A certain teacher I know mentioned to me that she had brought up the subject of the UK royal wedding with her class yesterday. Some were quite excited, although they didn't appear to know why. What interested me was that one child asked "How does the Queen get chosen?". How indeed? When the teacher went on to explain that the male child would always become monarch, no matter how many smart and able female siblings preceded him, the children immediately concluded that this was "unfair".
I just looked up the dictionary definition of the word 'gormless'. It reads "Lacking intelligence and vitality; dull". Well nobody could accuse these kids of gormlessness. Their young, and still open, minds have the questioning curiosity that many of us say we would love to be able to retain through to adulthood. They ask incisive and relevant questions about subjects which they do not understand. Healthy, yes?
And yet today, as two unjustly-elevated ape descendants pronounce their love for each other, we find ourselves hit by a tsunami of gormlessness. To understand the unfairness of monarchy is child's play. There are no morally justifiable reasons for supporting the idea of monarchy.
The UK is a horribly class-ridden country. Inequality is rampant here. A private school educated elite of wealthy, well-connected, nepotistic individuals run the country. An mean-spirited, ageing woman of vast wealth heads the 'state', using her ancient privileges to engineer a continued wealthy and powerful future for her offspring. All, including the poorest 'subjects', must by law contribute to increasing the wealth of this woman and her family.
But the mean-spiritedness and avarice of the royal family are not the real issue here. The individuals are not important but the symbolism is. The institution of monarchy screams out to every person in this land that they are unequal by birth; that power and privilege are things you are born into; that receipt of vast power doesn't require democracy; that the future will be the same as the past - a grinding slog of lost potential and obsequious, cowed obedience by the masses so that the few can retain their baubles.
You simply can't be a futurehead while believing in the institution of monarchy. The two mindsets are incompatible. Any kind of future society we would aspire to live in would not stand for such rampant inequality.
I suppose I have implied here that those who enthusiastically watch the marriage of "Wills and Kate" today are uniformly gormless. That's not my intention but, if you find that this flummery appeals to your sensibilities, maybe it's time to look inside yourself and wonder if you have even the measure of healthy, questioning curiosity that a child displays.
Baby Ella Claxton was 'frozen' for 3 days in order to save her life, we were told in the news headlines recently. It's an ideal popular-press headline, another opportunity for some mindless hack to make frequent use the word 'miracle'. But we are not, of course, really talking about miracles or freezing here but rather therapeutic hypothermia.
It's also misleading for the press to be talking about baby Ella having been 'stillborn'. She was, in reality, suffering from oxygen starvation which the doctors feared was causing ischemic brain injury. Putting her into a hypothermic state reduced her requirement for oxygen and, therefore, reduced the risk of brain damage.
This story, and others relating to the use of therapeutic hypothermia, strike a chord with me. I often struggle to explain the principles of cryonics to people who are unfamiliar with the subject. For some reason the thorny issue of death keeps getting in the way. But news stories about therapeutic cooling, no matter how inaccurately written, help to get across the importance of these techniques during life and, therefore, provide a 'contextual bridge' for getting to the subject of cooling after death.
To me the key principal in both cases is delay. The cooling of this oxygen-starved newborn provided a time delay during which doctors could assess and reduce the effects of Hypoxic-Ischemic Encephalopathy. In the case of cryonics the cooling and eventual 'vitrification' of the deceased provides an indefinite time delay during which scientists can work towards the formulation of appropriate revival techniques.
I realise that there is a gaping void of feasibility and perceived credibility between therapeutic hypothermia and cryonics. The media wish to use words like 'dead' and 'stillborn' in connection with baby Ella because that is what gets a reaction: If she was 'dead' it appears 'miraculous' that she was 'brought back'. But, as we should have realised by now, the perceived boundaries between what constitutes life and what constitutes death can be fuzzy and mutable.
When all else has failed, where is the harm in cooling a body? It may just provide that precious gift of time required to find a means of revival. If nothing else it will delay the onset of decay and dissolution into the nothingness of non-life.
It's becoming increasingly apparent to me that the Internet has at least some of the properties of a putative 'truth machine'.
I feel a certain (and specific) euphoria as I watch the establishment stumble around trying to nuance and process raw information, such as that emanating from Wikileaks, into digestible chunks. That specific euphoria is born of hope that they will not succeed and that they will choke on it.
The establishment, of course, tries to blindside us by concentrating on whatever it is that Prince Andrew* has said instead of the rather less flavour-enhanceable statistics on Iraq and Afghanistan war killings. But, perhaps, despite our near-constant immersion in junk data, the fresh scent of truth cutting through the stench of corruption still stirs something fundamental in us.
Why see the Internet as a 'truth machine'? Because it can force truth out, and in the case of Wikileaks positively spew it out, as part of its ordinary function. This is a function to be seized upon and celebrated by all those who care about the availability of truth to all.
The coming 'Semantic Web' offers the promise of a far greater level of programming development toward this end. A vast amount of money and effort has gone into developing the sophisticated search capabilities (usually for purely commercial purposes) with which we are all now so familiar. The Semantic Web could create a different kind of revolution by allowing the release of algorithms that could mine raw data for consistent truth. The challenges involved in developing such capabilities are daunting but the prize is great.
We may not yet have the precision instrument of truth-focused semantic search required to quickly, consistently and easily dissect the facts, but we do now have the blunt instrument of vast quantities of easily available data, with which to bludgeon the dissemblers into submission. Not a 'truth machine' yet but at least, perhaps, a 'truth steam-hammer' with ambitions.
*To my mind the entire concept of monarchy is "rude and inappropriate".
I've been interested for a while in the idea of memetic viruses, as oft-discussed by philosophy-of-science visionaries such as Daniel Dennett and Susan Blackmore. I was recently given, by a certain school teacher I know, an example of branding-meme-induced behaviour in children.
The school teacher had noticed a growth in instances of children gnawing through the cuffs/sleeves of their jumpers/sweaters, then sticking their thumbs through. She first put this down to simply being the kind of disgusting habit that children of early primary school age (7-9 years old) tend to pick up. It was only later that she realised that they were attempting a rudimentary simulation of the kind of "thumb hole sleeve" tops (by a company called "Bench" I believe) that they had seen teenagers wearing. Sounds innocent enough doesn't it? Kids have been doing this kind of thing since time immemorial.
Personally, I think examples like this are more insidious. This one is particularly interesting because it's a case where the children have picked up a meme virus that could actually give them a "physical" virus.
I wonder why we get so hung up about the hinterland between life and death? We appear to struggle with the notion of any kind of 'degree' of life or death and want it to be a clean-cut one or the other. In reality, unless you suffer near-instantaneous extinction, e.g. on the bumper of a passing Scania, there will be some 'fading out' process.
It is understandable that the average person may struggle with this concept. We've been brought up on a diet of dualist hogwash that envisages death as the point where the 'soul' leaves the body to ascend (or descend) to a higher (or lower) plane of existence (non-existence). But it isn't acceptable for medical professionals to think this way.
Watching this week's Horizon, entitled "Back from the Dead", made me quite queasy. Not because of the surgical procedures, but because of the way that the well-established principles of therapeutic hypothermia appeared to be news to many of the doctors in the programme. The highlighted case of Anna Bågenholm and her resuscitation after some three hours in circulatory arrest, while absolutely fascinating, happened eleven years ago. How can it be that some medical professionals have never heard of her?
'Common sense' is often misleading, but what's going on here? Do these doctors not have fridges in their homes? Have they ever tried preserving the odd piece of food in them? You don't have to understand the innermost mysteries of mitochondria to get an inkling of the preservative effects of cooling on biological material.
Maybe the problem, with doctors at least, has more to do with where the acceptance of where the principle takes us: To the realisation that medical professionals are, in their honest ignorance, switching off and pronouncing dead, potentially viable people; to dealing with the logistical burden of using therapeutic cooling on many serious cases; to coping with a huge increase in the numbers requesting cryonic preservation of ready-hypothermic but pronounced family members.
Enough of the wide-eyed wonder. Cooling works, and we have known this for many years. Let's see medical policy and practice that deals with the established reality of the protective properties of therapeutic hypothermia, wherever that may lead us.
"Life is just one damned thing after another". So said U.S. author Elbert Hubbard sometime around the late nineteenth century. This was probably intended to be cutting, cynical, fatalistic. But I recently saw it turned round in an interesting way by author David Orrell in his book 'The Future of Everything'.
Here it's to do not with fatalism but complexity. Life is just one thing after another: change piling on change, complexity piling on complexity, evolution piling on evolution. Incremental steps of indeterminate size creating pattern and randomness of unknown and unknowable outcome. Whether these things could be described as 'damned' is another matter. They can certainly seem damnable sometimes.
Deterministic laws, such as Newton's Laws of Motion, work for everything from planetary orbits to dropped anvils. But we now know that his 'clockwork universe' is far from being the whole story. In the case of complex systems it is simply not possible to plug in all the variables and find the correct outcomes. Most of the things we would wish to predict are non-linear in this way. Forget butterfly wings as a variable in your weather forecasts - try plugging in some sea, some mountains, some hail, some snow, some wind, some rain, some sunshine and you'll have problems enough.
Perhaps there's a new kind of joy to be found in this damnable complexity. For those who insist on plugging the gaps with God-filler, a deterministic universe is really the only outcome: an all-knowing entity must know how its experiment is going to turn out, otherwise it's not all-knowing and therefore ipso facto not God. But, of course, all-knowing entities aren't required, and thus we are liberated from God and determinism (the same thing really). Complexity will emerge because complexity will emerge because emergent complexity will emerge.
An article that appeared in the Guardian newspaper yesterday offering a pro-case for homeopathy has caused quite a stir amongst it's online users. I was going to write a piece about it, but as you'll see the barrage of comments following the article give a clear indication of the overwhelming opinion on it. I was particularly drawn to a comment by a user called Brawnwilliams, which pretty much sums up my own take on it.
"There is a simple concept underlying this and I honestly, really and truly cannot believe that anyone intellectually capable of making a cup of tea or putting on their own trousers or scratching their head cannot grasp it: If you take a medicine for a condition and that condition subsequently improves, this ALONE does not demonstrate that the medicine CAUSED the improvement.
There are OTHER explanations which have been covered above and elsewhere ad nauseum and the only way to rule out these other explanations and demonstrate causation is with rigorously conducted, properly controlled tests, published following peer review all done in a totally transparent way. That’s all. Anecdotes CANNOT give you this vital information which is the only way that science and medicine moves forward, and dosnt stay stuck, say, in 1798. This has been done extensively for homeopathy and it has been conclusively and repeatedly shown that homeopathic remedies work no better than placebo. That is a fact supported by the evidence, not a matter of opinion. You may have an opinion about whether I’m a nice guy, but you cannot have an opinion or debate about the fact I’m 5ft 10 and 36 years old.
The Guardian, in what I assume was a clumsy attempt to show the ‘other side’ of the debate has damagingly given the impression that the jury is still out and printed information that simply isn’t true eg ‘mounting evidence that homeopathy is effective' "
It also gives me the perfect opportunity to post this...
Why is this horrible event relevant to the development of the human race? Because it makes humans look like a bunch of barbaric death monkeys, rather than the highly evolved and intelligent lifeforms we must strive to be if we are to have any hope of survival. I don't mean to insult monkeys, just the ignorant excuses for humanity who are involved in the perpetration of state-sanctioned murder.
Executions happen all over the world, every day. But we should (and must) use highly publicised executions such as this one to highlight the ghastly inhumanity of such practices.
Families of victims cannot be allowed to guide the punishment of murderers. They cannot be rational or objective participants in the process. State execution cannot even be conflated with biblical "eye for an eye" fallacies, because the execution is more cruel than the deed of the murderer. The victim will usually have little (if any) time to contemplate his/her fate, while the murderer on death row has a hideous amount of time to contemplate his certain demise.
But policies of execution are, of course, bred from ancient and barbaric religious beliefs. We can't ignore this fact. Religion-compounded ignorance and survivalist expediency could be seen as excuses for this behaviour in the past. But those excuses can no longer hold. We now know a great deal about brains and how they can malfunction. The brain of Ronnie Lee Gardner malfunctioned; as did those of the people involved in his execution. The chance to repair his mind is gone; the chance to repair theirs is still present.
Our exponentially-developing science and technology demand humans with the wisdom to wield them. Murderers and executionists are relics of a terrible phase of our "development". Their lives are governed by fear so they are likely to find the future an utterly terrifying place and to try to cling on to the past with a death grip.