Progress and Vagueness

First, the good news. I’ve made some progress today.

The not-so-good news is that today’s progress amounts to 30 words that I probably won’t delete before evening.

On the other hand, I expect I’ll have more words finished at day’s end than I started with. That’s better than some days. But not as good as some others.

If that all sounds rather vague, I’m not surprised. I’ve been feeling rather vague today. Maybe the weather has something to do with that.

It’s a gray, overcast drizzly sort of day. Ideal for not going outside and working on a sunburn. And with that profound thought, I present links to vaguely-related posts:

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Homer, Hegel, History and Hope

Folks who saw virtue in unquestioning devotion to established values didn’t like the 1960s. No institution, custom or belief seemed safe from scrutiny.

Even the idea of progress — a cherished heirloom from the Age of Enlightenment — was challenged, disputed, and ultimately rejected.

Visions of a technotopia, where our greatest challenge was deciding how to spend our leisure time, were fading.

Hopes for nuclear power’s abundant clean energy were giving way to fears of an atomic holocaust and reactor meltdowns. Assuming that pollution didn’t kill us first. (July 28, 2017; February 17, 2017)

Perhaps even more disturbing for social Luddites, the nation’s youth seemed ill-suited for their assigned role as torchbearers for liberty, conformity and suburban living.

Earnest articles and op-eds warned that television was rotting the minds of America’s youth. And popular music was subverting values which so many held dear:

“…Creature comfort goals
They only numb my soul
And make it hard for me to see….”
(“Pleasant Valley Sunday” The Monkees (1967))

“…If the mind is baffled
When the rules don’t fit the game,
Who will answer?…”
(“Who Will Answer?” Ed Ames (1967))

“…Go ahead and hate your neighbour
Go ahead and cheat a friend
Do it in the name of heaven
You can justify it in the end….”
(“One Tin Soldier” Dennis Lambert, Brian Potter (1969))

Some felt it was the end of civilization as they knew it. I think they were right.1

America has changed. So has the world. I think some changes were improvements. Some aren’t turning out as well as I’d hoped. And many are simply change: which happens, whether we like it or not.

I’m cautiously optimistic about our future, partly because I know a bit about our past.

The Walls of Troy

That’s part of Troy VII’s acropolis: what’s left of it after the Trojan War and Late Bronze Age collapse.

Until around the 19th century, most folks thought the Trojan War had happened pretty much the way Homer described it in the Iliad: the non-mythic parts at any rate.

Then some European scholars took what they’d been learning about ancient history, and compared that to Homer’s account. Parts, at least, didn’t match what they expected. Either their educated guesses were wrong, or Homer’s epic poem was basically fictional.

Quite a few decided that they knew more about history than some ancient chap. Some also figured the Iliad, fictional or not, was composed by some other poet.

Academic one-upmanship — it’s a real word — followed. A humorist’s opinion probably made as much sense as many: Homer didn’t compose the Iliad. It was some other Greek in Homer’s day — whose name was Homer.

There’s still considerable debate about how much of the Iliad is strictly factual. Even Thucydides figured Homer had stretched the facts a bit, and that’s another topic.

I think poets of ancient Greece were a bit like today’s screenwriters: more interested in drama and spectacle than accountant-like precision.

Professional scholars weren’t the only folks who wondered if Troy really existed: and if it did, where we might find “the lofty gates of Troy.”

Frank Calvert, an Englishman born in Malta, learned about Hisarlik, a hill in what’s now northwestern Turkey that might conceal Troy’s ruins.

Frank and his brother Frederick bought a farm that included part of the hill. They uncovered part of what Frank thought was Troy.

A German archeologist, Heinrich Schliemann, met Calvert and thought the Englishman was right. Schliemann dug into the hill and uncovered what had been a city. More exactly, he excavated Trojan ruins from at least two periods.

Schliemann had also, regrettably, obliterated what we are pretty sure had been significant parts of the city. Archeologists are much more careful these days. As I keep saying, we do learn. Eventually.

It’s still not unanimous, but these days most academics think Troy was real and Hisarlik is where the city used to be.2

The Trojan War was real, too, and almost certainly part of the Late Bronze Age Collapse. We haven’t had a catastrophe quite like it since. (November 3, 2017)

“Nothing Stands Still”

Descendants of folks who survived the Collapse eventually returned and lived where Troy had been.

But the city never fully recovered. Partly, I think, because the river which flowed past Troy kept carrying water and sediment to the sea.

