The Box is Open, Now What?

Charles Mueller

Today we have the ability to modify the DNA in any organism we can isolate.  Yet we still don’t have the knowledge to be able to precisely know how these changes will translate into new behaviors. 

In the latest example, the people of Key Haven, Florida are about to be part of new medical experiment, approved by the FDA, and to be carried out by a company called Oxitec.  This company is planning to release millions of genetically modified mosquitos into the wild in hopes of containing the spread of the Zika virus.  Really cool idea, but do we know if there are any potential negative consequences?  Well according the FDAs Environmental Assessment the people of Key Haven have nothing to worry about.  How exactly was the FDA able to make such a call?

Most of the ability to say that certain genetic modifications in other species (or even humans) will not have an impact on human health is based on laboratory data and existing biological theory, not on actual direct evidence, like human clinical trials.  There would be no problem with this except for the fact laboratory data rarely translates into the clinic and our existing biological theory is incomplete, routinely riddled with “exceptions” that are only understood in hindsight.  The process therefore banks on a scientific consensus that boils down to an educated prediction.  So when the FDA reviewed Oxitec’s data and the theories they cited, it is simply not possible for them say with certainty that releasing genetically modified mosquitos into the wild will not have an impact on human health or the environment; no direct evidence exists to support such a claim or even a solid theory to back it up.

As scientists, we want to test our ideas and challenge our theories, but we have to do it wisely.  We have to do it with foresight and we need to accept that we may need to move more slowly towards the really exciting experiments.  It is our job to ensure we don’t become cowboys firing off experiments with unknown consequences whenever we gather enough support or have a nice financial incentive (Oxitec looks to make $400M off this technology).  We need to be humble, we need to move forward, but we must always remain cautious when our experiments are potentially playing in a sandbox we’ve never played in before.

In order to move forward properly we need to accept we probably don’t know as much as we think we do.  If we are going to continue to mess with the DNA of organisms and the nature of ecosystems let’s at least make sure we are doing our best to collect all the data about what is changing when we do this and obtain consent from the people potentially affected.  If we do that, we can use the information to better inform our policies on how to appropriately design and manage these new “experiments”.

Pandora’s box is open and the situation surrounding the use of the Oxitec mosquito is just the hot issue in the news today.  We need a strategy to fill our gaps in the knowledge of biological sciences and in how to manage this awesome power over how life on this planet exists and evolves.

An Ice Bucket Challenge for Cures

Charles Mueller

Currently there is no dedicated industry or government effort aimed at creating a more fundamental understanding of health.  Such an effort could provide the knowledge we need to create cures to the 10,000 known diseases.  If nobody else will step up, maybe what we need is an “Ice Bucket Challenge” to fund efforts that seek to do this.

The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge was a huge success.  In 2014 alone, the concept raised $100+ million dollars for ALS research, which is over twice as much money as NIH put towards the same cause.  This week the ALS Association is reporting that money from this campaign funded research that found a significant gene, which appears to be a major factor in ALS.  The takeaway is that it is possible to accelerate research for health related issues outside the “limelight” by looking to things like crowdsourcing via social media as unique funding streams.

Now, not to downplay the finding of this new gene related to ALS, but as exciting as this might seem, this finding isn’t likely going to lead to a cure anytime soon.  This is simply because finding a gene is only one piece in complicated puzzle that is disease.

Let me explain.

Genes can be compared to players on a sports team.  Teams are made up of a variety of players and work together to achieve some goal (e.g. win a championship).  Often there are all-stars that really make the team what it is, but a team is always more than one player.  And just like one all-star really can’t win you a championship, a single “all-star” gene likely won’t be all you need to find a cure to a disease.

Furthermore, teams need coaches, a person that understands how the game is played and why the team works like it does.  In general, this is the problem with all disease, we lack the knowledge of how and why disease occurs.  If we want the championship of medicine (i.e. cures) then we need to a real scientific understanding of health. 

This is why we need an Ice Bucket Challenge for Cures.  We need to stop waiting for others to see the importance of funding a cause that attempts to integrate all known theories of health and disease; one that provides some sort of physical, mathematical basis for human biology.

Let’s dump ice on our heads to fund the search for Maxwell’s equations for biology!

Let’s spread the love on social media promoting the quest for health’s E=mc^2!

Creating a real theoretical understanding of health/disease that can be traced to the fundamental properties of matter will not just help find cures to diseases like ALS, cancer, Alzheimer’s, etc., it will provide the pathway to find cures to any and all disease.

Let’s start this journey with an Ice Bucket Challenge for Cures!

