Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham, a love story

RAW: A Hannibal/Will Fanthology is a fan anthology tribute to the romantic relationship between Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham from the award-winning television series Hannibal. It collects over 200 pages of fiction, art, and comics by 50 different creators, each of whom produced a new piece just for the book!

Can't add much else to that description of this amusing Kickstarter project. We are in the Golden Age of fan fic.

I'm not sure what the right word is for how I felt about Hannibal the TV show. “Enjoyed” isn't quite right because the show did seem overly preoccupied with its aesthetic sensibility to an almost absurd degree. By season three I started to roll my eyes with every slow motion shot of blood blooming like crimson cauliflower in water. The show threatened to turn every viewer's flatscreen television into an expensive lamp.

And yet the choice was understandable. The aesthetic obsessions of the show mirrored those of its ur-protagonist Hannibal Lecter in a way that helped us understand his attraction to death and transfiguration (by way of dismemberment and sometimes disembowelment). Our occasional disgust reassured us that we were human, granting us a hall pass to feel the allure of empathizing with an Epicurean serial killer.

“Fascinated” is the more accurate description of my feelings for the show. As the show was largely about Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham's deep fascination with each other, that feels appropriate. I mourn its relegation to TV limbo land, from which a few rumors of resurrection from OTT services like Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon have come and gone.

Still, the idea of Hannibal Lecter endures, an updated version of vampires and other eternal monsters who represent those who refuse to let the strictures of society get in the way of their personal pleasure.

Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats

For those wondering what the deal with CRISPR is, Michael Specter offers a riveting overview in the New Yorker.

The field has moved quickly. For scientists, ordering genes is almost Amazon-like in its convenience now.

Ordering the genetic parts required to tailor DNA isn’t as easy as buying a pair of shoes from Zappos, but it seems to be headed in that direction. Yan turned on the computer at his lab station and navigated to an order form for a company called Integrated DNA Technologies, which synthesizes biological parts. “It takes orders online, so if I want a particular sequence I can have it here in a day or two,” he said. That is not unusual. Researchers can now order online almost any biological component, including DNA, RNA, and the chemicals necessary to use them. One can buy the parts required to assemble a working version of the polio virus (it’s been done) or genes that, when put together properly, can make feces smell like wintergreen. In Cambridge, I.D.T. often makes same-day deliveries. Another organization, Addgene, was established, more than a decade ago, as a nonprofit repository that houses tens of thousands of ready-made sequences, including nearly every guide used to edit genes with CRISPR. When researchers at the Broad, and at many other institutions, create a new guide, they typically donate a copy to Addgene.

The field has achieved some level of efficiency with the creation of editable mice.

The vivarium at the Broad houses an entirely different kind of mouse, one that carries the protein Cas9 (which stands for CRISPR-associated nuclease) in every cell. Cas9, the part of the CRISPR system that acts like a genetic scalpel, is an enzyme. When scientists originally began editing DNA with CRISPR, they had to inject both the Cas9 enzyme and the probe required to guide it. A year ago, Randall Platt, another member of Zhang’s team, realized that it would be possible to cut the CRISPR system in two. He implanted the surgical enzyme into a mouse embryo, which made it a part of the animal’s permanent genome. Every time a cell divided, the Cas9 enzyme would go with it. In other words, he and his colleagues created a mouse that was easy to edit. Last year, they published a study explaining their methodology, and since then Platt has shared the technique with more than a thousand laboratories around the world.

The “Cas9 mouse” has become the first essential tool in the emerging CRISPR arsenal. With the enzyme that acts as molecular scissors already present in every cell, scientists no longer have to fit it onto an RNA guide. They can dispatch many probes at once and simply make mutations in the genes they want to study.


He stood up and walked across the office toward his desk, then pointed at the wall and described his vision for the future of cancer treatment. “There will be an enormous chart,” he said. “Well, it will be electronic, and it will contain the therapeutic road map of every trick that cancer cells have—how they form, all the ways you can defeat them, and all the ways they can escape and defeat a treatment. And when we have that we win. Because every cancer cell starts naïve. It doesn’t know what we have waiting in the freezer for it. Infectious diseases are a different story; they share their knowledge as they spread. They learn from us as they move from person to person. But every person’s cancer starts naïve. And this is why we will beat it.”

It's a story with all the usual trappings of a technology race. Patent battles and intellectual property lawsuits. Stunning breakthroughs. And of course, the dystopia nightmares that seem to accompany genetics more than any other form of science.

