Friday, August 24, 2012

Affliction as Meme

I heard in the news that eggs are just as bad for you as smoking. So I started giving my son a cigarette in the morning, instead of eggs. It’s faster and costs about the same.

I am joking of course, but nevertheless this news items offers us the opportunity to think about our individual health as a constant process of negotiation, and it points to the association of visual memes with health. Both an egg and a cigarette are loaded visual memes.

The question that comes up for me when considering the function of memes in society (to return to subject of last post re: “Of the Refrain” by Deleuze and Guattari):  Does affliction function as a social meme? If we consider the function of memes in “Of the Refrain”, we can see that they function to filter unwanted elements out, and engage favorable elements. All species are naturally suspicious of “the other”, though we may each define “the other” differently based on the niche or mileue we inhabit. We may even train ourselves to disavow notions regarding “the other” in an attempt to redefine our mileue. A well-known example of this is from the 1980’s when Ted Turner disallowed use of the term “foreign” or “foreigner” by anchors on his news network. Maybe they referred instead to “non-nationals”. Is the problem (discrimination) hereby solved or are we just shifting our criteria regarding “the other”? Is it a language problem or a discrimination problem, if it can be solved through language?

This natural suspicion of “the other” has a purpose: it allows a species or sub-species to identify and support each other in their common activities related to their own survival, while rejecting others who might disrupt this process. In this example a raptor such as a peregrine falcon would of course be disruptive to a pigeon flock (to stick with D&G’s bird example), as would a sick pigeon (due to the disruptive aspects of illness). Both examples become “the other”, that is, something to be avoided. A simplistic mechanism, to be sure, and simplistically described. But we can see it at work at every level of society, wherein cues both subtle (spontaneous gestures) and overt (printed signs posted) are used to direct behavior in desired ways, toward desired ends. The processes of inclusion and exclusion are forever at work, at both micro and macro levels, within and without every level of society.

We could define affliction for our purposes as any physical, neurological, or mental condition that limits one’s ability to function. That is, we can use the legal definition for disability to consider: Does disability function as a social meme? Deuleuze and Guattari focus on overt signals, automatic systems which are shifted from within. To be sure there are overt signals associated with disability: visible cues such as a wheelchair or cane, impaired motor or speech function, or use of aids such as ramps or input devices for communication. All these things clearly denote disfunction and serve to denote a mileue apart.

But the visible effects of these cues are even greater: the wide berth given to afflicted individuals is a way to separate them visually and physically from the healthy population. The physical distance generated and maintained around afflicted individuals becomes another, louder signal. All mammals display this behavior in the presence of affliction. It is a natural process of separation serving to deter both the spread of infection and the propagation of genetic conditions. It disemburdens the community momentarily from a stress factor. This relief can become a long-term respite from such responsibility. Communities have always exercised discretion when negotiating any commitment to the disabled. Again this occurs simultaneously on a micro (individual, unpremeditated) as well as on a macro (sanctioned or official procedure) level, and both types of enforcement contribute to the definition of the disabled mileue. We can consider systems at both ends of the scale: Nazi’s employed an overt and rigid system of enforcement regarding the management of different mileues including the mentally ill, which permitted few exceptions. Compare this short-lived example to a herd of horses, which will accommodate sick or injured individuals, but not during times of crisis (famine, stress from predators, etc). This control is enforced by lead horses (or alpha dogs, if you prefer dogs to horses) through individual unpremeditated actions. That is, the ability to accommodate affliction fluctuates based on current conditions. This fluctuating stance works for horses and dogs – but in a complex social structure, consistency and regulation are demanded.

Before we consider this requirement for regulation and consistency, let’s return briefly to   the notion of the “wide berth” from my last post. The physical distance generated and maintained around afflicted individuals by health individuals becomes another visual meme. This physical buffer operates together with other visual signs generated by affliction. But unlike with animals there is no resolution to this process of separation. The afflicted exist in a kind of limbo, with enough resources to remain alive, but not enough to thrive. As if inside a bubble, the afflicted are thereby visibly tracked through this buffer.

In the future the appearance of “thriving” will be central to the debate on healthcare. Kaiser has already identified this theme of “Thrive” as a welcome alternative to the more prosaic “Barely Alive” motto. People in the future will be expected to contribute, and in exchange they will be supported medically. This seems a reasonable exchange. But in the case of neurologic and psychologic affliction fact it will be a complex negotiation. Here the capacity to function and ability to function are two different things, with a host of shifting brain-related dysfunctions interrupting the process of recovery along the way.

The development of a disabled underclass would be highly undesirable on Mars, given the need for efficiency and order in a highly vulnerable artificial system. On Mars the disabled will be medically assessed and gainfully employed through a system that minimizes their limitations and exploits their abilities.

Such a system would rely on diagnosis and medication for its success, as well as on the enforcement of treatment through negotiation and other means. A breach in this system could spell crisis for the population that houses it. So the management of affliction (in particular those which could undermine the safety and moral of the larger community such as mental health patients) becomes crucial.

By the time we arrive on Mars, we will be thoroughly accustomed to being micromanaged electronically. Subjects (everyone on Mars will become a Subject in the sense they must subject to the automatic  will be accustomed to the exchange of their own private information for financial or other gain. Insurance companies are already exchanging extensive information profiles, gained through remote electronic tracking, for discounts on insurance policies. The micro management of the economics of this exchange will become accepted. Subjects will understand from an early age that when they are provided with the support needed for success, they give up some level of personal control. The amount of control relinquished is tied to the health and wealth of the individual. We see this narrative played out again and again, whether the exchange takes place in the realm of the occult (Mephisto, Rosemary’s Baby) or in the echelons of Big Government (1984, This Perfect Day also by Ira Levin ) or Big Healthcare The Handmaid’s Tale by Harold Pinter or A boy and his Dog by Harlan Ellison).

In these dramas, the subjects or victims are without rights. That is, they are born into or subjected against their will to an exchange that enables some but destroys others. Such a scenario becomes more complex when we consider the willing participation of subjects in this game, and the management of the desire to participate in such a system. Already Facebook and online and brick and mortar marketers are finding the fine line between what is acceptable to a consumer and what is unacceptable, and what is the exact price at which a product crosses this line for a given individual.

All this means that in the future we won’t be dealing with ultimatums as in the stories mentioned earlier, but instead a lifelong process of (enforcement masquerading as) negotiation.

As diagnostics and treatments become available for silent conditions (i.e., brain or neurologic impairment such as mental health), these formerly undiagnosed conditions become tangible. Once they become tangible to the medical establishment, will they also become tangible to society at large? And how to negotiate the vulnerability that comes with this disclosure?

At the moment one discloses this information one becomes vulnerable in both an immediate and long-term sense. Those with mental health conditions are exploited by the healthy population, even as they are alienated. This trend is clear when you compare the rate at which mental health patients are sexually violated, as compared to the general population: such incidents increase 4-fold when one switches their attention from the population at large to the mentally ill. That is, there is an immediate risk associated with disclosure. Sexual exploitation is only indicator of this trend.

There is of course also a long-term negative effect of disclosure within the society at large – unless perhaps when we consider a managed system designed to mitigate the long-term negative effects by supporting the afflicted individual in their effort to function in a limited or specific physical and mental capacity. Such a system would attempt to open private individual information, while closing down disclosure of its own internal rules. There would be a continual conflict re: information transparency between the administrators and recipients of such a system.

Instead of unintentional cues, perhaps on Mars the disabled will be clearly marked (the Wondershell could visually indicate the limitations or needs of the wearer). But how to negotiate the balance between: knowledge required to aid an individual, versus knowledge used to exploit an individual.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Negotiating alien terrain

I had to think of Ray Bradbury’s “The Day the Rain Stopped” when my vertigo came to a stop. In the story the kids don’t recognize their world once the noise stops. The silence overwhelms them. On June 9th my vertigo stopped for a moment. I was startled by the silence in my head and overwhelmed with joy until it revved up again. I wept after this incident because I had forgotten what it felt like to stand on solid ground.

