December 29, 2005

Bird flu futures

I read in the Strib that the risk of a bird flu pandemic "could be" 50-50. One wants to ask, "What is the risk of it being 50-50?" Maybe that risk could be 20-80. Anyhow, people are spreading alarms about bf without being clear, which is what people do about terrorism, global warming, and meth. Bird flu though has a serious name: "bird flu." It feels good in the mouth. It fits on a t-shirt. You can make haiku out of it: Bad stomach ache/ bad head/ no fun playing with dog/ nose runs/ it's bird flu.

Just to say the obvious: if bird flu either happens or gets taken seriously as if it were about to happen, every institution in places like Minnesota -- that is, places that aren't forced by their transportation system to routinely agglomerate large numbers of otherwise unconnected people -- is going to have to rethink itself to avoid big meetings, that is, to privilege small meetings or no meetings at all. Churches and schools will have the most fun with this, and my guess is that the ensuing transformations, already in motion to some extent, will be largely good. The university needs to mandate its electronic course management software for every prof in every course. The churches need to rediscover the house church tradition. Everybody needs to rethink every meeting larger than 10, and every travel requirement of any sort. (Also, I think, any area of the economy that depends on raising and killing lots of animals needs to think about how to get along with only a few animals, raised for specialty purposes. (Bird flu will put people on to connecting epidemics and animals, will remind people of mad cow, terrorism, and all sorts of things that antibiotics encourage to grow in the guts of livestock. Tofu futures look great.))

I don't usually commit futurism. Its a kind of vice. But near the new year, it's hard to resist.

Posted by shea0017 at 12:01 PM

December 15, 2005

The philosopher at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

I am now a proud member of the Met. I went 6 times while I was in New York last week, even used the earphones.

It's good to have some pieces of the Met in my head -- not just individual works, but clusters, rooms, groups of pieces that illuminate each other. A few pieces try to be philosophically provocative, but the greater treat for someone trained to watch how people construct their own languages to say what they want to say is that one can see in these works the ways that srtists respond to each other, incorporate each other's tricks, qualify each other's messages, build a particular statement within a context saturated with meaning.

A great museum is a teaching machine, taken one way -- a thinking machine, taken another way.

Posted by shea0017 at 9:12 PM

December 14, 2005

Things invisible to see

"Philosophy" when you just bring it up cold seems puzzling and probably worthless, an activity with no place on the daily list. That's a reason for not bringing philosophy up cold, by itself, spookily, but instead finding those places in thought where people suddenly discover they need it. Here's a quote from Hernando DeSoto's 2000 book The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else

This is the mystery of capital. Solving it requires an understanding of why Westerners, by representing assets with titles, are able to see and draw out capital from them. One of the greatest challenges to the human mind is to comprehend and to gain access to those things we know exist but cannot see. Not everything that is real and useful is tangible and visible. Time, for example, is real, but it can only be efficiently managed when it is represented by a clock or a calendar. Throughout history, human beings have invented representational systems—writing, musical notation, double-entry bookkeeping—to grasp with the mind what human hands could never touch. In the same way, the great practitioners of capitalism, from the creators of integrated title systems and corporate stock to Michael Milken, were able to reveal and extract capital where others saw only junk by devising new ways to represent the invisible potential that is locked up in the assets we accumulate.

For an excerpt from DeSoto's book, look here

Posted by shea0017 at 11:47 AM

December 13, 2005

Fairness as opposed to partiality to one's own children

I have been engaged in some discussions on the possible conflict between parent's obligations and obligations of justice. This preliminary piece outlines a way of looking at the problem: Download file

Posted by shea0017 at 8:02 PM

December 9, 2005

Donated bodies without any skin

.... are coming to the Science Museum of Minnesota, and I don't know what to say. I think all those anatomists and painters of the Renaissance, all those years, trying to learn what this exhibit will effortlessly teach.

Suppose that various public people agreed to pose naked, day after day, in an exhibit titled, "What's under their clothes."

Suppose that victims of torture gave permission for films of their torture to be shown, day after day.

I think of the story of the strip club/juice bar that came to a little North Dakota town. After one local farmer had seen the show, he commented, "That's your standard-issue woman all right."

I think of Plato's story in the Republic, of someone cursing his own eyes for leading him to look at corpses.

I think of schools taking classes, of the discussion around the parent-consent form: "It's very educational." "But those are dead people, skinned."

When-ever we look at a photo over a hundred years old, we are looking at a group of certifiably dead people.

I don't know my way around here.

Posted by shea0017 at 11:02 AM

December 8, 2005

Cage Free Eggs

Compassionate Action for Animals, a University of Minnesota student organization, has launched a campaign to persuade the University food services to offer eggs from chickens who have not been tortured in little cages all their lives.This is a good project, and it deserves active support even from people who are fed up with causes. The idea that values should guide decisions is a big important idea, and this campaign proposes to serve people that idea for breakfast every morning. Further, this action is very close to the tipping point for this issue: as the market for eggs from tortured chickens diminishes, the torture will diminish. And a successful action of this kind at a major university will set a precedent for similar actions in lots of other places. Also, as students disperse, thousands of restaurants will be asked: "Do you have a cage free option on your menu?" This is a fight that can be won.

Ethics is about lots of things. One thing it is about is letting chickens be chickens.

Posted by shea0017 at 9:25 AM