The site’s a few miles inland now. Troy’s natural harbor long since filled in and became farmland.

The Hellespont is still part of an important trade route, but today’s major east-west crossing point is Istanbul. Another three millennia or so, and some other place may be the region’s major metropolis. It’s like the fellow said:

“πάντα χωρεῖ καὶ οὐδὲν μένει”
“Everything changes and nothing stands still.”
(Heraclitus, As quoted by Plato in “Cratylus”)

Learning From the Past: Or Not

Our cultures and tech change. So do our jobs, roles we play in society. But human nature doesn’t change. Not that I can see. Whether that’s hopeful or not may depend on attitude:

“Perhaps the cause of our contemporary pessimism is our tendency to view history as a turbulent stream of conflicts — between individuals in economic life, between groups in politics, between creeds in religion, between states in war. … History has been too often a picture of the bloody stream. The history of civilization is a record of what happened on the banks.”
(Will Durant, As quoted in “The Gentle Philosopher” (2006) by John Little at Will Durant Foundation)

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
(“The Life of Reason: The Phases of Human Progress,” George Santayana (1905-1906))

“What experience and history teach is this — that nations and governments have never learned anything from history, or acted upon any lessons they might have drawn from it.”
Lectures on the Philosophy of History,” Georg Hegel (ca. 1830s) Introduction, as translated by H. B. Nisbet (1975))

The Durant and Santayana quotes are closer to what I think than Hegel’s. I am quite sure that we’re not doomed to ignorance and futility.

But I can appreciate Hegel’s viewpoint.

The Enlightenment was in progress when Hegel was growing up. Enlightenment ideals, valuing liberty and reason, offered hope for a better future. (November 6, 2016)

As an adult, Hegel saw the French Revolution’s bright promise of Enlightened and rational government produce the Cult of Reason and mass executions.

Napoleon sorted that mess out. He had been a military commander for the Revolutionary government before having himself elected Emperor of the French.

Meanwhile, Europe’s other leaders continued having their subjects slaughter each other in a seemingly-endless succession of turf wars. Napoleon followed suit, which brings me back to Hegel. He saw Napoleon just before the Battle of Jena-Auerstedt.

Hegel was a 30-something university professor at the time. Napoleon won, adding the Kingdom of Prussia to the French Empire.

Hegel’s brother joined Napoleon’s army and was killed a half-dozen years later, when Napoleon learned why invading Russia is a bad idea.

German states joined other countries for the War of the Sixth Coalition. Or War of Liberation, depending on who’s telling the story.

Hegel published the second volume of “Wissenschaft der Logik,” “Science of Logic” around that time.

The War of the Sixth Coalition ended in 1814. Napoleon was exiled to Elba, ushering in an era of peace — which lasted until the War of the Seventh Coalition in 1815.

Several wars, epidemics and a cholera pandemic later, Hegel was living in Berlin. He got sick and died. Doctors said it was cholera, possibly because the disease had reached Berlin by that time.

A lifetime immersed in Europe’s turf wars, epidemics and politics might leave anyone a trifle less than optimistic about humanity’s capacity for learning from mistakes.

“…The Future, Far as Human Eye Could See….”

“…For I dipt into the future, far as human eye could see,
Saw the vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be…
“…Till the war-drum throbbed no longer, and the battle-flags were furl’d
In the Parliament of man, the Federation of the world….”
(“Locksley Hall,” Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1835))

I’m not sure why I think Tennyson’s imagined “Federation of the world” isn’t entirely a poetic pipe dream.

I’ve known folks around my age, with similar backgrounds, and some who aren’t, who apparently feel that government leaders don’t learn, or can’t. Others see climate change, genetically modified organisms, vaccines or the Internet as a dire threat.

There’s probably considerable overlap among those groups.

I think folks who fear that it’s the end of civilization as we know it — are right.

