26 February 2007

A Rudy guy

John Derbyshire explains why he endorses Rudy Giuliani despite the latter's weak position on illegal immigration.

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The supercomputer and the musket

The technological advances which will serve as our stepping stones to the Singularity -- elimination of aging, eradication of disease, virtual reality, enhancement of human intelligence, and ultimately uploading -- promise such a radical transformation of human existence that some culturally-conservative elements argue that they should be suppressed in order to keep life as much as possible the way it always has been. While the idea that death, disease, limited intelligence, etc. can be viewed as treasures to be preserved is one I freely confess I don't understand at all, this viewpoint obviously does have some supporters. It's remotely possible that they might even succeed in their aim of prohibiting certain forms of progress. If they do, does it matter?

I would argue that it does not matter, for the following reason. Technology always wins; the only thing the forces of Luddism can hope to accomplish is to cause certain societies to lose. As the advances described above become feasible, the governments of some countries will suppress them, while others will not. The former group will gradually become irrelevant to the future of human progress.

Imagine that some technique becomes available to increase the IQ of individuals by 50%. The government of Country A bans this technique, while the government of Country B allows its citizens free choice about whether to use it or not. Ten years later, what will be the relative rate of scientific and technological progress in Country B vs. in Country A? Twenty years later, will Country A likely still have any global importance at all relative to Country B?

Within societies which allow their citizens free choice, the same principle applies between social/religious groups which renounce human enhancement and those which embrace it.

The same principle applies to any such development. Those who reject important new technological advances are almost always left behind and marginalized by those who embrace them. One can see many cases of this phenomenon in the history of primitive societies' reactions to the introduction of new technology. For example, when British explorers introduced muskets to the Maori of New Zealand in the early nineteenth century, at first only one tribe adopted them. This tribe thus acquired a huge advantage over its rivals in battle. Over time, some other tribes also adopted muskets, while others continued to reject them. In the end, the tribes which had adopted them survived, while those who did not disappeared. From a big-picture standpoint it would have made no difference whether just a few, or many, or all of the tribes adopted muskets -- the end result would have been the same, with only musket-adopters still in existence.

So even if the neo-Luddites score a few wins, they may slow down the Singularity to some degree, but they cannot stop it. They can only stop the countries which are swayed by their views from reaping the benefits.

This posting was adapted from a comment I wrote here. I felt that the point merited more prominence.


No, it's not a spoof, they really are crazy

Satanic cactus -- and a contest -- here.

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The Murtha "slow bleed" scheme seems to be falling apart, thank goodness.

More here on how the situation in Iraq seems to be developing positively.

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Mighty missiles and a scorching hell

A close-up look at the Iranian nuclear program. Includes an interesting observation about the difference between "colorful" Islamist rhetoric and that of the West.

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Superpower status

The Futurist argues that the United States will remain the world's only superpower for the foreseeable future. Much of this posting deals with cultural and commercial power, but on the whole it does a good job of illustrating the absurdity of thinking that China (his example of a potential rival) or any other power is going to overtake us militarily or economically anytime soon.

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Natural selection in action

Religion vs. vaccination, with predictable consequences.

Thanks to Mendip for the link.


24 February 2007

How many bureaucrats does it take.....

.....to not change a light bulb?

This actually isn't very funny.


When God encourages violence

Like other primates, we humans have an instinctive tendency to organize ourselves into dominance hierarchies and behave in ways we feel will meet the approval of individuals we consider to be authority figures. But to a strongly-religious human, there is no higher authority figure than the deity (or deities) of his religion, even though deities are actually merely products of the imagination of other humans.

Thus, it has always seemed logical that endorsements of violence in sacred texts would encourage believers to commit actual violence in the real world. This experiment strongly suggests that this is indeed the case.


Estonian independence day

On this date in 1918, the modern Republic of Estonia was born. Its eighty-nine years of life since then serve as a microcosm of the tumultuous history of twentieth-century eastern Europe.

Estonia had been part of the Russian Empire for almost two hundred years. In 1917, when the Tsarist regime collapsed under the stresses imposed by the struggle with Germany in World War I, Estonia fell under the domination of the Communists; however, the Estonians elected a popular assembly which met in secret. On 24 February 1918 the assembly declared Estonia an independent republic. The next day, the Germans, who were still fighting the Communists for control of the territory of the fallen Russian Empire, invaded Estonia. After the surrender of Germany in November 1918, The Russian Communists invaded. The Estonians successfully defended their territory, however, and in 1920 the newly-formed Soviet Union signed a treaty recognizing Estonian independence. During the next two decades Estonia set up a democratic parliamentary government, redistributed land from the aristocracy to the peasants, established a modern educational system, and experienced a tremendous cultural revival after the centuries of Tsarist repression.

But the country could not escape the existential problem of its location between two much larger and more powerful countries with expansionist ambitions. In June 1940, in accordance with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact dividing eastern Europe between the USSR and Nazi Germany, the Soviet regime invaded Estonia, held a sham election, and proclaimed the country a constituent republic of the USSR. Thousands of politicians and other politically-active people were arrested; many were executed, others deported to Siberia. By the time Germany invaded the USSR in June 1941, reaching Estonia the next month, most Estonians were ready to welcome the Germans as liberators. Contrary to their hopes, the Germans did not allow Estonia to re-establish independence; they also began rounding up Estonia's Jews (who had had full civil rights under independence), ultimately killing almost all of them, the only survivors being those who had escaped to other parts of the USSR before the Germans arrived. Despite this, as the tide turned and the Red Army pushed westward, many Estonians volunteered to fight alongside the Germans -- eventually enough to form a full-size division. Their efforts were in vain, however, and the Soviets re-occupied the country in 1944, though about one-tenth of Estonia's population escaped to the West. Arrests, deportations to Siberia, and executions resumed on a huge scale, targeting suspected "collaborators" and "traitors". A guerrilla resistance movement remained active for several years, but was ultimately crushed.

