Monday, May 30, 2005

Sunday Stroll in the Boulognerskogen

Ira took this picture yesterday during a Sunday stroll in Gävle's Boulognerskogen, a beautiful park built along a stream that runs through the city.

We haven't been out walking much, because Ira is supposed to take it easy for a couple weeks after her tonsillectomy.

Once she's back to full speed again, I'm looking forward to going biking in and around Gävle. It'll be fun biking to the Baltic Sea with a good book, a bottle of wine and some salmon sandwiches in tow.

Neuropharmacology and the End of Education

As a young kid I used to fantasize about being able to learn in my sleep. I don't recall the specifics about the technology that enabled this feat, some sort of nocturnal hypnosis or perhaps a miracle drug. The emphasis of this fantasy was not on the means but the end, the technological payoff—I no longer needed to attend school in the daytime.

As a thirtysomething who, a quarter of a century or so later, is still in school, I have to laugh. At myself.

According to neurologists, my childhood fantasy, which I suspect is a common one, is looking increasingly plausible thanks to advances in neuropharmacology. Ronald Bailey's essay in Reason, “A Day at the Brain Spa: Coming soon to a mall near you,” reminds us that new biotechnologies will raise a host of ethical dilemmas concerning the use of drugs to improve our mental abilities. At issue is whether or not drugs that positively affect the brain’s functioning should be readily available. He mentions, for example, a poll indicating that parents are presently split 50/50 about whether or not it would be ethical to give their child performance-enhancing drugs to help him or her become a better piano player.

The central ethical quandary is the same one that comes up in discussions about steroid use by athletes: is it cheating to enhance one’s ‘natural’ abilities with a drug or some other ‘artificial’ supplement? As my scare quotes are intended to suggest, the debate revolves around timeless philosophical questions such as ‘what does it mean to be human?’ and ‘what is and is not natural?’

Personally, I would like to see the debate shift from discussions about where to draw the line that divides the natural from the artificial human to more basic economic issues concerning who can afford have access to the latest biotechnologies. As steroid use in professional sports suggests, people will try to enhance their abilities by any and all available means. Regulations may hinder drug use, but will never stop it altogether. Rather than fretting about whether it is fair for some performers, ball players, musicians, whomever, to gain a competitive edge via chemicals, I’d like to see people show greater interest in more mundane cases, e.g., the people who lack basic health care due to the vagaries of the free market.

While we should certainly be concerned about the prospect of a society in which those with capital can transform themselves into a master race, it seems to me that in the long run regulating new biotechnologies will not solve anything. If we’re truly concerned about fairness and equal opportunity for all (and I'm wise enough to know that in the U.S. at least, we're not) we need to see that state-run institutions, such as public schools and welfare programs, have adequate funding and resources.

Incidentally, my favorite line in Bailey’s essay concerns the possible obsolescence of graduate education: “I suspect that pharmacological enhancement will be more popular than, say, graduate school, since most of what will be involved is taking a pill with one's morning coffee.”

If anyone out there knows were I might obtain a ‘scrip for some PhD pills, please shoot me an e-mail. I've a dissertation to write, dammit.

But, then, who needs English professors and who wants to read when you've got postmodern neuropharmacology?

Put away that tattered old copy of Brave New World. I'll see ya at the brain spa...

Thursday, May 26, 2005

You've Gotta Fight, For Your Right... To Health Care

With 45,000,000 Americans uninsured, it's obvious that health care isn't considered to be a basic right in the U.S. (at present, it would seem that the Constitutional 'right to life' applies mainly to unborn fetuses). Americans for Health Care, a non-profit group, is trying to change that.

Readers, I encourage you to get busy and to join the universal-health-care movement. Show the politicos and greedheads that we won't stand for their complacent and callous attitudes regarding access to health care.

Incidentally, I'm presently without health care, because my coverage is in effect only when I'm teaching. Since I'm not teaching any summer courses at UIC, I lost my coverage. As a lecturer at UIC this past semester, Ira didn't have health-care coverage because she was 'merely' a part-time employee.

What shitty policies for an institution that purports to be committed to higher education, eh. But who expects academic institutions to actually put into practice the enlightened and humanistic values that the faculty (at least in the humanities) are expected to profess? And people wonder why the deconstruction of enlightenment rhetoric caught on with a fair number of academics in the past few decades...

Ira and I are in Sweden now, where we do enjoy state-provided health care. Consequently, I'm pleased to report that Ira was finally able to have a long-overdue tonsillectomy. She's back from the hospital, and I've been trying with some success to keep her as inactive as possible, since the doctors told her she needed to rest up for at least two weeks. Today, however, she took the train to Uppsala to take care of some bidness at the University and to pick up some books ordered via inter-library loan.