December 31, 2006

Congratulations to me for being Time's person of the year

A couple of weeks ago Time Magazine announced its 'Person of the Year' for 2006. Much to everyone's surprise, they awarded you as person of the year. Yes, you. And me. And anyone else who contributed to the ever growing Internet based infosphere.

If I assessed the reaction to this announcement correctly, most people thought this was the silliest idea they'd ever heard. The vast majority of opinions that I encountered came down hard on Time for this decision. Personally, I think most people missed the boat on this one.

You may not feel that you deserve this award, but I certainly do. I worked freakin' hard all year producing content for which I did not receive one single penny. I produced hundreds of original blog entries, created over a dozen podcasts, uploaded a number of pictures to Flickr, edited Wikipedia entries, uploaded some videos to YouTube, added comments to innumerable posts, Dugg user-posted articles, and much, much more.

Moreover, I'm contributing to the ever increasing diversification of media and alternative reporting. I don't have to answer to anyone except myself. All my content comes from me and is not driven by typical Big Media agendas and conventions. Self-published content for all the world to see is a monumental victory for freedom of speech -- a fact that Time, a magazine under threat from this type of content, is undoubtedly aware of.

Similarly, user-driven content is beginning to take on political influence. Sure, the macaca fiasco was small potatoes, but now politicians know The People are watching their every (often idiotic) moves. Sousveillance and the participatory panopticon are beginning to take shape.

More conceptually, like the democratization of media, the power of the masses are beginning to trump the power of the charismatic individual (whether these individual contributions are positive or negative). It's becoming increasingly difficult in the globalized and democratic digital age to award one single person as being the year's most influential. This is a good thing.

So, yes, I feel that we all deserve to be awarded as persons of the year. Kudos to Time Magazine!

Primitive UFOs

This Far Side comic, which has the caption 'Primitive UFOs' beautifully encapsulates my opinion of UFOlogy -- just substitute ourselves and 1950s "flying saucer" future-tech to get my point.

Must know terms for today's intelligentsia

At the dawn of European humanism, Florentines believed that reading Dante while ignoring science was ridiculous. Similarly, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo both recognized the great importance of understanding science, technology and engineering.

Despite these trail-blazers, not much has changed since then; a startling number of so-called 'intellectuals' remain grossly ignorant of pending technologies and the revealing sciences (the postmodernists immediately come to mind). Today's intelligentsia, in order to qualify for such a designation, must have the requisite vocabulary with which to address valid social concerns and effectively assess the future.

Here is a list of must-know terms (there are many, many more, but these are IMO the most critical and fundamental):
  • accelerating change
  • artificial general intelligence
  • augmented reality
  • automation
  • cosmological eschatology
  • existential risks
  • Fermi Paradox
  • friendly AI
  • human enhancement
  • human exceptionalism (aka human racism)
  • information theoretic death
  • memetic engineering
  • mind transfer (aka 'uploading')
  • molecular assembler
  • engineered negligible senescence
  • non-anthropocentric personhood
  • neural interface device
  • open source
  • participatory panopticon
  • political globalization
  • post-scarcity economy
  • postbiological organism
  • posthuman
  • quantum computation
  • radical Luddism
  • remedial ecology
  • self-improving and autopotent intelligence
  • self-replicating device
  • substrate chauvinism
  • Simulation Argument
  • Singularity
  • superintelligence
  • ubiquitous surveillance
  • uplift
  • virtual reality
  • Please let me know if you feel I have left something out, or if you believe something does not belong on this list. For example, I wanted to mention advanced weapons, but that seems awfully vague. In particular, I'm thinking of autonomous robotic soldiers, neuro-weapons, advanced non-lethal weapons, and non-human decision making on the battlefield. Also, I would have liked to mention something about how consciousness is still a hard problem in science, but I'm not sure how I could encapsulate that in a simple term.

    December 29, 2006

    "Quantum mechanics forbids a single history"

    Earlier this year cosmologist Stephen Hawking and his colleague Thomas Hertog of the European Laboratory for Particle Physics at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland, published a paper claiming that the Universe has no singular or unique beginning. Rather, it began in just about every way imaginable.

    The vast majority of these proposed universes disappeared without a trace; only a minuscule fraction of them blended to make the current Universe. Hawking and Hertog insist that if we are to take quantum physics seriously, we must conclude that there is no single history. We should picture the Universe in the first instants of the Big Bang, they say, as a superposition of all cosmological possibilities.

    Excerpt from Nature:
    He and Hawking call their theory 'top-down' cosmology, because instead of looking for some fundamental set of initial physical laws under which our Universe unfolded, it starts 'at the top', with what we see today, and works backwards to see what the initial set of possibilities might have been. In effect, says Hertog, the present 'selects' the past.

    Within just a few seconds after the Big Bang, a single history had already come to dominate the Universe, he explains. So from the 'classical' viewpoint of big objects such as stars and galaxies, things happened only one way after that point. Other 'histories', say, one in which the Earth formed only 4,000 years ago, have made no significant contribution to this cosmic evolution.

    But in the first instants of the Big Bang, there existed a superposition of ever more different versions of the Universe, instead of a unique history. And most crucially, Hertog says that "our current Universe has features frozen in from this early quantum mixture".

    In other words, some of these alternative histories have left their imprint behind. This is why Hertog and Hawking insist that their 'top-down' cosmology is testable. Hertog says that the theory predicts the pattern of the variations in intensity of microwave background radiation, the afterglow of the Big Bang now imprinted on the sky, which reveal fluctuations in the fireball of the nascent Universe. These variations are minute, but space-based detectors have measured them ever more accurately over the past several years.
    What's fascinating about this theory is that, by extension, it may be transferable to individual observers. By applying a stronger variant of the anthropic principle, one could argue that the cosmos has structured itself around your very own existence.

    Controversial, to be sure!

    Read more here.

    Buddha Break 2006.12.29

  • The Dalai Lama would like to see the formation of an International Buddhist Zone.

  • Tom Armstrong discusses the goal of Buddhist practice: "...the realization of a state of well-being that is not contingent on the presence of pleasurable stimuli, either external or internal. According to Buddhism, this movement toward well-being is a fundamental part of being human."

  • Thich Nhat Hanh on aimlessness.

  • Jeff Wilson analyzes the recent brouhaha about protests over Buddhist charms.

  • Meditation alone is not enough.

  • Yoga may help people face their fear and uncertainty over cancer.
  • Animal Welfare Notes 2006.12.29

  • The real value of animal experiments was recently put into question by a team of senior scientists who found that many are flawed and do not predict how well a prototype medicine will work in humans.

  • A U.S. federal effort to quickly pinpoint and contain outbreaks of disease among livestock is coming under attack. The plan for animal tracking is meeting with some tough farmer resistance.

  • Peter Singer sets the record straight: "I have never said that no experiment on an animal can ever be justified."

  • Watch an alpha female mother display her power in a troupe of bonobo apes.

  • Conservationist and ape welfare activist Kerry Bowman: "When my eyes caught his eyes, I just felt nothing different than as if I was coming across a human." The moment inspired him.

  • The Ape and The Child: A Comparative Study of the Environmental Influence Upon Early Behavior, by W. N. & K. A. Kellogg (1933):
  • "Suppose an anthropoid were taken into a typical human family at the day of birth and reared as a child. Suppose he were fed upon a bottle, clothed, washed, bathed, fondled, and given a characteristically human environment; that he were spoken to like the human infant from the moment of parturition; that he had an adopted human mother and an adopted human father . . . . The experimental situation par excellence should indeed be attained if this technique were refined one step farther by adopting such a baby ape into a human family with one child of approximately the ape's age."

    Canadian Context 2006.12.29

  • Canadian researchers say they've cured diabetes in mice.

  • A new report says Canada spends more than most industrialized countries on health care, but Canadians continue to endure long waiting times and face limited access to medical technology. And in Ontario, hospitals in big cities struggle to reduce the wait for surgeries while those in smaller communities say the province urges them to rent underused operating rooms for for-profit procedures.

  • Only the Globe and Mail could put out an article titled, "The false assumption that doctors ooze wealth," and still show that family doctors earn, on average, $202,481 a year, while other medical and surgical specialists earn an average of $278,656.

  • Sperm stocks in Canada are significantly down since the federal government made it illegal to pay men for the donations, and the supply of sperm imported from the U.S. will eventually be cut off.

  • Ottawa wants to map out pollutants in body for the first time. StatsCan wants to test 5,000 people for toxins.

  • Canadian consumers won't be buying meat and milk from cloned animals anytime soon, says Health Canada. Looks like they want to examine the data on cloned food.

  • A recent poll has found high stress levels among Canadians.

  • Life expectancy in Canada is now 80+. W00t!

  • While young Canadian women tend to experience depression and thoughts of suicide more than men, the men are more likely to act.
  • Cheating vs. enhancement in chess

    Like any sport, chess is not and will not be immune to the advent of human enhancement. And like other sports, there will be an awkward adjustment period as organizers learn to cope with the new reality. In the meantime, there will be a fine line that separates legitimate enhancement from outright cheating.

    Take the recent 10-year suspension of Umakant Sharma who was caught with a blue tooth device hidden in his cap when random checking was conducted during the seventh round of the Air Marshal Subroto Mukerjee Memorial All India Open FIDE Rating Chess Tournament. Sharma, who was playing black, was the top seed with an ELO of 2384.

    Ouch. In my opinion a 10-year suspension is rather harsh. It would appear that an example is being made; chess organizers are implementing a zero tolerance policy when it comes to players cheating with computers.

    Indeed, computers have so revolutionized the game that it is a hard temptation to avoid. But while the use of computers to assist in chess is fairly easy to detect, more physically intrinsic advantages, such as cognitive enhancement, will be harder to both assess and enforce.

    What will happen when the first genetically modified competitors emerge? Will there be a stratification of competitions, ones featuring unaugmented players and ones featuring those with genetic mods? Thinking more philosophically, what is the qualitative difference between an unmodified player who was born with a genetic advantage versus a player who had that advantage given to them via assistive reprotech? Or is it the work ethic and committment to the game that is being rewarded? A strong case can be made that the furtherance of and excellence in sport is in the outcome, and not what goes on in the background (so long as the rules are being followed and the 'spirit' of the game is maintained).

    In the case of chess, as I have already argued, if humans want to continue to have meaningful involvement in chess as it is played at the highest level, they will have no choice but to use computers as assistive devices and/or augment their brains so that they can keep up with supercomputers.

    When I was following the recent Kramnk-Deep Fritz tournament, the play-by-play commentator (a grandmaster level player) noted how he hoped a strong cup of coffee would help him better analyze the match. This was a very telling moment for me. Chess players are already quite aware of which stimulants can assist in their play. As the Sharma incident has shown, they will undoubtedly seek out any opportunity to get an edge.

    More to the point, however, as the human species changes so too must our competitive activities. The rules of sport, whether these sports require mental or physical skill, will have to bend in the face of the biotech wind.

    5,000 years of religious encroachment in 90 seconds

    There's an excellent map on Maps of War that shows the spread of the major religions over the past 5,000 years. This map makes me wonder,
  • in which ways are these religious conquests the result of viral memes and in which ways the organic consequence of imperialist expansion?
  • in which way is this map misleading by showing geographical spread rather than population spread? What other format could more accurately convey this?
  • in the case of memetic spread, what makes one religion more successful than others?
  • given that we are now in the age of memetic globalization, how is religion spreading today?
  • how could this map be adjusted to show the internal and minority religious influences, including atheism?
  • [found on Arbitrary Remarks]

    December 27, 2006

    Canadian hockey dominance

    I love this time of year, and it's not because of all the eggnog and drunken office parties. 'Tis the season for junior hockey -- the IIHF Junior Hockey World Championships to be exact. Sweden is the host country for this year's tournament.

    This annual championship brings together the world's best hockey prospects (age 16 to 20) to compete for the gold. Many of these guys are first round draft picks and are only a year or two removed from the NHL. This is high caliber hockey.

    But unlike hockey fans in most other countries, Canadians take this tournament very seriously. This is not only indicative of the Canadian passion for hockey, but also of the national commitment to developing talent and supporting the minor leagues. And as for the tournament players themselves, it has to be very motivating and encouraging to know that the entire country is watching back home.

    Consequently, Canada has owned this tournament since 1990, winning 9 gold, 4 silver and 2 bronze medals over that time. Going into this year's tournament, Canada has won the previous two and have not lost a round-robin game over their past eight matches. The team recently established a new defensive record by not allowing a goal over a span of 234 minutes and an even strength goal over 345 minutes (one game is 60 minutes).

    Canada has opened this year's championship going 2-0 and appear to be on their way to yet another gold. Canada produces the world's best players and it appears that they will continue to lead international hockey for some time to come.

    Hussein is more dangerous dead than alive

    News came down yesterday that Saddam Hussein will be executed in less than 30 days. Time will prove this to be a mistake.

    Hussein, who is undoubtedly a wretched excuse for a human being, should instead be thrown into a dark jail cell to live out his remaining years. The alternative, his execution, will only fuel an already highly incendiary situation.

    Take his exiled Baath party, for example, who today threatened to retaliate and strike at U.S. targets should Hussein be executed. Baath claims that if the execution takes place, it would be impossible for them to "take part in any prospective negotiations with U.S. and Iraqi officials to reduce the violence in Iraq."

    In all fairness, Baath is a radical group who is working to overthrow what they see as a puppet regime. They will work to undermine the current Iraqi government regardless of Hussein's situation. But should he be executed, resentment towards the U.S. and the Iraqi government will be significantly heightened; Hussein will be made into a martyr, quite possibly leading to greater fanatical loyalty and radical action.

    There's also the risk of further alienating Sunni Arabs, many of whom are members of the Baath Party and who have made up the minority that has formed the Iraqi insurgency after Hussein was toppled in 2003. Sectarian violence between Shiite and Sunni groups and the escalating threat of civil war will hardly wane after Hussein is executed.

    With each passing day, Hussein becomes less and less relevant to the situation in Iraq and the Middle East -- and this despite his high-profile trial and tirades; it has been proven that Hussein's ongoing existence in this world has little bearing on the political situation in Iraq.

