Tuesday, 2 August 2016

GlaxoSmithKline and Google Parent Company Team Up for Ambitious Project

GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), the UK’s biggest drug producer, and American multinational Alphabet Inc. (the largest subsidiary of which is Google) have teamed up to create bioelectronic medicines, hailed by many as disease treatment of the future. These medicines bring together several scientific disciplines in order to create nerve-stimulating technologies in order to tackle the underlying, molecular causes of disease.

The joint venture is going by the name of Galvani Electronics, which will see investment to the tune of £540m over seven years if research efforts show promising results. Currently, GSK is dominating the field of bioelectronic medicine. With help from Alphabet Inc. they are hoping to create nanobots the size of a grain of rice that can be attached directly onto nerves to treat various diseases.

These miniature machines will create electric impulses to alter nerve signals, so that, in an asthma sufferer, for example, airways could be loosened up. Asthma is a condition in which the airways (the tubes that carry air in and out of your lungs) become narrower due to a sensitive reaction to a wide range of ‘triggers’. There is currently no cure for asthma. Researchers are also hoping to tackle a number of diseases through this technology, such as Chron’s disease, by reducing inflammation.

GKS’s chairman of global vaccines Monsef Slaoui, who will chair the board of the new company, said:

"Many of the processes of the human body are controlled by electrical signals firing between the nervous system and the body’s organs, which may become distorted in many chronic diseases. Bioelectronic medicine’s vision is to employ the latest advances in biology and technology to interpret this electrical conversation and to correct the irregular patterns found in disease states…"
Many, of course, are reacting to this new technology with hope and optimism. The UK’s business and energy secretary, Greg Clark, stated:
"This latest investment from Glaxo is yet another significant victory for UK business and our global leadership in life sciences. This venture…demonstrates the global appeal of our scientific expertise that is helping attract investment, grow the economy and pioneer technologies that could improve millions of lives."

It is worth highlighting here the comments about this being a victory for business, attracting investment and growing the economy. Let’s not forget that these are two of the world’s largest corporations who will end up pricing this futuristic technology for profit. This will determine who can afford life-saving treatment and who cannot. The development of this technology, then, which is being monopolised, creates a host of ethical issues and potential for misuse.
GSK has seen a big fall in second-quarter earnings (£152m compared to £986m in the same period last year), due to pressure from competitor drug producers. It is important to keep this loss of profits in mind when GSK announces it’s teaming up with a Google parent company for a new business venture. Clark is enthusiastic about this project from a business perspective, first and foremost, so it clearly has implications that go well beyond improving people’s quality of life.

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Cameron Fibbed and Fumbled on EU Migration Promise

A new statement released by Prime Minister David Cameron's former strategy director Steve Hilton reveals how Whitehall officials stressed to the PM how it would be impossible to meet his net migration target as a member of the EU.

Heavy criticism has already been levelled against Cameron for failing to deliver on the promise made in his 2010 Party Manifesto to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands.

Eurosceptics were quick to gloat that to reduce net migration to such figures was a fantasy - the free movement of people within the EU is non-negotiable and the only way to achieve this kind of level of net migration is if we leave the EU. And six years on, net migration reached 333,000, the second highest on record.

Therefore, it is unsurprising that this fibbing and fumbling on the issue of immigration has led Hilton to side unequivocally with the Brexit campaign. He argues that:

“…our immigration system is completely broken, and as long as we're in the EU, our elected governments are powerless to fix it.”

Hilton believes that for the PM to push for such a demonstrably undeliverable 'pledge' (reducing net migration has been downgraded from a promise to a pledge) today, whilst campaigning to remain in the EU, is "corrosive of trust in politics."

Regardless of whether leaving the EU would reduce net migration to the tens of thousands, what is true is that for the PM to make such unfounded promises reflects his total lack of leadership. It also demonstrates his unwillingness to address and tackle the public's concerns about immigration with any hint of honesty and realism.

It is simply just another case of the PM playing a clever PR game; trying his best to appease and pander to the immigration concerns that a significant proportion of the public have, whilst knowing full well that all he is doing is paying lip service.

It's no wonder that the public in general have become so apathetic about British politics, given that our PM lies about a major issue like immigration, gets hounded for it, but continues pushing the lie anyway - because it scores him political points.

Lies are harmful to any campaign. The misinformation that the Leave campaign has been accused of perpetuating have seen many voters to accuse the campaign of fear-mongering. However, with these comments from Hilton so close to Referendum day, they could dissuade many voters from trusting anything Cameron has to say in regards to staying in the EU.

