Tag Archives: Hunger Games

23andMe effectively shuts down (Dec 7th, 2013)

23andMe Logo

Try typing “23andMe scam” into Google. You’ll be directed to my most popular blog post of 2013, in which I posted the results of my genetic test with 23andMe. It’s the third most popular search term leading into this website (behind Buddhism and Hunger Games in 1st and 2nd place). 🙂

You can read the original post here.

In December 2012, I spat into a tube and sent it to 23andMe, a genetic testing company in California. In January 2013, they sent me the results of my genetic information over several days. I sifted through swathes of data and posted all the conclusions worth hearing onto my blog. There were 12 of them.

As someone trained in biology, particularly in genetics, I knew how to interpret the genetic data. I knew to ignore all of the health information, especially the vague correlations in tiny studies with genes of unknown function, and posted only the inconsequential genes and the ancestral information instead. This wasn’t a privacy concern—I posted all the findings that I found genuinely interesting. But I did omit any findings that I knew to be total bunk.

In one blatant statistical blunder, 23andMe told me I had a 1.5x greater chance than the “average person” of getting cleft lip. In another, they told me I had double the likelihood of getting certain diseases for which environmental factors were by far the greatest predictors. 23andMe doesn’t consider environmental factors and doesn’t differentiate between meaningful and meaningless statistics.

People not trained in genetics or statistics wouldn’t have the same level of insight that I did. Some customers could read all the misleading data like numbers on a die, and then make false conclusions as a result. 23andMe never did enough to protect its customers from such confusion. In fact, they passively encouraged it with gimmicks like “Genetic Melody” and the inclusion of vague correlation studies in tiny populations for very serious diseases. This data could worry people unnecessarily. While 23andMe communicated science much better than did the average newspaper, there was still a gaping linguistic chasm between scientists and consumers. The way that 23andMe reported health information to the public was still in need of major improvement.

But that improvement didn’t come quickly enough, and last week, the FDA shut down 23andMe’s entire genetic health reporting service. Its ancestry service lives on, which has always been 23andMe’s most interesting component in my opinion, and only new customers (after November 22, 2013) will be affected. Nevertheless, this decision is a huge blow for 23andMe and a momentous victory for advocates of science communication.

Rightly so. The fact that so many people are typing (and I see you!) 23andMe scam into Google indicates that a problem is at foot.

So while I’m pleased it’s been shut down, I also regret not making these shortcomings clearer in my 23andMe post one year ago. Despite the comments and emails I received from people trying to make sense of their 23andMe results, I forgot that not everyone is science-literate.

Fortunately, the FDA remembered. Thank you.

Book: The Disestablishment of Paradise


GORGEOUS sci-fi/fantasy setting, but the storyline’s not rich enough for me.
528 pages, ★

Originally posted at Dark Matter Fanzine

The Disestablishment of Paradise is set a few hundred years in the future at a time when humans have colonised at least 150 planets. The majority of these planets are located outside our solar system, and a giant “fractal” network allows people, goods and letters to travel between these planets with relative ease. The setting for this story is gorgeous.

The story takes place on a planet called Paradise. Paradise is a relatively hospitable planet—there are no living predators, plant life is everywhere, gravity is at a comfortable level and oxygen is more abundant than on Earth. Early pioneers encountered nothing dangerous at all, but did discover an irrestibly delicious, aphrodesiac fruit called the “Paradise Plum”, which, along with mining, quickly became Paradise’s most important export.

However, Paradise has become plagued by problems since its colonisation by humans: mining company MINADEC causes widespread destruction to the delicate ecosystem; and the Paradise Plums contract a mysterious disease, making them unsuitable for export and causing violent vomiting and nausea in anyone who eats them. By the time this novel begins, Paradise’s two main industries (mining and plums) had already been forced to grind to a halt, and the planet goes into debt.

Disestablishment begins when the Economic Subcommittee makes the sudden announcement that all humans must abandon Paradise because it’s unprofitable—a decision, which, once ratified by Central, has no chance of being revoked. The inhabitants are required to remove or destroy all evidence of human colonisation (the regulations tell them to “leave nothing intact”), then start new lives on another planet with monetary compensation. Most inhabitants are understandably disappointed to leave the planet, but protagonist Hera Melhuish, a leading plant scientist on Paradise, is completely heartbroken. She loves her planet so much that she breaks down upon hearing the news, attempts suicide, and spends ten days recuperating in a safe-haven. The story then follows Hera and her assistant Mack while they stay on Paradise as long as possible, discover one of its hidden treasures, and ultimately become the last people to leave.

The beginning of this story is told from personal, political and scientific perspectives. It’s written in a way that makes readers empathise with the characters as they learn the disappointing news that their planet is to be ‘disestablished’. We learn the political and economic arguments from the other side for doing so, and the interplanetary legal battle to reverse the decision is a compelling one. All the science fiction is explained convincingly in the narrative or in the appendices, and the story makes clever allusions to Genesis and to Greek mythology before page 50. Over thirty characters make themselves known before page 200. I loved this richness and complexity in the first half of this book.

Spoiler alert

This book went downhill for me after page 200 when the “hunch” that leads Mack to fly half-way around the planet unguided by maps to save Hera from danger turns out to be correct. This unexplained act killed my sympathy for both of the main characters. Mack and Hera then wrestle a Dendron (an animal-like plant), a process throughout which, it becomes increasingly obvious that they love each other and will eventually have sex. Disappointingly, they do.

I am disappointed because the politics, science fiction and maturity from the first half of the book don’t continue into the second half. Character complexity and fantasy melt away and the book becomes a simple romance story between Mack and Hera. The author sexualises both characters heavily and makes them dwell on their feelings to the extent that they sound like adolescent, first-time lovers (highly reminiscent of Gale and Katniss from the Hunger Games, actually) even though they’re both fifty years old. This novel’s intense focus on Mack and Hera’s naïve, predictable relationship in the second half didn’t match the complex, political sci-fi/fantasy novel I was expecting after reading the first half of the story.

I would have preferred an alternative storyline. First, I’d have preferred to see Mack transported back to Earth or Mars after his sex with Hera. The book’s ending could be the same, but Hera would then be faced with a big question: does she care more about Mack than about Paradise? Second, I’d have preferred to bring Hemi back into the spotlight in the second half. I’d make Hemi (who has an obvious crush on Hera) work for a demolition team, and thus introduce a new conflict: should he abdicate his duties as a demolition worker to protect Hera and her scientific samples? Unfortunately, such dilemmas were absent from the second half of the book.

End of spoilers

I recommend this book for anyone who enjoyed the film Avatar. You’ll enjoy The Disestablishment of Paradiseeven more if you’re also familiar with young adult literature, science fiction and the few allegorical references that this novel makes to other stories. Even though the storyline weakens towards the end, the world that the author creates in The Disestablishment of Paradise is a beautiful one. I still enjoyed reading this book as a whole. 

Book: Hunger Games 3: Mockingjay

The Year of the Snake has begun and I wish all my readers a healthy, prosperous and Happy Chinese New Year!

The Hunger Games 3: Mockingjay
Book 3 in the trilogy

Massive, cliché rebellion. Far too much Hunger Games.
455 pages, ★★★

I found this book boring.

Ninety percent of Mockingjay depicts a rebellion against the Capitol, during which, Peeta is captured and Katniss fights in a mockingjay costume. Mockingjay reminded me of two more disappointing trilogies: Matrix Revolutions and The Bourne Ultimatum… all were action-packed but lacked an interesting story.

Even though some people die along the way, Mockingjay ends with Peeta and Katniss living happily ever after. The evil Capitol falls.

I strongly recommend the first book, but it leaves you with no cravings for a second or third book at all. Don’t waste your time reading them just because they exist—one Hunger Games book was enough. ★★★

Book: Hunger Games 2: Catching Fire

The Hunger Games 2: Catching Fire
Book two in the trilogy

Too much Hunger Games.
474 pages, ★★★★

Book two begins with Katniss Everdeen at Victor’s Village.

The first book described the 74th Hunger Games; this book describes the 75th. There’s a “Quarter Quell” this year, a major Hunger Games battle with 48 veteran tributes (rather than 24 newbies), held every 25 years. Katniss and Peeta are, once again, called up to fight.

75 years? Tyrannies in the modern era have never survived for more than 90 years. In fact, most of them get toppled after 70 or 80. Without reading any further, I think this could be the last Hunger Games in Panem. It’s not unthinkable that this trilogy could see the end of Panem altogether, in a rebellion possibly led by Katniss herself.

Katniss talks about marrying Peeta (chapter 3) and having his baby (page 309), but disguises her love for him as rebelliousness against her country, Panem. She convinces herself so much (too much) that she ends up joining a real rebellion with her other crush, Gale (yes, that’s a man). She kisses both of them in several times in this novel. Panem is outraged at their being together, so Katniss and Gale pretend to be cousins for their own safety.

Ligatures. The kerning in this book is imperfect, and ligatures are altogether absent. This affected my enjoyment of the book, but most readers probably won’t notice anything’s wrong. The words, ‘mockingjay’, ‘flower’, ‘fish’, ‘fling’ and ‘Right’ all look awkwardly-spaced—ugly, even. Book one was fine.

I didn’t enjoy this as much as the first book, but I’m still hankering for more—especially because the last line tells us that Katniss’ home district has been destroyed. I’ve ordered book three and will review it in a few weeks’ time. ★★★★

Book: The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games book 1
Book one in the trilogy

Gripping, linear, action-packed, first-person, protagonist-centred extreme coming-of-age story.
374 pages, ★★★★★

The Hunger Games are no-rules, last-man-standing battles organised by the tyrannical rulers of a fictitious North American country. Two fighters (“tributes”, as they’re called) are picked from each of the country’s twelve districts at annual nomination ceremonies (“reapings”). Brave, 16-year-old protagonist Katniss Everdeen volunteers to enter this deadly battle to save her younger sister, who was initially chosen. Unlike her sister, Katniss is proficient with a bow-and-arrow, and thinks she might stand a chance at being the one surviving fighter in the arena.

Such challenging circumstances can catalyse the process of falling in love. Enter Peeta, who was chosen to fight alongside Katniss. Peeta is a weaker, more sentimental character who has had a crush on Katniss since they were children. In a confused, teenage way, they kiss many times on the battlefield, and fall in love.

Falling in love is a rite of passage for Katniss. On page 137, she says Peeta’s love makes her feel grown up. Naturally, she’s confused by her own feelings. On page 373, Katniss whines, “it’s no good loving me because I’m never going to get married anyway and he’d just end up hating me later rather than sooner”.

Sometimes, she doubts whether she loves Peeta. On page 358, she says that rebelliousness, not love, was her reason for kissing him. On page 298, she discounts her actions and says, “this is the first kiss where we actually wanted each other”.

On other occasions, she admits to being completely besotted. By page 345, they threaten the Hunger Games organisers with a slightly-silly near-double-suicide pact rather than continuing to live without each other. In just a few days, their love has become more important than life itself. Teenagers can be quite like that.

Reading The Hunger Games, I feel like I’m standing right in the protagonist’s shoes. This fast, action-packed, first-person and linear book would lend itself very well to a first-person shooter (FPS) computer game.

I think the Hunger Games is a caricaturisation of the dog-eat-dog mentality in some schools. Kids are forced to undergo gruelling examinations when they would rather be playing—or falling in love. Could that be why teenagers worldwide have clicked so avidly to this “cruel adults make teenagers fight to the death” story? Possibly so.

Book one was so good that I bought book two. Review coming tomorrow. ★★★★★