Saturday, March 18, 2006

It's the politics, stupid!

In a recent interview, Canadian philosopher John Ralston Saul, was asked whether or not the many NGOs that have cropped up during the 1990s form a kind of counter-power to international institutions. He answered:

"The rise of NGOs is something very important but their proliferation also has a dark side. If millions of people younger than 40 are enrolled in NGOs, this is because they are discouraged from going into politics. This generates a terrible intellectual, emotional and ethical poverty in the political world which needs new blood. NGOs are somewhat reactionary. They place themselves outside of the system and therefore cannot thoroughly reform it. Only policies have that power."

He was then asked whether or not we should adopt a new ideology since the globalization model is a model which denies differences in opinion. He answered:

"The solution is not to find a new ideology to replace the one of globalization. We do not change an era that way. What is important is not wallowing in fatalism. It's when the system starts to crash that real reforms can be initiated..."

Friday, March 17, 2006

State of War

In Why We Fight, award-winning dramatic and documentary filmmaker Eugene Jarecki looks back over the last half century at how economic imperialism has been the driving force behind every U.S. invasion.

From a Montreal Mirror interview:

"As frightening and downright depressing as the film is at times, Jarecki insists it's not meant to discourage viewers from taking an active role in political change.

"This is an effort to fundamentally fix things that are terribly and tragically flawed about the American system and repair very deep fractures that have occurred over time. And that's not a casual undertaking. I think of it as a Star Wars episode where you're trying to battle the empire on behalf of the republic—that's my calling."

But will it make a lick of difference?

"I think so. Though people need to keep in mind that shutting down a war machine isn't like ordering fast food and Americans, especially, want everything instantly," he says, referring to critics who point out that the U.S.-led war on Iraq continues—this despite all the celebrity-led Fahrenheit 911 hype.

"What effect did they want? Did they actually expect to take a force of greater momentum than perhaps any in the history of the world, short of a tsunami, and shut it down overnight?

"Political movements take decades, sometimes centuries. So every move we make counts, every film we make counts. We may not see the effect of it right away. But we have to have patience."

Jarecki's hope? Only that Why We Fight, which won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, will end the present ping-pong debate between Republicans and Democrats. "I'm trying to introduce a kind of political dialectic that doesn't reach across the aisle; it blows the whole aisle up."

In fact, he is so dead-set on not being associated with any one party that he refused to premiere his film before the 2004 Bush/Kerry showdown.

"I reject this whole notion that America is a red and blue country," he says referring to Princeton's post-election study which concluded that when the Democratic/Republican divide is broken down town by town (as opposed to state by state), the U.S. political map is not as red and blue as we think it is.

"It's actually a purple country," he says. "But there are devices and forces in America trying to separate us into red and blue and I will not do anyone the favour by letting my film fall into that same trap. So it's a purple film, made for purple people to have a purple conversation about a world that never was red and blue. And people who can't accept that will be stuck forever in a party game, while the real decisions are being made by the grown-ups in the other world—and that is the real danger."

Anarchism, Hollywood-Style

"If Andy and Larry Wachowski's "The Matrix" trilogy turned millions of Americans on to cyberpunk culture and postmodern theory, then "V for Vendetta," the brothers' latest project (which opens today), might just do the same for out-and-out revolution.

Conceived by the Wachowskis and directed by their longtime assistant director James McTeigue, "Vendetta" is a pop-culture attack on the current administration's multiple injustices -- a big-budget call to rebellion from deep inside the belly of conglomerate Time Warner. Warner Bros.' film unit already got flack from conservatives for releasing "Syriana," "Good Night and Good Luck" and Palestinian suicide-bomber portrait "Paradise Now," but just you wait: "V for Vendetta" is a pro-revolutionary action-adventure romp that makes those films look like "Little House on the Prairie."" (Read more on the AlterNet)

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

A Friendster for politics

On an AlterNet Blog, Deanna Zandt wrote: "Via Personal Democracy Forum, check out this tool for political networking, Essembly. It works much like other social networking sites do: sign up, add friends to your profile, and join groups about topics you're interested in. Then discuss amongst y'selves.

The difference in this site, however, are the "resolves" that members vote on. A resolve is simply a statement that's put to other members, created by individuals or groups, and it's then voted and commented on. Resolves help members find like-minded folks easier, and create an interesting style of debate with others you might not find on the blogs or sites you normally frequent.

My experience over the last day or so has been limited; so far, it seems like it's overwhelmingly white, male and DC-oriented. I'd love to see grassroots-minded people from across the country jump onboard soon, lest it become completely washed out."

Study examines how humans are still evolving

"By scanning the human genome, researchers say they have found more than 700 genetic variants that evolution may have favored during the past 10,000 years, illustrating how human evolution is continuing.

"There have been a lot of recent changes—the advent of agriculture, shifts in diet, new habitats, climatic conditions' during that time, said the University of Chicago's Jonathan Pritchard, one of the scientists. "We’re using these data to look for those signals of very recent adaptation."" (Read more at World Science)

Monday, March 13, 2006

Extreme 'natural' brains

I have always been intrigued by superhuman feats of cognition. It's truly amazing what some people are capable of, be they math geniuses or musical prodigies. Moreover, from the perspective of neuroengineering, it's quite interesting to see how, given a minor tweak here or there, the brain is truly capable of extreme mental feats.

Take some autistic savants, for example. Most autistic savants have what are called 'splinter skills' that allow them to memorize facts, numbers, license plates, maps, and extensive lists of sports and weather statistics. Some can mentally note and then recall back perfectly a very long series of music, numbers, or speech.

Some, the so-called 'mental calculators', can do lightning-fast arithmetic calculations, including finding prime factorizations. Other skills include precisely estimating distances by sight, calculating the day of the week for any given date over the span of tens of thousands of years, and perfect perception of passing time without a clock.

One notable autistic savant is Kim Peek, who can recall about 9,600 books from memory.

It's amazing to think that Kim Peek's talent is likely the result of a minor genetic tweak or two in the brain (i.e. a mutation), and that the neurotypical brain, or the brain in its 'natural' or default state, is not too far removed from Peek's.

Consequently, it's quite likely that in the early stages of neuroengineeing these sorts of augmentations will not be too difficult to bring about. The trick will be to create cognitively gifted people without the side-effects, namely autism and other psychological disorders (and yes, I'm claiming that autism is a disability for all those in the autistic rights movement).

Strangely, however, why autistic savants are capable of these extraordinary feats is not quite clear. Some savants have obvious neurological abnormalities, but the brains of most such individuals appear anatomically and physiologically normal.

While not exclusive to autistic savants, extreme memory is one particular example of what the human brain is capable of. Individuals with an extreme ability for recall have what is called 'eidetic memory.' Just last year, for example, Akira Haraguchi managed to recite pi's first 83,431 decimal places from memory, and in 1994, Tom Groves memorized the order of cards in a randomly shuffled 52-card deck in 42.01 seconds.

It's believed, by the way, that polymath John von Neumann had eidetic memory.

Interestingly, and possibly of relevance to this topic, von Neumann's colleague, John Nash (who was portrayed in A Beautiful Mind), also has extraordinary math skills, but suffers from schizophrenia. Also, Kurt Gödel suffered terribly at the hands of paranoid schizophrenia. The linkage between brilliance and attendant mental illness is an important topic, particularly on the eve of cognitive enhancement.

For more on memory skills, check out this article on Wired about the recent memory championships.

Cross-posted from Sentient Developments.

Nano and bio death abound

Looks like the peril of nanotechnology and biotechnology is the topic de jour around ye ol' blogosphere these days.

Salon got the existential ball of doom rolling last week by publishing I, Nanobot (abstract: Scientists are on the verge of breaking the carbon barrier -- creating artificial life and changing forever what it means to be human. And we're not ready).

Today KurzweilAI is reporting on how Robert A. Freitas Jr. and Bill Joy are the recipients of this year's Lifeboat Foundation Guardian Award:
[Freitas] has pioneered nanomedicine and analysis of self-replicating nanotechnology. He advocates "an immediate international moratorium, if not outright ban, on all artificial life experiments implemented as nonbiological hardware. In this context, 'artificial life' is defined as autonomous foraging replicators, excluding purely biological implementations (already covered by NIH guidelines tacitly accepted worldwide) and also excluding software simulations which are essential preparatory work and should continue."

Bill Joy wrote "Why the future doesn't need us" in Wired in 2000 and with Guardian 2005 Award winner Ray Kurzweil, he wrote the editorial "Recipe for Destruction" in the New York Times in which they argued against publishing the recipe for the 1918 influenza virus. In 2006, he helped launch a $200 million fund directed at developing defenses against biological viruses.
Not to be outdone, Glenn Harlan Reynolds (who I like) of Tech Central Stupid (which I dislike) has just written Biowarfare and Bioterror: The Future Is Now. Reynolds is mostly reporting on a Technology Review article, Biowar for Dummies (abstract: How hard is it to build your own weapon of mass destruction? We take a crash course in supervirus engineering to find out) by Paul Boutin.

Chiming in on all of this danerous knowledge is Mike Treder of the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology.

Phew, okay, now I'm depressed.

Cross-posted from Sentient Developments.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Crunchy Conservative?

Rod Dreher is a writer and editor at the Dallas Morning News. A native of south Louisiana, he has worked at National Review, the New York Post, and the Washington Times. Crunchy Cons is his first book. He also wrote A Crunchy Con Manifesto:

1. We are conservatives who stand outside the conservative mainstream; therefore, we can see things that matter more clearly.

2. Modern conservatism has become too focused on money, power, and the accumulation of stuff, and insufficiently concerned with the content of our individual and social character.

3. Big business deserves as much skepticism as big government.

4. Culture is more important than politics and economics.

5. A conservatism that does not practice restraint, humility, and good stewardship—especially of the natural world—is not fundamentally conservative.

6. Small, Local, Old, and Particular are almost always better than Big, Global, New, and Abstract.

7. Beauty is more important than efficiency.

8. The relentlessness of media-driven pop culture deadens our senses to authentic truth, beauty, and wisdom.

9. We share Russell Kirk’s conviction that “the institution most essential to conserve is the family.”

10. Politics and economics won’t save us; if our culture is to be saved at all, it will be by faithfully living by the Permanent Things, conserving these ancient moral truths in the choices we make in our everyday lives.