September 29, 2006

Protecting our children from the god delusion

There are times when I feel my anti-religious views tend to the extreme, but then I'll read something by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and I suddenly get the feeling that I'm being downright reasonable. He often reminds me how my own opinions get tempered over time by dominating cultural norms, and how my anti-religious sensibilities are susceptible to the drift of cultural normalization.

His latest book, The God Delusion, is another wake-up call for all members of secular society who pander to those who decry the need for freedom of religion, when what we should be doing is our darndest to ensure that minds are fostered and raised such that they are free from religion.

Just this morning my son asked me a question about Mary, Jesus and God (he gets this from my ex-wife), and rather than responding with some kind of convoluted answer drawn from Christian mythology, I closed the conversation outright by saying, "Ask your mother, I don't believe in this stuff."

That's a bit harsh, I know -- I'm grumpy in the mornings; I usually deal with these issues with a bit more tack, but ultimately my message to my kids is the same: we can either choose to believe things without foundation, or we can use our capacity for exploration and discovery to prove and know those things that truly exist. Otherwise, we are susceptible to all sorts of strange beliefs. I ask my children, both of whom are under 10 but freakishly bright, do you believe in sasquatch, werewolves, ghosts, UFOs and telekinesis? And if not, why not? I try to convey to them the notion that belief in god falls under the same category of pseudoscience, fairy tails, urban legends, and mythology.

The world is complicated enough for children without feeding them fantastically bizarre stories about gods, demi-gods, heaven and hell. At the same time we as parents are responsible for nurturing a sense of right and wrong behaviour in our children without blackmailing them via the idea that their negative actions will result in reprisals from Beyond. People should act in a moral manner not because an ancient book tells them to, or because of a fear of a delusional God, but because it feels right in both heart and mind.

Indeed, as Richard Dawkins notes in his new book, teaching religion to children borders on abuse. On this point I agree. I can't help but feel that parents who proselytize their children are acting pathetically -- targeting those members of society who cannot yet formulate their own opinions or methodological frameworks that help them make sense of their world and existence. Religion deserves an R rating.

Rather, we as parents should be broadening the minds of our children as much as possible. We need to help our children think for themselves and to think critically. We should teach them that skepticism is both a value and a healthy activity. At the same time however, we need to help kids feel comfortable in exploring all the realms of culture and society that the world has to offer. It is our job and responsibility to provide our children with the requisite tools for free and critical thought.

Parents need to open doors rather than close them. Religions not only close the doors to our rational faculties and our experiential potentials, they often act as the deadbolt that locks the door tight forever.

Related reading:

Scientific Ignorance Dooms Democracy: Increasingly hi-tech nations need informed citizens, making scientific literacy a human right and scientific illiteracy a disability

Ending Biblical Brainwash: For better mental and cultural health, it's time we classified religious fundamentalism as a psychological disorder

The False Promise of Pseudoscience: Real science offers hope. Mysticism and belief in the paranormal are just plain dangerous

September 28, 2006

Vilenkin's Many Worlds in One

This book by Alexander Vilenkin looks interesting: Many Worlds in One: The Search for Other Universes. Check out this article of his at the Edge, "The Principle of Mediocrity."

Quick reviews:

From Publishers Weekly: Cosmologists ask many difficult questions and often come up with strange answers. In this engagingly written but difficult book, Vilenkin, a Tufts University physicist, does exactly this, discussing the creation of the universe, its likely demise and the growing belief among cosmologists that there are an infinite number of universes. Vilenkin does an impressive job of presenting the background information necessary for lay readers to understand the ideas behind the big bang and related phenomena. Having set the stage, the author then delves into cutting-edge ideas, many of his own devising. He argues persuasively that, thanks to repulsive gravity, the universe is likely to expand forever. He goes on to posit that our universe is but one of an infinite series, many of them populated by our "clones." Vilenkin is well aware of the implications of this assertion: "countless identical civilizations [to ours] are scattered in the infinite expanse of the cosmos. With humankind reduced to absolute cosmic insignificance, our descent from the center of the world is now complete." Drawing on the work of Stephen Hawking and recent advances in string theory, Vilenkin gives us a great deal to ponder.

From Booklist: Cosmology has moved from establishing that there was a finite start to the cosmos to theorizing about the initial conditions that kicked off the whole shebang. Vilenkin is a leading theorist whose scenarios about the enigma of the big bang emerge in this estimably clear, personable treatment. Vilenkin explains the idea of inflation, a phenomenal increase in the volume of space in the first infinitesimals of time, propounded by physicist Alan Guth (The Inflationary Universe, 1997). Inflation solved some theoretical problems but left others dangling, such as inducing inflation to stop; if it didn't, life could not have begun. Explaining that his solutions to the "graceful exit problem," as it is whimsically called, involve the concept of "eternal inflation," Vilenkin guides readers through its bizarre and head-spinning propositions. One is that our observed universe is embedded in a suprauniverse that infinitely spawns an infinite number of other universes. This and other gigantic ideas concisely presented will provoke the interest of readers intrigued by the origin of the big bang.

AbioCor artificial heart approved by FDA

Several weeks ago on September 5, 2006 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the first ever totally implantable artificial heart. Called the AbioCor, the device was approved under the Humanitarian Use Device (HUD) provisions of the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act and is intended for people who are not eligible for a heart transplant and who are unlikely to live more than a month without intervention.

The FDA has sanctioned a number of HUD's, many of these devices representing the cutting edge of medical technology. From my perspective this seems like a reasonable and ethical policy; as part of the approval process, novel and seemingly radical medical devices should be given to desperate patients who have nothing to lose -- and who will in turn assist greatly to the testing process.

A fully implantable artificial heart was finally made possible due to converging advances in miniaturization, biosensors, plastics and energy transfer. The unit runs on a rechargeable source of power and its internal battery is charged by a transcutaneous energy transmission (TET) system. This means that no wires or tubes penetrate the skin creating virtually no risk of infection. The internal battery of the device allows users to move freely for one hour, with external power devices extending endurance to two hours. The device can even be charged/operated using a common household electrical outlet.

The FDA describes AbioCor in further detail:
The AbioCor system consists of: a two-pound mechanical heart that takes over the pumping function of the diseased heart, which is removed during the implantation procedure; a power transfer coil that powers the system across the skin and recharges the internal battery from the outside; and a controller and an internal battery, which are implanted in the patient's abdomen. The controller monitors and controls the functioning of the device, including the pumping rate of the heart.
Because AbioCo was approved as a HUD, it is given only to the most desperate of patients. For someone to be eligible for implantation with the AbioCor, the person must have severe heart failure (with failure of both ventricles) and must be likely to die within two weeks without transplantation. While most patients eventually succumb to heart failure, the device has allowed people to prolong their lives anywhere from 3 to 17 months.

The first patient to receive the AbioCor was Robert Tools who lived for 151 days before having a fatal cerebrovascular accident. Tom Christerson lived for 512 days after receiving the artificial heart.

AbioCor, which is manufactured by Danvers, Mass.-based Abiomed Inc., hopes to make the artificial heart commercially available to treat "a defined subset of not more than 4,000 irreversible end-stage heart failure patients."

Sources: Wikipedia, FDA, Business First.

September 26, 2006

Injured dolphin to become cyborg

Okay, I couldn't resist giving this post a sensationalistic title, but this news is really quite interesting. An injured dolphin named Winter lost her tail fin when it got caught in fishing wire. What used to be the tail is now just a stump which she desperately swishes from side to side to keep moving. Her handlers are concerned that she will suffer in the long-term from spinal damage if it's not corrected.

So, marine scientist Steve McCulloch and Dana Zucker, chief operating officer of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, want to do something about it, namely by getting Winter a prosthetic tail fin.

