What shapes contemporary life?

Question: What shapes contemporary life?

Rob Riemen: I don’t want to be a name dropper, but it’s . . . no. But it’s . . . It’s the world I come from and the language I know. But we have had the phenomenon in Europe of Friedrich Nietzsche. Now Nietzsche is well known for the death of God, nihilism and so on and so forth. And that next to Nietzsche we had Dostoevsky – Brothers Karamazov, The Idiot, Crime and Punishment and so forth. Those two quite different figures had something in common. And this . . . And that is that they realized . . . They realized all too well that if we lose the idea or the awareness that the most important things in life have an intrinsic value, then you will get . . . then you will get nihilism. That is to say if we really think that, that if we don’t understand what freedom is, and we think that freedom is equal to “everything is permissible” – but for everything to become permissible, you get __________. When things no longer have an intrinsic . . . intrinsic value, then you don’t value your child because it is your child; but you value it because you think he will become a movie star, or a football player, or will do a lot of work for me. You can no longer value the great love in your life because you think, you know, it would be . . . You see, I mean that’s . . . that’s . . . It is the gigantic stupidity of a society with this bombardment by . . . by mass media which is constantly lying to us. It’s constantly lying to us. They want to give us the idea that Mr. Trump, for example . . . Mr. Trump is the incarnation of Mr. Kitsch because he truly thinks that money is the most important thing in life. And if you become a Kitsch-like figure like he is, yes you can make a lot of money. But look every __________ can tell you that there is nothing in money. And this is what nihilism is – that it’s absolutely nothing. So this is what I called the kitsch society. We aim at the pleasant. We ignore the best. We do not understand that the most important things must have an intrinsic value, and that was a . . . that some things have to . . . have to be sacred. And on the level of politics, I mean look. Mr. Karl Rove when he was still there, “mission accomplished”. It was the perfect example of what . . . When politics is no longer the real debate about the good society; when politics is reduced to, you know, serving part interest, or serving self-interest, and to do it well we have to create a certain image like “mission accomplished”; I mean it worked for at least half a year that the majority of the American people thought “mission accomplished”. Now in the meantime they know the truth – it’s not there. So when the kitsch society is there, we are constantly _________ with the fact . . . Again, education. Education should be pretty useless; should focus on the useless things; should try to make us, you know, aware of what the masterpieces have to tell us how to gain a certain wisdom in life; and then of course yes, you have to develop your talents and you should follow your passion. But for so long we’ve been living in a society where wisdom has been replaced by know-how; in which history according to Mr. Forbes is bunk. And all you have to . . . The religious sects who are telling you there is only one truth and authority, and you have to obey and so on and so forth – I mean are we surprised about what’s happening in our society? Are we surprised about the senselessness, the killing? And the interesting thing is that look, we are still living in democracy. It’s not China. It’s not Russia. It’s not Darfur or those horrible places. We are still living in a democracy. I mean, for God sakes, you are America. This is a country that starts with “we the people”. Now “we the people” means one very simple thing. That is we are responsible. We are responsible, not those bull shitters. So if we stop watching television, it will be immediately gone. If you don’t buy the product, the product will be gone. If you start buying books, book shops will return. Let’s get rid of the lies. That is . . . I mean that’s also what I hope you can contribute with this series. But we have to get rid of the lies. Now are we very powerful? No we are not very powerful. Will there be a drastic change? Well what would change in a society if people still can do what they want to do? Because this is a free society and so on and so forth. But they can no longer keep up the kitsch. They can no longer keep up the idea that yes, what I do is very important for your interest or whatever. We know you’re lying. You still can do it, but you’re lying. That would make the difference. And so we need a different mindset. We have to try to get back something, you know, of our . . . our . . . our cultural setting; and starting to realize again what the true questions are.

Question: What are today’s essential issues?

Rob Riemen: Democracy, freedom, love, health – all the good things . . . all the good things, all the important things are, by definition, vulnerable and fragile. Nothing can ever be taken for . . . Probably again, this is also a European lesson. Again my mother was one of the camps. It was impossible for her to throw away one single piece of bread because she knew what hunger was. That generation knows very, very well still what freedom is, and what happens to society when there is no longer freedom. They know what they are talking about. And they also know it’s never a given. We don’t have guarantees – not in life, not for our society. So we know, and we can even see it on television. And if you also see by what kind of forces we are surrounded, yes there is terrorism. Yes there are people with a complete different mindset who believe in a kind of holy law and so on and so forth; who want to fight, to reduce the world to believers and non-believers. And everybody, in their minds, who is an non-believer should be annihilated, and killed, and so on and so forth. Yes it is there. Yes there are people with certain economic power; and so crazy by their economic commercial power that they really want to reduce everybody to consumers. And if, you know, turn our society into a kind of infantile society that we all behave like stupid childs who want this or that and can find a certain satisfaction never for one moment. We know the forces are there. We know that the best thing can perish very, very easily. So being that the case, and . . . and realizing that what all those forces in their all varieties whatsoever. And some are more immediately threatening to our society, and others are more threatening in the long term. But what they have in common is that they take away the quality of our life, which could be on the level of the environment; which could be on the level of our civil society; which could be on . . . on whatever level. But they take away the quality of our life. The very first thing to be done immediately – you know breaking news, let’s do it right now – is we have to rethink what is . . . what’s the meaning of a good society? And as I once said to friends, not that long ago I finally had the opportunity to go to Ellis Island for the very first time – the Statute of Liberty, then to Ellis Island. I’m a European, right? I’m not an American. I’m fascinated by your history. I’m fascinated by the people who came. So I came to Ellis Island, saw this documentary with Gene Hackman. And you understand knowing the history of Europe, that for so many people America by definition is . . . if it’s not the good society, it’s the better society. Because the horror they had to face in Europe . . . One guy who was in this documentary said . . . He was an old man. He said (using the voice of an older person), “The strange thing about America is that the police is here to help you.” That was not the case in Russia. That was not the case in Poland. That was not the case in France. So I understand the kind of mindset in which Americans think well maybe it’s not . . . The good society or the best society is by far the better society. Time is over. Everybody now has to rethink what is a good society; what are the quintessential values; what is it that Europe and America have in common; and how to defend those values in such a way that you can become . . . that you are not a threat to the rest of the world. But I mean the American dream worked because everybody could realize, “Hey, there is something in it for me.” Now the west created a situation with its globalization; with globalization in a sense that a lot of people have . . . have the idea that their own identities are destructed. Because . . . I don’t want to sound like an anti-American, but that there is only Coca Cola, and only McDonald’s and so on. I mean that’s the caricature, but that’s how a lot of people experience it. That’s not the way. And that’s also the essence of the American dream. So the good society; what are our quintessential values; and then from there, what are we doing with our education? How do we use our media? I mean our media are no longer to give information. I mean far from it. It’s just one big commercial thing, as education has become a commercial thing. Look at . . . Look at the politics. It’s on the both sides – both on the liberal side and on the conservative. It’s an enormous reductionism to very simplistic concepts which has nothing to do with a serious discussion. So there is a lot of work to be done. But you know we can do it, and also we should do it because we don’t have a choice.


Recorded on: 10/3/07




Riemen frames contemporary life and the values that construct our society.

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An unexpected culprit

The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

"We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

"Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

The experiments

The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

"We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

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