Long Noise

Probably the oldest recording I own are from Louis Armstrong Hot Five (from this highly recommended box set). While some of these recording are nearly a hundred years old, how do we guarantee that they will be here a hundred year from now, or a thousand years? Some people are working on this, including Kevin Kelly. Check out this link for the rundown.

Bird's Eye View of the OC!

For the geography geek in my immediate area, Microsoft has uploaded bird's eye view photos of Ottawa County, Michigan (the screen capture above is a view of downtown Grand Haven).

These photos were taken by a company called Pictometry, which specializes in "Oblique" aerial photography. Microsoft has contracted them to obtain imagery for the top 150 Metropolitan Statistical Area in the country. In urban areas, there photos of every locations from all four directions and with high resolution (6-inch pixel or a maximum scale of 1" = 50' before the photo begins to pixelate). In rural areas, every locations has photos in two directions, north and south, and the resolution is still decent (1-foot pixel or 1"=100')
Microsoft is also obtaining street view photos for these areas through another company (I discuss street view here). For more geography geekery, check another post here. Here is a link to download Virtual Earth. Here is a blog focused on VE, and another focused just on Google Earth.

The Safeticons and the Struggle to Bring Back Risk

Over at Wired (article here), more than a few people are calling Ray Kurzweil a kook for his attempt to increase his lifespan in order to survive in time for the so-called "singularity," the imagined point at which machines will become self-improving and increasingly more intelligent. In fact, Kurzweil believes that machines will become so intelligent that humans will be left in the dust (Listen to Kurzweil at this Long Now seminar here and for a more skeptical take from Bruce Sterling listen here. I would also recommend the Singularity Summit which is available to download from iTunes). A number of great Sci-fi books tackle the Singularity concept. I would recommend Vernor Vinge and Charles Stross.

There are many intriguing items in the articles and many debatable points in the comments. Which side do I come on? I'm not sure that we will see singularity or the rise of AI, but I do anticipate that we are the verge of extreme life extension through a constellation of cuurently infant technologies. These include nanotechnology and biotechnology. Our ability to manipulate the body at its most fundamental levels will increase. We will be able to alter our genetics and possible arrest cell death. Is this a good thing? I don't know, but we should be anticipating this and preparing for the consequences.

I will tackle the concept of whether we are near a singularity in future posts. Right now, I want to focus on another issue, jumping off from this comment in the Wired article:

Though both Grossman and Kurzweil respect science, their approach is necessarily improvisational. If a therapy has some scientific promise and little risk, they'll try it. Kurzweil gets phosphatidylcholine intravenously, on the theory that this will rejuvenate all his body's tissues. He takes DHEA and testosterone. Both men use special filters to produce alkaline water, which they drink between meals in the hope that negatively charged ions in the water will scavenge free radicals and produce a variety of health benefits. This kind of thing may seem like quackery, especially when promoted by various New Age outfits touting the "pH miracle of living." Kurzweil and Grossman justify it not so much with scientific citations — though they have a few — but with a tinkerer's shrug. "Life is not a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study," Grossman explains. "We don't have that luxury. We are operating with incomplete information. The best we can do is experiment with ourselves."

Some of the commenters for the article have ridiculed Kurzweil for his experimentation and his proselytizing of the Singularity concept. Many view him as a con artist. I have not purchased any of his books and do not subscribe to his methods, but I appreciate his efforts at "tinkering."
If he wants to his body as an experiment, I do not have a problem with it. In fact, I encourage it.

Kurzweil's tinkering reminds me of the Newton experiment in which he poked a stick in his eye to determine the mechanism through which it sees light. This experiment and many other strange and odd experiments by early scientists are wonderfully described in Quicksilver, the first book in Neal Stephenson's trilogy The Baroque Cycle. The genius of the book is the way in which it evokes the early culture of science, which involves a lot of quackery, sketchy ethics, and personal risk.

The key among these traits highlighted in Quicksilver for me is personal risk in the service of knowledge and progress. I think that this is an ill in American society today. There are too many protections against allowing people to put themselves at risk, whether as a astronaut or a cancer patient volunteering for a new treatment. While the Columbia disaster was a terrible tragedy, it only further slowed manned missions to space and reinforced the current culture of over-caution at NASA. I don't know for sure, but I imagine this has helped to delay the efforts to send astronauts back to Moon and on to Mars (though they are many factors). I think this attitude has contributed to our fear of utilizing nuclear power despite its positives, especially in freeing us from greenhouse gas emitting power sources.

There are many instances in which our society has become too cautious. Over the long term, I think this could help cost America its position in the world as a science and technology giant (China seems more willing to take risks, though often in immoral ways) or could cost humanity its long-term survival.

The good news is that we are that there is a new sense of urgency regarding progress and a new willingness to take risks. Tellingly, I think this being primarily led by the private sector. The private sector is leading the charge toward easier access to space (news here). This may be our greatest hope for the future: corporations, maverick businesses, and kooky scientists. So, while many may dismiss Ray Kurweil, I take comfort in knowing that someone out there is willing to use their body as a lab. One day, it may help prolong my life.

Science Funding

This is somewhat old news, but I was listening to a Aspen Ideas Festival discussion of Science and Politics today and it really crystallized an issue for me. Namely, America is falling behind in its support of science on many fronts, including science education, Do-It-Yourself home tinkering (see my earilier post and this Popular Mechanics podcast), corporate funding, and government funding.

