God’s in-box


Another rerun.

This is my very favorite Anne Lamott essay of all time, because it was me at my worst, although maybe not so much anymore (although I’m probably kidding myself):

Say you have a problem, something that is driving you crazy, something you need and want an answer to. Maybe the problem is romantic in nature, or has to do with your career. Maybe a decision needs to be reached that involves one of your kids, or your spouse, or an aged parent or pet. You feel like you really need to go left or right but you have no idea which way to turn. Maybe you feel just a little scared, maybe profoundly anxious; maybe you’ve even developed facial tics and early-stage Tourette’s.

If you’re at all like me, you’re torn between really wanting to know what God’s will is for you, and just desperately wanting this one thing to happen, this one thing to turn out this one particular way. And you keep feeling this, even though you remember the amazing scene at the end of “The Mission,” where the warrior, played by Robert DeNiro, comes to see the priest, Jeremy Irons, to seek his blessing in the battle ahead, and the priest says, “If what you are about to do is God’s will, then you don’t need my blessing. And if it’s not, then my blessing isn’t going to help.”

You remember that and still: You frantically want the guy to call; you want the project to be a huge success; you want the authorities to let your brother off the hook. Whatever. A small part of you, a crescent moon-shaped part of you, wants to be in alignment with God’s will, because you have reason to believe that you are fucked unto the Lord if you somehow get your own will to prevail. But a louder part of you secretly believes that you alone know what the best possible outcome would be, for all parties concerned, even with a lifetime of evidence to the contrary. And you are prepared to use the sheer force of your personality and character to get it to happen.

It’s a terrible feeling, isn’t it — the self-will run riot? Here you long to inwardly resemble the Dalai Lama humming to himself, or Therese of Liseux at dawn Christmas morning in prayer. And instead, on the inside, you’re feeling like Roy Cohn with the flu and bad coffee nerves. Or a dog with a chew toy. A crazy little dog.

A crazy, bad little dog with issues: That’s where the self-will takes me. First there’s all this terrible Jurassic roaring and posturing, the wrestling to the ground, the snapping and gnawing, the growling. And then there’s an unearthly quiet, the isometric moment of silence just before the electrical storm. And then suddenly the toy is flung, tossed up and over the body, and great excitement pours forth like lava as the toy is searched for and captured again; and then dominated, chewed, ripped at, drooled over.
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Work, learning and freedom

Interview with Noam Chomsky:

How do you think it is possible in our society, not just in education, for people to counteract all this structuring, this tendency for us to be driven into situations where people don’t know what it is they want to do?


I think it’s the opposite: the social system is taking on a form in which finding out what you want to do is less and less of an option because your life is too structured, organised, controlled and disciplined. The US had the first real mass education (much ahead of Europe in that respect) but if you look back at the system in the late 19th century it was largely designed to turn independent farmers into disciplined factory workers, and a good deal of education maintains that form. And sometimes it’s quite explicit – so if you’ve never read it you might want to have a look at a book called The Crisis of Democracy – a publication of the trilateral commission, who were essentially liberal internationalists from Europe, Japan and the United States, the liberal wing of the intellectual elite. That’s where Jimmy Carter’s whole government came from. The book was expressing the concern of liberal intellectuals over what happened in the 60s. Well what happened in the 60s is that it was too democratic, there was a lot of popular activism, young people trying things out, experimentation – it’s called ‘the time of troubles’. The ‘troubles’ are that it civilized the country: that’s where you get civil rights, the women’s movement, environmental concerns, opposition to aggression. And it’s a much more civilized country as a result but that caused a lot of concern because people were getting out of control. People are supposed to be passive and apathetic and doing what they’re told by the responsible people who are in control. That’s elite ideology across the political spectrum – from liberals to Leninists, it’s essentially the same ideology: people are too stupid and ignorant to do things by themselves so for their own benefit we have to control them. And that very dominant ideology was breaking down in the 60s. And this commission that put together this book was concerned with trying to induce what they called ‘more moderation in democracy’ – turn people back to passivity and obedience so they don’t put so many constraints on state power and so on. In particular they were worried about young people. They were concerned about the institutions responsible for the indoctrination of the young (that’s their phrase), meaning schools, universities, church and so on – they’re not doing their job, [the young are] not being sufficiently indoctrinated. They’re too free to pursue their own initiatives and concerns and you’ve got to control them better.


If you look back at what happens since that time there have been a lot of measures introduced to impose discipline. Take something as simple as raising tuition fees – it’s much more true in the US than elsewhere, but in the US tuition is now sky high – in part it selects things on a class basis but more than that, it imposes a debt burden. So if you come out of college with a big debt you’re not going to be free to do what you want to do. You may have wanted to be a public interest lawyer but you’re going to have to go to a corporate law firm. That’s quite a serious fact and there are many other things like it. In fact the drug war was started mainly for that reason, the drug war is a disciplinary system, it’s a way of ensuring that people are kept under control and it was almost consciously designed that way… The idea of freedom is very frightening for those who have some degree of privilege and power and I think that shows up in the education system too. And in the workplace… for example, there’s a very good study by a faculty member here, who was denied tenure unfortunately, who studied very carefully the development of computer controlled machine tools – first developed in the 1950s under the military where almost everything is done…

Jack Klugman’s legacy

Another Philadelphian, you know!

If anyone missed this over the holiday, it’s a very heartwarming story about actor Jack Klugman’s real legacy and how he managed to roll obstructionist Sen. Orrin Hatch: Jack Klugman’s secret, lifesaving legacy:

The actor Jack Klugman died on Christmas Eve at age 90. Klugman was best known for his roles as the unkempt sportswriter in “The Odd Couple” and as the crusading medical examiner on “Quincy, M.E.” the wildly popular 1980s medical drama. Few people remember it today, but he also played an instrumental role in passing critical health-care legislation, the Orphan Drug Act, through Congress in the early 1980s, using “Quincy” and his own celebrity to roll Sen. Orrin Hatch (R), who was blocking the bill.

Klugman’s unlikely star turn in Washington stemmed from a 1980 hearing by the House Subcommittee on Health and the Environment on the problem of developing treatments for rare diseases. The problem was that many terrible diseases didn’t afflict enough people to entice pharmaceutical companies to develop treatments. Hence they were ”orphan” diseases. They included Tourette’s syndrome, muscular dystrophy, cystic fibrosis, spina bifida, ALS and many more. The situation was especially tragic because scientists who discovered promising treatments often couldn’t interest drug makers, who didn’t see potential for profit.

The issue of orphan diseases was so obscure that only a single newspaper, the Los Angeles Times, sent a reporter to the hearing (and the Times only did so because a local boy suffering from Tourette’s testified). But the article caught the eye of a Hollywood writer and producer named Maurice Klugman, who himself suffered from a rare cancer and also happened to be Jack Klugman’s brother. Maurice Klugman wrote an episode of “Quincy” about Tourette’s and the orphan drug problem.

Go read the rest at the link above. RIP Jack Klugman.

This 15-year-old may save your life someday

Of all the things that happened this year, one of the most important innovations is one you probably didn’t know about. A fifteen-year-old boy named Jack Andraka has developed a cheap, easy and highly accurate paper sensor for the early detection of pancreatic cancer, and in May, he won the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in the medical and health sciences category, earning a $75,000 prize.

If you live in America, chances are you’ve lost at least one relative or friend to the disease, because it’s one of the most common (and most lethal) forms of cancer. (I lost my dad to pancreatic cancer a few years ago.)

Jack explains:

So, what I did; is create this paper sensor and it basically has single wall carbon nanotubes which are atom thick tubes of carbon mixed with anti-bodies to this one cancer bio-marker called mesothelin. An anti-body is basically a molecule that binds specifically to one other molecule. So, what happens is; when I compared it, to the current gold standard of protein detection called called ELISA (enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay), it was actually 168 times faster, over 26,000 times less expensive and over 400 times more sensitive. And what I found is that my sensor in a blind study it actually had a 100% correct diagnosis, in diagnosing pancreatic cancer and could diagnose the cancer before it actually became invasive.


I did not expect for it to be this good at detecting pancreatic cancer, anti-bodies and stuff so – I was blow away by how sensitive it was.


I actually got into this kind of work because my uncle he died due to pancreatic cancer it metastasized and I got interested in early diagnosis and I found the blood tests where the only practical way to detect it in routine screening, so then I got interested in mesothelin and actually loved single wall carbon nanotubes, they are the superheros of material science and so then I was just thinking how I could apply them here and it came to me one day in biology class.


I am incredibly excited, it’s like the Olympics of science fair, it’s amazing to be here, even if I don’t get a prize.

He’s patented the method himself, and hopefully won’t allow Big Pharma to jack up the prices so high that people can’t afford the test. What a remarkable young man, and what a great thing this is.

UPDATE: I wanted to add this bit from Wikipedia:

“Andraka’s older brother, Luke, a junior at North County High, won $96,000 in prizes at the Intel ISEF two years ago, with a project that examined how acid mine drainage affected the environment. Last year Luke won an MIT THINK Award (Technology for Humanity guided by Innovation, Networking, and Knowledge), which recognizes students whose science projects benefit their communities.

“The boys’ father, Steve Andraka, is a civil engineer. Their mother, Jane Andraka, is an anesthetist. She told the Sun “… we’re not a super-athletic family. We don’t go to much football or baseball.

“Instead we have a million [science] magazines [and] sit around the table and talk about how people came up with their ideas and what we would do differently.”

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