February 26, 2007

Blogisattva Awards announced

The Blogisattva Awards were announced today and this blog was the winner of two awards: Best Achievement Blogging on Matters Philosophical or Scientific and Best Achievement in Wonderful, Remarkable, Elegant Design.

Congratulations to Bill Harryman for winning Buddhist blog of the year, Integral Options Café.

You can read about all the winners and why they were chosen here.

February 23, 2007

Neugenic Nation


It is a word that has come to mean different things to different people. Some consider it a pejorative, while others use it as a powerful tool in political rhetoric. It conjures images of Nazi brutality and 20th century zealots working to sterilize the unfit. Ask anyone for a definition and you're bound to get a multitude of different answers; when you key define: eugenics into Google it spews out no less than 20 unique definitions.

When stripped of all its historical and social baggage, however, 'eugenics' can be used to describe two general philosophical tendencies: 1) the notion that human hereditary stock can and should be improved, and 2) that such changes should be enforced by the state (or other influential social groups such as cults or religions).

These two concepts are not married to one another. Transhumanists tend to subscribe to the first point but not the second, leading to the charge that they are liberal eugenicists. China, on the other hand, engages in a form of eugenics that draws from both agendas; the state is actively involved in the ongoing biological re-engineering of its citizens for ideological ends.

More broadly, eugenics is an old Greek term that means 'well born.' The general idea is that genetic constitutions can be improved, either by selective breeding or through more advanced reproductive technologies like applied genomics. Needless to say it is a highly controversial concept with no shortage of detractors.

Dysgenics and neugenics

But what does it mean to oppose eugenics? When one is anti-eugenics what does that actually entail?

There's an old truism (or is that an old Rush lyric?) which states that even when you choose not to decide you still have made a choice. A similar thing can be said about those who oppose eugenics. By consequence, detractors have unconsciously positioned themselves as being either dysgenicists or neugenicists.

Dysgenics is the notion that humans should genetically regress from an evolutionary standpoint and default to harmlessness. Yes, there are people who actually believe we should do this (which, I suppose, is not nearly as bad as the misanthropic Voluntary Human Extinction Movement). Such a standpoint can be interpreted as a kind of oxymoronic Luddite transhumanism where progress is measured not by the increase or refinement of physical and psychological capacities, but instead by their regression. The ultimate goal would be to see civilizations whither away and have devolved humans return to the jungle.

Neugenics, which is the majority bioethical opinion today (and most notably the opinion of bioconservatives, human exceptionalists, and anti-transhumanists), is the conviction that the human genome must not be deliberately altered to any significant degree. The general idea is that Homo sapiens are fine just they way they are and that enhancement will only lead to greater societal discord and/or diminished lives (i.e. a case of more being less). The underlying assumption is that God or nature has already optimized human beings; human enhancement would only knock over this fragile house of cards.

Neugenics is a new bioethical designation that has only come about through the advent of enhancement technologies (which includes artificial selection a la the old school eugenicists). This particular issue has migrated from the theoretical to the practical now that we have the capacity to enhance. It is only by becoming real (or perceived to be real) that an issue becomes political.

Human stasism

And here is where it gets interesting.

If the state sides with the neugenicists and bans the use of enhancement technologies, then it is enforcing a particular vision of humanity, albeit a fixed one. In this sense the neugenicists are similar to the authoritarian eugenicists of the past. In each case individual procreative freedoms have been trumped by the demands of the state (which, in a democracy, is supposedly the consensus opinion).

But any discussion of human reproductive rights must critically examine how the state justifies the abrogation of specific procreative choices. Fewer things are more coercive than state intervention in the reproductive practices of its citizens, especially in consideration of the presumption that parents tend to have the best interests of their children in mind.

As already noted, state control of human reproduction is one of two central tenets in the conventional definition of eugenics; the rationale behind the state’s intervention in this context is irrelevant (whether it be democratic consensus or totalitarian ideology). As the state exerts a greater interventionist role in limiting reproductive options, the greater is its commitment to 'eugenics', or in the case of limiting or denying germinal choice technologies, a commitment to autocratic neugenics (i.e. human genome stasism). One could go even further by suggesting that it is quasi-dysgenic if detrimental traits (such as genetic disorders) are permitted to disseminate and propagate unhindered in the human gene pool (but this is arguable because natural selection already works to prevent this).

Choice not chance

The parental desire for the so-called 'designer baby' is a reasonable one. It represents the next revolutionary step in human procreation and another victory over the blind forces of nature. Prospective parents will no longer have to rely on the genetic roll of the dice when it comes to determining the health and makeup of their offspring.

This said, I'm not so biolibertarian or naive to suggest that we advocate a genetic free-for-all. Enhancement technologies are monumentally powerful and have the potential to cause great social disruption. Make no mistake: state regulation and monitoring will be paramount. What's needed is a smart, non-reactive, and progressive hand.

