"Presence not Presents"

…is something my dad used to say all the time when trying to corral the dispersed Willis children into giving up their “way to busy for family” lives for a few days and making a communal trek somewhere for a very untraditional Christmas. We were usually pretty successful in making this holiday a fun one, but that’s neither here nor there, since I’m not going to be talking about any of that in this post. It’s just a nice story.


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Instead, I want to talk about presence as it pertains to recording who you are online. I’m not talking about branding or building reputation here, but rather presence in the most pure expression: participation. As Malcolm Forbes once said, “Presence is more than just being there.”

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Just as a sulky family member at Christmas is worse than an absent one–an online friend who seems uninterested in interacting with you unless it benefits them, worse then someone who abstains from hanging out with you on the interwebs.

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I love when people create a hub for you to look for interactions with them. Some Examples:

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  • My friend, Andrew Hyde, lists very clearly on his site most of the things he’s working on (Startup Weekend, VC Wear) and provides a good bio and links to his profiles on different web services. If you spend 20 minutes on his site, I guarentee you’ll find something to strike up a chat with him about next time you see him.
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  • My friend, Ben Casnocha, has a slightly more “company” version of essentially the same thing. He’s a little more conscious of creating a brand for himself so the site reflects that. At it’s core it’s similar to Andrew’s site, a hub for “all things Ben.” You can find out what he’s thinking about from his blog, find his accounts (twitter, FB, del.icio.us, etc.), even sign up for a newsletter digest he send out (which is very good incidentally).
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  • New Friend, Amit Gupta, will probably serve as inspiration for me in building this site. He hosted smaller projects on his domain, instead of a separate domain. Talk about centralization! Of course, once projects hit a certain size, it needs to be spun out, but while it’s a baby idea – why not let it live at home?
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  • This site now has tons of information about me. Not sifted, carefully chosen and cleared information – but rather a bevy of information about who I am and what I do. So does my Facebook profile.
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So, if real presence is equal to participation — it only makes sense that your online presence should reflect all your participation. I used to think it was a good idea to create a separate corporate web page that can be separated from my personal page and cleaned of any personality so that I can be sure I’m not making the wrong impression, but likely because of that I ended up making no impression at all.

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The alternative is, I can build a hub that is open, inviting, and full of possible talking points that may drive interactions. That’s how I’ve decided to go about it this time around.

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I’ve created this as a web hub, and while it’s not complete, tonight I am working on building a Facebook Hub using pages. Since I use Facebook so frequently, it seemed logical to have an aggregation of data like events, groups, stories, etc. using one of FB’s most robust tools. So here’s my page, it should stay up to date with community projects I’m working on and events I’m putting on. Fan me on Facebook if you want infrequent updates about this stuff.

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I’ll continue to build out both my Facebook page and this website with as much information as possible, until I’m documenting almost all my online participation, as a way of extending my digital hand to you for what might be the start of a beautiful future.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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