Monday, March 2, 2015

Meeting The Prime Minister Of Canada

Personal Moments

Prime Minister Trudeau and Barbra Streisand at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa in 1970.
Photo Credit: Chuck Mitchell, G&M
Source: Globe & Mail

My friends and I met Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau in either 1973 or 1974; I now don’t remember precisely the date or the year, but it had to be during the hockey season, that is, between October and April.

But first some background information is necessary. We were teenage autograph seekers, fanatics I would say in the collection of autographs, notably of athletes and other sportsmen, but also of anyone famous, including movie stars and politicians. We were at he Sheraton Mont-Royal Hotel in downtown Montreal, and we were there then for only one purpose: to meet hockey players from the visiting team who stayed at this hotel, and to get their autographs and briefly chat with them as they milled around the lobby before heading by taxi to the Montreal Forum. (Both the hotel and the sports venue no longer exist.)

Our cohort consisted, at various times, of myself, Jack, Sheldon, Gady, Issie, and Benny. I do not recall who was with me when we met the prime minister of Canada, but we were all pretty excited. With good reason. The head of hotel security, with whom we had an uneasy relationship, since we considered the hotel our playground and we ran around it with impunity, took us aside and shared a secret with us: the prime minister of Canada was finishing a speech he was making at the hotel to some distinguished and important group, and was heading downstairs to the main lobby. We would have the chance to meet the prime minister personally, Canada’s most charismatic and intellectual political leader.

And true to his word, in a few minutes, the red carpet was rolled out, and in the middle strolled Prime Minister Trudeau, in between two RCMP officers in their red serge uniforms; the head of hotel security brought us forward to meet the prime minister of Canada. I chatted with him briefly and, of course, asked for his autograph. As did my friends. And then he left. We then returned to our “official” business of collecting autographs from hockey players.

I am still not sure why the head of hotel security had picked us to meet the prime minister of Canada, but it was a memorable moment in the lives of teenage sports fanatics.

In this video clip (CBC Television News; Date: Dec. 21, 1967) of a news conference in Ottawa, then Justice Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau [1919-2000] of the reigning Liberal Party of Canada, announced sweeping changes to Canadian society in an omnibus bill that liberalized many of the normal human desires that we now take for granted including sex, procreation and divorce.

The CBC writes:
"There's no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation." Those unforgettable words made famous by Pierre Trudeau in 1967 caused a tidal wave of controversy that rippled across the entire nation. Trudeau's Omnibus Bill brought issues like abortion, homosexuality and divorce law to the forefront for the first time, changing the political and social landscape in Canada forever.
Conservatives to this day view Prime Minister Trudeau with contempt for these measures and others, such as multiculturalism, patriating the Constitution (1982), bilingualism and other liberal values that made Canada more tolerant and more inclusive. Even so, it was precisely such measures that brought Canada into the modern age and made it a better, more open and more secular democratic society. It has moved Canada closer to the idea of “a just society.”

I have always admired Trudeau for having the courage of his convictions, even though I might not have always agreed with everything he said or did. I certainly admired his powerful intellect (his motto was “reason over passion”), his sense of humour and his sense of style. Another interesting note: I resided in the Mont-Royal riding in which Trudeau was my M.P.; when I turned 18, he always had my vote. Prime Minister Trudeau influenced my thinking (and that of my generation) in a very positive and profound way that no politician other than President John F. Kennedy had (reading his speeches post-facto). I am a better person for it.

Too many of today’s politicians take themselves too seriously, lacking both a true sense of self and a sense of destiny. Of history in the making. In my estimation, Trudeau was the best prime minister of the twentieth century. Academics in history, political science and international relations, in 2011, ranked Trudeau as the fifth-best prime minister in Canadian history. Canada was indeed fortunate to have such a man lead the nation.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

A Fitting Tribute To Leonard Nimoy [1931-2015]

Science Fiction & Fact

Leonard Nimoy as Spock: Although considered Vulcan, Spock was Vulcan on his father’s side
and Human on his mother’s side. He represented, to a large degree, what is best in all of us.
Photo Credit: AF Archive; Alamy