Zucker has put together a team to discuss the prospects of designing a tail for Winter. They've consulted with a diving gear manufacturer, a tire company and the Navy, which has experience attaching items to dolphins for military research.
From an engineering perspective, the task will not be easy. "The dolphin's tail fin is the most powerful swimming mechanism Mother Nature ever designed," McCulloch said. "When you see how much pressure they put on their flukes, the prosthesis is going to take a marvel of modern engineering."
Compounding the problem, Winter's tail flukes and peduncle, a wrist-like joint that allows a dolphin's tail to move up and down, were lost to necrosis. It's not immediately clear to the team how the prosthetic tail should be attached to her stump, but it will have to be tough.

I hope to see updates as this project develops.

The limits to cultural uplift

J. Hughes recently interviewed animal behaviourist Sue Savage-Rumbaugh on Changesurfer Radio (see my earlier post). Toward the end of the interview he asked Dr. Savage-Rumbaugh her opinion on the potential for augmenting nonhuman animals using future biotechnologies and techniques like neural grafting. She responded by making the case for environmental uplift rather than biological.

Specifically, she imagined an experiment in which a bonobo child would be raised by humans and given all the advantages and social considerations that are given to human children (including and especially exposure to verbal language starting from a very early age). A bonobo raised in this way, argued Savage-Rumbaugh, would be 'uplifted' to a significant degree relative to their default state-of-nature being.

Quite obviously she has a point. Imagine a counter-experiment (which will have to remain a thought experiment for obvious ethical reasons) in which a human child is raised in the wild in the same way a great ape would be today. Tarzan notwithstanding, a Homo sapien stripped of all civilizational accoutrements would more closely resemble a wild bonobo than a socialized human.

That being said, there are definite limits to the cognitive and language capacities of the great apes no matter the degree to which they are integrated into 'human' society and educated. In this sense, if we are to consider and treat them as persons, and should we refuse to help them with meaningful biological augumentation, these primates would live in perpetuity as severely disabled persons relative to both humans and their full potential as uplifted agents.

Dr. Savage-Rumbaugh's thought experiment sparked a discussion between myself and Dr. J. Here's an excerpt taken from an email I received from him:
A final thought on the experiment of raising a bonobo as a human being: similar arguments can and were used to argue that it would be unethical to adopt a child from another race, or to bear a child with a disability. But we don't take those arguments as prohibitive of parents' rights to adopt or bear disabled kids. Instead we focus on the obligation to the child to be raised with the fullest help in facilitating their full flourishing.

In other words, although we generally don't stop people with cognitive deficits from having children, if we find a child being raised by mute and profoundly retarded parents they can be taken into protective custody and adopted by parents who can teach them to speak and so on. Taking a trans-ape ethics seriously might then obligate us to do the experiment you propose, with all the complexity of remaining sensitive to not causing the bonobo existential angst, loneliness and loss of connection with their racial/ethnic roots. (A good thing that our reproductive and adoptive decisions aren't subject to "human subjects" IRB reviews!)

I suspect that as we have more non-surgical means for cognitive enhancement of apes, such as gene therapies and pharmaceuticals, the ethical debate over the 'uplift' of apes will heat up.
Like Savage-Rumbaugh and Hughes, I also support the idea of environmental and cultural uplift for the great apes, particularly for those already in confinement. Dr. Hughes in particular brings up some fascinating considerations that would be part of the uplift process.

Yet, with all that said, such a project would forever remain a work in progress without real biological augumentations. As I noted to J in a follow up email, "Without significant improvements to their cognition and language skills, they would forever remain as hopeless dependents, with the line distinguishing them as dependent or pet remaining hazy at best."

September 25, 2006

The search for artificial objects in the cosmos

Considering how difficult it is to detect radio signals from ETI's, it has often been suggested that we also look for signs in the cosmos that may indicate the presence of intelligent life. Given vast distances, however, that task is certainly more easily said than done.

An interesting paper that may help in this regard was recently published by French astronomer Luc Arnold in which he suggests that scientists should be searching for light signatures that would indicate not just the presence of artificial objects such as Niven Rings and Dyson Spheres (i.e. megastructures), but of calling-card objects as well.

His paper, "Transit Lightcurve Signatures of Artificial Objects," offers guidelines for astronomers indicating the kinds of signatures they should looking for that could indicate the presence of a megastructure of some sort. The abstract reads like this:
The forthcoming space missions, able to detect Earth-like planets by the transit method, will a fortiori also be able to detect the transit of artificial planet-size objects. Multiple artificial objects would produce lightcurves easily distinguishable from natural transits. If only one artificial object transits, detecting its artificial nature becomes more difficult. We discuss the case of three different objects (triangle, 2-screen, louver-like 6-screen) and show that they have a transit lightcurve distinguishable from the transit of natural planets, either spherical or oblate, although an ambiguity with the transit of a ringed planet exists in some cases. We show that transits, especially in the case of multiple artificial objects, could be used for the emission of attention-getting signals, with a sky coverage comparable to the laser pulse method. The large number of expected planets (several hundreds) to be discovered by the transit method by next space missions will allow to test these ideas.
Should such an object be detected, however, the challenge will be to determine whether or not the object is indeed synthetic and not natural. For example, when pulsars were first discovered the unnaturally regular nature of its emissions baffled scientists, leading to the tongue-in-cheek name, LGM-1 which stands for "little green men." Of course, it's been shown that pulsars are indeed natural phenomenon.

What's interesting about Arnold's paper is his suggestion that the transit method will enable scientists to pick up on the presence of unnatural objects. As he notes, "A remarkable lightcurve would be created by free-flyers transiting their star successively in a distinguishable manner. At each period, we would observe a series of transits whose number and timing would claim its artificial nature and will of communication."

What he's suggesting is that ETI's may devise megastructures as a means to indicate their presence to other intelligences. Arnold analyzes three different shapes that could be detected, including a perfectly triangular structure and a 2-screen object (think of a rectangle with a box-like hole cut in the middle). It's these "attention getting" lighcurves that Arnold is interested in.

The suggestion that ETI's might be using gigantic calling cards that orbit around suns to say "hi" is a fascinating idea -- and arguably more plausible than the notion that we should be listening for radio signals.

September 24, 2006

Tool, September 23, Toronto: Review

Last night Tool played the Molson Amphitheatre in Toronto, marking the third time I’ve had an opportunity to see them perform live. And as I’m usually reminded at their shows, there are rock bands out there, and then there’s Tool. It’s truly an experience to seem live.

I went to the show with 5 other friends, all of us die-hard fans. Our seats were in the front of the 300 section and off to the side, which is still closer to the stage than half way. Having seen many concerts at the outdoor Molson Amphitheatre, I knew not to expect anything acoustically; the PA system there is often mediocre. All considered, however, Tool sounded great last night.

As is so often the case, the quality of the show is not always in the sound quality but in the precision of the performances, the amount of energy the band is willing to give out and the vibe given out by the crowd. Last night had all of these things in spades.

Maynard, who is battling an illness, came out wearing a Leaf’s jersey. They opened with “Stinkfist,” “The Pot,” and “46&2.” Maynard was very animated and established a physical presence on stage that I’d never seen before. He would crouch over and spread his legs in characteristic fashion, lean into the mic, and then prowl around on stage. Maynard would often shift between singing duty and playing the keyboards.

The set was quite minimal with two small video screens off the side displaying their usual artistic eye candy and clips from their videos. Above the band was a large black backdrop which was lit up with lights that created dynamic patterns. The floor could be lit up like a disco floor, as could a 6' wall that stood behind the band. These were used to brilliant effect. One specific moment comes to mind when they were playing “Lateralus” and the set was ablaze in fiery washes of orange and red.

And then there were the lasers. As fog rose up near stage area, beams of green lasers would shoot up and sweep up and down. Individual beams were used to spectacular effect during “10,000 Days.”

Musically the band was intense and creative, performing alternative intros and outros, constantly keeping the fans guessing as to what they were going to do next. As my friend noted during the concert, “Tool does whatever the hell Tool wants to do.” And that pretty much sums up what this band is all about. There’s very little that they do that can be considered cliché or run-of-the-mill. Even the way they position themselves on stage is unique; Maynard, the lead vocalist, stands far at the back next to Danny Carey, the drummer, while the two guitarists, Justin Chancellor and Adam Jones, stand out front.