After the death of Stalin, the brutality of Soviet rule gradually eased. Ethnic Russians migrated to Estonia in substantial numbers. The United States, to its great credit, never recognized the Soviet annexation of the Baltic states (including Estonia) as legal. In the late 1980s Estonia recovered some limited autonomy due to Gorbachev's reforms, and in 1991 it re-established full independence from the disintegrating USSR, though the last Russian troops were not withdrawn from the country until 1994.

Today Estonia is the most economically successful of the ex-Soviet-bloc countries, with a per-capita income of about $17,000. The ethnic Russian population (28% of the total) seems to have come to terms with its minority status. Perhaps most important, Estonia has been a full member of NATO since 2004. So despite some continuing tensions with its giant neighbor to the east, its independence seems at last to be secure.


22 February 2007

A world without America

A slightly tongue-in-cheek -- yet underlyingly serious -- look at what the world might be like if the United States didn't exist.

Phasers on stun!

The US Army hopes that a high-intensity xenon strobe light can cause temporary paralysis in humans.

Found via Mendip.

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21 February 2007

Where are the aliens?

Pre-empted and non-existent? Staying home because space is boring? Engrossed in virtual reality? More in the Fermi Paradox here.


Democratic vulnerabilities in 2008

This article shows how politically risky the Democrats' "anti-war" stance is. While a majority of Americans still oppose the Iraq project, support for the new "surge" strategy is showing a strong increase, and substantial majorities oppose cutting off funds for the troops (68%) or even cutting off funds for the escalation (60%). The Murtha "slow bleed" strategy -- undermining the war effort in such a way as to not appear responsible for doing so -- is even riskier. Do they really think people are stupid enough not to see what they're doing?

It's still too early to say for sure, but there are signs that the tide is starting to turn in Iraq (see here, here, and here, for example). This is not the 1970s; today the internet has destroyed the MSM's ability to shape perception of the news. If the Democrats in Congress are so foolish as to engineer a defeat when victory was possible, the public will eventually understand that they did so.

Getting back to politics, this posting, while its main subject is Giuliani's political development, also goes into an issue which I think could be a major problem for Clinton: the flurry of pardons at the end of her husband's administration, some of which were bestowed on very dubious characters. While Clinton cannot be held strictly responsible for her husband's actions, she cannot entirely disassociate herself from them either, and these pardons are a rich mine of damaging material.

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The collapse of Airbus

The European Union's aircraft company Airbus, Boeing's main surviving rival, has been so weakened by internal squabbling and political interference as to prompt speculation that its break-up is a possibility. Delays in the development of its new flagship civilian and military planes have led to loss of business and accusations of hubris. The problems at Airbus illustrate the overall weaknesses of the EU -- bureaucracy, unaccountability, central planning, political micromanagement -- which make it poorly equipped to deal with the fast-paced modern world, and increasingly implausible as a rival to the US.

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Why do you live?

Do you have a reason for wanting to go on living? Click here to tell The Apostate about it.

Political role-play

A frisky couple spices up their sex life with some political role-play. Warning: graphic depiction of sex (and politics).

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The road to misery and disaster

Robert Haddick at TCS Daily -- who himself does not even support an airstrike to end the Iranian nuclear program -- offers an arresting assessment of the menace which the prospect of an Iranian bomb poses to the Iranian people and the rest of the Middle East. The idea of Iran and its technological partners becoming the target of a terrorist campaign may sound far-fetched, but becomes less so when one considers the deepening of Sunni-Shiite antagonism (I wouldn't put such tactics past the Israelis either -- their survival is at stake). And his discussion of why an Iranian bomb would make a local nuclear war inevitable even if this is not the regime's intention is all too plausible.

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19 February 2007

Transporting political promises

This does indeed seem like the right kind of truck for the job.

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"Another sign of the collapse"

Here's an Egyptian cartoon about the US Presidential race.

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Anti-Semitic wingnuttery

A memo being circulated in several states, and purportedly originating with Georgia state Representative Ben Bridges (though he denies it), declares that the theory of evolution is a 2,000-year-old Jewish "deception". The memo also contains a link to a website which claims that the Earth does not rotate, nor revolve around the Sun, and that many discoveries of modern science are actually Jewish lies. There is a long history of links between fake science and anti-Semitism, but this is a new one to me.

Found via The Barefoot Bum.

Sadly No displays the memo here, with numerous comments.


Which religious group has the highest divorce rate in the US? The answer might surprise you.


Supporting the troops

I've never understood the logic of people who say they "support the troops" while opposing the mission those troops are on. How can you claim to support someone while opposing what they are trying to achieve? It's easy to see how nonsensical this is by applying the same kind of position in other areas. "I support Hillary Clinton, but I don't want her to win the election." "I support the scientists working on a cure for AIDS, but I oppose their efforts to find a cure." "I support my city's team in the Super Bowl, but I want to see them abandon the game and forfeit it, not actually play to win." This doesn't make any sense.

I like this slogan -- it removes the fake ambiguity which has been slathered on the phrase "support the troops".

