31 March 2013

Link round-up for 31 March 2013

One of the best blogs out there, Republic of Gilead, has an intermittent problem which causes it to redirect to a junk page full of links (at the moment this seems to be happening with individual posts but not with the main page).  If anyone knows how to fix this kind of problem, help would doubtless be appreciated.

Can science bring back one more extinct species?  More on extinction here (found via Progressive Eruptions).

"All we’re asking for is basic unfairness."

Yes, this would be really ridiculous.

Ever wonder where Easter eggs come from (NSFW)?

There are actually people who think this is real (found via Green Eagle, who has yet another entertaining wingnut wrapup).

Here's the life of a man who hates government.

Let's apply the logic of austerity policies to the weather.

Cute baby animals are cute.

Right-wingers are weird.

Lake photos illustrate pareidolia.

This is a really impressive piece of furniture, from the 18th century.

Gin and Tacos crafts a perfect portrait of a certain type of bully.

Don't be fooled by recent claims -- the Shroud of Turin is a fraud.

Earlier Americans were more relaxed about homosexuality (link from Shaw Kenawe).

If you worry about your stuff getting lost in the mail, read this.

An Arizona gun store owner finds a customer he won't sell to (found via Brains and Eggs).

Paul Ryan won't save the Republicans.

Mall-Wart has an amazingly stupid new idea.

In the last 40 years, the average income of the richest 0.01% of Americans has increased by $18,362,740.  The average gain for the bottom 90%?  Read on.....

Those rich people aren't too generous either.

After 18 years of "abstinence-only" sex "education", Texas's teenage-pregnancy rate has exploded (found via Progressive Eruptions).

Our big problem isn't the national debt -- just the opposite.

Just as I thought -- NOMS's anti-gay-marriage march was a flop (but check this out).

In North Dakota, a 90-year-old experiment in socialism is a resounding success.

In 2014 there will be only two choices -- it's foolish to imagine otherwise.

In the Orwellian world of the Christian Right, resisting intolerance is a form of intolerance.

The non-religious part of the US population has risen to 20%, but we're still far behind some European countries.

If you're visiting Cornwall, don't stay with the Bulls.

Merkel and the EU have blood on their hands.

Feminism will turn everyone gay (found via Republic of Gilead).

Armenia has an unusual way of teaching children to think.

This is Lake Baikal in winter.

How could a country that led the world in wealth, culture, and technology for centuries fall so far behind?

28 March 2013

Quote for the day -- religion is not like race

27 March 2013

Gay marriage at the Supreme Court

Most observers now seem to believe the most likely outcome on Prop. 8 is a narrow ruling, either letting it stand (in which case the way forward would be another referendum to repeal it, which we would certainly win) or leaving in place Judge Walker's 2010 ruling that struck it down, thus reinstating gay marriage in California.  But since that ruling was based on the incompatibility of a discriminatory state amendment with the federal Constitution, a broader ruling that would sweep away marriage discrimination throughout the country is possible.  It has happened before that a state-based case led to the striking down of oppressive laws nation-wide -- Griswold v. Connecticut, Loving v. Virginia, Roe v. Wade, Lawrence v. Texas.  Not all the conservatives on the Supreme Court today are cut from the same cloth as Scalia -- remember Roberts on the ACA.

The right wing as a whole is surprisingly divided on the gay-marriage issue.  Some are actively supportive, while many more argue that opposition to gay marriage is now a lost cause that should be abandoned on pragmatic grounds.  The religious crazies are going even more bonkers than usual, even claiming that Satan is working through the Supreme Court (hmm, just when they'd found Satan in the executive branch).  Some of the haters (and if you doubt they deserve to be called that, read this) are prophesying the death of marriage itself if their cause loses, while others make the more imaginative (and Orwellian) argument that we must discriminate against those disgusting fags for their own good (note, though, how much push-back there is in the comments thread there).  If you've been wondering about the small but fanatical Paultard faction, they seem to be falling into line with the broader Christian Right (see the comments thread).

If the Court strikes down Prop. 8 and DOMA, the crazies will go completely berserk, intensifying the struggle for control of the Republican party.  If it upholds them, the crazies will likely feel vindicated and strengthen their dominant position -- but that will just deepen the party's isolation from a society inexorably moving in the other direction.