Enough is Enough

A body is seen on the ground after at least 30 people were killed in the southern French town of Nice when a truck ran into a crowd celebrating the Bastille Day national holiday

REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

 

Radical Islamic terrorism is the most dangerous form of radicalism in the world today. The greater it grows, the longer it persists, the more justification it gives to other forms of radicalism to use violent extremes to get their way. As long as this cancer to a free, fair, and stable global society exists, the justification to kill, rape, and enslave to promote your ideology has a fertile breeding ground to grow. This is not a threat you can deal with passively or subtly. This is a threat you have to treat like all other ideologies that have threatened the ability to live in a free, equal and just society. This threat threatens our survival.

My heart hurts for those in Nice, France today, as well as all those over the years that have been hurt by the evil that radical Islamic terrorism spreads. Yesterday at least 84 people were killed and hundreds were injured when a cowardly terrorist used a semi-truck to bulldoze innocent people celebrating a national holiday, prompting celebration by the radical Islamic terrorist group ISIS. This was a town that promoted western values and had just finished celebrating the French National Day, a day which commemorates the Storming of Bastille, a pivotal moment in the French Revolution that catalyzed a future where the French could be free. And that was probably the point. The radical Islamic ideology despises the ideology celebrated on Bastille Day, one that promotes the concepts of equality and freedom for all. Every time radical Islamic terrorism strikes, be it at night clubs in Orlando, the streets of Paris, or bombings in Istanbul, it reminds us that this ideology only cares about one thing: bringing death to all those that oppose their beliefs and views of the world.

A body is seen on the ground after at least 30 people were killed in the southern French town of Nice when a truck ran into a crowd celebrating the Bastille Day national holiday

REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

War isn’t easy. It isn’t supposed to be. Going to war is meant to hurt. War is how societies protect their cultures and ideologies. Radical Islamic terrorists are waging a war on all of us and it is time we fight back. This means treating this threat like we did in 1930’s with fascism, in 70’s and 80s with communism. This means recognizing that the spread of the ideology of radical Islamic terrorism literally threatens our survival and as such we have to respond in full force to preserve all we’ve worked to create. We should be using every single weapon we have, from boots on the ground, to cyberwarfare, to economic weapons, etc. in order to destroy this cancer. Yes, going all in means people’s children will die and innocent victims will be harmed, but again, war is meant to hurt. We aren’t supposed to want to go to war. We are supposed to go to war when there is no other way.

Radical Islamic terrorism is spreading and providing the justifications for other forms of radicalism that threaten freedom and equality for all. The longer we wait to combat this reality, the more it will destroy us, slowly from the inside, just like cancer. You don’t cure cancer by talking to it, rationalizing with it, or haphazardly fighting parts of it. You cure cancer by destroying all cancer cells. It is time we get serious about the threat of radical Islamic terrorism and destroy it before it destroys us.

 

I Am Not Legal

By Mike Swetnam

Everyone should walk in the shoes of the other side. What other side? I don’t know, but it sounds really profound so I guess we should look for the opportunity.

Today, I had the great privilege and opportunity to walk on the illegal side! I was found to be “not legal” for the purposes of receiving a driver’s license in the Commonwealth of Virginia!

I started the day with the idea I would get a Virginia driver’s license (DL) to replace the expiring Maryland one I have. I moved here 17 months ago, but neglected to get a Virginia DL because my Maryland DL was good until this year. Aren’t DLs from any state good and recognized in all states? I assumed the process for turning in the Maryland DL for a Virginia one would be trivial.

Not so.

I walked into the Virginia DMV with my Maryland DL, my Retired Military ID, and the Official Virginia registration of my car.

I waited, of course, for thirty-five minutes to see the information desk person who would direct me to the right station for further processing. She assessed my IDs and proof of residency only to pronounce that they were not appropriate.

I argued (I do that a lot) that the Maryland DL was still current and a valid ID in 50 states, the DoD ID was current and valid in all 50 states and most of the world, and the proof of residency was issued by the Commonwealth of Virginia. She responded that DLs from other states are not recognized as IDs for Virginia DL purposes and the military ID was not green (active duty) so not recognized by Virginia either.

My only conclusion from this conversation was that the Commonwealth of Virginia does not recognize Maryland DLs. That is a violation of federal law! Also, that the Great Commonwealth of Virginia does not recognize the validity of a USA/DoD issued Retired Military ID. That should cause about 10% of Virginia’s population, which are retired military, to move!

She also told me that my official Commonwealth of Virginia car registration, that listed my Virginia residence was not recognized as proof of residence. They would rather I provide a monthly utility bill!

Really?

When did proof of residency, citizenship, etc. become utility bills instead of Military IDs, or official state issued documents?

I was therefore deemed not legally entitled to a Virginia DL.

Sigh.

Color me, “considering a move back to Maryland”, and legality.

Help! I Feel Like I’m Trapped Inside A Computer

By Pablo Sanchez

5:00- My alarm clock on my iPhone goes off
5:01- I check my phone for emails
5:01 to 5:30 – I respond to emails and start opening up apps
5:30 to 6:30 – I explore the apps on my phone in the same ways I always do
6:30 to 7:00 – I put my favorite music on my iPod, shower and get ready for work
7:00 to 8:00 – I stream my favorite TV shows from my iPhone to my TV while I make and eat breakfast
8:00 to 8:30 – I listen to my audiobook on my train ride into the office
8:30 to 6:30 – I spend all day searching the Internet and writing on my computer
6:30 to 7:00 – I listen to my audiobook on my iPhone on my ride back.
7:00 to 8:00 – I stream my favorite TV show from my iPhone to my TV while I make and eat dinner
8:00 to 2:00 – I stream my favorite TV show from my iPhone to bedroom TV while I also play on my iPhone until I eventually fall asleep

Repeat.

This is my life. This is my existence. I spend all of my life it seems staring down and spend almost no time staring up. I can’t help but think about how odd that would seem to my ancestors only a couple generations ago. People, like myself, grow up and never really look at the stars anymore.

The stars have always been the greatest seed of wonder and imagination for the human mind. They likely prompted the first real “bizarre” thoughts, things like, “Where are we?”

Who could explain why every time the giant fireball in the sky went away the same smaller fires in the sky seemed to light exactly where they were the night before? Who could explain why throughout the night they moved across the sky? Who could explain that after many moons, certain fires no longer appeared in the same place each night? Nobody could and so it made us wonder.

Now I don’t wonder, I Google. Now I don’t imagine, I watch. Now I don’t question, I listen and read. I don’t have time to wonder, imagine or question. The computer has given me access 24 hours a day to the Internet and I don’t know how to escape its allure. It attracts me. It is like a sick game. It is like the creators of the Internet and all the computing devices which act like portals to bring us there knew that the mind couldn’t resist access to that kind of stimuli, to that kind of information. If we just stopped adding things to the Internet it’s suggested it would take me 57,000 years to read everything. If we didn’t add any more videos to YouTube it’s estimated it would take me 60,000 years to watch everything. This requires me to do nothing else but read and watch. The average human life span in the US is about 72 years. This means if I used these years to read and watch as much as I could starting from when I couldn’t even understand what I was reading and watching, I’d only be able to tackle about 0.06% of all the reading and watching I’d need to read and see it all.

I’m trapped in a computer. I’m trapped in a digital world. I look down instead of up. I type instead of speak. I watch instead of dream. When I die the tombstone people will visit will be on Facebook instead of a cemetery. I love this world and I hate it too.

Maybe the solution for myself is to simply take the next step, to figure out how to virtualize myself so that I can live inside my computer. Maybe if I could live there in a virtual state I wouldn’t feel trapped because I’d be free to explore the vastness of the digital world. I wouldn’t have to waste my time with all the other things that keep me from spending all 72 years of my existence looking down. Maybe this is the next phase, the pressure to drive human evolution to a new form, an immortal existence in a digital environment.

Maybe I’m not trapped in a computer today, but rather maybe I’m trapped in a mortal human body. Maybe the key to my existence is to finally escape to a virtual reality, a universe where everything exists and anything is possible. At least then I’d have time to read it all, see it all, and still look up.

Because ISIS Said So

By Rebecca McCauley Rench

I want my government and the people around me to make rational decisions based on science, not judgments based on belief, morality, or stereotypes. However, this is not the world I see when I turn on the news. The recent attacks on freedom through those pledged to ISIS – the Orlando nightclub massacre, the Paris attacks, the San Bernardino shooting – people unwilling or unable to think rationally about their actions have perpetrated all these. They have committed atrocities in the name of a religion, a group, or cause without contemplating the simple question of “Why?”. The most recent attack on Western values was committed by someone that grew up as a part of the culture. Omar Mateen was born in the United States and worked as a prison guard and security officer, jobs that require some commitment to protecting people, yet he was able to put that aside for the hate he felt towards a group of people. There is no rationality to that decision, only blind ignorance. There is no place for such ignorance in a rationale society, yet it persists in our country and around the world.

In the United States of America, we stand on doctrine that government is for the people, by the people, but have we spent time ensuring that those people act rationally? We have all had a hand in creating an environment where people do what they are told without thought. The best example of values and principles of a culture can be easily seen in the interaction with children. Children are nearly blank canvasses with which those around them instill values, knowledge, and expectations. However, we do not drive our children towards a future where they are taught to question those lessons. We stamp the question of “Why?” out of our children through our callous, lazy, and stupid answer: “Because I said so.” How can we expect our children to grow to adulthood and be able to question the rhetoric around them, preventing them from being drawn into hate speech, if we do not teach them to think critically? Perhaps our children would be better off in the hands of Siri, Alexa, or OK Google – those willing to respond with the answer to their best of their knowledge regardless of how many times it has been asked before, how tired they are, or how irritated they may be. If we don’t begin to take our role as parents, mentors, and thought leaders responsibly, the future may be better off in robotic hands.

The Power of A Bad Idea

By Charles Mueller

50 people are dead.

50+ more injured.

One idea is responsible for it all.

The idea that it is OK to kill because someone else feels, thinks and loves differently than you.

It starts with a belief that those you judge with hate deserve the worst, to be banished to some place like hell, and it ends with an irrational decision to end the life of someone you never took the time to know or truly understand.  Sunday was another sad day in a long history of sad days where we were again reminded that the world we live in creates, promotes and even incentivizes this kind of thinking.  Monday was another reminder that no matter how many times this happens, we never seem to address the actual problem causing it all.

We expect our laws and morals to keep society in line, but terrorist organizations like ISIS remind us that is not the case.  As long as an irrational thought can be ingrained inside someone’s head, humanity remains vulnerable to horrific acts of violence.  The issue plaguing our nation and the world isn’t gun control, LBGT equality, or even ISIS, although all these issues matter. The issue is that we live in a world where it is OK for people to think and act irrationally.  As long as we allow our laws, our morals, and our cultures to accept irrational thinking, people will use technology to hurt people. Irrational actors will use their words to disenfranchise and deny those different from them certain rights, and they will organize to collectively recruit others into their own irrational ideologies, regardless of the future impacts.

These events of terror hurt us all because the actions of these individuals don’t make sense to anyone but those with the same misguided beliefs.  We all find ourselves asking, “WHY?”

Why did the Nazi’s systematically kill Jewish people?  Why did the followers of Charles Manson carry out those horrific acts? Why did Dylan Roof kill innocent people at church?  Why did Omar Mateen kill 49 people in a nightclub in Orlando?  There isn’t a rational answer for why these things occur and that is the point—these acts are justified using irrational thinking. When we create a world where irrational thinking is acceptable, we create a world where these kinds of things can and will happen because irrational people do irrational things.

My heart hurts for all those directly impacted by the events in Orlando this weekend, but my heart also hurts for those in the future, destined to be hurt in equally painful ways because we have failed to learn from our past.  Yes, there are immediate actions we need to take to remedy the symptoms of this irrational disease, but treating the symptoms only buys us time to deal with the cause.  You can’t cure a disease by treating the symptoms.  The discussions centered on the Orlando shooting are focusing on the symptoms of a much greater cause, one that starts in places like our Constitution, our family traditions, and even our religious text.

So how do we fix this?  Maybe one place to start is with our thought leaders, like parents, educators, celebrities, and world leaders.  If this group of influential people, of which we are all a part of, committed themselves to promoting science and rational thought in every one of our choices, no matter how annoying it might be to think things through, perhaps we could minimize the irrational acts.  We currently live in a world where you can act irrationally in one setting, but not another, creating confusion and hypocrisy in our everyday lives.  If you truly believe that those in hell exist forever, why should it be any less damning to wish someone to the worst place imaginable than to kill them?  Both are irrational and both are bad for society.

It is time for something bold, something that signals to the world we are committed to finding a cure for all the unnecessary, irrational violence and hate in this world.  Maybe it is finally time to listen to our founding fathers and revisit the very nature of our Constitution-the doctrine we’ve all agreed is something that should reflect the ideologies of the people, work for the people and be by the people.  Let’s challenge our lawmakers to hold a Constitutional Convention, a meeting where we rethink the American way of life.  Let’s write a doctrine where the rights of individuals are not guaranteed by beliefs, but on rational decisions good for everyone.  Let’s make it so no law or regulation can be written without thinking it through rationally.  Let’s help lead the world to a better state by showing it a place where ideas like freedom of speech and the right to bear arms can exist without the fear that people will use those rights to convince others to do irrational things or resort to deadly acts of violence when they have irrational motivations.

Let’s unlock the true potential of freedom and create a rational world, a world where terror literally has no fertile place to grow.