Furthermore, "support" should not be just an empty word. It should mean guaranteeing our troops proper respect and good treatment both during and after the conflict. Specifically, it should mean not tolerating disgraces like this. Or any recurrence of this.


Not in defeat

Much has been made of poll results showing that a majority of Americans want to withdraw from Iraq. This does not mean most people want to abandon Iraq and leave in defeat. According to this poll (you have to scroll down a bit to see it), 66% of Americans consider it "very" or "somewhat" important that we win in Iraq, and 58% are hopeful that we can.

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Honoring mass murderers

A collection of repugnant street names from Mozambique, dating from the time when it was part of the Communist bloc.

He died a couch potato's death

The spooky thing about this case is that the man apparently continued "watching" TV for a full year after his death. I wonder if this kind of thing explains some of the Nielsen ratings.

Quote for the day

"The U.S. has more churchgoing than any other major democracy and it reports much higher rates of murder, rape, robbery, shootings, stabbings, drug use, unwed pregnancy, and the like, as well as occasional tragedies such as those at Waco and Jonestown. There may be no link between the two conditions, but the saturation of religion has failed to prevent the severe crime level. Societies rife with fundamentalism and religious tribalism are prone to sectarian violence. In contrast, England, Scandinavia, Canada, Japan, and such lands have scant churchgoing, yet their people are more inclined to live peaceably, in accord with the social contract. The evidence seems clear: To find living conditions that are safe, decent, orderly, and 'civilized,' avoid places with intense religion."

James Haught



Today marks six months that I've had this site. Oddly enough, it's already getting hard to remember what it was like not having it.

16 February 2007

Safety and security

The Apostate contrasts how she feels around men in the United States with how she felt in the Muslim countries where she grew up.

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Secretaries, ropes, brothers, jackboots.....

A look at researcher Brett Kahr, who has spent the last five years collecting sexual fantasies from a sample of at least 23,000 people (mostly British) and is about to publish a book on the subject. Found via Andrew Sullivan. The whole thing rather put me in mind of this quote. But as the saying goes, "Why be normal?"

Giuliani's moderation

Is he tacking to the right to appeal to the Republican fundamentalist base? Not too far, apparently.

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The World Trade Center candy bar

A good rebuttal to the "America overreacted to Sept. 11" nonsense.

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Reversing vCJD?

This research suggests that it may be possible to reverse the effects of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease -- the human version of mad-cow disease.


Quote for the day

"[W]hen you listen to these debates in Congress, and you listen to the politicians debating, you sort of get the impression that they think we're in control of whether we're at war or not. It doesn't matter what we think. They're at war with us. They want to come here and kill us. And they did on September 11, and they did a long time before September 11. Way back in 1993, they came to this city and killed people."

Rudy Giuliani


Electronic vision for the blind

The Argus II system, developed in California, uses a tiny camera mounted on a pair of glasses to feed signals to electrodes implanted in the retina. It has already been used successfully in humans and more comprehensive tests are about to begin.

The resolution is very poor compared with natural vision, but it works well enough to enable people to do things like avoid obstacles while walking. More advanced versions are in development.


15 February 2007


Is the Bush administration contemplating an attack on Iran much larger in scope than just an airstrike to eliminate its nuclear-weapons program? That's the claim of this New Statesman article, which I found via EU Referendum. I have no way of judging how well-sourced or accurate it is, but EU Referendum's Richard North, who knows a great deal about military matters, appears to find it very plausible.

According to the article, US military technology is now advanced enough, and the concentration of forces that can rapidly be brought to bear on Iran is massive enough, that "at least 10,000 targets can be hit in a single raid," allowing us to inflict extremely large-scale but precisely-targeted destruction in a very short space of time, without using nuclear weapons. There is a lot of detail in the above links, but the gist of it is this:

American military operations for a major conventional war with Iran could be implemented any day. They extend far beyond targeting suspect WMD facilities and will enable President Bush to destroy Iran's military, political and economic infrastructure overnight using conventional weapons.

While I consider the destruction of Iran's nuclear program to be imperative, and the overthrow of its regime would certainly be a laudable objective if it could be carried out with minimal harm to the civilian population which that regime itself oppresses, brutalizes, and murders, I cannot imagine any legitimate reason for targeting the economic infrastructure. Iran, like Russia, is a largely-friendly country with a hostile regime; our quarrel is with the mullahs, not the people, who will remain dependent on their economic infrastructure even if a better government arises after the downfall of the present one. So if there is any truth to the article, I sincerely hope that that particular point is wrong.

(If anyone has "loose lips sink ships" concerns about the fact that I am writing about this, I think they are unjustified. New Statesman and EU Referendum both have bigger readerships than I do, and as the latter points out, many other commentators are offering similar speculations. In any case, the Iranian regime is not so stupid as to be unaware of the possibility of a US attack, and is most likely monitoring developments with at least as much success as American or British bloggers can.)

The Iran situation may be coming to a head very soon. May our military be safe and successful on their missions, and may our country do the right thing -- no less, and no more.

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Telomeres and the aging process

A good introduction for the layman.

Found via Mendip.


Britain's answer to France's red wine

It's official: tea is healthier than water. So there. Now excuse me while I go make another cup.

Christian hate mail

Amanda Marcotte posts some of the charming e-mails she's received since her association with the Edwards campaign brought her anti-Catholic writings to a wider audience. Warning: vulgar language -- though it's interesting to imagine how the authors think their religion's defining deity, Jesus, would react to their comments.


Is gay-bashing good for children?

Andrew Sullivan makes a good point.

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"Intellectual dishonesty and irrationality"

An Australian look at what might be called ADS (America Derangement Syndrome).

14 February 2007

The view from Tartu

Western reactions to Putin's saber-rattling, as seen from Estonia.

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Science wins out over bronze-age Middle Eastern mythology (for now) in that perennial battlefield, Kansas.

I wish more people understood what a sheer national embarrassment the creationist nonsense is. I can remember telling people from places like Japan and Taiwan that there are actually substantial groups in the US that want to teach religious mythology alongside evolution in science classes, and having them stare at me in a way that made it quite clear that they could hardly believe what I was saying. Of course the traditional religions in those countries have creation myths of their own, but nobody there advocates teaching those myths in science classes alongside evolution, and they have a very hard time imagining that such a thing could happen in a country as advanced as the US.


Chimpanzee tools

It's been known for decades that chimpanzees (and several other animal species) use tools. Now evidence has surfaced that chimpanzee tool use of at least one type goes back thousands of years.

This is actually not surprising in the sense that one would expect technological progress among chimpanzees to be quite slow, given that they are less intelligent than humans. So it's logical that their tool-using techniques have not changed much in millennia.

One point the article gets slightly wrong is that the using of tools, as such, is not what is unusual about chimpanzees. Several animal species, some of them not even primates, use tools. What had been claimed to be unique to humans was making tools. This claim was exploded by Jane Goodall's field studies, which found that chimpanzees sometimes strip the leaves from a twig in order to slide it more easily into holes in termite mounds in order to "fish" for termites, which they eat. Since this act constituted modifying a natural object to make it more useful for a specific purpose, it qualified as tool-making. As far as I know, humans and chimpanzees are the only animals which make tools.

Also interesting is that chimpanzee tool-using behavior is not instinctive. Such behavior -- twig-stripping, using rocks to crack nuts, etc. -- occurs in some chimpanzee communities but not in others which have the same raw materials available on their territory, and it has been clearly observed that young chimpanzees learn it by observing older ones. In other words, chimpanzee tool use, like that of humans, is a form of culture.


Quotes for the day

"I don't have any respect for the Religious Right. There is no place in this country for practicing religion in politics. That goes for Falwell, Robertson and all the rest of these political preachers. They are a detriment to the country."

"A lot of so-called conservatives don't know what the word means. They think I've turned liberal because I believe a woman has a right to an abortion. That's a decision that's up to the pregnant woman, not up to the pope or some do-gooders or the Religious Right."

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The enemy reacts to the surge

The snake thrashes hardest when you start sawing its head off -- but that's no reason to stop sawing. And the Iraqi people understand what's at stake:

About 16,000 demonstrators flooded the main street of Karbala, 50 miles south of Baghdad, marching toward two Shiite shrines there. Participants rallied with placards reading, "No to terrorism" and "Iraqis are one people, whether Shiite or Sunni."

We must not abandon them to the tender mercies of the murderous "insurgents".

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A US-Russia alliance?

Ed Koch makes the case. Is anyone in Russia listening? Despite the hostile stance of the Putin government, I'm optimistic over the long haul. As Koch points out, Islamic imperialism is Russia's enemy as much as ours. Among the Russian people (as opposed to the government), favorable views of the US are more widespread than in most western European countries. And almost all eastern European countries which have become democratic since the Soviet collapse are friends of the US. When Russia (and Belarus) finally cast off autocracy as well, there is every reason to hope that the same will happen.


Climate change watch

Lieberman and McCain agree: the debate on what's happening is over. Now it's time to decide what to do.

Giuliani gets it.

So does Richard Branson.

Assassinations instead of an airstrike?

Glenn Reynolds has some points to make about Iran.

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11 February 2007

Some thoughts on uploading

The topic of uploading human minds into computers has confronted me in a number of contexts recently. Here are a few related ideas I have been thinking about. Most people familiar with transhumanism will already have their own views on these matters, but this posting may be of interest to those who are new to the subject.

What makes me "me"?

What is the self? When we speak of preserving the existence of a human individual, what exactly is it that needs to be preserved?

To begin with, I do not believe that there is any supernatural component to it – a "soul" or "spirit". Phenomena such as free will and consciousness, which are the very basis of our subjective experience of being ourselves, seem so different from the observed behavior of "ordinary" matter and energy which the laws of physics can explain, that many people assume they must be of an entirely different nature and origin – some sort of divine spark bestowed upon us by a deity. But this is just the latest repetition of an error we have made again and again through history – that if we cannot yet find a natural explanation for a given phenomenon, there cannot be one, and the phenomenon must therefore be supernatural. At various times sunshine, lightning, rain, and many other phenomena were attributed to the actions of deities by humans whose science was not yet advanced enough to figure out what really caused them. When it did become advanced enough, it turned out that these were purely natural phenomena and the supernatural explanations were discarded. I have no doubt that the same will happen with the mysterious qualities of our minds.

Note also that other mammals possess all or most (depending on the species) of the mental traits that we do, to a lesser degree of sophistication – and that the more an animal’s brain resembles the human brain in complexity and anatomical structure, the more similar its intelligence and other mental abilities are to our own, to the point that the great apes (whose brains are the most similar of all to ours) are essentially accepted as "people", even if primitive ones, by most humans who have worked with them for long periods of time. This bolsters the view that our minds, like our brains, are ordinary natural phenomena produced by biological evolution.

