Saturday, November 30, 2013

23andMe forced out of business?

The personal genetics company 23andMe has been issued with a 'cease trading' notice by the American FDA. The issue is not the right of people to get a printout of their own genome (or the subset 23andMe analyse) but the advice which is needed to make sense out of it.

The FDA is concerned that without regulation, unscrupulous or incompetent companies will inform lay members of the public that they have this or that harmful allele (gene variant) leading to dangerous lifestyle or surgical decisions. Clearly some kind of 'quality' oversight is necessary but no-one seems to have a good answer as to how to do it. In the meantime, 23andMe has been told to stop sending out its 'spit kits'. More from Michael Eisen and Razib Khan.

The Economist has a good link to this report on the infamous Stuxnet cyber-weapon used to sabotage Iranian uranium hexafluoride centrifuges. Apparently the weapon was even more subtle than we thought.

Recently Read

1. "Proxima" by Stephen Baxter

From this review.
"Protagonist Yuri is an out-of-time remnant of “The Heroic Generation”, whose energy-intensive geo-engineering efforts to sort out global warming caused more problems than they solved. Popped into cryo-stasis by parents hoping for a better future, he wakes up into a world that resents him for his association with the disastrous past. He’s not treated well, and that includes being shipped off on the dodgy, bare-bones colony effort to the Alpha Centauri star system.

His struggle to remain alive, and the mysteries he uncovers on the way, form one of the novel’s two major strands. The other strand takes place in the Solar System, where the cold war between the expansionist Chinese Empire and the constituent countries of the United Nations is hotting up. Alien artefacts have been discovered on Mercury, and the UN isn’t sharing.

It’s not often you can agree with the hyperbole on the back of a book, but calling Baxter “Arthur C Clarke’s natural successor” is bang on the money. Clarkeian tropes such as mysterious extra-terrestrial leavings, deep time and the sinister majesty of the cosmos are greatly in evidence here. Baxter takes a worthwhile chunk of time detailing a fascinating planetary ecology for “Per Ardua” (as the colonists end up calling their world). This is ingeniously alien, and includes a banded series of biospheres. Rather than possessing cells, like Earth life, the creatures of Per Ardua are made of much larger, interchangeable “stems”, with the result that they behave somewhat like predatory LEGO, brutally disassembling one another and using the parts to create their own young.

The depth and ingenuity of this part of the tale has one thinking of Clarke’s efforts in Rendezvous With Rama. Similarly well set out are Baxter’s various modes of space travel, which include a multi-year colony mission, a one man cosmic dash, and a fascinating take on interstellar sailing, where the vessel contains tens of thousands of disposable sails, each invested with its own consciousness."
"Proxima" to me had rather the feel of "Flood", a similarly densely-textured, languid immersion in another time and place - this this case about 160 years into the future. Although not quite a page-turner, the details are sufficiently involving to keep you reading. Baxter specialises in writing about unpleasant characters who do nasty things, worse actually than you had imagined, and this keeps the plotting interesting. I was left shaking my head at the end - what was all that about? - before becoming reconciled to the fact that the novel doesn't really end, just sets things up for the final volume "Ultima" (to come in May 2015).

2. "Halting State" - Charles Stross

A hi-tech crime-caper set in a near-future independent Scotland. Chinese secret agents, black nets, augmented reality, TCP/IP covertly tunnelled over a 'Dungeons and Dragons'-style online game, quantum computers .. this breathless thriller has a page-turning energy notably absent from Baxter's work. And the heroes are a games-programmer (Jack) and a forensic accountant (Elaine): how could love not bloom?