Saturday, May 09, 2009

New Poem: The Dead

The Dead

I have lost the voices of the dead,
once heard, their raspy warnings
pretending to be God, pretending
to know what comes next

empty boxes roll into the furnace:
I watched my father flame out
in a plywood coffin, the glue
stinking more than the flesh

they are not here, they are gone
someplace other, and yet they spoke
all those years, and then they went
away, left me alone to make sense

curse them, I think, wandering
in this desert called being;
why did they leave me, as everyone
has left me, covered in dust and leaves?

Film: The Life And Times Of Allen Ginsberg

Thanks to the honorable Reverend Danny Fisher for posting this awesome film (check his blog for some cool Ginsberg links).
For 25 years, Academy Award-nominated director Jerry Aronson accumulated more than 120 hours of film on Allen Ginsberg, resulting in this comprehensive and invaluable portrait of one of America’s greatest poets, author of HOWL and other ground-breaking poems.

Charles Taylor: The Future of the Secular

Great lecture by philosopher Charles Taylor on how we understand the secular. He is a practicing Roman-Catholic, so that faith certainly informs his view of the secular vs. the sacred. Still, quite the interesting thinker.
Charles Taylor, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, McGill University treats the term "secular" with several different meanings which, for a variety of reasons can't be simply ironed out and reduced to one, hence the inevitability of confusions and cross-purposes.

Wings Legs and Fins: How Do New Organs Arise in Evolution?

A great lecture on how new organs develop in evolution from Neil Shubin, Associate Dean of the Biological Sciences Division at the University of Chicago, presented at the UC Berkeley Graduate Council Lectures [5/2009].
Neil Shubin, Associate Dean of the Biological Sciences Division at the University of Chicago researches the evolutionary origin of anatomical features of animals. He describes how new organs arise through evolutionary processes. Series: UC Berkeley Graduate Council Lectures [5/2009]

Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein - Challenge of the Soul

Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein's "Challenge of the Soul" is a fine article on cultivating the traits we need in order to face the challenges of our life with less fear and more courage. His book will be published by Shambhala Publications, and this excerpt comes from the Shambhala Sun SunSpace blog.

Challenge of the Soul

May 6, 2009 Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein

Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein uses a variety of teachings –from Jewish and other sources—to answer the question: what are the qualities we need to cultivate in order to face the challenges of our life with less fear and more courage? His new book, Challenge of the Soul, which is being published by Shambhala will be on sale August 18, 2009. This is an excerpt:

When I speak with artists, writers, and composers, they frequently describe their work, not as something that they achieve, but rather that they receive. While it is common for religious mystics to describe experiences of having their souls possessed by the divine spirit, even atheists in the creative fields often talk about the role of the Muse as the mysterious source that inspires their craft. This shouldn’t surprise us. The etymological root of the word “inspiration” means the internalization of spirit—for that to occur, though, we must be open and receptive to it. The borderlines between creative inspiration and spiritual revelation are much more porous than most of us usually think.

The Sabbath highlights this point. Erich Fromm, the important countercultural psychoanalyst, discusses in his book You Shall Be As Gods how the Sabbath embodies that same synthesis of the material and the spiritual. The Sabbath—arguably the key observance in biblical religion—is an expression of freedom in its fullest form. Yet it is a freedom anchored firmly in the ideas of giving up and of giving over.

The Sabbath, in traditional Judaism and Christianity, is a day when we are supposed to refrain from work. Why? By not working, Fromm observes, we are no longer participants in, nor are we bound by, the process of natural and social change. This “frees” us from the limitations of time—for just one day a week. The Sabbath represents messianic time, providing us, if we choose to accept it, with a taste of eternity.

It is not work or production that are paramount values for Fromm, but “rest.” In the context of the Sabbath, it is this state of rest that sets us free, that humanizes us, that allows us to experience life in its purist manifestation. It has no other purpose, nor does it strive for one. As a humanist and a clinician, the Sabbath must have seemed to Fromm a very effective vehicle for both character development and self-actualization.

Yet there are other, more metaphysical (and even mystical) ways to view the Sabbath, and Abraham Joshua Heschel, an influential modern rabbi and activist, offers us one in his own book, The Sabbath. For him, unlike Fromm, the Sabbath synthesizes the psycho-spiritual and the aesthetic. On that holy day, each one of us is given the opportunity to act as an artisan of the soul, to participate in the creation of what he calls “a palace in time.” That spiritual architecture, however, is contingent on our working to construct it: without its builders doing their job, the palace cannot come into existence. The paradox of the Sabbath is that our “work” and our freedom are the consequence of merely being. When we take up residence in the palace, and when we allow the palace to dwell inside us, we create a harmony of mind and spirit, of human and divine.

We live fully in the moment, in the eternal now.

Read the whole article.


Very comprehensive overview of integral theory, as envisioned by Ken Wilber (please keep in mind that this is only one form of many in the theories aspiring to be integral), and written by Sean Esbjorn-Hargens.

Here is a wee bit from the beginning.

An All-Inclusive Framework for the 21st Century

An Overview of Integral Theory

This primer to integral theory provides an up to date introduction and is an ideal piece to give to colleagues and friends who keep asking "What is 'integral theory' anyway?" For years we have heard people complain that there isn't a solid intro to the AQAL model. While Ken Wilber has penned a few introductions, these are often not viewed as ideal presentations for many professional contexts. Our hope is that this new introduction will help fill this gap, and offer individuals another resource to help communicate the basics of integral theory. This introduction is also written in a way that even seasoned integral practitioners will find illuminating, with new details of integral theory being explored.


