Designed Genetic Change

In April 1971, the US National Institutes of Health organised a conference to determine whether the introduction of deliberate genetic changes in organisms was conceivable in the near future. Provocatively titled Prospects for Designed Genetic Change, the meeting hoped to update the public on the possibility of gene manipulations in humans, and consider the social and political implications of such technologies. 

No such method to manipulate genes (even in simple organisms) was available in 1971, the panelists noted – but its development, they felt confident, was only a matter of time. “This is not science fiction, ” one geneticist declared. “Science fiction is when you […] can’t do anything experimentally…it is now conceivable that not within 100 years, not within 25 years, but perhaps within the next 5 to 10 years, certain inborn errors…will be treated or cured by the administration of a certain gene that is lacking – and we have a lot of work to do in order to prepare society for this kind of change.” (The Gene)

45 years later, this year, Dr John Zhang engineered a baby -one without the mother’s abnormal mitochondria DNA. The controversial procedure removes the nucleus from the mother’s egg and transfers it into the donor’s healthy egg with normal mitochondria. With In-vitro fertilisation (IVF), the egg is fertilised with the father’s sperm and placed in the mother’s uterus.

The technique gave birth to a baby boy who carries less than 1 per cent of the abnormal mitochondria DNA. Unlike his siblings who died aged six and 8 months respectively, he may be able to live, free of fatal disorders that affect his developing nervous system. (read more here)

The controversy that surrounds this breakthrough is that of the combination of DNA of 3 parents. However, it must be noted that mitochondria are the cell’s energy factories and are separate from the DNA that determines a child’s inherited traits. The mutation in mitochondria DNA results in a power failure, leading to failing muscles, brain, heart, etc. Arguably, it is incorrect to label it thus as a 3-parent baby, since what changes is only the power source, and not the genetic code that makes a baby the product of his/her parents.

Furthermore, it has recently been discovered that infertile mothers who use donor eggs to conceive, do pass their DNA to their child. Do we then label these cases as “3-parent babies”?

Also, the donor in most cases of assisted fertility do not have legal rights as a parent to the child who is born. As a donor, he or she has no interest in fulfilling the general duties of a parent, and hence should not be pulled into the picture merely to invite public discourse.

Acceptance of Emotional Expression

“Emotional expression and acceptance of that expression is critical.”

Father Edwin Leahy says this with reference to his experience as the headmaster of Newark’s Saint Benedict’s Prep school, which is an oasis of refuge and support in Newark, a city plagued by drugs, poverty and violent crime. (read the natgeo article here)

While Mr Leahy highlights the importance of acceptance particularly for young men, it is indubitable that all beings crave acknowledgement of their emotions. In fact, counsellors have stressed on the importance of validation of feelings in relationships. It is the missing key – the empathetic ear and open heart.

Songs about war since 1963

The following short list tells us that our world has not changed for the better, and there is still a need to advocate for peace.

In 1963, Bob Dylan released “Blowin’ in the Wind” and this day we still ask, “how many ears must one man have, before he can hear people cry? and “how many deaths will it take till he knows that too many people have died?”

In 1969, John Lennon released “Give Peace a Chance“. It became an anthem of the American anti-war movement during the 1970s. In 1971, he released “Imagine” and we’re still hoping that there’ll be “nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too.”

In 1987, White Lion released “When the Children Cry“. In early 2003, just before the beginning of the Iraq War, it was covered by a Christian indie rock group. This day, how can we let the children of Aleppo “know we tried”? When will “the children sing” so that “the new world begins”, one where “we all can live with love and peace”?

In 1990, Guns N’ Roses released “Civil War” and “still the wars go on as the years go by, with no love of God or human rights”. Poignantly, they asked “D’you wear a black armband when they shot the man who said, “Peace could last forever.””

In 2003, The Black Eyed Peas released “Where Is The Love?” which is more relevant now than ever as “we still got terrorists here livin’ in the USA, the big CIA, The Bloods and The Crips and the KKK”, where there’s only “love for your own race”.

This year, SIA released “The Greatest” – a tribute to the victims of the Orlando nightclub shooting. The video featured 48 young children and youths trapped in a cage, who were freed by the main dancer, Maddie Ziegler. However, their freedom was short-lived as everyone falls to the ground in the end. The call to have stamina and hope in the face of adversity relates to all who have suffered under injustice, terrorism and war.

Noam Chomsky

If you assume that there is no hope, you guarantee that there will be no hope. If you assume that there is an instinct for freedom, that there are opportunities to change things, then there is a possibility that you can contribute to making a better world.

Time

For years I have been fascinated with the concept of time. The sheer malleability of the subject allowed me to toss, prod and refine it constantly. My fascination was born from The Time Machine written by H.G. Wells. Especially poignant was the chapter in which the main character travelled into the future only to realise that humans have regressed into primordial stages. The suggested circularity of time and life was reassuring – as if all can be returned to good. In the middle of this year, I tried my hand at writing a short story on the theme of time. It very quickly unravelled into something bigger – encompassing characters – Time, Death and Life – and I had to develop my understanding before continuation. 

Time, is the silent regulator of nature. All living things are governed by time frames, unique to their lives and purposes. None can escape the time for maturity and reproduction, as none can escape the end of cyclical life. What makes our situation unique is our concept of time. We understand time in mathematical units of years, months, weeks…right down to the seconds. We organise our lives according to meticulous use of time, and hence develop an anxiety over time. Intelligent animals like dogs do not suffer from the pressing clock as they do not develop a concept about time. Time regulates their lives naturally and simply, from birth to death. Hence, our self-imposed time frames should be questioned for their usefulness in our lives. Ironically, our obssessive organisation of time does not guarantee time in itself. We could very well be dead in the next minute and fail to carry out all future plans. Our steady faith of living to the next day, week, year, decade differentiates us from other animals which live more in the present than in plan for future. If we see that time could cease anytime, we can possibly be more present, as propounded in zen buddhism.

(More shall be discussed in a later post.)

Names are just words

If you were to look into the names of some 400 over species of sharks, you will realise that some are not fitting. For example, the zebra shark is covered in spots, not stripes and the angel shark should more characteristically be called the ray shark for its resemblance to stingrays. Also, some names are used for effect and not indication of locality or resemblance. For example, the goblin shark is named thus due to its ugly long and flat snout. If we were kinder, we could simply name it the long-snout shark.

Furthermore, some names emerged from stories. The fire salamander seems aptly named thus due to the yellow spots/stripes on its black body. In fact, it was derived because people used to believe that salamanders could live in fire, as salamanders were frequently seen to crawl out of logs tossed onto cooking and campfires. Of course, their thin permeable skin offers no such protection.

Even though naming is essential for record and transmission of information, it remains a imperfect tool of understanding. We can only give meanings to things around us based on our limited understanding of the world. Hence, we should not settle for names, and instead investigate more for deeper understanding. We can begin to question why a chair is called a chair or why a phone a phone?

Artificial Music

Gaetan Hadjeres and Francois Pachet (Sony Computer Science Laboratories, Paris) have developed a neural network capable of composing music in the likeness of Bach, one of the greatest composers of baroque music in the 18th century.

The machine, DeepBach, was given a data set of 2503 chorales by transposing 352 Bach chorales to other keys within a predefined vocal range. 80 percent of the data set trains the neural network to recognise Bach harmonies while the rest validates it. Given a set algorithm, the machine then produces harmonies of its own in the style of Bach.

In order to determine the success of DeepBach, more than 1600 people were asked to listen to two different harmonies of the same melody, and determine which sounded more like Bach. More than 400 of them were professional musicians or music students.  Around half the voters judged the DeepBach harmony to be Bach’s; whereas seventy five percent of them judged Bach’s harmony to be his own.

The results prove DeepBach’s capability in understanding the complexity of Bach’s compositions, in terms of its structure and rules of construction.

This latest advancement in technology offers us a glimpse of what may be the future of music – or at least a part of it – that machines can and will generate music beyond our current appetite of electronic sounds. Arguably, in time, DeepBach can be taught to recognise and rectify its errors in composition, and become more Bach-like. For the untrained ear, it may become impossible to tell the difference between original and artificial compositions. And does it matter? Will we cease to appreciate good music just because it lacks a human author?

Another implication of this technological advancement is the possible threat to the creative industry. Will musicians lose their jobs to artificial intelligence? Arguably, no. Today, the music industry thrives not on the quality of music, but on media influence. After all, how many modern artists can compare to those of Nina Simone and Prince? These days, what feeds the ears must also feed the eyes and quench the constant thirst to be entertained, be it in the form of social media engagement or celebrity gossip. If an artist fails to be riveting on social media platforms, it does not matter how good his/her music is. Simply put, we still prefer to be entertained in person, by persons.