30 March 2007

Preserving vision

From Wisconsin, a report of yet another positive development in the use of stem cells to fight degenerative diseases of the retina.


US preparations against Iran

Immature continent

Anti-Americanism in western Europe.


Keyboard Kommando Komics!

Left-wing political satire in graphic-novel format. It's exquisitely done and cruelly hilarious. (Note: mild sexual references.)

Part one

Part two

Part three

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29 March 2007

Exploding-whale roundup

Taiwan 2004 (found via Boys Wear Pants) -- the article also reveals a curious fascination with whale penis size.

Oregon 1970 as immortalized by the inimitable Dave Barry. Includes a link to the video; if it's too big to download or you don't have Quicktime, here it is on YouTube.


Quote for the day

"The truth is, there is not a person on Earth who has a good reason to believe that Jesus rose from the dead or that Muhammad spoke to the angel Gabriel in a cave. And yet billions of people claim to be certain about such things. As a result, Iron Age ideas about everything high and low — sex, cosmology, gender equality, immortal souls, the end of the world, the validity of prophecy, etc. — continue to divide our world and subvert our national discourse. Many of these ideas, by their very nature, hobble science, inflame human conflict and squander scarce resources."


The hostages

It appears that the regime of the Iranian mullahs may end the way it began -- with a hostage crisis (though targeting British sailors rather than American diplomats). Timothy Garton Ash notes the revealing lack of serious EU action in solidarity with Britain here (The Guardian is a hard-left-wing newspaper, which probably accounts for the overwhelmingly negative slant of the reader comments); Gerard Baker compares the crisis with the Falklands war here, making some interesting points about the behavior of American and British conservatives at that time; Austin Bay points out here that the regime is playing with fire.

Matters may come to a head very soon.

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Time for a new direction

A few miles west of here, at this very moment as I type this, a certain bus is trundling toward downtown Portland. My guess would be that, on board, it's a pretty typical morning ride. Doubtless some individual who really should have stayed home is coughing and sneezing on hapless fellow commuters; a couple of celltards are in full babble; and the driver is trying to decide whether the profanity being exchanged by the two wasted-junkie-looking guys sitting up front is obnoxious enough that he ought to tell them to cut it out. The very picture of normality.

I "should" be on that bus too, as I have been almost every weekday morning for several years, but I'm not. I've quit the job I've been working at for four and a half years. I gave them three weeks' notice on March 7th, and yesterday was my last day. It wouldn't be appropriate to go into reasons here; suffice to say that while the people I worked with there were great and I will miss them (and who's to say one can't stay friends with ex-coworkers, anyway?), I will miss very little else about it.

Due to certain plans, I can't look for a new permanent job right away, so I'll need to rely on temp work for a while. It should work out; I've done it before. When one has no dependents, one is free to make decisions that might strike others as a bit risky. I gave this step a great deal of thought before taking it. It was the right thing to do.

27 March 2007

On the "argument from stagnation"

Mendip e-mails:

I’ve enjoyed very much your discussions and comments on life extension. But I keep wondering what the possible effects would be from having professors/researchers, politicians, judges, generals, business leaders, etc., who are left in place year after year, decade after decade. Would that type of control put a brake on innovation and intellectual evolution? And then there’s the thought of having to deal with decades and centuries of “news” stories about Britney Spears and others of her ilk. I don’t want to live in a world like that…;)

My response to this concern would be twofold.

First, if it is really true that older people are inherently more prone to stodgy, ossified thinking than younger people are (something I am not entirely ready to concede as a given), is the reason for this something innate in the mere fact of having existed for a longer rather than a shorter time? Or is it something to do with the structural and functional deterioration of the brain associated with old age -- one of the very phenomena which anti-aging technology would be designed to combat? We can't know yet, but the latter explanation seems more plausible to me. If so, then those whose lives are extended by such technologies will not have old, decrepit brains, but rather youthful, innovative brains which have merely been in existence for a longer period of time and thus accumulated all the more experience to work with. It is probably true that the influx of new individuals into positions of institutional influence would be slowed if aging and death no longer removed the existing occupants of those positions; but that would most likely just prompt the rising generation to establish rival institutions of its own, which would eventually displace those of their predecessors which became too timid and conservative. And would it really be so terrible to have many positions of authority occupied by people who remained biologically and mentally youthful and vigorous, while at the same time having centuries of experience in their fields?

Second, an observation from history. The twentieth century saw a far greater increase in average human lifespan than all of previous history had seen. But this did not make it a century of intellectual, cultural, or technological stagnation. On the contrary, it was a time of unprecedented innovation in every field.

On the Britney Spears issue, I can offer only this: if life and death go on as they always have, there will always be a new generation of vapid celebrities. If Britney Spears becomes immortal, the wisdom bred of accumulated experience may eventually make her less vapid.:-> Take your pick.

Others have also addressed this issue. Here is Aubrey de Grey's view, and here is a posting on "Superlongevity, Stagnation, and Posthuman Potential" (found via Fight Aging).


25 March 2007

Quote for the day

"Aging doesn't just kill us, it kills us horribly. Sitting next to my mother-in-law in the hospital I was outraged -- outraged at all those who feel we shouldn't interfere with the aging process; outraged at all those who obstruct research into life extending medical technologies; outraged at all those who are blind to horrors of aging."

Taking a stand for life, revisited

A few more thoughts evoked by the discussions here and here.

If I chose to be flippant, I might argue that the number of people who say they would not take advantage of life-extension technology if it were available refutes the proposition that life extension would reduce the death rate to near zero and thus require us to forbid new births so as to avoid a population explosion. However, I really doubt that this "die-and-let-live" philosophy (as I call it) accurately reflects what will happen.

Observed behavior is a much better predictor of future behavior than verbal statements are. Many of the dramatic medical innovations of the twentieth century were at first viewed with suspicion as hubristic meddling with nature, but later widely accepted once people got used to them. (In vitro fertilization, stem-cell research, and even contraception are still at various stages of this acceptance process.) There are, of course, still people who reject arbitrarily-defined categories of "too-artificial" medical technology even when necessary to save their lives, but these people are few in number and mostly members of fringe religious groups. As anti-aging technologies become available, I believe the same process of general acceptance will happen -- probably quite quickly.

There is a vast difference between contemplating aging and death in the abstract, and confronting them as immediate realities. In fact, almost all humans in situations where they are faced with the possibility of imminent death react by taking any necessary measures to survive. I can't prove it, but I think that almost any person on his deathbed, if offered access to treatment that would restore his health and allow him to return to a normal life, would seize the opportunity, not wave it away.

At 46, I am aware of a slight decline in stamina and energy compared with how I was a quarter-century ago. The loss in vitality is small, and the huge increase in mental acuity due to a quarter-century of added life experience far more than makes up for it. But who can argue that it wouldn't be better to have the best of both worlds? And how much more true this becomes as the decline accelerates over time! I have seen very elderly people who have become enfeebled, slow, and vulnerable, their eyesight and hearing weakening, even their minds starting to slip despite the advantage of almost a century of experience. Who would truly choose to be in that condition if it were avoidable? If identical afflictions were to descend suddenly on a young person, it would be considered a terrible tragedy. Why should others have to endure them merely because they happen to have been alive a few decades longer?

It is sometimes argued that aging and death are part of nature and are hard-wired into our species, as if this meant that it would somehow be illegitimate for for us to use technology to resist them. But malaria, polio, syphilis, and so forth are equally part of nature, and many degenerative and hereditary diseases are hard-wired into human biology (or at least into the biology of some individuals), and no one argues that we should refrain from using technology to free ourselves from those scourges.

What matters is not whether a phenomenon is natural or not, but whether it is harmful or beneficial to us. That death is harmful to an organism is so obvious as to be practically tautological, and does not even need to be argued in most contexts.

I enjoy the experiences life has to offer. My death would mean that I would no longer be able to have those experiences. It would also rob me of the ability to observe the future development of humanity, about which I am intensely curious. Therefore death is objectively bad. Some may differ, but I suspect most people's view of the matter would be closer to mine.

The folkloric heritage of our culture always treats efforts to defeat death and live forever as foolish hubris inevitably leading to a bad end. I think this heritage colors much of the reflexive negative reaction to the idea.

My interlocutor in the Fight Aging discussion argued against anti-aging research on the grounds that other medical issues should have a higher priority. I think I succeeded in refuting this view, but even if it were true, so what? The argument that no work should be done on a given problem because some other problem is more important leads inexorably to the position that no work at all should be done on anything other than whatever we decide is the one single most important problem facing us. Science has never worked that way, and we would be far worse off today if it had.

There is, of course, the issue of belief in an afterlife, which often comes up in discussions of this subject. To renounce the chance to extend one's lifespan in the hopes of experiencing some sort of afterlife is, to put it charitably, a gamble on extremely dubious odds. It is impossible to prove any typical religious claim of an afterlife (Heaven, reincarnation, etc.) to be false -- like most religious propositions, these claims are designed to be impossible to prove true or false. However, there is no evidence whatsoever that an afterlife exists, and plenty of evidence that a reasonable person would take as arguing strongly against the idea. If the part of the brain that performs a particular function is seriously damaged, that function is lost or compromised. It doesn't "go" anywhere; the brain simply loses the ability to do it, though it may sometimes manage to reconfigure itself to restore some of the lost capacity. (As Sam Harris points out here, believers in Heaven who lose a particular mental function presumably do not believe that that function has gone to Heaven ahead of the rest of their minds. I don't think reincarnationists believe that a lost function gets reincarnated all by itself, either.) People with severe damage to the parts of the brain that sustain consciousness lose the ability to be conscious, though if the cerebellum is undamaged their heartbeat, breathing, digestion, and other signs of organic life may continue indefinitely. The obvious conclusion is that when the entire brain ceases to function at death, all the activities that were going on in that brain simply come to a stop. There is no evidence for any mechanism whereby they could somehow continue without the brain, any more than programs running on a computer can continue to run in some disembodied fashion if the computer is destroyed.

It seems obvious to me that the belief in an afterlife developed as a form of comforting self-delusion in the face of the inevitability of death, and that in most people this belief is far shakier than their verbal claims about it would suggest. Most people whose survival is threatened fight hard to stay alive; most people mourn when someone they love dies. These are not the responses of people who truly believe that death is merely a gateway to another, more pleasant existence.

Finally, I have to say that there is something I find repulsive in the attitude of abject submission to the blind dictates of nature -- the feeling that, because biology mandates that we should age and die, it is somehow noble or our duty to accept it. No one would admire, say, subjects of a totalitarian state who adopted a similar craven attitude toward their rulers, making a virtue of submission and obedience to the arrogance and cruelty of another. All the great advances in human freedom have depended on people who rejected this mentality. Apparently some of our technological advances will depend upon them too.

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Secularism rising

It's well known that the United States is by far the most religious of the developed countries. But according to this new Pew survey (PDF), religion's grip is steadily weakening even here (see section 4, "Religion and Social Issues", beginning on p. 30).

The number of "seculars" -- people who "say they are atheist or agnostic, or choose not to identify with a religious tradition" -- has risen from 8% in 1987 to 12% today. The proportion seems set to continue rising in the future, since the age group with the highest proportion of "seculars", at 19%, is people under 30, and "the number of seculars within each generational group is about the same in 2007 as it was 10 or 20 years before. Thus it appears that people have not become less secular as they have aged."

Self-identification is not the whole story, of course, as is shown by Europe and Russia where substantial numbers of people refer to themselves as "Christian" out of what I call "cultural inertia", while the majority of them actually hardly have any religious beliefs and do not engage in any religious rituals. That is clearly not the case in the US to anything like the same extent; according to the survey, 83% of Americans say they "never doubt the existence of God", 79% believe everyone will be judged by God for their sins, and 78% consider prayer an important part of daily life (note that the first two of these have declined slightly since 1987, consistent with the increase in secularism). However, the percentages agreeing with traditional religious views on homosexuality, the role of women, and concepts of good and evil, are all lower than one would expect from the figures above, and most have declined much more strongly than the relatively small rise in self-identified "seculars" would suggest. The one figure which seems jarringly discordant with the general trends is the high level of disapproval of internet pornography -- something which I attribute to the fact that internet pornography, like gay marriage, is a relatively new phenomenon and thus viewed with the suspicion that always tends to greet cultural innovation.

It is striking that, based on most of the graphs, religiosity in the US actually seems to have peaked in the late 1990s, with the decline happening since then. Thus, while the Bush administration is obviously strongly influenced by the Christian Right, it has not been able to spread or even maintain fundamentalist ideology in the population.


A drama of the natural world

A gripping tale, expertly told.

As a grazing cow plucks the occupied grass from the ground, it is oblivious to the zombie ant and its evil masters.

What author could resist a topic that allows him to write sentences like that?

22 March 2007

The Portland demonstration

I knew, of course, that one of those "anti-war" rallies was scheduled here in Portland over the weekend. I just stayed right away from it. I had no idea that anything as disgusting as this and this was in the offing.

Well, Portland does not "hate America", whatever Michelle Malkin thinks. A few loathsome idiots throwing this kind of public temper tantrum do not speak for anyone but themselves. No one I know here would sympathize with such behavior. The local paper did not print the worst pictures; anyone who was not at the demonstration would not have known that these displays took place, unless they read about them on the internet later. The supportive letters to the paper should be read in that light.

Update 1 (23 March): Yesterday our main local newspaper, The Oregonian, ran this editorial about the issue. I think they don't quite realize how bad this is.

Update 2 (23 March): Here, also from The Oregonian, is an essay on the controversy, which unfortunately serves mostly to illustrate the bias which often creeps into reportage on such matters. Notice the use of the word "huffed" to cite one quote about the photos, and the emphasis on the hurt feelings of the photographer about the way her photos have been used (as if she could possibly have thought these pictures were anything other than explosive) rather than on the feelings of soldiers, their relatives, and decent people in general at the objective fact of the disgusting behavior the photos revealed.

21 March 2007

Marzipan at the center of the Sun

A good posting from Sam Harris in his debate on religion with Andrew Sullivan.

So far this debate has followed the usual pattern: the arguments for religion hinge not on any objective evidence that it is true, but rather on the emotional reassurance it provides. If this were a valid basis for choosing what to believe in, it would be fine for adults to believe in Santa Claus. While it is almost impossible to prove the falsity of the proposition that any given deity exists (most religious propositions are formulated in such a way as to be incapable of being proven true or false), the universe certainly looks exactly as one would expect it to look if it were purely the product of the operation of ordinary physical laws, without any guiding intelligence.

Note: in the illustration, the tabletops are actually of slightly different lengths (probably the drawing was poorly reproduced for the posting), but the widths are the same despite looking very different, which illustrates the point being made.

On another issue in the Harris-Sullivan debate -- whether moderate religion is just as bad as the fundamentalist variety -- I think one must distinguish between the objective validity of a doctrine and the practical threat it presents. That is, all religions are equally false, but they are not all equally dangerous. Islam is far more dangerous than Christianity, tolerant secular Christians are far less dangerous than the politically-aggressive Christian Right, religions with no doctrine or tradition of aggression against unbelievers (such as Judaism or Wicca) are the least dangerous. As a pragmatist I believe in the the practical value of supporting anyone who opposes the imposition of a fundamentalist religious agenda on society (see here for an elaboration of this view), even if these allies hold supernatural beliefs every bit as absurd as the fundamentalists themselves do.


Items on Iraq worth reading

Petraeus is cautiously optimistic.

This wouldn't be the first time that a new general and a new strategy have turned a war around.

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Views on life extension

Chell has an open thread up for comments on the question "Want to live forever?", inspired by this discussion.


20 March 2007

More on Russia's ultimatum to Iran

Here's a New York Times article on Russia's ultimatum to Iran over its nuclear program (thanks to Chell for the link).

This article seems to reinforce my own view that the real basis for the dispute is political and that the Russians are using their claim that Iran is behind on its payments as a public pretext for reducing cooperation. Note that the Iranians deny that they are behind on their payments at all.

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18 March 2007

Clutching at the quantum straw

Quantum mechanics is mysterious, and consciousness is mysterious. Q.E.D.: Quantum mechanics and consciousness must be related.

Christof Koch

Ever since an awareness of quantum mechanics began to penetrate the mass public mind, individuals here and there have seized upon it as a pretext to try to legitimize various traditional mystical beliefs. Quantum mechanics, after all, embraces a number of unexpected and bizarre phenomena; it does not seem wholly bound by the deterministic quality of classical physics; and in some cases quantum reactions even seem to be influenced by whether or not they are being observed or recorded. Scientists, of course, are very cautious in assessing the implications of these phenomena. Unfortunately mystics and philosophers are rather less restrained. Claims have appeared in print to the effect that quantum mechanics vindicates such concepts as the soul, or ghosts, or various forms of eastern mysticism. As a result, we now have whole herds of people who have absorbed a vague sense that science is now moving toward, or supporting, a religious or mystical world-view (I have had a number of very frustrating conversations with people like this, who could barely articulate exactly what they were asserting -- such beliefs are usually rooted more in emotional comfort than in coherent logic -- but were firmly convinced of it nevertheless).

An example of this misuse of barely-understood science which has recently drawn attention on the internet involves the hypothesis proposed by physicist Roger Penrose and professor Stuart Hameroff on brain microtubules. To summarize, microtubules are tiny support structures within brain neurons. Penrose and Hameroff believe that they use quantum effects to perform computations which are an integral part of the brain's overall data-processing functionality, and that this fact (brain function is partly based on quantum mechanics) explains why consciousness exists. As far as I know, this hypothesis is not generally accepted and there is no actual evidence that microtubules perform quantum computation, or have anything to do with the brain's computational processes at all; however, Penrose and Hameroff are not mystics and are not asserting anything mystical or supernatural. They are merely proposing a solution to the rather baffling question of how the physical brain sustains consciousness.

In the popular mind, however, the hypothesis has been seized upon for two purposes: to legitimize concepts such as the soul and disembodied afterlife (Andrew Sullivan recently posted an e-mail containing such claims, and given his site's prominence, the meme is sure to proliferate widely), and to assert that brain uploading is impossible, on the grounds that quantum effects could not be simulated in a computer and therefore human consciousness could not be sustained that way.

The latter argument, contrary to what some apparently think, is not new. Ray Kurzweil was aware of it in 2005 and addressed it in The Singularity Is Near on pp. 450-452 (click here for a PDF version of the chapter in which this discussion appears -- you need to scroll down to the pages cited). As he points out, even if Penrose and Hameroff are right, there is no reason to think that a computer could not be built to perform the same kind of quantum computation; and in any case, everything we know of that the brain is capable of doing can be accounted for by the standard model of neuron functioning, without resort to quantum effects.

But facts have never stopped mystics from clutching at the quantum straw.


17 March 2007

A few discussions here and there

I think I'm winning this argument about the relative importance of aging vs. other medical problems.

Exit Zero linked to my posting about Russia below, leading to an exchange about terrorism and who's ultimately on our side.

Muslim checkers at Target stores have been making a fuss about scanning pork products bought by customers. See links and discussion here.

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The gathering

Inspiring. The third photo says it all.

Update: Malkin's blog entry has been extensively expanded. The "third photo" to which I was referring is the one of the two men holding the sign depicting the Iraqi woman voter with the purple finger.


Through the birch trees

An evocative trip across Estonia. Be sure to click on the photo of Tallinn to view the full-size version.



In the past I've drawn attention to sites expressing the views of people who were raised as Muslims but have taken the highly challenging, courageous, and frankly dangerous step of leaving Islam -- sites such as The Apostate, Atheist Girl, and Apostates of Islam. Here is a new one, The House of Apostasy, a "roundup" blog which offers some eye-opening personal experiences (sexual harassment during the pilgrimage to Mecca?) and has already attracted the usual Muslim denunciation.


Trimming the fringes

Over the last decade or so, as both parties have become beholden to their respective extremist elements (known on each side as "the base"), the concept of voting for the lesser of two evils has taken on an increasingly dire reality. On the one hand we have a bunch of people who think September 11 was a police matter and not an act of war, who don't grasp that the West is under concerted attack by Islamist fanatics, and who can't abide the use of American military power to protect American territory, people, and interests unless pre-approved by the UN, Jacques Chirac, and at least a couple of Middle Eastern tinpot dictators. On the other hand we have a crowd who blithely repudiate scientific facts (evolution, global warming) which they find philosophically inconvenient, who think the main legitimate functions of government are to humiliate homosexuals and force women to carry unwanted pregnancies to term, and who in general seek to conform twenty-first century American society to the taboos codified in a befuddled collection of ancient Middle Eastern myths. Each election has been an exercise in trying to decide which form of insanity to tolerate for the sake of keeping the other one out of power.

Recently, however, there have been signs that both the left and the right are shifting away from their respective fringe elements and toward the sensible center.

On the left, efforts in Congress to defund the Iraq war effort and force an immediate withdrawal -- abandoning the Iraqi people to the murderous "insurgents" -- have been beaten back, though dangerously arbitrary deadlines are still under consideration. The earlier hyperventilating talk of impeaching President Bush has faded. The Democratic leadership in Congress has abandoned its earlier plan to demand Congressional pre-approval for military action against the Iranian nuclear program, and both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have explicitly declared that the military option must remain on the table. Whether these positions are the result of real conviction or simply recognition that the earlier hard-line ideas are politically suicidal, the result is still a victory for sanity and moderation.

On the right, the most obvious example is the Giuliani phenomenon -- a candidate whose views on abortion and homosexuals (as well as some aspects of his personal life) are anathema to the Christian Right is nevertheless the clear favorite of Republican voters, by a huge and growing margin. There is the almost-universal denunciation of Ann Coulter's latest foray into the use of bigotry as a shock tactic. Most interesting is the massive repudiation of right-wing rising star Dinesh D'Souza's hateful new book blaming the American left and secular values for Islamic terrorism and proposing a sort of alliance between the American Christian Right and the Islamists -- see this NRO symposium and this article by Victor Davis Hanson.* There is clearly a pulling back from the demonization of liberalism and secular values which has marked the last few years.

The shift to the center has provoked plaintive howls of betrayal from the fringes on both sides -- which is the best proof that it is indeed for real. With any luck, next year both parties will offer Presidential candidates who accept America as a secular society where people are free to make personal decisions unconstrained by ancient Middle Eastern taboos, and who are fully committed to the vigorous defense of that society against its enemies.

*This quote from Hanson's article is of particular interest:

I am no big fan of a Russ Feingold or a Howard Dean, but as fellow Americans I find more resonance with them than with conservative Muslims abroad who, at least currently, do not approve of religious tolerance, or an equality of women, or freedom of speech and expression. Personally in this war I prefer to make “common cause” with the atheist leftist Christopher Hitchens or Al Gore’s former running mate, Democratic vice presidential candidate Joe Lieberman, or a liberal Tom Lantos (also named as a “domestic insurgent” on the D’Souza list) than with someone abroad who embraces sharia law.

Hanson certainly stands on the conservative side of the left-vs-right divide, but he recognizes that this divide is an internal one within a common civilization, and that it is far less profound or important than the vast gulf separating that civilization from Islamic barbarism. It's those people (on the left or the right) who don't recognize this reality who make up the most dangerous and reprehensible part of the fringes.

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15 March 2007

The bear is catching up

While everybody has been jumping up and down and pointing excitedly at China (and, more recently, India), the real "other superpower" has been closing the technology gap between itself and the West:

The cold war days when the USSR matched the US missile-for-missile may be gone. But experts say that Russia is increasingly capable of turning out cutting-edge weaponry and selling it to countries that are shunned by Western suppliers.

Among the armed forces' acquisitions will be a completely revamped early-warning radar network, new intercontinental missiles, a fleet of supersonic Tu-160 strategic bombers, and 31 new warships, including aircraft carriers.

Russia is already supplying India with the Sukhoi-30MKI, an advanced "fourth generation" warplane that consistently defeats its Western counterparts, such as the frontline US fighters, the F-15C and F-16. Versions of the Su-30 are also being sold to China, Venezuela, and Malaysia.

Putin-era sales have shifted increasingly to sophisticated weapons, including warplanes, precision-guided munitions, and advanced air-defense systems. "The US still has a solid lead in the top end of weaponry," says Mr. Cohen. "But at the next level Russia is advancing fast."

There is a dangerous meme in circulation to the effect that Russia is degenerating into just another fossil-fuel-export-dependent fake economy like the OPEC countries, and will soon be no more of an important player on the world scene than, say, Nigeria or Saudi Arabia. This ignores what is by far the most important resource for any nation in the twenty-first century: the talents and education of its people. During the twentieth century, Russia transformed an almost medieval economy into an industrial superpower in one generation, put up the first artificial satellite and the first man in space, and maintained the only military force in the world capable of real parity with the United States for decades -- all while handicapped by the most idiotic economic and political system ever devised by man. What OPEC country has such achievements on its résumé? Russia today has abandoned Communism and evolved a system which, as backward and corrupt as it remains, is still far more open and market-oriented than what it had before. It has lost Ukraine -- probably forever, thanks to Putin's bullying -- but it has also lost the backward Central Asian "republics" which were a burden on the Soviet economy. After a decade of turmoil while such tremendous changes were being absorbed, the bear is emerging again, perhaps to become stronger than ever.

There is no more dangerous potential adversary -- and no more valuable potential ally against the Islamists.

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14 March 2007

Know the enemy

In order to defeat the aging process, we must understand its evolutionary roots.

The "non-theist" Congressman

Russia cracks down

Iran with a nuclear bomb or the ability to acquire one is not acceptable to Russia. We will not play anti-American games with it.

That's the latest word from the Kremlin, apparently -- and as Iran's main supplier of modern technology, Russia has far more leverage (short of military action) over the Iranian regime than anyone else does. As the article notes, "a spokesman for the Russian Nuclear Power Agency (Rosatom) announced that the Bushehr nuclear power plant, the core of Iran's nuclear power program, would not be put into operation on schedule."

I see two possible interpretations of this position:

(1) Until recently the Russian regime honestly believed that the Iranian nuclear program was aimed only at peaceful energy production and not weapons-building, but it has just recently come to realize that it was mistaken, and is thus backing off from its earlier support. This might seem to imply that the Russian regime has been implausibly naive up to now, but it can't be ruled out; for one thing, the tendency of information-gathering services to tell the leadership what it wants to hear, and for the leadership to be selective in what it listens to, can be a serious one even in democracies, as the emerging revelations about pre-invasion US intelligence on Iraqi WMD programs illustrate. The fact that the Russian statement emphasizes alarm over Iran's ongoing defiance of the IAEA supports this interpretation. No matter how hard one tries to convince oneself that Iran is not working on nuclear weapons, Iran's own behavior seems calculated to make the task of sustaining such belief impossible.

(2) Russia always knew that Iran was trying to build nuclear bombs, and was willing to go along for its own reasons (perhaps seeing a chance to make money and gain influence in the Islamic world, knowing that the actual threat would probably be removed by American military action before it materialized), but is now reconsidering its position. On the whole this seems more likely. Russia has repeatedly been targeted by Islamist terrorism, and there must be strong elements within the regime who do not want to take even the slightest risk of nuclear bombs falling into the hands of the kind of people who did this. Concern about growing international isolation may also play a role; over the last few years the regime's truculent and bullying stance has led to a situation where even most of the other ex-Soviet Republics -- even Ukraine, Russia's closest relative culturally -- have aligned themselves with the US against it. Perhaps the regime has noticed that it is in a hole, and decided to stop digging.

For that matter, while Putin is certainly a thug, he is not even close to being another Stalin or Hitler. I doubt that anyone in the regime really wants to see a second Holocaust -- especially one with Russia's technological fingerprints all over it.

(Even the expected cash profits from Russia's help to Iran are not materializing -- the mullahs are behind on their payments. Perhaps some bank in Moscow will soon be trying to figure out how to repossess a nuclear reactor? Especially amusing is the Russians' stern verdict of "unacceptable" upon Iran's decision to pay them in EU Monopoly money rather than real dollars.)

Whatever the reason, it's a development the US should welcome. I still don't think the Iranian nuclear threat can be eliminated without an airstrike -- but far better for all concerned if it can be.

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13 March 2007

The story of Major William Martin

Negotiating with Iran about Iraq

Quote for the day

"Until this election cycle, most social conservatives supported candidates and policies based on the married with children 'ideal' family model. It may be the ideal, but it is no longer widely practiced, including by many conservative evangelicals. Researchers have found many conservative Christians live in states where divorce rates are highest. These states overwhelmingly oppose same-sex marriage. Too bad they don't do a better job supporting opposite-sex marriage in which they claim to believe. No politician can 'fix' broken heterosexual marriages. If they could, some of those mentioned above would have fixed their own."

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Alleged Japanese milk commercial

I really doubt that this is a real commercial. Even so, it is an entertaining example of the Japanese sense of humor. Note: sexually-suggestive imagery.


The struggle to remain unknowing

Black Sun Journal has a great posting about the evils of "ignorance as a strategy", as manifested in such beliefs as creationism and conspiracy theories. The comments thread includes a debate on illegal immigration.

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No fundamentalism here

Christopher Hitchens responds to some of the weird criticism aimed at Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

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11 March 2007

The longing for defeat

There's an odd and disturbing meme floating around the world of ideas these days. I can't prove any specific individual is guilty of embracing it, but it is definitely out there. I'm talking about an attitude of not only believing that defeat and disaster are inevitable, but even seeming on some level to want it, to long for it, to feel disappointed at the prospect that it might be averted.

An example from the left is the Iraq conflict. For quite some time now it has been an article of faith among many on the left that an American defeat in Iraq is inevitable. That belief, if that is as far as it goes, is a perfectly respectable position, and whatever logical arguments can be made for it deserve sober consideration. However, as more and more signs appear that the tide in Iraq is turning in our favor (see for example here and here, and recall this and this, and the links near the end of this posting), the response very often is not to treat them as grounds for hope, but rather to reassert the defeat-is-inevitable stance in an increasingly frenzied manner, reacting with agitated contempt and even anger to any suggestion that victory in Iraq might be achievable after all. It's impossible to avoid the feeling that these people hope we will lose in Iraq, and would be frustrated and disappointed if we won.

An example from the right is the demographic situation in Europe and Russia. A whole pundit mini-industry has sprung up around the idea that the low native birth rates in those regions, and the high birth rates among their immigrant Muslim minorities, mean that they will inevitably come to be dominated by Islam in a few decades (time frames ranging from fifty years down to as little as twenty years are commonly cited). The loss of one-half of the Western world, plus a closely-related civilization which also happens to have the largest nuclear arsenal on Earth, to the Islamists would indeed be a catastrophe of staggering magnitude. Yet the hard evidence doesn't at all support the idea that any such thing is going to happen -- the numbers simply don't add up, and in Russia at least, Islam is dying out, not growing. Yet although all these statistics are easily accessible to anyone, the demographic-doom theme is ubiquitously asserted with vigor, and sometimes even with a certain unmistakable air of satisfaction.

Some people just have a weird fetish for wallowing in gloomy pessimism, but it's hard to avoid thinking that much uglier motives are at work here. I suspect, for example, that the intense hatred for President Bush harbored by many on the left has reached the point that they would rather see the American mission in Iraq fail than succeed if the latter meant that Bush would get credit for the victory. I suspect that the strong commitment of many American conservatives to Christianity causes them to draw some gratification from the idea that the highly secular and post-Christian societies of Europe and Russia are doomed to decline and extinction, whereas the prospect of those societies surviving permanently and vitally is a disturbing challenge to their world-view.

To the extent that such motives do exist, they are despicable. Whatever President Bush's faults -- and they are many -- an American who wants his country to lose a war (while he is of course entitled to his opinion) cannot be considered a patriot or entitled to any respect. And for all the backstabbing behavior of some western European governments and the contemptible anti-Americanism of so many of their people, we need them to see the light, not be lost forever to the darkness -- no one who gloats at the thought of Europe declining into oblivion can claim to be a champion of Western civilization.

09 March 2007

The Kola borehole

A discussion

07 March 2007

The Greatest Mind Ever

Or at least the greatest nutcase. Somehow I doubt that Laura and "Cherrie" will be knocking on this guy's door any time soon.


Indian or black?

An example of racial conflict where some would not expect to see it. The comment thread is of considerable interest (note: strong language).

The story put me in mind of this quote which I ran across on Classical Values the other day:

There are a lot of ordinary people running around who aren't white, they aren't black, they aren't Hispanic, or Asian, or anything, because they're of indeterminate racial mixes. They don't like the pressure to be members of racial groups, as they just want to be themselves. I think Barack Obama -- whether he wants to or not -- appeals to people who want to be allowed to just forget about their race.
Eric Scheie

This is the genuinely American attitude, it seems to me.

Suffering is good for you

Having earlier pointed out examples of disastrous Islamist opposition to vaccination (such as this), it's worth also noting this equally nutzoid invocation of Christianist masochism as an argument against health-care reform. I don't even want to think about how this mentality will react to SENS.

Any politician who does adopt the slogan "pain may be good for you" is certainly not getting my vote, and probably not many others.


04 March 2007

"Not a permanent planet"

Al Gore -- tool of Satan!


Small world

Click here to view the astonishing works of British sculptor Willard Wigan.


Bones, sex, and Jesus

Joshua Minton gives his views on James Cameron's new film about the alleged tomb of Jesus here; a discussion of religion's obsession with sexuality follows in the comments.


03 March 2007

Retinas, brain chips, and disease genes

A review of some of the year 2006's major achievements in biotechnology.

Found via The Futurist.


Morality of horror

A concrete example of the harm that can be done by the religious taboo on contraception.


Time to buy Boeing stock

More on the woes of the EU's flagship Soviet-style industrial enterprise, Airbus (or, as some are now calling it, "Airbust"). Be sure to click on "comment thread" at the bottom too, for more details on the huge (and hugely misconceived) A380 passenger plane, such as:

"Airports that want to accommodate Airbus will have to widen and strengthen their runways and taxiways."

"The tails built by the Germans do not marry up to the fuselages built by the French" (who's running this operation, Monty Python?)

"The aluminum wiring is too bulky to fit"

Etc. See here for more links on Airbus.

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They don't target only the West

Eye on the World reviews Islamist activity in Thailand, Bulgaria, and Chad. See also this bizarre effort at forced conversion of Hindus and Sikhs in Britain.


02 March 2007

Ape hunters

Chimpanzee hunters have been observed making and using spears. Interestingly enough, it's mostly the females who do this.


Norway's secret weapon against Islam

The humble pig -- green kryptonite against the Islamists! This has all kinds of possibilities. Recall this Texan's similar trick. No doubt the reader can think of many other tactics employing this unexpectedly useful animal.

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Another machine-human interface

Researchers in Texas and Michigan have created photovoltaic nanoparticle film capable of interacting with the organic nervous system -- possibly a first step toward the creation of an implantable artificial retina, though they caution that such an application is at best a long way off.


Romanians fight EU bureaucracy.....

.....with witchcraft. Well, pretty much everything else has been tried, with disappointing results.

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Graves of the Russian mafia

Organized-crime groups have acquired considerable wealth and power in post-Communist Russia. Here's how some of their dead choose to be commemorated.


The abstinence-only sewing club


Originally spotted via The Barefoot Bum.

Politics and fundamentalism

This collection of polls puts the various presidential contenders head-to-head. The thing that strikes me most strongly about this is that according to pretty much every poll, Giuliani would defeat any of the three top Democratic candidates (Clinton, Obama, or Edwards), whereas Romney would lose to any of the three. While such results so far in advance of the election have little predictive value, they do suggest that running as a social moderate carries a strong advantage.

Meanwhile, here's a reminder that conservatism (in most senses) doesn't logically require an anti-science, anti-reason religious-fundamentalist stance.

Finally, our local independent weekly paper The Portland Mercury offers an entertaining glimpse of the fundamentalist mind-set.

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Exporting American jobs

Why the job-offshoring trend may have run its course.

Cox & Forkum take note. I suspect the English-fluency problem is a major issue.

Update (3 March 2007): the British are doing the same.

Middle East update

Iraq: While the "failure-is-inevitable" drumbeat continues here in the US, the situation in Iraq itself continues to look brighter.

Israel: Why anti-missile defenses aren't the answer to the Iranian nuclear threat.

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