August 16, 2004

Success: Memes or Materials?

In the midst of a post about the battle in Najaf, blogger Wretchard made a remarkable statement:

Civilization does not principally consist of bricks and mortar, but in a set of commonly accepted values and restraints. If the inhabitants of the sub-Saharan Africa and the United States could be exchanged instanteously; the one materializing in suburban homes and the other in wattle huts, the material imbalance would be reversed again within ten years, because the technology and civilization of Americans is carried in their heads and not in their possessions. There would be nothing Americans could not rebuild in Africa; and there would be nothing Africans could repair or replace in America.

This is an interesting thought experiment. What would happen if we Americans magically switched places with the population of part of the third world? The speed at which we could get things "up and running" if we found ourselves in Arabia would depend I think on how we were dispersed. If we were still together as families, and communities were still roughly intact, we could be back up and going very quickly. If we were dispersed randomly – my next door neighbor on the opposite side of the country - my wife and kids who-knows-where – it would take much longer. The Herculean task of getting families reunited would be second in priority only to basic necessities.

Assuming though that communities were moved basically intact (as much as the new geography allows), what would be our priorities?

  • Basic necessities
  • Defense
  • Economy
  • Retaking of portions or all of our old homeland

…in that order. These tasks would overlap, but this would be the rough order of our priorities.

Those that would disagree with Wretchard's conclusion – that the material imbalance would be reversed again quickly – no doubt believe that much of our success is due to our national resources. We do have abundant resources, but success hardly requires it. Japan is a good example of success based upon people rather than resources. And the Arab countries give us some evidence that material resources can actually get in the way of advancement by empowering an elite ruling class.

Ralph Peters has said that "national success is eccentric. But national failure is programmed and predictable."

Even assuming that our population could never return home (that pesky magic again) we would find a way to succeed. It would be a much different country than we live in now, but we would create another eccentric success.

North America, on the other hand, would become the same economic and intellectual pit that Arabia is now. Peters' seven failure factors would travel with the population:

  1. Restrictions on the free flow of information.
  2. The subjugation of women.
  3. Inability to accept responsibility for individual or collective failure.
  4. The extended family or clan as the basic unit of social organization.
  5. Domination by a restrictive religion.
  6. A low valuation of education.
  7. Low prestige assigned to work.

Many Muslims seem to believe that we succeed in order to humilate them. That we might pursue happiness independent of our feelings of the Muslim world has apparently not occurred to them.

We succeed because we carry with us certain "commonly accepted values and restraints" that cull for success. A good example comes from one of our worst leaders – Nixon.

Nixon fought the release of his tapes all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court arguing Presidential privilege. The court's final decision was that such a privilege does exist, but found that Nixon's tapes fell within an exception to the privilege. In discussing his options with his attorneys it is said that Nixon was reminded that he had command of the military, and that the court has no army.

As weird and as corrupt as he was, Nixon didn't go there. His decision to dutifully obey the Court's order and turn over the incriminating tapes may have been the best and most important thing Nixon did as President. Whether he had a pardon deal with Ford or not, he still felt the "values and restraints" of our history.

Another Nixon anecdote: at some point after the crime one of the Watergate burglars, G. Gordon Liddy, reported that he went to the President and told him that he was Catholic and would, therefore, have to tell the truth if placed under oath and was also unable to commit suicide. He would, however, follow the President's order to be at a particular place at a particular time if need be. Nixon's response, according to Liddy, was "we'll not do that."

If this really happened like Liddy recounts, Nixon's response might have been closer to, "get out of my office you melodramatic kook." I guess we'll never know. Can you imagine this scene being repeated in Saddam's Iraq? "Why thank you Mr. Liddy. Does right now work for you?" BAMM!

RE COMMENTS: The spam in the comments has really gotten out of hand. If you'd like to comment to this post, please email me. If it's on topic and not spam, I'll reprint it here. Thanks.


Phil comments:

Very interesting. I have a feeling that it might take more than 10 years for America to get back on its feet if we were to be transplanted to such an environment -- not for lack of resources, but for lack of infrastructure. We're several generations in now on expecting clean water and electricity to be givens. Throw us into the wilds and the path from point A to point B might not be as easy as it once was.

I guess I'm saying we're spoiled. But we would turn it around in time.

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Until we figure out a good solution to the spam problem, I have disabled all comments for the Speculist. If you try to leave a comment, you'll get an error message.

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August 14, 2004

I'm Back

Spent Sunday afternoon through last night on the road (business) and found not one spare minute in all that time for blogging. It was pretty intense. Denver to Chicago to Toronto to New York to DC and then back to Denver. An all-day training session in every city (two in DC). Every flight was delayed. Plus I somehow had to do my regular job in spite of the fact that I was delivering training. Moroever, each city offered a unique opportunity to check in on projects that I normally have access to only over the phone. So I couldn't pass that up.

It was quite a week.

Anyhow, I'm back now and will resume blogging (I know I'm way behind on publishing chapters of Stillness, plus we need to get a new Better All the Time going) but first I need to clean out 458 porn spam messages.

Nothing says "welcome home" quite like those.

Posted by Phil at 11:11 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

August 13, 2004

Nanobotic Evolution

Kurzweil AI points to two stories this morning that are especially interesting when considered together:

Protein-Based Nanoactuators

Protein-based nanoactuators can now be controlled rapidly and reversibly by thermoelectric signals. In a living creature, contracting or relaxing of muscle tissue is carried out by motor proteins called actomyosin. Scientists designing nano-scale devices would naturally like to emulate the efficiency and compactness of the muscle-moving molecules. A key issue is the controlled rapid activation of the protein motors through simple means.

And that's what researchers at Florida State University have done. They have set up a flow cell in which motor molecules (which can remain viable for days when refrigerated) can be thermally activated into motion in a controllable and reversible way using only input wires which provide a controlled amount of heat.


When Machines Breed

Paul Layzell is a specialist in the budding field of evolvable hardware. Simply put, he helps machines design themselves, using principles borrowed directly from biological evolution.

Layzell once used genetic algorithms to build an oscillator circuit. Some of the solutions were textbook, but one unusual run designed a circuit to take advantage of the radiated hum of the computer he was working on.

In other words, it cheated. The circuit had hacked the system by becoming a radio.

Evolutionary processes have been used in software design since the 1960s.

What is new, however, is the application of evolutionary processes in the hardware realm. Thanks to reconfigurable devices such as the field programmable gate array (FPGA) -- the microchip designer's equivalent of an Etch A Sketch -- and increasing computational power, researchers who once performed simulations of new circuits with an eye on the clock are suddenly free to let their designs evolve for a while just to see what happens. One might not be sure that one understands how a given circuit achieves what it is supposed to, but if it works, is that really a problem?

This is a huge paradigm shift. We don't have to understand our machines anymore. How long until some enterprising researcher programs a simulation of certain tools that we have at our disposal – protein-based nanoactuators could be one such tool – and then lets the computer evolve a plan for a self-assembling nanobot?

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 09:49 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Stem Cells – What's All The Fuss About?

If you are wondering how a subject as arcane as stem cells has become so politically energized in the last couple of weeks, make sure to catch the analysis over at

1) The aim of stem cell research is to produce a biological repair kit, tools that will allow age- and illness-damaged tissue to be repaired or replaced. These tools, coupled with effective cancer therapies, will greatly extend our healthy life spans and bring cures for all the most common degenerative diseases.

2) It is probably the case that scientists would eventually make as much progress using only adult stem cells - several extra intervening steps would be required, but it is conceptually possible. It is widely agreed that progress towards a full biological repair kit would be much faster due to embryonic stem cell research.

3) Time matters a great deal. More than 100,000 lives are lost worldwide each and every day precisely because we don't have a biological repair kit complete with therapies for the most common age-related conditions.

Read the whole thing.

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August 11, 2004

UK Grants "License To Clone"

Spurred on by South Korea's achievement last February, today the United Kingdom granted a license to Newcastle University to clone a human being.