Doudna is a highly regarded biochemist, but she told me that not long ago she considered attending medical school or perhaps going into business. She said that she wanted to have an effect on the world and had begun to fear that the impact of her laboratory research might be limited. The promise of her work on CRISPR, however, has persuaded her to remain in the lab. She told me that she was constantly amazed by its potential, but when I asked if she had ever wondered whether the powerful new tool might do more harm than good she looked uncomfortable. “I lie in bed almost every night and ask myself that question,” she said. “When I’m ninety, will I look back and be glad about what we have accomplished with this technology? Or will I wish I’d never discovered how it works?”

Her eyes narrowed, and she lowered her voice almost to a whisper. “I have never said this in public, but it will show you where my psyche is,” she said. “I had a dream recently, and in my dream”—she mentioned the name of a leading scientific researcher—“had come to see me and said, ‘I have somebody very powerful with me who I want you to meet, and I want you to explain to him how this technology functions.’ So I said, Sure, who is it? It was Adolf Hitler. I was really horrified, but I went into a room and there was Hitler. He had a pig face and I could only see him from behind and he was taking notes and he said, ‘I want to understand the uses and implications of this amazing technology.’ I woke up in a cold sweat. And that dream has haunted me from that day. Because suppose somebody like Hitler had access to this—we can only imagine the kind of horrible uses he could put it to.”

Stock and flow of civil wars

In 2004, James D. Fearon, a political scientist at Stanford, published a study, “Why Do Some Civil Wars Last So Much Longer Than Others?,” in which he and a colleague analyzed scores of civil wars fought between 1945 and 1999. Some of the findings were intuitive: civil wars end quickly when one side has a decisive military advantage over the other; poor countries with natural resources to export often have long internal wars, because whoever controls the resources also controls the national treasury. Other findings were novel, such as the fact that wars following coups d’état tend to be short. In another study, “Ethnicity, Insurgency, and Civil War,” Fearon and the political scientist David D. Laitin discovered that even though in nations with exceptional ethnic pluralism, like Syria and Iraq, lines of conflict may be defined by ethnic identity, pluralism itself is not a notable predictor of civil war; poverty is a much more significant factor.
Rereading these works in light of the infuriating problem of the Islamic State, two discouraging findings stand out. In 1945, many civil wars were concluded after about two years. By 1999, they lasted, on average, about sixteen years. And conflicts in which a guerrilla group could finance itself—by selling contraband drug crops, or by smuggling oil—might go on for thirty or forty years. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, has been around since 1964, sustained in no small part by American cocaine consumption.

Steve Coll looks at the history of civil wars to try and shed light on how the war with ISIS might unfold. The last point in the passage is an easy one to forget when it comes to wars. At a very basic level, wars require some stock or resources from which to fund the flow of war. We speak of burn rates in technology, but in the context of war it has a much more serious meaning.

Asymmetry works in both directions here. On one hand, the industrialized nations of the world have asymmetric military power to deploy against entities like ISIS. On the other hand, ISIS and its equivalents have an asymmetric investment in the battle in that region. No industrialized nation has the appetite to stay in that region in the long run, and that only erodes with time.

From the American intervention in Somalia, in 1992, through the French intervention in Mali, in 2013, industrialized countries have been able to deploy ground forces to take guerrilla-held territory in about sixty days or less. The problem is that if they don’t then leave, to be replaced by more locally credible yet militarily able forces, they invite frustration, and risk unsustainable casualties and political if not military defeat. This has been true even when the guerrilla forces were weak: the Taliban possesses neither planes nor significant anti-aircraft missiles, yet it has fought the United States to a stalemate, and the advantage is now shifting in its favor.
If President Obama ordered the Marines into urgent action, they could be waving flags of liberation in Raqqa by New Year’s. But, after taking the region, killing scores of ISIS commanders as well as Syrian civilians, and flushing surviving fighters and international recruits into the broken, ungoverned cities of Syria and Iraq’s Sunni heartland, then what? Without political coöperation from Bashar al-Assad, Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, Iraqi Shiite militias, Turkey, the Al Qaeda ally Al Nusra, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, and others, the Marines (and the French or NATO allies that might assist them) would soon become targets for a mind-bogglingly diverse array of opponents.

"Show me a hero, and I'll write you a tragedy"

Eric Posner believes American fear of Syrian refugees can be explained by factors other than bigotry and nativism.

