Friday, April 21, 2006

The Bio-Based Economy

"With the advent of "white" biotechnology, the industry is once again offering a one-size-fits-all solution to our ills. Naturally, skeptics and critics abound. But are there the same concerns with these new technologies? And what precisely do supporters mean when they talk about creating a "bio-based economy"?

Through recombinant DNA technology, scientists can use microorganisms in new and exciting ways to manufacture polymers, vitamins, enzymes or transportation fuel. By harnessing the natural power of enzymes or whole cell systems, and using sugars as feedstock for product manufacture, industrial biotech companies can work with nature to help us move from a petroleum-based economy to a "bio-based economy."-- BIO website
At a BIO conference plenary session on biofuels, former CIA head R. James Woolsey claimed that "Biotechnology will be for the 21st century what physics was to the 20th," unlocking the secret potential of the planet in ways never before imagined, while at the same time rescuing us from the social and environmental perils of the petrochemical system.

"For every billion dollars we shift from foreign oil to domestic biofuels, we can add anywhere from 10-20,000 American jobs," Woolsey said, "and at least half of our gasoline needs can be grown here with cellulose".

This, at least, has become the new conventional wisdom. The January 27 issue of Science Magazine featured "The Path Forward for Biofuels and Biomaterials," a self-described road map to developing a sustainable industrial society without worrying about greenhouse gases.

As of now, ethanol makes up only 2 percent of U.S. transportation fuels, and biodiesel accounts for less than .01 percent. But the U.S. Department of Energy has set goals to replace 30 percent of the liquid petroleum transport fuel with biofuels, and to replace 25 percent of industrial chemicals with biomass-derived chemicals by 2025.

The resulting cry to build an infrastructure around biofuels has come from all quarters. As one European biotech executive put it, "The Stone Age did not come to an end because of a lack of stones. So too, the Oil Age will not come to an end because of a lack of oil.""

Read more on the AlterNet.

Tomorrow's Girls (The Transhumanist Soundtrack)

Jaga Jazzist (Soundtrack for Transhumanists)

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Audiocast: James Hughes interview, part 1 of 2

I recently interviewed Dr. James Hughes, executive director of the World Transhumanist Association and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies.

In part 1 of the interview, we discuss Dr. J's ongoing projects, his future hopes and plans for the WTA and IEET, and current global issues facing techprogressives.

Look for part 2 of this interview to be made available in about a week's time.


Cross-posted from Sentient Developments.

New Progress for Progressive Media

"The newfound kick-ass, in-your-face attitude exhibited by emerging progressive media is an important development and a cause for celebration. Using blogs, talk radio, new models of content distribution and a tenacious rapid-response media watch capacity, progressives are scratching back with new ferocity.

The new phenomenon of progressive talk radio has begun to gradually loosen the media stranglehold the Republicans have on Washington. Democrats who make guest appearances on Air America Radio seem to develop more spine in the process. The A-list political blogs, led by The Daily Kos, My DD, and a dozen or so other established blogs, have been strengthened considerably by blog upstarts like FireDogLake , and the highly trafficked video blog, Crooks and Liars . Meanwhile the Huffington Post, initially met with scads of skepticism, has catapulted over much of the blogosphere, becoming the fourth most-linked-to blog in the world.

These success stories all point to a brighter future if -- and this is a big if -- these efforts, and particularly more commercial ones aimed at TV, can be financially supported in a serious way. Interestingly, a number of the big successes in the blogosphere are self-supporting via advertising, while some, like The Huffington Post, have investors, meaning they have no need for grants and are unhampered by IRS laws that require nonprofits to be nonpartisan. But the rest of the progressive media needs a significant, long-term, reliable commitment of resources.

