News


Since it was on major news and aggregate sites yesterday, I can pretty much assume that all of the internet has seen yesterday’s story on the super mouse. Basically, researchers have found a way to genetically alter mice so that they have an astounding 10 times the normal number of mitochondria in their muscles! (Quick review: mitochondria are the fundamental energy plants of cells: they breakdown glucose from which they provide energy for all of the cell processes) These mice eat twice as much, but have half the body weight because they have almost no fat reserves. Recalling the movie Bladerunner you might think, “but they die at a young age, right?” Actually, they live longer than normal mice, and were still producing litters at three years of age – equivalent to over 80 years old in human terms.

So what are some possible ramifications? From the BBC article:

Other research groups have produced similar novel rodents by altering different aspects of their genetics. One criticism of the work is that it could open the door to abuse, with the spectre of athletes resorting to gene therapy to try to improve their performance.

But Professor Hanson played this down. “Right now, this is impossible to do – putting a gene into muscle. It’s unethical. And I don’t think you’d want to do this. These animals are rather aggressive, we’ve noticed.”

It makes the animals more aggressive? He thinks that is going to keep unscrupulous athletes from gene-doping? What hole has he been living in? This shows one of the major misgivings I have with medical research in general, and genetic research in specific: no thought for the consequences. The article briefly addresses the issue of athletes trying to gain a genetic advantage, but what about military applications? Who doesn’t think the pentagon or some other nation would pay top dollar for genetic ‘super soldiers’?

The truth of the matter is, no matter how much the public decries it as unethical, as soon as the technology becomes available there will be people trying to genetically engineer a ‘super soldier’ or a ‘super athlete.’ If nothing else, the sheer amount of money put into professional sports and military technology is an indicator that if the technology exists, there will be people willing to take the chance. You just have to genetically engineer a zygote, implant it into a surrogate mother from a 3rd world country who is willing to do such things for money, and have the baby brought to gestation at a facility in a ‘country of convenience’ (somewhere in eastern europe, SE asia, etc.). You now have your genetic superbaby. And what about when gene therapy through retroviruses becomes viable? You can bet there will be athletes willing to give it a chance.

Similarly, as soon as the technology to target and trigger genes for increased intelligence, beauty, immune system, etc. are found, there will be rich parents from all over the world willing to pay an exorbitant sum of money to ensure that their child is a perfect beautiful genius, no matter what laws may be in place to stop such genetic tampering. Even if you pass laws in the U.S. and other 1st-world nations, once the technology exists there will be clinics in India, Bulgaria, Georgia, and such places where the genetic treatment can be done.

I realize this technology has great potential to help cure all sorts of genetic and other health problems, but it really is a Pandora’s box. Professor Hanson’s statement seems incredibly naive to me. This is classic Pandora: he has too narrow of an idea of where and how his technology may be used or abused, and that others – even those with similar technical ability – may not share his sense of morality.

Last month I was in Japan for two weeks, finally being reunited with my family after a 6-week seperation. This is simply because Ryoko wanted to go home for 2 months, but I of course could only get 2 weeks of vacation off. So while I was very happy to see my family again, there wasn’t a lot to do once we got there, since Ryoko’s mother wasn’t feeling well and Ryoko had to fix all the meals, etc. while we were there.

Ryoko’s home is literally a 30-second walk to the shore of Lake Biwa, Japan’s largest lake. She’s on the northwest shore in the small town of Imazu. Ryoko’s father is retired, having worked for Mitsubishi his entire career, and now he occupies his time by running a small kiosk at the ferry dock, which is also nearby. You can see it here. (Also, if you go a little bit north, you’ll see a small shop labeled 青空趣味の店 Aozora hobby shop that is Ryoko’s home. Her mother also runs a small seasonal shop that sells local crafts, and since the location is registered at their home address, it shows up there on the map.)

Anyway, my father-in-law heard from the director of the ferry that Japan’s Prime Minister, Abe Shinzo, would be landing at their dock the next day! With the recent incident of the Minister of Agriculture committing suicide after being indicted for taking bribes, the LDP was in trouble with an election coming up. With the polls showing the LDP taking a serious hit in Shiga prefecture (which contains Lake Biwa), the Prime Minister himself was stumping through the prefecture, which he was doing by taking a ferry around Lake Biwa and stopping at several places to speak.

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Political commentator George Will has a very thought-provoking editorial about the political history and ramifications of Prime Minister Koizumi’s visits to the Yasukuni shrine. Will doesn’t particularly condone the visits, nor does he demonify them. This is by far one of the more objective viewpoints I’ve ever seen on the whole problem. Will makes a very poignant observation at the end:

The controversy about Yasukuni should not mystify Americans. With their comparatively minor but still acrimonious arguments about displays of Confederate flags, Americans know how contentious the politics of national memory can be, and they understand the problem of honoring war dead without necessarily honoring the cause for which they died.

Update: My friend Mitch did a detailed analysis on this editorial showing that it really isn’t neutral, nor does it really have much to do with the Yasukuni problem in the first place. I won’t pretend to be an expert or even slightly knowledgeable in this area, so I’ll bow to Mitch’s superior knowledge and intellect. I think what caught my eye on the article is that it was the first time I had ever read anything that wasn’t a spittle-flying condemnation of Koizumi and Yasukuni, since I don’t really read any Japanese right-wing news or literature.

As everyone who hasn’t been living under a media blackout for the past month is aware, last Saturday was the 60th anniversary of the Hiroshima Bombing. This anniversary, while being a very big deal in Japan, for obvious reasons, is lucky to get a 30 second blurb in the news here in the U.S. But with it being the 60th anniversary ( as opposed to the 59th or 61st, which just aren’t as important…) of the incident, it’s seen a lot more coverage here this year. Lots of documentaries on the History Channel, coverage by all the news networks, even the front page of TIME magazine. I won’t touch too much on the issue of the bombing itself, how much it was or was not justified, etc., since there are millions of people more informed and more outspoken than I am, and anything I say wouldn’t really add to what’s already been said.

What is interesting to me is that for the first time I was able to hear the testimony of a Hiroshima survivor in person. His name is Satoru Konishi, a retired professor of German literature at Tokyo Metropolitan University and currently the secretary of Hidankyo, Japan’s largest organizaton of survivors from the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. He was sposored by a group of interfaith ministries and peace advocacy groups here in Austin to visit the city and give an account of his experiences with his message of peace and abolishment of all nuclear weapons.

On Friday I saw it mentioned in the newspaper that a Hiroshima survivor would be speaking on Saturday and mentioned it to Ryoko. Of course growing up in Japan she had heard the testimonies of several hibakusha (被爆者, a Japanese word literally meaning ‘bomb affected people’, but that translation sounds PC and stupid to me, I prefer ‘bomb victims’), since pretty much anyone growing up in Japan’s educational system visits Hiroshima and possibly also Nagasaki as a school trip. (Also perhaps not surprisingly, she never heard a thing about the Nanking Massacre going to school in Japan, only recently learning details about it when curiousity piqued her to look up information on it via the internet.) But every nation does it’s best to keep incidences where it was the victim in constant rememberance, and to gloss over or altogether fail to mention incidences where it was the agressor, so I’m not specifically criticizing Japan here.

Anyway, Dr. Konishi was giving his address at a grove in the large park in the center of Austin, conveniently only a 10 minute drive from our apartment. I had read a few accounts from various survivors, but never had the opportunity to hear the testimony of a survivor in person. Ryoko also thought it would be a good experience for us to go, so we went. When we got there though, we didn’t quite get what we expected.

