Category Archives: Medical

On Dignity

me-bonesI have so many things to say they jam up my brain sometimes. I have even more I want to learn, and then pass on. I have so many things to care about. In July my health insurance is getting cut off. I have looked through my options and concluded that for now, I have none. I make very little money, as a result, I haven’t had a place to live since 2009. It is too little to afford insurance (& I suspect next year I will have to start paying penalties for that fact). But at about 20-25k a year and no address, there is no assistance for me.

I could give up my career and look for a job, but there’s no jobs, and I don’t handle offices well. And frankly, I like my career. It doesn’t pay much, but I believe what I do is important and not many people can or will do it. We spend a lot of time equating financial success with meaningful work, and both with deserving healthcare, but I think all of that is bullshit, and I won’t live my life that way.

No; giving up being me is not an option. I am not a shiftless and lost person. I am busy, and involved and I live with tremendous purpose and hope. But I live in a society that does not value me. That doesn’t mean I don’t, though.

I’m 40 now. In many ways it feels like the beginning. I have tons of energy, I know my life’s work. It’s not easy, and I don’t know if I can get all the things I need to done, but it’s coming together. It was a hard fucking road here. Strange and hard beyond what most people imagine a life can be. For getting here, I’m grateful. This is also a time when the body changes, when medical considerations change. I’ll do the health things that make sense to do without insurance, I still love and value my life and want all of it I can get. But I’m not bothering with a mammogram. What could I do about it anyway? I’d rather put my time and energy into my work, what time my society will leave me. Because I live in a society that has decided people like me should die if they get ill.

But I still have choice in how that happens. If I get a lump in my breast or a hole in my heart or gut, I’m not going to spend my precious remaining time begging for help from the public or indifferent bureaucracies, while I get weaker and drown in pain. I watched people beg for scraps from an America that doesn’t care about them. You may have chosen that I will die, America, but I don’t have to be polite about it.

When the time comes that I am out of options and facing illness, I intend to dictate and write the final notes on I can on my work, and then take my own life before disease and indifference do. I would go out of this world the same way I came in — screaming and strong.

Fuck dying quietly.

Age of Excessions Interlude: Biology, or the Drugs Win the Drug War.

Understanding what the Venter Institute really did today

The short answer is that they created a wholly synthetic genome and put it in a yeast cell. This goes towards creating a minimal cell; figuring out how little DNA you need to make a barebones organism. This leaves lots of extra possible genetic space to making that minimal cell do stuff we want, whether it be pee out biofuels or Prozac, eat Gulf of Mexico oil, or glow in the presence of melamine, cancer, or anger. With a minimal and reusable platform, doing any of these things just becomes a coding problem. And not even a novel coding problem, because we already have Nature to reverse engineer from. Nature uses the same platform, and at some point or another has already solved all these problems.

It’s techno-exciting, but fundamentally, it’s the next level of fine-grained resolution on the control of our environment, which has been our species’ trick from the beginning. Venter and his cohort are trying to replace petroleum, (and control the replacement, and pretty much rule the world as a result) and others are trying to create complex cancer fighting biologics. Some sweet, wonderful people from the nicer parts of biomed are even trying to figure out how to make a cheap suite of biologic drugs to treat the horrible helminthic NTDs (Neglected Tropical Diseases) that are destroying the lives of about 1.5 billion of the world’s poor. This task will be made vastly simpler with a platform like the minimal cell, at least in theory.

But there’s a paradox built into our tendency to seek more environmental control. The more control we have, the more unpredictable our world becomes. This is because all the other humans with their unpredictable and hidden desires can now also control our environment.

While biopunditry is talking about biofuel, cancer treatment, and growing extinct mammoths, I wanted to bring the implications of this work out of the towers of ivory and industry and down to earth.

Today, we lost the drug war. Oh, it will run around for a while, unaware that it is dead, but we have decisively lost.

You know what’s a lot easier than all the high minded business about environment, or life extension, or even the scary doomsday 12 Monkeys scenarios? Growing simpler molecule drugs. I don’t mean like aspirin, I mean like heroin and cocaine, THC and hallucinogens. They already grow in plants thoroughly studied, and people are motivated and not at all risk averse about getting those sequences somewhere they can use them. Cooking meth is hard and dangerous science compared to the ability to get a starter of a minimal cell that poops heroin and feeding it growth medium in your closet. We may have lost the drug war, but not as badly as the drug lords have.

It’s still hard to grow drugs in medium. But the whole point of this project is to make it easier. Who will be motivated to put in the work to make it happen? Especially if it’s so bad for organized crime? Drug addicts, frankly. You think they look like street junkies with DTs, but a fair number look like scientists, because they are. Drugs will finally be p2p, and governments and drug lords alike will find out what it’s like to be media companies and counterfeiters in a world of lossless copying and 100Mb pipes. Junkies will be victims of their success, and if we don’t get serious about treating addiction instead of trying to fight chemicals, it’s going to look a lot more bloody and horrid than the RIAA’s lawsuit factory. This is just one vision of what this kind of disruption looks like when people get a hold of it.

What synthbio is inventing right now is the true Bittorrent for things. It’s a platform for generating and sharing materials just this side of geology, since nearly everything but rocks is made by life. Right now you can think of it has having an interface so bad only a few people in the world can actually use it, and our hope for being in control is that the interface stays bad as long as possible. In the history of technology, that has rarely worked in the long term.

Craig Venter is not, despite his press, the smartest guy on the planet. He is not savant like, leaps and bounds in front of everyone and everything else. He isn’t the only one working on this. He’s maybe slightly in front, but probably not. If he is, it’s by inches. This is perhaps his Trinity, or the proof of concept right before it. It’s momentous, but it won’t stay contained.

This is on the scale of nukes, but not for long. Nukes are hard to build, requiring mind-boggling equipment and leave a kind of scent where ever they go. They can only really be used for magawatt power generation, and blowing shit up. Bio can be used for nearly anything you, me, or Charlie Stross can dream up. Imagine trying to stop proliferation if the atomic material centrifuges literally grew on trees and the fissile material floated freely through the air, and tended to show up in great amounts on bread you left out too long.

When you think of this, you can think of seeing a dodo someday, or Jurassic Park, or even taking a drug that a doctor grew just for you. But keep in mind the strangeness of the human imagination and the strength of human desires. A thousand weird Somas are coming, too.

Vampiric vs lycanthropic healthcare

I enjoyed Ezra Klein’s segment on the healthcare bill last night on the Colbert Report, though he likes the bill more than I do. Werewolf doctors got a mention, and Klein talks about them providing a possible advantage in scoring the bill. But once again congress is not making good medical decisions, this time in which kind of monster doctors belong in patient care. Matt Yglesias took that up in his blog today. He pointed out that vampires would be more useful, as they could revive the patient even when heroic measure had failed by making them into one of the undead. I think this is an excellent idea- patient vocused, um, I mean focused.

Of course, consent it an important issue. To give a feel for what that might look like, I created a revised DNR-V.

Wait, if it’s the white matter, aren’t women are smarter than men?

There yet another study on intelligence that surely has it nailed down this time.

Surely. Study gives more proof that intelligence is largely inherited – talks about intelligence being determined by the volume of the white matter, and therefore having a high genetic correlation (Let’s not even get into correlation v causation, much less figuring out what the hell intelligence is.) Of course the punchline here is that studies show that women have more white matter than men, so we must just be genetically smarter, right? Except maybe we’re smarter by brain volume than men because we have more grey matter. Confused? That’s brain imaging studies for you. Then again, maybe volume of white v grey only account for a few kinds of intelligence, and we should just stick with good ol’ phrenology for the rest.