Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Bear CSI

During the first presidential debate, John McCain once again made reference to the Northern Divide Grizzly Bear Project, a five-year study to which USGS has allocated $3 million to “study the DNA of bears.”

The Scientific American article linked above compares that $3 million, and its relative merits, to the $233 million “Bridge to Nowhere.”  I like to compare it to the tax dollars we are spending in Iraq.  At $7 billion per month, we spend $3 million ever EIGHTEEN MINUTES.

Read that again.  Fix it in your mind.  Now tell me where the outrage should lie.

Sure, “freedom and democracy” in Iraq are more important than the North American grizzly population, but normalized for cost, I would say that the Iraq War campaign — which originally was not about “freedom and democracy,” but rather WMDs; how quickly we forget and reset the bar — is a  monumentally greater waste of taxpayer dollars.  We’ve spent $600 billion chasing a dragon that was never there, and continuously re-rationalizing our reasons for doing it.  If you have any intellectual honesty at all, you should be outraged about that.

The bear DNA reference so often quoted by McCain is just another distraction that he’s so good at inventing.  Again, fake outrage, misplaced priorities.  Part and parcel of modern politicking.

At the end of the day, the grizzly bear project still costs $3 million over five years, and it will tell us something important about the distribution of and conservation status of the greatest (remaining) land mammal in North America.  Also over five years, the Iraq war has cost some $600 billion — for the sake of comparison, that is two hundred thousand times as expensive as the grizzly bear project over the same time period — and we never accomplished our originally stated goal of ferreting out WMDs, and even Plan B, “freedom and democracy”, has been outrageously mismanaged, and may only now be seeing any fruits.  Given that four of those five years were wasted on the Bush-Rumsfeld plan (which made the project five times as expensive as it could have been), you know where your outrage should lie.

BTW, did you know that the Gravina Island Bridge (the so-called Bridge to Nowhere), was a two-part project, one involving the bridge, and the other involving an access road that linked the bridge to a small airport?  The bridge project got nixed, but a contract for the access road had already been signed, so it got built.  Yes, it got built, and it goes nowhere.  It dead-ends at the island coast where the bridge should connect to it.  And it cost…wait for it, wait for it…$3 million per mile!  At eight miles long, that project is eight times as expensive as the whole grizzly bear project.  And, yes, it is indeed a road to nowhere.

Your tax dollars at work, folks.  And guess who was governor and who could have nixed the contract on the access road and prevented that absurd waste of federal tax dollars?  You guessed right.  Our girl, Sarah Palin.

So tell me again, where should your outrage lie?

A propos: my friend Sakshi points out on her blog that McCain voted for funding the grizzly bear project!


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Future technological advances may allow us to instantiate high-resolution models of our mindbrains on machine substrate, or even create de novo persons.  Critics point out, quite rightly, that machines are digital while mindbrains are analog.  From this insight, they conclude that machines won’t be able to recreate the detailed processing of neural wetware.

However, the critics miss the fundamental fact that we can approximate analog processing with high resolution digital processing.  Nature already does it.

Genes are discrete (digital) while phenotypes are continuous (analog).  Continuous traits can be approximated with a large number of genes that each contribute a small amount to the outcome, or by one gene with a large number of alleles that each tweak the outcome by a small amount.  A continuous phenotype, such as the spectrum of adult human heights, is determined by a set of discrete genes.  Even if we controlled for all other influences on human height and looked at a single hypothetical gene that controls growth hormone output, we can see that, by implementing a large number of alleles, each one resulting in slightly more or less growth hormone output, a continuous spectrum can be approximated.   If adult human height ranges over, say, one meter, and our gene has 1000 alleles, than we can specify height with millimeter precision.  If our gene has a million alleles, than we can specify height with micrometer precision, and so on.  (Of course, in reality, genes merely produce organisms whose traits are differentially influenced by environment, and environmental influence is analog.)

The brain is actually analog and digital.  Synaptic firing is digital, and synaptic organization allows for signal processing through logical operations much the same way that transistors do.  But the events that aggregate to induce synapse firing are continuously additive or subtractive.  They are analog.  This is what the critics are talking about.

If approximating analog events is possible with digital events, then we only need to achieve a sufficently high resolution digital model of pre-synaptic events to produce accurate models of neural processing at any arbitrary level of organization.  Nothing makes this physically impossible.  It’s all a matter of having the technology and money to do it.

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“If climate change is a hoax, it’s the greatest hoax ever perpetrated, because everything we do to respond will make us more efficient, more productive, more entrepreneurial, more competitive, [and] more respected [in the world].”

— David Friedman, author of The World is Flat, and Hot, Flat and Crowded.

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Robin Hanson on the Overcoming Bias blog links to Scott Aaronson’s review of The Singularity is Near by Ray Kurzweil (which I’ve read, and whom I watched deliver a speech at the first Singularity Summit).

There’s a lot I could say about that review, and I will, but right now I just want to point out one thing that Aaronson writes:

Secondly, there’s nothing bad about overcoming nature through technology.  Humans have been in that business for at least 10,000 years.  Now, it’s true that fanatical devotion to particular technologies—such as the internal combustion engine—might well cause the collapse of human civilization and the permanent degradation of life on Earth.

Aaronson understands something that I was arguing with transhumanists years ago.  The future is not about seeding the oceans with nitrogen or spraying the atmosphere with carbon-fixing nanobots.  Those programs treat the symptoms, not the disease.  The future is about a world without carbon dioxide production to begin with.  It is a world without fossil fuels.

The combustion of reduced hydrocarbons is 1830s technology — it goes all the way back to whale oil, and we all know how good that was for whales.  It’s time to make a fundamental shift in energy, and in that respect, our whole civilization.  Clean, renewable energy is the way of the future, and transhumanists need to understand and promote it.  Transhumanism must be a green philosophy.

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The interwebs are abuzz over a controversy regarding the ages of several Chinese women gymnasts.  Critics point to several news reports, and even an official Chinese government web site, which listed Chinese gymnast He Kexin’s birthday as 1 January 1994 instead of the “official” date of 1 January 1992.  That would make her 14 years old and not qualified to compete in the Beijing Olympics.

The problem is that the only official and accepted documents for age — birth certificates and passports — are printed by the very entity that is accused of engaging in fraud.  It would be trivially easy for the Chinese government to forge such documents.

Is there another way to ascertain her age?  Well, there are age- and development-related changes in hormone levels and other physiological markers.  However, these always distribute on a normal curve, and it’s entirely possible for a 16-year-old at the tail end of the distribution to have the developmental and physiological profile of your average 14-year-old.  Some girls simply develop more slowly.

(Of course, it’s also possible that the gymnasts’ development was retarded with drugs, which violates IOC rules, and while the IOC is cracking down on other forms of doping, they seem to be turning a blind eye to the possibility of doping for developmental retardation.)

So physiological profiles won’t yield a precise age.  Another option is developmental markers such as growth plates in the long bones.  Once again, however, the presence of growth plates of a certain size could merely indicate that He is a slow developer.  It wouldn’t be proof positive that she is underage.  However, the presence of growth plates that indicate a 16-year-old in development would dispel the rumors once and for all.

Another option is amino acid racemization.  All amino acids produced in living systems, including humans, are in the L stereochemical configuration.   Over time they racemize to the R enantiomer until they reach stereochemical equilibrium, and each amino acid does this at a precise and measurable rate.  By comparing the ratio of L and R enantiomers, a time since the deposition of the protein can be determined.  One common technique utilizes aspartate racemization.  The problem is that the assay must be performed on tissues that are formed at or before birth, and that become essentially biochemically inactive.  The most common sources are myelin proteins that line the axons of neurons in the brain, and proteins from certain layers of the lens of the eye.  As you might imagine, a biochemical assay of this sort is too invasive to be performed on living subjects.

So there is no good biological aging assay for living human subjects.  We are stuck with having to take the word of the Chinese government.

Unfortunately, the Chinese government has a dubious track record on such matters.  Chinese gymnast Yang Yun earned a bronze in the Sydney Olympics in 2000, and later admitted that she had been underage during the competition.

Of course, nobody is denying that these gymnasts are talented.  He Kexin and her teammates are the best gymnasts at the Beijing Olympics.  But if we’re going to have rules, they must be followed.  Otherwise, China gains an unfair advantage by being the only team not handicapped by the rules.  After all, there may be plenty of 14-year-olds in other countries who are more talented than the gymnasts chosen to represent those countries in Beijing.

Ultimately, this controversy isn’t about gymnastics.  It’s about government fraud and government censorship.  The damage that could be inflicted on the reputation of the Chinese government, which is working feverishly to orchestrate a positive image of itself during these games, would be far worse than the loss of a few medals.  I guess it’s no wonder they are working just as feverishly to cover their tracks.

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Recently, I came across a believer who offered a unique argument for the existence of God.  He had been reading about the beam splitter experiments that confirm quantum entanglement.  Specifically, he had read about the delayed-choice quantum eraser, where they don’t “observe” the system until some time after the experiment, and the nature of the pattern on the detector (whether it’s an interference pattern or a solid pattern) changes, and future events appear to shape the past.

He argued that since the wavefunction can’t collapse — and quantum events can’t be determined — until after they are observed, then the universe couldn’t exist until there were observers.  Since it obviously did exist, that means there must have been a Great Observer — God — long before there were conscious beings.

While interesting, this argument fails for two reasons.  First, there’s nothing inherently special about observation.  When you observe a system, even a quantum system, you are physically interacting with it, and it’s the physical interaction that changes the quantum state, ie, causes the wavefunction to collapse (Cf. environmental decoherence).  Second, the wavefunction is holistic.  It exists through all space and all time, so it already “knows” (if you’ll excuse the anthropomorphism) that the system will be “observed” at a later time.  It doesn’t matter whether you do it tomorrow or a million years from now.

What do I mean that all of time exists?  All of time exists now?  If you ask that question, you’re still stuck in an intuitive way of thinking about time.  All of time doesn’t exist now any more than all of space exists here.  All of space exists, and all of time exists.  That’s it.  If you move in relation to a distant object, you move into its past or future time slices — into past or future “nows” for that distant object.  They all exist concurrently.  It’s a weird way of looking at the universe, but the universe behaves in weird ways.  Our evolved psychological intuitions are adapted to the meso-scale environment that our ancestors had to negotiate for thousands of years.  Saying that the universe is weird is really more a statement about us than the universe.

So while it was a good try, it was based on a lack of understanding of the underlying physics.  But at least he was trying to learn something, and I appreciate his effort.

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The Catholic League is trying to get PZ Myers fired from his job at UMM.  His blog post on the matter has received almost over 400 comments in the first three hours after being published.  Myers, as always, responds in his witty, acerbic, and articulate style. This is going to be interesting to watch.

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