But unlike many, I think that’s a good thing. Partly because I think we may finally have seen the end of Western civilization’s empire-collapse-rebuild cycle. (April 15, 2018; February 5, 2017; July 24, 2016)

And partly because I think God didn’t botch humanity’s design. (July 23, 2017)

“We Should Work Together”

We’re made “in the image of God,” matter and spirit, body and soul. Each of us is a person, made from the stuff of this world and filled with God’s’ ‘breath.’ (Genesis 1:2627, 2:7; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 355, 357, 362368)

God gave us dominion over this world, and let us decide how we’ll act. The first of us made a really bad decision. We’ve been dealing with its consequences ever since. The mess we’re in isn’t God’s fault. (Genesis 1:26; Catechism, 390, 396401)

Our circumstances have changed, but not our nature. We still have “dominion” — and the responsibilities that go with it. (January 21, 2018; August 20, 2017)

What we decide to do is still up to us. We all have free will. We can decide that loving our neighbor, and seeing everyone as a neighbor, makes sense. (Matthew 5:4344, 22:3640; Mark 12:2831; Luke 6:31 10:2527, 2937; Catechism, 1704, 1730, 1789)

That’s not easy for me. But easy or not, I think it’s a good idea. So is passing along what we’ve learned, and some of our goals.

“…In this sense the future belongs to you young people, just as it once belonged to the generation of those who are now adults…. …To you belongs responsibility for what will one day become reality together with yourselves, but which still lies in the future….”
(“Dilecti Amici,” St. John Paul II (March 21, 1985))

“…The answer to the fear which darkens human existence at the end of the twentieth century is the common effort to build the civilization of love, founded on the universal values of peace, solidarity, justice, and liberty….”
(“To the United Nations Organization,” St. John Paul II (October 5, 1995))

Building a close approximation of St. John Paul II’s “civilization of love” will take many generations of hard work, and willingness to remember that truth and love matter.

“…For our part, the desire for such dialogue, which can lead to truth through love alone, excludes no one, though an appropriate measure of prudence must undoubtedly be exercised. We include those who cultivate outstanding qualities of the human spirit, but do not yet acknowledge the Source of these qualities. We include those who oppress the Church and harass her in manifold ways. Since God the Father is the origin and purpose of all men, we are all called to be brothers. Therefore, if we have been summoned to the same destiny, human and divine, we can and we should work together without violence and deceit in order to build up the world in genuine peace.…”
(“Gaudium et spes,” Second Vatican Council, Bl. Paul VI (December 7, 1965) [emphasis mine])

Working together to build a better world.

It won’t be easy, but I think it’ll be worth the effort:


1 Change happens, so does how we see it:

2 Troy, Homer, and all that:

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May 5, 2018: Pre-Brillig Writing Progress

My first serious try at writing a book started several years back, if you count thinking about how I’d do it and learning about ‘book length’ style and format conventions.

Actual writing, entering and saving words, started about a month ago. (April 3, 2018)

I wrote well over a thousand words during one day: re-read it the next, and started over. My progress, such as it, has been like that ever since.

I’ll get a few hundred words written one day and re-write that down to nearly nothing the next. Some days I leave rewriting, if any, until anther time.

Other days I delete more than I write. For me, that’s progress. I could worry that I’m not following some famous or respected author’s method. But that doesn’t make sense to me.

Some of the best ‘how to’ advice I’ve seen was from a published author who described the usual ‘organize your time/information/desk/whatever’ stuff.

He said folks should try whatever seems reasonable to see if it works. And that the ‘right’ way to write is the one that works for a particular author.

That make sense. To me, anyway.

Yesterday I ended the day’s writing with a bit over two dozen more words saved than when I’d started. That’s good news.

So, in a very different way, is an ongoing visit from #2 daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter. I’ll be enjoying their being here again today, and don’t expect to get much writing done until after brillig. If then.

I therefore will stop writing, post this, share the following excerpt and inevitable links to more of this blog — and enjoy the visit.

“…’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.”
(Jabberwocky,” Lewis Carroll (1871) via Wikipedia)

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Brains and Ethics

Revived pig brains, memory backups and ethical questions have been in the news.

It sounds like a B movie scenario, but the research is quite real. So are the questions.

I’ll be talking about research, technology, and why I’m glad that folks at MIT decided that brain backups were a dubious goal.


Principles, Rules and Change

I occasionally run into Christians who shun science, see it an enemy of faith, or make up their own version. They’re almost certainly sincere, but I don’t share their views.

Refusing to learn about the wonders and beauties surrounding us seems like a poor way of showing admiration for God’s work.

Seeking truth, using our God-given brains, is a good idea. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 159, 214217, 283, 294, 341)

So is remembering that ethics matter. (Catechism, 22922296)

The basics of what’s ethical are simple. I should God and my neighbor, and see everyone as my neighbor. (Matthew 5:4344, 22:3640; Mark 12:2831; Luke 10:2537; Catechism, 1706, 1776, 1789, 1825, 18491851, 1955)

Our rules work better if they follow those basic principles. The principles don’t change. Our rules must, as our tech and cultures change. (February 5, 2017)


Reanimated Pig Brains


(From Reuters, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“The scientists used pumps, heaters, and bags of artificial blood to restore circulation to the pig brains”
(BBC News))

Ethics debate as pig brains kept alive without a body
Pallab Ghosh, BBC News (April 27, 2018)

Researchers at Yale University have restored circulation to the brains of decapitated pigs, and kept the organs alive for several hours.

