A-to-Z Challenge Day Twenty: Transcendence and Transhumanism

April 23, 2014 Leave a comment

Lately I’ve found science fiction movies and television to be largely disappointing. Star Trek Into Darkness was a letdown (and I’ll get into that at some later time). Almost Human was a HUGE disappointment and has left me feeling empty inside for all of the hope I had it wouldn’t be another vacuous JJ Abrams project (it was–I’ll get into that in another post, perhaps, someday when I talk more about artificial intelligence and whatnot).

So I put a little bit of faith in the movie Transcendence to not, well, completely disappoint. I haven’t actually seen the movie yet, but I have read some reviews that have given me pause.

The one that, I think, bears the most relevance for now is by Derek at SF Signal. In the review, Derek writes:

As with most technothrillers, Transcendence dares to ask Important Questions — What is the nature of the human? What happens when the quest for knowledge becomes a quest for power? — but, as with most technothrillers, very quickly devolves into a series of chases, forgetting its loftier aims.

It raises important questions! But…it doesn’t really offer any introspection to lead us to answers, it sounds. This is exactly what I was hoping wouldn’t happen. So, let me issue a preemptive sigh and move on to what I hoped the movie would be about.

Well, I can say that I hoped that it would raise those questions. But I want to list some of the questions that I had hoped would be addressed.

  1. What is the nature of humanity?
  2. What is the nature of consciousness?
  3. Is identity static or plastic?
  4. If a human mind is uploaded into a machine, will it maintain its humanity?

This is a movie that is, obviously, steeped in transhumanism. Mind-uploading is a very interesting idea on the frontiers of science and philosophy, and one that I find endlessly fascinating. Can a human being whose mind has been transferred to a computer or a machine maintain his perspective and identity as a human, or is it something fundamentally different? I don’t know the answer to that, but I had hoped that Transcendence would give an honest look at it without reducing itself to the standard technothriller formula.

So what is transhumanism anyway? This is how Wikipedia defines it:

Transhumanism (abbreviated as H+ or h+) is an international cultural and intellectual movement with an eventual goal of fundamentally transforming the human condition by developing and making widely available technologies to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities.

The movement itself raises the question about what makes a human. For instance, is there a line between a real, natural human and something that was once a human but is no longer? If we upload a mind to a computer and we give it a synthetic, but realistic earth-like living condition will it maintain its humanity? And if we let it control its existence within the digital environment how will it change?

How can we handle the ethical debates of transhumanism and its many tenets? I would first argue that we’d need to have a lot more transhumanist innovations before we could actually really begin to talk about the ethics. Cybernetics are a good step, and we have a lot of modern examples of those. So will there be a point where a human being can replace their internal organs and limbs with fully-functional and realistic prosthetics that we have a hard time defining them as human?

So, I suppose that I shall have to watch it, take some notes, and then give a review about what happened in the movie. Will it fall victim to the kind of technophobia that tends to run through a lot of technothrillers and make artificial life or new ideas seem terrible? Or will it instead give it a dispassionate view of the subject matter that will leave the audience with a new appreciation of the topics of transhumanism and mind-uploading?

Based on Derek’s review I’m not hopeful for a positive outcome.

A-to-Z Challenge Day Nineteen: Starfleet Standard Issue Kilts

April 22, 2014 Leave a comment

It’s all pursuant to Starfleet Dress Code Regulations.

Starfleet from Star Trek is…well, it exists as sort of a conundrum in science fiction. It’s definitely a militaristic organization that expands humanity’s reach in the galaxy (perhaps even through colonialism). The Constitution Class Enterprise NCC-1701 is classified as a heavy cruiser, a name which hints at its nature as an armed vessel.

But Starfleet, as exemplified by the Enterprise, is also a flotilla of peace and mercy. They provide assistance and aid to people in need, often without consideration of their political loyalties. The crew of the ship is allowed to follow their passions and their beliefs, and they have remarkable freedom of self-expression (so long as it doesn’t conflict with their duties and the chain-of-command).

So how are we supposed to think about Starfleet? Well, it depends on the context. The Federation is, first and foremost, a true eutopia. The problems that we often see with The Federation (apart from some very rare events) come from without: the Klingons, the Romulans, the Dominion, and all of these other threats constantly clash against the Federation’s idealism. And, really, the Federation should be seen, in total, as a civilization that thrives in a post-scarcity economy. There isn’t any need for money, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t material wealth. It means that all of the basic necessities of life, like shelter, food, medicine, education, and so on are provided as a basic right to everyone.

