December 28, 2011

My interview on Wanderlust: video game playing animals, uplift, and cultural transmission

I was recently interviewed by Sebastian Alvarez of Wanderlust. If you're not familiar with this blog, I highly encourage you to check it out. Essentially, if you like the topics covered on Sentient Developments, you'll be right at home at Wanderlust.

In the interview, we covered such topics as video-gaming pets, the future of nonhuman animals, and cultural uplift. Be sure to check it out. Here's a sample:
Wanderlust: There has been a recent increase of Internet videos...that depict humans enabling their pets to “play” video games on smart-phones and video game consoles. Similarly, in order to gain new insight into animal behavior, scientists have been experimenting with multimedia-enabled devices in the last decades. Today, along scientists, game designers are trying to merge human spaces with pet spaces through pervasive computing interfaces.

Could these new technologies reduce anthropocentrism and blur the gap between different species?

G.D: There is no question that new technologies are allowing humans and animals to interact in more profound and novel ways. As a result, we are getting increasingly able to peer more deeply into the psyche of animals and gain a better understanding of how they perceive and engage in the world.

In some cases, these interactions re-enforce our suspicion that many animals are more intelligent and thoughtful than we have previously thought. We are finding that animals are quite ‘human-like’ in many respects. We share many traits, including the joy of play, applying skill, and winning games. No example captures this more effectively than the video of Kanzi, a bonobo ape, who discovers the sheer bliss of playing Pac Man. There is something intrinsically universal, at least among primates, about chasing and gobbling-up annoying little ghosts.

By showing that animals like to play as much as we do, our sense of empathy is increased. It helps us to relate more, and acquire an enhanced sense of the other.

But because we have previously suffered from a communications gap, and even a kind of interspecies disconnect, it has been all too easy for the dominant species to subjugate animals and belittle their capacities. By playing games with we are forced to interact with them in more intimate sort of way, which can only impart a stronger sense of their moral worth.

Now, that said, there is a risk that these sorts of technologies can be taken too far. In most of these cases, these are human games designed for humans. Or, they are designed for animals for the purpose of entertaining humans (take the iPad mouse game for cats — those poor cats are getting tortured!). It would be more interesting to see games that are strictly designed for a specific species. If we are going to do this right, we need to engage animal minds. Again, the challenge is to understand animal psychology, and cater to their particular tendencies and talents (including different sensorial bandwidths).

What I would like to see in the next generation of animal-and-human video games is a greater opportunity for collaboration between two players. The Pig Chase experiment is an early but unfulfilled attempt at this. For greater impact, game developers will need to learn about animal psychology and cognition. I am imagining, for example, a game in which success is dependent on the various strengths of two different species. It has been shown, for example, that some primates can perform memorization tasks better than humans ( And obviously humans perform a number of cognitive tasks better than primates. It would be quite profound to create a game in which inter-species co-operation is a necessary requirement for success (to increase sense of bonding and camaraderie), and at the same time, still be a lot of fun.
Be sure to read the entire interview.

December 27, 2011

Fukuyama: Where's the left when you need 'em?

Francis Fukuyama -- yes, the same Francis Fukuyama who has those nasty neoconservative proclivities, the author of Our Posthuman Future, and who served alongside Leon Kass in the previous administration's bioethics council  -- has actually made the case that the United States is sorely lacking a coherent and vibrant political left wing. In his Foreign Affairs article, The Future of History (which is a play on the title of his now infamous book The End of History and the Last Man), Fukuyama asks. "Can liberal democracy survive the decline of the middle class?" He writes:
One of the most puzzling features of the world in the aftermath of the financial crisis is that so far, populism has taken primarily a right-wing form, not a left-wing one.

In the United States, for example, although the Tea Party is anti-elitist in its rhetoric, its members vote for conservative politicians who serve the interests of precisely those financiers and corporate elites they claim to despise. There are many explanations for this phenomenon. They include a deeply embedded belief in equality of opportunity rather than equality of outcome and the fact that cultural issues, such as abortion and gun rights, crosscut economic ones.

But the deeper reason a broad-based populist left has failed to materialize is an intellectual one. It has been several decades since anyone on the left has been able to articulate, first, a coherent analysis of what happens to the structure of advanced societies as they undergo economic change and, second, a realistic agenda that has any hope of protecting a middle-class society.

The main trends in left-wing thought in the last two generations have been, frankly, disastrous as either conceptual frameworks or tools for mobilization. Marxism died many years ago, and the few old believers still around are ready for nursing homes. The academic left replaced it with postmodernism, multiculturalism, feminism, critical theory, and a host of other fragmented intellectual trends that are more cultural than economic in focus. Postmodernism begins with a denial of the possibility of any master narrative of history or society, undercutting its own authority as a voice for the majority of citizens who feel betrayed by their elites. Multiculturalism validates the victimhood of virtually every out-group. It is impossible to generate a mass progressive movement on the basis of such a motley coalition: most of the working- and lower-middle-class citizens victimized by the system are culturally conservative and would be embarrassed to be seen in the presence of allies like this.

Whatever the theoretical justifications underlying the left’s agenda, its biggest problem is a lack of credibility. Over the past two generations, the mainstream left has followed a social democratic program that centers on the state provision of a variety of services, such as pensions, health care, and education. That model is now exhausted: welfare states have become big, bureaucratic, and inflexible; they are often captured by the very organizations that administer them, through public-sector unions; and, most important, they are fiscally unsustainable given the aging of populations virtually everywhere in the developed world. Thus, when existing social democratic parties come to power, they no longer aspire to be more than custodians of a welfare state that was created decades ago; none has a new, exciting agenda around which to rally the masses.
There's more:
There are already abundant signs that such a phase of development has begun. Median incomes in the United States have been stagnating in real terms since the 1970s. The economic impact of this stagnation has been softened to some extent by the fact that most U.S. households have shifted to two income earners in the past generation. Moreover, as the economist Raghuram Rajan has persuasively argued, since Americans are reluctant to engage in straightforward redistribution, the United States has instead attempted a highly dangerous and inefficient form of redistribution over the past generation by subsidizing mortgages for low-income households. This trend, facilitated by a flood of liquidity pouring in from China and other countries, gave many ordinary Americans the illusion that their standards of living were rising steadily during the past decade. In this respect, the bursting of the housing bubble in 2008–9 was nothing more than a cruel reversion to the mean. Americans may today benefit from cheap cell phones, inexpensive clothing, and Facebook, but they increasingly cannot afford their own homes, or health insurance, or comfortable pensions when they retire.

A more troubling phenomenon, identified by the venture capitalist Peter Thiel and the economist Tyler Cowen, is that the benefits of the most recent waves of technological innovation have accrued disproportionately to the most talented and well-educated members of society. This phenomenon helped cause the massive growth of inequality in the United States over the past generation. In 1974, the top one percent of families took home nine percent of GDP; by 2007, that share had increased to 23.5 percent.