I must have been thinking about Ray Bradbury because he recently died. I listened to an old interview with him on NPR and he talked about how he spent all his free time while growing up in the LAPL, where he read voraciously He emphasised that he read good books. That was his education. I thought wow just like me, I used to read a lot – but I only read horse stories. I should have read what Ray Bradbury read. I didn’t look into what he read, but I am revisiting texts in my head that resonate with me re: health and society on Mars.

It is impossible not to consider Kafka especially The Trial, Amerika, or the Metamorphosis. Because there will be stringent and extensive rules on mars, and no one will be privy to all of them. And they will drive people mad, as will the simple difficulty of the physical demands and limitations. And you won’t have to imagine that something is working against you. It most assuredly is.

I am rereading Freud’s essay on The Uncanny. It becomes relevant anew set on Mars. Because everything is uncanny on Mars: familiar yet strange. The same but completely different. Each new Marsian will carry her own ghosts as well as those of her ancestors and culture. These ghosts will visit their attendant hosts at will, further confusing familiar existence with alien.

In the past I’ve already attempted to read the chapter “Of the Refrain” by Deleuze and Guattari. It is in the section “One Thousand Plateaus” in their book of essays “On Schizophrenia and Capitalism”. I don’t really know what the book is about, nor the essay. But I revisit this essay again and again due to the intrigue and breadth in their examination of the human condition. They play around the question “What makes us human?” while focusing resolutely on how mammals signal to each other while they negotiate their social terrain.

These notions become profound when considered in the context of Mars colonization, just like some songs become profound when you consider their stories on Mars, because we realize all the things we take for granted every day. Signs and symbols will be everywhere on Mars of course as interface. But how will milieus form, reform and morph in a new world through signification, with the knowledge and tools of past interactions at their disposal? How will groups of people express their interests or limitations on the nature of interplay with other groups? How will interplay between various Mars colonies be negotiated? Though interdependent for survival, various stations will also be in competition with and mistrustful of others.

Marsians will be protected and covered against gamma rays, cold, dust storms, and other extreme physical conditions. Consider that mistakes and sabotage can be deadly in the Marsian environment, and infrastructure to negotiate developing crisis will be limited, hacked together, and vulnerable. How will individuals within or across groups mitigate crisis? Ideally a group cognition process would be utilised among marsian stations – a sharing of not only data and ideas but also tasks and problem solving. At the same time sensitive information and personal space will be protected through a complex of both automatic and discretionary or personal acts. These negotiations will take place on several platforms at once: wirelessly (local adhoc network), wirelessly (remote or offical comm system), and through face to face presentation. The latter may include surreptitious language exchange or formal outward codification through automatic or customised expressions. Imagine a Wondershell that emits moods or other real time info, changing as its wearer moves across the Mars landscape or inside the Station. Just as tartan plaids signified association with a group and a simultaneous warning, these visible patterns could mitigate human interaction, expressing or withholding information. The significance of this liquid skin could be changed at will, into: an avatar, a presentation screen, or a foil. It could act as an invitation, a repellent, or an open book. It must replace the function of: pheromones, street attire, casual meetings, and whispers.

This kind of expression will come naturally to those chosen to  attend Mars, as they will be screened/cultivated for both technical as well as expressive acuity. The latter will help them invent ways to address the communication, stress, and crisis situations as they occur.

Imagine an impromptu concert from printed musical instruments. Maybe these are the instruments the performers learned to play on earth. Maybe the instruments are automatically tweaked via autocad to better respond to conditions in the mars atmosphere. You could put together whatever you wanted, if you didn’t have a shortage of appropriate printing materials. Maybe these printed materials could be recycled. You couldn’t have a concert outside with a didgeridoo, a tuba, or a coronet, because there is no oxygen for human lungs. But outside you could play a piano, a guitar, a mandolin. How does string frequency change in low gravity, in a lighter atmosphere? Would the strings vibrate at a higher pitch? Would they sound forever?

Monday, August 6, 2012

Poison frog venom and ground fetuses

The Opthomalogist was young, smart, and insecure. “Hmm. That’s not the regular pattern. Usually there is an eruption in one place.”

Yes I know that’s not the regular pattern. I also know there is no such a thing as a regular pattern. A regular pattern only exists when you choose to ignore the anomalies. Are doctors not required to read James Gleick in medical school?

“Why do you think you have shingles?” He asked.

My psychic told me.

Of course I did not answer him thus. I need this guy on my side.

The Opthomologist did the right thing, of course. I went to the best hopsital in SD County. They brought in the Cornea Specialist. He was looking for damage to the cornea resulting from shingles lesions, which can cause blindness. He didn’t find any. He told me the antivirals I am already taking for shingles is the only thing I should be on at this point, even with an infection inside the eye. He said the drops should not be used unless needed.

He is right. But his rational only works when one has insurance. When you can’t pay the bill, and can’t afford to return (to the same place twice), the likelihood of getting treated on time dwindles.

I had already tried the night before at the CVS downtown. I asked the pharmacist, since he was already filling my anti-viral prescription, couldn’t he also just give me the Acyclovir eye drops. I told him how goopey and blurry my eyes were, and how they itched and burned, and how my forehead, scalp, eyes, and ears itched and burned. “That’s a different prescription”, he said. “Oh, I have to get a second piece of paper for that? Even thought it’s the same anti-viral in liquid form?” I feigned ignorance.

I also got a prescription from my acupuncturist. I went to the Chinese herbalist and requested Liushen Wan. The herbalist said nothing for a little while. He busied himself putting some little plastic bags of fungi in a drawer, although he’d come out from the back when I walked in. Finally he looked at me carefully, looked down at my service dog, and said quietly: “We don’t sell that.”

“Why not?” I asked.

After a pause he said: “One of the ingredients is not approved by the FDA.”

“It’s not ground human fetuses, is it?” I asked him.

The herbalist didn’t answer. Not sure if he didn’t understand me, or didn’t know how much I knew. I think he thought I was an undercover cop. That happens a lot.

I asked if I could get it elsewhere, or buy it online. He wasn’t sure. I left thinking he probably had it, but didn’t trust me.

I called my acupuncturist afterward and told her what the Herbalist said. She laughed and told me the illegal ingredient is poisonous frog venom. I had been instructed to take the pills by mouth (when I am not on the anti-virals) or to open them, mix with vinegar, and spread onto the affected skin.

I read an article recently about how a large batch of pills were confiscated going from China to (South?) Korea. The pills were hidden in cargo. There were thousands and thousands of them, brown powder pills in plastic popup packaging. They were tested and found to contain ground human fetuses. My acupuncturist told me this preparation was common, and available here at the chinese herbalists – it is commonly administered to women who’ve just given birth, and they use both placenta and fetus for this preparation. My doctor started to tell me the name of this preparation. But I didn't want to know its name.

 Consider that the fetus pills confiscated were traveling from China to Korea, and that the Chinese conduct forced abortions – a tidy arrangment as long as this activity remains clandestine. It is, of course, illegal – on earth. But just as Bugsy Siegel recognised in Las Vegas, there is a window of time wherein one may operate without deference to law, and may set and secure specific legal precedents or exceptions.

Whereas americans might devour only the reddest portion of a ripe watermelon on a hot day, discarding the rest into landfills, the chinese will save the hard rind and seeds, rendering them into dried edibles that last into the winter. On Mars each station must operate with optimal efficiency. Nothing may be wasted.

In the U.S. a top organ and tissue provider (worked with UCLA and other top medical centers) was found to have illegally mined cadavers for parts, and sold these untested possibly diseased parts for transplant procedures.

What I wonder is: if illegal trade in cadavers already exists, how will cadavers be handled on Mars?  In particular if there is a failure to provide adequate protein? After all, the lab meat we read about in the news requires a “starter” of live tissue. And surely we won’t have a corral of fat pigs at the ready, when the Meat Lab gets hungry. At the very least any live tissue would be indirectly exploited have to be used for its usefulness in growing plants.