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The war for your brain
An article from The Telegraph called Future wars 'to be fought with mind drugs'
has been getting a bit of commentary lately. The idea is that advances in neuroscience offer the prospect of change in the way in which wars are fought. No longer just bullets and bombs, but land mines releasing brain-altering chemicals, scanners reading soldiers' minds and devices boosting eyesight and hearing could all one figure in arsenals.
However, the most interesting commentary on the whole issue comes from Susie-Q
so, let’s connect the dots with this one shall we? big pharma- check, defense industry- check, torture department- check, mental health services (see big pharma)- check. is there enough money in the world to fill these coffers?
Eisenhower warned of the dangers of the military-industrial complex, but I doubt that he could have foreseen the military-phrama complex. While there is the possibility that this sort of sci-fi stuff, and most of it is just people talking through their hats, could make some wars slightly less lethal, military technology finds it way back home. Does anyone think it's likely that governments would want this sort of technology to control the populace?
Is climate change caused by hot air?
The notion that the American Physical Society (APS) has reversed its stance on climate change and is now proclaiming that many of its members disbelieve in human-induced global warming has been making it's way around the net. Articles stating this have recently appeared on a number of right leaning blogs
. Most point to a non-peer reviewed paper
by Christopher Monckton of Brenchley stating the conclusion is that, perhaps, there is no “climate crisis”, and that currently-fashionable efforts by governments to reduce anthropogenic CO2 emissions are pointless, may be ill-conceived, and could even be harmful.
One problem with the idea that the APS has changed its position is that it's not true. Here's what the APS
home page says:
Emissions of greenhouse gases from human activities are changing the atmosphere in ways that affect the Earth's climate. Greenhouse gases include carbon dioxide as well as methane, nitrous oxide and other gases. They are emitted from fossil fuel combustion and a range of industrial and agricultural processes.
The evidence is incontrovertible: Global warming is occurring. If no mitigating actions are taken, significant disruptions in the Earth’s physical and ecological systems, social systems, security and human health are likely to occur. We must reduce emissions of greenhouse gases beginning now.
I don't want to attribute bias to the bloggers who jumped on this story. Most of them are not scientists and don't distinguish between peer-reviewed articles and conference papers. Many conferences base acceptance on an abstract only but it should be noted that the Monckton's paper was presented at a conference on Physics and Society, not at a conference on the physics of climate change. I don't have the background to know whether Monckton's work is correct or not. I don't think he's a climate scientist, but rather a former policy adviser
to the Thatcher administration. I'll leave the details to folks who know more about climate models. However, it is curious how people can deny the results of thousands of models that don't match certain prejudices and accept the one that matches them.
I used to be involved in AI (artificial intelligence). I was thinking about the subject a bit today, partly because of a conversation with a student and partly because of the article, Like Minds
, in Wired. I got out of the AI field for several reasons. Mainly, I was in the commercial software end and I wasn't enjoying it or making any money. Also, I had no faith in the whole project. The wired article made me recall what bothered me about the field. I didn't believe that intelligence
was something that could be built, i.e imposed from the outside. A quote, whose source I can't seem to remember or find says "To be intelligent doesn't mean that you have to eat, shit, and die." I think just the opposite. I think to have general purpose intelligence, you have to do all three.
I have no quarrel with weak AI, the idea that we can make devices that behave intelligently in restricted circumstances. That has been demonstrated quite well. I think general intelligence can't be separated from biology. It's a biological function, an evolutionary adaptation of a species existing in a particular environment. If we're going to make a general purpose intelligent device, my bet is that it will be through some combination of natural and synthetic biology. If we were to make a thing as intelligent as a human, I suspect it would behave a lot like a human.
Would an artificial intelligence worry about its artificial death?
Proponents of creationism and intelligent design (ID) often argue that competing "theories" should be taught in public school along with the standard theory of evolution. Leaving aside the issue of most creationists and IDers confusing, either deliberately or out of ignorance, the common meaning of theory with its use in science, I wonder if they realize what they are asking for. It would be an interesting exercise to review creationism, ID, and the current theory of evolution as scientific theories. I say review, because that's what has already happened. In his book Living with Darwin: Evolution, Design, and the Future of Faith
, Philip Kitcher points out that creationism and ID have been tried and rejected by science.
Around the time of Newton, most scientists were creationists, perhaps not young earth creationists
, but most believed in some sort of spontaneous creation of species at a fixed time in the past. However, evidence from fossils and geology slowly began to erode the validity of this view as a valid scientific hypothesis. By the time of Darwin, a form of spontaneous creation of species held sway, essentially a form of ID. In fact, Darwin himself considered the issue of ID, and effectively refuted the idea.
Contrary to what the creationists and IDers argue, both theories have been given a chance and rejected. Bring them back into the classroom would just bring back dead science. If given a fair hearing, both theories would be revealed as being contrary to the evidence and rejected again.
12 Florida Schools Districts Pass Anti-Evolution Resolutions
/. is reporting that 12 school districts in Florida have passed resolutions
stating that they are "opposed to teaching evolution as a fact'’. Part of the problem, in my opinion, is the disingenuous use of the word theory by the leaders of the anti-evolution movement. A scientific theory
, as has been pointed out many times, is a testable model of the manner of a set of natural phenomena, capable of predicting future observations and capable of being tested through experiment or otherwise falsified through empirical observation. Newton and Einstein presented theories of gravity. Quantum electrodynamics is a theory. Darwinian evolution is a theory. These, and a number of others, are solid descriptions of the natural world. The leaders of the anti-evolution movement try to make it seem like a scientific theory is just conjecture. They know better, but use the confusion to encourage people like the Florida school boards to try and get their peculiar brand of religion into public school classrooms.
An anti-evolution movement is as silly as an anti-gravity movement.
A picture of a memory.
In today’s issue of the Journal of Neuroscience, a new study shows that synaptic connections in a region of rats’ brains critical to learning change shape when the rodents learn to navigate a new, complex environment. When drugs are administered that block these changes, the rats don’t learn, confirming the essential role the shape change plays in the production of stable memory.
This technique could someday lead to mapping the distribution of memory across the brain.
The emotional hearing aid
Children diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome often have difficulties operating in complex social environments. They are often unable to read or understand other people s emotions This paper
reports on the emotional hearing aid, a portable assistive computer designed to help children with Asperger s Syndrome read and react to facial expressions of the people they interact with.
Dover on the screen
It appears that the Dover Pa evolution vs. intelligent design trial is going to be the subject of a Nova
production. I grew up near Dover, I think this is doubly interesting.
The climate change "debate"
IANACS (I am not a climate scientist), but then neither are most of the people taking sides in the climate "debate", for example, Rush Limbaugh
. I don't like to encourage attention to Rush, or encourage anyone to visit his web site. However, he seems like a good example of what is wrong with the coverage of this issue. Rush likes anecdotes, such as a story about one scientist, Nir Shaviv
, (HINACSE, he is not a climate scientist either), an astrophysicist who has a theory involving cosmic rays, solar wind and the climate. I don't know much about the theory and I'll bet Rush doesn't either. Rush managed to spell Shaviv's name wrong on his web site also. The problem as I see it is that this is the typical of the whole "debate". The climate change deniers have anecdotes and very few facts. They trot out one or two scientists who they claim doubt the anthropomorphic climate effects and that's their argument. I just got done watching Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth
. It lays out its case reasonably well, using available research. There are many web sites where the science of climate change are explained in a way that is understandable to an intelligent lay person. I have yet to see anything as detailed as An Inconvenient Truth
from the deniers. Why not? Why can't they make a case, if as they claim, the anthropomorphic climate change hypothesis is full of holes? This seems reminiscent of the creationism/evolution "debate". One side as facts and science; the other has anecdotes and faith. I think the "debate" may be over.
President Bush has said that taking action against global warming would hurt the US economy. Paul Volcker
, the former chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve, thinks otherwise.
The power of the average
One of the things I struggle with in my work is how to best represent solutions in a high dimensional space. Most of my work involves analyzing biological sequence data. Typically, I'm looking for sites where proteins bind to DNA. The sites are short substrings in the longer DNA sequence strings. Usually, we don't know where the substrings are or what they look like, so we try to find a series of sequences likely to contain binding sites for a common protein. A given protein will bind to a DNA substring with a given pattern, but the pattern is not usually exact. We attack this problem with a variety of statistical techniques, most commonly something called Gibbs sampling. The idea is that we look for a series of substrings exhibiting a common pattern and are different than rest of the sequence strings.
The number of possible binding sites, i.e. substrings, in a typical data set is enormous. It's impossible to enumerate them so probabilistic methods are common. In these approaches, you sample solutions from the solution space in proportion to their probability. Each solution is scored in some manner, for example the posterior probability of the collection of substrings and surrounding strings. Usually, the collection of substrings with the largest probability value is the one reported. However, this probability is often on the order of 10^(-30) or less. It may be the optimal collection of substrings but how descriptive is it of the probability space of the solutions. It's likely that the protein "sees" these sites in some sort of a stochastic manner. How can we characterize the probability space better.
One approach is report an "average" solution, called a centroid. The idea is that once the sampling process converges, it will sample from the posterior probability space and the average of that sampling is a better description of the space.
I ran across a collection of photos by Idris Khan
. Khan make layered photographs from other photos. Khan aggregates the work of other photographers such as Bernd and Hilla Becher, famous for their vast photographic collections of buildings and industrial sites. The photos form translucent layers, making a composite average of the original images commonality in the images - a centroid image.
Pluto, you'll always be a planet to me.
Pluto has been downgraded from planet to dwarf planet by the International Astronomical Union in Prague. The new definition of a planet is a celestial body that orbits around a star while not being a star itself. It must have enough mass for its own gravity to form a near spherical shape and clear its neighborhood around its orbit. Pluto’s orbit intersects with the orbit of Neptune.
I was always a fan of poor Pluto, so cold and far away from the sun. Now, it's just one of those dwarf planets floating around the edge of the solar system. Such is fame, one day you're a planet, the next just another dwarf planet.
Pope fires astronomer over evolution debate
Pope Benedict XVI has fired
Father George Coyne, director of the Vatican Observatory, after the American Jesuit publicly contradicted the Holy See's endorsement of "intelligent design". Father Coyne responded publicly to Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna, a former student of the Pope, who wrote and article supporting intelligent design in an article in the New York Times in July last year.
It's too bad that the church reacted this way. Religion doesn't do a very good job of describing the physical world and should leave that to people who do a better job, i.e. scientists.
Who is the intelligent designer?
The Dover monkey trials
are starting this week. Actually, there are no monkeys involved (unless my friend Todd shows up in his gorilla suit). It's really about whether intelligent design (ID) can be taught in a biology class. There is so much wrong with ID, that it's hard to list. Instead, check out the Wikipedia article
and this review
. ID is really just creationism dressed up for the big city. It's just a "god of the gaps" argument. It's an especially a weak argument. Most of the gaps that ID adherents point to are not gaps any way. An argument that says "we don't undertand this, it must be god (or the intelligent designer)" is arguing from ignorance. Once that ignorance is overcome, the argument is no longer valid. It's bad science and bad theology.
My hope is that the court will reject the claims of the ID proponents and declare that ID is an attempt to introduce a specific brand of Christian theology into the public school classrooms. However, courts are often unpredictable. It would be a disaster for public education if school science curricula becomes even weaker. Molecular biology is only understandable in the light of evolution. My own field, computational biology, deals largely with DNA and protein sequence analysis. We use evolutionary theory to design our algorithms. ID does nothing for us. As a practical matter, ID provides no new tools for the computational biologist. In my eyes, it's not only wrong, but useless.
Who is the designer? Science isn't about the supernatural. If ID were true, the obvious step is to investigate the properties of the designer. ID is largely silent on this issue. That's because they have only one possible designer in mind, a peculiar version of the Christian God. ID is about religion, not science.
A 1st amendment issue
has also arisen in the Harrisburg trial. Two reporters from the York Daily Record/Sunday News and York Dispatch might face a fine and or jail time if they refuse to give depositions Tuesday in a court case over intelligent design in the Dover Area School District. Joseph Maldonado, a freelance writer with the York Daily Record/Sunday News, and Heidi Bernhard-Bubb, a freelancer for The York Dispatch, will have to decide whetehr to answer questions during depositions about what they saw and heard at Dover Area School Board meetings in June 2004. These folks are not big time journalists. They are stringers for the local paper. I'm sure they never dreamed that covering the Dover school board meetings would land them at the center of a 1st amendment issue.
American adults in general do not understand what molecules are (other than that they are really small). Fewer than a third can identify DNA as a key to heredity. Only about 10 percent know what radiation is. One adult American in five thinks the Sun revolves around the Earth NY Times
The future comes rushing at us and America is looking the other way.
If intelligent design is to be discussed in science class, it's imperative that all sides be allowed to participate in the debate. The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster
demands equal time. The church offers a particularly tasty alternative to ID.
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