Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Death: an introduction

As I mentioned in the previous post, just the mention of death makes me, for one, anxious.
Freud’s own analysis of anxiety shows, although Freud himself never said so, that there is a close and deep connection between anxiety and the death instinct. Anxiety is a response to experiences of separateness, individuality, and death. The human child, which at the mother’s breast experiences a new and intense mode of union, of living, and of loving, must also experience a new and intenser mode of separation, individuality, and death
From Norman O. Brown, Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History (1959).

This anxiety inhabits every day of our lives, every night of our obscure dreams:
We might call this existential paradox the condition of individuality within finitude. Man has a symbolic identity that brings him sharply out of nature. He is a symbolic self, a creature with a name, a life history. He is a creator with a mind that soars out to speculate about atoms and infinity, who can place himself imaginatively at a point in space and contemplate bemusedly his own planet. This immense expansion, this dexterity, this ethereality, this self-consciousness gives to man literally the status of a small god in nature, as the Renaissance thinkers knew.

Yet, at the same time, as the Eastern sages also knew, man is a worm and food for worms. This is the paradox: he is out of nature and hopelessly in it; he is dual, up in the stars and yet housed in a heart-pumping, breath-gasping body that once belonged to a fish and still carries the gill-marks to prove it. His body is a material casing that is alien to him in many ways—the strangest and most repugnant way being that it aches and bleeds and will decay and die. Man is literally split in two: he has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes into the ground a few feet in order blindly and dumbly to rot and disappear forever. It is a terrifying dilemma to be in and to have to live with. . . . The knowledge of death is reflective and conceptual and animals are spared it. They live and they disappear with the same thoughtlessness: a few minutes of fear, a few seconds of anguish, and it is over. But to live a whole lifetime with the fate of death haunting one’s dreams and even the most sun-filled days—that’s something else.
From Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death (1973).

Becker’s book was great (you may recall that Alvy buys it for Annie in Annie Hall) but there’s something too earnestly obvious about it. Becker’s breezy dismissal of the internal lives of animals is interesting: how does our understanding of our own fear of death change now that we know that certain animals (chimps, dolphins, octopuses) are highly intelligent and, who knows, may know that they will die? Elephants have been observed mourning their dead. Don’t all animals act as if they are scared of death – in their behavior in avoiding death? If the fear of death is universal, what is it, other than another symptom of DNA’s strategies to perpetuate itself? (That doesn’t quite make sense.)

It is rare that any living thing wants to stop living. The purpose of a living thing is, most essentially, to live. Not to live is contrary to the very purpose of a living thing.

In any event, this month, the OG will venture into the realm of death. We will be scared, but we will go forward knowing that life is always against death, like foot against floor.
One day, we had a discussion in class. They asked me, where did they go? the trees, the salamander, the tropical fish, Edgar, the poppas and mommas, Matthew and Tony, where did they go? And I said, I don't know, I don't know. And they said, who knows? and I said, nobody knows. And they said, is death that which gives meaning to life? And I said, no, life is that which gives meaning to life. Then they said, but isn't death, considered such a fundamental datum, the means by which the taken-for-granted mundanity of the everyday may be transcended in the direction of--

I said, yes, maybe.

They said, we don't like it.
From Donald Barthelme, “The School”

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The Inconstant Bloggener

I'm still here. Barely hanging on. The picture above is of one of my bookshelves. No particular reason that I took this picture.

With all the time that's passed, I've largely lost interest in the Science theme. And we're through with February now, so it's time for a new theme. For whatever reason, I've decided that the theme for March will be death.

Okay, I know it's a little morbid, but one can't deny the continuing relevance of death. I'm feeling kind of icky even writing about death, typing it several times, but oh well.

