Reviews

Genetic Engineering and the Ghost in the Shell: 'Cracking Your Genetic Code'

“What if insurance companies gain access to this information?” asks Jay Adelson, who recently completed genome typing.


Nova

Director: Sarah Holt
Distributor: PBS
Cast : Francis Collins, Rudolph Tanzi, Catherine Elton
Rated: Not Rated
Year: 2012
Release date: 2012-05-22
Amazon

Cracking Your Genetic Code, from the PBS series Nova, examines dramatic new breakthroughs in genetic research. The documentary opens with a young man plugging a jump drive into his laptop. At first glance, the jump drive appears to be the kind you can buy at Wal-Mart for $20. Yet this jump drive contains the young man’s entire genome on six gigs of storage.

“Within the next five years, each of us can have our complete genome sequenced for less than a thousand dollars,” states Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the National Institute of Health.

The implications are staggering. The human genome is a master template that's 99.9 percent identical among all humans. The value of individual genome sequencing is in identifying mutations that a person has in their genome. Detection of mutations can trigger preventive treatment of potential diseases and early diagnosis can lead to lifestyle changes, proper medication, and potential cures.

After genome typing, Francis Collins discovered that he had a substantially high risk of Type 2 diabetes. “That got me motivated,” Collins says. “I’m 27 pounds lighter today than I was two years ago and I work out three times a week.”

But individual sequencing can result in a ‘Cassandra Effect’ where bad news is psychologically devastating. “What if you have a genetic mutation and it doesn’t matter how you live your life or what drugs you take?” asks Rudolph Tanzi of Harvard Medical School. “What if no matter what you do, you’ll still get this disease before you’re fifty years old?”

After genome sequencing, James Watson, co-founder of the DNA double helix, didn’t want to know the sequence of his APOE4 gene on Chromosome 19, a marker for Alzheimer’s disease; if a common variant is present, it represents a 3-to-10 fold increased risk in contracting Alzheimer’s. “Not everyone can handle genetic testing and this information,” adds Catherine Elton, the author of The Burden of Knowing, “If you’re going to get a disease, that knowledge affects the way you live for the rest of you life.“

A groundbreaking development in gene therapy is Pre-implantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD) where an embryo from a fertilized egg is genetically engineered to eliminate undesirable traits. The social implications cannot be measured in a laboratory.

Given a layman’s understanding of these issues, there are a number of consequences in genetic advances that are not mentioned in the documentary. If we eliminate undesirable mutations in the human genome as PGD is designed to do, then future generations will become more similar, diminishing variation across the human gene pool. And if that’s the case, then a more homogenous human population will be at greater risk when a viral or bacterial outbreak goes pandemic.

There’s also the danger of eugenics, where the value of a human life is determined by a preferable genome. Since moral issues cannot be weighed by science, we must look elsewhere, perhaps in unlikely places.

The 1997 anime classic Ghost in the Shell is one of the most astute statements on genetic engineering in the modern era. Set in a futuristic Japan, Section 9 is a government agency that employs both humans and cyborgs to guard state security. One of the main concerns of the film is the existence of a ‘ghost’ or moral nature in cyborgs -- whether a genetically altered life form still possesses a soul.

Major Kusanagi is a beautiful cyborg assassin. When a human asks why he was transferred into Section 9, she replies: “Because we need a guy like you… you’re almost completely human. If we’re all engineered the same way, then we become predictable. It’s slow death.”

A foreign intelligence agency recruits agents by “ghost-hacking” Japanese citizens and reprogramming their memories. Questions soon arise about whether these victims are still human. While interrogating a victim of ghost-hacking, Kusanagi asks: “Can you tell us what your mother looked like? Or where you grew up?”

The terrified victim cannot answer. The ghost has been extinguished, and all that remains is the shell. In a scene with Bateau, another cyborg agent, Kusanagi betrays an existential angst about her own persona.

Kusanagi: Maybe I’m paranoid about my origins. Perhaps there never was a real me…and I’m totally synthetic.

Bateau: You were once human, but it sounds like you doubt your own ghost.

The moral issues may be interesting for the contemplative, but economic imperatives will always trump philosophical questions. In the United States, where for-profit health insurers provide access to medical care, the predictive power of genome sequencing has dark implications. “What if insurance companies gain access to this information?” asks Jay Adelson, who recently completed genome typing.

American health care reform is now in danger of repeal by the conservative U.S. Supreme Court. Since American employers bear much of the cost of health care insurance, an abnormality in your genome could lead to future employment discrimination. In Britain, David Cameron’s Conservative government is trying to privatize part of the National Health Service.

Given the ascendency of dog-eat-dog capitalism in the West, it’s safe to assume that the future of genetic engineering will reflect the underlying economic system that funds it: a Darwinian imperative to eliminate the weak and advance the strong.

Yet what will this brave new world look like? What will happen to the artistic temperament in a more homogenous society? And after the human genome is scrubbed of undesirable variants, what will become of the ghost in the shell, the spirit within that makes us unique?

*

There are no extras with this DVD.

7

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less
Features

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

Keep reading... Show less
8

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

Keep reading... Show less
3
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image