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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