The program in the newspaper said that Dr. Konishi would be giving his address at 7:00, but that was not the case. We arrived at a couple of minutes after 7:00, and nothing had started yet. Surprisingly, there were very few people there, only about 50 or so. Ryoko had thought that there would be several hundred students there, since a similar event in Japan would have had many students in attendance. There were only a handful of people that looked like they were college-age. Most people were sitting on blankets on the grass, a few had brought lawn chairs. We brought a blanket, so we sat on the grass likewise. Nothing had started yet, so everyone was just talking amongst themselves. After a few minutes, it slowly started to settle on Ryoko and I that we didn’t really fit in very well with this group of people. Most people seemed to be in thier mid-50’s or so, wearing light summer clothing: shorts, t-shirts, summer dresses, etc. I noticed that most of the men had long hair, which is not unheard of, but fairly uncommon in an older age group. What really caught my attention though, was the subjects of the conversations that were going on around us. Organic food… vegetarian… yoga… meditation… and then it donned on me. We were surrounded by hippies! Since everyone here seemed to be in thier mid-50’s, that would have made them teenagers back in the 60’s. These weren’t the wanna-be hippies that I had gone to high-school with: classmates that wore tye-die shirts and long hair, smoked pot (or pretended to) and pretending to be counter-culture revolutionaries while at the same time driving sports cars thier dads had bought them with a 6-figure salary. No, these were people who had lived through the real counter-culture in the 60’s and 70’s, and to some extent were still living it. Just listening to the conversations around me would have been an interesting evening in itself.

A few minutes before the program started, a man came around with a petition, asking for signatures. It was a petition to protest UT’s possible involvement with Los Alamos. (To make a long story short, the government has had a lot of mismanagement scandals at Los Alamos National Laboratory and has put the whole thing up to bidding to see who manages the whole place. University of Texas System is one of the 4 or so organizations currently bidding on it.) I had nothing against Los Alamos, even if I were staunchly anti-nuke, there haven’t been any nuclear tests at Los Alamos for decades, current nuclear research there focuses on safely maintaining the U.S.’s nuclear aresanal and safe disposal of nuclear weapons and waste. Most research there now is unrelated to nuclear weapons at all, it’s just another national lab, like Livermore or Sandia. (Most nuclear weapon testing now is done with large super-computer simulations. Live tests, which are now very rare, are only conducted underground at the test range in Nevada.) Nor did I have any particular problem with UT managing Los Alamos, so I politely declined.

When the program finally started, it was conducted by a local Lutheran minister, the chairman of the local interfaith ministries. He had a deep, sonorous voice, and sounded like he could work as a professional announcer almost anywhere. It turned out that Dr. Konishi was actually the last on the program (I should have guessed. The main event is always last, whether it’s a classical concert or professional wrestling.), so before we heard him speak we had to endure our way through several other ‘acts’.

A woman named Susan Bright gave what was called a ‘liturgy’, although I think anyone Catholic there would have found the use of that word more than a little strange. Basically it was some kind of prose poem, with a refrain that she asked the audience to repeat with her. If you read her poem, the message is well-spoken, though a bit on the emotional side. When she implied that her brother dying of leukemia in Pennsylvania was due to nuclear weapons, I found that a bit of a stretch. Overall though, what could have been a powerful message instead was, well, creepy. I’m not sure how to describe it. The delivery was all wrong or something. Her voice was way too loud, so that our ears were ringing by the time she was done. Instead of instilling a desire for peace or abolishment of nuclear weapons, I instead felt like this was a person I should do my best to avoid.

Next there were a couple of musical numbers. A couple from Costa Rica sang a few songs in Spanish. Their voices were absolutely wonderful, and Spanish generally sounds very nice in music. I couldn’t understand a word of it, of course, but before he sang he told us the message of his song was “If someone tells you that we must fight, then don’t believe them. It is a lie.” After the couple, an older gentleman led the group in singing a few songs. “We shall overcome”, “Give Peace a Chance”, etc.

This has gotten rather long, I’ll write about what Dr. Konishi said in the next post.