Back in the world of sanity, Politicus USA has some good analysis up.  If you really want to get into the details, Equality on Trial (formerly Prop. 8 Trial Tracker) has meticulous coverage.

There are millions of hysterics and haters in this country who insist that if the rest of us refuse to be subject to their bronze-age taboos, we're somehow infringing on their religious freedom.  But they are a shrinking minority in a society that now sees such madness for what it is.  Our country has overcome bigotry and primitive taboos before.  Know hope.

24 March 2013

Link round-up for 24 March 2013

Murr Brewster looks at global warming, taxation, and fossilized termite farts.

These are all real British place names.

There's more to Monty Python than just The Holy Grail.

Yep, this would be a deal breaker.

Mock Paper Scissors looks at the Republican post-election "autopsy".  Charles Johnson weighs in.  Booman Tribune sees a simple problem.

Faye Kane debunks some Randroid delusions (NSFW blog).

Deborah "Litbrit" Tornello goes after a TSA whitewash.

I predict this march for a lost cause will fizzle.

More division on the right -- Fox News is no longer nutty enough for the teabaggers.

The case of Adria Richards is a story of multiple injustices.

Republican legislators are allowing counselors to place their religious prejudices above the needs of clients (found via Republic of Gilead).

Michelle Shocked learns that bigotry carries a price.

David Ranta is set free after 23 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit -- and promptly has a heart attack.

Texas Tea Party leader James Ives was recently affiliated with a different party.

What did the stimulus accomplish?  See for yourself.

Southerners are still lying about the Civil war.  More discussion here.

Two Alabama students fight back against bigotry.

Some Republicans are changing their stance on gay marriage, but the Christian Right isn't ready to let the party drop the subject.  See also the comments thread here, especially #96 and #101 trying to talk sense.

The Westboro Baptist Church has a new neighbor.

If you haven't read Tomas Young's final letter to Bush and Cheney, read it now.

The meat industry doesn't want you to see its filth and cruelty.

As religion rapidly declines in the US, fundies look to the Third World, and take Sharì'ah law as a role model (both found via Republic of Gilead).

Democrats hoping to win Texas have a secret weapon -- Rick Perry.

PZ Myers looks at incest.

The approaching end of the gay-marriage fight creates a dilemma for religion.  But hey, they've still got prayer.

Here's a collection of nauseating reactions to the Steubenville case.  Lady Atheist looks at toxic sports culture.

Malala Yousafzai is going back to school.

A victory against religious hate is won in London.

Check out these eight fun facts about the Irish language.

Imam Shahid Mehdi practices what he preaches.

Cyprus's problems are rooted in the same causes as those in the rest of southern Europe -- austerity, and a new German imperialism.

Check out these European ossuaries (found via Mendip).

Americans in awe of Finland's educational success are missing the real lessons.

Russian is now the second-most-used language on the internet.

Kiev has just received more snow in one day than it normally gets in a month.

Iraq's Christian minority is being driven out of the country.

The great project of mapping the brain is getting started (found via Mendip), and Obama's on board.

It's never too late to quit.

Here's one difference between religion and science.

Tim McGaha looks at the universe.

The brain highlights the implausibility of intelligent design.

Image at top:  Cypriot protester with sign showing EU flag with stars re-arranged into a swastika.

22 March 2013

Video of the day -- Lola

From 1970 (!) -- something with human warmth after the hatefulness below.

In the grip of the enemy

Try to imagine the living Hell of being this person, ridden and possessed by demons of primitive superstition allied to the hatred of people around you, that set you at war with your own nature.  Then read as much of the comment thread as you can stand -- immerse yourself in the unique combination of smug, serene, judgmental arrogance and gibberish-clotted Orwellian incoherence that marks the religious mind.

That is the enemy.  Read, and understand that this mentality can never be reasoned with, only defeated.

20 March 2013

Why Cyprus matters

Here's a quick run-down for Americans baffled by the last few days' flurry of news from Cyprus.

Cyprus, a small member state of the European Union, is the latest country driven to the brink of economic collapse by austerity policies and thus forced to go hat in hand to the EU for a bail-out.  The EU has always imposed harsh conditions on member countries to which it gives such aid (usually including even more austerity which drives the country even deeper into economic contraction and rising deficits), but its demands on Cyprus included something even more dire -- a tax on bank accounts at 9.9% on balances over €100,000 and 6.75% on smaller balances.  Depending on how much you had in the bank, up to a tenth of it could simply vanish from your account.  The banks were duly closed to prevent account holders from getting their money out, while the Cypriot Parliament voted on the deal.

The first deviation from the normal script came yesterday, when the Parliament -- likely spurred by enraged demonstrations filling the streets of Cyprus -- rejected the deal with 36 no votes, 19 abstentions, and zero in favor.  The EU has rarely been defied this way, but when it does happen, it has ways of beating down the maverick state -- withhold any aid until it knuckles under, and in extreme cases even replace its leader with someone more compliant.  Since the EU is the only source of aid to rescue economies which its own policies have ruined, the stricken country has little room to maneuver.

But in Cyprus, that condition may not hold.  Cypriot banks are a favored place for wealthy Russians to park their money, and they have at least €20 billion there, meaning that the roughly 10% expropriation would cost Russian citizens at least €2 billion.  Russia's government has been vigorously denouncing the plan -- and as the Parliament voted it down, Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades was on the phone with Putin discussing the matter, while his Finance Minister flew to Moscow (see report here).

What's going on?  Rumors abound that Russia might offer Cyprus a better bail-out deal, or that the giant Russian oil company Gazprom might provide aid in exchange for natural-gas exploration rights.  The EU is clearly alarmed at these developments, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel personally warning Anastasiades not to negotiate with anyone but the EU.  But the talks in Moscow continue.  Some members of the Cypriot Parliament are even talking about abandoning the euro currency, which would signal a real breach with the EU.  If Cyprus does transfer its alignment from the EU to Russia, it has much to offer -- there are even rumors of Russia gaining use of a naval base there.

As for the EU, the observation I've made before still holds -- if one country breaks away, the whole unwieldy agglomeration of disparate nations could start to break up.  And the escalation of its bullying of tiny Cyprus into an open clash with the eastern Colossus has added a new wrinkle to the situation.  If Russia finds that it can expand its sphere of economic and military influence at the cost of a few billion in loans to countries ruined by EU austerity-mania, it may not limit its ambitions to Cyprus (Greeks are watching Cyprus closely and applauding its defiance).  The grandees of Brussels are leading their fake superpower into a fight with a real one, and may soon find themselves on the receiving end of the kind of contemptuous slap-down they've been accustomed to dealing out to others.

19 March 2013

People can change -- I did!

It's very frustrating to me to see people get enamored of silly ideas like a gene that makes people conservative, or other variants on the idea that liberals and conservatives are innately different breeds pre-destined by some inborn trait to follow their particular ideological path.  Such fad ideas ignore the fact that people can change their views dramatically over time.  I know this is true because my own views have changed over the years.

For a certain period of my life I sincerely believed that homosexuality was a disorder (even if an inborn rather than acquired one) that could and should be "cured" once the right therapies were discovered.  I mocked homosexuality whenever the subject came up -- not in the presence of gay people, but around people I knew well.  In those days, there was no stigma attached to such talk.  I'm embarrassed now whenever I think back on that, but I'm not going to pretend it didn't happen.

At the time of the Iraq invasion I strongly supported it.  The risk that Saddam might actually be developing WMD seemed too great (in fairness, he himself was working hard to give the impression that he had something to hide -- he was trying to deter Iran).  As it became clear that the invasion had been launched on a false premise, and as the staggering incompetence of the administration's (lack of) planning for the occupation phase came to light, continued excuse-making for the mess became untenable.

Like many intellectually-curious people, I went through a phase of taking Ayn Rand seriously.  The sledgehammer forcefulness and clarity of Atlas Shrugged has a natural appeal to a young person who has not had time to think carefully, rather than just vehemently, about social relations and what factors really go into making some people more successful than others.  The blindness and hypocrisy (and danger to the actual freedom of most people) inherent in libertarian dogma -- it took time for those things to become obvious.

Earlier still in life, I was convinced anarchy (statelessness) could work in the real world.  I sided with the Arabs against Israel.  What can I say?  In those particular cases, sheer ignorance of the relevant facts was the whole explanation.  I changed my mind as I learned more.

I don't believe my experience is unique.  The common thread in all the absurdities above was lack of relevant factual knowledge, and an overly-simplistic view of the world.  These are failings which time tends to correct, if we let it.  That's probably a big part of why, contrary to popular belief, most people become more liberal as they get older.

Rob Portman's change of heart on gay marriage has been mocked in some quarters because it was prompted by the discovery that his son was gay -- shouldn't he have been able to see the light without needing a personal connection to drive it home?  But this is how epiphanies often work.  Most people don't seek out information that conflicts with their established views.  But they can consider it if some personal circumstance forces it on their attention.  Lynne Osterman describes her earlier anti-gay-marriage vote as "politically expedient", implying that she was not sincerely prejudiced but felt compelled to vote that way to support her party.  Now, for whatever reason, her conscience and decency have won out.  The practical result is that an enemy has become an ally.  We'll take it.

In considering the changes in the country that are working against the Republican party, we tend to be so focused on ethnic groups and their relative numbers that we overlook the far more rapid and significant changes which have nothing to do with ethnicity.  The exploding numbers of people with no religious affiliation (now up to 20%) and the rapid shift in favor of gay marriage (now 58% for and 36% against, almost the reverse of a decade ago) are examples.  Those changes aren't happening because of liberals out-breeding conservatives.  They're happening because millions of people are seeing the light that they didn't see before.

Why?  In these cases there are obvious explanations to hand.  The blunt and aggressive "new atheist" authors like Dawkins and Hitchens have made the malignancy and sheer ridiculousness of religion impossible to ignore.  With more and more gay people "out of the closet", especially among the young, more and more people know that this or that friend or relative is gay, making the old stereotypes and hostilities untenable -- let a million Rob Portmans bloom.

This is how we will win the country.  Yes, some right-wingers are hard-core fanatics who will never change, but millions of others are reachable.

17 March 2013

Video of the day -- a Republican's regret

Found via Politics Plus.

Link round-up for 17 March 2013

Some fairy tales could use an update.

Those atheist extremists are just terrible!

Gin and Tacos has some art and Albanian pillboxes.

Here lies a true computer enthusiast.


Lady Atheist has videos of confrontations with religiotards at the Reason Rally.

Squatlo Rant has the perfect gay-marriage cartoon.

Hmm, would you leave your husband here?

Check out these 30 pictures of kids with their favorite toys.

Maybe American politics could benefit from this old Persian custom.

Enjoy the fight in the comments on this RedState post about Bob Portman.

Are you contributing to the atheist movement's biggest problem?

Green Eagle has another wingnut wrapup to keep you up to speed on news from the right wing.

Worst chaplain ever.

CPAC's efforts at outreach to minorities look like an epic fiascoMore here.

Wells Fargo destroys a man's life with an error it refused to correct.

Even many Evangelical home-schoolers now reject creationism.

The deficit has shrunk by half a trillion since 2009; the real issues lie elsewhere.

A California judge strikes a small blow against government snooping.

There's a budget plan in Congress which is actually realistic.  Maybe Congress should start doing something about corporate tax evasion.

Rubio updates states' rights for the 21st century (found via The Immoral Minority).

Yet another study documents the accelerating decline of religion in the US.

Democrat Pat Caddell brings down the house at CPAC with a blistering attack on Republican corruption and incompetence.

Apparently true Christians should refuse to swear oaths (found via Rosa Rubicondior).

Here's an excellent assessment of Obama's situation in the face of a Republican party gone bonkers.

Any readers work in restaurants?  Is it really this bad?

Computerized stock speculation is a menace to the economy.

McCain apologizes for calling wacko birds wacko birds.

Steven Mazie looks at the decline of violence.

An atheist police officer in Puerto Rico sues over discriminatory treatment by Christian bigots.

Britain's Prime Minister rebukes the new Argentine Pope over the Falklands.

Germany's conservatives are having an internal struggle over gay rights somewhat like ours, though without the foaming-at-the-mouth fundamentalist element.

Why do the French have such trouble with English?

Rosa Rubicondior looks at the Papal election process.

The EU faces a mass public backlash over its disastrous economic policies.

Bergoglio, the new Pope, may have been a collaborator with Argentina's brutal military regime in the 1970s, and may even have been involved in torture.

On North Korea's threats, there may be less than meets the eye.

Saudi Arabia faces a shortage of swordsmen to carry out beheadings.

In some countries, RSS is a weapon against tyranny.

"Paleo" fads and fantasies don't reflect what the Stone Age was really like.

Global temperatures are the highest they've been in 4,000 years and still rapidly rising.  In the Arctic, vegetation is spreading to vast areas formerly barren.

This is what Mars would look like after terraforming.

Pictured above:  Britain's hottest party spot in 2500 BC.

15 March 2013

Slippery-slope arguments

It's a form of argument often used against change:  "We cannot allow proposed change X, because it would set us inexorably on the road to further hypothetical change Y, which is clearly unacceptable."  At present the slippery slope is often invoked, more or less explicitly, by opponents of gay marriage:  "If we allow gay marriage, why not polygamous marriage, or brother-sister marriage, or people marrying their dogs?  Acceptance of the one change will open the door to a push for acceptance of those others -- we can't take the risk."

I completely reject slippery-slope arguments.  For one thing, by this kind of logic, we should never change anything at all, since any change, no matter how obviously beneficial, can be portrayed as a potential gateway to some other hypothetical change that everyone agrees would be bad.  Equally important, the historical record doesn't support the validity of such arguments.

One can imagine similar slippery-slope objections being made during controversies in the past --in the 1860s, "If we emancipate black slaves, it will lead to demands that horses be similarly emancipated from human ownership", or somewhat later, "If we allow blacks to vote, it will lead to demands that women be allowed to vote".  For all I know, people might actually have made those precise objections at those times.  They would have seemed just as logical then as slippery-slope objections to gay marriage do today, and they illustrate why such objections aren't valid.

To take the first example, as we now know (and as even quite a few people in the 19th century recognized), skin color is a superficial trait which doesn't inherently correlate with any human ability relevant to a capacity for citizenship or self-determination.  The apparent differences in ability between the black and white populations in the US in the 1860s stemmed from the dramatically different levels of education, access to resources, and other environmental factors under which those populations had developed.  Horses, by contrast, are an entirely different species, and no set of environmental conditions would allow a horse to develop the same mental abilities as a human.  If there had ever been a serious movement to promote horses to full citizenship, it would easily have been exposed as absurd on its own merits, even among people who accepted that discrimination among humans on the basis of skin color was wrong.

As for the second example, as we all know, in the early 20th century there was indeed a movement to extend the vote to women, and it succeeded.  Again, though, the question was settled on its own merits, not by mindless replication of the result of an earlier controversy.  The case that women are as innately qualified for full citizenship as men are won the day, not just because a similar argument about race had been accepted earlier, but because it was valid on its own merits -- as the same case made for horses clearly would not be.

This does not mean, of course, that analogies between different social changes are never valid.  I have myself sometimes compared the opponents of gay marriage with the opponents of interracial marriage a couple of generations ago.  Advocates of, say, polygamy would no doubt offer similar analogies.  But again, in each case, the analogy must stand or fall on its own merits -- are the opponents indeed motivated by mindless prejudice and visceral repulsion, or do they have a valid case in the present debate which opponents in the earlier debate did not?

My point is, even if proposed change X is accepted, that does not make the slippery slope to hypothetical change Y inevitable, though it may make the question easier to raise.  Once gay marriage is legal nationwide and generally accepted (as seems inevitable now), we may indeed see serious efforts to win acceptance for polygamy, or brother-sister marriage, or human-animal marriage.  But if so, the outcome of the ensuing debate over those proposals will not be a foregone conclusion just because gay marriage won out in its time.  Each one will be debated on its own merits and will be accepted or rejected on its own merits.

12 March 2013

Dream world

Oh, the visions some people entertain.....

(from the 2008 campaign)

10 March 2013

Quote for the day -- a better symbol

"If we want a signifier for the human condition, imagine the culture we would live in now if, instead of a dead corpse on an instrument of torture, our signifier was a child staring in wonder at the stars. That’s representative of the state of humanity, too; it’s a symbol that touches us all as much as that of a representation of our final end, and we don’t have to daub it with the cheap glow-in-the-dark paint of supernatural fol-de-rol for it to have deeper meaning."

PZ Myers

Link round-up for 10 March 2013

Happy cowsHovering iceFree health care!

Check out these goofy ads from the mid-20th century (found via Mendip).

Any subject you can imagine, someone has probably written a book about it.

A couple of great discussions of Orson Scott Card this week, at David E's Fablog (with an appearance by Pat Condell!) and Gin and Tacos.

Here's a Texan with guts.

Why do they arrest people for this instead of for letting their dogs crap in the parks?

Weird religious imagery from half a century ago reveals a world-view that probably still lives on in much of the right wing.

Little by little, the health-care system is improving.

The University of North Carolina has an almost Catholic-Church-like policy of coddling accused rapists.

CPAC will have more black faces on display this year, but it's keeping the door open to white-supremacy cultists too (found via Republic of Gilead).   But the country has changed.

Lazy entrepreneurs at the Solid Gold Bomb T-shirt company learn the dangers of random computer-generated slogans.  Unfortunately their letter of apology looks like it was also generated by a computer doing a bad imitation of standard English.

In California, even big business is abandoning the Republicans.

There's another science-denialism scam making the rounds.

The last good Republican ran things based on reality, not myths.

The pro-religion "argument from incredulity" proves nothing but the mental limitations of the person making it.

Capitalism works best when left alone (found via Squatlo).

"Religions are not sources of objective morals, they are sources of excuses for behaving immorally."

Rolling Jubilee is a resistance project fighting back against debt.  Meanwhile, here's what the banks have been doing to our troops.

Christians and Republicans in Tennessee indulge in a barrage of anti-gay measures.

On September 11, F-16 pilot Lt. Heather Penney received a daunting order.

Our law-enforcement priorities are a national disgrace.

Republicans are still out to destroy Medicare, and they're using psychology.

In the fight against gay marriage, the Christian Right has an ally.

Even if the South really weren't racist, Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act would still be needed.

A new Pope won't save the Catholic Church (found via Republic of Gilead).

Booman Tribune has a thoughtful assessment of Ashley Judd.  The Republicans are already on the attack.

A former member of the Westboro Baptist Church reveals just how weird it really is.

A sane conservative sees that the left is winning, but his comrades yearn for teh crazy (and they've got some).  Obama is trying to peel off enough sane Congressional Republicans to form a working majority with the Democrats.  The embarrassment of CPAC shows that the teabaggers are still in charge on the right.

Capitalism rewards people according to what they contribute -- yeah, right (found via Squatlo).

The Violence Against Women Act passes, and right-wingers moan and whine and moan and whine.  The Catholic hierarchy doesn't like it either.

The difference between the US economic recovery and Britain's plunge back into recession comes down to one word.

Hidden in a seemingly-innocuous EU resolution is a call for stupid and staggeringly far-reaching censorship.

It's not just Nessie -- Scotland seems to be awash in monsters.

Today and tomorrow, Falkland Islanders vote in a referendum on their future.

A new anti-EU, pro-democracy party has been formed in Germany. The old D-mark is back in unofficial circulation and gaining in popularity.

You'll never guess which country has the highest productivity (found via Uzza).

Muslim immigrants in the Netherlands express their views (found via Lady Atheist).

Think Americans are clueless about history?  Check out Austria.

The Vatican and the Iranian theocracy oppose UN efforts to stop violence against women (found via Republic of Gilead).

In Pakistan, a huge mob of Muslim fanatics attacks and burns out a local Christian minority (found via Booman Tribune).

Saudi Arabia executes robbers -- by crucifixion.

A baby has apparently been cured of HIV.

The Global Future 2045 Congress on emerging technology is at risk of discrediting its mission.

08 March 2013

Video of the day -- falling rock zone

05 March 2013

Machine people (2)

In a remarkable experiment, researchers in North Carolina have installed brain-interfacing implants in the brains of rats and demonstrated that the animals can use the devices to share information directly from mind to mind (and yes, rats have minds).  In one case, one rat was in the North Carolina lab while its partner was in a lab in Brazil, and their brains were connected over the internet.  The information-sharing still succeeded.

The work has obvious implications for combining the power of multiple brains to solve problems that individual brains alone could not solve -- the technology would probably work even better with humans than with rats, since humans would understand the process and be actively trying to make the best possible use of it.  But given the onerousness of receiving brain implants, I suspect the human applications will be limited, unless it turns out that this artificial telepathy has some spectacular advantage over the system we already use to share information between brains (language).

The most important revelation from this work is that it demonstrates, to a new level, the ability of the organic brain to interface in functionally useful ways with machines, even at our current low-resolution understanding of the brain.  It's clear enough by now that the brain is essentially a data-processing system -- that the operations it performs which we experience as sensory awareness, thought, consciousness, and so on, are fundamentally the same kind of thing that a computer does when it runs complex programs.  The brain is organized very differently than a man-made computer, is made of very different materials, and has different strengths and limitations, largely because it evolved through natural selection rather than being designed -- but we can still say it is the same kind of system as a computer, to the extent that we can make practical use of the resemblance.

Making the brain interface usefully with man-made systems, in the same way that man-made computers can interface with and work with each other or with other devices, is the most important form that this "practical use" takes.  It demonstrates the feasibility of ever-stronger functional augmentation of the brain with machines, eventually leading to the full integration of computer capabilities into human intelligence -- the key technology of the Singularity.

The Nicolelis Lab in North Carolina which carried out the rat experiments has already done pioneering work along these lines, allowing paralyzed people to control computers and artificial limbs directly with their brains -- an artificial replacement for natural capabilities they have lost.  The logical long-term goal of such technology is what I discussed in this post -- complete artificial bodies to enable people whose organic bodies can no longer support them, due to age or disease, to continue living as normally as possible.  The Russia-based 2045 Strategic Social Initiative has set itself the goal of developing this very thing over the next dozen years.

(In the long run, of course, we won't truly have escaped the curse of biological death until the fragile organic brain itself can be replaced with more durable systems which can replicate all its capabilities well enough to continue "running" an individual mind exactly as the organic brain did -- but that's a whole further leap in technological sophistication which will likely take a further couple of decades.)

As I pointed out in the earlier post, developing artificial bodies which can replicate the capabilities of the organic human body is a very tough problem.  One of the most difficult aspects of it is walking, since the upright bipedal human gait requires a sophisticated ability to balance.  Robotics is making impressive progress in that area, however:

(HRP-4C can walk rather better than I can at the moment, due to a chronic hip-tendon problem.)  Here is another robot, not designed to imitate the human body specifically, but impressive in its ability to keep moving on difficult ground (link supplied by reader Bacopa):

Notice how strikingly animal-like the robot's self-stabilizing reactions are when pushed or slipping, illustrating how well machines are already able to replicate the capabilities of organisms.

As I said in the earlier post, there are other areas that need work, such as replication of the full range of human senses including touch, taste, and smell.  But by the time we're able to start transplanting the brains of elderly people into new bodies to give them new lives, the bodies will be ready.

03 March 2013

Link round-up for 3 March 2013

Try to have some fun at your job.

Look at the lazy freeloader.

These old propaganda posters look goofy to the modern eye (found via Mario Piperni).

Serbia's Prime Minister got a little surprise during this interview (found via Gorilla Bananas).

If religion had never existed, the world would probably have better art.

Well, here's a good reason for owning a gun.

Hey, let's drive the right-wingers completely nuts.

Bill Donohue clutches his pearls at the thought that people exist who are different from him.

An indicator of how the Nutty-vs.-Sane civil war on the right is going:  This year's CPAC invites Sarah Palin as a speaker, but snubs Chris Christie.  And of course, no fags allowed (found via Republic of Gilead).

Progressive Eruptions looks at state rankings in education and health (it might be interesting to compare those rankings to this one).

People get it wrong about the deficit.

Another loving Christian does his part toward tormenting gay teens.

Butterflies and Wheels looks at the accelerating decline of the Catholic Church (found via Republic of Gilead).

There's a difference between our journalists and theirs.

Hey there, stop marginalizing our hate!

Little Green Footballs assembles some more classy conservative commentary on Michelle Obama.

A federal court slaps down religio-nutters' claims against the ACA contraception coverage mandate.

Sixty major corporations join forces to urge the Supreme Court to legalize gay marriage nationwide.  Dozens of high-profile Republicans also support the cause, including Clint Eastwood.

They're all equally silly.

Americans support raising the minimum wage to $10 an hour, by 73%-to-20%.

Here's how the Catholic Church is trying to impose its taboos on our health care.

Religion doesn't make people less criminal -- in fact, it can do the opposite (found via Preliator pro Causa).

Have a bar on your street?  It could be worse.

Republicans may succeed in gutting the Voting Rights Act, but are they prepared for the backlash?

Awe and wonder have nothing to do with religion.

Democrats have a systematic plan to make Texas a battleground state by 2016.

Two simple graphs illustrate how austerity destroys economic growth and increases debt.

Britain's Conservative party is dying in the grassroots (read the comments).

Maryam Namazie looks at Islam's death penalty for apostasy.

Friday was St. David's Day, Wales's national day -- see kids celebrate.

A top Irish union leader denounces EU "colonial" rule over his country.

Two apartment buildings rise in Milan, complete with forest.

Beppe Grillo is part of a centuries-old Italian tradition of satirists who challenged the powerful.

Hundreds of thousands march in Portugal (a country of just 11 million) to protest austerity.

In 1953, Spain and Greece wrote off half of Germany's debt to them to help it recover economically -- an act seemingly unthinkable today, when debt is prioritized over human concerns.

Domestic violence in Russia costs the lives of almost 40 women per day.

The US Christian Right is extending its tentacles into Brazil.

Judaism too has its crazed, bullying religious fanatics.

Across the Islamic world, people are turning against religious extremism.

This slut was just asking for it.

Polio could be eradicated if not for the interference of Islamists.

Horses may have been domesticated 3,000 years earlier than we think.

Don't be fooled -- being overweight will shorten your life.

Dolphins have names.

Ice is melting, fast, in both the Arctic and Antarctic.

01 March 2013

More voters send a message

"I wish I believed that the Italian election would serve as a wake-up call — a reason to, for example, give the ECB a green light for more expansion, a reason for Germany to do some stimulus and for France to call off its unnecessary belt-tightening. My guess, however, is that we’ll just have more lectures to the Italians and everyone else about how they just aren’t trying hard enough.  And there may be worse figures than Beppe Grillo lurking in Europe’s future."

Paul Krugman

Do read the whole column -- it's a blunt indictment of the European Union's arrogant, out-of-touch elites and the disaster their austerity policies have inflicted.

While the impact of the Italian election is still sinking in, those elites just got another kick in the pants in a much-watched local election in the town of Eastleigh in southern Britain.  The ruling Conservative party was pushed into third place by a stunningly-strong showing by the UKIP (UK Independence Party), a relatively-new, anti-establishment party dedicated to pulling Britain out of the EU.  The UKIP candidate won 28% of the vote, a similar percentage to what Beppe Grillo's anti-establishment Five Star Movement won nationwide in Italy, and came just four points short of winning the seat.  The willingness of voters, exasperated with establishment politicians who ignore their real concerns, to vote in meaningful numbers for outsiders is not confined to Italy.

It's rising steeply, too.  The country was startled when the UKIP won 13% in local elections just last year, yet it more than doubled that vote share in Eastleigh this week.

Europe's establishment needs to heed its people and stop driving them into the arms of radicals.  The UKIP strongly opposes mass immigration (another issue on which mainstream politicians have long defied the popular will), but it is explicitly anti-racist; the same can't be said of some of the more fringe parties dotting the European landscape.  If the establishment pushes blindly on and keeps forcing voters to seek alternatives, then as Krugman says, there may be worse figures lurking in Europe's future.  Just look at its past.