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Saturday, February 9, 2008 -- 7:51 am

There's been a bit in the news lately about DNA hacking, biohacking, and artificial life, and much of what's been written has been enthusiastic, self-important, and rather vague. It reminds of how, a little less than a decade ago in the fervor of the tech bubble, I read some press release in which the evidently quite capable visual effects designer of a popular and technically innovative movie was quoted as saying that people of his profession would be the social engineers of a new era. (Maybe it's simply a factor of not watching much film or television these days, but I don't think that's happened yet.) As with all fields of inquiry, I'm certainly sympathetic to the ambition that's been expressed, and would like to get my hands on the knowledge, practical experience, and equipment needed for (safe) genetic engineering while it's still legal. There would be obvious benefits -- transgenic crops that can survive climate change, for example. I get the impression that the number of people who are actually working on such projects, or have the expertise to do so if not the time, is far smaller than is typically imagined. But the claim that hobbiests would make our society better equipped to combat bioterrorism is a bit more farfetched, and the suggestion that people could attain immortality, while superficially attractive, strikes me as a little half-baked. Sentimentality aside, and even leaving aside the impact on world population figures, would immortality be beneficial to society? I think not. Although the ideal human being would remain spry, mentally agile, and adaptive throughout his or her life, the number who actually live up to that potential is vanishingly small. Most people seem to have their spurt of innovation, agility, and creativity while they're young, and then, out of comfort, conservatism, and fear of change, settle into a fixed routine -- even if they retain their ability to learn new skills and adapt to new circumstances, they lose their will to do so. See, for example, the legions of people who resist global trade solely on the grounds that they would be forced out of the market by abler overseas competitors, and have to find new jobs. A sizable immortal population would, I fear, mean the end of our growth and history as a species, and ultimately leave us unable to adjust and adapt to the next big challenge that comes our way. Immortality, it seems to me, would have to be something each of us proved our worth for. And perhaps that would give people incentive to adopt more enlightened ways of thinking and living.

And for all the hype, I don't see aspiring biohackers showing real imagination. The accomplishment of so-called transgenic humanism would be to draw on the full complement of genomes our planet has so far produced, and combine them into a single, super-intelligent organism that could, unconsciously or voluntarily, activate or suppress the appropriate genes needed to adapt to a truly inhospitable environment or unanticipated challenge. A sun-rich environment of carbon-dioxide and water? Develop chloroplasts in the skin. A dark one? Borrow echolocation from bats, infra-red sensing from snakes, and the detection of electric fields from the platypus and hammerhead shark. A high-radiation one? Turn on the chromosome-repairing mechanisms of Deinococcus radiodurans. And of course, such a composite genome couldn't and shouldn't be the end of the story, because however ingenious natural selection has turned out to be, it hasn't yet found a solution for every conceivable problem; and so the composite genome would need, itself, to be able to come up with new genes of its own, much as the mammalian adaptive immune system responds to new chemicals.

To the extent ever realized, that sort of science, built into the semi-consciously controlled mechanisms of a living organism, seems rather far off. The cultural side of it, however, is considerably less so. It does involve far more work, reflection, study, self-criticism, and habit-breaking than most people have the time or inclination to attempt -- but probably not much more than is required to become an expert in more glamorous forms of hacking. For the latter to be worthwhile, however, I think cultivating this mental agility is an essential prerequisite.

Friday, February 8, 2008 -- 10:07 pm

One of the curious things about my neighborhood is that it seems to be in constant demographic flux, with each new wave of settlers rapidly becoming, over the course of a few years, the old guard who simply don't understand the next onslaught of new people. And so we end up with a large but poorly- stocked grocery store, where inventory is stocked in bulk by people who clearly don't eat the items themselves or know how to cook with them. Anyone who stocks only rapid-rise yeast, for example, simply doesn't bake. And overwaxed produce that isn't quite firm to the touch is clearly being chosen by someone who isn't used to handling vegetables. And so I had to hike across town simply to find a store selling proper yeast for my injera. When the shelves are stocked only with cans of lemon & herb chicken broth, or shrimp-flavored ramen, and when all the produce is soft, bruised, or unripe, I want to track down the manager and ask him precisely what he was thinking. Do people really just buy whatever he makes available? My pet theory is that he grew up in, and now inhabits, a very different food culture than that of the clientele he's trying to profit from. Not appreciating the difference between what he buys and what I would like, he simply opts for the cheapest or for what he guesses, uncomprehendingly, that people might want to buy. When I move, this store will be one of the things about this neighborhood I miss the least.

