Moving to FB...

Hi everyone,

Over the past few years, I have done more and more posting on my FaceBook page and haven't really posted much on this blog.

So...find me on FB.

Not sure what I'll do with this blog, but maybe I will find a way to use this for postings!



Nice poem by Mitsuo Aida introduced by a friend





Good words. Thank you Sudo-sensei!


Some notes on the core of Sandel's "Case Against Perfection"

Tomorrow, as part of our bioethics unit, I'm discussing this article with my first year students in our English for Liberal Arts class at ICU in Tokyo, Japan. I'm making these notes available to them because some parts of the article are pretty tough, even for native-speaker readers.

Here's the link to the original:

Me: My notes will be in blue. 

Sandel's goal in this article is to argue against "genetic enhancement" (different from genetic therapy for curing illness). He feels that many of the arguments people have used to disagree with "genetic enhancement" do not directly address the problem. In the first few sections, Sandel uses examples such as cloning, muscle enhancement for athletes, memory enhancement for taking tests, changing a child's height, sex selection, and sperm/egg banks to identify the common arguments against "enhancement" and show that they are insufficient. This includes arguments such as how genetic enhancement will 1) violate individual autonomy, 2) destroy fairness in sports or society as a whole, 3) create a gap of economic classes, 4) lead to an "arms-race" of competition to be more perfect, 5) hurt embryos, 6) harm our capacity to act freely to make efforts to succeed, and 7) take us back to Nazi eugenics. In various ways, he feels these arguments cannot express the main moral problem of genetic enhancement. 

On p. 15-16, he finally succinctly summarizes his own argument, writing:

 The problem with eugenics and genetic engineering is that they represent the one-sided triumph of willfulness over giftedness, of dominion over reverence, of molding over beholding. Why, we may wonder, should we worry about this triumph? Why not shake off our unease about genetic enhancement as so much superstition? What would be lost if biotechnology dissolved our sense of giftedness?

Me: "Willfullness vs. Giftedness" seems to be a contrast of words Sandel has created?  We have to guess that "giftedness" in this context means something like "the characteristic of accepting something being given as a gift, and the receiver of the gift/present had no idea what was coming." That is different from "willfullness," where we get what we "will" (=want) by our own intentions.

So, in summary, Sandel is asserting:

Good = Accepting our genetic characteristics. We should see them as "given" gifts, with reverence to that random process (God, Nature etc.), and beholding it (just looking, not touching).

Bad = Designing our genetic characteristics. like shopping, having our "wills" come true by dominion (mastery) an molding (modifying).

So, in short, we should accept our genetic destinies and not try to change them, either for ourselves, or for our children. Medicine and exercise is OK, but DNA tampering (unless it is curing a disease?)  is NG.

Really? Why? Earlier in the article, he has rejected the commonly given reasons such as "it is not yet safe (yet) "it is not fair to the poor" and "it will lead to Hilter type coercive eugenics." It might be safe in the future, it could potentially be made available to all by subsidies, and it could be up to free will. None of those reasons are really strong enough.

Now he gives HIS reasons. It's about time. The article finally gets interesting below.

From a religious standpoint the answer is clear: To believe that our talents and powers are wholly our own doing is to misunderstand our place in creation, to confuse our role with God's. Religion is not the only source of reasons to care about giftedness, however. The moral stakes can also be described in secular terms. If bioengineering made the myth of the "self-made man" come true, it would be difficult to view our talents as gifts for which we are indebted, rather than as achievements for which we are responsible. This would transform three key features of our moral landscape: humility, responsibility, and solidarity.

Me: OK, so it looks like he has three non-religious reasons for being against the "self-made man." Let's see if these are persuasive or not. 

I agree with him for skipping the religious reasons. Those won't convince anybody who disagrees. So, what's the humanistic, consequentialist case against pursing genetic perfection?

In a social world that prizes mastery and control, parenthood is a school for humility. That we care deeply about our children and yet cannot choose the kind we want teaches parents to be open to the unbidden. Such openness is a disposition worth affirming, not only within families but in the wider world as well. It invites us to abide the unexpected, to live with dissonance, to rein in the impulse to control. A Gattaca-like world in which parents became accustomed to specifying the sex and genetic traits of their children would be a world inhospitable to the unbidden, a gated community writ large. The awareness that our talents and abilities are not wholly our own doing restrains our tendency toward hubris.

Me: OK, so...rejecting genetic engineering helps us stay "humble, modest, not proud." In other words, we stay "open to the unbidden." Unbidden means "uninvited," so this basically means we can stay more open to things we have no control over or don't want, not only in our families, but in the "wider world....like earthquakes and failures in business or love. We will stay humble (and happier, he implies) because we will keep  a mindset of being ready to accept anything, and anybody.

In contrast, if we try to specify and design our DNA, we will become full of pride/hubris and arrogance, and we will become unhospitable/colder to people we don't want.

As the last sentence expresses, it is better for us to feel that our abilities (like smartness or beauty or being good at basketball) are not "self-made." It is better for us to feel that our good things are partly a gift from God/nature, because we won't be like "Yeah, I'm so cool--I'm better than you" so much.

Hmm...but I wonder, if genetic engineering of adults or children starts being used, and many people are selected or designed or modified in the future, will this "arrogance" and "inhospitality" really increase substantially compared to now? This sentiment already exists--will it really be more common or stronger? We are left to our imaginations and Sandel doesn't really help us consider this possibility.

Though some maintain that genetic enhancement erodes human agency by overriding effort, the real problem is the explosion, not the erosion, of responsibility. As humility gives way, responsibility expands to daunting proportions. We attribute less to chance and more to choice. Parents become responsible for choosing, or failing to choose, the right traits for their children. Athletes become responsible for acquiring, or failing to acquire, the talents that will help their teams win.

One of the blessings of seeing ourselves as creatures of nature, God, or fortune is that we are not wholly responsible for the way we are. The more we become masters of our genetic endowments, the greater the burden we bear for the talents we have and the way we perform. Today when a basketball player misses a rebound, his coach can blame him for being out of position. Tomorrow the coach may blame him for being too short. Even now the use of performance-enhancing drugs in professional sports is subtly transforming the expectations players have for one another; on some teams players who take the field free from amphetamines or other stimulants are criticized for "playing naked."

Me: OK, here's point number 2: we'll feel more responsibility for our actions and choices if we are genetically designed. Right now, we can say "I'm stupid because I was born that way." In the future, we'll have to say "I'm stupid because my parents couldn't design me well, or I haven't done the genetic engineering I need to do." We used to be able to blame it on God, Nature or Fortune, but we will have to blame our parents or ourselves.

Hmm...will that really happen? And, if it happens, is it really a bigger or worse problem than what we face now with natural individual differences? Hmm...I really wished Sandel had expanded on this.

Anyway, on to his 3rd and final point below: Solidarity or society.

The more alive we are to the chanced nature of our lot, the more reason we have to share our fate with others. Consider insurance. Since people do not know whether or when various ills will befall them, they pool their risk by buying health insurance and life insurance. As life plays itself out, the healthy wind up subsidizing the unhealthy, and those who live to a ripe old age wind up subsidizing the families of those who die before their time. Even without a sense of mutual obligation, people pool their risks and resources and share one another's fate.

But insurance markets mimic solidarity only insofar as people do not know or control their own risk factors. Suppose genetic testing advanced to the point where it could reliably predict each person's medical future and life expectancy. Those confident of good health and long life would opt out of the pool, causing other people's premiums to skyrocket. The solidarity of insurance would disappear as those with good genes fled the actuarial company of those with bad ones.

The fear that insurance companies would use genetic data to assess risks and set premiums recently led the Senate to vote to prohibit genetic discrimination in health insurance. But the bigger danger, admittedly more speculative, is that genetic enhancement, if routinely practiced, would make it harder to foster the moral sentiments that social solidarity requires.

Why, after all, do the successful owe anything to the least-advantaged members of society? The best answer to this question leans heavily on the notion of giftedness. The natural talents that enable the successful to flourish are not their own doing but, rather, their good fortune—a result of the genetic lottery. If our genetic endowments are gifts, rather than achievements for which we can claim credit, it is a mistake and a conceit to assume that we are entitled to the full measure of the bounty they reap in a market economy. We therefore have an obligation to share this bounty with those who, through no fault of their own, lack comparable gifts.

A lively sense of the contingency of our gifts—a consciousness that none of us is wholly responsible for his or her success—saves a meritocratic society from sliding into the smug assumption that the rich are rich because they are more deserving than the poor. Without this, the successful would become even more likely than they are now to view themselves as self-made and self-sufficient, and hence wholly responsible for their success. Those at the bottom of society would be viewed not as disadvantaged, and thus worthy of a measure of compensation, but as simply unfit, and thus worthy of eugenic repair. The meritocracy, less chastened by chance, would become harder, less forgiving. As perfect genetic knowledge would end the simulacrum of solidarity in insurance markets, so perfect genetic control would erode the actual solidarity that arises when men and women reflect on the contingency of their talents and fortunes.

