October 26, 2007

Using Jott for hands-free messaging

I am now using Jott for mobile note taking and hands-free messaging. I can now send 30 seconds of speech as text or audio recordings via the Internet to myself, friends and even distribution lists. The service also supports the transmission of messages to Twitter and Blogger.

Brin's position on the METI issue clarified

Science fiction author and futurist David Brin recently contacted me about what he feels was my very poor interpretation of his stance on the METI issue.

David and I have since cleared things up via email, but for the sake of furthering this discussion I thought I'd reproduce parts of our conversation here.

From David,
[RE: Brin's article, "Shouting at the Cosmos: ...Or How SETI has Taken a Worrisome Turn Into Dangerous Territory."]

... you wrote:
"Brin is vehemently opposed to this idea, as he believes it could put humanity in great peril. For all we know, he argues, some malevolent ETI is lurking in the neighborhood waiting for less advanced civilizations to draw attention to themselves."

I would be very interested in the provenance of this lurid and somewhat demeaning quasi-quotation.

My position is simply that narrowly dogmatic communities should not plunge into activities that commit humanity down paths that have low probability but high potential impact outcomes, without at least first engaging the wider world scientific community in eclectic discussion.

The only "vehemence" has been to ask for open discussions, which should be enjoyable and illuminating to all.

There is a general principle here. It is simply wrong to arrogate peremptory moves that bet human posterity, based upon cult-like and unchallenged assumptions.
It appears, much to my surprise, that I made incorrect inferences about his particular position as it pertains to the Active SETI approach and his motives for wanting to generate discussion. In my response to Brin I asked him to be more explicit in the future about what he is and is not saying. To which he responded,
The Lifeboat article, I thought, was clear enough, never once mentioning alien badguys, in any way shape or form, and repeatedly stating the goal of open discussion -- something that the small and increasingly cult-like SETI/METI community has strenuously avoided.
Comments welcome. I'd be curious to know how my readers have interpreted Brin's writings on the subject.

Survival Mosque

Brilliant and scathing commentary-as-art by Azra Akšamija:
Survival Mosque addresses issues of Muslims living in the contemporary USA. The survival kit contains elements for self protection such as the American-flag façade that communicates patriotism, gas-masque, nose filters and an umbrella that surveys one’s back. The mosque is self-sufficient; the prayer rug is supplying its own energy source via photo-voltaic solar cells. It also carries different liturgical and practical features such as washing solution for ablution and for cleaning when a Muslim get spit on, ear plugs against insults, American constitution proofing rights of American Muslims, weapons and amulets, a loud-speaker with speech on tolerance held by President George W. Bush, ablution slippers, Quran, educative books and diverse communication devices. The Survival Mosque can be transformed and camouflaged into interactive bags, which communicate with each other via blue-tooth technology. The bag-speakers reflect paranoia spreading messages regarding terrorism, but they can also function as muezzins; calling for prayer at particular prayer times. Informed by problems many Muslim communities in the USA have been facing after September 11, as well as inspired by the existing flag-burkas developed during protests in France, the design of the Survival Mosque is intended as protective infrastructure. However, the overload of defensive mechanisms transforms the image of a worshiper into a militant figure. Survival Mosque challenges the way how diverse prejudices and fears to Muslims could be reversed.

October 24, 2007

J.K. Rowling’s pathetic and disingenuous attempt to retroactively introduce a gay character in Harry Potter

I can’t believe I’m blogging about this now-lingering Harry Potter story, but I suppose anything is possible in an infinite Universe. I’m motivated to write about this because I’m pissed off at what J.K. Rowling has done and how the news of a gay character has been received in some quarters.

Shame on Rowling for “outing” the character of Dumbledore after the completion of the series. While some are heralding this as a step forward in terms of the growing acceptance of gays and gay characters, it is in reality a step in the opposite direction.

By outing the character in this way -- without any serious intimations in the books that Dumbledore was in fact homosexual (come on, Rowling, who do you think you’re fooling?) -- it comes across as a pathetic attempt to look progressive and tolerant after the fact. By doing this, Rowling has instead created a token gay character for which she can now pretend to herself and lie to her readers that they should have known it all along.

Here's a novel idea: how about having an openly gay character from start to finish? Perhaps Rowling is experiencing an acute case of heterosexual woman's guilt by not doing so. Whatever the reason, this back-peddling is really quite sad and is not helping the cause.

Shame also goes out to all the homophobes who have reacted negatively because it is now known that there is a gay character in this so-called children’s series, or because of their unease with the suggestion that a gay man was permitted to routinely interact with children. The squeamishness that some people have over the idea of gays interacting with kids is abhorrent and unfair; it belies the many misconceptions and unfounded fears that a number of people have about homosexuality.

