Human Nature

Rice Creepies

Human genes in your breakfast cereal.

(For the latest columns on pain weapons, gay sheep, and shrinking people, click here.)

Virginia will mandate HPV vaccinations for all sixth-grade girls. It’ll be the second state to mandate the vaccine and the first to do so through legislation. Opponents’ concerns: parental rights and side effects. Supporters’ answers: 1) The Virginia bill says parents who want to opt out must sign a form. The governor questioned whether the measure was too onerous but now says it’s fine, so he’ll sign the bill. 2) The mandate won’t begin till late next year, allowing time to study side effects beforehand. (For previous updates on HPV, see item below or click here and here.)

The U.S. tentatively approved“the first commercial production of a food crop engineered to contain human genes.” The crop is rice. The genes make immunity-boosting proteins normally found in blood, saliva, and breast milk. Rationales: 1) The rice will yield seeds that make medicine. 2) Using nature to do this is more efficient and cheaper than making the medicine ourselves. 3) This will save kids from fatal illness in poor countries. Objections: 1) Genetically modified plants have a habit of spreading and altering nearby crops. 2) The government has a sorry record of trying to police this. 3) So get ready for high doses of medicine in whatever you’re eating. (For micegenetically engineered to make a human antioxidant, click here. For pigs engineered with worm genes to grow heart-healthy meat, click here.)

A major auto insurer is offering parents a car-mounted camera to record their kids’ driving. Conditions: 1) It’s free. 2) It won’t be used to set rates—for now. 3) The video can be subpoenaed. 4) It’ll be stored on a passport-protected Web site. The company calls it a “proactive behavior-modification tool.” Rationales: 1) It’ll help parents monitor and teach their kids. 2) It’ll deter kids from bad driving, since they quickly learn that the camera starts recording when they brake or accelerate suddenly. 3) We already monitor driving through black boxes and GPS. Critique: Targeting kids and saying it’s not new are the usual techniques for acclimating us to surveillance. (For a previous update on car surveillance cameras, click here. For Human Nature’s take on GPS and crime, click here.)

Doctors and governments are pushing the boundaries of taking organs from live donors. 1) California police are investigating a case in which a transplant surgeon allegedly took command of a patient’s treatment and urged nurses to “give him some more candy,” i.e., potent pain drugs, to kill him faster and get his organs. 2) Police at a hospital in Singapore restrained a brain-dead patient’s family so doctors could haul him away to get his organs before they became damaged. This happened because the government says you’re an organ donor unless 1) you register to opt out or 2) you’re Muslim. A leading doctor whose father was Singapore’s first prime minister advocates organ sales to relieve the shortage: “If monetary incentive makes a potential living donor more willing to save another life, what is wrong in allowing that?” (For another alternative—growing organs in embryos—click here.)

Nearly half of all American women aged 20 to 24 have HPV, the human papillomavirus. More than a quarter of women aged 14 to 59 have it, making it the country’s most prevalent sexually transmitted infection. Many states are proposing to vaccinate adolescent girls against HPV because it can cause cervical cancer. Gloomy spin: It’s way more common than we thought. Rosy spin: The strains that cause most cancers are less common than we thought. Activist spin: But let’s vaccinate against them anyway—and while we’re at it, the vaccine might protect men against anal and penile cancers. (For previous updates on HPV and anal cancer, click here and here.)

Scientists at a Chinese robotic engineering institute remotely controlled a flying pigeon. First they implanted tiny electrodes in its brain. By activating the electrodes from a computer, they “forced the bird to comply with their commands,” flying right, left, up, or down. According to Chinese government-controlled media, they’re refining the technology in the hope that it “can be put into practical use.” Scientists’ fantasy: remote-controlled animals. Government fantasy: remote-controlled scientists. (For Human Nature’s take on remote-controlled aerial drones in espionage and warfare, click here. For remote control of rats, click here and here.)

British officials threatened to take a fat boy from his family. He’s 8 years old and weighs 218 pounds, three times the average for his age. He has trouble bathing and dressing and regularly misses school due to illness. A health official says the family has skipped appointments with nutritionists, nurses, and social workers. Officials’ argument: “Child abuse is not just about hitting your children or sexually abusing them, it is also about neglect.” Doctor’s argument: “The way they are … feeding him, they are slowly killing him.” Mother’s plea: “If I didn’t give him enough at teatime then he would just go on at us all night for snacks and stuff.” Grandmother’s plea: “He takes food out of the fridge the minute you turn your back.” Human Nature’s view: If you can lose custody of your kid for malnourishing him or failing to control his suicidal behavior, this case may qualify on either count. Update: The boy will stay with his family for now. (For a previous column on child obesity as malnutrition, click here.)

A driver died in a car crash while apparently using a laptop. His car veered into oncoming traffic and hit a Hummer. Officers found the laptop plugged into his cigarette lighter. The laptop was still running; the driver was not. Question: How many of the laws presently being enacted against driving while using a cell phone also cover laptops? How many of you have tried this? (Human Nature shamefully raises a hand.) (For previous updates on cell phones and driving, click here and here. For bans on cell-phone use while crossing the street, click here.)

The U.S. government began screening airline passengers with a scanner that sees through clothing. The scanner uses low-energy X-rays to generate an image of your body outline and any items you’re carrying, including liquid and plastic explosives, which evade metal detectors. Naïve objection: The scan is a “virtual strip-search.” Rebuttals: 1) It doesn’t really show your naughty bits. 2) If you don’t want your inspection virtually, we’ll give it to you manually. Sophisticated objection: Once terrorists start toting all their explosives in body cavities, you’ll be getting your virtual inspection as a colonoscopy. (For Human Nature’s take on the bomb-hiding arms race between terrorists and airport screeners, click here.)

North America’s first cell-phone porn service surrendered to a Catholic boycott. Last month, Canada’s second-biggest telecom firm, Telus, began offering downloadable nude photos and videos. A week ago; the archbishop of Vancouver urged Catholics to boycott the company; three days later, Telus gave up and said it would offer porn only through cable TV. Company’s spins: 1) The porn was only soft-core. 2) We imposed an age limit. 3) We offered it as a public service, to help porn seekers avoid malware. Archbishop’s spin: The spread of porn technology preys on addicts and their victims. Cynical view: Thank God we’re keeping porn off 1-inch screens so people will have to keep watching it on 40-inch screens. Bonus twist: The archbishop issued his boycott call through a podcast. (For a previous update on the average viewing time of pay-per-view porn, click here. For porn HDTV, click here. For virtual-sex technology, click here. For live, on-demand sex, click here. For Human Nature’s take on prosecuting cybersex, click here.)

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