McCain’s Agnosticism Kills

March 20, 2007

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I now officially loathe John McCain. When asked simple questions about whether condoms protect users from sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV, McCain simply “didn’t know.” In other words, he’s so afraid of offending his “moral conservative” base that he professes to be agnostic about the most basic of scientific facts, and ends up supporting policies that kill.

A transcript borrowed from The Caucus blog:

Reporter: “Should U.S. taxpayer money go to places like Africa to fund contraception to prevent AIDS?”

McCain: “…Let me think about it a little bit because I never got a question about it before. I don’t know if I would use taxpayers’ money for it.”

Reporter: “What about grants for sex education in the United States? Should they include instructions about using contraceptives? Or should it be Bush’s policy, which is just abstinence?”

McCain: (Long pause) “Ahhh. I think I support the president’s policy.”

Reporter: “So no contraception, no counseling on contraception. Just abstinence. Do you think contraceptives help stop the spread of HIV?

McCain: (Long pause) “You’ve stumped me.”

Reporter: “I mean, I think you’d probably agree it probably does help stop it?”

McCain: (Laughs) “Are we on the Straight Talk express? I’m not informed enough on it. Let me find out. You know, I’m sure I’ve taken a position on it on the past. I have to find out what my position was. Brian, would you find out what my position is on contraception – I’m sure I’m opposed to government spending on it, I’m sure I support the president’s policies on it.”

Reporter: “But you would agree that condoms do stop the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Would you say: ‘No, we’re not going to distribute them,’ knowing that?”

McCain: (Twelve-second pause) “Get me Coburn’s thing, ask Weaver to get me Coburn’s paper that he just gave me in the last couple of days. I’ve never gotten into these issues before.”

Mr. Senator, this is absurd. I’m nauseous. Actually, this reminds me of the President of Gambia. He had a vision from his ancestors telling him about a magical cure for HIV. And because of his ignorance, people are going to die.

And it reminds me of Thabo Mbeki, the President of South Africa. In 2000, while under pressure from activists to begin providing life-sustaining antiretroviral treatment for HIV using public funds, Mbeki found the easy way out. He publicly questioned whether HIV causes AIDS, and suggested people should opt for good nutrition alone, with no other treatment. Mbeki’s dithering was eventually overcome, but the delay in providing public treatment for HIV in South Africa cost lots of lives, and those lives aren’t just statistics. In 2004 I watched several kids die of HIV in Johannesburg–kids who might have been on treatment by then if Mbeki hadn’t publicly encouraged ignorance and backpedaling.

And with McCain, it’s worse. Really, who do you expect to be more scientifically informed, and more likely to use financial resources to promote condoms, a former revolutionary and current president of a country in Africa? Or a United States Senator, who is a leading politician in a country with massive resources?

And how did McCain respond? He laughed. He hedged. He refused to acknowledge that condoms in any way prevent the spread of HIV or STDs. He probably would deny they prevent pregnancy as well!

This is no laughing matter. McCain will get some negative publicity, but his conservative base will say “look, he’s really anti-condom, so we like him,” imagining that not sending condoms to Africa is actually going to make people celibate and turn them to God.

May McCain be cursed with a stingy bout of gonorrhea and ongoing neural degradation (if he can afford it, since he’s obviously already lacking) from syphilis.


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.


Obama on Globalization

January 7, 2007

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Before reading Dreams From My Father, I knew that Barack Obama had a Kenyan father and an American mother, and had assumed from that that he would have thought out issues of international relations in greater depth than many American politicians. Reading his book, I was pleasantly surprised. Prior to his multiple trips to Kenya, Obama actually spent about three years living in Indonesia as a child. His time in Jakarta has, at least from some of the thoughts he included, given him a level of healthy skepticism regarding globalization and economic development. Also, for what it’s worth, his degree from Columbia was in international relations.

Based on his experience and study, I think Obama is at least more likely to understand the complexity of international economic developments. The greater question is whether a nuanced view of the effects of particular U.S. foreign policy decisions would really lead to substantively better decisions when he’s placed in a position where the accepted thing to do is to promote U.S. interests (i.e., the presidency, or the U.S. Senate).

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Dreams From My Father

January 6, 2007

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My friend Bethany gave me Barack Obama’s Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance for Christmas. I was deeply grateful, and proceeded to demonstrate my gratitude by reading it over a 3-4 day period. The book was surprisingly long (over 400 pages) yet held my attention strongly throughout. Obama, writing ten years ago after being named the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review, describes the development of his own unique racial identity as the son of an African man and American woman. He uses flowing, descriptive prose that is unsentimental yet thought-provoking, while avoiding many clichés.

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A Change of Fortune?

December 29, 2006

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Somali troops representing the UN-recognized government have retaken Mogadishu from the Islamist rebel government, the capital of Somalia. This is a striking reversal in the often-dark recent history of Somalia, a country in the horn of Africa, bordering Ethiopia, Kenya, and Djibouti (see a map of the region).

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Sins of the Father

December 13, 2006

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And you think the Catholic priests have problems in America…

CNN just ran a story about a Catholic priest who was a leader in Rwanda’s 1994 genocide. Athanase Seromba was just convicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (which meets in Tanzania) and sentenced to 15 years.

According to the charge sheet, Seromba directed a militia that “attacked with traditional arms and poured fuel through the roof of the church, while gendarmes and communal police launched grenades and killed the refugees.”

After failing to kill all the people inside, Seromba ordered the demolition of the church, the document said.

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One Person’s Crook

December 10, 2006

Is another person’s Congressman.

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William “Dollar Bill” Jefferson won the run-off election in Louisiana to go back to Congress. In May, the FBI found $90,000 in $10,000 increments, wrapped in aluminum foil, hidden in Jefferson’s freezer, days after he was videotaped taking a briefcase full of cash as a bribe. And some people still think he’s great.

Interestingly, I googled his name, and got the picture above…

With 44 percent of the precincts reporting, Jefferson, Louisiana’s first black congressman since Reconstruction, led with 61 percent of the vote over state Rep. Karen Carter, who had 39 percent.

[Jefferson] described his win as “a great moment and I thank almighty God for making it possible.” He called for regional unity to focus on the hurricane recovery and in bringing back evacuees who are still scattered across the country.

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Choosing Chavez

December 3, 2006

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On Sunday the 16 million registered voters of Venezuela get a chance to select their next leader. Hugo Chavez is running for another six year term, and is opposed by former Zulia state Governor Manuel Rosales.

I honestly don’t know much about Rosales. There isn’t much on Wikipedia, and I hadn’t heard too much of him before. That, and the incumbent’s still soaring popularity among Venezuela’s poor, seems to bode well for Chavez’s reelection.

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Cutting Edge Movie

November 30, 2006

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If you haven’t seen previews yet (or posters like this), a movie called Blood Diamond is coming out soon. Alberto over at GlobaLab brought my attention to an interesting controversy.

Apparently, the diamond industry claims the movie, which is set in Sierra Leone in the 90s, paints a dirty picture of a global industry that has really cleaned up their act. So they (the miners & distributors) set up a website to espouse their point of view: Diamond Facts.

However, Global Witness, the non-governmental organization that does the most to research and disseminate information about the origin of ‘conflict diamonds’ (which is an understandaby difficult, dangerous task) disagrees. Global Witness, along with Amnesty International and Warner Brothers (which is distributing Blood Diamond) have teamed up to make Blood Diamond Action, a website which counters the industry’s claims.

Call me a pessimist (or a realist), but when it comes to politics in the developing world, the dirtier answer is usually correct.