Researchers at Newcastle hope to extract embryonic stem cell from the clone and then create insulin-producing cells to be transplanted into diabetics.

"Therapeutic cloning will in the immediate future be a vital tool in harnessing the power of stem cells to treat some of the major diseases which threaten humankind," John Harris, professor of bioethics at the University of Manchester, said after the license was announced. "This decision is a signal of our society's compassion and concern for those threatened by disease."
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I'm Too Sexy For My Name…

If you ever feel like a rat in a maze while cruising the Internet, you might be right. Amy Perfors of MIT experimented on Internet users at a website she called "Hot or Not."

She posted pictures of men and women along with a fake first name and asked users to rank their attractiveness.

She found that men labelled with names including “front vowels,” such as the “aaa” sound in Matt were rated as more attractive by website viewers than photos labeled with “back vowel” names, such as the “aw” sound in Paul. The opposite was true for women’s names.

Cool. St"eee"phen is a front vowel name. But why are front vowels more attractive?

Front vowels, those produced in the front of the mouth, are often perceived as smaller than back vowels, those produced in the back of the mouth.

It may seem counterintuitive that men named with the smaller-sounding front vowel are rated as more attractive. But other studies have shown that men with slightly feminine features are considered more desirable, says Perfors. “Maybe women are subconsciously looking for more sensitive or gentle men,” she says.

So, Stephen is a good name because it sounds small and sensitive. I'm not sure how to take that. Why don't I just start calling myself "Sue?"

…having too feminine a name could backfire for men – as those labelled with women’s names were rated least attractive. However, having a man’s name – such as Bob – had no negative effect on a woman’s attractiveness to website viewers.

A girl named Charlie is going to do better than the boy named Sue. That seems intuitive. But what if an attractive guy has an unattractive name? I've always thought that a charismatic attractive person could make any name work.

“An attractive person with a bad vowel name is still more attractive than an unattractive person with a good vowel name,” says Perfors.
Posted by Stephen Gordon at 09:27 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

August 10, 2004

Hubble Has Lost UV

Although it isn't blind yet, Hubble has lost a significant instrument that allowed it to see the UV spectrum. The UV module - STIS - lasted two years longer than it was designed to. But it is a major loss because much of the UV spectrum is blocked by our atmosphere. Being able to see UV is a part of the justification for a space telescope.

A new spectrograph for Hubble called "the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph" is ready to be installed but has been mothballed along with the Shuttle fleet. This new spectrograph is ten times as sensitive as STIS was.

The primary science objectives of the [Cosmic Origins Spectrograph] are the study of the origins of large scale structure in the universe, the formation and evolution of galaxies, and the origin of stellar and planetary systems and the cold interstellar medium.

Last month we reported that an expert panel advised NASA to "take no actions that would preclude a space shuttle servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope." Whatever the risk/benefit analysis was then, one variable has changed. The scientific cost of not going just went up.

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 01:36 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 06, 2004

The Council, #4

Patricia Bedford gasped for air. Her skin tingled. As the room re-solidified around her, someone grasped her shoulder. She looked up at the intruder.

“Here, you must drink this,” he said, forcing a small plastic pouch into her hand before turning to Randall Drayton and guiding him to a chair.

“I didn’t believe it,” Drayton said. “I didn’t think it was really possible!” He gulped the contents of his pouch. “Patricia, drink!”

Patricia sputtered in protest, but the man, whose name she didn’t even know, was guiding her hand to her mouth.

“It’s an electrolyte solution,” he explained. “It will help you adjust to the effects of teleporting."

“Teleporting?” What was he talking about? Patricia looked around. They were still standing in Dr. Drayton’s kitchen. There was the dinette with its faux granite surface, the rustic, white spindle-backed chairs, and the window where the bird had been sitting on the sill until the intruder startled it…

The window… It was hard to see through its thick, dark glass. Outside, a distorted, barren landscape stretched like a forgotten shoreline meeting a black sea of sky. A hand’s breadth above the horizon hung a blue-green, cloud-laced orb, huge and impossible to fathom, its lower hemisphere submerged in the bottomless darkness.

