Tuesday, September 30, 2003

Humans: Prepare to meet your strange new peers

(More bookmarks cleaning.) Hans Moravec asks: When will computer hardware match the human brain? (Interested readers should definitely read the commentary as well.) The interesting thing about Moravec's analysis is that it is immune to a couple of the standard objections:

  • Standard Objection 1: "AI researchers have been promising imminent breakthroughs for the past 50 years. This is just another wildly optimistic prediction." Moravec's analysis notes that, although AI research has been conducted for 50 years, the amount of funding available to AI researchers has decreased dramatically, with the result that AI researchers have had nearly a constant amount of hardware power at their disposal until fairly recently. He also argues that AI strongly tracks advances in hardware --- the AI software you write for a 100-MIPS computer is not just a bigger, faster version of the software you write for a 1-MIPS computer, it's designed fundamentally differently. Multi-million-MIPS computers will enable vastly new approaches that enable quantum leaps in AI power.
  • Standard Objection 2: "Neurons are far more complex than is popularly believed. Your estimates of brain complexity are far too conservative." This is irrelevant to Moravec's analysis, which relies on an analysis of a functional unit of the nervous system, not raw neuron counts:

    More computer power is needed to reach human performance, but how much? Human and animal brain sizes imply an answer, if we can relate nerve volume to computation. Structurally and functionally, one of the best understood neural assemblies is the retina of the vertebrate eye. Happily, similar operations have been developed for robot vision, handing us a rough conversion factor.


    It takes robot vision programs about 100 computer instructions to derive single edge or motion detections from comparable video images. 100 million instructions are needed to do a million detections, and 1,000 MIPS to repeat them ten times per second to match the retina.

    The 1,500 cubic centimeter human brain is about 100,000 times as large as the retina, suggesting that matching overall human behavior will take about 100 million MIPS of computer power.

    In Moravec's analysis, it's irrelevant how computationally complex individual neurons are. The volume of neurons in the eye performs a visual processing task that can be simulated by 1,000 MIPS. Regardless of how these neurons accomplish this task, it appears that 1,000 MIPS is roughly adequate to replace the function of that volume of neural matter. It stands to reason that other functional units of the brain would require similar amounts of computing power per unit of volume.

    Of course, neurons may be more densely packed and interconnected in the brain proper than in the retina, but probably not by more than an order of magnitude or two. Assuming continued exponential growth in computating hardware, a mere order of magnitude only signifies a few years' difference: perhaps it will take fifty-three years instead of fifty. Hardly a basis for pessimism.

I don't buy Moravec's analysis entirely (there are some obvious objections, although no fatally conclusive ones, to Moravec's analysis) but it's an interesting read nonetheless.

Happiness Considered Merely Instrumental

In comments for my earlier post, Inky asks:

Then what is the ultimate aim? Surely you're not postulating that the ultimate aim of *most* people is to lead meaningful, productive lives of personal integrity beyond mere happiness?

Since Haloscan appears to trash old comments after a while, I'll reply here, because I want to record this indefinitely.

As I state in that comments thread, I don't believe that the things people value besides happiness are necessarily noble. They can equally well be craven, or egotistical, or founded on irrational hate. But the point is that people do have attachments to values that would not be called "happiness" by any usual definition of the term "happiness". People want happiness, but they find happiness valuable only insofar as it is obtained in a manner consistent with their ultimate values.

For example, all human beings could become "happy" by giving themselves a lobotomy. Most humans would not, however, choose to become happy in this fashion, because the thought of being a happy drooling idiot is somehow unattractive --- even though that drooling idiot would have no conception of the inadequacy of his/her happiness. This observation doesn't paint humanity as particularly noble, or possessed of very much integrity, but it does illustrate that the experience of happiness alone is not the ultimate aim.

So what is the ultimate aim? Perhaps it is to be happy for the right reason. But in this case we can simply drop the happiness as an end-in-itself, and understand happiness as a motivating force that drives us to bring about those right reasons. In Aristotle's classic categorization, happiness is therefore an instrumental good, not an intrinsic good.

Interestingly, this conclusion has some vague, poetic resemblance to recent findings in neuroscience (via Brain Waves):

George Loewenstein then explains: ''Happiness is a signal that our brains use to motivate us to do certain things. And in the same way that our eye adapts to different levels of illumination, we're designed to kind of go back to the happiness set point. Our brains are not trying to be happy. Our brains are trying to regulate us.''

As usual, there's a couple of related Wikipedia articles: Goodness, Happiness.

Decline of Magazine Cover Design

Weep for the art of magazine covers.

(Cleaning out the bookmarks again; I believe I got this through Plastic or MeFi a long time ago.)

Women admit more partners when on "lie detector"

Dove into Google today to look up an article I remembered reading a while back, and came up with...

The way this story got spun by the different news outlets is as interesting as the result itself. Compare the New Scientist's relatively sober headline ("Fake lie detector reveals women's sex lives") with that of the finger-pointing Washington Times ("Women said more likely to lie about sex details").

Incidentally, during my Google-trawling, I also turned up an initially rather counterintuitive study on self-esteem and intercourse in teenage boys vs. girls (plus more interesting readings at The Psychology Student).

Twilight for the Orangutans?

I had no idea that orangutans were in so much trouble. Their loss would be, aesthetically speaking, a great tragedy --- as C. McGrath writes:

Anyone who has watched much nature television knows that orangutans are by far the handsomest and smartest-looking of the great apes. They're literal highbrows, with wide, soulful eyes and broad expressive foreheads. They're covered not with bathmat fur, like so many apes, but with what amounts to a couture pelt -- red hair so long and fine it seems blow-dried. It's true that orangutans drag their knuckles when they walk, but how else are you going to get around if your arms are longer than your legs? For creatures so large, they are uncommonly graceful, not to mention sweet-natured, so it's gratifying to learn that a team of scientists, writing in the journal Science, has recently certified them as ''cultured'' as well.

Well, I wouldn't go quite so far as to call them the smartest-looking. We're great apes too. OTOH they're probably smarter than baboons...

When baboons hunt together they'd love to get as much meat as possible, but they're not very good at it. The baboon is a much more successful hunter when he hunts by himself than when he hunts in a group because they screw up every time they're in a group. Say three of them are running as fast as possible after a gazelle, and they're gaining on it, and they're deadly. But something goes on in one of their minds-I'm anthropomorphizing here-and he says to himself, "What am I doing here? I have no idea whatsoever, but I'm running as fast as possible, and this guy is running as fast as possible right behind me, and we had one hell of a fight about three months ago. I don't quite know why we're running so fast right now, but I'd better just stop and slash him in the face before he gets me." The baboon suddenly stops and turns around, and they go rolling over each other like Keystone cops and the gazelle is long gone because the baboons just became disinhibited. They get crazed around each other at every juncture.

But I digress. (The Sapolsky link is just way too cool to pass up.) I don't seriously think that online petitions are likely to do anything, but maybe the Orangutan Foundation International (donation link; Charity Navigator report), the International Primate Protection League (donation link; Charity Navigator report), or BOS-USA (no report available) have some better ideas.

UPDATE: In comments, Inky points to the world's most endangered animals, plus another link concerning culture for those who want more than McGrath's article provides.

Monday, September 29, 2003

Three thought experiments: Is happiness the ultimate good?

Thought Experiment Number One: The devil comes to you one day and says, "OK, I don't like you, so I'm going to give you the following choice. Either: (A) I will make you miserable for the rest of your natural life, which will be a long and dolorous half century; or: (B) I will make you effortlessly happy for that same duration, plus I will immediately kill five million children whom you don't know in a variety of excruciatingly painful ways. Oh, and since I'm Evil and all, I'm going to do it in front of their parents. Whichever way you choose, you'll forget instantly and completely that I made this offer and that you made this choice. So which do you choose?"

The point of this thought experiment is to point out that personal happiness is not the lone ultimate value, even for a humanist. Besides their need for happiness, people have an equally deep need to live their lives in a manner that they can admire. Notice that this is not merely "higher hedonism" --- i.e., in this thought experiment you do not choose to be good because the thought of being good will make you happier, in a deeper sense, than being selfish. The experiment stipulates that you will immediately forget that you were ever offered this choice. Therefore, there is no hedonic value, on any level, in making the altruistic choice. Yet most people would make the altruistic choice --- or, at least, I like to believe so.

Thought Experiment Number Two: The devil comes to you the next day, not quite satiated with your misery, and says: "OK, yesterday was a wuss question, because you could at least make your decision based on a net gain in happiness over all of humanity. Today, I'm going to offer you the following choice. Either: (A) I will make humanity miserable for the rest of its existence, which will be a long and dolorous million years; or: (B) I will make all of humanity happy for equally long, plus I will permanently bring back slavery, in the ugliest and most racist form that humanity has ever known --- black people will be regarded as subhuman, and forced to grow up in complete degradation and servitude to white people --- except, of course, that I've made everybody happy, so the slaves too will be joyful in their subjection, as they weren't in the past. As before, nobody will know that this choice was made. Now choose."

The point of this thought experiment is that even global happiness is not the ultimate value. There are things that we value --- like "justice" --- more than happiness. Or, at least, happiness alone cannot compensate for the loss of all other values.

Thought Experiment Number Three: Thoroughly pleased with itself, the devil comes to your doorstep a third time. "OK, that was fun at first, but now it's getting boring. When everybody's miserable, there's no point in being Evil. I'm going to roll back that whole universal misery till the end of time thing. But since we're such friends, I've got another present for you. I'm going to kill your son. No, you don't get a choice. Here's your choice. Either: (A) you'll immediately forget he ever existed, and therefore feel no grief whatsoever; or: (B) you'll remember him always, and miss him every day of the rest of your life, just like any other parent. Either way, you'll forget this decision. What do you say?"

The point of this experiment is that the result of the previous two experiments are not just artifacts of absurdly extreme situations. Even given the choice, many people would choose misery over happiness in their own personal lives.

All this was prompted by recent musings on why one might choose to be unhappy rather than let go of something precious. I wondered: is it necessarily irrational? No, not necessarily. You have to weigh your happiness against whatever you must give up to attain it.

p.s. Yes, all of the above scenarios are arguably related to the various Matrix dilemmas described by James Pryor, although I think deception plays less central a role in these thought experiments than in Pryor's. If you take this line of thought a little farther, you might conclude that you wouldn't want to live in heaven either.

On Soderbergh's Solaris

While I'm killing time, I'll mention that I recently rented S. Soderbergh's adaptation of Solaris through my GreenCine account. And: it's fantastic. Ironically, Soderbergh got a big science fiction picture budget and used it to make an exceedingly tight, reflective character drama reminiscent of his breakout picture, Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1987).

It also uses, to powerful effect, one of the great Dylan Thomas poems. Now I want to run out and buy a book of Thomas poetry.

The Wages of Sin

PP points to a post by one of his friends, HK, who writes:

"Let me make one thing perfectly clear: I do not reject Christianity because of my desire to go around sinning without any guilt; I reject Christianity because I have closely examined its claims and I have found them to be unsubstantiated."

This sounds rather like something I posted in PP's comments some time ago. (Maybe it is.) But actually, upon reading this today, I realized that one of my reasons for rejecting religion is that I do want to go around "sinning" without any guilt --- if "sinning" includes such acts as doing work on Sundays, having premarital sex, and the whole host of other ordinary human activities that are arbitrarily prohibited by Christianity. It's an affront to human dignity to be forbidden to do something "just because", and that's a large part of what religions do.

One could argue that the prohibitions on ham and cheese sandwiches or tattoos are relatively benign (although still offensive in their arbitrariness), but when the control extends to things as important as people's sex lives, it becomes monstrous. We're on this Earth for a short and often lonely time. Physical intimacy answers one of our deepest needs: the need to narrow the gap between us and our loved ones, however temporary that narrowing may be --- as Rushdie writes in The Moor's Last Sigh, "defeated love ... is greater than what defeats it". To exhort people to forego sex without the blessing of archaic contractual rituals is no less immoral than telling mothers not to hug their children.

The Bible claims that the wages of sin are death. If you define "sin" as "anything prohibited by the Bible", I believe that the wages of sin are something far less morbid: happiness.

Sunday, September 28, 2003

Updike Must Die

For over half a century, John Updike has been producing writing that's perhaps best described as the literary equivalent of masturbating into a silk handkerchief (required reading: David Foster Wallace's elegant takedown in the NY Observer). But is he satisfied? Does he have the decency to fade quietly now that his irrelevance has ripened to its full fruition? No. He must continue to offend by publishing a truly awful poem in this Sunday's New York Times Book Review; first stanza:

O brown star burning in the east,
elliptic orbits bring you close;
as close as this no eye has seen
since sixty thousand years ago

Gaaaaaaaah. In the past, Updike at least had the virtue of a good ear, but this takes my breath away. I knew people in high school who wrote better poetry than this. The clichéd portentousness of the astronomical trope, the lifeless doggerel of the latter three lines' iambic meter, the utterly flat, failed quasi-lyricism --- how does he get away with it? Somebody please kill me. Or him, rather.

Or, at least, given that the Sunday Book Review is one of the very few popular national forums that publishes poetry, please give any of the nation's legion of talented young poets a day in the sun, instead of stroking the trivial ego of this trivial, trivial man.

Why I don't hate Bill G.

I'm a loyal, longtime Linux/KDE user, but I have little patience for people in this community who spend more energy resenting Microsoft and Bill Gates than doing something productive for Free Software. Gates is simply the technology businessman par excellence, neither more nor less. And he's much less evil than, e.g., Larry Ellison (Oracle was started by the CIA, and responded to September 11th by lobbying for the creation of Big Brother databases to track the behavior of American citizens), or Steve Jobs (a die-hard monopolist who steadfastly refuses to port Mac OS to a commodity hardware platform), or even Scott McNealy (if Sun were not weaker than Microsoft, they would never be opening up their platform or their processes as they are). If you don't like Microsoft software, then don't sit around carping about it; put it out of your life and donate your time to Free Software projects.

Well, anyway, all this is a roundabout way of introducing this MeFi report on Gates's charity. I think most of the commenters are off their rockers in their contemptuous dismissal of Gates's very real and very important charity work. It would be great if poor nations could rely on aid from rich nations' governments (and the taxes paid by all their citizens), instead of the largesse of rich individuals; but within the limitations of current circumstances, Gates's philanthropy is worthy of praise. I love the spectacle of comfortable First Worlders sitting in front of computers (most of them using Microsoft software), whilst slagging off a man whose actions may save hundreds of millions of lives before he dies. How many lives will you save in your lifetime? Yeah, I thought so.

Voting Machine Abuse Link-O-Rama

The 2000 elections in Florida prompted a hysterical rush to change over our voting systems to something more "high-tech", which in this age means WITH TEH KOMPUTARS! OMG IT WILL R00L!! It was immediately obvious to myself, and to basically all reputable computer scientists, that computerized systems would only provide new opportunities for both inadvertent mistakes and deliberate abuse, unless great care was taken with the machines' design and implementation. Of course, in our current political climate, it wasn't hard to anticipate that crony capitalism would probably triumph over transparent democratic process and sound engineering practice. The links in this MeFi thread document the fiasco in detail.

UPDATE: Kos has more, including the following on Diebold's machines:

In its study released Thursday, Science Applications found 328 security weaknesses, 26 of them critical, in the new computerized system, which is supposed to be in full operation by the March presidential primary election. State officials said they will correct the problems identified in the Science Applications report and have the system ready by then.

Thursday, September 25, 2003

Coolest. Author. Ever.

Neal Stephenson's new novel, Quicksilver, came out the other day. Stephenson's usually too busy writing to do much on the web, but he's seeded the MetaWeb wiki with a discussion of the novel's themes.

(Via Crooked Timber.)

Friday, September 19, 2003

Finally, a reason to buy music again...

Forget iTunes' proprietary DRM-encumbered file format and the RIAA's obnoxious lawsuits. EMusic sells unencumbered MP3 downloads. For real! And they have musicians I actually listen to, like Pizzicato Five and Stereolab.

(Via Dirk Deppey's column on micropayments in The Comics Journal.)

Thursday, September 18, 2003

Flexing the C++ muscles again

I'm sick, and hence feeling too crappy to do real work. Also, I have some rather unpleasant emotional stuff going on right now. As a result, I've been escaping from reality by playing around with KDE programming again. Since the Python bindings for KDE aren't quite ready for prime time (they don't ship with all distributions, and every time I've tried to build them myself, I've run into a compilation error), this means writing in C++. So, I've spent the past two or three days hacking around with C++ code. I'm fairly fluent in the language, but I haven't done this in a while; these days I mostly hack in MultiJava.

My conclusion: I can program anything at least twice as rapidly in (Multi)Java as I can in C++.

KDE and Qt are about as nice a C++ framework as you could ever hope for, and KDevelop is a top-notch IDE. Yet all these nice tools cannot hide the massive anti-productivity orientation of the C++ language. C++ was not designed to make life easy for programmers; it was designed to enable programmers to invest lots of labor in getting the machine to run fast. C++'s most prominent problems are, of course, the lack of garbage collection (and a corresponding lack of type safety). Manual memory management may be appropriate in some domains, but it makes life hell for high-level application programmers. Forget dangling pointers, memory leaks, and segfaults; these are all heinous, to be sure, but the mere fact that you must spend mental energy thinking about the consequences of allocating things in different storage classes is enough to slow you down. Programming in C++ after you've used a garbage collected language is like running through a waist-deep pit of molasses. Without STL auto_ptr, C++ would be totally unbearable, and I'd probably just quit.

Oh, in case you're curious what the program is (pffft, as if the end product of programming ever mattered), it's yet another RSS reader. Yes, it's obviously a vanity project, given that there's a billion of them out there (including one that comes bundled with KDE), and that an entire RSS framework will be shipping in the next stable version of KDE. Like I said, I'm doing it for fun and escapism, not utility.

(If you noticed a contradiction between my bitching about C++ and that last sentence, then you have yet to grasp the fundamental masochism inherent in the programmer's psyche.)

Wednesday, September 17, 2003

Oven Digital: Where Are They Now?

Speaking of Oven Digital, it looks like it finally bit the dust. My memory for the names of people who worked there is rather rusty, but let's do a bit of Googling...

  • Co-founder/CEO Henry Bar-Levav (who was consistently the best-dressed individual in the firm, of course) still holds the oven.com domain, but Google only turns up old hits. Maybe he got rich and retired young?
  • Co-founder/lead designer Miles McManus has since moved on to Mode20. After I left, I heard that some people found Miles "challenging" to work with, but he was great to me when I was a young intern who barely had a clue. He gave me lots of responsibility, and freedom to learn on the job. (Yes, Oven was small enough when I started working there that a production/programming intern would still interact regularly with the lead designer.) We had one of the industry's first working integrated intranet/extranet systems, programmed by yours truly and used by every company employee every single day. Looking back on it, I wince at the ugliness of the code I once wrote; but, on the other hand, considering the salary I was paid, Oven definitely got its money's worth.
  • Speaking of my ugly code, Owen Lansbury moved from Australia to NYC to work for Oven shortly before I left, and one of his first jobs was to clean up some of my code. Sorry, Owen. Really. I mean it.
  • Designer Heather Champ has been doing some lovely photography projects.
  • Scary Unix guru Bennett Todd was hired during my last summer there, and he proceeded to upset lots of applecarts with his weird Unix ways. Of course, he was right about nearly everything (although I'll never agree that Perl is a nice language). With his level of expertise, he has no doubt moved on to many lucrative consulting assignments. Here's some software he's written. It's a little odd to think that, if the person I was in 1999 met me today, 1999-me would probably find 2003-me about as scary as Bennett.
  • Tony Kirman was also hired during my last summer there. A genuinely nice and unassuming guy, and a very productive web hacker, he was alarmed by the general atmosphere of upheaval (including some caused by disagreements between Bennett and some other employees) and left shortly thereafter. Google turns up nothing, but his neat late-90's web hacks are still up at los.org.
  • I seem to remember that programmer Brian Duggan had the odd habit of using obscenities, instead of "foo" and "bar", in debugging statements. But this might have been someone else at Oven. My memory's pretty fuzzy on this score.
  • Mike Knowlton's Macromedia Evangelist page is still his first hit on Google, but he appears to be the CEO of Nascent State.
  • Designer Mary-Lynn Williams and production dude extraordinaire Lars Gelfan now comprise Oculant.
  • Scott Pilutik: someone else I don't remember very well. Like many dot-com refugees, he's apparently gone to law school.
  • I remember Klokie's login, but nothing else about him. Weird how that happens. If I saw a picture, I'd probably remember more though.
  • Kio Stark is a writer in Brooklyn. (Or was. Or, maybe that's another Kio Stark. When I was at Oven, she was in grad school, so it's a bit odd that she's not on any academic sites. Whatever.)

Finally, I notice that there's an ex-Oven employees listserv, started by David Cantrell from the short-lived London branch. It's unclear whether it's still active, and I'm too shy to join it. Besides which, it seems there's some bad blood between Oven London and Oven NYC. Obviously, I had nothing to do with it, but it's probably best not to open old wounds.

BTW, I still have my Oven Digital company t-shirts. Our designers were among the best in the industry; and our t-shirts were correspondingly cool.

Monday, September 15, 2003

Eolas analysis: Lotus Notes is prior art?

Ray Ozzie points out that Lotus Notes is demonstrable prior art for the concept of an extensible wide-area-network GUI program --- a concept on which Eolas claims to have a patent. As I've said before, my personal opinion is that this patent is obvious and overbroad, and therefore prima facie invalid. It shouldn't be necessary to demonstrate prior art. However, if prior art in Notes can kill the Eolas patent, then that's great.

(Via DeLong)

Our! New! Building! Rules!

Returned from the East Coast and unpacked my office in our department's resplendent and minty fresh new building, whose magnificence you may not full appreciate unless you've seen our old one. Yee haw, as the kids say.

"Transhumanism": Friend or foe?

While I was visiting NYC, I had a conversation with PM and JW (and later BM) about transhumanism, a topic that's been occupying a lot of my thoughts lately. Basically, we all agreed that it seems possible to radically alter certain aspects of the human form and psyche. What we disagreed about was whether one should use the label "transhumanism": I thought that it was an accurate word that served the useful purpose of provoking thought, whereas PM and JW thought it was an inaccurate piece of mystification whose only purpose was to obscure power imbalances in existing human societies. To summarize PM's arguments, perhaps, unfairly:

  • Humanity is not defined by its physical form, psychological urges (sex drive, etc.), or limitations (mortality, etc.); it is defined by the fact that it creates cultural artifacts. Therefore, even "transhumans", regardless of how bizarre they become, will still be "human", because they will create cultural artifacts.
  • The differences between "transhumans" and present-day humans will be no greater than the differences between present-day humans and primitive humans from, say, 10,000 years ago. Therefore, calling these future beings "transhuman" is misleading.
  • It is evil to have a society in which some people are "human" while others become transhuman (or, since PM says that the "transhuman" label is irrelevant, "much more powerful humans"). Therefore, talking about transhumanism is wrong.

All three of these points seem fundamentally wrong. To begin with, the first point's definition of "human" is deeply flawed. For example, this definition would call "human" any hypothetical race of space aliens, as long as they had something you could call culture. A spacefaring race of metal-eating bacterial colonies that communicate using protein-bearing spores? A society of sentient asteroids that travel across the galaxy searching for stars whose gamma ray signatures express the [*untranslatable*] of the [*untranslatable*]? Would these aliens be "human" as long as they produced "cultural" artifacts? This contention is absurd.

We can expect that radically altered humans would be no less foreign to us than these hypothetical aliens. No doubt they will share some characteristics with us, but they may share equally many characteristics with a termite mound, or a wheat field, or a hurricane. To call such beings "transhuman" or "posthuman" seems only accurate.

As for the second point, consider a hypothetical baby Alice born 10,000 years ago in a hunter-gatherer culture. Imagine transporting Alice into the present and raising her in a modern society. Now imagine downloading Alice's psyche into a colony of hyperintelligent nanomachines designed for asteroid mining, while simultaneously altering her personality so that she could never feel any emotions. I think you have to be willfully contrary to claim that the latter leap is no larger than the former leap. Hunter-gatherer Alice and modern-society Alice both have two arms, two legs, a face, a single brain; they'll grow up into people who walk around, who eat and drink, who desire sex, who fear death, who may feel love or anger or hate or jealousy. Nano-colony Alice's body is not even composed of biological materials; her thought processes are deeply foreign to every human being who has ever lived. To me, it seems obvious that the leap between nano-Alice and modern-society Alice is at least as great as the leap between Australopithecus and Homo sapiens. Only a tendentious reading of the facts could conclude otherwise. We call Australopithecus proto-human. We should call nano-Alice post-human.

Finally, as for the third point --- that transhumanity implies immoral differences in power --- we can clearly foresee that radical alterations to humanity will become possible. We can also foresee that some of these alterations will make people much more powerful. We can also foresee that some of the alterations that make people much more powerful will nevertheless not be universally adopted --- do you want to be downloaded into a hyperintelligent nanobotic asteroid mining colony? Some people would say yes, but most present-day humanity would say no. In other words, many people value their humanity, or at least certain aspects of it, and would therefore refuse an alteration that took away those aspects of their humanity. Therefore, one has three choices:

  1. Establish a world government that bans all transhuman alterations.
  2. Establish a world government that coerces everybody into having the same set of transhuman alterations.
  3. Establish a society based on ethical relationships between transhumans and humans.

The first two alternatives seem monstrous to me, and therefore we are left with the third. Refusing to talk about transhumanism doesn't make the third alternative any less real. And calling radically altered people transhuman doesn't obscure the power imbalance; rather, it brings that power imbalance to the fore, and highlights its unique properties. Past power imbalances among humans have mostly derived from the fact that some people wish to deprive others of power. The power imbalance between transhumans and humans is more fundamental: it derives from the fact that some humans will not wish to partake of the power offered by transhuman enhancements. To be sure, there may be transhumans who wish to deprive humans, or other transhumans, of power, but the imbalance between transhumanity as a whole and humanity as a whole is new.

When I said that transhumanist ethics should require that transhumans set aside enough space and resources for humans to live fulfilling human lives, PM derisively compared it to "keeping the savages on the reservation". But I don't see any other alternative.

Should transhumans instead compete with humans for the same resources? Transhumans would win every time. A single transhuman might produce more intellectual output than an entire human population of billions. A transhuman might be able to manipulate human legal systems with the ease of a child playing with Legos. And physics dictates that a transhuman psyche downloaded into a computer with the mass of a golf ball would be able to colonize remote planets faster than any human (who would be encumbered by a mass weighing in the tens of kilograms). Transhumans might have the power to destroy human economies, subvert human legal systems, and establish sovereign governments far beyond the reach of any human. The only forces stopping a transhuman from doing these things would be its own conscience and the will of other transhumans, not any human power.

So the resources left for humans would be only those that transhumans made a conscious effort to set aside for that purpose. (Note that a second tenet of transhumanist ethics is universal enfranchisement --- any human who wants to become transhuman should be given not only the liberty but the resources to do so. So humans would be human by choice.) For savages like us, it will be a matter of choosing between the reservation and transhumanity. There's no other choice.

And actually, I don't think PM had any other choices in mind. I strongly suspect that his reaction against my description of transhumanism stems from denial, not any positive agenda. Like many other anti-transhumanists, I think he dislikes the notion of a society founded on vast power imbalances, and therefore prefers to invent reasons not to think about it. But avoiding the idea won't make it go away.

Note, BTW, that most transhumanist thinkers are fully conscious of the risks involved in the transhumanist project, or at least as fully conscious as anyone can be. In fact, analyzing these risks is (yet another) major aim of transhumanist thought. See, for example, Nick Bostrom's many writings, including his discussion of existential risks to the human race, and his unconventional analysis of the future of human evolution.

Saturday, September 13, 2003

To be human, or not to be

Today, on my last day in New York (at least till the holidays come round), I visited a few Whitney exhibitions; capsule reviews:

  • "To Be Human": so-so. For most of these paintings, I Didn't Get It.
  • "The American Effect": also so-so. Most pieces were rather, umm, obvious. In these charged times, however, this show will probably get more press than any other currently at the Whitney, or anywhere else for that matter. To wit:
    • Predictably, The Voice mistakes like-minded politics for good art, and the National Review uses the show as yet another excuse to engage in chest-thumping political posturing.
    • WaPo's Blake Gopnik weighs in with a choppy review that veers between snarky dismissiveness, petty defensiveness ("We do too give South Africa fair coverage! Besides, look at the French!"), and misplaced reverence (my only response to Mark Lewis's video piece was that he should have hired a professional Steadicam operator). Also, news flash Mr. Gopnik: when you lead a story with a reference to a New Yorker cartoon, you're in no position to chastise anyone about provincial navel-gazing.
    • Speaking of which, the New Yorker very nearly parodies itself as Peter Schjeldahl's article quotes Eliot's "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" in its opening paragraph; the piece shortly redeems itself, however, with probably the most on-target assessment I've seen anywhere in the press.
    • The Houston Chronicle's Tomas Eloy Martinez mysteriously lauds Hisashi Tenmyouya's facile nationalistic cartoons. As someone of Korean descent, I find it ironic in the extreme that a Japanese artist can view Japanese nationalism as a reaction against American imperialism.
    • Jill Conner of the Brooklyn Rail (a paper which I flamed earlier on this blog) leads with the obligatory genuflection before the audience's presumed political prejudices before admitting that the art's not very good.
    • Finally, my adopted hometown's paper runs a bland AP wire story that says nothing interesting whatsoever. Blech. This is why my Sunday paper is the print edition of the New York Times.
  • Last show of the day: Sarah Sze's installation "The Triple Point of Water". For me, this was today's highlight, a piece that creates its own intricate and self-referential world, yet resonates with our world as well. It's the rare piece whose obliquity does not undermine its relevance.

Thursday, September 11, 2003

Memory-erasing drugs and cognitive liberty

J. McNeil points to an ongoing discussion, originating on Brain Waves, about memory erasing drugs: first post, reply at futurepundit, followup. My own position on "cognitive liberty" is pretty close to Boire's; this is why I differ from experts such as M. A. R. Kleiman on the drug issue. Libertarians are ultimately right about drugs: the right to control one's own cognitive apparatus is a fundamental freedom, without which all other freedoms are meaningless.

Incidentally, skimming the Brain Waves blog reminds me that in B. Sterling's novel Distraction, neurotechnology is the Next Big Thing. Those days may be approaching.

Wednesday, September 10, 2003

WTO in Cancún: Underreported story of the week

Jeanne d'Arc nails WaPo, and others, for irresponsible journalism in covering the WTO's meeting in Cancún this week. Along the way she points to some great articles in the British press. Of course, most of it's sad documentation of the predictable spectacle of wealthy nations lording it over the poor, but the most surprising and thought-provoking blurb comes from Guardian writer George Monbiot:

The World Trade Organisation is a corrupted, coopted, captured institution, but all those who care about global justice should be fighting for its survival. Every time we shout that the WTO has got to go, we join hands with George Bush: he wants to destroy it because it impedes his plans for direct US control of other nations' economies.

In principle, the poor members of the WTO can and should outvote the rich ones. In practice, its democratic structure has been bypassed by the notorious "green room" meetings organised by the rich nations, by corporate lobbying and by the secret and unaccountable committees of the corporate lawyers it uses to resolve trade disputes.

All this must change, but it is now clear to me that to call for its destruction is like calling for the dissolution of a corrupt parliament in favour of the monarchy: it is to choose unilateralism over multilateralism. Our key task is not to overthrow the WTO, but to assist the poor nations to use it to overthrow the power of the rich.

One could be forgiven for thinking that Monbiot is frankly insane for believing that the WTO can be reformed. An institution so deeply rotten may not be reformable; maybe it's better to tear it down and build a new one. On the other hand, my recent reading on the Russian Revolution has made me deeply skeptical of revolutionaries who want to tear down institutions instead of changing them for the better. Tsarist Russia was a corrupt autocracy far worse than the WTO, but liberalizing reforms could still have created a prosperous democracy. The Bolsheviks instead erected a totalitarian monstrosity that engulfed half the world for a century. Maybe Monbiot has a point. Something to consider.

Tuesday, September 09, 2003

Yet another Green rationalizes and dissembles

The Brooklyn Rail's otherwise estimable August-Sept. issue contains yet another piece of self-indulgent, sanctimonious moaning from a Green. I suppose someone who writes awful tone-deaf poetry can't be expected to think or to write very clearly, but when will these fuckwit Greens stop dragging out the same hoary old bullshit? To wit:

I voted for Ralph Nader. But I take no responsibility for George W. Bush's election. Had Nader not run, most of his voters (and certainly myself) would have opted for a different third-party candidate, or not voted at all, rather than support Gore, a candidate so uninspiring that he couldn't even win his home state.

Indeed, a candidate so uninspiring that he won the popular vote by a margin of half a million. This in an election when the massive media conglomerates --- the same media conglomerates whom Greens usually credit with preternatural powers of persuasion --- were gunning down Gore with every weapon in their arsenal (everybody who says Gore failed in the 2000 election should be locked in a room and forced to read everything Bob Somerby's ever written). This, also, in an election when Reform Party right-winger Pat Buchanan took a bullet for the team by choosing a black running mate (thereby driving all the racist and crypto-racist votes of the fringe right straight into the arms of Dubya), while "Green Party" "leftist" Ralph Nader defied all tactical wisdom by campaigning hardest in swing states.

In case you're curious why I put both "leftist" and "Green Party" in quotes when describing Nader: news flash Greens, Nader is neither a leftist nor a member of the Green Party. Nader derisively refers to reproductive rights and equal rights for gays as "gonadal politics". When his workers tried to organize a union, he cracked the whip like the corporate bosses he grandstands against. Oh, well, just a couple of issues, you say? Many Greens consider Gore too "conservative" because of Tipper Gore and Joe Lieberman --- a charge that, besides reeking of unfair guilt by association, characterizes Gore's entire political worldview by focusing on a couple of issues. Only an act of supreme intellectual dishonesty could fail to indict Nader by the same standard.

And Nader is not a member of the Green Party. Yes, Green Party activists, here's the man for whom you volunteered long hours and then fell on your sword: a man who won't even join your party officially. He'll accept your nomination but refuses to declare a formal party affiliation. I'm not making this up. Look it up yourself. Can you think of a single other party in American history whose national leadership has been stupid enough to place its faith in a man who refuses even to declare membership in that party?

As for the claim that most Green Party voters simply would not have voted for Gore: this is tendentious sophistry. First of all, it's probably untrue. It was Nader's choice to campaign hardest in swing states, and Nader's deliberate obfuscation of the differences between Gore and Bush helped to confuse voters who might have voted for Gore. Both of these tactics had the deliberate effect of alienating potential Gore voters. Second, and more damningly, suppose Dolack (and other Green apologists) are right: suppose most Green Party voters would not have voted for Gore. How many? 60%? 75%? OK, let's say 95% of Green Party voters would have stayed home or voted against Gore. Suppose that, out of all Green Party voters in Florida, only 5% would have voted for Gore, if only Nader had not made such a strong point of campaigning against Gore in that state. This would still have provided the margin of victory in Florida.

But the paragraph I quote from Dolack's article is nothing new. He's simply the latest mouthpiece spouting the Party line. Green apologists have been making exactly the same arguments again and again and again since the 2000 election. In fact, they repeat these arguments so often, and the arguments are such a monstrous heap of stinking bollocks, that I can only say: the Party doth protest too much. Greens must be on some kind of deeply repressed guilt trip. The broken-record repetition is a lame attempt to paper over their own nagging sense of guilt at having been so stupid, so blind, so utterly taken by Bush's propaganda line that he was a moderate comparable to Gore, rather than a fanatical right-wing extremist.

OK, but believe it or not, the above monstrous heap of bullshit is only the smaller of the fish I have to fry in this article. Here's the bigger one:

This seemingly never-ending debate, however, is a mask for the real issue: the need of so many liberals to cling to the doctrine of lesser-evilism. "If only we knew how extreme Bush was; if only I voted for Gore everything would be different," our downcast liberals moan, wishing that a political priest could assign them a few Our Fathers and allow them to atone for their electoral sins.

Dolack then goes on to describe a number of illiberal policies that were either endorsed or insufficiently opposed by Democrats. I could run down the list, but that's an exercise for another day. For now I'll simply observe that, in the face of a deeply hostile media and Republican control of the legislative and judicial branches, Clinton's tactical brilliance held the line for liberalism better than any Green politician on Earth could have done. Also, Gore's speech at NYU was a far more coherent, precise, and devastating attack than anything that any Green has said about the Bush administration.

But I want to talk about the more general principle here. Dolack, like frustratingly many on the left, sneers at "lesser-evilism" without grasping the fundamental principle that all politics is lesser-evilism. Affirmative action is a lesser evil than continuing racial inequality. Diplomacy is a lesser evil than war. Democracy is a lesser evil than totalitarianism. Government itself is a lesser evil than brute anarchy.

Fundamentally, every political party makes compromises relative to the world it would prefer --- a fact that the American right wing understands perfectly, and that the American left wing seems to willfully ignore. You think Bush's two and a half years have been bad? The frightening thing is that this is the result of the extremist right-wingers compromising with their moderates. The libertarians won't rest until the legacy of FDR has been completely dismantled. The corporate syndicalists won't rest until the entire legal system has been rejiggered into one giant protection racket for their "intellectual property", and the government budget consists solely of corporate subsidies. The religious right won't rest until the King James Bible literally replaces the Constitution, and every last god-damned faggot has been shoved back into the closet, dead or alive. As bad as the government is today, the right-wingers want to make it much, much worse.

Greens: Do you doubt that these right-wing radicals' preferred policies, if baldly stated, would be any further from the Republican Party platform than the Greens' platform is from the Democrats' platform? Do you doubt that their agenda involves any less revolution in our system of government? And yet --- and yet --- do you have the creeping sense that these radical right-wing nuts, who should be your equal and opposite numbers, are somehow more influential than you are? Do you ever ask yourself the obvious question --- why?

Well. Part of the reason is that the Republicans, and the right, have always been the party of the rich, and the rich always have had the upper hand. Progressives generally fight uphill, and reactionaries generally fight downhill.

But part of the reason is tactical. The Republicans have a cooperative relationship, however uneasy, with their pet extremists. Because --- although the extremists think Republicans are a bunch of pantywaist moderates who compromise with those dastardly, devilish Democrats far too often --- when push comes to shove, power begets power, and it's best to help the Republicans obtain power. Once you have power, you can use that power to pull discourse farther to the right. You can use the government as an instrument that creates policies that enable you to take more power, which gives you more control over government, and so on and on, in a virtuous cycle. All the while, you can call in more and more favors, because being friends with the party in power means you're owed those favors. Winning elections means you get to live in the world that you create. If you have to share that power with allies who sometimes disagree with you --- well, that's a damn sight better than watching your enemies, the communist feminazi liberals, take over the government.

The point of politics is to obtain power. Only then can you do good. Even the Bolsheviks knew that you had to seize power before you purged those who lacked purity of ideology. The Greens prefer to purge preemptively.

It's really an astounding measure of the Greens' fecklessness that the Libertarian cat herd has better party organization and tactical acumen than the Greens. And some libertarian (lowercase-l) institutions, like the Cato Institute, have successfully transformed political discourse in this country. Once again, this is because Libertarians (and libertarians) have not shrunk from mobilizing for the broader conservative movement and working with unsavory allies (notice how the Libertarian fundraising letter states an intent to use the "spoiler effect" to oust a liberal, not a conservative). Until recently, it's fair to say that the pocketbook has been Libertarian Priority Number One; and although most Libertarians feel physically ill when they consider Republicans' attitudes towards about sex and drugs, they understand that you have to pick your battles. That sometimes means holding your nose whilst pulling the lever or writing the check.

Now, I won't absolve the Democratic Party of blame. It has too often failed to engage its leftist elements; and, at times, Democrats attack their own left wing more stridently than even the Republicans. I'd like nothing better than for the "centrist" DLC --- whose self-righteous Republican-lite rants are no less asinine and deluded than Dolack's article or any other Green screed --- to go off into the woods and die quietly. But, once again, it's telling that the DLC has influence, and the Greens do not. Why? Well, yes, the DLC has lots more money. But the DLC is also inside the tent, where it can put a bee in the ear of a candidate who might actually get elected.

So, one might reasonably ask: if the Greens are so spectacularly feckless and don't have a hope, then why even bother writing about them? Well, truthfully, it's largely a personal matter. I see too many of my peers --- young, intelligent, politially engaged urbanites --- seduced by the Greens and the ideological purity they hold out as a panacea for all political ills. It's deeply maddening.

Finally, a clarification: all of the above is about the American Green Party's efforts at the national level. At the local level, the Green Party has probably been benign or beneficial, and I don't know enough about the international "green" movement(s) (both traditional and non) to say one way or the other. Actually, I think the Green movement's net effect on the world has been positive. But the delusional stupidity evinced by people like Dolack --- who is all-too-typical of American Green Party advocates --- fills me with rage of puppy-kicking proportions.

Friday, September 05, 2003

"Fair and Balanced": Fox appeasing O'Reilly's vanity

Ben McGrath reports in the Sept. 1 New Yorker that Fox knew, from the beginning, that its ridiculous lawsuit claiming trademark infringement against Al Franken was doomed to fail (and "tactically wrongheaded" to boot --- the backlash has bought publicity that money can't buy, multiplied many times over). However, insider rumors have it that O'Reilly demanded the lawsuit, and Fox ponied up the legal fees in order to soothe his bruised ego. As McGrath writes:

So what was Fox thinking? Old Hollywood hands ought to know. They might recognize, in the extravagance and folly of a flimsy lawsuit, the telltale signs of an appeasement gift, a sop to a sulking star-the sulker, in this case, being Bill O'Reilly, the top-rated anchor on cable.


According to someone close to the situation, Fox executives were not at all in favor of suing, correctly anticipating a P.R. debacle. They told O'Reilly as much in a series of meetings, but he continued to lobby aggressively for bringing a suit, pressing his case with Roger Ailes, the Fox News chairman, and others. And so Fox enlisted its lawyers to cobble together a complaint.

Wednesday, September 03, 2003

DRM Office: All Your Bits Are Belong To Us, Phase 1

News.com reports (via Ars) that Microsoft is rolling DRM into Office that would enable organizations to strictly control the dissemination of documents created with Office.

Sneak preview of the next episode: with the advent of Palladium and subscription-based software, see the astonishing spectacle of you paying rent to Microsoft to access your own documents from two years ago.

Monday, September 01, 2003

Review: Radiohead @ White River Amphitheatre, Sun 31 Aug 2003

Saw the Radiohead show at White River Amphitheatre (in Auburn, WA) last night, with the sibs. Radiohead's the World's Greatest Rock Band, and their live show's always been incredible in the past. Therefore I report with some regret that the show in Auburn was less spectacular than I had hoped.

I don't know if it's because White River Amphitheatre's new, and they're still working out the kinks in the sound system, but the sound was kind of muddy for the first half of the set, and the speakers didn't have quite enough muscle to really punch through with full force to the mezzanine, where we were sitting. You could hear the music, but you couldn't feel it in your gut. The first handful of songs --- including "There There" and "Where I End and You Begin", both personal favorites from the new album --- sounded small and confined, when they should have soared. The show didn't really hit its rhythm until "Backdrifts", about five songs into the set. The later, more acoustic pieces ("Exit Music", "Fake Plastic Trees", "Follow Me Around") sounded much crisper, which made me wonder if the WRA simply wasn't designed to host rock and roll, or anything else with a really visceral bass presence.

To be fair, Thom's voice did sound a bit tired at the beginning of the set, so it may not have been the venue alone. This was the last show on this leg of their North American tour; Thom noted that, after this show, they were going to take three weeks off to see their families. It's too bad I won't be on the East Coast to see them when they get back --- I expect their New York area shows to be stellar.

Final note: this was the only Radiohead concert I've ever attended that had empty seats. And not just isolated ones here and there --- large blocks of seats simply went unfilled. Half the row in front of us was empty. What gives? Did people have trouble finding the venue? Did ticket agencies buy up large chunks of tickets (which, incidentally, were exorbitantly priced to begin with --- with Ticketmaster fees, almost $56 a pop) and fail to sell them at the usual inflated premiums? Or do people in the Pacific Northwest simply have bad taste in music?