Topics likely to be covered: dia de los muertos, limbo, the life insurance industry, ways to dispose of your body, definitions of death, heaven, cemeteries and tombs, burial rites, hell, resurrection, wills, and, of course, ghosts.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Scenes from this Weekend

At Santa Monica and Vermont. Thursday night. White socks with black shoes. Is it me, or is Kim Jong-Il is riding a scooter around LA?

7-11. Friday night. I bought gummy bears and Sweet Tarts and then fell asleep watching "Wallace and Grommit".

Somewhere on Santa Monica.

In a neighborhood grocery store. I got busted by the grocery store security for taking photos. I heard the PA system paging security right after I had taken my first shot. The security guard tracked me down, a few aisles over in coffee, sugar, spices, and paper products. I was told I could come back and seek an "authorization" to take photos in the store. He was nice about it. He asked if I was taking pictures "for school". I should've told him it was for my obscure but persuasive blog.

I don't remember. I take a lot of pictures like this in L.A. It's that kind of place. This is actually what it looks like to me most of the time.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

L.A. 2006

traffic somewhere in Silverlake

the Library Tower downtown

Monday, February 06, 2006


What's up? I've got nothin'. Going to bed. Later.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Science Series: Viruses

The Science Series continues, undaunted by artificial barriers of "time".

the H.I.V. virus

By some definitions, viruses are not technically alive.
Viruses straddle the definition of life. They lie somewhere between supra molecular complexes and very simple biological entities. Viruses contain some of the structures and exhibit some of the activities that are common to organic life, but they are missing many of the others. In general, viruses are entirely composed of a single strand of genetic information encased within a protein capsule. Viruses lack most of the internal structure and machinery which characterize 'life', including the biosynthetic machinery that is necessary for reproduction. In order for a virus to replicate it must infect a suitable host cell.
From Carleton.edu

Viruses are the ultimate parasites. They are essentially "dead" until they find a host. Only then can they engage in their cycle of life. They rely on hosts to (re)produce their genetic code.
A virus makes use of existing host enzymes and other molecules of a host cell to create more virus particles (virions). . . . Viruses rely on host cell ribosomes for the production of viral proteins and utilize several distinct strategies to make the host cell synthesize the viral proteins. For example, at least some +RNA viruses use Internal Ribosome Entry Site (IRES) segments to drive the translation from their genomic +RNA molecule. Viruses are neither unicellular nor multicellular organisms; they are somewhere between being living and non-living. Viruses have genes and show inheritance, but are reliant on host cells to produce new generations of viruses. Many viruses have similarities to complex molecules. Because viruses are dependent on host cells for their replication they are generally not classified as "living". Whether or not they are "alive", they are obligate parasites, and have no form which can reproduce independently of their host. Like most parasites, they have a specific host range, sometimes specific to one species (or even limited cell types of one species) and sometimes more general.
From Wikipedia at Virus.

This is not a machine; it's a bacteriophage virus. Perhaps just a highly efficient machine for genetic duplication?

Some theories hold that viruses, in mobilizing and mixing genetic information, are playing a role in the process of evolution too large and complex for us to grasp completely
It is a surprise to most who think of viruses simply as parasites that they make up the largest component of biomass on this planet . . . . So far every living organism that has been studied to date has had at least one virus associated with it, and viruses outnumber all other life forms by at least an order of magnitude . . . . When considering that not only is viral presence on this planet all encompassing, but every sequenced organism to date has a major component of its genome that is viral in origin, it becomes apparent that viruses are integral players in the evolution of what we presently consider life.
From Carleton.eduSee also
[B]ecause viruses can transfer genetic material between different species of host, they are extensively used in genetic engineering. Viruses also carry out natural "genetic engineering": a virus may incorporate some genetic material from its host as it is replicating, and transfer this genetic information to a new host, even to a host unrelated to the previous host. This is known as transduction, and in some cases it may serve as a means of evolutionary change -- although it is not clear how important an evolutionary mechanism transduction actually is.
From Berkeley.edu.

It seems unclear whether viruses are the most primitive form of life or the most advanced. Like the earliest forms of life, they are often self-assembling: somehow creating themselves out of a material murk. How does this happen? How does disorganized matter become organized, highly effective matter in violation of the laws of thermodynamics? It is wondrous: segments of genetic code, through some form of force, gather and assemble proteins to create a vehicle for themselves. Where does this energy come from? What is moving the proteins? How does any of this happen? What the hell is life? What's more advanced, if life is about transferring genetic code? slow, heavy, sentient, rarely reproducing life forms, or lethally effective machines built for one purpose only -- to replicate genetic code? Who wins the cosmic game of Life?

simulation of viral capsid self-assembly

Viruses are one of those things in the universe that just make you wonder what the point of anything is.

Scientists have begun to use viruses to assemble materials on a molecular level.
Scientists at MIT have recently been able to use viruses to create metallic wires, and they have the potential to be used for binding to exotic materials, self-assembly, liquid crystals, solar cells, batteries, fuel cells, and many other interesting areas.

The essential idea is to use a virus with a known protein on its surface. The location of the code for this protein is in a known location in the DNA, and by randomizing that sequence it can create a phage library of millions of different viruses, each with a different protein expressed on its surface. By using natural selection, one can then find a particular strain of this virus which has a binding affinity for a given material.
From Wikipedia at Virus.

Intriguingly, some researchers are exploring deploying the virus as a weapon against disease. This seems weird and fantastic.
Viro-therapy (Using viruses as treatment against various diseases) is not a new idea. In cancer therapy for example it was recognized as early as the mid 20th Century, when a number of physicians noticed an interesting phenomenon: some of their patients, who suffered from cancer and had an incidental viral infection, or subjected to vaccination, were now improving, experiencing a remission from their symptoms. In the 40's and 50's, studies were conducted in animal models to evaluate the use of viruses in the treatment of tumors, and in 1956, one of the first human clinical trials with oncolytic viruses ("onco" meaning cancer, "lytic" meaning "killing") was conducted in patients with advanced-stage cervical cancer. Nevertheless, systematic research of this field was delayed for years, due to lack of more advanced technologies. In recent years the research in the field of oncolytic viruses began to move forward more quickly and Researchers are trying new ways to use viruses for the therapeutic benefit of mankind.

In 2006 Researchers from the Hebrew University have succeeded in isolating a variant of the Newcastle disease Virus (NDV-HUJ), which usually affects birds, in order to specifically target cancer cells [2]. The Researchers tested the new Viro-therapy on Glioblastoma multiforme patients and achieved promising results for the first time
Id. Defeat death with death. Give life with life.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Parking Brake

A long time ago we were thin. And then we decided to leave. We took the Verrazano. We were gently lowered into this place, they called it Staten Island. Everything was different. Now where are we? The nights are bleak. There goes another maniac, dashing across the dark street. You see panic in the limbs at the edge of the headlights. Am I going to hit that car? Is that bus going to pull out in front of me? Can I fit my car in that space? Did the oil light just go on? Should I turn my head to look or can I just slowly slide into the other lane?

Why does it always smell like skunk in Los Feliz? The weather's beautiful. Who cares about Groundhog Day in L.A.? And that's the messed up thing, isn't it? We don't care about Groundhog Day because nothing is going to change. We have no idea when spring will arrive. We have no idea when it's over. Every day is perfect.

I like my new city. I like Thai Town. I like Chinatown and Monterey Park. I like the palm trees on clear days. But sometimes, going home, I do miss Sixth Avenue at night: taxis, buses, Gypsy cabs, people streaming to Rockefeller Center, to Times Square, up through Central Park, the tourists lined up at Radio City, the partners and executives hustling into Town Cars. Walking past the Barry White impersonator and his light show, down to the F train, steaming away underfoot, chugging for Brooklyn.

I try to avoid the people running for their lives in the dark across Sunset Boulevard. I try not to hit any cars on the way home.