“Their aim is to develop a way of studying intact human brains in the lab for medical research.

“Although there is no evidence that the animals were aware, there is concern that some degree of consciousness might have remained.

“Details of the study were presented at a brain science ethics meeting held at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda in Maryland on 28 March….”

Yale University neuroscientist Nenad Sestan and other researches plugged over a hundred pig brains into a system that pumped blood through them.

They kept at least some alive for up to 36 hours. “Alive” in this case means that “billions of individual cells in the brains were found to be healthy and capable of normal activity.” (Antonio Regalado, MIT Technology Review (April 25, 2018))

That’s impressive, since the pigs had been decapitated about four hours before researchers plugged the brains into a fresh blood supply.

But it’s not the first time researchers have kept detached brains alive. Detached heads, at any rate. Experiments in the 19th century showed that heads could be removed, given another source of oxygenated blood, and show signs of life.

Keeping just the brain alive is easier with invertebrates, since they don’t use oxygen as fast as mammals or birds.1

Ethical Aspects of Flatlined Pigs

I’m uneasy about this research, but not because I think pigs are people. Or think the pigs were being mistreated.

The scientists looked for complex neural activity with a sort of porcine EEG.

The electrodes picked up signals, sparking “both alarm and excitement in the lab.” The signals were from nearby equipment, not the brains. The pig brains were ‘flatlined.’2

I’m reasonably sure the pigs weren’t feeling pain. That’s good news.

I think using animals and plants for research can be a good ideas, and that making animals suffer needlessly isn’t. (Catechism, 24152418)

The not-so-good news is that folks do, sometimes, mistreat critters. And people. Ethics matter, particularly while experimenting with humans. (November 11, 2016)

“Outlandish?”

I think, and hope, we’ll pay attention to what these scientists said:

“If researchers could create brain tissue in the laboratory that might appear to have conscious experiences or subjective phenomenal states, would that tissue deserve any of the protections routinely given to human or animal research subjects?

This question might seem outlandish. Certainly, today’s experimental models are far from having such capabilities. But various models are now being developed…”
(“The ethics of experimenting with human brain tissue,”3 Nature (April 25, 2018))

I think they’re right. Wondering about legal rights and protections for preserved brains seems “outlandish.” Nobody’s successfully kept a human brain alive and conscious outside the body. Yet.

But it’s not the B movie “mad scientist” scenario it was in my youth. I’ll get back to that.


Brain Backups


(From Getty Images, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“Nectome aims to preserve biomolecules in the brain to let memories be saved after death”
(BBC News))

Brain back-up firm Nectome loses link to MIT
Pallab Ghosh, BBC News (April 27, 2018)

A company attempting to map people’s brains so their memories can be stored in computers has lost its link to one of the United States’ top universities.

“US start-up Nectome revealed its brain back-up plan last month, warning at the time that the process involved would be ‘100% fatal’.

“A number of neuroscientists subsequently poured scorn on the plan.

“The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has now announced that it is severing ties with the project….”

Recording someone’s memory isn’t as crazy an idea as it might seem.

Researchers at Berkeley used fMRI and software to detect what folks saw while watching movie trailers.

The technology isn’t even close to letting us record dreams for playback, or see what a coma patient is thinking.

The reconstructed videos are barely recognizable. And the process won’t work unless the person being scanned has seen the video at least once before.4

Results of that research was published in 2011. We’ve learned a bit more about how the brain works since then, but still don’t have ‘dreamcorders.’

I think folks at Nectome are right. We will be able to detect and record neural connections well enough to piece together someone’s memories. Eventually.

We’re not there yet. Not even close.

Netcome’s research uses mice, not people. That, I gather, isn’t what bothers MIT.

It’s what Netcome plans to do after working with mice. Their goal is preserving and recording exactly what’s stored in someone’s brain — at the moment of death.5

And Netcome’s process kills the brain that’s being recorded.

Risks

MIT’s concern is that someone’s going to see having their brain pickled and analyzed as a step to immortality.

That’s an issue by itself. And another topic.

Valuing life and health is a good idea. Putting it at the top of my priorities isn’t. Neither is having someone kill me. (Catechism, 2113, 22802283, 22882291)

I don’t see medical research as “tampering with things man was not supposed to know.” But I think MIT’s right. Netcome’s goal is a problem.

More exactly, what will probably happen during Netcome’s research is worrisome.

The problem, as MIT sees it, is that we’re not even close to understanding how memory works. The odds are very good that someone volunteering as a Netcome test subject would end up with a well-preserved, and quite dead, brain.

Experiments with human volunteers can be okay. But not if that means taking “disproportionate or avoidable risks.” (Catechism, 2295)

I think a 100% chance of death is “disproportionate.”


Life and Movies

Virginia Leith’s most memorable role may her portrayal of Jan Compton in “The Brain That Wouldn’t Die.”

Compton lost her head — literally — in an car accident.

Her distraught fiancé, Bill Cortner, revives her head and starts looking for a replacement body. With regrettable results.

The film was made in the late 1950s and released in 1962.

Nobody had technology that could keep someone’s head alive and conscious then. We still don’t.

I don’t see a problem with Bill Cornter’s decision to keep Compton alive, even though she was missing everything from the neck down.

Bill’s first impulse, saving her life, made sense to me. So did his wanting to get a new body for Compton. His decision to find a suitable donor, remove her head and attach Compton’s to the body, was also understandable. But unacceptable.

Medical treatments, including transplants, are okay. If the risks outweigh benefits, and helping one person doesn’t mean maiming or killing another. (Catechism, 2278, 2296)

I haven’t seen the movie in decades, but my memory tells me that Compton wasn’t happy about her post-accident condition. I don’t remember why she felt that way.

Brain in a Vat

Getting back to preserved pig brains and ethics, I think learning more about how brains work is a good idea.

That’s partly because I deal with an autism spectrum disorder, depression and other glitches. (January 7, 2018)

An amazing number of things can go wrong with our brains, and with the connections between our brains and bodies.

I’ll focus on locked-in syndrome. Whether someone would see it as nightmarish or frustrating probably depends on attitude. Either way, being unable to move wouldn’t be good. Even if the person ‘inside’ could still control the eyes.

Add being completely cut off from sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch — and we’ve got a “brain in a vat” situation.6

In principle, someone’s brain could be alive and conscious, completely alone: cut off from all sensation and unable to move. That would be unpleasant, putting it very mildly. But it might be someone’s best chance for recovery after an accident or illness.

Or the person might experience an illusionary body, with virtual reality software replacing sensory and motor connections. Living in a virtual world could be pleasant or not, depending on how well the equipment works.

And whether the folks running the system were trying to help or torment the subject.

We’re not there yet, and may not be for decades. But “brain in a vat” speculations aren’t as hypothetical as they were in the early 1960s.

I think it’s a near-certainty that the question is no longer whether legal rights for detached human brains becomes an issue. It’s when we will need rules for using the tech.

Reason for Concern: Not Fear

Fear, like any emotion, can be useful, a signal that something needs attention.

But I think it’s a very poor guide. (October 5, 2016)

Feelings, emotions, are real and part of being human. By themselves, they aren’t good or bad. What matters is what we decide. Reasoning is part of being human too. Thinking before deciding makes sense. (Catechism, 1730, 17621770, 1778, 1804, 2339)

As Yale’s ‘pig brain’ news spreads from academic papers to supermarket checkout periodicals, some folks may see preserved pig brains as a threat.

I’m no fan of regulations, particularly when they’re written by clueless bureaucrats and politicos. But I think we need rules that spell out what’s legitimate research, and what’s another Tuskegee or Willowbrook waiting to happen. (August 18, 2017August 18, 2017)

More of my views of fear, facts, and using our brains:


1 Keeping brains alive:

2 ‘Disembodied’ pigs:

3 Planning ahead:

  • The ethics of experimenting with human brain tissue
    Nita A. Farahany, Henry T. Greely, Steven Hyman, Christof Koch, Christine Grady, Sergiu P. Pașca, Nenad Sestan, Paola Arlotta, James L. Bernat, Jonathan Ting, Jeantine E. Lunshof, Eswar P. R. Iyer, Insoo Hyun, Beatrice H. Capestany, George M. Church, Hao Huang, Hongjun Song; Nature (April 25, 2018)

4 Brain scanner prototype:

5 Concerns:

6 Perceptions and reality:

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