Comments on TED Video Talks

An article in this week’s New Yorker about TED Talks, in which artists, techies and “visionaries” discuss their ideas for changing the world, or a small part of it.

What’s an Idea?

Thing is, what’s an idea? Example: in 1987, I saw that Hypercard, a now almost outdated program for building visual applications on the old black and white Macintosh, could be used in teaching poetry by releasing the words, or even letters, of the poem gradually and with visual effects. I theorized that this might help English teachers present poems less as finished texts than as journeys with the poet, and showed my prototype to William Howarth of the English department at Princeton, who liked it, and, to my knowledge, used it.

I never regarded this idea as brilliant or my personal property and this morning (25 years later) some sort of poet-technologist presents the same idea on the BBC. He didn’t steal it from me, and I don’t resent anything, but this shows that not all ideas have equal weight or dimensions or shapes. They are not things; they do not even have weight, dimensions, or shapes, and are best considered part of a shared cultural network. My idea was merely a good idea that required an expensive computer with Hypercard, his, probably one that requires a Mac.

The problem being that Silicon Valley and Hollywood de-network ideas. They take a cultural meme and sever it from context so that the widest possible audience can understand that meme, especially people with money money money (to attend a Ted conference, save by invitation or by way of a complex application including essay writing, costs $7,500.00).

You would never find OccupyWallStreet addressing a Ted audience, of course. This is because Ted, for all its virtues (and I believe them to be real) fulfills Marcuse’s prediction that liberal, non-Communist society would (1) outlast Communism as practiced by real Communists in 1968 and (2) fall victim to a regressive Positivism which would “run the film backward”: it would, as profit pressure intensified, increasingly demand simplicity and reifiability of ideas, and would demand that no idea contained any negation. We cannot get rid of banks, so we have to somehow humanize them. The question as to whether that’s possible is unasked.

Generally, TED talks are about one idea that is easily understood by a global audience with a diverse culture where the unifying factor is access to the same technology and not the same culture. Non-Western cultures are objects of favorable curiosity at the expense of Western culture. The concerns are those of Baby Boomers in the developed world, indeed they are my concerns such as, how to relate to this diagnosis of cancer?

Great TED Ideas: Schizophrenia

Some TED ideas are really, really great. In getting my diagnosis (of Stage IV Prostate cancer) I had a choice, not to not accept its truth (about this I do not think I have a choice) but my relationship to that truth. Here’s a professional woman with a job teaching law who is also a self-confessed schizophrenic, who’s in fact recovered as much as John Nash, with whom I was honored to work at Princeton.

Most of us some of the time (some of us most of the time) want to be irresponsible infants again, and a diagnosis gives us an excuse. I had some schizophrenic tendencies as a teenager such as “loss of executive function”: my high school career, for example, was like one of those dreams many of us have where we’ve not done the homework for a class. I tell myself that this high school (St Viator High School in Arlington Heights, Illinois) was a terrible place, but I now also believe, based on the way I see Asian students use far worse places to benefit themselves, that I was willingly being passive in a demi-schizoid fashion, or a way that leads to full-blown schizophrenia. You won’t activate the executive function because you don’t know who or where you are as opposed to powerful parental voices that tell you that their world (a world in which respectable people actually smoked inside of closed, air-conditioned cars with small children in them) is the real world.

Elyn Saks, like John Nash, and myself when I finally made it to Princeton (as an employee) was fortunate, since most ordinary jobs exacerbate schizophrenia. We were under orders to treat Nash like a normal person at Princeton, and Saks likewise is at an understanding and non-corporate workplace.

Whereas in the corporation, things happen to push people over the edge. I was walking after a run in Lincoln Park and passed a bunch of guys discussing a female co-worker. I overheard one of them say, “she’s an asshole, she draws pictures during meetings”.

Wow, think I…I get bored in corporate meetings, too, and I doodle during long meetings. So did President Reagan, according to his speechwriter Peggy Noonan, for whom the doodling was a mark of genius.

But down among “ordinary” people, creativity is often prematurely diagnosed as schizophrenia.

Mental illness is real and medication can be indicated. It has improved since Nash’s time when Thorazine and other crude drugs were popular, drugs that completely destroyed Nash’s attention span and made him unable to think mathematically. When I want to cop a resentment I have only to think how very unfamiliar “thinking mathematically” is to the sort of people who enter psychology or psychiatry.

If you see a connection between the word “lemon” and the word “demon”, you’re a poet, or good at crossword puzzles. But if you cannot sit with this connection and write one poem based on tracing that connection (for all things are connected by language), and jump to the next connection you’ve lost control of executive function.

Since starting to teach English in 2005 I have been seeing enriched connections between words and hearing the beat better. I’ve discovered that there’s no such thing as free verse (in such verse you can always find an organizing principle) and that good rhymes come from good use of metre. But I’ve also wondered where this comes from, since I have never been before about 2005, able to write anything but bad poetry. Being able to write mediocre verse is a new thing.

What are you my lemon demon?
Why speak to me today and in this way?
Color of sunlight, are you lucifer
In form of a cross when they said of Wisdom, crucify her?

OK, so I’ve just tried to proceed along a “schizophrenic” pathway in the controlled way of the poet as opposed to the schizophrenic. In lines one and two I started with the idea of the “demon” not as the Christian devil but as the Greek daemon, or animating spirit, an inner voice.

But you also need to remember that “lemons” are always bright yellow unlike, say, apples which come in three different colors, and that is the color of light, so you draw a line from “demon” not only to daemonic (but benign) voices but to Lucifer because you happen to know, and you would like to be able to presume that your reader knows, the meaning of “lucifer”, which is “light-giving”, a pun in fact on the meaning ordinary minds give lucifer (who dwells in fire, but fire gives light).

There is then a rhyme with “crucify her” which raises the idea of holy wisdom as female which is found in only one book of the Bible and that book not accepted by Protestants. This idea may have links with Gnosticism and its refusal to be judged by a male god.

Now, the problem for any artist (or law professor, or mathematician) with schizophrenic tendencies is you really don’t want to explain that to a cop or a psychiatrist of the sort that typically works for the state. The schizophrenic has forgotten, if she’s ever learned, Wittgenstein’s notion of language games.

A Systems Approach to Cancer

Here, Dr David Agus discusses a systems approach to cancer.

My cancer is prostate and some symptoms (rather unmentionable) confirm this without there being a tumor in the prostate. Which reinforces this guy’s contention that we should not label a cancer with its origin point especially after metastasis. My problem here is that cancerous cells are cruising my lymph nodes looking for a place to set up shop and have destroyed one such node for shits and giggles, if I understand it correctly.

Agus views a cancer as a whole-body problem, and wants us to look at the response of the whole body. There appear to be a number of paradoxes including the fact that something can be terribly effective at shrinking a tumor but cause more problems later on, while another treatment might merely cause the tumor not to grow but cause fewer problems later on.

That would mean that I would have to welcome the daily presence of the tumor unlike Amfortas in Parsival who is forever seeking release. I have no way of knowing whether the optimum for my unique body might not be the tumor at its present size.

These paradoxes occur elsewhere in medicine. DDT was supposed to be a cure for malaria.

This means that I am in AA terms Powerless over anything but one day at a time and the quality of life on that day, which is why my morning workout has become important. It helps me to seek, as a total system, homeostasis just as working out did in the thirty years leading up to the diagnosis.

And what is homeostasis? Maintaining an even strain as would a pilot who, like Captain Sullenberger (the hero pilot who ditched a US Airways plane with no engines in the Hudson a few years back). The best way to do this for me has been some sort of movement and doing the best I can with anger management.

We have to accept optimums rather than the “best”. I’m not going to get a Pet scan every day. But I can make all appointments at Queen Mary and perhaps start taking my own blood pressure. One thing that might be in my favor would be my low BP numbers and getting a home kit to measure it would help me to learn more.

Towards the end of If Human Freedom, Spinoza links the man who gets drunk with the man who fears hell, who in Delmore Schwartz’s words in The Heavy Bear Who Goes With Me, howls for sugar in his sleep for the same reason he fears … nothing considered as a something, a void over which he is suspended as in a circus act. Well, when I started working at Princeton in 1987, I had some sort of dream.

Prior to going to work at Princeton, traveling there cross country from Seattle, another healing place, I’d participated at some remove in Bob Ballard’s discovery of the Titanic since one of the vessels of one of the customers of the shipbuilding firm where I’d worked was the Atlantis, the craft that discovered the Titanic’s wrack.

I dreamed the first week at Princeton that they’d discovered Spinoza by way of draining the shallow sea around his Holland, and he was none the worse for wear.

I cling to my Heavy Bear when I get enraged by the rain on the way to the ferry and me once again without an umbrella because the Heavy Bear fears nothing at all. But when I am with friends I have to let go of the Heavy Bear to find a genuine day at a time curiosity which is able to find a patch of blue in a pewter sky, as I was in Queen Mary.

I hate psychology as a discipline, it seems so messy but I love real psychological practitioners such as my Hawaii therapist and Dr Norton from when I was a kid…and a psychologist in Seattle who painted a picture of being abandoned, in darkness, and then what. For some reason I cannot grasp the picture itself, which was bleak, generated its own antibody in the form of hope.

All I know today is that I still like to move first thing. I think this ted Talk character Agus may be on to something, because Geoffrey Bateson also used a systems approach to alcoholism at the Palo Alto veteran’s hospital in the 1950s.


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