March 26, 2013 10:15 am
In 1951, Henrietta Lacks, a poor black mother of five living near Baltimore, died from cancer. But cells taken from her tumor lived on. The so-called HeLa cells multiplied prolifically and were sent to labs around the world, where they went on to help develop medical innovations and understanding about vaccines, cancer treatments, cloning and more.
Lacks’ story also raised significant questions about medical ethics. Lacks’ family was never informed that her cells lived on or even that a sample had been taken from her tumor. They only learned about the HeLa cells about twenty years later, by chance, and researchers used the family for HeLa studies without fully explaining what was going on.
In the story’s latest development, last week scientists published Lacks’ full genome—again, without consent of her family. Journalist Rebecca Skloot, who told the story of the HeLa cells in her best-selling book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, responds to this in an op-ed published in The New York Times:
Genetic information can be stigmatizing, and while it’s illegal for employers or health insurance providers to discriminate based on that information, this is not true for life insurance, disability coverage or long-term care.
Uploading a person’s genetic code onto the website SNPedia, for example, can reveal all sorts of personal information about her and her family within minutes, Skloot explains.
Scientifically speaking, that’s good news. There’s a lot of hope for using technology like this for affordable “personalized medicine.” But legally and ethically speaking, we’re not ready for it.
After hearing from the Lacks family, the European team apologized, revised the news release and quietly took the data off-line. (At least 15 people had already downloaded it.) They also pointed to other databases that had published portions of Henrietta Lacks’s genetic data (also without consent). They hope to talk with the Lacks family to determine how to handle the HeLa genome while working toward creating international standards for handling these issues.
As David Kroll points out in Forbes, legally the researchers who published the study were not required to consult with Lacks’ family. Laws requiring consent from offspring when a person or scientist choses to publish their genome do not exist.
Both Skloot and Kroll call for a reinvention of current standard procedure governing such issues, specifically one that focuses more on consent and trust.
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March 20, 2013 3:56 pm
If you grew up in a house that got the funny pages, you might remember Garfield the cat. And you might remember thinking that he was…not that funny. Well, it turns out you’re not as humorless as you might have thought. Unlike New Yorker cartoons, in which you are actually missing the joke, Garfield is not even designed to be funny.
On Quora, someone asked this question and got a surprisingly interesting response from a woman who used to be bombarded with licensing proposals from none other than Jim Davis, the creator of Garfield. She dug up this Slate article that suggests that Davis really had no intention of making the strip funny at all:
Davis makes no attempt to conceal the crass commercial motivations behind his creation of Garfield. (Davis) carefully studied the marketplace when developing Garfield. The genesis of the strip was “a conscious effort to come up with a good, marketable character,” Davis told Walter Shapiro in a 1982 interview in theWashington Post. “And primarily an animal. … Snoopy is very popular in licensing. Charlie Brown is not.” So, Davis looked around and noticed that dogs were popular in the funny papers, but there wasn’t a strip for the nation’s 15 million cat owners. Then, he consciously developed a stable of recurring, repetitive jokes for the cat. He hates Mondays. He loves lasagna. He sure is fat.
The model for Garfield was Charles Schulz’s Peanuts, but not the funny Peanuts of that strip’s early years. Rather, Davis wanted to mimic the sunny, humorless monotony of Peanuts‘ twilight years. “After 50 years, Snoopy was still laying in that dog house, and rather than getting old, it actually has the opposite effect,” Davis told the Chicago Sun-Times last year during the press blitz for Garfield‘s 25th anniversary.
Caroline Zelonka, the intrepid Quora answerer, also argues that, even without the strip, Davis could make tons of money from Garfield.* She writes:
The strip isn’t what’s important: what with the movies, plush toys, branded pet food, even the “Garfield Pizza Cafe” in Kuala Lumpur.
And it turns out the Peanuts creater Charles Schultz hated Garfield, according to one other answerer:
About 25 years ago I met a woman who worked for United Features Syndicate. UFS represented Peanuts as well as Garfield and countless other cartoons.
We got to talking and she told me a story about her early days with the syndicate. She was hired to work on Peanuts business (licensing, merchandising) and one of her first assignments was to fly out to Santa Rosa, California, where Charles Schulz lived, stay in his house for a week, and establish a good relationship. After a couple of days she was distraught because Schulz did not seem to be warming up to her. Might she lose her job? She tried harder to make him like her. Finally after another day or so he casually asked her, “What percentage of your time will be devoted to the Peanuts property?”
“One hundred percent,” she assured him. “I was hired to work only on Peanuts.”
She could see the ice cracking already. He gave her a relieved look and said, “GOOD. BECAUSE I THINK THAT CAT IS STUPID.”
By the end of the week they had a warm and trusting business relationship.
Other people on the Quora answers have different takes on why Garfield has the elements of humor, but isn’t funny. Joshua Engel cites Aristotle, saying:
The strips aren’t exactly uproariously funny, but the fundamental building blocks of humor are there. It’s kind of Aristotelian, actually. From the Poetics:
Comedy is, as we have said, an imitation of characters of a lower type—not, however, in the full sense of the word bad, the ludicrous being merely a subdivision of the ugly. It consists in some defect or ugliness which is not painful or destructive. To take an obvious example, the comic mask is ugly and distorted, but does not imply pain.*
We can definitely quibble with Aristotle’s definition, but it’s the essence of Garfield. Jon is both ugly and defective, but not generally in a painful way. Aristotle’s definition of comedy relied just on our feeling superior to him.
