September 28, 2007

The Director's Cut of the Director's Cut of Blade Runner

Wired's Ted Greenwald interviews Ridley Scott about the upcoming re-release of Blade Runner.

Wired: Some of that ambiguity got squeezed out of the original version. It seems like you've been making up for it ever since.

Scott:I read an article recently saying that one of the reasons the film has found an ongoing audience is that it was incomplete. That's absolute horseshit. The film was very specifically designed and is totally complete. In those days, there was more discussion than was welcome, as far as I'm concerned. [Screenwriter] Hampton Fancher, [producer] Michael Deeley, and I talked and talked and talked — every day for eight months. But at the end of the day, there's a lot of me in this script. That's what happens, because that's the kind of director I am. The single hardest thing is getting the bloody thing on paper. Once you've got it on paper, the doing is relatively straightforward.

Wired: It was never on paper that Deckard is a replicant.

Scott:It was, actually. That's the whole point of Gaff, the guy who makes origami and leaves little matchstick figures around. He doesn't like Deckard, and we don't really know why. If you take for granted for a moment that, let's say, Deckard is a Nexus 7, he probably has an unknown life span and therefore is starting to get awfully human. Gaff, at the very end, leaves an origami, which is a piece of silver paper you might find in a cigarette packet, and it's a unicorn. Now, the unicorn in Deckard's daydream tells me that Deckard wouldn't normally talk about such a thing to anyone. If Gaff knew about that, it's Gaff's message to say, "I've read your file, mate." That relates to Deckard's first speech to Rachael when he says, "That's not your imagination, that's Tyrell's niece's daydream." And he describes a little spider on a bush outside the window. The spider is an implanted piece of imagination. And therefore Deckard, too, has imagination and even history implanted in his head.
Here's my review of Blade Runner.

September 27, 2007

Canada's poor effort in dealing with climate change

Ronald Bailey's recent article, "Climate Change Confabs," brought to my attention Canada's rather lackadaisical and irresponsible response to the global warming crisis. Bailey writes,

How are the Kyoto signatories—chiefly the European Union (EU), Japan and Canada—doing at meeting their emissions targets? Emissions from the EU-15 have dropped by 1.5 percent since 1990, which is still well above their agreed target reduction of 8 percent below what they emitted in 1990. A report last year from the European Environment Agency projected that the EU-15 would not likely reach their 2012 Kyoto Protocol emissions target unless they adopt more stringent policies. Nevertheless, the EU jauntily declared that it would cut its GHG emissions by 20 percent below its 1990 level by 2020.

Canada committed to reducing its GHG emissions by 6 percent below its 1990 level, but as of 2004, Canada emitted 27 percent more GHG than it did in 1990. Japan is supposed to cut its GHG emissions by 6 percent, but recent projections suggest that it may emit 2 percent more than it did in 1990. For comparison, U.S. GHG emissions are up over 16 percent of what they were in 1990.

At the U.N. meeting on Monday, the EU, Canada, and Japan all came out in favor of a binding target of cutting GHG emissions by 50 percent below their 1990 levels by 2050. The Bush Administration is against binding reductions targets, preferring to focus on research to develop clean energy technologies that do not emit GHGs—e.g., nuclear, wind, solar and carbon capture and sequestration technologies. Carbon sequestration means burying carbon dioxide produced from burning fossil fuels by injecting it into underground reservoirs. At the U.N. climate confab, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice declared, "Ultimately, we must develop and bring to market new energy technologies that transcend the current system of fossil fuels, carbon emissions and economic activity. Put simply, the world needs a technological revolution."

Entire article.

Embarrassing. Canada has got to get its act together on this.

As for the U.S. "solution", they are hand-waving in order to justify inaction. Instead, we need to a) reduce emissions now and b) work towards the development of cleaner technology. It's not an either/or scenario.

Related article: "Canadian shame at the UN's conference on global warming (2006)."

The 'Islamic Fascism' claim

The controversy surrounding Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's recent visit to the United States reminded me of an article I wrote a little over a year ago called "Islamic fascism? Actually, yes."

September 25, 2007

Sovereignty and the problem of political relativism: Why we need a world without borders

A number of SentDev readers put me to task on my claim that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad should have been arrested upon his recent entry into the United States. As I stated in the comments section, the post was largely rhetorical, but I meant it; I wanted to show how absurd it was that this political criminal is allowed to travel at will and be afforded diplomatic courtesies.

Arresting heads of state or inhibiting their mobility is not unheard of. Slobodan Milosevic was indicted in 1999 while he was the leader of Yugoslavia. The French failed to arrest Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe back in 2003 when they were thwarted by judicial authorities who ruled that, as a serving head of state, he had immunity from prosecution. Since that time the European Union and the United States have imposed a travel ban on Mugabe and over 90 members of his government. A similar ban is currently in effect for Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko.

The travel bans, which are more bark than bite, are stern messages sent to wayward leaders and their regimes. Given Ahmadinejad's track record, there’s no reason why he and his cronies shouldn’t have the same travel restrictions applied.

Murky territory

This is a very murky area of international law. Traditionally, heads of state are entitled to immunity from prosecution anywhere, even after they are no longer in power. This all changed when the United Kingdom attempted to extradite head of state Augusto Pinochet to Spain on charges of presiding over systematic torture in Chile while he was in power. As established by the British Courts, heads of state can now be subject to indictment once an international law is put into place -- in this case the UN Convention Against Torture which dates back to 1988.

Ahmadinejad’s regime is known for using torture, and is thus in violation of international law. So, too, are members of the Bush Administration for that matter. But there’s currently very little will or power to enforce these laws. Typically, only the disgraced and displaced get put to task for their crimes.

The issue of immunity brings to mind issues of sovereignty and political relativism. By what authority can the United Nations impose laws on sovereign states? And by what right can the ‘international community’ require nations to adhere to external political conventions?

Ultimately, if the goal is to reduce international conflict and strife, the concept of national sovereignty must be abandoned, along with notions of political relativism. Countries have no “right” to go it alone; today, given the catastrophe of climate change, resource pressures, economic and cultural globalization, and the burgeoning threat of apocalyptic technologies, there is far too much at stake for this petty convenience. Moreover, the imposition of a minimal yet standardized set of international laws is not too much to ask for; human rights violations are human rights violations no matter where and how they occur.

Man, the State, and War

Back in 1959, political theorist Kenneth N. Waltz wrote his seminal work, Man, the State, and War. In this book, Waltz argued that there is a tripod of despair which can account for much of human conflict. When it came to war, the primary factors included human nature (i.e. the actions of individual men, or outcomes of psychological forces), the presence of sovereign nation states, and the international system (or lack thereof, what Waltz dubbed "international anarchy"). Waltz posited that states' actions can often be explained by the pressures exerted on them by international competition, which limits and constrains their choices.

Combined, these three ingredients create a volatile mixture that typically results in geopolitical tensions and often all-out war.

Currently, there is not much we can do about human nature, although the transhumanists are busy working on that problem. As for the existence of nation states and a weak international governing system, those are problems that are immediately addressable.

What is required is the elimination of the sovereign nation state and the subsequent construction of an accountable world federalism.

The sovereignty myth

The key assumption of sovereignty is that a nation state has exclusivity of jurisdiction. Countries claim to have exclusive right to complete political authority over an area of governance, people, and itself. Consequently, what goes on within the borders of a sovereign nation is often considered its own business.

The claim to sovereignty, which has a rich historical context, forms the basis of the nation state model of global political organization. This model, however, is outdated and has been for some time, as witnessed by the catastrophic World Wars of the 20th century, the collapse of economic protectionism, the rise of cultural globalization, and even such things as the advent of virtual presence and the metaverse.

Sovereignty continues to be a problem because is often leads to a country’s exaggerated sense of importance and the notion that they are absolved from any kind of external standard. This is particularly problematic in authoritarian and despotic regimes where there are few democratic processes and virtually no accountability. This in turn leads to a misguided sense of political authority by their leaders, as exhibited by the heads of state in Iran, Zimbabwe, Belarus, and so on.

The negligence of political relativism

A politically criminal act is still a criminal act regardless of country. The issue, therefore, aside from enforcing the law, is to determine what is law given a richly multicultural planet. But while we tend to shy away from moral and cultural relativism, we should also be wary of political relativism – the idea that different people can and should be ruled by different political systems.

Supporters of political relativism argue that different political arrangements are acceptable in different countries given different precedents, traditions and realities; it is a denial of the assertion that there is only one or a truly fundamental means of governance.

One can interpret this is an apology for inaction and isolationism. Moreover, it is an abrogation of the larger global community’s humanitarian obligations. The “that’s their problem, not ours” mentality has arguably empowered some of the worst atrocities in recent times, including the genocide in Rwanda. Nation states allow people to cower under the shield of conceited isolationism and deny the presence of a larger human community. The is the fuel that allows renegade countries to ‘go it alone.’

Driving these sentiments are nativistic urges and over-the-top cultural identification. These orientations tread ominously close to far-right politics and have definite quasi-fascistic overtones. Other apologists for the nation state worry about a domineering global regime. They fear that all the political eggs will be in one global basket.

This concern doesn’t hold after closer scrutiny. First, for those of us living in popular sovereignties (i.e. democracies), we have conceded authority to our individual governments, so we are already making ourselves politically vulnerable. Given the onset of a despotic system, however, political change and insurgency would have to come from within; we would never hold out for liberation from outside sources. Second, democracy, as imperfect as it is, appears to be the best political system available to humanity. A world federalism, with minimal influence on individual regions (aside from the basics like security and enforcement of human rights), would be established and maintained by democratic processes. This is no Orwellian nightmare.