Thursday, February 7, 2008 -- 10:03 pm

Having just read a discussion of bibliomania, including the joys of acquiring books you might never have time to read, it dawns on me that I must be a mere amateur in this field. A lot of these people say that it'll be impossible to read all these books in their lifetime. As for my collection, I'm inclined to disagree. But reading isn't the problem, so much as study. I've taken care to acquire things well worth reading, and interesing in their own right, and the real issue isn't the number of pages per hour I can devour in the first reading, but the time needed to synthesize and organize it all and really make sure I understand the information and grasp how it fits in the grand scheme of things. That's the time-consuming part. So much simpler it would be if it were all just fiction!

Thursday, February 7, 2008 -- 9:50 pm

Beginning on a recipe for injera, I've just had occasion to try to grind teff by hand. (Each grain is about the size of a grain of sand and needs to be pulverized.) Definitely an educational experience (and I'll now be looking into inexpensive spice/grain grinders, because there's no way I'll grind over a pound of this in time to actually use it), but this grain clearly falls into the category of Foods that Cost More Calories to Prepare Than You Receive By Eating Them. Sort of like certain kinds of shellfish. It also raises the question of whether this is considered a famine staple in Ethiopia. It also hits home Diamond's argument in Guns, Germs, and Steel that natural resources, including biological resources, play a crucial role in whether civilization really gets off the ground in an organized way. If we had to spend our days grinding teff just to have bread to eat, I wonder whether we'd really have time to do anything else.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008 -- 10:16 pm

With all my complaints about writers', publishers', archivists', etc. poor work preserving, organizing, and presenting the knowledge that is, in the end, the sum total of our civilization, it's nice to have two books that actually get it right. One is Feynman's Lectures on Physics; the other, Schoenberg's Theory of Harmony. They both undertake, without apology, to explain the world from the ground up without pretending that anything is "obvious" and without assuming that the reader will follow, intuit, or accept any leaps of the "obvious". This is a godsend because, due to some cognitive defect, I find hardly anything obvious and therefore find some textbooks very tough going. Thus it is that Schoenberg offers the first intelligible distinction between consonance and dissonance I've yet to come across, makes some meaningful preliminary observations on microtonal music (at least from the perspective of a century ago), and, dammit, teaches me chord progressions they presumably didn't think I was ready for (or didn't think were worth teaching) in those composition classes all those years back. And I'm only a quarter of the way through. I'm even less deep into the Feynman, but he's already explained gyroscopes and the given the only intelligible explanation of the relationship between logarithms, trigonometric functions, and complex numbers that I've come across anywhere in print or on the internet after much looking. If only every field of inquiry had a modern explainer of their caliber.

Sunday, February 3, 2008 -- 4:10 pm

I've always found it curious how people tend to dance to music in public, even when listening to something on earphones. For my part, I never have, although that's probably in large part because of my temperament and the type of music I like. It's probably also because I've long since realized that others tend to be indifferent, if not contemptuous, of my tastes, and because I discovered decades ago that I should avoid anything that might be mistaken for dance on grounds of general clumsiness. It's their loss as far as the music is concerned, I suppose, but it does make a crypto-classicist of me.

I feel something similar when it comes to professions of religious sentiment, though there I'm not classicist in that department, crypto or otherwise. Not that I care in the least if people dance to their private tunes, so long as they're not in my way and don't make any noise, or perform some kind of unobtrusive personal devotion in a public place. But I do care, and tend to be offended, if I'm a captive audience expected to join in someone else's musical tastes or religious fervor. My religious views are my own, and like Casaubon in Middlemarch, I may admit privately to various heretical notions. But I don't go about imposing those views on others, nor do I have much patience (though I attempt basic courtesy) for those fervently trying to communicate an ultimately vapid inspiration who have studied the issue less carefully than I have. (Do I dismiss the notion of divine but unstudied revelation? Absolutely when it comes to music composition, as I've previously remarked. In theological matters, though, I reserve judgment.)

Now clearly, far more people are inclined to express their music appreciation, or impose their musical taste on others, than go about proselytizing, though there are plenty who do the latter in some form and there's a certain amount of overlap between the two groups. So it may not be precisely the same mechanism or temperament that causes one or the other. But the mechanisms or reasons involved may not be completely different, either. Both arguably stem from a sentiment or assumption that what we're experiencing and enjoying can't help but be experienced and enjoyed by anyone else who need only pay the slightest attention. Of course we realize as an intellectual matter that musical tastes and religious sentiments vary; but deep down I suspect many people think that anyone who doesn't agree with them about such things is simply out of their mind. And for that matter, I have known many devotees of music who have insisted that they encountered a particular (secular) musical piece as a religious experience. That tends to be more common among listeners of classical music, however, and they tend not to insist on others having the same feeling of revelation.