    What is unknown, however, is what will happen after he is executed.

    December 26, 2006

    Lots going on

    In addition to my recent CBC interview, I've got a couple of other things on the go.

    I was recently contacted by the Gale Group who asked to re-publish an old article of mine for an undergraduate ethics text. The column is "The Separation of Church and Bioethics," in which I call for the secularization of bioethics and describe how Christian bioethics can be problematic.

    Also, Beliefnet asked me to offer an opposing viewpoint to their interview of bioconservative Nigel Cameron. I asked for the same Q&A format and I am now finalizing the final version. Here are the questions I was asked:
  • What advantages or benefits do you see coming from nanotechnology in the future?
  • What problems, crimes, or disadvantages do you foresee?
  • How would you answer critics concerned about a surveillance society—constant monitoring and tracking?
  • How can society minimize crimes committed via nanotechnology?
  • How do you envision people might be able to “upgrade” their brains by using chips, etc.?
  • There are concerns that “cosmetic neurology” and related things will make us less than human. How do you respond?
  • How do you react to fears that nano-enhanced humans will become supercomputing brains with powerful machine-enhanced bodies, lording it over the plebes who can’t afford chips?
  • Will art really be art if the artist’s brain is enhanced by technology? For example, a painter or musician?
  • Some people feel that certain types of suffering or “malfunctioning,” while unpleasant, can make us more human and more empathetic: for example, living with mild memory loss. Will we be less human if everything about us—our minds, our memories, our bodies—is “fixed”?
  • I am very pleased with my answers and am looking forward to seeing this published. I'll post a link once it's posted on Beliefnet.

    December 21, 2006

    Top 20 Albums of 2006

    It's time again for my top 20 albums of the year. I've listened to an absolute ton of music during the past 12 months, but for every CD I sampled there were an umpteen number of others I didn't get a chance to hear. Consequently, I tried to be as selective as possible.

    2006 was a particularly strong year for music. Choosing a top 20 was not easy, and because there were so many good albums I decided to create an 'honourable mention' category. These are solid albums, each a special gem worthy of consideration and respect -- but not quite the cream-of-the-crop. I've also listed several disappointments and/or overrated albums from the past year.

    Your feedback is welcomed. Please let me know where you agree or disagree and if I missed something! Here are my lists:

    TOP 20 ALBUMS OF 2006:

    1. Neko Case: Fox Confessor Brings the Flood

    While coming up with a top 20 was not easy, selecting the #1 album of the year was a no-brainer: Neko Case's Fox Confessor Brings the Flood was by far the most spectacular release of 2006. With this album, Case has established herself as a world-class song writer, producer and vocalist.

    Every track shines on this album; Case's confidence and talent as an artist has never been more obvious. Her performances are emotional, personal and powerful. The songs are sad, revealing and honest. And adding to this perfection-of-craft is her newfound willingness to step outside familiar genres, styles and conventional song structures.

    The first three tracks are absolute stunners -- the kind of 1-2-3 punch you would expect on a Best Of album (Margaret vs. Pauline, Star Witness, and Hold on, Hold On). These are quintessential Neko tracks that are the best examples of music that is distinctly her own -- not quite alt-country, not quite adult alternative and not quite pop.

    From these opening tracks she ventures into new territory, drawing from diverse musical styles. There's a sloppy 50s era highschool dance number, a pagan rite, and a foot stomping gospel track. At no times, however, does Fox Confessor feel disjointed or inconsistent; it's a Neko Case album from start to finish.

    A beautiful album. Way to go, Neko!

    2. Isis: In the Absence of Truth

    The best progressive metal album of 2006 and my #2 CD of the year goes to Isis's In the Absence of Truth. These brooding post-metal experimentalists from Los Angeles keep pushing the envelope of what it means to be heavy. They're kind of a Mogwai meets Neurosis and Tool (who they toured with in 2006).

    Absence's tracks are sonically dynamic, slow-paced with long and drawn out builds that often deliver crushing finales. Isis's arrangements thrive on repetition and evolution of structure; hidden melodies reveal themselves with each passing listen. Instruments work in counterpoint with circular rhythms.

    Aaron Turner's minimalist vocals, sometimes deathy, sometimes half-sung, are placed back in the mix along with the other instruments. And the drumming, performed by Aaron Harris, is nothing less than spectacular. He relentlessly works the toms and delivers brilliant hi-hat fills.

    With this, their fourth studio release, they have firmly defined the post-metal/sludge-metal sound for the early 21st century. Isis is now the most important metal band coming out of the United States.

    3. Tool: 10,000 Days

    Five agonizingly long years after the release of Lateralus comes Tool's fourth studio release, 10,000 Days. While quite possibly their weakest effort to date, this is still the kind of album that most bands can only dream about releasing. I was initially unsure about this CD and it wasn't until I starting contrasting it with other similar artists that its strengths were revealed. Make no mistake: 10,000 Days is a great album.

    As always, each track is an epic journey. Maynard, still mourning the death of his mother, offers some of his most touching and personal lyrics. On Jambi, he credits his mother for showing him the way out of his darkness: "The devil and his had me down/in love with the dark side, I found/Dabblin' all the way down/Up to my neck; Soon to drown/But you, changed that all for me, lifted me up, turned me 'round." And on the title track, in awe of his mother's unswerving religious faith after a life lived in misery, he brazenly demands that God let her into the Kingdom: "Fetch me the spirit, the son and the father/Tell them their pillar of faith has ascended/It's time now!/My time now!/Give me my/Give me my wings!" It's hard not to get goosebumps when you're listening to this stuff.

    Musically, Tool has not strayed too far from the sound they established on Lateralus. The album can be frustratingly derivative of their previous work, but they make up for it by offering great tracks and doing what they do best. The Pot is undoubtedly the best song of 2006 and will go down as a hard rock classic. Vicarious is their best radio single since Aenima, and Rosetta Stoned -- a song sung from the perspective of an alien abductee -- has quickly become a fan favourite: Goddamn, shit the bed.

    As usual, all performances are virtuosic and the production is dynamic and creative. They take their times building tracks, not afraid to take it down for extended lengths of time (take Lost Keys for example, where 2 oscillating guitar notes are held and repeated for nearly two minutes). Their arrangements include tablas, native American vocals, and a solo performed on a talkbox. While Danny Carey, Justin Chancellor and Adam Jones rock on this album, this is clearly Maynard's tour de force.

    4. Clearlake: Amber

    I have a real soft-spot for British rock, which is why it pains me to watch a great band like Coldplay degenerate into sappy and institutionalized irrelevancy. Thankfully there's still a lot of great material coming out of the UK -- the best this year coming from Clearlake and their wonderful CD, Amber.

    This album is simple, confident and great.

    Clearlake, influenced by bands like Talk Talk, My Bloody Valentine, Doves and the Beta Band, have nailed it with their third release. Amber features solid and diverse tracks, wonderful melodies and driving rock numbers. Track highlights include the beautiful You Can't Have Me, Neon and Amber.

    A very underrated band.

    5. Built to Spill: You In Reverse

    When I heard that Built To Spill was releasing an album this year it never occurred to me that it would end up on my top 20 list (let alone my top 5). It had been five years since their last album, and with this being their 7th, I got to thinking that their best years were behind them.

    You In Reverse caught me completely by surprise. This is such a good album -- it has everything that Built To Spill fans have come to love about this band.

    Firstly, as a guitar album, You In Reverse kicks. They still sound like they're an indie band that gets carried away with extended jam sessions in the garage. The album opener, Going Against Your Mind, rocks out for several minutes before the track actually comes together; the entire track clocks at nearly 9 minutes.

    Second, the songs are simply great. Liar, The Wait and Wherever You Go are brand new tracks that instantly sound like familiar BTS classics. This album also contains several mid-tempo ballads delivered with the expected emotion and skill.

    This is a solid album from a classic and classy band that has now re-established itself as one of the world's best groups.

    Okay, now that I've listed the top 5, I'm just going to quickly run-down the rest of my top 20:

    6. Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins: Rabbit Fur Coat
    7. Comets on Fire: Avatar
    8. M. Ward: Post War
    9. Dresden Dolls: Yes, Virginia...
    10. Boris: Pink
    11. The Mars Volta: Amputechture
    12. Deftones: Saturday Night Wrist
    13. High on Fire: Blessed Black Wings
    14. Joanna Newsom: Ys
    15. Thom Yorke: The Eraser
    16. Mastodon: Blood Mountain
    17. Mogwai: Mr. Beast
    18. The Gathering: Home
    19. Voivod: Katorz
    20. Audioslave: Revelations

    Honourable mention (listed alphabetically):

  • Beck: Information
  • Bob Dylan: Modern Times
  • Fiery Furnaces: Bitter Tea
  • Ghostface Killah: Fishscale
  • Graham Coxon: Love Travels at Illegal Speeds
  • Lacuna Coil: Karmacode
  • Matmos: The Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of the Beast
  • Muse: Black Holes and Revelations
  • Prince: 3121
  • Pure Reason Revolution: The Dark Third
  • Red Hot Chili Peppers: Stadium Arcadium
  • She Wants Revenge: She Wants Revenge
  • Slayer: Christ Illusion
  • The Dears: Gang of Losers
  • The Raconteurs: Broken Boy Soliders
  • The Twilight Singers: Powder Burns

    Disappointments and over-rated albums:

  • Beatles: Love
  • Gnarls Barkley: St. Elsewhere
  • The Decemberists: The Crane Wife
  • December 20, 2006

    Today's CBC taping

    Today was taping day at the CBC building in Toronto. I am being interviewed for a segment on 'The Hour' about the future of humanity.

    It was a very professional operation. The film crew was completely set up and ready for me when I arrived. I sat on a chair in front of a green-screen with scorching hot pot lights blazing down on me. Of course, I was wearing a sweater and I quickly began worrying if I could last for an hour. Thankfully it never got too unbearable.

    I was interviewed by the producer while a camera operator moved around taking dynamic shots while another worked a still camera. We talked about a host of things: transhumanism, time-lines, human reproduction, human cloning, exosomatic wombs, stem-cells, nanotechnology, grey goo, cybernetics, memory enhancement, radical life extension and consciousness uploading.

    I am happy with my responses and my performance, although I wasn't as articulate as I knew I could be. I asked for several re-takes and the producer was happy to oblige. I hope the editors will weave their magic and make me look like I can actually speak English. Working without a script and improvising answers takes a lot of energy and concentration.

    The green-screen was a neat experience. I will be superimposed in front of a while background with some blue water-colour images fading in and out. The show should air during the first week of January. For those in Canada, I'll post the exact date and time of the airing once I know it.

    Oh, interesting side-note: Canadian sci-fi novelist Robert Sawyer was interviewed before me about the future of transportation.

    10th anniversary of Carl Sagan's passing

    Carl Sagan died 10 years ago today on December 20, 1996. More than anyone, he greatly influenced my intellectual life-course when I was a young adolescent. A billion thank you's go out to Carl!

    December 18, 2006

    December 15, 2006

    Vegetarians are smarter, so there

    The BBC is reporting on a study that shows a high IQ link to being vegetarian. The Southampton University study shows that intelligent children are more likely to become vegetarians later in life. Researchers noted that those who were vegetarian by 30 had recorded five IQ points more on average at the age of 10.

    What I take from this study is a stronger conviction that people who eat meat are stupid. They're also mean spirited. And a bunch of poopy faces.

    Ah, it's great to be morally and cognitively superior.

    I ain't givin' up on sleep

    A common human 'limitation' that many transhumanists would like to overcome is that of sleep. I am not one of them.

    Yes, there are days when I most certainly wish I had more time and energy to do all the things I want to do, but in my mind there are simply too many trade-offs involved that are simply not worth it and possibly even dangerous. Moreover, there are emotional, psychological and aesthetic reasons for not wanting to eliminate sleep.

    Before I get into these considerations its worth noting that I may be in the minority here. Demand for stimulants and sleep-replacement drugs are skyrocketing. Take Modafinil, for example. This is truly a lifestyle drug for 24/7 age. Sales are so good that Cephalon, the company that produces Modafinil, is already developing its successor, Armodafinil, and the experimental drug CEP-16795. Looking further into the future, there will be wakefulness promoters that can safely abolish sleep for several days at a stretch, and sleeping pills that will deliver what feels like 8 hours of sleep in half the time. This is an idea, it appears, whose time as come.

    Modafinil is truly a remarkable drug. Users can get by on very little sleep -- as little as 4 to 5 hours per night. It has even been known to help people stay awake for as much as 48 consecutive hours.

    Unlike other stimulants like caffeine or amphetamines, Modafinil does not result in side effects like jitters, euphoria and crashing. Remarkably, users don't seem to have to pay back any sleep debt. It is different than other stimulants in that it offers the brain many of the same benefits that normal sleep does. Traditional stimulants tend to fake the effects of proper sleep, often with long-term consequences like sleep disorders and ongoing mental fatigue. Modafinil, on the other hand, tends to deliver a genuine feeling of alertness and wakefulness.

    There have been very few complaints of side effects from users aside from some complaints of headaches. That said, there may be unseen problems down the road as Modafinil and other drugs start to become more widely used.

    What's interesting and even a bit disturbing is that no one one is really sure how it works -- although speculation exists that Cephalon is keeping the answer secret. What is known is that modafinil prevents nerve cells from reabsorbing dopamine, an excitatory neurotransmitter, once it is released into the brain -- but it does so without producing the addictive highs and painful crashes associated with most stimulants. It has been suggested that this is possible because modafinil also interferes with the reuptake of another neurotransmitter, noradrenalin.

    Keeping people awake and alert is one thing, addressing the host of things sleep does for the brain is quite another. The sleep cycle is a complex process with multiple phases (e.g. "slow-wave" sleep versus shallower stage 2 sleep, REM phase, etc.). Each phase plays a particular role in brain restoration and regeneration. It will be some time yet before all aspects of the sleep architecture are cataloged, understood and converted into pill form. In the meantime, there may be many individuals who in their rush to eliminate sleep from their lives are putting their cognitive health at risk.

    For example, scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research recently discovered that sleep helps consolidate memories. According to their findings, new information is transferred between the hippocampus, the short term memory area, and the cerebral cortex during sleep. They concluded that it is the cerebral cortex that actively controls this transfer. Quite obviously, if pills like modafinil and other stimulants don't address something as vital as memory storage, people who completely avoid sleep will soon begin to exhibit serious problems.

    I'm not suggesting that the sleep architecture is intractably complex. The general consensus amongst the developers is that is not a question of if but when. Some day soon we will have the option to give up on sleep entirely and live 24-hour days.

    For myself personally, I can understand the desire for these drugs on an as needed basis. I most certainly could have used something like modafinil back in 2004 when I chaired the TransVision conference; I think I slept a total of only 10 hours during a 4-day stretch. It took me weeks to recover.

    But as for eliminating sleep all together, I'm not so sure I'm inclined to do that. I love going to bed and sleeping. I adore that sleepy, dreamy feeling in the early morning when the body is relaxed and I'm hitting the snooze button. I'm reminded of John Lennon's lyrics to "I'm Only Sleeping,"
    When I wake up early in the morning,
    Lift my head, I'm still yawning
    When I'm in the middle of a dream
    Stay in bed, float up stream

    Please don't wake me, no
    don't shake me
    Leave me where I am
    I'm only sleeping

    Everybody seems to think I'm lazy
    I don't mind, I think they're crazy
    Running everywhere at such a speed
    Till they find, there's no need

    Keeping an eye on the world going by my window
    Taking my time

    Lying there and staring at the ceiling
    Waiting for a sleepy feeling
    Like Lennon, I am also very fond of dreaming. It's the only time that I can become (quite literally) someone else and dwell in utterly insane and surreal worlds. I wish some of my dreams could be made into movies.

    There are also some emotional and social aspects of sleep to consider. There's nothing quite like making love to your partner and having them fall asleep in your arms. And how wonderful it is to snooze, cuddle and wake up next to someone (provided they didn't steal the sheets, of course).

    Sure, sure -- I may sound overly sentimental about the whole thing and even a little Kassian in my seemingly bioLuddite tone. But in all seriousness, these sleepy Dali-like and Learyesque dreamlike states closely resemble my own expectations as to what a posthuman existence might be like. Given how unorthodox and unreal Second Life is becoming, I can't even begin to imagine what an open-ended digital existence might be like. And like the uploaded character in Egan's Diaspora who refuses to give up urinating and defecating for aesthetic reasons, I too would want to retain those biological vestiges that I believe have an intrinsic value.

    Aside from these somewhat romantic notions, there are other day-to-day practicalities about not sleeping that should be considered.

    I find that sleep provides and essential break to the routine of life. It not only provides a physical and emotional break, but an existential one as well. Sleep is like a temporary death you have each night, only to be reborn the next day (a very Buddhist notion). I also find that the length of time sleeping is important as well. Despite being unconscious for an extended period, I can estimate with excellent accuracy the length of time I have been sleeping. I don't think 3 to 4 hours would cut it for me.

    Moreover, there is always the risk that our corporatist society will change the rules of the game once sleep becomes optional. Working hours may be extended to unacceptable levels, and poor people will take the opportunity to work the full 24 hours just to make ends meet. The mind may not need sleep, but the physical body most certainly does.

    I would certainly hope that, given the added time, people would instead focus their energies on leisure activities. Still, coming from personal experience, the intensity of my leisure activities are starting to demand respites of their own.

    Again, I'm not suggesting that everybody abandon the thought of giving up on sleep. I'm merely making the point that this is not for me. Be careful of what you wish for, as they say, but even more careful about what you may come to lose.
  • Get ready for 24-hour living (New Scientist)

  • To Sleep, Perchance to Process Memory (Wired)

  • An end to sleep? (Futurismic)

  • Learning During Sleep? (Max Planck Society)

  • A real eye opener (The Age)

  • December 13, 2006

    I will be appearing on CBC's 'The Hour'

    The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) will be interviewing me next week for an appearance on their show, The Hour. I will be speaking about some of the more futuristic and radical possibilities in store for the human species.

    The Hour, which is hosted by George Stroumboulopoulos, is running a 3-part series called 'Looking Forward' which should air early next year. They will be interviewing me in front of a green-screen to allow for cool backgrounds to be added in post-production.

    I'll blog about the experience later next week.

    Canadian Context 2006.12.13

  • Up to 5 Canadians die at work each day. Suddenly my stapler looks threatening.

  • Canadian nurses say they're abused and stressed.

  • The Americanization of Canadian healthcare continues: Vancouver private clinic given green light to expand

  • Ontario is rolling out its own centre for disease control to better handle another outbreak of SARS or a flu pandemic.

  • The Ontario government aims to boost the rights of patients and make other changes to the health-care system.

  • Surgeons in Montreal have implanted a long-term mechanical heart in a 65-year-old man, the first Canadian to receive the HeartMate II device.

  • Take a look at Canada's A-Team of stem cell science.
  • December 12, 2006

    Gettin' better all the time

    My chess chops are steadily improving and so too are the quality of my matches. Case in point: this game that wrapped up today with my opponent resigning at the 45-move mark. I played with my usual aggressive style and was able to force much of the game.

    The opening was quite interesting and untypical for me. I played white and tried to open with Queen's Gambit but it was declined. The opening went:

    1. d4 c5

    Rather than take the free pawn I used the Benoni Defense with 2. d5. My opponent responded with 3...Nf6. The rest of the opening went like this:

    2. d5 Nf6 3. Nc3 g6 4. e4 Bg7 5. e5 Nh5

    So after the first five moves I had both centre pawns at the 5th rank, a knight developed, and my opponent with his knight shunted off to the side.

    Moving to the middle game, we exchanged queens at the 17 move mark. The game settled into a real battle of wits after that with high density play on the king side. Lots of threatening pins and skewers and their corresponding actions and reactions. I managed to trade my bishop for a rook at the 25th move and worked to exploit the advantage for the rest of the game.

    This was an intense match that required lots of concentration -- any false move would have resulted in catastrophe. The entire match went like this:

    1. d4 c5
    2. d5 Nf6
    3. Nc3 g6
    4. e4 Bg7
    5. e5 Nh5
    6. Nf3 O-O
    7. Bc4 d6
    8. e6 fxe6
    9. dxe6 Qa5
    10. O-O Nc6
    11. Ng5 Bd4
    12. Bd3 Ne5
    13. Be3 Bxc3
    14. bxc3 Qxc3
    15. Be4 Nc4
    16. Qd3 Qxd3
    17. cxd3 Ne5
    18. Nf3 Ng4
    19. Bg5 Bxe6
    20. Bxe7 Rf7
    21. Bxd6 Rd8
    22. Bxc5 b6
    23. Ng5 Rf6
    24. Be7 Re8
    25. Bxf6 Ngxf6
    26. Nxe6 Rxe6
    27. g4 Nf4
    28. g5 Ng4
    29. Bg2 Re5
    30. h3 Ne2+
    31. Kh1 Rxg5
    32. hxg4 Rxg4
    33. Bf3 Rh4+
    34. Kg2 Nf4+
    35. Kg3 g5
    36. Rh1 Rxh1
    37. Rxh1 Nxd3
    38. Be4 Nb4
    39. Rxh7 a5
    40. Kg4 Nxa2
    41. Kxg5 Nc3
    42. Bg6 Ne2
    43. Rf7 Nd4
    44. Kf6 Nc6
    45. Rc7

    Wicked Tool/Nightmare Before Christmas mashup

    Tool fans will understand why this is as cool as it is clever.

    Buddha Break 2006.12.12

  • Buddhism is growing by leaps and bounds in North America, leading to a shortage of facilities for spiritual practice and meditation. As it has throughout history, however, Buddhism is adapting for a new audience.

  • Christmas is about as unBuddhist as you can get, but even Buddhists can adapt to the holiday of extreme want.

  • Visakha Kawasaki would like to remind the Dalai Lama that he is not the Buddhist pope. This brouhaha is in regards to the Dalai Lama's disapproval of Singapore Expo on "Buddhist Relics."

  • According to Smita Poudel, religion is never a barrier to people who want to explore the truth; religion becomes disastrous when people start interpreting religion according to their convenience.

  • Not all Buddhists, it would seem, have the same neuro-centric focus when it comes to discerning life from death. I'm still surprised that a Korean Buddhist family recently fought with their hospital refusing to allow the plug from being pulled for their permanently brain-dead family member. According to the Taiwanese family, the beating heart meant his spirit and consciousness were not ready to move on. Taking him off life support, they believed, would be the same as killing him. And here I thought it was just the Abrahamic religions that have some catching up to do. As Colleen Keating says, it’s not just the Christian scientists.

  • A monk asked Chao Chou, “What is the lone summit of Mount Sumeru?” Chao Chou said, “I won’t answer that question of yours.” The monk asked, “Why won’t you answer my question?” Chao Chou said, “ I’m afraid that if I answered you, you would fall to flat ground.”

  • Jeff Wilson wonders if Courtney Love is using Buddhism as her 'get out of jail free' card. Wilson has also declared a temporary moratorium on a number of phrases, words, and tropes that are all too frequently used by the media when writing about Tibet.

    From time to time, it is delicious to walk in church with bare feet.
  • December 11, 2006

    Latest Sentient Developments podcast posted

    Yay, I'm podcasting again. You can check out my latest broadcast here. Or, you can subscribe to the feed here. In this edition I review The Fountain, I discuss the future of chess, and I talk about how Canada is going green.

    December 10, 2006

    Aronofsky's pro-death 'Fountain'

    I'm somewhat of a film buff, particularly sci-fi, so when it comes time to watch an eagerly anticipated movie it's often difficult for me to leave my emotional baggage and lofty expectations at the door. Darren Aronofsky's latest film, The Fountain, is a good case in point. I was totally expecting to love this movie, but instead now find myself forced to write a very negative review.

    Considering the subject matter -- namely radical life extension and immortality -- The Fountain had oodles of potential. But as is so often the case these days, rather than critically re-examine and re-consider long-held convictions, Aronofsky chose to create a visually stunning vehicle that perpetuates long-standing myths and misconceptions about death and the quest for extended life.

    **Note: this review contains spoilers.

    To unravel the morality behind immortality, Aronofsky explored three unique settings: the past, the present and the future.

    He used Inquisition era Spain and South America to represent the historic quest for immorality (think Indiana Jones as Ponce de Leon among the Mayans) and to provide an analogy for the relationship between the two main protagonists from a different narrative. In my mind, this was one of the more compelling and revealing aspects of the story. A Spanish queen sends a conquistador to the New World on a quest to find the mythic Tree of Life -- the sap of which offers eternal youth. All the while the queen's life is in great danger as the Inquisition draws near, ready to pounce on her for her unholy desire for extended life. This side-story, which beautifully mirrors current religious and popular inhibitions against life extension (perhaps unconsciously), was never fully developed and under exploited. But given that the purpose of The Fountain is to ascribe value to death, this only makes sense.

    The second and most prominent setting takes place in modern day. Thomas Creo, a medical researcher and doctor (played by Hugh Jackman), is on an obsessive quest to cure his ailing wife of terminal cancer. Aronofsky has explored the theme of obsession before, most notably in his 1998 film Pi, in which a mathematical genius is driven to insanity as he tries to discover the meaning of existence in numbers and patterns.

    In The Fountain, the main protagonist's obsessive flaw is his inability to come to grips with death and its greater purpose. His dying wife, Izzy (played by Rachel Weisz), has completely come to grips with the fact that she will soon die and has reached an inner peace. Tommy, on the other hand, is utterly blind to this and refuses to acknowledge it and understand his wife's decision. Instead, Tommy retreats to the lab in search of a miracle breakthrough; rather than spend quality time with his wife during her last days, he is away from her working feverishly to find a cure.

    Aronofsky's portrayal of a patient dying of a brain tumor was dishonest and infuriating. Aside from the odd fainting spell and lack of sensation, Izzy did not look like someone who is dying of a terminal illness. By showing her as a young and intellectually and emotionally vibrant person just days away from death, Aronofsky irresponsibly idealizes and misrepresents the dying process (and ignores the ravages of aging altogether). Moreover, Izzy's grace at the prospect of her death, while certainly laudable, is hardly representative of all terminally ill thirtysomethings. There is a fine line that often separates inner peace from utter resignation.

    Predictably, Tommy does not save Izzy in time. He is devastated by her death and resolves to take his research to the next level. At her funeral he admonishes the defeatism of the mourners and declares that aging is a disease that must be cured.

    This is a damning characterization of today's life extensionist -- the notion that work on anti-aging falls outside the natural scheme of things and that the desire to avoid death leads to obsessiveness and an unfulfilled life.

    And this is where The Fountain falls flat. Now, as a Buddhist, I regularly contemplate and meditate on the inevitableness of my own death. As a consequence, I like to think that I have a fairly healthy and non-traditional attitude about my mortality. I harbor no false illusions about the impermanence of my life. Future breakthroughs in life extension notwithstanding, I fully expect to die at some future point.

    But that doesn't mean I have to like it. Nor does it mean I have to rationalize death in such a way that I must put a positive spin on it. In The Fountain, Aronofsky dips into Mayan mythology and suggests that there can be no life without death and that it is only through death that life can emerge. Consequently, Aronofsky portrays death as a creative force rather than a destructive one.

    Personally, I find very few redeeming qualities in aging and involuntary death. Death is destructive. Its course brings about great suffering, both for those who are dying and for those who have ailing loved ones. Death destroys memories, wisdom, brilliance and unique personalities. More to the point, death is not a requisite for birth and life.

    Which leads to the final setting explored by Aronofsky: a fantasy sequence set in the distant future. Thomas, it would appear, eventually comes to possess the Tree of Life and finds himself afloat in space in a giant snowglobe. His hope is to reach a dying nebula before the tree dies -- perhaps as some last gesture of re-birth and dedication to his long dead wife. It is here that he has an existential epiphany in which he comes to grips with his own mortality. His seed-like spaceglobe enters the birth-canal-like nebula in a symbolic representation of fertilization and renewal. In death there is new life.

    In The Fountain's final shot we return to modern day as Tommy visits Izzy's grave -- a indication that Tommy has come to accept death and the passing of his wife.

    Talk about sentimental claptrap. I was expecting something considerably deeper and intellectual from Aronofsky. Instead, he offers an over-hyped, sugar-coated and humorless film that perpetuates idealized and tired notions of death and what it means to humanity.

    When will someone in Hollywood finally offer a thoughtful treatise on the human condition and truly challenging vision of the future?

    Oh, yeah -- it has been done. Time to pull 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner from my DVD shelf.

    December 7, 2006

    Canadian Context 2006.12.07

  • A Canadian evangelist denies he has special access to Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

  • Harper recently initiated a motion to reopen the same-sex marriage debate. Mercifully, it was easily defeated in Parliament with MPs voting 175-123.

  • Harper's Conservative government is cutting a safe-tattoo program for federal prisoners, despite concerns the move will increase the spread of AIDS and hepatitis C.

  • Cam McCannell probes Tory values.

  • Allow me to introduce you to Stephane Dion, the new leader of Canada's federal Liberal Party (the official opposition party to the current minority Conservative government). But will he be as green as he claims to be?

  • Medication will be the second largest expense in Canadian health this year — second only to the cost of running hospitals. Broken down: physicians account for 13.1% of total health expenditure, hospitals 29.8% and drugs, both prescribed and non-prescribed, account for 17%. Canadians will spend an estimated $148 billion for health care by the end of 2006.

  • Hospital madness: Montreal's Lakeshore General Hospital quarantined several patients and shut down a ward to contain what officials believe could be an outbreak of the Norwalk virus. In London, Ontario, all surgeries were canceled at University Hospital after fears that medical instruments were contaminated with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (tests showed the fears were unfounded). And hospitals in Quebec are slow to respond to heart attack victims.
  • December 6, 2006

    The future of chess

    Now that the RAG Tournament featuring Vladmir Kramnik and Deep Fritz has concluded with the machine emerging victorious, it's time for some contemplation about the current state of chess and its future.

    First off, credit where credit is due. The Fritz team put together an excellent program that defeated Kramnik quite soundly -- an achievement made all the more impressive by the fact that Kramnik's style is considered quite difficult for computers to handle. Fritz v.10 may be the best chess playing entity of all time (not including Hydra which hasn't been pitted against a world champion). Yes, Kramnik blundered away Game 2, but that, like fatigue, stress and over-confidence, are indelible parts of the human condition -- intangibles that don't apply to machines. Moreover, Kramnik never really threatened Fritz and lost quite soundly in game 6; he played for the draw in virtually every match and never assumed he could win.

    And this is where we find ourselves at the end of 2006: the best chess playing humans, it would seem, are now unable to beat the expert chessbots. It's at the point now where the victory is in the draw. The day is soon coming where even this may become impossible, but a part of me believes that chess is too complex for today's computers to achieve consistent victories. Computer power and programming will have to be more powerful by an order of magnitude before computers can generate algorithms that will result in perfect play resulting in perpetual streams of victories.

    This is assuming, of course, that chess could be solved in the strong sense. I'm not convinced this is possible. In the vast space of all possible games, perfect play in chess will lead to draws more often than not. The most solved that chess could ever become is in the weak sense where an algorithm can secure a win for one player, or a draw for either, against any possible moves by the opponent from the initial position only.

    How complex is chess? Well, before I get to that let's look at tic-tac-toe and checkers for a frame of reference.

    Tic-tac-toe has the potential for 765 different positions, or 26,830 possible games on the 3x3 grid. When taking into account both rotational and mirroring symmetry, there are 31,896 possible unique games. Consequently, it is very easy to write a computer program that can deal with all possible variations and play a perfect game. In fact, it's so simple that even humans can consistently play tic-tac-toe with perfect play (which is why every errorless game ends in a draw).

    Checkers is a bit more complicated. It is played on an 8x8 grid with an estimated 10^(12) possible positions with other estimates reaching upwards of 5x10^(20) and 10^(18) positions reachable under the rules of the game.

    There is a popularly held myth that checkers is a solved game, but it's not -- at least not entirely. Endgames up to 9 pieces (and some 10 piece endgames) have been solved. Not all early-game positions have been solved, but almost all midgame positions have been. It has been estimated that several more years of computer advancement is required before machines will completely solve checkers.

    And then there's chess. An average chess position has 30 to 40 possible moves, sometimes with as many as 218. Subsequent game-tree possibilities explode exponentially with each potential step into the future. The number of legal positions in chess is thought to be between 10^(43) and 10^(50). It has an estimated game-tree complexity of 10^(123) -- yes, that's a 1 with 123 zeros behind it! To put this into perspective, there are more possibilities in chess than there are atoms in the Universe. Actually, to say that's putting it into 'perspective' is a bit of a sad joke. To the paleolithic human brain it might as well be infinite; we cannot even come close to comprehending what a vastly huge number that is.

    So, a computer like Deep Fritz, which is able to calculate millions of moves each second, still has a rather profound game-tree horizon to deal with. It still cannot chart an algorithmic course to guaranteed victory. That being said, modern chess computers are powerful enough such that they will not allow themselves to be put into dangerous situations. While Fritz might have a formidable game-tree horizon to contend with, it is a horizon that is way off in the distance as far as humans are concerned. This is a tremendously demoralizing prospect from the perspective of human competitors.

    Adding insult to injury, chess is a partially solved game (and powerful computers should be able to calculate these winning maps on their own). Retrograde computer analysis for all 3 to 6 piece and some 7 piece endgames have been solved (counting the two kings as pieces). It is solved for all 3–3 and 4–2 endgames with and without pawns. Chessbots also have access to the opening books (typically up to the first 12 moves), which human chess players have to memorize.

    So what does this mean for the future of human and machine competitions? Given Fritz's excellent performance against Kramnik, and given that chessbots are improving much faster than their human counterparts, I believe that the era of meaningful human/machine interactions is behind us. Fritz made moves during the tournament that left other grandmasters scratching their heads wondering how and why it did what it did. In many respects, the internal machinations of the computer is beyond human comprehension. Consequently, even advanced chess as envisaged by Garry Kasparov, where humans pair-up with computer assistants, may be an obsolete idea as even the best human minds are already incredulous to the findings of the computer. A human collaborator may actually undermine the work of the machine.

    In regards to human versus machine situations, the only option at this point is to start handicapping the computer. Otherwise, there's no point to these match-ups.

    One thing I'd like to see are fairer time controls that take the slow human clock speed into consideration. I'm not proposing that players take weeks in between moves, but something fairer like giving the computer less time to ruminate. What's needed is a sliding ratio depending on the power of the machine (Anatoly Karpov has suggested a ratio of 2.15 on 1.40 (hours). I'd be inclined to give the machine even less time).

    Also, computers should not be given access to the opening book, while humans should have access to the entire chess database. Other ideas include collaborative human teams consisting of multiple grandmasters, time-outs for the human player, and even the ability to take back a move.

    The trouble is, however, that the developers of the chess playing computers are reluctant to handicap their machines. These events are, for all intents-and-purposes, money making ventures. IBM stock skyrocketed after Deep Blue's famous victory over Kasparov back in 1997.

    That said, the developers run the risk of eating themselves up by putting an end to meaningful match-ups. It'll only be a matter of time before the grandmasters refuse to be humiliated by number crunching behemoths. Moreover, the advent of handicaps would offer an excellent opportunity for immensely entertaining tournaments and high quality chess.

    But as far as the advancement of chess is concerned, it is time for humans to take a backseat to the computers. Chessbots have moved beyond us now and are playing the most sophisticated matches in the history of the game.

    But that doesn't mean that you and I can't still enjoy the game, or that human versus human tournaments are obsolete. There's still a lot of chess that needs to be played.

    December 5, 2006

    Deep Fritz crushes Kramnik in Game 6, wins tournament

    Vladimir Kramnik, the reigning world champion, was soundly defeated today by Deep Fritz v.10 in the final game of the RAG tournament. Kramnik, who was getting increasingly boxed in, tendered his resignation at the 47th move. The win gave Fritz the championship title, who had two wins and 4 draws against its human opponent. Kramnik never came close to defeating Fritz in any of the games. By virtue of this victory, we have to assume that Fritz 10 is the best chess playing entity on the planet.

    Kramnik was in the unenviable position of having to play as black in a must-win game. He opened very competently with the Sicilian Defense and looked very good until about the 20 move mark. In fact, most of the commentating experts were ecstatic about Kramnik's early development and Fritz's back-tracking.

    But as shown time and time again, it's one thing to sense that you have a good position against the machine, and an entirely other thing to actually execute a win. Over the next several moves, Fritz recovered and maneuvered itself such that Kramnik was absolutely hogtied. It didn't help that Kramnik made some questionable moves; he had far too many pieces that were inert and out of the action. Kramnik thought he might have achieved a small victory by sacrificing queens at the mid-stage (a recurring strategy utilized by Kramnik who strove to simplify the board), but it proved to be of no real gain.

    I'm going to mull over these results and put together an article about the current state of chess and what the future might hold for man versus machine interactions.

    December 4, 2006

    Buddha Break 2006.12.04

  • Jeff Wilson discusses end of life issues from the Buddhist perspective and whether or not Buddhist politicians should swear on the sutras. Wilson notes that there are two Buddhists currently serving in the U.S. Congress: Hank Johnson, the new Representative for Georgia's 4th District, and Mazie Hirono of Hawaii's 2nd District.

  • Speaking of politics, Tom Armstrong wonders about the emergence of "Mindful Politics" and the candidacy of Barack Obama for president. Armstrong writes,
    Ideas are emerging on what “Mindful Politics” might be. Seems folks have agreed on the name, but what this political force is is getting worked out in a bit of a chaotic way in unconnected spheres – which is good; it’s exactly how words and phrases should come into use: in the jungle of untamed ideas. What is consistent is that there’s a search afoot by compassion-minded politics-interested folks for something new in reaction to harsh political discourse and many years of hardhearted, mule-headed policy decisions. Doubtless, some have in mind creation of a counterforce to the sickening and democracy-destroying game playing and truth twisting of Karl Rove and his brand of power politics.
  • We don't need to move at a snail's pace to be mindful. And speaking of mindfulness, this is something to be wary of: well-known brand names elicit positive emotional responses in the brain, according to a study presented at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA) [via The Neurophilosopher].

  • Eating slowly does make you eat less and compassion and health concerns are driving more people to meatless diets. Hmm, makes me wonder what I would serve if the Buddha came to dinner.

  • And on that note, a quote from Thich Nhat Hanh:
    Right livelihood has ceased to be a purely personal matter. It is our collective karma. Suppose I am a schoolteacher and I believe that nurturing love and understanding in children is a beautiful occupation. I would object if someone were to ask me to stop teaching and become, for example, a butcher. But when I meditate on the interrelatedness of all things, I can see that the butcher is not the only person responsible for killing animals. He does his work for all of us who eat meat. We are co-responsible for his act of killing. We may think the butcher's livelihood is wrong and ours is right, but if we didn't eat meat, he wouldn't have to kill, or he would kill less. Right livelihood is a collective matter. The livelihood of each person affects us all, and vice versa. The butcher's children may benefit from my teaching, while my children, because they eat meat, share some responsibility for the butcher's livelihood.
  • December 3, 2006

    Kramnik and Fritz draw game 5

    Ho hum, another draw in Bonn. Kramnik squandered his last opportunity to defeat Fritz with the white pieces. He must win game 6 to salvage a draw in the tournament, but with Fritz playing white, and with Kramnik unable to figure out this excellent chessbot, an overall loss seems most likely.

    Blogging pathologies

    The Armchair Anarchist offers 18 signs you spend too much time in the blogosphere (the science fiction edition). After reading this, it's obvious to me that I need help.

    December 2, 2006

    Greens, environmental issues surging in Canada

    It was quite the shocker at the Liberal Party leadership convention this past weekend as former university professor Stephane Dion defeated front runners Michael Ignatieff and Bob Rae. Dion's victory was in part driven by his promise to address the environment, something the current minority Conservative government has considered a low priority.

    It may only be a matter of time before Dion becomes Canada's next prime minister. The current Harper regime is beginning to unravel (as witnessed by the recent row caused by their 'Quebecois are a nation within a nation' proclamation). Canada's recent performance at the UN's climate change conference was an utter fiasco and the cause of great national embarrassment. Add to this Canada's poor track record as one of the world's worst polluters and you have a potent recipe for political change.

    Dion, who was the former Liberal environment minister, is riding the green wave that is currently sweeping Canada. The Liberal convention underscored the rising political weight of climate change issues. During his acceptance speech, Dion emphasized that his main goal is dealing with "the greatest challenge we have today, sustainable development."

    And just last week the Green Party had its best ever election showing by claiming over 25% of the vote in London North's bi-election. GP candidate Elizabeth May finished in second place, but it is indicative of the larger mood that is emerging across Canada.

    It's been said that Canadian sociopolitics follows the European example rather than the American one. The Greens, who have had political clout in Europe for some time now, may be on the verge of similar successes here.

    Of course, the traditional parties will seek to capitalize on these trends. The danger is that these parties will only give lip service to environmental issues for political gain.

    Politics is interesting in Canada again.

    Kramnik and Fritz draw game 4

    Vladimir Kramnik and Deep Fritz played to a 54 move draw yesterday in what is turning out to be a rather predictable contest. Counting aside Kramnik's blunder in game 2 -- a game that most likely would have ended in a draw -- it appears that Kramnik cannot figure out how to defeat Fritz, and Fritz cannot figure out how to breach Kramnik's brilliant defenses. Chessbase provides an analysis of game 4.

    This tournament will most likely end with Fritz the winner (due to Kramnik's loss), but it appears that computers still cannot consistently defeat the human grandmasters, but the grandmasters cannot muster any kind of winning strategy.