Trade and tax policies may have accelerated this trend, but the real villain here is technology. In earlier phases of industrialization -- the ages of textiles, coal, steel, and the internal combustion engine -- the benefits of technological changes almost always flowed down in significant ways to the rest of society in terms of employment. But this is not a law of nature. We are today living in what the scholar Shoshana Zuboff has labeled “the age of the smart machine,” in which technology is increasingly able to substitute for more and higher human functions. Every great advance for Silicon Valley likely means a loss of low-skill jobs elsewhere in the economy, a trend that is unlikely to end anytime soon.
I agree with Fukuyama that there's currently a void in left wing American politics right now. I made this case back when the Occupy Movement first got started. I certainly hope to see a sensible and intellectually sound left wing emerge, but not if it mutates into a populist beast akin to the Tea Party. Sadly, I'm not convinced this is going to happen any time soon -- and I'm almost certain that a populist left will eventually rear its ugly head, perhaps spawned by the Occupy events earlier this year. So one has to ask what's better: a poorly defined and ineffectual left wing (like we have now), or a populist one?

Bailey makes the case for enhancing people in the New Atlantis

As part of a symposium at the "Stuck with Virtue" conference at Berry College in Georgia earlier this year, Reason's science correspondent Ronald Bailey argued for using biotech, infotech, and nanotech to enhance human intellectual, phyiscal, and emotional capabilities. His essay, along with responses, has now been published in the current issue of The New Atlantis. Here's a taste:
What other features of human life might ethically be altered by enhancements? Almost any, according to the argument of George Washington University philosophy professor David DeGrazia. Writing in the Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, he systematically examines several core human traits — internal psychological style, personality, general intelligence and memory, sleep, normal aging, gender, and being a member of the species Homo sapiens — that might be considered so fundamental that they cannot be ethically altered, but concludes that “characteristics likely to be targeted or otherwise affected by enhancement technologies are not plausibly regarded as [ethically] inviolable.”

Regarding psychological style, there is no ethical reason to require that a particular person remain worried, suspicious, or downbeat if he wants to change. As DeGrazia points out, psychotherapy already aims at such self-transformation. And what about the impact of education? Many people who come back from college or the military seem unrecognizable to their old friends. If a pill will make a person more confident and upbeat, then there is no reason for him not to use it if he so wishes. Personality is perhaps the external manifestation of one’s internal psychological style, and here, too, it’s hard to think of any ethical basis for requiring someone to remain, for example, cynical or excessively shy.

But what about boosting intelligence and memory? Of course, from childhood on, we are constantly exhorted to improve ourselves by taking more classes, participating in more job training, and reading good books. Opponents of biotech enhancements might counter that all of these methods of improvement manipulate our environments and do not reach to the genetic cores of our beings. But DeGrazia points out that the wiring of our brains is the result of the interaction between our genes and our environment. For example, our intellectual capacities depend on proper nutrition as well as on our genetic endowments. One’s genome is not fundamentally more important than environmental factors, he concludes; rather, “they are equally important, so we should bear in mind that no one objects to deliberately introducing environmental factors [such as schools or diet] that promote intelligence.” It does not matter ethically whether one’s intellectual capacities are boosted by schooling, a pill, or a set of genes.

As for sleep: all vertebrates sleep. Sleep, unlike cynicism, does seem biologically fundamental — but again, so what? Nature is not a reliable source for ethical norms. If a person could safely reduce his need for sleep and enjoy more waking life, that wouldn’t be at all ethically problematic. Our ancestors who lacked artificial light probably got a lot more sleep than we moderns do, yet history doesn’t suggest that they were morally superior to us.

Then, again, there is the argument about normal aging. As everyone knows, the only inevitabilities are death and taxes. Death, however, used to come far more frequently at younger ages, but global average life expectancy has doubled in the past century. DeGrazia asks whether “normal aging” is “an essential part of any recognizable human life,” and falters here, admitting, “frankly, I do not know how to determine whether aging is an inviolable characteristic.” The question, then, is whether someone who does try to “violate” this characteristic by biotechnological means is acting unethically. It is hard to see why the answer would be yes. Such would-be immortals are not forcing other people to live or die, nor are they infringing on the rights or dignities of others. DeGrazia finally recognizes that biotech methods aimed at slowing or delaying aging significantly are not morally different from technologies that would boost intelligence or reduce the need for sleep. He concludes, “even if aging is an inviolable core trait of human beings, living no more than some specified number of years is not.”

Another potentially inviolable trait that DeGrazia considers is gender. But in the age of transgendered people and sex-change surgery, it seems a bit outmoded to ask if one’s biological sex is an inviolable core characteristic. Plenty of people have already eagerly violated it. Yet Beyond Therapy declared, “Every cell of the body ... mark[s] us as either male or female, and it is hard to imagine any more fundamental or essential characteristic of a person.” Clearly, thousands of people’s fundamental sexual identities depend on more than the presence of an X or Y chromosome in their bodies’ cells.

Finally, DeGrazia wonders if even being a member of the species Homo sapiens constitutes an inviolable core trait. He specifically thinks of a plausible future in which parents add an extra pair of artificial chromosomes carrying various beneficial genetic modifications to the genomes of the embryos that will become their children. Such people would have 48 chromosomes, which means that they could not reproduce fertile offspring with anyone who carries the normal 46 chromosomes. “It seems to me, however, that these individuals would still be ‘human’ in any sense that might be normatively important,” concludes DeGrazia. This certainly seems correct. After all, infertile people today are still fully human. Oddly, however, DeGrazia thinks that this “risk to reproductive capacities” might warrant restricting the installation of extra chromosomes to consenting adults only. But couldn’t a person with 48 chromosomes who falls in love with a person with only 46 chromosomes simply use advanced genetic engineering techniques to overcome that problem?

DeGrazia convincingly argues that whatever it is that makes us fundamentally us is not captured by the set of characteristics he considers. The inviolable core of our identities is the narrative of our lives — the sum of our experiences, enhanced or not. If we lose that core (say, through dementia), we truly do lose ourselves. But whoever we are persists and perhaps even flourishes if we choose to use biotech to brighten our moods, improve our personalities, boost our intelligence, sleep less, live longer and healthier lives, change our gender, or even change species.

Robb Wolf on the future of food

Paleo proseltyzer Robb Wolf has penned an article in which he highlight some changes to food that we could see in the coming decades, and how they could affect you and I as paleolithic lifestylers. In the article, Wolf asks, "can ‘Big Agri’, ‘Big Pharma’, and food technology make paleo obsolete?" His response:
Clearly not at the moment, but what about in the future? Consider foods precisely tailored to our individual genetic profile, and perfectly reproduced in 3d organic printers. Or even assembled at a cellular level by nanotechnology. And if these ‘printed’ meals were better for us, how many of us would choose to consume them? What if meat was made obsolete?Do you think we’d be forced to give up consuming animals, by ‘ethical groups’?

So, is paleo about optimal nutrition, or a natural way of life? Must there be a tradeoff? Perhaps we can use technology to enhance our Palaeolithic foods? For example, genetically identical grassfed beef, but grown in a vat (in vitro) from samples taken from cattle. All fine and good, but would the paleo orthodoxy accept it? Would we trust the FDA if they labelled it ‘safe’?