An All-Inclusive Framework for the 21st Century
Sean Esbjörn-Hargens

"The word integral means comprehensive, inclusive, non-marginalizing, embracing. Integral approaches to any field attempt to be exactly that: to include as many perspectives, styles, and methodologies as possible within a coherent view of the topic. In a certain sense, integral approaches are “meta-paradigms,” or ways to draw together an already existing number of separate paradigms into an interrelated network of approaches that are mutually enriching."1 – Ken Wilber

The world has never been so complex as it is right now—it is mind boggling and at times emotionally overwhelming. Not to mention, the world only seems to get more complex and cacophonous as we confront the major problems of our day: extreme religious fundamentalism, environmental degradation, failing education systems, existential alienation, and volatile financial markets. Never have there been so many disciplines and worldviews to consider and consult in addressing these issues: a cornucopia of perspectives. But without a way of linking, leveraging, correlating, and aligning these perspectives, their contribution to the problems we face are largely lost or compromised. We are now part of a global community and we need a framework—global in vision yet also anchored in the minutiae of our daily lives—that can hold the variety of valid perspectives that have something to offer our individual efforts and collective solution building.

In 1977 American philosopher Ken Wilber published his first book, The Spectrum of Consciousness. This groundbreaking book integrated the major schools of psychology along a continuum of increasing complexity, with different schools focused on various levels within that spectrum. Over the next 30 years he continued with this integrative impulse, writing books in areas such as cultural anthropology, philosophy, sociology of religion, physics, healthcare, environmental studies, science and religion, and postmodernism. To date, Wilber has published over two dozen books and in the process has created integral theory.2 Wilber’s books have been translated into more than 24 languages, which gives you an idea as to the global reach and utility of integral theory.3 Since its inception by Wilber, integral theory has become one of the foremost approaches within the larger fields of integral studies and meta-theory.4 This prominent role is in large part the result of the wide range of applications that integral theory has proven itself efficacious in as well as the work of many scholar-practitioners who have and are contributing to the further development of integral theory.

Integral theory weaves together the significant insights from all the major human disciplines of knowledge, including the natural and social sciences as well as the arts and humanities. As a result of its comprehensive nature, integral theory is being used in over 35 distinct academic and professional fields such as art, healthcare, organizational management, ecology, congregational ministry, economics, psychotherapy, law, and feminism.5 In addition, integral theory has been used to develop an approach to personal transformation and integration called Integral Life Practice (ILP). The ILP framework allows individuals to systematically explore and develop multiple aspects of themselves such as their physical body, emotional intelligence, cognitive awareness, interpersonal relationships, and spiritual wisdom. Because integral theory systematically includes more of reality and interrelates it more thoroughly than any other current approach to assessment and solution building, it has the potential to be more successful in dealing with the complex problems we face in the 21st century.

Integral theory provides individuals and organizations with a powerful framework that is suitable to virtually any context and can be used at any scale. Why? Because it organizes all existing approaches to and disciplines of analysis and action, and it allows a practitioner to select the most relevant and important tools, techniques, and insights. Consequently, integral theory is being used successfully in a wide range of contexts such as the intimate setting of one-on-one psychotherapy as well as in the United Nations “Leadership for Results” program, which is a global response to HIV/AIDS used in over 30 countries. Towards the end of this article I provide additional examples of integral theory in action to illustrate the variety of contexts in which people are finding the integral framework useful.

Wilber first began to use the word “integral” to refer to his approach after the publication of his seminal book Sex, Ecology, Spirituality in 1995. It was in this book that he introduced the quadrant model, which has since become iconic of his work in general and integral theory in particular. Wilber’s quadrant model is often referred to as the AQAL model, with AQAL (pronounced ah-qwal) standing for all quadrants, all levels, all lines, all states, and all types. These five elements signify some of the most basic repeating patterns of reality. Thus, by including all of these patterns you “cover the bases” well, ensuring that no major part of any solution is left out or neglected. Each of these five elements can be used to “look at” reality and at the same time they represent the basic aspects of your own awareness in this and every moment. In this overview I will walk you through the essential features of each of these elements and provide examples of how they are used in various contexts, why they are useful for an integral practitioner, and how to identify these elements in your own awareness right now. By the end of this tour, you will have a solid grasp of one of the most versatile and dynamic approaches to integrating insights from multiple disciplines. So let us begin with the foundation of the AQAL model: the quadrants.

Read the whole, lengthy overview.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Douglas Rushkoff - Life Inc: Introduction

Douglas Rushkoff is excerpting his new book, Life Inc.: How the World Became a Corporation and How to Take It Back, at Boing Boing and at his blog. Looks interesting based on this first installment.

Here is the Introduction.

Life Inc: Introduction

Your Money or Your Life
A Lesson on the Front Stoop

I got mugged on Christmas Eve.

I was in front of my Brooklyn apartment house taking out the trash when a man pulled a gun and told me to empty my pockets. I gave him my money, wallet, and cell phone. But then—remembering something I’d seen in a movie about a hostage negotiator—I begged him to let me keep my medical- insurance card. If I could humanize myself in his perception, I figured, he’d be less likely to kill me.

He accepted my argument about how hard it would be for me to get “care” without it, and handed me back the card. Now it was us two against the establishment, and we made something of a deal: in exchange for his mercy, I wasn’t to report him—even though I had plainly seen his face. I agreed, and he ran off down the street. I foolishly but steadfastly stood by my side of the bargain, however coerced it may have been, for a few hours. As if I could have actually entered into a binding contract at gunpoint.

In the meantime, I posted a note about my strange and frightening experience to the Park Slope Parents list—a rather crunchy Internet community of moms, food co-op members, and other leftie types dedicated to the health and well- being of their families and their decidedly progressive, gentrifying neighborhood. It seemed the responsible thing to do, and I suppose I also expected some expression of sympathy and support.

Amazingly, the very first two emails I received were from people angrythat I had posted the name of the street on which the crime had occurred. Didn’t I realize that this publicity could adversely affect all of our property values? The “sellers’ market” was already difficult enough! With a famous actor reportedly leaving the area for Manhattan, does Brooklyn’s real- estate market need more bad press? And this was before the real-estate crash.

I was stunned. Had it really come to this? Did people care more about the market value of their neighborhood than what was actually taking place within it? Besides, it didn’t even make good business sense to bury the issue. In the long run, an open and honest conversation about crime and how to prevent it should make the neighborhood safer. Property values would go up in the end, not down. So these homeowners were more concerned about the immediate liquidity of their town houses than their long- term asset value—not to mention the actual experience of living in them. And these were among the wealthiest people in New York, who shouldn’t have to be worrying about such things. What had happened to make them behave this way?

It stopped me cold, and forced me to reassess my own long-held desire to elevate myself from renter to owner. I stopped to think—which, in the midst of an irrational real-estate craze, may not have been the safest thing to do. Why, I wondered aloud on my blog, was I struggling to make $4,500-per-month rent on a two- bedroom, fourth-floor walk-up in this supposedly “hip” section of Brooklyn, when I could just as easily get mugged somewhere else for a lot less per month? Was my willingness to participate in this runaway market part of the problem?

The detectives who took my report drove the point home. One of them drew a circle on a map of Brooklyn. “Inside this circle is where the rich white people from Manhattan are moving. That’s the target area. Hunting ground. Think about it from your mugger’s point of view: quiet, tree-lined streets of row houses, each worth a million or two, and inhabited by the rich people who displaced your family. Now, you live in or around the projects just outside the circle. Where would you go to mug someone?”

Back on the World Wide Web, a friend of mine—another Park Slope writer—made an open appeal for my family to stay in Brooklyn. He saw “the Slope” as a mixed- use neighborhood now reaching the “peak of livability” that the legendary urban anthropologist Jane Jacobs idealized. He explained how all great neighborhoods go through the same basic process: Some artists move into the only area they can afford—a poor area with nothing to speak of. Eventually, there are enough of them to open a gallery. People start coming to the gallery in the evenings, creating demand for a coffeehouse nearby, and so on. Slowly but surely, an artsy store or two and a clique of hipsters “pioneer” the neighborhood until there’s significant sidewalk activity late into the night, making it safer for successive waves of incoming businesses and residents.

Of course, after the city’s newspaper “discovers” the new trendy neighborhood, the artists are joined and eventually replaced by increasingly wealthy but decidedly less hip young professionals, lawyers, and businesspeople—but hopefully not so many that the district completely loses its “flavor.” Investment increases, the district grows bigger, and everyone is happier and wealthier.

Still, what happens to the people who lived there from the beginning—the ones whom the police detective was talking about? The “natives”? This process of gentrification does not occur ex nihilo.

No, when property values go up, so do the rents, displacing anyone whose monthly living charges aren’t regulated by the government. The residents of the neighborhood do not actually participate in the renaissance, because they are not owners. They move to outlying areas. Sure, their kids still go to John Jay High School in the middle of Park Slope. But none of Park Slope’s own wealthy residents send their kids there.

Our online conversation was picked up by New York magazine in a column entitled “Are the Writers Leaving Brooklyn?” The article focused entirely on the way a crime against an author could threaten the Brooklyn real-estate bubble. National Public Radio called to interview me about the story—not the mugging itself, but whether I would leave Brooklyn over it, and if doing so publicly might not be irresponsibly hurting other people’s property values. A week or two of blog insanity later, a second New York piece asked why we should even care about whether the writers are leaving Brooklyn—seemingly oblivious of the fact that this was the very same column space that told us to care in the first place.

It was an interesting fifteen minutes. What was going on had less to do with crime or authors, though, than it did with a market in its final, most vaporous phase. I simply couldn’t afford to buy in—and getting mugged freed me from the hype treadmill for long enough to accept it.

Or, more accurately, it’s not that I couldn’t afford it so much as that I wouldn’t afford it. There were mortgage brokers willing to lend me the other 90 percent of the money I’d need to purchase a home on the block where I was renting. “We can get you in,” they’d say. And at that moment in real- estate history, putting even 10 percent down would have made me a very qualified buyer. “What about when the mortgage readjusts?” I remember asking. “Then you refinance at a better rate,” they assured me. Of course, that would be happening just about the same time Park Slope’s artificially low property- tax rate (an exemption secured by real-estate developers) would be raised to the levels of the poorer areas of the borough. “Don’t worry. Everyone with your financials is doing it,” one broker explained with a wink. “And the banks aren’t going to just let everyone lose their homes, now, are they?”

As long as people refused to look at the real social and financial costs, the market could keep going up—buoyed in part by the bonuses paid to investment bankers whose job it was to promote all this asset inflation in the first place. Heck, we were restoring a historic borough to its former glory. All we had to do was avoid the uncomfortable truth that we were busy converting what were being used as multifamily dwellings by poor black and Hispanic people back into stately town houses for use by rich white ones. And we had to overlook that this frenzy of real- estate activity was operating on borrowed time and, more significantly, borrowed money.

In such a climate, calling attention to any of this was the real crime, and the reason that the first reaction of those participating in a speculative bubble was to silence the messenger. It’s just business. The reality was that we were pushing an increasingly hostile population from their homes, colonizing their neighborhoods, and then justifying it all with metrics such as increased business activity, reduced (reported) crime rates, and—most important—higher real- estate prices. How can one argue against making a neighborhood, well, better?

As my writer friend eloquently explained on his blog, the neighborhood was now, by most measures, safer. It was once again possible to sit on one’s stoop with the kids and eat frozen Italian ices on a balmy summer night. One could walk through Prospect Park on any Sunday afternoon and see a black family barbecuing here, a Puerto Rican group there, and an Irish group over there. Compared with most parts of the world, that’s pretty civil, no?

Romantic as it sounds, that’s not integration at all, but co-location. Epcot-style détente. The Brooklyn being described here has almost nothing to do with the one our grandparents might have inhabited. It is rather an expensive and painstakingly re-created simulation of a “brownstone Brooklyn” that never actually existed. If people once sat on their stoops eating ices on summer nights it was because they had no other choice—there was no air- conditioning and no TV. Everyone could afford to sit around, so everyone did. And the fact that the denizens of neighboring communities complete the illusion of multi-culturalism by using the same park only means that these folks are willing to barbecue next to each other—not with each other. They all still go home to different corners of the borough. My writer friend’s kids go off the next morning to their private school, those other kids to public. Not exactly neighbors.

