Misha Angrist's Blog, page 6

September 27, 2011

Last week I was in Bad Nauheim (a lovely town full of spas and gardens–highly recommended) searching for Elvis and addressing the German CFO – Summit. "Why," I wondered, "would German CFOs be interested in hearing about personal genomics? Surely they knew better than to sink their hard-won Euros into spit kits and exomes?"

Indeed they did. My host, an all-around mensch, explained that the theme of this year's meeting was "the transparent self." When I informed him that, as far as human DNA was concerned, our selves were still pretty damn opaque, his reaction was not disappointment with the pace of the genome sciences, but relief that most of our genomic information was not meaningful enough upon which to make systematic eugenic or discriminatory decisions (Mendelian reproductive screening, forensics and a couple of other things notwithstanding).

It seemed as though many (most?) of the attendees shared this view. No one mentioned history. No one needed to. Germany's 20th-century abuse of genetics had profound, horrific, unfathomable consequences. That perverted, wrong-headed theories of heredity–some of which were "perfected" in the US–gave the Nazis cover for genocide is our field's single greatest failing.

And so the irony was not lost on me: Here I was, an American Jew who had had family members perish in the Holocaust, telling the Germans that genetics was cool and nothing to be afraid of…It was a tough sell (even in the wake of the first published German genome).

"We–all Germans–carry an enormous burden," my host said later. "As we should." He tried to articulate the difficulty of reconciling love for one's parents and grandparents with the knowledge of what they did–or didn't do–during the war. "The New Eugenics" is by now an old bioethics trope, but for many Germans it is hardly an academic abstraction.

That said, I stand by what I've been saying for a while now: genetics* is too important to be left to geneticists…or primary care doctors or academic medical centers or IRBs or government agencies or multinational corporations. If we–individuals, families and communities–want this century to play out differently than the last one, then it is incumbent upon us to assert control over our own cells and the information inside them.

*and by this I mean to include genomics, phenotypes and all other human biological data
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Published on September 27, 2011 19:15 • 21 views

September 10, 2011

Here is a paperback book cover. Available for pre-order now and featuring a new epilogue with 100% more Ozzy.

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Published on September 10, 2011 14:31 • 114 views

September 2, 2011

My "colleague" (can I call him that?) Seth Mnookin offers a thoughtful paean to the one-year anniversary of this here blogging network. It truly is a pleasure to know that so many smart and talented people hang around under the same umbrella, that they were generous enough to include me, and that they continue to let me hang around.

This is not false modesty. Whenever I'm asked about my blogging, my overall response is one of profound sheepishness. The stats say I have posted 77 times here in the past year. This strikes me as respectable until I remember what most of the rest of the ecosystem is doing. So, here's a Jewish New Year's resolution: in 5772 I will post at least 91 times or once every four days. There. I said it.

Uh oh.

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Published on September 02, 2011 11:39 • 23 views

August 28, 2011

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of participating in a Garage Bio podcast with Derek Jacoby and some other fine folks. Who knew that hanging around ancient military bases could be so much fun?

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Published on August 28, 2011 12:16 • 32 views

August 27, 2011

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Published on August 27, 2011 17:12 • 25 views

August 21, 2011

In the New York Times magazine, Maud Newton delivers a spot-on exegesis of the ambivalent, self-second-guessing rhetoric of the late David Foster Wallace and one of its unfortunate legacies:

How we arrived at the notion that the postmodern era is the first ever to confront the tension between sincerity and irony despite millennia of evidence to the contrary is no mystery: every generation believes its insights are unprecedented, its struggles uniquely formidable, its solutions the balm for all that ails the world. Why so many of our critics are still, after all these years, making their arguments in this inherently self-undermining voice — still trying to ward off every possible rejoinder and pre-emptively rebut every possible criticism by mixing a weird rhetorical stew of equivocation, pessimism and Elysian prophecy — is another question entirely.


…so much of what passes for intellectual debate nowadays is obscured behind a veneer of folksiness and sincerity and is characterized by an unwillingness to be pinned down. Where the craving for admiration and approval predominates, intellectual rigor cannot thrive, if it survives at all.

Maud, as usual, is absolutely right–and I don't say that just to win her approval. Recently someone forwarded me an email exchange where one party felt aggrieved, hurt, and worst of all, excluded. In response to these complaints, at one point the other party said, "You come across like you're criticizing me," the implication being that criticism of another's actions was somehow beyond the pale. I see this same thinness of skin in many (but by no means all) of my undergraduate students: an eagerness for approval, a strong desire to avoid conflict, and a tendency to take anything less than a "gold star" as a personal reproach.

And I see the same thing in my children and, at the risk of being Foster-Wallace-esque, in myself. Indeed, the anxieties and neuroses I reveal in my book (Buy it! Read it! Like it!) stem in no small part from this compulsion to be liked.

Working for approbation is not corrosive per se. It can be quite useful if one is trying to win elected office, make a living as a comedian or, I don't know, sell a book. But as a way to live it is, finally, a mug's game: if we can't stomach disagreement, challenges or criticism of any kind–intellectual, social, emotional–then we aren't really living.

Are we?

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Published on August 21, 2011 07:24 • 23 views

August 19, 2011

hat tip to the squid

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Published on August 19, 2011 18:41 • 18 views

August 5, 2011

Another sweltering, stifling bit of weekend here in Dixie. Enjoy!

(And another tip of the sombrero)

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Published on August 05, 2011 13:58 • 20 views

July 29, 2011

While I wasn't looking, some stuff happened:

23andMe announced it would offer free genotyping to 10,000 African Americans. Daniel MacArthur has your cogent analysis. IMHO, this is long overdue and if it's done right, can be the start of something that will ultimately pay public health dividends. I hope.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit undid most of Judge Robert Sweet's (U.S. Federal District Court for the Southern District of New York) decision from March of last year and ruled that isolated DNA is indeed patentable subject matter (big ol' pdf). The only significant bit the CAFC affirmed was "…the [lower] court's decision that Myriad's method claims directed to 'comparing' or 'analyzing' DNA sequences are patent ineligible; such claims include no transformative steps and cover only patent ineligible abstract, mental steps." So, uh…boo ya!…We now return you to your regularly scheduled taxpayer-funded biotech monopoly. Dan Vorhaus has real-time thoughts on his twitter page.
The US Department of Health and Human Services has announced plans to revamp its "system" for protecting human participants in research. It's about frickin time, yo. I will have more to say about this once I have slogged through this 92-page cure for insomnia carefully and thoughtfully studied the request for comment in detail.

Have a nice, air-conditioned weekend…

(hat tip)

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Published on July 29, 2011 17:44 • 21 views

July 21, 2011

My appearance on Theral Timpson's terrific podcast, Mendel's Pod, is now up.

And Happy Belated Birthday, Gregor!

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Published on July 21, 2011 15:32 • 19 views