January 31, 2007

Buddha Break 2007.01.31

Seeing as I'm up for some awards as a Buddhist blogger I should start to act like one. Here are some items that recently caught my attention:
  • David Ian Miller on living with impermanence.

  • Extreme Buddhism and Hardcore Zen.

  • My iPod, my self, and my technotranscendence.

  • "When another person makes you suffer, it is because he suffers deeply within himself, and his suffering is spilling over. He does not need punishment; he needs help . That's the message he is sending." -- Thich Nhat Hanh. Read more about punishment.

  • Daniel Harper blogs about the possibilities for post-Christian worship from a UU perspective. [via Arbitrary Marks]

  • Eastern philosophy promises hope for Western women with eating disorders.

  • To scientists, he is the world's happiest man. His level of mind control is astonishing and the upbeat impulses in his brain are off the scale.

  • The new Center for Spirituality and the Mind at the University of
    Pennsylvania studies the physical effects of religious experience.

  • "The brain seems to have networks that are specialized to produce an explicit, magical explanation in some circumstances..."

  • Attention and consciousness are two distinct brain processes.

  • "The Hedonic Set Point Can Be Raised" -- Nancy Etcoff

  • V.S. Ramachandranon the neurology of self-awareness.

  • Activation of brain region predicts altruism.
  • Sentient Developments nominated for Blogisattva awards

    My blog has been nominated for several Blogisattva awards, honoring "excellence in English-language Buddhist blogging during calendar year 2006." There are 115 nominees in 21 categories. Sentient Developments is up for 4 awards including Best Blog of the Year.

    Other awards that SentDev is up for include Best Achievement in Skilled Writing, Best Achievement Blogging on Matters Philosophical or Scientific, Best Achievement in Wonderful, Remarkable, Elegant Design.

    The winners will be announced on February 15, 2007. Thanks to everyone for their ongoing support.

    Hmmm, what could Dilbert be talking about?

    Why there should be an X Prize for an artificial biosphere

    Conventional futurist wisdom suggests that if our atmosphere should completely go to pot -- which it certainly appears to be doing -- humans could still eek out an existence living in self-sustaining biospheres. This would hardly represent a desirable outcome, but hey, it would certainly beat extinction. Moreover, a successful biosphere would prove to be an important step in the direction of space colonization, terraforming and remedial ecology.

    But there is one major problem with this suggestion: we have yet to create a closed ecosystem that can support human life for the long term. This revelation seems strange at first, but it's true. We can send men to the moon, but we can't sustain an artificial ecosystem. The fact that we haven't been able to do so needs to be taken much more seriously. The Earth's natural biosphere is still the only functioning one we have; all our eggs are currently residing in one basket.

    It's time to revive the biosphere projects of the early 1990s. Given the private sector's recent enthusiasm to develop space tourism technologies, perhaps another X Prize is in order.

    BIOS-3 and Biosphere 2

    Our inability to create a closed ecosystem is not for a lack of trying. To date there have been two major biosphere projects, both of them failures.

    The Soviets conducted a number of experiments in BIOS-3 from 1972 to 1984. Technically speaking it was not a completely isolated biosphere as it pulled energy from a nearby power source and dried meat was imported into the facility. BIOS-3 facilities were used to conduct 10 manned closure experiments with the longest experiment lasting for 180 days. Among its successes, the Soviets were able to produce oxygen from chlorella algae and recycle up to 85% of their water.

    More recently there was the Biosphere 2 project in Oracle, Arizona. At a cost of US$200 million, Biosphere 2 was an attempt to create a closed artificial ecological system to test if and how people could live and work in an independent biosphere. It was a three-acre Earth in miniature complete with a desert, rainforest and ocean. Organizers conducted two sealed missions: the first for 2 years from 1991 to 1993 and the second for six months in 1994.

    The failure of Biosphere 2

    Setting up and managing the parameters that drive a functioning ecosystem proved to be exceptionally difficult. Soon after the launch of the first mission, oxygen levels started to decline at a rate of 0.3% per month. Eventually the internal atmosphere resembled that of a community at an elevation of over 4,000 feet (1,200 m). Oxygen levels eventually settled at a dangerously low level of 14% (rather than the nominal 21% found on Earth) and team members started to become ill.

    Organizers had no choice but to start pumping in pure oxygen and bring in other supplies from the outside. Biosphere 2 ceased to be a closed system (as much as it could be given the circumstances) and was branded a failure.

    As it turns out, oxygen was hardly the only problem. Biosphere 2 also suffered from wildly fluctuating CO2 levels. Most of the vertebrate species and all of the pollinating insects died, while cockroaches and ants started to take over the place. The ocean eventually became too acidic and the ambient temperature became impossible to control (biospheres don't come with thermostats).

    Compounding the environmental problems were health and psychological issues that affected the team. After two years of relative isolation, the 4 men and 4 women left Biosphere 2 depressed and malnourished. Interpersonal relationships had regressed over the course of the two years, creating what the biospherians called a 'dysfunctional family.'

    After the first experiment, the Biosphere 2 organizers conducted a shorter six month stint that ended in 1994. After the completion of this more focused experiment the owners decided to change directions and asked Columbia University for advice. Today it is largely a place where students can conduct experiments and tourists can loiter.

    Lessons learned, lessons not learned

    Consequently, the Biosphere 2 project has been considered a big joke. If it's a joke, however, I'm not amused. Biosphere 2 was an important and eye-opening project. It revealed to us not only the difficultly of managing a closed ecosystem and the fragility of human psychology, but how challenging it will be for us to manage Biosphere 1 -- the Earth's biosphere -- should things really start to get out of whack.

    In this sense, Biosphere 2 should not be considered a failure, but rather a wake-up call to scientists, environmentalists, politicians and the general public. It should have resulted in the immediate creation of similar projects and related research.

    Unfortunately, the impetus these days from the private sector is towards the development of space tourism technologies like space planes and space hotels. Perhaps some entrepreneur should start an X Prize for the first viable and long term biosphere. It is the space tourism industry, after all, that would most certainly benefit from the creation of a working biosphere; humans will not go very far in space without a self-sustaining ecosystem around them.

    Moreover, given the rate of global warming and the ongoing depletion of the ozone layer, our atmosphere may start to turn on us. In the more distant future there will be such risks as global ecophagy. In our desperation, we may have no choice to but to dwell in temporary biospheres until we learn to fix our broken planet.


    January 29, 2007

    Revisiting the day the Earth stood still

    I sat down with my son recently to watch an old sci-fi classic, The Day the Earth Stood Still. This film is drenched in the 1950's weltanschauung, but it has truly withstood the test of time. I was amazed at how relevant this movie remains to this day nearly 60 years after its release.

    Our current global situation is not too far removed from the realities of the 1950s. We continue to struggle for rational discourse and peace. The revealing sciences are yet again offering a glimpse into a future filled with great humanitarian possibilities. We remain wary of apocalyptic threats and the disturbing potential for a new set of extinction risks.

    And not surprisingly, our messianic cravings still linger, whether they be for extraterrestrial salvation or the onset of a benign artificial superintelligence. The Day the Earth Stood Still is a wish-fulfillment movie if there ever was one.

    Historical context

    The 1950s were not a great time for the United States. Nerves were on edge as there seemed to be no end to international tensions and the madness of war. The Cold War had emerged and the stakes were never higher. The world had completely lost its innocence and was now living on borrowed time; the means for apocalyptic destruction were in hand.

    With all this desperation and fear in the air, Hollywood was eager to oblige the collective consciousness. Audiences flocked to theaters for one of two reasons: to escape or to confront their fears head-on. A sampling of these films included "The Greatest Show on Earth" (1952), "An American in Paris" (1951), "The War of the Worlds" (1953) and "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" (1956).

    But desperate times call for desperate hopes. Hollywood was also anxious to moralize and offer some optimism -- even if it was far-fetched optimism. Religion took a heavy blow after World War II, and many lost faith in a God who was apparently nowhere to be seen and didn't seem to care. If God wouldn't intervene in human affairs, than perhaps Hollywood could; the masses started to seek a different kind of deus ex machina.

    Fantasy films in particular offered some interesting possibilities. Comic superheroes like Superman, Captain America and Batman would always come to the rescue. The Bat-Signal was proven to be more reliable than prayer.

    Additionally, the newfound enthusiasm for science during the 1950s sparked an interest in science fiction. Combined with growing hopes for rocket ships and fears of alien invasion, these sentiments resulted in one of the greatest science fiction movies of all time, The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) (hereafter referred as TDTESS).

    Substituting fear for reason

    The story is exceedingly simple, yet provocative and poignant.

    In the film, an extraterrestrial named Klaatu (played by Michael Rennie) arrives in Washington D.C. with an important message for the people of Earth. He insists that all national leaders be present for his address, but given the geopolitical stresses of the time such an arrangement is not possible. Frustrated, Klaatu approaches the scientific community who he believes will listen to reason. In the end, with a number of prominent scientists present, he offers humanity an ultimatum: Earth can either decide to abandon warfare and join other advanced nations -- a peace ensured by a massive deterrent force, the robot race Gort -- or else be considered a threat and subsequently destroyed.

    Quite understandably, common sentiments during this era were characterized by pessimism and collective self-loathing. The rise and fall of the Nazi regime and the onset of the Cold War painted a very grim picture of humanity and its capacity for horror. This is the world that Klaatu found himself in, and we, the viewer, see it through his eyes; it is through an outsider's observations that we gain perspective.

    Klaatu's unexpected arrival causes great fear in Washington. Not thirty seconds after he steps out of his ship does he get himself shot when his gift is confused for a weapon -- a precarious start to his mission and a sign of things to come. After his recovery in the hospital, Klaatu escapes in hopes of exploring the city. Residents become paranoid and are on the verge of hysteria. "I am fearful," says Klaatu, "when I see people substituting fear for reason." Earlier, during his meeting with the president's aid, he noted, "I'm impatient with stupidity. My people have learned to live without it."

    Science, not faith

    Unable to meet with political leaders, Klaatu seeks a leading American scientist, Professor Barnhardt. This in itself is very telling -- a suggestion that political leaders are far too myopic and stubborn, detached from reality and mired in their petty squabbles. The world has started to look to a new kind of leadership -- a leadership of reason and intelligence. It is no co-incidence that Barnhardt is made to look like Albert Einstein.

    The shift to science also reflects the turning away from religion. "It isn't faith that makes good science," says Barnhardt, "it's curiosity." Barnhardt's words remind me of our current sociocultural reality where science and religion continue to clash. The resurgence of religion around the world has been met with much criticism, most notably by such outspoken scientists as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett.

    Somewhat surprisingly, the film lauds the benefits of science and technology a mere 6 years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In this sense, TDTESS can be interpreted as a film that does not buy into defeatism, instead suggesting that while science and technology may cause a lot of problems, it may also offer potential solutions.

    Klaatu's technology is certainly amazing. His ship can travel 4,000 miles an hour, he has a cream that can heal gunshot wounds overnight, and incredible medical technology that seemingly brings a dead person back to life. As one medical physician noted, "He was very nice about it, but he made me feel like a third-class witch doctor."

    The quest for security

    In addition to these advanced technologies, Klaatu also brings with him incredible destructive force. In an awesome display of power, he shuts down all the electricity on Earth for half-an-hour. And of course, he has Gort -- the intimidating robotic presence who patiently lurks in the background.

    Gort is the stick with which Klaatu can enforce his ultimatum. "There's no limit to what he could do," he says, "He could destroy the Earth." Klaatu stresses the importance of law and the need to enforce it. "There must be security for all, or no one is secure. This does not mean giving up any freedom, except the freedom to act irresponsibly."

    Klaatu's plea for world security on film acts as a call for international co-operation in the real world. A number of observers of the day, Einstein included, believed that the advent of nuclear weapons necessitated the creation of more powerful global bodies and even world federalism. Today, with the threat of bioterrorism, ongoing nuclear proliferation, and the future potential for nanotech catastrophes, the call for increased global co-operation can once again be heard.

    Driven by the rational desire for self-preservation, Klaatu's society has given the robots police-like powers. "In matters of aggression, we have given them absolute power over us. This power cannot be revoked," says Klaatu, "At the first signs of violence, they act automatically against the aggressor. The penalty for provoking their action is too terrible to risk." Klaatu denies that his people have achieved any kind of perfection, but instead the attainment of a system that works. "Your choice is simple," he says, "Join us and live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration. We shall be waiting for your answer. The decision rests with you."

    Interestingly, Gort's power is analogous to the nuclear bomb itself -- they are both ultimate deterrents. The implication brings to mind the so-called policy of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). To engage in nuclear war or set off the Gort robots would be one-in-the-same: a suicidal gesture. Did TDTESS suggest that the means to peace was already in hand?

    The messianic urge

    As Klaatu and Gort fly away in their spaceship, the viewer cannot help but feel that their stern message was akin to an admonition from God. Indeed, the theological overtones in TDTESS are undeniable. Klaatu, when hiding among humans, goes by the name Carpenter, an obvious reference to Jesus. He is the messiah who has come down from the heavens to impart his message and save the people of Earth.

    In recent times this theme has been taken quite literally by a number of religious groups and cults, most notably the Raelian sect. Similarly, the craving for messianic guidance is being re-applied to a different source, namely artificial superintelligence. The rise of Singularitarianism is an overt plea for advanced intervention, the suggestion that humanity is not capable of saving itself and that it requires a higher, albeit non-divine, power.

    An archetypal story

    The Day the Earth Stood Still is a story for the ages. Along with its famous phrase, "Klaatu barada nikto," it has made an indelible mark in popular culture. At a deeper level it is a reflection of how societies deal with desperation, fear and hopelessness. It is an eye-opening snapshot into human nature and the different ways in which people react to stress and an uncertain future.

    In this sense it is truly an archetypal story -- one that I'm sure will continue to be relevant in the years and decades to come.


    New CD releases

    The last couple of weeks have seen a number of highly anticipated releases:
  • The Shins: Wincing the Night Away - eagerly awaited 3rd release, alt-rock

  • Clinic: Visitations - 4th CD, indie-rock

  • Ghost: In Stormy Nights - Japanese neo-psychedelia and experimental rock

  • The Good, the Bad & the Queen: The Good, the Bad & the Queen - featuring Damon Albarn of Gorillaz

  • Sloan: Never Hear the End of It - popular Canadian rockers
  • January 28, 2007

    The Canadian Conservatives' faux environmentalism

    The minority Conservative government in Canada is launching a series of attack ads in which they slam the Liberals and their new leader, Stephane Dion. No, it's not election time in Canada; this is how the Conservatives do business. Knowing they're on thin ice, and failing to actually govern and implement effective policies, the government's primary concern has shifted to propaganda.

    The ads suggest that Dion is a weak and unproven leader who would take Canada in the wrong direction. The ads also slam Dion and the previous Liberal government for their poor environmental track record. Yes, the previous government should be ashamed of their disregard for environmental issues, but this is really starting to be a tired tune.

    It has been one year since the Conservatives took power and they have yet to unveil an environmental policy. They've used the year to do nothing more than attack the previous government. This tactic completely backfired on the Conservatives late last year at the UN's global warming conference in Nairobi, Kenya. Since that time, Prime Minister Steven Harper has relieved MP Rona Ambrose of her environment post and assigned John Baird to the position. Part of the motivation to do so is the Canadian public's growing concern with the environment. Baird has acted big and has admitted that global warming is happening, but that's been the extent of his work.

    One year of lip service, empty gestures, and meaningless rhetoric. There is no Conservative environment policy and no vision.

    But put together a series of attack ads, well, that they have the time and resources for. What an embarrassing and infuriating government we have here.

    January 27, 2007

    Certain minds and certain bodies

    I'm the kind of person who learns by doing. This blog is largely a place for me to think out loud as I figure things out and formulate my arguments and opinions. It's not uncommon for me to change my mind about some things, or to be persuaded by someone else's arguments.

    I also learn from my mistakes. I don't like having to learn that way, of course -- who does? But the Buddhist in me often welcomes these types of negative experiences; I know full well that I'll find something of value and grow from the experience.

    Which brings me to the topic of this post, which has to do with one of the arguments I made in defense of the Ashley Treatment. In my article, Helping Families Care for the Helpless, I stated,
    "...the treatments will endow her with a body that more closely matches her cognitive state – both in terms of her physical size and bodily functioning. The estrogen treatment is not what is grotesque here. Rather, it is the prospect of having a full-grown and fertile woman endowed with the mind of a baby."
    This quote was strewn across the media soon after the Ashley X story broke. While it made for a provocative sound bite, I have since changed my mind about this particular argument.

    Now, that said, I want to reiterate that I am still absolutely in support of the Ashley Treatment; what I am retracting here is this specific line of reasoning.

    It is inaccurate to suggest that certain minds go with certain bodies. As a proponent of neurodiversity and morphological freedoms, I am in favour of the notion that different minds can be mixed and matched with different bodies. Moreover, it is arbitrary and inappropriate to suggest that that a particular psychological state 'belongs' with a particular morphology. Thus, the suggestion that Ashley's body should be modified such that it better 'matches' her cognitive state (which is that of a 3-month old) is unjustified.

    Other arguments in support of the Ashley Treatment, such as increased levels of comfort, safety and health, are clearly more relevant to the issue, as are such factors as personhood considerations and caregivers' rights.

    Thanks go out to Anne Corwin and James Hughes for engaging me in this discussion.

    Brian Swimme on Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

    What is Enlightenment? + Zaadz has an extremely interesting interview with mathematical cosmologist Brian Swimme in which he discusses the influential Jesuit mystic, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Here's an excerpt from the article, Awakening to the Universe Story:
    Teilhard also spoke in terms of “giving birth to person.” For example, your colleague Craig is there across the room. But if you go back five billion years, all of the atoms in Craig’s body were strung out over a hundred million miles. The process, as mysterious as it is, of matter itself forming into personality or personhood, is what Teilhard regarded as the essence of evolution. Evolution isn’t cold. He saw the omega point as that same process of giving birth to or actualizing this new, encompassing Divine Person—through not just all the atoms interacting with one another, but also the “persons” of all the humans and other animals. All of us together are part of this same process, so that the entire universe becomes God’s body. To really get how radical Teilhard’s view is, think about an animal and dissolve the animal back in time in your imagination, back into individual cells. There weren’t any multicellular organisms until about seven hundred million years ago. For over three billion years, there were just single-cell organisms. If you get to know an animal well, the animal really has a personality. But the personality is something that is evoked by the cells of the animal. It’s truly mysterious. The animal’s personality is real, but that personality is evoked by the cells. So in Teilhard’s view, the individual members of the universe are actually in a process of evoking a Divine Person. We are actually giving birth to a larger, more encompassing, mind-spirit-personality.

    January 26, 2007

    Latest podcast available

    My latest audiocast has been posted here. You can subscribe to this feed.

    In this episode I ask the question: when did intelligence first emerge in the Universe? I also discuss the stupidity of Star Trek's Prime Directive, bald women in science fiction, and mind-controlling parasites.

    Peter Singer on the 'Ashley Treatment'

    Influential bioethicist Peter Singer has waded into the Ashley X debate and, as usual, is not afraid to plunge head-first into controversy. In addition to the now-familiar arguments in favour of the so-called Ashley Treatment, Singer questions the whole issue of 'dignity' and how it applies to this debate. He goes even further by posing the difficult but necessary question of dignity and the value of non-human persons.

    Here's an excerpt from Singer's NYT article, A Convenient Truth:
    Finally, there is the issue of treating Ashley with dignity. A Los Angeles Times report on Ashley’s treatment began: “This is about Ashley’s dignity. Everybody examining her case seems to agree at least about that.” Her parents write in their blog that Ashley will have more dignity in a body that is healthier and more suited to her state of development, while their critics see her treatment as a violation of her dignity.

    But we should reject the premise of this debate. As a parent and grandparent, I find 3-month-old babies adorable, but not dignified. Nor do I believe that getting bigger and older, while remaining at the same mental level, would do anything to change that.

    Here’s where things get philosophically interesting. We are always ready to find dignity in human beings, including those whose mental age will never exceed that of an infant, but we don’t attribute dignity to dogs or cats, though they clearly operate at a more advanced mental level than human infants. Just making that comparison provokes outrage in some quarters. But why should dignity always go together with species membership, no matter what the characteristics of the individual may be?

    What matters in Ashley’s life is that she should not suffer, and that she should be able to enjoy whatever she is capable of enjoying. Beyond that, she is precious not so much for what she is, but because her parents and siblings love her and care about her. Lofty talk about human dignity should not stand in the way of children like her getting the treatment that is best both for them and their families.

    January 24, 2007

    Just say no to mind controlling parasites

    Genomes can be nasty. All they care about is self-replication, an agenda that often leads to some very strange and not-so-nice reproductive strategies. Genes are truly selfish.

    Take mind controlling parasites, for example. These are viruses and simple organisms that have evolved such that they can alter the behavior of their hosts. Essentially, they cognitively re-engineer their victims, turning them into their transmission vectors. It is not uncommon for organisms to leech off several different species in this way as part of their reproductive cycle.

    For example, there is Plasmodium gallinaceum, more commonly known as malaria. It's been known for some time that this virus protozoan uses mosquitoes as its vector. What has not been known until recently, however, is how malaria alters the blood sucking behavior of mosquitoes. Malaria has had a significant impact on the evolution of mosquitoes and their behavior, much like flowers have contributed to the evolution of its pollinators, namely bees and other flying insects.

    Specifically, a mosquito will continue to search for victims until it reaches a threshold volume of blood. When it hits this threshold point, it stops host-seeking. It is thought that the stage-specific effect of the malaria parasite on host-seeking behavior is likely to be an active manipulation to increase its transmission success.

    Then there's Dicrocoelium dendriticum. It's a virus that primarily infects sheep -- but it has a rather convoluted way of going about its reproductive business. First, adult worms lay eggs in the bile ducts of the sheep and are excreted. These eggs are in turn ingested by various species of land snails and the eggs hatch in their digestive tracts. This hatching releases a compound that continues to change until it is released by the snail in the form of a slimeball. This slimeball is then eaten by ants. This eventually develops into metacercariae within the abdominal cavity of the ants.

    And here's where it gets interesting (not that it hasn't been a riveting tale to this point): the ant's behavior is in turn altered such that it is compelled to climb to the very top of a blade of grass where it waits to get eaten by sheep. The sheep eats the grass with the ant on it and subsequently becomes infected. The cycle is complete.

    Similarly, Euhaplorchis californiensis causes fish to shimmy and jump so wading birds will grab them and eat them for the same reason.

    Hairworms, which live inside grasshoppers, eventually need to leave their hosts to continue their life cycle. Rather than leave peacefully, however, they release a cocktail of chemicals that makes the grasshoppers commit suicide by leaping into water. The hairworms then swim away from their drowning hosts. Nice, eh?

    Think humans are immune to mind controlling parasites? Think again. It is suspected that Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite that is often contracted by humans from their cats, affects human psychology. Normally the parasite works to manipulate rodents, but some scientists speculate that human cognition can also be altered.

    Jaroslav Flegr, a parasitologist at Charles University in Prague, administered psychological questionnaires to people infected with Toxoplasma. He discovered that those who are infected show a small tendency to be more self-reproaching and insecure. Strangely, infected women tend to be more outgoing and warmhearted, while infected men tend to be more jealous and suspicious. Flegr has also shown that Toxoplasma may have an effect on human sex ratios -- to the tune of 260 boys for every 100 girls! (As an aside, it's worth noting that Flegr's research has been rejected by 8 journals, usually without formal review). Less controversial are studies that have shown links between Toxoplasma and schizophrenia.

    This brings to mind a number of issues (no pun intended), including the freewill problem and the disturbing ease at which a virus can impact on something as important as an agent's behavior. The prospect exists for a deliberately engineered virus that can direct human psychology and decision making. The degree to which a virus could control behavior is an open question, but I'm inclined to think it's fairly limited. There's only so much you can do with germs, and simple organisms seem to be the most manipulable. Nano is a different story altogether, though.

    Of course, there are other self-replicating entities that control human psychology much more profoundly than any mind control virus could. I'm thinking, of course, of memes. Cults, most notably Scientology, thrive on manipulating people with memetic techniques. Religions work in a similar manner but the degree to which a person is impacted varies from religion to religion. Propaganda is yet another way in which people's behavior can be modified.

    Cults, religions and propaganda aside, a significant portion of human behavior is dictated by memetic influences. You can't escape the memepool; all our thinking is guided in part by the memes we carry. Our individual psychologies are molded by three basic influences: the memes we are exposed to, our genetic predispositions, and how we've been socially conditioned. This is a dynamic process that changes over time. It's my feeling that memes take up the largest chunk of this pie in terms of impact.

    Oh, and apparently there's a fourth influence: Toxoplasma gondii. Just keep this in mind the next time you have to clean up your cat's poop.


    Richard Clarke on NPR

    Richard Clarke, the counterterrorism czar to Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush, was recently interviewed on NPR.

    Clarke talks about his latest novel, Breakpoint, and discusses such issues as cyber-insecurity, the growing threat from China, transhumanism (human enhancement, mind-machine mergers) and the Singularity. He also talks about the fact that the US has disavowed genetic modification for enhancement and speculates about what would be done if other countries allowed it.

    Clarke is a former counterterrorism official and is currently a consultant for ABC News, adjunct faculty member at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, and author of Against All Enemies and The Scorpion's Gate.

    [thanks to Gary for the link]

    January 21, 2007

    Accelerating change in effect: Why Apple's iPhone is already obsolete

    Technological change is happening so fast that I'm starting to have a real hard time keeping up with all the latest gadgets, platforms and standards.

    Take for example my brand new electric toothbrush. It took me forever to figure out and accept the fact that it re-charges wirelessly. Wireless re-charging. Who knew? Apparently not me.

    Along these lines, new technologies and standards are changing so fast that even high-end products are becoming somewhat disposable. It'll only be a matter of time before I have to replace my brand new DVD player with a blu-ray compatible player.

    And I've got to stop buying DVDs; I'll just have to replace them with hi-def versions anyway. Which then leads to the next issue, which is, why buy DVDs when video-on-demand is right around the corner?

    Given this rapid pace of technological development, I was quite shocked when Steve Jobs announced Apple's new iPhone six months before its slated release. Six months!? Why would he give his competitors half a year to catch up?

    Not only that, Jobs is playing with fire: the iPhone is surprisingly limited and uninspired in its feature set. Competitors will look to exploit its limitations.

    Research analyst Michael Gartenberg notes four shortcomings:
  • It's not extensible by third parties, only Apple. This means at the moment no RSS readers, no Slingplayers.
  • There is no support for Microsoft Office attachments.
  • Not clear how well Exchange will work with calendar and contacts
  • No 3G support. (WiFi makes up for this in some ways.)
  • And Microsoft technology researcher Brandon Paddock is thoroughly unimpressed with its download speed noting,
    That’s right… apparently the iPhone uses, and no I’m not joking… EDGE. That’s right, your iPhone might as well be a dial-up modem. Not ~800kbps like I’ve been getting from EVDO for over a year and a half, or the faster EVDO Rev A stuff rolling out now. Definitely not the ~1mbps HSDPA / UMTS speed like all the fancy new Cingular smartphones. Just good old 80-110kbps EDGE, a worse connection than I had on my Treo 600 in 2003.
    Nor is the iPhone a smartphone (a platform device that allows software to be installed). It's primarily a software driven device. In addition, it won't support over the air iTunes Store downloads or WiFi syncing to a host machine, it has no expandable memory, and no removable battery.

    Tech analyst Avi Greengart suspects that a user backlash will emerge once it's released and these limitations become more widely known. Greeengart notes some of the shortcomings, including Apple's acknowledgment that it will not allow third parties to make software for the device – other than in conjunction with Apple itself. "That means no PDR (Physician's Desk Reference) for doctors, no Weight Watchers for people tracking their 'points', no SlingPlayer for place-shifting your TV, and no Hebrew prayer books or King James' Bibles or Koran readers for the faithful," he says.

    Far be it for me to second guess someone like Steve Jobs, but I believe he's taking a big risk. Accelerating change is in effect and competition will be quick paced and fierce. We're getting to the point where products are at risk of obsolescence prior to their release. Look for BlackJack to pose some stiff competition.

    Of course, Apple can also play the catch-up game. There's a rumor going around that they will eventually be releasing a 3G iPhone.

    And the screamingly fast pace of technological development continues.

    "You are the platform"

    Journalist Quinn Norton recently gave a talk at the 23rd Chaos Communication Congress which took place in Berlin during the first week of January 2007. Her presentation was titled, "Body hacking - Functional body modification. You are the platform."

    From her presentation description,
    How society is likely to react to enhancement technologies or enhanced humans? Early adopters face dangers including pain, disfigurement, and death- how will that shape progress? Technology and flesh are going to come together, but will they come together in you? Bring your own stories of modification, and you own ideas about what constitutes post human- and whether that's a good or bad thing.
    A number of years ago Norton had a magnet implanted in the tip of one of her fingers -- an idea that was pioneered by the likes of Jesse Jarrell and Steve Haworth. She started to sense electro-magnetic fields, she could feel her laptop's hard drive spinning, she could could tell if an electrical cord was live, and feel running motors and security devices. The implant endowed her, for all intents and purposes, with a sixth sense.

    For her lecture, Norton tackled a number of issues that touched upon the therapy versus enhancement debate. To reveal the arbitrariness of therapy v. enhancement, she noted such advancements as LASIK (laser eye surgery), stomach staples (to prevent obesity), Modafinil (sleep replacement pharma), and IUDs (intrauterine devices). Loooking forward, Quinn described the potential for such things as tooth phone implants and neural pacemakers.

    As a pro-enhancement advocate, Norton also warned about the need for medical tourism and a rising black market. She is equally concerned that only the sick will receive treatment while soldiers get enhanced. Norton asks, " How do we create a non-medical human-market for altering ourselves?"

    Read more here. Check out some of her slides here.

    Nerdcore rising

    This represents either the end or a new beginning for human civilization, but I haven't quite decided yet.

    January 20, 2007

    Around the Web

  • Apparently ethics books are the most stolen philosophy books. Why is this revelation creating severe cognitive dissonance in my brain?

  • Esquire asks, would a human clone have a soul? Okay, my cognitive dissonance has been replaced by sharp stabbing pains near my forehead.

  • Carleton University biologist Jeff Dawson is breeding a colony of 6,000 African migrating locusts in the basement beneath his lab. This guy should probably get together with the guy who is infecting macaque monkeys with the 1918 influenza virus. Oh, those wacky researchers -- what incredibly dangerous and irresponsible ideas will they think of next.

  • A recent study shows that most shootings and stabbings are accidental. Researchers can be so naive.

  • Notable quote from Peter Singer: "Forcing medical treatment on such a patient who does not want it is tantamount to assault. We may think that the patient is making the wrong decision, but we should respect his or her right to make it."

  • Read about the history of vegetarianism and its intellectual forebearers -- 'intellectual' being the key word here.

  • Daniel Dennett on the perils of overconfidence on 'listening to God.'

  • Steven Weinberg makes a great memetic observation: persistence of belief in a particular religion is aided if that religion teaches that God punishes disbelief.

  • Far-right provocateur Dinesh D'Souza says feminism and 'Will & Grace' caused 9/11. Oh, jeez.

  • CO2 is accumulating in the atmosphere much faster than expected, raising fears that runaway global warming is in effect.

  • China will have 30 million more men of marriageable age than women by 2020. Yes, but how many of those 30 million men will be gay?

  • 'Creepy' paintings at the Ottawa Heart Institute were meant to brighten the lives of patients, but they seem to have caused alarm rather than solace. They've since been removed.
  • 150 years of enhancment

    Think human enhancement is something new? Hardly. We are by definition the tool making species and have been overcoming our biological limitations for quite some time now.

    Take, for example, the British Medical Journal's assessment of the greatest medical advancements since 1840. They listed 10 different breakthroughs, most of which have a definite 'enhancement' quality. Listed below are the advancements along with my commentary:
  • Sanitation: cleaner, safer environments create stronger immune systems and healthier humans

  • Antibiotics: giving people the capacity to better fight bacterial infections

  • Anesthesia: allows surgeons do to more intense and invasive work on their patients while the patients themselves are spared intense physcial pain and psychological anguish

  • The double-stranded structure of DNA: human genomics for the purpose of eliminating genetic diseases and for eventual work on genetic modification

  • Oral contraceptive pill: to bypass our reproductive processes and convert the sex act into a recreational activity

  • Germ theory (the idea that micro-organisms cause disease): knowing how disease spreads changes human habits and therapeutic approaches

  • Vaccines: creating superhuman immune systems

  • Development of imaging techniques: human have x-ray vision to peer inside the human body; with fMRIs, humans can see the active parts of the brain

  • Immunology: the study of diseases for the purpose of treating and tracking them, and to eventually eradicate them

  • Computers: to disseminate knowledge and expertise, to link experts together, inform patients, run simulations, crunch numbers, archive deep databases -- all to further the medical sciences
  • New audiocast posted

    My latest audiocast has been posted here. You can subscribe to this feed.

    In this episode I discuss Bjork's colonization simulation and Fermi's Paradox, the recent change to the Doomsday Clock, my rebuttal to Nigel Cameron, and how Fight Club portrays the modern male.

    January 18, 2007

    Bjork's colonization simulation does not explain Fermi's Paradox

    A number of science sites are proclaiming that the Fermi Paradox may have been solved by Rasmus Bjork, a physicist at the Niels Bohr institute in Copenhagen. Unfortunately, his claim does not withstand scrutiny; the Fermi conundrum is still far from being answered.

    Bjork is making a point that many others have made before, that ETI's have not had enough time to colonize the Milky Way. What makes his claim different, however, is that he used a computer to simulate the migrational spread of intergalactic probes.

    In his simulation, Bjork had a single civilization launch 8 intergalactic probes to search for intelligent life. Once on their way, each probe would send out eight more mini-probes to search for the nearest stars and look for habitable planets. He was careful to set the parameters such that the probes would only investigate the galactic habitable zone of the Galaxy. Bjork also set it up such that the probes could travel at 30,000km/second, or a tenth of the speed of light.

    Based on these settings, Bjork discovered that it would take these probes 10Gyr to explore a measly 4% the Galaxy -- roughly half the age of the Universe. This data would indicate that there most certainly has not been enough time for ETI's to thoroughly explore the Milky Way.

    His analysis, however, fails to take into account the likely nature of intergalactic exploration and colonization. In Bjork's simulation, he tracks the progress of a mere 72 probes. Given this ludicrously limited strategy, it would take these 8 primary probes and 64 sub-probes 100,000 years to explore a region of space containing 40,000 stars. Such an effort would almost certainly be considered futile by any civilization, and it's doubtful any ETI would embark on such a project.

    Instead, what Bjork should have considered is the potential for ETI's to proliferate Von Neumann replicating probes. Advanced civilizations with access to molecular assembling nanotechnology would be capable of launching self-replicating probes. Initially, the spread of Von Neumann probes would be slow, but like any exponential process, progress would eventually explode. It's been estimated that these types of probes could reach all four corners of the Galaxy anywhere from 5 to 50 million years. That's a far cry from Bjork's projected 250Gyr.

    So, no, the Fermi Paradox has not been solved. Far from. And it's high time that cosmologists and astrobiologists stopped using technology from Star Trek to inform their research.

    Scott Draves and the evolution of art

    I admire artists who use technology in unique ways, which is why I'm a big fan of Scott Draves. He is the inventor of Fractal Flames and the leader of the distributed computing project Electric Sheep. He is also a video artist and an accomplished VJ who goes by the name, "Spot."

    Fractal flames is a form of art that utilizes iterated function systems (IFSs) for constructing fractals, but it differs from traditional IFS in several ways. For example it selects color by structure instead of monochrome or by density. The results are quite original and differ significantly from conventional fractal art.

    As an aside, if you use GIMP, an open source program along the lines of Photoshop, you can create your own fractal flames.

    The Electric Sheep project is a free, open source screen-saver that is run by thousands of people over the Internet. When the screen-saver turns on it communicates with other computers running the same program. The result is a shared collaboration in which animations known as "sheep" twist and morph on the screen. As Draves says, "The result is a collective "android dream", an homage to Philip K. Dick's novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep."

    Recently, Draves installed his innovative "Dreams in High Fidelity"display into Google's main lobby, near the model of SpaceShipOne. He describes it as a painting that evolves. It was designed and rendered with the Electric Sheep screen-saver (at triple resolution), and is driven by a "cyborg mind" composed of 40,000 computers and people mediated by a genetic algorithm. Physically it consists of a small computer driving a large hi-def display while creating a continuously morphing, non-repeating, abstract animation.

    For those of you living in the NYC area, this coming Saturday January 20, Draves will be having a public conversation along with Alex Grey at his Chelsea gallery, the Chapel of Sacred Mirrors. In addition there will be live painting by Alex and dance music. The HifiDreams will be projected, and Draves will be doing some up-tempo and Spotworks-style, live-mixed VJ sets. More information about this event can be found on Drave's blog.

    January 17, 2007

    Doomsday clock moved ahead due to climate and biotech

    Now that even an enviroskeptic like Ronald Bailey is convinced that climate change is happening, it should come as no surprise that the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (BAS) has turned their attention to global warming. For the first time in history the infamous Doomsday Clock was moved ahead for environmental reasons; climate change now joins nuclear annihilation as one of the greatest threats to face humanity.

    The clock was incremented by 2 minutes and now stands at 5 minutes to midnight.

    The decision to do so was reached by a number of experts, including BAS directors and affiliated scientists such as Sir Martin Rees and Stephen Hawking. Kennette Benedict, executive director of the Chicago-based BAS, noted that "When we think about what technologies besides nuclear weapons could produce such devastation to the planet, we quickly came to carbon-emitting technologies." Rees added that "Humankind's collective impacts on the biosphere, climate and oceans are unprecedented." Stephen Hawking released a video statement in which he makes similar warnings.

    Specific fears included rising sea levels, heat waves and desertification. It is also feared that there will be new disease outbreaks and wars over arable land and water.

    The BAS Board notes,
    Global warming poses a dire threat to human civilization that is second only to nuclear weapons. The most authoritative scientific group on these issues, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), has concluded, “Most of the warming observed over the last 50 years is attributable to human activities.” Carbon dioxide, principally from fossil fuel burning, has been accumulating in the atmosphere, where it acts like a blanket keeping Earth warm and heating up its surface, ocean, and atmosphere. As a result, current levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are higher than at any time during the last 650,000 years.
    Also added to the list of threats are those posed by the emerging life science technologies, such as synthetic biology and genetic modification.

    While the risks associated with global warming are severe, I am unconvinced that they qualify as extinction risks. More problematic would be a feedback and runaway greenhouse gas effect in which rising temperatures would move beyond human control. It is feared that such a catastrophe would convert the Earth into a Venus-like planet where temperatures would exceed 400°C. And indeed, the BAS did note this grim possibility in their review.

    Historic and unprecedented as it is to include climate and biotech, it is my opinion that the BAS is still ignoring or underestimating a number of potential catastrophic risks. While I can understand their reluctance to include technologies that do not yet exist, the mere theoretical possibility and burgeoning development of such things as molecular nanotechnology, anti-matter weapons, and artificial superintelligence should at the very least be acknowledged.

    It's never too early to start planning and formulating potential prescriptions for threats that may result in the extinction of the human species.

    My rebuttal to Cameron on Beliefnet

    Several weeks ago Beliefnet interviewed ethicist Nigel Cameron to get his opinion on such things as nanotech and enhancement technologies. He basically argued that these future technologies will diminish what it means to be human and even usher in a neo-feudalist society.

    Beliefnet recently offered me the opportunity to respond to Cameron's concerns. In the interview, titled "Nanotechnology Will Reshape Humanity," I discuss such things as security, privacy, nanotech and the ethics of enhancement.

    Here's an excerpt:
    Q: Will art really be art if the artist’s brain is enhanced by technology? For example, a painter or musician?

    A: Art will be art so long as there are artists who claim that they are making art.

    Art and technology are indelibly linked; all artists employ technique in their work and/or use tools to assist with their creations or performances.

    Cognitively gifted individuals have created some of our most cherished works of art. Leonardo DaVinci may have been the most brilliant person who has ever lived (among his many talents, he could write two different sentences simultaneously with both hands). Most of the great composers, including Mozart and Beethoven, had perfect pitch and other cognitive endowments.

    Enhancement technologies will not only give future artists unprecedented skills, they will also allow everyday people like you and me to engage as deeply into art as any of history’s greatest artists. Augmentation technologies will democratize and better distribute talent.
    You can read more here.

    Transhumanism as a threat to democracy?

    Bioconservative Nigel Cameron reacted to my 'must-know terms for the 21st Century' article by proclaiming that transhuman technologies pose the gravest challenge to democracy in the 21st Century. This is interesting because James Hughes believes that transhumanism will deepen democracy.

    Transhumanist jobs of the future

    Ever wonder what jobs will be like 40 years from now? Roma Luciw takes a stab at predicting future vocations in her article, Job prospects charting new territory.

    But before we get to her list, here's a breakdown of mid 19th century jobs in London, England:
  • 168,701 domestic servants
  • 29,780 dressmakers and milliners
  • 28,574 boot and shoemakers
  • 21,517 tailors and breechesmakers
  • 20,417 commercial clerks
  • 18,321 carpenters and joiners
  • 16,220 laundrykeepers, washers, and manglers
  • 13,103 private messengers and errand boys
  • 11,507 painters, plumbers, and glaziers
  • 9,110 bakers
  • 7,973 cabinetmakers and upholsterers.
  • 7,151 silk manufacturers, (all branches)
  • 7,002 seamen
  • 6,741 bricklayers
  • 6,716 blacksmiths
  • 6,618 printers
  • 6,450 butchers
  • 5,499 booksellers, bookbinders, and publishers
  • 4,980 grocers and teadealers
  • 4,861 tavernkeepers, publicans, and victuallers
  • 4,290 clock and watchmakers
  • Yes, jobs change over time. And with accelerating change in effect, vocations will change quicker than ever before.

    To help her come up with her list, Luciw contacted a number of futurists, including Joyce Gioia, a futurist who consults on workplace issues and is president of Herman Group, in Greensboro, N.C, and Richard Samson, a director at New Jersey management consultant EraNova Institute.

    Among other changes in the professional landscape, these futurists predict the onset of "hyperjobs" that will focus on "enhancing the human body by keeping it well, reversing the signs of aging, or implanting tiny computers that extend the brain's memory and expand cognitive powers." Human bio-enhancement, they argue, promises to be a big field with fascinating opportunities like bioaesthetic coaching, somaelectronic integration, experience design, and personal genome optimization.

    Mmmmmm, personal genome optimization.

    Among the various job descriptions listed, Luciw offers a job description for "Transhumanist designer/technician" who "will work with people who have suffered such disabilities as amputation, loss of hearing or eyesight, speech impediments, and/or lack of physical mobility."

    Other job descriptions include, Director of Influence, Corporate alumni director, Personalized entertainment programmer, Manager of diversity, Offshore outsourcing co-ordinator, Corporate historian, and Chief health officer. More,
  • Bioaesthetic coach
  • Experience designer
  • Health-enhancement mentor
  • Intercommunity farmer
  • Personal genome optimizer
  • Chief health officer
  • Manager of faith-based relations and initiatives
  • Chief innovation officer
  • Executive chef, space airline
  • Global work process co-ordinator
  • Skycar mechanic
  • Underwater hotel manager
  • Vice-president of experiences
  • While interesting, and even quite possibly prophetic, these projections should be taken with a grain of salt.

    First, many of these jobs will arrive much sooner than 40 years from now, particularly those the health care fields.

    Second, what these projections fail to take into account is how enhancement and computer technologies will empower individuals to be their own coaches and self-managers. Future tech, including personal AI assistants, ubiquitous access to authoritative information, and expert systems, will enable people to better manage their own affairs, activities, minds and bodies.

    January 16, 2007

    Trying to catch my breath

    Only 15 days into the new year and I'm struggling to catch my breath. The past two weeks have been unbelievably eventful for me. If this pace keeps up for the rest of 2007 I may not survive the year.

    First, the Ashley X story broke on January 3. Since I was the only ethicist cited by Ashley's parents at their blog, I (along with James Hughes) received a barrage of interview requests, highlighted by my appearance on the BBC news the next night.

    Later that day my Future of Humanity segment aired nationally on the CBC's The Hour with George Stroumboulopoulos.

    Then, on January 11 I posted my revised list of must-know terms for the 21st Century. Thanks to a link on KurzweilAI and other sites it received a considerable amount of attention. It was also picked up by The Asymmetric Threats Contingency Alliance, of which I am now apparently an observer member, and the Lifeboat Foundation. I've also been asked to join BlogCritics.

    Finally, just when I thought things couldn't pick up any further, my ST: Prime Directive post went completely viral yesterday receiving over 10,000 hits during a 24 hour span. Looks like I've made a bunch of Trekkies angry.

    And it doesn't look like things are going to let up soon. Beliefnet is about to publish my rebuttal to Nigel Cameron and I'm continuing to discuss the Ashley Treatment with The Hour over at their blog. As usual, I'll keep you posted; thanks to everyone for their ongoing encouragement and support.

    January 15, 2007

    New podcast: An interview with Michael Anissimov

    My latest audiocast has been posted here. You can subscribe to this feed.

    This past Sunday January 14 I interviewed Michael Anissimov, the fund raising director for the Lifeboat Foundation, a member of the World Transhumanist Association, and a founding director of the Immortality Institute. Michael is also a prolific blogger at Accelerating Future who writes and speaks about such topics as existential risks, the promise and peril of advanced AI, nanotechnology and transhumanism. In this epsidoe, I ask Michael about the Lifeboat Foundation, various risks facing the human species and some potential solutions.

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    YouTube version of my 'Hour' appearance

    Someone was kind enough to upload my 'Hour' appearance to YouTube, but it suffers from the typical sync problems associated with that site. You can find another version here.

    January 14, 2007

    Fight Club and the modern male

    David Fincher's Fight Club is one of my all-time favorite movies. And like any great film it is open to a wide spectrum of interpretation and analysis. Various themes that run throughout Fight Club include anti-modernism, Buddhism, societal alienation, nihilism, and non-conformism just to name a few.

    There's one theme in particular I'd like to flesh out, and that is Fincher's interpretation of the modern male condition. If you've seen Fight Club you know he doesn't paint a rosy picture, largely portraying men as fish out of water. Very violent fish out of water. The film suggests that men no longer have a proper outlet to vent their latent aggression, and to make matters worse, they have been conditioned by society to suppress their instincts.

    Fincher goes on to assert that men have become feminized by society. This idea shouldn't be of any great surprise to anyone; it's a commonly held in-joke that women work to domesticate their wild men. And given the propensity for male aggression and violence, this shouldn't be unexpected. It's been said that testosterone kills.

    This domestication and feminization of men is conveyed by Fincher a number of ways. The main character, as portrayed by Ed Norton, obsesses about the decor of his condo and religiously pours over the latest Ikea catalogue. Men are no longer hunters, says Tyler, they have become gatherers. Society has made them into consumers where their sense of self-identity is wrapped around their possessions. As Tyler says, "the things you own end up owning you." Men have become the bi-products of the life style obsession.

    Our protagonist starts to suffer from insomnia and eventually discovers a cure: support meetings. He finds that letting out his emotions helps him sleep like a baby. In one memorable scene, he attends a support group for men recovering from testicular cancer. One of the attendees, Bob, has developed large breasts as a result of the treatment. Tyler buries his face in Bob's breasts and has a good cry; the room is filled with men who have had their testicles removed, some have breasts, and they hug and cry. They've been completely stripped of their masculinity.

    Eventually all this repression leads to a rather extreme bi-polar counter-reaction: the ultra violent Fight Club where two men battle it out with their fists in the basement of a bar. It's an opportunity to return to the jungle where men can enjoy a cathartic, testosterone delivered release. Males have been stunted by society, and it is through the Fight Club that they can retain their physicality and feel alive. It may be a negative sensation, but at least it's something.

    The Fight Club also provides an outlet for non-conformism. Men are the middle children of history, says Tyler, with no purpose and no place. "Our great war is a spiritual war, our great depression is our lives," he says. Men, raised by television to believe they'll be great superstars, have seen through the myth and have become "very, very pissed off."

    At the same time the Fight Club showcases the insanity of male aggression. The fights, while highly romanticized, are violent and bloody. The viewer is completely detached from the pain, titillated by the action while utterly immune to the consequences.

    The homoerotic element to the Fight Club is also undeniable. Men and women have sex, while men fight with other men. It's still two bodies coming together in physical union, the bringing together of flesh for the purpose of deriving pleasure. Rule #3 of Fight Club: only 2 men to a fight.

    And what would a film about male alienation be without commentary about women? There's a palpable misogynistic tone in Fight Club. It was Marla Singer, after all, who "ruined everything." She came between the two friends and created jealousy and unrest. It was Marla who invaded the support groups and their home. "We're a generation raised by women," says Tyler, "I wonder if another woman is what we really need." Moreover, when Tyler said that "the things you own end up owning you," he could very well have been referring to women.

    In the end, we realize that we're watching a man struggle with his own inner dualism. Tyler is literally a man of two minds and he's being ripped apart. On the one hand he is driven by his atavistic and reactionary urges, and on the other he seeks calm and rationality. He is tortured by his restraint and repression, while at the same time seeks a life of freedom and careless abandon. Ultimately it's a futile struggle that leads to his self-destruction. The bombs, the destruction of buildings, the nihilism -- these are all projections of male aggression, a violent backlash against society.

    But it's through this nihilism that there's hope for Tyler. He is admonished by his inner self that "it's only after we've lost everything that we're free to do anything." Man has to "stop trying to control everything and let go." It's only through mature acceptance that the inner struggle can be quelled.

    Which reminds me of an old Buddhist lesson about how to catch a monkey. What you do is attach a box with a coconut inside to the base of a coconut tree. The box has a hole in it the size of a monkey’s hand. When the monkey comes along he will put his hand through the hole and grab the coconut. When you come out the monkey screams because he sees that he’s trapped; he will refuse to let go of the coconut! He’s a prisoner. All he has to do is let go of the coconut and run, but he can't do that because he wants both the coconut and his freedom.

    Tyler needs to let go of the coconut. And the Ikea catalogue.

    Great film.


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    Snow, beautiful snow

    It's snowing outside. Beautiful white crystal flakes are falling from the sky and settling on to the grass and trees. In a few hours I'll have to pull out my winter coat and shovel the driveway.

    Thank goodness.

    The weather here in southern Ontario has been nothing less than eerie this winter. It's beem unseasonably warm and no snow to speak of. I've been going to work in short sleeved collared shirts. I don't even know where my winter boots are.

    And it's mid January. Normally at this time of year I've already hit the slopes at least once and taken the kids tobogganing. I should be sick of all the snow by now. But for the moment I'm going to enjoy the falling snow and temporarily delude myself into thinking that everything's alright with the planet.

    Global warming is just a theory, right? Like evolution and all that weird inconvenient stuff....

    January 13, 2007

    Around the Web

  • Who needs a digital avatar when you can...uh...have a real person be your avatar? I'm confused.

  • Wondering what you might look like with a new face? Try Modiface.

  • View the latest collection of accessories for augmented animals.

  • Don't believe in accelerating change? Well, the U.S. issued a record number of patents last year.

  • I'd like to read this study about procrastination, but I think I'll do it tomorrow.
  • Star Trek's 'Prime Directive' is stupid

    Fiction often reflects reality and nowhere is this more true than in Star Trek. The franchise is one giant phantasmagoric projection of human hopes and longings. It's also a glimpse into a our societal norms and commonly held inhibitions, fears and inconsistencies.

    Take the Star Trek Prime Directive (PD) for example, a non-interference policy that applies to civilizations who have yet to develop the capacity for warp speed. The policy dictates that there be no interference with the natural development of any primitive society. No pre-warp culture can be given or exposed to any information regarding advanced technology or alien races, nor should the United Federation of Planets improve or change in any way the natural course of such a society, even if that change is well-intentioned and kept completely secret.

    The Federation contends that great harm would be inflicted upon a civilization if first contact is made prematurely. It is my opinion, however, that if anything like a PD was put into practice it would introduce a slew of ethical problems.

    The PD is a science fictional projection of the naturalistic fallacy and injunctions against playing God. It's also a disturbing application of social Darwinism. The underlying assumption of the PD is that a civilization must attain space faring capabilities and advanced technologies through their own means (civilizational uplift is not an option, I suppose). It's survival of the fittest as decreed by the Federation, and those who cannot progress to an advanced developmental stage or who destroy themselves first simply didn't deserve to be in the Federation in the first place.

    The PD was the focus of many Star Trek episodes, but there's one in particular that stands out in my mind as a blatant example of how negligent and unfair the Prime Directive can be.

    The episode in question comes from the first season of Star Trek: Enterprise called "Dear Doctor" in which the crew must decide where their morals lie about letting a species live or die from a pandemic. Technically speaking, the PD hadn't been implemented yet, but this episode was intended to show some of the events leading to its development.

    In "Dear Doctor" the Enterprise crew encounters a pre-warp civilization that is being decimated by a pandemic -- over 12 million people were killed during the previous year. Needless to say these people are eager to find a cure and are hopeful that the Enterprise crew will be willing and able to help them with their advanced medical technology.

    The crew soon discovers that that the alien society is comprised of two distinct species, the Valakians and Menks -- but for some unknown reason the Menks are completely immune to the disease.

    Phlox, the ship's doctor, is asked to develop medication to ease the symptoms of the disease. In so doing he discovers that the illness has a genetic basis and has been ongoing for thousands of years, accelerating only in recent generations. Shockingly, Dr. Phlox projects that the Valakians will be extinct in less than 200 years.

    The doctor eventually finds a cure but comes to the conclusion that it wouldn't be ethical to administer it for fears of interfering in an evolutionary process. Apparently, the Valakians are dying out and the Menks are undergoing an "awakening process". The "disease" the Valakians are suffering from isn't caused by any pathogen, but is because their gene pool has reached a "dead end."

    The doctor convinces Captain Archer that they should not interfere, they pack their bags, and boldly return to space leaving the Valakians and Malks to fend for themselves.

    It was at this point during the episode when I frantically reached for any and all objects I could find to throw at the television. I started foaming and frothing at the mouth while spewing profanities at the screen. Unbelievable. In the course of one single episode the Star Trek writers committed a slew of ethics sin and bought into a number of fallacies associated with evolutionary theory and genetics.

    First of all, the 'natural course' of things, while certainly flowery and noble sounding, is another way of describing cruel, indifferent and unconscious processes. The entire thrust of secular humanism, to which Star Trek is supposedly partial to, is all about putting a stop to such things.

    Second, it is sheer nonsense from an ethical perspective to favour one sentient species over another based solely on the quality of their genetic constitution and any fallacious preconception as to their evolutionary potential. Nor does it make any sense to allow a genetic disorder to "run its course." It would be like refusing to "interfere" with cystic fibrosis or spina bifida. A doctor's first and foremost directive, if I may use that term, is to treat his or her patient to the best of their abilities and do no harm. Phlox violated the Hippocratic Oath and acted with dangerous negligence.

    I could go on and on about the problems in this episode but I am somewhat straying off course. This is one example of many in which the PD is used as an excuse for inaction. What's worse is that it's a reflection of many current prohibitions and taboos. Today, at the dawn of the genetics revolution, we are confronted with fear and apprehension. And as the world modernizes and globalizes, we are stunted by cultural relativism and social pandering.

    In the Star Trek universe it is assumed that only Darwinian processes can enable a civilization to reach an advanced stage. It is likely that this is believed because of previous failures and a misguided reverence for evolutionary processes. Instead of giving up on uplift and helping a civilization integrate into advanced society, the Federation should keep trying to find an effective strategy. Leaving a primitive culture to their own devices could lead to their destruction -- a result that is quite obviously far worse than awkward socialization.

    While the ethics of obligations is a very tricky thing, it is often through our inaction that we cause the most harm. Injunctions against playing God begs the question: if we don't play God, who will? It is through our good intentions and resultant actions that we are humane. Further, we have to get over our inferiority complex and our fear of making a bad situation worse. And if our actions do make things worse, then we have to refine our strategies and ourselves in hopes of eventually achieving success.

    Humanity's Prime Directive should not be avoidance, but instead compassionate action.


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