Tuesday, March 31, 2009

I luv teh Intertoobz

Like you don't know that already. Right, here's a wee handful of fun bits and bobs I've encountered lately.

This personality test seems way off on enough counts for me not to take it seriously. However, I found the delivery most interesting. Check it out. 10-q to BOng for teh link.

If, like me, you found yourself somewhat affronted by the above test's horrendous misjudgement of your character, here's a better one - the OCEAN test. Facebook has one, too, and it used to diagnose you with the closest fitting psychological disorder based on your results. I was a schizoid. Alas, that feature is gone now, no doubt victim to some legal threat or other...

Understand Malay? Here's an annoying little something I kept finding in the ads on my Facebook:

Here's an essay by George Orwell that's just so full of win I had to share it. 10-q to Rench for bringing it to my attention.

Cats are fun.

And just to balance things out, here's the meanest frickin' cat. Ever.

Earth Hour, my ass...

Regular readers will know I'm fairly fierce in my criticism of local papers, so today, I'd like to dissect a short article typical of the Star's standard of journalism. Here's the Star on Earth Hour. My comments in red:

*Article starts*

550MW dip in power use for Earth Hour

PETALING JAYA: Electricity consumption dipped by some 550MW during Earth Hour on Saturday. Thank you for wasting even more ink on reiterating the title. Anyway, 550MW is a completely meaningless number if you don't actually state what that 550MW is in relation to.

This, said Tenaga Nasional Bhd (TNB) chief executive officer Datuk Seri Che Khalib Mohamad Noh, was equivalent to the consumption of about 14 million 40-watt fluorescent bulbs. 550MW = 550W X 1,000,000 = 14 million 40W bulbs. Well done! Yet ANOTHER reiteration of a completely meaningless number! This time, using the word "million" because it just feels really nice to say it.

“Everything went smoothly and we were able to respond to the slightly lower demand without any operational glitches,” he said in a press statement yesterday. So the fuck what? No, really, that's like saying I drove on the highway, let go of the accelerator for 5 seconds, and OMFG my car still works!

He was commenting on the hour-long lights-out campaign to create awareness on the need to combat global warming. *Facepalm*

However, Che Khalib added that demand picked up rapidly at 9.30pm to follow the normal Saturday night pattern. Captain Obvious is obvious.

Many Malaysians joined the annual campaign, which began in Sydney in 2007, by switching off their lights for an hour from 8.30pm. Captain Obvious is obvious(er).

*Article ends*

Okey dokey, let me try to fill in some of the
yawning great big gaps in this utterly worthless nasal discharge that the Star calls an "article", and try to put into perspective: How big of a dent is 550MW for an hour?

In 2006, M'sia consumed ~96 billion kWh. Let's assume, for simplicity's sake, that that amount is spread nice and even over the whole year, so we just divide that number by the number of hours in a year, 8,760.

96 billion kWh = 96,000,000 MWh
96,000,000 MWh / 8,760 hrs = ~10,960 MW.

Now, 550 MW is just about 5% of 10,960 MW. A 5% drop, for one hour, out of the 8,760 in a year. And that's just using the estimated c
onsumption in 2006. Take a look at this*:

So, if 550MW for one hour is about 0.0006% of the consumption in 2006, how much of a dent to you suppose it made to our consumption in happy 2009, hmm? Somebody, please check my numbers, because they're just so pathetic, I have trouble believing them myself.

Now, if you believe that Earth Hour is meant to be a symbolic gesture, say so. If you think that Earth Hour will set a precedent of some sort, and create a greater awareness of the need to be green, fine, but it would be nice to see some numbers attached to the cute platitudes. But DON'T wave the number "550 MW for one hour" in my face and jump around and celebrate because you think you've made a difference, because WAKE UP and SMELL the Ipoh White, you fucking haven't.

And this is what passes for science reporting in the Star. Right. I've got more science reporting kung fu in my frickin' toenail clippings. And don't even ask about other M'sian energy-related figures like, ooh, total exports and generating capacity. Really. Don't.

*Data from here. Except for the 2006 figure, which is off the CIA site.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Wanna know Japanese culture and history? Start with the Yen

An interesting conversation came up in Jap class today, but alas, it was cut short, mianly by my atrocious inability to express myself adequately in Japanese. So, as a quick break from pondering the depressing inevitabilities of the Culture War, I'd like to quickly record my thoughts on the matters discussed, partly so I can come back and see if I can say them in Japanese later, partly for the benefit of classmates bored enough to come and read my blog.

The matter of Japan's cultural idiosyncrasy came up in class, and all were at a loss to explain why Japan is so damn... well, Japanese. You know, the sheer open-mindedness, the intense focus on etiquette, the incredible work ethic, the high pressure lifestyle... stuff like that. So, me being me, I brought up the matter of Bushido. The teacher pointed out that throughout Japan's history, the warrior class had always been a teeny tiny minority, and thus were in no position to significantly affect the long-term cultural evolution of Japan. And here I knew instantly that my teacher had not read Nitobe Inazo's book. Alas, my counter argument fell flat on its face, for here I did find the limits of my Jap vocabulary. So, what follows is what I wanted to say at the time, but couldn't.

It does not matter that the vast majority of Japan's population comprised peasant farmers and craftsmen during the age of samurai. What matters is that there existed samurai to uphold the ideal of Bushido. Those who lived the ideal, however few, would live forever in the stories told of their deeds. Bushido would survive, not as a code of ethics followed to the letter by every strata of society, but as a distant ideal, practiced by heroes, real or fictitious, a faraway moral peak that everyone else aspires to. This is one way in which Bushido filters down even to the lowliest peasant, as told in much greater detail in Nitobe's book, which seems very plausible to me.

What English-speaking boy hasn't heard the tales of Arthur and his knights, then fantasized of performing great feats of valour and gallantry with sword and shield? Is there a Chinese speaker on Earth who has never heard of Guan Yu, Yue Fei or Wu Song? On the Japanese side, who in Honshu knows nothing of Uesugi Kenshin, Takeda Shingen or Chuushingura? All these stories are centuries old, and have captured enough imaginations to leave an impact on the cultural mores of the societies that birthed them. Now, in the 21st year of Heisei, there are no bushi, but the very shadow of Bushido is sufficient to keep Japan a breed apart from every other modern nation.

Bushido lives, but not in the form stipulated in Hagakure. It is manifest in various aspects of Japanese society. It is clearest, perhaps, in the spiritual aspect of Japanese martial arts, in such concepts as zanshin, rei or fudoushin. It is apparent elsewhere, in etiquette, in the respect held for learning, in their sense of pride... I see these things, and though maybe some parallels may be found in other cultures, it is the confluence of these aspects of Japanese culture that makes it uniquely Japanese, and it appears to me that these aspects all find their roots in Bushido.

This is NOT to say that Japanese culture and Bushido are one and the same! It's an easy trap to fall into, but to be sure, there are many things that are uniquely Japanese that have little to no connection with Bushido - Noh, ikebana, Kiyohime, Momotaro and a taste for raw meat, to name but a few. In bringing up Bushido, I merely hold it up as a word which best describes the single greatest factor that makes Japan Japanese.

Of course, I'm still an empiricist, and hence am very much open to the suggestion that I could be completely wrong and, as always, am most welcoming of any comments or criticisms of my observations. Now, if you'll excuse me, there's a litter box that requires my immediate attention...

Friday, March 27, 2009

If you haven't picked a side, then you're part of the battlefield (Part 2)

For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. - Ephesians, 6:12

Sounds good, doesn't it? Sounds like even way back when, "St" Paul had his own bone to pick with government corruption, perhaps a wealthy and powerful merchant, that is, capitalist pig, or two, eh? Just goes to show that back then, people were at least as stupid, simple-minded and naive as they are now.

I have some difficulty with the concepts of good and evil. One man's good has a way of being another man's evil. You know, like how one man's freedom fighter is another man's terrorist. When you're young and stupid, the world seems so black and white. Looking back, I can't help but laugh at how I enjoyed those silly old 80s action movies. The beautiful people were obviously the good guys, and no matter how many bad guys they faced, everyone knew that good always wins in the end. Being the bad guy meant you were either a hopelessly malcoordinated, cockeyed meat puppet waiting to be killed, or a diabolically powerful evil genius whose fatal flaw is, for some reason, gloating far more than any reasonable human being would. It was a Captain Kirk world of shoot-the-ugly-ones, shag-the-hot-ones.

Then, assuming, of course, that you keep your eyes and ears open, you see a bit more of the real world. We find that most of the black and white doesn't actually exist in the real world. And that what remains is, naturally, grey. Even if we were to take the broad view that evil is "knowing better and doing worse", we never see in real life evil done for the sake of evil, like some Saturday morning cartoon villain*. There's always something behind it - mental illness, the profit motive, escalation of an existing conflict, and perhaps most insidious of them all, delusion...

Dichotomizing the world to fit ideals of good and evil is childish and stupid. Deep in the heart of the very worst conflicts mankind has known are simple-minded fools who could only see the black and white, who divide the world into Us and Them and what we forget, all too often, is that these people whom we so quickly label as tyrants and psychopaths are backed, every step of the way by mobs of perfectly ordinary people, like you and me (minus the ability to think critically) who bought into the bullshit.

Bullshit is relentless. Anyone living in any modern society is mired in it, every day of his life. As any marketing executive, clergyman or politician would know, making up bullshit is much, much easier than disproving it. The good empiricist is, for the most part, shielded from it all by the unfailing power of empiricism and a skeptical mind.

Perhaps it seems cold or soulless, maybe even elitist. The empiricist looks upon many things that many people hold very dear indeed with disdain, most notably faith. In subjecting everything we perceive to the stringent standards of empirical truth, we cut through the tides of bullshit, and see far more of the real world than would more credulous minds. This is a double-edged sword.

On one hand, the observable universe has a great many wonders to offer. There are few intellectual exercises as beautiful and rewarding as tracing how the relatively simple mechanism of evolution by natural selection gives rise to the myriad forms of life on Earth. It is humbling to learn the lives of atoms, and of the terrific forces that came together to form this planet and its brethren, and their stately procession around our happy yellow sun. It is gratifying to see the scientific method put to use, to see new technologies emerge to push up our quality of life up by a couple of notches.

On the other hand, it is disheartening to see just how much our species has devoted to the creation and perpetuation of bullshit. It is sad to see young minds filled with myths and prejudice, to be taught to talk to imaginary entities and to learn to hate anyone they find talking to a different imaginary entity. It is appalling to see a scripture full of inconsistencies and outright lies held up as the gospel truth to the exclusion of empirically gained knowledge. It is utterly infuriating to watch people wreak large scale suffering upon each other, for no real reason other than mass wilful ignorance. And on a more down-to-earth note, it's painfully tedious to wade through the meaningless tripe that chokes our mass media.

I've heard any number of believers say it takes strength to be faithful, that it takes a certain kind of power to believe with all your might in something for which there is no evidence. To me, that is simply a child turning a word around to shoehorn the world into a narrow, narrow mind. Faith is craven cowardice. It is letting the animal in us triumph over the discipline and vigilance necessary to maintain a skeptical worldview. It is succumbing to a base desire to want to believe in comforting lies. It is opening the floodgates to unlimited delusion. This is not a silly game of semantics. This is putting denial in the spotlight, showing it for the wretched little beast that it is.

I for one have no illusions about the Culture War. However strident the voices of Reason, there are simply far too many easily absorbed delusions out there. There are too many sheeple, and for every one who finally succumbs to clear thinking, many, many more will leap in to take his place, fueling the bullshit engine that drags humanity ever closer to environmental meltdown.

More to come in the next post in this series....

* Or at least the Saturday morning cartoon villains that I'm used to, e.g. Cobra Commander, Mumm-Ra, Skeletor... Ooh, my age is showing now...

Short and sharp

I don't think I'm mistaken in saying that the greatest challenge to the empiricist today is getting through to the people who've never really paid any attention to the way scientific progress is made. And, of course, one of the first, biggest hurdles to get past is the great lie that is religion. Here's a brief argument against the Abrahamic god that popped into my head last night, while I was in that place between sleep and consciousness, no thanks to my cats' insistence on playing tag under my blanket.

Take the Israel-Palestine conflict. You'll be hard pressed to find believers more devoted than the ones you find killing each other over there. Now let's assume God exists. Don't you think by now he'd have said something? Perhaps a little "Hi! Actually, you're both worshipping the same guy - Me! So kindly stop killing each other and play nice, ok?" How many prayers do you suppose are going unanswered over there, hmm? I mean, he wasn't exactly shy with the miracles in the Bible, was he? You say he's all-knowing, all-loving and all-powerful, but somehow, something doesn't quite fit. Epicurus phrased it very well:

God is all-powerful.
God is perfectly good.
Evil exists.
If God exists, there would be no evil.
Therefore God does not exist.
-- Epicurus

Though in the interests of keeping an open mind, I think it's only fair to include the possibility that God exists, but does not know of the foolishness that occurs in His name (so all-knowing is out) or He simply does not care (so all-loving is out). If we discarded the "perfectly good" clause, then that could go some way towards explaining the present state of the Middle East: He LIKES people killing each other in His name! But, of course, this raises the question of who on Earth would be stupid enough to go about bowing and praying to a nasty little sod like that.

Hence, the stance of the atheist:

Either a theist God does not exist or he does not give a shit.

And if you keep your eyes open and pay some attention when you look at our world, you will find the atheists are right: God is a fiction, concocted to play security blanket because ignorance is kinda scary and people too dumb to think for themselves needed to fill the vast empty gulfs in their knowledge with something nice and comforting. One thing led to another, and here we are now, with huge chunks of humanity still trying to talk to imaginary friends.

Bugger. I read that again and it came out a little harsher than I'd intended. So much for being gentle...

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Something Serious from Something Awful

Here's an interesting change of pace from the SA Forum goons. Gaze thee upon the shit humans will put each other through in the name of profit. Forgive me for stating the obvious, but, assuming even half of this is true, there are a lot of men in suits out there that the world could do without.

Friday, March 20, 2009

If you haven't picked a side, then you're part of the battlefield (Part 1)

There's a certain intellectual glamour to the idea of a Culture War, and, me being me, I led myself to wonder if wasn't simply a figment of the imagination; a fiction, created by those who would claim to take responsibility for popular culture into their own hands, for any number of reasons, whether it be out of altruism, hubris or plain old lust for power. In this light, one can see how it is in the interests of certain outspoken charlatans to perpetuate the myth of a culture war, to fabricate unseen enemies eroding the morals of the common man so they can set themselves up as the bastions of righteousness against the insidious influence of a "radical Left aided by a cultural elite that detests Christianity and finds Christian moral tenets reactionary and repressive".

It seems to me that there is in fact a Culture War, but it's scope and scale reaches far beyond the petty visions of Buchanan or Bush. It reaches deep into every society, or at least ones with the affluence necessary to support an intellectual elite, and has raged for as long as such societies have existed. Oddly enough, I'm not actually sure if it can really be termed a 'war'. But maybe that's just my being averse to using the word 'war', having seen it wielded far too often as a blunt instrument of cheap propaganda; War on Drugs, War on Terror, War on Dengue*... Anyway, the reason I'm not so sure 'Culture War' is an appropriate term is this: Is it still a war if situational forces make it an inevitability?

To me, war suggests an aggressor of some sort. For instance, if I took a bunch of gladiators, split them into two teams, then left them to it, that doesn't strike me as war. War can break out for any number of reasons, but there generally isn't an overarching situational presence pushing two sides into conflict. This so-called "Culture War" seems to me to be an unavoidable friction caused by the intellectual gap between different strata of society. On one side are the intellectual elite, the best and brightest, who see the big picture and try their utmost to warn society of the dangers ahead. On the other are those who seek to keep their fellow men in the dark, whether in the name of profit, power, or simply because they are compelled by a delusion which they happen to subscribe to. And the battlefield is made of the simpler, impressionable minds in between.

Capitalism further exacerbates this, because it's in the best interests of those with a product to sell for as many people as possible to be stupid and gullible, hence the ceaseless efforts of marketing executives to spam our lives with as much useless garbage as possible, to weave the ridiculous illusion that our lives are made that much better by this handbag or that handphone, that the personal lives of celebrities are actually worth knowing about, that your worth as a person is determined by the petty trinkets you gird your bodies with... But, while this accelerates the decay of the majority's intellect, it also pushes enough money around the economy that greater levels of affluence are achieved, thus giving the intellectual elite to that little bit more resources. Demand for flashier technology pushes engineers and scientists to ever greater heights of expertise. Capitalism makes the smart smarter and the dumb dumber.

But, it takes a lot of dumb to produce a little smart, and when you couple this state of affairs with democracy, well... Is that not what how we have come to be where we are? An exasperated intelligentsia, struggling to be heard, doing everything in their power to make sure the mistakes of the past are not repeated, pitted against the masses. The credulous masses, played like fools by snake-oil salesmen, faith healers, clergymen, populist and anti-intellectualist movements, sensationalist media, well-meaning but woefully naive hippies...

In every age, the intellectual elite have gazed out upon the masses, pondered and despaired. Yet somehow, despite all this world throws at us and, more amazingly, despite the horrors we inflict upon each other, we bumble through. Some may draw optimism from that, but I'm not so sure. In ages past, thanks to limitations of communication and transportation technology, when a civilization made a catastrophic mistake**, it was fairly localized, and the civilization would vanish, get consumed by neighbours, or some such. And in the age of spear and sword, there were far fewer of us then, so even the most cataclysmic wars then, were merely insignificant squabbles compared to the horrors of 20th century war.

But this is the age of the internet. When one big and powerful nation messes up, everybody suffers. You need only look at the stock indices across the globe to see just how closely we're all connected, whether we like it or not. This is also the age of the nuke. It takes one war, one real war to scour this planet clean of human life, or at least blast us centuries into the past. This is not an age whereby humanity can simply "bumble through". Who knows what the next great mistake will cost us all? Post-apocalyptic futures make for compelling fiction but I wouldn't want to live in one.

I'll continue this later, I think... This is gettting longer than I'd anticipated.

* A uniquely Malaysian thing, I think.

** Think Rome, Easter Island, the Anasazi...

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The teacher is a mecha!

And kind of hot, actually. Well, she would be, if she didn't sit on the zomg-freakout bit of the uncanny valley:

More from MSN News. I don't know about you, but I think she looks a bit familiar... Ah, here we go:

Monday, March 16, 2009


Photoshop fun from b3ta:

And a couple from Something Awful:

And since I can't be arsed to make another post, here's a few fun links:

http://www.badscience.net/ - Ben Goldacre keeping an eye out for the bullshit in our dumb world. Mostly focused on the medical profession. If you haven't already, do check out his book, Bad Science. It's great fun, 'onest guv...

Two steps closer to the GITS future? Nah. Last time I looked, there's still a hell of a long way to go, nanotech-wise, before we can start hooking our brains directly into the net. But a hawt pair of legs is a good start.

Are you a geek? Can you juggle? If not, shame on you! Here's a site from which I learnt almost my entire repertoire of balls, rings, clubs, knives and torches. Veeery old, but still useful. Extra geek points if you learn siteswap notation.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Meanwhile, in the world of medicine...

There was a time when I would have felt at least some measure of righteous indignation on finding out about the dastardly deeds of Bernard Madoff. USD 60 billion is nothing to sneeze at, and that kind of money could have done a lot of good, especially now, in a world where there's really never enough. These days, however, such things feel... normal. They feel like the status quo, that a Bernard Madoff lurks wherever there's an abundance of gullible people easily tempted by easy money. And that's the awful tragedy of it, I suppose, that such things have become "normal".

So it came as no real surprise to me when, in the field of medicine, another unscrupulous wretch was uncovered. The URL says it all, really:


That having been said, I am irked by this, which is to say, this pisses me off a lot more than the Madoff case. Why? Oh, where to start...

I'd like to think that medicine is a science. I find it comforting to believe that the body of medical knowledge is acquired through means empirical, i.e. placebo-controlled trials, peer-reviewed journals, checks and balances, etc. Matters of health are close to everyone's hearts* so an insane amount of time and money and hope are invested in medical research. Especially money, as Ben Goldacre points out. So it's a harsh and unsettling reminder to all just how badly the medical profession has been compromised by the profit motive when we see someone like Reuben rise to prominence and bamboozle everyone with falsified data and unscrupulous practices. Forging signatures, for fuck's sake!

So what does it mean for the profession when such filth as Dr Reuben turns up? Obviously there is a serious flaw in the system, and this is no small matter, given that the word of one prominent doctor can, at the same time, earn said doctor hundreds of thousands of dollars and cost millions of lives. And it doesn't stop there, mind you. Even after the perpetrator is caught, the profession is dealt a serious blow to its credibility, sending sod knows how many thousands of the paranoid and gullible scurrying off for alternative treatments. You know the type. Crystals, homeopathy, laying of hands, quacks, maybe some magic ointment from the local shaman**. How many more lives do you suppose that will cost?

And it ripples out still further. Medicine, to the uninitiated, is, like many sciences, an impenetrable bastion of diabolically complex terminology, and, by association, a failure in the field of medicine is a failure for all of science. Because of the taint of one scumbag, the boffins are all that little bit less trustworthy. One more justification for the anti-intellectualist, the Luddite, the religious conservative...

Perhaps you may think that people aren't that stupid. I think not. Maybe it could just be because I'm in Malaysia. I could walk into any shopping mall*** and rope in, say, 100 people, and safely bet that less than 5 of them could tell you, in the simplest terms, what is the scientific method. I'd expect very much the same rate of scientific literacy in, say, an accounting firm, Republican states and damn near any house of worship you can name.

This whole Dr Reuben debacle is indicative of an awful failure at so many levels it's embarassing to look at them. Because the medical establishment failed to police itself, his papers got published. Because society fails to police it's corporations, conflicts of interest arise within the medical profession. Because of failures in the education system, the greater part of the populace is ignorant, gullible and scientifically illiterate.

And this is in the USA, mind you, where, despite the best efforts of the Republicans, groundbreaking research is still being carried out in many fields of science. Can you imagine how deeply the cancer of ignorance spreads in Malaysia, where the highest one can aspire to is come out on top of a scrum of vapid, inane, consumerist cubicle-jockeys? One need only turn on the TV or the radio! Verily, our air is abuzz with the very best (and utterly tasteless) efforts of our unspeakably crass marketing executives. If our government has failed to educate, it is they who perpetuate into adulthood the intellectual wasteland put there by our textbooks.

So, thank you very much, Dr Reuben. Don't misunderstand my meaning, you are still a 24-carat cunt, and deserving of the very worst tortures imaginable for your crimes against humanity, but your crimes are a sharp reminder to us all, that we can do better, and that we must do better.

* And every other part of their anatomy, ahahaha...

** Still plenty of those here in Malaysia, alas. See, this is why many foreigners (including my Jap teacher) think people still live in trees over here.

*** Except maybe for the wonderfully geek infested Low Yat Plaza.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Epic corkage!

This has to be the coolest way to open a wine bottle in the universe:

Well, it sure beats poking the cork in with a stick anyways....

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

This ad is brought to you by....

Ana L'Tech. pfffft... :-D

Ok, ok, growing up now. Yes, I can see how it's meant to be pronounced but man... Well, that's one way to grab attention. Anyway, the ad:

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Quick reminder for Malaysians...

... simply because this is something that really, really shouldn't be forgotten, as BN and the local papers would like us to believe. In 2002, there was a murder, a murder most foul. Since then, the culprits were found and, being of sufficiently high rank in the BN government, scapegoats were found, a few well-placed threats were made, key witnesses conveniently vanished and a few pairs of bloodstained hands are walking away scot-free. The story to date, in all it's diabolical detail, on Asia Sentinel*.

* Because Malaysian newspapers evidently don't have the balls to do any real reporting on anything more significant than some cranky old fart's opinion on naming trees. Get a clue, foo', there's no such thing as contempt for an institution as anachronistic as monarchy.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Spectrum of Desire, and a pinch of memes

I came across the title phrase in We Think, Therefore We Are, a fun little collection of AI-related sci fi. In the story in which it was mentioned, we have a tale of a future in which huge trucks haul their loads across continent-spanning highways, driven, of course, by AI. An interesting feature of said AI is that they're supposed to have free will, which is held in check by their spectrum of desire.

The AIs love the open road. Nothing makes them happier than to haul cargo from one place to another. They feel duty-bound to protect human life to the best of their abilities. They follow a Highway Code, which is much like Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics, adapted for use by robots whose sole purpose is to haul cargo on huge roads. These AIs are so advanced, they need to have other robots designed to handle their neuroses. Here's a few words from the robopsychologist:

"You have free will, just as humans do. In matters of moral decision, you have the option of not doing the right thing. That's a fundamental corollary of self-awareness. If the programmers could make it absolutely compulsory for you to obey the Highway Code, they would, but they'd have to make you into an automaton - and we know from long and bitter experience that the open road is no place from automata incapable of caring whether they crash or not. In order for free will to operate at all, it has to be contextualized by a spectrum of of desire; in that respect, robots, like humans, don't have very much option at all. What makes us so much better than humans, in a moral sense, is not that we can't disobey the fundamental structures of our programming - the Highway Code, in your case - but that we never want to."

This struck me as odd. Does this state of affairs not simply make the truck AIs automata anyway? Slaves to their desires? Those desires were put in their programming as surely as any other line of code, were they not? And what about us? Are we not automata, too, programmed by our own spectrum of desire?

In our physical forms, we find the raw materials of our dreams - pain, pleasure, lust, hunger... These desires were put there - selected for - by the needs of savannah-dwelling primates. These raw materials, forged by genetic evolution, are given their present, more refined shapes by our cultural evolution - art and avarice, I suppose, but do bear with me, I'm largely writing off the top of my head here.

I'm sure I've mentioned this before somewhere on this blog, but it's worth reiterating that the key to wrapping one's head round evolution, especially in humans, is timescale. The worthiness of traits determined by genes is decided over the lifetimes of organisms, but the worthiness of ideas is decided, by comparison, in the blink of an eye. Fads come and go, knowledge builds upon knowledge, histories are written and rewritten, thinkers think, doers do - and our bodies, our scruffy, hairy, frail bodies, not really very good for anything, other than walking on two legs and some manual dexterity, have barely changed at all. With our bodies alone, we are next to nothing. An insignificant blob of biomass, prone to engaging in much inter and intra-species violence. But paired with the Leviathan that is our culture and science, the fate of this 3rd (rather wet) rock from the sun is in our hands.

130,000 years. That's what it took for us to get from poking stuff with sticks to quantum physics. To a floor trader, it's simply an inconcievable span of time. To an accountant, it's enough working papers to smother a continent. To a historian, that's all of recorded history and a fair bit more. To an evolutionary biologist, a chapter in a lenghty book. To a geologist, a comma in the story of Earth. To a cosmologist, it is nothing, nothing at all.

I once met someone who called himself an atheist, yet didn't believe in evolution. Perhaps he thought he was being prudent by occupying a middle ground between the Creation Vs Evolution "debate". I will state here, flatly and honestly, that no, that is NOT a middle ground. That's not even in the same ball park. That is somewhere way out in the parking lot of Ignorance. But don't worry, ignorance is nothing to be ashamed of, as long as you don't try to delude yourself into thinking it's a good thing.

Anyway, the reason for his doubt lay in a common Creotard question: "How come intelligence only evolved in humans?" Fair enough, but this was followed shortly by another popular Creotard statement: "When I see chimpanzees evolve human intelligence, then I'll believe in evolution." I try very hard to keep a clear head at all times, but, faced with a statement of such mind-numbing stupidity, pronounced in the flesh with such an air of smugness that I've only ever seen summoned forth by the most wilfully ignorant of televangelists*, I could not maintain sufficient composure to answer his question, but stood agog at this epic failure of reason.

So, I'll answer it here, and I'll try to keep it simple. It takes a truly staggering coincidence for 2 completely separate, genetically incompatible (i.e. can't make half-breed kids together) species to stumble on the same trait at more or less the same time. In this case, the key trait is a neurological one - the ability to copy behaviour. This is the cornerstone of what, genetically, gives us our supremacy. With the arrival of this little tweak, along with the right confluence of hardware to use it, our ancestors now had access to the world of memetic evolution, i.e. culture, which would accelerate our evolution to a ludicrous pace, not unlike giving someone running in a footrace a Harley halfway through. Neanderthals came close, but alas, they simply weren't as advanced, and were wiped out. Similarly, if you gave someone else a Harley in said footrace, even 10 seconds later after the first, the 2nd guy is simply not going to catch up. Humans being humans, we can barely tolerate living with each other, let alone another species exhibiting similar intelligence, and thus posing a possible threat. Tracing the fossil record we observe a sudden acceleration in brain size increasing in our ancestors, a clear indication that something was exerting some sort of evolutionary pressure to select for greater brain power. This pressure, from memetic evolution**, pushed our genetic evolution in our current direction to where we are today, a physically unimpressive primate with a mental capacity completely disproportionate to our bodies, as compared with other animals.

Now, it took just over 3 million years to get from Lucy to us. And our self-professed doubting atheist is waiting for a chimp to spontaneously develop intelligence in his lifetime. So now you know the sheer magnitude of how stupid such expectations are.

Anyway, I'm done here for now. If there's anyone out there who's managed to read up to this point, do tell if I'm missing something in my brief explanation of meme-augmented evolution in early humans. I've got to chase my nephew away from the cat food...

* Or, if you frequent Youtube, VenomfangX, who is clearly living proof that modern man is obviously descended from some sort of primitive ancestor.

** Covered in detail in Susan Blackmore's The Meme Machine.

Friday, March 6, 2009

So... You're a Wolverine fan?

How about now?

Badminton is not for sissies

It may look that way, coz of the light, fluffy shuttlecock and the wee racquet, so light you can barely feel it, but played properly, it's an absurdly fast sport. And seeing as the Koreans are into it, you can bet it's been raised to a martial art form. Observe:

So, think you can return one of those?

Thursday, March 5, 2009

A story of a line

Well, I'm not the one telling it. But it's a good story and one worth thinking about. Go check it out. It's a hell of a lot better than those saccharine forwarded e-mails that pollute the Net.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

In other news...

The Good:
Monarchy doing something useful? w00t! Props to King Abdullah!
As we all now know, pot makes you swim faster. I suppose it also helps if, like Phelps, you happen to be genetically engineered to be the supreme ultimate swimmer. But fear not, the playing field will be evened, because science prevails! Man, those things need to be in the Olympics.

The Bad:
This is not a happy time for pirates the world over. Notably in Beijing, and, horror of horrors, Sweden! Oh, teh noes! Piratebay, where are you??

The Ugly:
A good, if somewhat depressing, summary of the present state of Malaysia.

And since I'm here, the funny:
Books I'll probably never read, though I'm ashamed to say I do have a copy of manga Hamlet. It's painfully bad.
By the way, who's old enough to remember this?

Kami o kiritai

One of the fun things I find about spoken Japanese is its sheer brevity. And Jap, like most languages, will have it's fair share of homonyms, hence the title. On the way to Jap class yesterday I thought up that sentence, with the intended meaning of "(I) want to cut my hair." Then it hit me that those exact same words can mean "(I) want to kill god(s)".

I like Japanese :-D

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Religion + Movie critique = Epic fail

Seriously, why is it that with these people, everything under the sun is a Zionist plot?

Harry Potter!? Come ON, he's as Zionist as Yorkshire pudding! Just how messed up in the head do you have to be to think Harry Potter is the messiah. 4:30 - "As you can see, he has the same traits..." WTF?! How many speccy messiahs do you know suffering from teenage angst? What does it take for something NOT to be a Zionist conspiracy?

Now, I know that since the time of Plato, it's been standard procedure in a tyranny to keep the people united by giving them a common enemy but this is just nuts. No, seriously. I am led to doubt this video by the sheer mind-numbing absurdity of it. I haven't seen anything this stupid since the last time I read a Malaysian newspaper. Would somebody who understands Arabic please confirm that those subtitles are correct?