Heisenberg Abroad

Over the last week I have been in Germany for a scientific conference. 10,000 doctors, professors, students, technicians, clinicians and researchers who study blood came together to share their research and to connect with our international colleagues. For those who are unfamiliar, these types of conferences generally mean talks and presentations from pretty early in the morning (7am for this conference) to dinner or later. After that the networking (and by networking I mean drinking) begins. So, in one sense I was excited to be going to a totally new place to meet up with the leading voices in my field. On the other hand I knew I would unfortunately not get a lot of time to explore the city of Berlin. Nevertheless, it is impossible to be in a foreign country without getting some taste of new things. By taste, of course, I am literally talking about gustatory tourism. Gustatourism?

It’s been said that the fastest way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, and the same is true of a country. Indeed, in my short stay here I have fallen in love with an omnipresent street food mainstay in metropolitan Berlin: Currywurst. It’s a wurst covered in curry and paprika spiced ketchup, usually served with fries. Discovering a new dish, especially one which is so linked to a city’s identity (in some areas there are three currywurst places in a four-way intersection), is one of the great joys of life. When you see great art, or appreciate a memorial, when you experience a moving theater production or learn a new game, you are permanently changed. Brushes with cultures other than our own leave impressions which last the rest of our lives. In the same way, discovering new foods enriches your life forever. Without having discovered currywurst, or schnitzels, or bratwurst, I deprive myself of all future chances to enjoy eating those dishes, and when I eat those dishes, I will think of Berlin!

90 years before my personal discovery of these German foods, a German physicist named Werner Heisenberg discovered something of almost equal importance and gravitas. He proposed the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, a set of inequalities which describe the relationships between certain physical properties of a particle. Put simply, it holds that it is impossible to precisely measure something’s speed and position at the same time. The faster something is moving, the less we know about the location.

One of my favorite things about currywurst (I promise this post is going to come together at some point) was the stands it’s sold at. Many of them are about 100 sq ft, a typical street food spot, but with lots of counter space around it and usually some standalone metal tables. This is key, since they usually serve it in flimsy paper containers not nearly big enough to hold all the fries (not complaining!). Sometimes I would be on my way back from a day of talks to the hotel, just trying to get back to shower and maybe catch some winks before going out to some bars and I would grab some currywurst. At first I was irritated that it was a bit harder to walk and eat (although the smaller sizes are more manageable), but as I took the 5-10 minutes to wolf it down, I looked around. I saw people buying strawberries at a dedicated strawberry stand, watched kids post up outside the S-Bahn station and smoke, break dance, skateboard. I watched diverse faces walk by, saw what other people were eating, what they were drinking. Old European men stood around outside a mini-mart drinking beer in public. I saw the predominantly non-white workers in sanitation, city maintenance. I watched beggars beg, homelessness. I learned how the bus system worked because my favorite stand (Yes I had a favorite stand after just one week. I ate…a lot of currywurst) was near the bus terminal. I picked up a couple German words listening to people order their food, or converse. In other words, when I wasn’t measuring my speed, I learned more about my location.

Whenever I had free time I was so exhausted from the conference and jetlag. At the same time I felt so pressured to see stuff. (Did you really visit a foreign country without the instagram pics to prove it?) I didn’t understand that just slowing down would provide way better resolution, and would give me a more enriching experience.

Today was the last day of the ISTH conference. We checked out of our hotel room around 8am Thursday, but my flight wasn’t until 6am Friday morning! Somehow the aggregate loss of sleep and stress of having to figure out what to do with myself in a foreign country for 16 hours with nowhere to call home base was really overwhelming me. The last day of the conference was much shorter, and sitting through each of the talks I could feel myself worrying more and more about…well I’m not sure what. I could have stayed for all the wrap-up stuff, but most of the people at the conference were leaving already, or had already departed! I could see everyone draining out of the conference center, and I saw my friends and colleagues quickly making their ways out of Germany itself! I felt like I was behind them, why did I get a Friday morning flight? I didn’t know everyone was going to leave now! My position became blurry. Speed was highly important again! Yet, what could I do? My flight was when my flight was. I had a ton of time, and so what if I didn’t have a home base?

I took my bags, containing everything I needed for two weeks in Europe, and I hopped on the train system I was only juuuust starting to understand. Instead of getting off at the stop near the hotel and just meandering through shops for hours on end, I just stayed on the train. One, two, three, four, five stops past where I would normally get off. I climbed off the train, clambered down the stairs awkwardly with my heavy computer bag weighing on my shoulder already. It was only 2pm. I had downloaded the map of Berlin on my phone already (I’m not about those roaming data fees), so I saw what was in the area. It turned out that about a 10 minute walk away was the Reichstag building, so I walked there. 10 minutes doesn’t seem too bad but with the bags it wasn’t the easiest trek. Especially because I had only my limited navigational skills to rely on, and all the signs are in German…I found the river on the map, walked along it. I walked past beautiful modern-looking governmental offices. It was, again, a slow way to see the city. Instead of finding the quickest route to a checklist of sights, I wandered toward the famous glass-domed edifice. Snapped some pics. Instagram, sated. My shoulders hurt. My phone was dying. The Brandenburg Gate was closeby. I walked through the touristy parts around the gate, then remembered that the Soviet War Memorial was pretty close to the gate too, so I wandered in that direction. Germans are much less aggressive jaywalkers.

