I Got My Personal Genome Mapped and It Was Bullshit
Last Friday, the FDA forced personal genomics company 23andMe to stop marketing its tests to the public in their current form. Before the order came in, customers would send a spit sample to the firm, who would sequence the DNA and look for genes indicating a risk of up to 254 diseases and conditions, providing a breakdown of any issues.
The FDA cited a lack of supporting evidence for some of the claims made and expressed particularly serious concern over their assessment of the BRCA gene, which is linked to breast cancer, suggesting 23andMe’s tests might result in false positives that could lead to women undergoing traumatic and unnecessary surgery. The FDA’s actions have led to an explosion of opinion across the science blogosphere, but in all of that commentary a big question remains unanswered: What exactly is the point of personal genomics?
My first experience with the industry came about three years ago, when I was offered the chance to have a test done with Navigenics, a firm since taken over by a biotech firm called Life Technologies. Being a curious sort of guy, I jumped at the chance. A sample tube arrived via Fedex a few days later, which I duly spat into and sent back for analysis.
The results came back in the form of a sort of “wall of death”—a breakdown of all the things that might harm or kill me over the coming decades, detailing how likely I am to have each condition. Drilling into the figures, I can see that I have a higher risk of prostate cancer than 95 percent of the population and a 1 in 5 chance of developing Alzheimer’s—twice the average risk. So I’ll probably get cancer, but on the plus side I’ll be too forgetful to care about it.
Volunteer-Run Morgues Are a Terrible Idea
Australia’s Northern Territory is huge, sparsely populated, poor, and crawling with deadly animals. It’s not surprising, then, that it doesn’t attract many professional types. Types like, say, people who are good at managing morgues. As a result, the territory’s dead-body storage system is a mess. The morgues are staffed primarily by volunteers, and no agency is specifically in charge of them.
This is a problem, to put it mildly. An inquiry led last year by Northern Territory Ombudsman Carolyn Richards uncovered a host of horrible practices, like a body that got put in a courtroom when there wasn’t space for it elsewhere, and a corpse stored in a doctor’s kitchen for a week while he was away. Things haven’t gotten better since then, and in the past few months, the bodies of two Aborigines were placed in the wrong graves—an especially big deal because in that culture, being buried with your clan on tribal land is of the utmost importance. The bodies were reportedly exhumed and reburied, but the families never received an official apology.
Also still waiting on a “We’re sorry” from the well-meaning but undertrained—or incompetent—morgue workers is the family of Charlton James, who committed suicide in 2011. Charlton’s body was taken to a morgue in the town of Kalkaringi, but after a power failure, the refrigeration system went down and his corpse was left to rot in the Outback heat. By the time his mother went to view the body, it was so badly decomposed that she couldn’t recognize him.
Your Corpse Will Never Look This Good
Contemporary burial practices suck. They put a suit or dress on you, throw you in a box, and stick you in the ground, doomed to an eternity of looking boring. It wasn’t always like that, and art history scholar Dr. Paul Koudounaris’s photos of skeletons covered in bling prove it. You might remember some of his photos from 2011’s The Empire of Death: A Cultural History of Ossuaries and Charnel Houses. Now, Koudounaris has a follow-up book called Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures and Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs, which also features bedazzled dead people. But according to the author, that’s where the similarities end. “They are very different—almost diametric—projects,” he says. “Because it deals with identity, Heavenly Bodies is in effect much more intimate.”
Koudounaris started documenting skeletons in earnest less than five years ago while photographing East German charnel houses, aka vaults full of dead bodies. “These skeletons became my life,” he says. “I felt like it was some kind of divine dictate that I was supposed to tell this story.”
While there had been articles about the skeletons in academic journals (mostly in Germany, where many of the bones are located), as well as a few doctoral dissertations, nobody had ever treated them as works of art. “They approached them as historical objects or devotional objects, but that, I think, is missing the point,” Koudounaris says. “To a modern audience that’s going to appreciate them, it’s because they’re incredible works of art, and that’s the context I wanted to create for them.”
We’re All Going to Be Killed by Giant Hornets
I don’t want to scare you or anything, but I know how you’re going to die. You’re going to be stung to death by giant hornets. We all are, and it’s going to be excruciating. In a plot twist straight from a SyFy Channel mockbuster, we all laughed at Mother Nature for too long, and now she’s coming after us in the form of huge, horrifying, toxic insects. I know, because I read a lot of internet news.
A Chinese woman named Mu Conghui told Xinhua News Agency:
"The hornets were horrifying.They hit right at my head and covered my legs. All of a sudden I was stung and I couldn’t move. Even now, my legs are covered with sting holes."
People Are Now Crowdfunding Their Funerals Online
The new frontier for online fundraising arguably has the single steadiest revenue source in the world: Funerals.
