31 January 2007

Marvin Minsky on the Mind, Neuroscience, and AI

Marvin Minsky has long been one of my heroes. Since reading "Society of Mind", I have respected Minsky's ability to sort through complex ideas and clarify their essence. In this interview with Discover, Minsky discusses a few issues that are close to this blog's raison d'etre.
Although educated in mathematics, Minsky has always thought in terms of mind and machine. For his dissertation at Princeton University in the 1950s, he analyzed a "learning machine," meant to simulate the brain's neural networks, that he had constructed as an undergrad. In his early career he was also an influential inventor, creating the first confocal scanning microscope, a version of which is now standard in labs worldwide. In 1959 Minsky cofounded the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT, where he designed and built robotic hands that could "feel" and "see" and manipulate objects, a watershed in the field.

...His latest book, The Emotion Machine, continues ideas begun in Society of Mind, reflecting twenty-some additional years of thought. It is a blueprint for a thinking machine that Minsky would like to build—an artificial intelligence that can reflect on itself—taking us a step forward into a future that may seem as if out of an Asimov story.

What are your latest ideas about the mind, as set out in The Emotion Machine?

The theme of the book is that humans are uniquely resourceful because they have several ways to do everything. If you think about something, you might think about it in terms of language, or in logical terms, or in terms of diagrams, pictures, or structures. If one method doesn't work, you can quickly switch to another. That's why we're so good at dealing with so many situations. Animals can't imagine what the room would look like if you change that couch from black to red. But a person has ways of constructing mental images or sentences or bits of logic.

...So as you see it, artificial intelligence is the lens through which to look at the mind and unlock the secrets of how it works?

Yes, through the lens of building a simulation. If a theory is very simple, you can use mathematics to predict what it'll do. If it's very complicated, you have to do a simulation. It seems to me that for anything as complicated as the mind or brain, the only way to test a theory is to simulate it and see what it does. One problem is that often researchers won't tell us what a simulation didn't do. Right now the most popular approach in artificial intelligence is making probabilistic models. The researchers say, "Oh, we got our machine to recognize handwritten characters with a reliability of 79 percent." They don't tell us what didn't work.

Neuroscientists like Oliver Sacks and V. S. Ramachandran study people who have brain injuries; to them, what is not happening in the brain is more informative than what is happening. Is that similar to what you're saying?

Yes. In fact, those are just about the two best thinkers in that field. Antonio Damasio is pretty good, but Ramachandran and Sacks are more sophisticated than most. They consider alternative theories instead of trying to prove one particular theory.

...Can artificial intelligence have human-style common sense?

There are several large-scale projects exploring that issue. There's the one that Douglas Lenat in Texas has been pursuing since 1984. He has a couple of million items of commonsense knowledge, such as "People live in houses" or "When it rains, you get wet," which are very carefully classified. But what we don't have are the right kind of answers to questions that a 3-year-old child would be filled with. So we're trying to collect those now. If you ask a childlike question like, "Why, when it rains, would somebody want to stay dry?" it's confusing to a computer, because people don't want to get wet when it rains but they do when they take a shower.
More at Source.

It's interesting that people such as Marvin Minsky and Jeff Hawkins--outsiders to neuroscience--should be producing some of the most seminal ideas for exploring and simulating the underlying processes of mind. But then, that is the way science works, when it works well.

Rather than trying to exclude outsiders--as is too often done in the baby science of climatology--a more mature and wiser science will welcome intelligent inputs from outsiders as potential breaths of fresh air.

Hat tip, KurzweilAI.net.

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30 January 2007

The Limitations on Engineered Biological Systems

I was recently made aware of a stimulating article at Acceleration Watch dealing with the "Limits of Engineered Biological Systems." Written by John Smart, the essay lays out reasons why it will be extremely difficult--if not impossible in practice--to genetically bioengineer the human body for long life and superintelligence.

Specifically, the "path dependency" of the development of the human bio-organism--the complexity of interacting gene systems--makes it almost impossible to make significant changes in the genome that will be more beneficial than detrimental. All of the "legacy code" of the human genome is extremely resistant to intentional tampering, and makes it far more likely that any given intervention will be harmful rather than helpful in achieving a biological singularity.

I encourage everyone with an interest in the biosingularity, and the genetic augmentation of human intelligence and lifespan, to read John Smart's well-reasoned essay.

In the coming weeks and months, I will be dealing with the issues in more detail. I am in full agreement with the basic outline and most of the main points of Smart's argument. It is likely that essentially immortal machines will acquire many of the strengths of human cognition, and human mobility, before mobile and mortal humans gain long life (200+ year lifespans) and superintelligence.

It is likely that cyborg augments with neural and vascular interfaces will extend human functionality and lifespan before humans gain the mastery of their own highly complex genomes.

But I feel that there are some loopholes in the legacy code. Recent discoveries of epigenetic mechanisms including "non-coding RNA's" and other means of influencing "families" of gene expression from "the outside", suggests that it is not necessary to change the actual genome to any great extent in order to achieve significant improvements in targeted human functions.

All futurists who write about the genetic improvement of human existence, including myself, need to take into account John Smart's clear and cogent cautions on the dangers of trying to change the human genetic design.

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29 January 2007

Has the Infant Science of Climatology Oversold the Coming Catastrophe?

Many climate scientists are beginning to suspect that they have allowed their profession to become a circus.
Climate scientists might be expected to bask in the spotlight after their decades of toil. The general public now cares about greenhouse gases, and with a new Democratic-led Congress, federal action on climate change may be at hand.

Problem is, global warming may not have caused Hurricane Katrina, and last summer's heat waves were equaled and, in many cases, surpassed by heat in the 1930s.

In their efforts to capture the public's attention, then, have climate scientists oversold global warming? It's probably not a majority view, but a few climate scientists are beginning to question whether some dire predictions push the science too far.

"Some of us are wondering if we have created a monster," says Kevin Vranes, a climate scientist at the University of Colorado.

....Would junior scientists feel compelled to mute their findings, out of concern for their careers, if the research contradicts the climate change consensus?

"I can understand how a scientist without tenure can feel the community pressures," says environmental scientist Roger Pielke Jr., a colleague of Vranes' at the University of Colorado.

Pielke says he has felt pressure from his peers: A prominent scientist angrily accused him of being a skeptic, and a scientific journal editor asked him to "dampen" the message of a peer-reviewed paper to derail skeptics and business interests.

Is there really a similarity between the top-down forcing of opinion in climate science, and purges and inquisitions in political and religious history? After all, science is not populated by disinterested saints, but by humans who are just as vain and pompous and contemptuous of those who contradict their pet theories as any occupation. It should not be too surprising if threats are made against meteorologists and others who refuse to meekly repeat the "official" stance on an issue of scientific debate such as catastrophic anthropogenic global warming. If some data and discussion is suppressed in the interest of presenting a unified front to the public, would you really be that surprised?

As one commenter here stated:

• James Hansen advocating Nuremberg-style war crimes trials for skeptics of AGW

• .... Dr. Heidi Cullen advocating decertifying colleagues who express contrarian positions on greenhouse warming

• British Foreign Secretary Beckett comparing “climate-change skeptics” to terrorists

• Labeling scientists who question the evidence for AGW as “Deniers” (read Holocaust Deniers)

• The Royal Society admonishing organizations that question the link between greenhouse emissions and global warming,

• Re-introduction this week of the Orwellian “fairness doctrine” legislation by Congress

Does anyone else see a nasty pattern developing here? I don’t like the picture.

While the heavy-handed tactics of the orthodoxy of CAGW may not be a sinister and diabolical as the above commenter implies, the end result is the suppression of science in the interest of promoting politically motivated biases.

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28 January 2007

Developing Competence in Children--John David Garcia and the Moral Society

Is it possible to create a system of education that encourages children to develop to their potential? Can children learn to be competent and responsible, as well as learned? What type of educational and para-educational curriculum could best make use of the child's innate intelligence, while also instilling positive character traits and an emotional competence that would serve the child's well-being for the entire lifetime?

Many attempts have been made to improve on the failed model of education currently being practised by government schools. Montessori, the Waldorf System, the system developed by Glenn Doman (IAHP), homeschool curricula, and many others.

The most impressive "open source" curriculum I have seen, is the one developed by the late John David Garcia, an inventor/philosopher who spent his last years in Oregon promoting the creation of a moral and ethical society. Garcia's curriculum is built around the Physical World (theory and practice), the Biological world (theory and practice), the Psychosocial World (theory and practice), and the Integrative world in theory and practice.

The theory behind Garcia's educational curriculum is more broadly elucidated in this chapter of the online book, Creative Transformation. A child could be introduced to this curriculum at any age from 3 to 90, whenever deemed ready by the instructors. It is most important in young children to develop a sense of competence in meeting the world. A genuine sense of competence can only be developed by teaching the child effective tools--both internal and external.

It is important to present alternative educational pathways to parents--particularly those who are concerned about the quality of mass production government education. Longtime readers of this blog may recognize most of the ideas in this post from an earlier article dated over a year ago. It is vital to present these useful alternatives over and over again.

Psychological neoteny is rampant in western societies, due to parents, schools, and society in general, which all neglect the development of character and competence in children. The problem is a type of societal rot, and will not get better on its own.

Update: For a fascinating glimpse of the difficulties and rewards of instituting an intentional articulated curriculum into a public charter school, read this account from a high school humanities teacher.

Update2: Here is a real gift: a free online book describing in detail the Montessori curriculum from ages 3 to 12, written by a Montessori instructor. Definitely worth the price of a mouse click.

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Basic Concepts in Genetics

Genetics is the basis of biology. It is also the basis of cognition, and the entire human enterprise. A closer look at some of the basics of genetics can be useful for many readers who may have been waylaid in university by politically correct social science dogmas such as "the blank slate."

First of all, just what is a gene , anyway? The answer is not as simple as you might think, even if you took genetics in school.

Next, a more general look at molecular biology. Understanding the nature of information flow in genetics is important, but it seems to be changing by the day.

You may be curious about how genes are sequenced. This short post gives a brief introduction. Or better yet, follow the links for some educational videos on modern gene sequencing and other bio-lab magic tricks.

More links to this series are available here.


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27 January 2007

Hierarchical Temporal Memory: Jeff Hawkins at the IBM Almaden Lectures

I remember the excitement I felt when I first read Palm Pilot founder Jeff Hawkins' book On Intelligence, over a year ago. It was the same sort of "bingo!" excitement I felt when I first read Marvin Minsky's Society of Mind.

The difference is, that not only is Hawkins very successful in the world of hardware design, he is also working on a credible machine model of his hierarchical temporal memory theory of mind, and is quite close to proving the concept. This lecture transmits some of the enthusiasm that Hawkins feels for his work and its revolutionary possibilities if it should pan out. At the end, you can hear some skeptical neuroscientists expressing their doubts, and watch Hawkins respond.

That is the way science works, after all. Assertion and skepticism. Cycle after cycle of hypotheses being tested and eventually proven or disproven. Everyone with science training should understand that science works this way.

Unfortunately, many scientists with a "politically correct" ideological bias carry this approach of "the one true faith" into their scientific endeavours. They forget that science is not a religion, and make their beliefs in "the blank slate" or "catastrophic anthropogenic global warming" or any number of other political/scientific beliefs, into an orthodoxy that cannot be questioned. That is not science at all.

If you like this lecture, here is an earlier lecture by Hawkins on "How the Cortex Works."


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The Inner Life of the Cell--Explained and Extended

Here is the longer version of the Harvard movie on the inner workings of the cell accompanying leukocyte extravasation, that we posted earlier. It includes a useful narration, as requested, that describes what you are seeing. Not as mesmerizing as the video without narration, but perhaps more educational.

Thanks to Snowcrash at Biosingularity.


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26 January 2007

Is That A Robot In Your Pocket, Or Are You Just Happy To See Me?

Robots are getting smaller--micro-robots, or microbots as they are called. Small and almost invisible, but with good optics. It is not impossible that you are being watched by a robot at this very moment. Especially if you are a terrorist.
Israel is developing a robot the size of a hornet to attack terrorists. And although the prototype will not fly for three years, killer Micro Air Vehicles, or MAVs, are much closer than that.

British Special Forces already use 6-inch MAV aircraft called WASPs for reconnaissance in Afghanistan. The $3,000 WASP is operated with a Gameboy-style controller and is nearly silent, so it can get very close without being detected. A new development will reportedly see the WASP fitted with a C4 explosive warhead for kamikaze attacks on snipers. One newspaper dubbed it "The Talibanator."

Other engineers are developing microbots for exploring difficult to access caves and other planets.
In Phase I, we wanted to focus on robotic units that were small, very numerous (hence expendable), largely autonomous, and that had the mobility that was needed for getting into rugged terrains. Based on Dr. Dubowsky's ongoing work with artificial-muscle-activated robotic motion, we came up with the idea of many, many, tiny little spheres, about the size of tennis balls, that essentially hop, almost like Mexican jumping beans. They store up muscle energy, so to speak, and then they boink themselves off in various directions. That's how they move.

We've calculated that we could probably pack about a thousand of these guys into a payload mass the size of one of the current MERs (Mars Exploration Rovers). That would give us the flexibility to suffer the loss of a large percentage of the units and still have a network that could be doing recon and sensing, imaging, and perhaps even some other science functions.
AM: How do all these little spheres co-ordinate with each other?

PB: They behave as a swarm. They relate to each other using very simple rules, but that produces a great deal of flexibility in their collective behavior that enables them to meet the demands of unpredictable and hazardous terrain. The ultimate product that we're envisioning is a fleet of these little guys being sent to some promising landing site, exiting from the lander and then making their way over to some subsurface or other hazardous terrain, where they deploy themselves as a network. They create a cellular communication network, on a node-to-node basis.

You can find movies of microbots and scholarly papers here.

Here is a report discussing Micro-Air Vehicle research for the US Air Force.

You can read about an earlier micro-copter and view a movie of the micro-bot flying here. State of the art microbots now are much smaller and potentially more letal.

If you could teach a continuously deformable microbot to fly, there is no end to the amount of mischief such a sneaky little bugger could create.

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25 January 2007

Ice Age Theory: More on the Natural Cycle of Cooling and Warming

A new theory trying to explain the natural warming/cooling cycles of the earth's climate has been proposed by astrophysicist Robert Ehrlich of George Mason University.
In an article appearing in the journal New Scientist, Ehrlich describes how some of these oscillations reinforce one another and become long lasting temperature variations, with the sun's core temperature to oscillating around its average temperature of 13.6 million kelvin in cycles lasting either 100,000 or 41,000 years.

According to the scientist random interactions within the sun's magnetic field could flip the fluctuations between the two cycles which correspond to the Earth's ice ages.

Over the past million years, ice ages have occurred roughly every 100,000 years and before that roughly every 41,000 years.

We know the sun goes through natural cycles of radiative output that significantly affect the climate. Current alarmist factions in politics, the media, and computer modeling have tried to downplay the importance of solar forcing, for obvious reasons. Time is not on their side.

The earth naturally goes through cycles of cooling and warming. Whether this is caused by the changing orbital patterns of the earth around the sun, or whether it is due to a natural cycle of solar dimming and warming--or a combination of both with other natural and human activities--remains to be established.

Current climate patterns are not extraordinary, despite alarmist claims. The sooner the public is given a balanced assessment of the climate, the sooner it can turn to more significant concerns that need addressing.

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New Soft Bodied Robot is Continuously Deformable

Robotics research at Tufts University is introducing some novel concepts into robot design. Taking some cues from how caterpillars move, and how spiders and silkworms create silk, Tufts researchers are designing robots that will move in new ways, and squeeze more efficiently into tight spaces.
Barry Trimmer, professor of biology, and David Kaplan, professor of biomedical engineering, are co-directors of the Biomimetic Technologies for Soft-bodied Robots project, which represents a consortium of seven Tufts faculty members from five departments in the School of Engineering and the School of Arts and Sciences. The project has just been awarded a grant of $730,000 from the W.M. Keck Foundation.

According to Kaplan, the project will bring together biology, bioengineering and micro/nano fabrication. “Our overall goal is to develop systems and devices--soft-bodied robots--based on biological materials and on the adaptive mechanisms found in living cells, tissues and whole organisms,” he explains. These devices, he notes, will have direct applications in robotics, such as manufacturing, emergency search and retrieval, and repair and maintenance of equipment in space; in medical diagnosis and treatment, including endoscopy, remote surgery, and prostheses design; and in novel electronics such as soft circuits and power supplies.

....The Keck grant will provide the team with specialized equipment for use with soft materials and biomechanics experiments, according to Trimmer, whose work with caterpillars provides insights on how to build the world’s first soft-bodied robot (http://ase.tufts.edu/biology/faculty/trimmer/locomotion.html). Trimmer, a neurobiologist, has been studying the nervous system and biology since 1990 through grants from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. His goal has been to better understand how the creatures can control their fluid movements using a simple brain and how they can move so flexibly without any joints. He hopes to adapt his caterpillar research to this new project using the expertise of Tufts engineers.

Kaplan, whose laboratory focuses on biopolymer engineering (http://ase.tufts.edu/biomedical/faculty-staff/kaplan.asp) , has already uncovered the secret of how spiders and silkworms are able to spin webs and cocoons made of incredibly strong yet flexible fibers. More recently, his team applied genetic engineering and nanotechnology to create a “fusion protein” that for the first time combined the toughness of spider silk with the intricate structure of silica. Kaplan notes that there has been tremendous progress in the development and use of soft materials in devices ranging from keyboards to toys. “However, it is very hard to make soft devices that move around and can be precisely controlled,” he says. “This is the fundamental reason why robots currently move like robots instead of lifelike animals.”

The new robots developed at Tufts will be continuously deformable and capable of collapsing and crumpling into small volumes. They will have capabilities that are not currently available in single machines including climbing textured surfaces and irregular objects, crawling along ropes and wires, or burrowing into complex confined spaces. “Soft-bodied robots could make many dangerous surgeries much safer and less painful,” Trimmer adds. “They could also be used by NASA to repair space stations by reaching places that astronauts can’t, perform more complicated tasks in industry that require flexibility of movement, help in hazardous environments like nuclear reactors and landmine detection, and squeeze more efficiently into tight spaces.”

Remember the Terminator in T2 that could squeeze between bars in a locked door or fence, or ooze through narrow cracks under doors? Such a robot could be made to navigate blood vessels to perform microsurgery, or perform covert surveillance of suspected terrorists. Just for a start.


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24 January 2007

Will the Next President of the US Be a Robot?

Although he seems reticent to discuss some of the more exotic implications of his research, Indiana University Professor Karl MacDorman is bringing a more Asian approach to humanoid robots to the US. After spending five years researching the Japanese approach to lifelike robots, MacDorman is prepared to make IU the Mecca of humanoid robotics in North America.

The team is now so advanced in the skill of developing humanistic androids that a nearly exact double of a person can be created. It was Ishiguro who was robotically cloned.

"Some say it's narcissistic," MacDorman said. "I think they're wrong. If you look at the great artists, all of them have a self portrait."

....MacDorman said the replication of a celebrity is a possibility, but he sees serious legal complications accompanying such an undertaking, not to mention challenges presented by cultural differences.

"Japan actually has a very extensive sex-doll industry," he said. "And sometimes the public does get confused with our androids and their purpose."

While Japan has embraced the sexuality of humanoid dolls and robots without embarrassment, the US is much more prudish about that type of alternative sexuality. Still, if it can be done it will be done.

Which brings up the idea of a robot president. Eventually, humanoid robots will appear identical to humans--even be able to walk, talk, and interact in ways indistinguishable from a human. When robots are able to possess the intelligence of a normal human--hold press conferences, give stump speeches etc.--it will be very tempting for powerful interests from all major parties to create a robot just for the purpose of being president. Some have even suggested that Al Gore is an early prototype of such a robot, gone tragically awry.

And who hasn't wanted to be able to clone himself so as to be able to be two or more places at one time? With a robot clone, you can do exactly that. MacDorman's research seems to suggest that such things will be possible, eventually.

Have you received two or more invitations for speaking engagements on the same night, in different cities? No problem. You can do both. Have you been dreading going on that book-signing tour? Send your robot instead. Do you have multiple families living in different parts of the country who don't know about the others? There's no need for awkward confrontations. Your clones can keep the other beds warm until you get a chance to be there yourself.

MacDorman, although quite coy, is a worldly fellow, and surely understands where his research is leading. The rest of us should stay tuned for further developments.

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23 January 2007

Equality? Not in this Life--Nature Didn't Make Us That Way

Go here to find out why no NYC Firewomen died on 9/11/01.

Go here to learn why there is a discrepancy in math ability at the highest levels.

Go here to understand why it is so important that a society learn to utilise the gifts of the gifted.
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22 January 2007

Brief News Items

Remember all that DNA that was thought to be "Junk DNA?" Now it looks like that "junk" produces about half a million varieties of RNA of unknown function. Scientists at the University of Oxford have used such an RNA to regulate the DHFR (dihydrofolate reductase) gene, which indirectly controls dividing cells. This research may provide new ways to halt the growth of tumours.

Using yeast, nematodes, fruit flies, and mice, researchers at the Buck Institute are beginning a massive screening of 120,000 chemical compounds for lifespan extension effects. “We believe this is the first true chemical exploration of lifespan extension across multiple species,” said Gordon Lithgow, PhD, Buck Institute faculty member and project leader. “Our aim is to discover and develop novel compounds; at the very least we hope to identify 100 chemically distinct compounds that slow aging...

Veterinary opthalmologists at the University of Missouri-Columbia are implanting an Optobionics chip into the eyes of cats suffering with a degenerative retinal condition similar to retinitis pigmentosa in humans. Besides helping slow the advance of the disease, studies suggest that the electric currents generated by the chips may be regenerating damaged photoreceptors surrounding the implants.

MIT researchers are developing a super-strong nanofiber with similarities to Lycra. I cannot wait to get back to the gym to see what type of workout fashions this discovery will inspire.

Researchers at the Medical College of Georgia have learned more about the musculoskeletal system of neurons--how movement of growing neural processes in the developing nervous system is carried out.

A recent MIT report on geothermal energy appears to be promoting many of the ideas discussed by this blog last summer. The "hot rocks" approach, using technology borrowed from oil drilling and exploration, holds a lot of hope for clean sustainable energy for the indefinite future.

This Tech Review Online article looks into the secretive Texas company EEStor, makers of a "new, more powerful" type of ultracapacitor that is claimed can replace storage batteries in many applications. I have expressed doubts about many of EEStor's claims, but I am always willing to be proven wrong.

This news blurb looks at the possibility of using the anesthetic Ketamine as an ultra-fast treatment for depression. Although I have administered this anesthetic, I never had the opportunity for long-term followup of depressed or non-depressed patients. But this idea is certainly intriguing.

Finally, this Wired News feature discusses new developments in "Teledildonics", the technology of "sex at a distance." It is fun to keep up with this technology, certainly, and I will have more to say about this story over at Al Fin, You Sexy Thing.
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21 January 2007

Idiocracy: Some Peeples Thinks It's A Jook

If a population has a mean IQ below 90, it is unable to maintain a modern high tech infrastructure. Why? Because a mean IQ below 90 means that there are insufficient numbers of people high enough on the Bell Curve to be knowledgeable and competent physicians, engineers, nurses, accountants, teachers, attorneys, judges, scientists, etc. etc. The mean IQ of the world population currently stands at 90, but is projected to drop to 84 over the next several decades.

As mean IQ goes down, societal competency goes down, and corruption goes way up (Russia being a major outlier). It becomes impossible to maintain the machinery of society, until the entire world looks like Zimbabwe or Nicaragua.

Our friend Kevin McGrew of Intelligence Testing blog offers the above educational slideshow for background information on what may be rapidly growing numbers of the Forrest Gump segment of society.

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IQ and Destiny--Mulling Over the Possibilities

Charles Murray's recent piece in Opinion Journal has stimulated some very interesting discussion. Michael Anissimov discusses Linda Gottfredson's research findings, which parallel Murray's comments. The comments after Michael's posting introduce some interesting concepts to the discussion. Gene Expression blog likewise drew some good comments after their treatment of Murray's piece.

My recent discussion on the same topic emphasized alternative pathways to success besides the professions and academia. While persons with high intelligence can succeed via either path, persons with IQ below 115 may have a much better chance of succeeding via small business and the skilled technologies.

Still, a person with an IQ of 100--110 can successfully complete college, and succeed in many fields of employment. But only if they are emotionally mature, with a full set of competency tools. Since modern schools--particularly government schools--fail dismally in teaching these tools of maturity, persons with IQ below 115 will have a difficult time completing conventional four year college curricula.

But that might not be a bad thing. Unfortunately, most four year colleges and universities have succumbed to a numbing political correctness that often disables an immature person's ability to think critically and independently. Bypassing these factories of brainwashing might allow a greater success in the long run, if the person learns to think independently on his own.

For persons with IQ below 90, the routes to success are far more limited in a high tech society. Imagining any successful society with a mean IQ below 90 is difficult. The only way that would be possible is if a significant market dominant minority ran the infrastructure, and at the same time gave the low-IQ majority major social benefits and opportunities. India may have the potential to create that type of society.

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20 January 2007

We Are All Cyborgs Now--Neural/Electronic Interface

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have made progress in creating a brain-to-chip interface, which should eventually allow people to regain brain control over regions of the brain or body lost due to disease or injury. Mental control over advanced prostheses and remote devices is also brought closer by these discoveries. (psychokinesis, anyone?)
The central feature of the proposed interface is the ability to create transplantable living nervous tissue already coupled to electrodes. Like an extension cord, of sorts, the non-electrode end of the lab-grown nervous tissue could integrate with a patient’s nerve, relaying the signals to and from the electrode side, in turn connected to an electronic device.

This system may one day be able to return function to people who have been paralyzed by a spinal-cord injury, lost a limb, or in other ways. "Whether it is a prosthetic device or a disabled body function, the mind could regain control," says Smith.

To create the interface, the team used a newly developed process of stretch growth of nerve fibers called axons, previously pioneered in Smith’s lab. Two adjacent plates of neurons are grown in a bioreactor. Axons sprout out to connect the neuron populations on each plate. The plates are then slowly pulled apart over a series of days, aided by a precise computer-controlled motor system, until they reached a desired length.

For the interface, one of the plates is an electrical microchip. Because Smith and his team have shown that stretch-grown axons can transmit active electrical signals, they propose that the nervous-tissue interface - through the microchip - could detect and record real-time signals conducted down the nerve and stimulate the sensory signals back through the axons.

The researchers have already shown that the stretch-grown axons can be implanted into rat spinal cord and continue to grow. Since feeding electronic signals to growing nerves can train them to perform "lost" functions, this combining of growing nerves with interfaced neurochips holds many possibilities. If you add the right stem cells and growth factors to the mix, you may be able to do restorative wonders to the central nervous system.

Restoring control of muscles to the previously paralyzed, and restoring control of parts of the brain previously lost to injury or disease, is just the first step. The next step is brain:electronic interface for controlling prosthetic actuators, and actuators that are completely separate from the body.

It is not difficult to imagine thought control over a look-alike robot, that can be sent as a proxy to conduct business, give lectures, or other more intriguing possibilities. Likewise, controlling a remote robot that looks exactly like someone else would allow someone to leave a long trail of false clues.

This really is a "Brave New World" that we are entering.

Hat tip Medgadget.

Update: A PBS video discusses the issue of brain interface using nano-wires. The PBS "anchors" are irritating and infantile, but the interviews with scientists and researchers are fascinating.

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On Site Robot Housebuilders--Rapid Prototyping for Dwellings

Building a new house can be a long and trying experience. It is also a bit of a gamble unless you know the contractor well--or you are competent to build your own house. Bad weather and subcontractor problems can delay the building for months, and add considerably to the total expense.

What if a robot could build the water-tight shell of your house in under 24 hours? You can take a water tight shell and build whatever you want. This TimesOnline story describes two different approaches to robot housebuilding--the 24 hour approach, and the one week approach.
By building almost an entire house from just two materials — concrete and gypsum — the robots will eliminate the need for dozens of traditional components, including floorboards, wooden window frames and possibly even wallpaper. It may eventually be possible to use specially treated gypsum instead of glass window panes.

Engineers on both projects say the robots will not only cut costs and avoid human delays but liberate the normal family homes from the conventional designs of pitched roofs, right-angled walls and rectangular windows.

“The architectural options will explode,” predicted Dr Behrokh Khoshnevis at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, who will soon unleash his $1.5m (£940,000) robot. “We will be able to build curves and domes as easily as straight walls.

....Inspired by the inkjet printer, the technology goes far beyond the techniques already used for prefabricated homes. “This will remove all the limitations of traditional building,” said Hugh Whitehead of the architecture firm Foster & Partners, which designed the “Gherkin” skyscraper in London and is producing designs for the Loughborough team. “Anything you can dream you can build.”

The robots are rigged to a metal frame, enabling them to shuttle in three dimensions and assemble the structure of the house layer by layer. The sole foreman on site operates a computer programmed with the designer’s plans.

The researchers in Los Angeles claim their robot will be able to build the shell of a house in 24 hours. “Compared to a conventional house, the speed of construction will be increased 200-fold and the building costs will be reduced to a fifth of what they are today,” said Khoshnevis.

Here are other descriptions of robo-building, with a bit of the history, from NewScientist and Discover.

And this story from Housebuilder's Update Blog describes a family-owned housebuilding factory in Belgium that has used robot bricklayers for many years. Their factory approach apparently introduces efficiencies into housebuilding that are impossible with other approaches, up until now.

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19 January 2007

Idiocracy on DVD II--Hilarious Teaser

Here is a two and a half minute teaser for the movie "Idiocracy." Although it has been blackballed by the Studio that made it--Fox--it seems surely destined for cult classic status.

"Hilariously depressing," is probably a fair description of the entire concept: Society promotes dysgenic policies certain to result in a stupider population in just a few generations, and the whole topic is totally taboo. In other words, while a dubious "global warming catastrophe" is plastered over all the front pages and news shows, the actual catastrophe--the dysgenic catastrophe--is completely unmentionable.

After all, if the studio that made the film is too afraid of the PC Thought Police to promote and release the film normally--for the purpose of making money--what are the chances of PC dominant university campuses bringing up this important topic? Practically nil.

We are doomed to genetic mediocrity, and anyone who dares to mention it will simply have to be demonized into silence.

Did the filmmakers say the action in "Idiocracy" is taking place 500 years in the future? Really?


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Better Understanding Carbon Dioxide--Taming the Hysteria

Carbon Dioxide is a topic of much debate, often verging on hysteria. A better understanding of CO2, and how to manipulate it, would go a long way toward taming the hysteria.

Recent discoveries at UC Riverside suggest one way that nanotechnology could be used to pull CO2 out of the air--molecule by molecule--and transport it selectively to a chosen point of release.
A research team, led by UC Riverside’s Ludwig Bartels, was the first to design a molecule that can move in a straight line on a flat surface. Now this team has found a way to attach cargo: two CO2 molecules, making the nano-walker a molecule carrier.

The work will be published Thursday, Jan. 18 in “Science Express” and later in the print-version of the journal “Science.”

“This is an unprecedented step forward towards the realization of molecular-scale machinery,” said Bartels, associate professor of chemistry and a member of UCR’s Center for Nanoscale Science and Engineering. “Our experiments show a means to transport molecules reliably. This will become as important to the molecular machinery of the future as trucks and conveyor belts are for factories of today.”

The last paper Bartels and his team published on this subject generated a great deal of interest. It was included in the American Institute of Physics “Top 25 Physics Stories for 2005.”

The new molecule carrier runs on a copper surface. It can pick up and release up to two carbon dioxide (CO2) molecules and carry them along its straight path. “Carrying a load slows the molecule down” explained Bartels. “Attachment of one CO2 molecule makes the carrier need twice as much energy for a step, and a carrier with two CO2s requires roughly three times the energy. This is not unlike a human being carrying heavy loads in one or both hands.”

Bartels explained that using machines at the scale of single molecules will ultimately be the most efficient way to build objects or to deliver material.
“It resembles the way nature does it: the molecule carrier transports carbon dioxide across a surface,” he said. “In the human body, the molecule hemoglobin carries oxygen from and carbon dioxide to the lungs, thereby allowing us to breathe – and to live.”

Carbon dioxide is far more useful and versatile than generally imagined. Besides being the vital fuel for plant growth, CO2 is used chemically in creating chemical feedstocks from alkanes. Under pressure, CO2 can be made into a toughened glass similar to diamond, for use as a coating. In fact, CO2 can actually be converted into diamond itself. Some of the techniques for CO2 conversion can be found here.

In other words, nanotechnology is being taught to pull CO2 molecules from the air and transport them to chambers where the CO2 can be concentrated and used in chemical processes, or converted to a quartz-like material, or perhaps diamond.

Climate change is not due nearly as much to CO2 as the media and political alarmists attempt to claim. But CO2 is freely available in the air, and if productive uses can be made of it, that would be grand. Enough of hysteria. Humans need to learn to think constructively for a change.


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18 January 2007

Ascent of Man I

Humans are unique among the animals. Why did man succeed in the evolutionary contest, to arrive at the top of the food chain, uncontested? And what further evolutionary tricks may propel humans to the next level, of incomparably greater intelligence, longer lifespan, and deeper wisdom?

Nothing is guaranteed. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. Existential risks are many and varied. Humans as they are could never survive for much longer.

We must understand who we are, and what we must become to evolve into who we can be.
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17 January 2007

The Numerical Brain--Is the Parietal Lobe the Key?

Mathematical savants such as Daniel Tammet, featured in the above 48 minute video, are still a mystery to cognitive scientists. But two studies in the January 18, 2007 edition of Neuron, may offer some clues.
Both studies reveal in unprecedented detail how structures in the parietal cortex--the region of higher cognitive processing just above the forehead--activates during perception of both abstract quantities and numerical symbols.

In one paper, Manuela Piazza and colleagues showed that regions of the parietal lobe activate in response to numbers, either when they are presented as patterns of dots or as Arabic numerals.

In their experiments, the researchers asked human volunteers to pay attention to the quantities conveyed by groups of dots or numeric digits presented to them. During the process, the subjects' brains were scanned using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), in which harmless magnetic fields and radio waves are used to measure blood flow in brain regions, which reflects activity.

The researchers found that the initial presentation of the numeric stimuli activated the parietal region of the subjects' brains, which subsided as they adapted to the stimulus. However, the activation rebounded when the subjects were presented with an abrupt change in the quantity, whether it was represented in the same (dots versus dots) or different (dots versus Arabic numerals) notation as the original. This rebound indicated that the region was processing numerical information.
More at the Source.

What separates the mathematical genius from more normal folks? What makes an Euler or Gauss different from the rest of us? Why are there so many more male mathematical geniuses than female? What part does Asperger's Syndrome play? Such mysteries may remain unsolved, for reasons of political correctness. Or perhaps society will drive around such atavistic tendencies and actually try to understand why we are the way we are? One can only hope.


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Metagenomics--Will Termite Microbes Wean the World Off Oil?

Metagenomics is the clever art of stealing DNA from one species to use for the benefit of another--namely, us. Presently, humans need a good way to convert cellulose--from plant waste and prolific grasses and woods--into sugars for fermentation to useful alcohols such as butanol and ethanol. Termites have been hosting bacteria that perform that conversion for millions of years. Perhaps we could learn something from termite guts?
Scientists are sequencing the genomes of entire microbial communities in the hope of uncovering new genes and organisms that can create fuel, mine metals, or clean up superfund sites. Known as metagenomics, the field relies on studying bits of DNA from a variety of organisms that live in the same place. Thanks to ever-improving sequencing methods, the number of metagenome projects is growing, giving scientists myriad new genes to explore.

...Converting cellulose in trees and grasses into the simple sugars that can be fermented into ethanol is a very energy-intensive process. "If we had better enzymatic machinery to do that, we might be better able to make sugars into ethanol," Bristow says. "Termites are the world's best bioconverters."

Researchers at the Joint Genome Institute, which sequenced some of the human genome and is now largely devoted to metagenomics, have just finished sequencing the microbial community living in the termite gut. They have already identified a number of novel cellulases--the enzymes that break down cellulose into sugar--and are now looking at the guts of other insects that digest wood, such as an anaerobic population that eats poplar chips. The end result will be "basically a giant parts list that synthetic biologists can put together to make an ideal energy-producing organism," says Hugenholtz.

So you see, metagenomics may help to break the chokehold of petroleum on the modern global economic infrastructure. And much, much, more.


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Manure Powered Rocket Engines--To The Moon on Poop?

Most of you already know that manure can produce methane via microbial digestion. In fact many dairy farmers are taking advantage of this process to create much of their own electricity with methane powered generators.

But why should we settle for simple electricity from manure, when we can use it to fly to the moon? I believe that we need to get our priorities straight. Using animal poop to power a moon rocket displays a certain savoir faire, and ambitious resourcefulness, that modern "woe-is-me-the-world-is-coming-to-an-end" media and academia seems to lack. In fact, I challenge the new US Democratic Congressional leadership to grab the manure with both hands, and march into the future with their eyes on the prize--regaining the moon.

Anything less would be letting us all down.


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Failing with A College Degree--Succeeding Without One

In the US, a person can get rich without a college degree. In fact, a person can get rich without a high school diploma, in the US. The secret is to learn a skill that is in demand. Charles Murray of "Bellcurve" fame suggests that the fixation on a college degree for everyone of above average intelligence is hurting many students. I can add that it is also hurting the US economy.
There is no magic point at which a genuine college-level education becomes an option, but anything below an IQ of 110 is problematic. If you want to do well, you should have an IQ of 115 or higher. Put another way, it makes sense for only about 15% of the population, 25% if one stretches it, to get a college education. And yet more than 45% of recent high school graduates enroll in four-year colleges.

...The good news is that market-driven systems eventually adapt to reality, and signs of change are visible. One glimpse of the future is offered by the nation's two-year colleges. They are more honest than the four-year institutions about what their students want and provide courses that meet their needs more explicitly. Their time frame gives them a big advantage--two years is about right for learning many technical specialties, while four years is unnecessarily long.

Advances in technology are making the brick-and-mortar facility increasingly irrelevant. Research resources on the Internet will soon make the college library unnecessary. Lecture courses taught by first-rate professors are already available on CDs and DVDs for many subjects, and online methods to make courses interactive between professors and students are evolving. Advances in computer simulation are expanding the technical skills that can be taught without having to gather students together in a laboratory or shop. These and other developments are all still near the bottom of steep growth curves. The cost of effective training will fall for everyone who is willing to give up the trappings of a campus. As the cost of college continues to rise, the choice to give up those trappings will become easier.

....The spread of wealth at the top of American society has created an explosive increase in the demand for craftsmen. Finding a good lawyer or physician is easy. Finding a good carpenter, painter, electrician, plumber, glazier, mason--the list goes on and on--is difficult, and it is a seller's market. Journeymen craftsmen routinely make incomes in the top half of the income distribution while master craftsmen can make six figures. They have work even in a soft economy. Their jobs cannot be outsourced to India. And the craftsman's job provides wonderful intrinsic rewards that come from mastery of a challenging skill that produces tangible results. How many white-collar jobs provide nearly as much satisfaction?

The most common route to wealth in the US is through your own business. A good electrician, plumber, contractor etc. might have never graduated from high school, yet be good enough at his trade and at business to become quite wealthy over time.

A lot of students go to college because it is expected of them. Discovering that they are not interested in the extra two, four, six + years of additional education they need to get anywhere in most professions is an unwelcome insight. That epiphany may leave a person with a college degree working as unskilled labour.

How much better it would be to include practical training all along--from grammar school on? A high school student should have at least one skill that would earn him double minimum wage. A high school graduate should have two. A graduate of an additional one or two years of education past high school should be able to earn triple minimum wage, or higher if they have any business skills.

The emphasis on college or nothing is hurting a lot of people, and the economy as well.

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16 January 2007

Having A Wonderful Time--Wish You Were Here

This could be your hometown, if you take care of yourself, and if humans take care of the precious gift of civilisation.

Colony graphic courtesy of Accelerating Future.


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Solar Power: Driving the Climate

The science behind climate change is anything but settled. Just ask Cambridge astrophysicist Nigel Weiss, or astrophysicist and mathematician Habibullo Abdusamatov, head of the space research laboratory at the St. Petersburg-based Pulkovo Observatory.
Typically, sunspots flare up and settle down in cycles of about 11 years. In the last 50 years, we haven't been living in typical times: "If you look back into the sun's past, you find that we live in a period of abnormally high solar activity," Dr. Weiss states.

These hyperactive periods do not last long, "perhaps 50 to 100 years, then you get a crash," says Dr. Weiss. 'It's a boom-bust system, and I would expect a crash soon."

In addition to the 11-year cycle, sunspots almost entirely "crash," or die out, every 200 years or so as solar activity diminishes. When the crash occurs, the Earth can cool dramatically. Dr. Weiss knows because these phenomenon, known as "Grand minima," have recurred over the past 10,000 years, if not longer.

The upper layers of the world's oceans are - much to climatologists' surprise - becoming cooler, which is a clear indication that the Earth has hit its temperature ceiling already, and that solar radiation levels are falling and will eventually lead to a worldwide cold spell, Abdusamatov said.

"Instead of professed global warming, the Earth will be facing a slow decrease in temperatures in 2012-2015. The gradually falling amounts of solar energy, expected to reach their bottom level by 2040, will inevitably lead to a deep freeze around 2055-2060," he said, adding that this period of global freeze will last some 50 years, after which the temperatures will go up again.

"There is no need for the Kyoto Protocol now, and it does not have to come into force until at least a hundred years from now - a global freeze will come about regardless of whether or not industrialized countries put a cap on their greenhouse gas emissions," Abdusamatov said.

The rush to reduce CO2 levels is not only massively expensive, but totally unnecessary, according to these learned solar experts. Certainly everyone with any knowledge should understand that global cooling is far more threatening to human life than the mild global warming currently being experienced.

Politicians such as Al Gore have vested monetary interests in exaggerating the climate effects of CO2. Likewise, climatologists such as Michael Mann have achieved fame, prestige, and easy grant money through the use of shoddy research methods. The route to grant money in climate science currently lies through the gate of CAGW--catastrophic anthropogenic global warming. Those are the magic words.

Reality is much larger than that. It is foolish to fixate upon one seemingly obvious explanation for cyclic climate behaviour of epochal duration. Many junkies of "global warning" enjoy the thrill of the apocalypse. Others have more mundane motivations, such as going along with the perceived flow.

Regardless, it pays for people who actually want to know what is going on, to keep their eyes and minds open.

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Idiocracy and Political Correctness--Reign of Error

The movie Idiocracy is a satire, portraying a dysgenic decline into societal idiocy occurring (euphemistically) a few hundred years in the future. The movie is now out on DVD, and movie critic Steve Sailer shares a few thoughts on why Fox decided to spike what could have been a successful film.
Idiocracy on DVD: I've seen it three times now and my wife has watched it four times. If Fox had promoted "Idiocracy" the way they promoted "Borat," courting controversy, they would have had a near-"Borat"-sized hit.

Unfortunately, when watching it at home on DVD, you miss experiencing the horrifying Charlton-Heston-and-the-Statue-of-Liberty moment when "Idiocracy" is over and you emerge from the theatre into the mall full of shiny logos and sniggering pedestrians and you realize that reality today looks just like 2505 does in the movie.

Of course in the current climate of politically correct censorship, any profitable franchise has to beware of PC motivated prosecution (Duke U. Lacrosse?). This is particularly true now with PC devotees such as Nancy Pelosi and Barbara Boxer exerting such strong political force in the US currently.

How can a society descend into the stupidity portrayed so satirically in Idiocracy? Political correctness is an excellent start. By telling yourself that red is green, and two is five, you are well on the way to a voluntary pre-frontal leukotomy. Re-defining words with nonsense definitions works well in academia and the media.

DIVERSE (adj.)- Having a significant percentage of people who are not of European descent and/or are not heterosexual. Ex- "This party is very diverse!" trans. "This party has a relatively large proportion of black skinned, Muslim, Hispanic, east Asian, and/or gay people". Note that 'diverse' usually does not apply to gender. A party with an equal amount of Irish men and women is not diverse. Cf. leftspeak 'Diversity', where gender is considered.

DIVERSITY (n.)- A skin-color based quota. Sometimes expanded to include gender and/or sexual orientation. Ex- "Solomon Smith Barney is committed to diversity in the workplace" trans. "Solomon Smith Barney uses a skin color based quota when hiring new applicants". Ex- "This college lacks gender diversity" trans. "This college has too many men and thus requires a quota to admit more women".
FREE SPEECH (n.) a/k/a 'Freedom of Speech'- 1. Expression that agrees with and/or promotes left-wing dogma in public, whether through public speaking, music, movies, television, or in the news media. Ex- "We applaud Michael Moore for his commitment to Free Speech, but we find Mel Gibson's hateful movies to be offensive"; 2. Expression that is carefully crafted as to not offend non-Christians or anyone who is of non-European descent. Ex- "Art featuring dog poo smeared on the Virgin Mary is valuable free speech. A cartoon drawing of Muhammed is just plain hate speech". Ant. Leftspeak 'Hate Speech'.
HATE SPEECH (n.)- 1. Expression that disagrees with and/or challenges left-wing dogma. Ex- "Ann Coulter's book should be banned because we should not allow people to profit off of hate speech in New Jersey"; 2. Speech that could offend non-Christians or anyone of non-European descent. Ant. Leftspeak 'Free Speech'. See also: Leftspeak 'Hateful' (adj.)
MULTICULTURAL (adj.)- Multiracial. Leftspeak often confuses the concepts of 'culture' and 'race'. Not to be confused with the mod. Eng. 'multicultural', literally meaning "of many cultures". Syn. Leftspeak 'Diverse'.

MULTICULTURALISM (n.)- 1. The ideology that any person, place, thing, or concept related to the Western tradition is inferior to any person, place, thing, or concept related to any non-Western tradition; 2. The systematic subversion of Western Culture and Civilization though the media, schools, and the university system.

PROGRESSIVE (n., adj.)- 1. A Marxist, communist, or socialist (n.); 2. Inspired by Marxism, communism, or socialism (adj.) Syn. Leftspeak 'Liberal'. When the word 'liberal' began to become to closely connected with Marxism and socialism (and thus became unpopular among the public) during the late 1980s and 1990s, many 'liberals' abandoned that label in favor of 'progressive', which derives from the English word 'Progress', meaning to forge ahead. Cf. mod. Eng. 'Regress' (v.), meaning to go back or revert to an old form or way- perhaps a more apt description.

If one looked at the overall policy aims of leftists in academia, the media, and in political circles, one would almost suspect they had a backhanded genocide in mind. There is plenty of support for that suspicion in public view. But for now, let us just say that they are helping to bring about an Idiocracy.

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15 January 2007

Syphilis and China--A Growing Chancre

Syphilis rates in China have skyrocketed over the past 20 years. China's one-child policy combined with the Chinese preference for boy babies, has resulted in a shortage of women for young men to marry. So they go to prostitutes, who often have syphilis--and sometimes HIV.

...Cohen says China’s one-child policy has left fewer women for men to marry, so he says they are visiting prostitutes and becoming infected with syphilis.

Cohen notes the disease, which can cause devastating heart and neurological complications, is mild at first.

“Syphilis is kind of a masquerading problem; you might have an acute problem that’s turning into a chronic problem but you don’t know it as it’s turning into a chronic problem,” he said. “So, you might not seek health care. If you did seek health care, you might not go with the appropriate health care. You might just go with something cheaper.”

Studies have showed that people who are infected with the virus that causes AIDS also frequently have syphilis. Experts say co-infection is the result of exposure to known HIV risk factors, including unprotected sex. Syphilis sores also provide a gateway for HIV.

STDs were considered to have been abolished by the Communists in China, but more likely they were largely papered over by party policy-politically correct censorship. By 2000, openness in China allowed more windows for western trained researchers. It was clear by then that STDs were quickly getting out of control.

China is really two countries--one urban, educated, and sophisticated--the other rural and primitive. The chinese people are generally educated, but communist disruption of traditional values have left hundreds of millions of chinese lost. The control of the central government over the periphery is weakening, and the lack of a social safety net, poor medical care and disorganisation in the public health apparatus is having an adverse social effect on the relationship of the people with their government.


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A Cornucopia of Biosingularity!

Biosingularity Blog has long been among the top biology research news blogs. Snowcrash is a trained scientist and researcher, and is able to sift through bio-research topics efficiently to select good posts. Below are a few of today's important posts from Biosingularity:

Brain Self-Repair from Neural Stem Cells These adult stem cells may hold the key to reversing common neurodegenerative conditions--including dementias like Alzheimer's.

Genetically Matched Embryonic Stem Cells for Transplantation This is something I have been looking for. When this feat is routinely accomplished in human ESC's, the biosingularity should be just around the corner.

Anti-oxidant Protection from Alzheimer's Disease? Certainly turmeric/curcumin seems to exert significant protective effect from Alzheimer's, as a phyto-anti-oxidant.

New Clues for Regenerating a Limb or Spinal Cord

Genetic Regulation of Adult Stem Cell Growth
Being able to trigger the appropriate production of adult stem cells in situ is one of the many "holy grails" of rejuvenation research.

Several stories on the above list leap off the page as being potentially revolutionary. And that is just part of the listing of posts for one day. The name "Biosingularity" is certainly not a misnomer for the blog.
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14 January 2007

Accelerating Future--Top Ten Cybernetic Enhancements

Cybernetic enhancements are a necessary phase in the move to next level humans. Michael Anissimov posted this fascinating post about likely cybernetic/cyborg enhancements last week, but I was too busy to post at that time. Looking at it with a bit more time, I see that I was negligent in not pointing it out to readers.

Who can argue with this list of enhancements?
  1. Immortality
  2. Superintelligence
  3. Ability to Fly
  4. Autopoiesis
  5. Psychokinesis
  6. Easy Appearance Upgrades
  7. Super Strength
  8. Brain-Computer Interface
  9. Telephoto-Microscopic-Full Spectrum Vision
  10. Immunity to Disease

If I were making my wishlist, I would probably add "rapid healing from injury", and portable inertial dampers and matter/energy shields. If you have superintelligence, superstrength, and immortality, you can probably work out ways to get most of the things you want.

To be a next-level human, you also must have wisdom and character. Without wisdom and character, a superintelligent immortal would be a curse to humanity.

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13 January 2007


Character was formerly taught as part of religious training, when most families were religious. The embracing of secularism has meant a release from some ancient myths and superstitions, but it has also meant the neglect of training in character strengths that allow for maturity and competence. Without moral virtues, society is doomed--no matter how intelligent, well educated, or technologically advanced it may be.

For individuals or societies to be successful, they need to function competently in their environment. The "Wealth of Nations" depends on national IQ, human capital, cultural strengths, and the scope of government. If the government skims all their profit through exorbitant taxation, or over-regulates production, the talented producers will refuse to work--will even emigrate away.

Character is a basic part of human competence. But it isn't taught in government school. Government educated students whose parents don't take the time to instill strength of character in their children, will become part of the growing horde of neotenous incompetents in the west.

More than ten per cent of western adults are addicted to a lifestyle drug such as alcohol, nicotine, amphetamine, cocaine, or prescribed drugs. That figure is destined to skyrocket, as the current crop of government educated graduates and dropouts reaches the age of putative maturity. Mature people, competent people, wise people of character, do not need to stay stoned or high to face the world. A society full of immature adults hiding from reality is destined to fall.

Given that the replacement civilisation waiting in the wings is political islamism, it appears that the age-old scenario of decadence being overcome by barbarism is just a matter of time, once again. Of course, I have other ideas. Stay tuned.

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11 January 2007

This Video Is Always Good for Some Perspective

There are some nice "Powers of Ten" websites where you zoom in or out very rapidly, to gain a perspective of the universe of very large and very small objects.

This short video does something similar. Some people use it to meditate on the significance (or lack of significance) of everyday worries within the greater cosmos.

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10 January 2007

Climate Change--The Debate Continues

Climate Change is a fascinating topic--especially given that the climate has never been unchanging. You might call the term "climate change" somewhat redundant. Modern "Climate Change" is known more accurately as "catastrophic anthropogenic global warming (CAGW)," and it revolves around the concept of the trend change in the "global average surface temperature." But just a bit of reflection should reveal to most that there is no such thing as global average surface temperature--at least no such thing that can be measured. It is a fictional abstraction, a construct-of-convenience, used to simplify a complex system for public consumption and other less reputable ends.

Roger Pielke Sr., climatology professor at the Colorado State University, discusses this issue and a few other equally fascinating and controversial issues in this recent posting on his website:
The global average surface temperature trend is an icon of the climate change community (e.g. see). Global policies are based on this temperature.

The basic concept is that if the radiative forcing of the climate system is increased, the surface temperature will warm until the outgoing long wave radiation becomes in balance with the new radiative forcing. There is a lag between when the radiative forcing is imposed and when an equilibrium is achieved with the new forcing (this has been referred to as a temperature increase which is still in the “pipeline”). If the forcing changes over time, the surface temperature will not, of course, ever reach an equilibrium.

This lag is one of the reasons that we have recommended ocean heat content changes as a more appropriate climate metric for global warming and cooling, as there are no lags involved; just an accounting for the Joules of heat in the climate system, as discussed in

Pielke Sr., R.A., 2003: Heat storage within the Earth system. Bull. Amer. Meteor. Soc., 84, 331-335.

Moreover, an average global temperature can only be diagnosed; it cannot be directly measured. The approach has been to sample air temperatures across the globe in order to construct a global average surface temperature trend. However, there is a major problem with the use of the sampling of surface air temperature trends as is discussed below, for example, for nighttime minimum temperatures over land (which are used as part of the construction of the global average trend).

In our submitted paper

Pielke Sr., R.A., C. Davey, D. Niyogi, K. Hubbard, X. Lin, M. Cai, Y.-K. Lim, H. Li, J. Nielsen-Gammon, K. Gallo, R. Hale, J. Angel, R. Mahmood, S. Foster, J. Steinweg-Woods, R. Boyles , S. Fall, R.T. McNider, and P. Blanken, 2006: Unresolved issues with the assessment of multi-decadal global land surface temperature trends. J. Geophys. Research, submitted, we discuss this climate metric.

Pielke supplies links to some fascinating background reading, for the interested.

For the past fifteen years or so, climate science has been heavily influenced by political forces, which have had a biasing influence toward the more sensationalist climate model results.

While most climatologists agree that human activity is certainly influencing global climate, there is a significant debate about specifics--and the devil is in the details. People with superficial acquaintance with media reports about climate change have been well exposed to the sensationalist, catastrophic point of view. "Do something, even if it's wrong, dagnabbit!"

It may take some time, but the current dominance of the debate by the sensationalists will only last for a relatively short while longer.

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Uterus Transplants?

A recent CNN article about womb transplants brings up a few interesting issues.
Approximately 1,800 heart-beating, but brain-dead, organ donors were identified through an existing donor network. The removal of several organs took place in about 150 of the donors. Nine had specifically consented to donate their uterus.

The uterus was removed without complications in eight donors. Tissue testing suggested that the organs were, in fact, suitable for transplantation.

The researchers point out that the transplant of organs that are not needed to preserve life raises ethical issues. Thus far, the only human uterine transplant that has been performed was "controversial and unsuccessful."

Nevertheless, they note that surgical techniques have improved and the successful retrieval of a usable human uterus brings the possibility of such transplants closer.

"Our hope," the team concludes, "is to eventually restore reproductive function through transplantation of a human uterus."

First of all, uterine transplants would require the administration of anti-rejection drugs, like all other transplants. Is it really wise to encourage women on anti-rejection drugs to become pregnant--no matter how badly they wish to have children?

Second, if you are going to harvest uteri for transplant, why not go to a larger source of living donors, rather than limited cadavers? Why not harvest the uteri of nuns and other healthy young women who have made a rational choice to forego childbirth? Assuming it is possible to handle rejection issues without drugs that may be dangerous to the fetus.

Third, why not learn to maintain the uterus and fetus ex corpore (out of body), and avoid the rejection issue altogether? There is a significant need for artificial wombs for gestating fetuses ex corpore, and what better to use than a living human uterus artificially maintained?

It is important for researchers to develop good means for long term "cold storage" of organs of all types. Vitrification and other preservation methods would help considerably with problems of organ transport to point of need. For donated uteri, workable vitrification would allow children to be born from a uterus long after the original donor had died.

It seems that both the researchers and the journalists reporting the story are thinking much too small, too short term. The genuine possibilities for expanding reproductive choice are much larger.

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Stem Cell Sources--The More, The Merrier!

It is becoming clearer that rich sources of multipotential stem cells exist in tissues other than a developing embryo. This should be good news to everyone, not just to the so-called "pro-lifers."
researchers from the Institute for Regenerative Medicine at Wake Forest University and Children's Hospital Boston found that amniotic cells in the laboratory can grow into all of the major types of cells, dividing at the rate of once every 36 hours. Researchers coaxed amniotic fluid stem cells to develop into brain cells and injected them into the skulls of mice with diseased brains. The stem cells replaced the diseased areas and appeared to create new connections with surrounding healthy neurons, the researchers reported. Researchers also coaxed amniotic fluid stem cells to become bone cells and implanted them in a mouse. The study found the stem cells calcified and turned into dense, healthy bone. The researchers also coaxed amniotic fluid stem cells to develop into muscle, fat, blood vessel and liver cells. Stem cells extracted from amniotic fluid can be isolated starting at 10 weeks' gestation from fluid taken during tests performed to identify birth defects, according to the study. The stem cells, even after more than two years in the laboratory, did not show signs of aging or of having the potential to grow into tumors, the study found. Amniotic stem cells can be frozen for later use, the Post reports.

Multipotent stem cells can be found in amniotic fluid, cord blood, the placenta, menstrual blood, testicular tissue, and probably many more tissues. That should be good news--

--but imagine my surprise to find that some people are making a political issue out of this.

Some politically involved people are acting as if these scientific discoveries somehow threaten the primary cause of radical feminist activists--abortion rights. But that sense of threat is clearly delusional, and evidence of paranoia.

Personally, I have no use for either extreme end of the political spectrum. Especially when they involve themselves in areas where they are completely incompetent.

Embryonic stem cell research holds incredible promise for the future. As the potential benefits and risks of stem cell therapies become better understood, it will probably be more important to make products of embryonic stem cells more widely available. Just as important is to understand all the potential sources of stem cells, and what they can be used for.

If adult stem cells can be used to create replacement tissues and organs, at least you know the cells will be MHC compatible if the recipient is also the donor. It may be discovered that adult stem cells will not work. Or a way to make embryonic stem cell products immunologically compatible with a wider range of recipients may be discovered. It's too early to say.

It is not too early to call political critics of non-embryonic stem cell research morons. As for critics of embryonic stem cell research, in the long run they are irrelevant.

Update: A reader has kindly emailed some specifics on the political reasons for certain persons publicly reacting against the amniotic fluid stem cell research. As I had thought, embryonic stem cells public proponents feel threatened by promising discoveries in non-embryonic stem cell research. This is unfortunate, but it is a good example of what happens when politics has undue influence on science.

It is extremely important that both embryonic stem cell research and non-embryonic stem cell research go forward. One are of research should not get all the funding, given all the potential problems that cannot be anticipated with one line or another.

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