Although this is a distressing trend, there are some positive developments. Including the sudden rush to create X-Prizes, the cultural pushback in books (link) and on the Web (Make Magazine).

Perhaps the place in which I have the least optimism in the area of government funding. Cuts were made in the current budget. In this op-ed Intel Chairman Craig Barrett decries this situation (via Cosmic Variance). He specifically mentions that Congress manages to pass a $250 billion while cutting science funding.

I think part of the problem is the disconnected nature of the some of the advanced science being conducted (post here), some of it is related to ideology. Whatever the problem, it will cost us in the long-run.

Lifting the World's Poor: Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control

Until I saw this Wired post, I had not heard anything about Dean Kamen's new "Slingshot" technology, which purifies bad water. It seems promising. According to Wired, Kamen's goal is to bring down the cost down to $1,000-$2,000 per unit.

It appears to me part of a growing trend to get cheap, portable, and powerful technology into the hands of the world's poor. Examples include the $100 laptop and this low cost wind power generator. Instapundit posts on the topic here and Popular Mechanics focuses on it in this podcast.

Hopefully, this is just the beginning of the trend.

Aphex Twin Alert

Over at Alex Ross's blog, guest-blogger Justin Davidson posts about an intriguing projects by the group Alarm Will Sound, including orchestrations of Aphex Twin music. This project especially is exciting to hear about and worth checking out. While Aphex Twin does have a harsher edge to much of his music, I prefer his contemplative side. In fact, I listen to his music while I write. In the typical ambient mode, they succeed through deceptive simplicity. Much of his work is haunting and beautiful and its great to see it given an interesting orchestral treatment.

The Moral High Ground (with bonus Sci-Fi parable)

I often enjoy reading Christopher Hitchens. His posts are often witty, cutting, and intelligent. However, though I respect his thinking, I found myself dismayed by his usual Monday column from Slate. While I agree with his specific points regarding Rev. Jeremiah Wright, I was dismayed when he turned the problem of Wright into further evidence of the evil of religion. As I have explained, I am not in lock-step with Dawkins nor Hitchens on these issues.

In fact, I find their insistence on the moral superiority of atheism to be mildly odious and more than a little disconcerting. Edge links to this article by John Gray which outlines some of the troubles with this line of thinking, mainly that movements with a strong atheist component in the 20th Century were responsible for an immense amount of death, violence, and oppression. While I disagree with some of Gray's points, he convincingly describe this major failing of the current resurgence in atheism.

For me, there is no moral superiority for either religion or atheism, neither is one more inherently good or evil. In either case, they can be perverted and used to justify horrific acts. This is not because subscribing to either of them inherently leads to horrific acts. It is because horrific people will utilize whatever philosophy they have available to them to justify their aims.

Yes, religion has many moral failings and some religions posits unforgivable beliefs, but many people take the core of the religion without following the letter of it. While I abhor many of the moral prescriptions of organized religion, this is not my primary criticism of religion.

To describe this critique, I have a brief parable. Imagine a genial being who visits Earth but has no exposure to religion, neither on Earth nor on its home planet. This being hears that their is such a thing on Earth as belief in a supernatural being. This concept appeals to the being, but the being is looking for something more specific. The leaders of all religions come to meet the being and explain to the being their religion. In addition, numerous scholars present to the being religions of the past.

How does the being decide which religion to practice?

First of all, this being would obviously be mentally exhausted. He would have heard for many, many people about the many, many religions currently in existence on Earth and which have existed in the past. He would also have trouble with some of the religions, because being an in interstellar traveler he would have a very deep knowledge of science. He would know about the age and development of the universe. He would have trouble with any religion which insisted on a "young Earth". However, being positive, he would ignore this and attempt to understand the core teachings of each religion.

With no prejudices, save a scientific viewpoint, it would be impossible for such a being to choose. There are no reasoned criteria to choose Buddhism over Christianity, or Islam over Scientology. You may find one less moral or moral, but its does not make one the correct religion. It just means the religion has identified correct morals.

In addition, let say that I give you intelligent design. I say, "sure an intelligent being has designed our universe." Why does it mean that it is your intelligent being and not one I came up with yesterday. In fact, I could make a religion today and it would be no more or less valid as any other. L. Ron Hubbard actually accomplished this. People laugh at Scientologist or deride them, but why should my imaginary being take Scientology any less seriously than the "legacy" religions. There is not a valid logical reason.

Its only a matter of faith, not reason. Even if you grant a creator, there is no way to determine which religion has the correct creator. You could say it is not logical, but it is a matter of faith. Well, there is a surplus of faith. Which faith? Again, one faith is the same as the other. This problem greatly troubles our genial being.

After deliberating on Earth for a long period, our being finds that his journey is not over, because there are billions of other worlds out there with life and most of those have some type of religion. In fact, they each have thousands of religions. In order to make a judicious decision, our imaginary being (who for the sake of argument lives much longer than humans) will spend the rest of his life collecting these religions and myths.

Nearing death, he returns to Earth two thousand years after he first visited, only to find there are hundreds of religions which have been created in the interim period and many which have been previously presented to him which have been abandoned.

Where does he find solace? Does he nihilistically succumb to death in despair? Does he decide there is no God? To the contrary, he looks back at his journey and is overcome by the sense that religion is beside the point. That if there was a creator, no finite being has a mind to conceive of that creator or to describe the creator with one single religion among the teeming millions of religions. If there were a creator, there is only one neutral and unmediated place to interpret its message. In the stars and atoms. In cells and molecules. He realizes that the mechanics of stars and of atoms are constant everywhere. There is no moral lesson there except that the universe is far greater and more amazing than any religious text from a pre-scientific culture could possible imagine and that life persists despite many obstacles. Our genial being dies comforted, finally having made a connection to its creator, whatever that is.