Besides, the rows of brownstones in the Slope aren’t really made of brown stone. They’ve been covered with a substance more akin to stucco—a thick paint used to create the illusion of brown stones set atop one another. A façade’s façade. As any brownstone owner soon learns, the underlying cinder blocks can be hidden for only so long before a costly “renovation” must be undertaken to cover them up again.

Likewise, wealth, media, and metrics can insulate colonizers from the reality of their situation for only so long. Eventually, parents who push their toddlers around in thousand- dollar strollers, whose lifestyles and values have been reinforced by a multibillion- dollar industry dedicated to hip child- rearing, get pelted with stones by kids from the “projects.” (Rest assured—the person who reported this recurring episode at a gentrified Brooklyn playground met with his share of on-line derision, as well.)

Like Californians surprised when a wildfire or coyote disrupts the “natural” lifestyle they imagined they’d enjoy out in the country, we “pioneer,” “colonize,” and “gentrify” at our peril, utterly oblivious to the social costs of our expansion until one comes back to bite us in the ass—or mug us on the stoop. And while it’s easy to blame the larger institutions and social trends leading us into these traps, our own choices and behaviors—however influenced—are ultimately responsible for whatever befalls us.

Park Slope, Brooklyn, is just a microcosm of the slippery slope upon which so many of us are finding ourselves these days. We live in a landscape tilted toward a set of behaviors and a way of making choices that go against our own better judgment, as well as our collective self- interest. Instead of collaborating with each other to ensure the best prospects for us all, we pursue short- term advantages over seemingly fixed resources through which we can compete more effectively against one another. In short, instead of acting like people, we act like corporations. When faced with a local mugging, the community of Park Slope first thought to protect its brand instead of its people.

The financial meltdown may not be punishment for our sins, but it is at least in part the result of our widespread obsession with financial value over values of any other sort. We disconnected ourselves from what matters to us, and grew dependent on a business scheme that was never intended to serve us as people. But by adopting the ethos of this speculative, abstract economic model as our own, we have disabled the mechanisms through which we might address and correct the collapse of the real economy operating alongside it.

Even now, as we attempt to dig ourselves out of a financial mess caused in large part by this very mentality and behavior, we turn to the corporate sphere, its central banks, and shortsighted metrics to gauge our progress back to health. It’s as if we believe we’ll find the answer in the stream of trades and futures on one of the cable- TV finance channels instead of out in the physical world. Our real investment in the fabric of our neighborhoods and our quality of life takes a backseat to asking prices for houses like our own in the newspaper’s misnamed “real estate” section. We look to the Dow Jones average as if it were the one true vital sign of our society’s health, and the exchange rate of our currency as a measure of our wealth as a nation or worth as a people.

This, in turn, only distracts us further from the real- world ideas and activities through which we might actually re-create some value ourselves.
Read more.

Wired - Culture May Be Encoded in DNA

Great article from Wired - there may be evidence of DNA-encoded culture, which might change our understanding of genetics. Granted, this is a study of songbirds, but DNA acts remarkably in the same way across species.

Culture May Be Encoded in DNA


Knowledge is passed down directly from generation to generation in the animal kingdom as parents teach their children the things they will need to survive. But a new study has found that, even when the chain is broken, nature sometimes finds a way.

Zebra finches, which normally learn their complex courtship songs from their fathers, spontaneously developed the same songs all on their own after only a few generations.

“We found that in this case, the culture was pretty much encoded in the genome,” said Partha Mitra of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, co-author of a study in Nature on Sunday.

Birds transmit their songs through social interactions, as humans do for languages, dances, cuisine and other cultural elements. Though birds and humans have clearly followed different evolutionary paths, birdsong culture can still inform theories of human culture.

Normally, male finches learn their complex courtship songs (MP3) from their uncles and fathers. But if there are no vocal role models around, the song will deviate from the traditional song and be harsh to female finch ears (MP3). Each bird, then, must learn from his father or uncles, as they learned from their fathers, and so on — but this can only take us so far down the lineage.

“It’s the classic ‘chicken and the egg’ puzzle,” Mitra said. “Learning may explain how the son copies its father’s song, but it doesn’t explain the origin of the father’s song.”

Mitra’s team wanted to find out what would happen if an isolated bird raised his own colony. As expected, birds raised in soundproof boxes grew up to sing cacophonous songs.

But then scientists let the isolated birds give voice lessons to a new round of hatchlings. They found that the young males imitated the songs — but they tweaked them slightly, bringing the structure closer to that of songs sung in the wild. When these birds grew up and became tutors, their pupils’ song continue to conform, with tweaks.

After three to four generations, the teachers were producing strapping young finches that belted out normal-sounding songs.

You can listen to the progression below, but keep in mind that the elements that are important to female finches — duration of beats, rise and fall of pitch — can be difficult for the untrained human ear to pick up on. (QuickTime works best for these)

  • birds raised in isolation (MP3)
  • first generation (MP3)
  • second generation (MP3)
  • third generation (MP3)
  • fourth generation (MP3)
  • wild birds (MP3, MP3)

“It all happened so fast, and there was so little difference between the colony and in the one-to-one tutoring environment,” said lead author Olga Fehér of City College of New York. “So the process is pretty much hardwired. And the interesting thing was also that they could only get so close in a single generation, so the three to four generations were necessary for the phenotype to emerge.”

“Song culture can emerge ‘from the egg,’ as it were, if one allows for multiple generations to elapse,” Mitra said. ”In a similar way, we may ‘grow’ our languages.”

Though there are approximately 6,000 different languages in the world, they all share certain structural and syntactic elements. Even when a language arises spontaneously, as it did in the 1970s among deaf school children in Nicaragua, it adheres to these stereotypical human language features.

The study’s findings might have implications beyond language to other culturally-transmitted systems, said evolutionary biologist and cognitive scientist Tecumseh Fitch, at the University of St. Andrews.

“We can think about both birdsong and human culture — especially language but including other aspects of human culture, like music, cuisine, dance styles, rituals, technological achievements, clothing styles, pottery decoration and a host of others — in similar terms,” he said. These culturally-transmitted systems must all pass through the filter of biology.

“Look at all the different human cultures,” said Mitra. “They’re different, but they’re all within certain constraints, so those differences aren’t genetic. But now compare with the chimp culture — there are key differences. The possibilities between those cultures are constrained by biology.”

Mitra admits that the analogies between bird culture and human culture are tenuous. “But there are resemblances. Culture is just learned behaviors. The motivating scenario is, if you isolate human babies from culture, put them on an island and come back after a few generations, what would their culture be like? What sort of language would they have? What sort of politics would evolve?”

That experiment probably won’t take place in the near future. In the meantime, Fitch says we can learn valuable lessons about human culture from songbirds, both at theoretical and mechanistic levels.

“Social learning is shared between the two, and songbirds are a well-understood and experimentally tractable system,” he said. “These biologically-grounded studies will lead us beyond the tired ‘nature versus nurture’ or ‘biology versus culture’ dichotomies which dominate the social sciences today.”

See Also:

Citation: Olga Fehér, Haibin Wang, Sigal Saar, Partha P. Mitra & Ofer Tchernichovski. “De novo establishment of wild-type song culture in the zebra finch.” Nature, published online ahead of print May 3, 2009.

Image: Flickr/NeilsPhotography

Seed - Are We Beyond the Two Cultures?

Good stuff from Seed Magazine.

Seed celebrates the questions C.P. Snow raised 50 years ago by asking: Where are we now?

Where Are We Now?


A New Picture of the Two Cultures

May 7 marks the 50th anniversary of C.P. Snow’s Two Cultures lecture. Half a century ago the prominent novelist and speaker, who studied under Lord Rutherford, described a chasm between literary intellectuals and scientists, a gulf that impoverished both sides and impeded efforts to relieve suffering around the world. Science was not understood or respected by the dominant culture, to the detriment of all, he said. At some point scientists had ceased to be considered intellectuals, Snow noted, and though any educated person was required to know Shakespeare, almost none knew the second law of thermodynamics.

Snow’s words touched off decades of debate on both the existence of the “Two Cultures” and the possibility of a “Third Culture” — a group Snow envisioned as curious non-scientists who could bridge the gap between scientists and humanists. In 1991, literary agent John Brockman wrote an essay entitled “The Third Culture,” which made the point that “scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are.” In 1991, his Edge Foundation launched a website  — Edge  — explicitly to bring together intellectuals of the Third Culture — many scientists, but also writers and philosophers—with the goal of bringing empirical studies directly to the public. The Third Culture has grown beyond Edge, as scientists have become increasingly public — and even famous  — figures. Seed approached six thinkers to ask where we are now: Whether the Two Cultures are still divided, and what role the Third Culture is playing.

New Scientist - Ray Kurzweil: A Singular View of the Future

I like Ray Kurzweil, but I think his views on the singularity are naive at best, and just plain silly at worst. Still, he is pretty cool and fun to listen to. This is a good interview.

Ray Kurzweil: A singular view of the future

Ray Kurzweil is not satisfied with being human, and looks forward to the Singularity when, he says, we will all develop beyond our limited biology (Image: Larry Busacca / Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival)

Ray Kurzweil is not satisfied with being human, and looks forward to the Singularity when, he says, we will all develop beyond our limited biology (Image: Larry Busacca / Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival)

Read more: Five futurist visionaries and what they got right

For inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil, being human with limited intelligence and doomed biology was never good enough. So he came up with an idea called the Singularity - a time when humans merge with machines, become smart and live forever. From MIT to the White House, people either hate the idea or can't wait for it to happen. So, asks Liz Else, will any of us live long enough to see it?

When will the Singularity arrive?

By 2045, give or take. We are already a hybrid of biological and non-biological technology. A handful of people have electronic devices in their brain, for example. The latest generation allows medical software to be downloaded to a computer inside your brain. But if you consider that 25 years from now these technologies will be 100,000 times smaller and a billion times more powerful, you get some idea of what will be feasible. And even though most of us don't have computers in our bodies, they are already part of who we are.

What about people who don't want to be "trans-human"Movie Camera and merge with technology?

How many people completely reject all medical and health technology, don't wear glasses or take any medicine? People say they don't want to change themselves, but then when they get a disease they will do whatever they can to overcome it. We're not going to get from here to the world of 2030 or 2040 in one grand leap; we're going to get there through thousands of little steps. Put these steps together and ultimately the world is a different place.

Can we outrun our current environmental problems to reach 2045?

Yes. The resources are much greater than they appear. We only have to capture 1 part in 10,000 of the sunlight to get all the energy we need. Nanotechnology is being applied to solar energy collection technology and that is scaling up at an exponential rate. Such new technologies are ultimately very inexpensive because they are subject to the law of accelerating returns.

What do you mean by the law of accelerating returns?

The power of ideas to change the world is accelerating and few people grasp the implications of that fully. People don't think exponentially, yet exponential change applies to anything that involves measuring information content. Take genetic sequencing. When the human genome project was announced in 1990, sceptics said: "No way you're going to do this in 15 years." Halfway through the project the sceptics were still going strong, saying you've only finished 1 per cent of the project. But that's actually right on schedule: by the time you get to 1 per cent you're only seven doublings away.

The power of ideas to change the world is accelerating, but few grasp the implications

You have a strong track record with your predictions. Has this exponential thinking helped get the timing right?

In the mid-1980s, I predicted the emergence of the World Wide Web for the mid-1990s. It seemed ridiculous then, when the entire US defence budget could only link up a few thousand scientists. But I saw it doubling every year and it happened right on schedule. It is quite remarkable how predictable these measures of the power of information technology are. Even so, millions of innovators are going to come up with unexpected ideas. Who would have anticipated social networks and blogs? If 10 years ago I had said we're going to create an encyclopedia and anybody can write and edit it, you'd have thought, my god, it's going to be full of graffiti and completely worthless. It's amazing how good it is if we harness the collective wisdom.

These advances all sound very utopian.

They are not utopian because technology is a double-edged sword, it introduces new problems as well. Overall, though, I do believe the benefits outweigh the damage that technology causes. Not everybody agrees.

Why did you set up the Singularity University earlier this year?

Peter Diamandis - founder and chairman of the X Prize Foundation - and I decided the time was right to start a university to bring together the leading people in artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, biotechnology and advanced computing to help solve the problems of the future, because these problems are complex and multidimensional. NASA and Larry Page of Google are also backing it. We're starting out small with 40 students this summer. It's a very intensive nine-week course.

Did you find out anything new about yourself from taking part in the movie Transcendent Man (see "Film review: Transcendent Man")?

Yes, I learned some things about my relationship with my father and the influence he had on my life as a creative person. I realised just how much I miss him. He was an acclaimed composer back in Vienna, which he left to flee the Nazis. He died from a heart attack when I was in my early 20s.

You have said that you would like to bring your father back to life because you miss him.

That's right. Using DNA from his grave collected by nanobots, then adding all the information extracted by AI from my memories and those of other people who remember him. Plus all the mementos of his life that I've kept, in boxes and elsewhere, could be downloaded. He could be an avatar, or a robot or in some other form.

Read more: Five futurist visionaries and what they got right


At 16, Ray Kurzweil and his computer-generated music featured on TV. After studying at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he made millions from inventions such as the flat-bed scanner and the first text-to-speech synthesiser. His awards include the National Medal of Technology. He takes 150-plus supplements daily to reach the Singularity.

NIH Public Access - Seeing Circuits Assemble

This is a free access article from the NIH on the new technology allowing the observation of neurons being assembled in the brain - the imaging also shows disassembly of neurons, which was suspected in the past. We know that brains create and destroy neurons at the same time while building brains - now we can watch it happen.

Jeff W. Lichtman2* and Stephen J. Smith1*
1Department of Physiology, Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA 94304, USA
2Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology, Center for Brain Science, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA
*Correspondence: Email:

Developmental neurobiology has been greatly invigorated by a recent string of breakthroughs in molecular biology and optical physics that permit direct in vivo observation of neural circuit assembly. The imaging done thus far suggests that as brains are built, a significant amount of unbuilding is also occurring. We offer the view that this tumult is the result of the intersecting behaviors of the many single-celled creatures (i.e., neurons, glia, and progenitors) that inhabit brains. New tools will certainly be needed if we wish to monitor the myriad cooperative and competitive interactions at play in the cellular society that builds brains.


The 2008 Chemistry Nobel Prize shared by Shimomura, Chalfie, and Tsien adds an exclamation point to a revolution that biology, and most particularly neurobiology, has undergone since the dawn of molecular biology. The emergence of imaging as the tool of choice for the analysis of cellular and molecular phenomena in the nervous system has been stunningly rapid. Notably, many neuroscientists trained in electrophysiology or molecular biology have eagerly retooled to take advantage of the powerful new imaging-based approaches. Even those of us who have worked in this field for a long time are hard pressed, however, to keep up with the rapid pace of the ongoing innovations.

These new methods have been especially powerful for those researchers interested in understanding the ways in which neural circuits assemble. But new methods come with new challenges for the practicing neuroscientist. First, of course, is mastery of the diverse technologies of fluorescence-based optical imaging. Second is the challenge of learning how to turn images into data. If experiences of the two authors are any guide, neither of these challenges is trivial. Moreover, if our aim is to understand neurodevelopmental phenomena, even overcoming these challenges may be insufficient. Our aim here is to take stock of where this fast moving field is presently and where we think it might profitably head in the immediate future. We will emphasize the dominant role of imaging in modern attempts to explain the development of the nervous system. But as powerful as the new tools, which we will review briefly here, may be, we will also try to make the case that continuing efforts to develop new tools, still more powerful, will be needed to really begin to understand how the vast and intricate circuitry of the nervous system comes into being.

1. Imaging Biology

The triumphs that led to this imaging revolution occurred largely in the 1990s and are in two general areas: molecular biology and imaging technology. By the millennium, both of these fields more or less inadvertently coalesced in the GFP revolution. Now, thanks to genetically encoded labeling strategies, scientists can label virtually any aspect of the nervous system from widespread populations of neurons (Feng et al., 2000) to selective long axon tracks (Bareyre et al., 2005) to dendrite spines (Chen et al., 2000); from neuronal mitochondria (Misgeld et al., 2007) to synaptic vesicles (Meyer and Smith, 2006); from microtubule-associated proteins (Jacobs et al., 2007) to CaM kinase II (Shen et al., 1998); etc., and can do so in the brains of living animals!

The origins of the GFP revolution stem from the powerful molecular biology toolkit developed in the 1980s. Thus, when Prasher and colleagues obtained the sequence for GFP (Prasher et al., 1992), very little time passed before Chalfie and Tsien took advantage of his clone to demonstrate the magic of genetically encoded fluorescent labels (Chalfie et al., 1994; Heim et al., 1994). Because the background fluorescence of most animal cells is so low with the visible excitation used for GFP visualization, GFP provides inherently high sensitivity. In many circumstances, even single molecules of a fluorescent probe are visible. Moreover, because genetically encoded GFP is introduced by the cell's endogenous protein synthesis machinery, many of the problems of biological perturbation and spillage background associated with earlier methods of vital staining (e.g., with absorbance dyes like methylene blue a century earlier [Lu and Lichtman, 2007]or the decades old uses of exogenous fluorescence dyes [Honig and Hume, 1989; Magrassi et al., 1987]) are automatically circumvented. Other advantages include the fact that the cell can continue synthesizing the fluorescent protein throughout its life so it is possible to monitor the same cells over arbitrarily long durations even if some of the dye degrades or is bleached by imaging. Moreover unlike small organic fluorescent molecules, GFP evolved over the eons to have relatively low phototoxicity. The fluorescent moiety is an imidazolone ring structure that is formed by the posttranslational cyclization of a tripeptide, ser65-tyr66-gly67. It is situated at the center of the cylinder created by the 238 amino acid peptide along an alpha chain that runs down the center of protein (Yang et al., 1996; Ormö et al., 1996). Because fluorescent excitation can lead to free radical formation (see Lichtman and Conchello, 2005 for discussion), this design may keep the reactive species a bit removed from nearby unrelated proteins.