Starfleet is an extension of the Federation, obviously, to keep the peace and to transfer wealth, food, and medicine through space. Naturally, with all of these external threats, they need to protect themselves and their borders. The entire galaxy is not the Federation, and as we can see, the Federation expands its territories and influence by inducting new worlds into the fold. In some ways it mirrors colonialism, which is probably intentional. Is there a good kind of colonialism? I think that’s a question that Star Trek seeks to explore in a post-scarcity, democratic society.

It’s why we see Starfleet exemplifying the Federation’s most virtuous aspects as well as some of its less virtuous aspects. Multiculturalism, tolerance, respect, and equality are just basic ideas that the crew aboard the Enterprise practices every episode. However, because of the antagonism with the Klingons, we see some attitudes which border on racism from other areas within the Federation and Starfleet.

Remember in the episode “The Trouble with Tribbles” when the station manager contacts Captain Kirk on the Enterprise? He says something like, “The station is being swarmed by Klingons!”

Kirk quipped, “I wasn’t aware that twelve Klingons constitutes a swarm.”

While it is true that the Klingons are aggressive and have a reputation for violence, the attitude of the station manager betrays a kind of bigotry. Kirk, on the other hand, exemplifies the better attitudes of the Federation, even as he continues to let the Klingons on the station for shore leave when there is a fight between the Starfleet officers and the Klingons.

Kirk isn’t always in the right, however. In the episode “Arena,” Kirk wants to use the Enterprise to annihilate the Gorn, responsible for the destruction of a Federation colony on a  planet that could have encroached upon Gorn territory. This, I think, represents the other side of the Federation’s power: destruction. But more than that, it demonstrates the humanness of Kirk. While humanity and human society may have evolved past our current limitations, we still have some intrinsic emotional qualities that compel bad action.

Anyway, I’d like to expand on this later, when I’m not writing for a blogging challenge and can develop this idea a bit more thoroughly. I’m pretty sure I can make it more cogent.

Pretty sure.

A-to-Z Challenge Day Eighteen: Running

April 21, 2014 Leave a comment

No, I’m not talking about jogging, sprinting, or dashing. I’m talking about running for a public office in an election. I’ve been doing my homework on the issues that are affecting the 93rd Congressional District and the State of Michigan, and I’ve been compiling information in a binder to keep it organized.

This is the easy part; the part I’m good at. I can absorb and synthesize information at a quick rate. The tricky part is going to be the campaigning. I enjoy meeting new people and talking with them, and part of the reason I decided to do this was so that I could get more involved with local issues. So I’ll be knocking on doors and going to public festivals in the district and hopefully participating in rallies with other Democratic candidates as the election draws near.

I would be remiss if I didn’t think that my stance on religion was going to be a bit of an issue. It has been suggested that I hide it because the implication is that a non-believer is somehow not worthy of being elected to an office. But this betrays a rather important ethic for me: honesty. If asked, I would answer honestly and detail my position, and listen to what anyone had to say on it.

I’m always willing to be convinced I’m wrong, and I will admit when I have been convinced so. And this applies to anything: religion, epistemology, politics, philosophy, morals, ethics, art–everything. I’m not as knowledgeable on all of these topics as I would like to be, but I try to hold my own.

So I’m going to be honest: I won’t hide anything pertinent to this run. My politics: liberal-leaning with some conservatism. I come from a family with a history in labor. My grandfather worked at GM and my father was employed at Woolhert (I can’t remember how it is spelled, I was very young) before the factory closed. I am very sympathetic to collective bargaining and the ability of workers to unionize. I was not impressed with the way that the Michigan State Legislature passed the right-to-work legislation, and even less impressed with the law itself.

I also believe that the government doesn’t have any business getting involved with people’s private lives. I, along with many of my friends, celebrated Judge Bernard Friedman’s decision overturning Michigan’s ban on same-sex marriage. I’ve read his decision (which can be found here) and found it to be conservative and very well-reasoned in nature. The State produced a surprisingly weak defense with a few of their witnesses being dismissed. I await the appeals decision, hoping the ruling is upheld.

From one point of view it can be seen that this is overturning the “will of the voters.” To that I say that our government is a Constitutional Republic. It protects the rights of minorities against possible oppression by a majority, so that rights can’t be voted away or denied. As our history has shown us, this isn’t a perfect system. Systemic oppression of minorities has occurred in our history. One of the most visible instances is Jim Crow. If we are truly law-abiding, then we have to acknowledge that Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution clearly says that

No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

That’s pretty powerful and intentional wording.

Study after study after study shows that homosexual parents raise children that are equal to the children raised by heterosexual parents. The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychology states that

Current research shows that children with gay and lesbian parents do not differ from children with heterosexual parents in their emotional development or in their relationships with peers and adults. It is important for parents to understand that it is the the quality of the parent/child relationship and not the parent’s sexual orientation that has an effect on a child’s development.

There is very little or no convincing data which shows that children of homosexual parents are in any way disadvantaged by their parents’ sexual orientation.

As with everything, my approach to these issues is based on honest observation of the data. And the data says that homosexual parents raise good kids. Denying homosexual couples with children the right to marry is therefore harmful to the families because it removes the stabilizing element that marriage has on child-rearing.

I also support raising the minimum wage. Look, I’ve been there. When I first started working in high school I made $6.00 an hour. It sometimes barely covered the expense of fueling my vehicle, but it was good to have money for lunch and help my parents while I could. Now, however, I see news that the people who fill these minimum wage jobs are trying to raise families. I can’t even imagine how they try to do that on $7.40 an hour. Further complicating this is the difficulty in finding full-time employment, and thus creating a need for finding multiple jobs.

According to the CBO, the number of workers estimated to be displaced from their jobs if the minimum wage is raised to $10.10 would be 500,000. However, the CBO report further states:

Of those workers who will earn up to $10.10 under current law, most—about 16.5 million, according to CBO’s estimates—would have higher earnings during an average week in the second half of 2016 if the $10.10 option was implemented.

Is it possible that raising the minimum wage would result in lost jobs? Yes, it is. But it seems that the benefits outweigh the potential downsides. However, the report notes that these things are notoriously difficult to predict. I can imagine that a similar argument was made when they raised the minimum wages previously.

Paul Krugman, a Nobel laureate in economics, disagrees with the CBO’s findings. In an op-ed column he lays out several good reasons to raise the minimum wage (focusing on a $9 an hour figure with subsequent increases to match inflation), writing that

the current level of the minimum wage is very low by any reasonable standard. For about four decades, increases in the minimum wage have consistently fallen behind inflation, so that in real terms the minimum wage is substantially lower than it was in the 1960s. Meanwhile, worker productivity has doubled.”

He asks, “Isn’t it time for a raise?” And I say yes, yes it is time for a raise. Krugman further writes that “the great preponderance of the evidence from these natural experiments points to little if any negative effect of minimum wage increases on employment.” If true, then raising the minimum wage would have very little impact on employment. But what we can surmise from this data is that since the wages haven’t been keeping up with inflation, and workers making minimum wage are making less than they did in the 1960s; real earnings have actually been decreasing. Sure, the number of dollars may be higher, but the dollars buy less than they did then. So, in effect, people are working just as hard or in some cases even harder and able to buy less.

Needless to say, I find this arrangement appalling. I learned that if I won this election my annual pay would be around the $70,000 range. I don’t get why the people in charge of the laws that govern minimum wage make this much while so many in the State of Michigan are struggling to make ends meet. And I, like many, found Governor Snyder’s declaration of only accepting $1 a year for his first year was insulting. Reports show he made $1.9 million from other sources, so he didn’t actually need that income to survive. I don’t think he can empathize with people who live from paycheck to paycheck.

There are many other issues I shall be writing about as the year unfolds. There are many concerns that need to be addressed with the state government and how it operates, relating to issues ranging from education to maintenance of roads.

By the way, tired of all of the potholes? Where is the money to fix the roads? Read on! I can’t fathom why they’re allowing this to drag on while our state infrastructure deteriorates to the point that Michigan now ranks as one of the worst states in road condition. And, according to the article, pushing back action on repairing them will only further increase the cost.

In 2011, Gov. Rick Snyder asked the Legislature to increase highway funding by $1.2 billion a year through a combination of higher fuel taxes and vehicle registration fees. But those requests did not pass the Legislature. Each year lawmakers delay, the cost of repairing the roads rises by an estimated $100 million.

Every year it increases the cost by $100,000,000. This is not something that we can just indefinitely push aside. If we do not address this problem now it will only grow more and more expensive. And what’s worse is that the costs of delaying are foisted on us in car repairs and accidents because of the bad road conditions. It’s economic loss, there in black and white.

So why isn’t this being addressed now?

Snyder’s latest proposal is for $1.3 billion a year in higher fuel taxes and vehicle registration fees, but, so far, not a single legislator in the Republican-controlled House or Senate has agreed to introduce the bill.

In what’s become a common refrain, Republican Rep. Lisa Posthumus Lyons recently told a Grand Rapids gathering the state Department of Transportation had not made its case for more money.

The case has not been made? The condition of many motorists’ vehicles tells a different story.

The Republican-controlled House and Senate has not acted on it or has been slow to act on it. If the most recent efforts fail it will only delay the much-needed action and increase the cost of fixing the problem in the future.

When I was growing up I worked a few part-time jobs that convinced me to go to college and get educated, so I worked hard in high school to rise above my station and I was awarded with a full-tuition scholarship from the University of Michigan for academic achievement and because I displayed scholarly potential. I’m a hard worker and one of my life’s goals is to help improve the lives of others. It’s why I’ve decided to go into medicine. If I can help people in the Michigan State government, however, by getting elected then I will fight to ensure that the people get a fair voice for their concerns.

And maybe my personal views don’t match yours. I do not consider this a problem as a free exchange of ideas is what makes a democracy function. Tell me your concerns, convince me that your argument is correct, and I’ll work to improve the state of the Michigan government and the state of the the State. The legislature we have elected now is clearly not working in the best interests of the people of Michigan.

It’s time for a change.

A-to-Z Challenge Day Seventeen: Quarks, and Quasars, and other Quantum Nonsense

April 19, 2014 7 comments

I think it was Deepak Chopra who first discovered that you could make any kind of outrageous claim you wanted to as long as you put the word “quantum” in front of the words “mechanics” or “science.” For instance, “According to quantum mechanics, the quantum superposition of the wave function is such that all things exist in every possible way that they can exist simultaneously until you observe it, then the wave function collapses.”

See? A pile of nonsense. I think.

So what’s the deal with quantum mechanics, anyway? It’s a complex field of study that seems like it’s mostly math and focuses on things that are infinitesimally small. And, shocker, it also happens to be probably the most rigorously evidence field of science we’ve got right now. Even more so than the other great scientific theory, evolution (tons and tons of evidence if you know where to look–why not start out and get Darwin’s The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection from Project Gutenberg?).

I think that reason that quantum mechanics finds itself so easily manipulated to support pseudo-scientific woo like quantum energy fields that do…um…something? I don’t know,  there’s some stuff out there about spiritual energy fields thanks to quantum this or that. I lose interest and zone out when I figure out it’s bunk. Oh, anyway, the reason I think that it’s so easily manipulated is because there are people who want to prey on the naivete and scientific illiteracy of others to make millions of dollars selling junk that doesn’t work with a pretty label.

Well, this isn’t working. I keep getting sidetracked by the some incredulity that’s seeping to the surface. Let’s talk for a bit about Erwin Schrodinger.

Now this is a guy I could play extreme chess with.

Well, there’s also a ton of other scientists who really led to the breakthroughs that spawned QM, like Neils Bohr, Albert Einstein, and Werner Heisenberg.

The father of quantum mechanics.

Anyway, Schrodinger came up with a famous thought experiment called Schrodinger’s cat (this was before the days of the animal rights movement). It presents a paradox in the so-called Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics in which a cat is placed in a box with a bottle of poison and a radioactive element. If a sensor detects the decay of an atom, the bottle of poison is broken and the cat dies (poor cat!). Well, the idea is that after a while because of quantum superposition the cat exists simultaneously as both alive and dead. This occurs until the box is opened and the cat observed, at which time the superposition ends and reality collapses into one possibility or another, i.e., the cat is either dead, alive, or somehow napping on your laptop keyboard.

And what’s with cats, anyway? I mean, they think they’re so great and in charge. Well, quantum mechanics makes fools of us all, I guess.

I keep digressing. The purpose of talking about Schrodinger’s cat is to illustrate just how much quantum mechanics goes against our intuitions and how little “common sense” can help us understand it.

After all, how can a cat be both alive and dead? Well, that’s where the charlatans step in. It’s because of quantum energy fields and flux and all kinds of other spiritual things that connect all life and stuff. Think positively and buy my product and the quarks and quips and other kinds of subatomic particles and imaginary things that begin with the letter “q” will heal anything!  Feeling tired? Buy this quantum field harmonizer kit that jiggles the quarks in the free air around you, stimulating a reaction at the cellular level, down to the quantum level, in your brain, revitalizing you and giving you an extra pep in your step with a minimum exposure to rads.

Quit quaking and quickly quaff the quantum quencher! A miracle drink that synergizes your mind with your body, helping you to produce better healing effects.

Gah. I can’t keep up this bloody joke any longer because it starts to cross the line from satire to a mirror-image of some actual quantum nonsense.

I don’t mean to rain on anyone’s parade here, but none of this stuff means a damn thing. Anything that has the word “quantum” in the title or description besides extremely complex theories with equations like this one:

Yeah. Look at that. Fun stuff.

probably isn’t real science. It’s probably just pseudo-science masquerading as science.

So, in essence, what this post is really about is learning how to check your sources, and really it’s an advertisement for skepticism. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. There are a number of great resources to get real, knowledgeable opinions on a lot of information floating around on the web, like one of my favorites, Science-Based Medicine.

Oh, and the quasar bit was really just because I love astronomy. Thanks, NASA.

A-to-Z Challenge Day Sixteen: Pan Galactic Gargle Blasters

April 18, 2014 1 comment

I like my brain, thank you.

The genius of the Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster lies in how it shows the distance someone will go for a good drink.

I think this is a life lesson for us all.

A-to-Z Challenge Day Fifteen: Opera

April 17, 2014 2 comments

A few years ago I spent a week in Chicago with Anastasia. It was an amazing city, and I loved every minute of walking its various streets and running up my credit card debt in all of the amazing stores and restaurants. I stayed with her in Hyde Park at the University of Chicago, near the Museum of Science and Industry (which was AMAZING). Ana was attaining her bachelor degree at U of C (where fun goes to die) and I was still getting my bachelor degree at the University of Michigan. I thought it would be a fun idea for spring break to visit her and see a major city for the first time in my life. So we visited the Field Museum and saw Sue, the Tyrannosaurus Rex. We stopped by Mindy’s Hot Chocolate for some delicious food and dessert.

But one of the highlights was seeing the first live opera in my life. Oh, sure, I’ve seen operas on DVDs and a smattering of clips on Youtube, but that doesn’t really make up for not seeing something live. I remember when I saw my first live music concert when I went to a blues festival and it was a million times better than listening to a record. So I was excited at the opportunity to see an opera.

A day or two before we saw the opera, we took a tour of the Lyric Opera House. The history of the building and the operas that had been performed there was fascinating, as were the props we could get our hands on. They had a knife that had the tube for fake blood to simulate a cut. Perhaps the funniest bit about the entire affair was when Ana and I got yelled at, like little kids, for playing on the awesome and complex sets, which were apparently off-limits (we must have blanked out when that particular rule was read…).

Later on, they had a few trunks of costumes out for us to play with.

Soldier!Royalty!

I didn’t really try on any costumes; it’s not my thing. Anyway, the opera we saw was Handel’s Hercules. Luckily it was an English opera so I didn’t have to struggle to keep up with the translations that Lyric provides above the stage. The opera itself was repetitive and dragged on a bit (Ana says this is because it was written to be enjoyed as a social outing, while people talked and such). It wasn’t the best opera I have ever seen, but the experience of seeing it live was memorable. I’d like to go back to the Lyric or to the MET to see an opera like Aida or La traviata with Jonas Kaufmann or Anna Netrebko.

Even so, it was a pleasure to see the opera, and it was a pretty fancy event. I actually dressed up in a suit and Ana was stunning in her dress.

Anyway, I’ll post a few of my favorite opera bits to end this post. Thanks for stopping by and reading!

1. Sempre Libera, La traviata

2. Brindisi, La traviata

3. Habanera, Carmen

4. La Dolcissima Effigie, Adriana Lecouvreur

5. Ma se m’e forza perderti, Un ballo in maschera

A-to-Z Challenge Day Fourteen: Newton!

April 16, 2014 Leave a comment

No, I’m not talking about the delicious cookies with a fig paste filling.

Yum…

I’m talking about Isaac Newton.

Not so yum…

I consider Isaac Newton to be one of my personal heroes. Not someone I idolize, so I use hero rather loosely here. But if there is one person who, I think, deserves a lot of credit for modern civilization and our understanding of the workings of the universe it is Newton. Not just because he came up with F=ma, but because of what he represents.

Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos covered Newton and his contributions to science, knowledge, and indeed our current civilization. It’s safe to say that we wouldn’t have gotten to the moon without Newton.  And, you know, here’s Tyson talking about Newton in a way that makes you feel wholly inadequate.

I guess I’m just kind of sad that we don’t have more appreciation for the search for knowledge and the great discoveries of humanity. I mean, the laws of motion are fairly elegant.

And this post doesn’t even tough on other great scientists, like Einstein, Faraday, Curie, Rosalind Franklin, and many others.

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