But no matter how you slice the lasagna, Garfield just isn’t that funny, and Davis is still incredibly rich—something comedians, many of whom have the first part down, could take a lesson from.
*Updated: This post originally reported, in error, that new Garfield strips were no longer being published
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March 12, 2013 1:51 pm
While pawing through a stack of medieval manuscripts from Dubrovnik, Croatia, University of Sarajevo doctoral student Emir O. Filipović stumbled upon a familiar set of splotches marring the centuries-old pages. Years ago, a mischievous kitty had left her ink-covered prints on the book. Filipović explains the finding:
My story line follows a simple path: I was doing some research in the Dubrovnik State Archives for my PhD, I came across some pages which were stained with cat paw prints, I took a few photos of this (as I do whenever I notice something interesting or unusual on any old book I’m reading), and carried on with my work not paying too much attention to something which at that time could essentially be only a distraction.
Thanks to a frenzy of Twitter and blog coverage, a French historian picked up on the photo and decided to include it in her Interactive Album of Medieval Paleography so that other historians can utilize the unique finding, which gives insight into daily life in 14th century Dubrovnik. Filipović elaborates:
The photo of the cat paw prints represents one such situation which forces the historian to take his eyes from the text for a moment, to pause and to recreate in his mind the incident when a cat, presumably owned by the scribe, pounced first on the ink container and then on the book, branding it for the ensuing centuries. You can almost picture the writer shooing the cat in a panicky fashion while trying to remove it from his desk. Despite his best efforts the damage was already complete and there was nothing else he could have done but turn a new leaf and continue his job. In that way this little episode was ‘archived’ in history.
Filipović hopes the finding may move beyond a simple cat meme and inspire more interest in the medieval Mediterranean.
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March 4, 2013 11:15 am
Although he lived in the 1950s, author George Orwell’s mug was never captured on film. At least that’s what scholars thought, until someone uncovered this footage from around 1921.
At around the 50 second mark in this video above, you can see Orwell at a spritely age of 18 walking across a field at Eton College. But that’s all you get. No interviews, no readings, nothing. Orwell’s voice was never captured on tape, and this brisk march is all anyone has found of him on film.
So while Orwell lives on in millions of class syllabi, his image lives for just a few seconds in our collective film history.
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March 1, 2013 11:34 am
In the NHL, players’ birthdays fall into a strange pattern: the best players seem to all be born in the earlier months of the year. This pattern was extremely clear from youth hockey all the way up to the pros. In Outliers, journalist Malcolm Gladwell explained one possible cause of this weird birthday trend. Here’s New York’s summary:
Gladwell explains what academics call the relative-age effect, by which an initial advantage attributable to age gets turned into a more profound advantage over time. Because Canada’s eligibility cutoff for junior hockey is January 1, Gladwell writes, “a boy who turns 10 on January 2, then, could be playing alongside someone who doesn’t turn 10 until the end of the year.” You can guess at that age, when the differences in physical maturity are so great, which one of those kids is going to make the league all-star team. Once on that all-star team, the January 2 kid starts practicing more, getting better coaching, and playing against tougher competition—so much so that by the time he’s, say, 14, he’s not just older than the kid with the December 30 birthday, he’s better.
Coaches seem to draft based on this idea that older players—players born in the first three months—will have the advantage and be better. A new paper, published in PLoS ONE, looked at those numbers:
Compared to those born in the first quarter (i.e., January–March), those born in the third and fourth quarters were drafted more than 40 slots later than their productivity warranted, and they were roughly twice as likely to reach career benchmarks, such as 400 games played or 200 points scored.
But, actually, this is a daft way to put a team together. The birthday effect that Gladwell describes hasn’t held up to scrutiny, and, in fact, when you look at the Canadian Olympic hockey team, it’s not at all full of “older” players. The NHL doesn’t seem to follow that pattern either, according to SB Nation:
According to nhl.com, at the 2010 Olympic break there were 499 Canadians on NHL rosters. That’s about 55% of the players in the entire league. If you broke their birthdates down by quarters of the year you get the following:
Canadians Non-Canadians (as of the end of the 09-10 season)
Jan-Mar: 25.7% 34.2%
Apr-June: 28.5% 23%
July-Sept: 25.5% 21.3%
Oct-Dec: 20.3% 21.5%
As you can see, if there’s a country with an “old” hockey workforce, it’s not Canada. There were actually more Canadian NHL players born in September (43) than January (41), and June was the most populous month (50). True, there are more players born in the first half of the year, but the notion that Canada is only producing successful players from a small portion of the calendar seems to be, at best, somewhat of an overstatement.
Robert Deaner, the researcher behind the new study, wanted to show people that this birthday effect simply doesn’t hold up. He told the press office at Grand Valley State University:
“There’s no doubt that drafting professional athletes is an inexact science. Plenty of sure-fire first-round picks fizzle while some late-round picks unexpectedly become stars. But our results show that, at least since 1980, NHL teams have been consistently fooled by players’ birthdays or something associated with them. They greatly underestimate the promise of players born in the second half of the year, the ones who have always been relatively younger than their peers. For any given draft slot, relatively younger players are about twice as likely to be successful. So if teams really wanted to win, they should have drafted more of the relatively younger players.”
Take note, coaches: stop listening to Malcolm Gladwell, and start listening to science.
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