Source: New Yorker

Although Leonard Nimoy, who died two days ago at age 83, will always be defined by Spock the Vulcan, he was greater than one any one role, Joshua Rothman of The New Yorker writes in “Postscript: Leonard Nimoy”:
Spock always played against type. He was supposed to be cold and logical, but he ended up being funny, angry, passionate, loyal, dangerous—even, from time to time, seductive. The same was true of Nimoy. It was a great pleasure to see an actor you’d loved for so long branch out in such surprising ways, writing poetry, recording (terrible) albums, publishing (beautiful) photographs, directing “Three Men and a Baby.” He was always recognizable, with his rich voice, craggy face, and gentle manner, even as he explored new enthusiasms. Some people seem to transform through life, throwing off older, outdated versions of themselves. Nimoy set a different example: he grew, in a slow, natural, and unpretentious way, more capacious.
We have comedy; we have satire, but we do not have much irony in evidence today. Irony takes confidence in one's abilities without taking one's self overly serious. It takes acting without fear and without the extreme bravado displayed by many today who are likely full of fears, hence the anger and the mock outrage in “The Age of Fear.” 

Most of all, it takes a belief in humanity and a hope for humanity that defined Star Trek and many of the actors who were a part of this franchise. As Gene Roddenberry, the show’s creator, said in 1986: “Perhaps one of the primary features of Star Trek that made it different from other shows was, it believed that humans are improving — they will vastly improve in the 23rd century.” (Entertainment Tonight, 20th Anniversary)

If we mourn the loss of Leonard Nimoy—as many have done and continue to do— we mourn not only the loss of a man who taught us something, but also the loss of something that he was part of, which does not seem evident today. I was a fan of the Star Trek franchise, and I wrote about its importance and its lasting positive influence on society in a 2011 post, which you can read here (“Star Trek: The Prime Directive”; January 7, 2011).

Thank you Leonard Nimoy for giving me (us) this hope through your fine acting and your understanding of human nature. For those interested, here is an interview, part of the Wexler Oral History Project (of the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, MA), with Leonard Nimoy where he explains Judaism’s influence on the Vulcan greeting and “Live Long and Prosper.”

Born: March 26, 1931, West End, Boston, Massachusetts
February 27, 2015, Bel-Air, Los Angeles, California

For more, go to [New Yorker]

Friday, February 27, 2015

Sharing Your Personal DNA Data Can Help Others

Personal Genomics

A Human Genome: This is the digital representation of the human genome, which a museum visitor in New York City is viewing in 2001. We have come a long way since June 2000, when the Human Genome Project successfully presented a working draft of the human genome. The cost of having your genome sequenced has dropped considerably since then. Personal genomics will lead to personalized medicine and made-to-measure drugs to treat a host of diseases, including cancer.
Photo Credit: Mario Tama, Getty Images

An article (“The Internet of DNA”), by Antonio Regalado, in MIT Technology Review looks at the issue of personal genomics—the sequencing of an individual’s DNA— and the benefits of sharing it to a large network like the Internet in the hopes of helping others with similar diseases. This of course raises issues of privacy and possible breaches of security, but it also raises issues of human cooperation and the multiplying power of sharing information and knowledge.

In many ways, it is defines the modern battle between personal privacy and public pursuit of knowledge. What has to be decided is whether society at large is ready to sacrifice individual privacy to increase knowledge and better humanity. Your medical treatment, notably if successful, could benefit millions of others around the world. This is the crux of the argument.

Regalado writes:
 In January, programmers in Toronto began testing a system for trading genetic information with other hospitals. These facilities, in locations including Miami, Baltimore, and Cambridge, U.K., also treat children with so-called ­Mendelian disorders, which are caused by a rare mutation in a single gene. The system, called MatchMaker Exchange, represents something new: a way to automate the comparison of DNA from sick people around the world.

One of the people behind this project is David Haussler, a bioinformatics expert based at the University of California, Santa Cruz. The problem Haussler is grappling with now is that genome sequencing is largely detached from our greatest tool for sharing information: the Internet. That’s unfortunate because more than 200,000 people have already had their genomes sequenced, a number certain to rise into the millions in years ahead. The next era of medicine depends on large-scale comparisons of these genomes, a task for which he thinks scientists are poorly prepared. “I can use my credit card anywhere in the world, but biomedical data just isn’t on the Internet,” he says. “It’s all incomplete and locked down.” Genomes often get moved around in hard drives and delivered by FedEx trucks.

Haussler is a founder and one of the technical leaders of the Global Alliance for Genomics and Health, a nonprofit organization formed in 2013 that compares itself to the W3C, the standards organization devoted to making sure the Web functions correctly. Also known by its unwieldy acronym, GA4GH, it’s gained a large membership, including major technology companies like Google. Its products so far include protocols, application programming interfaces (APIs), and improved file formats for moving DNA around the Web. But the real problems it is solving are mostly not technical. Instead, they are sociological: scientists are reluctant to share genetic data, and because of privacy rules, it’s considered legally risky to put people’s genomes on the Internet.
I for one would be willing to share my biomedical data, and have said so in my cancer blog. This puts me in good company; Steven Pinker had his genome sequenced years ago and allowed the information to be posted on the Internet, he wrote in an article for The New York Times (“My Genome, My Self ”; January 7, 2009).

I have not had my genome sequenced, but if it could be done for free, I would willingly publicly share my biomedical information, not only for the sake of science, but more important for the sake of others. One of the signs of a highly developed and morally healthy society is a willingness to help others, altruism at its finest, and a willingness to better the human condition.

The perceived loss of privacy is really of no or little consequence when compared to the benefit of helping many other persons. Even so, there are obstacles of the mind. Privacy advocates have been beating the drums of privacy for decades, and have been successful in creating a climate of fear on such matters. [The question to ask is: Why is personal privacy so important?] For this reason, this transition to open sharing will not be an easy one, chiefly because people have been told not to share, and, moreover, have become reticent, reluctant and spooked about sharing any personal information.

For the sharing of biomedical data to become feasible, it will require that governments ensure that such information cannot be used by, say, insurance companies to deny coverage to individuals deemed  statistically “at risk” of a disease or condition they currently do not have; it will also require that societies rethink personal privacy and why it’s important, and most of all it will require a shift away from the idea that protecting individual privacy is more important than sharing personal information with the purpose of bettering humanity.

For more, go to [MITTechReview]

Monday, February 23, 2015

Today's Cancer Is Not Yesterday's Cancer

Medical Advances & The Human Spirit

I watched Terms of Endearment a couple of days ago, a wonderful American film that I had not seem since it was first released to the public in 1983; it is about relationships and the strength of women who hold them together. Much of the film is focused on the relationship between mother (played by Shirley MacLaine) and daughter (played by Debra Winger). The relationships that each have with the men in their lives are important but take on a secondary or complementary role. Jack Nicholson and Jeff Daniels play the men.

There is a sense that relationships are both fragile and wonderful, and that when tragedy strikes, reconciliation is both possible and necessary; one of the tragedies in this film is that the daughter is diagnosed with cancer, and it is terminal. The daughter soon succumbs to the disease; the scene between her and her two boys is especially touching.

The movie spoke to me in many ways, one of which was that a diagnosis of cancer in the 1980s was often a ”death sentence.” But no so today; medical research has not only greatly increased our understanding of cancer and its mechanisms. but it has also lead to treatments that can prolong life without the compromising life-draining side effects of the past. In short, we have learned a lot more about cancer, and how to treat and beat it.

The movie brings to memory my family’s situation, and what my mother and my two brothers faced. My father was diagnosed with colorectal cancer in March 1980; after enduring surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, my dad fought valiantly for life. He died eight months later in November 1980. Fast forward thirty years later. I am two years cancer-free, or two years N.E.D., or no evidence of disease. Not cured, since there is no cure for cancer. I am acutely aware of this fact, but I do not give it much thought. Apart from some secondary side-effects, I feel happy and grateful  to be alive and live my life accordingly

Towards the end of the film, the words “she is gone” are said; these are as powerful as “she will live.” Or in my case, “I will live.”  Thankfully, these words are more common today than they were thirty years ago. I cannot over-emphasize the power of knowledge when applied and directed to medical research and the betterment of human lives. L’chaim. To life.

This is not to say or suggest in any way that humanity has achieved its final victory over cancer. No, cancer is still a dreadful and awful disease, but not as awful as it once was. It is also true that not all cancers are treatable; I read about the case of Oliver Sacks, the eminent neurologist and writer, who has a terminal form of cancer that has metastasized to the liver; it is inoperable, untreatable.  In The New York Times (“My Own Life”: February19, 2015), Sacks, who is 81, writes:
I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.
Such are my sentiments, but to a lesser degree than Dr. Sacks, in relation to my talents, my achievements, and my age. I also hope to (continue to) give something in return for what I have been given. To live the good life; and to establish a legacy for my children. Such is the human spirit in action.