So what to make of these public dancers? I do admire their unabashed confidence in the universality of their emotion, which tends anyway to be a trait more enjoyed by extroverts. But I tend not to get along with most extroverts personally (or indeed people generally, I suppose), because of precisely that presumptiveness, that projection of their own subjectivity onto others without grasping that the other person might have a radically different and yet perfectly valid outlook. They tend to expect social conformity (perhaps even what Nietzsche would regard as a herd instinct), which makes me wonder whether, on some level, their public expressions of such sentiments are, unconsciously, an expectation that we should do the same even if they don't say so. For precisely this reason I'm sure extroverts make a crucial contribution to our social fabric and to the perpetuation of our species, because they can be counted on, for example, voluntary compliance with codes of conduct and social norms. It would be interesting to see if other primates act the same way.

Sunday, February 3, 2008 -- 7:52 am

I was recently reminded of the curious situation early Christians found themselves in the later centuries of the (Western) Roman Empire. It seems that many were eager to prove their spiritual worthiness by martyring themselves in the name of their religion, and would flaunt their religious practices or turn themselves in to the authorities in an effort to bring this about. Consistent with the generally accommodating nature of polytheism, however, Romans (although some certainly persecuted plenty of Christians, for interesting and complex reasons) generally failed to see Christianity as inconsistent with state religious affairs and rituals, and tended to plead, coax, and cajole Christians to make the pro forma concessions that would spare their lives. After the conversation of Constantine, of course, martyrdom at the hands of the Roman state was generally out of the question, and some people began to turn to monasticism and various forms of extreme asceticism. The word "extreme" here is chosen with a nod to colloquial usage, because it seems that many of these practitioners played up the shock value of their rites or the grueling nature of their endurance feats. According to a least one secondary source, they were described as the "athletes of God."

There are a number of ways one could run with this. On a rudimentary level, it's funny to see the parallels between Roman administrators doing their best to look the other way when confronted with overzealous Christians eager for execution, and the studied inattention of military officials to service members dutifully confessing their homosexuality. Also somewhat funny is the frustration of trying to prove one's spiritual merit by doing battle against a presumptive foe who really isn't interested in fighting. But most curious to me is this motivation toward fatalistic fanaticism. Absent further research, or even being aware of useful firsthand accounts, I find myself wondering what these aspiring martyrs were really trying to accomplish. I suppose many faiths place a premium on martyrdom as a cheap way to stem attrition during periods of persecution -- which nearly all of them face in the beginning -- but the notion of seeking out unnecessary martyrdom suggests the desire to find a significance and importance in death that didn't seem attainable in life, rather than realizing any particular level of spiritual purity. And I suppose it also stands to reason that the early Christians who sought to martyr themselves would less likely be the affluent or those with social standing, who have a greater vested interest in continuing their earthly life -- though the variability of life suggests that at least a few probably came from such circles. I wonder whether anyone's compiled statistics (to the extent possible) on the demographics of Christian martyrdom in the early centuries of the era.

A more abstract question is whether we can accumulate enough examples of this sort of phenomenon throughout history to be in a position to theorize about its causes. Although all religions presumably have reflective spiritual and psychological components, politics is injected into the situation as soon as any religion has two or more practitioners, or as soon as the sole practitioner starts to proselytize or at least stops keeping a secret of their heresy. And in terms of public relations, there are some respects in which persecution is preferable to being marginalized, ignored, and forgotten. Passive, non-violent protest, for example, I imagine to quickly become demoralizing when no one else knows about it, and there is no hope of inspiring sympathy, outrage, or shame among people in a better position than you to do something about the situation. In addition, attracting sympathy makes a movement more likely to attract followers, because it seems studies have revealed that an individual's likelihood to join a social movement (and actually do something as part of it) is governed not by ideological sympathy, but by personally identifying with people in that movement. Conversely, it would also be interesting to examine the extent to which religions modify their traditional doctrines to become more palatable (or tolerable) to larger political communities. I'm reminded of the official renunciation of polygamy by groups in the American west, and cannibalism among indigenous groups in the Amazon. Why do such groups opt against political martyrdom, and instead attempt, officially or unofficially, to integrate themselves into a larger society?