There is a big park called the Tiergarten and lots of ponds and paths and green space along the Straße des 17. Juni, the big road that links the Brandenburg Gate to the Victory Column, with the Soviet War Memorial along the way. I took my time getting to the War Memorial, winding and weaving through Tiergarten. From the memorial I walked to the victory column, and from the victory column, I could see the tops of some buildings that looked familiar. So THAT’s where I was? (Remember I just hopped off the train). I was a lot closer to the small sector of Berlin I had become familiar with from our hotel being there than I thought. It was going to take a good 30 mins to get there I estimated, and my shoulders were hurting even more after spending a few hours wandering between landmarks, but I had all the time in the world to kill, and I started walking. As I did I started to recognize more and more streets or buildings in the distance. Looking at my map, I figured out where everything was in relation to each other. I mapped out my path ex post facto. Having arrived back in an area I was more comfortable in, I perused some shops and just hung around. After a while though, I was getting kind of tired of that area. I’d been hanging around it for a few days already, and if I didn’t leave I was going to continue to eat my weight in sausages.

Still having plenty of time to get to the airport (I was planning on staying up through the night, since I didn’t want to get an AirBnB or anything), I hopped back on the train, in the opposite direction this time, and I got off at each stop for a bit, seeing what the neighborhoods were like, the shops and people and restaurants, churches and theaters. I even wandered back through where each of the train stops were, but on foot. I just spent some time being in the city. When breathing a city in, breathing deep helped! Okay but my shoulders were seriously killing me at this point. I trekked back to the hotel we had checked out of, since that’s the area I knew. I considered just taking a cab to the airport, even though I had several hours still to kill, but decided that, since I had the time, I might as well explore another aspect of the city. I asked the concierge to explain how the busses worked, to make sure what I’d observed was correct, and rode the bus to the airport. I didn’t realize it had dropped me off one stop away from the actual airport stop. More walking. I came to relish it.

A cab would have been faster, and I could get my lab to pay for it, but I took the slower route. I wasn’t worrying about time. I considered hopping off the bus at a few points to just explore other parts of the city, but my feet and shoulders were on strike. This was the ideal way to explore a new city. So danke Heisenberg (for your equation, not so much the Nazi shit), danke to my PI for not booking a hotel on Friday (he dipped midday thursday anyway…), and danke Berlin.



Deep (Space) Cuts for Cosmic Sluts

An astral playlist of songs devoted to the stars, or with outer-space-like motifs. Perfect for evoking the particular flavor existential dread that comes with recognizing your utter insignificance, spacing out to late lone lullabies, or if you’re a stoner who thinks space is like, totally cool man.

Cygnus X-1|Rush

To Rush fans, the inclusion of the Cygnus duology is an obvious choice for this playlist. Rush, and especially their primary lyricist, Neil Peart, tell an allusion-dense and artistic epic about a hero aboard his trusty spaceship. The ship, the Rocinante, is named after the horse companion in Cervantes’ Don Quixote. This allusion to the literary madman Alonso Quixano conjures a vision which casts man exploring the vastness of space as the fool stumbling through the world he poorly perceives, in search of justice, to undo wrongs. The first minute or so of the song blends muted notes a la “deep sea documentary” with percussion that delays like an echo. Of course, nothing would actually echo in space because it is a vacuum, but the “echo” of the percussion serves to elicit the sensation of being in a large, open space such as…well, space! This intro period, paired with the fantastically syncopated bass riff that follows (Geddy Lee’s bass tone here reminds me of the tone that Flea from RHCP uses on their cover of “Higher Ground”) is the reason I have chosen to feature this, the first half of the saga, which originally spanned two albums! As for the name of the song itself, we had to expect there would be some reference there. Indeed, Cygnus X-1 refers to an X-ray emitting black hole 6,000 light years from our sun. The chaotic layering of instruments which occurs after the inital intro to “space” therefore may be taken to be our hero, aboard the Rocinante, encountering the chaos and majesty of a black hole.

Walking on the Moon|The Police

Sting, the lead singer and bassist of The Police, reportedly wrote this song drunk after a gig, while pacing around his hotel room. “Walking on the moon” was originally “Walkin round the room”, which doesn’t sound nearly as cool. Despite the obviously space-oriented title of the song, the lyrics actually use a moonwalk as a loose metaphor for being in a potentially doomed relationship

Some may say
I’m wishing my days away
No way
And if it’s the price I pay
Some say
Tomorrow’s another day
You stay
I may as well play

but being happy or illusioned by it…

Giant steps are what you take
Walking on the moon
I hope my legs don’t break
Walking on the moon
We could walk forever
Walking on the moon
We could live together
Walking on, walking on the moon

One of the main reasons I added this to the playlist is for the interesting take on “space”. Despite all being related to space, the songs on the playlist are supposed to represent different styles and different feelings that artists portray through space and the unknown. In the case of Walking on the Moon, Sting and The Police bring in a jazzy, eccentric vibe to the playlist. The guitar hits at the beginning, adorned with a bit of chorus but later played rather staccato, are a unique addition which meshes well with the uniqueness of using a reggae-style song to engage with outer space!

Life on Mars|David Bowie

Emerging from Bowie’s escapade through various sweeping fusions of pop styles known as Hunky Dory, one of the best-known songs from the illustrious artist brings us yet another unique take on space. Bowie himself has described the song as written from the perspective of an unhappy young person, but also as a love song.

“A sensitive young girl’s reaction to the media…she’s living in the doldrums of reality, she’s being told that there’s a far greater life somewhere, and she’s bitterly disappointed that she doesn’t have access to it” – Bowie circa ’97

“You fall in love, you write a love song. This is a love song.” -Bowie circa 1990

Perhaps the answer to this lies in some fusion of the two. Bowie fell in love with a girl who was disillusioned with the messages she was seeing in the media. Perhaps it was love of what he saw in her, rather than love of her, which lead to the end of their short affair. In any case, Bowie uses the question “Is their life on mars?” in juxtaposition to many other questions or issues raised by the song

Sailors fighting in the dance hall
Oh man! Look at those cavemen go
It’s the freakiest show
Take a look at the lawman
Beating up the wrong guy
Oh man! Wonder if he’ll ever know
He’s in the best selling show
Is there life on Mars?