Hugo Nominations

I've always been a big sci-fi fan, but my interest has had a strong resurgence since I really got serious about writing another book. The Instapundit has provided many useful recommendations. Now, I hope to crib my reading list from the Hugo Award winners and nominees.

I have yet to read any of the nominees from this year or last year, but I read three from 2006, including the winner, Spin, and found them not only to be enjoyable but exhilarating. This year's nominees are out. One of the nominees, John Scalzi, has a nice and in-depth post about the nominees and overlooked books.

Militant Democratization Part II

In an earlier post, I discussed the phenomenon of democratization of music via technology. Of course, this is not limited to music as this paragraph from Kevin Kelly states:

We see a similar phenomenon happening in cartography and typography. Both of
these were formerly esoteric practices. The number of folks who knew about fonts
and kerning, or rubbersheeting and lat-long, numbered in the tens of
thousands. But now that fonts are loaded into every PC, and kerning a matter of
dragging your mouse, when Google maps are a click away, the rote work of type
design and map making are done by machines empowering hundreds of millions of
new enthusiasts in these fields.

In this post, Kelly is referencing the possible democratization of taxonomy (I'll discuss his post on this more in-depth later). However, I wanted to focus on what he was saying about cartography, since my current occupation is as a professional digital cartographer. As I have mentioned previously, the field of geography has undergone drastic changes during the past few years. Beyond of the accelerating technological improvements, Google Earth and its ilk has brought a flood of amateurs into the field, just as Kelly says.

Due to the innovations of ESRI (the private company responsible for ArcMap, a pioneering digital mapping software used by thousands of companies and governmental organizations worldwide), geography was already experiencing a dramatic shift from the past. In the past, only a few could produce geography, then once ArcMap caught on every county in the nation suddenly was establishing a GIS department and producing in-house maps, investing in state-of-the-art aerial photography and LiDAR, and developing immense digital mapping datasets. This greatly expanded geography. As in the case of music, you no longer needed a physical talent to make maps, just a somewhat spatial and computer-based mindset.

Still, the expense of the software limited its utilization (about $1,200 for a single use license). ArcMap was not like Microsoft Office, where everyone had a copy. In addition, even if you got a copy, there was not much you would do with it since you did not have data. However, all this changed with Google Earth. As Kelly said, suddenly the field of geography expanded from thousands to millions.

ESRI is still dealing with the implication of this. I'm still dealing with the implications of this. As Glenn Reynolds has written, the Internet and new technology has created an army of Davids. One lesson of this is never to get too comfortable with what you are doing, because someone may come along willing to do it for free, distribute it for free, or find a robot who will do it for little cost (Kevin Kelly calls this being Turing'd).

When I graduated from college, Ottawa County did not have a GIS Department. In many ways, the department is still in its infancy, but the field of professional GIS could be heading into old age already. That's why I working a back-up: speculative fiction. Not much to hang your hat on, but I do enjoy it.


On the day Arthur C. Clarke is remembered (via Instapundit), this tantalizing announcement is made. Every day, we move closer to uncovering the truth: we are only one node in the vast system of life.

The End of the Beginning?

I consider myself to generally be an optimist, but there are times where optimism can't be blind to the facts. I fear that the Bear-Stearns collapse may only be the end of the beginning rather than the beginning of the end.

One commonly-mentioned facet of the US economy is that it is driven primarily by consumer-spending. One commonly-mentioned aspect of modern consumers is that they are drowning in debt. Now, it appears that era of ignoring the debt and confidently continuing spending is over. As a result, the economy could be in for a seriously long-term struggle.

When you read a statistics like the one below, you begin to understand the predicament we are in:

Over the last seven years, every new job that has been created has resulted in
$1.8 million of new public- and private-sector debt. That's obviously not
sustainable. That's way too inefficient. It used to be about 50 cents of new
debt was required to generate $1 in gross-domestic-product growth. Now it's
$9 for $1 of GDP growth.

This is from an interview in Wired with investor Eric Janszen, who recently wrote in Harper's about the decline of the financial, real estate, and insurance markets as the bedrock of the American economy. Janszen offers a plan: invest in clean energy (even nuclear). I would agree, if I were an investor. I would also bet on biotechnology and nanotechnology.

But, at the Singularity Summit last fall, PayPal founder Peter Thiel presented an interesting theory about the volatile boom & bust cycles of the past thirty years. He explains (his presentation is available on iTunes) that the due to our technological innovations markets we should expect that the markets would be less volatile and more predictable. Instead, we have had the exact opposite.

He said that this is a reasonable outcome of the markets trying to anticipate the ultimate singularity, when ever-increasing value will be possible and investors will not want to miss on that. Thiel states that one of these booms will eventually pan out as the singularity or it will signal the end of the world. He suggests that we should anticipate many more cycles of boom & bust leading up to the singularity and the next cycle will not be easy to predict.

Technology is changing the rules and the technological change continues. Nobody knows anything.

Militant Democratization

No, this is not an Iraq post (However, I will point out a concise defense of the effort by Christopher Hitchens here). It is a post about a extremely intriguing new music software which will, as Alex Ross describes it, "allows you to enter into a recorded track, separate out notes within chords, and change them at will." An impressive demonstration is provided here.

I view this as yet another development toward the militant democratization of music and the obliteration of the notions of talent and authorship as we had previously understood them. At one time, in order to create music, you had to have an ability, a physical ability to play or sing. In addition, you had to be able to read music and understand music theory to compose complex pieces. This is patently no longer the case. Now, the only thing that is required is a mental inclination toward music, the right technology, and the capability to use it.

This is not to say that the classic sense of talent is inconsequential. It is just that suddenly that the pool of potentially worth-while music-makers will continue to expand and that their amount of raw material has suddenly increased significantly.

It is very unlikely that you could sit just anyone before a piano and have them play Liszt or compose a Liszt-like piece. It is also doubtful that they could come up with something interesting. However, it far more likely that you could sit someone in front of a computer and that they might come up with something intriguing and also take a Lizst piece and remix it. Now, they will not be able to remix it, but adjust it, revise it. Note-for-note. As Glenn Reynolds might say, bring it on.

As Constant as the Wind

Here in West Michigan, there has been a lot of rumblings lately about the potential of wind power.

I'm not sure the public has entirely caught on to how soon we could be seeing companies making serious proposals for relatively large wind projects. I am also uncertain how prepared local governments are to tackle the issue from an ordinance standpoint. I do know from experience that many local officials do not like cell towers. Any proposals that are made at the local level may encounter resistance or delays as local governments try to play regulatory catch-up or deny the concept altogether based on aesthetic concerns.

I am proponent of alternative energy solutions (I am bullish on the future of solar) as well as expanded use of nuclear energy, but I am also a proponent of making informed decisions. On Wired , Bruce Sterling highlights some of the risks of wind power that I have not seen addressed often regarding wind power, especially the danger of overloading the grid. My advice to local officials reviewing these proposals is to start asking questions about power overloads during high wind events. I'd be interested to hear if these companies have something in place.


An intriguing post from the National Weather Service regarding icebergs in Lake Michigan (some great graphics too.) (Via Instapundit).

A Practical Crisis

Ham Radio. Computing. Woodcraft. Homemade Electronics. Photography. Model Trains. Model Ship Building. This is a list of the many hobbies in which my grandfather immersed himself. Not only did he have many hobbies, but he was accomplished at quite of few. He knew how to work with his hands and how to build things. When my dad was young, he built his own speakers. My uncle is serious model plane maker.

I've always admired my grandfather's enthusiasm for these hobbies. However, I never picked up on his ability to work with his hands. I am a poor craftsman and have less of a knowledge of the tech I use than I'd like. I am also concerned that my children may find themselves even farther removed from the hands-on. This is a serious problem.

In Wired, Clive Thompson crystallizes this issue in this article about the loss of hands-on skills. According to Thompson, this skill gap is resulting in a paucity of innovation. Instead of creating a technical work-around to improve gas mileage, we use a theoretical approach. He also relates this problem to the lack of concern about our crumbling infrastructure. If we had a better understanding of how the world works - how bridges and roads can decay - we might be more worried about it (Related post here).

However, he also writes about a nascent movement to return to our technical roots. He points to Make magazine as an example. I would also point to the popularity of the Lego Mindstorms as another example. The Mindstorms is an awesome toy, helping to teach both mechanical and programming skills (which we also lack link).

As I posted before, I've started to try to do my part to address this. However, I am somewhat hampered in my ability to teach my sons how to get hands-on because my skills are so underdeveloped. We are learning together.

Transparency Two: Street View

To add to the discussion of the Transparent Society I started on this blog earlier, I wanted to comment on Google Street View, the technology which allows you to simulate walking or driving down a city street and seeing what exactly is around you through a series of interwoven photos.

Microsoft also has this technology and is working acquiring street views of cities all around the country. I work in GIS at the county level and utilize remote sensing technology (digital photos and LiDAR) on a daily basis. As I mentioned previously, GIS technologies are accelerating rapidly and I believe in a few years most people will be shocked by our ability to model the real world.

Google and Microsoft have completely changed the equation in the field of GIS and the ability of the public to access remote sensing technology (including digital photos, oblique photos, and street view photos). However, once people realized what Google had created with Street View, a few people were not happy. The interesting thing about this reaction is that people were concerned only once these photos became available to the public.

Rather than harming privacy though, Google is performing a great public service. These photos are also being resold to the government and being used by corporations. The same with the bird's eye view on Virtual Earth (this is oblique imagery). Yet, people do not seem as concerned with the government having it as with Google publishing it.

In the future, governments and corporations will possess and exploit this technology. Why should they be the only ones with access to it? The first best use of this technology is to model, understand, and explore our world. However, the technology will also be utilized in perverse ways. Public privacy is better served if everyone can see what is available and not just the government and corporations.

(Of course, Google has a history of reneging on the idea of free access to this information when confronted by the government. Here is a recent example. In the military's defense, it doesn't help anyone if there is street view of American bases but not any other country's).


David Brin writes in Wired today a response to critique of his book The Transparent Society, in which Brin posits that "its argument that freedom is best served when all citizens have enough knowledge to hold each other reciprocally accountable."

I agree with Brin on this point. In the critique, Bruce Scheier highlights a potential problem with a Transparent Society, that not all transparency is equal. Those with power can wield your information much more efficiently against you than you can wield it over them. As examples, he mentions a traffic stop and a visit to the doctor's office where the police officer had much more information about you than you do about the police officer.

I think though that this is changing significantly and both doctors and police are not necessarily happy about it. For example, it is much easier to access solid medical information and research and be able to ask informed questions of your doctor. There is no longer a blind trust. In addition, there are now doctor-rating sites in the vein of the teacher and professor sites. (a police themed site was recently disabled by GoDaddy). Also, the police are very uncomfortable with the idea of being videotaping, as the Instapundit has highlighted.

These developments are on the whole a positive. But Scheier is also concerned about the fate of citizen to citizen privacy. Brin writes:

Attacking a caricature of my position, Scheier suggests that transparency would end
privacy, making everyone walk around naked. It does take some mental flexibility
to realize how a generally open society will be privacy friendly. But it was a
generally open society that invented modern privacy.

Again, I agree with Brin. In some ways, the open society is already here and it is happening amongst the current up-and-coming generation of Internet users. The values of conventional privacy are being tossed aside willingly. People are letting Big Brother right through the front door, but we are not in dystopia.

At a TED talk, Larry Lessig mentions that today's children are growing up with no conception of intellectual property. The same is true of privacy. In both cases, there are definite drawbacks, including the idea that not everyone in your life may appreciate your openness.

However, as more people willingly expose their lives to the Internet, we are realizing that the bulk of most of people's life is rather boring, but that other things are surprisely interesting. Who wants to wade through the dreck to get to the good bits? If we imagine everyone doing this, you would realize that almost no one would care. On the other hand, we have found that there is a much larger spectrum of thought and views than media had previously presented us with.

Along this extreme, you realize that if all your secrets are out, then it becomes difficult for any one to use them against you (You could call this the Clinton Theory). Of course, this would assume a free, liberal society where you would not be prosecuted for what you think and say. Also, this type of thinking has worked on the Internet to a point, because when people do say things beyond the pale they risk being ostracized, not by the government, but by their peers. Freedom of thought and speech does not mean freedom from consequences.

As Brin states, this could help protect privacy, in the sense that while much of your life is public, your can still live your life privately from the government, from corporations, etc. Also, from other citizens, in a kind of MAD strategy. You have bombs, I have bombs. If we launch, we are all destroyed. Maybe, we should not launch them.

In addition, we should not only be cautious about restrictions on freedom, but also about false transparency or half-transparency. In a society where we are accustomed to sharing more and more information, there is an incredible urge by large organizations to filter or edit the information and say "we are being transparent." In the long run, this could be a greater threat than all-out fascism.

On-Line Telescope Arms Race

When I was in college, I purchased the Red Shift program, which featured a nifty model of the sky with information about many of the shiny dots in space. I even utilized the model to determine the make-up of the night sky for a location I was using in a book I was writing (I finished writing the book (working title: Sparkwood and 21) about eight years ago. I now plan to publish it unedited on the Web. There is a lot of fun stuff in it, but a lot of unfortunate stuff too. I am working on something much more intense and focused now. I hope to finish it this year with a first draft, but I don't have much time to work on it, so its slow-going but fun).

Technology has changed significantly since Red Shift, but I don't think the improvements of these sky models are quite there yet. Google Sky, Stellarium, and the Sloan Digital Sky Survey on NASA World Wind are fun, but incomplete. They are not as intuitive and transformative as their Earth-bound counterparts.

However, we may on the cusp of a breakthrough. At TED, Microsoft previewed the Worldwide Telescope. The presentation did not floor me, but I read here that it will utilize the Photosynth technology (related links here and here). This adds the promise of 3D views of some of these space objects, which could revolutionize desktop astronomy viewing. I'll be looking forward to its release.

The Curious Case of Human Morality

In the post below, I referenced a Fresh Air interview with Richard Dawkins. While I found him very interesting and compelling, I was disappointed when he fumbled the question of whether evolution is poorly compatible with a sense of morality. I've had debates with friends in which they have claimed that we have been imbued by God with morality and without a basic gut feeling of right and wrong, a divine moral compass, we would devolve into a murderous animistic chaos.

Dawkins response to this was convoluted. He stated that it was an accident of evolution. It was an advantage to treat those in our tribe justly and to fear the others. However, as time progressed, the tribe became larger and larger and the other has become smaller and smaller. Thus, we treated nearly everyone like members of the tribe. I find this utterly unconvincing.

I think a more sensible evolutionary explanation is the development of logic and reasoning by humans, which has allowed us to achieve many great things as well as provide an amazing survival advantage. Once reasoning is achieved, morality follows. If you want to have a civilized and operating society which benefits everyone and maximizes survival, there are certain logical rules that we all generally agree upon. Murdering someone feels wrong not because God inserted this feeling in our gut, it feels wrong because permitting murder does not make sense. Things that do not make sense generally make me queasy. This includes murder, some quantum physics, and belief in the supernatural.

Morality is not accident, it is also not dependent of God (in a raucous takedown, Christopher Hitchens shows here that the Ten Commandments are incomplete and have no monopoly of moral thought). It is an evolved trait, one that will help perpetuate the species.

Bonus link: As this TED presentation, Steve Pinker provides a compelling history demonstrating that humanity is becoming less violent with time, despite the doom and gloom about the current time.

Tempest in Hudsonville

It has been an interesting year and a half for Atheism and secularism. The publications of books by Richard Dawkins (here) and Christopher Hitchens (here and here) received considerable media attention. The Pew Forum for Religion and Public Life made a splash with its survey showing that many Americans are drifting away from traditional organized religion (a trend which our church has benefited from).

Even in our little corner of the world here in West Michigan, the Freedom from Religion Foundation has caused a stir by attacking the City of Hudsonville for including a reference to God in its mission statement, leading to a thorough review by the Grand Rapids Press of the prevalence of religion in local government in the area.

As a former reporter, I have attended many local government meetings and witnessed many invocations and references to God before board meetings, planning commissions, and even some of the most mundane and sparsely attended committee meetings. I was slightly surprised at first because this is government. However, I was also not too shocked because this is West Michigan and religion is deeply rooted here.

Today, I listened to this interview with Richard Dawkins from March 2007 that re-aired on Fresh Air last week. He spoke very eloquently about the ways in science provides a superior and far more fascinating explanation of the universe than you would find in the Bible or other religious texts (Although my minister, Ian Lawton, writes a nice article explaining that religion
and science serve complementary purposes). Dawkins also explains that Einstein described himself as a "deeply, religious non-believer." That is how I would characterize myself, as an Atheist who finds something very spiritual about the vastness and intricacies of the universe.

I would also say that I am not as militant as Christopher Hitchens, who would rather see no religion. I respect that others have religion, I just have no capacity for faith in the supernatural. That being said, I have never run into much trouble for holding these views and found that people here in West Michigan are respectful and very willing engage you on this topic and hear you out.

This brings me to the meat of this post: my problem with the Freedom from Religion Foundation's (FFRF) attack on the City of Hudsonville. Although I would prefer it if local government did not have such blatant expressions of faith here in West Michigan, I think its a deeply-held and generally harmless tradition. There is not a slow ineffable creep toward theocracy here. Generally, the prayers ask for guidance in decision-making. There are not pleas that non-believers repent or convert. Also, no laws or special privileges. are being given. This is also not the same as prayer in school, where minors are compelled into a moment of silence and the chances for ostracism are much higher if you forgo participation (All this is not to say that communities in West Michigan have a totally spotless record of tolerance and standing for free thought. In 2000, Zeeland Public Schools became infamous for attacking Harry Potter).

Hudsonville mission statement is an easy target and the consequences are minor. However, I would be much more impressed if the FFRF was going after Harvard for instituting a gender segregation policy to accomdate muslim students (link here also Instapundit links here, here, and here). As far as I can tell, the FFRF has not taken a stand on this.

Superbugs: Why are Virulent Strains of Anti-Science so Hard to Shake?

In a previous post, I discussed why Americans are unhappy with health care. It is a problem that could lead to a potentially catastrophic solution (nationalized health care). But, I think the health care problem may be related to an even more troubling phenomenon: the worldwide suspicion/distrust of science.

A possible tipping point in this trend came last week in the Hannah Polling case, in which the government conceded that:
In sum, DVIC has concluded that the facts of this case meet the statutory
criteria for demonstrating that the vaccinations CHILD received on July 19,
2000, significantly aggravated an underlying mitochondrial disorder, which
predisposed her to deficits in cellular energy metabolism, and manifested as
a regressive encephalopathy with features of autism spectrum disorder.
Therefore, respondent recommends that compensation be awarded to petitioners
in accordance with 42 U.S.C. § 300aa-11(c)(1)(C)(ii).

Many have trumpeted this as a turning point in the battle to prove that vaccines cause Autism (See this link for militantly anti-Vaccine Web site). John McCain also endorsed the idea (see earlier post and this link). There is, fortunately, plenty of solid response posts to the Polling case and the McCain issue, including a well-done round-up of the Polling case from Respectful Insolence (post here via Instapundit and Volokh Conspiracy).

My question is how did we arrive at this point? There is a growing body of science which disputes the vaccine connection and there a fair amount of circumstantial evidence that Autism has genetic origins. Why are we still debating this?

There are numerous factors, but one major factor is that there is a credibility gap in science and medicine. It's related to the old cliche that "Friends come and go, but enemies accumulate." People have a long memory for scientific failures, but a short memory for achievements. The ravages of science and technology receives the most attention while the staggering achievements of science and medicine as run-of-the-mill or possible curses in disguise.

There have been major failures. For instance, the science of child-birth and breastfeeding in the mid-20th century was woefully wrong, misguided, arrogant, and sexist. In the case of breastfeedingm, it took modern medicine only a single generation to nearly wipe-out a practice that had been very successful for millions of years. Fortunately, better science has prevailed and breast-feeding is now mainstream. But, that is the beauty of science, better science will prevail.

Skeptism about science has been exasperated by poor science reporting, poor marketing, and poor decision-making in the private sector, including hype surrounding the often contradictory science of nutrition (eggs are bad for you, eggs are good for you), the prevalence of anti-bacterial products and over-sanitation, and the botched introduction of genetically-modified foods.

While these failures have cost lives and injury, caused environmental degradation, and caused general confusion, they should not overshadow the achievements of science. Before the advent of modern science, infant mortality was high, life expectancy was lower, many people succumbed to diseases which have been wiped out. We have made amazing strides in these areas and we are on the cusp of many, many more. This is an unequivocal societal good.

I think few people feel this way. Many people believe that science is co-opted by profit and greed, that we were better off when we were "closer to the Earth," and that they can find better answers and treatments from the alternative or peripheral community. The problem with investing emotional and mentally in the alternative community is while they provide a correct every once in awhile, they far more often led people down a false path. For every Dr. Bradley, there are far more Dr. Nicks. Many studies are not peer-reviewed, or when they are disputed, the scientists behind them continue to promote their views despite the evidence. True, good, and well-done science can be proven wrong and will yield to even better science. Somehow, poorly done science on the periphery seems to linger. For this, there is not yet a vaccination.

Paleobiology = Extinct Creationists

One of the small pleasures in life is encountering an article that is a complete game-changer. What I am referring is the rare article which provides information so new and surprising that it revolutionizes your understanding of the world, if only in a small way.

I came across such an article last December in the New Yorker. Michael Specter's story "Darwin's Surprise," explains the burgeoning field of Paleovirology, in which biologists study evolution utilizing gene remnants of viruses inserted over the past millions years into our genome. In some cases, scientists have been able to locate the virus genes in the human genome (virus code is numerous in our DNA) and utilize them to reassemble and resurrect long extinct viruses.

These scientists believe that viruses have played a major role in our evolution. Specter also posits that their existence in our genome is a sort of smoking gun proving evolution. The money graph:

"Darwin’s theory makes sense, though, only if humans share most of those
viral fragments with relatives like chimpanzees and monkeys. And we do, in
thousands of places throughout our genome. If that were a coincidence, humans
and chimpanzees would have had to endure an incalculable number of identical
viral infections in the course of millions of years, and then, somehow, those
infections would have had to end up in exactly the same place within each
genome. The rungs of the ladder of human DNA consist of three billion pairs of
nucleotides spread across forty-six chromosomes. The sequences of those
nucleotides determine how each person differs from another, and from all other
living things. The only way that humans, in thousands of seemingly random
locations, could possess the exact retroviral DNA found in another species is by
inheriting it from a common ancestor."

The science behind this is so unlikely, so sophisticated that it nearly defies belief. For that reason, it lends an otherworldly quality to the tie between our genes and evolution. There are demons in our DNA and if you don't believe there we can conjure them up to show you.

Through our DNA we can peer back in time, like a telescope or a soil sample. But unlike these, our DNA is a time machine for hibernating viruses, awaiting the proper technology to awake and attack the doubters of evolution.

Green Future

The Long Now Blog links to the results of the History Channels City of the Future contest. Intriguingly, the featured projects are noticeably integrated with nature and with green technologies. Personally, I'm enamored with the green integration concept and have been for quite awhile. Green roofs for stormwater runoff just makes too much sense. I'm proud to say that one this country's pioneering green buildings is located here in Ottawa County.

During our recent trip to Disney World, one of the more interesting rides at Epcot was Living with the Land. The end of the ride was a tour through an experimental greenhouse, which also serves as a food source for the park. Some of the plants in the greenhouse were quite impressive (see the Beets photos we took above). Maybe a Green Acres in the city is not too far-fetched.

Oil Prices Tipping Point?

Today, the Instapundit provided a link to this discussion of speculative oil trading driving prices beyond their true market value. On All Things Considered, NPR also had this story about the same issue. I would be getting nervous as an oil investor, the psychology might be shifting in the wrong direction. The upside could be falling gas prices, the downside could be all the pension funds which have poured money into oil. If pension funds can drive up prices so furiously, it makes me wonder about the wisdom of allowing pension funds to invest so freely in the market.

Energy Update

Wired posted this article regarding a company, Ausra, which claims that it could power 90 percent of the US grid using current solar panel technology, 9,600 square miles, and yet-to-be invented 16-hour power storage technology.

Ausra also states in the article that it can generate power at prices competitive with natural gas power generation. The key obstacle to solar is its cost efficiency, but, if this is true, possibly not for long.

Futurist Ray Kurzweil is bullish on solar, recently making this predection:
"We also see an exponential progression in the use of solar energy," he
said. "It is doubling now every two years. Doubling every two years means
multiplying by 1,000 in 20 years. At that rate we'll meet 100 percent of our
energy needs in 20 years." (Link)

Just under 10,000 square miles doesn't seem like much of a problem. In a few years, even less land will me required. If you supplemented solar with clean technologies like nuclear you could avoid having to invent 16-hour storage.

Obviously, there are other obstacles. I also wonder about the security risks of solar power. We would to ensure that it is sufficiently distributed and redundant. Those fields of panels just feel more vulnerable than the typical coal-fired plant.

There has been talk of a revolution for so long, but it seems we are getting closer to the real thing. Oil prices are the critical factor. While the current gas prices are painful, they may be our best hope for eliminating the need for oil. As Amory Lovins has noted when discussing the decline of whaling oil as a fuel source in the 19th century, "The whalers were astounded that they ran out of customers before they ran out of whales." (Link)

Tweaking the Drake Equation

I think that Craig Venter may go down as the most important scientist of the late 20th/early 21st century. He has made breath-taking discoveries and advances in biology over the last ten years and these achievements continue to pile up. Last month, he gave a fascinating lecture to the Long Now Foundation which provides an overview of his latest science, including the discovery of incredibly staggering amounts of new species in the Earth's oceans and the first successful creation of artificial life.

His science is both exquisite and simple and its implications are jaw-dropping and cosmic. Over the last twenty years, discoveries have continued to mount regarding the tenacity and ubiquity of life on Earth. It thrives everywhere and in every extremity of condition. Scientists anticipate that they may even find life in ancient subsurface lakes in Anarctica and are currently exploring ways to obtain water samples.

Our conception of life has grown expotentially in a very short time and it appears that life will continue to surprise us with its capacity to survive. For me, we have reached a tipping point. These discoveries provide overwhelming evidence that life on Earth is likely not unique.

We now know that our solar system is far from unique, that our galaxy is likely teeming with planets, many with surprising and previously unimagined properities and configurations. We now know that our planet is teeming with life of tremendous variety, permeating in places we never before imagined.

Planets are everywhere. Life is everywhere on our planet. The numbers favor life on other planets more and more each day. The only questions that remain are when we will discover proof of this and whether we will survive in order to make this discovery.

Music Recommendation

There are few things more thrilling than making a blind commitment to large collection of music without previously hearing a note of it. Over my time as an avid music consumer, I have had the opportunity to do this a few times. One such occasion was my purchase nearly ten years ago of Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk. It's a gift that continues to pay dividends.

Just recently one of the small joys of it has been exposing my sons to the music, which seems exotic and strange to them. It contains many unique voices to them, which elicits hearty giggles from the boys. I'm hoping that the music will stick over the long-term.

(Another benefit of digital music. Its not just portable, its also an inheritance. They will start off at a young age with a vast and varied music collection that I could have only dreamed of. It's not just that they have access at home, but that they will be able to take it with them and explore).

This collection has grown so much on me over the years and contains many surprises, from the near-fossil versions of cultural staples (Stackolee) to songs with historical richness (Charles Giteau and When that Big Ship Went Down). It's a worthwhile investment.

Old news, but still worth a comment

Here's a post I did not have a chance to get to a few weeks back:

In Charles Stross's amazing sci-fi work Accelerando, a Muslim cleric is sent into space. He is sent there to apply Islamic law. In order to retrieve a disobedient daughter, one of the characters (a non-muslim) appeals to the cleric to apply the law. This sequence strikes me as at once ludricious and also depressingly realistic.

The lesson for me is that humans will attempt to apply theological law well into the future and that some humans will cynically appeal to this law when it is convenient.

Which brings me to the case of Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who recently stated that he believes that the application of a separate Sharia-based law is inevitable in Great Britain. Christopher Hitchens provides a taut condemnation. The Instapundit provides links to commentary to here. One of the commentaries, provided by Jimmy Bradshaw, states that part of Williams motivation is that he hopes to pave the way for a separate Christian court. I feel both a sense of belief and disbelief that things have reached this point.

To imagine a day where Sharia law might seriously be contemplated in England seems nearly surreal. On the other hand that is the state of things in Europe.
This is often the point where the War on Terror is misunderstood, that we are engaging in a struggle of one religious ideology against another. However, it should be viewed as the struggle of global secularism vs. regional, radical traditionalism. More than ever, more people are free to say what they think, believe what they want, go where they wish, and associate and conduct their lives as they wish. This is more and more true for not just white men, but for men and women of all races.

Rationalism and scientific thought have been a major contributor to this growing freedom and as well as civil society in general, but it is not surprising that at many points virulent anti-rationalism would re-emerge and try to pull us back to the dark ages. With freedom, there is uncertainty. Without an absolute "moral" foundation, you are responsible for deciding for what is wrong and right. Some people do not like uncertainty and they do not like to decide for themselves.
As a result, we have radicals attacking skyscrapers, plotting the death of cartoonists (link here), and Christian archbishops supporting the imposition of Islamic law.

I do not think that the Archbishop's comment mark the end of this of foolishness, but it is a sign of things to come.

The Maverick

Cosmic Variance posts on John McCain's statement that there is strong evidence that thimerosal is responsible for the increased rate of Autism in America. While I don't know yet whether McCain is anti-science in the way of Bush II, I think this is certainly related to his "maverick" streak. It is likely that McCain will take many more of these kind of bold positions in the coming months.

However, I think this will probably be a positive for many people, possibly even among independent voters. I think many people are skeptical of science, or like to buy into the under-science (such as science that tells us we are secretly being poisoned with Diet Coke or something like that). They don't see this as McCain being an anti-science idiot, but a brave free-thinker.

I also think this may be also be at the root of McCain's problem with conservatives, his recklessly self-righteous. This is a case where some caution is a good thing. He may have given a legitimacy boost to a movement that rightfully should be fading in the face of good science. All this from the experienced, elder statesman.

Meijer's Versatile Canvas Bags

A few months ago, we started using Meijer's reusable shopping bags, which they sell for $0.99. They also have similar bags at Target. We have found them very usual for other things, especially travel. They are a superb product.

There is a lots of web discussion about these types of bags. In this article, Meijer claims the bags are somewhat popular. Anecdotely, I've seen probably ten percent adoption rates at the stores. I think this will climb significantly over the next year.

I have to imagine that there have been earilier attempts at bringing reusable shopping bags to market. The question is why are they just now reaching the tipping point? While aised "green consciouness" is probably a factor, I think something else is going on. It's related to design (Virginia Postrel outlines the importance of aesthetics and product design in her book The Substance of Style). The bags are very sturdy, but they are also visually appealing and easy to use.

I think once the right design was hit on, the rest was simple. Find the right price point, place them at the front of the store and they sell themselves.

UPDATE: The bags are not canvas, but are made from recycled plastic bags.

A Fun New Video

It's rare (for me at least) to encounter a good music video these days, but this Erykah Badu video is one of the most fun and original I've seen in awhile. Having worked in a music store, it brought back some good memories. It also reminded me of some of my favorite parody album covers. Here's a classic that I never get tired of: