Saturday, August 28, 2004

Golden Arches, eh?

I'm exceptionally hard to feed.

I can only eat very bland food, and the only vegetable I eat is potatoes. This makes fast food places, like McDonald's, perfect for me.

I remember my first few weeks at the University of Kent in Canterbury, living off plain loaves of bread, and bowls of breakfast cereal. I found the campus food was not to my liking.

One day, walking through the city center, I glanced at a trash bin and noticed a Filet-O-Fish wrapper. I did a double take... I couldn't believe my luck! I immediately set out exploring the city searching for the McDonald's that I new must be nearby.

Soon, I was eating McDonald's Chicken McNuggets 3-5 times a week. I had to walk more than a mile each way, so it wasn't too unhealthy.

Twenty years later and on the other side of the Atlantic, I can still occasionally be found at the golden arches. Just a few weeks ago, I was thinking about my college days, wondering how I could have eaten so many McDonald's meals each week. These days, one dose of McDonald's cures me of any desire for the stuff for weeks. It just doesn't taste good to me anymore.

Well, when I visited Toronto earlier this month, I ate at the McDonald's at Eaton Center. Wow! It tasted great! The McNuggets tasted like...chicken! The fries were really tasty, too.

The next day, I revisited the same McDonald's. Again, I was in heaven! I even resolved to go back the next day, though I never got the chance. I had my answer. I could eat McDonald's up to 5 times a week because it tasted really good in the old days.

So, what's the difference between Toronto McDonald's and U.S. McDonald's? Nuggets and fries, specifically.

A word of advice to McDonald's. I don't go to McDonald's for healthy eats. No one does. I go there because the food tastes great, or at least, it used to. If you can make the food low fat, vegetarian fare, that's fine. But if you have to sacrifice taste, forget it. I'll have my high-cholesterol, tasty fries, please.

And don't get me started on the fried pies.

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

The Anthropic Principle

I found this interesting debate between two physicists, Lee Smolin and Leonard Susskind, on the value of the Anthropic Principle.

I was going to give a concise definition of the Anthropic Principle, but after reading the article, I now feel less than qualified. Here's the definition in Wikipedia.

Smolin begins the debate by claiming that the Anthropic Principle is not falsifiable, and that it does not add anything to existing arguments about the nature of our environment.

I haven't read the entire thing yet, so I haven't chosen sides. However, I found Lee Smolin's comment about the use of the Anthropic principle intriguing:

In the paper I show that every use of the anthropic principle claimed in physics and cosmology is either an example of this fallacy, or is so vague that one can get any conclusion one wants, and match any observation, by manipulating the assumptions made.

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Valor

The Republicans are at it again. Dissolving America from the inside in the name of short term profit.

A motley crew of Vietnam veterans has come forward to question John Kerry's service in Vietnam. Their TV spots have only run in a handful of states (three, I think), but the press (incompetent as they are) has amplified their effect a hundredfold.

The story that's not getting out is what these false charges are doing to America's soldiers, past, present and future. If the American people take these liars seriously, medals will mean nothing. Indeed, the Bush administration's often relies on the ability of propaganda to render facts obsolete. Case in point: the Bushies stack government panels with ideologues, so that policy can be shaped by corruption and superstition instead of the common good.

No one questions the fact that the U.S. military committed atrocities in Vietnam.

No one questions the fact that fighting the Vietnam war, at least the way we did it, was foolish. (See the Powell Doctrine, inspired by the Vietnam experience).

No one questions the fact that John Kerry valiantly saved the lives of his crew in Vietnam. On multiple occasions, no less.

Not only do the veterans who challenge Kerry have political motives, they weren't even present during the events for which Kerry won his awards! One of them has gone on record as saying his medal is worthless if Kerry was awarded a medal for the same engagement. Meanwhile, Kerry's crewmates, the men who were there, have stepped forward and backed Kerry 100%.

Are we going to let Bush and his agents complete their Orwellian scheme?

Will we let them rewrite history?

And if we do, what will a Purple Heart mean?

Monday, August 23, 2004

Hope

As a long-time atheist, I've often had debates about religion in which the opposing team has made the claim that people "need" religion. Psychologically need, that is.

Clearly, I am living proof that this statement is false in at least some cases. However, my recent trip to TransVision 2004 got me thinking about my own psychology.

I see technology as a key to humanity's survival. Perhaps, by amplifying human intellect (a transhumanist goal), we might develop the wisdom (or at least the intelligence) we need to avoid self-destruction. Of course, there are many other fringe benefits, including extremely long happy lifespans, and the ability to better appreciate the universe and our fellow beings.

This world view is brimming with hope. It also happens to be exciting, rewarding and entirely plausible. As a lazy, hedonistic humanoid, the fringe benefits are quite appealing, to say the least. Indeed, transhumanism may deliver through science, what religionists can only pray for.

I'm claiming that this hopeful world view is a useful heuristic. World views are used to set long-term strategy. Suppose the prevailing world view was that we would soon exhaust our energy, pollute our clean air and water, and then expire in a nuclear holocaust. I think we would all still get up in the morning. However, we would probably spend most of our time coming up with ways to trying to party like it's 1999.

Unlike religion, transhumanism doesn't offer any guarantees, though, in practice, this makes little difference. In practice, people hedge their bets. We work towards social harmony, but party like it's 1999 (would you believe, 1995?) on Saturday nights.

Most of us want to live in a stable society where we can all get along. Having a world view that is not at odds with our social structure allows us to indulge in social activity (e.g., bowling, weddings, etc.) without guilt. In other words, we may "need" hope in order to function effectively in an advancing society.

Saturday, August 21, 2004

Peak Oil

The BBC asks Is the world's oil running out fast?

Interesting question. As the price of oil rises, we should find new ways to extract it, new ways to conserve and, at long last, alternative energy sources.

Still, the price of oil will rise, and the increased price will affect the world economy. After we reach the peak oil production point (possibly within 5 years), and production begins to fall, how will markets react? Will oil futures smooth the transition to a more limited oil supply? Or will there be a psychological discontinuity that will send the world markets into a tailspin?

I'm not an expert.

However, some members of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil (ASPO) believe that the coming oil crunch will be painful.

Recent oil price hikes and weak refining capacity have been a boon for the oil business. Similarly, I expect that oil companies will profit from declining oil production. Lucky them.

The BBC has a nice series of articles on life in the age of dwindling oil supplies, including one entitled What to use when the oil runs out.

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Transhuman Disco

I was listening to an 80's music CD the other day and heard Timbuk 3's classic "The Future's So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades". This is a great song for all you wannabe cyborgs out there! Next TransVision, we gotta play some of these.

Here's my transhuman music list (so far):


  • The Future's So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades - Timbuk 3

  • Harder, Better, Stronger, Faster - Daft Punk

  • Mr. Roboto - Styx

  • Strict Machine - Goldfrapp



More to come...

Saturday, August 14, 2004

TransVision 2004

I'm back from attending the TransVision 2004 conference in Toronto. TV is the annual conference of the World Transhumanist Association.

The conference was somewhat smaller than I expected, but then I'm used to more extravagant software industry affairs. However, the attendees and the conversation were quite remarkable. There were scientists, engineers and artists from all over the world, all eager to share their theories and hungry to learn from everyone else.

The plenary presentation was made by Aubrey de Grey, a theoretical biogerontologist from Cambridge University. de Grey gave a very entertaining and educational talk about engineering negligible senescence (ENS), i.e., living forever. de Grey puts forward a very compelling argument for the feasibility of ENS.

The process of metabolism creates damage that accumulates over time, and this damage leads to pathology (disease etc.) that eventually causes death. Both metabolism and pathologies are very complex, and neither are well understood. However, de Grey points out that when we compare young cells and old cells, there is only a short list of seven basic differences that are relatively well understood. By engineering away these differences, we should be able to engineer long life. Later in the conference, de Grey described possible ways to address one of the seven categories of damage (the "lysosomal junk" category) that are responsible for aging.

There were a lot of presentations at the conference that addressed the ethics and imperatives of life extension and human enhancement. Even de Grey covered this issue quite eloquently. I didn't need much convincing that the bio-Luddites have their collective heads in the sand, but it seems to me that solid anti-aging technologies will justify themselves. Each therapeutic advance can be sold as a therapy for a specific ailment. For example, a gene therapy that attacks the buildup of dangerous cholesterols within cells can be sold as such. The therapies that extend life can be seen as therapies that fend of heart disease, diabetes, alzheimer's and so on. What I liked about de Grey's talk is that it traced some of the specific research steps needed to bring these therapies into the medical mainstream.

The other talk that has occupied my thoughts since the conference was the talk entitled "Posthuman AI: How Recognizing the Importance of the Body Will Change Things". Robin Zebrowski argued that it may be impossible to create a conscious yet disembodied intelligence. While AI has been successful in creating expert systems, Zebrowski claims that embodiment is a prerequisite for creating conscious AI's. I'm not sure I agree with Zebrowski at the moment, but her idea is a fascinating one. For example, Zebrowski points out that when we process concepts in thought, we often activate parts of our brain that are used for motor control. The notions of "grasping an idea" or "kicking a habit" activate their respective motor control regions in the brain. This raises questions about the limits of our ability to understand certain concepts. Perhaps we cannot fully understand a concept unless it can be mentally linked with the body's motor control functions. Perhaps, the only way to intuitively understand more complex ideas is to augment our bodies in a way that requires new kinds of motor control. It's an elegant idea, but I'm pretty skeptical at the moment. The good thing is that this has me thinking more deeply about neural networks and the nature of intelligence.

For more information about the conference, see the WTA Web site.

My photos are here. I'll post more about my experience at the conference as it sinks in!

Sunday, August 01, 2004

Misplaced Machismo

Supporters of the Bush administration say that our terrorist foes attack us because they believe us to be weak. They say that the administration is successfully fighting the war on terror because it is willing to play hardball against the terrorists. What exactly does "playing hardball" mean in this context?

Terrorists of the seventies and eighties were looking for minimal loss of life and maximum news coverage. They generally tried to get away with their lives at the conclusion of the operation. These terrorists may have been committed to a cause, but they were secular in nature.

In contrast, our new enemy has total faith in their warped religion. Today's adversary has a new objective: to commit mass murder and die during the attack.

Is there any action the United States could take that will discourage Bin Laden, al-Zarqawi and other hard-boiled terrorists from attacking us? Will Bush's willingness to apply torture, lock up suspects without due process, and use precision air strikes to target buildings in civilian areas impress al Qaida?

It's quite obvious that these actions will do absolutely nothing to deter terrorist leaders and their hidden armies.

However, it will definitely have an effect on those whose hearts and minds have not yet been won. To be sure, there will be some people with full lives and good jobs who will see that terrorism is not a game that they want to play. But George W. Bush's willingness to violate human rights in the name of playing hardball will probably create as many terrorists as it destroys.

President Bush's foreign policy is also affirming every terrorist claim. If millions of Americans can believe that George W. Bush cares more about Iraqi oil than about the Iraqi people, you can bet that the Islamic world thinks so too.

This issue goes to the heart of why so many Americans can be duped into supporting the Republicans. People want to believe there's a simple solution, a quick fix.

Unfortunately, as John Kerry said in his nomination speech, the world is complicated. And for every complex problem, there's a simple solution that doesn't work. There isn't one simple solution to the war on terror. You need one solution for each faction on the other side.

Marketing 101
You would think that an administration that is by, for and of corporate America would apply the lessons they supposedly learned in Marketing 101.

The target market might be segmented as follows:


  1. The enemy's leadership and dedicated recruits,

  2. The less dedicated recruits who support them,

  3. The idealists who may be swayed by the terrorists call to arms,

  4. The downtrodden peoples who see the terrorists as fighting for their cause,

  5. The states that actively sponsor terrorists,

  6. The rest of the world that now fears America's willingness to use pre-emptive military power and is looking for a counterweight to American strength.


A successful strategy must cater to each one of these market segments.

Segment #1: The Heart of the Enemy
So far, U.S. actions in the war on terror have nearly been appropriate to meet the challenge of market segment #1. I say almost because Bush showed inadequate resolve during the war in Afghanistan. Not wanting to suffer any casualties in fighting the enemies who attacked us, Bush sent in only a token force to coordinate the activities of the Northern Alliance and other mercenaries. As a consequence, much of al Qaida's leadership escaped from Tora Bora.

Segment #2: Potential Moles
As for the other market segments, Bush's policy has been an abject failure.

The CIA has badly handled several suspects from segment #2. There are reports that several suspects who were won over by the CIA, were later double-crossed and not given the deals that they were promised. One is the case of an American recruit who attended training in Bin Laden's Afghan camp, and whose story was features on the PBS show Frontline. The second story was that of an Iraqi official who was promised rewards for cooperating with U.S. forces who were looking for weapons of mass destruction. When the official revealed that no weapons existed, the deal was off and he was locked away.

These stories need not be true. Their message is clear: you can't trust the CIA, so you might as well stick with your criminal enterprise.

Whether it can make deals or not, the CIA isn't sending the right message.

Segment #3: Idealists
Segment #3 is populated by people who have been indoctrinated by state-run schools that teach hate. You would think that U.S. foreign policy would have insisted that these schools, many of which can be found in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, be shut down immediately. You would think. Perhaps Bush has called in all the favors he can from these two 'allies'.

Segment #4: The Downtrodden
To win over segment #4, the United States must see that the people of the Muslim world are not simply ignored and abused.

According to the polls, the number one issue that occupies Muslims everywhere is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is true even for states that are far from Israel like Morocco. No one expects the U.S. to abandon the only democracy in the region. However, at least maintaining some semblance of fairness, some credibility as a fair broker in the conflict, would seem an appropriate national security measure. Instead, Bush has taken actions that have perfectly aligned the United States with the hard-right Likud party in Israel.

The people of Iraq once fell into segment #4. However, the policy of the Coalition Provisional Authority (AKA, the U.S. government in Iraq) have made devastating mistakes. The U.S. State Department report that predicted the insurgency, also predicted the looting, the law and order problems and the infrastructure failure. However, it seems that President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and the Defense Department didn't trust the State Department not to get the U.N. involved. I suspect that Bush and Cheney, patrons of big oil business, were not keen on the prospect of sharing the oily spoils of war with French, German and Russian oil companies. The Pentagon chose to ignore the State Department report and just wing it. Needless to say, this failed miserably.

In the months that followed, billions of dollars of aid were not spent in a timely fashion. Then, $20 billion of Iraqi oil was sold and the money not accounted for. The money that actually was used was spent on no-bid contracts for U.S. companies that hired non-Iraqis to perform even the most menial tasks. The Iraqis now have a 70% unemployment rate.

The U.S. could have made postwar Iraq a success story. They could have protected Iraqi infrastructure after the war, employed the people and given every man woman and child a stipend from the sales of Iraqi oil. The U.S. should have renounced any interest in Iraqi oil proceeds.

Segment #5: Terrorist Sponsors
The invasion of Iraq has tipped our hand. We do not possess the standing army to handle Iraq alone. Syria, Iran and North Korea see weakness. Instead of overstretching our military forces in a war for oil, we should have established a clear set of rules by which we would deal with terrorist sponsors. Instead, the U.S. sent the following murky message:


  1. We have a list of terrorist supporting states.

  2. We invaded and almost broke up al Qaida's leadership.

  3. We shall invade (and did invade) Iraq and were not going to be satisfied by any kind of inspection and verification scheme.



That's it. In its entirety. In other words, it sent the message that the U.S. intended to invade all those states on its list and there was nothing those states might do to avert invasion so long as the U.S. considered the invasion a simple task.

It's no wonder that Iran and North Korea have accelerated their nuclear development in the wake of U.S. foreign policy moves. These states are officially 'on the menu', so their only hope is to make invasion as painful as possible for the United States.

The U.S. could instead have used a carrot and stick approach. The U.S. should have laid out what was expected of these states in return for normal relations. The U.S. could also have made it clear to terrorist sponsors that nuclear terrorist attacks on American soil would be answered in kind, independent of whether there was proof of complicity by said sponsors.

Segment #6: The Rest of the World
It's simple. Work with the U.N. and compromise wherever possible. Some see the U.N. as a threat to U.S. sovereignty, but this perspective is, frankly, just plain daft. The U.N. is a forum where almost nothing happens without U.S. support. If the U.N. ever did manage to take an action that the U.S. objected to (a one in a million shot), it could refuse to abide by International law.

The Bush administration (in another bid to keep things simple, no doubt) decided to spurn the U.N. and world opinion by removing the U.N. inspection regime and invading Iraq. In doing so, the U.S. has brought about exactly those consequences it would have encountered in the one in a million scenario in which the U.S. sovereignty was threatened.

The Pinnacle of Incompetence
I could go on for a few more pages, but there are already plenty of authors who have covered the Bush administration's failures to win world support for American interests. Indeed, it is my opinion that McDonalds Corporation could do a better job of foreign policy than the Bush Administration.

What makes Bush's foreign policy record doubly negligent is that it is the cornerstone of his overall counterterrorism plan. From outward appearances, the only component of the national security plan is to disrupt cells abroad.

The administration has not properly funded police, fire fighters and other first responders. Port security is a sham, with 95% of containers lacking inspection. Borders have not been secured, and no civil defense plan has been implemented. After all, these things would require billions of dollars in tax revenues that Bush has promised his rich friends.

Since Bush has not significantly improved security at home, you might at first think that he actually believes his plan is working (i.e., Bush is drinking his own Cool Aid). But then you hear Tom Ridge at the Department of Homeland Security tell us that a major terrorist attack is expected in the next 3-4 months.

There's a strange, almost surreal, feeling I have while writing this. We stand on the brink of national disaster, and our so-called free press stands idly by.