October 29, 2008

Anand wins 2008 Chess World Championship

India's Viswanathan Anand has retained his FIDE World Chess Championship title by beating Russia's Vladimir Kramnik in Bonn, Germany. Anand defeated Kramnik 6.5:4.5 (11 games).

According to Garry Kasparov, "A great result for Anand and for chess. Vishy deserved the win in every way and I'm very happy for him. It will not be easy for the younger generation to push him aside."

More here and here.

October 27, 2008

Enter the robots

  • 20 Killed in One of the Deadliest Drone Attacks Ever
  • Packs of Robots Will Hunt Down Uncooperative Humans
  • Marshal Brain Makes Splash With Structural Unemployment Message at Singularity Summit 08
  • Latest web fad: Robocop on Unicorn
  • SciAm: Jacking into the Brain--Is the Brain the Ultimate Computer Interface?

    What, then, might realistically be achieved by interactions between brains and machines? Do the advances from the first EEG experiment to brain-controlled arms and cursors suggest an inevitable, deterministic progression, if not toward a Kurzweilian singularity, then perhaps toward the possibility of inputting at least some high-level cognitive information into the brain? Could we perhaps download War and Peace or, with a nod to The Matrix, a manual of how to fly a helicopter? How about inscribing the sentence “See Spot run” into the memory of someone who is unconscious of the transfer? How about just the word “see”?
    Entire article.

    October 25, 2008

    Oliver Stone and the accidental president

    When I first heard that Oliver Stone was making a film about George W. Bush I immediately assumed that it was going to be an unapologetically liberal roast-fest. I imagined W. to be a scathing and unrelenting portrayal of arguably the worst president the United States has ever seen.

    With popular culture fueling my expectations, I imagined a surreal and glib rendition of the current administration along the lines of Saturday Night Live or the Colbert Report.

    But after reading the reviews and hearing about Stone's supposedly 'fair' and 'balanced' portrayal of Bush, I started to pay more attention. Some commentators went so far as to say that the movie made them feel pity for the man.

    Pity for Dubya?
    What was Stone up to? This is the last director, I thought, who would let the Bush administration off easily.

    And Bush is the last president, I thought, who deserves anyone's pity -- a man who has done more to terrorize people at home and abroad than the terrorists he's worked so hard to combat; a man who started an illegal war in the Middle East that has caused the deaths of nearly 100,000 civilians; a man who ignored one of the worst natural disasters to strike the US in modern memory; a man who has created unparalleled divisiveness amongst his own people. I could go on.

    And even for me -- a Buddhist who strives to practice universal compassion -- this man has put my patience to the test.

    Given all this I was very motivated to see and judge this movie for myself.

    Powerful cinematic realism

    And indeed, it was no late-night television caricature. Rather, W. is a typical Hollywood foray into super-realist cinema. But it is a realism that is far more upsetting and revealing than any pithy character attack.

    By painting a fairly objective and first-person portryal of Bush, and by dramatising the twisted machinations and personalities of his administration, Oliver Stone has created a disturbing film that undoubtedly offers more impact than any other approach. The realness of it -- being right there amongst the major players and watching the events unfold -- cast an eerie light on not just this administration, but on the United States itself and how politics is done in that country.

    W. subtly reveals the perils of populist politics by chronicling the unexpected and advantageous chain of events that brings the most unlikeliest of men to the White House. During one scene, for example, the campaigning Bush touts his ability to connect with ordinary citizens on account of his experience running the Texas Rangers baseball club. It's impossible to watch this scene and not think of Sarah Palin as she uses her experience as a hockey mom to appeal to populist sensibilities. This is an America that is consistently asking for trouble by grossly over-estimating the abilities of certain politicians. 

    The deluded decider
    Stone presents a George W. Bush who is ignorant, arrogant and shockingly unreflective -- a man who is driven by sheer ego and an unchecked desire to prove himself. At no time does this man ever question his own qualifications; in fact, the movie portrays Bush as a man who actively deludes himself into thinking that the ideas of his advisors are his very own.

    He is the 'decider' after all. But he comes across as the puppet president who doesn't realize how utterly dependent he is on others and how they pull his strings. And when things don't go according to plan, he retreats like a sulking teenager to his room to watch sports highlights.

    Yes, Oliver Stone created a fair portrayal of Bush and it is within this fairness that we find truth and insight. But just because we get to see a humanized George W. Bush in context doesn't diminish the horrors of this administration. If anything, it reveals a far more frightening snap-shot of Bush's first term than could have been expected.

    This is the story of the accidental president who, motivated by ego and a deluded sense of religious mission, utterly failed to acknowledge that his weaknesses and deficiencies as a person made him a poor candidate for the executive office. The end result was, as proclaimed by the imaginary figure of his father, a complete fiasco.

    So, is this a man who deserves our pity? Well, insofar as he is a man blinded by ego and delusion, yes he does. This man has lacked the courage and humility to admit his weaknesses, and as a result, took advantage of a country that celebrates the notion that anybody can grow up to become president. 

    Indeed, any American can become president of the US -- of that we are now certain. But that doesn't mean that everybody should.

    October 22, 2008

    The Contrarian on Buddhism and transhumanism

    "Transhumanists are sometimes ridiculed as narcissistic and deeply unsatisfied geeks, but the best of their lot are obsessed with improving the conditions for all life. They call it "uplifting," but is it really so different from the bodhissattvic mission of liberation for all sentient beings?" -- Casey Rae-Hunter

    What I've been reading 2008.10.22

    October 15, 2008

    Dan Quayle revisited

    Sarah Palin is by no means the first buffoon to run for vice-president. In fact, the United States has had the misfortune of of actually having a buffoon for vice-president. I'm speaking, of course, of Dan Quayle.

    Now seems like a good time to re-post a SentDev article from June of last year, "Dan Quayle quotes."
    Apropos of completely nothing (aside from my wanting to spark a discussion of the anti-intellectualism that runs rampant through the Republican Party), I discovered a page of Dan Quayle quotes that I had to share.

    Each of these quotes are gems in their own right. Some are very (unintentionally) zen-like and read like mind-cleansing Buddhist koans.

    Here are several examples (although I encourage you to follow the link and read them all):

    "When I have been asked during these last weeks who caused the riots and the killing in L.A., my answer has been direct and simple: Who is to blame for the riots? The rioters are to blame. Who is to blame for the killings? The killers are to blame."

    "Verbosity leads to unclear, inarticulate things."

    "Mars is essentially in the same orbit... Mars is somewhat the same distance from the Sun, which is very important. We have seen pictures where there are canals, we believe, and water. If there is water, that means there is oxygen. If oxygen, that means we can breathe."

    "What a waste it is to lose one's mind. Or not to have a mind is being very wasteful. How true that is."

    "I believe we are on an irreversible trend toward more freedom and democracy - but that could change."

    "The Holocaust was an obscene period in our nation's history. I mean in this century's history. But we all lived in this century. I didn't live in this century."

    What I've been reading: 2008.10.15

    October 13, 2008

    What I've been reading 2008.10.13

    October 11, 2008

    Jeff Patterson conquers the solar system

    My friend and blogger Jeff Patterson recently visited the Maine Solar System Model and did a photo-essay about it.

    Patterson writes:
    For years I had wanted to go see the Maine Solar System Model.

    Built with diligent skill on a tight budget by the Northern Maine Museum of Science, the whole thing runs for 40 miles along US Route 1 between Houlton and the University of Maine at Presque Isle where the Museum is located.

    The model is roughly 8 hours away from me by car, placing it squarely in the category of things-not-worth-driving-to-see- unless-I'm-in-the-area. But this year my lady Jennifer and I took a road trip to Nova Scotia and knew we would have to see the model on the way back. We had taken our telescope up to Cape Breton in hopes of doing some stargazing in that dark northern territory, but a relentless veil of cloud cover dashed those hopes. We needed some consolation to fill the void, as it were.
    Check out the entire photo essay.

    Discover: Rise of the Cyborgs

    Discover magazine has a very forward-looking article in their October edition. Titled Rise of the Cyborgs, it features the seminal work of scientist and physicist Philip Kennedy:
    By any name, the devices created by Kennedy and a handful of others can decode the conscious intentions conveyed by neural signals. For those who are missing a leg or who have a broken spine, the signals can control computers, wheelchairs, and prosthetic limbs. For those suffering from “locked-in syndrome,” their bodies so immobilized by catastrophic disorders like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) or brain stem stroke that they are unable to speak or communicate their needs, the devices can translate neural signals to spell out words on a computer screen. Spoken language through a voice synthesizer is coming soon.

    Although his current work is aimed at the severely disabled and locked-in, Kennedy believes neural prosthetics will have applications for the well-bodied, too. In fact, he awaits a new, technologically driven stage of evolution that will qualify cyborgs for a branch on the human family tree.

    “By connecting intimately with computers, we will take the human brain to a new level,” he says. “If we can provide the brain with speedy access to unlimited memory, unlimited calculation ability, and instant wireless communication ability, we will produce a human with unsurpassable intelligence. We fully expect to demonstrate this kind of link between brain and machine.”

    What I've been reading 2008.10.11

    October 10, 2008

    What I've been reading 2008.10.10

    October 9, 2008

    Testing LSD on British troops

    Footage of British troops unwittingly testing LSD during the 1950s. The experiments were intended to determine the drug’s value as a "non-lethal incapacitating weapon."

    October 7, 2008

    The Fibonacci in Tool's Lateralus

    Another reason to love this song and this band.

    The notion that 'Western man has stopped evolving' is wrong

    Steve Jones, head of the department of genetics, evolution and environment at the University College London, says the forces driving evolution, such as natural selection and genetic mutation, "no longer play an important role in our lives."

    Consequently, says Jones, the people living one million years from now -- assuming humans will still be around -- will resemble modern-day humans; he thinks that humans have stopped evolving.

    He basically argues that the mechanisms that drive ongoing variation are now absent in modern life, a factor that he believes has halted evolution.

    I think Jones is a bit off the mark, here. Evolution and genetics are more than just adaptation to changing environments and stressors. His analysis fails to take a number of factors into account, including:

    Also known as genetic randomness, this genetic process involves the accumulation of random events that slightly change the makeup of a gene pool, but are compounded and re-enforced over time. Genetic drift arises from the statistical effect of sampling errors during reproduction across the overall population. 

    Jones dismisses this possibility on account of the large and interlinked global population -- a consequence that prevents small populations of people from evolving in isolation. It's conceivable, though, that genetic drift (in conjunction with other genetic mechanisms) will slightly alter human morphology given long enough time frames. Moreover, as the number of people increases, so too do the number of mutations generated by random chance.
    All morphological and psychological characteristics must have their genetic integrity re-enforced over time through the process of natural selection; environmental pressures continually justify a trait's presence and integrity within the genome. A physical trait that is no longer important to a species' survival will start to lose its informational integrity over time, leading to diminished function and eventual disappearance.

    Given Jones's suggestion that selectional pressures have stopped for humans, it's likely that many of our unnecessary characteristics will slowly fade away. What Jones doesn't account for, however, is that this will result in morphological alterations. 
    Not all evolutionary changes are brought about by seemingly rational environmental pressures. Sexual selection and competition for mates has led to some bizarre and often nonsensical changes to species (think of the male peacock's tail feathers, for example).

    Humans are still very much in the business of competing for and selecting mates. Again, given long enough time frames, and given inevitable changes in perceptions of human beauty and fitness, this could lead to changes within human morphology and psychology.
    The human genome is not a stand-alone document -- it needs environmental stimulai to inform it as to how it should express itself. Because humans live in a diverse set of environments, and because we are all raised in unique settings, our minds and bodies are moulded accordingly (this is why identical twins separated at birth are not 100% identical and why clones will be even less identical).

    Given the potential for even greater environmental diversity in the future (i.e. barren desert wastelands brought about by global warming...I'm only half-joking), it's not unrealistic to think that our genes -- even if they collectively remain somewhat static -- will express the human species with some variation.

    Look at the difference, for example, in height over the past few generations. And imagine the kinds of bodies that our genes would express in a different gravitational environments like Mars or space itself. 

    ...and last but certainly not least:

    Darwinian natural selection is giving way to self-guided evolution. The human species will soon have a host of transformative technologies in its possession that will allow us to modify our bodies as we see fit. 

    Some of the key technologies in this area will include genomics (and other biotechnologies like regenerative medicine), molecular nanotechnology, information technologies (like the integration of AI), and advances in cognitive science. This will lead to the so-called posthuman, which could be anything from cyborgs and genetically enhanced humans through to uploaded consciousness streams. 

    And if anything, humans are evolving faster than ever -- even without the aid of technology.

    What I've been reading

    October 4, 2008

    What I've been reading

    October 3, 2008

    What I've been reading 2008.10.03

    October 2, 2008

    What I've been reading

    October 1, 2008

    What I've been reading