This issue speaks to the heart of reproductive rights as it is an empowering technology that will allow for greater individual control and autonomy over personal reproductive processes. But like any new technology, it will be subject to abuse and error. And like any other powerful technology, it will need to be regulated and monitored. Child abuse laws are already in effect, for example, and they will need to be applied to those cases in which the guidelines for how parents can or cannot genetically alter their offspring are disregarded or abused.

Prudent and compassionate action

Finally, another problem with the neugenic vision is its non-interventionist position. Ethics and compassion are not passive activities; it is through our actions that we are able to help.

And what is it exactly that we are trying to accomplish vis-a-vis enhancement? It is the fostering of lives that can flourish, self-actualize, and meet their greatest potentials, while ensuring that they are free from as much suffering and undue constraints as is possible.

This is a broad vision for the future. There are no pre-determined and fixed visions of what humanity must become. Rather, it will be through our collective compassionate and common sense actions that we will unintentionally allow the human species to continue to evolve in a positive direction.

February 20, 2007

Latest podcast available

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

In this episode I discuss Holocaust deniers and global warming skeptics, the phenomenon of Islamic fascism, and cyber-warfare and the 'blogger threat'.

Film recommendation: Babel

I watched Babel the other night and have been reflecting on it ever since. I highly recommend this one. You'll particularly enjoy it if you like loosely intertwined multi-narratives (a la Traffic).

Babel offers excellent commentary on human carelessness and fallibility and how modern society is unable (or unwilling) to accommodate these shortcomings. People just go about their business, doing their jobs and what's expected of them. Blind institutions have usurped interpersonal connections and any sense of compassion. And even when empathy is established, people are constrained by their job obligations or societal expectations. The various stories include,
  • A woman is shot by accident while traveling in Morocco, which in turn causes an international row that prevents help from actually getting to her.
  • Unable to find someone who can watch the kids, or to obtain permission to take the day off, an illegal alien caregiver takes two children with her as she travels in Mexico for her son's wedding.
  • A depressed and sexually confused deaf-mute Japanese teenager tries to cope with her mother's suicide.
  • Carelessness during shooting practice goes horribly wrong for two young boys.
In each of these narratives, people make mistakes or become victims of their inherent imperfections and foibles. And in each story, society fails to properly help them.

Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, Babel is gut-wrenching and Kafkaesque (I'm thinking of Josef K's bureaucratic nightmare in The Trial) -- but where Kafka provided dreamy surrealism, Babel only offers the hard truth and bitter reality. It's a hard watch, but it never degrades to the point of complete hopelessness and cynicism.

If anything, you'll feel a bit more connected to your fellow man.

February 19, 2007

Michael Huang on the Fermi Paradox

Michael Huang of the Space Review has posted a good overview of the Fermi Paradox. In his article, titled The Other Side of the Fermi Paradox, Huang notes that "By examining the possible futures of extraterrestrial civilizations, we are simultaneously examining the possible futures of our own civilization." Put in another way, says Huang, "if an alien civilization somewhere had their own version of the Fermi paradox, they would be speculating on our future in the same way that we speculate on theirs."


One of the reconciliations to the paradox cited by Huang is the Park hypothesis, which states that advanced civs have not colonized the galaxy because they don’t want to. Strangely, Huang claims that "staying on Earth is a mediocre future for humankind."

I've observed that the psychological and aesthetic desire to explore space often leads to a space exploration bias. This quite obviously has a bearing on any analysis of the Fermi Paradox. Space enthusiasts tend to be incredulous to the suggestion that interstellar colonization is not in our future. But as Huang himself admits, the possibility exists for "the creation of virtual reality worlds so impressive that real world challenges, such as space colonization, pale in comparison."

Indeed, if advanced civs stay at home you can bet that there's a damn good reason for it, and I'm certain it won't be a mediocre one.

February 14, 2007

New RSS feed

For those of you who read this blog via RSS, please change the feed to this.


The right to be wrong: tolerating Holocaust deniers and global warming skeptics

Late last year "revisionist" historian David Irving was released from an Austrian prison after serving 13 months of a 3-year sentence. Irving, a notorious Holocaust denier and anti-semite, had violated Austria's 'Prohibition Statute' which forbids the trivialization of the Nazi Holocaust.

I am certainly no fan of Irving and his warped view of history, but I find it disquieting to know that one can still be jailed in a liberal democracy like Austria for being a prisoner of conscience. It appears that some countries find it necessary to ban the freedom to deny.

Irving may be using his credentials as an historian (whatever those 'credentials' may be at this point) to propagate disinformation, but he is within his rights to do so. Our society does not enforce the integrity of the memesphere through coercion. Moreover, Irving clearly subscribes to a certain belief structure. In a free society, we have no choice but to tolerate this sort of bullshit.

That doesn't mean, of course, that we can't rail against it. Even Deborah Lipstadt, an outspoken critic of Irving, was opposed to his imprisonment, noting "I am not happy when censorship wins, and I don't believe in winning battles via censorship… The way of fighting Holocaust deniers is with history and with truth."

It's all too easy to throw a hissy fit and throw people in jail when their views oppose your own, but this is exactly what is happening with Holocaust deniers. And disturbingly, it appears that the right to deny global warming is also in jeopardy. Like the war against Holocaust revisionists, there are those who would like to permanently silence the global warming skeptics. The fear and dread surrounding the climate change crisis had led to a religious-like fervor and the emergence of a new political correctness. Even more bizarre is that global warming skeptics are actually being compared to Holocaust deniers.

Take for example the recent outburst from journalist Ellen Goodman. "I would like to say we're at a point where global warming is impossible to deny," she proclaims, "Let's just say that global warming deniers are now on a par with Holocaust deniers, though one denies the past and the other denies the present and future." Goodman and others would like to see this sort of memetic linkage stick, which would cause brains to automatically turn off and see emotions raised to the boiling point.

Climate change is now such a serious social issue that entire careers and reputations are at stake. Recently, Heidi Cullen of the The Weather Channel suggested that the American Meteorological Society revoke their "Seal of Approval" for any television meteorologist who expresses skepticism that human activity is creating a climate catastrophe. "Clearly, the AMS doesn't agree that global warming can be blamed on cyclical weather patterns," she says, "It's like allowing a meteorologist to go on-air and say that hurricanes rotate clockwise and tsunamis are caused by the weather. It's not a political statement...it's just an incorrect statement."

And just last week a dispute erupted in Oregon, where Gov. Ted Kulongoski has considered firing the state's climatologist George Taylor, who has said human activity isn't the chief cause of global climate change. "It seems if scientists don't express the views of the political establishment, they will be threatened and that is a discomforting thought," said Alabama state climatologist John Christie, a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.

Indeed, the notion that certain lines of scientific inquiry be prohibited is unacceptable and runs against the spirit of academic due diligence. Part of the problem here is that bona fide research is often conflated with the malevolent work of the denial industry; there is a growing network of fake citizens' groups, extremists, and bogus scientific bodies who are claiming that the science of global warming is inconclusive. These groups, to no one's surprise, are the sorry spawn of corporations who have the most to lose in the struggle against greenhouse gas emissions. Exxon is one company that certainly comes to mind.

Again, like the Holocaust deniers, these groups are shielded by freedom-of-speech laws. At the same time these disinformation engines need to be exposed, and it is our responsibility as concerned citizens, writers and activists to make that happen. Scientists and highly influential figures also need to wade into the fray -- and they have. Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth has been tremendously influential, and groups like the Union of Concerned Scientists are working to reveal scientific abuses and interference.

Meanwhile, scientists and academics deserve to be protected from the perils of groupthink and "consensus science." Jeff Kueter, president of the George C. Marshall Institute (GMI), warns that "rational and open" discussion of climate change science that includes dissenting voices is in danger of being short-circuited at the expense of sound science and free speech. "It smacks to me of McCarthyism and big-brotherism and is completely antithetical to the scientific process and the American political philosophy of free speech," he says.

Attacking researchers who seek to challenge the status quo, aside from it being a witch hunt, may also work to the detriment of those concerned about the environment. If there are other factors and circumstances contributing to global warming we most certainly need to know about it.

The war against climate change is at risk of becoming a new religion where 'climate contrarians' have been pegged as the new blasphemers. At its extreme, global warming skeptics may be at risk of being accused of crimes against humanity.

And it is here where I will close by making an important distinction. It is one thing for a scientist to continue to gather evidence, pose theories and work towards verification. It is another thing altogether for unscrupulous groups to like Exxon and corrupt politicians to add unwarranted noise and obstacles to the discussion. Politicians do not have the luxury of experimentation. Instead, they need to act and forge policy.

Consequently, politicians are by necessity held to a different standard. They have an obligation to parse through the noise and act in the public's best interest. In order for them to do so they must be informed by the best of what science has to offer.

And in order for there to be 'the best science' we have to give the scientific establishment the benefit of the doubt and the freedom to conduct sound and unhindered scientific investigations.

Buddha Break 2007.02.14

Here's an e-mail exchange I recently had with a friend who is discovering the merits of Buddhism, but is worried about its 'religious' aspects and the potential extremes of unattachment (my friend's questions are indented):

> Not counting the obvious practices such as meditation, can you think
> of some examples in which as a Buddhist you've reacted to a real-
> world situation differently than you might have before? Even as one
> who isn't quite ready to consider himself a Buddhist, as a result of
> the reading I've done I find myself being consciously aware of my
> surroundings and my own behavior, and when something begins to upset
> me I remind myself that it is only a feeling that will pass, and so
> it does. Does Buddhism, for you, result in a continual checking of
> yourself, or has it become internalized and automatic?

