Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Humane Society of the United States launches new Billboards

New billboards from the Humane Society of the United States are going up in the State of North Carolina; a high volume pork producer. Seeing this in my Twitter stream made me think of this video of Dr. Bernie Rollin speaking on humanity's ancient contract with farm animals. You can read my full interview with Bernie from a few years back here.



Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Copy Co-Op: reworking the "selfish" gene.

The nucleosome. Image generated from the protein data bank file deposited by Luger et al in 1997.  This a representative model of the atomic structure of one nucleosome the basic packaging unit of chromatin. Chromatin is the mixture of DNA and proteins that make up chromosomes, the heritable parts of living things.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Ice Drumming!

Hat tip to Sarah Keartes for sharing this incredible blend of nature and art on this first weekday of the Jul time. Brilliant!

Sunday, December 1, 2013

China Launches Lunar Lander

Image credit - China Daily/Reuters
For the first time since 1976 humanity will land a functioning robot on the Moon.

Dubbed Jade Rabbit the lunar lander was rocketed into orbit in the early morning hours of December 2nd, 2013 from the Xichang launch center in Sichuan, China.

The vehicle carrying the jade rabbit is called the Chang’e-3 spacecraft.

Though the official landing date and location has not been revealed it is thought the spacecraft will reach lunar orbit in four days and the rover will then be sent down to gently land on the surface on December 14th in the Sinus Iridum region on the earth-facing side of the moon.

Neil deGrasse Tyson on "Agnostic" vs. "Atheist"

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The leafy-green in the coal mine

June Medford PhD has used the techniques of synthetic biology to create a plant that can detect the chemicals present in a bomb. In this interview with PBS Dr. Medford reveals additional potential of this environmental monitor.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Friday, November 15, 2013

Who runs the Interwebs?

This week's Freakonomics podcast with hosts Stephen Dubner and Steve Levitt was so good I had to listen to it twice. A major highlight is Dubner's conversation with NYU internet scholar - Clay Shirky. In my mind Shirky makes soem excellent points about the absurdity of trying to regulate technology before it is born. This is playing out right now on kick-starter as the people who run kickstarter have banned people from offering home-made genetically modified organisms in the wake of the glowing plant project's success. Keep your eyes on this blog as I have glowing plant seeds on the way sometime next spring. I will write about my experience. In the mean time, have a listen to this week's incredibly engaging Freakonomics!

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Wise words from Baron d'Holbach


From the skeptics guide to the universe I present this epic skeptical quote of the week all the way from the eighteenth century.
“If we go back to the beginnings of things, we shall always find that ignorance and fear created the gods; that imagination, rapture and deception embellished them; that weakness worships them; that custom spares them; and that tyranny favors them in order to profit from the blindness of men.” ~Baron d’Holbach

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Open Access Crusaders: interview with the Eisen Brothers

Vampire Phylogeny



"Teeth lengthened by receding gums glow in the shaded valleys of the Carpathian basin. The genetic milieu of the Visigoths, Huns, Carpians, and Slavic peoples have swirled over centuries as granite crags pushed populations into shallow gene pools. A ghoulish thing of legend emerged from Transylvania and has since soaked literature and pop-culture with a reddish froth. Science and medicine have given us reason not to fear for our necks in a story that is truly stranger than fiction... "

Thus begins one of my most successful Blog Posts.  The idea to write up this particular hypothesis on a biochemical etiology of vampires was born on a fall day in 2008. A fellow graduate student at Colorado State - Nicholas Clark and I were talking about "talking about science" to the public.  We decided a useful method to engage the public would be to hook them in with a popular topic and then sneak in some hardcore biochemistry.  So we did it. We planned a "Biochemistry of Halloween" lecture and delivered it the following fall.  There were 60-70 people in attendance and the talk was wildly popular. So popular in fact that Nick and I were invited to present the talk for the Colorado State Alumni association at the Park Hill library in Denver the following year. This time there were more people from the general public and our presentation was met with even greater enthusiasm.  One of the attendees even came up to us afterwards and asked us for all our references as she was particularly interested in the porphyria/vampire hypothesis as her ex had a form of the disease and was now in jail for attempting to slit her throat with a paring knife.

After this experience I have been hesitant to present this talk because I feared it may be taken the wrong way. As if we were saying "people with porphyria are vampires." This is not what we were trying to get across. I have since finished graduate school and moved on to a postdoc at Emory University in Atlanta. Nick is Postdocing at NIST near Washington DC. 

Recently, I took it upon myself to raise the talk from the dead. I presented it at Nerd Nite Atlanta at Manuel's Tavern on October 16th, 2013.  I also amended the talk to include several disclaimers about porphyria patients and attempt to address the stigma that has recently become associated with this very serious genetic disease. I felt much better about the talk this time and it was well-received by an enthralled audience though it was not the same without Nick and his unique knowledge-set on the biochemistry of Zombies and Zombification. 

If you are interested in hearing the revamped talk I will present it in a Google Hangout this coming weekend. If you can not make it for the live performance no worries I will put up the recording right here!

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Thursday, October 17, 2013

ShutDown/OpenUp Funny

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

New chapter in the the "Story of Stuff"



If you have ever seen Annie Leonard's brilliant "Story of Stuff" digital short I thought you would appreciate the phoneblok idea.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

What is this and how did I find it?

Monday, October 14, 2013

Hello Dolly

The New York Times RetroReport (which I've featured previously) focuses its light on Dolly the sheep and the implications of animal cloning. Looking at the legacy of Dolly and all the fear pumped into the mainstream by the media makes me think we really need to stop letting all the chicken little attitudes hog the microphones in the aftermath of biotechnology breakthroughs. I'm talking to you Krulwich!

Do not FUCK with science bloggers!

My friend and colleague Dr. Danielle Lee had a run in with the man this weekend. Dr. Lee is a postdoctoral researcher in Oklahoma and she writes a blog for the Scientific American Blog Network called The Urban Scientist. She was recently asked by another organization (whom I had never heard of before) called Biology-Online.org to contribute a monthly blog post. After she politely asked if she was going to be paid for her writing she received an unthinkably unprofessional and flagrantly demeaning reply. Aghast that Danielle may want to actually get paid for her work, the representative asked...

"Are you an Urban Scientist or an Urban Whore?"

What. The. Fuck?

Prominent blogger PZ Myers points out the "nuances" of the questioners intonation.

 In the wake of this electronic slap in the face Danielle took it upon herself to post the e-mail on her blog at Scientific American and record the following video response.  I am absolutely amazed at her composure. I do not think I would have been able to hold back my emotion the way she does here.



So, Scientific American had her back from the start and took steps to sever connection to the person who wrote that e-mail to Danielle, right?

Unfortunately, not exactly.

