December 1, 2003

December 2003

Tuesday December 30, 2003
- Bailey on chimeras.
- FuturePundit notes that researchers have accidentally created a more virulent strain of TB.

- James Hughes's Betterhumans column from last week, Monsters in the Media, is proving to be one of the most popular BH articles ever. In just over a week Hughes's column has attracted some 5000+ hits, ranking it as the 6th most read article on Betterhumans ever.
- New Sentient Developments article: Scientific Ignorance Dooms Democracy: Increasingly hi-tech nations need informed citizens, making scientific literacy a human right and scientific illiteracy a disability, By George Dvorsky.
- The FBI is urging police to watch for people carrying almanacs, cautioning that "the popular reference books covering everything from abbreviations to weather trends could be used for terrorist planning." Geez, and all this time I've been on the lookout for people carrying thesauruses.
- Jeff Patterson asks Warren Ellis four questions.
- Two regrettable things that we need to get used to having around: SARS and Mad Cow disease.
- I can't even begin to tell you how disappointed I am that the Beagle II appears lost.
- My thoughts go out to all those in Iran who have recently lost loved ones.
- Four cool movies I've seen recently: LOTR:ROTK, The Last Samurai, Whale Rider, Ghost Dog.
- Cool music that I've been listening to lately: anything off the SomaFM station, and especially Groove Salad.
Sunday December 21, 2003
- Lev Navrozov, the Russian weapons expert who believes that China will eventually try to take over the world using nanoweapons, is declaring K. Eric Drexler to be the Einstein of nanotechnology. Specifically, Navrozov is comparing Einstein's famous warning to President Roosevelt about the viability of atomic weapons to Drexler's 1986 book, Engines of Creation, where he warns about the possibility of the development of nanoweapons. Navrozov is concerned, however, that Drexler is not being taken seriously by the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), an organization that Navrozov compares to the Manhattan Project. But as Navrozov notes, the irony in all this is that the NNI has denied the military aspects of nanotechnology. "Imagine," says Navrozov, "the U.S. Manhattan Project policy of tacit denial of the military importance of nuclear power, the implication being that the Manhattan Project, with all the money allocated for it, should concentrate on the development of nuclear power as fuel." Disturbingly, while the Chinese have been startlingly open about the potential military uses of molecular assemblers, Navrozov notes that "the current government-NNI policy completely excludes research involved in molecular nano assemblers because of the false non-feasibility argument as put forward by Richard Smalley with peremptory categorical zeal." Ultimately, as the debate between Drexler and Smalley rages, Navrozov sees no harm in assuming that Drexler is right, that we should err on the side of caution. "Now, let us conjecture, for the sake of argument, the opposite," argues Navrozov, "What would be the danger? That the West, including Dr. Smalley and his carbon nanotubes, would be reduced to dust or would surrender unconditionally to become a vast Hong Kong."
- Tech Central Station's Arnold Kling reveals the patent absurdity of Leon Kass's arguments against biotech, "Biotech Ends and Means." Says Kling, "The only way that I can see to definitely rule out the dystopian scenarios is with a radical, worldwide draconian dictatorship. In the absence of totalitarian rule, biotechnology will be developed and all of us will be tempted or pressured into adopting it."
- NASA says that the speed of light remains constant as it travels through the universe. It's been speculated by some that light might actually slow down under certain conditions. NASA's finding reaffirms Einstein's idea that the speed of light is constant. Despite this conclusion, the issue of universal laws and constants intrigues me, particularly as it applies to the ongoing evolution of the Universe. Do the Universe's laws and constants change over time, during the different phases of the Universe's life cycle? If so, which ones, why, and to what degree? Perhaps this will be an area of inquiry for future cosmologists.
- SciAm has an article about how the Milky Way Galaxy is a dynamic, living object.
- Meera Nanda slams postmodernism again, this time as it pertains to India, Hindu nationalism, and Vedic "science."
- Should the state promote marriages because it's in the best interest of the children? Is this 'marriage movement' in the father's best interest? Cathy Young of Reason Online has an excellent column on the subject.
- A RAND study examines the effects of a program that offers laptop computers to children in grades 3—12 and wireless Internet connections at schools and homes. "The findings of this study lead to a set of recommendations for future implementation, and a conceptual framework and research design for use in conducting a more comprehensive future evaluation." It'll only be a matter of time before Internet access is necessary for certain lesson plans.

- My apologies for the lack of postings recently. I've been busy at work, busy with Betterhumans, and busy organizing TV04.
- I've created a new tribe at Betterhumans.
Saturday December 13, 2003
- Nanomedicine hits the Globe & Mail: "Medical Researchers Are Thinking Small"
- The Edge has a talk with string theorist Leonard Susskind: "What we've discovered in the last several years is that string theory has an incredible diversity—a tremendous number of solutions—and allows different kinds of environments. A lot of the practitioners of this kind of mathematical theory have been in a state of denial about it. They didn't want to recognize it. They want to believe the universe is an elegant universe—and it's not so elegant. It's different over here. It's that over here. It's a Rube Goldberg machine over here. And this has created a sort of sense of denial about the facts about the theory. The theory is going to win, and physicists who are trying to deny what's going on are going to lose."
- A couple of recent reports pertaining to the personhood status of non-human animals: A recent study suggests that some animals, such as monkeys and dolphins, may be capable of a sophisticated thought process called metacognition (thinking about thinking), which may mean they have more self-awareness than previously thought, while another study published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology reveals that dogs have personalities, and that these character traits can be identified as accurately as similar personality attributes in humans.
- NASA is going to speculate on "weird life" beyond earth, evaluating the possibilities that "non-standard" chemistry may support life in known solar system environments and conceivably in extra-solar settings and to define broad areas that might guide NASA and other agencies to fund efforts to expand knowledge in this area.
- We are but worms: apoptosis (neuronal cell death) is nematode worms is remarkably similar to the same process in humans.
- Italy, in an effort to end the perception that it's the 'Wild West of assisted reproduction" has introduced some pretty strict embryo laws, infuriating a number of scientists.
- Men tend to prefer immediate awards, namely the sight of a pretty face, over long term ones. In other words, attractive women can make men act irrationally.
- Lucid dreamers claim that they can take the horror out of nightmares, inspire new ideas, promote self-healing of physical ailments and unravel mysteries of the psyche that can improve their overall well-being.
- New research suggests that if an Earthlike world with significant water is needed for advanced life to evolve, there could be many candidates. In 44 computer simulations of planet formation near a sun, researchers found that each simulation produced one to four Earthlike planets, including 11 so-called "habitable" planets about the same distance from their stars as Earth is from our sun, suggesting that Earthlike planets might be common. Fermi, Fermi, what does this mean?!?!
Wednesday December 10, 2003
- Apparently Hilbert's 16th problem has not been solved. Well, my day's ruined.
- Some heterosexual couples in the US are refusing to get married to protest the fact that gays still can't.
- 56,800 children were being raised by their grandparents in 2001 in Canada. They were being raised by 56,700 grandparents, about 1 per cent of all grandparents in that year.
Tuesday December 9, 2003
- Get your ass to Mars. Here's 10 reasons why.
- Science fiction author and futurist visionary Sir Arthur C. Clarke is interviewed about the current state of communications technology and the potential for information overload.
- Katharine Mieszkowski has published another article in Salon about the Atkins Diet, this time about how animal-rights activists are claiming that low-carb and meat-heavy diets are killing people. Of course, the fact that animals are being killed to feed people isn't very endearing to animal-rights activists either.
- Simon Blackburn has a review of Richard Dawkins's latest book, A Devil's Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love.
- Is Prozac so successful because of its placebo effect?

- New Sentient Developments article: Beating Beijing's Big Brother. As authorities fortify the Great Firewall of China, information technology is allowing increasingly modern, high-tech and culturally sophisticated Chinese to slip the grip of totalitarianism, by George Dvorsky
Monday December 8, 2003

- Researchers have recently transplanted modified pig kidneys into baboons. It appears to be working and with no signs of rejection. It is hoped that these types of breakthroughs will eventually lead to animal-to-human organ transplants. While interesting and potentially helpful in the short-term, I can't see this as being a viable alternative to eventual breakthroughs in artificial organs, cybernetics, medical nanotechnology, and improved cellular biology in general.


- Although it's still unofficial, I may have gotten Howard Bloom to speak at TransVision 2004, albeit via pre-taped video.
- John Smart has posted an updated version of his interview with The Speculist's Phil Bowermaster.
- I've got the Fermi Paradox Tribe happening at, and my friend Matt Schulz submitted an interesting entry which I'd like to reprint here:

"I've always felt that a variant of the zoo hypothesis is most likely. Assuming alien civilizations experience a history whose dynamics are broadly similar to ours, they will no doubt be aware that contact between two cultures across a technological divide will almost invariably not end well for the more primitive culture. Contact between an alien civilization - likely a Type II civilization - and ourselves, may be almost certain to result in our destruction. It has been suggested (I can't remember by who) that, if we were to make contact with an alien network, the most likely thing for us to download would be a virus, simply because viruses are the best at replicating. Consider what a virus of modern sophistication would have done to the primitive internet; consider the fact that our internet, only ten years old, is already lousy with viruses, a situation unlikely to change at any point in the future; and, finally, consider how much more sophisticated the viruses dwelling within a Type II civilization's networks would almost certainly be. If such a virus were downloaded, odds are our civilization would be destroyed. Alien civilizations, being aware of this, are thus likely keeping us under quarantine until such time as we reach a level of sophistication that can survive the onslaught of the viruses that they would inevitably spread were they to make contact. We aren't anywhere near that level, yet; chances are, we won't reach it until we've moved a good distance towards constructing our own Type II civilization."

"As a corollary, I think that alien civilizations are probably aware of us. Arthur C. Clarke's monolith idea - a limited von Neumann probe that replicates only a small number of times in any given solar system, then goes into a dormant 'watching' mode until something interesting comes up - is probably the most rational way to explore: minimally invasive, with maximal coverage. Odds are, our solar system has one or two such artifacts buried in the asteroid belt, in the Oort Cloud, even on the moon. They could easily be quite small and still be very effective for their tasks (think how much information one could pack into, say a cubic meter of computonium), but their small size, small number, and the vast size of the solar system makes it almost certain that we will not discover them until they want to be discovered. Communications would probably be through a tight-wave radio broadcast, which we would not intercept unless we were right between sender and receiver ... and since the probes know where we are, they would ensure that we never, ever have a chance to eavesdrop." -- Matthew Shultz
Friday December 5, 2003

- What do laughing and cocaine have in common? Both result in the same brain region being triggered. I have always found humour and laughing to be fascinating subjects, and I've often wondered why we even laugh at all. Considering that much of what we find funny is derived from pain, misfortune, the absurd, and surprise, selectional processes probably favoured proto-humans who reacted to those particular observational events with a degree of levity. It might also have something to do with how our brains try to process seemingly 'absurd' data. I once had the opportunity to speak with Eliezer Yudkowsky about this, and he agreed, noting that this behaviour then got caught in an culturo-evolutionary positive feedback loop, where mates were selected for their sense of humour; you want to hang out with people who make you laugh because laughing feels good.
- The Edge has a chat with Samuel Barondes, "New Pills for the Mind." Abstract: "Most of the psychiatric drugs we use today are refinements of drugs whose value for mental disorders was discovered by accident decades ago. Now we can look forward to a more rational way to design psychiatric drugs. It will be guided by the identification of the gene variants that predispose certain people to particular mental disorders such as schizophrenia or severe depression." On a similar note, The Independent has an article about whether or not artists need drugs more than ordinary people.
- Psychiatrist Brian Fallon is interviewed by New Scientist about hypochondria, its similarities to obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD, and novel methods of treatment.
- Tech Central Station has a couple of interesting articles: Sydney Smith writes about advances in consciousness studies and how it relates to the Terri Schiavo case, and Edward Fesser wonders if Islam needs its own Protestant Reformation.
- My friend and fellow transhumanist John Smart is being interviewed by The Speculist. John's the kind of guy who will twist and contort the way you look at things; you find yourself resisting and protesting, but you just can't shake it.
- The Chinese government, recognizing the democratizing and individuating effects of information technology, are urging its IT industry to use the country's own encryption standards for wireless networks. Such a move would ensure stronger government control and give domestic manufacturers a slight reprieve from foreign competition.

- Sadly, the hardest part about my fast on Wednesday was not the lack of food, but the lack of coffee. I have got to cut down. Next day to fast: Monday.
- Jeff Patterson is evil because he wants you to watch this Mothra Twins video. I have no good reason for blogging this, so I guess I must be evil, too. I'll blame it on memetic infection. It should be called Japanacheese. To watch the video, click on the pink Watch!! button and then select your desired resolution. Don't say I didn't warn you.
Wednesday December 3, 2003

- Good day, eh, and welcome to today's blog. There seems to be a myth about the Americanization of Canadian culture. Considering recent changes in Canada, including the advent of same-sex marriages and the pending decriminalization of marijuana, and taken in conjunction with declining church attendance, Canada is starting to look more like Europe than the United States. Clifford Krauss of the New York Times elaborates in his recent article, "Canada's View on Social Issues Is Opening Rifts With the U.S." Hey, in what other country could the outgoing Prime Minister safely joke about smoking pot after he retires?
- According to exiled dissident Xu Wenli, China is training "Internet police" to trace political dissidents who are using the Internet to evade state censorship. "Before they used to sentence people because they spoke to a newspaper abroad or spoke to VOA (Voice of America)," Xu said. He claims that Chinese communist authorities are jailing dissidents simply because they were using the Internet to disseminate or read political views. Says Xu, "Lately people who have gotten online have been arrested and sentenced...A lot of students are training as Internet police online to censor articles. This is a very dangerous signal for us."
- The cover story of this month's Chemical & Engineering News features a "Point-Counterpoint" between K. Eric Drexler and Richard Smalley on a fundamental question that will dramatically affect the future development of this field: Are "molecular assemblers"—devices capable of positioning atoms and molecules for precisely defined reactions in almost any environment—physically possible? This exchange is likely to hold some historical importance, and may signify a change in future speculations about Drexlerian-type nanotechnology.
- A 26-year-old American graduate student has made mathematical history by discovering the largest known prime number - a number that is 6,320,430 digits long. Using a distributed network of more than 200,000 computers, it took Michael Shafer just over two years to find. It's been said that from here on in that most new major mathematical discoveries will come about with the help of computers. Mathematical biologist Steven Strogatz, when speculating on what the future holds for research on complex systems, has noted that "we may end up as bystanders, unable to follow along with the machines we've built, flabbergasted by their startling conclusions." That didn't stop Elin Oxenhielm, a 22-year-old student at Stockholm University, who may have cracked part of one of mathematics' greatest unsolved problems: Hilbert's 16th problem.
- In this Tech Central Station article, Michael Fumento examines the explorations of biogerontologists who are working to prolong human lifespan, while contemplating the social and ethical ramifications of greatly extending our lives.

- The Village Voice's Sharon Lerner profiles the latest revolutions in female contraception.
- Check out the excellent array of transhumanist themed books listed by the Speculist in the December 1st blog entry.
- Classic prose is being used to counter powerful Bayesian spam filters.

- I'm fasting today, so feel sorry for me.
Monday December 1, 2003
- RAND has released a "best practices" document for existing human tissue repositories. Abstract: "Case studies of twelve existing human biospecimen repositories performed to evaluate their utility for genomics- and proteomics-based cancer research and to identify “best practices” in collection, processing, annotation, storage, privacy, ethical concerns, informed consent, business plans, operations, intellectual property rights, public relations, marketing, and education that would be useful in designing a national biospecimen network."
- Transgender, gay and feminist groups at the University of Chicago are asking officials to consider creating more gender-neutral bathrooms, saying some people aren't comfortable selecting a gender-specific facility.

- Okay, I've got a handle on being a vegetarian, I'm doing yoga regularly, and I'm meditating daily (I've even joined a group of friends for weekly meditation). Now, there's one more thing I hope to add to the list: fasting. Starting this Wednesday, for health and ascetic reasons, I will be adopting the Ananda Marga method of fasting, which essentially involves fasting one day from dawn-to-dawn twice a month. The days are based on the lunar calendar. Even though it's only one full day of fasting, it's a complete fast where not even water can be ingested. It's claimed that through this method poisons can be better excreted from the body. Exercise and lots of fresh air on the day of the fast is also recommended. But because it's my first fast I have to take it slow, so I will be drinking milk and eating fruit on Wednesday. My second fast (Dec. 19) will include fruit juice and fruits. Eventually I'll be able to do a complete fast. Come back on Thursday to see how I did on my first fast. Oh, and while we're on the topic of my health habits, I'm continuing to take cold showers, and I've started to snort water into my nose to clean out my nasal passages. Yes, that's perhaps more information than you needed, but hey, no one's asking you to read my blog ;-)

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