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Thursday, November 20, 2014

Rock Stars

My wife sent me a school notice about a meeting regarding "The Future of Life Science Education at La Jolla High School" because she thinks it's good for us to attend such things.  I generally think such things are a waste of time and terribly boring to boot, so I started thinking up excuses about why I couldn't possibly make it that particular evening.

But then, "Guest Speaker: Craig Venter," caught my eye on the meeting notice.  To me, Venter is a rock-star of science, primarily famous for his drive and success in sequencing the Human Genome:
Frustrated with what Venter viewed as the slow pace of progress in the Human Genome project, and unable to get funds for his ideas, he sought funding from the private sector to fund Celera Genomics. The goal of the company was to sequence the entire human genome and release it into the public domain for non-commercial use in much less time and for much less cost than the public human genome project. The company planned to profit from their work by creating a value-added database of genomic data to which users could subscribe for a fee. The goal consequently put pressure on the public genome program and spurred several groups to redouble their efforts to produce the full sequence. DNA from five demographically different individuals was used by Celera to generate the sequence of the human genome; one of the individuals was Venter himself. In 2000, Venter and Francis Collins of the National Institutes of Health and U.S. Public Genome Project jointly made the announcement of the mapping of the human genome, a full three years ahead of the expected end of the Public Genome Program. [emphasis added]
In fact, being the nerd that I am, someone like Craig Venter is more of a draw to me than, say, someone like Mick Jagger, though admittedly, Jagger might possibly be somewhat more entertaining.

So I said to my wife, "Why yes dear, there is nothing I'd like better than attending this school meeting!" She looked at me skeptically with raised eyebrows, to which I replied, "No, really. I'm serious!"  So we went. Or rather, I went.  On the night of the meeting she decided she was too tired and decided not to attend.

There were between 50 and 100 people at the meeting. I was surprised.  After all, if it was Jagger instead of Venter, I think it might've been more crowded.  I was definitely disappointed that someone that I think is so important would only draw that few people.  On the other hand, it was more intimate than if it was a big crowd.

One gentlemen there really stood out.  Or should I say stood up? And up and up. He was 6' 11" which is really, really tall and probably 8 inches taller than the next tallest person in attendance.  It turned out to be retired NBA superstar Bill Walton who happens to be on the board of directors of one of Venter's ventures. In fact, the main event was a conversation with Bill Walton asking Craig Venter various questions about his personal life, genomics, and his views on education.  Two superstars for the price of one!

Some interesting tidbits:

  • On education, the first thing Venter noted was that he had terrible grades and barely graduated from high school and that was only possible because he talked a teacher into giving him a D- instead of an F in a required class.  While I'm not sure that background gives him a lot of credibility to pontificate on how high schools should teach life science, he said that two things they should teach (but don't) are how to take risk, and how to fail (or, more accurately, how to recover from failure).
  • On competitiveness of biotech, he's confident that even though Europe and China are pumping huge amounts of money into this area, the United States will maintain a lead for a long time.  He says that in the United States, a great deal of the funding for biotech comes from an unusual intersection of individual philanthropy and investment (venture) capital which is far more creative, versatile, and nimble than the massive, but blunt and poorly directed funding by the European and Chinese governments.
  • On the direction of biotech in general and the human genome in particular, he feels that huge advances in all aspects of health care will be coming in the next ten years.  He feels that this is a fantastic time to invest in biotech companies.
  • On sequencing human genomes, he feels that the clause in Obamacare that enables everyone to get insurance without regard for pre-existing conditions is critically important because that enables everyone to get their genome sequenced without having to worry about likely genetic based diseased states (a type of pre-existing condition) which could have precluded them from getting affordable insurance. Having everybody's genome sequenced will enable optimal health therapies to be personally designed for each and every person over their entire lifetime, increasing both health and longevity.
Every bit as good as a rock concert!

43 comments:

Bret said...

Though regarding investments, I'm sure that robotics is a better investment than biotech. :-)

erp said...

... the United States will maintain a lead for a long time ...

One of the main reasons IMO is that we not only have our own home grown geniuses, but many of the best and brightest from all over the world come here as well to seek their fortunes.

PS: I like Mrs. Bret's style.

Clovis e Adri said...

Wow!

And only 50 to 100 people attending? BTW, can't you make a more precise guess? 50 is visually very different from 100.

I feel almost as envious of you as I feel for Skipper's adventures in the sky.

Not really for the talk itself, but for being in a place where such a thing is commonplace enough to happen in a highschool...

Internet made the world smaller (it is not hard to find Venter's talks online), but the personal experience still makes a lot of difference. Not to mention the direct impact over any kid attending it and getting excited enough to aspire for his own dreams.

Before Heisenberg went on to change Physics forever, he was once a highschool student listening to Bohr in just such a talk.

Mick Jagger makes for no comparison, really...

Peter said...

Having everybody's genome sequenced will enable optimal health therapies to be personally designed for each and every person over their entire lifetime, increasing both health and longevity.

I find that prospect very chilling, in a Brave New World sort of way.

erp said...

Peter, we won't need to worry until they start altering genomes. Just creating huge data bases isn't at all worrisome, especially in the hands of uber elites who are scrupulously above reproach. s/off

Howard said...

Oh yes, a real rock star in Life Sciences. Glad to see that someone immersed in it has the same impression one gets from reading much of the available literature. Lucky you! (On par with seeing Dizzy?)

Bret said...

Clovis asks: "...can't you make a more precise guess?"

Well, I'm not sure if it's more precise, but if you made me pick one number I'd guess 83.

Clovis wrote: "...where such a thing is commonplace enough to happen in a highschool."

Apparently so commonplace that hardly anybody chose to attend.

Actually, I think that it would've been much better attended, but the notice was just one of many school emails everyone gets bombarded with, and if you didn't read it carefully, you probably wouldn't notice the guest speaker tag line. It's not like I was really looking for it or would have expected it.

Bill Walton's name wasn't even on the invite notice, and for at least some sports enthusiasts in the community, he would've been a reasonable draw as well.

It was also meant to be a fund raiser, which also wasn't mentioned in the invite.

I think if the organizers had done a better job with communication, they could've had hundreds of people attend (and caused a lot more money to be raised).

Clovis wrote: "Not to mention the direct impact over any kid attending..."

Sadly, being a fundraiser, children weren't invited (though they weren't prohibited from attending either).

One cool thing he does, though, is he had this bus converted into a mobile laboratory that demonstrates genome work, and this bus drives around to middle schools, with a focus on middle schools in disadvantaged areas, and the middle school students get to work with the very advanced equipment on the bus.

Clovis wrote: "...Heisenberg went on to change Physics forever..."

Are you certain? :-)

Bret said...

Peter,

Note that I was reporting on what he said, not necessarily that I agreed with what he said. I also think there's some danger with having everybody's genome sequenced. Genomes are knowledge, knowledge is power, power corrupts, or something like that.

It's one thing that there's a law prohibiting discrimination based on genetic information, but laws come and go, sometimes they're enforced, sometimes they're not (see immigration law, for example), and even when enforced, people figure out how to get around laws.

And with a central database of genomes, it may be possible to have a device that just sniffs the air and can immediately tell you who was in the vicinity within the last few hours. If I was a tyrannical government, I'd sure like that.

But we'll see.

Bret said...

Howard,

Definitely on par with seeing Dizzy. That was so cool because that was also a tiny venue.

erp said...

Okay. Who's Dizzy?

Peter said...

I also think there's some danger with having everybody's genome sequenced.

Ya' think?

I could construct a futurist dystopia where government, banks, the Pentagon, your employer, your insurance company, etc. find ways to grab hold of this information and make invasive demands on individual freedom. But you know what really chills me? The thought that future generations of school kids will be assigned projects to investigate and report on whether their parents are living lives consistent with their "optimal health therapies", and thus keeping the country strong. Seriously, if you think your kids' reporting to their class on whether you turned the lights out for Earth Day was bad, you ain't seen nothing yet.

Bret said...

erp asked: "Who's Dizzy?"

My kids when they were little and I spun them around?

Oh, that's not what you're asking. In this context, Dizzy refers to an amazing jazz trumpet player. Howard and I went to see him in the late 1970s. More accurately, Howard convinced me to go, as I hadn't really learned to like jazz all that much yet, and I was really amazed.

Bret said...

Whoa! Peter musta taken his paranoia pills this morning. Or forgotten to take his happy pills. Or the dosage is off (that could be fixed if only we had his genome).

Actually, I don't disagree with Peter, but then, I always take a healthy dose of paranoia pills every morning (and afternoon, and evening, ...).

erp said...

I thought you guys were way too young to have ever heard of Dizzy Gillespie or Dizzy Dean for that matter :-)

Peter said...

Not really paranoia, Bret. The way I figure it, when you reach an age where you are increasingly bewildered by cultural and technological changes you don't understand, you have a choice. You can join the chorus of young'uns singing "How cool is that?" and slide slowly into irrelevancy or you can get into curmudgeon mode with repeated warnings about the end of civilization as we know it. The latter is much, much more fun.

Besides, I'm sure there is no shortage of voices out there anxious to reassure me that my dystopic forebodings will be addressed by an "appropriate regulatory regime".

Clovis e Adri said...

Peter,

Resistance is futile. Sit down and enjoy the ride...

Harry Eagar said...

I think going to school meetings is very important and always tried to do so (although when my older kids were younger I worked nights and didn't get many chances), for several reasons.

Teaching can be a discouraging job and knowing that the parents care at least enough to inquire should improve morale.

When teachers really are not much good, meeting them one on one is one way of finding that out.

I could list others but you get the idea.

It is true that not that many parents do take even that much part, which is among the reasons I pay so little attention to complaints that public education is so terrible. How would they know?

Venter is an unusual man, for sure. And just specially for erp, let's note that he (and she) seem to be wrong about America's invincible lead. The first real gene therapy has just been approved and it didn't come from America.

erp said...

Harry, this reference is even more obtuse than usual. Please provide a link to any statement I've made to "America's invincible lead."

Please define good and bad teachers. Good teachers per your cohort equal propagandists promoting the narrative and bad teachers those trying to inject some truth into their students’ heads.

The reason many parents and even grandparents don't care about the schools is that they are themselves products of that same narrative über alles propaganda.

Bret said...

Harry wrote: "...he ... seem to be wrong about America's invincible lead."

Just to clarify, he said (and I wrote), that "he's confident ... the United States will maintain a lead for a long time..." That's different from an invincible lead.


Harry wrote: "The first real gene therapy has just been approved and it didn't come from America."

Ummm. Not sure what therapy you're referring to and not sure why this particular therapy you're mentioning constitutes a lead across the board in all of biotech now and forever.

Harry Eagar said...

Um, it's kinda like the race to the moon. Getting there fustest with the mostest is usually regarded as definitive.

This therapy -- for a disease I had never heard of -- presents numbers of aspects that are provocative for further discussion of medical advances, costs and fees etc. but clearly those damned socialists are not behind the 'Murricans.

Bret said...

There's only one moon. Biotech is more like phones and tablets. Lots of firsts, still very competitive. Just ask Apple, Google, Samsung, LG, ...

So what disease is this gene therapy for?

Hey Skipper said...

So what disease is this gene therapy for?

Delusion.

Harry Eagar said...

There are lots of moons and, just recently, the socialists were first to a comet. Find a better analogy.

Lipoprotein lipase deficiency.

http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/11/26/us-health-genetherapy-price-idUSKCN0JA1TP20141126?feedType=RSS

Howard said...

Did I miss something - earth has more than one moon? Oh, you meant moons of other planets. Bret, your analogy is still pretty good. Forty-five years after the first manned landing on the moon, no other moons have seen a manned landing - nothing even remotely in prospect. Forty-five years from now, not only will there be many gene therapy treatments but also many other huge breakthroughs. Perhaps transnational progressivism is too confining a view for Harry. Maybe he is a pangalactic progressive. He could just be from another planet. That would explain quite a bit.

Harry Eagar said...

We went to the moon to shame the commie, the same way Pasternak was outed to the KGN. It was more difficult to go to the moon but the motives were just as impure.

And say, how about that Reagan Space Station, the one that sunk $100 billion for no return and depends on commie rockets.

I really think some other field of endeavor would be more persuasive for your theme.

As it happens, I spent Thanksgiving day in a house full of Florida rightwingers (strangers to me), and the conversation was led by a Polish historian who chose as her theme the wonderful day when the moon was landed on.

She was then a student in Moscow, and the Roooskies did not show the landing on teevee, but the Polish students were able to see it on a Polish channel, and that proves 'Murrica is the greatest country to which no other may compare.

I leaned back on the sofa, feeling rather as Huxley did when listening to Soapy Sam. I thought it will be the work of lifting of a feather to get her defending fascism, and so it proved. After quite a bit more about how awful the commies were, I interjected, mildly, the the precommie regimes were not much to be admired either.

I was not taking notes, but her response was pretty much, "You have to understand the times, they were not fascist . . ."

I let her run a bit and asked, "Are you telling me Beck was not a fascist?"

She had not expected the Florida backwoods to yield anyone who knew Polish history, so that took the air out of her for a bit, although she recovered and went on exculpating all the fascists, except (but only one teeny exception) the Spaniards.

The cook was a vegetarian and the turkey came out raw, so all we had to eat was mashed potatoes and chopped Brussels sprouts.

Once she came out of the kitchen I learned that she alone of her family was not am ultra rightist, and that -- estimable, pretty woman! -- she had known who I was when we were introduced because she reads my reviews.

I went to a marvelous party, I couldn't have liked it more.


Annoying Old Guy said...

I have mentioned before that I consider the space program and the race to the Moon emblematic of my political views, that governments can achieve great feats, but rarely anything substantial, which the point Howard made.

As usual, I am unable to understand Mr. Eagar's point. He points to the race to the Moon as if it were a bad idea, then lauds other similar efforts. If it's about being first, it would seem to be counter-evidence to his thesis on a gene therapy. Experience shows, though, that it's futile to ask for any explanation.

Clovis e Adri said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Clovis e Adri said...

Actually, Harry, even though Rosetta is pretty amazing, I would say the first to get to a comet was not the socialists, but those good old guys at NASA.

Deep Impact was a mission launched by NASA in 2005 to approach and shoot a "missile" at a comet (Tempel 1). It took pretty amazing pictures of the whole thing, including the probe approaching its target.

Well, since a few of our friends here look to believe NASA is a socialist behemoth, you may well be right after all Harry...

Harry Eagar said...

Half credit to the Nazis for getting us to the moon first, anyway.

A friend of mine, when he was an Air Force officer in the mid-'50s, had the job of calculating the orbits to be reached the Vanguard satellites, if only they had ever reached orbit.

He once told me, regarding the Operation Paperclip guys he met at Huntsville: 'You never met snyone soooo relieved.'

The problem with the space program was that it was run by mass murderers.

Hey Skipper said...

[Harry:] We went to the moon to shame the commie, the same way Pasternak was outed to the KGN [sic]. It was more difficult to go to the moon but the motives were just as impure.

In what possible regard could the aim of shaming an inhuman, murderous, totalitarian theology be impure?

Hey Skipper said...

Well, since a few of our friends here look to believe NASA is a socialist behemoth, you may well be right after all Harry...

so·cial·ism
ˈsōSHəˌlizəm
noun
a political and economic theory of social organization that advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole.

So, no, not socialism.

Some goals are best achieved collectively. I'm pretty certain that none of our robotic explorers of the solar system and universe would exist without a government entity.

But that doesn't mean ignoring the gigantism and sclerotic bureaucracy that comes along with the territory, sometimes disastrously.

Annoying Old Guy said...

--
The problem with the space program was that it was run by mass murderers.
--

Simply solution then - privatize it. What other type of space program hasn't been run by mass murderers?

Clovis e Adri said...

AOG,

Because privatization has such a stellar record on eliminating mass murder, right?

Or, actually, we don't really have much data on that to compare. But the little we have - think Blackwater - tells me they would produce mass murderers more efficiently than many other governments. After all, privatization is all about efficiency, isn't it?

Clovis e Adri said...

Harry,

---
The problem with the space program was that it was run by mass murderers.
---

Tell me, who mass murdered more people, Werner von Braun´s team or the Manhattan Project people?

I'll give one tip: neither of them pulled the trigger.

Annoying Old Guy said...

Clovis;

--
Because privatization has such a stellar record on eliminating mass murder, right?
--

Um, no.

I find your allusion to Blackwater interesting - do you consider any one who kills another person a murderer? That is, you think there is no such thing as justifiable homicide? And that one death is the same as a million, so any murderer is also a *mass* murderer?

Clovis e Adri said...

AOG,

No, no and no. Next question?

Annoying Old Guy said...

For what reason, then, did you imply that Blackwater produced mass murderers?

Clovis e Adri said...

I did not imply they actually produced them, but that they looked to have a promising future at murdering the masses.

Harry Eagar said...

I'll answer: yes, a mass murderer (it has a social sciences/criminological standard definition) is a mass murderer. Some have better opportunities than others, some are more effectove than others, but once you cross that line, you've crossed it.

Clovis, I would not call the use of Abombs mass murder. (The city busting nombings in Europe were, to my mind, more equivocal, at last after the initial enthusiasm provided evidence that they did not work to shorten the war. The 'dehousing' justification was clearly immoral) It was war. In the global calculus, using the bombs saved more lives than it cost, but inasmuch as they were primarily Chinese and Korean lives, sntibomb propagandists are disinclined to count them. I say count them anyway.

Annoying Old Guy said...

Clovis;

If that's the best indictment of the private sector in the murder department (a disputed incident which was successfully prosecuted), it's really no contest at all.

As for Mr. Eagar, I can once again not penetrate to his actual meaning. His comment is not at all responsive to any of my questions. As best I can tell, he thinks a soldier who kills people in combat is a mass murderer, but a pilot who wipes out a city with an atomic bomb is not. OK...

Clovis e Adri said...

AOG,

Considering I started my phrase on this topic with "we don't really have much data on that to compare", I think my point was qualified enough.

Your prescription of privatization as the universal problem solver fits so well the right wing caricature that we must wonder if you are joking with - or about - Harry here.

Annoying Old Guy said...

I have never labeled it as a universal problem solver. That's my I am a minarchist and not an anarchist.

Harry Eagar said...

'If that's the best indictment of the private sector in the murder department (a disputed incident which was successfully prosecuted), it's really no contest at all.'

I could easily do better, but why bother. Better -- or worse, depending upon viewpoint -- have been in the daily papers over the past few days.