Thursday, 5 September 2013

On length of material and examples

From Kant's 1st preface to A critique of pure reason:

Abbot Terrasson has remarked that if the size of a volume be measured not by the number of its pages but by the time requred for mastering it, it can be said of many a book, that it would be much shorter if it were not so short.

This idea is interesting in itself in exploring the tension between making a book short (because of the lack of breaking down of ideas and examples to clarify or simplify ideas) and making a book longer but perhaps easier to read due to use of examples to clarify complex or even abstract ideas in simple human examples.

However Kant counters this with his own explanation for why he uses so few examples and illustrations of the points he makes, instead using logic to 'prove' or explain his ideas. He contradicts Terrasson's statement, saying:
Many a book would have been much clearer if it had not made such an effort to be clear...aids of clearness, though they may be of assistance in regard to details, often interfere with our grasp of the whole. 

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

A quote by Edvard Munch

"We should no longer paint interiors with people reading, and women knitting. We should paint real people, who breathe, feel, suffer and love."

Edvard Munch on painting and the nature of Expressionism, and why despite training with a Naturalist painter he rejected the academic tradition and instead decided to express the internal emotion subjective view of the painter in his work.

Thursday, 23 May 2013

On the difference between eternal sleep and death

"... by a sleep to say we end
The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to: 'tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished - to die: to sleep - " 

From Hamlet's soliloquy, "To be or not to be", Act 3, Scene 1, Hamlet(Second Quarto)

I watched "Star Trek; Into Darkness" the other day, and one of the concepts intrigued me. Bear with me if you haven't seen it; this post may make a little more sense if you have, but not much.
Khan and his crewmates are sent to sleep in their little incubators at the end of the movie; near the end, when someone asks Spock if he killed Khan's crew (assuming he'd sent the missiles to Khan's ship with the crew in them) he tells them something like "I would never do something so heartless" and this is folowed by a shot of the crewmates, still in cryo-sleep.

I just thought it was interesting that the idea of keeping someone in an eternal sleep/coma is more humane, more comforting than the idea of putting someone to death. Spock didn't blow up the crew but would it really have made a difference if he had? I suppose the difference is that there is a potential for the crew to wake up; they are not dead, they are still alive. 

But the end of the movie makes it pretty clear that noone has any intention of ever waking any of Khan's crew up. They are stored away.

So why is there such a big moral difference between killing them and keeping them in an eternal coma? There is some degree of debate about what being in a catatonic state means in terms of whether the person is still 'awake' in their own heads, able to think and imagine and remember but not perceive the outside world. If this is the assumption, then I suppose there is a kindness in keeping the crew members in their 'eternal sleep'. 

But being in a coma isn't the same as being asleep, and therefore isn't there the implication that they are not 'awake' at all but fully dead to the world/vegetative? And if this is the case, would keeping someone eternally in this state still be morally superior to killing them?

This is obviously a big argument re; euthanasia and comas and switching off machines. But there is a difference in that the crew in Star Trek are intentionally kept in this 'state' but can be awoken from it at any time. Despite the fact that this will probably never happen, does that mean it's still better than being dead? It's all about contingency; if you could choose to be kept eternally 'asleep' or just killed, you might choose to sleep as there would still be the slim possibility that you might one day be awoken and organisms cling to life with every chance they get.

(there's a parallel with cryonics here, in which people are frozen at vast costs in the hope that future technology will be able to 'resurrect' them, although the variables in that situation are different, relying on future advancements rather than random chance/human curiosity or need)

Is eternal sleep morally superior to death? If you could choose between them, between eternal sleep and death, which would you choose? It shouldn't really matter as they are essentially the same thing, although there is a certain promise to the idea of 'sleep', the lack of finality and the potential(however improbable) for a return to awakeness that might lead people to choose eternal sleep. 

Still though, if beings are kept in comas rather than being killed, this isn't morally superior in any real way unless there is the intention of waking them up in the future. Otherwise they are dead to the world either way.

A quote by Saint Bernardino of Siena, 15th cent.

"Eternity appears in time, immensity in measurement, the Creator in the creature...the unfigurable in the figure, the unnarratable in discourse, the inexplicable in speech, the uncircumscribable in the place, the invisible in vision."

Saint Bernardino of Siena, quoted in Fra Angelico: Dissemblance and Figuration by Georges Didi-Huberman.

This discusses the nature of the paradox of the Incarnation, and the visibility of the 'Divine'. It also shows the thought process painters have/had to go through in considering how to represent holy figures in paintings, conveying the divine and unknowable whilst making it tangible and accessible to worshippers and church-goers.
Renaissance artists (and all artists conveying holy stories from the Bible, Apocrypha or otherwise) conveyed the divine message in different ways; Fra Angelico steps on the thin line between Renaissance and International Gothic, using mathematical perspective, a single light source, cast shadows and pairing this with refinement, detail, decoration. However all of this is only ever used to further the narrative, to form a "spiritual exercise", an "aid to meditation". It's fascinating how his faith is clearly shown through the painting, his desire to convey spiritual calmness and holiness.

Revising Art History can be interesting, or rather can lead to interesting distractions.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

A quote from "Ode to a Nightingale" by John Keats

"With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
And purple-stained mouth;
That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
And with thee fade away into the forest dim"

Keats wishing to transcend the physical, mortal world and "fade away". 
I love the repetition of the plosive 'b' sounds in "beaded bubbles"; it reminds me vaguely of Seamus Heaney's poetry (particularly 'Death of a Naturalist' and 'Blackberry Picking',) although of course creating a rather different effect here of prettiness and playfulness. 
The word "winking" too is playful, suggesting the wine is tempting and inviting the drinker. 
However it's the last two lines which are the most powerful, with the view of death as a calm, peaceful escape from the mortal world. The word "fade" especially expresses this view of death as painless and almost desirable. 

Saturday, 16 March 2013

A quote from "The Bloody Chamber" by Angela Carter

"His wedding gift, clasped around my throat. A choker of rubies, two inches wide, like an extraordinarily precious slit throat."

From 'The Bloody Chamber' by Angela Carter.
Carter's description of the necklace is very powerful, conveying many of the central themes of 'The Bloody Chamber'.
She describes the necklace later as "bright as arterial blood", and a "bloody bandage of rubies". 
I suggest you read the short story to get a sense of the necklace in context, as the husband's gift to the girl as well as a representation of the husband's lavish (but dangerous and visceral) world. It works so powerfully to convey a sense of horror mingled with luxury and excess. I think the last four words in particular with the huge contrast between the words "extraordinarily precious" and the very visceral image of the "slit throat" emphasise this.
Carter also uses the necklace to convey the girl's potentiality for corruption. Initially, it seems to throw into sharper relief her innocence and youth but later it symbolises both the husband's world and her potential for becoming part of that world. 
Anyways, I am studying Bloody Chamber for my English Literature coursework at the moment and I think this just shows Carter's incredible ability to create symbols with about a thousand meanings. 

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

On the 'sublime', or 19th century concepts of pain and pleasure

(Since I no longer have much time to collect and collate stuff into blog posts, this is a sort of fragmentary post.)
"Without all doubt, the torments which we may be made to suffer, are much greater in their effect on the body and mind, than any pleasures...which the liveliest imagination...could enjoy."
Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, 1757

Let's talk about this idea briefly. This is the idea that the concept of pain is stronger than the concept of pleasure and has a stronger effect on our emotions and imagination. Here we assume the author discusses emotional pain and not physical pain, although he talks about 'danger' quite freely in the same context. Pain may be much more familiar to us because we get hurt all the time; it is a physical response linked very closely to an emotional feeling of 'torment'. So when we describe strong emotions of pain or heartbreak, we say 'it hurts' as in, the emotional pain is so strong it feels physical. Happiness is, like pain, intangible. We experience physical pleasure but happiness is very much an emotional response rather than a physical one.
I need to do more research into this 19th century viewpoint about emotion and torment. Reacting instinctively to it, though, I'd say as a person brought up in the 21st century I'm inclined to disagree with it. We can feel happiness just as acutely as pain, and sometimes it feels like happiness is the more strong because a rush of true happiness is rarer than a stab of pain.

The article(note the date; this is an 18th century perception of the Romantic idea of the 'sublime)  also mentions that fear is most acute when the thing is obscure:
To make any thing very terrible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary.
 This is perhaps true when we think about how we are more frightened in the dark; night seems to be a darker and more mysterious, perhaps even more frightening time. If you're thinking this is ridiculous in our modern age, consider how much scarier it is travelling home alone in the dark than in the daytime. This certainly also applies when we consider famous and very effective 20th century black-and-white horror movies where the villian appears only as a shadow over the wall or going up the stairs. We never see the monster and therefore are more afraid for it, perhaps because our own imagination creates something much more frightening than anything that could be onscreen(it is true that we know best what we're scared of, so maybe this is why the fear of the unseen works so well; we fill in the space with our worst fears, and when the thing becomes known or visible or tangible we are no longer so afraid).

The article is very interesting; there's also views on the concept of death which I want to discuss at a later date.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

On the meaning of control in Stalinist Russia

Here is an essay I wrote a year ago on the nature of control and power in Stalinist Russia. I booked at George Orwell's famous novel 1984 as a basis for establishing the meaning of control in the political climate.

The essay is a few thousand words long, so I will probably shorten it in the near future to provide a more concise, blog-friendly version of my argument. I also haven't looked at it in a year, so please be forgiving; as a 16 year old this was my first lengthy essay and the first essay whereby I conducted independent research and wrote the whole thing on my own. Since I wrote it in the space of a week and a half my research wasn't extensive, so some of the opinions are simplified.

The meaning and level of control in Stalinist Russia

To look into control in Stalinist Russia, the meaning of total and complete control must first be established. The political novel 1984 by George Orwell depicts a society in which controlling the ideas and thoughts of the people is more important than a physical repression of the opposition. Following this theory, if the thoughts of an entire population are controlled completely, then absolute control exists. If we take this as the definition of ultimate authority then it cannot exist, even in a repressive regime such as that of Stalin. However 1984 very effectively portrays a realistic society in which the people accept everything without doubt or question. 1984 suggests that it is more important for the ideas of a regime to be maintained than a single individual’s power. Therefore the question the political novel raises is about the possibility of complete control over a population, not in the hands of an individual but an ideology, as Party member O’Brien reveals whilst torturing Winston:

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

A quote from 'Hamlet' by Shakespeare

"this most excellent canopy the air, look you, this brave o-erhanging firmamentthis majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why it appeareth nothing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours...what is this quintessence of dust?"
Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2 Hamlet here talks to Rosencratz and Guildenstern whilst in his 'antic disposition'.
I am studying Hamlet this year, and am ashamed to say I have relatively little to say about this passage except for the fact that whilst re-reading the play tonight whilst writing an essay for it I found it particularly brilliant in describing teenage angst and apathy. 
Next time I quote from Hamlet I would like to give a much more prominent quotation which relates to some of the core ideas of the text.
Here the 'foul and pestilent congregation of vapours' refers back to the key idea of promiscuity between his mother and Claudius, her husband(who is her previous husband's brother and who murdered his brother to become king)
It also deals with the notions of perception; Hamlet here despite acting in his 'antic disposition' seems to be voicing his own views (this speech reminds me particularly of his first soliloquy, and the line "oh, that this too too sallied flesh would melt" which I will need to do a whole separate blog post on)
Obviously another theme is the corruption of the court and the idea of surveillance, being able to see through everything that happens at the court so that there is no possibility of privacy.
The 'quintessence of dust', which is a beautiful phrase, asks questions about the nature of death. In context, it shows how Hamlet goes from the knowledge and capabilities of mankind and life to discussing death. 

The entire section from which this quotation is taken shows the mix of idealism and pessimism that Hamlet battles with; his father is constantly idealised as a god-like figure, however here Hamlet voices the pessimistic ideas linking both with the corrupt court and Claudius. He also voices the pessimistic ideas associated with the end of the Renaissance period contrasted with the optimism of the Early Renaissance(voiced in the line "What piece of work is a man"

I hope to quote a lot more from Hamlet in the future, 

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

On transplanting cells, not organs

This is fascinating. Here Susan Lim discussed the benefits of using iPS cells, and other stem cells in new forms of transplants.
These are adult cells taken from a patient's body and then turned back into undifferentiated, or pluripotent cells. Pluripotent cells can become any cell type in the body, which is really useful considering that adult stem cells eg. from the bone marrow, can't. Using embryonic stem cells, which is the alternative, is also fraught with ethical and moral dilemmas that go back to the question of whether an embryo is human; ie. when life begins. So this seems like a great way to go: however, consider this article in the Guardian that discusses a recent study where iPS cells were rejected in mice.
This is shocking because the iPS cells in the study came from the mouse itself, so in a way the mice were rejecting their own cells. The cells that came from iPS cells were implanted and then quickly destroyed by the mouse's immune system, whereas stem cells from embryos were not. The study is published in Nature.
This is probably down to abnormal gene expression, which has also been noticed in a variety of other cases. Cells derived from iPS cells have also been known to create tumours and a variety of problems, so they may not actually be the best way forwards.
Consider this article in the Guardian discussing the potential of reprogramming rather than transplanting tissue. Since these cells turn from one type to another, skipping the stem cell phase (ie. they re-differentiate), perhaps the ugly problems in iPS cell studies could be avoided.
This topic is very interesting, and research on stem cells and other forms of transplants and tissue repair are always emerging. The debate over transplanting organs and limbs vs. transplanting cells is also something to consider.

Thursday, 31 January 2013

On selling the morning-after pill

There was an short bit in the 'News Bulletin' in today's Telegraph about whether pharmacists should be allowed not to sell the morning-after pill without a prescription.

Right now,pharmacists do not have to sell the pill; they can refuse on religious or moral grounds. For example, staunch Catholics running a pharmacy would be allowed to refuse to sell a morning-after pill as they believe in the sanctity and miraculousness of life. As the old saying goes, God gives life and therefore only he should take it away.
For some, the morning-after pill is a form of abortion. As debatable as this is, perhaps it is fair to give people a choice based on their beliefs.
Under current legislation pharmacists who refuse to sell the pill have to direct the customer to another pharmacy/provider of the pill. Hmm. Some academics have argued against this policy. They say that either the pharmacist should be required to supply the pill or refuse completely, without being required to direct the customer elsewhere.
Why? They argue that in directing the customer somewhere else it's essentially the same deal as giving them the pill in the first placed. A bit like a drug dealer saying, "No, I'm not selling you weed today, I'm opposed to people getting addicted to drugs and spending all their money on drugs instead of food and electricity bills. But Fred down the road's got some, if you want."

The fact that pharmacies are allowed to sell birth control without a prescription in the first place(this has been allowed since 2001) is controversial.
But what is exactly is wrong with what we have right now? If the pharmacists are deluding themselves that referral is not the same as supply, then let them be deluded. That way you get the best of both worlds; suppliers can keep to their moral and religious beliefs, and we can still prevent unwanted pregnancies.

It would a different case if the pharmacy was in a small town miles from anywhere, i.e if birth control wasn't available anywhere conveniently nearby. Right? Then, because the girl wouldn't be able to buy the pill, there might be unwanted pregnancies and painful, mentally scarring abortions.
Actually, the girl could just go to her doctor and get a prescription for the pill. The pharmacists can only refuse to sell the pill if the customer has no prescription. Therefore by simply getting a prescription the patient can get the pill from the exact same pharmacy.

Perhaps I haven't researched the subject enough, but it doesn't seem like the current situation is really negatively affecting anyone. If it were the pharmacists complaining about having to refer customers elsewhere, then I would perhaps understand. What's the point of refusing to supply the pill if you're just going to give them another way to get it? But it's not the pharmacists that are complaining. They're fine with the policy, or so it seems so far. Their hands are clean. Well, clean enough.  We shouldn't impinge upon someone's beliefs, regardless of what those beliefs are.

The piece in the Telegraph is based on a paper published by the Journal of Medical Ethics.(I've linked the free extract here, as the full article is available only to subscribers).
The paper is discussed in an article in the Huffington Post, if you'd like to find out a little more.
The American Pediatrics Journal has published a free(rather long) article on the same subject. There is also a related paper discussing the relationship between conscience and jobs in the Journal of Medical Ethics.
This case makes for interesting reading, at least. Perhaps the reason I don't agree with these researchers is that I haven't read their full paper(it's only available to subscribers or if you're willing to pay a fee). But I feel that the current situation is a neat, if slightly paradoxical, solution.

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

A quote by Disraeli, from Robert Blake's biography

"We were absent nearly a fortnight and I find a great difference in the colour of the trees - the limes all golden, the beeches ruddy brown, while the oaks and elms and pines are still dark and green, and contrast well with the brighter tints. But not a leaf has fallen; they want the first whisper of the frost and then they will go out like lamps when the dawn breaks on a long festival..."

Disraeli in one of his letters to Mrs. Brydges Willyams, as quoted in Disraeli by Robert Blake.
I posted this quotation for the last sentence alone, just because I love the simile at the end with its comparison of autumn leaves to bright lamps.

Monday, 28 January 2013

On Mali and the Algerian Crisis

So how worried should we be about Mali in it current state and the Algerian crisis?
More importantly, what does it mean about Islamist terrorists in the region?
This post is based on a recent article in The Economist on Jihad in Africa, as well as an article in the same issue on the Mali situation.
Let's start with the wider context of Africa, especially the region around Algeria and Mali(let's say Northern Africa. I'm not a geographer).

The ease of movement in Africa for extremists is a bit of a threat. Right now this is mostly because they are moving from country to country to escape the security forces, rather than trying to gather support or 'join up' with other Islamist forces. But it also means that through moving to new places they can find new allies. They can move easily because borders mean very little(considering they were drawn by colonialists, whom everyone just loves). States are often fragile, with little security or sufficiently armed policemen on the borders. In Libya some extremists are actually acting as "organs" of the state.
In other states, cases of Islamist terrorism are mostly localised, for example in the Sedan and Senegal. However they are on the rise, which is troubling to say the least.
What we don't want here is for jihadism to be 'infectious', with Islamist forces joining up to support each other and provide both financial support and a place to hide. A common purpose, especially religious, can be frighteningly good at uniting even the most fractious, violent groups.
There is also another potential problem recently created by the liberation of Libya from Gaddafi; terrorist groups who were previously suppressed or had moved elsewhere are now free to return and emerge, causing potential havoc if they have managed to steal any of the weapons stockpiled by Gaddafi.

However encounters with forces in Mali apparently haven't shown any sign of such a problem, which is good for the international situation as a whole. Machine guns and shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles are not something you want to see in the hands of terrorists on any given day.

Also, regarding Mali, other African states have pledged over 5,000 troops to help the Mali and French forces in fighting the jihad forces. There are 1600 troops from other regions of Africa fighting in Mali and Niger. Another good thing is that the Islamist forces don't seem to have the support of much of the population, probably due to their violent actions in some of the cities. Most Malians are said to support the armies who are driving back the forces; this is a key difference from, say, Vietnam (to pick an obvious example). Instead of working to gain the local population's support, which Ho Chi Minh rightly saw as essential in fighting the Vietnam war, the jihad's acts of cruelty(such as opening fire on sixteen Muslim preachers who drove past a checkpoint) have driven most Malians to welcome the counter-insurgency.

What we (and by 'we' I mean mainly the French but also the rest of Europe and America) don't want is for the insurgents to regroup before the French succeed in getting to some of the northern towns and stationing soldiers there. For now the retreating rebels in the South, such as the ones who disappeared from Diabaly and are now , may easily be a future problem. However if the French do manage to gain a foothold in the North, some argue it will be a lot harder for the rebel fighters to hide in wait, largely because of the terrain.
The news so far seems to be getting better and better; French forces have captured Gao, as this article in the New York Times reports. Certainly this does not seem to be playing out as a repeat of Afghanistan, although the next month will be crucial in determining whether the French will be successful in breaking up terrorist control as far as possible and sending Islamist forces back into the ground.
What about long-term solutions? Although this may not play out as a repeat of Afghanistan, garrisons are probably needed in major cities if the counter-insurgency keeps its current momentum and succeeds in taking over from jihad forces. This is good both for protecting the local population and preventing more from supporting or hiding the terrorists, although the garrisons will need to be careful to avoid resentment from local populations. The French are reported as believing the garrisons may also be needed to maintain order as local town people seek revenge against the Islamist terrorists. This sounds a little far-fetched, as first of all it would be unlikely for terrorist groups to return to towns without any political or military aims, and second of all if they did return with anti-aircraft missiles and machine guns the local population would need to be protected more than they would need to be restrained. Although it is true that the local population probably wouldn't directly be wounded by the terrorists, any intervention or rebellion against jihad forces would lead to tragedy. Stationing garrisons is sensible; but what else? Hollande says his forces will stay in Mali "as long as necessary". This would be a little ominous if the French and Mali forces were not doing so well at the moment, but again the French need to avoid outstaying their welcome(or at least, if they plan on staying for a while, stay friendly). As for stopping the influence of terrorism in Mali and in the wider context, Africa, this is still an impossible problem.  It's discussed in a short article, again from the Economist. Politics and religion are an incredibly dangerous mix; who knew?
Hopefully the French intervention may show that intervention can be successful and save many innocent lives. It may also promote foreign leaders to stop being so stand-offish (I'm looking at you, Obama) and start being a little more brave in foreign policy terms, especially when it comes to intervention in troublesome areas where organised, well-thought out help could save innocent lives.

(On a final note, we also  might consider the fact that the Mali army has been accused of serious injustices during the fighting. Is this justified considering the lengths the extremists have gone to, in trying to gain more power in the South?)

On genes controlling behaviour, or the burrow habits of mice

A recent article in Nature magazine discussed the burrow habits of mice. Scientists are studying these wild burrows, cross-breeding different species of mice.

They've unearthed some interesting stuff on links between behaviour and DNA, for example in studying why some species of mice dig fancy escape tunnels in their burrows whilst others stick with the humble hole-in-the-ground.
By studying the DNA of both wild oldfield mice(doesn't the name oldfield make you think of a mouse with a sergeant's cap and moustache waving around a rapier?) and deer mice, scientists have now been able to find out that burrowing behaviour is in the genes, not learned.
Deer mice
Oldfield Mice

So basically oldfield mice burrow these incredibly complex tunnels with escape routes when they dig holes in the ground. Researches have now found out that this behaviour is written in their genes, and not learned from watching parents/peers/acquaintances do the same. This burrowing behaviour, which wild deer mice do not exhibit, is interesting. Deer mice, on the other hand, dig simple holes in the ground which contrast 

with the vastly complicated structures oldfield mice build. Poor deer mice. (There's a diagram showing both forms of burrow at the end of this post).
This study gives an example of how closely genes can control and influence complicated behaviour are, as well as how complex the genes that determine such behaviour have to be.
The scientists who looked into this behaviour started out by studying burrow patterns of oldfield mice. They looked at the burrows created in a big box they filled with sand and saw the burrows were all very consistent; this suggests the burrows are genetically influenced. They then crossed deer mice with oldfield mice(yes, they can interbreed), and studied the burrow habits of the F1 generation. They then back-crossed this generation with original deer mice and again studied their burrowing habits.
The study follows Richard Dawkin's theory of the 'extended phenotype' (you may have read his book on the subject). Basically this is the effect a gene has on the environment of its particular organism. Mouse burrows is a perfect example of this; a gene affecting the environment. It will be interesting in the future to study other organisms(maybe beavers, or even dogs) to see how their behaviour and the environment around them is influenced by genes.
From Nature magazine. showing the burrow habits of the two species.

The BBC, the New York Times and Nat. Geographic have also reported on the research, if you want to read more about it/don't have a Nature magazine subscription.

Saturday, 26 January 2013

A quote by Bismarck as recalled by Disraeli

"There never will be socialism in England. You are a happy country. You are safe as long as the people are devoted to racing. Here a gentleman cannot ride down the street without twenty persons saying to themselves or each other, ’Why has that fellow a horse, and I have not one?’ In England the more horses a nobleman has, the more popular he is. So long as the English are devoted to racing, Socialism has no chance with you.”

Disraeli  recalling a conversation with Bismarck, in one of his letters to Queen Victoria.
The letter is discussed in this interview with Jonathan Steinberg about Bismarck.
This quote is a little unusual, but I just love the idea that socialism can be avoided through horse-racing.

Thursday, 24 January 2013

On drug users as 'patients' and not 'criminals'

How should we identify drug users?
Should we look at drug abuse as a criminal activity or a health problem?
There was an article in today's Telegraph about the negative aspects of identifying drug addicts as criminals. Prof. Dame Sally Davies claims that it would be much more effective to see addicts as 'patients' and, therefore, addictions as 'health problems'.
A report from the British Medical Association agrees, saying that drug users are often discouraged from seeking help because of the criminalisation of drugs(although exactly what kind of help would be offered isn't very clearly explained).
Martin Barnes, from the DrugScope charity, says that "drug misuse should be treated largely as a health and public health issue".
Personally I believe there is a problem in labelling drug addicts as patients rather than 'criminals'. The point of making drugs illegal is to discourage people from using them; taking a softer approach to drug users is therefore probably not a good idea, as people will be more inclined to do drugs because the consequences are less severe.

If we really wanted to 'decriminalise drugs', instead of identifying drug users as patients we should do something about the distribution of drugs in the first place. Personally I don't think we should both continue to ban drugs(but still widely available, with no limits placed on what is added/the amount of drug you are sold) and label drug users as 'victims'.

It goes back to the philosophical debate about the effectiveness of punishment; if there was a death penalty for drunk driving and therefore noone ever drove drunk, would it be fair? Should we continue the largely ineffective 'war on drugs' or try a much more radical approach, sweeping away old policies following the lesson of the Prohibition?

We shouldn't simply treat drug users as 'victims', because it creates the impression of helplessness. It encourages inertia on the part of the user, who convinces themselves that they cannot shift the habit without professional aid, and shifts the blame from the user to their situation. Whatever happens, the user is not at fault.In some cases, this is true. It is very easy to get addicted to drugs, and because they are ridiculously expensive(again due to their illegal status and therefore the lack of supply) it leads to a downward spiral. But it is also very popular amongst celebrities to use drugs, and then claim it was a 'mistake' and go to rehab to 'fix' themselves. This illusion created around the safety of drugs, and this dependency on intervention rather than self-help shouldn't be encouraged. Seeing drug abuse as a health problem rather than a criminal offence may help drug users come forward for help, but it also makes drug-taking seem less serious. Also, it all depends on what 'help' they can get from the  NHS or charities like DrugScope.
At best, this recommendation could encourage thousands more to kick the habit and get their lives back on track without putting themselves in danger by using drugs. It could encourage them to seek help where before they were too afraid of the implications of admitting to drug use.
In the long term, this could be a step in legalising drugs and putting regulations on distribution, manufacture etc.
At worst the concept could make illegal recreational drug taking forgivable and make it easier for people to get addicted to drugs like heroin because of the leniency of punishment. This would potentially create more drug addicts, who would feel safe in the knowledge that there would be very little punishment if they were caught.

Either way the drug debate is interesting, as is the question of how best to stop people putting themselves and others in danger through drug-taking, either indirectly or directly.

There's some similarities between this and the alcohol debate; New Scientist recently released an article about the potential effect of raising the price of alcohol. I may do a blog post on this later, but we'll see.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

A quote from "Regeneration" by Pat Barker

"Rivers had often been touched by the way in which young men...spoke about feeling like fathers to their men. Though when you looked at what they did. Worrying about socks, boots, blisters, food, hot drinks. And that perpetually harried expression of their. Rivers had only ever seen that look in one other place: in the public ward of hospitals, on the faces of women who were bringing up large families on very low was the look of people who are totally responsible for lives they have no power to save.
One of the paradoxes of war - one of the many- was that this most brutal of conflicts should set up a relationship between officers and men that was...domestic. Caring."

From Regeneration by Pat Barker.

Quite a long one today, but I didn't have the heart to cut it down any more. Here Rivers, an army psychologist treating patients at Craiglockhart hospital during WW1 , reflects on the odd similarities between officers in WW1 and mothers at home, and the domesticity the static nature of warfare created for the men.

I urge you to read this novel; it examines so many paradoxical aspects of the war as well as questioning the relationship between doctors and patients.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

On the hologenome theory; or the link between our microbes and evolution

Bacteria are just great.
We all now know(through science articles and the occasional Yakult ad) that bacteria living within and around us can be beneficial for us.
Studies have been shown that the microbes living happily on our skin, in our blood, in the gut, all affect on our health. As in, if you tamper with them bad things happen. It's symbiosis; both the organism and the microbes benefit.
That's all fine and dandy.
But what if these microbes also affect our evolution?
This was the question posed in a recent article in the New Scientist by Carrie Arnold.
There's two scientists who back this theory. Their names are Richard Jefferson and Eugene Rosenberg.

Basically Jefferson argues that microbes that live within organisms are passed down from generation to generation. But how does this link with evolution?
So let's say there's a group of chipmunks with microbes in their tummies.
Boy Chipmunk decides he likes apples more than nuts, the usual chipmunk diet (Nana Chipmunk is shocked.) So he eats a diet of predominantly apples.
This causes a change in his body as well as the bacteria around and on his body. He may start to smell different, perhaps because the pheromones he secretes are influenced by the microbes on the skin.
Girl Chipmunk Daisy doesn't eat apples, she eats nuts. Boy Chipmunk refuses to mate with her. Then another girl chipmunk, called Susie Chipmunk, who also eats apples, comes along. Boy Chipmunk chooses her as a mate over Daisy Chipmunk.

This is a trend that has been noticed not in chipmunks(unfortunately) but a species of fruit fly called Drosophila. Changing the diet of the fly(from molasses to starch) can change the fly's mating habits. So flies who eat molasses only mate with flies that also eat molasses. Vice-versa with flies that have a starch diet.
So what, you say? Perhaps there's another factor in play here; maybe when flies start to date they find it important to have things in common, such as their diet. Molasses flies can't imagine mating with starch flies; starch flies smell like starch. Ew.
Here's the thing. When all the flies were treated with antibiotics, their mating preference disappeared. They happily mated with the other flies regardless of shared or different diets.
This suggests that the microbes in the flies' stomach or skin had a big impact on their mating preference, and this is where the hologenome theory originates. We can imagine with this knowledge how microbes living on organism affect evolution, and perhaps have an influence on divergent evolution.
You can read more about the study in this article on PubMed.

When I first read about this in the New Scientist, I was a little confused.
Surely bacteria on a fly don't influence the fly's brain cells, so how would they influence its mating choice? And how would another fly know that the fly ate starch and not molasses?
The study on PubMed says that the symbiotic bacteria influences the fly's mating preference by "changing the levels of cuticular hydrocarbon sex pheromones".
So basically because of the fly's changed diet the bacteria on the fly's skin(skin? I'm not sure) release a different pheromone into the air. So molasses flies aren't attracted to starch flies because they release different pheromones.
It's easy to see how this could lead to divergent evolution; the flies on a diet of molasses become better adapted to eating molasses and become a different species from the flies who eat starch, all because the bacteria cause them to mate only with other flies who have a similar diet.

It's interesting to think of it this way; the article in the New Scientist does mention that this theory is almost neo-Lamarckian.
(Lamarck was the guy who proposed a different theory of evolution from Darwin, believing in inheritance of acquired characteristics i.e. giraffes who learn to stretch their neck give birth to a giraffe with a longer neck)
I feel like I need to do a lot more research on this before I fully agree or disagree with the propositions Jefferson and Rosenberg are making about the hologenome theory. But certainly it's interesting to think how evolution might be affected by a huge variety of different things.

If you'd like to hear Jefferson talk about the hologenome theory and its potential uses in biotechnology there is a video you can watch, though it is quite long.
This article also discusses the possibility of symbiotic microbes having an effect on evolution, though it focuses more on the different ways in which microbes affect an organism's phenotype and epigenetics.

If you would like to read about a study in which bacteria in the human gut may have an effect, refer to this slightly difficult article(I may do a post trying to interpret and discuss this study later).

It might also be worthwhile looking at the links to other articles which discuss the hologenome theory on this article page (scroll down to the heading "HighWire Press-hosted articles citing this article")

Again I should mention I am not a biologist, I just read an article in the New Scientist and have done a little light research around this; I apologise for any mistakes made here.

Monday, 21 January 2013

A quote from a letter in "The World" periodical

"a disconsolate being, daily contending betwixt pride and poverty; a mournful relic of misspent youth; a walking dial, with two hands pointing to the lost hours"

I found this in an article in the Times Literary Supplement about suicide. It is from an 18th century journal called "The World", by a man called "John Tristman", who describes himself as a gentleman in distress, a 'disconsolate being'. He discusses his failure in holding down a job and would like to make a living by offering his set of apartments as comfortable "receptacles for suicides", allowing people to come and kill themselves in comfort and luxury. I should point out at this point that the journal it was published in is highly satirical. It is a slightly bizarre quote, and the first in this blog not to come from literature, but I enjoy the concept of 'lost hours' nonetheless.

On converting skin cells to neurons through protein suppression

So how simple is it to convert one type of cell to another type of cell?
Apparently, very simple.
All you have to do is suppress a single protein.
Scientists recently tried RNA molecules to repress a protein called PTB (not PBJ, unfortunately. That would have been cool). PTB is a protein that binds to RNA, and helps to regulate gene expression. Very low levels of this protein leads to certain genes being activated; these genes can convert skin cells to neurons. The genes allow trans-differentiation; this is when fully differentiated cells decide they're bored of who they are and convert to a totally different type of cell.

This information is drawn from the short piece in the Nature journal about this. It refers to a study done by researchers at University of California, San Diego and Wuhan University in Wuhan

This discovery is kind of a big deal. It would allow scientists who wanted to play around with neurons simply 'make' them from skin cells; they would no longer need to use undifferentiated stem cells to create neurons. I'm not a scientist myself, so I don't know how it could be used specifically, but certainly it sounds like it could have great far-reaching implications for researchers

Also, I can't help thinking this would be a great(or really, really bad) science-fiction movie plot.

Certainly it's a surprise to learn that converting differentiated skin cells to neurons is as simple as blocking production of a protein.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

A quote from "The Shipping News" by Annie Proulx

"Was love then like a bag of assorted sweets from which one might choose more than once? Some might sting the tongue, some invoke night perfume. Some had centres as bitter as gall, some blended honey and poison, some were quickly swallowed. And among the common bulls-eyes and peppermints a few rare ones; one or two with deadly needles at the heart, another that brought calm and gentle pleasure. Were his fingers closing on that one?"

From The Shipping News, by Annie Proulx. This quotation is beautiful in the novel; Quoyle, who has been through an abusive relationship, pondering on whether he has found love again in a small Newfoundland coast. 

The entire book is beautiful, heartwarming. It's just a simple story about a man rediscovering himself in his homeland after being lost and beaten down in a big city.
I would recommend reading the book if only to make this quotation make more sense.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

On casting blame

There is a story in the New Testament. 

It involves a woman who has committed adultery, about to be stoned to death by a large crowd. She is backed up against the hard, sun-baked wall; the crowd gather around her, loud and swarming. Red dust dances in the air, whipped up by their frenzy. Dusty stones are clutched in hundreds of calloused hands. The crowd asks Jesus what they should do with the woman, for in the Bible it says that a woman who commits adultery should be stoned with death.

We all know of the answer. 
“Let him who is without sin among you be the first to 
throw a stone at her.”

Julian Baggini in Should You Judge this Book by its Cover? takes a look at this famous saying and examines its meaning in a modern context.

We usually take this story as a wise fable on the immorality of casting blame on others when we ourselves know what it's like to have been in the wrong. Essentially it says; don't judge others. 
But as Baggini points out, we can't take this saying too literally. Just because none of us are free of 'sin' doesn't mean we should allow people who have commited crimes to go free. There has to be a certain level of judgement. We cannot simply put everyone on the same level, and say that judges shouldn't be allowed to give people sentences because they're not exactly saints themselves. 
If we did follow this story to the latter, we'd be in a society where people are never blamed or judged for the things they do, because everyone's done something.
Perhaps this is one of the reasons we have laws; if noone can be trusted to judge others, if everyone is one and the same because everyone has done something bad at least once, then not a single person can pass judgement on other people. Not a single person can say who should die and who should be imprisoned and who should be pardoned. But the law is blameless, and judges everyone equally. It sets out the lines in the sand. But does this go against the original Bible story? The crowd asks Jesus if the woman should be stoned because in the Old Testament Moses commanded in the law that adulterers should be stoned to death in punishment. 

So how should we reinterpret this famous saying? 
In our current world we do believe that some should have the powers to judge others, to cast blame. Judges, policemen, politicians and law makers. Juries; randomly chosen people who make a decision on whether another person should be blamed for their sin.
What this story teaches us, then, today, is not about punishment but about the wrongness of superfluous blame; the importance of treating others fairly because we all make mistakes and we all do stupid things. 
But then this leads to another question, about what it means to 'treat someone fairly'. What should the definition of fair be? When is enough punishment enough? And should we be considering other methods to rehabilitate those who have done wrong rather than straight-out damning or forgiving them?(Consider the death penalty, China's "reeducation through labour" program, therapy, rehab)
I'll talk about that another day. This Bible story is at least interesting as a concept, and also as a thought experiment on how we interpret different sayings and how these interpretations change(or not.)

A quote from "Life Class" by Pat Barker

"He seemed to insinuate himself into the room...Tonks was a dark planet whose presence could be deduced only by a deviation in the orbit of other bodies."

This is from Life Class by Pat Barker. It is about art students at the De Slade art school before and during the first World War. Tonks is a rather critical art professor who has just come into the student's life class to look at their work.
I just love the use of the word 'insinuate'. It captures Tonks' character so well.
You can read the first few pages of the book here.

On Britain and the European Union

The EU seems to be a big deal now, or something.
Recently I changed my opinion on what we should do about the EU.
I completely agreed with the Euro-sceptics ; if they don't agree to our proposals, we walk.
Freedom from the EU seemed great, as did the independence.

We currently contribute more money to the EU than we gain; many countries, France especially, rely on this subsidising. Also, we'd (arguably) be free from their rules and regulations.
If we just look at that, then it seems pointless to stay in the EU.
Another problem is immigrants from all over Europe flooding in, crowding up our living space and generally taking our jobs (because we all know how crafty and educated those moustachioed Romanians are).
But but but.
We need to realistically look into what would happen if we left the EU.
Think about trade; something like 50% of our exports go to the EU.  We simply cannot afford to lose such important trade links. We really do not want to piss off the large number of countries with who we trade, especially in our current, trying economic situation. Trade within Europe and with foreign countries would also become a problem as we'd need to negotiate trading deals with different countries.

Also there isn't really any way to be in the halfway house. There is no way we will get the same position that Switzerland currently has. If we want to be in a similar position to countries such as Norway, it would not benefit us in any way. We'd still be affected by certain EU laws, for example on shipping and agriculture, yet would no longer be able to take any part in the decision making involved in creating and passing these laws. We'd lose our very important central bartering position.

And think about the USA: we currently have a lot of influential power as a core member of the EU, but if we were to drop out we'd lose this important voice. The US is worried about this; refer to this article in the Telegraph   Our power as the USA's ally would be severely diminished. This is really not very good.

Though there would be a short-term economic gain, in the long run we really don't want to drop out of the EU, because there's no way of keeping the common market which is essential to our stagnant economy, whilst being freed of all the rest. Never mind there is no actual legislation for how a country is supposed to drop out.

There's an article in a recent issue of Economist about whether we should join the EU. It highlights several good points for why David Cameron needs to sit tight despite pressure from both Ukip and elements of his own party. Read it if you're a Eurosceptic, or if you'd actually like to know more about this.

I talked with a friend recently at the possibility of a referendum on the EU and what it would entail. She told me that if there is a referendum, there will probably be a very low turnout, consisting only of people who have very strong opinons on the subject. More worryingly, this opinion will probably be Euro-sceptic.
Another thing to think about is what the referendum would ask; there are few people who want to abandon the EU altogether, and much more who just want the benefits with none of the stupidity.
Depending on what the choice in the referendum is, the results and decision could vary hugely.

I guess we'll just have to see.

(By the way, I study neither politics or economics. So, if you'd like to actually get an educated opinion, talk to a politics student or read the above articles/find articles discussing this issue.)

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

On drugs and morality, or the merits of 'bioenhancement'

So say there's a new drug. It's a pill, red and shiny and ever so pretty.

Say it has the potential to influence the morality of a person.

What could we do with this clever little pill?
We could use it on criminals who have less capacity for sympathy than the regular human being. We could give them the drug so they feel less inclined to put a bullet through someone's head just to watch them bleed.
Or on a smaller level, we could give it to test cheaters, so they would recognise the unfairness of cheating.
Is this a good idea?
Is it fair to try and influence people's morality, changing their behaviour so they are more inclined to do good?

I was inspired to think about this by an article from Philosophy Now, entitled "The Incoherence of Moral Bioenhancement". It is a response to another, earlier article which is available online entitled simply "Moral Enhancement". I read both the response article, which argues strongly against using moral bioenhancement, and the original. 

If we say drugs can 'fix' people, this sets a dangerous idea in motion. The idea is that a person might need drugs to fix themselves from a predisposed condition that makes them less moral than others. In other words, it's completely against the concept of changing for the better (musical distraction here). 
This idea that an action is not your fault because, oh whoops, it's in your genes, is already out there though not quite established.
But what we currently know about behaviour and the 'nature vs. nurture' argument is that this is not necessarily true; behaviour is influence both by your genes and your environment which influences how a gene is expressed.
And even if we say, okay yes this person is naturally disposed to be a miser and waste energy and leave the tap running does that mean he will be? Surely there are people in the world who have anger issues or other traits that they have learned to control.
Having a drug to fix a person will make people's beliefs much more narrow; instead of trying to keep their issues under control, they can blame their genes and society as a whole for the harm they have done and pop a few pills instead of doing a bit of actual soul-searching and saying maybe I have the power to change myself. 
This idea of dependency on outside forces to change your own behaviour certainly is, if we think about it, relatively common. Consider the huge number of celebrities who go to drug and alcohol rehab every year, after having a 'relapse of judgement'. They need 'help'; they can't possibly do it on their own, can they? They need therapists and soothsayers and motivators.

Well, that's what the article argues anyway. But there are many other things to take into account, namely the moral ambiguity of influencing other's behaviour through drugs. 
The article makes an important point about free choice
What does good will mean? 
Essentially if people choose to go out of their way and make people's lives better, they exercise goodwill.
(They also get that warm fuzzy feeling inside.)
But if we accept this, then there's an immediate problem with the morality pill. If people are influenced to do good because they are taking the drug, surely their free choice has been taken away. 
Just because they are giving to charity/handing out money, it does not mean they are exercising goodwill.
The point of goodwill is that you accept it is something not normally done, you accept that you are doing it not because you feel an obligation to do it(i.e. you are a bad person if you don't) but because you can better another person's life. 
We have to ask ourselves; do we really want a world where people feel obliged and influenced to do good for others, as opposed to making a conscious decision to go out of their way to improve another person's life out of the goodness of their heart?
Free hugs everywhere but not a good intention in sight.

Naturally these drugs don't really exist yet; we're not talking about drugs used to calm down schizophrenics here, more the hypothetical possibility of drugs that can physically influence a person's morality. 

Certainly this is an interesting issue, and I don't study philosophy so anyone who does and is reading this probably thinks I'm an idiot. I have barely begun to scratch the surface on this issue I read a thought experiment once which dealt with a similar theme; it was a machine through which criminals could choose to go that would make them disgusted by what they had done. The thought experiment is discussed in the wonderful book "The pig that wants to be eaten" by Julian Baggini which deals with all sorts of thought experiments and is simple enough for, well, me to understand. 

Although we are still very far from developing such a drug, (though we do have drugs today that we could easily compare to it), the question of whether using such a drug is beneficial to mankind and the morality of using such a drug is still very much up in the air.

On the word 'diaspora' and literal meanings

The word diaspora comes from the Greek: diaspeirein meaning disperse, from dia, meaning across speirein , meaning‘scatter'

So here I have taken the literal meaning of the word: this blog is intended to be a scattering of thought gathered from my everyday life.
I may talk rubbish; I don't know much about some of the stuff I'm going to talk about here.

The point of the emphasis on diaspora is that this is not a focussed and researched blog.
This is just a record of thoughts, ideas, and other things I picked up on the day and found interesting enough to remember.

The intention of this is to help me remember all the things I learn outside of the classroom.
Also, I hope it will inspire you.