Thankfully, in my household, where these topics are discussed openly and matter-of-factly, my Harry Potter obsessed children took no issue with the revelation that Dumbledore was gay, nor could they understand what all the fuss was about.

It all starts at home.

October 19, 2007

Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence - Scene 4: Coroner Haraway

Transcribed by James Skemp
[4 Coroner Haraway]

(A lab.)

The technician: "You can come here all you want, I'm not sharing this investigation. And if you're too persistent, I'll have you detained."

"I'm Togusa, Public Safety Section 9. This scary-looking fellow ..."

"Blew her apart with double-0 buckshot. A 50 caliber hollow point would've left her easier to reconstruct."

"She wasted 3 people, two of 'em cops."

"She was trying to commit suicide before you shot her. Isn't that right?"

(Long pause amongst them all.)

Togusa: "'Commit suicide' meaning ... Miss ..."


"Miss Haraway, how exactly would a robot kill itself?"

"By intentionally malfunctioning, these gynoids are capable of self-authorizing attacks against humans. This liberates them from Moral Code #3."

"Which stipulates, 'Maintain existence without injuring humans.' Isn't 'self-destruction' more accurate?"

"If you assume differences between humans and machines are obvious."

"Are such 'suicides' confined to a particular model?"

"Not necessarily. In recent years we've seen a surge of robot related problems, especially among the 'pets'."

"The cause?"

"E-brain contamination from microbes and viruses, human production errors, functional defects from wear-and-tear. Take your pick, but ..."


"I say it's because humans discard their robots once they're redundant. When owners trade up to newer models, some of those abandoned become vagrants, and degenerate. Perhaps it's a protest against their own obsolescence."


"Humans are different from robots. That's an article of faith, like black isn't white. It's no more helpful than the basic fact that humans aren't machines.

"Unlike industrial robots, the androids and gynoids designed as 'pets,' weren't designed along utilitarian or practical models. Instead, we model them on a human image, an idealized one at that. Why are humans so obsessed with recreating themselves?

"Do you have children?"

Togusa: "A daughter."

"Children have always been excluded from the customary standards of human behavior, if you define humans as beings who possess a conventional identify and act out of free will. Then what are children who endure in the chaos preceding maturity? They differ profoundly from 'humans,' but they obviously have human form. The dolls that little girls mother, are not surrogates for real babies. Little girls aren't so much imitating child rearing, as they are experiencing something deeply akin to child rearing."

"What on earth are you talking about?"

"Raising children is the simplest way to achieve the ancient dream of artificial life. At least, that's my hypothesis."

"Children aren't dolls!"

Batou: "Descartes didn't differentitate man from machine, animate from inanimate. He lost his beloved five-year-old daughter and then named a doll after her, Francine. He doted on her. At least that's what they say."

Togusa: "Can we get back to reality here? I'd like your observations with respect to the Hadaly robot, model #2502, manufactured by Locus Solus."


"It's very well designed. I understand it's a prototype, but it's intended for particular functions."

"Particular functions?"

"It's equipped with organs unnecessary in service robots."


"It's a sexaroid. Nothing to brag about to your neighbors, but hardly illegal."

"I get it. Scandal. No wonder those families settled out of court."

"When it's systems shut down, the electronic brain reformats. That's standard protection for manufacturer's proprietary software. But ..."

"But, what?"

"We found a file in the audio buffer. Care to hear it?"

(She plays the file.)

"Help me." (It repeats 12 and a half times before Batou stops it.)

Batou: "Thanks for your help."

Togusa: "One last question. It's none of my business, but ..."

"No, I've never raised a child. Nothing registered at the ovum bank."

"Thank you, Miss ..."

"Haraway. No need for Miss or Mrs."

(Togusa walks away, and her eyes and part of her face raise out and up from her head.)

October 18, 2007

Kamen's next-gen prosthetic arm

Scott Kirsner has penned an article for The Boston Globe about the latest work being done by DARPA's Dean Kamen to develop the next generation of prosthetic limbs. Excerpt:
When Kamen, one of America's best-known inventors, first spoke with officers at the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, they told him they were looking for a research and development group that could build a prototype of a new prosthetic arm. Kamen was expecting to hear a list of technical specifications, such as how much the arm would need to lift and how many moving joints it would require. Instead, Kamen says, the Pentagon officials told him they wanted to create an arm that could "pick up a raisin or a grape from a table, know the difference without looking at it, and be able to manipulate it into the person's mouth without breaking it or dropping it."

"Wow," Kamen thought, "that is pretty much beyond the capability of current engineering."

Several hundred US soldiers have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan missing an arm, and several dozen have lost both arms, according to Kamen. The numbers are tragic - yet too small to motivate some of the largest makers of medical devices. But Kamen says, "You don't say no to DARPA, and you don't say no to a challenge that can be that much of a life-changer for people who need it."
Read the entire article and be sure to check out the video.

October 17, 2007

Should SETI break the Great Silence?

Centauri Dreams has more on the SETI/METI controversy: SETI’s Dilemma: Break the Great Silence? Excerpt:
When Alexander Zaitsev presented his recent paper at the International Astronautical Congress in Hyderabad (India) recently, he spoke from the center of a widening controversy. The question is straightforward: Should we broadcast messages intentionally designed to be received by extraterrestrial civilizations, thereby notifying them of our existence? Zaitzev, chief scientist at the Russian Academy of Science’s Institute of Radio Engineering and Electronics, addressed the question by seeing a necessary relationship between SETI (the search for ETI) and METI (messaging to other civilizations).

Indeed, the Russian scientist, working at the Evpatoria Deep Space Center in the Ukraine, has the experience to discuss METI from a practical standpoint. Evpatoria has already transmitted a number of messages, the so-called ‘Cosmic Call’ signal (1999) being made up of various audio, video, image and data files submitted by people around the world. The later ‘Teen-Age Message,’ aimed at six Sun-like stars, was sent in 2001; another ‘Cosmic Call’ followed in 2003.

Zaitzev has in the interim emerged as a leading spokesman for direct messaging to extraterrestrial civilizations, an idea now hotly debated by a relatively small group of researchers concerned about its implications. I note the size of the debate pointedly — it is remarkable to me that an issue that has the potential of involving the entire human species in what could become a first contact scenario is known only to a limited number of professionals, within whose ranks there is by no means agreement.
Entire article.

My thoughts on the issue.

October 12, 2007

You either get it or you don't

When it comes to anticipating the future, you either get it or you don't.

Existential risks: You either acknowledge the strong possibility that humanity could go extinct in the coming decades, or you don't.

Singularity: You either recognize the radical potential for greater-than-human artificial superintelligence and its disruptive capacity, or you don't.

Molecular Assembling Nanotechnology: You either subscribe to the Drexlerian vision of nanoscale engineering and its potential to revolutionize society and biology, or you don't.

Global Warming: You either accept the substantive threat of anthropogenic climate change and the dangers of runaway global warming, or you don't.

Transhumanism: You either accept the notion that our species has the capacity to become a self-modifying posthuman and post-corporeal species, or you don't.

Radical Life Extension: You either agree that aging is a disease that can be defeated, or you don't.

So, do you get it?

CBC's The Nature of Things episode on 'Living Forever'

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's The Nature of Things will be airing a documentary on Thursday October 18 called "Living Forever: The Longevity Revolution." The episode will feature gerontologist Michael Rose and Edmontonian life extensionist Kevin Perrott.

You can watch the one minute promo video here.


Immortality. Life Extension. The Fountain of Youth. Real science or simply wishful thinking? Is it hope or is it hype?

Find out in Living Forever: The Longevity Revolution. Scientists from around the world are racing to answer one of humanity's chief questions: can we turn back the human clock? Hitch a ride on this controversial roller-coaster with charismatic gerontologist Michael Rose as he leads us to where the cutting-edge science in life extension is happening: biotechnology, genetic research, therapeutic cloning and stem-cell research – fields which have moved to the outer reaches of our wildest imagination.

In Living Forever we also meet the “believers” among us: the colourful characters who refuse to succumb to the grim reaper. And let's not forget the specialists who predict whether their clients have what it takes to live past 100.

Just to be clear, Living Forever is not a documentary about 60-year-olds who want to look like young and sexy 25-year-olds. This is a film about stopping, slowing down – even reversing – human aging. It is about the modern quest to create a longer, healthier old age, or – the Holy Grail – eliminating old age altogether.

So, what happens if humans are able to live for another 100 or 500 years? Should we create a race of immortals, just because we have the know-how? At what evolutionary cost? What about the ethical issues? Given humanity's trajectory thus far, it's likely that most people will say ethics be damned: let The Longevity Revolution begin.

October 11, 2007

Ashley X doctor commits suicide

Shocking news today: Daniel Gunther, the doctor at the center of the Ashley X controversy, has committed suicide. From MSNBC:
Dr. Daniel F. Gunther died from toxic asphyxia from inhaling car exhaust, said Greg Hewett of the King County Medical Examiner's Office. His time of death was listed as 9:30 p.m. on Sept. 30. The 49-year-old was a pediatric endocrinologist at Children's Hospital and Regional Medical Center in Seattle and an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington.

In 2004, Gunther and his colleague Dr. Douglas S. Diekema performed a hysterectomy, removed the breast tissue and started hormone treatment to permanently halt the growth of a 6-year-old disabled girl so her parents could continue to care for her at home. The doctors wrote about the procedure, which was performed at Children's Hospital, in the October 2006 issue of the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.

News of the procedure last fall sparked debate about the ethics of the treatment both online and in the medical community. One poster on MSNBC.com's message boards called the procedure "offensive if not perverse." Others supported the decision: " I feel like everything [the parents] are doing is intended to be in the best interest of their child."

This is particularly upsetting for me, not just because I supported Gunther during the controversy, but because of the possibility that his suicide was wrought by undue pressure exacted on him by overzealous and vocal disability groups.

Back in January when the Ashley controversy was at its peak, Dr. Gunther joined the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies site. In reference to my article, "Helping Families Care for the Helpless," he wrote to us:
[T]he article on the IEET site was one of the first sane and rational responses I came across. All of us here appreciate your support. I am hoping that in time more rational voices will increasingly make themselves heard, while the more reactionary ones fade away.
Evidently this didn't happen. What a shame.

**ADDENDUM: 12-Oct-07
According to this Seattle Times article, friends and family of Dr. Gunther insist that the suicide was not fueled by the Ashley controversy.

New Scientist video featuring de Grey, Bostrom and Sandberg

Check out this New Scientist video featuring Anders Sandberg, Nick Bostrom and Aubrey de Grey. Topics discussed include transhumanism, whole brain emulation and radical life extension.

New Scientist covers TransVision 2007

In the 'better late than never' category comes New Scientist's review of TransVision 2007. The article, titled "Death special: The plan for eternal life," was written by my friend Danielle Egan who I met at Yale during TransVision 2003.

Sadly the entire article is not available online (subscription required), but I can reproduce several paragraphs here for your reading pleasure:
They don't look very threatening, though perhaps not very diverse either. Most WTA members are white, middle-aged men, but WTA secretary and former Buddhist monk James Hughes (see "Essay: The end of death?") hopes to attract a wider range of people by highlighting the organisation's democratic aims. The WTA insists that any new technology is used in a fair and ethical way, he says, with global treaties set up to regulate progress. Some transhumanists campaign for equal access to healthcare and for safeguards on new technology.

AI theorist Eliezer Yudkowsky also believes the movement is driven by an ethical imperative. He sees creating a superhuman AI as humanity's best chance of solving its problems: "Saying AI will save the world or cure cancer sounds better than saying 'I don't know what's going to happen'." Yudkowsky thinks it is crucial to create a "friendly" super-intelligence before someone creates a malevolent one, purposefully or otherwise. "Sooner or later someone is going to create these technologies," he says. "If a self-improving AI is thrown together in a slapdash fashion, we could be in for big trouble."

The theme of saving humanity continues with presentations on cyborgs, cryonics and raising baby AIs in the virtual world of Second Life, as well as surveillance tactics for weeding out techno-terrorists and a suggested solution for the population explosion: uploading 10 million people onto a 50-cent computer chip. More immediate issues facing humanity, such as poverty, pollution and the devastation of war, tend to get ignored.
Danielle is a supporter (she's written about cryonics in the past), and considering the publication I think she did a decent job conveying the nature of the conference.

October 10, 2007

The Pharyngula Mutating Genre Meme

There are a set of questions below that are all of the form, "The best [subgenre] [medium] in [genre] is ...".

Copy the questions, and before answering them, you may modify them in a limited way, carrying out no more than two of these operations:

*You can leave them exactly as is.

*You can delete any one question.

*You can mutate either the genre, medium, or subgenre of any one question. For instance, you could change "The best time travel novel in SF/Fantasy is..." to "The best time travel novel in Westerns is...", or "The best time travel movie in SF/Fantasy is...:, or "The best romance novel in SF/Fantasy is...".

*You can add a completely new question of your choice to the end of the list, as long as it is still in the form "The best [subgenre] [medium] in [genre] is...”.

You must have at least one question in your set, or you’ve gone extinct, and you must be able to answer it yourself, or you’re not viable.

Then answer your possibly mutant set of questions. Please do include a link back to the "parent" blog you got them from, e.g. Sentient Developments to simplify tracing the ancestry, and include these instructions.

Finally, pass it along to any number of your fellow bloggers. Remember, though, your success as a Darwinian replicator is going to be measured by the propagation of your variants, which is going to be a function of both the interest your well-honed questions generate and the number of successful attempts at reproducing them.


My grandparent is Pharyngula.
My parent is
Metamagician and the Hellfire Club.

1. The best post-Singularity novel in SF/Fantasy is...
Diaspora by Greg Egan

2. The best romantic movie in fictionalised biography is...
Shakespeare in Love

3. The best sexy song in rock is...
Magdalena by A Perfect Circle

4. The best cult novel in American non-fiction is...
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson

I shall attempt to disseminate my seed to:

Accelerating Future
Open the Future
The Red Scare

Anyone else who wants to accept my meme can also join in the game.

John Harris: Enhancing Evolution

Enhancing Evolution: The Ethical Case for Making Better People
by John Harris

Book Description:
Decisive biotechnological interventions in the lottery of human life--to enhance our bodies and brains and perhaps irreversibly change our genetic makeup--have been widely rejected as unethical and undesirable, and have often met with extreme hostility. But in Enhancing Evolution, leading bioethicist John Harris dismantles objections to genetic engineering, stem-cell research, designer babies, and cloning to make a forthright, sweeping, and rigorous ethical case for using biotechnology to improve human life.

Human enhancement, Harris argues, is a good thing--good morally, good for individuals, good as social policy, and good for a genetic heritage that needs serious improvement. Enhancing Evolution defends biotechnological interventions that could allow us to live longer, healthier, and even happier lives by, for example, providing us with immunity from cancer and HIV/AIDS. But the book advocates far more than therapies designed to free us from sickness and disability. Harris champions the possibility of influencing the very course of evolution to give us increased mental and physical powers--from reasoning, concentration, and memory to strength, stamina, and reaction speed. Indeed, he supports enhancing ourselves in almost any way we desire. And it's not only morally defensible to enhance ourselves, Harris says. In some cases, it's morally obligatory.

Whether one looks upon biotechnology with hope, fear, or a little of both, Enhancing Evolution makes a case for it that no one can ignore.

John Harris is the Sir David Alliance Professor of Bioethics at the University of Manchester School of Law, joint editor-in-chief of the Journal of Medical Ethics, and a member of Britain's Human Genetics Commission. His many books include On Cloning and A Companion to Genethics. Enhancing Evolution is based on keynote lectures Harris delivered at the James Martin Institute at the University of Oxford in 2006.
Read this review from the Times Online, "Enhancing the species." Excerpt:
Likewise, if pills could make children smarter in a safe way, he thinks we would be dumb not to use them. He says: “You have good moral reasons to advantage your children if you can, and good moral reasons to avoid failing to do so. I see enhancing a child as on a continuum with, say, taking folic acid and avoiding alcohol during pregnancy. These are things that decent, sensible parents do to protect their children.” He points out that we are already enhanced humans – by such advances as vaccination, which prevents us from succumbing to diseases that decimated our forebears. This is now lumped under the label of “medicine”; ditto for Ritalin, which modifies behaviour, and modafinil, a drug used to help people to stay awake. Even opera glasses are an enhancement, helping us to see farther than we can naturally. Genetic-based enhancements are simply another stop on the road to improving the lot of humankind.

Of course, the consequence of banishing the diseases of old age is a dramatic extension of lifespan. So be it, Harris says: “To quote a friend, I’d willingly sample a few million years and see how it goes.”

The idea, he believes, is not that enhancements – such as gene therapy to remove the threat of cancer, or so-called “smart pills” – give some a competitive advantage over others. The technologies should be available to all and should raise the baseline of human welfare just as compulsory schooling and public health policy aim to do.

“Certainly, sometimes we want competitive advantage – but for the enhancements I talk about the competitive advantage is not the prime motive. I didn’t give my son (he has a grown-up son, Jacob, to whom the book is dedicated) a good diet in the hope that others eat a bad diet and die prematurely. I’m happy if everyone has a good diet. The moral imperative should be that enhancements are generally available because they are good for everyone.” The only other route to equality, he says, is to level down so that everyone is as uneducated, unhealthy and unenhanced as the lowest in society – which is unethical. Even though we can’t offer a liver transplant to all who need them, he says, we still carry them out for the lucky few. Much better to try to raise the baseline, even if some are left behind.
Russell Blackford also chimes in.

One way to become a cyborg

Now that's what I call a radical body modification.

Frank Stratford: Tapping humanity's potential through space exploration

From Frank Stratford's Space Review article, "Our potential in space":
So why would humans want to explore or live in such places? The one argument that has often been glossed over or ignored is, in my opinion, the most important, and many others are beginning to see this. This motive for sending humans into space comes down to rediscovering the importance of realizing our potential as a people. If scientific discoveries and resource utilization or spin-offs are not enough to get our governments and businesses interested in investing more in space, perhaps it’s time to take a different approach
When I think of what the colonization of space could achieve for us I only have to look at what we have achieved here on Earth to understand what could be our future in space. Yes, we will always carry the negatives with us wherever we go. There will still be problems here on Earth as long as we exist, but growing onto new worlds and new horizons is in our genes. All societies that ceased to look outward have ceased to exist, from the records we have of great civilizations of the past. When apathy, internal politics, and agendas take over, that’s when we lose sight of our potential for greatness.
Read Stratford's entire article.

October 7, 2007

Enter the cybrids

Technology Review talks to biologist Ian Wilmut about his cloning plans for the future:
Research mixing human and animal eggs and sperm has garnered considerable ethical concern and been banned in several countries. The banning was started in part by fears that scientists will create animals with human genes or other ethically questionable organisms, and in part by concerns that mixing animal and human materials diminishes the sanctity of human life. But researchers say that public outcry has largely failed to distinguish between important medical research, such as therapeutic cloning, and more dubious experiments. For example, in the United Kingdom, proposals to use animal eggs for human cloning sparked outcry from an overzealous media portending half-human creatures.

Last month, after a lengthy debate, the U.K. authority overseeing such research overrode a previous ban, approving specific projects to generate these cells. Much like other embryonic stem-cell research, the embryos the scientists generate--dubbed cybrids rather than hybrids because only the cell cytoplasm from the animal is used--are not allowed to develop beyond 14 days.

Ian Wilmut, the biologist who spearheaded the cloning of the now renowned Dolly the sheep, plans to submit his own proposal for cybrid research in the next few months. Wilmut, now director of the Scottish Center for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Edinburgh, ultimately wants to use stem cells cloned from a patient with ALS, a degenerative movement disorder, to develop a model for studying the disease.

Read the entire interview here.

Cyber-warfare? Martin C. Libicki says don't believe the hype

Martin C. Libicki of the RAND Corporation has written a report about the potential for conquest in cyberspace. Libicki argues that many fears about cyber-warfare are overstated, but he also considers the threat of social engineering and the use of computers to persuade. Here's the abstract:
The global Internet has served primarily as an arena for peaceful commerce. Some analysts have become concerned that cyberspace could be used as a potential domain of warfare, however. Martin C. Libicki argues that the possibilities of hostile conquest are less threatening than these analysts suppose. It is in fact difficult to take control of other people’s information systems, corrupt their data, and shut those systems down. Conversely, there is considerable untapped potential to influence other people’s use of cyberspace, as computer systems are employed and linked in new ways over time. The author explores both the potential for and limitations to information warfare, including its use in weapons systems and in command-and-control operations as well as in the generation of “noise.” He also investigates how far “friendly conquest” in cyberspace extends, such as the power to persuade users to adopt new points of view. Libicki observes that friendly conquests can in some instances make hostile conquests easier or at least prompt distrust among network partners. He discusses the role of public policy in managing the conquest and defense of cyberspace and shows how cyberspace is becoming more ubiquitous and complex.

The dumbing down of America continues

Ugh, I can't believe this: NBC is about to air a new special called Phenomenon that will feature "mystifier" Criss Angel and "mentalist" Uri Geller:
Mystifier/artist Criss Angel ("Criss Angel MINDFREAK") and famed mentalist Uri Geller will host this mysterious live competition series in which they will conduct an intensive search for the next great mentalist. The series tests 10 hopeful mentalists who must compete each week to demonstrate a wide spectrum of mystifying talents for a panel of weekly celebrity guests and a studio audience. Geller and Angel will assess the contestants but ultimately the winner's fate will be determined by the viewers at home. In addition to voting, each episode will also contain an interactive component to engage the at home audience.
You can catch a preview here.

Or, you can watch Geller's infamous performance failure on the Tonight Show:

As P.T. Barnum once said, "There's a sucker born every minute."

Strange how things haven't change since Barnum's day.

October 6, 2007

Science & Spirit: Will men and women ever agree?

The latest edition of Science & Spirit takes a look at modern gender politics and potential future sociological and medical issues.


The Gender Debate: Timing is Everything
by Beryl Lieff Benderly
The way that science talks about male and female has dramatically changed over the past twenty years, leaning toward equality today, as told in the adventures of our correspondent, then and now.

Biology May Be Our Destiny
by Steven E. Rhoads
For all the power academic “gender studies” have today, evolution and biology may have the final word in why men and women are different and why society should take this to heart.

The End of 'Man'
by Pat Craig
Although some scientists say the Y chromosome that produces boys may evolve out of existence, others don’t see the curtain dropping yet, if at all. The Y may have the remarkable power of self-repair—and ‘man’ will survive.

'Is It a Boy or a Girl?'
by Milton Diamond
The intersex child, born with sexual ambiguity, is a heart-wrenching issue glossed over by society until now. A new medical view urges letting the child, guided by science, decide future sexual identity.

Q&A: On Doing the Math
David C. Geary
For all the debate on how boys and girls compare in math and science, these differences are small compared to the gap between Americans and other countries. One expert on the brain, evolution, and math offers his views.

Male and Female Mystics
by Carol Lee Flinders
Religious mystics have always been creative in their male and female images of God and their own gender roles in society. They show that although roles and traditions exist, they are transcended as well.

I'm voting Green

The Greens seem to be the only party in Ontario that gets it right now.

Oh, and if you're in Ontario, vote MMP (Mixed-Member Proportional).

October 4, 2007

Hitchens gets it wrong about Buddhism

"Don't believe me, don't believe anybody, don't accept anything based on tradition. Don't believe anything based on the fact that your community believes this or your country believes this or the people that you are around believe this." - Buddha

I’ve never really paid much attention to Christopher Hitchens, renowned and reviled critic of all things religious. But when my brother recently brought his anti-Buddhist sentiments to my attention I had to take a closer look.

As it turns out, he does indeed have some very uncomplimentary things to say about Buddhism.

Hitchens essentially believes that the West has been duped by what he regards as just another religion filled with all the usual trappings. He regards Buddhism as a “faith” that “despises the mind and the free individual." He says it preaches submission and resignation, and that practitioners come to regard life as a “poor and transient thing.”

In his book, God is not Great, Hitchens writes,
"Those who become bored by conventional "Bible" religions, and seek "enlightenment" by way of the dissolution of their own critical faculties into nirvana in any form, had better take a warning. They may think they are leaving the realm of despised materialism, but they are still being asked to put their reason to sleep, and to discard their minds along with their sandals."
Wow. Pretty harsh stuff. Hitchens doesn’t mince words and slams into Buddhism like he would any other religion.

That's all fine and well, except that Buddhism isn’t just any other religion.

What Buddhism is

Yes, Buddhism has the characteristics of religion, but it offers much more than that.

It’s an epistemological philosophy and an intrapersonal approach to perception, self-awareness and self-regulation. It’s an aesthetic. It’s a non-anthropocentric ethical viewpoint that places an emphasis on meaningful, compassionate and genuine relationships. It's a type of Humanism. It encourages meditation and a mindful approach to living. It’s a worldview and methodology that promotes skepticism, rationality, empiricism and even non-conformity. It is the practical acknowledgment of the unavoidable perceptual subjectivity that is part of the human condition. It is the recognition that the mind matters and that conscious awareness can and should be optimized.

Buddhists believe that by paying close attention to moment-to-moment conscious experience it is possible to move beyond the sense of “self” in favour of a new state of personal well-being. And if this can be incorporated within the framework of formal scientific investigation, then all the better.

And all this without the usual baggage and expectations of most religions, namely belief in God, the soul, judgment and the afterlife. It does not promote any fixed dogma, nor does the practice result in feelings of guilt or shame. There are no 'sins' to be committed in Buddhism, nor are there highly polarized notions of right and wrong; practitioners simply do the best they can to mete out as little suffering to the world as possible.

But like all Big Ideas, Buddhism can be prone to abuse and misunderstanding -- and as Hitchens has correctly noted, even tribalistic tendencies.

Institutionalized Buddhism

Indeed, a big part of Hitchens’s grief with Buddhism is its questionable history and how it has become highly ritualized and filled with other-worldly beliefs. As he has said, “Buddhism can be as hysterical and sanguinary as any other system that relies on faith and tribe.” Hitchens has railed against the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Buddhists. He condemns the Burmese dictatorship as a Buddhist one (which seems a suspicious claim to make these days seeing as thousands of monks have recently stood up against this regime). Hitchens dips deep into history and blames Buddhism for a number of misguided practices and atrocities.

While I agree that Buddhism has been used in this way and that blood has been shed in its name, I can’t agree that Buddhism is the cause of these things. What Hitchens is describing is the failure of human nature, the perils of insular groupthink, and politics itself. It is the same phenomenon that has led to the bastardization of the teachings of Jesus and the rise of such monolithic institutions as the Catholic Church (along with its sordid history of conquest and persecution). Consequently, Hitchens’s ire should be directed at the phenomenon of tribalism and not religion itself.

Buddhist faith?

Hitchens also makes the claim that Buddhists rely on faith. Undoubtedly, beliefs in reincarnation, karma and transcendence run deep within various Buddhist strains. This is currently a point of great contention among Buddhist scholars, some of whom, like the secular Buddhist Stephen Batchelor, contend that these precepts are unnecessary and that when it comes to metaphysics Buddhists should actually be agnostic. More traditional Buddhists, on the other hand, argue that belief in rebirth is absolutely necessary to the practice.

Interestingly, the Dalai Lama himself – a believer in reincarnation – maintains that science should take precedence over these sorts of notions. He once said, “My confidence in venturing into science lies in my basic belief that as in science so in Buddhism, understanding the nature of reality is pursued by means of critical investigation: if scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.”

Easier said than done, of course. Deeply embedded and ritualized religions have an incredibly hard time adapting to change -- including Buddhism.

As for the accusation that all Buddhists rely on faith, that's clearly a generalization. Most Buddhists, I would say, likely take nothing on mere faith alone.

Alternative perception

Hitchens also critiques the aims of Buddhist practice itself. He makes a number of suspicious claims -- that Buddhists despise the mind and the free individual, that Buddhism teaches submission and resignation, and that practitioners regard life as a fleeting thing full of suffering. He contends that Buddhists require a surrendering of the mind.

This is mostly nonsense. These claims have been countered elsewhere, so I won’t replicate them here, but there are a pair of issues I wish to address.

First, Hitchens appears to be confused. He seems to be conflating transcendental meditation (or something like it) with the more traditional practice of Vipasanna meditation and its focus on mindful awareness. There is nothing escapist or transcendent about this practice; rather, it's very much about focusing on the here-and-now and correcting the processes of a conditioned mind.

Second, Hitchens complains that Buddhists favour subjectivity over objectivity. “[Y]ou're supposed to be the subjective judge of what you're experiencing, are you not?,” he asks. Hitchens, being the uber-materialist that he is, is concerned that Buddhists don’t believe that anything can be accepted at objective face-value, that Buddhists merely see existence as some sort of grandiose illusion.

Hitchens's special claim into the true nature of reality aside, he is a bit off course here and his concern is exaggerated. Buddhists do not deny the presence of the material world or the value of objectivity – far from. What they assert is that the Universe will always be perceived through the lens of an observer and that our comprehension of reality must always take this into account. The only way the world can be observed is subjectively; there can be no such thing as a truly objective observer. We can and should strive towards an objective frame, but the world will always be perceived by an observer, which is by definition a subject.

It’s okay to be spiritual, really it is

What irks me most about Hitchens’s critique of Buddhism is the sense I get that what he is really complaining about are personal quests for spirituality. In fact, some of his arguments are so pithy (like making fun of Buddhist koans and Steven Seagal) that I'm inclined to think he is slamming into Buddhism just for the sake of it -- because it's just another "religion" on his hate list.

But Hitchens hasn't done his homework and it shows. Moreover, his limited acceptance as to what kind of worldview and perceptual lens is acceptable is extremely limited and narrow-minded.

Ultimately, there’s nothing wrong with spirituality. Or, if you hate that word, a sense of existential awareness. In fact, I wish more people would consider the philosophic implications of existence and look deeper within themselves. There is far too much daydreaming going on today with people living way outside their heads.

On the issue of spirituality I’ll give Sam Harris the last word:
"There is clearly a sacred dimension to our existence, and coming to terms with it could well be the highest purpose of human life...[I]t must be possible to bring reason, spirituality, and ethics together in our thinking about the world. This would be the beginning of a rational approach to our deepest personal concerns. It would also be the end of faith."

"An Interview with Christopher Hitchens," C. P. Farley.
"Christopher Hitchens reduces Buddhism to a phrase," True Ancestor.
"His material highness," Christopher Hitchens.
"Christopher Hitchens: Religion Poisons Everything," Jon Wiener
"Hitchens - Zen is not Great?," Flapping Mouths.
Wikipedia and Wikiquote.

October 2, 2007

Steven J. Dick: Biological intelligence is the exception, not the rule

"Biologically based technological civilization...is a fleeting phenomenon limited to a few thousand years, and exists in the universe in the proportion of one thousand to one billion, so that only one in a million civilizations are biological." -- Steven J. Dick, NASA Chief Historian
In a post-biological universe, says Steven J Dick, machines are the dominant form of intelligence.

From the Daily Galaxy article:
This worldview of the cosmos as a biological universe is a revolutionary perspective as profound a revision in our way of thinking as the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions. It is a worldview that believes that "planetary systems are common, that life originates wherever conditions are favorable, and that evolution culminates with intelligence."

Sure, but can it wash the dishes?

Oh, wait a minute, this one can....well, sorta: