Science Fiction and Science Fact


Brooke picked up “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” in e-format from the library a few weeks ago, and as it’s a book I’d heard of and had some interest in, I joined her in reading it. Overall, it was a fascinating tale of how a black woman named Henrietta Lacks in the American South of the early-1950s died of cervical cancer, but samples of her cancerous cells survived in a dish (now known as HeLa cells), paving the way for not only the modern technique of cell culture, but also the discoveries that would develop the polio vaccine, new cancer treatments, and unlock many secrets of genetics.

While the book covers the science in a comprehensive, yet very readable manner, it also tells the reader of what happened to Henrietta’s family in the aftermath of her death, and the fact that they not only had no knowledge of the fact that Henrietta’s cells were being used in research, but they also received no compensation whatsoever for the discoveries that came from it.  When the family eventually discovered what had been happening with HeLa cells over the previous 20 years (seriously…20 years after her death, the family found out…), they didn’t understand what was going on, partially because researchers didn’t take the time to explain it to them, but also because many of them never completed high school, let alone took a single biology class.

This passage jumped out at me:

Deborah realized these movies were fiction, but for her the line between sci-fi and reality had blurred years earlier, when her father got that first call saying Henrietta’s cells were still alive.  Deborah knew her mother’s cells had grown like the Blob until there were so many of them they could wrap around the Earth several times.  It sounded crazy, but it was true.

“You just never know,” Deborah said, fishing two more articles from the pile and handing them to me.  One was called HUMAN, PLANT CELLS FUSED: WALKING CARROTS NEXT?  The other was MAN-ANIMAL CELLS BRED IN LAB.  Both were about her mother’s cells, and neither was science fiction.

“I don’t know what they did,” Deborah said, “but it all sound like ‘Jurassic Park’ to me.”

This conversation took place in the early-2000s, though Deborah, Henrietta’s youngest daughter, had been reading articles like the ones mentioned for decades, especially in the early years before the media and society really could grasp the power and utility of cell culture.  Sure, researchers were making “hybrids,” but what exactly did that mean?  The articles were sensationalistic, rarely providing enough background information to explain the meaning behind what researchers were doing (i.e. not making “man-animals”…).

But a lot of it goes back to the lack of education.  The Lacks family simply could not understand what was happening with Henrietta’s cells because they barely had a concept of what a ‘cell’ was, let along the technologies and diseases HeLa cells could (or did) help cure.  Heck, I remember trying to explain my graduate work to my 90+ year old grandmother (who possibly never took a biology class, and even if she did, it was in the early-1930s…), and that was extremely difficult.  It’s not that she wasn’t intelligent: she just didn’t have the background knowledge to understand much of what I was telling her.

As scientists, I think many of us expect that society, as a whole, has a basic understanding of how the world around them functions, but I have to wonder if society understands less than we think.  We expect that people over the age of 50 have taken a biology class before, but forget that biology has come a long way since they took those classes in the 1970s (when cell culture was still in its infancy).  We further don’t recognize that many of our aging population (i.e. people older than 60) haven’t had a biology class since the 1960s or earlier, if they took a ‘biology class’ at all.  And these are the people that we’re marketing countless drugs to during the commercial breaks from the evening news.

We need to get better at recognizing that “science” moves faster than society’s understanding of it. Perhaps this is why researchers have a tough time getting the concepts of “global climate change,” “evolution” and “childhood vaccination” across to certain segments of the population.  If they had the scientific background (or the will to learn more on the subject from primary literature, rather than silly blogs like this one), perhaps our society could move forward on many fronts, whether environmental, sociological or spiritual.

Though it’s important for scientists to communicate more effectively, it’s also incumbent upon society to start listening.  Otherwise, we are all doomed to repeat the failures presented in the book.  It’s definitely worth a read.

History is Written by the Victors


I have a confession to make:  I’ve been reading a book.  Yes, it’s true.

Right around Palm Sunday, I read/heard some interviews with Bart Ehrman, a religious scholar out of the University of North Carolina.  He was talking about his most recent book, “Did Jesus Exist?”  Hearing the interview reminded me that I actually own another book by Ehrman, “Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew.”  I picked it up a few years ago after seeing the interview above (on another book…”Misquoting Jesus“) on The Daily Show.  I actually tried reading it back in 2006, but one thing led to another and I stopped.  What can I say…

Regardless, I picked it back up again and am about halfway through.  Part of what intrigued me about Ehrman’s books, in general, is that they are not only discussing the content of the Bible and other historical documents, but also the context in which they came into existence, how and when they were discovered, and how accurate their translations were.  I can’t say I’ve ever been a huge fan of the idea that the Bible should be taken literally, and books like these make it clear that there was quite a bit of politics involved in which books made it in and which ones didn’t.

This book, specifically, is talking about different, early forms of Christianity that were “snuffed out” by what he terms the “proto-orthodox” church.  That is to say, the earliest version of what we have today.  He points to the Gnostics, the Ebionites and the Marcionites (thus far) as examples of competing views on how Christianity should be viewed.  The nature of Christ, Himself.  How much the Old Testament (and Judaism) should figure in to what eventually becomes “Christianity.”

Reading through it, two things come to mind:

1). The Early Christians didn’t know everything, either.  Barnabus, for example, traveled with Paul and shows up in Acts and a few Epistles.  He wrote a document, “Epistle to the Hebrews,” that suggests that Jewish Law (e.g. Leviticus, the Ten Commandments, etc.) was not meant to be taken literally and that things like “don’t eat pork” really meant “don’t eat like a pig.”  This guy knew and traveled with Paul and even he disputed the meaning of ancient texts…and he was around at the time of the writing of many of our “ancient texts.”  And these discussions between Paul and Barnabus (and others) were going on while they were writing what got into our Bible.

2). It’s easy to look at “Christianity” as a mish-mash of different belief systems today when you look at Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Catholics, Baptists, and so on and so forth.  Each one has their own “quirks,” traditions, hierarchies, et cetera.  And there are definitely individuals within each group that thinks that they have it “right” and that they are “saved” and the others are not.  Strangely enough, it seems like this is the way it has been since the beginning.  The only difference is that one group (the one inspired by the writings of Paul) won out 2000 years ago and effectively stamped out the others.

Crazy to think about what that would mean if the same thing happened today, eh?

Regardless, it’s a pretty fascinating book, and brings up many interesting ideas that help out in my various discussions.  We’ve been reading through the Gospels in our small group, so the things this book presents really gives me a different perspective than what the others in the group are bringing to the table.  At the very least, it certainly highlights the fact that the Bible is an important document to many, but as with anything historically-based, it’s shaped by those who came out on top.

Harry Potter and the Digital Copy

This week saw the announcement and launch of the Harry Potter franchise on e-book formats, though the details of this particular deal are remarkably different from previous, “traditional” book launches on Amazon’s Kindle or B&N’s Nook.  Through the Pottermore website, you can buy the first three books for $8 each and the final four books for $10 each.  Once you buy a book through Pottermore, you can choose up to 8 different formats to get that book, so if you want it through Amazon, B&N, Sony, Kobo, Google Books, etc., you can do it.  Buy it once, read it where you like.  Once you assign it to a format (e.g. Amazon), you can download it as many times as you want through that carrier.

For the uninitiated, this is not how it usually goes, and this is a problem that the “Power of Potter” is helping solve.  It used to be that you could go to any bookstore you want and buy that book.  You could sell it, you could move it, you could loan it to a friend, and you could pass it down to your kids someday.  With e-readers, it doesn’t work like that.  If you buy a book from Amazon for your Kindle, but then you decide to switch to the Nook, you don’t get to take that book with you: you have to buy it again.  Furthermore, while you can loan said book to friends, you can only do it if they have the same e-reader format (i.e. Kindle can lend to Kindle and Nook can lend to Nook, but not to each other…though there are ways around it…), and you can only do it for something like 2 weeks at a time.

Then there was another thing I recently read about what J.K. Rowling did with the “Potter” books, specifically with regards to libraries:

Among the other innovations Rowling offers is the ability to download up to eight digital copies of each book, either for use on another device or for lending. Again, this seems like an obvious feature that e-book publishers could provide — since digital copies effectively have no cost — but very few do. And at a time when publishers either don’t allow their books to be loaned through libraries at all (as most of the Big Six do not) or have jacked up the prices they charge libraries (as Random House recently did), the Potter books can be loaned an unlimited number of times, and the lending license lasts for five years.

This is a big deal.  Publishers have complained since e-readers first took hold that they lose revenue when libraries lend out e-reader copies of books.  With physical books, libraries would buy books for a flat fee and then lend them out, but the understanding was that libraries would have to buy new books to replace others that had undergone too much wear and tear.  This doesn’t happen with digital copies of books, however, so the publishers created licenses that granted libraries a limited number of “slots” for each book (i.e. the number of people that can have a copy of the book at a given time) and a limited number of “lends” (i.e. the number of times each “slot” can be sent out).  Libraries have found e-books to be very useful to their patrons, so they’re getting popular, but the book publishers still aren’t reaping the revenues they think they should.  Thus, as mentioned above, publishers like Random House are trying to either reduce the number of “lends” for each license, or increase the cost of the license.

Because of the power behind the “Harry Potter” brand, Rowling is able to buck this trend.  She holds the rights, she dictates the terms.  And for once, the individual in control realizes they have enough money, so they do what’s fair.  You get that license for a Harry Potter book and it can be loaned out to as many people that want it and the license needs to be renewed every 5 years.  Spectacular.

The article quoted above also quoted the new CEO of Pottermore, Charlie Redmayne, who used to work at HarperCollins.  He was talking about what book publishers could learn from the music industry as they went through similar “growing pains” a decade ago:

My view is that the one thing we should learn from the music industry, is that one of the best ways of fighting back against piracy is making content available to consumers at a platform they want to purchase it on, and at a price they are willing to pay, and if you do that most people will instinctively want to buy it.

I’ve said this before, so I won’t go over it again.  Suffice to say, I agree completely.

Regardless, I’m glad that J.K. Rowling is shifting her considerable weight in the industry to move the ball a bit closer to where it should be.  It’s great to see some progress on this front.

Nine Days of Potter

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

Famously (or infamously), I avoided the Harry Potter franchise.  Not quite to the same degree I refuse to watch Titanic, but perhaps similar.  I jumped on the Lord of the Rings bandwagon and figured I’d put off Harry Potter until Meg would be old enough to appreciate the books.

Well, she’s not quite old enough, but now that all of the movies are available on DVD, we figured it had been long enough.  Brooke had never seen them either, though she read all of the books, a few more than once.  Last weekend, Meg was visiting my parents, so we borrowed the early movies and watched them, starting last Friday night.

Between Friday and Monday, we watched the first five movies.  The next three we spaced out due to Netflix DVD travel time.  Therefore, in a period of 9 days, we watched 8 Harry Potter movies.

Kinda nuts, I know.

Regardless, I must say that the movies, overall, hold up quite well.  The first movie, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, was released in 2001, so I expected the various CGI effects to have aged to a significant degree, however I found them to be surprisingly decent, even 10 years later.  This isn’t to say that the effects didn’t improve over the decade these movies were coming out: the last few, Deathly Hallows Part I and Part II had all the effects trappings of any other big-budget blockbuster.

The acting was always good, yet still improved over the years, likely because the three primary actors, Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson were all 11 or 12 when the movies were released.  By the time they reached the end, they were all doing very well in their roles and had likely surpassed the adults that had been alongside throughout the series.

Each movie had its own “flavor,” of sorts, to contribute to the franchise.  Some focused more on the school experience at Hogwarts, others focused on some specific activity, like the Triwizard Tournament, and later movies (and the books, of course) laid more of a focus on the Good vs Evil aspects that run throughout the series.  Thus, the latter movies tend to be much darker than the earlier movies.  Also, I felt that the earlier movies were better at being “standalone” features, while the latter movies (Order of the Phoenix and later) flow into each other to some extent.

Speaking of which, Order of the Phoenix was probably my favorite in the franchise.  This movie featured a level of “political upheaval” in the fiction of the series that I found to be interesting, and I wish they could have explored it further.  Brooke says that there was quite a bit more of the Ministry of Magic (the group that acts as a sort of governing body over wizards and witches) in the Deathly Hallows (the final book, separated out into two movies), but very little of it remained by the book was translated to the silver screen.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I

One interesting bit about watching all of the movies in sequence in a short time like this is that you can observe all of the kids growing up.  I suppose it’s part of why these actors were chosen in the first place: their characters first attend Hogwarts when they turn 11, which is right around the age when the actors took on the roles.  Each book is supposed to represent an additional year at the school and, while they couldn’t quite keep the movies churning out each year, they still stayed close enough that the actors could have passed for 17 in the last story.  If my math is correct, Daniel Radcliffe turned 17 during the filming of Order of the Phoenix, which is the fifth book/movie of the series.  Still, looking at the pictures I’ve posted above, the actors have obviously aged during their tenure in the roles.

Overall, I was pretty impressed.  I’d expected a bit more “kiddie fare” throughout the series, but in actuality, it was really only persistent in the first movie, and followed into the second one to an extent.  The characters “grew up” relatively quickly, so the movies didn’t get bogged down in young-minded storylines to the extent I’d anticipated.

The latter half of the series, though, really seems to ape the “Star Wars” franchise, with Harry being Luke Skywalker and Lord Voldemort as…well…Lord Vader.  Much as Luke and Vader were connected by family, history, loss, good/evil, and so on, so were Harry and Voldemort.  I kinda wanted a bit more out of the Voldemort character, honestly.  He was present the whole time, and he was certainly bad, but somehow, he just didn’t seem evil enough to me.  They would constantly talk about their fear of “He Who Must Not Be Named,” yet the scenes we saw him in, he just wasn’t doing much that was particularly…evil.  Granted, it’s a children’s series, so you can’t get too dark, but I can’t help but think more could have been done.  Watching the movies, I was more disturbed by Dolores Umbridge, the teacher sent from the corrupt Ministry of Magic that is trying to sweep the return of Voldemort under the proverbial rug.  I’m sure the books make Voldemort seem more evil than he turns out to be in the movies, but I found him to be a bit lacking.  Perhaps it’ll take a few more viewings of the last two movies before I really settle on why that is.

In the end, I still prefer the Lord of the Rings series over this one, though the Harry Potter series was fun, interesting, and well-produced.  In many ways, the effects in the first few movies hold up better than the effects from LotR, though they were definitely less complicated (e.g. putting a light at the end of a wand is a bit cheaper than modeling Gollum, let alone developing the technology to create the character in the first place).  Order of the Phoenix was my favorite of the movies, though I really liked Chamber of Secrets, despite it being an “early” movie.  The later ones got quite a bit more confusing, but it’ll make more sense when I re-watch them in a few years, once Meg’s old enough.

Maybe I’ll even read the books when Meg does.

The Value of Content

I watched “Page One: Inside The New York Times” on Netflix Sunday.  It’s a documentary that focuses on the NYT as an institution in news reporting in the United States and the world, but also discusses the changing face of media (e.g. blogs, Twitter, etc.) and the ability of just about anyone to put out “unfiltered” news directly to the general public, as in the case of the WikiLeaks debacle from last year.  The documentary is pretty interesting, though I think they “bounced around” a bit more than I would prefer without any good transitions.

One of the recurring themes in the documentary was the battle currently being waged between “Old Media” and “New Media.”  For example, you can go to practically any news blog now for your news as many people do, but practically all of them just re-word and re-post the same information that was originally presented in the NYT.  Thus, the regular consumer of news gets their information for free without every having to visit the NYT website or pick up a paper, and therefore, the NYT never gets any ad revenue or subscriber fees from the reader.

Which leads to the central question of the documentary: how long will this be sustainable?  Or, re-worded, how long can the New York Times, and institutions like it, survive in a “digital world” using their traditional economic models?

I heard a related story on NPR last week talking about Amazon and Apple (but mostly Amazon) and how the European Union is investigating them for antitrust violations with regards to e-book prices on their respective stores.  These two companies essentially dictate to the publisher how much money they will sell their books (typically around $10), while the publishing companies used to be able to charge quite a bit more than that for a hardcover new release (let alone the fact that they set the price, not the distributor).

Now, in the case of the Times, I’m not really sure what the solution is.  They have already taken steps to increase revenue by charging for their website, and I think that’s helping.  At the very least, they’re making an attempt to survive the transition into digital media.  Likely, as tablets broaden their reach to consumers, they will be able to charge for their app, or access to stories, effectively turning tablets into digital NYT readers.  There is certainly money to be had if you produce a good app, and the NYT has a pretty decent one.  It’s unfortunate that a lot of people out there don’t understand where news comes from and that most of these blogs a). don’t actually investigate their own news (they just re-post it from other sources), and b). frequently have some kind of agenda, so it may not be as objective as it should be to be considered capital-J “Journalism.”  There is a value in actual news and people are willing to pay for it: the NYT just needs to figure out how to sustain the same standard of Journalism while operating under realistic expectations of what the public will pay for it.

In the case of book, movie, and music publishers, though, I think they need to adjust their model quickly.  For example, if one considers a new-release book at Barnes and Noble, it’s likely it would cost you $20 or more.  It simply doesn’t make sense to charge $20 for a digital copy (as publishers would love to do).  The same thing goes for movies: I’m not going to spend the Bluray price of a movie for the digital version.

Now, those full prices don’t typically occur for movies and books because of the digital systems that have grown up to deliver the content for you.  For a new movie like Rise of the Planet of the Apes, you’ll spend $22.99 for the Bluray and you’ll spend $14.99 for the digital version, so there’s some premium for the physical copy and some discount for the digital copy.  In video games, this typically isn’t the case, however.  When the newest Call of Duty game came out on PC, it was $60, regardless of whether you got a physical disc in a box or if you downloaded it.  With games, though, there has been something of a “relationship” developed between the publishers of games and the retailers (e.g. Gamestop, Wal-Mart, etc), where the publisher could offer a discount on a digital version, but in order to appease the brick-and-mortar retailer, they keep it the same price so you still may go into their store.

Ultimately, “Old Media” needs to realize that they can’t support the distribution systems that they used for the past few decades.  This is starting to happen with books, where locations like Borders went bankrupt because they couldn’t make the transition to a digital age.  Companies like Gamestop are starting to make the transition, offering a digital streaming service not unlike Netflix Instant.  Companies like Wal-Mart will probably just stop offering games and movies, eventually, but they’ll survive because they sell other things (among other reasons).

But the publishers still have much to worry about.  Their teams of editors, binders, layout people, and so on and so forth.  Teams of people that were needed in order to lay out print for publication or to set up distribution chains for each product.  Or that were needed to design the inside of game manuals.  Or to design the cases that your DVD or Bluray came in.  These are all things that just aren’t (as) necessary in a fully digital world.  You don’t need to worry about distribution when you can just sell it on the internet to everyone.  However, publishers are still trying to charge additional money on the digital side in order to support these folks on the physical side of their product.

Now, my solution to this problem is to increase the cost of the physical media and further decrease the cost of the digital one.  If there’s anything apps on the iPhone or Android have shown developers, it’s that selling your product for $1 means that you’ll sell to additional people, and you’ll make your money back on volume.  I mean, if you could just buy a new release movie for $5, would you do it? Would you even think about the purchase?  Would you care if you only watched it one time?  That’s cheaper than a single ticket to go see the movie in theaters.  If new movies, digitally distributed, without any special features were $5, I think they’d sell more.

But again, publishers should still hang on to their “physical media” production scheme, as there will still be people that want an actual Bluray disc.  And I definitely know that there will be people that want a physical book, rather than an e-reader form.  But wouldn’t more people buy books if they were $5 for a new one, rather than $20?  Sure, pay the premium if you want a nice, hardcover, bound, indestructible copy of a book for your collection, but don’t make people that just want to read the book help finance other people’s need for a physical copy.

There’s a somewhat longstanding psychological “principle” in gaming related to the $100 price point.  Once any gaming console hits $100, then many consumers won’t even think about the price.  It’ll become an impulse buy.  A similar phenomenon happened with the Wii when it released, and it cost $250.  But at that price, it was cheap enough as an impulse buy for many people just to play Wii Sports.

“Old Media” publishers need to find the “impulse buy” price for their products.  In the case of movies and books, I think $10 is a fair price to charge, but $5 is the “impulse buy” price.  Once publishers start selling their wares down there for a digital form, I think they’ll make their money back on volume, and only then will they survive.

Edit: I read this article from Slate today, discussing Amazon and its tactics that end up hurting brick and mortar bookstores.  I particularly liked this line:

But say you don’t care about local cultural experiences. Say you just care about books. Well, then it’s easy: The lower the price, the more books people will buy, and the more books people buy, the more they’ll read.