As we found out later - the legal team at Scientific American got all worked up over Dr. Lee's decision to share the e-mail exchange on a blog with their letterhead on it so they took it down without telling her.

They censored her to cover their asses, that is exceedingly clear.

But to us, their concerned public, SciAm Editor in Chief Mariette DiChristina tweeted this

This was Saturday morning and ZOMG did shit hit the fan. The internet exploded with a veritable rallying cry behind Danielle under the banner #StandwithDNlee. The part about how the post fell outside the mission of "discovering science" epitomizes everything I find frustrating about the old model of media, that there are these shining beacons of truth and that we should really trust brands over people. In this day-and-age words ARE science! Words on the internet are highly traceable data points. There is an entire branch of science emerging that makes hay out of twitter data. Someone will post a graph of #StandwithDNlee trending data over the last three days and I will post it here when I find it. To say that any blog-post on any topic is not about "discovering science" is to be caught unaware about what science on the internet looks like today and will continue to develop into in the future.

After calls to Boycott SciAm from Dr. Isis and fierce push-back from within the very SciAm Blog Network itself Mariette DiChristina issued a more thorough public statement here.

In the statement DiChristina attempts to explain what happened and the precarious timing of it all as this went down on a holiday weekend and so on and so forth.

I wanted more ownership of the fuck-up but hey, people are going to protect their interests first and foremost.

Currently, Dr. Lee's Post is back up and my other hero Bora Zivkovic, the blogfather himself, is doing his best to pull up the mainsail on a network that had a rough weekend. 


If you are sick of all this drama and just want to laugh for a bit. Check out our first #MicroscoParty. I'm posting this so you can witness first-hand the awesomeness that is Dr. Danielle Lee.

Scalia and Satan

Saturday, October 12, 2013

SAVE THE ARCTIC (Original Narration by Randall)

I just found out about this video sitting in a session on how to make internet science videos here at the Science Online Oceans Conference

Science, Comics, and Astronaut Tears

Charles Soule gives us a run-down over at the World Science Festival homepage. Inspiring me to get out my sketch pad here at the Science Online Oceans Conference.

@thorsonofodin Sets Sail for Science Online Oceans

@thorsonofodin

Here I am in Miami for the first ever Science Online Oceans Conference.

Despite the fact that this entire genre of science is way outside my wheelhouse I decided to make the trek down from Atlanta. I am curious to see what I learn and who I meet. If it is even a fraction of the intensity of the flag-ship Science Online Conference I attended last February then I am sure I'll be reeling for months.

Leading up to the conference I put together a blog post about the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico. I've been following the political and ecological implications of the dead zone problem for years and decided to summarize the current status of the dilemma.
You can check out that post at Scientific American. A big deal for me as it is my debut piece for the SciAm Network.

Follow the emerging information from this event on Twitter using #ScioOceans.

Some cool links so far...

OMG I want to build one of these DIY mini-submarines! Mom! I can finally build that submarine I dreamed of as a kid! OpenROV 

Want - a navy blue uglifish t-shirt. Awesome - Uglifish

Some sweet web-sites I came across at #ScioOceans.
COSEE Florida
The Echinoblog
Bittel Me This
Ocean Conservancy
Story Collider
Upwell
Deep Sea News 
Society of Environmental Journalism
Plankton Portal


Look at my twitter feed over on the sidebar until I update here ------>






Friday, October 4, 2013

Self-assembling cube-bots!

I refuse to dignify the recent Tea-Party tantrum and resultant government shutdown with coverage so here is an example of what the future holds. What a society can create when it uses science is phenomenal and yet we have elected congresspeople who do not believe in evolution, climate change, or even embryology. Equally amazing but in a bad way.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

My Brain in GIF


My name is Kristopher Hite and this is my brain. I present it here on my website as Tom Paine's Ghost was, once upon a time, conceived up there among the folds. The above animation is a series of images captured by MRI on April 27th, 2013 at Harvard University as part of the Personal Genome Project headed by George Church. I made this GIF using Photoshop and 22 DICOM files given to me by the researchers. If you want to donate your living genome to science you too can have your entire genome sequenced by signing up, passing the informed consent test and coming to Boston for the annual Genomes Environments Traits conference that happens each year around DNA-day April 25th to commemorate the discovery of the double helix. If you want to have your genome sequenced but can not make it to Boston you can still get on the list but I think going to the GET conference expedites the process.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Bill Nye Dancing with the Stars! [VIDEO]



I do not generally watch Dancing with the Stars. However Bill Nye the Science Guy is a contestant this season so it seems worth checking out. His debut was criticized by both the judges and the internet. I say keep plugging away Bill! Seeing as you are now on a show with the word "Star" in the title perhaps an homage to the Cosmos is in order.

Carl Sagan has your back...

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Word of the day - Bricolage



Bricolage
 n.
Something made or put together using whatever materials happen to be available: "Even the decor is a bricolage, a mix of this and that" (Los Angeles Times).
____________________________________________________________
[French, from bricole, trifle, from Old French, catapult, from Old Italian briccola, of Germanic origin.] [source]

I found this delightful word while bopping around the Wikipedia page for the word "tinker."
An exemplary body of bricolage has come from the mind of the still-active Belgian artist, Panamarenko (example above)

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

What happened to the Flavr Savr Tomato?

Carl Zimmer recently suggested checking out a newish series from the New York Times called Retro Reports. The video series revisits old news stories that have since faded from the headlines. The digital-short-film format makes it readily accessible and I appreciate seeing the faces of the interviewees.

One of Carl's suggestions is a piece on the defunct Flavr Savr tomato, a timely subject for me as I now work in a plant biology lab using genetic engineering to study epigenetic factors at play during development.  Recently we had a departmental conversation about the controversy surrounding genetically modified crops. With that conversation in mind and after watching this clip I have formed an opinion on initiatives to label genetically modified food.



I am for labeling genetically modified food. Promoting transparency may help us embrace things worth embracing and discard those things that may be harmful to our health. George Church has argued that science ought to be more resilient when faced with ethical dilemmas.  I would like to apply this logic to labeling GMOs. The tool of genetic engineering can be equated with a "hammer." A hammer can be used to build a house or clobber someone over the head. The consequence is not the hammer's fault in either case.

The potential good that may come from genetic modification is overshadowed by the profit motives held by companies like Monsanto that now fuel 95% of the genetically modified crops in production throughout the world. There are under-reported cases like Rainbow Papaya in Hawaii, or Golden Rice where genetic modification has been the hero, not the villain.  It may be naive of me to think that the American public is science-savvy enough to decide for themselves whether a genetically modified plant is beneficial or not. However, I think science could exercise resilience in this case by allowing genetically modified foods to be labeled.  If in the long term some of those foods that are genetically modified prove beneficial to society, then the economy will carry them into wider markets, but if some GM crops prove over time a detriment they will be selected against.    

Monday, September 16, 2013

Bike Lasers!

Emily Brooke has come up with a brilliant product that could save lives by making riding a bicycle more visible to the auto-aucracy. The idea: a front headlight combined with a LASER that projects an image of a bicycle street blaze a few meters in front of the rider. Combine this with inventions like the "invisible bike helmet" and we are on our way to widening the ranks of the urban-cyclist army. Ride on!

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Harrison Ford: still a bad ass.


At age 71 Harrison Ford is still shooting first. Grist reports Ford has been threatened with deportation from Indonesia because of his stern questioning of the forestry minister there about illegal logging activity and climate change. 

Friday, September 13, 2013

GMO OMG! ~ a new film from the director of "Dive"

Director Jeremy Seifert is hosted by Josh Zepp to discuss and debate the public furor over genetically modified food crops. A public discussion that needs to happen.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Origins of "Bleeding Heart Liberal"


I was asked today what the definition of a "bleeding heart liberal" is.  I have heard this term referenced thousands of times in political commentary and conversation.  The term can generally understood to mean someone with extreme empathy. It is often used by right-wing political pundits as a disparaging descriptor for a person with unrealistic liberal ideals. But I have never stopped to ponder the etymology of the term.

According to several web-forums and blogs the term was popularized in the 1930's and 40s by a conservative columnist named Francis James Westbrook Pegler.  Pegler was a vehement opponent of the New Deal and Labor Unions. One of his primary targets for political criticism was Eleanor Roosevelt.  The deeper roots of "Bleeding Heart" are said to surround a semi-religious medieval organization called the "Order of the Bleeding Heart" members of which supposedly honored the Virgin Mary and her 'heart pierced with many sorrows.' Though I can not find any solid information about this organization on the internet.

In any case, in the future if I am refered to as a "bleeding heart liberal" I'll take it as a compliment of the highest order. Whenever I hear this term used I automatically think of Jimmy Stewart's character George Bailey in the classic film "It's a Wonderful Life" and I think of my father.   I'll take being compared to the Virgin Mary and Eleanor Roosevelt to a disgraced early 20th century journalist any day.

Cheers to the bleeding-hearts of this world!



Thursday, August 29, 2013

Colorful Fukushima leakage map big fat LIE!







This colorful graphic generated by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has been circulating around the interwebs driving fear into anyone who views it. The assumption made by most on first seeing it is that the trails of orange and red emanating from the east coast of Japan are traces of radioactivity. However this map has absolutely nothing to do with the nuclear disaster at Fukushima. The image was generated by NOAA in March 2011 in the aftermath of the Tohoku earthquake and it shows WAVE HEIGHT of the tsunami that followed.

I am not here to minimize the Fukushima disaster or say that we should not be concerned about the progress of continuing clean up efforts. However, I would like to reign in the media and hope that they treat the public as adults and start fact-checking their reports before screaming  "the sky is falling."  I saw this graphic accompany dozens of stories about the recent "Fukushima Emergency." Even NPR fell victim to this deceit!  When alarmist stories are written and accompanied by false "data" to reinforce the cognitive bias of the masses we are setting ourselves up to be at the whim of propaganda.

I read this debunking on one of the few sources I've come to trust - Snopes.com

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Steven Pinker - TSA not cost effective at making us safer

Invisible Bike Helmet!

The Invisible Bicycle Helmet | Fredrik Gertten from Focus Forward Films on Vimeo.


If you aren't quite ready to purchase one of these airbag helmets check out this comprehensive guide to buying am old-fashioned bike helmet that's right for you.



Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Mushroom Rocket Fuel



SPOILER ALERT: This post contains spoilers for Europa Report. Continue reading at your own risk.

Over the weekend I went to see Europa Report; a science fiction film portraying a privately-funded human-on-board mission to Europa, one of Jupiter's 67 moons. Europa has particular interest because of its fractured icy facade and potential sub-surface oceans. What tentacled creatures might be creatching in the depths?


Using documentary-style cinematography reminiscent of the Truman Show and District 9 the film is presented as "found footage" compiled after-the-fact leading the viewer up to the big reveal at the end. The footage is choppy and claustrophobic as it is mostly from the perspective of "web-cams" mounted around the ship.

I commend the directors for staying true to the realities that may accompany a space journey hundreds of millions of miles long; pale complexions, back-sweat, and the drab glow of florescent lighting.  I could barely stand two hours of it so I can only imagine the psychological effects of 22 months in that environment.

I'm not here to completely spoil the film for would-be movie-goers but I want to talk about a specific plot twist that amused my biochemical inclination.

When communication with earth is lost due to a solar flare chaos ensues. The crew-members start dying off by a series of unfortunate events. The first character to go is Engineer James Corrigan played by (pictured above).  The situation which leaves him hanging is where the mushroom connection comes into play.

Corrigan is suited up with fellow engineer Andrei Blok () to go on a repair mission outside the ship.  While attempting to repair the communication fuse-box Corrigan reefs on a stuck pin which causes a minor explosion. As the metal panel flies off the communication module it tears a hole in Andrei's space suit and draws blood.  Andrei tries to cover the hole with his other hand but is loosing air quickly.  The two engineers high-tail it for the ships open hatch but before they enter Andrei notices a yellowish-brown smear all over Corrigan's space-suite.  Hydrazine! Hydrazine is a rocket-fuel used by NASA inside the orbital maneuvering systems (OMS) and reaction control systems (RCS) of spacecraft and also as fuel to stabilize landers during terminal descent. If Corrigan enters the ship he'll pollute the precious oxygen supply and everyone on board will eventually get sick and probably die. If it were just him out there they could perhaps figure out a way to get him out of the suit in space and then he could enter the open hatch but Andrei is running out of air because of the tear in his space-suit.

Hydrazine, hydrazine. Where had I heard of this before? It was in a wildly different context.  Ah ha! It was during an edible mushroom identification course at the Oregon State University extension building in Jacksonville, OR.  An MD was highlighting the worst-case-scenarios of misidentifying morels.  He described receiving patients in the ER who had passed out while chopping up a bag full of what they thought were the edible morels (in the genus Morchella). The cause of their hostpital visit? A form a hydrazine in the false-morel (genus Gyromitra). Whilst preparing what they thought would be a culinary delight filled with complex earthy flavors, the unwitting victims of the false-morels were breathing in the volatile hydrazine off-gassing from their mound of mushrooms. If these ill-trained mushroom hunters had not received medical attention they very well may have died.  And here we come back to our crew of marooned Eurpopans.  If they had allowed Corrigan to enter the hatch they would all breath in the same substance the poor Oregonians had encountered but without the benefit of a hospital down the road.

In the movie the captain () made a decision to let one person die to save everyone.  This is not a difficult decision when put in a broader context of time (if Corrigan had been allowed in everyone, including Corrigan would have died) but in the moment the captain shuts him out it seems cold.  This dilemma is a microcosm of the bigger ethical question proposed by the film as a whole. What kind of sacrifices are worth making for discovery?

 

Monday, July 22, 2013

Giant Misshappen Phallus Blooms

The sexual organs of the Giant Corpse Flower.
Below is a live-stream from the United States Botanical Garden in Washington, DC. The man-sized flower you see is known as the "corpse flower." Named for the putrefied stank it emits this carrion flower attracts pollinators by mimicking the smell of rotting flesh. The plant has the largest unbranched inflorescence in the world. Its Latin name is Amorphophallus titanum ~ "misshapen phallus." It is worth noting that this titan of the plant kingdom does not have a regular cycle to its bloom. Blooms may be separated by years or decades. 

Live Video app for Facebook by Ustream

Friday, July 12, 2013

Remembering Dad

Ronald G. Hite 
February 29th, 1932 - May 17th, 2013


Dad was born February 29th 1932 in Rochester, New York.  This date tells us a lot about the person he was.  As a leap year baby his birth made the local papers, a showman from the start! But being born in the middle of the great depression would not be easy on him.  His father “Ross” left Dad and his brother’s Bob and Jim and his mother Agnes when Dad was very young.  Dad spent much of his youth in chaos. His mother Agnes struggled to hold down a job. He spent time in foster homes and even ran away with his older brothers for an entire summer when he was around eight years old. 

Dad proudly retold the story of living off the land that summer, camping on the banks of the Genesee River, smoking cigarettes and foraging for food. The boys would get so hungry that they resorted to stealing vegetables right out of the back of farm trucks. They’d stand on a bridge near Avon, NY with a grappling hook dangling on a rope and when the veggie truck drove under the bridge they’d fish for sustenance.  One time while pulling up string beans Dad got the grappling hook caught on the back of the truck and pulled the tailgate right off and all the sting beans came pouring out.  You could say he had an early start spilling the beans.

I tell you this story to give you an idea of where Dad came from. Ultimately he found a home living with his grandmother – Lizzy Duffy and his grandfather Frank Moran in Avon where he worked as an adolescent at the Avon Inn. He spoke so fondly of his grandmother Lizzy attributing his love of home cooking and fresh vegetables to her.

When I think of the archetypical Dad I think of hunting, fishing, and power tools you know, the macho stuff. But Dad did not enjoy any of these things. Dad valued good conversation and learning new things. I spent many years of my life being upset with him for not filling the traditional father roles I thought he should have been playing with me. But now, when I think of Dad’s life, what he went through to put himself through college and law school all without a father I can’t help feel more and more proud of him.  Despite all the obstacles he faced Dad was able to develop a unique personality and sustain an unbridled optimism.

Dad had such a passion for being alive. A child-like sense of curiosity and positive attitude filled him with fervor for sharing new information. If Dad read a stimulating article he would have copies made at his office here on Cherry Street in Jamestown and pass them out to people. People he loved and people he just randomly encountered. A Democrat to his core Dad believed whole-heartedly in the earnestness of the common person. I always admired and will for the rest of my life strive to accomplish his skill at communicating with total strangers. He struck up conversations at bus stops in the airport or at the bakery with anyone who would smile back at him.  Though we have photos there is nothing that will replace Dad’s smile.  A genuine smile with rosy cheeks you always knew he was about to say something clever.  

Dad was larger than life. He stirred the pot and rocked the boat all while making you think.  More than just a pun-master he was a great weaver of stories.   On Tuesday nights when I was a boy Dad would come home from choir practice here at Saint Pete’s (as he so affectionately called this place back then) and walk up the stairs to my room where I would pretend to be asleep. He’d walk in and sit on my bed and begin to tell me about the day’s excitement. Eventually I would beg him for a story. Maybe an old standard like his rendition of Robin Hood or the old Irish folk-tale - Billy Beg and the Bull. But often I’d request a completely new story improvised on the spot. I would even give him a breakdown of what I wanted “one part scary, two parts science, one part camouflage and two parts adventure… please.” Dad would sway for a few minutes sitting on the bed with his eyes closed; his bottom lip pulled up high then he’d begin to unfold the most marvelous tales you could imagine.  There were kingly feasts served on red silk table clothes pulled right out of a bull’s ear, a mad scientist who saved the world with his magic camouflage camel, and a little boy who ran away into the woods only to return home heroic but sleepy.  I romanticized these stories the most; running away into the wild, living on what nature supplied, making a bed out of heaps of dry pine needles. It was not until much later that I realized the personal origins of these stories for Dad.

As I get older I become more and more grateful for the gifts he gave me while he lived.  First and foremost he gave me an education.  But more important than the means to attain an education he also instilled in me a deep-seeded appreciation for education in general and a drive to continue learning as long as I live.  Many nights when I would visit home in my twenties I would walk up those same stairs to his room sit down on his bed with him. I’d scratch his back and we would start talking about politics, or world history, or Cornplanter, Crazy Horse or Sitting Bull.  If we got to a point in the conversation where neither of us knew much about the topic at hand I’d go get the appropriate Encyclopedia volume and we’d read together about the Etruscans or the Danube River, or the Andromeda Galaxy. 

I was lucky to have thirty years with Dad and to have such a close relationship with him. When I look at my voicemail history I see that the vast majority of the messages were from Dad. He loved to chat and stay in touch. This will be the biggest change for me, loosing not just a supportive and loving father but also a great friend.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Richard Dawkins and the Electric Kool-Aid Acid MEME

Watch the following video all the way through. A metamorphosis of sorts unfolds before our very eyes.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Flooding in Northern India

More than 100 people have been killed in Northern India due to flooding. The Monsoon season has pushed the Ganges over its banks.  (Photo Credit - Associated Press)

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Free Genes - SCOTUS strikes down Myriad

The SCOUTUS blog is reporting the Supreme Court has struck down Myriad Genetic's patent claim on two human genes - BRCA1 and BRCA2.

The decision is being called  a compromise by some news sources but the crux of the ruling is this...
We merely hold that genes and the information they encode are not patent eligible under §101 simply because they have been isolated from the surrounding genetic material.
I am sure the lawyers for Myriad are scrambling to write new patents with slightly different wording to emphasize "cDNA" (which the court struggles with defining; in some instances they call it complimentary DNA in others composite DNA). However, it will be difficult overcome the following language in the present decision.
If the patents depended upon the creation of a unique molecule, then a would-be infringer could arguably avoid at least Myriad’s patent claims on entire genes by isolating a DNA sequence that included both the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene and one additional nucleotide pair. Such a molecule would not be chemically identical to the molecule “invented” by Myriad. But Myriad obviously would resist that outcome because its claim is concerned primarily with the information contained in the genetic sequence, not with the specific chemical composition of a particular molecule.

Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the ruling and there is a one paragraph opinion by Justice Scalia partially affirming the ruling.

Read the entire ruling here. (It is only 18 pages long)

This decision sets the "product-of-nature" precedent for the patent eligibility of all naturally occurring human genes. As I currently work as a biochemist in a plant biology lab I am curious to see if this applies to plant genes.

It is not clear whether cDNA copied from naturally occurring templates (human DNA) is patentable or just synthetic cDNA.

I will update this post as I learn more about the Supreme Court's ruling.

Monday, June 10, 2013

CLARITY - looking inside the brain

I stumbled across this video yesterday while bouncing around Twitter. Mitch Waldrop had posted the video a few months ago. The technology displayed here is dubbed CLARITY - a new method for looking inside animal tissues. In this case brains. It takes the grey mass you normally think of when you think "brain" and turns it into a jellyfish-like consistency, see-through and all. CLARITY was developed by a team of interdisciplinary researchers at Stanford University lead by Karl Deisseroth. I am constantly amazed at the pace of progress we are witnessing in biomedical science. Just brilliant!

Sunday, June 9, 2013

NSA Whistleblower - Edward Snowden

Lyrebird repertoire includes chainsaw

I know the resolution on this clip is low but it is completely worth watching. The Australian Lyrebird sings a song of irony for the world to hear. A clear feedback loop in the forest and a beauty to behold.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Leo the Lungfish!

My friend Davide takes care of a lungfish named Leonardo. Watch him clean Leo's tank!

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Epigenomics at the World Science Festival

If you have any curiosity about the emerging field of epigeneticists the following panel discussion is a must-watch.

Friday, May 31, 2013

We the Genes!


We the Genes of the United Cells, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish equilibrium, insure homeostasis, provide for the common immunity, promote the general Welfare, and secure Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United Status of Life. 

In the coming month the United States Supreme Court will likely rule on whether a private company can hold a patent on a human gene.  The company in this case (Myriad  Genetics) has spent a substantial amount of money and time figuring out that mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes are associated with an increased risk of developing early-onset breast and ovarian cancer.  Because of this investment the company feels entitled to hold a monopoly on testing and reporting this information to patients who ask their doctor to be screened.  Recall Angelina Jolie's double-mastectomy headlines in recent weeks.

The company feels it has the right to be the only one to read a particular page in a book handed down to a woman by her mother and father.  This book of genes is called the genome. The human genome like the genomes of all other living things has been copied, proof-read, edited, re-drafted and copied again and again countless times over earth's rich and chaotic history. The current edition of your genome is without question a product of nature.

PCR happens.
Using a routine process in basic scientific research called the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) the company can isolate the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes.  Once the genes are isolated from a blood sample they can be read by any of the well established methods for DNA sequencing.  Neither the method for isolating the genes, nor the method for sequencing the genes are at issue in this case. The patents associated with these decades-old processes have long since run out.  No, The object in question in this case are the BRAC1 and BRCA2 genes themselves. 

Can a company own exclusive rights to read your genes?

I say no. We ought to have the right to pursue any path we like to uncover the information we were each born with. Whether that path be through Myriad genetics, the Harvard-based personal genome project, or sending your blood samples to whoever has access to a PCR machine. Trust me, they are pretty darn common. We should have access to the secrets inside our own cells.

I think there is a fundamental misunderstanding among the justices in this case. The misunderstanding is that in cases of genetic testing the "product" is not necessarily any physical thing but rather naturally occurring INFORMATION.

A technical work-around attorneys representing Myriad Genetics are trying to use is that coding, composite, complimentary DNA (cDNA) is not present in nature and can be patented because it is only produced by scientists. cDNA conveys the sequence information of messenger RNA produced by nature. Though the cDNA itself can be construed as product of human tinkering, the information cDNA holds is not. The information therein is an impression of nature, like a plaster-cast of a wolf-print in the mud, or the ink-blot of a small mouthed bass.  The key piece of information the attorneys for Myriad Genetics leave out is that the cDNA is not used directly but only to gather information from nature.

The patient dos not need or care to have the amplified DNA prepared from their blood sample, the patient wants to know some information so they can make an informed decision about how best to proceed with preventive health measures like a mastectomy or hysterectomy.  Genetic information is a product of nature and is therefore off-limits according to a century of court precedent.

What incentives will researchers have to make discoveries?

While listening to the Oral Arguments in the case between the Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics I am struck at what little credit is given to the motivation propelling scientific discovery.  It seemed to me that the Justices kept asking questions with a particular concern for maintaining a clear market incentive for big genetic discoveries.

It was almost as if the justices were under the impression that market forces are the main drivers of scientific discovery.  This may be a matter of opinion but I do not think Charles Darwin, Jonas Salk, or Carl Woese were in it for the money.

The tone of the Justices' questions regarding market-incentives and scientific discovery reminded me of a conversation on the recent Freakonomics podcast in which the hosts Stephen Dubner and Steve Levitt have the following exchange.
DUBNER: Since fighting cancer is big business, what’s the incentive to find a cure?  
LEVITT: So I would say the incentive for a cancer cure is not really a market incentive, it’s a being a hero kind of incentive. That there are so many doctors out there, researchers, medical researchers who if they could be the one who was forever remembered as the one who prevented cancer, who got rid of cancer, they would do anything to do that. So I think there are really strong incentives out there. And they aren’t exactly market incentives, although I think that person would be quite rich anyway...
I think the "being a hero kind of incentive" is the kind of incentive that pushes the world into a progressively safer more peaceful context. A context where human life-span lengthens and justice systems move away from a punitive to a rehabilitative mode. It is my opinion that knowing as much as we can about our bodies and specifically our genes will allow us to attain an unprecedented state of self-awareness, health and social responsibility.