To me it's an issue of maintaining mindfulness. I'm constantly doing mindfulness checks, which I think is par for the course. Over time it's getting easier and easier for me to remain rooted in the moment and be aware -- with the ultimate goal of having it come automatically and effortlessly. I try to be as self-reflexive as possible. Whenever I have an emotional swing or an emotion spike I try to take a psychological step back and trace the steps that led to such feelings. This doesn't mean you have to fight the feelings; it's more a matter of understanding how those feelings and thoughts were contingent upon one another.

I also work to 'read' those around me to get a sense of their state of mind -- this also gets easier over time because you can see patterns in people that mirror your own. They may not be aware of their state to the degree that you are. This helps in interactions because knowing their state of mind will help in your constructive interactions with them. And of course, this can also help increase your sense of empathy with them.

Some examples of mindfulness include my ongoing interactions with my kids and my work day. With my kids, I strive to remain calm, respectful and helpful. As for my day job, much of my work is menial and repetitive. This is where the Zen Buddhists have it figured out. Each task, no matter how often it is repeated, can be scaled down and analyzed such that it can still be improved upon, or at the very least maintained. If you become bored of a task, then it's important to be mindful of the boredom and work on your psychological self-conditioning to recognize it as an emotional state and a craving of sorts. It may not help with the boredom, but it's a start.

> As a secular Buddhist, who presumably isn't constantly consumed with
> the minutia of doctrine, do you feel like you should be strictly
> following the traditional "rules?" What about drinking? What about
> sex? Is the letter of the law important, or the spirit? I know the
> Buddha says that the dharma is testable through experience, but how
> much "Buddhism" can a Buddhist ignore before he's really just a guy
> who thinks self-reflection and meditation is cool?

I struggle with this. My own personal goal is to do the best I can under the circumstances. First and foremost, a Buddhist's primary motivation is to mete as little harm as possible to other sentient agents (the Dalai Lama, btw, eats meat because he likes it so much; we're not after moral perfection, here -- it's more of a spectrum of behaviour that one is comfortable with). The second priority is to not harm yourself. You're also a sentient agent who deserves to be as free from suffering just like the next guy. Ask yourself: am I abusing or neglecting myself? In what way am I responsible for my unhappiness?

As for striking a balance, I try to do 'relative happiness' checks from time to time. If I feel that I'm slipping down a slope I try to analyze my habits to see if I'm letting a potentially bad habit or craving-of-the-week dictate my negative moods.

One thing I learned early on (and Gautama talked about this) is to avoid a purely aesetic life. Avoidance of all things that give pleasure and the seeking of existential minimalism and even suffering is ridiculous and futile. Take eating, for example. Enjoy eating, but be mentally prepared to give up your favourite food at any given time. You can still honour your preferences and lead a good life filled with experiential goodness.

When Asian Buddhists visit North America, for example, they prefer noodles to pizza when given the option. If they have no choice but to choose pizza, they still eat the pizza without letting it affect their mood. That, imo, is the key to Buddhism. If, on the other hand, you have a habit that you're not prepared to discard if you had to, then you have an issue that's worth exploring.

> One thing I'm really curious about is how one knows when a desire is
> the selfish craving of tanha, and not simply something one wants
> because it is pleasing. Is it simply a matter of enjoying things for
> their own sakes, without expectations? Is my desire to get a new
> iPod merely something that I will enjoy listening to music on, or is
> it something that I subconsciously feel will help make me whole? Is
> it as simple as meditation or just being aware and reflective about
> why I want things? Or are all desires tanha, and some are merely
> more destructive than others? I guess that's really more a technical
> question than a general one, but it's one I'm not sure about
> nonetheless.

I think some of the answers to this question are related to the previous one. I like what you said, "Is it simply a matter of enjoying things for their own sakes, without expectations?" That's a good way of looking at it. The key is to recognize the severity with which you may be attached to something.

I also like that you said, "or is it something that I subconsciously feel will help make me whole." That's a very mindful observation! Experiment! Go ahead and buy that iPod and self-reflect on how your feelings and perspectives change over the course of the transaction.

Here's what I suspect will happen (because I go through this all the time myself): I crave some new technological gadget and look forward to using it and the new outlets it will create for me (ie artistic expression, novel information, superior features, etc). I buy the item and I am immediately filled with buyer's remorse. Once I'm over that I enjoy the product, but never to the degree that I fantasized I would. Eventually the novelty wears off and my craving re-directs to another technological gadget. This is most definitely a cycle of despair. I'm still stuck in this rut, but I've made the first step of being mindful about it and I suspect that I will soon learn that I don't need to buy every little toy.

I'm also mindful about my motivations for wanting technology (or anything for that matter). Consider the impact of our evolutionary psychology: we are hardwired to crave material possessions, we have a desire to increase social status, we love tools, and so on. I may have also purchased the product due to social pressure, the need to conform, and extremely effective marketing (NLP, etc.). Again, my actions may not change, but my *awareness* of what causes my actions are raised to the surface. Eventually I hope to be able to transcend external and internal influences and achieve better control of not just my actions but my psychological reactions as well.

Lastly, Buddhism is soley about psychology and managing your state of mind. It's not about buying the iPod. It's about the quality of your subjective experience leading to the decision and your subsequent mental states.

> I need to read more. On that note, do you have any recommendations
> as far as books or websites that I could learn from?

Batchelor's Alone With Others is awesome. Life changing.

And while not exclusively Buddhist, these articles also had a life
changing effect on me and has helped tremendously in my meditative and
mindfulness practices:

Read the first series at the very least:

February 8, 2007

The perils of a digital life

I've written about potential inhibitors to consciousness uploading in the past, but I believe I've come up with another possible problem for those wishing to live a purely digital life. It may very well turn out that, as a medium, digital substrate is far too insecure and algorithmically unconstrained. This could eventually lead to intractable complexity. Put another way, a digital existence may be too open-ended and diverse for there to be any kind of stability.

Virtual reality environments and MMORPGs are giving us the first clue that this may be a problem. Take Second Life, for example, which is already experiencing a number of strange anomalies and issues. In the past year SL users have had to deal with CopyBot, CampBots, SheepBots, grey goo, and alt instances.

Each of these are headaches unto themselves, and possible harbingers of more severe problems to come.

Virtual nuisances

CopyBot was originally created as a debugging tool by the SL development team and was intended for functions like import/export and backing up data. But as is so often the case with technology, it was twisted and used for an entirely different purpose altogether. Some opportunistic Second Lifers used CopyBot to duplicate items that were marked no copy by the creator or owner, thus violating intellectual property rights. To date, attempts to counter CopyBot have included anti-CopyBot spamming defeaters, which have in turn given rise to anti-anti-CopyBot defeaters. Call it an algorithmic arms race.

While this hints at post-scarcity and open source, it is still unclear how unbridled duplication will offer users the incentive to create original artifacts for the SL environment.

CampBots and SheepBots aren't nearly as contentious, but are equally annoying. These are essentially SpamBots working under the guise of an avatar.

And back in October of 2006 users experienced a grey goo scare when a "griefer" (a person who disrupts video-games) attacked Second Life with self-replicating "grey goo" that melted down the SL servers. The griefers used malign scripts that caused objects to spontaneously self-replicate. According to the the transcript of the SL blogs:
4:15pm PST: We are still in the process of investigating the grid-wide griefing attacks, as such we have momentarily disabled scripts and “money transfers to objects” as well on the entire grid. We apologize for this and thank for your patience. As soon as I have more information, I will pass it along.

4:35pm PST: As part of our effort to counter the recent grey goo attacks, we’re currently doing a rolling restart of the grid to help clean it out, this means each region will be restarted over the course of the next few hours. Thanks again for your patience.

4:55pm PST: There was a slight delay to our rolling restart while we continued our investigation. The rolling restart should begin soon, if you are currently in-world you will get a warning before your region is restarted - allowing you to teleport to another region. We hope to have logins open again very soon. Thanks again for everyone’s patience during this issue.
More recently SL users have had to compete with so-called alt instances who launch ultra-fast bots that scoop up valuable land; automated bots work with much greater efficiency than humans. Alt instances are additional avatars controlled by the same user. They do this to capitalize on on the First Land privileges that are extended to newbies. It is estimated that users have on average 1.25 avatars, indicating that there may be as many as 500,000 in-world alts.

These bots have created a huge digital scarcity because Second Life has been overwhelmed with the groundswell of new residents. Users have asked that these bots be made illegal and Linden Labs has agreed to look into it.

Our analog, digital and future worlds

As I look at these examples I can't help but think that virtual reality environments are offering a glimpse into our future -- both in the analog and digital arenas. Second Life in particular is a mirror of not just our own society, but of future society itself. In real life we are dealing with the widespread copying of copyrighted material, issues of open source, out of control spam, the threat/promise of automation, molecular fabrication, and of course, the grim possibility of runaway nanotech.

Moreover, an uploaded society would conceivably face more problems in digital substrate than in the cozy confines of the analog world. We can't 'hack' into the code of the Universe (at least not yet). As a consequence our existence is still very much constrained by the laws of physics, access to resources, and the limits of our information systems (i.e. our accumulated body of knowledge). That said, we do a fairly decent job of soft-hacking into the Universe, which is very much the modus operandi of an intelligent species.

But the soft-hacking that we're doing is becoming more and more sophisticated -- something that could lead to over-complexity. We're creating far too many dangerous variables that require constant monitoring and control.

As for the digital realm, it is already complex by default. But like the analog world it too has constraints, though slightly different. Virtual worlds have to deal with limitations imposed by computational power, algorithmic technology and access to information. Aside from that, the sky's the limit. Such computational diversity could lead to complexity an order of magnitude above analog life.

Hackers and criminals would seek to infiltrate and exploit everything under the virtual sun, including conscious minds. Conscious agents would have to compete with automatons. Bots of unimaginable ilk would run rampant. There would be problems of swarming, self-replication and distributed attacks. And even more disturbingly, nothing would be truly secure and the very authenticity of existence would constantly be put into question.

Perhaps there are solutions to these problems, but I'm inclined to doubt it. Natural selection is unkind to overspecialized species. Further, we have no working model of evolution in digital substrate (aside from some primitive simulations).

This is one case where I certainly hope to be proven wrong.


February 7, 2007

Stelarc's talk at Transmediale

Stelarc's recent talk at Transmediale has been covered at We Make Money Not Art.

Stelarc is an Australian performance artist who uses medical instruments, prosthetics, robotics, virtual reality systems and the Internet to explore alternate, intimate and involuntary interfaces with the body.

As an aside, I had the great pleasure of meeting Stelarc when he keynoted at TransVision 2004. Unlike the anti-social Steve Mann (who also gave a keynote presentation), he stayed and mingled with the conference attendees for the entire weekend -- he's a very warm and approachable guy. He was even in attendance for my talk on working the conscious canvas, which was a great honour.

I suspect that Stelarc go down as one of the greatest visionary artists of our time.

February 6, 2007

Latest podcast posted

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

In this episode I discuss why BC was right to seize 3 Jehovah Witnesses babies, ethical eats, and how everyone in the future will be able to play the guitar like Eddie Van Halen.

More Henson notes

Okay, Keith is out of jail. He has been released from the Prescott jail on bond, pending his March 5 court date. A summary of events can be found here.

Disturbingly, it appears that he was mistreated by police and his jailers. He was told during the arrest that he had no right to an attorney and was put into solitary confinement in a poorly heated cell without adequate bedding. According to his laywer, Michael Kielsky, something "very political" is going on. "They gave him an extra blanket but then an hour later they took it away," he said, "this is a 66-year-old man with a heart problem."

Unreal. I haven't been this angry in a while. Thankfully this case is getting a fair amount of attention, including the C|Net news article (cited above) getting cross-posted to the New York Times.

Also, R. U. Sirius has posted an interview he did with Henson back in 2003. Which reminds me, we also did an interview with Henson back in 2003 for Betterhumans.

February 5, 2007

Keith Henson update

The Keith Henson story broke through big-time today into the alternative media. Here's what went down:
  • My coverage of Henson's recent arrest is garnering a fair amount of attention and is being linked to from a number of sites; it was also cross-posted at the IEET site and given a ride on Reddit.

  • R.U. Sirius wrote an excellent article at 10ZenMonkeys. It was subsequently Slashdotted. Huge.

  • Another great article at Daily Kos: Keith Henson and the Great Miscarriage of Justice.

  • Philosopher and neuroscientist Anders Sandberg chimes in: Fighting Bad Enlightenment Business Practices.

  • P2Pnet has also posted an article
  • Now an update: Henson is currently at the Yavapai Detention Center in Prescott, Arizona, awaiting possible extradition to Riverside County, California. Henson has previously received death threats to the effect that he would be killed while serving his sentence. At the "initial appearance" hearing today, Henson stated through counsel that he is fighting extradition and requested release. The court set a future court date for March 5, 2007 at 1:30 pm in the Prescott Justice Court, and fixed the security for his release at $7,500 cash or bond, with standard conditions.

    Please consider a donation to Keith and his family. He has been made bankrupt by this entire ordeal and can use all the help he can get.

    February 4, 2007

    Why BC was right to seize Jehovah's Witnesses babies

    There is a high-profile case currently making news in Canada involving a Jehovah's Witnesses family whose three infants were seized by the government of British Columbia so that they could be given potentially life saving blood transfusions. The babies are three of four surviving sextuplets born in early January. The case raises a number of issues, including the limits to religious freedoms, the obligations of parents and the state, and the right to refuse medical treatment.

    It is my opinion that the BC government acted appropriately and with complete justification; they were forced to act a) as a result of the parents' gross negligence -- religiously influenced or otherwise, and b) on behalf of the infants who were in need of state protection.

    At a peripheral level, the issue is of significance to the therapy versus enhancement debate. Given changing conceptions of normal human functioning and health, it is an open question as to whether future interventions (such as the elimination of genetic disorders) should become mandatory, or if parents should be given the option to refuse treatment.

    Before I get into my analysis, however, here is a run-down of what has transpired in BC thus far:

    The events

    Canada's first sextuplets were born in early January and that was in and of itself big news. The babies, four boys and two girls, were delivered after only 25 to 26 weeks of gestation -- one naturally and the rest via Caesarean -- and each weighed less than 2 pounds each.

    They were smaller than an adult hand and were immediately placed in intensive care where they were listed under fair condition. Their vital signs were stable and within normal limits, but because they were born so premature, they were initially given an 80% probability of surviving. Preemies have underdeveloped organs and immune systems which make them more vulnerable to infection.

    One baby died days after birth, and then another in the following weeks. The surviving four babies were clinging to life.

    The sextuplets were born to Jehovah's Witnesses, a Protestant Christian sect that forbids blood transfusions and organ transplants. It is not uncommon for preemies to undergo blood transfusions; they tend to suffer from low hemoglobin and experience blood loss as a consequence of frequent blood tests.

    Instead, the parents insisted on alternative measures including careful attention to minimal blood sampling, clinical acceptance of lower hemoglobin levels, use of erythropoietin and iron to stimulate natural production of red blood cells and other medical procedures.

    Concerned about the surviving infants, the provincial government began to scramble and mobilize for more drastic action. On 29-January, under Section 29 of the "Child, Family and Community Service Act," and with the support of the Supreme Court, the government took temporary custody of one infant to allow for what was deemed an essential blood transfusion.

    On the next day the Ministry of Children and Family Development asked the parents for permission to perform a blood transfusion on a second infant, but they received no response. The second child was taken into protective custody and given a blood transfusion. According to the father, he "could not bear to be at the hospital when they were violating [his] little girl." He complained that it was unfair of the ministry to label them as unfit because they "choose alternative medical treatments to blood transfusions."

    Eventually the third baby was taken to the hospital, with the fourth remaining under the parents' guardianship. The Vancouver parents are now in a legal battle with the province, claiming the government violated their religious freedoms.

    Religious freedoms

    This case is an excellent example of why there needs to be a clear delineation between the church and state. Religious injunctions often contribute to poor and ill informed decisions. The state, on the other hand, can remain impartial and perform due diligence on matters of religious consequence. It is for this reason that I have also argued for the separation of church and bioethics.

    The parents, who are clearly very happy to be parents and who claim to be looking out for their children's best interests, are refusing to allow treatment on nonsensical grounds. Scriptural or aesthetic justifications that inhibit life saving interventions are arbitrary and negligent at best (I say arbitrary because the mother utilized fertility treatments to help her get pregnant).

    In our liberal democracies, the right to practice religion is largely a policy of tolerance. Citizens are given the benefit of the doubt in free societies to worship as they see fit. But it is a freedom that is endured so long as the social contract is maintained. One cannot break the law and decry that their religious freedoms have been violated. It is for this very reason, for example, that Sharia law will not be introduced in Canada despite pressure to do so.

    The BC government did what they needed to do. Moreover, it is their responsibility to intervene in cases such as these. This is why we have governments. The parents made an extremely poor and dangerous decision on behalf of their children who were in no position to offer protest or defend themselves.

    Parental obligations

    But where do we draw the line? Is it merely life saving interventions that need to be enforced? Will enhancement technologies change this situation?

    Like blood transfusions, future technologies will change expectations about what can and should be done. Access to genetic technologies, for example, may one day result in mandatory therapies that eliminate genetic disorders. This practice may become so standard and accepted that failure to do so may eventually be considered abusive.

    There's the further risk that children born with preventable conditions will sue their parents for failing to intervene when they could have done so.

    Consequently, the state will likely establish a minimum set of mandatory therapies. Creating such a list will not be easy, as there will forever be disagreement as to what constitutes a 'disorder' and how to discern the line between therapy and enhancement. This will become all the more complicated when traits that come about via enhancement start to normalize to the point where the absence of such endowments prevent an individual from partaking in society in the same way that the lack of an education and illiteracy does today.

    These are not easy decisions, but neither is the choice to become a parent. Prospective parents must realize that the decision to have children comes with a requisite set of obligations. They need to ensure as is most reasonably possible that their children be given all the benefits that health technologies can bring so that they may live healthy, full, and open-ended lives.

    The right to decline treatment

    This case also raises the issue of the 'right' to decline treatment. The Jehovah's Witnesses parents, who were acting on behalf of their infants, claimed not only that their religious freedoms had been violated, but that they were unjustifiably prevented from using alternative therapies.

    There are two things to consider here.

    First, with two babies already dead and another 4 clinging to life, the decision to seize the children and force blood transfusions was not made lightly. The doctors chose to err on the side of caution as failure to act could have resulted in their deaths. Severe cases are not a time to experiment with alternative therapies. Moreover, aside from hurt religious sensibilities, the blood transfusions did not cause any harm.

    The second issue is more complex as it deals with informed consent and the right to refuse treatment. As a supporter of voluntary euthanasia and alternative medicines, I believe that citizens deserve the right to manage their health in the best way they see fit (self-injury is a related issue, but one that falls outside the bounds of this particular post). Consequently, an adult Jehovah's Witness has the right to refuse a blood transfusion -- even if it is a foolish decision.

    As for children, society is set-up such that parents make critical decisions on their behalf until they reach the age of consent. In this sense, children are a special class of citizens. They don't have the full spectrum of privileges that adults have -- for example they cannot vote or drink alcohol.

    At the same time children also have special protections. The state, in conjunction with children's aid societies, are within their bounds to take a child into protective custody when the parents have been declared unfit. Parents have the authority to make decisions for their kids by default, but that privilege can be taken away from them when necessary.

    In the case of the BC sextuplets, the decision to withhold treatment was tantamount to negligence and even abuse. Had the babies died as a consequence of insufficient treatment, the province would have been within their bounds to charge the parents with child abuse causing death and possibly even homicide. The rationale behind the parents' inaction makes no difference, whether it be instigated by religion, mental illness, or alcohol.

    Closing notes

    I am certain that the parents' decision to withhold treatment was an extremely difficult one and that this is a very trying time for them. It may take some time before they achieve any sense of normalcy again. They will have deal with the fact that their children were given blood transfusions and move on. I certainly hope that they will not look at their infants as being any less special. Moreover, I hope that their community will not shun them out like they have done to others in similar cases.

    I also hope that when all is said and done that the parents will look back one day and be grateful that action was taken to save the lives of their children.

    February 3, 2007

    Anti-Scientology activist Keith Henson taken into custody

    Keith Henson, an outspoken anti-Scientology activist, was arrested last night and is currently being held at the Prescott Detention Center in Arizona. His wife, Arel Lucas, says he was taken into custody on a 6-year old bench warrant issued by a Riverside County judge.

    Henson's troubles began in 2001 when he was convicted of "interfering with a religion", a misdemeanor under California law, for picketing outside Scientology's facility in Hemet, CA. He eventually fled to Canada after receiving a number of death threats. He was deported in 2005 after his asylum bid was rejected.

    Lucas strongly suspects that the Church of Scientology is involved in Henson's current incarceration and fears for both his life and her own. The death threats have been constant since 2001. Scientology's power and reach has become considerable in recent years, leading to accusations that it is not so much a cult as it is an organized crime outfit that disguises itself as a religious organization.

    In addition to his anti-Scientology activism, Henson is a pioneer in the transhumanist and cryonics movements. After receiving word of Henson's incarceration, the transhumanist community quickly mobilized. The Prescott Detention Center has been inundated with calls from concerned supporters. Various media outlets have been alerted (including BoingBoing [who have to date failed to acknowledge the case]), and a number of Websites have already been set up to raise awareness in support of Henson's cause (including Free Keith Henson). The Extropy Institute has set up fund to help Henson with mounting costs.

    Learn more about Keith Henson and his plight here, here, and here.

    Sexist Kia ad under attack

    Several weeks ago I blogged about a Kia car commercial in which a female police offer pulls over a male driver so that she can make out with him. I complained that the ad was a typical example of the double-standard that exists today in male-female power relations.

    Well, the ad is now under attack in Canada and will likely soon be banned (if not already). The complaints are slightly different than my own; the ad offends on several levels.

    The Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police are asking for the full withdrawal of the ad. According to Deputy Chief Sue O'Sullivan, the "commercial implies that female police officers are unprofessional and perpetuates the stereotype that women are not suitable for police work by objectifying them in this matter."

    Tony Ciccia, the VP of the ad agency that created the spot, countered that it was meant to be humourous and he's "shocked" that police groups are outraged by the ad.

    Peterborough police Chief Terry McLaren echoed O'Sullivan's sentiments in a written statement: "This commercial is sexist and demeans our entire profession, particularly our female officers who serve their communities with professionalism and dignity," The association is also asking Kia for a public apology.

    For those who are curious, you can see the ad on YouTube (of course).

    Earthquake warning issued for Vancouver Island

    British Columbia has been put on high alert for a huge quake. Seismologists have made rapid strides in earthquake detection and are now putting their work into practice.

    Thankfully, the odds of the earthquake happening are still quite low, but a series of imperceptible tremors emanating from deep beneath the ocean were recently detected. Scientists now recognize these events as ominous warnings that the earth is on the move again -- this time just off Vancouver Island.