December 14, 2012

The revolution will not be revolutionary … soon

Filed under: Health, Media, Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 11:09

In the Globe and Mail, Timothy Caulfield explains that we need to be careful not to drink the “healthcare revolution” Kool-Aid:

It has been suggested that this technological advance will usher in a new health-care “revolution.” It will allow us, or so it’s promised, to individualize health-care treatments and preventive strategies — an approach often called “personalized medicine.” It will allow us to become fully aware of our genetic shortcomings and the diseases for which we’re at increased genetic risk, thus providing the impetuous to adopt healthier lifestyles.

But will having your personal genome available really revolutionize your health-care world? Will you be able to use this information to significantly improve your chances of avoiding the most common chronic diseases? Not likely.

Tangible benefits will be (and have been) achieved. But, for the most part, these advances are likely to be incremental in nature – which, history tells us, is the way scientific progress usually unfolds.

Why this “we are not in a revolution” message? Overselling the benefits of personal genomics can hurt the science, by creating unrealistic expectations, and distract us from other, more effective areas of health promotion.

The relationship between our genome and disease is far more complicated than originally anticipated. Indeed, the more we learn about the human genome, the less we seem to know. For example, results from a major international initiative to explore all the elements of our genome (the ENCODE project) found that, despite decades-old conventional wisdom that much of our genome was nothing but “junk DNA,” as much as 80 per cent of our genome likely has some biological function. This work hints that things are much more convoluted than expected. So much so that one of ENCODE’s lead researchers, Yale’s Mark Gerstein, was quoted as saying that it’s “like opening a wire closet and seeing a hairball of wires.”

40 years ago today, man last walked on the moon

Filed under: History, Space, Technology, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 10:51

At sp!ked, Patrick West notes an under-observed anniversary:

It is a fine testament to NASA’s Apollo programme that of all the world-shaking events in living memory, men landing on the moon is the only one that doesn’t involve death. As Andrew Smith, author of Moon Dust (2006), notes, everyone remembers where they were when John F Kennedy was assassinated, Princess Diana died, or on 9/11. Most people, if they were alive at the time, also vividly recall when a man first walked on the moon on 20 July 1969.

Few, however, will remember what they were doing when the last man walked on the moon. That was 40 years ago today.

As he fired up the engines of Apollo 17‘s Lunar Module, Gene Cernan, the last man on the moon, delivered a final message to the world: ‘America’s challenge has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow. And as we leave the moon at Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return with peace and hope for all mankind.’ On this date, many of us lament that we haven’t gone back to the moon. Others won’t, citing the vast expense of this Cold War sideshow, equivalent to roughly $130 billion in today’s money.

We certainly aren’t likely to return to the moon in such cynical and pessimistic times, of Mayan prophecies, omens of economic stagnation and environmental catastrophe, Frankie Boyle misanthropy and books called Is It Just Me Or Is Everything Shit?. In other words, everything the Apollo programme didn’t represent. America’s race to the moon may have been partly a means of getting one over the Soviets, but it also embodied the spirit of adventure and progress, as encapsulated by Neil Armstrong’s first words from the moon.

This week in Guild Wars 2

Filed under: Gaming, Gaming — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 10:27

My weekly Guild Wars 2 community round-up at GuildMag is now online. With a big event — Wintersday — about to kick off this afternoon, I doubt many folks will be looking for links after today.

Once upon a time, ministers of the crown would resign over cock-ups as blatant as the F-35 project

Filed under: Cancon, Government, Military — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 08:57

In Maclean’s, John Geddes illustrates why we are not as mature a society as we think:

It was painful to listen to Defence Minister Peter MacKay this afternoon as he faced repeated questions from reporters about whether he has any regrets about his handling of the government’s program to buy F-35 fighter jets.

Today’s news, not surprisingly, is that the problem-plagued Lockheed Martin fighter is only one of several jets whose costly tires the government will soon be kicking. And so pretty much everything MacKay has ever said about the necessity and inevitability of the F-35 procurement has proven to be dead wrong.

He might have made it easier to hear his answers without wincing had he just admitted to past mistakes. Failing that mature, obvious response, he might have clung to a fragment of dignity by resolving at least not to drag Canadian men and women in uniform into it.

But no. His couldn’t restrain himself. He couldn’t resist bringing up his concern for the troops when pointedly asked if he had any regrets about his past harsh words toward critics who raised what turned out to be entirely valid concerns about the F-35 program.

And another article from earlier this week from Andrew Coyne:

Yet, even now, MacKay and his officials are still trying to claim operating costs should not really be included, because “we’d have to spend that money anyway,” i.e. regardless of which plane was purchased, or even if we somehow hung onto the old CF-18s. This is interesting, but irrelevant. It’s useful to know how much more one plane would cost than another. But we also just need to know the cost, period. We don’t just need to compare the cost of one fighter jet with another. We also need to compare the benefits of spending a given sum on fighter jets, as a budget item, versus the other purposes to which the same money could be put: tanks, or health care, or cutting taxes.

And this brings us to the second reason this matters: because whatever the rules are, the government is obliged to follow them; because it knew what the rules are, and didn’t. I can understand why, in a way. There’s no doubt life-cycle costs can be misunderstood, or misrepresented, as if that $45.8-billion were just the acquisition cost, or as if it all came out of one year’s budget. But just because a rule is inconvenient does not entitle you to ignore it.

And even if one were inclined to excuse the initial deception, what is really inexcusable is the government’s subsequent refusal to back down, even when it was called on it, but rather to carry on spinning — as it did after the Parliamentary Budget Officer’s report, as it did after the (current) Auditor General’s report, as it is doing even today.

Update: Paul Wells in Maclean’s:

It has been that kind of month. More or less explicit repudiation of previous acts and stances has been the theme of the year-end for Stephen Harper and his colleagues. One of the questions we are left with is how Harper, notoriously a risk-averse, control-freak incrementalist, managed to leave hundreds of feet of skid marks around a bunch of big files.

[. . .]

Of course what happened is that times changed. The government’s costing of the F-35 was optimistic and short-term to begin with. Optimism worked out the way it usually does when you’re buying something big and untested. The old talking points grew stale, then ludicrous, and the government stuck with them until the government looked stale and ludicrous, and now it denies saying what it once said. None of this is a tragedy: the jets haven’t been bought, no purchase order has been cancelled, there is still time to choose a more realistic course. But it’s all been a bit awkward.

“… a landscape so breathtaking, it’s as if New Zealand and Photoshop had a baby”

Filed under: Humour, Media — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 00:01

Chris Knight carefully puts on Snarkya, the ring of criticism, and reports on The Hobbit:

Their leader is Thorin, son of Thrain, son of Thror. (These are the kind of spittle-producing introductions that will nicely boost a film’s running time, especially if you travel with 12 other dwarves, each with his own proud lineage, which is exactly what Thorin, son of Thrain, son of Thror, does.) Played by Richard Armitage, he’s a redoubtable dwarf, 5-foot-2 if he’s an inch.

The company arrives on the doorstep of Bilbo Baggins, perfectly embodied by Martin Freeman. He’s become known of late at Dr. Watson on TV’s modern-set Sherlock Holmes series, but his quintessential (or at least most relevant) role is probably that of Arthur Dent, Englishman and homebody, from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Middle-earth and middle-Essex are each home to a certain kind of reticent hero, and Freeman plays both with ease.

Gandalf and the rest of the dwarves — whose names, if you must know, are Balin and Dwalin, Bifor, Bofur and Bombur, Fili and Kili, Oin and Gloin, Nori, Dori and Ori — convince Bilbo that a spot of adventure would be just the thing to write home about, and they set off across a landscape so breathtaking, it’s as if New Zealand and Photoshop had a baby.

[. . .]

You’ve also got a host of excellent performances from the likes of Ian McKellen as Gandalf; Hugo Weaving as Elrond; and Cate Blanchett as token female, also known as Galadriel, whose flowing white robes are so artfully composed that she must have been sky-craned into her every scene.

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