Monday, May 6, 2013

PHOTOS - Genomes Environments Traits Conference 2013

Sharon Terry of Reg4all.org
Working to build a registry for patients with any and all diseases.
Emphasized the need to make clinical data "ours" not "theirs."
Photo by Kristopher Hite
 
Misha Angrist - Assistant Professor at Duke University Institute for Genome Sciences & Policy.
Misha was the fourth person to have his genome sequenced as part of the personal genome project.
Photo by Kristopher Hite Creative Commons attribution www.tompainesghost.com
Jack Hitt author of "Bunch of Amateurs"
Photo by Kristopher Hite Creative Commons attribution www.tompainesghost.com
Dr. Ed Wild of HDBuzz.net
Photo by Kristopher Hite Creative Commons attribution www.tompainesghost.com

Robert Krulwich and Dorit S. Berlin, Ph.D. Dorit is principal investigator of the NIGMS Human Genetic Cell Repository.
Photo by Kristopher Hite Creative Commons attribution www.tompainesghost.com
Sandra de Castro Buffington director of Hollywood, Health & Society
Photo by Kristopher Hite Creative Commons attribution www.tompainesghost.com
Stephen Friend MD, PhD of Sage Bionetworks
Photo by Kristopher Hite Creative Commons attribution www.tompainesghost.com
Stephen Heuser of eth Boston Globe and Steven Pinker - Harvard Professor of Evolutionary Psychology.
Photo by Kristopher Hite Creative Commons attribution www.tompainesghost.com
Wally Gilbert - 1980 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry for seminal work on DNA sequencing methods
Photo by Kristopher Hite Creative Commons attribution www.tompainesghost.com
George Church and his gentle genome
Photo by Kristopher Hite Creative Commons attribution www.tompainesghost.com
George Church contemplates privacy issues surrounding personal genome data.
Photo by Kristopher Hite Creative Commons attribution www.tompainesghost.com
Jeffrey Carrol of HDBuzz.net
Photo by Kristopher Hite Creative Commons attribution www.tompainesghost.com
Stephen Friend has amazing green-rimmed specs.
Photo by Kristopher Hite Creative Commons attribution www.tompainesghost.com

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Five-year-old boy shoots and kills his little sister

On a little country road on the banks of the Cumberland River in southern Kentucky a five-year-old boy accidentally shot and killed his two-year-old sister on Tuesday April 30th, 2013.

The gun was his. He owned it legally. Given to him as a gift "the cricket" is a .22-caliber rifle marketed as "My First Rifle."

This may have been an accident but it certainly should make us stop and think.

When does nostalgia for a bygone era start to cause real problems?

How about when kids start dying!

As if Sandy Hook, Aurora, Columbine, and the hundreds of massacres yet to come were not enough. We have to watch as stories like this one come to pass.

Holding onto the ideals of frontier justice, machismo self-reliance, and the delusion that a well-regulated militia stands a chance against the nuclear arsenal of the Federal government make no sense.

If the "pen is mightier" then get one out and write a real letter on real paper, stick in a real envelope and send it to your congress persons telling them this is the last time you want to read a news story like this.

When is enough enough?

 

Monday, April 29, 2013

April Iris in Decatur, GA


Cultivating my phenological inclination here in Decatur, GA as I walk Benny Lava.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Not the strapping young Muslim socialist I used to be.

Glowing Plant Update

Last week I told you about a new Kickstarter Project that promises seeds for a glowing plant in the mail. As a PostDoc in an Arabidopsis lab, of course I funded it. So watch out, I will be blogging the process of growing these glowing seedlings as soon as the embryos arrive (sometime in 2014).

I was not the only one to show this project love. In three days the project creators reached their goal of $65,000. Now they have 39 days left to let the money keep on rolling in. This Kickstarter is so noteworthy because it appears to be the first serious Synthetic Biology project made possible by crowd-funding. Check out the video to get up to date on the status of the project.

Microbiome: Incredibly Beautiful Data

Exploring Citizen Science and Participatory Research from The Personal Genome Project on FORA.tv

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Personal Genome Project: Joining the "Lunatic Fringe"


We came to donate our living genomes to science.  On April 25th, 2013 (DNA Day as it were) we submitted blood and spit to the Personal Genome Project (PGP). The PGP is the brainchild of George Church (pictured above). A professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School George is also a loveable bearded teddy bear.  The goal of this project is to sequence 100,000 whole human genomes.  I think they have successfully completed somewhere in the ~2,500 range.  There is also an underlying cultural movement among the "lunatic fringe" early-adopters like us. This is a movement towards open access. Our bodies are our data and we would like the keys to the car please. How appropriate then that I came to find out about the PGP via a facebook comment made to me by none other than Open Access gangsta Jonathan Eisen.

As I'm sitting in a hostel room and the sun is shining I want to go out and make the most of this rare occasion to enjoy Boston, visit firefly bicycles, ride along the Charles River, loose ourselves in the bowels of the Harvard Bookstore.  That being said, forgive the brevity of the post. I will be back with plenty more pictures I snapped at the GET conference this past Thursday and Friday and more personal genomics stories.

Cheers!

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Kickstart a Glowing Plant!

Here's the link to the first synthetic biology Kickstarter Project. Imagine a world where we grow our light-bulbs in pots!


THOR: THE DARK WORLD

Those of you who have followed my online migration to twitter in recent years know my handle - @thorsonofodin. While I do have sustained excitement for Marvel's recent re-invigoration of the Thor character I must be honest and tell you I was severely underwhelmed by the first Thor movie.

The Norse myths are so epically fraught with magical characters and harrowing situations I just thought Marvel could have done a better job incorporating some ancient descriptions from the oral tradition of the Vikings. Especially considering that we have such well-preserved examples written down just as Christianity crept north and west across Europe.  The Völuspá and the rest of the Elder Eddas written by the Skaldic poet Snorri Sturluson of Iceland in the 1200s are glowing examples.

Throughout the first Thor movie I was looking for a few of Iðunn's apples or some whispers from the head of Mímir, or perhaps a blow from Heimdal on his Gjallarhorn. Alas I left the theater brooding over the lack of chemistry between Chris Hemsworth and Natalie Portman.

I will forgive the transgressions of Thor as the latest in the modern re-telling "Thor: the dark world" looks as though it may make up for some missed opportunities the first time around.

You be the judge.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Windigo Dark Side



As the major news networks flashed the face of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev across television sets all around me last week I kept asking myself  "How does malevolence emerge in a person?"

I recall having similar thoughts while sitting in a white chair watching the sun reflect off the glossy blades of AstroTurf at Schoellkopf field in Ithaca, NY in May 2005.

Though I did not attend Cornell University I did go to the 2005 commencement. There I witnessed a most intriguing commencement speech. Jeffrey Lehman was president of Cornell for a single academic year (2004-05). In his last public appearance as president he delivered a speech framed almost entirely in the language of Star Wars.

Here is a large portion of Lehman's speech. I'm posting it here hoping my readers will digest it with me over the coming days.
It is clear that "special powers you have." You have the power to do good in the world. You have the power to create the magic that will make our lives better, to make constructive contributions to all humanity. We celebrate you and all that you can accomplish.
But we also know that at this moment you might also be feeling a wee bit anxious. You might be wondering, "What if I fail? What if I don't live up to the expectations that others have for me, or that I hold for myself?"
Think of the Star Wars movies. We know that, just as the Force is strong with you, it was also strong with Anakin Skywalker.
He too had special powers. But he ended up as Darth Vader. How could that have happened?
So let me begin by reassuring you. None of you will become Darth Vader. Really.
But perhaps your anxiety might present itself in a slightly milder form: how can you be sure that you do not go over to the Dark Side?
And here I think that I can be of some service to you. This morning I will take a little bit of poetic license and extend the metaphor of the Dark Side to explore some of life's moral complexities, the traps, if you will, that await you on the other side of graduation. These traps might not be so serious as to put you on the road to becoming Sith Lords, but they might nonetheless make it harder for you to realize your full potential.
Let me begin by discussing what I mean, and what I do not mean, by "the Dark Side."
First, when I speak of the Dark Side I am not talking about anything like unwavering devotion to the cause of evil.  That narrow a view doesn't work even in the world of George Lucas. Lucas takes great care to indicate that, as Anakin Skywalker turns into Darth Vader, he does not believe that he is embracing evil. He believes that the Jedi are the ones who have been corrupted; he is committed only to knowing the truth and to saving the life of someone he loves.
Nor can we say that the difference between the Sith and the Jedi is that one pursues its ends through intolerable means and the other restricts itself to benign means. Each side is equally willing to be violent to promote its cause.
The Dark Side I am interested in is more subtle. Think of it not as evil, but as good people run amok. Yielding to a certain kind of wholly understandable temptation, in a way that ends up being counterproductive for the individual or damaging to the larger community.
In your lives after graduation, what forms might that Dark Side take? How might they tempt you? How can you successfully resist them, so that your lives are maximally successful, fulfilling, and beneficial?
Rather than approaching those questions head-on, I would like to examine them indirectly, as they are refracted through the lens of fiction. To do so, I will make use of two different works by one of the great writers of our time, Thomas Pynchon.
Pynchon came to Cornell to study engineering physics in 1953. He was a talented science student, but he was also good in other subjects, and in his sophomore year he decided to major in English.
Pynchon had some wonderful teachers in the English department, people like M.H. Abrams, Baxter Hathaway, James McConkey, Arthur Mizener, and Walter Slatoff. They recognized his prodigious talent early on. One of them saw the potential in a paper that Pynchon wrote for class, entitled, "Mortality and Mercy in Vienna." The literary journal Epoch was edited by Baxter Hathaway at the time, and he decided to publish "Mortality and Mercy in Vienna" in the Spring 1959 issue, just before Pynchon graduated. According to a letter from Pynchon 25 years later, having that story published in Epoch was a major factor in his decision to try to make a living as a writer.
The story concerns a man named Cleanth Siegel who attends a party in Washington, D.C. Siegel finds himself cornered, one at a time, by two different members of an extended, interdependent social group, both of whom regale him with details of their lives, from the petty to the bizarre. As they drone on and on, Siegel feels himself getting fed up with them, and with the entire lot of partygoers. He comes to see himself as a kind of father-confessor to this self-styled group. And then, oddly, he comes to see himself as their savior.
Late in the story, Siegel meets one of the newer, more marginal entrants into the Group, a man named Irving Loon. And Siegel develops a hunch that Loon suffers from a mental illness called Windigo psychosis. A person suffering from Windigo psychosis has a deep identification with the Windigo, a mythical Canadian ice monster that craves human flesh. This identification can often lead the psychotic to become homicidal as well. Pynchon writes, "[I]f this hunch were true, Siegel had the power to work for these parishioners a kind of miracle, to bring them a very tangible salvation."
Now the salvation that Siegel has in mind for them is horrifying. He goes up to Loon and says the word "Windigo," hoping that it might trigger a psychotic break and prompt him to violence. And it works. Loon flips out. While Siegel watches, Loon takes a Browning Automatic Rifle down from the wall, and loads it with ammunition. Siegel casually leaves the party and walks downstairs, whistling as he goes. He hears screams. He shrugs. And as the story ends he hears the first burst of gunfire.
All of us would say that Cleanth Siegel went over to the Dark Side. He would presumably argue that the damage he caused was in some sense necessary to promote a larger good, the overall good of his flock. But this is nothing more than the familiar claim of a fanatic.
Unfortunately, the daily news reminds us that fanatics remain all too present in our world today. In pursuit of what they consider a greater good, they do horrible things. Even murder feels warranted to them, they are so obsessed with achieving their objective.
But in speaking of what I will call the Windigo Dark Side I do not want to limit our attention to this kind of fanaticism. That feels too remote, too distant from our lives. I want to make the challenge more relevant, more difficult, by having the Windigo Dark Side also encompass fanaticism's much milder cousin: tunnel vision.
People afflicted with moral tunnel vision recognize a good, something that carries a positive benefit for the world. They see a path to that good. And they become so committed to pursuing that path that they lose sight of the costs to other values that might be associated with going down that path. These are the kinds of blind spots that can undermine communal life and collective progress.
The temptations of moral tunnel vision are everywhere we look. Think, for example, of the soldiers who, in their efforts to defeat a dangerous enemy, are tempted to slip into torture. Think of the campaign workers who want to help their candidate, and are tempted to caricature the opponent unfairly. Think of the advocates for a cause who are tempted to use tactics that are disproportionate to the goal they champion. Think of the business leaders who are tempted to be stingy about workplace safety in order to improve their price position in a competitive marketplace. Think of the university leaders who are tempted to deform their institutions in hopes of rising in the magazine rankings.
In the world of action you will find that it is surprisingly easy to become convinced of the paramount importance of your cause. It is a short step to see those who oppose you as evil or immoral, or maybe just stupid or naive. And another short step to tell yourself that the harm you inflict on them is necessary to promote a greater good, or might even be, in some way, for their own good.
When you leave Cornell, I know that you will use your Jedi powers to promote noble ends. And I know that most of the time, you will not find it difficult to remain clear-eyed about the relationship between the goals you are pursuing and the means that are appropriate to them. But you should also be prepared to face the temptations of the Windigo Dark Side.
The second Pynchon work that I would like to discuss is his second novel, The Crying of Lot 49, published in 1965. It tells the story of Oedipa Maas and her struggle to make sense of a world in which nothing can be known with certainty.
The book begins when Maas receives a letter informing her that she has been named co-executor of the estate of her ex-boyfriend, Pierce Inverarity. Her efforts to sort out the estate lead her to meet a series of alienated young people, one of whom directs her to attend a play entitled, The Courier's Tragedy. The play feels like a bad imitation of Shakespeare, a senseless mixture of sex, betrayal, torture, and killing. In Pynchon's words, it is "like a Road Runner cartoon in blank verse." Late in the performance, Maas is struck by an obscure reference to "Trystero."
Maas sets off to understand this reference. She traces the evolution of the play's text through different publications, finding many changes associated with the Trystero line, but none that offer any realistic account of why the changes were made. Her odyssey leads her into an increasingly bizarre world. To take just one example, she encounters a man who claims to have built a machine incorporating Maxwell's Demon. Those of you who, like Pynchon, studied physics, know that Maxwell's Demon is an imaginary creature who was invented to get around the second law of thermodynamics. And part of Maas's growing frustration in The Crying of Lot 49 derives from her inability to get the machine to work.
She comes to believe that a conspiracy has created an underground postal system in California, going by the acronym W.A.S.T.E., "We Await Silent Tristero's Empire." As her obsession with the putative conspiracy deepens, Maas finds herself more and more isolated, cut off from her husband, from her psychiatrist, and even from the lawyer she thought was helping her.
Towards the end of the book, Maas is led to an obscure historical source which suggests that Tristero [sic] really existed as a man who, in 1577, set up an underground postal system to challenge the existing postal monopoly in sixteenth century Europe.
And then, just when the reader is tempted to believe that the puzzle has been neatly sorted out, Pynchon shows how W.A.S.T.E. and the entire Tristero postal conspiracy might have been an elaborate hoax, constructed by Inverarity himself in order to torment his ex-girlfriend. But we really cannot be sure. Because this is, after all, a world in which nothing can be known with certainty.
In The Crying of Lot 49, Pynchon has again given us characters who do not feel quite like us. Cleanth Siegel was a fanatic. And Oedipa Maas seems to be a bit too easily drawn into the world of conspiracies.
But in speaking now of what I will call the Tristero Dark Side I again want to broaden our view. Rather than restricting our focus to conspiracy theorists, I would like to define the Tristero Dark Side by reference to a related but more familiar idea, the rush to judgment. This is the temptation to see too quickly a pattern emerging, to infer too soon an organizing principle, and then to become unable to assimilate contrary evidence into your worldview.
After you leave Cornell, you will have the opportunity to take positions of authority and responsibility. In those roles you will be required to act under conditions of uncertainty, to use your best judgment about what is going on when you have little information. These will be wonderful opportunities for you to do good in the world. They will invite you to draw on your very best qualities your compassion, your intelligence, your intuition.
And at these moments you will also have the opportunity to negotiate the temptations of the Tristero Dark Side. It will be surprisingly easy to believe that you know more than you do, to see more order in the universe than is really there, to see less entropy, to see conspiracies where there is only coincidence. It will take hard work to remind yourself of the limits of your own knowledge, to stay receptive to new evidence, to keep an open mind, especially when you feel very real time pressures weighing on your decision.
Think, for example, of the national leaders who must assess the danger posed by other countries. The journalists who must decide how much credence to give an anonymous tip. The labor negotiators who must decide whether to trust the latest representations that management has made to them. In these contexts, people are naturally tempted to connect the dots. It is more satisfying to know the answer than to live with ambiguity. And often it is easiest to have that answer take the form of malevolence, or conspiracy. It is so tempting to rush to judgment.
And yet, you can defeat the temptations of the Windigo Dark Side and the Tristero Dark Side. You do not have to develop moral tunnel vision. You do not have to rush to judgment. I am happy to provide you with five strategies for staying true to your best selves. Think of them, if you will, as the five virtues of a Jedi Master: a love for complexity, a patient spirit, a will to communicate, a sense of humor, and an optimistic heart.
First, a love for complexity. Fanaticism is anchored in the belief that one has discovered The Truth, a master key that explains the world. That same kind of belief can generate both tunnel vision and a rush to judgment.
When you feel yourself developing that kind of certainty that you have access to a master key, push back. Use all of your intellectual and sympathetic powers to seek out multiple perspectives. See the world through your critics' eyes. Feel your adversaries' pain. When it seems as though you've got it all figured out, ask yourself whether Pierce Inverarity might have led you astray, and whether you might be missing something important.
Second, a patient spirit. When the stakes seem highest, it is natural to believe that only swift and decisive action will do. When you feel that impulse, wait. Take a walk around the block. Review in your mind the foreseeable consequences of your decision the outcome you hope for and the collateral damage that might be avoidable. Remember how much you do not know. Then you will be able to act, and to do so in ways that enable you to keep on learning.
Third, a will to communicate. Pynchon's writings are filled with the communicative failures of his protagonists. Characters have insights, but they fail to share them with others in a way that is intelligible, in a way that can be helpful. And those failures make it easy for the Dark Side to move in. In these circumstances your rule of thumb should be that responsibility lies with the speaker. It is up to the person with the insight to find a way to convey it so that the audience understands.
As you assume greater leadership roles, having acquired special learning, knowledge, or expertise, that rule of thumb will become more and more important. It is not enough to have such learning. And it is not enough to bombard your listeners with data. You must come to understand what the linguist George Lakoff has called "frames" the ways in which your listeners structure their perceptions of the world. And you must help them to develop frames that will allow them to appreciate the importance of the learning you have to share.
Fourth, a sense of humor. Humor is the great enemy of the Dark Side, and the most powerful form of humor is self-deprecation. And here Thomas Pynchon has offered us a priceless example.
After graduating from Cornell, Pynchon emerged as one of the great writers of the twentieth century. His five novels have each won wide acclaim. But he decided early on that he would not accept the celebrity that success can bring. He chose instead to do what he could to preserve normalcy in his life by preserving his privacy. In particular, he avoided cameras. He would not allow his photo to be taken. He declined to give interviews.
But then, to the shock and amusement of a literary world that had become somewhat obsessed with finding Thomas Pynchon, along came the January 25, 2004, episode of the television show, The Simpsons.
In that show, Marge Simpson writes her first novel, The Harpooned Heart. Eager to promote sales of the book, the publisher seeks blurbs from Thomas Pynchon and Tom Clancy.
So picture, in your mind, the following scene. Imagine a Simpsons character. A man wearing a paper bag over his head, with a question mark painted on the bag, above the eyes. He's standing in front of a house, near a big neon sign that reads, "Thomas Pynchon's House. Come On In." The Pynchon character makes a call on his cell phone to Marge's publisher.
And here is what the Pynchon character says. (By the way, this really is the voice of Thomas Pynchon):
["Here's your quote. Thomas Pynchon loved this book. Almost as much as he loves cameras." ]
The Pynchon character ends the call and hangs a big sign around his neck that says "Thomas Pynchon," with an arrow pointing at his head, still covered by a paper bag. He starts shouting at passing cars:
["Hey, over here. Have your picture taken with a reclusive author. Today only, we'll throw in a free autograph. But wait! There's more!"]
A self-deprecating sense of humor will take you far indeed, perhaps all the way to the Simpsons.
And finally, an optimistic heart. When we reflect on Anakin's fall, we recognize that the Dark Side's greatest allies are fear and despair. Those are the emotions that fuel tunnel vision and a rush to judgment. To fight them you must arm yourself with realistic optimism. Not Panglossian denial of the problems in our world. But a kind of working faith that, on balance, over the long haul, things will work out, justice will be served, progress will occur, success will be achieved. That kind of attitude seems to be a predicate for most forms of collective achievement. Think of it, if you will, as the spirit that underlies Episode IV: A New Hope.