And what about foods with almost identical nutritional profiles to our favourites, but in strange shapes and colours (to appeal to the kids and the vegans perhaps)? Would you give your children something that in every way resembled and tasted like a chocolate bar, but had the nutritional payload of wild Alaskan salmon? I think I would.

In the nearer future we’re supposed to see the coming to market of a second generation of ’transgenic foods‘ (another word for genetically modified). Their composition would be altered, supposedly to promote health benefits. For example, foods with ‘boosted additives’ such as antioxidising agents that are actually bred into the cellular structure of the food, not mixed in later as an additive. Just the way that antioxidants in nature work.

So to take this further, would Mr/Mrs Paleo eat a transgenic, antioxidant enriched bagel that’d been authentically stripped of the lectins, gluten, nasty carbs and whatnot? What if it tasted like chicken? What if it was good for you? What would the point of paleo be then?

Yeah, it could all get a bit weird for us.

I've been appointed Chair of the Board at the IEET

There are some changes afoot at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies as we prepare to tackle an an ambitious agenda in 2012. As part of that change, I have been appointed Chair of the Board. I'm grateful for the opportunity and am excited about what next year will bring. Stay tuned for more news as 2012 starts to take shape.

December 19, 2011

IEET Fellow Patrick Lin briefs CIA on drone ethics

Last month, philosopher and futurist Patrick Lin delivered this briefing about the ethics of drones at an event hosted by In-Q-Tel, the CIA's venture-capital arm. It's a detailed and provocative survey of what it might mean for the intelligence service to deploy different kinds of robots.

New Special Issue of JET Online: Minds and Machines

After much hard work, the editor of the Journal of Evolution and Technology, Russell Blackford, and IEET Fellow Linda MacDonald Glenn, are pleased to announce that the special issue that they have been editing is coming online.
The articles that have been put up so far are:

Minds and Machines Special Issue (Vol 22 Issue 1, Nov 2011)
Russell Blackford Editorial
Stay tuned for more to come by subscribing to the JET RSS feed

Upcoming conference: The Moral Brain: What Is It? Can It Be Enhanced?

Conference: The Moral Brain: What Is It? Can It Be Enhanced?

This is a two part conference with the NYU Center for Bioethics, Duke Kenan Institute for Ethics, Yale Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics, and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies.

Date: March 30 - April 1, 2012

Location: NYU WSQ Campus

Part I: “The Normative Significance of Neuroscience for Morality: Lessons from a Decade of Research”

Organized by the NYU Center for Bioethics in collaboration with the Duke Kenan Institute for Ethics

It has been a decade since the first brain imaging studies of moral judgments by Joshua Greene, Jorge Moll and their colleagues were reported. During this time, there have been rich philosophical and scientific discussions regarding a) whether brain imaging data can tell us anything about moral judgments, and b) what they do tell us if they can tell us something about moral judgments. In this workshop, we aim to bring leading philosophers, neuroscientists, and psychologists in this area together to examine these issues and to explore the future directions of this research.

Part II: “Applying the Research: Can Moral Behavior be Improved or Enhanced?”

Organized by the Yale Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics and the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies. Hosted by the NYU Center for Bioethics.

Kaku on uploading

Report: Chimps 'largely unessential as research subjects'

A recently released report by the Institute of Medicine and National Research Council in the United States suggests that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) should dramatically curtail the use of chimpanzees as research subjects. According to the committee who put together the report, chimps should be used as subjects in biomedical research only under stringent conditions, including the absence of any other suitable model and inability to ethically perform the research on people.

While not perfect, this is a significant step forward in the struggle to protect the great apes from biomedical experimentation. As it stands, only two countries still use chimpanzees for research purposes, the United States and Gabon. The US maintains the largest colony in the world of more than 1,000 chimpanzees at six laboratories.

Most of the labs either conduct or make the chimps available for "invasive research", which researchers define as "inoculation with an infectious agent, surgery or biopsy conducted for the sake of research and not for the sake of the chimpanzee, and/or drug testing." Two federally funded US laboratories currently use chimps: Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, and the Southwest National Primate Center in San Antonio, Texas. Five hundred chimps have been retired from laboratory use in the U.S. and live in sanctuaries in the U.S. or Canada.

In their report, the IMO goes on to state that use of chimps should be permissible only if forgoing their use will prevent or significantly hinder advances necessary to prevent or treat life-threatening or debilitating conditions.

They're also recommending that the NIH limit the use of chimpanzees in behavioral research to studies that provide otherwise unattainable insights into normal and abnormal behavior, mental health, emotion, or cognition. The NIH should require such studies to be performed only on acquiescent animals using techniques that are minimally invasive and are applied in a manner that minimizes pain and distress. The report states that animals used in either biomedical or behavioral studies must be maintained in appropriate physical and social environments or in natural habitats.

"The committee concluded that research use of animals that are so closely related to humans should not proceed unless it offers insights not possible with other animal models and unless it is of sufficient scientific or health value to offset the moral costs. We found very few cases that satisfy these criteria," said committee chair Jeffrey Kahn, senior faculty member, Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics, Baltimore.

Essentially, the committee is suggesting that chimpanzees are not necessary for most biomedical research.

The committee acknowledged that advances in the development of other research tools and methods, including cell-based tests and other animal models, have rendered chimpanzees largely nonessential as research subjects. But it did acknowledge two possible ongoing uses: (1) the development of a limited number of monoclonal antibody therapies already in the pipeline, and (2) development of a vaccine that would prevent infection by hepatitis C virus (HCV).

According to the IMO:
New methods such as recombinant technologies can replace the chimpanzee in efforts to develop monoclonal antibodies. While industry and academic laboratories are in the process of adopting these alternate approaches, there may be a few therapies in development that require continued use of chimpanzees to keep progress from stalling and slowing patients' access to needed new treatments. These cases should be assessed to ensure that they meet the criteria outlined in this report, and NIH should continue to support the development of and access to alternatives to make future use of chimpanzees unnecessary.
That said, the committee did not reach a consensus decision on whether chimpanzees are essential to the development of a prophylactic HCV vaccine and if or how much the use of chimpanzees would accelerate or improve this work.

The report admitted the possibility that chimpanzees may be needed in future research to develop treatments or preventive tools against as yet unknown diseases or disorders. It is difficult to say in advance whether other animal models or research tools will always serve effectively and quickly enough in the face of a novel health threat.

The committee focused on the scientific necessity of the chimpanzee as a research subject, but also take ethical issues into account. According to them, chimpanzees' genetic closeness to humans and their similar biological and behavioral characteristics not only make chimpanzees a uniquely valuable species for certain types of research but also demand greater justification for conducting research with them.


Sentient Developments Podcast: Episode 2011.12.19

Sentient Developments Podcast for the week of December 19, 2011.

This week's episode is devoted entirely to the life and work of Christopher Hitchens who passed away last week.

Tracks used in this episode:
  • Gang Gang Dance: "Glass Jar"
  • M83: "Intro"

Podcast Feed | Subscribe via iTunes

December 17, 2011

Best Songs of 2011

For the first time ever I have put together a 'best songs of the year' list. I'm going to make this an annual tradition to accompany my best albums of the year list.

Below are the top 100 tracks of the year as chosen by me, each one a magnificent gem:

1. Handsome Furs: “Serve the People”

This was a no-brainer for me. It's a fantastic song with anthemic, pump-your-fist-in-anger lyrics. "Serve the People" was the perfect theme-song for 2011, a year in which the protester was dubbed the person of the year by TIME Magazine. Above is the unofficial video for this track which I think does a better job than the official version at capturing its tone and spirit.

2. Fleet Foxes: “Helplessness Blues”

3. Opeth: “Devil’s Orchard”

4. PJ Harvey: ""The Words That Maketh Murder”"

TRAIL OF DEAD - Weight of the Sun (or the Post-Modern Prometheus) by Superball Music
5. ...And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead: “Weight of the Sun (Or, the Post-Modern Prometheus)"

6. Hooray for Earth: “Sails”

7. Real Estate: “It’s Real”

8. Deerhoof: “The Merry Barracks”

9. Chad Van Gaalen: “Peace on the Rise”

10. Cults: “Abducted”

11. Gang Gang Dance: “Glass Jar”

12. John Maus: “Head for the Country”

13. James Blake: “Wilhelms Scream”

14. Fucked Up: “Queen of Hearts”

15. Gang Gang Dance: “MindKilla”

16. Girls: “Vomit”

17. tunE-yArDs: ""Bizness"

18. Anna Calvi: “Suzanne And I”

19. Kurt Vile: "Jesus Fever"

20. Smith Westerns: “Weekend”

Here's the entire list: The top 100 songs of 2011:
  1. Handsome Furs: “Serve the People”
  2. Fleet Foxes: “Helplessness Blues”
  3. Opeth: “Devil’s Orchard”
  4. "PJ Harvey: "The Words That Maketh Murder"
  5. ...And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead: “Weight of the Sun (Or, the Post-Modern Prometheus)"
  6. Hooray for Earth: “Sails”
  7. Real Estate: “It’s Real”
  8. Deerhoof: “The Merry Barracks”
  9. Chad Van Gaalen: “Peace on the Rise”
  10. Cults: “Abducted”
  11. Gang Gang Dance: “Glass Jar”
  12. John Maus: “Head for the Country”
  13. James Blake: “The Wilhelm Scream”
  14. Fucked Up: “Queen of Hearts”
  15. Gang Gang Dance: “MindKilla”
  16. Girls: “Vomit”
  17. tunE-yArDs: "Bizness"
  18. Anna Calvi: “Suzanne And I”
  19. Kurt Vile: "Jesus Fever"
  20. Smith Westerns: “Weekend”
  21. Oneohtrix Point Never: “Replica”
  22. TV On the Radio: “Repetition”
  23. Liturgy: “Returner”
  24. Girls: “Alex”
  25. Plaid: “At Last”
  26. Real Estate: “Green Aisles”
  27. The Weeknd: “House of Balloons/Glass Table Girls”
  28. tunE-yArDs: "Gangsta”
  29. Adele: “Someone Like You""
  30. Bon Iver: “Perth”
  31. Cass McCombs: “The Lonely Doll”
  32. Shabazz Palaces: “Swerve...The Reeping of All That is Worthwhile (Noir Not Withstanding)”
  33. Snowman: “Snakes & Ladders”
  34. The Horrors: “Still Life”
  35. tUnE-yArDs: ""Powa""
  36. Wolves in the Throneroom: “Thuja Magus Imperium”
  37. Bill Callahan: “America!”
  38. Cass McCombs: “County Line
  39. Cymbals Eat Guitars: “Rifle Eyesight (Proper Name)”
  40. Fleet Foxes: “Grown Ocean”
  41. Cymbals Eat Guitars: “The Current”
  42. Deafheaven: “Violet”
  43. EMA: “California”
  44. Gang Gang Dance: “Adult Goth”
  45. Krallice: “Diotma”
  46. The Field: “Is This Power""
  47. Destroyer: “Kaputt”
  48. Fleet Foxes: “Lorelai""
  49. M83: “Midnight City”
  50. Nicolas Jaar: “Space Is Only a Noise If You Can See”
  51. Panda Bear: “Last Night At the Jetty”
  52. St. Vincent: “Cruel”
  53. Youth Lagoon: “Afternoon”
  54. ...And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead: “Summer Of All Dead Souls""
  55. Tim Hecker: “The Piano Drop”
  56. Frank Ocean: “Songs for Women”
  57. Hooray for Earth: “True Loves”
  58. Twerps: “Coast to Coast”
  59. The Weeknd: “The Morning”
  60. Adele: “Rolling in the Deep""
  61. Low: “You See Everything”
  62. The Oh Sees: “The Dream”
  63. Atlas Sound: “Terra Incognita”
  64. Kurt Vile: "Baby's Arms"
  65. Blut Aus Nord: “Epitome 6”
  66. Rusko + Rezzo: “Lick the Lizard”
  67. St. Vincent: “Surgeon”
  68. Washed Out: “Amor Fati”
  69. Snowman: “Hyena”
  70. PJ Harvey: “Let England Shake”
  71. ...And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead: “Pure Radio Cosplay""
  72. Amon Tobin: “Morning Ms Candis”
  73. Bill Callahan: “Riding for the Feeling”
  74. Bon Iver: “Holocene”
  75. Danny Brown: “Monopoly”
  76. Destroyer: “Chinatown”
  77. Iceage: “White Rune”
  78. John Maus: “Believer”
  79. Liturgy: “Generation”
  80. Atlas Sound: “Te Amo”
  81. Black Keys: “Lonely Boy”
  82. James Blake: “Limit to Your Love""
  83. Lykke Li: “I Follow Rivers”
  84. The Soft Moon: “Total Decay”
  85. Cloud Nothings: “No Future/No Past”
  86. Tyler the Creator: “Yonkers”
  87. Trash Talk: “Awake”
  88. Drake: “Headlines”
  89. PJ Harvey: ""Written On The Forehead”
  90. Smith Westerns: “All Die Young""
  91. TV On the Radio: “Second Song”
  92. Beirut: “Sante Fe”
  93. Julianna Barwick: “Prizewinning”
  94. Fiend: “Absolutely”
  95. Moonsorrow: “Muinaiset”
  96. Toro Y Moi: “New Beat”
  97. Phantogram: “Don’t Move”
  98. Priestbird: “Who Will Lead Us”
  99. Bon Iver: “Calgary”
  100. Primus: “Eternal Consumption Engine”
Honorable mention (listed alphabetically):

  • A$AP Rocky: "Palace"
  • Amon Tobin: “Bedtime Stories”
  • Azelia Banks: "212"
  • Battles: “Ice Cream”
  • Battles: “My Machines”
  • Boris: “Spoon”
  • Burial: “Street Halo”
  • Cass McCombs: “Buried Alive”
  • Cass McCombs: “Humor Risk”
  • Cut Copy: “Need You Now”
  • Cut Copy: “Sun God”
  • Dirty Beaches: “Lord Knows Best”
  • Dirty Beaches: “Sweet 17”
  • DJ Quik: “Killer Dope”
  • Drake: “Doing it Wrong”
  • Fleet Foxes: "The Shrine/An Argument"
  • Fucked Up: “A Little Death”
  • Girls: “Honey Bunny”
  • Holy Ghost!: “Some Children”
  • Hooray for Earth: "No Love"
  • Iceage: “You’re Blessed”
  • Jane’s Addiction: “Irresistible Force”
  • Jay-Z & Kanye West: “Niggas In Paris”
  • Korallreven: “As Young as Yesterday”
  • Kurt Vile: “Ghost Town”
  • Lana Del Rey: "Video Games”
  • Lindstrom: “De Javu”
  • Machine Head: “Locust”
  • Neon Indian: “Polish Girl”
  • Panda Bear: “Afterburner”
  • Papercuts: “Do What You Will”
  • Priestbird: “Diamond”
  • Purity Ring: “Ungirthed”
  • The Antlers: “I Don’t Want Love”
  • The Pains of Being Pure at Heart: “Heart in Your Heartbreak”
  • Thundercat: “For Love I Come”
  • Tycho: "Hours"
  • Twin Sister: “Kimmi in a Rice Field”
  • Unknown Mortal Orchestra: “FFunny Friends"
  • Wilco: "One Sunday Morning"
  • Wu Lyf: “Heavy Pop”
  • Yacht: "Utopia/Dystopia"
  • Youth Lagoon: “July”
  • Yuck: “Get Away”

Comments welcome!

Best Albums of 2011

At last, the moment you've all been waiting for: My top 100 albums of 2011. As always, every year produces its fair share of exemplary music. To say that there's no good music around these days is a total cop-out; you're just not listening to the right stuff or giving contemporary music a fair chance. And it doesn't matter which genre you're into—there's stuff for everyone. The list below is solid proof as I've picked the year's best from a wide cross-section of genres, including rock, pop, metal, rap, hip-hop, prog-rock, experimental, electronic, and everything in between.

So without further ado, here they are: The best albums of 2011:

1. Fleet Foxes: Helplessness Blues

2. tUnE-yArDs: W H O K I L L

3. PJ Harvey: Let England Shake

4. …And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead: Tao of the Dead

5. Hooray For Earth: True Loves

6. Snowman: Absence

7. Destroyer: Kaputt

8. Kurt Vile: Smoke Rings For My Halo

9. Real Estate: Days

10. Smith Westerns: Dye It Blonde

11. Blut Aus Nord: 777 - Sect(s)/The Desanctification

12. Oneohtrix Point Never: Replica

13. Cymbals Eat Guitars: Lenses Alien

14. Amon Tobin: ISAM

15. Fucked Up: David Comes to Life

16. Opeth: Heritage

17. The Field: Looping State of Mind

18. Liturgy: Aesthethica

19. Russian Circles: Empros

20. Deafheaven: Roads to Judah

Here's the entire list:
  1. Fleet Foxes: Helplessness Blues
  2. tUnE-yArDs: W H O K I L L
  3. PJ Harvey: Let England Shake
  4. …And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead: Tao of the Dead
  5. Hooray For Earth: True Loves
  6. Snowman: Absence
  7. Destroyer: Kaputt
  8. Kurt Vile: Smoke Rings For My Halo
  9. Real Estate: Days
  10. Smith Westerns: Dye It Blonde
  11. Blut Aus Nord: 777 - Sect(s)/The Desanctification
  12. Oneohtrix Point Never: Replica
  13. Cymbals Eat Guitars: Lenses Alien
  14. Amon Tobin: ISAM
  15. Fucked Up: David Comes to Life
  16. Opeth: Heritage
  17. The Field: Looping State of Mind
  18. Liturgy: Aesthethica
  19. Russian Circles: Empros
  20. Deafheaven: Roads to Judah
  21. Girls: Father, Son, Holy Ghost
  22. Atlas Sound: Parallax
  23. The Weeknd: House of Balloons
  24. Wolves in the Throne Room: Celestial Lineage
  25. Gang Gang Dance: Eye Contact
  26. Yob: Atma
  27. TV On The Radio: Nine Types of Light
  28. Cass McCombs: Wit's End
  29. Disma: Towards the Megalith
  30. Youth Lagoon: The Year of Hibernation
  31. Cults: Cults
  32. St. Vincent: Strange Mercy
  33. Tim Hecker: Ravedeath, 1972
  34. Nicolas Jaar: Space Is Only Noise
  35. Tombs: Path of Totality
  36. Panda Bear: Tomboy
  37. Shabazz Palaces: Black Up
  38. 40 Watt Sun: The Inside Room
  39. Cut Copy: Zonoscope
  40. Advisory Circle: As the Crow Flies
  41. Bon Iver: Bon Iver
  42. Krallice: Diotima
  43. The Horrors: Skying
  44. Colin Stetson: New History of Warfare Vol 2: Judges
  45. Tycho: Dive
  46. Drake: Take Care
  47. James Blake: James Blake
  48. John Maus: We Must Become The Pitiless Censors of Ourselves
  49. Biosphere: N-Plants
  50. Iceage: New Brigade
  51. Julianna Barwick: The Magic Place
  52. Wu Lyf: Go Tell Fire to the Mountain
  53. Toro Y Moi: Underneath the Pine
  54. Bill Callahan: Apocalypse
  55. Explosions in the Sky: Take Care, Take Care, Take Care
  56. Kate Bush: 50 Words for Snow
  57. Adele: 21
  58. EMA: Past Life Martyred Saints
  59. Mastodon: The Hunter
  60. Black Keys: El Camino
  61. DJ Quik: The Book of David
  62. Washed Out: Within and Without
  63. M83: Hurry Up, We're Dreaming
  64. Plaid: Scintilli
  65. Trap Them: Darker Handcraft
  66. Trash Talk: Awake EP
  67. Lykke Li: Wounded Rhymes
  68. A$AP Rocky: LiveLoveA$AP
  69. Jay-Z & Kanye West: Watch the Throne
  70. Priestbird: Beachcombers
  71. Radiohead: King of Limbs
  72. Yuck: Yuck
  73. Moonsorrow: Varjoina Kuljemme Kuolleiden Maassa
  74. The Dodos: No Color
  75. Deerhoof: Deerhoof vs. Evil
  76. Neon Indian: Era Extrana
  77. Wilco: The Whole Love
  78. Battles: Glass Drop
  79. Machine Head: Unto the Locust
  80. The War on Drugs: Slave Ambient
  81. Cynic: Carbon-Based Anatomy EP
  82. Low: C'mon
  83. Primus: Green Naugahyde
  84. Beirut: The Rip Tide
  85. Das Racist: Relax
  86. Dum Dum Girls: Only in Dreams
  87. The Caretaker: An Empty Bliss Beyond This World
  88. Twin Sister: In Heaven
  89. Africa Hitech: 93 Million Miles
  90. Mogwai: Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will
  91. Iron & Wine: Kiss Each Other Clean
  92. Wild Beasts: Smother
  93. Heretoir: Heretoir
  94. Symphony X: Iconoclast
  95. Anna Calvi: Anna Calvi
  96. Boris: Attention Please
  97. Holy Ghost!: Holy Ghost!
  98. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart: Belong
  99. Jane's Addiction: The Great Escape Artist
  100. Handsome Furs: Sound Kapital
Honorable mention (listed alphabetically):

  • And So I Watch You From Afar: Gangs
  • Austra: Feel it Break
  • Bright Eyes: The People's Key
  • Chad VanGaalen: Diaper Island
  • Cold Cave: Cherish the Light Years
  • Dirty Beaches: Badlands
  • Drive-By Truckers: Go-Go Boots
  • Fading Parade: Papercuts
  • Florence and the Machine: Ceremonials
  • Four Tet: FABRICLIVE 59: Four Tet
  • Jesu: Ascension
  • Justice: Audio, Video, Disco
  • Little Dragon: Ritual Union
  • Los Campesinos!: Hello Sadness
  • Metronomy: The English Riviera
  • My Morning Jacket: Circuital
  • Puscifer: Conditions Of My Parole
  • Raekwon: Shaolin Vs Wu-Tang
  • Tennis: Cape Dory
  • The Antlers: Burst Apart
  • The Decemberists: The King is Dead
  • The Kills: Blood Pressures
  • The Raveonettes: Raven in the Grave
  • This Will Destroy You: Tunnel Blanket
  • Tyler the Creator: Goblin
  • Vessels: Helioscope
  • Zola Jesus: Stridulum II

Comments welcome!

December 14, 2011

Scientists one major step closer to deciphering dolphin language

Scientists believe they have found an important key in understanding how dolphins communicate, what they're calling sono-pictoral communication:
Researchers in the United States and Great Britain have made a significant breakthrough in deciphering dolphin language in which a series of eight objects have been sonically identified by dolphins. Team leader, Jack Kassewitz of, ‘spoke’ to dolphins with the dolphin’s own sound picture words. Dolphins in two separate research centers understood the words, presenting convincing evidence that dolphins employ a universal “sono-pictorial” language of communication.

The team was able to teach the dolphins simple and complex sentences involving nouns and verbs, revealing that dolphins comprehend elements of human language, as well as having a complex visual language of their own. Kassewitz commented, “We are beginning to understand the visual aspects of their language, for example in the identification of eight dolphin visual sounds for nouns, recorded by hydrophone as the dolphins echolocated on a range of submersed plastic objects.”

The British member of the research team, John Stuart Reid, used a CymaScope instrument, a device that makes sound visible, to gain a better understanding of how dolphins see with sound. He imaged a series of the test objects as sono-pictorially created by one of the research dolphins.

December 12, 2011

Sentient Developments Podcast: Episode 2011.12.12

Sentient Developments Podcast for the week of December 12, 2011.

Topics discussed in this week's episode include my new strength routine, using Ecstasy to treat autism, cognitive enhancement and potential side-effects, Radiolabs on amnesia and free will, H+ interview with Eric Drexler, New paper by Keith B. Wiley: "The Fermi Paradox, Self-Replicating Probes, and the Interstellar Transportation Bandwidth", genetically modifying mosquitos to combat diseases (and mosquitos), and how to engineer a zombie virus.

Tracks used in this episode:
  • Liturgy: Generation
  • Tim Hecker: The Piano Drop
  • The Field: This is Power
  • Biosphere: Genkai-1

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December 10, 2011

Genetically modifying mosquitos to combat malaria. And mosquitos.

Super fascinating article in Gizmag: Genetic genocide: Genetically altered mosquito warriors could wipe out humanity's biggest killer. I never knew this, but mosquitos have killed more than half the humans that ever lived—even more than war, plague, famine, and heart disease. Shocking, no? It's no surprise, therefore, that biotechnologists are starting to think about dealing with mosquitos and the spread of malaria and dengue fever.

The approach would involve genetic hacking, and the solution is really quite elegant:
In short, the modified genes affect only the female mosquitoes, rendering them flightless. The larvae hatch on the water, and the females are unable to leave, rendering them harmless to humans and leaving them to die. The males are unaffected, so they mature normally, then mate with other females to pass the genetic modification on.

It's an extremely effective way of triggering a mosquito population crash - James and his colleagues have proven in cage-based testing in Mexico that a sufficient number of genetically hacked males can completely decimate a mosquito population within a few months. The table below shows this genetic genocide in action - within 23 and 33 weeks, the genetically modified males managed to completely destroy the otherwise stable mosquito population in James' test cages.

A. aegypti eggs make this a fantastically portable solution too - they survive for years at a time in dry conditions, then hatch in the presence of water. So you can more or less post an envelope full of millions of dry eggs to wherever in the world it's needed, and just add water. The crippled females will die where they hatch and you've got yourself a mutant force of GM males ready to start their work.
I also find it interesting to know that there's an open debate about the ecological functionality of mosquitos. It's thought in some circles that mosquitos are a candidate species for selective extinction, and that their absence in the ecosystem would not be disruptive.

Damn, I hope that's true. Could you imagine a world with no mosquitos?

H+ interviews Eric Drexler

Paul Raven recently interviewed nanotechnologist Eric Drexler for H+ Magazine. Drexler is about to release a book on radical abundance, which should garner a lot of attention and place him back where he belongs as a leading technologist and futurist. Snippet:
Paul Raven: It’s been eighteen years since your last book was published; what are the most significant shifts since then, with respect to the capability for atomic precision manufacture?

K. Eric Drexler: As I discussed in my Oxford talk, my analysis of technologies in this area is based on the exploratory engineering approach, which tells us something about the boundaries of technology based on limits set by physical law. Because physical law is timeless, exploratory engineering methods can yield durable insights. The ongoing development of atomically precise technologies has expanded in the general direction I’d outlined, but with the invention of unanticipated methods, what might be called “expected surprises”.

There’s been extensive progress in atomically precise fabrication, and it’s accelerating. A leading area has been capabilities based on biomolecular engineering and related atomically precise engineering technologies. Protein engineering, structural DNA nanotechnology, and peptoid research are areas where I’ve been closely following developments and engaging with experimental research communities.

I should mention, though, that the APM production systems I described in my talk would look a lot like desktop factories. Not mushy stuff like what you see in biotechnology, but boxes full of machinery a lot more like what you see in 3D printers — cartridges of materials, programmable mechanisms moving back and forth to put bits of material in place, and so on. There are enormous differences, of course, in cost, throughput, materials, product quality, and so on.
Interesting to note that Drexler has replaced the term "molecular manufacturing" with "atomically precise manufacturing," or APM. I also love the term "expected surprises." That can apply to a lot of things, actually.

New paper by Keith B. Wiley: The Fermi Paradox, Self-Replicating Probes, and the Interstellar Transportation Bandwidth

Excellent new paper on SETI and the Fermi Paradox by Keith B. Wiley: The Fermi Paradox, Self-Replicating Probes, and the Interstellar Transportation Bandwidth (pdf). I'm so happy to see someone taking the Von Neumann Probe issue so seriously, and he's right to assert that attempts to reconcile the Fermi Paradox which don't account for self-replicating probes are grossly inadequate. It's also refreshing to read a paper that acknowledges the Fermi Paradox as a conundrum that's deepening over time. I'm always surprised at the willingness of many smart and well-intentioned thinkers to simply brush this issue under the carpet and pretend that the Great Silence is a problem not worth tackling.

The abstract to Wiley's paper:
It has been widely acknowledged that self-replicating space-probes (SRPs) could explore the galaxy very quickly relative to the age of the galaxy. An obvious implication is that SRPs produced by extraterrestrial civilizations should have arrived in our solar system millions of years ago, and furthermore, that new probes from an ever-arising supply of civilizations ought to be arriving on a constant basis. The lack of observations of such probes underlies a frequently cited variation of the Fermi Paradox. We believe that a predilection for ETI-optimistic theories has deterred consideration of incompatible theories. Notably, SRPs have virtually disappeared from the literature. In this paper, we consider the most common arguments against SRPs and find those arguments lacking. By extension, we find recent models of galactic exploration which explicitly exclude SRPs to be unfairly handicapped and unlikely to represent natural scenarios.

We also consider several other models that seek to explain the Fermi Paradox, most notably percolation theory and two societal- collapse theories. In the former case, we find that it imposes unnatural assumptions which likely render it unrealistic. In the latter case, we present a new theory of interstellar transportation bandwidth which calls into question the validity of societal-collapse theories.

Finally, we offer our thoughts on how to design future SETI programs which take the conclusions of this paper into account to maximize the chance of detection.
Also check out Karl Schroeder's review of the paper, in which he writes:
As possible explanations dwindle, we are being drawn inexorably toward the one explanation that is no explanation: that we really are alone. Why should this be? As Wiley shows, all it would take would be one alien species with our capabilities appearing, sometime in the past couple of billion years, and for that species to surpass where we are now technologically by, oh, say, a couple of hundred years... and the evidence for their existence should be present right here in our own solar system. It's an astonishing conclusion.

So are we alone? Well, there is one other possibility, at this point. I've lately been trumpeting my revision of Clarke's Law (which originally said 'any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic'). My revision says that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from Nature. (Astute readers will recognize this as a refinement and further advancement of my argument in Permanence.) Basically, either advanced alien civilizations don't exist, or we can't see them because they are indistinguishable from natural systems. I vote for the latter.

This vote has consequences. If the Fermi Paradox is a profound question, then this answer is equally profound. It amounts to saying that the universe provides us with a picture of the ultimate end-point of technological development. In the Great Silence, we see the future of technology, and it lies in achieving greater and greater efficiencies, until our machines approach the thermodynamic equilibria of their environment, and our economics is replaced by an ecology where nothing is wasted. After all, SETI is essentially a search for technological waste products: waste heat, waste light, waste electromagnetic signals. We merely have to posit that successful civilizations don't produce such waste, and the failure of SETI is explained.

And as to why we haven't found any alien artifacts in our solar system, well, maybe we don't know what to look for. Wiley cites Freitas as having come up with this basic idea; I'm prepared to take it much further, however.

Will cognitive enhancement result in too many negative side-effects?

A new paper published in Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, claims that there are limits to human intelligence, and any increases in thinking ability are likely to involve trade-offs.
Drugs like Ritalin and amphetamines help people pay better attention. But they often only help people with lower baseline abilities; people who don’t have trouble paying attention in the first place can actually perform worse when they take attention-enhancing drugs. That suggests there is some kind of upper limit to how much people can or should pay attention. “This makes sense if you think about a focused task like driving,” Hills says, “where you have to pay attention, but to the right things—which may be changing all the time. If your attention is focused on a shiny billboard or changing the channel on the radio, you’re going to have problems.”

It may seem like a good thing to have a better memory, but people with excessively vivid memories have a difficult life. “Memory is a double-edged sword,” Hills says. In post-traumatic stress disorder, for example, a person can’t stop remembering some awful episode. “If something bad happens, you want to be able to forget it, to move on.”

Even increasing general intelligence can cause problems. Hills and Hertwig cite a study of Ashkenazi Jews, who have an average IQ much higher than the general European population. This is apparently because of evolutionary selection for intelligence in the last 2,000 years. But, at the same time, Ashkenazi Jews have been plagued by inherited diseases like Tay-Sachs disease that affect the nervous system. It may be that the increase in brain power has caused an increase in disease.

Given all of these tradeoffs that emerge when you make people better at thinking, Hills says, it’s unlikely that there will ever be a supermind. “If you have a specific task that requires more memory or more speed or more accuracy or whatever, then you could potentially take an enhancer that increases your capacity for that task,” he says. “But it would be wrong to think that this is going to improve your abilities all across the board.”
My thoughts on the matter:
  1. It's true that our current state of intelligence may be at a certain happy equilibrium point, but that has to be understood within the context of adaptability to our prior Paleolithic existence in which we evolved as foragers and hunters. And as the article correct asserts, human cognition is also limited on account of hard biological limits, like cranial size. Moreover, there's only so much computation that nature can do with a chunk of biological matter that's roughly the size of a grapefruit. Looking ahead to the transhuman future, and given the potential for assistive technologies (e.g. nanotechnology, brain pacemakers, artificial neurons, whole brain transfer, etc.), it's quite possible that we'll be able to radically modify the way in which the brain operates.
  2. The tradeoffs issue is a very pertinant one. It's been noted that imperfect memory may be a blessing in disguise, and that those people who have perfect recall live in a kind of virtual hell, unable to shake the constant stream of memories—including difficulties placing themselves in the present moment. Similarly, it's well document that many eccentrics and geniuses suffer from attendant psychological problems, such as OCD, paranoia, schizophrenia, and so on. We may have evolved to our current state of intelligence and no further on account of the onset of various maladaptive functional impairments. If this is the case we need to seriously look more deeply into this, especially at the dawn of bona fide cognitive enhancement. My hope (and expectation) is that we will still be able to engage in cognitive enhancement, but that we will (a) have to work to allieviate the side-effects of increased intelligence and memory, and (b) learn to accept and adapt to having alternative psychological modalities (even if those "side-effects" might looks like impairment when assessed through the neurotypical lens).

Should Ecstasy be used to treat autism?

A recent Request for Proposals by MAPS (pdf) essentially asks the question: Can Ecstasy be used to treat autism?
We are welcoming proposals for a MAPS-sponsored pilot study of MDMA for Asperger's syndrome and Autism Spectrum Disorders from interested researchers until December 16. A number of people with high-functioning autism and Asperger's Syndrome have reported improvements after taking MDMA outside of research contexts. MDMA shows promise for treating Autism Spectrum Disorders since the effects of MDMA that increase empathy and enhance communication are precisely the abilities that autism tends to degrade.

MAPS is offering a grant of $10,000 for protocol development expenses for this pilot study. We have prepared a Request for Proposals (RFP) for researchers based in the U.S. We're looking for an established research team that would also have a good chance of obtaining funds for research from other grant agencies, as autism research is currently a well-funded field. At present, we have not yet raised funds for the study itself, but we do have funds for protocol development. Once we have a completed protocol, we will develop a budget and a fundraising plan. We will also work to raise additional funds through MAPS and perhaps other sources.
My thoughts:
  1. MDMA is, quite unfortunately, a nasty neurotoxin. The long term effects of the drug, with its deleterious effects on the production of serotonin, could undermine the purpose of such a treatment
  2. We have to seriously consider whether or not we want to "treat" autism and Asperger's in this way. As I've argued before, autism needs to be understood under the larger lens of neurodiversity and better appreciated as an alternative psychological modality
Now, that said, the benefit of using ecstasy for such a purpose (its long term effects notwithstanding), could allow those with autism to choose when and when they do not want to have a more neurotypial experience. This fits in nicely within my idea of designer psychologies and the ability to choose contextually appropriate cognitive modalities.

November 28, 2011

Sentient Developments Podcast for the week of November 28, 2011

Sentient Developments Podcast for the week of November 28, 2011.

Topics discussed in this week's episode include the current Adderall shortage in the United States and its rampant off-label use (including a discussion of its nootropic qualities), the question of whether or not SETI is scientific (in response to a recent Rationally Speaking Podcast episode), how to avoid an asteroid impact (reflecting on Phil Plait's recent TED talk), observing the lost tribes of the Amazon (in consideration of Scott Wallace's new book), and remembering biologist Lynn Margulis.

Tracks used in this episode:
  • Opeth: "Heritage"
  • Cynic: "Amidst the Coals"
  • Cynic: "Hieroglyph"
  • Steven Wilson: "Grace for Drowning"
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November 27, 2011

The 'Flash Rob' meme spreads

Bill Wasik of Wired reports on a disturbing new trend: Flash robs. And yes, it's exactly what it sounds like.
Many different types of crowd disturbance have bubbled up during 2011, but perhaps the oddest category has been the “flash mob robbery,” or “flash rob.”

It’s a fad that started in Washington, D.C. back in April, when around 20 people filed into a high-end jeans store in Dupont Circle and quickly made off with $20,000 in stock. Since then, the practice has spread — Dallas, Las Vegas, Ottawa, and Upper Darby, Pa. have all reported incidents since then — though the targets have gotten a bit more downscale, with most of the thefts taking place in convenience stores.

The latest crowd theft took place Saturday night at a 7-Eleven in Silver Spring, Md., and it fit the familiar pattern. Kids pour into the store, calmly help themselves to merchandise, and then stream out again:

November 26, 2011

AlterNet: Corporations Are Patenting Human Genes and Tissues -- Here's Why That's Terrifying

A medical ethicist explains the dark implications of corporate medical patents and the nightmarish scenario of our medical-industrial complex.

Wired: The Rise and Fall of Bitcoin

Must-read article in Wired about the rise and ball of bitcoin:
When Nakamoto’s paper came out in 2008, trust in the ability of governments and banks to manage the economy and the money supply was at its nadir. The US government was throwing dollars at Wall Street and the Detroit car companies. The Federal Reserve was introducing “quantitative easing,” essentially printing money in order to stimulate the economy. The price of gold was rising. Bitcoin required no faith in the politicians or financiers who had wrecked the economy—just in Nakamoto’s elegant algorithms. Not only did bitcoin’s public ledger seem to protect against fraud, but the predetermined release of the digital currency kept the bitcoin money supply growing at a predictable rate, immune to printing-press-happy central bankers and Weimar Republic-style hyperinflation.

Nakamoto himself mined the first 50 bitcoins—which came to be called the genesis block—on January 3, 2009. For a year or so, his creation remained the province of a tiny group of early adopters. But slowly, word of bitcoin spread beyond the insular world of cryptography. It has won accolades from some of digital currency’s greatest minds. Wei Dai, inventor of b-money, calls it “very significant”; Nick Szabo, who created bit gold, hails bitcoin as “a great contribution to the world”; and Hal Finney, the eminent cryptographer behind RPOW, says it’s “potentially world-changing.” The Electronic Frontier Foundation, an advocate for digital privacy, eventually started accepting donations in the alternative currency.
Entire article.

CrossFit and The Clock

As most CrossFitters know, CrossFit wouldn't be CrossFit without The Clock. It's what gives each workout the sense of urgency that it deserves, an aspect that's largely missing from other fitness regimens.

Take bodybuilding culture for example. Guys will do a set of reps, walk around for a bit, admire themselves in the mirror and then proceed to do their next set of isolation movements.

There's clearly something missing from this approach; there's not much being done to address the crucial fitness domains of stamina and cardiovascular/respiratory endurance. CrossFit, on the other hand, addresses this particular facet by having The Clock.

Harder, faster

By introducing the element of time domains, athletes are compelled to work harder and faster in order to complete the workouts as quickly as possible. Not only does this add a competitive element to each workout, it also provides a way for each individual to measure their own success and improvement over time. And just as importantly, regular efforts to reduce personal time domains helps to improve both stamina and cardiovascular endurance.

This can be somewhat of a shock to those new to CrossFit. The idea of doing sets of Olympic weightlift movements while on the clock is one of the most intimidating aspects of CrossFit -- but it's also what sets it apart from other fitness methodologies. It's one of the key reasons why it works.

Time domains

There are many ways in which The Clock can be utilized in CrossFit. Most workouts are 'for time' meaning that all the sets and rounds have to completed as quickly as possible. A particularly effective and valuable time schema is the Tabata workout in which participants work as hard as they can for twenty second intervals, typically followed by ten seconds of rest. Another technique is to have athletes do as many rounds as possible within specific time domains, some as short as a minute.

This can be extremely motivating, only because failing to hit the time targets can sometimes result in a longer and more arduous workout. I can remember a WOD in which we were required to do six box jumps (24") followed by squat-clean-to-thrusters (95lbs). The WOD was finished only when 65 squat-clean-to-thrusters were completed.

What made this WOD particularly deadly was that the box jumps started on the minute every minute. Failure to get a good quantity thrusters in meant that the WOD kept dragging on and you risked finding yourself constantly stuck in front of your box. This was one workout in which the clock had a profound impact on the nature of the workout and the level of intensity that had to be brought to it.

Indeed, most CrossFitters have a love/hate relationship with The Clock. There are times, say for a twenty minute workout, when you've been working your ass off for what you think is a decent span of time, you look at the clock and realize only five minutes have transpired. It's easy to get demoralized at times like that, but hey, that's CrossFit; time to get your inner game in order and push yourself through.

Track your progress

Another consequence of The Clock is that it's often hard to avoid comparing yourself to others—and this isn't always a bad thing—it can certainly help in placing your own performance and level of fitness in context.

But one thing I've learned is that, while it's important to look at other people's time in relation to your own, it's more important that you compare yourself to yourself. Otherwise, you have no sense of progress. Rather than obsess over your time in relation to others, it's a better idea to focus on competing against your previous efforts.

So, all ready to set a new PR?