Me: Wow, 5 paragraphs! Could this be his main knock-out punch in the case against perfection?

In short, if genetic engineering becomes common, and some people have better health or intelligence or beauty, they will see themselves as different from the rest, and they won't help the others. His main example is insurance. 

In other words, right now, we know our abilities and successes are partly due to random DNA, so we don't feel different from others, and that is why we help others who are less fortunate.

Hmm...first, do we really think/reflect on our talents that way now? ("My ability/talent is contingent on my random DNA, so I help others")  Possibly--I know that I often think "I am (or my children are) fortunate to be healthy, but I (or my children) could have been born unhealthy, so I have an obligation to help or be sensitive to the needs of others. I can relate to this point by Sandel.

Hmm...also, if genetic design becomes common, will people really start to care about others who are not designed, or designed differently, less? 

Anyway, that wraps up Sandel's three points. 

What do you think? Persuasive? Which reason is the strongest? Can this argument stop or slow down a group of scientists who are pursing a way to design smarter, healthier kids from the DNA level (by removing "defects" or adding "enhancements")? Can it stop a husband and wife who want the "best kids" possible from making the choice to use the technology?

Next we are getting into the conclusion. Nothing new below. Skim and ignore.

Thirty-five years ago Robert L. Sinsheimer, a molecular biologist at the California Institute of Technology, glimpsed the shape of things to come. In an article titled "The Prospect of Designed Genetic Change" he argued that freedom of choice would vindicate the new genetics, and set it apart from the discredited eugenics of old.
To implement the older eugenics ... would have required a massive social programme carried out over many generations. Such a programme could not have been initiated without the consent and co-operation of a major fraction of the population, and would have been continuously subject to social control. In contrast, the new eugenics could, at least in principle, be implemented on a quite individual basis, in one generation, and subject to no existing restrictions.
According to Sinsheimer, the new eugenics would be voluntary rather than coerced, and also more humane. Rather than segregating and eliminating the unfit, it would improve them. "The old eugenics would have required a continual selection for breeding of the fit, and a culling of the unfit," he wrote. "The new eugenics would permit in principle the conversion of all the unfit to the highest genetic level."
Sinsheimer's paean to genetic engineering caught the heady, Promethean self-image of the age. He wrote hopefully of rescuing "the losers in that chromosomal lottery that so firmly channels our human destinies," including not only those born with genetic defects but also "the 50,000,000 'normal' Americans with an IQ of less than 90." But he also saw that something bigger than improving on nature's "mindless, age-old throw of dice" was at stake. Implicit in technologies of genetic intervention was a more exalted place for human beings in the cosmos. "As we enlarge man's freedom, we diminish his constraints and that which he must accept as given," he wrote. Copernicus and Darwin had "demoted man from his bright glory at the focal point of the universe," but the new biology would restore his central role. In the mirror of our genetic knowledge we would see ourselves as more than a link in the chain of evolution: "We can be the agent of transition to a whole new pitch of evolution. This is a cosmic event."

There is something appealing, even intoxicating, about a vision of human freedom unfettered by the given. It may even be the case that the allure of that vision played a part in summoning the genomic age into being. It is often assumed that the powers of enhancement we now possess arose as an inadvertent by-product of biomedical progress—the genetic revolution came, so to speak, to cure disease, and stayed to tempt us with the prospect of enhancing our performance, designing our children, and perfecting our nature. That may have the story backwards. It is more plausible to view genetic engineering as the ultimate expression of our resolve to see ourselves astride the world, the masters of our nature. But that promise of mastery is flawed. It threatens to banish our appreciation of life as a gift, and to leave us with nothing to affirm or behold outside our own will.

Me: The concluding paragraphs have a nice short summary of the main attraction of genetic engineering--we will be able to master our genetic destiny, to be free to choose how we want to be, rather than accept the random failures of nature. 

Is that what we want? Is that where we are going? Wll it happen inevitably no matter how much Sandel and others argue against it? Big questions, and I think a lot of people would prefer to let things move ahead slowly and gradually in a way that does not harm them directly, personally.

Frankly, nothing Sandel wrote above packs much of a punch as far as deterring genetic engineering research and application. As much as I may feel uncomfortable with the rich getting genetically enhanced before I even have the chance to consider it (just like they get good schools and good medical treatment and the best anti-aging injections right now), after many people start doing it, I will probably begin to accept it as normal just like many other technologies have been accepted gradually after initial rejection. As long as genetic enhancement occurs gradually, and does not lead to too much of a social gap between those who have it and those who do not...I have a feeling it will not be very different from any other technological advance we have seen. 

However, I do feel strong value in the first argument of "accepting all" openly, and if parents start to design or select their children, I worry about a negative effect on parents feeling less open to failures of their children due to unrealistic expectations about the perfection these should have. Sandel calls that humility. I call it a harm to the children and the parents due to not having a heart of unconditional love or an openness to anything that may come. I wonder why Sandel didn't expand on that harm more.

Michael J. Sandel teaches political philosophy at Harvard University, where he is the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Government. He serves on the President's Council on Bioethics; this article reflects his personal views.


Best of 2012! Looking back on another good year

My 2012 Top 10 -- In no specific order!

  1. Megumi, Michael, Mei and I all staying basically healthy and having fun from day to day! We were blessed again with a year of no serious illnesses or injuries. The photo above is from our snow trip to Nobeyama just after Christmas, where Michael tried snowboarding for the first time (and found it takes a lot of practice) and Mei enjoyed a two hour ski lesson for preschool kids.
  2. Enjoying my final year of teaching at ICU. I can't emphasize enough how wonderful it have been to be work with these students over the past seven years. ICU has a tradition of high expectations for the students to make efforts and engage in rigorous intellectual work, and the students (almost all) come with the motivation to challenge themselves to become better learners and communicators. In particular, the amount of research paper writing in English that each student is required to do is very important, and I find it the most rewarding part of my job along with teaching skills for reading, research, discussion and presentations. When I leave in April, I will greatly miss the teaching I do here.
  3. In relation to the above, successfully finding my next position, an exciting new project with Keio to start in April 2013. Much of my energy in the first half of 2012 was spent preparing paperwork, going to interviews, pondering decisions about my future, and launching preparations for my new position. As much as I'll miss ICU, I'm looking forward to meeting the challenges of creating and running a completely new English program from April.
  4. Making presentations at the INTED Conference in Valencia, Spain in March (See Report), and being able to visit Barcelona and Madrid in short trips before and after.
  5. Coordinating "Leadership English" for the Global Leadership Studies Program at ICU for the 2nd year. It was a great pleasure working with the Japanese professionals who came for the month-long intensive training.
  6. Refreshing my skills for teaching English to young kids at the ASIJ Summer Day Camp in July-August (See Report). I got through a month of teaching 2nd graders full-time...and actually enjoyed it. I really appreciated the support I got from my colleagues and administrators in SDC. It is amazing how actively and cheerfully the students learn once a positive, cooperative atmosphere is created.
  7. Continuing to run and stay healthy.  My time for the Tokyo Marathon in Feb. 2012 was 4 hr 40 min, and a half-marathon in October was 2 hr. 8 min.
  8. Being able to take a family trip to Guam in June (See Report). A treasured luxury...and only affordable because off-season rates in June for going to Guam from Tokyo are extremely, extremely low.
  9. Becoming an iPhone user, finally! Being able to connect to wifi at home, on campus, and other places (with the Otosan dog sticker) around Tokyo is sooooo nice, and very useful for taking and managing photos, researching things on the net, updating things on Facebook (the main reason why my blog is slowing down), and listening to things such as my daily dose of Chinese news podcasts, music, and audio books. My current challenge is keeping my password secret from my kids who want to use my phone for watching their favorite videos, drawing pictures, and playing games. They are constantly peeking at my fingers logging in trying to steal my code...
  10. Volunteering in Tokyo to clean up tsunami debris: I had wanted to do this earlier in 2011, but finally I was able to join volunteer bus that went to Minami-Sanriku in November and learned that there is still a lot of work to do. The group I joined is the Ossan Volunteers who support an NGO called DSP. Website is here. I strongly recommend going. There are still many areas that need cleaning, and some areas still need to be searched for bodies of victims.
I think I can say 2012 was a very good year, and I realize that my happiness is based on the invaluable support I get from my family, friends, colleagues, students, and members of the community. Thank you everyone!

Note: I hope to add more photos and links when I get a chance!

Happy New Year 2013! + Goals


To start 2013, my wife Megumi and I drove to the coast near her hometown in Kosai, Shizuoka to see a beautiful new year's sunrise coming up over the Pacific ocean.

I pray that this year will be peaceful, joyful and meaningful for all of you.

My resolutions for 2013 include:
  1. Making a smooth transition to my new job (details to be announced in March).
    I have enjoyed seven wonderful years of teaching at ICU and would love to continue, but my contract will expire soon and I have had no choice but to seek new employment. This is  due to a strange policy of "non-renewable contracts" that Japanese universities use. Most students don't know this, but the majority of university language instructors in Japan are used in a system that discards experienced, contributing instructors after a few years and replaces them with outsiders regardless of performance. Although I knew my contract was non-renewable when I signed it seven years ago, it is still painful to be forced to leave a job I care about for no reason other than "it is the system." It is a system that must be change. Nevertheless, I hope to enjoy my last three months at ICU working closely with my students and colleagues to the end.

    Fortunately, I have found an exciting new position with Keio starting in April and am looking forward to the challenges. My main goal is to become an active, contributing member in a dynamic team of  educators providing a high quality learning environment to our students.

    That's the big, new one for this year. The rest are quite similar to those of previous years.
  2. As a husband, have more dates with my wife Megumi. With work and kids, this is always a challenge each year. But the kids are getting older, and finding a babysitter arrangement should be easier.
  3. As a father, keep helping my kids (Michael 9 and Mei 5)  learn to care about and be helpful to others. We'll continue our sponsorship of a World Vision project in Ethiopia, and I hope we can do something more hands on in Japan as well. I went to Tohoku by myself last year, but I hope we can do something as a family. I also hope to keep pursuing my goal of reading to them in English each night, and since we couldn't make it to the US to visit relatives last year, I hope to definitely take them in the summer.
  4. Keep running and stay healthy. I'll start with a half marathon in February to make up for failing to get through the Tokyo Marathon lottery, and hopefully I can do a full one later in the year. I hope I can squeeze in some mountain climbing or overnight trekking in the summer as well
  5. Take up something new? I have a feeling I'll be busy enough adjusting to my new job, so I'll see how things go.
That should do it. Looking forward to making 2013 a sssssssssssssssstimulating and sssssssssssssssuccessfull year!


A reaction to short story "Sonny's Blues" by James Baldwin

For those of you who are not familiar with the story Sonny's Blues, here is a link.


For more information on the author Baldwin, click here.


This story was used in a workshop I attended today at ICU on how to teach literature in liberal arts. The special workshop was given by writer and professor Kathleen Hill, who I've introduced previously on my blog.

Kathleen has repeatedly stressed that literature, both in reading it and writing it, forces us to honestly look at what it means to be human, and what makes us "us." That is the value of including literature in liberal arts study, even in a foreign language. I think my students can learn a lot from reading stories and asking themselves what they feel about it, just as they can when they write about personal topics and share their thoughts and emotions with each other.

It was my first time to read this story, or any story by Baldwin, and I felt the impact of the writing grow on me as we discussed it.

The short story is about two brothers, with the older brother narrating the story and expressing his love and concern for his younger brother who ran away from home, joined the navy, and after returning pursues his dream to be a jazz musician, with some difficulty with drug abuse along the way.

To me, the most powerful theme in the story is the importance of "listening with an open heart" to those you love. When we love someone, brother/sister, parents, husband/wife, son/daughter, or anyone, it is easy to forget to listen. We know what is best for the other person, and because we love them so much and want them to be safe, we either do not, or can not, really wait for them to open up and tell us what is happening in their hearts. I know that from my own experience as a son, father, brother, husband.

I had a very valuable inner conversation, reading Sonny's Blues.


A good reminder of Presentation Zen and Stickiness principals

Yesterday I filled in for a colleague who was away and couldn't teach his class, and we watched the DVD of Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds for part of the class with the students.

I had read the book, but the DVD is definitely a good way to introduce the concepts to students. It was also a good review for me.

My favorite formulation of good presenting came in the form of The 6 SUCCESS principles of Stickiness, quoted from the book by Chip and Dan Heath.


The book's outline follows the acronym "SUCCES" (with the last s omitted). Each letter refers to a characteristic that can help make an idea "sticky":
  • Simple — find the core of any idea
  • Unexpected — grab people's attention by surprising them
  • Concrete — make sure an idea can be grasped and remembered later
  • Credible — give an idea believability
  • Emotional — help people see the importance of an idea
  • Stories — empower people to use an idea through narrative
Good stuff. As an educator, my goal is to make important things stick and stay for a long time and I have much to learn from this.