It would cost about $10,000 to bury your dead ass right now. I’m talking to you, 18- to 35-year-olds. With VICE’s readership being what it is (it’s been a good year), someone reading this will drop dead pretty soon, statistically speaking. If you die penniless, your family could and should consider going the crowdfunding route on Giveforward
, or Graceful Goodbye
That $10,000 is just an average figure for a simple American funeral
. It assumes you’ll be embalmed, rested in a lined casket, placed in a room for people to visit, grieved over at a modest ceremony at a funeral home, driven to the cemetery in a hearse, lowered into the ground, buried, and have a few flowers placed next to your humble, flat headstone. Funeral directors get $6,600 of that, and the rest goes to the cemetery.
Apocalyptic Christians Are Boring
When I started reading Endtime, I thought getting a magazine devoted to the end of the world every two months would be fascinating—I’d get loads of insane theories, wacky photoshop jobs, and far-out interpretations of news stories from the Middle East. I was right about the photoshopping (get a load of that cover!), but wrong about everything else. As I learned from previous issues of this publication, publisher/editor/company founder Irvin Baxter believes that there is a war coming that will wipe out a third of humanity; that a peace agreement between Israel and Palestine will result in animals being sacrificed on the Temple Mount for the first time in 2,000 years; that a global government, led by the Antichrist, will emerge and persecute Christians and Israel before a big, end-of-the-world fight between good and evil. These are fairly nutty things to believe, but as it turns out, hearing about them makes for pretty mind-numbing reading.
After the letters to the editor section—where Irvin answers questions such as, “Is a third of the world population really going to die in that big war?” (yes) and “Is there really going to be a river of blood five feet deep at the Battle of Armageddon?” (yes, but it won’t be that deep all the way from the Plain of Megiddo to Jerusalem)—the July/August issue of Endtime features a long, somewhat meandering story on the Israel-Palestine peace negotiations organized by US Secretary of State John Kerry that concludes casually by saying that there will some day be peace in Israel because the Bible says so, “but probably not now. The Sixth Trumpet War that will kill one-third of the human race will probably happen first.” Oh, that clears that up then, I guess.
A Terminal Cancer Patient Talks to an Exonerated Serial Killer
Yesterday it was announced that Sture Bergwall, formerly known as Thomas Quick, has been freed after spending 20 years locked up in mental institutions. He initially confessed to over 30 murders in Scandinavia and the last of his eight convictions came in 1994. Our friend Kristian Gidlund wrote the following article after the two met on May the 14th for the first (and probably only) time in their lives. Kristian is a 29-year-old journalist and drummer in the band Sugarplum Fairy. He suffers from terminal cancer and has, with his blogand book, helped thousands of Swedes to acknowledge death as a natural part of life.
In Sweden, Thomas Quick used to be considered to be the worst serial killer in existence. A predator with his sights set firmly on young boys, who he allegedly sexually abused before stabbing them to death with a knife. He was considered a living demon—evil personified—and he lived 20 minutes away from where I lived, in the valleys of Dalarna.
One day he escaped from the Säter Hospital, the psychiatric clinic where he was locked up, convicted of eight murders—among other things. I remember the panic among all the kids in the schoolyard. Our parents picked us up from school and we had to play inside for the rest of the day.
Twenty years later and I’m facing death. For real this time. The cancer that was discovered in my body has forced doctors to remove my stomach and my spleen. It has forced me to go through two dozen sessions of chemo treatments while feasting on my existence. I’m fading away. I’m headed towards death.
During the past two years, I’ve been blogging about my inevitable demise, and the blog has grown to become quite well-read in Sweden. One day, a comment popped up on one of my entries from Thomas Quick, the walking demon. “I recognized myself in your destiny,” he wrote. “It was an existential recognition. You were standing in front of death, with the cancer. I used to have death by my side and I lived in a valley of death. Although I can sense life today, I can still fully understand your situation of facing the end of life.”
Fake Funerals in South Korea
Despite its booming economy, the people of South Korea have never been more unhappy. With an average of 43 suicides per day, it’s the suicide capital of the developed world and Asia’s unhappiest nation.
Unsurprisingly, this apparent paradox has provoked much soul-searching within South Korea. A result of this is the “Well Dying”—or “Near Death”—movement, which aims to give people a little taste of death to replenish their appetite for life.
Perhaps the most bizarre manifestation of this movement is the rise of “fake funeral” services, where participants are lectured by a philosophical guru and told to write their own eulogies, before spending 30 minutes meditating inside a coffin.
VICE Japan correspondent Yuka Uchida headed to Seoul to try to experience her own “death” at a fake funeral ceremony.
Watch the documentary