December 28, 2005

Batchelor on the (religious) institutionalization of 'having'

"Our religion, with its beliefs, rituals, and dogmas become another segment among all the other segments that constitute out linear and fragmented existence. It offers us another set of possible acquisitions, even more tempting than all the others: a meaning to life, immortality, enlightenment, the kingdom of heaven. Unfortunately, many organized and institutionalized religions only encourage this attitude. Heaven and hell are emphasized as particular places to which we can go. Enlightenment and eternal life are conceived as things that can be obtained by each individual. We can pay for them by accumulating sufficient quantities of the right currency, i.e. merit. Despite the efforts of their founders, the temples continue to be inhabited with those who only sell and buy. In this respect their mechandise has been accurately compared to opium." -- Stephen Batchelor, Alone With Others

December 27, 2005

Schombert's Fermi Paradox Lecture

Fermi's Paradox (i.e. Where are They?)
Lecture by James Schombert
University of Oregon

The story goes that, one day back on the 1940's, a group of atomic scientists, including the famous Enrico Fermi, were sitting around talking, when the subject turned to extraterrestrial life. Fermi is supposed to have then asked, "So? Where is everybody?" What he meant was: If there are all these billions of planets in the universe that are capable of supporting life, and millions of intelligent species out there, then how come none has visited earth? This has come to be known as The Fermi Paradox.

Fermi realized that any civilization with a modest amount of rocket technology and an immodest amount of imperial incentive could rapidly colonize the entire Galaxy. Within a few million years, every star system could be brought under the wing of empire. A few million years may sound long, but in fact it's quite short compared with the age of the Galaxy, which is roughly ten thousand million years. Colonization of the Milky Way should be a quick exercise.

So what Fermi immediately realized was that the aliens have had more than enough time to pepper the Galaxy with their presence. But looking around, he didn't see any clear indication that they're out and about. This prompted Fermi to ask what was (to him) an obvious question: "where is everybody?"

Also, if one considers the amount of time the Galaxy has been around (over 10 billion years) and the speed of technological advancement in our own culture, then a more relevant point is where are all the super-advanced alien civilizations. Russian astrophysicist Nikolai Kardashev proposed a useful scheme to classify advanced civilizations, he argues that ET would posses one of three levels of technology. A Type I civilization is similar to our own, one that uses the energy resources of a planet. A Type II civilization would use the energy resources of a star, such as a Dyson sphere. A Type III civilization would employ the energy resources of an entire galaxy. A Type III civilization would be easy to detect, even at vast distances.

This sounds a bit silly at first. The fact that aliens don't seem to be walking our planet apparently implies that there are no extraterrestrial anywhere among the vast tracts of the Galaxy. Many researchers consider this to be a radical conclusion to draw from such a simple observation. Surely there is a straightforward explanation for what has become known as the Fermi Paradox. There must be some way to account for our apparent loneliness in a galaxy that we assume is filled with other clever beings.
Entire lecture.

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Batchelor: Alone With Others

Here's what I'm currently reading:

Alone With Others, An Existential Approach to Buddhism
By: Stephen Batchelor

This is essentially the precursor to Batchelor's book, Buddhism Without Beliefs.

Blurbage: "Alone With Others is a uniquely contemporary guide to understanding the timeless message of Buddhism, and in particular its relevance in actual human relations. It was inspired by Shantideva's Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life , the oral instructions of living Buddhist masters, Martin Heidegger's classic Being and Time , and the writings of the Christian theologians Paul Tillich and John MacQarrie."

Review from Hermitary:
Batchelor's quest is for an existential Buddha, essentially rethinking the heart of the historical Gotama's quest with the latter's confrontation of existential questions in reflecting on old age, sickness, and death. This foundation is laid out in Alone With Others, where Batchelor relies almost entirely on Martin Heidegger's categories of being-alone and being-with-others. This, it will be seen, has its own problems.

Batchelor's deconstruction of Buddhism is not a demythologization like Rudolf Bultmann's approach to Christianity. Nor is it a scholar's critical reconstruction in the style of John Dominic Crossan and others working on the "historical" Jesus. Perhaps its affinities are closer to the lyric conceptualization of Ernst Renan's Jesus or Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha, where a philosophical sentiment reigns in a sympathetic attempt to capture the life and thinking of a sage. Except that Batchelor intends to extract a great deal more than these portraits, but a great deal less than what pious Eastern accounts have added.

Batchelor is concerned that the interpretations and embellishments to the life and teachings of Gotama over the centuries obscure the core of Gotama's existential questions, the very style in which he posed them and intended to work them out. Batchelor believes that Westerners will be misled in solving their own existential questions if their introduction to the historical Gotama (it's hard not to make the parallel to the "historical" Jesus) is seen through the eyes of religion, not philosophy.

Gotama solves the being-alone question with the ideas of contingency, impermanence, and rejection of the atman or self. The result should be "authentic being-alone." as Batchelor puts it. Gotama solves the being-with-others dilemma by resolving to compassionately share his insight with others rather than keeping it to himself. The result should be "authentic being-with-others." That sharing is the model of the bodhisattva, and reflects the transition from arhat in Theravadan tradition to bodhisatva in the Mahayan traditions.

Here is the first problem. Batchelor sees inauthentic being-with-others as "desirous attachment, aversion, and indifference," which he contrasts to equanimity.

Equanimity sees others as they are; no one is essentially desirable, no one is essentially repugnant, and no one is essentially insignificant. All are essentially sentient beings, hoping and fearing, loving and hating, living and dying.
This insight becomes the basis for interaction which is society. Society does contain a degree of civility without attachment, as in the concept of justice, although Batchelor hardly elaborates. He sees these virtues strictly in terms of relationships, and sketches out values for what he calls a "culture of awakening," which is an idea of great potential. But he remains restricted, ironically, to a vision of fulfilling these virtues only in the context of his revised and modernized Buddhism, as dharma and sangha.
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December 20, 2005

Freitas: There is no Fermi Paradox

There Is No Fermi Paradox
Robert A. Freitas, Jr.

Xenology Research Institute. 8256 Scottsdale Drive Sacramento, California 95828
Icarus 62:518-520 (1985)
Received June 25, 1984: revised March 18, 1985

The "Fermi Paradox," an argument that extraterrestrial intelligence cannot exist because it has not yet been observed, is a logical fallacy. This "paradox" is a formally invalid inference. both because it requires modal operators lying outside the first-order propositional calculus and because it is unsupported by the observational record. © 1985 Academic Press. Inc.

Renewed activity in the field of Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) has stimulated interest in an old argument purporting to show that ETI cannot exist. Known as the "Where Are They?" question or the "Fermi Paradox," this sophism posits that in time an intelligent extraterrestrial species must achieve high technology, exploring and colonizing first its planetary system, and later the Galaxy, as humanity has explored and colonized the Earth. These beings should have been able to travel to Earth, but we see no evidence of such visitations, hence ETI cannot exist. Proponents of the "paradox" (e.g., Hart, 1975; Tipler, 1980; Hart and Zuckerman, 1982) admit that it is incomplete in the loose form outlined above. but argue that alternatives purporting to explain the paradox (e.g., Ball, 1973; Sagan and Newman, 1983) are invalid or lead to contradiction or impossibility. This position has been weakly challenged (Cox, 1976; Schwartzman, 1977; Papagiannis, 1980; Stephenson, 1982), but the debate continues.
Entire article.

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Landis: An Approach to the Fermi Paradox Based on Percolation Theory

The Fermi Paradox: An Approach Based on Percolation Theory
Geoffrey A. Landis
Ohio Aerospace Institute
NASA Lewis Research Center, 302-1
Cleveland, OH 44135 U.S.A.
Published in Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, London, Volume 51, page 163-166 (1998). Originally presented at the NASA Symposium "Vision-21: Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering in the Era of Cyberspace" (NASA CP-10129), Mar. 30-31, 1993, Westlake, OH U.S.A.

If even a very small fraction of the hundred billion stars in the galaxy are home to technological civilizations which colonize over interstellar distances, the entire galaxy could be completely colonized in a few million years. The absence of such extraterrestrial civilizations visiting Earth is the Fermi paradox.

A model for interstellar colonization is proposed using the assumption that there is a maximum distance over which direct interstellar colonization is feasable. Due to the time lag involved in interstellar communications, it is assumed that an interstellar colony will rapidly develop a culture independent of the civilization that originally settled it.

Any given colony will have a probability P of developing a colonizing civilization, and a probability (1-P) that it will develop a non-colonizing civilization. These assumptions lead to the colonization of the galaxy occuring as a percolation problem. In a percolation problem, there will be a critical value of the percolation probability, Pc. For PPc, small uncolonized voids will exist, bounded by non-colonizing civilizations. When P is on the order of Pc, arbitrarily large filled regions exist, and also arbitrarily large empty regions.
Entire article.

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RNA interference and the war on viruses

A technique known as RNA interference may have a profound impact on how viruses are eventually dealt with, including our ability to contend with pandemic situations.

RNA interference (RNAi) is a mechanism in molecular biology where the presence of certain fragments of double-stranded RNA (dsRNA) interferes with the expression of a particular gene which shares a homologous sequence with the dsRNA.

In other words, RNAi tears viruses apart. Literally.

According to the latest Wikipedia entry, RNAi appears to be a highly potent and specific process which is actively carried out by special mechanisms in the cell, known as the RNA interference machinery. It appears that the machinery, once it finds a double-stranded RNA molecule, cuts it up, separates the two strands, and then proceeds to destroy other single-stranded RNA molecules that are complementary to one of those segments. dsRNAs direct the creation of small interfering RNAs (siRNAs) which target RNA-degrading enzymes (RNAses) to destroy transcripts complementary to the siRNAs.

The genetic information of many viruses is held in the form of double-stranded RNA, so it is likely that the RNA interference machinery evolved as a defense against these viruses. The machinery is however also used by the cell itself to regulate gene activity: certain parts of the genome are transcribed into microRNA, short RNA molecules that fold back on themselves in a hairpin shape to create a double strand.

When the RNA interference machinery detects these double strands, it will also destroy all mRNAs that match the microRNA, thus preventing their translation and lowering the activity of many other genes.

What does this all mean? Essentially that we'll be able to attack viruses more directly, including such pathogens as SARS.

A recent issue of Nature Medicine, for example, reported on a new approach to battling SARS that uses small interfering (si)RNAs, with which they successfully treated SARS-CoV-infected Rhesus macaques.

In the last 10 years, RNAi has migrated from the theoretical to the practical, and hopefully it will prove effective when we will really need it.

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Einstein and the philosophy of science

Physics Today explores how a philosophical approach to science benefited Albert Einstein -- something Don A. Howard believes that today's scientists should take note of. "Einstein's philosophical habit of mind," writes Howard, "cultivated by undergraduate training and lifelong dialogue, had a profound effect on the way he did physics." Article intro:
Nowadays, explicit engagement with the philosophy of science plays almost no role in the training of physicists or in physics research. What little the student learns about philosophical issues is typically learned casually, by a kind of intellectual osmosis. One picks up ideas and opinions in the lecture hall, in the laboratory, and in collaboration with one's supervisor. Careful reflection on philosophical ideas is rare. Even rarer is systematic instruction. Worse still, publicly indulging an interest in philosophy of science is often treated as a social blunder. To be fair, more than a few physicists do think philosophically. Still, explicitly philosophical approaches to physics are the exception. Things were not always so.
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December 19, 2005

Kurzweil's and Joy's 'Recipe for Destruction'

I missed this back when it was published in the NYT in October 2005: Recipe for Destruction by Ray Kurzweil and Bill Joy.

In this opinion piece, Kurzweil and Joy condemn the United States Department of Health and Human Services for publishing the full genome of the 1918 influenza virus on the Internet in the GenBank database. "This is extremely foolish," they write, "The genome is essentially the design of a weapon of mass destruction. No responsible scientist would advocate publishing precise designs for an atomic bomb, and in two ways revealing the sequence for the flu virus is even more dangerous."

First, Kurzweil and Joy believe it's much easier to recreate the virus than to build an atomic bomb, and secondly, they argue that the release of the virus would be far worse than an atomic bomb. "Analyses have shown that the detonation of an atomic bomb in an American city could kill as many as one million people," they write, "Release of a highly communicable and deadly biological virus could kill tens of millions, with some estimates in the hundreds of millions."

To deal with the situation they call for the development of international agreements by scientific organizations to help limit such publications and an international dialogue on the best approach to preventing recipes for weapons of mass destruction from falling into the wrong hands. Kurzweil and Joy also argue for a "new Manhattan Project" to develop specific defenses against any biological viral threats (like harnessing RNA interference, for example).

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Technology Review: Mind-Control Over Pain

Technology Review's Emily Singer is reporting on how a new brain imaging technique is teaching patients to control their brain activity and bring relief from chronic pain:
Mackey and collaborators used a technique called real-time functional magnetic resonance imaging (rtfMRI) where both subjects and researchers can look at the brain’s activity as the person thinks. In this case, researchers broadcast the activity from a part of the brain involved in pain processing -- the anterior cingulated cortex -- into the scanner. Patients watched the activity and tried to decrease it by doing mental exercises, such as focusing on a part of the body where they did not have pain. The process is similar to biofeedback, where people learn to control blood pressure or heart rate by getting constant feedback on their vital signs.
The researchers say it could one day be applicable to many brain disorders, such as depression, anxiety, and dyslexia. “This is the first study to show that patients can learn to take control of a specific region of their brain and better control their pain,” says Sean Mackey, associate director of the Pain Management Division at Stanford University in Stanford, CA, and head scientist on the project research.

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December 18, 2005

Peter Ward: Life as We Do Not Know It

Life as We Do Not Know It: The NASA Search for (and Synthesis of) Alien Life
by Peter Ward
Viking, 2005
Hardcover, 292 pp., illus.
ISBN 0-670-03458-4

From Publishers Weekly:
Ward's Rare Earth (coauthored with Donald Brownlee) suggested the unlikelihood of our finding an alien race as complex and evolved as humankind; if such beings exist, they're too far away for us to make contact with. But what about more basic forms of life right here in our solar system? Ward, an investigator with NASA's Astrobiology Institute, believes researchers might be taking the wrong approach by looking only for earthly DNA-based life forms. Truly alien life, he argues, might have completely different origins; even Earth has untold numbers of viruses composed entirely of RNA, and scientists have created similar genetic material in laboratories, so who's to say silicon-based life-forms are impossible? After introducing readers to the building blocks of life and the new ways they might be arranged, Ward speculates on what types of microbes we might find on other planets and their satellites. He recommends that future manned space expeditions include paleontologists and biochemists to follow up on suggestive evidence collected by space probes. The science is neatly laid out, and readers willing to follow his daring, scientifically based speculations will find their imaginations spurred.
From Booklist:
Paleontologist Ward--who has written previously about extinctions (Gorgon, 2004), evolution (Future Evolution, 2001), and planetary geology (Rare Earth, 2003)--indulges in some freewheeling yet reasonable speculation on what forms of life we are likely to discover on other worlds. In the past five years, astronomers have uncovered much new environmental data on the planets and satellites in our solar system, most notably from the two Martian rovers that are still scuttling about on the surface. The problem with recognizing alien life, as Ward sees it, is that science defines it too narrowly; biologists must expand their definition to encompass forms that do not resemble terrestrial carbon-and-DNA-based packages. He begins by declaring that viruses are alive and goes on to classify other exotic chemical combinations that could evolve in an alien environment. Ward says that machines like the rovers are not set up to detect "life as we do not know it" and that it will take missions with human crews to discover what we don't expect. Certainly thought--provoking.
Read Jeff Faust's review in The Space Review.

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Key sequence in mammoth genome reconstructed

Nature is reporting that researchers have devised a new technique that has helped to rebuild part of woolly mammoth's genome. The process, called multiplex polymerase chain reaction, required DNA to be teased out from just 200 milligrams (0.007 of an ounce) of bone found at a mammoths' graveyard in the Siberian permafrost. Their technique copied 46 chunks of sequence which were rearranged to give a picture of the creature's mitochondrial DNA.

The closest relative today to the wooly mammoth is the Asian elephant rather than the African elephant, the researchers say. The difference, however, is not great. African elephants branched away from the mammoth's evolutionary tree around six million years ago, with Asian elephants following suit only 440,000 years later.

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Google Earth

Man, this is sooooo freakin' cool. Using it, I was actually able to see the tree on my front lawn.

Are genetic algorithms convergent?

It's been observed that evolution works remarkably well both in the real world and as a software optimization method. It's been somewhat of a mystery as to why this is the case. In both cases, evolution produces very efficient results in sometimes unexpected ways, but there is no mathematic proof as to why genetic algorithms seem bound for success.

A new paper by Marek W. Gutowski of the Institute of Physics at the Polish Academy of Sciences in Poland offers some insights into the problem. The paper titled, Amazing Geometry of Genetic Space or Are Genetic Algorithms Convergent? (PDF format) offers this conclusion:
"The chances of improvement are always higher than for lack of it, if the selection of parents is performed either in soft, or hard but adaptive, manner. This is a very general result, completely independent of the optimization problem under study. It applies equally well to discrete, continuous and mixed optimization problems."
Ultimately, Gutowski offers a proof that soft selection is superior to other methods.

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25 unanswered scientific questions (and some of my own)

To celebrate the 125th anniversary of its founding by Thomas Edison, the journal Science asked more than 100 of the world's top scientists what they thought were the 25 most important scientific questions likely to be answered in the next 25 years. Here's the list:
-How does consciousness arise?
-Why the small number of human genes?
-What the universe is made of?
-To what extent are genetic variation and personal health linked?
-Can the laws of physics be unified?
-How much can the human life span be extended?
-What controls organ regeneration?
-How can a skin cell become a nerve cell?
-How does a single somatic cell become a whole plant?
-How does Earth's interior work?
-Are we alone in the universe?
-How and where did life on Earth arise?
-What determines species diversity?
-What genetic changes made us uniquely human?
-How are memories stored and retrieved?
-How did cooperative behavior evolve?
-How will big pictures emerge from a sea of biological data?
-How far can we push chemical self-assembly?
-What are the limits of conventional computing?
-Can we selectively shut off the immune responses?
-Do deeper principles underlie quantum uncertainty and non-locality?
-Is an effective HIV vaccine feasible?
-How hot will the greenhouse world be?
-What can replace cheap oil, and when?
-Will Thomas Malthus (who predicted that overpopulation could lead to a global disaster) continue to be wrong?
Critical questions missing (some of my questions are quasi socio-scientific, with some of them probably unanswerable in the next 25 years):
-Will there be a technological singularity event and when?
-Will artificial superintelligence arise, and if so, will it be benign or malign?
-Will we be able to responsibly manage molecular assembling nanotechnology?
-Will human civilization continue to survive into the 21st Century and ward of the growing number of existential risks?

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December 17, 2005

Singer: In Defense Of Animals: The Second Wave

In Defense Of Animals: The Second Wave (2005)
Peter Singer
Blackwell Publishing

Book Description:
In Defense of Animals: The Second Wave brings together the best current ethical thinking about animals. Edited by Peter Singer, who made "speciesism" an international issue in 1975 when he published Animal Liberation, this new book presents the state of the animal movement that his classic work helped to inspire.

Long hailed as a brilliant and controversial philosopher, Singer has assembled incisive new articles by philosophers and by activists. In Defense of Animals is sure to inform and inspire all who want to understand, or contribute to, the unfolding moral revolution in the way we treat animals.

Preface Peter Singer
Part I: The Ideas
1. Utilitarianism and Animals: Gaverick Matheny
2. The Scientific Basis for Assessing Suffering in Animals: Marian Stamp Dawkins
3. The Animal Debate: A Re-Examination: Paola Cavalieri
4. On the Question of Personhood Beyond Homo sapiens: David DeGrazia
5. Religion and Animals: Paul Waldau
Part II: The Problems
6. Speciesism in the Laboratory: Richard Ryder
7. Brave New Farm?: Jim Mason and Mary Finelli
8. Outlawed in Europe: Clare Druce and Philip Lymbery
9. Against Zoos: Dale Jamieson
10. To Eat the Laughing Animal: Dale Peterson
Part III: Activists and Their Strategies
11. How Austria Achieved a Historic Breakthrough for Animals: Martin Balluch
12. Butcher Knives into Pruning Hooks: Doing Civil Disobedience for Animals: Pelle Strindlund
13. Opening Cages, Opening Eyes: An Investigation and Open Rescue at an Egg Factory Farm: Miyun Park
14. Living and Working in Defense of Animals: Matt Ball
15. Effective Advocacy: Stealing From the Corporate Playbook: Bruce Friedrich
16. Moving the Media: From Foe, or Indifferent Stranger, to Friend: Karen Dawn
17. The CEO as Animal Activist: John Mackey and Whole Foods: John Mackey, Karen Dawn and Lauren Ornelas
18. Ten Points for Activists: Henry Spira and Peter Singer
A Final Word: Peter Singer
Further Reading, Useful Organizations

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PopSci: The Future of the Body

Popular Science has a special report on the Future of the Body. From the Website:
Brain chips that enable us to control machines with our thoughts. Kidneys and lungs built to order in the lab. Pills to make you smarter and more creative. An implant that gives you a tan and protects against skin cancer. All these innovations are in development; some are already being tested on human subjects.

The next technological frontier will be our own bodies. Genetics, materials science, tissue engineering and nanotechnology are already yielding products to help the sick and injured, including a Band-Aid-like heart patch and the C-leg prosthesis for amputees. But we are entering a century in which medical science ...
Articles covering the subject:

What is the Future of Diagnostic Medicine?
The author subjects himself to genetic tests, scans and other high-tech diagnostics to report on how the trend toward “personalized medicine” will affect us

Will Drugs Make Us Smarter and Happier?
A new understanding of brain chemistry could usher in an age of biologically enhanced humans

Artificial Wombs
Will we grow babies outside their mothers’ bodies

Girl vs. Robots: The Match

In the first-ever public test of artificial muscle, in March a high-school girl arm-wrestled three devices powered by the material. See how well she fared.

Other topics covered:

• Inside the Medicine Cabinet of the Future
• Will Artificial Muscle Make You Stronger?
• Can We Cure Everything?
• Should Science Make Us Better Than Well?

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Dawkins: The problem with God

Laura Sheahen of Beliefnet interviews evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins about intelligent design, dishonest Christians, and why God is no better than an imaginary friend. Excerpt:
Q: You criticize intelligent design, saying that "the theistic answer"--pointing to God as designer--"is deeply unsatisfying"--presumably you mean on a logical, scientific level.

A: Yes, because it doesn’t explain where the designer comes from. If they’re going to emphasize the statistical improbability of biological organs—"these are so complicated, how could they have evolved?"--well, if they’re so complicated, how could they possibly have been designed? Because the designer would have to be even more complicated.

Q: Obviously, a lot of people find the theistic answer satisfying on another level. What do you see as the problem with that level?

A: What other level?

Q: At whatever level where people say the idea of God is very satisfying.

Well, of course it is. Wouldn’t it be lovely to believe in an imaginary friend who listens to your thoughts, listens to your prayers, comforts you, consoles you, gives you life after death, can give you advice? Of course it’s satisfying, if you can believe it. But who wants to believe a lie?
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Brazilian town to ban death

Officials in the Brazilian town of Biritiba Mirim, 70km east of Sao Paulo, plan to prohibit residents from dying because the local cemetery is full. The Mayor says the bill is meant as a protest against federal regulations that bar new or expanded cemeteries in preservation areas. In addition, the bill also calls on people to take care of their health in order to avoid death.

I know that the proposed bill is a protest gesture, but I actually think that banning death -- or making it illegal -- is not such a good idea. Yes, we should continue to work towards radical life extension, but it doesn't follow that we should force people to live beyond what they themselves feel is appropriate; fight for your right to die.

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Is 'extreme bias' a mental illness?

Shankar Vedantam has penned an article for the Washington Post exploring the link between psychological disorders and extreme biases such as racial prejudice. In the article, Vedantam notes how mental health practitioners regularly confront extreme forms of racism, homophobia and other prejudice in the course of therapy, and that some patients are disabled by these beliefs. "As doctors increasingly weigh the effects of race and culture on mental illness," writes Vedantam, "some are asking whether pathological bias ought to be an official psychiatric diagnosis."

Convenient how Vedantam and the psychologists he interviewed failed to mention the effects of religious memes on the brain. For more on that topic, check out my column, "Ending Biblical Brainwash."

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MoJo: The Religious Right's Expanding Universe

Check out MoJo's interactive graphic detailing the The Religious Right's Expanding Universe.

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December 16, 2005

50 Books for Thinking About the Future Human Condition

RAND lists 50 Books for Thinking About the Future Human Condition. From the Website:
The mission of the RAND Frederick S. Pardee Center for Longer Range Global Policy and the Future Human Condition is ultimately to improve the human condition in the longer-range future. While there is no sure path to improving the future human condition, there is no shortage of books that address themselves to some aspect of improving that future.

If we were to peer backward from, say, 50 years hence at the books available today, we could probably identify dozens or hundreds that had something useful to say had we only listened. From today’s perspective, however, it is difficult to identify those insightful passages, let alone the books that contain them, from among the thousands that address some aspect of the future.

But suppose we tried for something more modest – a list of 50 books covering broad topics that seem likely to be important in thinking about the future human condition. What might that list of 50 books look like?

The following is a first cut at what that list of books might look like. Why books? Why not articles, or speeches, or university courses, or documentaries, or blogs, or …? The intent of the readings is to be as comprehensive as possible on each of the topics addressed, so book-length treatments seemed like the best approach.

How were these 50 books selected? Many smart people were queried about the books that ought to be on a list of this sort. Recommendations easily numbered in the hundreds, so the same smart people were asked to pick one or two “bests” from their lists. Most of the books below represent “winners” from that process. The remainder were selected idiosyncratically (especially the “wild cards”). Some of the reasoning behind the selections is mentioned below in introducing brief summaries of the books and what they contribute to understanding the future.
Good to see Kurzweil and Jared Diamond make the list, among others.

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Why the Bush Doctrine cannot be sustained

Robert Jervis argues in the Political Science Quarterly that despite some successes, the Bush Doctrine cannot be sustained because it has many internal contradictions, requires more sustained domestic support than is possible, makes excessive demands on intelligence, places too much faith in democracy, and is overly ambitious. In the article, titled "Why the Bush Doctrine Cannot Be Sustained," Jervis argues that it will, however, be difficult to construct a replacement foreign policy.

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December 15, 2005

The most dangerous man in the world?

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- the anti-semitic and Holocaust denying leader of Iran -- may very well be the most dangerous person on the planet today. His tone and agenda smacks of mid-twentieth century fascism and Khomeiniesque theocraticism. He has called for Isreal to be "wiped off the planet," or at the very least relocated as far away as Alaska. Considering that his country is pursuing nuclear capability, I would hope that the global community move quickly and assuredly to ensure that this never happen.

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Asteroid Apophis to possibly hit Earth in 2036

The Guardian has a special report about a potential catastrophe wrought by the impact of asteroid Apophis in the year 2036. An excerpt from the article:
Nasa has estimated that an impact from Apophis...would release more than 100,000 times the energy released in the nuclear blast over Hiroshima. Thousands of square kilometres would be directly affected by the blast but the whole of the Earth would see the effects of the dust released into the atmosphere.

And, scientists insist, there is actually very little time left to decide. At a recent meeting of experts in near-Earth objects (NEOs) in London, scientists said it could take decades to design, test and build the required technology to deflect the asteroid. Monica Grady, an expert in meteorites at the Open University, said: "It's a question of when, not if, a near Earth object collides with Earth. Many of the smaller objects break up when they reach the Earth's atmosphere and have no impact. However, a NEO larger than 1km [wide] will collide with Earth every few hundred thousand years and a NEO larger than 6km, which could cause mass extinction, will collide with Earth every hundred million years. We are overdue for a big one."

Apophis had been intermittently tracked since its discovery in June last year but, in December, it started causing serious concern. Projecting the orbit of the asteroid into the future, astronomers had calculated that the odds of it hitting the Earth in 2029 were alarming. As more observations came in, the odds got higher.

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December 13, 2005

Nature: Is a doomsday catastrophe likely?

The December 2005 edition of Nature explores the liklihood of a catastrophe wrought by particle accelerator experiments:
Is a Doomsday Catastrophe Likely?

The risk of a doomsday scenario in which high-energy physics experiments trigger the destruction of the Earth has been estimated to be minuscule1. But this may give a false sense of security: the fact that the Earth has sur­vived for so long does not necessarily mean that such disasters are unlikely, because observers are, by definition, in places that have avoided destruction. Here we derive a new upper bound of one per billion years (99.9% confidence level) for the exogenous terminal-catastrophe rate that is free of such selection bias, using calculations based on the relatively late formation time of Earth.

Fears that heavy-ion collisions at the Brook-haven Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider might initiate a catastrophic destruction....

The catastrophe timescale cannot be very short. The probability distribution is shown for observed planet-formation times, assuming catastrophe timescales, , of 1, 2 ,3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 Gyr and infinity (shaded yellow), respectively (from left to right). The probability of observing a formation time 9.1 Gyr for Earth (area to the right of the dotted line) drops below 0.001 for 1.1 Gyr...focused on three possible scenarios: a transi­tion to a lower vacuum state that propagates outwards from its source at the speed of light2; formation of a black hole or gravitational singularity that accretes ordinary matter2; or creation of a stable ‘strangelet’ that accretes ordinary matter and converts it to strange matter3. A careful study1 concluded that these hypothetical scenarios are overwhelmingly more likely to be triggered by natural high-energy astrophysical events, such as cosmic-ray collisions, than by the Brookhaven collider.

Given that life on Earth has survived for nearly 4 billion years (4 Gyr), it might be assumed that natural catastrophic events are extremely rare. Unfortunately, this argument is flawed because it fails to take into account an observation-selection effect4,5, whereby observers are precluded from noting anything other than that their own species has survived up to the point when the observation is made. If it takes at least 4.6 Gyr for intelligent observers to arise, then the mere observation that Earth has survived for this duration can­not even give us grounds for rejecting with 99% confidence the hypothesis that the average cos­mic neighbourhood is typically sterilized, say, every 1,000 years. The observation-selection effect guarantees that we would find ourselves in a lucky situation, no matter how frequent the sterilization events.

Figure 1 indicates how we derive an upper bound on the cosmic catastrophe frequency 1 that is free from such observer-selection bias. The idea is that if catastrophes were very frequent, then almost all intelligent civiliza­tions would have arisen much earlier than ours. Using data on planet-formation rates6, the distribution of birth dates for intelligent species can be calculated under different assumptions about the rate of cosmic sterilization. Combin­ing this with information about our own tem­poral location enables us to conclude that the cosmic sterilization rate for a habitable planet is, at most, of the order of 1 per 1.1 Gyr at 99.9% confidence. Taking into account the fact that no other planets in our Solar System have yet been converted to black holes or strange mat-1–3 further tightens our constraints on black hole and strangelet disasters.

This bound does not apply in general to dis­asters that become possible only after certain technologies have been developed — for example, nuclear annihilation or extinction through engineered microorganisms — so we still have plenty to worry about. However, our bound does apply to exogenous catastrophes (for example, those that are spontaneous or triggered by cosmic rays) whose frequency is uncorrelated with human activities, as long as they cause permanent sterilization. Using the results of the Brookhaven analysis1, the bound also implies that the risk from present-day particle accelerators is reassuringly small: say, less than 10 12 per year.

Max Tegmark*, Nick Bostrom† *Department of Physics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02139, USA

†Future of Humanity Institute, Faculty of Philosophy, University of Oxford, Oxford OX1 4JJ, UK
1. Jaffe, R. L., Busza, W., Sandweiss, J. & Wilczek, F. Rev .Mod. Phys. 72, 1125–1140 (2000).
2. Hut, P. & Rees, M. J. Nature 302, 508-509 (1983).
3. Dar, A. & De Rujula, A. Phys.Lett. B 470, 142–148 (1999).
4. Carter, B. in IAU Symposium 63 (ed. Longair, M. S.) 291–298 (Reidel, Dordrecht, 1974).
5. Bostrom, N. Anthropic Bias: Observation Selection Effects in Science and Philosophy (Routledge, New York, 2002).
6. Lineweaver, C. H., Fenner, Y. & Gibson, B. K. Science 203, 59–62 (2004).

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October 24, 2005

Rees Int'vw on Astrobio

Expectations for a Final Theory? (Astrobiology Magazine)
"I certainly think that humans are not the limit of evolutionary complexity. There may indeed be post-human entities, either organic or silicon-based, which can in some respects surpass what a human can do. I think it would be rather surprising if our mental capacities were matched to understanding all the keys levels of reality. The chimpanzees certainly aren't, so why should ours be either? So there may be levels that will have to await some post-human emergence." -- Sir Martin Rees

Entire article

October 17, 2005

SETI and the Cosmic Quarantine Hypothesis

"If civilizations exist in our galaxy with levels of technology at least equal to our own, we might be able to detect some of them using radio telescopes. And if civilizations exist with technologies far in advance of our own, we might expect them to have colonized millions of habitable worlds in the Milky Way, and even to have visited our own planet. Yet there is no evidence in the astronomical, geological, archaeological, or historical records that extraterrestrial civilizations exist or that visitors from other worlds have ever been to Earth. Does that mean, as some have concluded, that ours is the only civilization in the galaxy? Or could there be a natural self-regulating mechanism that limits the intensive colonization of other worlds?" -- Steven Soter

Entire Article

[19-Oct-05 follow-up]

Here are some of my thoughts:
If I read his argument correctly, he was essentially saying that:
i) If intelligences capable of developing apocalyptic technologies continue to be colonistic they will eventually suicide themselves. His assumption is that colonistic behaviour is both aggressive and irrevocably conflict inducing.
ii) If intelligences capable of developing apocalyptic technologies cease to be colonistic they may survive, but at the cost of remaining local to their solar system of origin.
iii) Thus, a selectional effect is in place here, where the only true *advanced* intelligences that can exist in the Universe are a) non-colonistic and b) local to their solar system of origin.

He admits, however, that his argument is potentially non-exclusive; all it would take is just one successful civ to overcome this risk and the Galaxy is colonized in short-order. Moreover, a successful colonization attempt via Von Neumann probes would solve this problem, also.

And his argument is largely a sociological one. Using terms like "colonization" and "aggression" is a risky proposition at best when trying to infer the motives of extremely advanced intelligences living in socio-economic conditions radically different from our own (Kardashev civ types come to mind, as does Post-Singularity intelligences).

That being said, his mechanism for a Darwinian selectional effect against interstellar colonization is a provocative one and it's provided me with much food for thought.

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September 5, 2005

Arguing Alien Intentions

I re-watched "The Day the Earth Stood Still" this afternoon. I still think it's a darn good film, even if it is deeply flawed on several levels.

It got me thinking though. It was (and is) heralded as the first film to positively portray ETIs. Prior to that, aliens were typically portrayed as monsters chasing around scantily clad women. Instead, these visitors were as enlightened as they were helpful.

In fact, the portrayal of ETIs in this film is quasi-messianic and filled with wish-fulfilment overtones (the nuclear age world in the midst of the coldwar -- "ET, God is dead, save us from ourselves!").

This movie reinforces in my mind the idea that we have replaced God with ETIs. Just look at the Raelians, for example, with their promise of extra terrestrial salvation and eternal material life.

Since "The Day the Earth Stood Still," both film, public sentiment and even science have supported the idea that ETIs are enlightened, friendly, and potentially helpful. Carl Sagan argued, for example, that ETIs would *have* to have those characteristics, otherwise they wouldn't have survived the nuclear age.

Ultimately, questions I wonder about include: is all this just naive wishful thinking? Is the assumption that ETIs are benevolent just another variant of religion, messianism and new age thinking? Should we assume that aliens and their artifacts are potentially dangerous?

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April 3, 2005

Links for April 3, 2005

I'm Going to Live Forever (Times Online)
Some scientists predict that today's children will be able to live for more than 1,000 years. Is immortality just around the corner? Bryan Appleyard peers into a hair-raising future without death.

FAQ: Forty years of Moore's Law (ZDnet)
Forty years ago, Electronics Magazine asked Intel co-founder Gordon Moore to write an article summarizing the state of the electronics industry. The result was Moore's Law--a phenomenon that may in fact start to slow down in the coming years.

Only the Ethical Need Apply (Christian Science Monitor)
In the heavily automated workplace of the future, a keen sense of right and wrong will become a highly valued job skill.

What Matters Most Depends On Where You Are (Technology Review)
In the era of globalization, emerging technologies still vary from region to region.

Hurray for Frankenstein! (Reason)
British parliamentarians welcome the biotech future.

Brain-computer Interface for Music (We Make Money Not Art)
The Future Music Lab at the University of Plymouth, England, is looking for new modes of interaction with musical systems through bio-signal interfacing, networks and responsive environments.

Why We Know Painfully Little About Dying (RAND)

Tethered Turbines (World Changing)
A new form of alternative energy might be possible with high altitude turbines which, at 15,000 feet, could take advantage of the high winds at that height.

Why Cryonics? (Kuro5hin)
Cryonics is currently a hot topic being discussed at Kuro5hin.

Healthier, More Informed, Always Together (Deutsche Telecom)
What will life be like in 2015? "It will be a world created in good part by information and communication technologies," says Martin van der Mandele, President of RAND Europe. He told IPK participants that digital developments would give the word "presence" a whole new meaning.

Let's Colonize Space For Fun, Noted Physicist Says (CNet)
Humans must continue to explore space, implores famed physicist Freeman Dyson, if simply for entertainment.

Radical Report Supports Baby Sex Selection (New Scientist)
Parents undergoing fertility treatment should be allowed to choose the sex of their baby for "family balancing", says a report by the UK parliament's committee on science and technology.

First Centennial Prizes Announced (Universe Today)
NASA recently announced their first Centennial Prizes, which will reward the development of new technologies for space exploration, including prizes for the strongest cable material and power transmitters that send energy wirelessly to a robot climber.

A New Company to Focus on Artificial Intelligence (NY Times)
The technologist and the marketing executive who co-founded Palm Computing in 1992 are starting a new company that plans to license software technologies based on a novel theory of how the mind works.

March 26, 2005

George W. Bush and Fascism?

While I regard the tendency to label the current U.S. administration as being a fascist regime (or at the very least 'fascistic') a rather rhetorical exercise, it's still interesting to review Lawrence Britt's list of fascist characteristics in the context of America today:

Fourteen Defining
Characteristics Of Fascism
By Dr. Lawrence Britt
Source Free

Dr. Lawrence Britt has examined the fascist regimes of Hitler (Germany), Mussolini (Italy), Franco (Spain), Suharto (Indonesia) and several Latin American regimes. Britt found 14 defining characteristics common to each:

1. Powerful and Continuing Nationalism - Fascist regimes tend to make constant use of patriotic mottos, slogans, symbols, songs, and other paraphernalia. Flags are seen everywhere, as are flag symbols on clothing and in public displays.

2. Disdain for the Recognition of Human Rights - Because of fear of enemies and the need for security, the people in fascist regimes are persuaded that human rights can be ignored in certain cases because of "need." The people tend to look the other way or even approve of torture, summary executions, assassinations, long incarcerations of prisoners, etc.

3. Identification of Enemies/Scapegoats as a Unifying Cause - The people are rallied into a unifying patriotic frenzy over the need to eliminate a perceived common threat or foe: racial , ethnic or religious minorities; liberals; communists; socialists, terrorists, etc.

4. Supremacy of the Military - Even when there are widespread
domestic problems, the military is given a disproportionate amount of government funding, and the domestic agenda is neglected. Soldiers and military service are glamorized.

5. Rampant Sexism - The governments of fascist nations tend to be almost exclusively male-dominated. Under fascist regimes, traditional gender roles are made more rigid. Divorce, abortion and homosexuality are suppressed and the state is represented as the ultimate guardian of the family institution.

6. Controlled Mass Media - Sometimes to media is directly controlled by the government, but in other cases, the media is indirectly controlled by government regulation, or sympathetic media spokespeople and executives. Censorship, especially in war time, is very common.

7. Obsession with National Security - Fear is used as a motivational tool by the government over the masses.

8. Religion and Government are Intertwined - Governments in fascist nations tend to use the most common religion in the nation as a tool to manipulate public opinion. Religious rhetoric and terminology is common from government leaders, even when the major tenets of the religion are diametrically opposed to the government's policies or actions.

9. Corporate Power is Protected - The industrial and business aristocracy of a fascist nation often are the ones who put the government leaders into power, creating a mutually beneficial business/government relationship and power elite.

10. Labor Power is Suppressed - Because the organizing power of labor is the only real threat to a fascist government, labor unions are either eliminated entirely, or are severely suppressed.

11. Disdain for Intellectuals and the Arts - Fascist nations tend to promote and tolerate open hostility to higher education, and academia. It is not uncommon for professors and other academics to be censored or even arrested. Free expression in the arts and letters is openly attacked.

12. Obsession with Crime and Punishment - Under fascist regimes, the police are given almost limitless power to enforce laws. The people are often willing to overlook police abuses and even forego civil liberties in the name of patriotism. There is often a national police force with virtually unlimited power in fascist nations.

13. Rampant Cronyism and Corruption - Fascist regimes almost always are governed by groups of friends and associates who appoint each other to government positions and use governmental power and authority to protect their friends from accountability. It is not uncommon in fascist regimes for national resources and even treasures to be appropriated or even outright stolen by government leaders.

14. Fraudulent Elections - Sometimes elections in fascist nations are a complete sham. Other times elections are manipulated by smear campaigns against or even assassination of opposition candidates, use of legislation to control voting numbers or political district boundaries, and manipulation of the media. Fascist nations also typically use their judiciaries to manipulate or control elections.

March 25, 2005

Links for March 25, 2005

In Search of the Sixth Sense (Fast Company)
In this expanded interview transcript, inventor Ray Kurzweil discusses birth, death, and the potential offered by non-biological thinking processes.

Rocket Plane Venture Star (The Space Review)
David Urie was chief engineer for VentureStar and, now, Rocketplane. In the first part of an extended interview with Sam Dinkin, Urie talks about the operational and engineering issues associated with the Rocketplane XP.

How to Talk to Aliens (ChessBase)
Teach 'em chess.

At War With Their Bodies, They Seek to Sever Limbs (NY Times)
Body integrity identity disorder.

Elephants Can Mimic Traffic, Other Noises, Study Says (Nat'l Geographic)
It isn't only children playing with toy cars who make engine noises. Elephants produce a similar roar, though in their case it's the rumble of trucks on an African highway that the animals imitate, scientists say.

Strategies In “War On Drugs” Need To Be Reassessed (RAND)
Anti-drug policies in the past two decades have not been a principal influence on illegal drug use and need to be more carefully tailored to address changing drug use trends.

Is Terri Schiavo Minimally Conscious? (Reason)
And does it matter? -- Ronald Bailey

Are We Ready for Robots? (Tech Central Stupid)
As advances in robot design continue, we'll be confronted with the same conundrum we face in biotechnology: not how far can we go but how far should we go?

Scientists May Use Mammoth Cells for Cloning (IOL)
A group of Russian and Japanese scientists hope to clone mammoths from remains by using elephant egg cells.

13 Things That Do Not Make Sense (New Scientist)
New Scientist highlights some of the great mysteries facing science.

Complex Instincts (The Engineer Online)
Roboticist Tony Prescott believes that the development of robots will play an important role in the search for answers to one of the most fundamental mysteries of life: The workings of the vertebrate brain.

Corpses Frozen for Future Rebirth by Arizona Company (Nat'l Geographic)
At the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, 67 bodies—mostly just severed heads—lay cryogenically preserved in liquid nitrogen, waiting for the day when science can reanimate them.

Forget Me Not (Slate)
The U.S. Memory Championship shows the radical potential for the capacity of human memory and the prospects for memory enhancement.

Asexual Healing (Utne)
"Baby, when I think about you, I think about l-o-o-ve." So begins the hoary ballad by Bad Company, a British band whose "Feel Like Makin' Love" has been a sleazy anthem for the horny masses since 1975. But what if you think about other people and feel like making lunch? There is a minority group out there that has absolutely no interest affirming love by exchanging bodily fluids. Coalescing on the Internet, this small but increasingly vocal faction claims to be perfectly healthy and happy not to be getting any."

Methuselah Mouse Man (Slate)
Aubrey de Grey is helping humans live forever, whether or not he's a real biologist.
By Paul Boutin

Now Here's a Foundation for Bioethics: I Saw it on Star Trek! (Bioethics Blog)

A fireball created in a particle accelerator bears a striking resemblance to a black hole - but thankfully not the sort that could consume the Earth (New Scientist)

Welcome to Doomsday (NY Books)
"There are times when what we journalists see and intend to write about dispassionately sends a shiver down the spine, shaking us from our neutrality. This has been happening to me frequently of late as one story after another drives home the fact that the delusional is no longer marginal but has come in from the fringe to influence the seats of power. We are witnessing today a coupling of ideology and theology that threatens our ability to meet the growing ecological crisis. Theology asserts propositions that need not be proven true, while ideologues hold stoutly to a world view despite being contradicted by what is generally accepted as reality. The combination can make it impossible for a democracy to fashion real-world solutions to otherwise intractable challenges." -- Bill Moyers

Italian, US cosmologists present explanation for accelerating expansion of the universe (Eurekalert)
Was Einstein right when he said he was wrong?

Noted Inventor and Developer in the Area of Artificial Intelligence, Disputes Contentions of Celebrated Inventors Ray Kurzweil and Jeff Hawkins (Yahoo News)
During a recent invited talk at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, noted physicist, inventor and developer in the area of Artificial Intelligence, Stephen Thaler, PhD, disputed the claims of Ray Kurzweil and Jeff Hawkins that useful artificial intelligence is futuristic.

March 14, 2005

Links for March 14, 2005

Downloading Democracy (National Interest)
Robert Conquest: "Everywhere we always find the human urges to preserve at least a measure of personal autonomy, on the one hand, and to form communal relationships, on the other. It is the latter that tends to get out of hand. To form a national or other such grouping without forfeiting liberties and without generating venom against other such groupings--such is the problem before the world. To cope with it, we need careful thinking, balanced understanding, open yet unservile minds."

The Two Totalitarianisms (London Review of Books)
Slavoj Zizek: "Till now, to put it straightforwardly, Stalinism hasn’t been rejected in the same way as Nazism. We are fully aware of its monstrous aspects, but still find Ostalgie acceptable: you can make Goodbye Lenin!, but Goodbye Hitler! is unthinkable. Why?"

Oy Vitae (Slate)
Jews vs. Catholics in the stem cell debate.

Kasparov Quits Chess in Biggest Gambit Yet (Moscow Times)
I had a feeling this was going to happen: Garry Kasparov, the world's top chess player for two decades and considered by many the greatest player in history, has announced his retirement from professional chess in an ambitious gambit and vowed to devote his energy to battling what he called the "dictatorship" of President Vladimir Putin. You go, Garry!

Why it is Hard to Share the Wealth (New Scientist)
Are economic disparities a law of nature? Jenny Hogan: "In 1897, a Paris-born engineer named Vilfredo Pareto showed that the distribution of wealth in Europe followed a simple power-law pattern, which essentially meant that the extremely rich hogged most of a nation's wealth (New Scientist print edition, 19 August 2000). Economists later realised that this law applied to just the very rich, and not necessarily to how wealth was distributed among the rest. Now it seems that while the rich have Pareto's law to thank, the vast majority of people are governed by a completely different law. Physicist Victor Yakovenko of the University of Maryland in College Park, US, and his colleagues analysed income data from the US Internal Revenue Service from 1983 to 2001. They found that while the income distribution among the super-wealthy - about 3% of the population - does follow Pareto's law, incomes for the remaining 97% fitted a different curve - one that also describes the spread of energies of atoms in a gas."

Mass extinction comes every 62 million years, UC physicists discover
Uh, oh. Seeing as the last major event happend 65 million years ago, I guess that means we're living on borrowed time...

Evolution as a Team Sport (Rushkoff Blog)

Japan Embraces New Generation of Robots (MSNBC)
The Japanese are investing billions of dollars to develop humanoid robots that can take part in everyday life.

No Plan B for Outer Space (Economist)
America's plans for humans to explore space may cause it to relax its laws on weapons proliferation.

Pulling Back the Curtain on the Mercy Killing of Newborns (LA Times)
Ethics expert Peter Singer urges us to think twice before decrying Dutch doctors' report.

The Nature of Normal Human Variety
Armand Leroi discusses the science behind what makes as all so profoundly different.

Getting to know Michael Griffin (The Space Review)
Griffin’s comments to date suggest that he may want to speed up the pace of the Vision for Space Exploration, potentially at the expense of the shuttle and ISS.

UN, Jimmy Carter Say Time Is Ripe to End Hunger (National Geographic News)
The time is now for the richest nations to share their cash, food, and knowledge with the hundreds of millions of people enduring extreme poverty and hunger, according a recent UN report.

Electronic Prescribing Systems: Making It Safer to Take Your Medicine? (RAND)
Electronic prescribing systems may greatly reduce medication errors and help to maximize patient safety and health.

The Rise and Fall of Star Faring Civilizations in Our Own Galaxy

J.R. Mooneyham writes about The Rise and Fall of Star Faring Civilizations in Our Own Galaxy (this is an excellent summation of the Fermi problem today):
The Fermi Paradox which contrasts the 100% probability of life and intelligence developing on Earth against the thunderous silence from the heavens so far (no alien signals) may be resolved by four things: One, gamma ray bursters which may have effectively prohibited the development of sentient races until only the last 200 million years; Two, the lengthy gestation period required for the emergence of intelligence (which almost requires the entire useful lifespan of a given planet, based on our own biography); Three, the need for an unusually high measure of stability in terms of climate over hundreds of millions of years (the 'Goldilocks' scenario, enabled by a huge natural satellite like our Moon moderating the tilt of a planet's axis, as well as gas giants parked in proper orbits to mop up excess comets and asteroids to reduce impact frequencies for a living world); and Four, an extremely dangerous 600 year or so 'gauntlet' of challenges and risks most any technological society must survive to become a viable long term resident of the galaxy (i.e. getting a critical mass of population and technology off their home world, among other things). That 600 year period may be equivalent to our own span between 1900 AD and 2500 AD, wherein we'll have to somehow dodge the bullets of cosmic impacts, nuclear, biological, and nanotechnological war, terrorism, mistakes, and accidents, as well as food or energy starvation, economic collapse, and many other threats, both natural and unnatural. So far it appears (according to SETI results and other scientific discoveries) extremely few races likely survive all these. So why haven't we heard from those which have? What are they like? And how far away might they be? Details of all the above and more (along with references) may be found on this and its succeeding pages.
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March 10, 2005

E.T., don't phone home--we'll call you

A new service launched this past February allows users to transmit their telephone conversations into space in the hopes of reaching extraterrestrial civilizations.

At a cost of $3.99 per minute, users can dial a premium rate US number and have their call routed through a transmitter and sent into space through a 3.2-metre-wide dish in central Connecticut.

Eric Knight, the president of the company, believes that a large radio receiver - like the Arecibo dish in Puerto Rico - situated on a distant planet might be large enough for an alien civilisation to receive the calls. Go to for more information.

For those of you who don't like your money, I can't endorse this service enough.


Links for March 10, 2005

Breaking news: Kasparov retires from professional chess
The winner of Linares and the world's strongest chessplayer, Garry Kasparov, has just announced his retirement from professional chess. His games in Linares are the last in his professional career, that has spanned thirty years, with twenty on the top of the ratings list.

The Kass Agenda: "Bioethics for the Second Term" (American Journal of Bioethics blog)
Oh, oh.

The Last of the Utopian Projects (Guardian)
Perestroika plunged Russia into social ruin - and the world into an unprecedented superpower bid for global domination.

Are We in World War IV? (Mother Jones)
It's become a (wishful) commonplace of the imperial right that we are.

History Is Going, Going, Gone (MSNBC)
We risk losing the thrill of viewing and touching the actual papers handled by geniuses.

Why Is Captive Breeding So Hard? (Slate)
Don't animals like to breed?

Does Gödel Matter? (Slate)
The romantic's favorite mathematician didn't prove what you think he did.

Marxism of the Right? (Tech Central Stupid)
Until this article by Robert Locke appeared in The American Conservative, conservatives and libertarians have enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship. After all, there is so much on which they agree. But can it last? Distortions like this one should make us wonder: "Free spirits, the ambitious, ex-socialists, drug users, and sexual eccentrics often find an attractive political philosophy in libertarianism, the idea that individual freedom should be the sole rule of ethics and government."

The Science Behind Common Sense (Tech Central Stupid)
We should always have respect for propositions that prove true even though we aren't quite sure why.

Neandertal Advance: First Fully Jointed Skeleton Built (Nat'l Geographic)
Scientists have for the first time constructed a fully articulated, or jointed, Neandertal skeleton using castings from real Neandertal bones.

Thinking Robots – Not Quite Yet (Yorkshire Today)
Professor Noel Sharkey left school at the age of 15 but is now a leading robotics expert. Chris Bond talks to him about the future of robots and the potential for artificial intelligence.

Helping the Poor: The Real Challenge of Nanotech (
Those concerned about the potential side effects of nanotechnology should spend more time worrying about ways of ensuring that it meets the needs of the poor.

March 9, 2005

More Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement

Fellow transhumanist and friend Ramez Naam has released his first book.

With the title of More Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement, Naam argues in his new book that the power to alter ourselves--provided that it's in the hands of millions of individuals and families--stands to benefit society more than to harm it. Here's the Amazon link.

Blurbage from Naam's Website:
More Than Human is about our growing power to alter our minds, bodies, and lifespans through technology - the power to redefine our species - a power we can choose to fear, or to embrace.

In 1990, a professor at the University of Colorado discovered that changing a single gene doubles the lifespan of tiny nematode worms.

In 1999, researchers searching for a cure for Alzheimer’s disease genetically engineered a strain of mice that can learn things five times as quickly as their normal kin – super-intelligent mice.

In 2002, scientists looking for ways to help paralyzed patients implanted electrodes into the brain of an owl monkey and trained it to move a robot arm 600 miles away just by thinking about it.

Over the last decade researchers looking for ways to help the sick and injured have stumbled onto techniques that enhance healthy animals – making them stronger, faster, smarter, longer-lived, even connecting their minds to robots and computers. Now science is on the verge of applying this knowledge to healthy men and women. The same research that could cure Alzheimer’s is leading to drugs and genetic techniques that could boost human intelligence. The techniques being developed to stave off heart disease and cancer have the potential to halt or even reverse human aging.

More Than Human takes the reader into the labs where this is happening to understand the science of human enhancement. It also steps back to look at the big picture. How will these technologies affect society? What will they do to the economy, to politics, and to human identity? What social policies should we enact to regulate, restrict, or encourage the use of these technologies?

Ultimately More Than Human concludes that we should embrace, rather than fear, the power to alter ourselves - that in the hands of millions of individuals and families, it stands to benefit society more than to harm it.

Links for March 9, 2005

Life Is a Game (Technology Review)
Sims creator Will Wright faces his next challenge: Everything.

Risky Business (Tech Central Stupid)
Ban the precautionary principle, just to be safe.

Remembering Francis Crick (NY Books)
By Oliver Sacks

Among the Unbelievers (Utne)
"A revival of atheism is a curious by-product of the 9/11 attacks," writes the British thinker John Gray. In Europe at least, "unbelief has been given a new lease of life by a savage reminder of the persistent intensity of faith." But atheism is no cure for mass violence, he suggests. Nazism, Maoism, and Soviet communism were as deadly as the most primitive religions, perhaps because that's what they quickly became. Indeed, militant atheism may hold clues to "the enduring urgency of the human need for religion."

That being said: What Jesus Wouldn't Do (AlterNet)
Much of the religious right's agenda is in direct contradiction to Christ's own teachings – and most devout Christians know it.

The Poor May Not Be Getting Richer (Reason)
But they are living longer, eating better, and learning to read, by Ronald Bailey.

Leon Kass, Citizen (American Journal of Bioethics blog)
On Leon Kass's declaration of being a "private citizen."

Wearable Computers You Can Slip Into (Business Week)
The latest generation of these ever-smarter garments look like ordinary clothes and not something only a cyborg would wear.

How Much Can Your Mind Keep Track Of? (Psychological Science)
Apparently not very much. About 4 variables, maximum.

March 7, 2005

Links for March 7, 2005

Fast Track to Longevity (The Scientist, registration)
Mouse study shows molecular connections between caloric restriction and lifespan extension.

Is the Capacity for Spirituality Determined by Brain Chemistry? (Washington Post)
Geneticist Dean H. Hamer's book 'The God Gene' is being disputed by scientists and embraced by some religious leaders.

Committee Wants Tighter Controls on Gene Therapy (Science Now, registration)
Third leukemia case in French trial renews.

'Saviour Sibling' Embryo Battle (Scotsman, registration)
A couple who tried to create a "designer baby" to help cure their sick son should never have been allowed to do so, the House of Lords was told yesterday.

Time Bandits (New Yorker)
What were Einstein and Gödel talking about?

Can Sci-Fi Fans Face the Future? (TO Star)
From mailing bras to starting malicious Internet rumours, devoted viewers try all sorts of things to protect what they love.

Sim Outbreak (WorldChanging)
How do you handle the outbreak of a highly infectious disease? Use powerful simulations, that's how.

The Best Thing That Has Ever Happened to Journalism (Tech Central Stupid)
Bloggers are the best thing that has ever happened to journalism.

Study: Monkeys Do Read Minds (Discovery)
Monkeys can deduce what other monkeys and humans think, want and see based on visual cues, according to a new paper in this week's Current Biology.

Hans Bethe, Father of Nuclear Astrophysics, Dies at 98 (NY Times)

Eye Contact Triggers Threat Response in Autistic Children (SciAm)
Children suffering from autism pay very little attention to faces, even those of people close to them. Indeed, this characteristic can become apparent as early as the age of one, and is often used as a developmental sign of the disease. The results of a new study provide additional insight into why autistic children avoid eye contact: they perceive faces as an uncomfortable threat, even if they are familiar.

Human Factors in Commercial Suborbital Flight: What Do I Breathe, and Why? (The Space Review)
Developers of suborbital spacecraft must strike a balance between engineering constraints and the need to give passengers the correct atmospheric pressure and mix of gases. In the latest installment of his ongoing series, Dr. John Jurist examines these atmospheric requirements.

Plants vs. Insects: An Amazon Epic for the Ages (Nat'l Geographic)
Insects are enemy number one to plants the world over: They munch leaves, suck sap, bore stems, and devour roots. To fight back, plants have evolved an army's worth of defenses that confuse, repel, deter, and sicken their attackers.