In the minutiae of life and the saccharine flavor of promises of a better life, it seems that the almost absurd question “Is there life on mars?” serves to put everything in perspective. On one hand, the girl is almost desensitized to the movies, music and other media of her time, at the same time, she is unable to access that which she is most sensitive to. Bowie sings the question in an almost pleading, deliberately poorly controlled wail at the end of many of the choruses. The question of life in the universe is at once the most meaningful question and the most insignificant or absurd pursuit.

Onward to the Edge|Symphony of Science

In the midst of tracks artfully using space as a metaphor or writing epic tales with celestial backdrops, “Onward to the Edge” sticks out like a planet in the night sky. Doing one better than just writing about space, Symphony of Science takes an evocative piano melody and overlays auto-tuned clips of famous scientists, like Neil deGrasse Tyson and Brian Cox, talking about space. If you’ll allow me to wax a bit poetic about the song: rather than cheapening the feel of the song by using literal quotes about space from actual lectures or interviews, “Onward to the Edge” strikes us more as space using art than art using space. In other words, deliberately using less artistic license sheds light on the idea that space, inherently, is beautiful or evocative. Instead of co-opting space to engage human emotion, this track engages human emotion to enhance the experience of space.

There is a powerful recognition that stirs within us, when we see our own little blue ocean planet in the skies of other worlds.

Contact|Daft Punk

Although not as heavy-handed and literal as “Onward to the Edge”, “Contact” is another track off this playlist which relies on sampling real recordings, and seems to really be about space, rather than space as a metaphor for X. For me, the analog-sounding synthesizer riff makes me think about how space travel or ships used to be portrayed when I was growing up in the mid nineties. Beeps and boops, flashing lights, big tacky buttons, etc.. The prominent recorded drums add a rock feel to the song, which fits really well because, I don’t know, takeoff, fire, rock n’ roll? This song is unique among the tracks on the playlist because here the artists focus very much on the actual takeoff of Apollo 17 as the central locus of the song. The last minute and a half of the song are essentially just a stylized recording of the engines powering up and actually lifting off.

When Daft Punk were putting the song together, it became clear that it needed some real recordings, and a “liftoff” type vibe. My guess is that these recordings fit better into the song than expected, because rather than augmenting the song, these seem to play a highly centric role. In addition to audio footage from the launching of Apollo 17, NASA also granted Daft Punk access to all of their mission recordings to sample from. Given this wealth of options, the artists chose to include a recording from the Apollo 17 mission, wherein astronaut Eugene Cernan is describing an object seen out the window of their spacecraft.

“Hey Bob I’m looking at what Jack was talking about and it’s definitely not a particle that’s nearby. It is a bright object and it’s obviously rotating because it’s flashing, it’s way out in the distance, certainly rotating in a very rhythmic fashion because the flashes come around almost on time. As we look back at the earth it’s up at about 11 o’clock, about maybe ten or twelve diameters. I don’t know whether that does you any good, but there’s something out there.”

The quote gives an exciting or mysterious vibe to the whole song. What is that object in the distance? As fixated as human stories are with exploring the unknown, a lone and unidentified celestial object is about as unknown, distant, and mysterious as it gets. In the end it turned out that the object was some debris from their ship, which is highly anti-climactic, but somehow seems even more fitting. One of the producers on the track, Thomas Bangalter, described the choice of Cernan’s quote to end the album as important because, he was the last man to walk on the moon, some forty years ago.

Yoshimi Battles Existential Terror in Her Quest for Meaning

15 years ago, in 2002, The Flaming Lips released the seminal album Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. Despite first emerging onto the music scene some 20 years earlier, The Flaming Lips create a unique, intriguing, and complex body of work in this album. Subsequent listen-throughs reveal that there are really two albums in Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots.

The first is an idiosyncratic romp through battles with space baddies, and intergalactic adventure. The scenes are set with a pleasant blend of acoustic instruments and synthesizer notes. Symphonic swells and bright tones fill the backdrop, but the most exciting parts of the production are the sci-fi melodies and echoes of lyrics which are laced throughout and leave delightful discoveries to make each listening experience unique. The second album is a deeply melancholy, existential crisis in song. Songs about the plain regrets or sadnesses of humans alternate with questions of what these woes even mean in the scope of the vast universe around us.

The marriage of these two albums gives us songs like “Fight Test”, an almost “coming-of-age” story with a tinny guitar melody about a man looking back on a past relationship and regretting that he didn’t fight for the girl he loved when he had the chance. On the other hand, it also gives us “The Morning of the Magicians”, where the singer asks us what is love and what is hate, and why does it matter?. He is waking up, perhaps after a long night, reflecting on how the universe seems to exist around him in ways so wonderful that they seem to be magical. He’s questioning his place in it. Is to love just a waste, how can it matter?

In the penultimate song, we meet a version of our main character from the future, in keeping with the sci-fi vibe of the whole album. His future self tells him that they (or is it just he?) won’t make it. All we have is now. All we’ve ever had is now. The lyricist ends the album (the last song doesn’t really have any words) with the at once hopeful and crushing realization that his only promised moment is the current one. The pairing of phrases creates a paradoxical loop: If all he has is the current moment, then he has no moments from the past to reference. If he has no moments from the past, then how does he know that all he’s ever had is the moment at hand? Unless, of course, he means that this current moment is all he’s ever had, and that is life has been leading to the moment when he meets his future self (is his future self revisiting his past selves in the moments before death as his life flashes before his eyes?), perhaps a metaphor for death itself. If indeed my half-baked theory is correct, that’s quite a grim last message with which to leave the listeners!

This brilliant space odyssey through the delightfully twisted crises of our hero has quickly earned its place in my vinyl bin. (I know, don’t you just hate me a little more for that last sentence?)

Data and Distrust: American Indians in Genetic Research

Sometimes one of the hardest things for scientists like myself to do is to step back and realize that, in addition to engaging in an empirical and systematic way of answering questions about the world, I am part of a community of scientists. This community might not always represent what I believe, and it can be insular. To those of us who immerse ourselves entirely in the sciences, it simply takes a little extra thought to step back and be self-critical or at least self-conscious. When people disagree with a scientific consensus we are more likely to call them names than to try to engage with them. I agree, many anti-vaxers, many flat-earthers, many climate change deniers, are totally beyond where you can reach them. They are 100% ideologue and 0% data. However, there is a significant portion of that population which we can absolutely reach out to, understand their point of view, and present our data in an accessible way. For example, although it is easy to just brazenly declare that all climate change deniers don’t think the earth is warming, we might be surprised to find that many of them agree that the earth is warming, agree that a portion of it is man-made, and simply disagree on what percent of climate change is due to human activities. That’s way closer to scientific consensus than I would have previously believed. It got me to thinking that this useless put-down game of insulting the intelligence of people who disagree with us is another iteration of “If you didn’t vote like me you support racism and hate”, and we all know where that got us in November. Unless we can bridge this gap and understand the underlying distrust of science that comes from many communities, we are destined to struggle not only against our western blots, our mouse experiments, our chemical reactions or microscopy, but we must also struggle against our fellow man. For many of us, the whole reason we entered science was to help other people, to make a difference. That difference begins with understanding. Today I am sharing with you a small microcosm of this complex societal relationship between science, scientists, and the public. American Indians and Alaska Natives (AIAN peoples) are some of the most marginalized and perhaps mistreated groups in American history. Readers will know I’m not one to just willy nilly say anyone who isn’t in gender/sexual orientation/skin color group A is oppressed or in danger, that’s ridiculous, and almost deliberately oversimplified. Still, let’s be real: when it comes to native populations, we done fucked up a few times. 

American Indians and Alaska Natives number 5.4 million in the United States, representing almost 2% of the overall population [1] and growing at a rate which positions them to be an even larger percentage of the population by the next Census in 2020 [2]. In order to better care for this growing demographic, it is important to understand important genetic and medical histories of the population. In order to do this, members of the community must first be enrolled in studies. For many people, contributing their time or samples to genetic research feels like their chance to help out in some small way. Perhaps they feel as though donating to research is their “good deed” for the week, perhaps they know someone with a specific disorder, or else this is a disorder they might be predisposed to and they want to know more about their risk. In their 2011 paper, Michie et al. identify the potential for donated samples to help countless individuals in the future, the not-insignificant emotional rewards of donating time or tissue, and the possibility of learning about something which will affect them directly as major motivations for participating in genetic studies [3]. While all of these motivators likely apply to members of the American Indian community, their history with medical research is complex and often colored by injustices or mistreatment. As a result, native people are often highly suspicious or distrustful of scientific researchers and medical research as a whole. In order to better serve the healthcare needs of American Indian communities and in order for researchers to find a more respectful and collaborative approach to accessing these communities, it is necessary to first understand the numerous cultural and historical barriers, and ethical points which contribute to the issue at hand.

One of the hurdles to involving American Indians in genetic research studies is that two of the aforementioned primary motivators: possibility of research helping you and possibility of research helping others, are tainted by distrust and a perception that there is very little benefit to the donation of genetic information [4]. The concern on behalf of American Indians that interactions between the native population and the general American population (such as genetic research), will be inherently exploitative is not entirely unjustified. In one case which took place between 2003 and 2010, members of a small American Indian tribe, the Havasupai, donated DNA samples to researchers at Arizona State University with the expressed goal of understanding the debilitating rate of diabetes in their population. However, after donating their samples it came to light that their samples had also been used to study a vast array of conditions, including some highly culturally sensitive topics, such as mental illness, consanguinity, and other hereditary traits [5]. This presents the cultural/ethical issue. In explaining that they would use the samples to study a real health issue in the community (a perceived benefit), they failed to also indicate that the samples would be used to study other things which might not be perceived as beneficial to the Havasupai, or might even be perceived as exploitative or negative. On the other end, the geneticist who had performed the studies, Therese Markow, defends her studies saying that the broad consent form and verbal consent indicated the research was going to “study the causes of behavioral/medical disorders”. In her view and perhaps outright, the American Indians had indeed consented to have their blood studied for these purposes.

This case raises the question of where the ethical limit is for how extensively researchers need to assure that their subjects understand what it is they are consenting to. In genetic research, especially research which focuses on sensitive subpopulations, the informed part of informed consent is of vital importance. According to Nanibaa’ Garrison, a member of the Navajo Nation and professor of bioethics at Seattle Children’s Hospital “What really went wrong was a lack of communication and transparency.” [6]. The official settlement which followed this case reinforces this point. Arizona State University agreed to pay out a total of $700,000 divided amongst several affected members of the tribe, which some legal experts say established a precedent that the rights of subjects are violated if they are not fully informed of the uses of their DNA.

The poor relationship of American Indians with genetic research is not just limited to the fallout of unethically conducted science, either. The complicated and sometimes exploitative nature of American Indian relations with the general US population is steeped in a long and bloody history of biological warfare, genocide, westward expansion, and unfair legal treatment [7]. For a people with a long and rich cultural legacy, Indian removal policies, the trail of tears, and smallpox blankets are fresh memories with real modern-day impact. In an interview with Genome, associate professor of Native Studies at the University of Alberta Kim Tallbear says “Native people always serve as the same kind of object…genomic research, building a pipeline, doing resource development like timber, minerals, oil, and natural gas, we are always an object of curiosity and a place to extract resources.” [6]. This continued perception of exploitation by the US contributes to a sense of “othering” which may be at the root of another issue with genomic research in American Indians. It was previously mentioned that the chance for your samples to help others in the future was a major reason for people to participate in genetic studies. If American Indian populations feel as though they are separate, othered, or just don’t have much in common with the US population, then the possibility to help other people in the country starts to look more like the possibility to be used for another group’s gain and not your own. It is clear that Tallbear, along with many other representatives of native people, think of their genetic information in terms of a resource. In the same interview, Tallbear goes on to say “The last biological resource they want is our DNA. We are the resources upon which the US state is built. Nothing has really changed for us, while our cultures and sovereignty are not considered.” In this statement, she underscores an “us and them” mentality and reveals a clear correlation between genetic information and the more tangible natural resources which helped to build the United States. The question, then, is how researchers can underscore the potential benefits of genetic research not only to the “general population” but specifically to American Indians and to their tribe specifically. While it may be necessary to go to greater lengths in order to convince American Indians of the benefit of their genetic donation, ethically, it can be unclear where convincing ends and overselling begins. Part of informed consent and the ethical conduct of genetic research is being realistic about the benefits which might come to the participant or their community. If researchers oversell or make promises about data or information they can’t necessarily deliver on, it will only sew more seeds of distrust. That being said, there is a great deal of room for American Indians to benefit from genetic and overall medical research. Amongst these communities, the death rate is nearly 50% higher than that of white Americans, and epidemiologically they tend to have higher rates of diabetes [8], obesity [9], liver disease [10], and other conditions with potential genetic roots. Perhaps better communication of these issues and the potential for benefit to native populations can help to improve American Indian – research relations. The benefits of research can also be extended past a possibly esoteric or ambiguous benefit of future knowledge gained. Norton and Manson suggest that studies may employ local community members to help run studies, translate or communicate, and meet with tribal representatives to see how best the study results can be implemented or used to help the American Indian community directly [4]. Researchers may also present results to tribal leaders or a representative group following the study, in order to explain the benefits in a clear and understandable way, as well as to increase transparency, which we recall was identified by Garrison as an important point of contention in the Havasupai case.

American Indians are a people whose culture has been historically systematically suppressed through forcing American Indian children into boarding schools [11], appropriation of cultural knowledge [12], and theft of significant cultural artifacts [13]. As a result, releasing their genetic data, a biochemical stand in for their cultural and ethnic history, may represent a much more significant sacrifice than it does to other study participants. It is already evident that some American Indians consider their DNA and the information encoded within to be a biological resource. For insular communities like many American Indian tribes, genetic information isn’t just their story but also, in part, the story of their tribe. In a 2002 paper, Sharp and Foster argue that, in the case of genetic studies, the results not only affect the consenting participant, but everyone in that community who likely share similar genetic predispositions [14]. They highlight the higher frequency of specific mutations in the now-infamous “breast cancer genes” BRCA1 and BRCA2 in Ashkenazi Jews [15] as having implications for insurance and broader societal impressions. If it is known that Ashkenazi Jews have significantly higher rates of breast cancer, can Ashkenazi women be asked to pay higher insurance premiums? What about the broader stigma associated if a study should find that many American Indians are predisposed to alcoholism [16]? Clearly, this particular issue is not unique to American Indians, but fear of what might be discovered in genetic histories is a common concern. For example, what if a study discovers that you are going to develop Huntington’s, a fatal condition with no known cure when you are 40? What if you had passed it to your children? For American Indians, the concern of stigmatization is accompanied by a secondary threat, something which researchers from outside the community might not think is very important or unethical. In the case of the Havasupai tribe, in addition to the use of blood for studies of genetic disorders, one of the big concerns was that genetic research into the tribe’s geographical origins may contradict their traditional stories of how their tribe came to be, or from whom they descended [5]. Research into the peopling of the Americas thousands of years ago can often be at odds with tribal stories and lineages, and current genetic research may reveal information about family histories which individuals or tribes may not wish to know. In a recent letter to Nature, Reich et al. perform extensive genetic studies on 52 American Indian tribes, revealing potentially sensitive information about migration patterns. Their data reveal significant admixing between three waves of migration from Asia through the Bering Strait (Beringia) [17]. These data and information like it may threaten the identities and cultural beliefs of American Indians. Herein lies another potential ethical conundrum for researchers. In this case, a few volunteers from a large number of tribes have agreed to something which in the end affects aspects of a much larger community of American Indians and Alaska Natives. Some experts suggest that de-identifying the tribes which are used in research studies may be a workable solution [18]. However, the identity of the tribes, their geographic locations, and previous genetic studies on a given group may be important to the study at hand, especially one of a genetic nature. Furthermore, even attempts to de-identify tribes may not be successful. Many American Indian tribes number under 1000 members, with the notable exclusions of the Navajo and Cherokee, and are confined to very specific geographical regions. These two facts alone may make it difficult to anonymize study data. This is a potential issue which researchers must be cognizant of when working with American Indian populations.

American Indians and Alaska Natives suffer from elevated rates of many health conditions with genetic underpinnings such as obesity, diabetes, and liver disease. Simultaneously, there exists a long history of exploitation and abuse of native peoples, reflected in distrust and suspicion of genetic research by these populations. Several cultural and ethical barriers such as low perceived benefits of genetic studies, othering from the greater US population, and worries about genetic challenges to traditional stories and identities exist, separating researchers from valuable data, and native populations from the benefits of genetic research. In order to bridge this gap, proper communication, transparency, and a more sensitive cultural understanding on the part of the researchers are necessary such that genetic studies may ethically incorporate this and other vulnerable populations.



  1. Norris, T., P. Vines, and E. Hoeffel, The American Indian and Alaska Native Population: 2010. 2010 Census Briefs, 2012.
  2. Colby, S. and J. Ortman, Projections of the Size and Composition of the U.S. Population: 2014 to 2060. Current Population Reports, 2015.
  3. Michie, M., et al., “If I could in a small way help”: motivations for and beliefs about sample donation for genetic research. J Empir Res Hum Res Ethics, 2011. 6(2): p. 57-70.
  4. Norton, I.M. and S.M. Manson, Research in American Indian and Alaska Native communities: navigating the cultural universe of values and process. J Consult Clin Psychol, 1996. 64(5): p. 856-60.
  5. Harmon, A., Indian Tribe Wins Fight to Limit Research of Its DNA, in The New York Times. 2010: New York.
  6. Salamon, M., Turning the Tide: A legacy of abuse has caused many American Indians to distrust genomic studies, leading scientists to forge a new, more collaborative path forward. Genome, 2017. 4(1): p. 30-34.
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  9. Schell, L.M. and M.V. Gallo, Overweight and obesity among North American Indian infants, children, and youth. Am J Hum Biol, 2012. 24(3): p. 302-13.
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  16. Long, J.C., et al., Evidence for genetic linkage to alcohol dependence on chromosomes 4 and 11 from an autosome-wide scan in an American Indian population. Am J Med Genet, 1998. 81(3): p. 216-21.
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  18. Bowekaty, M.B. and D.S. Davis, Cultural issues in genetic research with American Indian and Alaskan Native people. IRB, 2003. 25(4): p. 12-5.


2nd Amendment Rhetoric

When dealing with the second amendment, which guarantees the “right of the people to keep and bear Arms”, there’s a lot of emotion involved, and a lot of rhetoric. There are some awesome videos circulating which debunk a lot of commonly held beliefs about the second amendment. However, some of them can be a little condescending or otherwise just a lot of information and change for someone who doesn’t have experience with firearms. I want to keep this post tight and succinct, so we’re going to talk about one of the most common arguments we see circulating around social media: the argument that the second amendment was written several hundred years ago and therefore doesn’t apply to firearms invented after 1789 (88-91 depending on where you draw the line). Some of you might correctly identify this as a subset of the argument against an originalist reading of the constitution. The argument, at its core, is that when the second amendment was written, common “Arms” were muskets and swords. Since technology has advanced and created new and more lethal firearms, it’s necessary to write legislation to fill this gap. You can see this argument shared almost verbatim from a common progressive facebook page below.Screen Shot 2017-04-11 at 11.58.13 AM

Although we know that “views” on a facebook video are a bit inflated, 60million is still a pretty high number. This isn’t some fringe viewpoint or argument, the page has over 4.5 million likes.

We’ll ignore  the fact that a short argument such as this doesn’t specify what kinds of new gun laws we need because of the limitations of making a quick, simplified, statement over the internet. However, if we accept this way of looking at the bill of rights and the constitution at large, a few comical (in a terrifying way) observations can be made.

Let’s start with the first amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Parallel argument: This is what press looked like when the first amendment was written *image of printing press*. This is why we need new freedom of press laws. Since the internet and computers were not invented in 1789, the founding fathers had no way of knowing how vast and powerful our sharing tools would become. We need new laws on the book to regulate what people can publish online. When the founding fathers wrote the constitution, how could they have possibly anticipated that televisions, blogs, radio or microphones would be invented? These tools give you the capability to speak freely to 1000 people per second! We need to regulate what citizens can say on these media. When they said free speech they meant in the town square, to as many people as you could yell.

Other things not protected under the first amendment: google hangouts, youtube videos, video chatting, text messaging, phone calls, megaphones, email.

The third amendment is kind of a boring one for this parallelism. I guess one could say that houses now are way bigger and have features the founding fathers couldn’t have imagined so if your house uses any post 1789 features like a two car garage? That’s not protected bro, congress can make a law saying you have to quarter 4 army dudes in your garage forever.

The fourth amendment:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Parallel argument: The founding fathers say “houses and papers”, but they didn’t say anything about your smart phone! You are not protected from seizure of your phone records, internet history, photos, documents, spreadsheets, usage data, text messages, emails, online shopping record or any form of digital communication or storage of information at all. Really anything that was invented after 1789 which can be searched, they don’t need a warrant for.

What about the fifth and sixth amendments? Sure it was reasonable to have a fair trial in front of a jury when the population of the newly-minted country was ~2.5 million people. There’s no way they could have anticipated that the population was going to grow to 320 million. Besides there are way more laws now, laws they didn’t know about. It makes it SUCH a burden to give everyone a fair trial in front of a jury of their peers.

As we can see, making an argument based on the limited foresight of the founding fathers leads to a whole lot of relativism. The bill of rights is written as a document which expressly prohibits the government from infringing on basic rights of American citizens. You can argue that you don’t want the right to bare Arms to be a basic right guaranteed to Americans, but you should be clear that that is what you are arguing for, the removal of rights currently guaranteed by the bill of rights. Just because the founding fathers didn’t know about new technology isn’t a sufficient argument for our basic rights as Americans not applying to those things. Just because the framers didn’t know that someone was going to invent an AR15 or your standard semi-automatic handgun doesn’t mean that those aren’t protected by the constitution.



There is Goodness in the World

It is a common axiom that intelligent people are often less happy. Many historical geniuses or great inventors were notoriously depressed, loners, or removed from normal healthy interactions in some way or another. Oppenheimer spent the rest of his life following the Manhattan Project deeply upset with the idea that something as terrible and destructive as the atomic bomb existed, and that he had created it. For Oppenheimer, the root of his unhappiness resulted directly from the fruits of his impressive intellect and likely the tangible destruction it had wrought. When asked about the first time the Manhattan Project team saw the A-bomb tested, Oppenheimer famously said

“A few people laughed, a few people cried, most were silent…I remembered a line from the Hindu scripture…bhagavad gita…Vishnu takes on his multi-armed form and says ‘now I am become death, destroyer of worlds’ I think we all felt that. One way or another.”

This is one of his most famous quotes, and for good reason. Although the recording adds a certain humanity and emotion to the words, even the text alone belies a deep, existential and metaphysical dread. Some might say that it wasn’t necessarily his genius that was intertwined with his unhappiness, but rather the child of his intellect, the bomb. To that I might ask you if there is a difference between the two. Nonetheless, a perhaps less intellectually flippant answer would be to refer to a lesser-known quote from Oppenheimer. In a 1929 letter to his brother, Oppenheimer wrote:

“I can’t think that it would be terrible of me to say — and it is occasionally true — that I need physics more than friends”

Robert Oppenheimer was not unique in his woes. Vincent Van Gogh was reportedly unhappy all his life, with frequent depressive spells and other mental illness plaguing one of the most influential geniuses in western art history. This eventually lead to him taking his own life before age 40. He is credited as having created his own unique style, and is arguably the most prolific and ingenious Belgian artist of all time. However, he died poor and alone, having painted most of his 2100+ pieces in the two years prior to shooting himself in the chest.

Yet another example, the great Ernest Hemingway, who suffered a deep depression, once said:

“Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.”

A few years and several failed electroshock therapy treatments later, Hemingway himself ate a bullet from his favorite gun.

These geniuses represent peaks in human brilliance and talent, but the trend also holds in a general sense. People who have gone through a long period of schooling relative to the general population are some of the least happy people I know. Some of you might be thinking that level of schooling isn’t a very good proxy for intellect. I agree.  You might say that the reason that unhappiness and schooling don’t anecdotally correlate better than they already do is because there are lots of people who are well educated but otherwise rather unintelligent. 

Having acknowledged the limitations of using schooling as representative of intellect, I have noticed a peculiar something about the ivory-tower social justice which of late innervates more and more aspects of university life and learning, especially in the United States. As the now infamous clip of the pop-culture feminist icon, Anita Sarkeesian, proclaims 

“When you start learning about systems, everything is sexist, everything is racist, everything is homophobic and you have to point it all out to everyone all the time”

I often hear the argument that treating everything as prejudiced is either hyperbolic, or is an extremist view. But  the millions of people making up the general readership of several common news outlets seem pretty okay with this “extremism”. According to Salon, voting for Donald Trump is a sexist reaction to women’s rights. According to Slate, craft brewing has a sexism problem. Here, the New York Post reminds us that calling a pantsuit a pantsuit is extremely problematic. University of Wisconsin recently offered a post-doctoral position in feminist biology because science is sexist too!

Thank god we have some pop culture icons to guide us in the right direction as well, I hope they make a condescending video telling me who to vote for and what to think! Who wouldn’t want to get their political viewpoints secondhand from Barbara Streisand who told the Hollywood Reporter that sexism extends to lab animals? Babs unironically spouts off the fact that only male mice are used in labs because the female mice’s hormones are more complex. She goes on to explain that this is true about human females too. Only one problem: as someone who works in a mouse lab, she’s utterly incorrect. Where do you think we get new mice of the same genetic lineage you dense motherfucker? Indeed standard scientific protocol dictates that mice be gender balanced and age matched within an experiment.

The Telegraph reports, admittedly a bit tongue-in-cheek, that air conditioning is now sexist because the work clothes women wear are lighter and often don’t cover as much of their body so they end up cold in the office. To this I would suggest that they switch over to a pantsuit but it’s sexist to say that word. My bad.

I could go on for hours like this, but at risk of losing the spirit of this piece, I digress satisfied that I’ve challenged the “vocal minority” talking point.

“Hold on, did he just compare Anita Sarkeesian to Van Gogh?”

In the sense that underscoring contrast is a comparison, yes.

Perhaps in order for my meaning to be understood, I need to explain what got me thinking about this topic in the first place. A few days ago I was watching a video compiled by a friend with whom I studied abroad. We were involved in an ecology and wildlife management program in east Africa. Studying in Tanzania was one of the best, most memorable, and formative experiences of my life. However, as I was watching the video, which featured short clips of wildlife, everyday life in the village, classes, and safaris we had been on, the smile that was plastered over my face began to taste sour. I was watching a clip of myself and a few students sitting around with one of the organizers of the base camp. Yohanna, an Tanzanian man, was full of such ebullient life and happiness that it was impossible not to feel a little happier around him. He was just that kind of guy. He had a very characteristic greeting that would often announce his presence before you even saw who was speaking. “Allllooo” (ah-low) he would say in a sing-song kind of voice. In this particular clip we were trying to get him to give his signature greeting so that we could document it. As I was watching it I cringed a little “Were we teasing him for having an accent when he already speaks 4 times as many languages as most of us? Was he just putting up with us because of our class and skin color? Was the pleasantness of our interaction merely a function of privilege?” It was an insidious thought, something terrible that I couldn’t shake at first. Something deep down told me this wasn’t the case. Yohanna is a good man. The experiences that we shared, the cultural exchanges, were good and real. Talking to people around the village, making food with the Maasai mamas, building thorny enclosures with poor farmers, experiencing another culture and world. So long as these actions don’t come from a “white savior” position, so long as you recognize the fortune which put you in that position, why should I let the ideology of my freshman seminar class govern the way I experienced the world? Indeed, this mentality which purports to be respectful of cultural differences was very clearly getting in the way of a real cultural exchange!

And therein was the answer to the dilemma I was grappling with. The ideology that was being proclaimed by academia, which I was a part of, told me that everything was problematic. Due to the systems in place there was nothing good about interactions between any people except those who fill the same gender, racial, sexual, ability, and class roles. But this isn’t just true of ivory tower social justice. How many times have you seen a buzzfeed or HuffPo article or your friend’s status (okay this might just be because I have a lot of social justice warrior friends…) about how hard it is to be “woke” because you see sexism and inequality in every movie or TV show, in all media, everywhere in the world? 

When the great geniuses and intellectuals of history are faced with beauty and truth, those truths may not be good ones. They may not be happy. Indeed, perhaps Van Gogh couldn’t have been a true artistic genius without access to the dread and darkness that came with his depression. My point is they didn’t seek it out. On the other hand, seeing every interaction as potentially problematic based on skin color or gender identity does not represent intellectualism or truth. Expecting prejudice of all media and interpersonal interactions we see is an ideology, and ideologies are where truth develops Stockholm syndrome. Seeing everything through one lens is not intellectualism, it is laziness. It ignores the countless beautiful and difficult and complex dimensions of humanity. Sometimes the more we “learn” the less we think about things. There is a famous Zen saying from the great teacher Shunryu Suzuki…

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the master’s mind there are few”

While he was likely referring to the notion that someone who is naive about a topic might think about problems in a unique way, that a master would not consider based on his experience, I think it applies here as well. Indeed, in the mind of someone embedded deep in the ideology of academia, there is only the truth that interactions between humans almost always involve some power differential. Are there interactions which are problematic? Yes. Of course. However, it would seem to this writer, that seeing problems in the place of goodness and truth is the greater threat to understanding this beautiful and terrible world. 

The experiences I shared with Yohanna and all my other east African friends were real and good. Looking back on something as simple as sharing a cold ginger beer on a hot night or working together to set up a tent or monitor a group of animals reminds me of how, despite how my education might have postured me to be unhappy , there is goodness in this world.

Acknowledge that which is wrong in the world, and fight it tirelessly, but do not inject poisonous hate and negativity into memories or falsely apply them to experiences. We are complex systems interacting with complex systems within complex systems. It is not Socratic sadness that leaves us questioning a simple conversation, a hug, a gesture, but the blindness of an ideologue. While the nature of truth and genius and intellect may dictate that they often carry with them sadness, we must not confuse the perception of negativity with truth and genius and intellect.

A year ago I learned that Yohanna had died in a motor-bike accident near the Kenya-Tanzania border. It was deeply upsetting. I knew that people died in accidents with motor bikes fairly often in that region of Africa, but Yohanna was young, it didn’t feel like his time. The world had lost someone so full of life and whose presence was a blessing to others. The true sadness was not that my experiences with Yohanna had been tainted by privilege or systems of oppression. The true sadness was knowing how much good had left the world with that cheerful, 5’4″ Tanzanian man.

Heil PewDiePie

For those of you who don’t have your pulse on the drama of youtube personalities (and really, what decent person does?), there has recently been a scandal involving perhaps the most prominent Youtuber ever, PewDiePie. With over 3K videos and over 50 Million subscribers, it’s impossible to deny that PewDiePie is a powerful cultural force. Of late, the wall street journal, an otherwise reputable newspaper, reported that PewDiePie had ties to nazism. For most people, accusing someone of being a Nazi or Nazi sympathizer is an extremely serious accusation. However, for the mainstream media, it seems like this is just another day.

Around the vlogosphere, youtubers and commentators alike have been launching videos and blogs almost unanimously in support of PewDiePie. The basics of the situation are, PewDiePie makes regular jokes about the Nazis and Hitler in his videos. Are these jokes in good taste? That’s up to the listener. Are they neo-nazi propaganda? Fucking no. Jesus. Fucking no. For decades, Hitler has been the edgelord off-limits joke subject that many comedians fall back on for the guaranteed shock value. However, based on some particularly racy videos released by PewDiePie and also based on his endorsements and YoutubeRed series (both of which he has lost in the wake of this scandal), PewDiePie apparently need edit his jokes otherwise it is apparently fair to decry him as a Nazi.

I don’t want to get into a whole rant about this because to be honest, I don’t know a ton about the heart of the issue. I am not intimately knowledgable about what happened. From what I understand, some dude who jokes about Nazis sometimes was targeted and called out as a Nazi, which he clearly isn’t. My stake in this issue is that issues like this are unbelievably deleterious to the credibility of the MSM. When we watch news outlets continue to point the finger at people and call them racist, nazis, sexist, etc., especially when that person has literally almost as many subscribers as President Trump had voters, people are going to realize they are full of shit. Buzzwords and click bait titles involving racism or Nazism are surefire short-term ways to gain clicks or views, but in the end I can’t help but think this is incredibly damaging to mainstream journalism. Writers for the numerous outlets (not just WSJ) who picked up this story and ran with it should honestly be ashamed of themselves. It would take an unbelievably short amount of time to do the investigative journalism required to clearly debunk the claim the PewDiePie is a Nazi sympathizer. The fact that the story has gained any traction is a damning look at the mainstream media and journalistic standards.

Indeed, it is stories just like this one which drive more and more people away from cable news or establishment journalism and more towards alternative media and more uncensored, unfiltered sources for their political news. Naturally I encourage my readership to diversify the types of alternative media they consume. However, it seems with this latest scandal and countless other “fake news” stories circulated by outlets of both/all political slants, it becomes truly difficult to continue to trust anything reported by the MSM without independent verifications.

I have long railed against the entertainment news paradigm, and with this latest election and what I believe to be America and the world’s departure from the values of truth and data, it becomes almost necessary to expand one’s reading and watching to get the whole picture. Unfortunately, for most people, it isn’t plausible to gain this broad insight. In the wake of PewDiePie-Gate, are we seeing a shift in the overall attitude toward the MSM? What would happen if this smear campaign had been orchestrated against someone with a smaller viewership, who didn’t have the voice to speak out? These types of accusations are serious and can ruin lives. Will this scandal be doomed to echo around the halls of the broader youtube viewership, or is that viewership a large enough percentage of the population that this leaks into our collective psyche?