Destroy all nations!

The idea of a United Nations is hardly new. The same sort of thing was attempted in 1899 and 1907 with the international Hague Peace Conferences, and again in 1919 with the League of Nations. The United Nations is the most recent failed attempt to unify the global community.

Until national sovereignty is dissolved, however, these kinds of global models will not work. Powerful nations like the United States will continue to use the UN when it pleases them, and ignore it when it does not. Sadly, there is no effective prescription outside of coercion to compel a country to give up its sense of exclusive authority.

How this international system could actually come about is still a mystery. My own suspicion is that it will come through the maturation and merging of large political and economic entities like the the European Union. There is already talk of an African Union, with South American, North American and Asian unions not too far behind. Eventually these bodies will fuse into one large federation. Membership in these unions will be an attractive proposition. The benefits of a shared infrastructure will be substantial.

Ultimately, however, a world federalism would go a long way in reducing conflicts. Civil wars, localized violence and asymmetric threats would likely still emerge; no one is claiming utopia. But given this kind of arrangement, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that common security, an end to arms races, and the alleviation of cultural, political and economic isolationism would be a good thing. It’s part of the larger humanitarian mission.

It would be applied political Humanism.

September 24, 2007

Ahmadinejad speaks at Columbia University instead of being arrested

My jaw hit the floor when I learned that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad delivered a speech at Columbia University today.

Say what?

This lunatic should have been arrested the moment he stepped off the plane.

On what charges, you might ask? Okay, let's quickly go over his track record. Ahmadinejad's Iran has:
  • forced the closure of newspapers
  • made arbitrary arrests
  • began the construction of 41 new prisons
  • recently stepped up public hangings and stonings
  • maintained secret prisons for the torture centers of political prisoners
  • mistreated detained dissidents, including prolonged solitary confinement
  • executed juveniles and homosexuals
  • hanged 12 prisoners simultaneously on July 22, two of them being political prisoners
  • denied the Holocaust
  • called for the destruction of Israel
  • supported international terrorism that targets innocent civilians and American troops
  • pursued nuclear ambitions in opposition to international sanctions
The world we live in is insane. I can't believe this guy was allowed to walk around Columbia's campus today. He is one of the world's most dangerous geopolitical figures and deserves nothing less than a cold jail cell.

Sources: Here, here, and here.

Bush skips talks on climate change, extends middle finger at UN

The unilateral streak that has come to define the neocon Bush administration has once again reared its ugly head, this time at the United Nations talks on global warming. The gathering, which is bringing together the leaders of over 80 countries, is geared around efforts to combat human-instigated climate change.

The talks come several days after an announcement that melting temperatures this summer shrank the Arctic Ocean's ice cap to a record low and that the fabled Northwest Passage is now open.

George W. Bush, however, will not be there, and instead plans on convening his own meeting on how to address global warming. His hope is to avoid global treaties and anything that could give the United Nations jurisdiction over the issue.

The U.N. continues to exist as a toothless, and subsequently, useless entity -- thanks mostly to the U.S.'s utter disregard for the institution and all those countries who use this an excuse and inspiration to go it alone.

Meanwhile Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper is at the global warming talks, but his presence is about as useful as Bush's no-show. His own environmental advisory body, the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy, directed sharp criticisms at the Conservatives for their climate-change strategy and accused them of overestimating what the plan will accomplish. The report claimed that Harper's plan is vague, uses questionable accounting methods and exaggerated greenhouse-gas cuts it would result in.

What a sad mess...

David Roberts on vegetarianism and environmentalism

Gristmill staff writer David Roberts suggests that meat-eaters make for poor environmentalists. This article is largely in support of PETA's recent claim that meat-eating is worse for climate than driving. Roberts writes:
Depending on your inclinations, you can heed the health arguments, the moral arguments, or the environmental arguments (regardless whether you agree with the UN study that meat production is the No. 1 contributor to global warming, it is obviously a very large contributor, never mind CAFOs' horrid effects on land, air, and water). Taken together, these arguments strike me as dispositive. It is not possible to participate in industrial animal farming with clean hands.

Add to all this the fact that unlike giving up a car, moving closer to work, or retrofitting a home to be more energy efficient, giving up meat involves virtually no cost or inconvenience. Eating meat is entirely an aesthetic choice, based on taste and habit. Taste and habit are not convincing counterweights to the arguments against meat.

So yes, you should eat less meat; ideally you should eat none. You ought to be a vegetarian.
Entire article.

September 22, 2007

Greer: Industrial civilization and the problem that is Fermi's Paradox

John Michael Greer explores energy limitations and resource constraints that may account for the Great Silence:
On another level, though, Fermi’s Paradox can be restated in another and far more threatening way. The logic of the paradox depends on the assumption that unlimited technological progress is possible, and it can be turned without too much difficulty into a logical refutation of the assumption. If unlimited technological progress is possible, then there should be clear evidence of technologically advanced species in the cosmos; there is no such evidence; therefore unlimited technological progress is impossible. Crashingly unpopular though this latter idea may be, I suggest that it is correct – and a close examination of the issues involved casts a useful light on the present crisis of industrial civilization.

Storm Botnet brouhaha

Back in January of this year a rather insidious computer virus began to make its way into a startlingly large number of computers around the globe. Called Storm Worm, the virus is a backdoor trojan that affects Windows operating systems. At its height the virus accounted for 8% of all infections globally; over 1.2 billion virus messages have been sent including a record 57 million on August 22 alone.

What makes this particular virus unique is its ability to link a massive number of computers together. The worm drops an agent into the operating system or software application for the purpose of performing specific tasks, such as gathering data on the user, attacking web sites, or forwarding infected e-mail. A computer that has been co-opted in this way is called a bot.

Massively distributed computation

In the case of Storm Worm, the bots work together across the internet to create a kind of massively distributed computer. It’s been estimated that as many as 1,000,000 to 50,000,000 computers comprise the Storm Worm botnet. Consequently, it has the potential to execute more instructions per second than some of the world’s top supercomputers.

According to Matt Sergeant, chief anti-spam technologist at MessageLabs, "In terms of power, [the botnet] utterly blows the supercomputers away. If you add up all 500 of the top supercomputers, it blows them all away with just 2 million of its machines. It's very frightening that criminals have access to that much computing power, but there's not much we can do about it."

The issue of security

Equally disturbing is the Worm’s ability to override operating system security; the botnet is not driven exclusively by the OS, nor can it be completely shunned out by security schemes. Even Mac OS X and Linux systems have been comprised, not because of OS security holes, but because the virus has exploited third party applications running on these machines. This could prove particularly problematic in the future as more and more applications migrate to the Web.

This said, I strongly suspect that the swiss cheese that is Windows is the primary culprit in allowing this botnet to achieve the strength that it has. Unlike Mac and especially Linux, Microsoft has always neglected security in favour of usability. This philosophy is now coming back to haunt them in the most ominous of ways.

Looking ahead

The damage inflicted by the botnet has been fairly limited. It spreads spam, makes DDos attacks, and deprives users of computing power. More seriously, however, the botnets can also break passwords. Given a highly organized and large scale operation, there’s also the possibility of severe security breaches, monetary theft and crippling internet attacks. It looks like organized crime could claim a huge chunk of the internet.

But it doesn’t necessarily have to be this way. Security will go a long way in preventing these highly distributed attacks and the ongoing proliferation of viruses. Microsoft, quite simply, has got to get its act together on security. Hopefully it won’t take some kind of internet catastrophe to instigate this sort of commitment. Should such a calamity happen, however, governments and security agencies would likely move fast and enforce higher standards for operating system security.

As for non-OS specific security breaches, software developers have to be cognizant of the fact that their apps are highly exploitable. Like operating systems, they also need to have tighter security and layers of redundant protection. Patches must flow regularly.

Firewalls and anti-virus applications have to become more intelligent as well. Efforts should be directed to develop high-tech security systems that can better identify malign applications through the use of artificial general intelligence and expert systems.

Only you can prevent forest fires, er, I mean botnets

More conceptually, users are also to blame for these sorts of epidemics. Social engineering will most assuredly continue to be a problem, but it can be curtailed by alert users who can recognize legitimate information from deception.

So, until more meaningful security measures are put into place, be careful of what you click.

September 21, 2007

Scientific literacy as a means to inoculate against religion

"My only wish is…to transform friends of God into friends of man, believers into thinkers, devotees of prayer into devotees of work, candidates for the hereafter into students of the world, Christians who, by their own procession and admission, are "half animal, half angel" into persons, into whole persons."
– Ludwig Feuerbach

There’s a current billboard in Toronto that reads, “Literacy is a right.”

Now, we’ve all be told to believe that rights are nonsense on stilts, but there is a certain significance to these sorts of proclamations. Clearly, when someone declares something to be a ‘human right’ they are making a very serious claim. They have pinpointed something they feel no person should have to do without, whether it be protection against racial discrimination, access to clean water, or in this case, the ability to read.

The impetus behind these sorts of social efforts is the assurance that persons be guaranteed the most basic tools and protections required to get through life fairly and safely. In the case of reading, it is generally acknowledged that illiteracy debilitates a person to the point where they experience undue difficulty engaging in all that life and society has to offer.

Interestingly, there’s a normative aspect to these sorts of ‘endowments’ and privileges. A few centuries ago most people did not need to know how to read to get through life. Today, however, it is near impossible – hence the call for literacy as a basic right.

But it’s not just the ability to read that is crucial today. Given the intricacies of the modern age and the ever-growing complexification of ideas and technology, it can be said that a scientific education is also increasingly necessary; if literacy can be considered a basic right, then so to must scientific literacy.

Yet, far too few people truly understand science and technology today. This is proving to be extremely problematic, particularly at the dawn of what looks to be a transformative future. Scientific illiteracy, quite unfortunately, appears to be an issue that will only get worse and create a slew of social problems.

Including the ongoing entrenchment and spread of religion.

We currently live at a time when rationality and tolerance have never been more important to the human species. Religion, with all its prejudices and devotion to ignorance, continues to present a threat to not just healthy and inquisitive minds, but to civilization itself.

Consequently, we need to place a much higher value on a scientific education. Simply put, there’s no better way to inoculate against religion and other forms of misinformation and unhealthy thinking habits. Our children deserve the right to a scientific, critical mind.

Soft memetic engineering

Indeed, the only truly effective and ethical way to combat viral religious memes is to nip them in the bud and prevent them from taking root in the first place. Prevention is what’s required rather than a cure.

Memetic theory -- the notion that ideas replicate by spreading from mind to mind – suggests that memes are only effective if they find a home in a sympathetic brain. The ability of a meme to take root in someone’s consciousness is a reflection of its ability to exploit human psychology (consequently, memetics can be thought of the science of understanding how human psychology responds to information). But this is only part of the story. Not all minds are alike, and not everyone is subject to the same information acquisition/transmission tendencies.

There are currently 6.6 billion human minds on the planet in various states of memetic receptiveness. Owing to new technologies, many these minds have unprecedented access to the world’s information. The current memepool is an anarchic mix of ideas bursting open like the Cambrian Explosion --each idea waiting for the opportunity to copy itself from one mind to another.

These conditions are the result of human ingenuity, creativity and tolerance. In free societies memes remain largely unchecked and are allowed to proliferate and mutate at will. In liberal democracies we consider freedom of speech and the right to free expression as among our highest values.

We also live in a world, quite thankfully, where people cannot be coerced into adopting a specific mindset. This was attempted in the 20th century by totalitarian Marxist regimes who, in the case of religion, banned spiritual practices, burned down churches and executed priests. The end result, particularly in post-Soviet Russia, was a religious community who survived the persecution only to come back with more power and fervor than before.

In other words, it backfired.

Indeed, this kind of ideological ‘memetic engineering’ is very much frowned upon today and should not be considered a viable solution in the struggle to maintain cultural health.

Unfortunately, however, there are consequences to having an anarchic memepool, namely the unchecked proliferation of misinformation, superstition, and of course, religion. These types of ideas are more than mere falsities, they create problems as well. Recently in Canada, for example, Catholic girls were nearly denied vaccinations for for human papillomavirus, a sexually transmitted disease. As a result, these girls were put at risk of developing cervical cancer on account of religious sexual taboos.

As Thomas H. Hulxey once noted, “Irrationally held truths may be more harmful than reasoned errors.” As we can attest to today, religious notions are interfering with the quality of human lives, whether it be public health issues, hallucinations of an intelligent designer or the blood lust of a suicidal would-be martyrs.

Thankfully, there is a gentle and elegant way to steer people in the direction of truth and rationality – what we can call a soft form of memetic engineering. I’m speaking, of course, of scientific literacy. Given our society's laws and values, the best we can do is to prime minds in such a way that they are equipped to fend off superstitious nonsense. A mind in tune with scientific methodology can better sterilize religious memes, and at the same time guard against other psychological pot-holes like pseudoscience and conspiratorial paranoia.

A way of thinking

A scientific education consists of more than just memorizing the periodic table of the elements or understanding Newton’s basic laws. In addition to these things it is the acquisition of the skeptical mind and the capacity for critical thought. Carl Sagan once noted that, “Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge.”

Skepticism should be considered a virtue and a redeeming characteristic. Physicist Richard Feynman agreed, “There is no harm in doubt and skepticism, for it is through these that new discoveries are made.” Conversely, Richard Dawkins describes the religious mind as being unimaginative, not poetic, not soulful. “On the contrary, they are parochial, small-minded, niggardly with the human imagination, precisely where science is generous,” he says.

Needless to say a number of things have to change. The education system needs to be reformed, while popular media needs to take on a more positive outlook when it comes to science.

Take school, for example. In addition to regular science classes students should have lessons dedicated to critical and healthy thinking (including lessons in emotional intelligence). These classes should teach the scientific method, empiricism, how to recognize biases and extraordinary claims, and how to properly source data and work with credible sources.

This would go a long way in making the learning of science much more palatable for students. Today, most students, particularly girls, find it off-putting. It’s geek stuff. It’s supposed to be hard. Moreover, science is often relegated to the sidelines in favour of easier or more romantic and exciting subjects, including athletics.

Districts should establish pro-science campaigns and bring in expert speakers and science-focused entertainers. Schools need more money, better equipment, and enthusiastic teachers. Students should have more time allocated each week to learning about science and critical thinking. Pop culture needs more positive role models like Bill Nye and outspoken individuals like Richard Dawkins and the late Carl Sagan.

Science can be sexy. It just has to presented that way.

Liberal education and home schooling

All of this, of course, cannot happen in a vacuum; science most certainly needs to be part of a broader liberal education. Students should understand the width and breadth of the world and avoid the insular thinking that characterizes religious minds and communities.

To this end, schools should introduce students to psychology, history and cultural studies at an earlier age. World religions should be taught to expand otherwise limited faith-based views, thus greatly reducing xenophobia and general lack of awareness. It would also establish a sense of humility and reduce notions of cultural relativism.

As for the issue of home schooling, yes, parents deserve the right to keep their kids at home or send them to private faith-based schools.

But such a decision may eventually come at a price. Standardized testing should be implemented and no student should be able to earn a high school diploma without a solid grasp of the basics of science and its methodology. Should some parents insist on teaching creationism instead of evolution, their children will have to face the consequences. The outcome may be that faith-based schooling will eventually carry a stigma. It’s conceivable that these children will have low employability and have difficultly earning admission to universities.

Democratic process

An implicit assumption in a democracy is that the collective actions of an informed populace will be to the benefit of both individuals and the community. The world, in order to be properly comprehended, and for an individual to fully engage in life, is increasingly dependent on persons having a scientific rather than a metaphysical interpretation of existence. Today, without critical thinkers, democracy and effective governance is in peril.

Moreover, given the complexity of today’s technologies and the dire consequences (or benefits!) of their development, the need to address global scale problems has never been more important. Scientific minds are absolutely necessary to not just identify these problems, but to solve them as well. Today we face such calamities as global warming and the spread of catastrophic diseases.

It should be noted that many Christian evangelists are global warming deniers -- not because they claim any special scientific knowledge, but because they are skeptical of any scientific claim, and any other 'belief system' like environmentalism that could rival their own. This is a recipe for disaster.

Close-mindedness is not what's required here; instead, we need dynamic and effective people to help humanity deal with problems like climate change.

Helping people and society

Scientific illiteracy is an impairment. Individuals without the capacity for critical and rational thought are increasingly having a difficult time understanding their world and relating to ‘mainstream’ society. There is a growing divide between the secular and religious worlds, giving rise to two distinct cultures who are increasingly unable to converse with each other.

Worse, those individuals who embrace more extreme or fundamentalist versions of religion feel increasingly alienated by modern society. The urge is to rail against the tide rather than seek a kind of reconciliation or understanding; cultural relations ends up regressing to an 'us versus them' mentality.

But a common ground does exist. Science is the universal language.

If literacy can be declared a right, then so too must scientific literacy. The health of individuals and society depends on it.

Leis reviews NBC's Bionic Woman: "A disaster and an insult"

NBC's Bionic Woman sucks. Richard Leis, Jr. explains why:
Show creators apparently hate technology, especially when used to successfully save lives. At what price, they want to explore, do we do so? A character who suffers terrible trauma must continue to suffer long after they have transcended their human weaknesses and been relieved of their pain. The price, we learn, is generally too high, and it would have been better if the character had just died. Because they did not die, they now must spend the seasons performing altruistic acts, to give back to simple unenhanced humans who are owed some unexplained debt. The moment the transhuman start enjoying her powers, she will be taught a terrible lesson.

This bionic woman is a creation of nanotechnology and cybernetics, packaged in a beautiful and indistinguishable-from-human body. A simple bartender enriched by her involvement with a man of education and science must now pay the ultimate price for becoming transhuman. We do not learn in one episode, of course, exactly what price she will pay during her upcoming ordeals, but we can be sure it will be gratuitously gory and tearful.

Modern medicine is marvelous and technologies in labs and on the horizon suggest great things ahead. We know from experience that most people in pain, experiencing great suffering, or nearing death, will, no matter what their prior belief system, embrace relief. Relief is so obviously joyful that relief as horror as depicted in fiction simply rings false, yet writers go back to that same dark well over and over again.
Read the entire review here.

September 14, 2007

I've got my copy of Tarkovsky's Solaris!

Joy. I've finally got my own copy of the 1972 Soviet classic, Solaris. It will be a gem in my science fiction collection.

I've read Stanislaw Lem's novel and seen the recent Steven Soderbergh film, but I've never had an opportunity to watch Soviet director Andrei Tarkovsky's version from 1972 -- what is by all accounts a sci-fi classic.

Synopsis (from AMG):
Based on a novel by Stanislaw Lem, Solaris centers on widowed psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donata Banionis), who is sent to a space station orbiting a water-dominated planet called Solaris to investigate the mysterious death of a doctor, as well as the mental problems plaguing the dwindling number of cosmonauts on the station. Finding the remaining crew to be behaving oddly and aloof, Kelvin is more than surprised when he meets his seven-years-dead wife Khari (Natalya Bondarchuk) on the station. It quickly becomes apparent that Solaris possesses something that brings out repressed memories and obsessions within the cosmonauts on the space station, leaving Kelvin to question his perception of reality. Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the 1972 Cannes Film Festival.
Solaris asks deep philosophical and existential questions about humanity's place in the Universe and the seemingly innate desire to expand. Tarkovsky suggests that humanity should look inward before it starts to look outward.

It's also about the radical potential for intelligent life and the problem of identification and interaction. Would we recognize superintelligence if we saw it? By portraying an advanced intelligence as a giant waterworld capable of manipulating human psychology, the film is essentially saying no. Solaris is a warning and a call for humility.

I'll be very interested to see how much communist ideology is embedded in this version. This was a time of great optimism; the Soviets, not unlike their U.S. rivals, had big hopes for space travel and the future in general (think Kardashev). Add the Marxist imperative for technological, industrial and social development and you get an interesting philosophical framework; it's the Soviet answer to Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey.

At one point in the film Dr. Snaut states, "We don't want to conquer space at all. We want to expand Earth endlessly. We don't want other worlds; we want a mirror. We seek contact and will never achieve it. We are in the foolish position of a man striving for a goal he fears and doesn't want. Man needs man!"

And Dr. Sartorius says, "Man was created by Nature in order to explore it. As he approaches Truth he is fated to Knowledge. All the rest is bullshit."

Ooooh, I can't wait to watch it :-)

Lancet: Eat less meat to combat global warming

The Lancet has released a report calling for a 10% cut in global meat consumption by 2050, a goal that would decrease greenhouse-gas emissions from agriculture and improve health for both rich and poor nations.

According to the report, as much as 22% of greenhouse emissions are from agriculture -- a figure similar to that of industry and, quite surprisingly, more than that of transport. Livestock production, which includes transport of livestock and feed, accounts for nearly 80% of these emissions.

Put into perspective, a kilo (2.2 pounds) of beef generates the equivalent of 36.4 kilos (80.08 pounds) of carbon dioxide, more than the equivalent of driving for three hours while leaving all the lights on back home.

Some quotes from the paper:

"Assuming a 40-percent increase in global population by 2050 and no advance in livestock-related greenhouse-gas reduction practices, global meat consumption would have to fall to an average of 90 grammes per day just to stabilise emissions in this sector."

"A substantial contract in meat consumption in high-income countries should benefit health, mainly by reducing the risk of ... heart disease... obesity, colorectal cancer and, perhaps some other cancers. An increase in the consumption of animal products in low-intake populations, towards the proposed global mean figure, should also benefit health."

More can be found here.

September 12, 2007

Russians detonate 'superstrength' bomb

More saber-rattling from Putin's Russia; from Reuters:
Russia has tested the world's most powerful vacuum bomb, which unleashes a destructive shockwave with the power of a nuclear blast, the military said on Tuesday, dubbing it the "father of all bombs".

The bomb is the latest in a series of new Russian weapons and policy moves as President Vladimir Putin tries to reassert Moscow's role on the international stage.

"Test results of the new airborne weapon have shown that its efficiency and power is commensurate with a nuclear weapon," Alexander Rukshin, Russian deputy armed forces chief of staff, told Russia's state ORT First Channel television. The same report was later shown on the state-sponsored Vesti channel.

"You will now see it in action, the bomb which has no match in the world is being tested at a military site."

It showed a Tupolev Tu-160 strategic bomber dropping the bomb over a testing ground. A large explosion followed.

Pictures showed what looked like a flattened multi-storey block of flats surrounded by scorched soil and boulders. "The soil looks like a lunar landscape," the report said.
This appears to be a response to the USA's 'Mother Of All Bombs,' which was the previous record holder for most powerful non-nuclear weapon.

This 'vacuum bomb' is also known as a thermobaric weapon (also called high-impulse thermobaric weapons (HITs) or fuel-air explosives (FAE or FAX)). According to the Wikipedia article, these bombs differ from conventional explosive weapons in that they use atmospheric oxygen instead of an oxidizer in their explosives. They produce more explosive energy for a given size than do other conventional explosives, but have the downside of being less predictable in their effect.

In regards to this bomb's effect (from Wikipedia):

There are dramatic differences between explosions involving high explosives and vapor clouds at close distances. For the same amount of energy, the high explosive blast overpressure is much higher and the blast impulse is much lower than that from a vapor cloud explosion. The shock wave from a TNT explosion is of relatively short duration, while the blast wave produced by an explosion of hydrocarbon material displays a relatively long duration. The duration of the positive phase of a shock wave is an important parameter in the response of structures to a blast.

The effects produced by FAEs (a long-duration high pressure and heat impulse) are often likened to the effects produced by low-yield nuclear weapons, but without the problems of radiation. However, this is inexact; for all current and foreseen sub-kiloton-yield nuclear weapon designs, prompt radiation effects predominate, producing some secondary heating; very little of the nominal yield is actually delivered as blast. The significant injury dealt by either weapon on a targeted population is nonetheless great.

Some fuels used, such as ethylene oxide and propylene oxide, act like mustards. A device using such fuels can be dangerous if the fuel fails to completely ignite; the device is at risk of producing the effects of a chemical weapon.


Bailey's take on the Singularity Summit

Be sure to read Reason science correspondent Ronald Bailey's excellent review of the recently concluded Singularity Summit, "Will Super Smart Artificial Intelligences Keep Humans Around As Pets?"

September 11, 2007

Deus Ex Machina

I couldn't resist buying this Threadless t-shirt today ;-)

Arecibo Observatory in danger of being shut down

Bad news: Looks like the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico may be shut down due to budget cuts.

This would be a heavy blow to the scientific community. In addition to the SETI project, the Observatory has amassed decades worth of data about the cosmos, it has mapped the surfaces and interiors of neighboring planets, and is the only facility on the planet able to track NEO's with enough precision to tell which ones might strike the Earth.

From the Washington Post article, "Radio Telescope And Its Budget Hang in the Balance":
The National Science Foundation, which has long funded the dish, has told the Cornell University-operated facility that it will have to close if it cannot find outside sources for half of its already reduced $8 million budget in the next three years -- an ultimatum that has sent ripples of despair through the scientific community.

The squeeze is part of a larger effort to free up money for new ventures in astronomy -- projects that even Arecibo's depressed staff agrees ought to be launched. But many astronomers say that if Arecibo succumbs, the cause of death will be politics, not a lack of good science.

They note that states with major observatories, such as New Mexico and West Virginia, have senators famous for their power over purse strings, some of whom are already gearing up to fight proposed cuts. By contrast, Puerto Rico, a commonwealth of the United States, has no senators. And its representative in the House, Resident Commissioner Luis G. Fortu?o (R), does not have a vote.

September 9, 2007

Thinking inside the box: Visualizing data with mind maps

A friend of mine recently turned me on to a new way of organizing and conceptualizing data. Called mind mapping, it is a method of note taking that utilizes diagrams which are used to represent words, ideas, tasks or other items linked to and arranged radially around a central key word or idea. Mind maps can be used to generate, visualize, structure and classify ideas. They're also used as an aid in study, organization, problem solving, decision making and writing.

After playing around with mind mapping software for several weeks now (I'm using the open source FreeMind), I have to admit that it totally works for me. I've started to use it for virtually all aspects of my life, whether it be organizing my next blog post or structuring my daily routines. I'm even using it for networking purposes by keeping track of my friends and linking them to various parts of my life (e.g. wine tasting, concert going, mountain biking, transhumanism, etc.)

How and why does it work?

It works because mind mapping is more sympathetic to the way in which the human brain operates. Our minds do not organize data in the same way we typically structure notes or arrange to do lists. Rather, we like to conceptualize things in a more graphical or symbolic manner, which results in better and more intuitive conceptualization. Further mind maps double as a mnemonic device as elements are remembered more easily when they are laid out in a graphical, non-hierarchical fashion (some studies have shown as much as 10% improvement in recall, but I'm inclined to think it's better than that).

Typically, mind maps are composed of an image-centered diagram that represents semantic or other connections between chunks of information. Elements are arranged intuitively based on the importance of the concepts and are organized into groupings, branches or areas.

This method better facilitates brainstorming approaches. Idea flow can be better captured when elements are laid out in a radial, non-linear graphical manner. Subsequently, this strategy eliminates the hurdle of initially establishing an intrinsically appropriate or relevant conceptual framework to work within.

Meta organization

Mind mapping has allowed me to take a more holistic approach to my research, analysis and writing. I have created a massive mind map that I'm using to key in ideas as they come to me. The map never becomes unwieldy because extraneous branches can always be collapsed. Elements can be linked across the map, either with graphical symbols or internal hyperlinks. When the entire map is open it looks like a giant bowl of Alphagetti.

My hope is that over time the mind map will become exactly that: a map of my mind. Having a large and highly organized database with interlinks should allow me to better "see" and remember the data that is in my head and help me bring together related concepts.

The key, of course, is to not let the technology get in the way of work. One runs the risk of obsessing over the quality of the mind map. Just because I'm reshuffling data within my map doesn't mean I'm actually getting anything done. A tool is not an end unto itself; it is an assistive device that must ultimately lead to a final product or goal.

Time will tell if this will be the case for me, but my initial impression is very positive.

September 3, 2007