Tuesday, July 26, 2016

CRISPR Gene Editing

So, here I go again, about to enter an arena where I have no qualifications. But I enter as a public citizen, concerned about yet another wilding trend among the intelligentsia. In that sense, I may end up aligned with religionists who invoke received word and the Name of God. I hope not.

I wish I could say that I'm an expert on random, but I know there are far better experts out there, including some who use their detailed knowledge of stochastic processes to imagine perfected machine intelligence in our near-term future.

I wish I could say that I'm an expert on Chinese culture, but I continue to struggle to get on top of yet another arena where I refuse to specialize to the point of having something trued to say.

Still, like the tall fellow who can easily say that he's above 99% of the population, I probably know more about these things than your average English-literate bear.

First, on the China thing. I am truly and deeply disturbed and annoyed by how many Chinese plant their selfhood in something that gets called "blood." If you look Chinese, then no matter where you are you can and should call yourself Chinese, and join in the pride.

Of course there are many Chinese by that definition who know far less Chinese language and culture than I do, and so I find this attitude to be a blatant kind of racism. It makes me want to wave the American flag, if that weren't already expropriated by our own home grown narrow-minded racists, religionists, anti-socialists and on down or up the list.

Still, we Americans do not fundamentally plant our identity in our genes. We worry a bit about disease tendencies which come down the genetic line, and sometimes associate these with statistically meaningful racial designations, even when and though these racial designations have no actual "meaning" relative to our humanity.

These are statistical associations and not death sentences, in pretty much the same way that you might be able to smoke cigarettes your whole life and still not die of lung cancer.

My own way around this is to confess that I am NOT human. I work on becoming human each and every day, and it is not easy. I believe that my humanity is composed of my ability to read and write, and that humanity did indeed begin only some five thousand years ago, with the emergence of written language.

Here in the West, we have a very hard time moving away from the "In the Beginning" kind of statements. Big Bang. Creation. The Word. Made Flesh.

In China, there is more of a tradition of transformation out of chaos, and if you look at the writing system and read of its origins, it is much easier to imagine writing emerging from the world about, rather than being invented or dropped on man out from some blue.

We are not evolved to read and write, but those things which have contributed to our immensely powerful pattern recognizing brain did apparently favor quick discernment of lines and corners such that you can reduce information down almost to the most elemental tracings and still recognize a word when you see one.

Of course, even in Chinese, the written word is mostly about associations with a spoken language. Much has been written about the superiority of alphabetic languages - English in particular - and how the advent of this simple encoding of speech patterns enabled so much of what we tend still to call our progress.

Not so very long ago, while I was on an even steeper learning curve with Chinese than I am on just now, it was thought world-wide that the Chinese written language could and should disappear entirely, since linguists knew that it could easily be supplanted by any arbitrary phonetic transcription. This is pretty much high linguistic dogma, and who am I to disagree with it?

But the surprising thing is that computerization and the information revolution did not leave the Chinese written language behind at all. Indeed Chinese may already have surpassed English on the Internet by some measures of text generated each day or minute or year or what you will. Digital technologies have liberated Chinese from its quaint ghetto, rather than to banish it.

You may ascribe this tremendous growth to the speed with which the Chinese economy has overtaken all but one of the world's largest, organized as these economies still are into nation-states and other unnatural impositions on the biomass of Earth.

You may do that, but it would still be to beg the question of why China was able to grow so fast. You may wish to blame that on the greedy outsourcing of production to drive prices to the very bottom (which was never to give you something cheaper - it was always to pump the money more efficiently to the top - you have to true the incentive structures here). You may predict that China cannot overcome the speed bump of middle income.

But you would be ignoring that legitimate feeling that Chinese have when they feel proud of their Chineseness. China has only recently been a nation-state. A better term proposed by a scholar more learned than I shall ever be would be to call China a civilization state. It is in fact formed around a core identity composed of a long and still largely coherent written tradition which goes back to the advent of the written word. Resolution out of chaos.

This pride is legitimate, but not by claim of blood. It still takes lots of work to own it, and perhaps even if only by the relative distance that I have had to cross in order to gain its measure, I may claim to have worked much harder than many Chinese. I often feel resented for that in China, because I remain a relative clod. I'd be better off acting the American ape.

As I said, to mock a fine translation of the Dream of the Red Chamber, I am mostly Hardleigh Yuman. I certainly don't stake my humanity on my genetic line, fine though it may seem to be. I retain some very dim hope to get there before I die, but the oxygen thins and the peak is shrouded in storm as I grow older just when the most energy is required of me.

 Mass dissemination of the Bible the sutras occurred in both east and west. The printing press, the wood-block process, and the arcane methods for deciphering the written word became ever more distributed and dispersed. Down from Church Latin, and Confucian examination tortured poetics, to we the people, the vulgar, the great unwashed. The masses.

Now finally, when the motor memory to read and write Chinese is mostly obliterated by its power and reach, the Internet makes reading and less often writing almost as natural as breathing for almost everyone.

And if you can't write well, you can post photos and videos and we are encouraged to think that this is bringing people closer together across a magically shrinking globe.

Except that hate feels still ascendant.

We engage with the world through a screen darkly. We grow fat on processed foods which magically engorge our want faster than our bellies can feel full. It's the economy, stupid, and this is how it works. There is no yacht too big, no houses too many, no luxury out of reach and we comfort ourselves that the economy is the farthest thing possible from a zero-sum game so that we can ignore the structural forces which exacerbate inequities and perceived and ever more real and terrifying inequalities.

China, again, is the great example of the benefits of liberated want. China will jump on the gene-editing bandwagon more quickly than anywhere else,Both among the scientific diaspora and in the labs of Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou etcetera.

This probably because they are less afraid, these Chinese (there I tag "them") of creation out of nothing. Grotesque monsters conjured by experiments gone awry. Catalytic melt-down of the biosphere by unloosed ravelling gene-strands.

Or have they already jettisoned from their own cultural center, leaving that to a different sort of less celebrated scholar, now that they have mastered the language of Western science?

I confess that I get as excited as the next guy to imagine tailor made cures for my defects, for cancer, for my children's likely intelligence or even beauty (though that ship has sailed and my luck was good and true!). I long for ways to save the elephants, digest the plastic dead zones in our seas, bring biofuel quickly to market, remove the carbon from the atmosphere in time for meltdown avoidance. I really do.

This is exciting! I already seem to prefer those foods wrapped in plastic at the end of a long trip that they were bred for, since as a single guy I can eat them before they rot in my refrigerator. Hell, what if they were able to cure Alzheimers before my mind is fuzzed by it!

But from a longer view, it won't have made a difference. I may not have any more to say than I have already said, and if I can't know how to make it beautiful, there will be someone coming after.

Most of what has made me me has been the impingement of chance encounters. I haven't made as much of these as I should have, unlucky in life and love is probably only a character defect and not the Fates' responsibility.

But only in the very recent West post-Darwin do we assign meaningless to random. Typically, we focus on the alphabetic soup of genetics instead of its expression. We think that rewriting the code will change the chance environment out of which that expression sprang across the eons, as though making a better me will change the conditions for my thriving.

In physics, there is a newly re-imposed grid where Ether was found impossible to be. Superconducting Higgs condensate blinking in and out of existence seems to be essential to our understanding of the physical world at that level of detail. Almost as though mind did pervade the cosmos since there is no longer nothing there in vacuum.

And as was the case with the first round of Cartesian grid-work, we will fail to notice the imposition of mind over matter, and the banishment of tortured body from its liberated soul.

It is not our mind, it is our body which pervades all of outer spaces. We are in some sense the point of time's arrow. And yet we are trapped within metaphor as the only figure of speech we know. We still think that there are thingy things in the ideal realm which is the playing field of mathematics.

Again, reverting to the Chinese case where the poetic couplet crowds metaphor out, it is more about ways of seeing, not things seen, by juxtaposition of rhyme and reason, sounds and furies, posed in legible opposition on the page.

If we tinker with genetic codes we only create detached impossible beings which never did evolve. We will have crawled into the screen and just like Kurzweil hopes to do become eternal so long as no one flips our switch. And all that we will be is a very high-resolution simulacrum.

Far far more anxious am I to know how to make contact with my fellow so-called human beings, than to set out finding other life, by definition from our distant past if they are alive in our now, and in our near dead ended future if not. Lonely in the cosmos is never so sad as lonely here on Earth.

I am not convinced that gravity is the end of what shapes our physical being. There is love in creation, and I posit e-motion as the only stable definition for simultaneity. No boson gauge particles can be exchanged, because emotion is a force which exists in mind alone and mind indeed does pervade the cosmos still and evermore.

Not an extended grid, but the deeper meaning of chaos is not the exile of random, but the chance of our time-evolved and still evolving being. Granted by love from a Center I shall not Name. It is not enough to eradicate disease and our shortcomings. Far better to comfort the sick and deficient and out of luck true hearts. You will not find these in the halls of power.

We must engage with the uncarved block, and rather not to be creative.

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