Ironically the initial uses of this tool—and perhaps the majority of its current uses—relate more to histology than to molecular biology. The emergence of imaging comes as a counterpoint to the molecular triumphs in neurobiology. Synaptic function (Sudhof, 2004), synaptic plasticity (Thomas and Huganir, 2004), axon pathfinding (Charron and Tessier-Lavigne, 2007), synaptogenesis (Montgomery et al., 2004), and neuronal migration (Hatten, 2002), to name a few, have all yielded to molecular analyses giving rise to the outlines of biochemical pathways as explanations for cellular phenomena. Now these same phenomena are being revisited with tools that allow them to be directly witnessed. For the first time it is possible to see synaptic vesicle release and recycling (Schweizer and Ryan, 2006), dendritic spine plasticity (Yuste and Bonhoeffer, 2004), axon pathfinding (Hechler et al., 2006), synaptogenesis (Alsina et al., 2001; Jontes and Smith, 2000; Niell et al., 2004; Meyer and Smith, 2006), and neuronal migration (Hatta et al., 2006).

How did all these phenomena become imageable? GFP, while certainly part of the story, is not the whole story. The 1990s not only saw a maturation of molecular biological sophistication but also were marked by breakthrough after breakthrough in imaging technologies. These advances included (1) the utilization of lasers as ultra-bright light sources for laser scanning confocal microscopy (Amos and White, 2003); (2) the advancement of solidstate detectors designed for low light level fluorescence imaging (Aikens et al., 1989); (3) the realization that nonlinear fluorescence excitation by 2- or 3-photon fluorescence excitation with a scanning pulsed laser gave optical sectioning, less photobleaching, and greater depth penetration (Denk et al., 1990); (4) the advent of a large number of small organic fluorescent probes that worked as Ca2+ indicator dyes (Tsien, 1989); and (5) the beginnings of the use of genetically encoded indicators such as the cameleons (Miyawaki et al., 1997; Zhang et al., 2002), the last two of these being the fundamental contributions from the lab of Roger Tsien—not to mention his central role in the development of a range of spectral variants based on GFP, for which he shared this year's chemistry Nobel.

The use of scanning microscopy techniques requires special comment. Confocal microscopy was first described by Marvin Minsky in the 1950s, but hardly anyone noticed (Minsky, 1998). In the last several years confocal imaging became commonplace when second generation spinning disc (Tanaami et al., 2002)and laser scanning approaches (Amos and White, 2003) both became robust enough to be commercially viable. This optical sectioning technique gives excellent images that are uncontaminated by out of focus light, but for imaging dynamics it has some serious drawbacks (Conchello and Lichtman, 2005). First confocal imaging has limited depth penetration in living tissue that scatters light, so it is not optimal for viewing thick volumes of in vivo. Second, confocal detection is inherently inefficient, often requiring more illumination of the live specimen than it can endure before bleaching or phototoxicity occurs. The invention of two-photon microscopy in 1990 (Denk et al., 1990) was a watershed, as this technique solved these two major problems with confocal in one stroke. Over the past 18 years many thousands of papers have used two-photon microscopy to image biological phenomena not only in neurobiology but also in immunology, developmental biology, and many other fields (Benninger et al., 2008). The rise of two-photon imaging has allowed the study of the live brain tissues in situ over periods of days to months with little or none of the phototoxicity effects that limited previous methods. Prior to two-photon microscopy, neurobiologists interested in structural dynamics of neural structures in intact organisms had to content themselves to work with accessible peripheral nervous system dendrites and synapses that could be imaged with much less sophisticated imaging tools (Purves et al., 1986; Lichtman et al., 1987).

Given the power of two-photon imaging it is remarkable that yet another revolution in imaging has also been underway to overcome what many have considered the most impenetrable barrier to understanding: the limited resolution of optical microscopy. Microscopists have traditionally accepted that imaging resolution was limited to approximately half the wavelength of light being detected due to the fundamental optical phenomenon of diffraction. This so-called hard limit in resolution hinders the ability of light microscopy to bridge the enormous chasm between the molecular interactions occurring on the scale of a few nanometers and images of neurons with resolutions that are at best several hundred nanometers. Researchers interested in molecular interactions have in some cases overcome this limitation by FRET-based imaging techniques in which fluorescence signals are modified by nanometer proximity between donor and acceptor fluorescent molecules (Roy et al., 2008). In addition, tracking single particles has long been accomplished with nanometer precision (Vale et al., 1996). But neither of these approaches produces actual images beyond the traditional diffraction limit. However, thanks to a number of new so-called “nanoscopic” fluorescence techniques (Hell, 2007), the diffraction barrier itself has been breached with what may soon provide electron microscope type resolution for standard fluorescence imaging applications. Techniques such as STED (Willig et al., 2006), PALM (Betzig et al., 2006), FPALM (Hess et al., 2006), STORM (Rust et al., 2006), and structured illumination (Gustafsson, 2005) provide the imager with a way to see fluorescently labeled structures with nanometer resolutions. Recent use of these approaches in fast modes allowed imaging dynamics in living cells at subdiffraction resolutions (Shroff et al., 2008; Hein et al., 2008).

While imaging tools have matured there has been a steady drift in the kinds of neural preparations that can be studied. Imaging neurons and glia in culture has traditionally been preferred over more intact preparations because of the greater transparency of monolayer cultures. While cellular dynamics such as growth cone behavior and dendritogenesis are much easier to image in cell cultures, the milieu is abnormally simple, motivating many developmental neuroscientists to migrate to more intact preparations such as slice cultures or acute slices. But neither acute nor cultured slices can be accepted uncritically as faithful models for an organism's development. Now, the use of two-photon imaging allows the imaging of CNS development over any time period desired.
Read the whole article.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Zen Motivational Poster

I found this at MonkMojo's 1,000 Cuts - it's funny because it's true.

Today - National Day of Reason

So, let's be reasonable today, OK? So that means no horoscopes, no magical thinking of any kind (yes, I'm talking to you "law of attraction" people), and no, wait for it . . . God.

Why a "National Day of Reason?"

Many who value the separation of religion and government have sought an appropriate response to the federally-supported National Day of Prayer, an annual abuse of the constitution. Nontheistic Americans (including freethinkers, humanists, atheists, agnostics, and deists), along with many traditionally religious allies, view such government-sanctioned sectarianism as unduly exclusionary.

A consortium of leaders from within the community of reason endorsed the idea of a National Day of Reason. This observance is held in parallel with the National Day of Prayer, on the first Thursday in May each year (May 7th in 2009). The goal of this effort is to celebrate reason—a concept all Americans can support—and to raise public awareness about the persistent threat to religious liberty posed by government intrusion into the private sphere of worship.

The Day of Reason also exists to inspire the secular community to be visible and active on this day to set the right example for how to effect positive change. Local organizations might use "Day of Reason" to label their events, or they might choose labels such as Day of Action, Day of Service, or Rational Day of Care. The important message is to provide a positive, useful, constitutional alternative to the exclusionary National Day of Prayer.

To facilitate the commemoration of the National Day of Reason by individuals and organizations throughout the U.S., the American Humanist Association and the Washington Area Secular Humanists joined together in 2003 to launch this National Day of Reason web site. This web site is designed to serve as the focal point for an effort to recognize the National Day of Reason, and as a platform to offer a criticism of the federally-sponsored National Day of Prayer. We hope that it will be a resource to the community of reason, the press, and the general public.

Look to this site for facts and statistics regarding the National Day of Prayer, essays on church-state separation from noted authorities in the field, sample proclamations and press releases, and a host of other resources. The focus of the site will be the many National Day of Reason events taking place in cities and towns across the nation.

We invite individuals and organizations to endorse this campaign, and to submit information about their plans to commemorate the National Day of Reason and their efforts to educate the public about the important underlying issues. Those organizations conducting events, activism or outreach in their communities will be featured on the site so that activists can readily identify opportunities to organize and participate in local events.

There is great potential this year to give voice to our shared concerns about the serious threats to the wall separating religion and government. We hope that you will visit our site again, and we look forward to hearing about your plans to observe the National Day of Reason.

Now, more than ever, America needs a Day of Reason!

OK, sure, why not?

But hell, if we need to remind people to be reasonable, there isn't much hope. Protesting a national day of prayer in a nation that is nearly 80% Christian isn't going to get very far.

Ven. Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche - The Seeds of Compassion

A cool three-part video with the Ven. Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche on The Seeds of Compassion.
Ven. Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche travels to the Noble Land of India making offerings and contributions to others. He discusses how the seeds of compassion blossom for the benefit of all beings.



Mike Treder - Getting Past Us vs. Them

Another theoretical article on transhumanism - this time on the idea that we are hard-wired for an us vs them mentality, an evolutionary necessity. But, wonders Mike Treder, might the advent of technological transhumanism offer us a way to transcend that binary perspective?

Answer: maybe. But at what cost to our humanity? It's worth noting that as I post these articles, I am somewhat opposed to the ideals of the transhumanism movement in general (though open to some particulars).

Getting Past Us vs. Them

Mike Treder

Mike Treder

Ethical Technology

Posted: May 6, 2009

A stone age hunter-gatherer, coming upon a conflict where danger was present, didn’t have time to carefully analyze the situation, look for nuances, or seek points of commonality between combatants. Instead, driven by adrenalin, heart pumping, thoughts racing, pupils dilated—within seconds a choice was made: pick a side and join the fray, or turn and run away.

On the blog Overcoming Bias, sponsored by the Future of Humanity Institute, economics professor Robin Hanson writes:

As fiction authors know, compelling stories need conflict; readers love to root for good guys against bad guys. As college professors know, students perk up when academic topics are posed as conflicts. Sophomores love to hear each subject posed as a conflict between several possible isms, especially a long bitter conflict.

Then, describing his experience in dealing with blog readers, Hanson says:

...most commenters did not want compromise; they instead wanted to take sides and seek better ways for their side to win the war. Generation after generation, some old tell the young to seek internal peace; no internal side has the strength to win a clean victory, so all out war risks all out destruction. But the young will not hear.

It seems that one of humanity’s strongest ideals is actually war, i.e., uncompromising conflict. In our culture we are supposed to oppose ordinary bloody war, preferring peace when possible there. But we do not generalize this lesson much to other sorts of conflicts. We celebrate those who take sides and win far more than we do peacemakers and compromisers. But the principle is the same; every side can expect to get more of what it wants from compromise deals than from all out conflict.

Professor Hanson is clearly right that humans have a built-in bias to look at complicated situations and reduce them to simple binary choices. It wouldn’t be hard for someone to develop a thesis from evolutionary psychology to support this argument.

Think about it for a minute. If you’re a stone age hunter-gatherer (which 99% of your humanoid ancestors were), and you come upon a conflict where danger is present, you don’t have time to carefully analyze the situation, look for nuances, seek points of commonality between combatants, etc. If you try this approach, you’re quite likely to end up dead. Instead, driven by adrenalin, your heart pumps, your thoughts race, your pupils dilate, and within seconds, if not sooner, you make a choice, pick a side, and join the fray. Either that or turn and run away.

I don’t think a comparatively few centuries of Enlightenment will quickly overcome two thousand millennia of this sort of evolutionary development.

So, what’s the solution? We’ve come a long way already through the spread of freedom, equality, education, and the benefit of a fossil-fueled prosperity. Yet, as Hanson points out, we’re still inclined to look for right sides and wrong sides, good sides and bad sides, ready to choose up and fight.

As a transhumanist, I wonder if the availability—and, perhaps, popularity—of enhancement therapies to increase our intelligence, moderate our psychology, and maximize our wisdom will someday open a door into new ways of thinking and living without the reflex need for us vs. them conflict.

Mike Treder is the Managing Director of the IEET, and former Executive Director of the non-profit Center for Responsible Nanotechnology.