The emerging media elements, as feisty and effective as they are, don't yet add up to an overall media vision and infrastructure. Much of the new progressive media capacity is reactive, lacking the ability to effectively frame a vision for the future. And most of it is on the web and on talk radio -- not on television. Yes, "moving media" is all on track to converge in a broadband world -- but in the meantime, cable TV still needs some progressive presence, and investments are required in the nascent area of web TV. Also, new and young on-air talent, never a progressive strength, needs development and exposure, via subsidizing books and speaking tours and high-level media training." (AlterNet)

Sunday, April 16, 2006

I’ve seen the future and the future is bald

Natalie Portman’s recent performance in V for Vendetta has me thinking about bald women on the silver screen, particularly in science fiction movies.

Traditional films are quite conservative in the way they portray women’s hairstyles. As an indelible part of their sexuality, filmmakers have been reluctant to mess around with such an integral female attribute. Moreover, until fairly recently, female roles in action movies have been secondary to those of males. Men are supposed to be masculinized on screen and women feminized.

Obviously, in today’s supposed equal opportunity action film industry we now have our super-sexualized action hero females like Charlie’s Angels and Uma Thurman in Kill Bill. But let’s face it -- they’re still sex symbols, big hair and all.

It would seem, then, that the only way to de-sexualize a female hero is to have her shave her head. And in this sense, science fiction has led the way.

Sci-fi is a particularly powerful genre in that it can afford to be more experimental in its treatment of virtually any aspect that appears on screen. In science fiction, the weirder the better. And it only makes sense. When you’re trying to portray the future or otherworldliness, it helps to cross traditional boundaries.

In sci-fi films, bald women have conveyed a number of things in addition to desexualization, including masculinity, sexual ambiguity, dehumanization, youthfulness, and innocence. And paradoxically, bald women have also been used to portray an enhanced sense of sexuality and control.

Sigourney Weaver, for example, went bald in Aliens in a blatant show of female masculinity. Like Demi Moore in G.I. Jane, Weaver was better able to portray Ripley as a physical and tormented action hero without having to carry the baggage of female sexuality. Consequently, a strong case can be made that Ripley is one of the most believable female action characters yet realized in science fiction film. Another recent example of this, of course, is Natalie Portman’s portrayal of Evey Hammond in V for Vendetta.

Along these lines, strong bald female characters tend to have an undeniable ‘butchy’ aspect to them. Put a bald actress on screen with a gun in her hand and suddenly you have a character whose sexual orientation is ambiguous at best.

Baldness can also represent something that has been taken away from us against our will, including our very humanity. In George Lucas’s THX 1138, for example, many of the main actors, including Maggie McOmie, were told to shave their heads in order to emphasize the dehumanizing nature of a future dystopian world.

Going back to 1927, the robot of Metropolis was sexually female, metallic, and bald. At least, that’s how we knew her to be on the inside; the robot is eventually given true human form and becomes an exotic dancer in the city's nightclubs, fomenting discord amongst the rich young men of Metropolis. But we, the viewer, know what bald malevolence lurks underneath.

As shown in Metropolis, baldness can represent sexual control in a non-intuitive way. David Lynch’s version of Dune portrayed the women of the Bene Gesserit order with shaved heads, perhaps to convey their eerie power and strength (including their sexual prowess), and even possibly their aloofness towards the male gender.

Similarly, in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Persis Khambatta portrayed the Deltan Ilia, a bald species that can exude pheromones to arouse human males.

With the Bene Gesserit and Ilia, these female characters are at once desexualized by their baldness, but by consequence have their very sexuality brought to the fore and accentuated – elements that are reinforced even further by their actions and overt sexuality. In a real sense, these women have become more sexually frightening and threatening by virtue of their shaved heads.

And finally, in Steven Spielberg’s version of Minority Report, Samantha Morton played a Precog that was able to predict certain future events. These characters had a certain purity and innocence about them – elements that were emphasized by portraying them without hair. As a result, Spielberg was able to give them a sort of youthfulness and naiveté.

Truth, of course, can be stranger than fiction. Or rather, the future will be stranger than fiction. Given Donna Haraway’s call for female liberation through cyborg form, the desexualization of women may not just be an artistic device, but a true real world phenomenon.

For the time being, however, we’ll have to settle for Natalie Portman; but that's okay, because bald never looked so cute.

Cross-posted from Sentient Developments.

A pervasive web will increase demands for direct democracy

"In the early, heady days of the internet, many of its most zealous proponents expected cyberspace to transform the political landscape. Autocratic governments, they thought, would be scuppered by their inability to control the free flow of information. That could yet happen (see article). But cyber-optimists' hopes were even higher for established democracies, where they saw the internet restoring the electorate's civic engagement. Citizens would no longer have to rely on information spoon-fed by politicians, but be able to find out for themselves. Eventually, people would vote directly from the comfort of their own homes. The political apathy which has spread through western countries in recent decades would be reversed. Democracy would be rejuvenated, at last achieving its original meaning of "power of the people".

Judging by the most obvious political effects of the internet, so far this has not happened. Established democratic governments have published enormous amounts of information on the internet and moved towards the electronic delivery of some services, but this does not seem to have made much of a difference to the conduct of politics. The structures of democratic government remain intact. Political parties and candidates have set up websites and flooded voters with e-mails. But internet campaigns, according to most studies, have appealed to the same band of already committed voters who are also reached through letter boxes and by knocking on doors. Broadcast advertising still dominates campaign spending.

Governments in Britain and the United States have conducted experiments with electronic voting in real campaigns. A number of European countries are also planning trials. Some experiments have produced a rise in voter turnout, as hoped, but most have not. On the whole, the internet seems to have had remarkably little impact on mainstream politics.

That will not remain true for much longer. Communication is the lifeblood of politics, and every big change in communication technology, from the printing press to television, has eventually produced big, and often unexpected, changes in politics. As the internet becomes mobile and ubiquitous, it will bring about changes of its own. Precisely what these will be is not yet clear, but the earliest claims of cyber-dreamers—that the internet will produce a shift of power away from political elites to ordinary citizens—may well become reality. One of the big political debates of the next three decades will be about the relative merits of direct versus representative democracy."

Read more in The Economist.

The Sport of Distraction

""In order that the masses themselves may not guess what they are about we further distract them with amusements, games, pastimes, passions, people’s palaces…Soon we shall begin through the press to propose competitions in arts, in sport of all kinds these interests will finally distract their minds from question in which we should find ourselves compelled to oppose them. Growing more and more disaccustomed to reflect and form any opinions of their own, people will begin to talk in the same tone as we, because we alone shall be offering them new directions for thought…" Protocol #13

This passage, taken from highly discredited literature, should not have its message exclusively associated with the book from which it comes. In other words, the idea within the passage should not be discredited along with the faulty thesis of the book as a whole; reason being, the passage is a legitimate reflection of modern-day American society. The idea that Americans are distracted by entertainment is apparently true regardless of the referenced book's message as a whole.

The type of critical thinking employed in the previous paragraph is the caliber of reason that must be cultivated and fostered in forthcoming years. Of course, that is if an authentically democratic republic is to actually exist, as it is fabled to.

Search inside The Sport of Distraction; click here to view the 1st 20 pages"

Can The People Rule?

Featured in the March/April 2006 issue of Boston Review is a thought-provoking series of articles, CAN THE PEOPLE RULE? These four essays focus on the opportunities and challenges presented by a more participatory and deliberative democratic process.

Gianpaolo Baiocchi writes about the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, where citizens set the city budget. He finds that the process has radically changed the relationship between the government and the governed:

James S. Fishkin, the director of the Center for Deliberative Democracy at Stanford University, explains his method of Deliberative Polling, in which random samples of citizens are invited to become informed, share ideas, and make policy decisions in a public sphere. Better policies are the result:

Josiah Ober shows us what we can learn from the model of ancient Athens. Despite major shortcomings (exclusively male citizenship and slavery), Ober contends that ancient Athens thrived over the course of several centuries because it was a highly participatory democracy that encouraged citizens to make decisions through the exercise of common reason:

In "ENDING POLARIZATION: The good news about the culture wars," JohnGastil, Dan M. Kahan, and Donald Braman argue that working toward a more deliberative democracy could curb political polarization in the United States: