Wednesday, April 27, 2005

EPA says chemical plants vulnerable to terror attack

This is news?

Terror experts (and average blokes like me) have been saying this since 9/11, but Bush refuses to create remedial security regulations for a chemical industry that refuses to regulate itself.

Par for the course for Bush. Unlike foreign wars, homeland security was never a priority for his administration. Voters don't seem to care, and probably won't until people die due to an attack or some industrial accident.

Here's my prediction. Bush will suddenly show a "change of heart" and propose that you and I pay for what the chemical industry should have been doing all along. Yes, a special government welfare program, a gift to the chemical industry for not killing us. Industry regulation bad, government gifts to industry good.

It will be just like Bush's energy plan: another corrupt and immature scheme from your friendly uncompassionate conservatives.

At a time when oil companies are making record profits, the federal government does not need to subsidize the construction of new refineries," David Hamilton, director of the Sierra Club's global warming program, said in a statement. "The current lack of refinery capacity is the result of a conscious decision by the oil industry in the 1990s to limit the supply to increase profits."

Monday, April 25, 2005

Kung Fu Hustle

I saw Stephen Chow's new film Kung Fu Hustle this weekend. I knew it would be more violent than Shaolin Soccer (Hustle has an R rating), but I still wasn't quite prepared for the level of graphic violence in the movie. It did not serve the plot well, in my opinion.

I've seen much worse, but it got me thinking about violence in film and TV. I assume that tolerance for violence lies on a continuum. There must be some people who can't easily stomach watching the movies I love, like Raiders of the Lost Ark or The Battle of Britain. The Battle of Britain has a lot of blood, but very little gore. The movie gives you a sense of what RAF and Luftwaffe pilots endured through the summer of 1940, but the gore and horror are fairly minimal. The final climactic scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark was a bit gratuitous, but it was fairly tame by today's standards.

I find at least one thing reassuring: I'm not getting desensitized to extreme violence, so perhaps others aren't getting immunized either. I sometimes wonder whether I could desensitize myself if I really tried. I suspect that no matter how I suppressed it, my revulsion would eventually leak to the surface of my personality in unexpected ways.

So why do people watch this stuff? Are they testing themselves? Is it morbid curiosity? Or do they not have any psychic reaction to what they're watching? Do they see actors and special effects where I see the real thing? Do they abhor violence, and think realistic movie depictions are a disincentive to the real thing? All of the above?

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Coming out

Atheists are one of the most hated minorities in America. Despite outnumbering many religious denominations like Evangelicals and Jews, atheists have almost no political influence. No atheists ascend to federal elected office, at least none who admit their atheism. In a recent survey, only 49% of Americans said they would vote for an atheist for President, atheists placing last after homosexuals at 59%.

Even the relatively enlightened district in which I live is filled with SUV's bearing the pagan fish fertility symbol now co-opted to mean "Jesus". I'm surrounded by churches with their tax exemptions and their special street signs. Still, unlike most other religious countries, America's religion tends to be more depressing than deadly.

The first time I saw a Darwin fish symbol on a car, I was quite surprised at the effect it had on me. Somehow, I felt relieved that I wasn't the only person who sees religion for what it is. I decided then and there to put stickers on my car and to try to make contact with others who might feel the same way.

During the 2004 political campaign, I discovered Meetup.com, a site that facilitates meetings for local interest groups. Though the site was boosted by grassroots political campaigns, it also serves hundreds of interests including knitting, bellydancing and, you guessed it, atheism.

For the last few months I have been attending an atheist meetup group. Unlike political meetings, the atheist meetups don't have an agenda. They're just an excuse to have dinner with a bunch of people who are not intoxicated by religion.

What do we talk about? I have found that members of my group are quite curious about personal histories. I suppose it's natural to want to know what makes a person immune to Bullsh*t. We also discuss philosophy, the environment, justice, skepticism, psychology and economics. Universally, the people I meet have become exasperated with religion and the lack of critical thinking that dominates our culture.

Meetups are entertaining and reassuring, but what can we do to change a political climate that opposes free thinking?

I'm a member of the American Atheists, an organization that prides itself on its political activism. AA does a great job bringing legal challenges on church-state separation issues, but they are quite abysmal on social networking. It's okay for AA to have a legal focus, but it will never be a complete organization for atheists until it recognizes the value of person-to-person social contact.

Unlike AA, the Brights seem to recognize the value of social interaction. Founded by brilliant minds like Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins, the Brights hope to escape the stigma of atheism through rebranding. They use the noun "Bright" as a label for someone who does not believe in the supernatural. For the Brights, a Bright is to an Atheist what a Gay is to a Homosexual. Unfortunately, the word "bright" is most commonly used as an adjective - an adjective whose antonym is "dim". Reminiscent of Apple Computer's early marketing campaigns, it suggests that people who don't buy into the product are stupid. Having been a hard-core IBM PC guy in the 1980's, I can't see this strategy winning much endearment from the other side. The Brights are sincere in their rejection of this misinterpretation, but I think their flawed branding campaign will fail nonetheless.

While branding and legal challenges may be important, they are unlikely to change any hearts. On the other hand, meetups can provide more than just an emotional respite for local atheists. They have the potential to bring more atheists out of the closet. If substantially more than one in a thousand atheists would attend regular meetups, it would have a very positive effect on the perception of atheists by believers. When religious people realize how many of their friends are atheists and free thinkers, it won't be so natural to discriminate against them. More importantly, it will make critical thinking a socially acceptable practice, despite the protestations of religious leaders.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Good journalism is not deceptive

I listened to this morning's CBS News World News Roundup on WBBM-AM 780 in Chicago.

One of the segments was the last part of a CBS series on Social Security. CBS chose to quote only the insurance industry and the extreme libertarian CATO Institute. The reporter claimed that the Social Security system would be "in the red" in 12 years. This is incorrect. In 12 years, the Social Security system will start using the interest from the trust fund as it was originally designed to do. This distortion and the one-sided interviews gave the impression that the Social Security system is in crisis. Factually, it is not. The system is solvent until at least 2042, and repealing the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy would provide more than enough money to fix the system indefinitely.

I know that people should hear from both sides in the debate, but this doesn't mean that the press should be neutral on the facts. The fact is that the Social Security system is in good shape, but CATO and the Republicans oppose social security for ideological reasons. They can't stand to see a government program that works for the people.

CBS may have had good intentions for its series on social security. However, CBS aired a piece that sounded educational, but was ill-informed and harmful to responsible government.

This is a prime example of what has gone wrong with journalism. Journalists may prefer to quote others rather than inject their personal opinion, but it is both unethical and unprofessional to present an array of quotes which do not accurately reflect the facts in the case.

Fox News has a deliberate policy of reporting things that favor the Republicans, corporations and the ultra-rich. Unfortunately, other networks that may have weaker biases are hobbled by laziness and a lack of ethical concern.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Davros

I've started reading a great new publication called the Journal of Evolution and Technology.

The article by K. Mark Smith entitled Saving Humanity?: Counter-arguing Posthuman Enhancement is a rebuttal to the critiques of human enhancement made by Francis Fukuyama.

Fukuyama opposes human enhancement:
“One obvious way to draw lines is to distinguish between therapy and enhancement, directing research towards the former while putting restrictions on the latter. The original purpose of medicine is after all, to heal the sick, not to turn healthy people into gods. We don’t want star athletes to be hobbled by bad knees or torn ligaments, but we also don’t want them to compete on the basis of who has taken the most steroids. This general principle would allow us to use biotechnologies to, for example, cure genetic diseases like Huntingdon’s chorea or cystic fibrosis, but not to make our children more intelligent or taller.”

I'm not a strong proponent of reproductive enhancement, mostly because I'm not personally interested in reproducing. I do favor technological enhancement, especially of intelligence. Conservatives like Fukuyama aim to obstruct those who seek personal enhancement, personal fulfillment and enlightenment. They propose that we remain imbeciles lest we offend them or their fictitious gods. I find their philosophy both repugnant and illogical.

Fukuyama cites the risk that we may become inherently unequal in ability, and thereby threaten the foundations of liberal democracy. However, liberal democracy does not appear to rely on equality. We don't have equality today. We each possess widely varying levels of skill, intelligence, education, income, experience, empathy and moral clarity. It seems to me that, if anything, liberal democracy feeds equality, not the other way around.

Should we ban education to keep us more equal? Of course not. Lack of access to education is what breeds inequality. Similarly, lack of access to enhancement technology is what will breed inequality in the future.

If we outlaw human enhancement, only outlaws will be enhanced. Which gives me the excuse I need to link to Davros...

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Border Insecurity

A terrorism suspect, Luis Posada Carriles, has crossed into the United States illegally by way of the Mexican border.

This story is important for two reasons.

First, this demonstrates that our borders are not secure. We can have a guest worker program if we have to, but the U.S.-Mexican border needs to be controlled. There's effectively no security there.

Why does Bush do nothing to remedy the situation? As far as I can tell, he thinks that if he presses the military attack on the known terrorists of the world, they will be too preoccupied to attack our open borders. This strategy is based on two false premises: that we know who all the terrorists are, and that the number of terrorists is constant. Of course, U.S. foreign policy has created more terrorists than it has killed, and we have no way of knowing who the new bad guys are. It's not easy to fight asymmetric warfare against determined individuals who can fund their attacks with pocket change, and probably impossible to fight them with our flank unprotected.

Second, Bush now has the opportunity to do something right in his "War on Terror." Carriles, a self-described terrorist bomber, is angling for asylum here. If the Justice Department doesn't come down on this guy like a ton of bricks, something is very, very wrong. The world is watching.

A Theologian on Robotics

CNET talks to theologian Anne Foerst about why robots are scary - and cool.
The third one is the whole idea of trying to understand ourselves by rebuilding ourselves. Especially through that building of embodied machines, we have learned so much about the body and so much about our capability of empathy and social interactions and stuff. So, that's pretty powerful. Then I think really we have lost--that is now the theologian speaking, obviously--but we have lost our connection to God and we have become a very lonely species, we don't have any partners with whom we can interact, because we stopped interacting with God, and stopped being close to God. So I think building robots in our image is kind of on the same page as searching for extraterrestrial intelligence and trying to understand dolphins and chimps. The whole idea that we want to--at least some of us want to--understand other beings and otherness.
I think what Foerst is trying to say is that the quest for AI is a spiritual one. I agree. I think that's why the strong, disembodied, mathematical AI is so attractive to so many people. If we simply replicate silicon versions of ourselves, we've proven a point, but we haven't created something that we aspire to. This ship of human fools is full enough without robotic counterparts. No, we aspire to have greater intelligence, greater willpower and deeper insights.

Some form of embodiment (even if it's virtual embodiment) is almost certainly going to be required before an AI understands the world as well as we do. It's even possible that some form of emotion will be required to motivate an AI. However, the AI that will truly inspire me will not replicate the imprecision of our thinking.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Nanotech is here

We futurists dream of nano-factories, machines that can build any artifact by assembling it an atom at a time. Since nano-factories could build other nano-factories, we would enter a golden age of prosperity in which objects of almost any design are available inexpensively.

It's a long way off, and some even debate the feasibility of the technology. However, nanotechnology, the technology of things at the nanometer (billionth of a meter) scale, is here already. Think of it as the new plastic.

DuPont has developed a new paint technology based on solid nanoparticles. Most paints contain solvents that evaporate as the paint dries. These solvents are generally not human-friendly. The new "solid paint" is cured not by an evaporating solvent, but by ultraviolet light. The new paint dries in three seconds and does not emit any harmful vapors.

A couple of weeks back, Toshiba announced a new rechargable battery technology that recharges 60 times faster than standard lithium ion batteries. The new battery uses a nano-material to increase the effective surface area of the components inside the battery. Interestingly, the battery can recharge 80% of its capacity in about a minute. For a 3200 mAH (milli-Amp-Hour) battery, that would mean pumping in 150 Amps of current for a minute! About 1.3 Kilowatts at 9V.

I would have liked to see a government project to make the U.S. the leader in nanotechnology. Though funding from public and private sources is on the order of $9 billion, that's not enough to make us especially competitive. Other countries are smart enough to invest in their own futures. We aren't we?

These shoes do 5 MIPS

I need to replace my aging Nike Airmax running shoes, and I think I've found what I'm looking for.

These new Adidas running shoes can do 5 million instructions per second.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

USA! USA! USA is number... 17?

U.S. universities have slipped lower in an international programming contest, with the top U.S. contestant, the University of Illinois, placing 17th.

There's no substitute for government leadership here. Why do corporations want to throw a ton of money at American college students who will cost more to hire? They don't. They would rather hire Chinese and Russian programmers who, incidentally, won the ACM contest.

What we need is a national project like Apollo or Manhattan. John Kerry proposed a national alternative energy project that would parallel those great American enterprises that built this country into the greatest nation on Earth. Alas, JFK didn't win the election. That's okay though. You can teach your kids Russian and Chinese, and if they work really hard, they might get into a top school like Shanghai Jiao Tong University or Moscow State.

Go Red Bears!

Monday, April 04, 2005

Dualists, Repent!

Today, I read yet another story that proves that we're just meat machines.

For some reason, the idea that the mind is more than biochemistry just won't go away. It doesn't seem to matter that almost every aspect of human personality and mental behavior has been tracked to physical brain function. The dualists continue to dream of the supernatural only because today we cannot precisely explain how the mind machine works (and anyone who understands neural networks knows why this is a hard problem).

Well, dualists have a big problem. Science isn't on their side. The dualists' claim is only that we cannot know a thing, and that's not so much a theory as a curiosity-stopper.

If Kurzweil's Law holds, Jeff Hawkins or someone like him will almost certainly build true AI in the next 40 years. At that point, the dualists will join the long list of flat earthers, evolution deniers, and geocentric astronomers who wrongly insisted that man was at the very center of the entire universe.