September 29, 2004
A bookofjoe reader sent me this link.
It would appear there are others besides myself who are disturbed by the Great Chinese Internet Firewall, but in this case, they have the technical capability to do something about it.
The efforts and existence of sites like Peekabooty will do as much to bring about a free China as the protesters who more visibly continue to lean against Big [Red] Brother.
I look forward to the day when the first Chinese bookofjoe fan sends me an email saying, "I read you, loud and clear."
Coming to a computer near you.
Perhaps sooner than you or I can imagine.
BehindTheMedspeak: SARS Magazine
Is this for real?
'Like most psychologists, she thinks of emotions as inner sensations rather than ways of apprehending reality.'
McGinn is a philosopher among whose books are "The Problem of Consciousness" and "The Making of a Philosopher."
His review begins,
"A good case could be made that the value of a life is determined by the moods that characterize it."
That stopped me in my tracks.
What does it mean?
I wasn't sure when I read it, nor am I now.
But that's not the point.
It caused me to slow down, turn things around, look for a way in.
So it is with many of the book reviews I read, which, alas, number far more than the number of books.
But in thinking about a book on the basis of reviews of it instead of the original text, I often find much to ponder.
So I'll continue reading and writing about reviews.
More from McGinn's review:
"She sees no relation between mood and truth."
Now I start to think about the work of Antonio Damasio,
who believes that only with emotional input can we make our best decisions and judgements.
Here's McGinn's review in its entirety.
The High Value of Avoiding Low Spirits
A good case could be made that the value of a life is determined by the moods that characterize it.
To feel sad and depressed is an undesirable life; to feel exuberant and full of zest is the way life ought to be lived.
Given this, it is clearly important to understand all moods - the good, the bad and the ugly.
Psychologists have typically focused on the miserable moods, no doubt because of the urgency of their remediation; but the elated ones are equally worthy of study.
"Psychologists," writes Kay Redfield Jamison, "for reasons of clinical necessity or vagaries of temperament, have chosen to dissect and catalogue the morbid emotions - depression, anger, anxiety - and to leave largely unexamined the more vital, positive ones."
In "Exuberance," (Alfred A. Knopf, 405 pages, $24.95) Ms. Jamison undertakes to correct this imbalance.
She argues that exuberance is crucial to creativity and achievement, as well as being a nice thing in itself.
Her main method is to cite various exuberant individuals - Teddy Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Wilson Bentley (the snowflake enthusiast), Louis Armstrong, Robert Louis Stevenson, James Watson, P.T. Barnum and others - and to argue that their exuberance was part of their success.
Much of the book thus consists of snippets of biography stitched together to make a general point.
Anecdotally this works well enough, and it is certainly fun to read. (I liked Churchill's remark: "We are all worms. But I do believe that I am a glow-worm.")
But the book is long on description and short on analysis.
Ms. Jamison readily admits that exuberance can swiftly shade into mania, poor judgment and annoying behavior, and she also allows that not all creative and successful people are naturally exuberant.
But she says little to specify how much exuberance is healthy or why it might conduce to creativity.
We are left with vague generalities about how emotional exuberance is often "associated with" cognitive excellence.
In the end, the thesis of the book reduces to the unhelpful formula: Exuberance is a really good thing, except when it's not.
The melancholy genius is left unaccounted for, as is the manic airhead.
Moreover, Ms. Jamison works with a crude opposition between introvert and extrovert personalities, declaring that extroverts - roughly, gregarious optimists - are more likely to possess intellectual firepower.
Shy people are said to be inhibited and lacking in enthusiasm and less likely to succeed.
Speaking as a shy person, I take exception to this lumping together of traits.
By no means are socially reserved people in general mentally inhibited or lacking in energy - we're just not very comfortable with strangers. I know many distinguished thinkers who are socially shy but mentally powered up, full of exuberance for life and work.
The classic notion of the "introvert" is far too simple to capture the complexities of temperament.
Ms. Jamison also treats exuberance as if it were a broad trait with no subspecies, a kind of free-floating up-ness.
But surely exuberance is selective: You can be exuberant about one thing and not another.
I would say that discriminating exuberance, not the all-over-the-place kind, is most conducive to creativity and success, for it enables the mind to focus on a specific subject or task.
But then, we cannot say outright that an exuberant personality is what does the trick; there has to be a more subtle relation between a person's emotions and his beliefs and values.
Ms. Jamison has a tendency to view emotions as if they are just superadded to your personality, one kind of psychic force among others.
But in reality they are not separable from other aspects of the mind.
Why am I exuberant when it comes to philosophy and water sports but not where geography and football are concerned?
This cannot be just because I have an insufficiently large dose of the exuberance trait in my makeup.
It must be because philosophy and water sports engage me in a way that those other things do not - and I could tell you a long story about why this is so.
"Exuberance" doesn't have much good to say about the melancholy mood, which Ms. Jamison tends to assimilate to pathological depression.
But there is a real question as to whether melancholy is a more appropriate emotional response to human life than exuberance.
The tragic sense of life is arguably truer to the world than blanket exuberance.
Melancholy might not be as good for you as elation, but it might reflect a greater appreciation of the world.
No doubt this is why exuberant people are often under suspicion of superficiality - as Ms. Jamison herself notes.
But she doesn't really want to appraise emotions for accuracy, possibly because she sees no relation between mood and truth.
Like most psychologists, she thinks of emotions as inner sensations rather than ways of apprehending reality.
Still, if you want a survey of high-spirited individuals and a hymn to exuberance in all the places it may be found - from rats and whales to artists, scientists and politicians - this is a well-written and engaging study.
And exuberance is surely sometimes entirely unobjectionable, not least in a book that praises it.
BehindTheMedspeak: 'The lens of the eye is the only transparent tissue in the human body.'
The first sentence of Ralf Dahm's article "Dying to See," in the current (October) issue of Scientific American. More:
In the past few years, scientists have determined that this transparency - critical for focusing light - stems in large part from the unique ability of the lens to activate a self-destruct program in its cells that aborts just before completion, leaving empty but sustainable cells that transmit visible rays.
A better understanding of how lens cells become and remain transparent should suggest ways to prevent lens-clouding cataracts.
Beyond protecting vision, improved knowledge of how the lens tightly controls cell suicide could reveal ways to treat debilitating conditions characterized by inappropriate or excessive cell death, chief among them Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, and chronic infections such as AIDS.
The eye's lens is a biological marvel, being at once dense, flexible and clear.
Transparency in nature is unusual because cells have organelles - internal structures such as the nucleus, mitochondria, and the Golgi apparatus and endoplasmic reticulum, which are important in the synthesis of proteins and lipids.
Each structure has its own refractive index, and when a light ray crosses an area where the index changes, the light scatters, creating a degree of opaqueness.
Furthermore, many cells, including those in hair and skin, are populated with melanins - pigment molecules that come in colors ranging from red to black.
The lens has no melanin and no blood supply.
Yet that alone is not enough for transparency.
Cartilage has no melanin or blood supply and is colorless, but it is at best translucent.
That is because in virtually all tissues, cells or fibers are oriented at various angles, creating different refractive indices that scatter light as it passes through.
The lens is composed of only one cell type, and the cells are precisely aligned.
Is the lens even alive, being that it has no blood supply, no connective or nervous tissue, and no organelles?
If life means a cell has a metabolism, then lens cells are alive - albeit barely.
Young lens cells do have organelles when they first form from stem cells in a fetus, but the organelles are destroyed during early development.
Although they have no mitochondria to produce energy, certain nutrients and other molecules diffuse into the lens's outermost cells and slowly pass inward, cell to cell.
The lens is a "biological crystal" - that is, it has a very regular arrangement of cells.
Each cell contains large molecules - crystallin proteins - that form complexes with paracrystalline arrangements.
This construction makes the cytoplasm optically homogenous; the refractive index does not change inside the cell or from one cell to another.
Although lens cells survive the controlled suicide of organelles, this degradation has drastic implications.
Without nuclei, the genetic programs for synthesizing new parts are gone.
Mature lens cells cannot regenerate or repair themselves, as cells in other tissues do.
Within six months or so, 90% of the cells that make up our bodies are replaced by new ones.
Lens cells must function for a lifetime - a spectacular span.
This lack of repair mechanism makes the cells vulnerable to certain stresses.
For example, severe dehydration can cause crystallin proteins to precipitate, prompting their cells to crumble into a clump - a cataract.
This speck disrupts the otherwise uniform index of refraction, creating a cloudy spot in a person's field of vision.
Just a few weeks of extreme dehydration can initiate cataract formation.
The ability of lens cells to begin the process of cellular suicide and then halt it just short of total destruction has come as a surprise to scientists, who have up to now always considered such self-destruction - termed "apoptosis" - to be an unstoppable process.
Some unknown mechanism in the lens controls the death machinery so it destroys only certain cell components while leaving others intact.
Once this became apparent, the next leap in thinking came quickly: a mechanism that could control apoptosis could alter the progression of diseases characterized by excessive cellular suicide, such as neurodegenerative disorders.
Before reading this article, I hadn't known that dehydration could cause cataracts.
Elderly people are frequently hospitalized due to dehydration.
Could it be that cataracts could be prevented by encouraging constant ongoing fluid intake in seniors, even when they're not thirsty?
Perhaps cataracts are not an inevitable accompaniment of aging alone, but rather the result of the decreased fluid intake that seems to accompany aging.
The human lens is amazingly similar in structure to an onion.
I wonder if studying the biology of onions - how they happen to develop their layered structure - could be helpful in understanding how it is that the human lens attains its unique shape and underlying framework.
Movie night again last evening.
All I knew was that this was a powerful movie, perhaps too powerful: at least, I'd avoided seeing it until now because that seemed to be the consensus of the reviews.
Sometimes a movie seems too much for me when it first comes out; "Schindler's List" is one that comes to mind.
I didn't watch it on VHS until at least two years after its theatrical release, when I finally felt able to.
It was excellent and I'm glad I waited.
Likewise with "Mystic River."
I didn't realize that Sean Penn and Tim Robbins had won Academy Awards for their performances; I can see why.
Laura Linney was equally excellent, as were Kevin Bacon and Laurence Fishburn and Marcia Gay Harden.
Six really great actors and actresses, creating a world of powerful emotion.
The tricky ending completely came out of nowhere, but made perfect sense.
What a wonderful actor Sean Penn is, no matter what you think of him outside the theater.
Maybe tonight I'll watch "21 Grams," and have a mini Sean Penn festival.
Abandoned and little known airfields
Paul Freeman, a pilot, created this website.
So far, he's compiled descriptions and images of 1,173 airfields in all 50 states.
You can spend endless amounts of time here, looking at the past and watching how it disappears: palimpsests in the making.
From the site:
On the following pages, you will find information on vanished or abandoned airfields and little-known airfields with unusual histories.
As a pilot, a particular interest of mine has always been the abandoned airfields that dot the landscape of part of this country, as well as other unusual & little-known airfields.
Both for their potential safety value to a pilot in an emergency, and also for their sometimes fascinating history, this particular topic has always held my curiosity.
When I'm a passenger on commercial flights, I've always found myself looking out the window, constantly looking for airfields below.
When I fly as a pilot myself, I've always tried to land at as many airports as possible, to learn a little about each one.
X Prize launch countdown: SpaceShipOne is at T - 9 hours and counting...
Today at 9 a.m. Eastern time, Bert Rutan's SpaceShipOne will lift off from the Mojave Civilian Flight Test Center, carried by a wispy mother aircraft known as White Knight.
If the ship makes it into suborbital space, 62 miles above the earth's surface, and then does it again within two weeks, Rutan and his team will claim the $10 million Ansari X Prize, to be awarded to the first civilian entrepreneur who can put three people or the equivalent weight into suborbital space.
The site's got tons of other information about things space flight-related.
You can watch the entire event live here at the X Prize website.
FLO - the Holy Grail for astrobiologists
FLO stands for "first living organism."
As the search for life elsewhere in the solar system and beyond intensifies, the focus is on the moment when life began.
Stanley Miller's legendary experiment in 1952, when as a young graduate student in chemistry he electrically charged a flask full of components of the earth's early atmosphere and produced amino acids, is considered the beginning of the modern science of origins.
In order to find FLO, astrobiologists must first arrive at a working definition of "living."
Some say living means imperfect replication, since only then can mutation and and selection and evolution occur.
Quartz crystals make exact copies of themselves and have done so since the beginning of the earth, yet no one would claim them to be alive.
For FLO to have happened at all, it had to overcome the universe's most prohibitive law, the second law of thermodynamics, which dictates that all matter tends toward entropy, the dissipation of energy.
All life is in utter defiance of that law, a bound, energy-gathering stay, however brief, against entropy.
The other essential requirement for imperfect replication is that there has to have been a first bit of information, however crude, some kind of biochemical message or code, to begin to convey.
What was that first message?
A number of chemists are now trying to recreate in their labs a rough approximation of the elusive and still ill-defined transition from the purely chemical to the biological.
[via Charles Siebert and the New York Times magazine]
I read Siebert's article, "The Genesis Project," with interest.
More interesting, though, was thinking about the critical phase-shift, from chemistry to biology.
How reminiscent of the essential mystery at the heart of physics, namely, how does the quantum world of indeterminacy create the well-defined reality we all agree on and live in?
As one physicist put it, describing the process, "And then a miracle happens."
So with chemistry and biology: a miracle happens.
And yet there are those who would claim that science is objective while religion is all make-believe and voodoo.
I say, show me the difference between the two.
Because I'm not seeing it.