The highlight of the concert for me, oddly enough, was not a musical moment, but rather a moment when the audience took over to show their appreciation for the band. Late into the show Tool decided to take a break onstage. Danny moved himself away from his kit and sat on the stairs beside Justin and Adam. Maynard was lying down on his back next to them. After a few seconds the audience started to hold up their lighters en masse.

Now, let me tell you, I’ve been to a fair share of concerts and I’ve seen the lighters go up time and time again – but nothing compared to last night. It was like looking into a sea of tiny flames as far as the eye could see. And this went on for what seemed an eternity. Even the members of Tool held up their lighters. It was truly a magical moment. Goosebumps.

As for a musical highlight, it was “Lateralus” that moved me the most. Other strong songs included “Schism” and “10,000 Days.” They did not play any songs from Undertow, which for me was a disappointment.

This was the most fun I’ve had yet at a Tool concert, and I can only hope they’ll come back to Toronto soon. Here’s the entire setlist:

The Pot
46 & 2
Lost Keys / Rosetta Stoned
Wings / 10,000 Days

Savage-Rumbaugh interviewed on Changesurfer

J Hughes recently interviewed animal behaviourist and bonobo language expert Sue Savage-Rumbaugh. Dr. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh is a lead scientist at Great Ape Trust of Iowa and author of Kanzi: The Ape at the Brink of the Human Mind. This is an excellent interview that offers plenty of insight into bonobo behaviour, language skills and intellectual capabilities.

Changesurfer animal uplift interview: The Remix

The Web is a very strange and unpredictable place.

A couple of weeks ago I was interviewed by James Hughes for Changesurfer radio in which we talked about the ethics of animal uplift.

Now an artist from Church of the Subgenius (a satirical postmodern religion) has taken it upon himself to remix the interview. Check it out -- it's called "Sexy Neural Primate Grafting." Hilarious and twisted.

September 22, 2006

Fighting back against mind hacks

For those of you who haven't seen the Ghost in the Shell movies, what the hell are you doing wasting time here? Get out to your local video store, rent and watch it, and then come back.

Okay, for those of you who have seen the movies, you’ll know that a major issue as presented in both GitS films is the potential problem of mind hacking (or ghost hacking as it's called). In this future, which is very much in tune with the projections of transhumanists, cyborg minds are seamlessly inter-linked with the Internet. These brains are mostly cybernetic in makeup with some organic components remaining. This is a world in which the computational functionalism of the brain is exploited and made capable of interfacing with other computers and the Web; individuals can access the Internet with their thoughts and without wires. Information is completely on demand in this future world and individuals are techlepathic.

Unfortunately, this computational universality introduces a whole new set of problems, namely the issue of security. Cyborgs leave themselves vulnerable to mind attacks. In the first GitS movie, individuals have their ghosts hacked and modified. In one case, a man’s memories were altered so severely that a hacker could essentially control his actions like a puppet. Like Rachael in Blade Runner, this character completely believed the false set of memories that had been covertly implanted in his mind.

In the second GitS movie, Batou has his visual field tapped into and fed hallucinations in real time. Convinced that there is an armed man up to no good in a variety store, Batou engages him in a gun fight. When the hallucination finally stops, he realizes no one was really there and that and he's completely blown up the place on his own. Batou struggles with this unnerving realization for the remainder of the film as he's forced to be unsure of the authenticity of his memories and his moment-by-moment subjective experience.

This is social engineering at an order of magnitude vastly more sophisticated than what we are used to today. The cyborgs in GitS do try to fight back, however, through the use of so-called ‘proactive firewalls.’ Any would-be hacker runs the risk of having a counterattack of some sort unleashed upon him. Unfortunately for the cyborgs, however, there’s no reliable and fail-safe method to defend against such attacks. Constant vigilance is the only way to defend oneself.

Needless to say, the prospect of having your mind violated in this way makes the whole transhumanist experiment a hell of a lot less appealing. The idea that someone could violate your mind and destroy your authentic self is frightening to say the least – not to mention the nightmarish potential of having your actions controlled remotely. Consequently, while the ‘proactive firewall’ as portrayed in GitS is somewhat of a trope, there is a real possibility that similar countermeasures can eventually be developed.

I recently contacted neuroscientist and transhumanist Anders Sandberg to get some insight on the matter. Sandberg has given this issue considerable thought and believes that a future as portrayed in GitS is a distinct possibility. He writes,
Once you connect your brain to computer hardware, hacking becomes potentially possible. The interface will have to send and receive information from the brain, interpreted by a computer or signal processor. If you control it, you can send whatever signals you like. Of course modulo hardware safeguards that prevent high voltages etc, but arbitrary information to the linked areas seem likely. A simple neural interface would at least access vision and audtory cortex, and likely language and motor cortex. That is enough to enable some pretty interesting/nasty hacks, like priming epilepsy.

Sandberg believes that fighting back may be possible and points to current examples. He notes how firewalls already exist today that “strike back” at portscans, so it may be possible to create one that can do it for the neural interfaces as well. The problem, says Sandberg, is that counterhacking with a script may not be very reliable.

Sandberg has given some thought to how an effective neural proactive firewall could actually work. “An ordinary firewall is a good first step,” he says, “put something between the Internet and the computer actually sending neural signals.” He also suggests that the interface be made such that it is non-programmable from the outside computers and only programmable using some physical interface. The interface should also have some safety cut-offs.

He notes that the computer doing the real processing before sending it to the interface should be running some suitable safe software and log what it is doing. That said, Sandberg acknowledges that avoiding programmability altogether improves safety enormously but reduces flexibility and capability equally.

Ultimately, however, it’s an open question as to whether or not cybernetic minds of the future can truly be protected. It will be very interesting to see how this issue plays out in the coming decades and how it will impact on our pending cybernetic future.

Related reading:

Future terror: neurohacking

The war against gender selection: don't believe the hype

According to a recent study, 9% of U.S. couples who use preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) -- the procedure used to check for potential abnormalities in offspring -- are taking the opportunity to select the gender of their children. These are situations in which the selection of gender was not a medical consideration.

In other words, couples are going about gender selection more frequently than previously thought. The study also indicated that Canadians are going south of the border for to take advantage of this -- a phenomenon that has arisen due to the illegality of gender selection in Canada. Clearly, there's a demand for this -- a demand that many ethicists believe could eventually lead to some social problems.

Also of interest in the study, it was discovered that 23% of clinics are helping couples conceive a child with compatible cord blood to treat an older sibling with a grave illness.

Now, I've written about this a bazillion times before, but it's worth stating over and over again: gender selection in the West is primarily used for family balancing. Given the virtual 2.0 birth rate, many couples desire to have one girl and one boy. Or, given a mother who has had 4 consecutive boys in a row and would like nothing more than to have a baby girl, gender selection offers a sensible solution.

In these scenarios, there's no skewing of the 1:1 gender ratio that our hyper-heterocentric sensibilities are so paranoid of throwing off kilter. Cultural norms and practices in countries like China and India indicate that they are in all likelihood not ready for gender selection. But that's not our problem here in the West where many responsible couples deserve the right to engage in family balancing practices.

And just to throw a wrench into what's generally considered a guaranteed problem, so what if there's a gender imbalance? States could start to offer tax breaks and other incentives to those couples that voluntarily choose to have children of the lesser-desired sex. And as it stands today, not every person ends up with a partner of the opposite sex -- there are a lot of lonely people out there today with little or no chance of hooking up, yet society tends not to care.

Granted, a significant gender imbalance would be a journey into terra incognita (although women in the Soviet Union survived the gender fallout stemming from the war in Afghanistan), it's a stretch to suggest that society will collapse as a result. Taking China, for example, where gender imbalances are starting to tilt appreciably in favour of males, the jury is still out on whether this society will become testosterone driven and terrorized by roving gangs of horny and jaded men. It's also quite possible that such a skew would be self-correcting, with greater value eventually placed the gender in demand; sexism and other cultural attitudes may organically shift.