“Why don’t you sit down, Patricia?” the stranger said. “You’ll be more comfortable.”

Numb, Patricia reached for a chair that looked just like the one she’d used a few moments before. That chair was now almost 385,000 kilometers away. On Earth. She drank from the pouch. “Why? Why the moon?” she asked her captor when her tongue was clear of the salty, metallic-tasting gel. “Why recreate Dr. Drayton’s house?”

“I can’t tell you why we’re keeping you on the moon,” the man answered. “That wasn’t my call. As for the house, why not?” He spread his hands. “If I must keep you here, why not make the surroundings comfortable?” He looked toward the window. “Sorry about the view. Even we lack the resources to make the moon look like Dr. Drayton’s garden.”

“I don’t remember you,” Drayton said abruptly, pointing a long finger.

The man smiled. “We’ve never met. I know you only by your considerable reputation. I wasn’t even born when you went before the Council.”

Drayton squinted and pursed his lips. “Born? You were born into the Council?”

“Why do you find that odd?”

“I thought… I was under the misapprehension that…” Drayton’s voice trailed off.

The man pulled up a chair and sat down next to Drayton. “That to be a member of the Council, one must have participated in and survived the Regression of ’45?” He looked at the ceiling and laughed. “Even we have to reproduce. Did you think that we’re immortal?”

Drayton didn’t answer.

Do you think that the Council members are immortal?” he asked, more pointedly. “Not quite. We still have a few bugs to work out. Our gene pool could use a little refining, too.” He turned and smiled engagingly at Patricia. “Right, Dr. Bedford?”

Patricia averted her eyes. His were too intense. His mouth was too perfect and his cheekbones were too high and she was still getting her bearings.

“My name is Asimov Liu,” he said. “Does the name Asimov mean anything to you?”

Drayton chuckled dryly and clasped his hands around his knees. “A little quaint, don’t you think?”

“I think so too, but I had no choice in the matter.”

“What are you?” Drayton asked.

“What do think I am?”

“You are a genetically engineered, enhanced human,” Drayton said.

“I am.” Asimov said, leaning in toward Drayton. “You can spout those words, Dr. Drayton, but you have no idea what they really mean.”

Patricia wondered if she was imagining the bitterness in Asimov’s tone.

“I am a member of the Council because that is my design.” He shrugged. “I can take no credit for it. My specialty is, of course,” and he gave them a stiff smile, “robotics.”

Jim walked toward Asimov, although no one had commanded him to move.

“See? Jim is drawn to me.” Asimov tipped his head to Jim and the robot reciprocated. “Did you know that robots have body language?” Asimov reached for Jim’s data port. When he faced Drayton and Patricia again, his eyes were dark and stern. “I have brought you here for safekeeping until your hearing, Dr. Bedford. But my real concern is your robot. It is urgent that I bring Colter into custody. I must leave you in Jim’s care,” Asimov said.

Jim stepped away from Asimov and put his hands gently on Dr. Drayton’s shoulders.

"But, first, Dr. Bedford, I require your digipass,” Asimov said.

Patricia hesitated.

“Dr. Bedford, I know this is all very disconcerting. Custody implies safe-keeping, not merely arrest and confinement.”

“Are you asking me to trust you?” Patricia snapped, annoyed with herself as she handed the digipass to Asimov.

He brushed his fingertips over the digipass and then returned it to Patricia with a dazzling smile. “Trust me? Of course not.” His body began to slip into the fabric of the room. “Dr. Drayton, talk to her. She should know better than to trust anyone on the Council.” And Asimov disappeared.

Posted by Kathy at 09:20 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 05, 2004

I Keep Going And Going….

Mobile phones, MP3 players and other small devices that are "wearable" might soon be powered by the human body.

researchers at the National University of Singapore (NUS) and Defence Science and Technology Agency (DSTA) are working on a project to see how the body can generate electricity to run mobile devices.

…one of the ways to turn the human body into an energy generator is to fix some piezo-electric material, in this case ceramic, on the soles of a pair of shoes.

Wearing these shoes, they claim, will produce the electricity required for transferring data from one person to another via the skin, says Cheok.

For instance, a handshake can mean an automatic exchange of business cards electronically between the handheld computers of both persons.

Shades of The Matrix aside, this is pretty cool. For these small devices we might leapfrog fuel cells and go straight to personal power.

Via KurzweilAI
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August 04, 2004

In the Future -- Special Blogiversary* Edition

Let’s see . . .

Cake . . . Check!
Ice Cream . . . Check!
Balloons . . . Check!
Party Hats . . . Check!

Looks like we’re ready. “Happy Blogiversary !!”

ITF #146
In the Future . . .
. . . advances in Visual Interfaces + Audio, Haptic, Olfactory, and Gustatory Sensoria (VIA HOGS) will cause the diet products market to crash.

Blogiversary Cake.jpg
Back to the Top.

ITF #147
In the Future . . .
. . . liquid nitrogen will be recognized as an irreplaceable ingredient in all super-premium ice creams.

N2 Ice Cream.jpg

Back to the Top.

ITF #148
In the Future . . .
. . . Posse Blogiversary celebrations will be black-tie affairs held in the Forward Grand Ballroom of the Speculist flagship, the N.A. Semper Meliae (an Advanced Technologies Group SkyCat 1000 outfitted as a private luxury passenger airship).

SkyCat 20.jpg

Back to the Top.

*Blogiversary / Blogaversary, “Potayto” / “Potahto”. As of August 3, 2004 usage (as measured by Google hits) favors Blog-I-versary by a 7:1 margin.

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August 03, 2004

I.T. And Your M.D.

We are about to witness a new race in diagnostic testing. Two companies, Ciphergen and Correlogic, are championing similar but competing methods of testing blood proteins for cancer.

The first step is to use a mass spectrometer to identify a protein profile in the blood. The complex pattern produced by the spectrometer has until recently proved impractical for cancer diagnosis. There was just too much information to process. But now, both Ciphergen and Correlogic hope to extract useful information from this data by applying pattern recognition algorithms borrowed from AI research.

[The Correlogic test] correctly identified 50 out of 50 women with cancer and correctly scored negative for 63 out of 66 unaffected women. Later given the name OvaCheck, it promised to be the first blood test accurate enough to be used for general ovarian-cancer screening…

Meanwhile, Wright's group [Ciphergen] in Virginia was also pushing ahead. Using a different algorithm, Wright and Eastern Virginia molecular biologist John Semmes showed that a protein pattern could distinguish prostate cancer from a common noncancerous condition, benign prostatic hypertrophy, in 25 out of 30 cases. The PSA test [the current state of the art], by contrast, is unable to distinguish the two conditions.

The goal is early detection. If a routine blood test can diagnose cancer while it is in its earliest stages, cancer survival rates could skyrocket.

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 02:52 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

August 02, 2004

The Story of a Rock

I don't know what's harder to believe — that these things make their way here (and somebody actually finds them), or that we're able to figure out so much about precisely where they came from.

The rock left the Moon no more than 340,000 years ago, carved out of the Imbrium Basin -- the right eye of the "Man in the Moon" -- by an asteroid impact. Lured by gravity, the fist-sized object arrived on Earth sometime within the past 9,700 years.

Gnos even thinks he might know the exact crater on the Moon from whence the rock came.

Reading this, I can't help but ponder the fact that that the planet we're on has also had it's share of meteor impacts over the years, including one that led to the end of the dinosaurs. What did we shoot out into space with those impacts? Just rocks? Is it possible that there are portions of tree trunks, dinosaur bones — maybe even a T. Rex carcass? — in orbit around the sun, just waiting for an eventual near encounter with one of the planets?

It's fun to consider.

Posted by Phil at 08:26 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack