Posts Tagged ‘TED’

Bring them back?

March 18, 2013

I look forward to hearing what everyone at my school did on Spring Break last week.

And what did I do, after returning from the American Philosophy conference in New Jersey? Well, I didn’t grade anything (so thanks in advance, students, for not asking about that). I didn’t blog, I didn’t tweet, I didn’t read email. I did spend plenty of quality time at the Middle & High School softball field, at Warner Parks, and at Radnor Lake, where I pondered the wisdom of Rabindranoth Tagore:


“The butterfly counts not months but moments, and has time enough.”

He also said:

“It is very simple to be happy, but it is very difficult to be simple.”

“Faith is the bird that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark.”

“Don’t limit a child to your own learning, for she was born in another time.”

“Death is not extinguishing the light; it is only putting out the lamp because the dawn has come.”

I don’t know what it all means, precisely, but it’s just the sort of high-minded vagueness a brisk lake-&-ridge hike makes irresistible to a sensibility like mine in March. He and Einstein got along pretty well too.

But now Break’s over and Bioethics is back today, with more midterm reports. We’re all tanned, rested, & ready, right?

Here’s a follow-up of sorts to Andrew’s pre-break report on anthropomorphic speciesism, and a bioethical challenge: if innovations in biotechnology allow us to undo some of the damage of anthropogenic species extinction, should we proceed? Eco-pragmatist Stewart Brand‘s response:

Throughout humankind’s history, we’ve driven species after species extinct: the passenger pigeon, the Eastern cougar the dodo …. But now, says Stewart Brand, we have the technology (and the biology) to bring back species that humanity wiped out. So — should we? Which ones? He asks a big question whose answer is closer than you may think.

Some other stuff that came up while we were breaking:

Widespread Flaws Found in Ovarian Cancer Treatment

Most women with ovarian cancer, which kills 15,000 Americans a year, miss out on treatments that could add a year or more to their lives, a study found.

Too Many Colonoscopies in the Elderly

Nearly a quarter of colonoscopies in patients over age 70 were “potentially inappropriate,” a new analysis finds.

Mary and the Zombies: Can Science Explain Consciousness?

Is a purely physical, scientific account of subjective experience possible?

The Allergy Buster

An experimental new treatment seeks to release children from the terror of severe food allergies.

When Exercise Stresses You Out

Does the stress of being, in effect, forced to exercise, perhaps because your doctor or worried spouse has ordered it, cancel out the otherwise sturdy emotional benefits of physical activity?

Wary of Attack With Smallpox, U.S. Buys Up a Costly Drug

Some experts say a contract for two million doses of a treatment for a disease eradicated in 1980 has the government paying too high a price for too much of a new medicine.

Putting a Value to ‘Real’ in Medical Research

A Laboratory Grows Young Scientists

Stroke Prevention Device Misses Key Goal in Study

F.D.A. Raises Heart Alert on Antibiotic in Wide Use

The future of medicine

February 25, 2013

Our scheduled Bioethics cases today concern the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, Eclipse pseudo-cigarettes, the continuing absence (despite the presence of the 2010 Affordable Care Act) of universal healthcare in America, and special interest neo-natal screening.

The main connecting theme here is the ever-rising cost of healthcare and how much cheaper it would be to provide real prevention on the front end, rather than hit-or-miss cures on the downslope… and how much entrenched resistance and counter-investment blocks that approach.

Interesting topics all, and I hope we don’t get to them today. (Don’t worry, class, they’ll not be on Wednesday’s exam.)

That’s because I hope we get immersed instead in our midterm report presentations, commencing with William’s “disproving Ray Kurzweil’s numbers on the Singularity.” Guess he wants to squash my last thin reed of hope that I might still live long enough to live forever. Or is he going to tell us it’s nearer than even Ray thinks? Not likely.

Maybe we can combine these topics? Here’s the chair of FutureMed at Singularity University. How do the numbers look to you, Dr. Kraft? Think exponentially, he says…

It’s easy to make light of Singularitarians and their dream of transcending biology, and to an extent we should; but I find the vision of exponentially-contained costs and cheaper healthcare, a $100 personal genome, targeted meds, the 4 Ps (prediction, prevention, personalization, participation), and Stage 0 cancer anything but flaky. If this is the future our intelligence can create, driven by a little idealistic hankering after immortality, I say bring it on. Whenever.

But the point is not to live forever, it’s just to live. Now, now, now. (Glad you got your Oscar, Abe.)

Pascal, Spinoza, Locke & Reid, multiculturalism

February 12, 2013

Dwan Adams of the Peace Corps made such a terrific pitch, I’m expecting half the class to have run off and joined when I get to Bioethics tomorrow. I’m half considering it myself. I don’t know how she made life in a tent in Mongolian winter sound appealing but she did. So, you want to join?


Today in CoPhi it’s Pascal, Spinoza, Locke & Reid, and a Philosophy Bites interview with Anne Phillips on multiculturalism.

There’s more to Blaise Pascal than his famous Wager [SEP], there are all those thoughts (Pensees) and there’s also his antipathy for his fellow  philosophe FrancaisMontaigne. I usually compare-&-contrast Montaigne and Descartes, so this makes for a nice new menage a trois (without an accent). Blaise is hostile to both Rene and Michel but is a cautious gambler, finding Descartes’ God too antiseptic and too, well, philosophical. And he finds Montaigne a self-absorbed, trivia-mongering potty-mouth.

But Montaigne would not at all disagree that “the heart has its reasons which reason knows not.” And isn’t it funny to think of Descartes philosophizing in his hypothetical armchair, asking if his fire and his body (etc.) are real, pretending to speculate that all the world and its philosophical problems might be figments of his solipsistic or dreamy or demon-instigated imagination? And then funnier still to come across this quote from Pascal: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”  But look what happens when a philosopher sits quietly in a room alone: you get the Meditations!

Pascal also said

“Truth is so obscure in these times, and falsehood so established, that, unless we love the truth, we cannot know it.” And “It is man’s natural sickness to believe that he possesses the Truth.”


“There are two equally dangerous extremes: to exclude reason, to admit nothing but reason.”


“The nature of man is wholly natural, omne animal. There is nothing he may not make natural; there is nothing natural he may not lose.”*


“The weather and my mood have little connection. I have my foggy and my fine days within me…” [Or as Jimmy Buffett says, carry the weather with you.]

And all military veterans especially should appreciate this one:

“Can anything be stupider than that a man has the right to kill me because he lives on the other side of a river and his ruler has a quarrel with mine, though I have not quarrelled with him?”

And this will be an epigraph for my Philosophy Walks (or its sequel Philosophy Rides):

“Our nature lies in movement; complete calm is death.”

But Pascal does finally blow the big game of life, for betting too heavily on self-interest. He’s obsessed with “saving [his] own soul at all costs.” That’s a losing proposition.

[*That statement about us being “omne animal” sounded flattering, to me, being a philosophical naturalist and a friend to animals. But later epigraphs indicate Pascal’s platonist perfectionism and his derogatory attitude towards humanity and its natural condition. Without God’s grace, he writes, we are “like unto the brute beasts.” He doesn’t seem pleased about that, but I’m with Walt Whitman: “I think I could turn and live with animals, they’re so placid and self contain’d… They do not sweat and whine about their condition… They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God…”]

Julia Sweeney, donning her no-god glasses, gets to the nub of what’s wrong with Pascal’s Wager:

So how can I come up against this biggest question, the ultimate question, “Do I really believe in a personal God,” and then turn away from the evidence? How can I believe, just because I want to? How will I have any respect for myself if I did that?

I thought of Pascal’s Wager. Pascal argued that it’s better to bet there is a God, because if you’re wrong there’s nothing to lose, but if there is, you win an eternity in heaven. But I can’t force myself to believe, just in case it turns out to be true. The God I’ve been praying to knows what I think, he doesn’t just make sure I show up for church. How could I possibly pretend to believe? I might convince other people, but surely not God.

Spinoza believed in Einstein’s God [Tippett], and vice versa. Gambling with your soul?  Einstein famously said God does not play dice with the universe. God doesn’t play at anything, or listen to anyone, or save or punish or forgive. God just is.

They were pantheists, Spinoza and Einstein, a lot less tormented by the vast and starry universe than Pascal (“all these stars frighten me”) with his personal and possibly punitive God. As Jennifer Hecht notes, there’s a howling statistical error at the heart of Pascal’s specious reasoning: “We may be struck by lightning or not, but that doesn’t make it a fifty-fifty proposition.” And his bad wager underscores something more to appreciate about Spinoza.

What Pascal decried as the misery of man without the Biblical God, was for Spinoza the liberation of the human spirit from the bonds of fear and superstition.

[Descartes to Deism… Tlumak on free willDescartes before the horse (& Spinoza/Einstein slides)…]

Locke said the key to personal identity is memory. Oh-oh! But Thomas Reid, Mr. Scottish Common Sense, helpfully said you can get there from here: if you remember  yourself in (say) 1998, and that Self remembers itself in 1980, and that one remembers version 1975, and so on… well, you’re the same person you were back in the day. Whew! That’s a relief. The Ship of Theseus may be seaworthy, after all. (But see below.*)

Cesar Kuriyama told the TEDsters the other day that he intends to record, splice, and archive a second of every day of his life. He wants never to forget. What would Locke say? Or Nietzsche?

“Consider the herds that are feeding yonder: they know not the meaning of yesterday or today; they graze and ruminate, move or rest, from morning to night, from day to day, taken up with their little loves and hates and the mercy of the moment, feeling neither melancholy nor satiety. Man cannot see them without regret, for even in the pride of his humanity he looks enviously on the beast’s happiness. He wishes simply to live without satiety or pain, like the beast; yet it is all in vain, for he will not change places with it. He may ask the beast—“Why do you look at me and not speak to me of your happiness?” The beast wants to answer—“Because I always forget what I wished to say”; but he forgets this answer, too, and is silent; and the man is left to wonder.”

Gayatri Devi says if you want a better memory you must make yourself forget more.

Anne Phillips says one of the smartest things I’ve heard anyone say about the niqab, the Islamic full face veil, and whether it has a place before the faces of those who most directly influence our children:

“…it’s a bit problematic sending a message to 11-year old children that it’s impossible for men and women to engage in face-to-face communication.”

And J&M note other problems

Walter Cronkite used to ask “Can the world be saved?” Honestly, it’s too soon to tell. But I think William James had it right, long ago, when he wrote:

*“The world may be saved, on condition that its parts shall do their best. But shipwreck in detail, or even on the whole, is among the open possibilities.”

So there’s our challenge: to do our best. Push that stone, and push it again. And be happy. Sail on, sail on, sailor. Watch out for those shoals, those rocks and bergs. Be safe. Prepare the rafts.

And consider the Corps.

“A greener future?”

September 28, 2012

It’s been awhile since I’ve checked in with TED. Thought I’d see what’s new, beginning with the “Greener Future” theme. 119 talks?! Where to begin?

Julianne mentioned food waste in Environmental Ethics class the other day…

Western countries throw out nearly half of their food, not because it’s inedible — but because it doesn’t look appealing. Tristram Stuart delves into the shocking data of wasted food, calling for a more responsible use of global resources. “We, the people, do have the power to stop [the] tragic waste of resources if we regard it as socially unacceptable to waste food.”

Same goes for fossil fuel waste, climate change, you name it. It begins down here in the grass, with the people.

“What to watch next” – We read Michael Pollan‘s Botany of Desire in an earlier version of our course, and he’s a terrific TEDster.  Mark Bittman, Pam Warhurst… And if you thought food and climate were unrelated issues, consider:

@GOOD: Eight foods you should stock up on before climate change takes them away ”-Bourbon, coffee, chocolate…No!

 This is getting serious.
When you’re full & sated with food, go back and see Al & Ed et al. Or one of the 99 bioethics talks, 125 on medicine & health, 35 on living long, 28 on God, 74 on collaboration, 87 on happiness, … TED beats anything on “reality” TV, including the NFL.

The Happy Planet Index

November 29, 2011

Final report presentations begin today in SOL, with Brian on the  World Happiness Index (aka Happy Planet Index, or HPI). Makes sense to me. Robert Kennedy said it best: GNP “measures everything except that which makes life worth living.” Nic Marks is right, “happiness should not cost the earth.”


His TED Talk is one of many addressing the theme “What Makes Us Happy?” including Amy Purdy‘s remarkable account of overcoming the loss of her legs as a teenager, Daniel Kahneman on experience and memory, Randy Pausch on achieving childhood dreams, Daniel Gilbert on how bad we are at predicting what will make us happy, Chip Conley on Bhutan, the” joie de vivre index,” and measuring happiness (“What really counts is when we use our numbers to truly take into account our people”-tr], Steve Jobs’ Stanford  commencement speech urging the inestimable value of impassioned work (“Don’t settle!”), and lots of Buddhists (including Matthieu Ricard).

Eric Weiner, the Geography of Bliss author, has written an intriguing essay on his current God project which includes this observation: “I know from my research into happiness that it is our binding, our inter-dependence, that fulfills us.” [IcelandIceland Reduxhappiness is]

We’ve heard that from so many sources now. Have any happiness researchers concluded that man is an island, or that we must imagine Crusoe happy? We always picture Sisyphus* struggling with his boulder alone, but if not at the office he must have had a strong support network at home. That may be what Woody Allen’s Professor Levy was missing. The point is to live, and (as Viktor Frankl said) to live meaningfully. [Frankl, Why to believe in others]


Also of interest, and to close the circle as our course winds down: “Just how powerful IS positive thinking? Ehrenreich on Sunday Morning”

*Last word goes to Camus: “Real generosity towards the future consists in giving all to the present.” [Generosity23]


NOTE TO STUDENTS: 1. All presenters, please let us know your topic and suggested readings by tomorrow if possible. 2. I’ve begun reading Sisela Bok’s Exploring Happiness. It’s really good so far, I recommend it. (When this class comes around again in a couple of years, I’ll probably require it.)


September 25, 2010

Where do good ideas– lower case– come from? “Connectivity,” says Steven Johnson. Not an eternal Platonic Idea of Connectivity, but actual episodes of connecting within and between individuals and communities. That’s what Chris Anderson was talking about too. And E.M. Forster. “Only connect.” Build bridges between our passions and our prose.

Johnson’s TED Talk:

Connectivity is also liquidity. Pour that latte, get those ideas, those neuronal networks, together and in sync. Deep thinking really isn’t The Thinker in his solitary slump, it’s the chaotic cacophony of the coffeehouse (or tavern). “Chance favors the connected mind.” That’s when things really begin to flow.

TED & the “earth of things”

September 24, 2010

What could it mean for the “earth of things” to “resume its rights” at this moment, in William James’s vision of the pragmatic reformation whose gravity-shift will mark a new epoch?

James obviously didn’t foresee online video, but he was confident we’d do well to pay more attention to one another (and less to Plato’s unseen “intelligible world of Ideas”).

Chris Anderson’s answer to James’s vital question, then: the new seat of authority is yours & mine, and it’s taking the form of “crowd-accelerated innovation.” As he says, “our future is many to many.” We’re all teachers now. As Older Daughter would say: let’s not suck at it.

We live at a moment when it is possible to inspire ourselves on a global scale, in real time. Inspiration need not be sought in the remote reaches of the empyrean, it’s all around us down here on the ground. It’s visible, and only a click away. There are lots of great lower-case ideas here. It feels less and less like a darkened cave. The lights are on, our passions are on display.

“Why the future doesn’t need us”

September 13, 2010

In the Wired essay of this name, a few years old now but still startling to think about, Bill Joy was definitely not happy to contemplate the world without us. [Wiki bio]

His point was that we need to be charting a very different future than the one our present technological trend-lines– particularly in genetics, robotics, and nanotechnology– seem to be converging on. It’s not clear that he was playing Chicken Little in that piece, or that the sky will not soon fall. He was sounding an alarm. Have any of us heard it?

Well, Bill McKibben did. See his Enough: staying human in an engineered age. Like Joy, he too is now intensely preoccupied with green solutions to our woes. []

Some people call him Chicken Little, too, ever since End of Nature; and he keeps looking more and more like a prophet just barely ahead of his time. Let us hope Bill Joy was just wrong. Better yet, let’s act to make him wrong. That’s what he was really hoping we’d do, after reading Wired.

You could call him a Star Trek geek, too. He still seems to share the same Roddenberry vision of the 24th century he and I and many others were infected with on Thursday nights back in the late ’60s. Good for us, I say. But: where are our jet-packs?! Well, maybe they’ll be along soon enough, if he’s right about carbon nano-tubes and Moore’s Law, along with our replicators and transporters. We’ve already got our phasers and tri-corders. Live long and prosper!

(Wired continues its penchant for lapel-grabbing feature stories. Lately they’ve pronounced the death of the Web. Sounds, like reports of Mr. Twain’s death more than a century ago, a bit exaggerated.  And premature.)

NOTE TO CLASS: in addition to Bill Joy, the syllabus promised some discussion today of transhumanists and gerontologists, including Aubrey de Grey. Stay tuned, we’ll get to all that– and the idea of bio-enhancement— a little later. Meanwhile, take a look for Wednesday at some of the founding documents of the Long Now Foundation from Hillis &  Eno, et al, and then let’s get started with Brand’s Clock of the Long Now.

wanna play?

May 27, 2010

My iPod clock radio has delivered quality content (only slightly dated) the last couple of mornings, which I see as connected in interesting ways  still to be fleshed out.

First it was Bill McKibben on Speaking of Faith, on the rapidly-closing window of opportunity to save the Earth (or the Earth as we know it and can live on it) now allegedly, barely before us; then, on an earlier installment of the same show, Stuart Brown on the importance of play. (Did you know there’s something called the National Institute for Play? There certainly oughta be!)

Near the end of his interview McKibben resisted the invitation to despair about climate change and the future, instead applauding the youthful energy and enthusiasm of his young (16 to 25) cohorts in and inviting us instead to peg our hopes on the renewal of life they embody.

Stuart Brown connected the dots between play, spirit, character, empathy, trust, irony, problem-solving, pleasure, joy, and much else. He did a more compressed version of the same performance at TED (below).

Now it’s my job to connect the dots between childhood credulity and openness to possibility, youthful passion, and adult responsibility. The whole undertaking fills me with a (playful) sense of mission, and a gambler’s confidence that maybe the planetary jig is not entirely up quite yet.


November 14, 2009

Karen Armstrong is right about this:

“The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves. Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect…”

Sign the charter here