Essentially, don't believe the hype. Fight for your right to choose the gender of your own offspring!

September 21, 2006

Roger Waters and the Dark Side of the Moon tour

I'm a huge Pink Floyd fan, so it was with great anticipation and excitement that I went to see Roger Waters in concert last night at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto. It was my first opportunity to see a former member of Pink Floyd perform live. Suffice it to say this concert was a big deal for me.

Tickets for this show were larcenously expensive at $110 a pop. My seat was virtually dead centre stage, but back about 60 rows from where the far goal-line would be. I've had worse. The live production offered extravagant visuals, so no mater where you sat there was plenty of eye candy -- including explosions, fireworks, three video screens, a flying pig (of course), a floating astronaut, and plenty of fog effects. The lighting was for the most part low and understated, a reflection of the Dark Side of the Moon theme.

The visuals were so good, actually, that it was at times distracting. I often found myself lost in the images, which included spacescapes, psychedelic imagery, and even comic-book style story boards; it was easy to forget that you were at a music concert.

The show was divided into 3 major sections. During the first part Waters played a number of Floyd songs that are mostly associated with him, while adding some material from his solo efforts. The opening set list went like this:

- In The Flesh
- Mother
- Set The Controls For the Heart Of The Sun
- Shine On You Crazy Diamond
- Have A Cigar, Wish You Were Here
- Southampton Dock
- The Fletcher Memorial Home
- Perfect Sense parts 1 and 2
- Leaving Beirut
- Sheep

These first 10 songs were performed so well and were arguably superior in quality and punch than the Dark Side of the Moon (DSOFTM) section and the encore. Waters’s band consisted of 11 performers including himself and they played wonderfully (i.e. they did a great job emulating the absent Pink Floyd members, including the virtuoso guitar playing of David Gilmour). Considering that the concert was in a hockey arena, I can't complain too much about the sound, although there were at times some suspicious mixing decisions for the vocals. Personal highlights for me included "Set the Controls," "Sheep" and "Have a Cigar."

Waters was, as usual, very political. He is known for his left-wing views and his pacificism, and in this time of geopolitical stress, Waters let it be known that he is not a happy camper. The trademark floating pig flew above us and was covered with messages, including one that read, "Don't be lead to the slaughter." Waters took several shots at George W. Bush, including a snide remark about his 'Texas education' and his comment about war actually being peace. He also had some nasty things to say about the religious right. Waters also took some jabs at Tony blair and mentioned how he feels the English have become stooges of the United States.

Waters has introducd a new song during this tour, titled "Leaving Beirut." It's his recollection of being 17 years old and stuck in the Middle East trying to hitch-hike home. He was taken in by an Arab family and was overwhelmed by their generosity and concern. He used this story as a way to expose current misconceptions and issues as they pertain to the current Mid-East crisis.

It's my understanding that much of Waters's anti-bush and anti-war commentary is not going over too well in some parts of the US. He was booed recently in New Jersey. Last night's audience appeared appreciative of Waters's message, but that's unsurprising here in Canada where anti-Americanism has become our national pastime.

After the opening 1.5 hour set the band took a 15 minute break in preparation for performing DSOTM in its entirety. This was the part I was eagerly waiting for -- and Waters didn't disappoint. All 11 band members took part in an outstanding recreation of the entire album. I had goosebumps running down my back during the whole thing. The videos in particular were brilliant, all set inside a circle representing the moon.

The band returned for an encore which consisted of the following tracks:
- The Happiest Days Of Our Lives
- Another Brick In The Wall (Pt 2)
- Vera
- Bring the Boys back Home
- Comfortably Numb

"Bring the Boys..." was particularly poignant given the political messages, as was Dollars and Sense from the opening set.

The only downside of the concert for me was the dearth of Floyd material pre-1973 (a period which I love, but is somewhat obscure). It would have been neat to hear some Syd Barrett era songs, or even something like Grandchester Meadows or Echos. Ah, well – I’ll have to continue suffering from the tyranny of the masses and their fixation on post-DSOTM Floyd.

The entire concert lasted 2.5 hours -- not bad at all and an epic by today’s standards. And even at that length, I didn't want it to end. Awesome, I truly had a blast last night -- a night I'll remember for some time to come.

Now, I've got Tool to go to on Saturday :-) Life is good.

Oh, and Dylan in November……

September 20, 2006

Code 46 review

I recently watched an interesting film from the UK, "Code 46" (now on DVD). This movie will most definitely interest transhumanists and anyone concerned about the implications of reprotech and neurotech in the not-so-distant future.

It's basically Gattaca meets Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but it's not nearly as good as either. Still, it is a solid and stylish film that offers some food for thought.

Code 46 takes place a generation or two from now -- a world in which genetic modification, human cloning and neuropharma (called 'viruses') are commonplace. These practices are so commonplace, in fact, that accidental inbreeding and gross genetic deficiences for those who are not augmented are serious problems. Code 46 is internationally enforced legislation that attempts to address the problem. It goes like this:
Article 1

Any human being who shares the same nuclear gene set as another human being is deemed to be genetically identical. The relations of one are the relations of all.

Due to IVF, DI embryo splitting and cloning techniques it is necessary to prevent any accidental or deliberate genetically incestuous reproduction.


I. All prospective parents should be genetically screened before conception. If they have 100%, 50% or 25% genetic identity they are not permitted to conceive

II. If the pregnancy is unplanned, the foetus must be screened. Any pregnancy resulting from 100%, 50% or 25% genetically related parents must be terminated immediately

III. If the parents were ignorant of their genetic relationship then medical intervention is authorized to prevent any further breach of Code 46

IV. If the parents knew they were genetically related prior to conception it is a criminal breach of Code 46.
To enforce Code 46, this quasi-dystopic society has had to establish rather draconian measures to regulate the free-flow of people and to monitor the procreative status of all citizens. In this world, there are two zones where people can live and dwell; one is portioned off for those with proper genetic "clearance," and another zone for the social cast-offs.

The way in which the movement of people is regulated is quite nightmarish. Everywhere people go they have to present proper identification, which itself is prone to status changes at any given time. Given today's geopolitical climate, I shuddered at the prospect of such stringent security measures and how human movement could be so strictly constrained.

Other ways in which the state regulates Code 46 is through the involuntary application of neuropharma and even memory erasure. When neuropharma is administered, individuals can be compelled to have adverse reactions to particular acts and even specific individuals. Other neuropharma is taken voluntarily (i.e. recreationally or professionally (such as the lead character's empathy virus)). There are virtually no limits to what these powerful drugs can do.

On reflection, I felt that the issues as raised by genetic modification and cloning were unrealistic, but the neurotech was fascinating -- mostly because I haven't seen those issues dealt with to any degree in other sci-fi films. Granted, it's never fully explained in this film why the world has become so Orwellian and why there are so many human rights violations (I suppose reactionary sci-fi films are spawned by the general assumption that future science and technology will cause the whithering away of human rights), but the implications of both voluntary and involuntary behaviour modification through biotech is a fascinating and troubling issue.

Okay, I don't want to give away too much more, suffice to say that it's worth seeing. The acting is very good (Tim Robbins, Samantha Morton), it's quite stylized, and there's plenty of thoughful art candy (ie the dessert/city delineation, etc.). Be sure to check it out.

September 19, 2006

Singer and the fear of genetic inequality

Renowned Princeton bioethicist Peter Singer has penned an OpEd for the Guardian in which he warns of the unintended consequences of genetic enhancement as they would emerge in free market societies. In the article, titled “The Costly Appliance of Science,” Singer expresses his concern that humanity is about to take a bite out of the genetic apple—fruit that has emerged as a result of our ever-developing sciences. Like nuclear physics, he argues, the genetic modification of humans may produce some dangerous risks.

I normally agree with Singer by default; no other bioethicist has impacted on my own sense of ethics and morality quite like Singer. But as far as his arguments in this article go, I think Singer has both overstated and over-generalized the perils of human genetic enhancement. I dare say that at times he sounds like someone who has not considered all the factors and issues involved.

Singer, who imparts a certain degree of alarm in the article, does concede that germinal choice may bring desired results and understands its appeal. Moreover, he acknowledges that germinal choice in liberal societies is qualitatively distinguished from eugenics —- the practice wherein the state (or an influential group) coercively enforces a predetermined set of acceptable genetic modifications, often for a desired social end. Instead, Singer claims that genetic enhancements “will be the outcome of parental choice and the workings of the free market.” Consequently, “if it leads to healthier, smarter people with better problem-solving abilities that will be a good thing,” he writes.

What worries Singer, however, is that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Specifically, he worries about increasing socioeconomic stratification and potential “arms races,”-- the notion that parents will have to modify their children in such a way as to keep a step ahead of other modified children lest they fall behind and become less capable of competing and functioning within society.

Singer is correct to worry about the onset of genetic arms races -- it is a legitimate concern in bioethics. Parents and their fertility doctors will have to grapple with those types of modifications that blur the line between primary and positional goods.

Strangely, however, Singer poses a rather strange argument to make his point about arms races. Singer cites the observation that taller individuals tend to have higher salaries. Parents, therefore, will likely want to have tall children (this exact example is debatable, but let's give Singer the benefit of the doubt). The consequence, claims Singer, is that such a trend would have a detrimental environmental impact due to the increased costs in the “additional consumption required to fuel larger human beings.”

This is a surprisingly weak (and even silly) argument coming from an ethics giant like Peter Singer. Arms races may most certainly result in some unintended morphological and cognitive consequences, but the assertion that it will be a drain on the environment is rather uncompelling. It is generally acknowledged that food production is not a problem today – it’s the lack of will and compassion to distribute our overabundance that’s the issue.

Further, what Singer has failed to mention is the leveling-off effect and equalization impacts of genetic modifications. Again, I agree that access to genetic biotechnologies is the fundamental problem here, but assuming that a high degree of universal accessibility is attainable, it’s reasonable to assume that arms races will eventually temper off and in its wake be replaced by sets of individuals with greater genetic equality.

In regards to the socioeconomic problem of genetic augmentation, Singer argues that the most alarming implication of genetic selection is that only the rich will be able to afford it. “The gap between rich and poor, already a challenge to our ideas of social justice, will become a chasm that mere equality of opportunity will be powerless to bridge,” writes Singer, “That is not a future that any of us should approve.”

This is a common criticism levied at the prospect of genetic enhancement. What is absent from nearly all of these arguments, however, is the realization that we already live in a world of gross socioeconomic discrepancies, favouritism, undue privilege, prejudice and disempowerment. I challenge Singer and other ethicists to confront those individuals, institutions and practices that perpetuate these problems with the same vigor with which they choose to attack the prospect of enhancement biotechnologies – while at the same time fully acknowledging the devastating impact of stifling the development of beneficial health technologies.

I fully understand that Singer is in fact acknowledging today's gap between the rich and poor. What I take issue with is the assertion that germinal choice technologies will make this situation worse. I would like to see some real data (or some compelling arguments) that will demonstrate just how and why greater privilege will be afforded to those who already have undue amounts of privilege.

Furthermore, Singer's analysis, like so many others, fails to assess the long-term accessibility prospects of genomic technologies; eventually, the costs of all technologies bottoms out and as a result become widely accessible. The problem is in the short-term, not the long-term.

Ultimately, however, Singer believes that a future of increased social stratification will be difficult to avoid, “for it will require that selection for genetic enhancement is either available to no one or accessible to everyone.” Singer remains the staunch egalitarian. He writes:
But avoiding this outcome will not be easy, for it will require that selection for genetic enhancement is either available to no one or accessible to everyone. The first option would require coercion, and - since countries will not accept that others should gain a competitive edge - an international agreement to forego the benefits that genetic enhancement can bring. The second option, universal access, would require an unprecedented level of social assistance for the poor, and extraordinarily difficult decisions about what to subsidise.
The second option is far more palatable than the first, but it shouldn’t be cast into such an incredulous light. If I might read between the lines here, and at the same time give Singer credit where credit is due, this is his clarion call for improved access to healthcare. He is issuing a warning about the consequences of a genetic revolution monopolized by those who are financially better off.

And on this point I agree. It is important that we get universal healthcare systems ramped up to include augmentative technologies as soon as possible. I believe that genomic technologies will eventually fall into the hands of most people around the globe. The struggle will be to have this happen as quickly and fairly as possible.

At the same time, however, let's not get hysterical about the whole thing.

September 18, 2006

Jenkins on the ethics of historical simulations

Toronto-based futurist and lawyer Peter S. Jenkins recently had his paper, "Historical Simulations - Motivational, Ethical and Legal Issues," published in the Journal of Future Studies.

In this paper, Jenkins takes the simulation argument as posited by Nick Bostrom and questions whether a society capable of creating such simulations would be bound by ethical or legal considerations. The answer, says, Jenkins, is in all likelihood, no. Consequently, it is "highly probable that we are a form of artificial intelligence inhabiting one of these simulations."

Jenkins worries about the potential for endless simulation recursion (i.e. simulation "stacking") and the sudden termination of historical simulations. He speculates that the "end point" of history will occur when the requisite technologies required to create simulations becomes available (estimated to be 2050). Jenkins's conclusion: long range planning beyond this date is futile.

Jenkins's paper is quite interesting and provocative. Simulation ethics and legality is clearly going to be a pertinent issue in the coming years. This paper is a good start in this direction. This said, I have a pair of critical comments to make.

First, any kind of speculative sociological analysis of posthuman behaviour and ethics is fraught with challenges. So much so, I would say, that it is nearly an impossible task. From our perspective as potential sims (or is that gnostics?), those who put us in this simulation are acting exceptionally unethically; no matter how you slice it, our subjective interpretation of this modal reality and our presence in it makes it a bona fide reality. My life is no illusion.

As Jenkins asserts, however, our moral sensibilities are not an indication that future societies will refrain from engaging in such activities--and on this point I agree. However, Jenkins bravely attempts to posit some explanations as to why they would still embark on such projects, but I would suggest that any explanation is likely to appear naive, pedestrian and non-normative in consideration of what the real factors truly are; it's like trying to get inside the head of gods.

My second point is that I'm not convinced that simulation recursion is a problem. There are two parts to this issue.

First, there does not appear to be any hard limit to computation that would preclude the emergence of recursive simulations (although, we are forced to wonder why a simulation would be run such that its inhabitants would produce a deeper set of sub-simulations).

According to Robert Bradbury, an expert in speculative computational megaprojects, there are a number of ways in which an advanced civilization could push the limits of computation, including radically reduced clock speeds. Further, should we find ourselves in a simulation, it would be futile to speculate about limits to computational capacities and even the true nature of existence itself! Bradbury writes,
Simulated realities will run slower than the host reality. But since one can presumably distribute resources among them and prioritize them at will (even suspending them for trillions of years) it isn't clear that the rates at which the simulations run are very important. If we happen to be the basement reality, then the universe has the resources and time to run trillions of trillions of trillions (at least) of simulations of our perceived local reality (at least up until the point where we have uplifted the entire universe to KT-III level). If we aren't in the basement reality then speculations are pointless because everything from clock speed to quantum mechanics could be nothing but an invention for the experiment (one might expect that bored "gods" would entertain themselves by designing and simulating "weird" universes).
Second, in consideration of the previous point, and the fact that we cannot presume the intentions of artificially superintelligent entities, speculations as to when a simulation will reach a "termination point" can only yield highly arbitrary and unfounded answers.

Thus, Jenkins is partially correct in his assertion that long-term planning beyond 2050 is futile. The reason, however, is not the advent of advanced simulations, but the onset of artificial superintelligence--what is otherwise referred to as the Singularity.

For more on this subject, there's my Betterhumans article from a few years back, "Welcome to the Unreal World", and my personal favourite, philosopher Barry Dainton's "Innocence Lost: Simulation Scenarios: Prospects and Consequences."

Thiel donates $3.5 million to SENS research

Holy smokes: Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal, has donated US$3.5 million to Aubrey de Grey's Methuselah Foundation. In his words, it was pledge "to support scientific research into the alleviation and eventual reversal of the debilities caused by aging."

Congratulations, Aubrey!

September 16, 2006

Arguing for animal uplift on Changesurfer Radio

I was interviewed today by James Hughes for Changesurfer Radio. Dr. J devoted the entire 30 minutes to the discussion of animal uplift and my paper, "All Together Now." You can listen to the interview here.

September 15, 2006

Categorizing universal phenotypes

Okay, time to think outloud:

Ecologists like to talk about biodiversity, and rightfully so. It is frequently used as a metric to determine the health of an ecosystem. Biodiversity is often measured not just in ecosystems, but among species and at the genetic level.

At first blush, it would seem that evolution is capable of providing an infinite array of biological possibilities.

Or is it?

While it certainly appears that there is no limit to the kinds of species that can viably exist in nature, the physcial and energy constraints of the universe provide an outer limit to diversity. Moreover, because evolution is an autonomous process, and because organisms do not live in a vacuum, ecosystems become the arbiter of phenotypic diversity as genomes settle around equilibrium points.

In other words, there is a finite number of phentoypes that can spontaneously emerge within autonomous ecosystems.

Of species and phenotypes

The practice of categorizing organisms into species, while extremely helpful for certain applications, does little to describe the ecological niche in which an organism has settled. And as best as I can tell other scientific classifications fail this test as well (i.e. kingdom, division, phylum, subphylum, class, subclass, infraclass, superorder, order, suborder, superfamily, family).

What would be helpful would be a set of sub-classifications that describe a species's archetypal ‘role’ or ‘function’ within an ecosystem and its ‘being’ at a particular point in its evolution (such as an attained fitness peak).

Zoologists and ecologists already categorize animals in this way. They talk about such things as pack-predators, parasites and symbionts. Those are the types of descriptions that give a good overview of what an animal is all about, where it is situated within its environment, and what relationship it has with other organisms that occupy the same ecospace. This terminology, however, could probably use some fine tuning and increased formalization.

I’d be willing to bet that there is a finite number of these sub-classifications; the space of all viable phenotypes is drastically smaller than the space of all possible species (which is arguably near infinite). It is for this reason that archetypal phenotypic classifications would be more beneficial and descriptive from the perspective of scientific classifications. There’s even the potential for astrobiologists to conjecture about possible off-world phenotypes given the potential for a finite set of habitable ecosystem types.

Parallel and convergent evolution

What I’m really speaking of is a more formal language to describe the phenomenon of parallel and convergent evolution. It would also be a language of categorization that would recognize physical and ecological determinism in biology. It is well known in evolutionary biology that independent strands of DNA will drive toward common fitness peaks and acquire similar morphologies. It's been said that while mutation is random, selection is not. Because physical environments determine selection there is a limit to just how diverse organisms can be in their characteristics. And then there's the entire issue of ecosystems and the attainment of equillibrium points and how that impacts on selection.

Such a meta analysis of organisms and ecosystems would require an interdisciplinary approach that would involve ecology, macroecology (top down studies and comparative analyses of ecologies), evolutionary biology, macro evolutionary biology (the study of speciation), zoology, among others. This would essentially be a macroscale project at an extremely high level of analysis.

What do I mean by common or archetypal phenotypes?

As an example, millions of years ago there lived a sea creature called the ichthyosaur. In its day it occupied the same ecological niche as the dolphin does today. In fact, these organisms are practically identical despite the fact that one was a reptile and one a mammal. These unrelated organisms were shaped by the same environmental pressures, the same laws of physics and hydrodynamics, and likely fed upon the same type of prey. For all intents and purposes, they are the same creature. More importantly, they occupied the same ecological niche and arrived there due to virtually identical environmental pressures. Thus, what I’m arguing is that dolphins and ichthyosaurs require a common classification.

Wikipedia offers other examples (excerpt taken from the parallel evolution entry):
One of the most spectacular examples of parallel evolution is provided by the two main branches of the mammals, the placentals and marsupials, which have followed independent evolutionary pathways following the break-up of land-masses such as Gondwanaland roughly 100 million years ago. In South America, marsupials and placentals shared the ecosystem (prior to the Great American Interchange); in Australia, marsupials prevailed; and in the Old World the placentals won out. However, in all these localities mammals were small and filled only limited places in the ecosystem until the mass extinction of dinosaurs forty million years later. At this time, mammals on all three landmasses began to take on a much wider variety of forms and roles. While some forms were unique to each environment, surprisingly similar animals have often emerged in two or three of the separated continents. Examples of these include the litopterns and horses, whose legs are difficult to distinguish; the European sabre-tooth tiger (Smilodon) and the South American marsupial sabre-tooth (Thylacosmilus); the Tasmanian wolf and the European wolf; likewise marsupial and placental moles, flying squirrels, and (arguably) mice.
Only so many viable ecosystem types

Just to clarify, individual morphological characteristics, like the eye, is not what's being discussed here. Nor is a similar morphology sufficient grounds for mutual classification. Some animals, namely the mimics, copy superficial physical characteristics to reap the benefits another organism’s successful adaptation. These copycats would not fall within the same archetypal classification as the creature it is mimicking. Rather, I’m interested in discussing independent but common morphologies and their shared role in the ecosystem (namely those ecosystems that have attained a relatively stable equilibrium point).

One key assumption that I’m making here, particularly as far as astrobiology is concerned, is that there is a finite number of viable ecosystem types. With all due respect to extremophiles and ecodiversity, I believe that there is a finite (and likely small) set of environmental parameters in the universe that are conducive to the origination of life and the processes of natural selection. And if there is a limited band of environments that can support life, then there is a limitation to the number of viable ecosystems. Thus, there is a finite number of archetypal phenotypes that can exist within the set of all viable ecosystems (an ecosystem being the collection of organisms that comprise, and govern the behaviour of, some defined subset of the biosphere).

Now all I need is a word to describe this. Macrozoology? Macrotaxonomy? Or is it just a heightened version of studies into parallel and convergent evolution? I wouldn't mind hearing some of the thoughts of my readers on this and this post in general.

Wild chimp crossing guards

Check out this video of an alpha male chimp helping his crew to cross the road.

Dominant males walk ahead of their groups and assess the risks of crossing a road before signaling for the rest to move ahead. Other alpha males bring up the rear to protect adult females and the young positioned in the more protected middle areas.

This observation, as reported in the September edition of Current Biology, notes how at each crossing, the position of the stronger and bolder adult males changes depending on the degree of risk and the number of other strong males present in the group. According to the study, this suggests that dominant individuals coordinate with each other to maximize group protection.

September 14, 2006

James Gardner's Intelligent Universe

James Gardner, author of Biocosm: The New Scientific Theory of Evolution: Intelligent Life Is the Architect of the Universe, has recently published his latest book, The Intelligent Universe: AI, ET, and the Emerging Mind of the Cosmos. Gardner is also the author of the essay, "The Physical Constants as Biosignature: An anthropic retrodiction of the Selfish Biocosm Hypothesis." I've written about Gardner and the topic of cosmological eschatology in the past.

I'm very much looking forward to reading this new book. Here's Amazon's description:
What is the ultimate destiny of our universe? That is the striking question addressed by James Gardner in The Intelligent Universe.

Traditionally, scientists (and Robert Frost) have offered two bleak answers to this profound issue: fire or ice.

The cosmos might end in fire—a cataclysmic Big Crunch in which galaxies, planets, and life forms are consumed in a raging inferno as the universe contracts in a kind of Big Bang in reverse.

Or the universe might end in ice—a ceaseless expansion of the fabric of space-time in which matter and energy are eternally diluted and cooled; stars wither and die, , and the cosmos simply fades into quiet and endless oblivion.

In The Intelligent Universe, James Gardner envisions a third dramatic alternative—a final state of the cosmos in which a highly evolved form of group intelligence engineers a cosmic renewal, the birth of a new universe.

Gardner's vision is that life and intelligence are at the very heart of the elegant machinery of the universe. It is a viewpoint that has won outspoken praise from an array of leading scientists, including Sir Martin Rees, Britain’s Astronomer Royal, and Templeton Prize winner Paul Davies.

The Intelligent Universe is both a look into the past and a road map for the future of the universe. It explores the mysteries of the universe and of consciousness, and provides a frank and fascinating look at where our minds are taking us.

The Global Consciousness Project

I have this bizarre fascination with parapsychology for reasons that I can't quite put my finger on. Perhaps it's my wish that there were such things as telepathy, remote viewing and psychokinesis. Or perhaps it's my interest in seeing these sorts of things arise through the application of advanced technology, like techlepathy.

The latest thing to catch my attention in the wild and wacky world of parapsychology is the Global Consciousness Project. As with most of these things, the proof lies in the pudding and one has to seriously question the integrity of the data, how the data was extracted and how it was interpreted.

Basically, the Global Consciousness Project, also referred to as the EGG Project, is a test into the theory that human consciousness may create or otherwise influence objective reality by means undetectable by current scientific sensors. It's an academic study based in Princeton that attempts to measure the intensity of shared conscious reactions to global events.

The GCP website offers this summation of the project:
The Global Consciousness Project (GCP) is an international effort involving researchers from several institutions and countries, designed to explore whether the construct of interconnected consciousness can be scientifically validated through objective measurement. The project builds on excellent experiments conducted over the past 35 years at a number of laboratories, demonstrating that human consciousness interacts with random event generators (REGs), apparently "causing" them to produce non-random patterns. A description of the technical implementation is given under procedures.

The experimental results clearly show that a broader examination of this phenomenon is warranted. In recent work, prior to the Global Consciousness Project, an array of REG devices in Europe and the US showed non-random activity during widely shared experiences of deeply engaging events. For example, the funeral ceremonies for Princess Diana, and the international Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, created shared emotions and a coherence of consciousness that appeared to be correlated with structure in the otherwise random data. In the fully developed project, a world-spanning array of labile REG detectors is connected to computers running software to collect data and send it to a central server via the Internet. This network is designed to document and display any subtle, but direct effects of our collective consciousness reacting to global events. The research hypothesis predicts the appearance of coherence and structure in the globally distributed data collected during major events that engage the world population.
Princeton has what's called the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research Lab (PEAR) which makes it its business to track and document, uh, anomalies (actually, my world is a much better place now that I know such a research lab exists). Among other things, PEAR sets up and monitors random event generators (REGs) and looks for non-randomness. To help the GCP crew gather their data, PEAR maintains a network of REGs around the world that send data continuously over the Internet to a server in Princeton.

As an aside, why consciousness should affect random number generators is beyond me -- perhaps someone versed in quantum mechanics or quantum consciousness studies (a al Stuart Hameroff) can enlighten me. I say quantum because I cannot think for the life of me of any other mechanism that could possibly account for this -- assuming this data is actually being read and interpreted properly. Anyway, the assumption of the GCP researchers is that human intention can reduce natural entropy and create greater coherence within a random series of events.

For example, the GCP claims that the 9/11 attacks resulted in some of the most serious data events on the REG's. A non-random spike, which apparently has a 1 in 200 chance of occurring at any given time, occurred several hours before the attacks. Some have speculated that a sort of precognition is happening, citing similar effects shortly before other events that have global reach (like the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004).

Interestingly, this brings to mind the often erratic behaviour of some animals prior to natural disasters.

That said, a 1 in 200 chance (which is hardly astronomical at 0.5%), along with the seeming arbitrariness of when the data is deemed to be meaningful, seriously puts these claims into question. Other valid criticisms of the GCP include the problem of having no objective criterion for determining whether an event is significant, and that there is no correlation between degree of significance and type or magnitude of fluctuations observed.

Regardless, I have no objection to this lab or any other parapsychology department to continue extracting "data" in this way. I don't think this crew, which includes cognitive psychologist Roger D. Nelson, is making any claims as to causation -- they're simply pulling the data together to see if there's something worth analyzing.

Sure, this may be quackery of the highest order, but the scientific method is tied directly into data collection and analysis, followed by the positing and elimination or affirmation of hypotheses. To dismiss and ban this type of work would violate the spirit of scientific inquiry.

September 13, 2006

Wikipedia's Jimmy Wales rocks my world

Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, continues to impress me. Wales, who has from time to time contributed to various transhumanist lists, is an outspoken defender of the open-source encyclopedia, touting its strengths as an open and transparent collaborative project.

Earlier this week I was in agreement with his insistence that a censored version of Wikipedia not be developed for internal use in China. Unlike Google, Microsoft and Yahoo, Wales did not back down from Chinese pressure. Wales went further by challenging these companies to justify their claims that they could do more good than harm by co-operating with the Chinese government.

And yesterday the Wall Street Journal published a debate between Wales and Encyclopedia Britannica’s Dale Hoiberg in which Wales did a masterful job defending Wikipedia. While Hoiberg did a fairly reasonable job defending the Britannica model and pointing out the inadequacies of Wikipedia, it is clear in the interview that he is out of touch with the power of the Internet and the kind of leading role that Wikipedia will soon have (if not already) as a leading repository and forum for the collection of all human information.

An excerpt from the interview:
Hoiberg: I must point out that Mr. Wales's inclusion of two links in his question to me, one to Wikipedia itself, is sneaky. I have had neither the time nor space to respond to them properly in this format. I could corral any number of links to articles alleging errors in Wikipedia and weave them into my posts, but it seems to me that our time and space are better spent here on issues of substance.

Wales: “Sneaky? I beg to differ. On the Internet it is possible and desirable to enhance the understanding of the reader by linking directly to resources to enhance and further understanding.

You wrote: "I have had neither the time nor space to respond to them properly in this format. I could corral any number of links to articles alleging errors in Wikipedia and weave them into my posts, but it seems to me that our time and space are better spent here on issues of substance."

No problem! Wikipedia to the rescue with a fine article on the topic.

Fortunately, there is a vast army of volunteers eager to help good people like you and me who don't quite have enough time and space to do everything from scratch ourselves, and they are writing a comprehensive encyclopedic catalog of all human knowledge. They have quite eagerly amassed a fantastic list and discussion of dozens of links to such articles.

We are open and transparent and eager to help people find criticisms of us. Disconcerting and unusual, I know. But, well, welcome to the Internet.

And yes, this is an issue of substance and a fine demonstration of the strength of the new model.
As a frequent contributor to Wikipedia, I'm happy to see that Wales is continuing to fight for the integrity of the site and to stand up to his principles.

September 11, 2006

Zizek on 9/11 five years after

Slavoj Zizek has penned an OpEd for the Guardian in which he argues that "Hollywood's attempts to mark the 2001 attacks ignore their political context and the return to history they symbolise." In the article, titled "On 9/11, New Yorkers faced the fire in the minds of men," Zizek writes:
The omnipresent invisible threat of terror legitimises the all-too-visible protective measures of defence. The difference of the war on terror from previous 20th-century struggles, such as the cold war, is that while the enemy was once clearly identified as the actually existing communist system, the terrorist threat is spectral. It is like the characterisation of Linda Fiorentino in The Last Seduction: most people have a dark side, she had nothing else. Most regimes have a dark oppressive spectral side, the terrorist threat has nothing else.

September 10, 2006

Personal reflections on the fifth anniversary of 9/11

I often cringe when I’m asked how it is that I became involved in transhumanism. I’m loathe to admit that, as cliché as it sounds, the events of 9/11 played a major part in how my worldview was shaped in the first several years of the 21st century. Many key facets of my life, including my politics, spirituality, and interpersonal relationships, was impacted upon in one way or another by the events of that day.

Watching desperate people throw themselves off the top of skyscrapers can have that effect. Those images in particular rattled me to the bone, cajoling me awake from the slumber I had found myself in. But because of my post 9/11 transformation, I am able to derive some positives from the horrid events of that day. In a very real way, the person I am today is much more aware, braver, self-assure and emotionally mature than that pre-9/11 version of me.

Trying to find positives in the aftermath of 9/11 is not an easy task. So many things have gone to the shits since that day. It has brought out the worst in so many. Since 9/11, the United States has launched a far reaching “war on terror” and an internal war on its own citizens where information is hidden and distorted and where covert surveillance and privacy breaches have quickly become the norm. The ‘new normal’ has further stratified an already divisive country; the United States is now truly a land of two cultures in which dialogue is becoming nearly impossible.

Another terribly regrettable side-effect of 9/11 has been the anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiment that now characterizes a significant part of Western public opinion. The parallels to Maccarthism are striking. Today, the ‘communist threat’ has been replaced by the perceived ‘Muslim threat.’ Recently, while driving through the United States, I saw some disturbing signs of this ugliness. While at a truck-stop in Virginia I saw written on a toilet wall, “We hate sand-niggers.” Sure, I was in hillbilly heaven, but it reminded me of the hate and prejudice that still exists in the US and other countries. Arabs and Muslims have in no small way been the real victims of 9/11.

This alienation, along with the twisted inspiration that was imparted on some Muslims after 9/11, has resulted in the rise of groups and individuals more prone to radicalism. Recent events in the UK and Canada, in which young Muslim men were caught planning large-scale terrorist acts, indicate that home-grown terrorists may start to become an ongoing problem. I hope I’m wrong and that these are just spasmodic incidents in the wake of 9/11.

Things look bleak in the Middle East as well. The Taliban are giving coalition troops fits in Afghanistan, the US is concerned about full-scale civil war erupting in Iraq, and Israel is starting to show the strain of being surrounded by nations who would like nothing less than its destruction. And of course, there is the rise of Ahmadinejad in Iran and the ongoing theocratization of that country. More broadly, there is the spread of radical Islam among more moderate Muslims, poisoning what is normally a rather benign religion.

Yes, things have changed since 9/11 – that much is undeniable. Yet many of the geopolitical realities of today are part of broader trends, the roots of which extend back decades if not centuries. We are still dealing with the fallout caused by the end of the Cold War; a bipolar geopolitical arrangement is far more stable than a multipolar one. Nations are still coming to grips with the presence and proliferation of apocalyptic technologies. And then there is the insatiable demand for oil; the Middle East is unstable as it is because of its tactical significance as an energy provider. Exacerbating this, the inhabitants of the Middle East have reacted quite poorly to economic and cultural globalization (which they interpret as encroaching imperialism), a sentiment that has been fueled by the region’s deep commitment to religious values and institutions.

And it’s on the topic of religion that I’ll segue back to my own personal journey. I grew up in a Catholic neighborhood and went to Catholic schools. The language of religion is very familiar to me. Yet, despite my upbringing, I never really bought into religion. I was the perennial skeptic. When I was in my teens and early 20’s I was strictly atheist and a follower of scientific naturalism. Carl Sagan was my ultimate hero and guide.

But a funny thing happened to me on the way to my 30’s – I got married, had kids and somehow found myself going back to church. Sure, my wife at the time (we’re no longer together) influenced me to do so, but it felt like the right thing to do. After the first few awkward times attending church services I started to settle in. Soon thereafter my mind started to shut down. I passively accepted Christian metaphysics despite the cognitive dissonance it created in my mind. There was an undeniable cult-like quality to the whole thing. I started to basically sleepwalk through life, glued to television sitcoms and living unhealthily in both body and mind.

Thus, it was in this condition that I witnessed the events of September 11, 2001. On the morning of 9/11 I arrived at work and started my routine like any other day. My boss’s wife called and she was pretty much hysterical as she described to me how a plane had just hit the World Trade Centre.

Now, just to give you an indication of how messed up I was at the time, my first reaction was one of delight. Finally, I thought to myself, there’s something interesting going on in the world (looking back now, I understand how bored I was and how unfulfilling my life had become -- I was angry, frustrated and interpersonally disconnected). I then remembered how after WWII a small plane smashed into the Empire State Building. I thought it interesting that history had repeated itself in New York. I initially assumed that a small plane had hit one of the Twin Towers. The thought of terrorism never crossed my mind.

But then news soon came in that a second plane had hit the other tower and that both planes were commercial airliners. I froze in horror and immediately understood that a severe act of terrorism was underway. Then our office’s Internet connection pretty much went dead and we scrambled to find a radio. We spent the rest of the morning huddled around a radio trying to piece together the events that were quickly unfolding. I remember hearing that the towers had ‘collapsed’ but refused to fathom what that actually meant. It was as if some Hollywood movie had come to life.

When I got home that night I flicked on the news and saw the footage of what transpired that day. Massive explosions. People throwing themselves off the top of the Twin Towers. Scores dead. And then I saw with my eyes what my mind could not comprehend: the Towers collapsed into piles of dust taking thousands and thousands of people with them. It was all so terribly horrible and surreal.

Over the next few weeks and months I went into a deep depression, struggled with anxiety, and was thrust head-first into an existential crisis. There was one question in particular that I obsessively mulled over: Am I sufficiently prepared to deal with my own death? The answer was clearly no. I started to seriously question the complaceny with which I was treating my life. I started to feel a strong desire to engage with the world.

Rightly or wrongly, I started to blame my unhealthy attitude toward life and death on my church activities and on Christianity itself. I transferred that frustration to other religions and began to blame much of the world’s problems on religious extremism. In my mind, much of the fanaticism and nihilism of 9/11 was the result of religious fundamentalism. Today, my opinions haven't strayed too far from this, but my views have tempered over time.

At the same time, while I was drifting away from Christianity, I started to discover Eastern philosophies, particularly Buddhism. What was interesting was how Buddhism came to me. I kept discovering Buddhist references and ideas without explicity looking for it. It truly spoke to me and fit in perfectly with my atheist, scientific and moral frameworks. Soon after becoming a 'secular Buddhist' I started to develop a much healthier attitude about life and death. It was also during this time that my politics shifted decidedly to the left, I re-embraced humanism, and I rediscovered my love for cosmology and metaphysics. A lot had changed in these fields since the late 80’s and early 90’s and I had lots of catching up to do.

I was doing research on parallel universes in late 2001 when I came across Nick Bostrom’s Website. That’s where I discovered this thing called ‘transhumanism.’ Bostrom's site immediately swept me up. It introduced me to a world in which such things as artificial superintelligence, uploading, molecular assembling nanotechnology, radical life extension and posthumanism were discussed in an academic context. The future was far more profound than I had ever imagined. Transhumanism also introduced me to the field of bioethics which has become a true passion of mine.

I spent the next year researching everything I could about transhumanism and came into contact with James Hughes after reading his paper, “The Politics of Transhumanism.” Soon afterwards, in August 2002, I met Simon Smith and we co-founded the Toronto Transhumanist Association and I became the deputy editor of Betterhumans.

Simply put, I got my act together after 9/11. I discarded the detritus in my brain and went about the process of self improvement and rediscovery. My marriage did not survive these personal changes, but I feel that I’ve significantly improved as a person and I’m much better off. I became a vegetarian, took up yoga, started to meditate and lost some un-needed pounds. I now work out regularly and take vitamins and supplements. I am far more empathetic and personable with friends, and I am a far more patient, attentive and understanding father.

So, on this, the fifth anniversary of 9/11, I pause to reflect on all the changes that I've undergone in the past few years. 9/11 was not just an important milestone for world affairs, it also set me on a new course that has resulted in my life becoming so much more meaningful and fulfilling.

Shame that it took an event of such horror to turn things around for me.

My thoughts go out to everyone with similar stories to tell and for those who lost someone on September 11, 2001.