July 22, 2004

Better Parenting? Better Genes?

This bit of wonderful news about the state of American youth was making the rounds last week:

Extra! Extra! The big news of the past decade in America has been largely overlooked, and you'll find it shocking. Young people have become aggressively normal.

Violence, drug use and teen sex have declined. Kids are becoming more conservative politically and socially. They want to get married and have large families. And, get this, they adore their parents.

The Mood of American Youth Survey found that more than 80 percent of teenagers report no family problems -- up from about 40 percent a quarter-century ago. In another poll, two-thirds of daughters said they would "give Mom an 'A.'

"In the history of polling, we've never seen tweens and teens get along with their parents this well," says William Strauss, referring to kids born since 1982. Strauss is author, with Neil Howe, of "Millenials Rising: The Next Great Generation."

Not that anyone is complaining, but statistics like these raise some very serious questions. Or, let's be blunt, one major question:

What happened?

To turn on old song on it's head, "Why's there nothing the matter with kids these days?" Glenn Reynolds suggest that multiple factors are at work:

The question is, why are teens doing better? I think there are two answers. First, people noticed problems, and tried a lot of different approaches. Private organizations, church groups, schools, and -- especially -- parents started taking a greater role in educating teenagers and encouraging better behavior. As with teen pregnancy, no single policy solved the problem, but multiple approaches tended to make it better until something seen as insoluble just a few years ago began to look, well, solved.

The other reason for the improvement is simple learning. Parents -- who in the 1960s and 1970s thought they could pursue self-centered lifestyles without harming their kids -- learned that parenting isn't to be taken for granted. Likewise, teenagers gradually noticed things that were easy to miss when the culture of drugs and adolescent rebellion was new. However they look at age 17, the "cool" rebels tend to do worse later in life, and the geeks tend to do better. Just as smelly, desperate crackheads were the best anti-drug advertisement ever presented in the inner cities (far more persuasive than frying-egg commercials on television), so did unemployed loser guys and unwed welfare moms provide visible good reasons to stay in school, make good grades, and be careful about pregnancy.

When such a profound change occurs over such a short period of time, it seems natural to conclude that we're talking about behavioral changes. There is little room for any debate about nature vs. nurture, here. These kids must have pretty much the same genes as their parents, right? There hasn't been time for nature to play a role.

Right?

Well...let's take a look at some recent findings. Here's a study from the UK showing that, in monkeys, good mothering apparently makes the difference in whether offspring bearing a certain gene become aggressive:

Good mothering can abolish the impact of a "bad" gene for aggression, suggests a new study, adding spice to the "nature-versus-nurture" controversy.

And this might not just apply to monkeys:

Speaking on Monday at a press conference in London to mark the opening of a conference on genes and aggression, Suomi said that his results strongly mirror those of a study in 2002 co-led by Terrie Moffitt of the Institute of Psychiatry at King's College London.

For 26 years, she and her colleagues followed the fate of 1037 children born in 1972 in Dunedin, New Zealand. They found that children were much more likely to grow up to be aggressive and antisocial if they had inherited a "short" version of a gene called MAOA. It makes monoamine oxidase A, an enzyme which helps to break down neurotransmitters such as serotonin, and was less efficient in the individuals with the "short" version.

But carriers only went off the rails if they had had an awful, abusive upbringing. Carriers with good mothering were usually completely normal, showed the New Zealand study. Now, Suomi has replicated the finding in the monkeys, showing that carriers of the "short" MAOA gene only turned bad when denied good mothering. "Good mothering has a buffering effect," he says.

So the nature vs. nurture debate grows more complex. It appears that nurturing does, indeed, produce better socialized offspring, but it does this in conjunction with (or in this example, at odds with) natural mechanisms. So nature on its own isn't completely predictive.

But it may go deeper than that. As Kurzweil reported earlier this week:

Scientists have discovered that rat genes can be altered by the mother's behavior.

All newborn rats have a molecular silencer on their stress-receptor gene, they found. In rats reared by standoffish mothers, the silencer remains attached, the scientists will report in the August issue of Nature Neuroscience. As a result, the brain has few stress-hormone receptors and reacts to stress like a skittish horse hearing a gunshot.

(The original Wall Street Journal article is here. I don't know whether non-subscribers can access this one because I stay logged in all the time and it works for me.)

Anyhow, if human physiology is similar to that of rats in this regard (which is a leap, I realize) it's just possible that kids are better today because we've actually made them...better. Maybe they aren't just making better use of what nature gave them, maybe nature has — through the good offices of their parents — given them a little more to work with than the previous generation had.

Posted by Phil at 10:21 AM | Comments (6) | TrackBack

July 19, 2004

Richer All the Time

A pair of recent essays on Tech Central Station by the indispensable Arnold Kling drive home (in no uncertain terms) how good the economic news looks to those willing to see beyond the pessimistic obsessions of the media and apocalyptic campaign rhetoric.

First, Kling reports that productivity is not only up, it's way up. In fact, it's blasting through the roof.

The 17 percent productivity growth from the first quarter of 2000 to the first quarter of 2004 stands head and shoulders above the growth rate for any comparable period. In fact, it is better than any eight-year period since 1976. In the first 13 quarters of the Bush Administration, the basic determinant of our standard of living increased by almost as much as during the entire 32 quarters of the Clinton Administration.

How's that? Come again? The basic determi-thingy of our what?

Kling spells it out for us:

Productivity is probably the single most important economic statistic. Productivity is what determines our standard of living. In the long run, productivity is what determines how much workers are paid.

Sustained high productivity growth would cancel out any possible economic worry. Global competition from low-wage workers? High productivity would protect our standard of living. Rising costs from Medicare? As I pointed out in The Great Race, high productivity would make the welfare state affordable (although not optimal). Environmental quality? High productivity would give us the resources to devote to addressing any challenge. On the other hand, low productivity growth would mean that our incomes will be low, our tax burden to pay for entitlements will be high, and environmental issues will be much harder to address.

So our single most important economic statistic is showing marked improvement — unprecedented improvement, in fact. While Kling bemoans the fact that only bad economic news seems to get covered, I find it oddly comforting that no one is making political hay out of these productivity numbers. The whole thing would seem a lot fishier if these figures were being trodded out to prove that President Bush is saving or wrecking the economy. (Of course, I don't actually know of a way that a productivity increase could be used to show that the economy is going downhill, but I don't doubt there are those who could.)

The one political (or perhaps I should say politicized) question that came to mind when reading these numbers was what impact, if any, outsourcing might have on productivity. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, who have published a very handy little primer on productivity, the impact of outsourcing is greater than negligible, but not by much.

So here we have some extremely good news with very little downside. Kling's second essay, How Much Worse Off Are We? shows how productivity increases over the decades have raised our standard of living. Two tables tell the whole story. The first shows the change in the number of households lacking essential items over the past 100 years; the second shows the change in the number of households possesing certain luxury items over the same period of time. One item from the second table is especially telling. In 1970, 45% of all housholds had clothes dryers in them. Today, 45% of all poor households have clothes dryers in them.

That's right, Poor 2004 = Middle Class 1974. The bar has been raised.

Economist J. Bradford DeLong makes the same point in an essay exploring the extreme increase in wealth that occured in the 20th century:

Suppose that you stuffed me and my family into a time machine, sent us back a century to 1890, and then gave us an income equal to eighteen times that of 1890 average GDP per worker–an income that would put us at the same place in the relative income distribution then as some $1,200,000 a year would today. We would not be among the 500 or so richest families in the country that might be invited to the most exclusive parties in the mansions of Newport, Rhode Island; but we would be among the next outer circle of 5,000 or so.

Would we be happy–or at least not unhappy–with the switch? Our power to purchase some commodities would be vastly increased: we would have at least three live-in servants, a fifteen-room house (plus a summer place). If we lived in San Francisco we would live on Russian Hill, if we lived in Boston we would live on Beacon Hill. If we lived in New York we would live on Park or Fifth Avenue.

But the answer is surely that we would not be happy. I would want, first, health insurance: the ability to go to the doctor and be treated with late-twentieth-century medicines. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was crippled by polio. Nathan Meyer Rothschild–the richest man in the world in the first half of the nineteenth century–died of an infected abscess. Without antibiotic and adrenaline shots I would now be dead of childhood pneumonia. The second thing I would want would be utility hookups: electricity and gas, central heating, and consumer appliances. The third thing I want to buy is access to information: audio and video broadcasts, recorded music, computing power, and access to databases.

None of these were available at any price back in 1890.

Without a doubt, there is some connection between economic and technological development. Technological development fuels productivity growth, which in turn drives economic growth. This raises an interesting question: is there an economic version of Moore's Law? How fast is our standard of living increasing? If Poor 2004 = Middle Class 1974, is it fair to say that standard of living is doubling every 30 years? And if so, how does that rate of growth compared to what was experienced in years gone by?

My guess is that 30 years is a pretty short interval for Middle Class to be downgraded to Poor. And I bet the interval is getting shorter and shorter.

Posted by Phil at 11:57 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

July 06, 2004

Homefront Heroes!

Citizen Smash, Joanie, and friends made excellent use of the Fourth of July weekend. While the rest of us were downing brats and swilling beer, these folks were standing up for freedom and the truth.

Way to go!


Posted by Phil at 08:43 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

June 21, 2004

Falling into Their Web?

Chef Quix has some interesting speculations as to how Google is likely to go about distributing their GMail service, and what valuable information they plan to collect along the way.

If he's right, those Google folks are a bunch of sneaky rascals.

Posted by Phil at 02:47 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

June 09, 2004

Ronald Wilson Reagan (1911-2004)

A great man died Saturday. Ronald Reagan was a champion of simple, powerful ideas. He believed that the purpose of government is to serve people, not people the government. He believed right makes might, and that evil brings weakness. He understood that communism was evil because it held people in captivity. These beliefs allowed him to see that the Soviet Union was on the brink of collapse even as the State Department and the CIA argued otherwise.

He had a servant's heart. He understood that his position was not his to exploit – he refused to even take off his coat and tie in the Oval Office. Even in his decline, his wife Nancy sought to continue his service by raising awareness and funding for Alzheimer's research. Recently, Nancy bravely came out in favor of embryonic stem cell research.

When Reagan came to office many people felt that the best days for America were behind it. We were experiencing a new form of misery – economic stagnation with inflation. This prompted the creation of the "misery index" and a new word "stagflation."

Reagan had this bizarre idea that he could stimulate the economy by cutting taxes. It worked. And the government was rewarded with increased tax revenues as the economy improved.

On a personal note, much of my optimism about the future is due to Mr. Reagan. I would have been less likely to join with Phil in saying that things are getting "better all the time" were it not for the influence of this remarkable man during my formative years.

From Mr. Reagan's 1994 farewell letter:

In closing let me thank you, the American people for giving me the great honor of allowing me to serve as your President. When the Lord calls me home, whenever that may be, I will leave with the greatest love for this country of ours and eternal optimism for its future.

I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life. I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead. Thank you, my friends. May God always bless you."

May God bless Ronald Reagan.

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 09:20 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

April 29, 2004

Accelerating Change is Everywhere

The Technology Singularity may be a ways off yet, but I wonder if we aren't heading to some kind of Communications Singularity. Media and public reaction to events is speeding up along what appears to be a geometric curve.

Let's compare that to a space-time singularity (such as is created by a black hole). At the black hole's event horizon, time comes to a standstill. Beyond the event horizon, within the singularity, space and time as we know them cease to exist. What does that mean? Can time flow backwards? Can effects precede causes? Maybe.

Consider, then, this snippet from Andrew Sullivan:

KREEPING KAUSISM: Mickey - "The Sky Is Falling!" - Kaus has been hyperventilating (most entertainingly) for months about the execrable nature of the Kerry candidacy. Now we have the Village Voice and New York Observer piling on. What do you call post-election recriminations six months before an election?

I'd say that it's proof of one or more of the following:

  1. The early bird catches the worm.

  2. Events unfold a lot faster than they used to.

  3. Nothing travels faster than the speed of light with the possible exception of bad news, which obeys its own special laws. *

Discuss.

Speculist University Shield.JPG


* Douglas Adams via Kathy Hanson.

Posted by Phil at 10:10 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

April 27, 2004

Research Losing Funding

FuturePundit Randall Parker comments on the many cuts in scientific research spending that the Bush administration has proposed:

Why does Bush think the US can not afford to spend more on science? Lots of reasons. Bush has signed into law a prescription drug benefit that is going to cost $534 billion over the next decade (and that estimate is probably low if past Medicare entitlement spending estimates are indicative). This is especially worrisome because as government spending on drugs increases the pressure to implement drug price controls will increase as well. By reducing the profitability of new drug development and price controls would lead to a drop in private sector funding of medical research. Other entitlements for the elderly are set to grow. The Iraq war and occupation are adding hundreds of billions of more costs. Bush is effectively robbing the future to pay for more immediate demands of various interest groups and for his expensive foreign policy pursuits.

I know my libertarian friends will argue that these cuts are a good thing, that research is best funded through private channels, etc. I'm inclined to agree with these arguments in principle, but the reality seems to be that a lot of valuable research will go unfunded if the government doesn't back it.

And maybe it should.

On the other hand, as Randall deftly points out, maybe the government needs to recognize that some research that is currently being cut might just hold the key to its own future solvency:

Biological research can lengthen our lives, make us healthier, smarter, and generally more capable. The biological research will eventually produce treatments that will extend youth and middle age. This will increase the length of time that people can work and therefore would allow us to entirely avoid the financial catastrophe of tens of billions of dollars of unfunded liabilties for care for the elderly that is looming as a growing fraction of the population becomes too old to work. The acceleration of anti-aging and rejuvenation research is the best way to solve the demographic problem of aging populations. See Aubrey de Grey's writings on strategies of engineered negligible senescence for a roadmap of the types of research we ought to be pursuing that could save us tens of trillions of dollars in money that will otherwise have to be spent on the aged. The ability to reverse aging will also unleash huge increases in productivity and economic growth that would produce orders of magnitude more wealth than the cost of the research spent to make it possible.

Energy research in another area which can pay itself back many times over. Newer energy technologies will reduce trade deficits, make our air healthier to breathe, and reduce the threat of terrorism by reducing the financial flows to the Middle East. Another benefit will be greatly reduced defense costs. Instead of cutting energy research we ought to launch a major effort at an additional $10 billion dollars per year aimed at obsolescing oil by pursuing research into a number of alternatives. While Bush purports to be big on national defense he misses the obvious point that energy policy is an essential element of national security policy and energy policy is going to become more important for national security in the future.

If we're going to have a government that spends lavishly anyhow, is it too much to ask them to invest some money in areas that will save us in the long run? I'm aware of the argument that says that if we just cut all the lavish government spending, there would be plenty of money in the private sector to fund anti-aging, oil obsolescence, etc. But I also recognize the fact that that isn't going to happen. Not any time soon, anyhow. Meanwhile, we're racking up debt and ignoring the approaches we might take to mitigate that debt.

Why?

Posted by Phil at 10:41 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

April 26, 2004

Academic Freedom is Only Skin Deep

If that.

GeekPress has the scoop on a Boston University dermatologist who has been fired for daring to suggest that a few minutes of unprotected sun exposure every once in a while might not kill you outright, that in fact it might be good for you:

Holick cites a number of benefits to such moderate sunlight exposure, including prevention of osteoporosis, decreased levels of depression, and some new work indicating decreased risk of breast and prostate cancers.

Both the department head who fired him and the head of the professional association who was asked to comment on the matter used the words "irresponsible" and "dangerous" in justifying the decision to fire the man. There have also been suggestions that Holick has some unwholesome connections with the tanning bed industry. He denies that there was any influence. I tend to wonder whether the tanning guys didn't seek him out after they learned what his views were.

There are three possibilities, here:

  1. He has a point.
  2. He's wrong, but he's honestly mistaken.
  3. He's deliberately misleading the public for financial gain.

The Department of Dermatology and the American Academy of Dermatology both seem to hold the opinion that either (2) or (3) are grounds for termination. Actually, it's unclear to me whether they even care whether (1) might be true. Apparently they have sufficient and final knowledge on the dangers of UV raditation. New, controversial opinions — whether based on research or not — will not be entertained or tolerated.

Of course, they're right about (3), but the other two? How much free inquiry will take place when scholars know that their research had better lead to the "correct" conclusions or else? If doing sound research is no excuse, the answer is "very little." If being right is no excuse, the answer is "none."

Posted by Phil at 08:17 AM | Comments (12) | TrackBack

April 05, 2004

Flunking Lessig's Class

Writing in the April issue of Wired Magazine, Lawrence Lessig describes the convergence of WMD and P2P technologies to allow for IDDs, or insanely destructive devices. Imagine a new version of smallpox, re-engineered to achieve a 100% kill rate, unleashed from some sociopath's garage or basement lab — that's an IDD.

Lessig organized a course to explore issues surrounding IDDs, but he wasn't pleased with the inital answers his students came up with:

The first reaction of some in the class was positively Soviet. Science must be controlled. Publications must be reviewed before being printed. Communications generally may have to be surveilled - how else can we track down the enemy? And, of course, we must build a Star Wars-like shield to protect us, and issue to every American one of those space suits that CDC workers wear. ("Dear American: You may not have health insurance, but in case of a biological attack, please use the enclosed space suit.")

Lessig is quick to point out the futility of these kinds of approaches, although a different, more out-of-the-box means of fighting IDDs quickly emerges

GNR science doesn't require huge labs. You might not be able to conceal the work in Manhattan, but you could easily hide it in the vast wilds of, say, Montana. Moreover, a great deal of important work would be lost if the government filtered everything - as would the essence of a free society. However comforting the Star Wars-like Virus Defense Initiative might be, engineered diseases would spread long before anyone could don a space suit.

Then one student suggested a very different approach. If we can't defend against an attack, perhaps the rational response is to reduce the incentives to attack. Rather than designing space suits, maybe we should focus on ways to eliminate the reasons to annihilate us. Rather than stirring up a hornet's nest and then hiding behind a bush, maybe the solution is to avoid the causes of rage. Crazies, of course, can't be reasoned with. But we can reduce the incentives to become a crazy. We could reduce the reasonableness - from a certain perspective - for finding ways to destroy us.

I suppose that in the case of Al Qaeda, we could eliminate the reasons they want to annihilate us by converting to Wahabbist Islam en masse. We could close down all the bars. Take away women's drivers licenses and their right to vote. Convert all the public schools to Madrasses. That would surely make them less enraged with us, would it not?

Oh, wait, I see — Al Qaeda would probably be counted among the "crazies who can't be reasoned with." That's a relief. We wouldn't have to take any of those extreme measures on their account.

So what exactly do we do to reduce the "incentives to become crazy?" Unfortunately, that part isn't specifically spelled out. Lessig concludes with these thoughts:

If you can't control the supply of IDDs, then the right response is to reduce the demand for IDDs. Yet as everyone in the class understood, in the four years since Joy wrote his Wired piece, we've done precisely the opposite. Our present course of unilateral cowboyism will continue to produce generations of angry souls seeking revenge on us.

We've not yet fully understood Joy. In the future there most certainly will be IDDs. Abolishing freedom, issuing space suits, and launching wars only increases the danger that they will be used. We had better learn that soon.

Ah, so that's it. End the "unilateral cowboyism" and reduce the number of angry souls looking for revenge. Unfortunately, the "unilateral cowboyism" is the only thing standing between civilization and crazies wielding the current generation of wepons of mass destruction. And as for "launching wars"... well, how about fighting back when wars are launched against us? How about concluding wars that have been dragging on for a decade or more? I guess it's all out.

And if we take this advice — if we lay down our arms and let the French and the UN instruct us on how to play nice with the other kids — what do we get out of the deal? We reduce the potential number of IDD-wielding psychos out to get us.

We don't eliminate. We reduce. And how many IDDWP (insanely destructive device weilding psychos) does it take to wipe us out? How many?

I don't pretened to know what the right answer is, here. But as much as I respect Lawrence Lessig, I'm afraid that (for this assignment, anway) I'm going to have to give his students a great big, fat F.

Posted by Phil at 06:33 AM | Comments (8) | TrackBack

March 22, 2004

Crime-Fighting Gadgets

From the moment I first heard about them, camera phones struck me as the most useless idea, ever.

Hey, it's a phone! With a camera! Just like you always wanted!

Even the people doing ads for them have seemed stumped. The following have all been proposed (in ads) as legitimate uses for these things:

  • Send your friends a picture of a pig drinking a beer.
  • Snap a picture of a sloppy guy eating and send it to a female friend kidding her that this is her "new boyfriend."
  • Snap a picture of a friend who has taken an embarrassing job wearing a bird suit and send it to all his friends specifically for the purpose of humiliating him.

Fun, fun, fun.

Of course, if non-stop hilarity isn't really your thing, you might be interested to learn that camera phones have also shown some utility in warding off crime. The Associated Press reports that camera phones have been instrumental in catching various sex offenders and, in at least one instance, preventing a child abduction. Moreover, a camera phone was used to exonerate some guys who were falsely accused of rape.

Okay, it's no beer-drinking pig, but it's a start.

We may be heading for the day when camera phones will be second only to a handguns for providing personal protection.

Meanwhile, if you're concerned about your child's online safety, you might be interested to read about these AI chat nannies, which are proving invaluable in rounding up chatroom-lurking perverts. Unlike camera phones, I've always believed that chatbots were useful. But I never thought of them as crime-fighters.


Both stories via GeekPress


UPDATE: Hat tip to reader Jesse who points us to this piece by Michael Williams raising serious doubts about the authenticity of the chat nanny story. If something sounds too good to be true...

Posted by Phil at 02:40 PM | Comments (8) | TrackBack

March 16, 2004

Blogosphere Roundup

The Corpus Callosum did a very thorough search of the blogosphere using Bloglines for opinions on the Bioethics Council firings:

  1. http://radio.weblogs.com

  2. http://tatler.typepad.com

  3. http://www.reason.com

  4. http://balkin.blogspot.com

  5. http://www.speculist.com

  6. http://www.ruminatethis.com

  7. http://cyborgdemocracy.net

  8. http://www.longevitymeme.org

  9. http://www.chriscmooney.com

  10. http://www.corante.com

  11. http://www.calpundit.com

  12. http://blog.mmadsen.org

  13. http://www.beaconschool.org

  14. http://www.worldmagblog.com

  15. http://bobwhitson.typepad.com

  16. http://www.pro-war.com

  17. http://18minutegap.com

A search of blogs, using Bloglines, indicates that the vast majority of bloggers who have commented on the subject...are troubled by the dismissal of Dr. Blackburn and Dr. May from the Bioethics Council.
That'll do.

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 08:24 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

March 08, 2004

Zero-Sum Thinking

Here's what's wrong, ultimately, with the reliance that scientific research has on government funding:

Most of the seas' big fish — tuna, sharks and swordfish — have been depleted. Half of the coral reefs are dead or dying. Around the world, runoff pollution has created more than 50 "dead zones" in coastal waters.

Sea levels are rising, and the oceans' role in the planet's changing climate is poorly known.

Real oceans need scientific attention more than the dried-up remnants on Mars, Earle contends.

"Every time I jump into the ocean I see things I've never seen before," she said. "We have better maps of Mars than our own ocean floor. That's just not right."

Since there's only so much government lard to go around, the argument goes, we should stop giving so much of it to exploring Mars and start spending some of it on exploring the ocean. Instead promoting a compelling, positive vision of why we should invest in understanding our oceans better, researchers are left with scare tactics — the world is ending; fund our research or else — and the politics of the back seat on a family road trip: "Mom, Timmy is hogging the Oreos. He got four and I only got one. Mom, it's not fair."

How sad.

Posted by Phil at 10:29 AM | Comments (7) | TrackBack

March 05, 2004

Have to Make It One of These Years

Kurzweil also has a link to an excellent write-up on the TED conference from the New York Times.

To the TEDsters assembled here, happiness is to some extent a product of design. It is hearing about a prototype of a flying car (being developed by the inventor Paul Moller — he's serious), or the chance to view a Johnny-Depp-look-alike robot head with video camera eyes and tiny electronic sensors embedded in its skin. The robot responds to human voices with realistic facial expressions and is made from "frubber," a high-tech polymer, the brainchild of David Hanson, a 34-year-old doctoral candidate at the University of Texas at Dallas. Founded by the information designer Richard Saul Wurman, the conference has historically been a male-heavy, somewhat geeky inside-baseball kind of event, a launch-pad-by-the-sea for the Next Big Thing, from the unveiling of the Macintosh computer and Sony compact disc to the hatching of the M.I.T. Media Laboratory.

Sounds like my kind of party. I was especially intrigued by this new idea for a TED Prize.

As if to underscore a new other-directed definition of happiness, Mr. Anderson, who has funneled the roughly $1 million proceeds from the conference — formerly a profit-seeking venture — into various worthy causes, announced the creation of the Ted Prize, "an award program like nothing else out there," in which three "remarkable people" will be granted three wishes, presumably to be fulfilled by zillionaire, clout-heavy and intellectually supercharged TEDsters. As a backup, each winner will also be awarded $100,000. The plan is for the winners, who will be communally nominated and announced later this year, to unveil their wishes at next year's conference, where they will be anointed as "the most perfect TEDsters we can find," Mr. Anderson said. They will also be given a three-year pass to TED (worth $12,000).

I'll probably get in trouble for suggesting this, but what the heck. Since we seem to be stuck with them anyway, wouldn't the awarding of this prize be a great idea for a reality TV show? Like the Apprentice, only with the winner awarded for having the best vision of the future rather than being the best cutthroat corporate jerk.

Anyhow, I'd watch it.

Posted by Phil at 12:58 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

March 01, 2004

Good Will Wasting

Kudos to Stephen for getting us a mention both in Glenn Reynolds' Tech Central column and over on InstaPundit. (There's a little name confusion on the Tech Central piece, but we're working on sorting that out.) Glenn concludes his column with this thought:

Does Bush want to be portrayed as the minion of religious extremists who'd stifle science even at the cost of lifesaving medical technologies?

Here's what disturbs me the most about the reshuffling at the President's Council on Bioethics. The media and the Democrats often talk about how Bush "wasted" the good will that the whole world had for us after 9/11. As has been demonstrated by many the charge of good will wasting is a bogus one. We may have received sympathy from the rest of the world after 9/11, but our detractors were never going to support our taking action to defend ourselves, no matter how "tactfully" or "multilaterally" we went about it. Ironically, it seems that through some of the recent stances he has taken -- medicare, immigration, gay marriage, and now this -- the President now really does run the risk of throwing away the support that many of us have had for him for the past two and a half years.

I was, at best, lukewarm on George W. Bush until September 12, 2001. I have been a stauch supporter ever since, believing that he has done exactly what was needed by taking the war to our enemy. I understood that the war had to take precedence over everything else, but I'm beginning to wonder...does President Bush understand that? If he does, then why is he pandering left and right? The smart thing would be to move to the center on all these social issues and keep his support solid. As it is, in November I plan to hold my nose and vote for Bush. The fact that I have to put it that way indicates that he has, indeed, wasted the good will that I had for him.

And some are ready to go further even than that.

Posted by Phil at 11:35 AM | Comments (11) | TrackBack

February 19, 2004

Filtered Out

Via GeekPress, here's a unsurprising development: spam filters are filtering out lots of legitimate e-mail:

At this point there are no accurate data on lost personal e-mail. But data from permission-based e-mailers, who keep careful tabs on lost messages, indicate the situation is widespread.

The problem of dropped e-mails is compounded because, as many consumers are discovering, there are no simple fixes. Many different criteria for dealing with spam are used across the thousands of e-mail systems on the Internet, making it difficult for legitimate e-mailers to adjust their behavior. For instance, some spam blockers will notify senders that their messages didn't get through; others won't. This means there often is no way to know whether messages aren't arriving, unless the intended recipient complains.

There is a tiny upside to this. If someone stops answering your e-mail, you no longer have to worry about whether they're ignoring you or you've pissed them off somehow. Maybe you've just been filtered out!

Posted by Phil at 11:56 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

February 18, 2004

Strange Days

Some time ago, encryption software guru Phil Zimmerman turned Andy Warhol's most famous dictat on its head by pronouncing that, in the future, everyone will have 15 minutes of privacy.

Here's proof.

So is the Internet a Good Thing, because it brings justice to a man wrongly separated from his son for so many years? Or is it a Bad Thing, because it provides a means of stumbling upon ugly personal and family history? Imagine what this kid must have felt when he saw that picture of himself and read that word: "abducted." That's a painful thing to have to learn about your mother, and a devastating way of learning it.

Superficially (without knowing many important facts), I'm glad that the mother has been brought to justice, and happy for the father and son that they will be reunited. But I'm also very sorry for the kid.

Strange days, indeed.

Posted by Phil at 09:15 AM | Comments (12) | TrackBack

Why Avoiding It Won't Work

Ray Kurzweil explains why the Bush administration's close-your-eyes-and-maybe-it-will-go-away approach to emerging technologies and accelerating change simply won't work:

The calls for broad relinquishment of genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and AI research because of future dangers "are effective because they paint a picture of future dangers as if they were released on today's unprepared world," Kurzweil said. "The reality is that the sophistication and power of our defensive technologies and knowledge will grow along with the dangers.

"The surest way to prevent the development of the defensive technologies would be to relinquish the pursuit of knowledge in broad areas. Abandonment of broad areas of technology will only push them underground, where development would continue unimpeded by ethics and regulation. In such a situation, it would be the less-stable, less-responsible practitioners (e.g., terrorists) who would have all the expertise.

"We will need to place society's highest priority during the 21st century on continuing to advance the defensive technologies and to keep them one or more steps ahead of destructive misuse. In this way, we can realize the profound promise of these accelerating technologies, while managing the peril."

More good information on the Extropy Institute's Vital Progress Summit can be found here.

Posted by Phil at 08:43 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

February 10, 2004

Refined Dichotomies

So you're for freedom and opposed to oppression? Big whoop, so is everybody else (or at least they all talk that way.) In carrying out political discourse in the 21st century, we're going to have to find some new ways to slice the rhetorical pie.

Liberal vs. Conservative
Left vs. Right
Labor vs. Management
The People vs. The Man
The Haves vs. The Have-Nots

Question: What do all of the political dichotomies listed above have in common?

Answer: They all have their origins in the 19th or 20th centuries (or earlier).

Better Answer: They are all widely exploited by the media and the political parties to keep public discourse within an established and comfortable set of boundaries.

Even Better Answer: They are all of rapidly diminishing relevancy and will soon fade to a sort of vestigial, background-noise kind of existence or (with any luck at all) go extinct altogether.

Another possible answer would be that they all seem to be variations on a theme. And it’s a good theme. The premise behind all of the political Celebrity Death Matches listed above is that people should not be exploited for the benefit of others (or for any reason). Where people are suffering such exploitation, they should be liberated and the exploiters brought to justice.

Who could possibly disagree with that?

Nobody. That’s why it’s such a powerful theme, and why it’s hung in there so long. In the U.S., the idea is fundamental. Foundational, even. Our nation originates with the cry of “No Taxation without Representation” and a model of the world that looks something like this:

Colonists vs. British Taskmasters

We were born looking at the world this way, and we grew up still seeing things in those terms:

Free States vs. Slave States

We had to play the theme out in order to become the nation that were meant to be. In the 20th century, we played a variation of the same theme in two world wars and the cold war:

Freedom vs. Oppression

Interestingly, although we were the first country to adopt the theme wholesale, others began picking up on it over the years. Where in the U.S. it was born in partnership with free markets, in Europe it was quickly coupled with a vision of state-sponsored liberation of the masses.

That’s where it gets interesting. In World War II, we fought with the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany in a war that we saw as being consistent with our overall 20th century theme of Freedom vs. Oppression. After winning that war together, we engaged in a 50-year struggle with the Soviets which we viewed as being consistent with the same theme. Amazingly, the Soviets also described their struggle with us as being consistent with that theme.

Contrast that with our war with the Nazis. The Nazis never claimed that they were fighting for freedom and against oppression (although they did use the “oppression” of German ethnic minorities as a pretext for rolling their tanks into one or two countries.) They were all about Strength vs. Weakness, Purity vs. Corruption, or - to turn one of our original dichotomies on its ear - The Man vs. The People.

After World War II, Freedom vs. Oppression became everybody’s theme. In this country, Republicans calling for an end to the capital gains tax and Democrats fighting any restrictions on abortion outside of what’s spelled out in Roe vs. Wade will both hale back to the language of Freedom vs. Oppression in making their case. In the world at large, both sides of the dispute over the current war use this theme as justification for their actions. President Bush will tell you that he invaded Iraq to protect the world from the oppression of terrorists armed with WMD and to liberate the Iraqis from the oppressive Baathist regime. President Chirac will tell you that he was opposed to the oppressive U.S. incursion on another sovereign state. The Canadian government, in setting up separate Shariah courts for use by their Muslim citizens, will no doubt describe this as a great triumph of freedom over oppression. Likewise, opponents to the establishment of such courts will do so on precisely the same grounds.

All of this simply goes to show that the language of Freedom vs. Oppression is no longer a reliable or useful political gauge. When opposing forces consistently use the same theme to justify their actions, it’s time we thought about getting ourselves a new theme. Since everyone at least claims to be for freedom and opposed to oppression, I think it’s time we got a lot clearer about the kinds of freedom we’re looking for.

In defining some of those, I’ve come up with three possible themes that might replace Freedom vs. Oppression in the new century.

 

Individual Rights vs. Group Rights

Again, there’s no point in getting in an argument over whether group rights exist. Let’s just say they do, and they’re really important. Individual rights, however, are more important and must always take precedence. This is where, in my view, the United Nations has utterly failed in its mission. The U. N. began with a charter declaring universal human rights, but it has somehow ended up in the business of legitimizing every possible form of oppression and deprivation of basic freedoms. They have done this through the recognition of a peculiar group right called “sovereignty,” which somehow makes the evil perpetuated upon a group of people by their ruling class not only untouchable, but generally unmentionable.

Group rights, even the sacred concept of sovereignty, have to take the backseat to individual rights. This, by the way, is the moral argument for the invasion of Iraq. And it’s why Canada should think twice before empowering Shariah courts.

 

Freedom via Freedom vs. Freedom via Control

This is a restatement of the classical libertarian position - You want to liberate me? Fine. Don’t enact a four-step Liberation Plan or establish a Department of Liberation. Just leave me the hell alone. - with an important distinction. “Freedom via Control” may sound oxymoronic (or even Orwellian) but it’s something this country’s - and the world’s - body politic believes in firmly. Repeatedly telling them that there’s no such thing and that is they, not we, who are the oppressors is pointless.

So let’s concede that they are as much for freedom as we are. We just don’t care for their flavor of it.

 

Freedom Through Change vs. Freedom From Change

This is the big one, as far as I’m concerned. The major national and global struggles of the coming decades will be defined in precisely these terms. And once again, it’s not a question of whether there is a right not to change. There is. Anyone uncomfortable living in a world with electricity, or antibiotics, or reality TV shows has the right to live without them. I can do without one of them, myself, and I’m not talking about antibiotics.

The Amish have the right to be Amish. But nobody has the right to make me Amish. (See the item on “Individual Rights,” above.)

Consider the case of Patrick Moore, the Greenpeace co-founder who evolved from extremist environmental activism to a more moderate “sustainable development” approach, and from there to outright advocacy for biotechnology, particularly genetic engineering. Moore came to see that progress in these areas could do more to achieve the goals of sustainable development - increased crop yields, reduction in the use of pesticides, improved health in local populations - than anything the traditional activists were advocating. According to Moore, the mainstream of the sustainable development movement is violently opposed to any use of biotechnology on grounds that are largely (if not wholly) irrational.

Those activists would no doubt describe Moore as an agent of oppression in their struggle for freedom. But he doesn’t see it that way. He wants to achieve the goals of cleaning up the environment and improving health in the third world using tools that can truly empower us to do so. Patrick Moore is an agent of freedom through change.

The struggle between those who want to prevent change and those who want to achieve greater freedom by pursuing it will grow more intense in the years to come. And it will hit closer and closer to home.

As Virginia Postrel writes in her introduction to The Future and Its Enemies:

How we feel about the evolving future tells us who we are as individuals and as a civilization: Do we search for stasis—a regulated, engineered world? Or do we embrace dynamism—a world of constant creation, discovery, and competition? Do we value stability and control, or evolution and learning? Do we declare with Appelo that "we're scared of the future" and join Adams in decrying technology as "a killing thing"? Or do we see technology as an expression of human creativity and the future as inviting? Do we think that progress requires a central blueprint, or do we see it as a decentralized, evolutionary process? Do we consider mistakes permanent disasters, or the correctable by-products of experimentation? Do we crave predictability, or relish surprise? These two poles, stasis and dynamism, increasingly define our political, intellectual, and cultural landscape. The central question of our time is what to do about the future. And that question creates a deep divide.

The stasists whom Postrel decries are advocates of Freedom via Control and Freedom from Change. Just as much of the political turmoil in the world today can be defined as taking place between those who prefer freedom for individuals and those who want it for groups, in coming years we will see increasing conflict over these other two dichotomies of freedom. On the Fight Aging! weblog, pseudonymous life-extension advocate Reason lays out the 2004 presidential election in precisely those terms:

Stem cell research and regenerative medicine offer the best near term hope for therapies and interventions that will greatly increase healthy lifespan. These branches of medicine offer the possibility of near term cures for a long litany of the worst diseases and age-related conditions:

- Parkinson's
- Alzheimer's
- Cancer
- Osteoporosis
- Paralysis
- Serious injury
- Nerve damage
- Blindness
- Deafness
- Heart disease
- Diabetes

All of these named conditions have been cured in animal models, in early human trials, or in laboratory tests. Commercial therapies would be only years away in some cases, such as for heart disease. All this wonderful research is estimated …to be five years behind schedule due to the actions of the Bush administration, its appointees and paid bioethicists.

So there you have it, the real issue of this Presidential election in a nutshell. Is better health, curing the incurable and a longer, healthier life important to you? Then look carefully at your options when you vote, and, as I do, wish that you lived in a world in which scientists didn’t need to beg permission from uncaring bureaucrats to develop a cure for cancer.

In his conduct of the current war, President Bush has proven himself a champion of the old theme of Freedom vs. Oppression and of the newly proposed one of Individual Rights vs. Group Rights. Unlike Reason, in choosing whom I vote for this year, I will definitely take that into consideration. But I hope no one dismisses Reason’s point as belonging to some kind of longevity fringe. The issue of Freedom Through Change vs. Freedom From Change may not be determinative in this year’s election, but it will be eventually. Technology is opening up so many new possibilities so fast that the question of whether we will be allowed to realize those possibilities will not be able to avoid the center of national debate for long.

Addressing the subject of new technologies that may enhance human intellectual (and other) abilities, Glenn Reynolds wrote:

Would I like to be smarter? Yes, and I'd be willing to do it via a chip in my brain, or a direct computer interface... And I'd certainly like to be immune to cancer, or AIDS, or aging. But these ideas threaten some people, who feel that our physical and intellectual limitations are what make us human.

I don't know whether I believe this. Which limitations, exactly? Would humanity no longer be human if AIDS ceased to exist? What about Irritable Bowel Syndrome? Was Einstein less human? If not, then why would humanity be less human if everyone were that smart? It may be true, as Dirty Harry said, that "A man's got to know his limitations." But does that mean that a man is his limitations? Some people think so, but I'm not so sure. Others think that overcoming limitations is what's central to being human. I have to say that find that approach more persuasive.

If overcoming limitations is, indeed, central to being human - and I’m convinced that it is, as I wrote a while back in this piece about overcoming the greatest limitation of them all - then the advocates of Freedom Through Change have human nature and virtually all of human history on our side. It’s a tremendous advantage, but considering the tenacity and ruthlessness of those who want to control, restrict, or simply prevent change if they can, it’s an advantage we’re going to need.

Posted by Phil at 06:16 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack