With or Without You

January 21, 2007

A friend just let me borrow Rattle & Hum. This is my favorite song, and this is a great video of it. Enjoy!


Shooting the Messenger

January 20, 2007

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Turkish journalist Hrant Dink was shot and killed in broad daylight on a street in Istanbul. Dink had been outspoken about the Ottoman genocide of Armenians at the start of the 20th century. While this may seem like ancient history to present-minded Americans, it plays heavily into regional politics in Turkey and Armenia. Many Turks think the killings were a justifiable part of a civil war, while Armenians see it as genocide (most non-Turkish sources I’ve read agree with the latter).

Being a prominent journalist about an unpopular issue is never an easy task. But in some places the messenger is more likely to get shot than in others. For example, I don’t think Anderson Cooper has gotten many death threats lately. (However, this may be a symptom of how any prominent journalist–especially American ones–pander to the system. If you’re not getting death threats or hate mail, your work might not be that important…)

So how big of a deal is calling the killing of Armenians genocide in Turkey? Evidently it’s illegal to insult the Turkish state (in America it’s mostly legal, just unpopular). From CNN:

Described as a “well-known commentator on Armenian affairs,” Dink had been called into court a number of times on allegations of “insulting” the Turkish state in his writing.

And apparently Dink isn’t the first Turkish journalist to be targeted for unpopular beliefs:

Joel Campagna, Mideast program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said, “Like dozens of other Turkish journalists, Hrant Dink has faced political persecution because of his work. Now it appears he’s paid the ultimate price for it.”

Campagna said that Turkey “must ensure that this crime does not go unpunished like other cases in the past and that those responsible for his murder are brought to justice.”

He said that over the last 15 years, 18 Turkish journalists have been killed — making the country the eighth deadliest in the world for journalists in that period. He said many of the deaths took place in the early 1990s, at the peak of the Kurdish separatist insurgency.

Unlike Anna Politkovskaya, who was likely assassinated by the Russian government itself (for criticism of atrocities in Russia’s war on Chechnya), Dink’s death is more likely that of an Islamist or Turkish ultra-nationalist extremist (the assassin reportedly shouted “I shot the infidel”), categories which can often become blurred, but the Turkish government is anything but blameless for the overall situation:

Aram Hamparian, executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America, told CNN that the case is the “product of the environment that the Turkish government has created” — its persistent denial that the killings of the Armenians last century did not amount to genocide.

How Turkey handles this event, along with its relations with the Kurds, will also inevitably tie into Turkey’s desire to join the European Union. But while this killing raises political questions, it also brings me to a more philosophical inquiry.

Is there really a right to free speech? Do people inherently have an inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? Where do any of these rights come from? In the idealistic sense the answer may be yes, we have these rights, but many authors on human rights (Farmer ‘s Pathologies of Power comes to mind) would be the first to admit that they can’t “prove” rights. Nobody truly possessed a right to freedom of speech or freedom of religion until people decided that they had those rights, declared them, and made them a reality.

A right can exist as an ideal that has no real correspondence to actual conditions, but over time the ideal may come closer to realization. Our freedom of speech is still imperfect, but there are arguably more people in the world today who can speak freely than ever before. There will always be people and governments who will shoot the messenger, but if we shed light on and punish those who violate the right to speech, we may move closer to the ideal, if only incrementally. In the same sense, I hold that people have a right to health care–a right that is inseparable from our right to life–but recognize that this right is less realized in America than any other wealthy nation. The act of smoothing over the edges between the ideal and the reality is the whole pursuit of social justice.

Update: A suspect has been arrested in the case.


Andy Griffith Hates America

January 20, 2007

(This from Elrod’s blog– it was so good I just had to repost it.) It’s short, just 1 minute long.

Of course, over at the Futurist it’s argued that those who oppose the Patriot Act actually want the terrorists to win: “Active opposition to both our overseas activities and the domestic Patriot Act is a good indicator that the person holding these opinions actually does not want America to win the War on Terror. How can someone oppose all these things, and still be on America’s side?”

But the Futurist is wrong- the Patriot Act has garnered opposition from both the left and the right, i.e., not just those of us who “hate America. “


The Epitomal Transhumanist

January 19, 2007

This video of Ray Kurzweil (about 23 minutes long) is an excerpt from an annual seminar called TED Talks (for Technology, Entertainment and Design) that features leaders from a variety of fields. While most of the talks seem to focus on society or technology, the perspectives are quite broad: Al Gore, Rick Warren, Daniel Dennett, Bono, and Richard Dawkins have all graced its stage in recent years.

Ray Kurzweil is a prominent transhumanist, and has one of the most optimistic views of technology possible. One of his more recent books is The Singularity is Near, which describes his view that not only is the eventual surpassing of humanity by artificial intelligence inevitable, it is also nearer than we think. In Kurzweil’s view this process will include the merging of our own personal consciousness with the advanced capabilities of computers to eventually be able to process more quickly, analyze more astutely, retrieve data more accurately, and so on. In Kurzweil’s view, what truly distinguishes homo sapiens is not our current biological status, history, or accomplishments, but our impetus to transcend our limitations. Technology merely offers us a new vehicle for our transcendence.

Regardless of whether you embrace his views wholeheartedly (they seem a bit optimistic even for me) or you feel a shiver of terror or silent mockery slipping down your Luddite spine, Kurzweil’s thought should be examined because of his influence. He’s a successful inventor and author, and a prominent figure among futurists and transhumanists. Here’s a summary of sorts of Kurzweil’s TED talk:

Can we predict the future? While certain specifics of technological progress are very hard to predict, overall trends are predictable, and they’re also exponential. Growth in one technology enables and promotes growth in another technology. 50 years to adopt telephones, 8 years to adopt cell phones. TV took decades, but new technologies- like the internet- have taken off much faster.

Kurzweil then makes an analogy to biological evolution. The evolution of genetic material (DNA/RNA) took billions of years, but once certain genes were in place (or the common “tool-kit,” as evo-devo would put it) more rapid (~10 million years) change, like the Cambrian “explosion” (a term that is disliked in many circles) can occur. But as the first technology-creating species, our culture has allowed us to “evolve” on a level that is exponential in comparison to biological evolution (which is one reason we have a hard time understanding evolutionary time scales).

It took tens of thousands of years to develop agriculture, then thousands to move to more centralized forms of government (those two are arguably related, but the direction of causality is disputed), civilization led to quicker technological development, etc. The last 500 years of technological growth were incredible, but the last century has been even more impressive- bringing us widely available automobiles, radios, TVs, airplanes, medical technology, computers, Internet, not to mention space flight and an incredible plethora of new weapons systems with which to butcher each other.

This emphasis on technological development as an exponential process is a major theme of Kurzweil’s work. But, he points out, people always begin doubting when exponential growth for future technology is predicted. This growth is a result of

“worldwide chaotic behavior.. You would think it would be a very erratic process, yet you have a very smooth outcome… Just as we can’t predict what one molecule in a gas will do- it’s hopeless to predict a single molecule- yet we can predict the properties of the whole gas using thermodynamics very accurately. It’s the same thing here- we can’t predict any particular product, but the result of this whole worldwide chaotic, unpredictable activity of competition in the evolutionary process of technology is very predictable, and we can predict these trends very far into the future.”

Kurzweil also talks about the suboptimal nature of much human biology (so much for perfect design). For example, our metabolism, which leads us to hold onto every calorie, is a throwback to our hunter-gatherer days and is something that we might like to modify to prevent obesity in developed nations. And another problem, which seems to be Kurzweil’s main fascination: “Long life spans (as in more than 30) weren’t selected for.”

While some of his examples are sketchier than others, the idea of an engineered erythrocyte (red blood cell) that could increase oxygen capacity greatly is particular interesting. In my view, Kurzweil has a tendency to exaggerate about some possibilities, but then again, exponential growth will always appear as an exaggeration to those in a linear-growth mindset.

I think more important than any individual predictions about technological progress that Kurzweil makes (like reverse-engineering the brain by 2020), his main point stands: the progress of technology throughout history has been accelerating. The main question tends to be whether we’ll be able to harness these technologies to make life more certain, more pleasurable, more equitable, more eco-friendly, and more connected (and therefore more meaningful on some level) or to just wipe each other off the planet.


The Big Bad Reductionist

January 15, 2007

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I picked up a copy of Richard Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker used for about $3 the other day. I like to think that the person who sold the book did so because this paperback addition has a horrendously ugly cover, not because of the content.

I’ve been interested in reading The Blind Watchmaker for some time, as it seems to be the most direct reponse to the “argument from design” out there. Of course, my father, who teaches design as it applies to human art and is therefore rather convinced by this apologetic, is the most vocal proponent I know, but I hear jabs about watches found on walking paths and Boeing 747’s found in deserts fairly often from others as well.

Dawkins’ answer is, no surprise, that the watchmaker that designed the complexity of life is a blind one: the “designer” is Darwinian evolution. For now I’ve only gotten to page 13, where he’s currently defending reductionism (or more specifically, the hierarchical variety):

For those that like ‘ism’ sorts of names, the aptest name for my approach to understanding how things work is probably ‘hierarchical reductionism’. If you read trendy intellectual magazines, you may have noticed that ‘reductionism’ is one of those things, like sin, that is only mentioned by people who are against it. To call oneself a reductionist will sound, in some circles, a bit like admitting to eating babies. But, just as nobody actually eats babies, so nobody is really a reductionist in any sense worth being against. The nonexistent reductionist–the sort that everybody against, but who exists only in their imaginations–tries to explain complicated things directly in terms of the smallest parts, even, in some extreme versions of the myth, as the sum of the parts! The hierarchical reductionist, on the other hand, explains a complex entity at any particular level in the hierarchy of organization, in terms of entities only one level down the hierarchy; entities which, themselves, are likely to be complex enough to need further reducing to their own component parts; and so on. It goes without say–though the mythical, baby-eating reductionist is reputed to deny this–that the kinds of explanations which are suitable at high levels in the hierarchy are quite different from the kinds of explanations which are suitable at lower levels… Reductionism, in this sense, is just another name for an honest desire to understand how things work.

On a similar note, here’s an article on PubMed about “Reductionism and Antireductionism,” and another on the “Search for organizing principles: understanding in systems biology.” (The latter seems to advocate principles of holism as opposed to reductionism as a means for understanding complex systems.)

Over at Meta-Library, a writer highlights a quote by Francis Crick (co-discoverer of the structure of DNA), that “The ultimate aim of the modern movement in biology is in fact to explain all biology in terms of physics and chemistry.” The writer (evidently a Christian, a dualist, and not a big fan of reductionism based on his disagreements with Dawkins and Wilson) asks three questions to consider whether Crick’s attempt to reduce biology to physics and chemistry has or ever will succeed. The three questions are as follows:

  1. do the laws of physics and chemistry apply to the atoms and molecules of living things?
  2. are the interactions of atoms and molecules according to physics and chemistry sufficient to account for biological phenomena, or are other kinds of interaction needed?
  3. can biological theories be deduced logically from the theories of physics and chemistry?

The author, a certain Dr. Southgate, answers yes to the first two and no to the last. I think the answer appears to be yes to all three, or at least that yes, these are possible to be deduced– not that we necessarily already have.

Today, during the opening lecture of my physics course, the professor made the statement that electromagnetic forces are what make everything work, at least on the scale that we normally experience–the biological scale (he noted the existence of nuclear forces, which we don’t often experience clearly firsthand). If it weren’t for those electromagnetic forces, gravity would pull a dropped ball straight through the earth because none of the particles would hold together. None of chemistry would work (or at least be the same) if the nature of electromagnetic reactions were different, and biochemistry, biology, ecology, and on and on would each in turn be different.

While all the principles of biology–such as a thorough understanding of human consciousness or religious belief–may not be fully reducible yet, I see no epistemic or ontological limitations that should limit our pursuit of reductionism. So Dr. Southgate would have to justify his answer of “no” to statement number three. Reductionism works; postulating that it will fail in the future because it might explain realms normally coveted by other realms, like psychology or theology- requires an explanation.


When the Window is the View

January 15, 2007

Sometimes the window itself can be more interesting than what’s on the other side. Zoom in on these pictures and check out the patterns; they truly fascinate me. Too bad ice has to bring such bad weather as well…

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A Dignified Decapitation?

January 15, 2007

Iraq is calling the execution of Saddam Hussein’s half-brother and the former head judge for the Baath party “dignified.”

However, Ridha, a spokesman for the Prime Minister’s office, said:

The only unusual aspect was that Hassan’s head became completely separated from his body by the hangman’s noose, he said. He called it “an act of God.”

“It was not like a very pretty scene,” Ridha said.

The men asked God for forgiveness and begged not to be hanged.

My thesaurus lists “elegant,” “composed,” and “proud” as synonyms for dignified. Maybe I’ll have to start redefining those in my mind too.