This could prove to be very damaging indeed.

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Book Review: 'The Spell of the Sensuous' by David Abram

I really want to give this book 5 out of 5 stars, since I really do consider it a truly paradigm-shifting book, but I've knocked off half a star for the language being a bit hippy-dippy and cringeworthy at times (but mostly extremely poetic and beautifully written). Also, I didn't buy into all of the assumptions in the book. Author David Abram admits that even though there might not be any 'literal truth' to the animistic claims of indigenous cultures, he says this is irrelevant, because for Abram truths can be 'literal' only insofar as the written word corresponds to our perception of how things are. He is more interested in how the beliefs and stories of the Koyukon people of Alaska, the aboriginals of Australia or the Western Apache 'make sense'; that is, how they place the human species in right kind of relationship with the more-than-human world.

Philosopher and professional tree-hugger David Abram
Part of me sympathises with this viewpoint, but the sceptic in me wishes to highlight that you can have your cake and eat it - you can consider yourself as but one being intertwined with other beings and 'presences' - whilst caring about gaining as true an idea of the world as possible. But this is just a personal quibble. Maybe talk of a field of consciousness, spirits and rocks expressing meaning is just a useful and poetic way of looking at the world, but I find it hard to digest and avoid caricaturing. 

Otherwise, it is a very challenging book (not in an academic sense, necessarily) but because it really does involve a monumental shift in how you look at the world. Just reading about the phenomenology championed by Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger caused me to have a kind of ontological panic. The world can suddenly appear very different when you have a philosopher using words and ideas together in a very novel and unique way. As Abram points out with Heidegger, this was intentional - he was trying to bring about a shift in perception with a shift in language. The notion that perception and language are inter-dependent is supported throughout the book.

Abram ingeniously weaves together many distant and apparently distinct ideas into a coherent picture. Oral indigenous cultures separated by time and space, as well as philosophers separated in the same way, tend towards a similar conclusion: the landscape is a sensuous field, and we are but one point of view or way of being which reciprocates, and expressively communicates, with other points of view or ways of being in the ever shifting landscape.

Both Native American cultures and Merleau-Ponty base this belief by attending to direct, immediate, pre-conceptual experience. By giving primacy to perception - which Abram argues, is prior to and the ground of all knowing - we can see the natural world, not as inert and passive, but as dynamic and participatory. The winds, rivers and birds speak in their own way (if we listen), and Abram describes the fascinating ways in which the sounds of nature have informed not just indigenous languages, but language in general. 

Philosopher Maurice Merleau Ponty
In Merleau-Ponty's work Phenomenology of Perception, he makes the case for the gestural origin of language, one theory of many relating to the origins of language. He argues that communicative meaning originated from the gestures by which the body spontaneously expresses feelings and responds to changes in the environment. Abram postulates that "meaning sprouts in the very depths of the sensory world, in the heat of meeting, encounter, participation". Each language becomes "a kind of song, a particular way of 'singing the world'".

Other perspective-shifting ideas worth reading about include the bringing together of Heidegger's views on time and indigenous beliefs which see space and time as indistinguishable. By focusing only on what our perception reveals to us, Abram makes the case (difficult to grasp and accept at first) that the past corresponds to that which lies beneath the ground (the past being that which has created the present and refuses its own presence) and the future corresponds to that which lies beyond the horizon (the future being that which offers the present and withholds its own presence). The past and future are distinct powers which feed the present, which is also 'presence' (so here again, time and space become conflated).

Perhaps one of the most fascinating aspects of this book is the discussion on the development of language. Abram takes us on a journey from pre-literacy (where stories and songs were employed as mnemonic devices to remember the accumulated knowledge of the tribe) to pictographic writing systems (e.g. Egyptian hieroglyphics) to the Hebrew 'aleph-beth' (as well as an interesting illustration of the Kabbalistic interpretation of words and letters) to the Greek alphabet (which Abrams argues was the first truly phonetic script - in which symbols represent sounds - to sever all ties with the sensuous world). It is this severing of ties, Abram believes, that has greatly contributed to the complete indifference with which we regard and treat the landscape and all that it contains. After all, language is inextricably linked to perception.

It is the author's contention that the creation and spread of phonetic writing is a major source of our species' felt distance from other beings and the planet. He argues that our senses were no longer involved in their more primal synaesthetic participation with the landscape, but were now converging towards written letters (purely symbolic representations of exclusively human-made sounds). 

I enjoyed the description of sensory perception being inherently synaesthetic; that is, there is a pre-existing cross-activation of sensory modalities, so that seeing and hearing, for example, combine with each other. Merleau-Ponty himself wrote about how in a psychedelic state (induced by mescaline in this case) synaesthesia becomes very noticeable, with Abram highlighting that what is going on is an amplification or intensification of ordinary phenomena that are always going on. Our hearing and seeing used to become intertwined and attend to the calls and cries of animals; then with the invention and proliferation of the alphabet, they retreated from this domain, and participated with texts which started to take on their own kind of autonomy and intelligence.

The words began to speak to us, while the landscape fell silent. 

Thursday, 2 June 2016

Whether Harambe Should Have Been Killed or Not Misses a Deeper Point

Following news that Harambe, a gorilla at Cincinatti Zoo, was killed, people have been arguing over whether it was right that she was killed. First, let’s address this question.

A human life was in danger and so anybody with any moral sense must see that the child’s life takes precedence. Others have shifted blame onto the child’s parents, saying that their negligence led to the death of Harambe, and so they should be held accountable. But then, with footage of the incident online, it seems that the child’s life was not in jeopardy, as Harambe appears to be protecting the boy. This has led some to criticise the zookeepers’ reaction. It was a high stress situation, and if tranquilizers were used instead, they might not have knocked out the gorilla in time, putting the child's life at risk.

In response, an article was published in Psychology Today about why these retrospective judgements are irrelevant. First of all, it is incredibly difficult to know and predict the intentions of a captive gorilla interacting with a human child. Second, even if Harambe was treating the child as its own, the child is still not a gorilla and so could have suffered fatal injuries when being dragged – and in fact, the boy was reportedly injured, and suffered a concussion. Lastly, everyone is being quick to make moral judgements without all of the evidence available. Authors highlight that “moral decision-making is often made in a knee-jerk fashion with revenge in mind.” And this is exactly the sort of reaction taking place online.

Of course, it is upsetting that Harambe was killed, and hopefully safety measures and precautions will be taken to avoid this happening again. However, the moral outrage is misplaced, in two very important ways. Firstly, it seems that the outcry is based on the fact that people perceive gorillas to be majestic and exotic – and she had a name, lending a more anthropomorphic character to her nature – but exoticness and a name are not determinants of moral value. What matters, morally, is that a sentient animal was killed by a person. However, the death of Harambe can be justified if we accept that it was the necessary course of action (given the situation being potentially life-threatening). 

But contrast this with the billions of sentient animals that are killed every year unnecessarily. The gruesome deaths inflicted upon these animals, even when publicised, do not generate the same moral outrage. But it should. This is why I argue that the public reaction to Harambe’s death is misplaced, because it is inconsistent. While some may point to the fact that Harambe was a western lowland gorilla, and therefore critically endangered, it is doubtful whether the loss of Harambe was a loss in terms of conversation, since most, if not all, endangered animals bred in zoos will never be reintroduced into the wild. In most cases, zoo animals are bred to create another generation in the zoo.

Secondly, and perhaps the most salient point to draw from this story, is that Harambe was held captive in a zoo to begin with. From the point of view of the gorilla, the enclosure is a prison; she is simply unable to satisfy her social, psychological and behavioural inclinations. If wild animals weren’t being held captive for entertainment and show, incidents like this wouldn’t take place. Accountability and reparations should be sought, but the outcry which has ensued still misses the deeper question of what a gorilla is doing in Cincinatti in the first place. While it may be upsetting for some that Harambe’s life was taken, what has gone unnoticed is the mental suffering Harambe endured up until the point she was shot.

When the documentary Blackfish came out, exposing the harm and abuse of orcas at SeaWorld, and death of orca trainers, it unleashed a boycotting fury towards the theme park, with attendance duly plummeting. This, I feel, is the appropriate reaction. I sincerely hope that the knee-jerk reaction against the zoo, or the parents, will give way to a deeper concern about zoos in general.

Thursday, 19 March 2015

A Buddhist Perspective on Gossiping

“Gossip is what no one claims to like, but everybody enjoys.” 
Joseph Conrad

The Noble Eightfold Path is traditionally considered to be the essence of Buddhist practice, and it is intended to help people escape the unease and unsatisfactoriness which is intrinsic to the human condition. The First Noble Truth in Buddhism is ‘life is dukkha’, which is often translated as ‘life is suffering’, but many Buddhist scholars argue that this translation is too limiting and fails to capture the nuances of this vital concept. Scholar Damien Keown, for example, underscores that “the word dukkha has a more abstract and pervasive sense: it suggests that even when life is not painful it can be unsatisfactory and unfulfilling.” In the context of the Eightfold Path, Buddhists believe that it is not only important to fully accept the reality of the First Noble Truth, but to change one’s intentions and behaviour so as to avoid perpetuating greed, hatred and delusion – known as the Three Poisons – all of which lead to dukkha.

One way to avoid causing harm to oneself and others is through what is known as Right Speech – the third component of the Eightfold Path. The Buddha taught to abstain from false speech, slanderous speech, harsh speech, and idle speech – the last of which would include gossiping. Gossiping can be defined as casual or unconstrained conversation about others, the details of which are not confirmed as true. The subject matter is usually personal or sensational in nature. J.L. Hollard believes that “gossip is always a personal confession either of malice or imbecility. It is a low, frivolous and too often a dirty business in which neighbours are made enemies for life.” The Buddha was very critical of the idle chatter, scandal and rumour which characterises gossip. Gossiping is something we are all guilty of doing (myself included) – it arises effortlessly and can dominate conversations (this is all too obvious if you are bombarded with office gossip every day).

Part of me thinks that gossiping really isn’t that bad – after all, if someone talks about you, either positively or negatively, behind your back, is anyone really harmed in that situation? However, while the harm caused by gossiping is not as clear and transparent as, say, the harm caused by violence or defamation, the harm is still very real, albeit subtle. Gossiping can be viewed as harmful in two ways. Firstly, gossiping can encourage people to make sweeping judgements about others – a trivial thing that someone else has said or done can make you and others view that person in an unjustifiably harsh and critical manner from then on. Also, I think most people would also agree that they feel slightly uncomfortable at the thought of others talking about them in secrecy.

Secondly, the time we waste on gossiping could be spent on speech (or on listening) which is more mindful, non-judgemental and empathetic. The American Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield tells a story of making a commitment to not talk for a period of time about anything that was not about his direct experience (in other words, he refrained from gossiping about people he knew). What he found out was that he didn’t have very much to say. The Buddha taught that we can only trust what is gained through direct experience – every other kind of experience, such as what someone whispers to us about someone else, is subject to falsehood. And it’s worth asking if your time could be better spent, not discussing the faults of others when they’re not even around, but examining your own faults which are causing you to criticise others in the first place. If you are dissatisfied with your own self-image, you may denigrate others as a way to avoid self-examination or as a way to boost your self-esteem.

In psychology, there is a well-established defence mechanism known as projection, which involves attributing your own thoughts, feelings and motives to another person. The thoughts that people commonly project onto others are those which would cause feelings of guilt – so instead of accepting your own selfishness or rudeness, for example, you may come to believe that it is other people who are selfish or rude. Some classic examples of psychological projection include blaming the victim - when the victim is made to feel at fault for attracting another person’s hostility – or bullying – when a bully projects his or her own vulnerabilities and insecurities onto others. The same could probably be said for many homophobes out there as well. Gossip is just one more way in which projection takes place. As the author Herman Hesse writes in his novel Demian, “If you hate a person, you hate something in him that is part of yourself. What isn’t part of ourselves doesn’t disturb us.”

It may seem impossible to avoid gossip at times, but even if you can’t avoid listening to the banality, exaggerations, conjecture and downright lies expressed in gossiping, you don’t have to engage in it. Clearly this is easier said than done, but if you make a well-intentioned commitment to not gossip, you may come to realise how time you actually waste in spreading rumours. It is worth taking on board a recommendation from the Buddha on Right Speech: “If you propose to speak always ask yourself, is it true, is it necessary, is it kind.”

On the other hand, this doesn’t necessarily mean that you should never talk about other people. It is worth contrasting the Buddhist precept to refrain from gossip with the social benefits of talking about even trivial things, which often promotes bonding in small groups and can be viewed as essential to human relations. Furthermore, talking about others can offer a way to compare standards, values and behaviour, and create some sort of commentary about one’s social circles. We can therefore make a distinction between gossip which is positive – or even just neutral – and gossip which is untrue and harmful. Incorporating a Buddhist perspective on gossiping can be helpful in ensuring that when we talk it is motivated by good intentions and not likely to damage someone’s reputation.