Psychologists who have studied these reactions have identified a number of factors that predict when people place excessive weight on a low risk. All of these factors point, with remarkable clarity, to the reaction to the Syrian refugee crisis.
People underestimate risks that are familiar, under their personal control, voluntarily incurred, ignored by the media, and well-understood. Driving an automobile is the best example. Everyone is accustomed to driving, feels in control of the car, and drives by choice. The extraordinarily high risk of an accident becomes background noise that no one pays attention to. By contrast, the opposite qualities are true for the risks that people fear the most, like meltdowns of nuclear reactors, airplane crashes, and cancer-causing food additives—and even more so for terrorism. The Syrian refugees are strangers from an unfamiliar and terrifying part of the world, and they will be placed in neighborhoods where people did not necessarily invite them in. The media has made much of them, particularly after the Paris attacks, and most Americans don’t understand the circumstances that drove them from their country.
People also overreact to risks that may produce especially dreaded or gruesome outcomes. While a car accident can produce mangled bodies, a terrorist attack is an especially gruesome event, often involving hostage-taking and terrifying helplessness. Terrorist attacks victimize children as well as adults, and there is no practical way to avoid them. People are more likely to tolerate risks when the accompanying benefits are clear—that’s why, in the end, people fly. But any benefits from refugee resettlement are remote, intangible, and indirect. People also fear risks of human origin (vaccines) more than risks of natural origin (the flu), and terrorism is very much the fruit of human ingenuity.

Until we have a way to bypass human emotion and augment our statistical reasoning, fighting irrational fears of the public will continue to feel like so much noble thrashing.

I just finished David Simon and Bill Zorzi's Show Me a Hero, a look at the attempt to desegregate Yonkers, and it felt like a mini season of The Wire, on a different subject. That should sound like high praise because it is.

The miniseries illuminates how racism is not merely a subset of what Posner identifies as irrational fear. Having experienced various forms of racism in my youth, I've encountered many a strain that seems to arise not from fear but a desire for dominance. It isn't a creature lashing out in defense or fear but but a monster on the offensive.

China's birth rate problem

China has changed its one child policy to a two child policy, but it may not do much to rejuvenate its aging population

"It leads to a drop in the proportion of the productive labor force, which in turn raises the average wage level, making China less competitive in labor-intensive industries," Council on Foreign Relations China expert Yanzhong Huang writes in the Diplomat. "If China is approaching its Lewis turning point, a point at which China would move from a vast supply of low-cost workers to a labor shortage economy, it could quickly lose its competitive edge to other emerging economies that still enjoy significant demographic dividends."
But here's the really scary thing for China: It's not obvious that ending the one-child policy will solve its demographic crisis. The one-child policy is not, on its own, the key cause of China's graying population — those include China's growing prosperity and increasing opportunities for Chinese women outside the home. It's not obvious that repealing the one-child policy now would be able to make up for the difference.
"As UNC demographer Yong Cai has shown, today, even when fertility restrictions are lifted fertility rates don't rise," University of Maryland sociologist Philip Cohen writes in the Atlantic. "People have few children in China today because children have become too expensive—good schools especially cost too much, and the health care burdens of children outweigh the hoped-for future return of a child to care for parents when they're retired."

I have yet to hear of a country that's been able to reverse its birth rate decline with cash incentives. I hope one country succeeds just so we get a sense of the price at the indifference point.

Fan theories

On Reddit, user Lumpawarroo grabbed a ton of attention for posting this crazy Star Wars theory: Jar Jar Binks was a trained Force user, knowing Sith collaborator, and will play a central role in The Force Awakens.

Here's George Lucas (from a documentary) talking about Yoda:
"Yoda really comes from a tradition in mythological storytelling- fairy tales- of the hero finding a little creature on the side of the road that seems very insignificant and not very important, but who turns out to be the master wizard, or the master thing..."
As we all know, one of Lucas' big deals with the prequels was that they were intended to "rhyme" and mirror the original trilogy in terms of general narrative themes. So there should have been a seemingly innocent creature found on the side of the road that later reveals itself as a major player. We do have a creature that this seems to describe precisely... Jar Jar... but of course he never develops into a "master" anything.
Here's what I think happened: I think that Jar Jar was initially intended to be the prequel (and Dark Side) equivalent of Yoda. Just as Yoda has his "big reveal" when we learn that his tottering, geriatric goofball persona is just a mask, Jar Jar was intended to have a big reveal in Episode II or III where we learn that he's not really a naive dope, but rather a master puppeteer Sith in league with (or perhaps in charge of) Palpatine. 
However, GL chickened out. The fan reaction to Jar Jar was so vitriolic that this aspect of the trilogy was abandoned. Just too risky... if Jar Jar is truly that off-putting, it's potentially ruinous to the Star Wars legacy to imply that he's the ultimate bad guy of the entire saga. So pretend he was just a failed attempt at comic relief instead.

If you are into fan theories about movies, or just into Star Wars, it's worth a read. I feel like I've written about fan theories and movies before, but now I can't find any posts on the topic. Maybe it was just a Twitter conversation.

Anyhow, here's the thing about fan theories about movies: they are almost always completely wrong. I'm trying to remember one time when one of them was right, and maybe one of my readers can help me out here, but none come to mind. Sure, folks predicted that Benedict Cumberbatch would play Khan, but that wasn't much of a theory, it was just a casting guess.

Think about the Pixar Theory, Room 237, the Owen Grady theory about Jurassic Park/World, or any of the countless theories that claim that someone was dead all along. They are all fun, cleverly articulated, and completely wrong. I've talked to people who've worked on movies who can't help but laugh and shake their heads at some of the wacky theories their works have inspired. People at Pixar roll their eyes at the Pixar Theory.

If you have too much time on your hand and an overactive pattern seeking protocol, you'll start seeing things. Like dead people. It's a fine line separating conspiracy theorists from loons, and maybe the line isn't separating them but circling them.

We should get another test case shortly. Many believe Luke Skywalker hasn't featured prominently in the movie trailers or posters because he is actually Kylo Ren, having turned to the dark side. Let's ignore the fact that this would be J.J. Abrams and crew taking Luke's entire heroic journey in Episodes IV-VI and the collective happy memories of hundreds of millions of viewers and flushing it down the toilet. At their heart, fan conspiracy theories aren't really about the movies, they're all about the fans who come up with them.

Eye tracking

This company coming seemingly out of nowhere with a stand-alone eye-tracking device in a partnership with Steel Series, an eye-tracker-enabled gaming laptop in partnership with MSI, and a growing number software partnerships with companies like Ubisoft and Avalanche might be a new force in gaming, but it’s been studying eyeballs — and tracking them — for a long, long time. When you play Assassin’s Creed: RogueThe Hunter, The Hunter: Primal and many more games to come (they showed me some, but I can’t talk about them), you will experience what data researchers and ability engineers have known for over a decade: Your eyes know what you’re thinking before your hands do.
My time at Tobii is full of interesting experiences, but one thing sticks out — and it happens multiple times — the people here are almost supernaturally aware of what I’m thinking. In multiple interviews, Tobii employees will comment on how I am interacting with them, how I maintain eye contact while they are speaking, to encourage them to continue; how I nod at them to indicate that I am listening; and smile to influence them to expand on what they might be saying. Subtle interview tricks I learned so long ago I’m no longer aware of doing them. But the people I talk to at Tobii are aware. They’re aware and responding. Because they’re watching my eyes. And they’re programming computers to do the exact same thing.

Profile of Swedish company Tobii and their eye-tracking technology.

This bit is interesting, on how eye tracking can remove one step of abstraction from interaction with software interfaces using the typical modern computer hardware.

Bouvin demonstrates by picking up a pencil from the table in front of us. First he looks at the pencil, then he moves his hand to pick it up. In the computing world, we’ve become used to this type of interaction, but everyone who is currently alive who knows how to use a computer has had to train their mind to add a step between what they see and interacting with it.
We’ve had to learn the motor control of seeing, and then moving a cursor with a mouse or a trackpad, and then interacting.
Tobii eye tracking will remove that inter-evolutionary step, making it possible for us to interact with computers in the same way we interact with the world. Look at a thing. Interact with the thing. No cursor required.
“What you get with eye tracking is you can substitute pretty much all of that positioning, all that directional input, because your eyes are there before you touch,” says Bouvin. “You’re looking there. The movement and directional thing becomes unnecessary. Same with a mouse. You’re already there with your eyes. Moving the mouse cursor there is a step you can more or less do without. The only thing that’s left is the actual action.”


Could ISIS exist without Islam?

Mogahed said it’s “kind of an obvious point” that the group uses Islamic texts to justify its brutality. “But I want to answer a slightly different question, which is: If Islam did not exist … would a group like ISIS, with all the other realities as they are, exist today and do the same things?”
“My answer to that hypothetical question is a resounding yes.” Discussing global terrorism at the Aspen Ideas Festival, Mogahed, who formerly led research on Muslims with the polling organization Gallup, said that extremist groups all over the world commit the same kinds of violence using what she called “the local social currency” to justify it. “That is sometimes Christianity. That is sometimes Judaism. That is sometimes Buddhism. And it is sometimes secular ideologies. So a world without Islam would still have a group like ISIS—they would just be called something else that may be less catchy.”

Could ISIS exist without Islam? Not an area I know much about, but I do know people often read into texts what they want to.