(I also reject the idea that, because free will cannot be explained by the presently-known laws of physics, it must be an illusion. This would be equivalent to early humans deciding that lightning didn't really exist because they couldn’t think of a natural explanation for it. In any case, even if free will were found to be an illusion in some sense, it is so subjectively real that the "fact" of its being an illusion would be of no practical relevance.)

So if selfhood is a natural phenomenon rooted in the physical brain, what is it? What needs to be preserved in order for us to say "this person still exists"?

Is it the continuity of the physical matrix? Fortunately for the subject under discussion, the answer seems to be no. You may think you have had the same brain all your life, but the organic processes of your body are constantly replacing its substance molecule by molecule, so that of all the molecules which made up your brain twenty years ago, there is probably hardly a single one that is still there today. The physical matter changes, but the arrangement of it – the pattern – remains. It’s that pattern that is important.

When you look at all the mental traits which make an individual that individual, as distinct from other individuals – his feelings, opinions, specialized skills, and so on – it’s actually remarkable how little the continuity of these things seems essential to the continuity of identity. Your opinions can change, your aspirations can change, you can learn a new skill or language, without any weakening at all of your sense that you are still the same person.

It seems to me that the key to continuity of selfhood is memory. I’ve changed in all sorts of ways over the last twenty years, but I still remember what I thought, did, and was, through all that time, and it’s that continuity of memory that makes me feel I am the same person now that I was then.

(This, by the way, is why I wouldn’t be impressed by the concept of reincarnation even if I believed in it. Believers in reincarnation generally hold that a reincarnated person has no, or almost no, memory of his previous life. If I die, and later another entity which is supposed to be a continuation of me is born, but that entity has no memory of being me, then it isn’t me.)

Fortunately, we don’t need to choose. All mental phenomena – memory, consciousness, will, beliefs, emotions, everything – must, since they can exist at all, be natural phenomena operating within the brain. As natural phenomena, they can eventually be completely understood; and having been completely understood, they can eventually be preserved independently of the brain.

A digression on brain complexity

The human brain is a massively-parallel organic supercomputer which processes information at the synapses (connections between neurons) and constantly reprograms itself by changing the arrangement of the synapses, forming new connections between neurons and dropping old ones (learning a new skill, for example, involves the formation of many new synaptic connections in the relevant part of the brain – this process has been photographed). For a neuron to go through one complete cycle of firing and returning to its ground state takes about 1/200 of a second, so a neuron can fire no more than 200 times per second. The brain’s true complexity lies in the enormous number of synaptic connections – there are about 100 trillion of them. Thus we can say that the maximum computational capacity of the brain is about 20,000 trillion operations per second. The staggeringly complex patterns of neuron-firing which are continuously running on this "computer" are the "programs" which we subjectively experience as memory, consciousness, will, and everything else that makes up the self.

To upload a person, there will be two technological requirements: (1) the ability to scan an individual brain at high enough resolution to capture every detail of all this complexity – not just the arrangement of a hundred trillion synaptic connections, but details of the structure of individual neurons which influence exactly how each one fires; and (2) a computer with the capacity to create a simulation of the scanned brain to that same degree of detail, so that the same "programs" could be run on it just as they run on the brain. Both of these things are obviously beyond the capabilities of the equipment we have now – but not by such a large margin as you might suppose. That maximum brain capacity of 20,000 trillion operations per second, for example, is only about 70 times greater than the capacity (280 trillion operations per second) of the most powerful man-made computer in existence today. Ray Kurzweil estimates that to fully simulate an individual brain at the level of detail needed to actually upload a person, a computer would need a computational capacity about 100 times that of the brain itself. But since the capabilities of computer technology grow at an exponential rate (and a very fast one), the necessary capabilities in both scanning and computation should be achieved much more quickly than the layman today would probably expect. Kurzweil estimates that human uploading will become feasible in the early 2030s.

(This is, of course, a drastically simplified summary of the issues covered. For a full discussion, read Kurzweil’s book.)

Uploaded life

Uploading would bring us as close to true immortality as it is probably possible to get. Even if the forecasts of thinkers like Aubrey de Grey are borne out and aging and disease are eradicated in the developed world by the 2020s, people will still be vulnerable to death from accidents, terrorism, and so forth. An uploaded person could be protected from death by all the same techniques by which any extremely-valuable computer program and stockpile of data can be protected – including the keeping of regularly-updated backup files from which the person could be restored in the event of a catastrophic system failure.

An uploaded person would emphatically not experience his existence as a mere disembodied consciousness. He could interact with people and the physical world through a sensory and motor interface with a physical body specially grown for the purpose, or (more likely) function in virtual-reality environments sensorily indistinguishable from physical reality. The technology required for either of these options would be much less sophisticated than that required for the uploading process itself. Indeed, I expect that by the time uploading becomes feasible, a great deal of ordinary human interaction will routinely take place in virtual reality anyway.

In certain cases, uploading may even enable us to literally restore the dead to life. Modern cryonics is already using vitrification to preserve the brains of dead people, in the hope that future technology will be able to repair the damage done to the brain by death and by the vitrification process itself, and restore the brain to normal functioning, thus bringing the dead person back to life (presumably in a specially-grown body). But even if this cannot be done, if the process preserves the entire pattern of synaptic connections in the brain, it should in principle be possible to scan the vitrified brain and upload it.

The uploaded mind will be freed from the limitations imposed by the organic brain. Its computational capacity will be free to increase as computers continue to become more sophisticated. Eventually humans will be able to increase their intelligence to whatever level a particular person needs to solve a given problem, design and run a given virtual-reality environment, or whatever else he wants to do – even to levels trillions of times greater than our present organic intelligence.

I expect that by the middle of this century, uploaded people working, playing, and interacting in virtual-reality environments of their own choosing will be the norm, while having a limited physical body and dealing with the messy and intractable "real world" will be an option which fewer and fewer people bother with. I also expect that I and most of the individuals reading this will still be around to experience this era.

As other technological innovations have done in the past, uploading will confront us with new ethical and philosophical questions. An uploaded person whose mind had grown sophisticated enough could create sub-programs with whatever characteristics he chose, as a novelist creates characters in his mind (or as a god creates new life, perhaps?). If these sub-programs possessed self-awareness and volition in their own right, their creation and use would give rise to a thicket of ethical issues. Another problem (or opportunity) is the existence of multiple versions of the same person. If my brain is scanned and its complete synaptic pattern is uploaded into several computers instead of just one, then there will be several people (identical at first, though steadily diverging thereafter due to differences in experience), each one of them equally "me" by any standard one cares to apply.

As challenging as such issues will be, I personally am not frightened or discouraged by them. Every technological advance in history has created some unexpected problems, but on balance the benefits have almost always been well worth the drawbacks. And whatever conundrums uploading presents us with, we – unlike any previous generation – will have unlimited time and intelligence with which to address them.

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Inspirational video

The song title is Nash Dom Izrail (Russian for "Our Home Israel", though the song itself is mostly in Hebrew). But as Pamela says, you don't need to know either language to understand what this man is singing.


The Nanjing massacre

A site dedicated to the atrocities committed by the Japanese army in the Chinese city of Nanjing in 1937, where over 300,000 Chinese civilians were killed, many of them also raped, tortured, and mutilated (warning: extremely gruesome photographs).

Found via Boys Wear Pants.

These atrocities are extensively documented in Iris Chang's book The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II, which I have and which contains some of the same photographs. The book estimates that the Japanese killed almost twenty million civilians in China as a whole, many of them under circumstances of unspeakable brutality. Unlike Germany, Japan has never really officially acknowledged the magnitude of its crimes during the war.

I recall that several years ago I mentioned to a Chinese woman that many people think the American use of atomic bombs against Japan during World War II was immoral, and asked her what she thought of this. She said that this was the most ridiculous thing she had ever heard; she also said that in her opinion I could search the whole of China and not find even one person who would agree that the US was wrong to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Anyone familiar with the historical record would fully understand her views.


Summarizing the Iran debate

Larry Hamelin has given my commentary on his response to my Iran posting greater prominence on his site in the form of a posting of its own. My original posting is here; his response to it, which prompted my comments, is here; his original posting which started the discussion is here.; his further objections to my position are set forth here.

Hamelin's site first attracted my attention for its postings on atheism and transhumanism, which I think he does a very good job of defending. I find what I consider his rather hard-left politics considerably less appealing. I think his approach to questions such as the Iranian nuclear threat is far too fixated on abstract "moral" algorithms rooted in some unreal Platonic universe, and blind to the pragmatic considerations necessary to deal with the real world. Yet I have to say that he is one of the most ethical debaters I've seen on the internet, always going out of his way to treat opposing views fairly.

Update: Here's one last exchange. But that's the end of it as far as I'm concerned.

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10 February 2007

An atheist's manifesto

The Apostate's newly-updated personal story, "Why I Left Islam", is a must-read. I particularly liked her comment on "the modern Muslims who speak of reinterpreting scripture in the light of our modern values" -- "why not just adopt the modern values and drop the unnecessary muddling factor of revelation?" Much of what she has to say is equally applicable to any other religion. Also read her new posting on "Islam and Feminism".

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09 February 2007

Will uploaded life be dangerous?

When we humans can upload ourselves into computers and escape our present dependence on fragile and aging-prone organic brains, will we find ourselves vulnerable to new, unexpected dangers? Personally I'm not worried, but this posting and discussion on George Dvorsky's Sentient Developments site are interesting.


Reading the mind by scanning the brain

I am very doubtful that this technique can really do what is claimed for it -- and notice that the researchers themselves claim only 70% accuracy, not nearly good enough for use in, say, criminal trials. But eventually, if not now, we will be able to do this -- with enormous implications, both good and bad.

Found via Mendip.


The surge

It's too early to tell for sure, but this collection of news items suggests we're achieving positive results.

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Climate change watch

The new IPCC report, confirming the overwhelming scientific consensus that global warming is both real and mostly caused by humans, seems to be awakening the American political system to the need for action on a problem which the rest of the developed world has long recognized.

Some denialist bloggers hypnotized by their own carefully-nurtured bubble world are still plaintively mumbling, "But..... but.....sunspots.....Mars.....medieval warm period.....Biblical End Times.....how come all these scientists aren't paying as much attention to our stuff as to the real stuff?" Republican politicians too strongly committed to denialism to back down still seem to be out somewhere in orbit around Mars, if not Tralfamadore. And the Bush administration, if not exactly denying the problem, is likely to resist serious action for the remainder of its term in power. But I think we've turned a corner at last. By 2009, if not before, the US government will become part of the solution instead of part of the problem.

I am struck by the analogy between climate change and the Iranian nuclear threat. In both cases, we now have overwhelming evidence that the threat is both real and serious. In both cases, we can't afford to wait until overwhelming evidence turns into absolute certainty (and by whose standards? you never reach a point where every last skeptic is convinced), because the risks of inaction are too great. In both cases, the denialist position seems to be motivated mostly by ideological or philosophical discomfort with the actions needed to deal with the problem, not by any serious evidence that the problem doesn't exist.

At least in the case of climate change, it looks as though the denialists' illusions won't be an important factor for much longer.

Quote for the day

"I've been to several campuses the past few years to give talks and meet students, and one of the most striking things is not just how over it most campuses are on the gay issue, but how the younger generation reacts to the word 'conservative.' When I was in college, it had something to do with fighting communism, increasing individual liberty, lowering taxes, getting government off our backs, etc. Now, it is almost completely identified with religious intolerance."

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Is justice blind or crazy?

When sexuality meets the legal system, common sense tends to fly out the window.

08 February 2007

A Presidential candidate takes a stand

One candidate has expressed strong support for a newspaper which is in legal trouble for publishing the famous Danish Muhammad cartoons -- and he's getting flak from the Islamists over it.

Unfortunately for us, he's not one of ours, but rather Nicolas Sarkozy, a candidate for President of France.

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Spitting on soldiers

A response to the claim that stories of people spitting on soldiers during the Vietnam era are apocryphal, with a wealth of evidence that this disgusting behavior did indeed happen.

Not related, but here's a rather friendlier greeting, from people who have much more at stake.


07 February 2007

Middle Eastern myth infiltrates Kenya

The creationist war against science reaches the land where humanity evolved, with the forces of ignorance demanding that Kenya's national museum relegate the fossil evidence of the truth to a back room. Officials even fear for the safety of some of the fossils.

And, of course, while evolution is a settled issue in most developed countries, unfortunately our own country still suffers too many embarrassments like this.


Politics moving to the center?

Is it already a foregone conclusion that next year's race will be Giuliani vs. Clinton? That's the viewpoint of this essay, which strikes me as convincing, barring some unexpected scandal or major gaffe. The "social conservative" (Christian Right) wing of the Republicans is growing alarmed. They still dream of nominating a Brownback or a Romney (both polling far behind Newt Gingrich, who isn't even running), but I'm betting that the mainstream of the Republican party, whatever their own preferences, will realize that such a choice would practically guarantee victory to the Democrat in the general election.

A Giuliani-vs.-Clinton race would be a huge improvement over the polarized politics of the last decade and a half. I consider Giuliani clearly the preferable of the two; his tough stance on the war against Islamic imperialism and relatively liberal position on the social issues are exactly what the country needs, while the fact that he is widely respected on both sides of the political divide would make him a good candidate to overcome that divide and to marginalize the hate-filled extremists at both ends of the spectrum. Yet even Clinton, while more of a polarizing figure, has shown independence from the irresponsible head-in-the-sand pacifism of the left wing of her own party, as with her strong position on Iran.

If the Republicans are smart, they'll give us Giuliani. If they give us a "social conservative" instead -- well, I can live with Clinton. The polls suggest that the majority of voters feel the same.



A collection of photos from the terrible battle.

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04 February 2007

Iran: my case for the airstrike

Liberal atheist blogger Larry Hamelin makes his case against a pre-emptive airstrike on the Iranian nuclear program here. In this posting, I'll explain my reasons for favoring the opposite position.

(1) My overwhelming priority in this situation is the survival of Israel. Whether or not any given preventative action necessary to save Israel falls into a morally-prohibited category according to a given ethical system doesn't concern me. The bottom line is that any scenario in which a nuclear attack on Israel occurs is unacceptable.

(2) The Iranian regime has made statements which can reasonably be interpreted as threats against Israel. Because of the regime's theological beliefs, conventional deterrence by threats of retaliation cannot be guaranteed to restrain it. If the regime acquires nuclear weapons, the risk that it will use them against Israel is unacceptably high.

(3) If a nuclear attack is launched against Israel, it will not be possible to defend Israel. It will be possible to retaliate, but retaliation would not prevent Israel's devastation.

(4) Because of (1), (2), and (3), the acquisition of nuclear weapons by the Iranian regime must be prevented by whatever means prove necessary. We cannot afford to wait until we have absolute proof that the program is aggressive in nature or that it has reached a certain stage of development. We must guarantee that the regime cannot acquire these weapons.

(5) There is no reason to think that economic sanctions, or any other means short of the physical destruction of key parts of the nuclear program, will turn Iran aside from its course. The regime has responded to every such measure, from whatever quarter, with defiance.

(6) If the US does not act, Israel is unlikely to sit and wait passively for its destruction. In such a case, Israel would be likely to conclude that it had no choice but to take unilateral action of its own against the Iranian nuclear program. However, Israel does not have as broad a range of logistical capabilities as the US has, which would enable the US to destroy the Iranian program with conventional weapons. For Israel to destroy the Iranian program by itself, it might need to use its own nuclear weapons. This would kill far more Iranian civilians than a conventional US airstrike would.

I am aware of the negative consequences which various parties have predicted would flow from a US airstrike on Iran. However, none of these consequences constitutes an adequate reason for allowing the Iranian nuclear program to proceed and thus risking a nuclear attack on Israel.

Additional considerations:

(7) Aside from the threat to Israel, a nuclear-armed Iran would present other serious dangers, such as the risk of a nuclear arms race among Middle Eastern Muslim states, and the risk of nuclear bombs being given to terrorists.

(8) Claims that the Iranian program will take five years or so to produce a working bomb are implausible, given that the US built the world's first atomic bombs in far less time than that, using the more primitive technology of over sixty years ago, and with no data from previous successful bomb-builders to guide us (such as the Iranians do have).

For these reasons, I consider a US airstrike to destroy the Iranian nuclear program to be necessary.

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03 February 2007

Clever Hans

A fascinating story from a century ago, and a useful cautionary tale for our own time. It's an example of a situation which occurs frequently in the field of alleged supernatural, "psychic", or other paranormal phenomena. Nobody involved was being dishonest or even biased, yet due to a subtle misunderstanding of what was happening, many became firmly convinced that they were observing and demonstrating a phenomenon which did not, in fact, exist.

A little touch of class

From the Pocket Oxford Russian Dictionary, 2006, "Russian Life and Culture" supplement, p. 414:

"Mat -- foul language. This includes all the numerous derivatives of the words [Russian expletives deleted -- Infidel753]. In informal situations, these taboo words are very common among people with a low social status, whereas cultured, well-educated, and well-brought-up people (almost) never use them. Traditionally, it is considered unacceptable to utter any of the four words of mat in front of women or children, and using mat in public is a violation of the law. Violators are liable to a fine (of £10 to £30 approximately, in 2005) or, in exceptional cases, they can even be prosecuted."

Yes, you read that right -- you can actually be fined for swearing in public over there. So in one small way, the Russians are more civilized than we are.


More people who want you to die

Existence Is Wonderful responds to the latest defeatist screed from what I call the "pro-death" camp.


Another small step

Scientists in Scotland have built a working nano-machine consisting of just one molecule, which can sort other molecules.

Found via Mendip.


02 February 2007

On this date in 1943

.....the deadliest battle in human history ended.

The siege of Stalingrad had lasted five months. After the initial German Blitzkrieg invasion of the Soviet Union in June of 1941 failed to bring victory within a few months as Hitler had hoped, and the German Army had already endured its first Russian winter without managing to capture Moscow or Leningrad, the invaders changed their aim southeastward, toward Stalingrad on the Volga river. Capturing Stalingrad would have cut off access from European Russia to the Soviet oilfields in the Caucasus area, while giving the Germans access to those same oilfields and potentially opening the way for a German invasion of the Middle East. The Germans and their Axis allies (mostly Romanians, Italians, and Hungarians) overran most of the city in September of 1942, reaching the Volga but never managing to cross it.

In doing so, they had pushed hundreds of miles east of their main front line, which ran from the Sea of Azov to Leningrad. This created a huge salient which turned out to be strategically vulnerable. The Soviet counterattack in late November, designated Operation Uranus, cut off the salient and surrounded the German Sixth Army in Stalingrad. After this, it was a matter of tightening the noose, as the Germans in Stalingrad could only receive supplies by air, which became increasingly difficult. By January the German troops were starving, lice-infested, and suffering almost as much from the sub-zero cold as from enemy action. The eventual surrender, against Hitler's direct orders, was considered the worst military disaster in German history up to that point.

There were many reasons for the Germans' defeat. Hitler consistently underestimated the Soviets (as he also did with the US and Britain). Soviet equipment and its maintenance were better adapted to the extreme cold of the Russian winter than was that of the invaders. The knowledge that the Nazis' plans for Russia included genocide, enslavement of survivors, and extinction of the Russians as a nation, stiffened the determination to resist, even in people who would never have fought willingly for Stalin's ghastly regime. The Soviets developed innovative forms of urban guerrilla warfare for which the Germans were unprepared. The Soviet willingness to use women in combat (something which startled the Germans) increased the number of soldiers available. Contrary to widespread belief in the West, military aid to the Soviet Union from the West was not a major factor -- the Soviets considered Western equipment inferior to what they themselves could produce. Food aid, however, did make a big difference.

After Stalingrad, more than two years of bloody struggle still lay ahead before the capture of Berlin and the end of the war. One could argue that the decisive battle of the European theater was not Stalingrad but Kursk, five months later. However, Stalingrad broke the Germans' aura of invincibility and inevitable victory, and represented the first really large recovery of territory from the invaders.

Estimates of the total death toll from the battle of Stalingrad vary over a surprisingly wide range. The official Soviet estimate of the number of Soviet soldiers killed is 1,100,000, though estimates in the range of 400,000 to 500,000 are more commonly found elsewhere. The Soviets recovered 250,000 bodies of German and other Axis troops after the battle, and estimates of total German/Axis deaths range as high as 400,000. The Soviets took over 100,000 Axis prisoners, few of whom survived to return to their own countries. In any event, it is clear that the death toll from this one battle exceeded -- probably far exceeded -- that of the entire American Civil War.

Main source: Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege 1942-1943, by Antony Beevor.

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Noble savages

With all that anthropology has learned in the last few decades, I'm constantly astonished that there are still people who don't know about this.

Rising hate

What's going on these days in Britain and France.


The Coathanger State -- take two

After the voters swept it away 55%-45% in November, South Dakota's abortion ban is back, this time with rape-and-incest exceptions in an effort to make it more palatable.

Most abortion bans have traditionally had such exceptions. Of course, if opposition to abortion were really motivated by a belief that embryos are "persons", then such exceptions would make no sense, since being conceived by rape or incest does not affect the moral status of a person. If the real motive is a desire to control and punish sexual behavior, they make all the sense in the world.

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Under construction

Spectatular photographs of, and from, the Federation Tower, which will be the tallest building in Europe when it is completed. The three wide pictures near the top are clickable to get larger versions.