embryo in utero. Virtually all of the well-known genetic disorders are semi-lethal.
There are may causes of mutations, including viruses and radiation, but the most common cause is the simple fact that when our cells reproduce, they must make a complete copy of there DNA, and sometimes the copies don’t turn out so great. Think about the photocopy of that great joke that circulated around the office cubicle the other day. If it was barely legible, with bloated letters that ran one into the other, it was probably because someone made a photocopy of the original, which was quite likely a photocopy of the previous copy. Each time a copy was made of a copy, the writing was degraded a bit more.
Genes are like that. Often as we get older, we tend to get more and more of this “photocopy effect”. Perhaps what was once a word string of CAG became CAA. Even if it is copied correctly, it will be CAA from there on. Perhaps not unexpectedly these mutations are called “copying errors” and given the enormous amount of cell division that goes on over the course of a lifetime it is the real surprise is just how good of a job we do at it.
Fascinating presidential election; certainly a very unique and historic outcome. It will be interesting to see --given the perilous state of affairs we find ourselves in-- whether 2008 is also the first presidential election in which (come January) it is the winner rather than the loser who demands a recount.