Monday, January 14, 2013

Off to Finland? At this time of year? Are you totally nuts??

 This weekend I was off to Helsinki, Finland. It's the pit of the year (unless you're deeply into winter sports and drinking lots and lots of ethanol): it's cold, it's icy, and there's hardly a glimmer of the sun all day long.  I've been there in midsummer when the opposite is true (and, since I'm not into winter sports, winter's absence is a blessing).

Helsinki South Harbor, summer

Helsinki South Harbor, winter
Anyway, why go there?  I'll be co-teaching a week-long minicourse called Logical Reasoning in Human Genetics.  It's an effort to suggest a different kind of view of this subject that is so central to so much research these days.  It will give a flavor consistent with what you see here on MT, but it's not a propaganda course, nor a methods course.  It is, in a sense, a philosophical course about the amount and origins of variation related to human traits--and how we should approach finding and characterizing it.

We've taught this in Finland a few times, but also in Madrid, Berlin, and Maracaibo over the past several years.  I teach this with several colleagues, including Joe Lee who is a genetic epidemiologist at Columbia University, and Markus Perola who does like service in Finland. Primarily, this was initiated with Joe Terwilliger, also from Columbia, with whom I've been collaborating for many years.

Now, Joe Lee and Markus Perola are nice, normal, ordinary humans.  But whether one can say that about Joe Terwilliger is quite another story.  Here's a guy who goes to inner Mongolia to live in a yurt and eat whatever umentionable delectables the locals eat--in the dead of winter--for vacation!  His new favorite place to vacation is North Korea.  This is the same Terwilliger who, because of appearance similarities, troops around New York City on Lincoln's birthday--wearing a Lincoln costume!  This is the guy who has walked every street in Manhattan, and plotted it for eager viewers of his web page.  Don't take my word for this....take his!.  Other than airports, his true passion is playing the tuba, which he does professionally whenever he gets the chance.

Teaching with Twig is a challenge to say the least.  Not only is Joe totally uninhibited in what he says (and he's a person of strong views!), but he's also as smart as they come and cuts through the statistical baloney like a diamond meat-slicer.

We have 60 unwitting 'students' signed up for this course, from Finland and other EU ports of call, and we had to turn down 20 or 30 others.  They are graduate students, post-docs, and professionals in genetics, epidemiology, and molecular genetics, etc.  So somebody, at least, thinks we might have some points to make.

Hopefully, the exchanges will be beneficial to the students, and to us, as we try to convey what we think, and to understand what they are learning and doing.  With luck, we all come away knowing more than we did.  Perhaps some post-worthy things will arise.

And the food in Helsinki can be terrific!

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